BOOK REVIEW

The deity of Globalisation
Neoliberalism, economic growth and the rise of religiosity in India. By Joshua F Leach

s globalisation brings out the latent faddishness in every corner of the society, journalists and commentators are often the first to be tugged along in its wake. Take the recent economic growth in India, over which every pundit and observer has been crowing for the past two decades. The most reductionist analyses and superlative praise have been produced on the subject, and there is no end in sight. One writer who has refused to join the chorus, however, is Meera Nanda. A well-respected philosopher of science working at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Nanda has made something of a name for herself as a deflater of faddishness. Not only because of its shallowness, but also because of the evil which it can disguise: the ancient injustices and prejudices which can lie behind it. Her first book, Prophets facing backward, was a dissection of the supposedly new, ground-breaking ideas of postmodernism. This complex academic phenomenon stresses the impossibility of discovering a single truth or universal moral standard. Her point in that book was that the fad of postmodernism, fresh though it may be, is actually lending credence to the most reactionary, far-right forces in India and around the world. From the notion that there is no truth, after all, Holocaust denial and similar frauds are only a step away. In The God market, her latest work, Nanda takes aim at another and much more significant fad: globalisation, which, it is often claimed, will wash over India like a rejuvenating stream. While it may leave damage and debris in its wake, the story goes, it will ultimately save India from its age-old poverty, its Hindu rate of economic growth, and the relics of its

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pre-modern past. At the heart of the book is an open challenge to this reading of globalisation. Nanda herself is a globalist and internationalist – that is not the issue. She has nothing whatsoever to say against the shrinking of the world as such. What she finds distressing, rather, is the economic ideology of neoliberalism, with its free market gospel and dogmatic opposition to social spending. The unwarranted conflation of these two ideas – globalisation and neoliberalism – is one of the chief objects of her ridicule. To make her case, Nanda must argue against two decades of commentary emanating from the West and from India, all of

The God Market How globalization is making India more Hindu By Meera Nanda Random House, 2010

which assumes the inherent goodness of the market mechanism. One of the favourite anecdotes of neoliberal writers on India’s economic transformation, quoted by Nanda, involves a young teenager who is saving up money for computer school so that he can follow the footsteps of the richest man in the world, whom he knows as Bilgay. This story is taken by such writers as sure evidence that the horizons of ordinary Indians are widening, as are statistics indicating that poverty in India has been reduced since free market reforms were implemented in the 1990s and that economic growth has skyrocketed. The reverse side of all this, as Nanda states, is that for every teenager dreaming of becoming Bilgay there are millions upon millions who can not even dream of feeding their families. The Indians being pulled out of poverty over the last years have not entered the middle class, which makes up a stable fifth of the population and does not open its doors to newcomers. Rather, India’s stellar economic growth has been jobless for most of the population. Those who have left the ranks of the extremely poor have mostly moved into the teeming informal sector, where they scratch a living on less than half a dollar per day. These people are poor by any human standard, but just welloff enough to pull themselves above the official poverty line. Indians living in this horrifying condition make up as much as 80% of the population, or roughly 836 million men, women, and children. Meanwhile, the Indian state has come down hard in support of the very rich, dispossessing farmers of their land to make way for large corporations (leading to unprecedented suicide rates among the rural poor), and slashing all social

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provisions. Money is quite literally being taken from the poor and given to the rich – an outright inversion of the Robin Hood style of economic justice. As a result of this, India has slid in the global human development index from a position of 124 to 132 in only eight years – this, despite having one of the world’s most impressive growth rates. China, by comparison, sits at a rank of 81. Perhaps more importantly, we may say that however many Bilgays and slumdog millionaires India produces, they will always be few and far between. However much wealth India creates due to its growth, the desperately poor and downtrodden will still form a seething, resentful majority, unless India finds a way to pursue social justice along with growth, or what Amit Bhaduri has called development with dignity. That is not the path it appears to be taking, however, and the situation will no doubt get worse before it gets better. Rather than pursue justice, the Indian privileged classes are sealing themselves within a police-protected bubble, a situation reflected in the fact that one of the few booming job markets at the moment is private security. The notion that neoliberalism is leading to economic progress in India is therefore the first great myth that Nanda explodes, and she does so with facts such as these. The second myth is that it is secularising and modernising the consciousness of the Indian people. It is this latter point which Nanda addresses in her analysis of the mentality of the Indian privileged classes. These, she argues, are increasingly turning to religion. Far from becoming secularised through education and an encounter with the outside world, the Indian middle class is shifting toward the theological. India is a nation of many religions, yet when one speaks of the religion of the wealthy, one is speaking of Hinduism – and Hinduism, at that, of a very strange and un-Gandhian variety. Sleek, modern, and repackaged to suit the needs of the rich and powerful, this new religion is shot through with a hearty dose of nationalism and triumphalism, mostly preached by the BJP, the opposition political party in India which has been responsible in the past for race riots which killed thousands of Muslims.

This is the national religious ideology of an aspiring global power. It seeks to find the sources of its newfound success in the innate characteristics of the Hindu mind – a sorry reductionist explanation for economic growth which has been parroted by Western journalists all along the way. Of course, the achievements of India are attributable as much to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and atheists as to Hindus. The Indian constitution, renowned for its democratic and progressive content, was authored by a Dalit Buddhist, and the heroes of the independence struggle came from every conceivable caste and religious group. Never mind – it is the praises of Hindu science, Hindu wisdom, and so forth which the middle class now sing, and international commentators have no qualms about joining in. Here we see faddishness at its most craven – we might even say deadly, for the worship of Hindu qualities is often used to legitimise the victimisation of religious minorities. Not only does the new religion help an aspiring middle class feel good about its own civilisation, it also assuages any guilt they may feel about their wealth. The vast majority of the Indian middle class are decent people, after all. Statistics quoted by Nanda show that nearly all of them believe that the government should help the poor and that it is morally preferable to live simply than ostentatiously. However, the new religion is working to undo such guilt, both in India and abroad. This is the phenomenon of Karmic capitalism which has reached even into Western business schools. Packaging and selling the wisdom of the East everywhere from Mumbai streets to corporate boardrooms, this new ideology suggests that Hindu texts such as the Gita are designed to guarantee worldly success. Ancient self-help books, as it were. The wildly popular Deepak Chopra and his ilk have produced a steady stream of faddish guru-ism in recent years, all intended to offer spiritual secrets which will grant the consumer wealth in this life. One of the most common prayers heard in the booming Hindu temple industry is addressed to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Nanda’s purpose is not merely to demonstrate the inanity of all this,

These, she argues, are increasingly turning to religion. Far from becoming secularised through education and an encounter with the outside world, the Indian middle class is shifting toward the theological. India is a nation of many religions, yet when one speaks of the religion of the wealthy, one is speaking of Hinduism – and Hinduism, at that, of a very strange and unGandhian variety. Sleek, modern, and repackaged to suit the needs of the rich and powerful, this new religion is shot through with a hearty dose of nationalism and triumphalism.
which is obvious enough. Nor is it merely to attack the callousness which grows out of a religiously-sanctioned quest for competitive edge. Rather, it is to challenge the entire notion that globalisation and the unfettered free market are progressive forces which will ultimately liberate India. The fact is that one simply cannot pursue unjust social policies and expect that they will result in social justice. Farmers’ suicides, desperate poverty, and cheap religiosity in the present do not presage equality and secularism in the future. To free ourselves of the bankrupt notion that they do, or that they are necessary evils, will take some time. With this book, Meera Nanda has made a step in the right direction. �

Joshua F Leach – currently a student at the University of Chicago – is a writer and human rights advocate.

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