Missing: A welfare nationalism

We seek a perfect fit with global investment rankings but make no such attempt to boost social indices

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 25th Sep 2017   12:04 am Updated: 25th Sep 2017   12:06 am

In the age of corporate nationalism, the contemporary state insists on fitting in with ‘global standards’, from emission norms to investment policies. A nation’s national identity hinges upon its internationalisation, often achieved at the cost of essential local policies and practices. But that is not all.

While India, like many Asian and African nations, seeks to improve rankings as a ‘business-friendly’ country, there is no visible attempt to use other global measures as an index, or instrument, of national progress. Though there is another kind of local appropriation of the global possible, we choose to ignore this route.

Global to Local

Let us begin elsewhere, in history. It is now well-known that the freedom struggle from the late 19th century through to Gandhi was inspired by texts and ideologies that circulated globally. It could be HD Thoreau and John Ruskin, famously inspirational for Gandhi, or it could be ideas of freedom from English poets Milton and Shelley, or ideas of rights from Tom Paine: the nationalist struggle had very strong influences from global ideas. This does not in any way detract from the power of the freedom struggle or its politics.

This goes for social reformers as well, from Phule to Ambedkar. To be able to make connections of caste-based discrimination and African American slavery, or to draw on legal and philosophical doctrines of, say, John Dewey, as these scholar-reformers did, is to bring the global to the local.

Such reform movements finessed powerful global ideas, drawn diversely, for their purposes here. Local and nationalist intellectual histories the world over, whether this is about anti-colonialism or China-influenced communism, have benefitted from their global interests and connections. Global intellectual energies often find local appropriations and manifestations.

Awkward Imbalance

It is, therefore, odd that in the age of corporate nationalism, the state which seeks a perfect fit with global investment regimes and rankings, steadfastly ignores other global regimes and indices. For instance, there is no attempt to boost our global ranking in the social welfare arena, such as the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) or the World Happiness Index (WHI).

In the WHI, we are ranked 122 in 2017, well below Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the Gender Development Index, we rank 131 out of 188 countries. Contrast this with India’s mobility in another index: we are now at the 8th rank in the 2017 AT Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index.

Surely there is something worrying in these statistics. The emphases and executable policies are directed towards the business climate and away from improving the social welfare domain. Is the state’s primary responsibility towards improving, as the index terms it, ‘Foreign Direct Investment Confidence’ or towards its citizens’ gender equality? Is it anti-national to even ponder over this awkward – to some – difference in state attitude?

Another awkward imbalance in the ‘national’ may be seen in its welcome to global investors even as it drives away or takes a violent antipathy towards transnational non-governmental organisations (TNGOs) such as Greenpeace and Amnesty.

If global investors seek to invest in the corporate-industrial sector in the country, the TNGOs focus on the rights, welfare and justice domain, whether it is the environment or human life. Is the TNGOs’ investment, then, of lesser value than that of the global business conglomerate? It would appear so.

Failing Education

When the state’s several hundred tertiary educations failed to find a spot in the global rankings, the government put together its own (National Institutional Ranking Framework), suddenly claiming that our parameters – social justice and equality for instance – do not allow us to acquire that kind of global ranking. So, in the domain of education, we claim an exception to global standards, but in the case of business interests, we seek to acquire such standards.

We modify our economic and welfare policies to acquire global investment ranking, but we will not do this to our education system to acquire the same – when, in fact, modifying it to improve quality and equality would directly benefit millions of students. Is nationalism then all about developing independent and not-conforming-to-the-global parameters and ranking in key social sectors such as education and gender quality, while brilliantly fitting into global parameters in business?

Concomitantly, when we seek business investor ‘confidence’ in our SEZs and others, do we seek similar confidence in our education or health sectors? There is, in every government directive, an insistence on ‘internationalisation’ of our tertiary educational institutions. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, there is no attempt whatsoever to ‘up’ the quality of teaching, the courses/programmes offered, research facilities to attract the talented international student. We do, however, offer popular yoga courses that attract several of the students.

There exists a global humanitarian regime – not free from politics and ideological problems, but nevertheless wired to a set of humanitarian concerns – that we could possibly subscribe to as well. African nations, often in a fit of pique, have banned the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, preventing essential medical supplies in the event of an Ebola or AIDS epidemic. (Somalia witnessed a Red Cross ban in 2012) This so-called resistance to global humanitarian campaigns and movements coded as the ‘protection’ of national sovereignty does not, apparently, extend to Shell acquiring local oilfields, conglomerates acquiring local water resources or say, British Airways acquiring Air India.

In the age of corporate nationalism, the nation invests less and less in raising the standards to meet global ones in the social sector, while it invests more in the business and economic realms to fit the global. In the age of state-sponsored corporate nationalism with its eyes on the global business investor, there is no space for a welfare nationalism. But more about the latter, later.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)