Ram Madhav
July 30, 2020

At the root of today’s crisis, an intellectual void

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With rising authoritarianism and a crisis of democracy, the world needs new ideas. Can India show the way? 

Weak minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; strong minds discuss ideas,” said Greek philosopher Socrates. People and events dominate public discourse because they matter to the bread and butter issues of the people. But then, as Jesus Christ said, man does not live by bread alone. He needs ideas — “God’s word,” according to Jesus. We need strong minds to germinate transformative ideas.

There will be times when humanity yearns for such ideas. The coronavirus pandemic is one such occasion when the world is desperately looking for fresh ideas to shape its future. 

Historically, Europe has been the intellectual kernel of mankind. Several avant-garde ideas originated in the minds of European philosophers and thinkers. In the last few centuries, all the important political ideas that impacted the world extensively came from Europe. From John Locke’s Enlightenment thinking to Karl Marx’s Marxism, from the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to the Social Contract tradition of Thomas Hobbs, from Edmund Burke’s Conservatism to Frederick Nietzsche’s Nihilism — Europe produced many grand political ideas in the last two centuries. The democratic institutions that evolved during the same period are also the product of the continuous churning in Europe’s intellectual milieu.

One grand idea that India contributed to world political thought in the last century was Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence. From Martin Luther King Jr to Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama — the list of leaders who admired and adopted non-violence as a political ideology is long. Interestingly, after India’s successful experimentation with non-violence in 1947, dozens of countries adopted it and subsequently secured independence. Most of those countries became democracies and the world witnessed a “democracy boom” by the end of the last century. The collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War also helped further democratisation.

But the dawn of the 21st century saw matters drifting fast. Democratic deficit and fatigue are setting in with alarming speed. Authoritarian regimes have bounced back with a vengeance. Terrorism, that acquired new dimensions and legitimacy towards the end of the last century, has led to the resurgence of the politics of violence. The first quarter of the 21st century witnessed the rise of “wolf warriors” and “lone wolfs”. 

It is in this political climate that the Covid-19 has struck the world. It has affected all existing political systems, authoritarians and democrats alike, diminishing the credibility of each one. A leaderless and rudderless world is emerging out of these two-decades of churning culminating in the pandemic. What the post-pandemic world needs is not just a new leadership, but also ideas for a new world order.

Regarded for long as the crown jewel of democratic liberalism, the United States (US) is yielding ground quickly and significantly, signalling the decisive decline of those values in the world. In the last three decades, at least two dozen countries have turned authoritarian.

Authoritarian regimes such as China have emerged powerful during the same period. Authoritarianism does not affect the people of the respective countries alone. It puts a lot of pressure on others too. Democracies, by very nature, become vulnerable to the onslaught of authoritarianism. In the process, they too gradually turn to authoritarian measures to ward off the challenge of authoritarian regimes. The net result will be a world less liberal and less democratic.

There is a silver lining in the cloud though. Authoritarian regimes, although seemingly dominant at the moment, cannot sustain themselves for long. China is ageing fast. The one-child norm of the 1980s and 90s has skewed its demography. In a decade’s time, it will turn into an evening economy. So will other authoritarian regimes in West Asia for a variety of reasons. With their financial fortunes plummeting due to falling oil revenues, these authoritarian sponsors of terrorism are wilting precariously.

The next 10 years will be crucial for the world. It has to not only build new leadership, but also come up with new ideas and agendas.

It is here that India has a golden opportunity. India’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has revealed the brighter side of its leadership and society. The combined efforts of the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, extensive efforts by its ubiquitous bureaucracy, and the exemplary discipline and commitment of its 1.3 billion people have helped India manage the pandemic in a manner that has set an example to others.

India’s Covid-19 experience has highlighted its inclusive nationalism and humanist development vision. These can serve as the ideas for building a new agenda in a post-Covid-19 world. The pandemic has made many countries insular. That has led to the rise of more authoritarianism in the world. India stood out with its inclusivist democratic policies that have seen the government’s popularity going through the roof. This, together with humanist globalism as against materialist and militarist authoritarianism, can set a new agenda for the emerging global order.

India has a decade to prepare itself to play a leading role in building such a world order. That is what the Prime Minister Modi calls Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) and Agenda 2030.

(The article was originally published in Hindustan Times on July 30, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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