One of the most exciting set of debates that is happening across the world is about globalisation, covering a vast spectrum of topics: winners and losers; the institutions that regulate globalisation; the ability of countries to retain meaningful control over their destinies; the impact on the individual, and so on. And there is yet no universal agreement on the term itself!
There are interesting questions are about how India and Indians are going to cope with globalisation, both proactively and reactively. By reactive, I mean that most Indians will have to live with the realities of globalisation with changes in their means of livelihood and ways of life. By proactive, I mean that there will need to be strong and cogent voices raised at international forums to make the outcomes of globalisation more equitable and fair, both geopolitically for India and for various economic sectors in the country, like farmers and small-scale and cottage industries.
I want to focus on the impact globalisation is going to have on value systems in India.
Why the focus on values? Because, at the end of the day, it is values that determine actions that people take. Our convictions arise out of our values. And our actions come out of our convictions. Of course, sometimes we take actions that are contrary to our values. But this does not pass smoothly, it creates an internal conflict, and we struggle to align our actions with our values.
With new experiences come new values. This is true at an individual level, and also at the level of a society. And this osmosis, fusion and clashing of values is what keeps change happening.
There are many questions about values: Where do these values come from? Are there a single set of values for a society, are societal values just an aggregation of individual values? Is there any migration path for values, as though moving up some hierarchy, some better than others?
Over the past few decades, there has been much work done in mapping the values that characterize a society, with important findings. For example, one of the results is that as a societys level of economic well-being increases, there is a move away from overt religious values. Individual religious belief does not disappear, but there is still sufficient evidence to show the correlation between economic well-being and increasing secularisation.
Another result is that the value system of individuals is a function of vulnerability experienced in their childhood. For example, the World War generation of the 1950s in Europe grew up with a value system that emphasised security and comfort, having seen the war; the post-war generation of the 1990s is far less agitated about this, is capable of living with uncertainty, and in fact welcomes diversity.
Economic success in Western countries in the 19th and 20th century also came with industrialisation, mass production and the bureaucratic organisation; these fostered their own value systems. Now, with the breakdown of the large bureaucratic organisation, and the emergence of the Internet economy, some of these bulwarks of the old value system are being dismantled. Globalisation therefore carries with it the gene code of new and different values, as it seeps into the fabric of the societies that get connected.
To make matters more complex, these changes are not happening uniformly across all societies, nor are these societies receiving these changes from the same starting point. Also, different societies have different political arrangements. Hence, one of the fascinating areas of analysis of a society or a country is the triangular relationship between economic structures, value systems and political arrangements.
In this context, let us look at the dominant value system that is beaming out of the United States, the principal actor in the globalisation script. This is a country whose value system over the past two hundred years has been one of conquering nature, of bringing it into the control of man, as far as possible, and continuously attempting to do so. Whether it was the Wright brothers who dared to rule the sky, or Edison with electricity, the past few hundred years have been largely about the dominance of a set of values that emphasised the centrality of man. Without glossing over the atrocities to the Native Americans, the record has been quite admirable, with evidence piling up of the successes of this value system.
On the political stage as well, it has been America that breathed life into the idea of democracy over the past two hundred years. After their revolution for Independence, they were the ones who took over the global mantle of deepening democracy. Much of this started at the local level, through protection of property - as private as it gets - and then grew concentrically outwards. This was in keeping with their character, with their value system. Their economic and political arrangements were consistent with each other and their value system. For a democracy to really work, it requires active engagement. This comes from a value system that believes that all is conquerable, that life is about struggling in the material world.
So in America, they took the idea of democracy, from the grassroots, and kept pushing to retain it at the local level. And given their emphasis of the centrality of man, their Constitution recognised the need to place limitations on him, given his desire for power, and his capacity to misuse it.
Against this backdrop, it is interesting to examine the current value system that we in India as a society seem to have, and its implications in the era of globalisation. There is always the danger of over-simplification, talking about a homogeneous and monolithic India. However, irrespective of the cultural or social diversity in our country, one could make a reasonable argument that a common value system is one of the binding ingredients that give Indians a common identity.
We arrived into the Industrial Age with a centuries-old set of Indian values: asceticism, renunciation, the role of the karma yogi, the universality in each of us, the work of our sufi saints. A neverending procession of a set of values that emphasised the larger cosmic landscape, and the importance of our actions being harmonious with this. Often in India, our value systems emphasised retreat from the material world, a disengagement. The world of the tyagi. This infuses everything we do, and we interpret our world from this frame of reference.
As far as political structures are concerned, we have embraced a democratic system of functioning over the past 50 years. However, if Independence was about the power to control our destinies, where did that power reside after Independence? Gandhi talked about what it would take to govern ourselves, and he proposed the radical ideas of grassroots democracy. He talked of disbanding the Congress, and converting it into a national social service organisation.
Still, at an institutional level, governments are ultimately about power; the power to make tangible difference to the lives of its citizens. There are debates about where this power should reside, how much of this power should be in the hands of the citizens themselves, considering that not everybody wants to be involved in the business of government. And so representative democracy was a way to give some power to the citizen, in choosing her representative. Unfortunately, we know that this doesnt work too well. Gandhis ideas were seen as too romantic, especially in an era where grand ideas of government were occupying the world stage.
So we have stumbled into being governed through this process called democracy. Unfortunately, democracy is a political structure that is a bit at odds with our value system. If democracy is a structure meant to reflect and support the aspirations of the people, it requires active engagement to keep it alive. In the world of the immediate, in the hustle and bustle of everydayness. One cannot stop in the middle and ask, But what is the meaning of all this, we are all one after all. And ultimately, all is maya. This sort of thinking does not really resonate with democracy.
And yet, there is an elegance to the idea of democracy that is very appealing to the Indian mind. The problem comes in the doing of it, the messy stuff, antithetical to our dominant value system. Added to this was the economic structure that we adopted: a mixed economy model, with Government ruling the commanding heights of the economy, allowing controlled and selective access to the entrepreneurial class. And so we came out of Independence with a mis-aligned relationship between our economic structures, our value systems, and our political arrangements.
Over the past half-century, this triangular relationship seems to be getting more aligned, much of this by way of serendipity than design. On the political front, the institutional structures are indeed percolating power closer to the citizen. States took power away from the centre, to have a greater say in determining the quality of life of citizens. We now have local governments being empowered with the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. Slowly, we are inching closer to Gandhis dream of local self-government.
The base of the pyramid
By and large left out of the political debate, the average citizen is being awakened by a new set of confusing economic forces. For over 50 years citizens have been facing a clash of values. The old cherished value system that has such a spiritual tone is now being prised open by the waves of globalisation, of material comfort, what some would call the celebration of human potency.
To succeed in this new order, the Indian will have to engage, to improve her skills, to compete with other firms in the country and around the world. She will have to embrace practices that emphasise consistent quality, teamwork, organisational discipline and so on. Her economic success will come from these traits; she will discover to her surprise that she possesses the capacities to compete and win often on the global arena. She will begin to believe in herself.
Ironically, this is good for Indian politics. Because it is this new set of values that will cause the Indian citizen to start participating in the political dialogue, and giving full meaning to democracy. The forces that will create this are almost inevitable, being triggered by a multiplicity of micro-changes in individual attitudes and improved economic status. All three corners of the triangle are moving into a new constellation. It is hard to ascribe cause-effect relationships between the changes in these three dimensions of economics, values and politics; however, what cannot be denied is the impact that globalisation is having on value systems, which in turn will alter political engagement.
The challenge is the baggage that it comes with.
Because, as we are set for this value tsunami on our shores, the strange irony is that it is happening at the time when the shores from which this arose are migrating to their post-industrial value system, questioning their blind pursuit of the material world. Where their quest for the supremacy of man over nature is resulting in a mortal humility at our own insignificance in the larger cosmic drama. And this is resulting in the emergence of a new set of values, less material, more tolerant, more inclusive, more celebratory of differences etc. While this is not as evident in the United States, it is becoming more clear in Europe.
This is happening simultaneously with the Internet age, which is replacing the large bureaucratic organisation and mass production. Knowledge and individuality are gaining precedence. All these are reinforcing energies to move the developed world into the post-modern set of values.
My own personal belief is that the pendulum has barely begun to swing in India, and it has a long way to go. Over the next two decades, we are going to see an enormous challenge to the value systems of the past, being replaced by the new value systems of globalisation. This comes, like most things, with good and bad: it lives and breathes engagement. And with this will come economic success., which is good. With it will also come consumerism, garish over-consumption, outrageous examples of extreme materialism. This is not-so-good. But it will have to sweep over the country, and the people will have to experience all this. It is not enough for a few to have seen the good life and then renounced it; even if there are many who want to do the same, they do want to see the good life first, and they cannot, must not be denied.
The Great Indian Dream is yet to be articulated, as the Great American Dream was defined in such predictably material terms a few decades ago.
Will we define it in post-modern terms, as the West itself is beginning to move into a post-industrialist way of life? Do we have today a civilizational memory of our original contribution to the understanding of the Soul, or are we doomed to trudge the low hills of material satisfaction before we too reach the wastelands of consumerism, and discover that there is much more to life. After all, if we are to leave it to the people, then we must be prepared for the consequences of their actions.
Nothing works out like a pretty script with everybody living happily ever after.