On The Idea Of 'Civilization States', Tharoor Gets Caught In His Own Binary Trap

On The Idea Of 'Civilization States', Tharoor Gets Caught In His Own Binary Trap

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Sunday, February 5, 2023 06:25 PM IST
On The Idea Of 'Civilization States', Tharoor Gets Caught In His Own Binary TrapIndia's civilisational ethos
  • In a recent essay, Shashi Tharoor argued that "the very concept of a civilization state is profoundly illiberal."

    The reference to 'civilization states' included India, among others like Russia and China.

    Tharoor's essay exposes a deep concern — that the beautiful liberal world he was taught to love, succeed in, and perpetuate is being inexorably replaced by a new entity which he can neither fathom nor be a part of.

Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Shashi Tharoor wrote an essay this week contesting former Secretary of State for European Affairs in Portugal, Bruno Maçães’ contention that a liberal world order established by former colonial nations is now being eroded by the rise of large 'civilization states' like Russia, China, and India.

According to Tharoor, this is a disturbing development because ‘civilization states’ are profoundly illiberal.

While the bulk of his essay is devoted to seemingly highfalutin, but essentially semantic, squabbles over the definition and use of various terms, and even if his use of the English language is impeccable as ever, Tharoor ultimately throws his arguments away by reducing his efforts with repeated attacks on his pet political peeves — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva.

Tharoor's View

His main points, broadly, are:

One, a civilisational state leads to divisive identity politics, because it seeks a homogeneity based on ancient cultural norms.

Two, in the process of establishing such a society, diversity is extinguished, and ideas (like Tharoor’s beloved liberalism) at variance with its own norms are shut out.

Three, it is therefore inherently illiberal.

Four, consequently, a civilisational state resists the introduction of democracy, human rights, civil liberties, minority rights, freedom of the press, and suchlike, because these values are of a foreign origin.

Five, such a civilisational state thus becomes “inhospitable territory to religious and ethnic minorities”; it “has no place for non-Hindus… except as second-class citizens confined to subordinate roles.”

Six, to survive, such states will create their own standards by rejecting “…universally accepted norms [needed] to sustain world order.”

And, seven, that unless this rise of civilisational states (he names Russia, China, Israel, and India) is resisted, the world will descend into a frightful “law of the jungle.”

A Response

A rebuttal is warranted because Tharoor has used Indian examples to make his case, and also because this is his first, explicit attack on civilisational states.

First, Tharoor contradicts himself when he says homogeneity leads to divisiveness in society.

It’s like saying making a Bloody Mary by mixing vodka, tomato juice, Tabasco sauce, black pepper, and Angostura bitters separates the ingredients!

Second, in the Indian context, the rise of Hindutva, followed by that of the BJP, was in direct response to the dangerous identity politics played by Tharoor’s predecessors in his Congress party over the entire twentieth century.

Third, it’s a bit rich for Tharoor to claim that identity politics is bad when he has won three parliamentary elections on the strength of this identity vote.

Indeed, on all three occasions, his opponents from the BJP are on record asking voters to rise above the political shackles of identity and vote for development instead.

Fourth, Tharoor’s thesis that civilisational states are inherently illiberal because they block the introduction of ‘foreign’ ideas like democracy and human rights (especially as defined by his cherished Western liberalism) is both patently incorrect and deeply patronising.

It makes two presumptions: one, the ancient norms of such states don’t possess such values; and, two, the ‘foreign’ ideas he upholds above all else are somehow better than those of others.

Tharoor applies the same nescience and arrogance in his point about these states rejecting "…universally accepted norms" because the universality of such acceptance is being disproved on a daily basis in that very West which shaped his thoughts. 

Look at how actively non-left parties in the West are striving to contain the wokeness Tharoor’s vaunted liberalism has degenerated into.

Fifth, the barbs about there being no place for minorities in civilisational states except as second-class citizens don’t need to be refuted since they are part of the standard alarmism and fear-mongering that Tharoor and his Congress party have practised from the start.

Besides, it is election season, so any opportunity to deride political opponents must not be missed.

Sixth, the alarmism Tharoor reveals when he predicts that the law of the jungle would return if the rise of civilisational states goes unchecked (presumably by the liberal West and the likes of Tharoor) can’t be refuted because he has not proved his case.

All he has done is to aver, and as all seasoned debaters know, an averment is not an argument (hilariously, he actually uses that line in his essay!).

Instead, the essay exposes a deep concern — that the beautiful liberal world Tharoor was taught to love, succeed in, and perpetuate is being inexorably replaced by a new entity which he can neither fathom nor be a part of.

It is an existential threat, made far more acute for Tharoor at home, because if the identity politics he so successfully survives by presently is subsumed by India’s own rising civilisational ethos, he would struggle to retain his deposit in an election.

Meaning that this (very real) worry is actually about losing a spot in the public firmament rather than fiendish political developments which, in his view, might threaten his definition of society or state.

So, must we ask: why would Tharoor tie himself up in knots thus?

The youth are always taught to avoid reckless flights of intellectual fancy so that they may learn to argue a point, or explain concepts, using facts and reason.

But what are we to do with Peter Pans who never grow up, and spend a lifetime fencing with strawmen Captain Hooks in someone else’s Never Never Land?

If, at the very least, people like Tharoor made their case in an Indian setting, using Indian idioms, references, and analogies, we might have dubbed them as ‘Trads’ and let them be.

But they are incapable of doing that because they are pre-programmed to perceive anything other than the ‘Nehruvian idea of India’ as plain bad, which they must contest the only way they can — by employing irrelevant, inapplicable theses composed by dead white men for a dead era.

This is the problem with binary thinking, and there is no wishing it away, because a number of intelligent, successful Indians will continue to rigidly reject their traditional ethics or morals and instead remain obsessively enamoured by, and loyally devoted to, a set of European social theories which were developed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

It’s simple psychology: the grass is always greener on the other side.

Such people will blindly accept the tenets of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, while being congenitally incapable of understanding the basic concepts of Dharma.

After all, this is a man who wrote a book explaining why he was a Hindu, without grasping the deeper truth that Sanatana Dharma is not a religion but a way of life.

Therefore, in the final analysis, it is probably best that the likes of Tharoor write as they please, because that would better clarify what the ongoing, majestic awakening in our subcontinent has to contend with.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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