Neo-Orientalism and its discontents

Orientalism is alive and kicking. This was one of the key takeaways from S Jaishankar’s interaction with this paper last week, where he also reminded us that tackling neo-Orientalism isn’t about India getting prickly, but the need for the world to engage with, and understand, India’s PoV. This applies for the world, but clarity must begin at home. Which it has. The foreign minister‘s take on a post-Western monopolistic narrative was an argument for India’s own voice to be heard – no longer via ventriloquists – by world powers, which themselves have changed in the post-Cold War landscape. Jaishankar called out something that was known, but spoken only sotto voce earlier – that ‘there are self-proclaimed people with different interests’ and what the West preaches, practises, its agenda, its objectivity ‘or lack of it’ must be factored in.

Gone are the days when a handful of countries emerging victorious out of a world war fog defined what was geopolitically and geoculturally kosher and what wasn’t. The multipolar world that India advocates isn’t the 19th-century version of ceaseless geopolitical competition, but one in which countries like itself are not just seen but also heard. Neither does India share China‘s hegemonic world view where anti-Westernism is a neurosis suited up as foreign policy. India is the world’s fifth-largest economy, home to a sixth of humanity’s population. It is also a microcosm of a world encompassing both rich G7 countries as well as least developed nations. This gives India the moral (read: political) heft and prerogative to push back against double standards – whether as depicted by sections of Western media or voices representing states. What’s sauce for the Western goose should be sauce for the Indian gander.

There is much to be said for Mary Lathrap’s call to ‘judge softly’, and to ‘walk a mile in his moccasins/ Before you abuse, criticise and accuse’. But it is also important to come across as not being hypersensitive to critique. Mature democracies respond with reasoned argument, not in fits of piques or knee-jerk sulks.


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