Christopher Coker, a renowned London School of Economics (LSE) professor of international relations, and the director of the college’s foreign policy think-tank IDEAS has written a new book called – The Rise of the Civilisational State.
The phrase ‘civilisational state’ is not new. Others like the Chinese international relations scholar Zhang Weiwei at Fudan University has spoken of China as a civilisational state, as has the French writer Martin Jacques. The idea is that there are two kinds of nation states – one, the Westphalian nation state which was created after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that ended The Thirty Year War in Europe creating national boundaries based on broad homogeneity, and which is understood to be the basis of the so-called rules-based liberal world order; and the other is the civilisational state where the sense of nationhood is derived from collective memories of an ancient civilisation.
The argument is that the Westphalian liberal nation-state model cannot adequately explain some countries like China because the relations between the state and the people are different from the West, and therefore ‘Western values’ like human rights, strong civil society and democracy does not apply in the same way in China as they do in the West. This framework, for instance, is used to explain why China befuddled the West – the expectation was that as it grew ever more prosperous, it would become more democratic. This has not happened. On the contrary, China is more authoritarian than ever – though it is also richer than ever. The civilisational state model explains that this is because the Chinese see the state in a different way – as a unifier and guardian of their unique civilisation, as Jacques has argued, and have different expectations from their state.
Coker uses the civilisational state framework to explain why the West is losing, in fact has perhaps already lost, the monopoly of values and virtues which it could project to every part of the world. He points to examples like Russia, apart from China, which pitch themselves as civilisational states and, in doing so, also are in direct conflict in what these states sometimes terms as corrupting or alien Western values. If, for instance, China is irked by democracy, Russia terms the West, in a sense, godless, or at the very least incapable of asserting or defending any religious virtue.
Coker believes India is too diverse and has too strong a middle-class which inherited and embraced many legacies from its colonial past, including social and judicial liberalism, to ever be a civilisational state - even though that is perhaps the terminology closest to the way India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sees its task.
But one question remains – what if the Indian civilisational state were to look very different from the Chinese or the Russian one?
What if, unlike in Coker’s vision, the civilisational state in India did not have to set itself in opposition to the liberal West, or, at the very least, not set in opposition as much as China and Russia do?
What if the Indian civilisational state had been imagined with a unique liberalism of its own? My argument is this – if you consider some of the seminal thinking in imaging India’s role in world, you would find thinkers who had a civilisational vision for India, but it was neither illiberal, nor parochial.
Before I explain how my argument unfolds it is important to understand that this debate is perhaps the most urgent now around the world as nations face a future where Western pre-eminence is not only no longer guaranteed but is set to collapse. It is a time of tremendous churn and opportunity because a new world order is being slowly constructed - a plurilateral world where several nations with similar strengths and ambitions jostle with non-state, and even independent actors (like non-governmental organisations, multinational companies and even terrorist groups), for power.
That India, along with China, will play a leading role in this new world order seems inevitable, and therefore the future nature and ideology of the Indian state merits serious contemplation and analysis.
My argument stems from some of the pioneering thinkers who through the 19th and 20th century envisaged what a civilisational state in India might look like and how it could interact with the world.
Consider the polymath Benoy Kumar Sarkar (died 1949) and his 1916 book Hindu culture as a world power AD 300 – 600. Sarkar, as another LSE scholar Martin Bayly in his 2010 paper – The Forgotten History of Indian International Relations, noted, was widely published in journals like The American Political Science Review (APSR), Political Studies Quarterly, and The Journal of Race Development (an early avatar of Foreign Affairs). Bayly wrote that Sarkar through a 1919 article in APSR titled – Hindu Theory of International Relations, weaved the teachings of (ancient scholars like) Kautilya and Kamandakiya Nitisara “into a rearticulation of the doctrine of mandala (later appropriated by Nehru), which he described as underlying the Hindu idea of the balance of power. This willingness to interpret Vedic texts in terms of the canon of western international thought also came through in his description of the sarvabhauma, as a Hindu variant on Kantian notions of ‘permanent [sic] peace’, and contemporary ideas of imperial federations and the League of Nations.”
But Sarkar was not the only one. K. C. Bhattacharya, a philosopher contemporary of Sarkar, wrote the masterly essay – Swaraj in Ideas, which is being rediscovered these days. Bhattacharya’s ideas are neither triumphalist, nor do they reject Western attributes – both fears about civilisational states – but what he argues for is a more thoughtful synthesis, an assimilation on India’s own terms. “There are ideals of the West which we may respect from a distance without recognising any specific appeal to ourselves,” wrote Bhattacharya. “A synthesis of our ideals with Western ideals is not demanded in every case. Where it is demanded the foreign ideal is to be assimilated to our ideal and not the other way.”
The most prominent ideas in this domain of course comes from Vivekananda, the modern monk who won over many Western fans in America and Europe in the late 19th century with his own vision of India’s civilisational rise without forsaking lessons from, or collaboration with, the West.
A prolific observer and diarist of the minutiae of Western civilisation, including comparative analysis of breakfast, lunch and dinner menus in America, England and France, Vivekananda imagined that a civilisational rise of India would go beyond development of “views [that] are derived from without, and do not look within and below the surface”.
That doesn’t sound like two civilisations clashing but rather civilisations in confident dialogue, as equals. It may well be that India as a civilisational state looks and sounds more like Vivekananda’s vision rather than like a combative China or Russia.