Neoliberalism and the corporate plunder of India (Part 2/2)

The legacy of the East India Company lives on. There is much anger in India fuelling a rise in Hindu nationalism. Dalrymple is feeling this anger.

(Part 1 of this article in case you missed it.)

Hindu nationalism rising

Dalrymple started work on the Anarchy before Hindu nationalist PM Modi‘s BJP party gained power in 2014. Dalrymple is concerned for India, which is 80% Hindu and 14% Muslim. How his book will be received by nationalists remains to be seen.

Dalrymple told the SMH’s Matt Wade that he was “extremely anxious” about trends at work in Indian politics, especially the growing influence of Hindu nationalism. “In the past few months we’ve seen it accelerate,” he said. “People are becoming afraid to speak out.”

To Katie Law of the London Evening Standard: “For some Indians, the Brits were equivalent to the Nazis. And yet when the Brexit vote took place, lots of British politicians, bright Oxbridge-educated, top-rank minds, genuinely believed that they could go to India and sort of kick start the Empire 2.0. As if, now that we were in trouble in Europe, our friends in India would fill in because they love us so much and were so grateful for the railways. Bullshit! Indians think we plundered and exploited them, that we were a bunch of pirates.”

To Tishani Doshi of The Hindu; Chennai: “The book is more topical than ever because this (the EIC conquest of India) is the ultimate corporate takeover. Ditto with Modi’s India. It was the corporates who brought Modi to power with their massive ad campaigns and all the unquantifiable sums of money that went into the BJP for the last election. So this battle between the power of the state and the power of the corporation is the big story of our time, and the jury is out on who’s going to win.”

He told the Adelaide Advertiser that a large body of young Indians in the UK are becoming more active over reparations and there were now British “loot” tours of museums which were raising the pressure to address what the EIC had done. He thinks education about what happened is a necessary beginning.

To the Daily Beast, New York, he said anti-national collaborationism in India’s history is becoming controversial. He is warmly known in India, where he keeps a home outside Delhi, as the “White Moghul,” and the country is by far the largest market for his work. But under Prime Minister Modi, “whose Hindu nationalist party considers the rewriting of Indian history along communal and ideological lines a priority”, that may one day cease to be the case.

“I’m obviously very lucky in that people do read and like my stuff in India,” Dalrymple said. “But there’s also no question that there’s a whole segment of society there that’s deeply Islamophobic. My books are obviously fairly sympathetic to the Moghuls (who had Muslim roots) and embrace the old Nehruvian idea of India as a diverse, rather than specifically Hindu, country. It’s impossible to say whether, in the longer term, given my positive views on Indo-Islamic culture, whether a new generation will grow up not wanting to read my books or listen to their message.

“India is certainly changing. You can see it just by going on Twitter. About two years ago, something very weird began to happen,” he said. “I went from about 100,000 followers to more than a million in a matter of months. I went about preening myself and thinking what I fine fellow I was before my sister-in-law pointed out to me that most of my new followers were BJP bots. I’d somehow wound up on a list of influencers and been followed by hundreds of thousands of government bots and trolls. They sleep until you use words like ‘Modi’ or ‘BJP’ or ‘RSS’— or ‘Kashmir,’ obviously, more recently — and the abuse they tweet at people can be shocking.” RSS is, of course, a grass-roots Hindu nationalist organisation.

He remains optimistic: “In the long term though, I’m a huge optimist for India. There are a million things that could go wrong, but everything I’ve read about its past has shown that India’s natural place is at the top of the top table, and, along with China, it should be the centre of the world again.” Other than the period between 1498 and 1947, it’s been at the top, he told The Hindu, Chennai.

Social commentary: Corporate power and greed today

An art historian by training, Dalrymple has written a social commentary as much as a work of history.

In the epilogue: “The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not obviously apparent how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. No contemporary corporation could get away with duplicating the violence and sheer military might of the East India Company, but many have attempted to match its success at bending state power to their own ends.”

Dalrymple wrote that his interest was in the relationship between commercial and imperial power, how corporations can impact on politics, and vice versa. Commerce and colonisation have so often walked in lock-step. “Western imperialism and corporate capitalism were born at the same time, and both were to some extent the dragons’ teeth that spawned the modern world”.

The EIC remains “the ultimate prototype” for many of today’s corporations. It has no exact modern equivalent, corporations are not armed, but “the most powerful among them do not need their own armies. They can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out.”

Dalrymple wrote: “The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state.

“For as recent American adventures in Iraq have shown, our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably never will be. Instead Empire is transforming itself into forms of global power that use campaign contributions and commercial lobbying, multinational finance systems and global markets, corporate influence and the predictive data harvesting of the new surveillance-capitalism rather than – or sometimes alongside – overt military conquest, occupation or direct economic domination to effect its ends.

“Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current.”

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John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.

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