‘MNCs are the new fulcrum of our patriotism’

NIKHIL MORO writes from Atlanta: I was heaving a sigh of relief that the jingoistic debate over N.R. Narayana Murthy‘s patriotism was over, when I read the latest: The Kannada Sahitya Parishat president, Chandrashekhar Patil, demanding that the government “deport” NRN.

I found myself pondering a curious question: Why are we, as a society, so edgy about issues of patriotism?

For all our feelings, the evidence out there is clear: Patriotism or nationalism may well be dead, slain by the demon of globalization.

Let’s consider the evolution of patriotism.

For early humans, the only loyalty lay to themselves: While the neanderthals walked West Asia some one-lakh years ago, there was also a Dawn of Man (to use a term from the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey). Humans turned hunter-gatherers when not themselves hunted, and looked out for themselves.

Later, the feeling of loyalty or patriotism expanded to include little villages or communities when humans progressed to agrarian, pastoral or animal-raising professions, such as in the Indus Valley (of some 4,500 years back, the largest of the four ancient civilizations).

Even later, patriotism came to be defined by a city’s boundaries, upon the emergence of city-states such as Athens, Sparta, Troy (ancient age), Frankfurt, Amsterdam (middle age), Singapore, Monaco and Vatican City (modern age).

In about the 16th century, “nationalism” was born as patriotism, grew into a more profound ideology upon the birth of nation-states. Today nationalism, or patriotism, is evident when we discuss our cricket team’s performance, or the latest Agni launch, or ISRO’s Chandrayan program.

More recently however, the Columbia economist Jagdish Bhagwati and others at the London School of Economics (Drs. John Hutchinson, Anthony Smith, et al) have suggested that because of migrations and cultural mixing the nation-state has ceased to exist.

This is especially true in the West where nations, as distinct political-economic entities, are disappearing due to the cross-border movements of money, labour, technologies and cultures. Indications include the European Union, NAFTA, American immigration crisis, etc.

India is globalizing as well, thanks to satellite media, foreign investments, and migration from Bangladesh. The Internet has acted as globalization’s irrevocable agent, supporting Marshall McLuhan‘s “global village” aphorism.

And with the nation-state dead so would be any notion of nationalism, however laudable.

In this kind of mahaul, we need to ask: What entity, if any, has replaced the nation-state as the fulcrum of our feelings of loyalty? My guess is that there indeed has been a replacement—the Multinational Corporation.

Employing much of the world’s finer talent, the multinationals have gained a disproportionate influence on many facets of our life—we hardly need a George Ritzer to show us that. Regardless of our love for Karnataka or India, if our multinational employer posts us in Timbuktoo we better go. That’s reality, and so much for patriotism.

Whatever remains of patriotism seems to be increasingly in the chokehold of chauvinists: just listen to election speeches by some Shiv Sena or BJP candidates.

Is the apparent shift in loyalty, from the nation to the corporation, a good thing? That’s a value judgment we should make for ourselves. But one thing seems clear: NRN recognizes that loyalty shift.

Narayana Murthy is a man for our times. He and the rest of his progressive ilk see a world beyond Karnataka. They create jobs beyond borders and make wealth (not manage the poverty, like the socialists ended up doing). They respect the demand-supply marketplace, and thrive in it. They reject the failed welfare state but accept the oversight of government to sustain the free marketplace.

To me, NRN is a leader of a new culture of “marketplace nationalism” (a term my IRS-officer friend Venkata Bujimalla used whenever he and I discussed patriotism at Ohio State University).

While I have many misgivings about that new culture, I’d any day prefer it to the status quo represented by the losers in our Vidhana Sabha who called NRN names, or by folks such as Sri. Patil who demanded NRN be “deported”.

What arrogance!