Sunday, April 22, 2012

Churchill

I have been watching some BBC fictional programs on Netflix. After really enjoying Luther (a violent, police drama), I moved on to a political drama called The State Within. Set in a Bush-era-like Washington DC, the show is a 24-esque, simplistic and cut intensive miniseries about the adventures of the Brit ambassador to the US. The Ambassador is shown to be a human rights champion in a world dominated by beltway types who are depicted as enjoying playing games with the lives of millions around the world.

Strikingly, I found that many of the hero's speeches and monologues were given on the phone in the UK embassy, with a backdrop that was clearly a portrait of Winston Churchill.

I doubt the show's creators intended any irony. Instead its likely that, due to his victory over the Axis powers, Churchill has a place in many a westerner's heart as a hero of freedom. This is true in a limited sense; Churchill's leadership did save Britain during WW2.

However, Churchill was an imperialist to his core. Perhaps one could argue that he was a product of his times, and a modern Churchill would reflect our world's updated values on freedom. I won't speculate on that, but I do find the real Churchill an important man for Indians to study.

This is because Churchill was a man of ideas and, India, in the end, is an idea. Therefore, above all the militants and separatists, tin-can Generals, warlords, difficult multinationals and aggressive neighbors, Churchill, through his surviving writings, is probably India's greatest adversarial critic.

Churchill's position can be summarized by his comment that he thought India as a united nation was as ridiculous a concept as the idea of the Equator as a separate country. He understood that without British India there would not be an Empire and he lobbied and fought against Indian independence. A summary of his quotations on the subject can be found here, and they may shock you.

But looking beyond these statements, and avoiding the temptation to go for Churchill-bashing, I found that some of his ideas for Britain in the post WW2 era suggest optimistic directions for India, today. He foresaw a future where the UK would be a densely populated, relatively small country with limited resources. He realized that a path to a prosperous future could be forged by a such a country, even though most of the world might think that this nation's best days were long gone.

The Churchill quote that best summarizes this vision for me is: "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind". I find it an illuminating light to shine on the dark discourse of pessimism around me by armchair economists who get depressed about the slow progress of Indian manufacturing or give 18th century reasons such as "overpopulation" for why India isn't moving in some desired economic direction.

Perhaps the best advice for India in this century might come from one of its toughest opponents from the last.