It can be argued that India is a pretty modern nation, as many Western historians have insisted, created based on a somewhat 19th century concept. Many Indians feel deeply offended by this and point towards its rich history, culture and united identity spanning over many centuries. Both sides are right, proving Amartya Sen right, who quoted one of his professors who said, 'whatever can be said about India, the opposite is also right'. This is a bit about two Indias too, one modern, self-confident nation, and the other, eternal, pinned to its history, identity, existing side by side.
Interestingly, you can almost two kinds of exceptionalism in India, therefore. One, of eternal values, of disregarding material wealth and pursuing spiritual glory, which many Indians present as a solution to what is wrong with mankind today. Many of them will argue that Indians are very special people, ascetic at heart and emotional/spiritual in their every day behaviour, a model community far removed from the ills of western individualism and greed. Not necessarily true everywhere, but no doubt India is exceptional, as any visitor to the land will vouch.
Exceptionalism, in the other sense, is however far more visible today. More precisely, in today's English Language newspapers, English press and in the recent flurry of books about India. This is more about a modern democratic nation, which is shaking off the poverty of its past and emerging as a model for all developing nations worldwide. While it has gained in popularity, this view isn't new - witness Nehru and his grand plans to unite the world on the principles of peace and cooperation - and it was omnipresent since the day the young nation decided to embark on universal adult suffrage and parliamentary democracy. This is the new India's sense of exceptionalism - of establishing an ideal and a model.
All that, of course, has terribly gone wrong. India became synonymous to poverty, red tape, chaos, corruption, inefficiency, political muddle and musclemanship. And, the truth is - none of these were solved before the current optimism has set in. Looking at the recent list of releases on India and its enormous potential, one tends to get the feel of an enormous bubble all over again, one which bursts with the first encounter of reality in any Indian airports. Almost everyone, and everything, points us to the non-changeable nature of India, the essential Indian idea of exceptionalism, while billboards, bookstores and politicians proudly proclaim the 'special role' of India.
At times, indeed, it feels that we are a self-important nation. Contrast the reporting of the recent conference of world leaders on the economic crisis. Our Prime Minister did deliver an informed speech, but Indian media essentially reported that he showed the world leaders the way and taught them economics. I did spend time to mine the comments made on Mr. Singh's speech, and found nothing to support that presumption, which was near universal in the Indian media and minds.
I have also noted, with some dismay, the comments made by some readers on the Lord Macaulay issue. Lord Macaulay was a cunning imperialist, who created, on purpose, an English educated class in India, which could not connect itself to their own country any more. This undermined India, and perpetuated British rule, as Macaulay intended. I also noted that Macaulay did not differentiate much between the muslims and hindus of India and was out to undermine both cultures. However, the observers - who left their comments in English and have obviously done well because of their English education - chose to prevail on another point: Defend the spoof which was circulated in the name of Macaulay, most possibly by the Hindu supremacists in our country. There was this exceptionalism of a very different kind - a going back to the past to an Utopian hindu glory - which will leave out more than half the citizen of India and would go against the tolerance and continuity which are very much the part of India's ethos.
So, do I believe in this special purpose of India then? The short answer is yes, because I am Indian, and immensely proud and self-conscious to be one. While I do question the wisdom of India branding which is going on now, I do believe in India's message and the agenda - of creating a modern, developed nation in spite of poverty and backwardness. However, this agenda also includes timeless Indian values - tolerance, patience and emotional/material balance - and the exceptionalism for us is not in trying to be special, but in being imitable.