I was in four countries in September. I began the month in my homeland, India, which once thought of itself as having shown the way to other ex-colonies by achieving independence through non-violence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, the history its leaders invoke goes much further into the past: The resistance of Prithviraj Chauhan and Shivaji to Muslim rulers, for some; the greatness of the Gupta empire, for others.
The ideological mentor of the men who now rule India is the late MS Golwalkar, who led the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh for a full 35 years. Among the dogmas of their former sarsanghchalak that his followers have wholeheartedly adopted is that, because of their glorious past, Hindus are destined to lead the world in future. Golwalkar claimed that it "is the grand world-unifying thought of Hindus alone that can supply the abiding basis for human brotherhood". World leadership, he further claimed, "is a divine trust, we may say, given to the charge of the Hindus by Destiny".
I went from India to England, whose politicians, likewise, continually invoke the past achievements of their nation. Whether it is Britain as the home of the mother of parliaments, Britain as the cutting-edge of the Industrial Revolution, Britain as the birthplace of Shakespeare and Darwin, Britain as the lone country that resisted the Nazis in World War II— the self-image of this country is of having taught the world a great deal in the past; and it could teach the world a thing or two yet.
I ended September in the United States, whose current president won the election in 2016 promising to Make America Great Again. The belief that this is the country with the greatest history is fervently upheld by a majority of Americans. For romantic Americans, their country was never greater than in the time of their Founding Fathers, who won freedom from British imperialism and forged a pioneering charter for democracy. For progressive Americans, their country was especially great in the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. For conservative Americans, their country was at its best when Ronald Reagan brought the Soviets to their knees and won the Cold War. For all their ideological differences, these Americans all believe that their country is, and always shall be, the Last, Best, Hope of Humankind.
I normally travel to the United States from London. This time I flew in from Canada. This, alone of the four countries that I visited in September, does not boast of having a fabulous or famously influential past. It was not the Canadians who gave the world zero, yoga, or plastic surgery; not the Canadians who invented the theory of evolution or electricity; not the Canadians who had built the world's richest democracy which was also home to the world's greatest universities producing a disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes.
I had been to Canada several times before. With every visit, I have grown fonder of the place. It has a quiet, understated, character that is in striking contrast to its vainglorious southern neighbour. Canadians are not boastful; though in fact they have a great deal to boast about. They have good public universities and excellent public health care. They have gone from being a racist Whites-only society towards becoming properly multicultural. Their West Indian, South Asian, and Chinese immigrants are much better integrated than immigrants in other Western nations. Although their treatment of their own indigenous peoples is far from perfect, at least they feel guilty about it .
From my most recent trip to Canada, I concluded that nations that do not have a great history (real or mythical) to invoke may be luckier than those who do. For Boris Johnson to think of himself as Winston Churchill, or for Narendra Modi's followers to think of their leader as a new Shivaji, a new Hindu Hriday Samrat, can scarcely help solve the structural challenges that England or India face today. This idea of a fantastic and uniquely glorious past continues to bedevil the fourth country I visited in September, the United States. And consider also Russia, with Vladimir Putin fancying himself as a new Peter the Great, or Turkey, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan thinking of himself as an Ottoman Sultan. Or of Iran, whose leaders have an excessive — and distracting — pride in their Persian past, or, most of all, of China, whose leaders are absolutely convinced that the greatness of their ancient civilisation makes their imminent emergence as the world's major superpower all the more likely.
Canadians are due to vote in a general election on Monday, October 21. When I was there in late September, campaigning was in full swing, with competitive politics on open display. The incumbent prime minister, a Liberal, was being accused of hypocrisy because of an act of casual racism he had once committed. The Liberals, in return, warned the voters that if the Conservatives were elected in their stead, public spending for health and education would precipitously decline. Meanwhile, the National Democratic Party and the Greens urged Canadians to look outside the two main parties and consider their claims instead.
What was notable was how little past national achievements (real or mythical) were invoked in the election campaign. No leader talked of Making Canada Great Again. Whosoever is elected the next prime minister is not going to bow his head on the steps of the Canadian parliament and promise to undo 800 years of slavery. Nor is he going to invoke the World Wars I and II (although Canadian soldiers helped win them, something the British in particular needed to be reminded of).
The Canadians can be understated and pragmatic because they don't have a great history to boast of. They can focus on building a more robust economy, a more caring society, on making their fine universities and hospitals even better. We have a lot to learn from them — even (or especially) though they don't tell us to.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World