Killers have vanished in the crowd
And in search of her disappeared son
The old women slices partially rotten guavas
Placing unspoilt portions in the bowl
– Ashok Vajpai in Jeene Ke Liye
The largest electorate in the world debunked the ‘India Shining’ campaign with the derision it deserved, but its hangover remains. The mood among the rich in the world’s 12th richest country is still upbeat. The expanding consumer base of 250 million (Pawan Varma, the Page Three chronicler of the middle class, thinks it has already reached the half-billion mark) makes marketers around the globe salivate. The prospect looks even better when they see that colas with dangerous levels of pesticide can freely be sold, despite overwhelming evidence that the liquid in question is a silent killer. Savvy salesmen project superlatives from their laptops to lure coverts to free-market fundamentalism. Comparisons are drawn between an elephant and a dragon to show that the pachyderm may be slow to begin, but it is steady and reliable, hence a better long-term bet.
Japan, South Korea and China galloped past the Subcontinent in terms of exporting to the world. India is supposed to be trotting along with domestic consumption in a sure-footed way. The annual growth rate of the country’s gross domestic product has averaged over 8 percent for the last three years. Based on 10 percent growth in services and nearly 9 percent growth in manufacturing output, the International Monetary Fund has estimated that the Indian economy will grow at 8.3 percent. From there to double-digit growth is not such a long journey. So say the soothsayers of the market economy. Nobody seems to be bothered about the way this rate is being achieved, or the impact it will have on a country that has begun to import food for the first time in decades.
The fact that over tens of thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide in recent years is seldom mentioned in the circle of go-getters. But can a country sustain its unity while 600 million farmers struggle for survival and 250 million of their compatriots shop till they drop in the swanky malls that have sprouted in the metropolises? The annual income of the richest Indian is reported to be nine million times that of the poorest. Over 25 million members of the comfortable class are morbidly obese, in a country where half the population suffers from chronic malnutrition. Whether India becomes a ‘developed nation’ in 20 years will depend not upon how much foreign investment it attracts or how well it expands its physical infrastructure, but upon the attention its leaders pay to the depth of animosity that will develop between islands of prosperity and the sea of poverty. It is relatively easy to make growth forecasts. The tsunami of backlash builds unnoticed and hits unexpectedly.
In the coming decades, for better or worse, it is the stability (or otherwise) of Indian society that will determine the fate of all of Southasia. The Begums of Dhaka, courtiers of Thimphu, Bahuns of Kathmandu, generals of Islamabad, schemers of Colombo, and powerbrokers of Kabul may foam and froth at the regional hegemon, but the policies of New Delhi will have more significant repercussions for their economies than will their own domestic strategies. In the open market, after all, the biggest producer and buyer set all the rules. That’s the way markets operate.
Initial trends, however, are alarming. Gross inequalities of Indian society are getting grosser. The eruption of mutinies, the rise of saviours on horseback or the spread of gunpoint legitimacy can only be countered if the runaway economic growth is matched by prudent steps for social justice. Sadly, globalising Indians marked the centenary celebrations of the Mahatma’s Satyagrah with ‘Gandhigiri’, a concept that matches the naivety of trickle-down theory. It tickles the imagination, but diverts rather than draws attention to the real issue: social problems cannot be addressed by economic tinkering. Political action is needed to tackle the problem of relative poverty and the social inequality it breeds.
The third way
Throughout human history, the twins of capitalism and imperialism have prospered by exploiting the excluded. Romans had their serfs. Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Italians, French, Germans, Dutch and English had their overseas possessions. Russians and Chinese had internal colonies to plunder. The Soviet Union was kept afloat by the produce of Eastern Europe and the energy reserves of Central Asia. Since the Great War, Americans have had the world to do with as they please. Japan, the Johnny-come-lately of the affluent world, and the aspiring upstarts of Singapore and Korea, are riding on the back of the American Empire. Their independent economic strength has yet to be tested. But no matter how big the empire, its carrying capacity will be limited. Even if it wanted to, the US cannot let India become the next Japan.
The alternatives proposed for capitalism – Marxism, Leninism, Maoism – are hardly alternatives. None of the various forms of communism question the fundamental premise of capitalism that supply and demand are interdependent. Capitalists believe that the market determines the relationship between supply and demand. Communists are convinced that the state is a better moderator of price fluctuation induced by the supply-demand gap. Any of these two theses would have worked had there been a natural limit to human want. As Gandhi repeatedly said, the earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.
Communism has conclusively failed. Despite Fidel Castro and Brother Number One looking pensively towards Hugo Chavez, the spread of state-centric socialism does not appear to be imminent. Even though socialism is much more humane than capitalism or communism, it did not work because it raised the aspirations of populations higher than what could justifiably have been met. Meanwhile, the collapse of capitalism may not be as spectacular, but the Third Way promised by Tony Blair has proved to be a non-starter.
Capitalism with a humane face is as oxymoronic as vegetarian hunting-animals; at best, some of them are exceptions. No rule can be derived from it for replication. But this does not mean that human civilisation is destined to die out. There is a third way – the way of Gandhi. The poor, the outcaste, the untouchable, the child, the infirm, the disabled and all other traditionally marginalised groups are meant to live at the mercy of the mainstream in capitalism and communism alike. Only in the Swaraj of Gandhi can they live a dignified life like everyone else. But the mainstream will not let its privileges lapse so easily. So the Southasian society awaits the coming anarchy.
Snce the free-market model is city-centric, rural India has begun to invade its urban centres. Those who get to live in slums are relatively lucky – a large number of immigrants to the town spend their lives on the pavement. To nail rural folks in their villages, the Indian Institute of Public Administration has come up with the idea of Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA), an ambitious scheme to transform well-off villagers into free-spending consumers. This plan fails to recognise that it is the lack of opportunities, rather than that of amenities, which drives villagers to lives of indignity in cities.
But the mantra of the market is efficiency, excellence and economy. It has no place for semi-literate labour forced out of farms due to the urban bias of government policies. India is said to enjoy a competitive advantage over even China in terms of labour; the International Labour Organisation predicts that by 2020, India will have 116 million workers in the age bracket of 20-to-24, to China’s 94 million. But some of the most robotised industrial facilities are being built in one of the most populous regions of the world. The spinning wheel is not a marvel of technology, but it engages more people, requires less capital and does not demand a degree from the Indian Institute of Science to make, run or repair.
The third fault-line could prove to be the most fatal. The market demands uniformity – one law, uniform banking and insurance, similar transportation, convertible currencies, consensual media and one language. It has no place for cultural diversity – call them community-specific family laws or interest-free banking oddities if you want, but they are real – and marketers use all their might to create uniform, predictable and unsuspecting consumers. Resistance to the process is human and natural. One could say that a million mutinies of the 21st century began with the box cutters that destroyed the twin towers. If the market does not respect different cultures, it cannot get respect from those who have nothing but their cultures to cling to in times of adversity.
The ‘10 percent’ class of Southasia will have to go back to unadulterated Gandhi to learn the ways of coping with the woes of 10 percent economic growth. There is no other way to understand the silent rage of women whose sons keep ‘disappearing’ in the maelstrom created by markets.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).