When the exhausted world is fast asleep
Then at the new-dusk of the New Year
We too shall celebrate
Our New Year
– Anant Bhatnagar in
“Hum bhi manayenge naya saal”
The battle of statistics is depressing in the Indian intellectual arena. Last year, the N C Saxena panel of the Ministry of Rural Development reported that half of the country’s population was below the poverty line. A member of the Indian Planning Commission then reasoned that 80 percent of the rural and 64 percent of the urban population could qualify as poor. Meanwhile, the Arjun Sengupta Committee found that about 836 million people (77 percent of the country’s population) subsisted on INR 20 a day or less. It corroborated the findings of the National Sample Survey Organisation, which calculated that the average Indian spent just INR 440 or less on food each month. According to the estimates of the World Bank, 41.6 percent of Indians – the decimal point is perhaps for technocratic authenticity – live on less than USD 1.25 a day, the international poverty line. These are tough numbers to take in alongside an aperitif.
A few other figures can enliven the dinner conversation in metropolitan India. Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan grossed around INR 500 million in India and about INR 900 million worldwide by the end of its opening week. A fortnight before the national budget, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee boasted that the Indian economy could cross the 7.2 percent growth rate estimate for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Along the same lines, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called upon trade and industry to take growth figures to double digits. Counting on that uplifting number, India – believed to be the world’s largest buyer of weaponry presently – is planning to spend some USD 100 billion upgrading its military over the next decade.
Then, there are other numbers and facts no one wants to mention. One out of every two Indian women and children are malnourished. Crime is rampant. The Maoist insurgency is spreading like a prairie fire, and the communal mindset has consumed the cosmopolitan Gujaratis and Maharashtrians. Sensitivity for the agony of the oppressed has hit rock bottom: Colin Gonsalves, a Delhi-based lawyer, noted recently that the average conviction rate in cases of atrocities against Dalits has sunk to one percent.
Does the Indian intelligentsia have ideas on how to resolve these contradictions and transform its deeply unequal society? Such a question is seldom raised in the mass media. While Indira Gandhi turned the welfare state of her father into a warfare state, it is now slowly becoming a farewell state, with the government wanting every citizen to look after her own safety, security and survival. This deepening failure of governance may have far-reaching implications, not just for the societies of Southasia but in other developing countries of the world. For much of the Cold War decades, India showed that it was possible to be poor and yet practice democracy, run a welfare state and stand tall among the community of nations. When the ‘first world’ lived off its colonial prosperity and the ‘second world’ sold the dreams of proletarian utopia, Indian politicians such as Kumaraswami Kamaraj and planner Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis offered an alternative to the soulnessness of capitalism and heartlessness of communism.
Now that India has vacated that arena, the alternative to the free-market fundamentalism of the West is emerging to be the state capitalism of the People’s Republic of China. In this race, democracy in developing countries will be the first casualty, no matter who succeeds in gaining a larger area of influence.
In the early years after Independence, political leaders of the region had global visions for their countries. Jawaharlal Nehru had a plan of forming a non-aligned group with the support of both competing power blocks of his time. It turned out to be a flawed assumption, as neither came to his rescue during the Chinese adventures in the Himalaya during the 1960s. Muhammad Ali Jinnah died too early to explore the possibility of having a unified Southasian security system. B P Koirala could have emerged as a socialist leader, but his political feet were cut short by an ambitious king doing the bidding of geopolitical forces in the region. Even latter-day leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mujibur Rehman tried experimenting with Southasian models of governance that were different from those of the competing super powers – and both had to pay with their lives for the audacity. The experience seems to have unnerved the intellectuals: Nobody wants to toy with the idea of experimenting with an alternative to the capitalist and capitalist-communist models extant today. Socialism and the welfare state have become alien concepts.
Part of the submissiveness of the Southasian intelligentsia can be attributed to the legacy of British rule. But that hardly explains the fulsome timidity of today. Colonialism in Africa and Latin America has a bloodier history, yet Africans today often deal with their former colonial masters with confidence bordering on swagger. ‘Negritude’ – an ideological position that holds black culture to be independent and valid on its own terms – may have weakened somewhat in recent years, but its spirit continues to thrive even in war-torn countries such as Sierra Leone and Zambia.
Closer home, imperialism in Indochina had a brutal face. Yet these neighbours found solace in their rich culture, and bounced back into action with surprising alacrity – the Vietcong resistance fought with the French, the Americans and the Chinese without giving up their freedom. It shows in their confident dealing with Western multinationals today, often getting a better deal than Southasian economies. In contrast, the only commonality shared by SAARC heads of state is a collective disbelief in their ability to transform Southasian societies without the guiding hand of the Western powers showing them the way.
Institutions of conscience – the press, the judiciary, academic institutions and civil society – could have checked the failures of our ideologues and the state. But this has not happened. Now called ‘the media’, the press is today a component of market forces. The judiciary no longer considers itself a guardian of people’s dignity, merely protectors of property rights. Meanwhile, the privatisation of health and education has turned entrepreneurs of these basic services into aspiring corporate managers, constantly on the lookout for funding sources. Academicians no longer function as a fountainhead of ideas; consulting is more lucrative. Citing Simone de Beauvoir, the educationist Paulo Freire observed that the interests of the oppressors lie indeed in “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them”. Southasians need to overcome their obsession with Americanism, which holds that more guns mean higher security, that money alone is the true measure of success, and that the world is a jungle where those who do not kill are the most likely to be killed.
In the dazzling light of the early afternoon sun of capitalism, it is difficult to see that the evening is not far off. Government largesse in the form of stimulus packages has helped to cushion the impact of the global economic recession somewhat, but the fact of the matter is that only so many cars can run on the planet’s highways. Beyond that point, many humans will have to learn to walk. Communism and capitalism are essentially two sides of the same ‘endless growth’ coin.
The alternative has to be found in solidarity and survival economics.
There is no Leninist prescription in the question, What is to be done? The only honest answer is that no one really knows. Just because alternatives have not worked, however, is no reason to swallow the Western model of ‘development’ hook, line and sinker. Failure is not defeat, but merely a lesson to start anew. Perhaps people in the streets of Southasia can show the way. If Mohandas K Gandhi were alive, he would have been on the streets of Maharashtra and Gujarat, two supposedly advanced Indian states where the social backwardness of its elite is comparable to those of Rwandan communalists or Afghan warlords. Nehru most certainly would have been pacifying the enraged Adivasis of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The Indian experiment of the early years after Independence has to be revived for the good of the poor and the oppressed in Southasia and beyond.