Saturday 16 May 2015

The Modi Opportunity

The Indian Prime Minister is considered a strong man, even by his opponents. And it is only strong men who can deliver unpalatable solutions to their followers. More than fifty years ago the Algerian issue seemed intractable, and was pulling France down into a ruinous civil war. General Charles de Gaulle, who relieved Paris from the Nazis at the end of World War II, and the undoubted champion of French national pride, quickly negotiated Algerian independence as no other French leader could have at that time. Narender Modi, who has the unquestioned support of the Hindutva rightwing, retains a chance of solving the many problems that have bedevilled relationships over the last fifty years with India’s greatest neighbour. At least, that is what Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, might be expecting, and he has laid out an appropriate lavish welcome for his Indian guest.
India’s media and her equally vocal nationalists have taken little trouble to understand the Chinese or their policies. Their thinking remains mired in the Nehruvian myth that India is the untainted leader of the Third World, and any political opposition from another country is an ungrateful dastardly act. Their middle class naivety is matched only by that of the American populace which continues to believe that their government’s imperial depredations are nothing more than a kindly attempt to bring democracy to others!

Xi Jinping stands at the pinnacle of Chinese power. He is President of China, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the head of the seven-man Standing Committee of its Politburo, and the Chairman of that country’s Central Military Commission. No one else in China has held so much power in his hands, other than Mao Zedong. Mao’s masterly mobilization of his country’s suppressed masses was converted into economic revival by Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Zemin, his successor, produced an astonishing bull run that brought China within striking distance of becoming the world’s leading economy. Social cracks that opened up were patched to some extent by the Hu-Wen duo who shared power after Jiang, bringing a human face to Chinese state capitalism.
The Xi government capitalises on all these economic thrusts and social corrections. Its goal is certainly to be the most dominant country in the world, and it has a much surer strategy than its rival America, which is desperately trying to retain its imperial power through vast military adventures, first in South-east Asia and now in the Middle East, despite the ruinous costs involved. China has taken advantage of America’s slipping position. Its great trade surpluses have weakened the dollar and enabled China to make unstoppable business thrusts into Africa and South America. This position has been reached by the concerted sacrifices of the Chinese working class. Relief can only be achieved by further expansion of markets for Chinese products. The very next step, which China will take when the moment is ready, is capital acquisition and economic control in the United States itself! The one country which still calls itself communist seeks domination through scrupulously followed capitalist methods!
The team that Xi heads has been chosen for this purpose. It has a sophisticated understanding of the West. His running mate, Li Keqiang, the Premier in charge of the State Council, and hence of government, is also his number two in the Politburo. Li holds a doctorate in economics and a degree in law, but during the Cultural Revolution received the honour of being tagged an outstanding person in the study of Mao Zedong Thought! The western-educated and sophisticated Wang Yi, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, is socially well-connected, his father-in-law having been secretary to Zhou Enlai. Yang Jiechi, state councillor in charge of foreign affairs, helps shape policy for China. He was one of the few Chinese students of his day at the London School of Economics, who went on to be ambassador in Washington, and came to be accepted by both Bush presidents as an intellectual of the realist  ‘Kissinger’ school. Xi’s wife and China’s first lady is Peng Liyuan, China’s well-loved singing star, who is also a WHO goodwill ambassador and a declared Buddhist, while remaining ‘an honorary general of the army!’
What Chinese expectations are of India has already been clearly spelt out by Xi during his Indian visit, though Indian media missed its importance. If China will be the world’s factory, India will be its back office. It is a reasonable prognostication considering that the backbone of India’s modernization was composed of its vast cadre of babus and accountants who managed India during its imperial times, and later as well, and the present-day follow through in the service sector by its IT professionals. China expects India to play an unassuming role as second fiddle in Asia.
China’s economic trajectory precludes any kind of military adventure. Even in the 1962 border war, China quickly and wisely gave up occupied territory, just as India did in its wars with Pakistan.  Even the United States operates its imperial ambitions through so-called local ‘rebels,’ shying away from putting its own ‘boots on the ground.’ Neville Maxwell, a rare unprejudiced historian, detailed the cause of the 1962 war as arising out of Nehru misunderstanding the Chinese position. A romantic aristocrat, Nehru saw himself as shepherding China into the international comity of nations and refused to discuss the MacMahon line with the Chinese. He was also perhaps unaware that the CIA was using Indian bases to send trained ‘freedom fighters’ into Tibet. In addition, the Chinese took as a hostile act the sanctuary given by Nehru to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile.
Today more than ever, what China seeks from India is not territory but a quiescent and peaceful long border. China seeks renewed assurance that India will not join an anti-China camp, or use its territories for activities aimed against China. The bellicosity of Indian nationalists is taken seriously, and their importance exaggerated in Chinese eyes more than it is warranted. China has continued to play the Pakistan card, partly to show how advantageous it could be for India to be friendly. In their signalling the Chinese remain ambiguously oriental. The case of the map of India as projected in China is no more than a ploy to show how things could deteriorate if wisdom does not prevail among neighbours. China pursues closer economic ties with India, and there is no doubt that the promised investment of $20 billion in India will be awarded to Modi. India’s MEA will stick to the border dispute just as Pakistan’s military brings up the Kashmir question when trade talks resume. India hopes improving trade relations will make Kashmir less and less significant for Pakistan, though the very existence of the Pakistani military elite is linked to keeping the problem alive. Indian leadership is under no such pressure, and Modi can seize the opportunity to open economic doors between the two countries, leaving the border issue over barren lands as an unimportant legacy of history. China has already tacitly accepted that there is no question of exchanging lands where there are settled populations. Turning the LAC into the international border will happen, but it will take time.
All this is not to say that there is no real threat if push comes to shove, as it did in 1962. Nehru’s mistakes stand as a warning how foreign policies can go badly wrong. Under Xi’s velvet glove is the iron hand of Guo Shengkun, minister in charge of public security, and Geng Huichang, who heads their secret service. Senior hardliners, Generals Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang, control the army as vice-chairmen of the central military commission. Wisdom lies in Modi grasping the extended economic olive branch, shelving the border question for now, and restraining jingoistic supporters and NRIs from voicing America-initiated anti-China slogans. Some may be irked by India refusing to challenge Chinese leadership today, but as many athletes know the person who runs behind the shoulder of the leader has a better chance in the long run than he who is openly out in front!
Posted PRIMEPOST.IN MAY 15 2015

Friday 15 May 2015

The Fog of Empire

  • Surprising win for Cameron with greater mandate
  • Right-wing ideology dominates discourse in Britain
By Vithal Rajan
The British election results have been a surprise to everyone, especially to David Cameron, the Prime Minister. He was quite prepared to put a brave face on it if he lost, but was hoping against hope that he might be given a second chance in another minority government, his Conservative party shored up by unflinching support from even more diehard Tories, the Ulster Protestant factions in Northern Ireland, and his new friends the Liberal Democrats.
Dr vithal rajan
Dr Vithal Rajan
Having secured an unexpected clear majority on his own, Cameron made an extravagant victory speech in front of No: 10 Downing Street, in which he promised everything to everyone. But within the next few days it became crystal clear that his gushing thanks were not to be taken seriously, and that the long dreaded vicious cuts of around 12 billion pounds sterling in social spending would take place. The National Health Scheme, the brightest jewel in the quiet social revolution ushered in by Atlee after the Second World War, would be seriously jeopardised, and poverty-stricken Britishers will be left in the lurch. Cameron’s support for industry would go for big business and not to help the million and a half or so small struggling entrepreneurs in Britain.
The Establishment in Britain, like that in any other country, is fixed upon securing its own interests first. If certain policies have benefitted it, these are projected as the science of economics, by which more of the same will/might deliver some benefit to other sectors and classes of people according to their merit. The Tories will pursue Reagan-Thatcherite policies, that ushered in new mass poverty in late 20th century Britain, with the same committed fervour with which their ancestors sent more millions to die in the trenches of World War One. The clue came in the first few minutes of Cameron’s victory speech when he said firmly that he would find employment for all ‘who wished to work.’ Clearly the British Prime Minister believes that the unemployed are voluntarily scrounging on welfare payments, and not that they are out of work because of anti-social economic policy.
In that very first speech he made another loaded comment which presaged a continued twilight over future British fortunes. He harked back to Britain’s glorious past, which journalist-historians of Niall Ferguson’s ilk have been busy whitewashing as the best thing that happened to a benighted colonised world. Such bluster has befuddled thinking in those isles more than their famous fog, and sedulously foreclosed any option of seeing a future as a European country in a prosperous Europe. British leaders have let go of every chance offered to them since the formation of the European Economic Commission in the mid 1950s. Consolidation of Tory power in effect consolidates the belief that Britain continues to have ‘imperial’ obligations. Britain’s social and economic costs are amplified by the self-destructive ‘special relationship’ with the United States of America, which itself is spiralling down with imperialist adventures. The new Tory vote has only strengthened even more the influence of a recalcitrant backbench, immured in the fog of imperialist nostalgia. Cameron will be as ineffective as any of his predecessors in taking Britain into an economically resurgent Europe. Soon, with increasing poverty at home, and with the lessons of Greece and Portugal staring him in the face, the best he can hope for is to potter along as an all but failed state.
All of this has happened with the tacit connivance of all English political parties, all of whom more or less projected shades of right-wing ideology. Tony Blair had converted the Labour Party more than a decade ago to a paler version of itself, even the colour changing from red to pink. Ed Milliband, who led the party at this election, had promised the unions that he was not a Blairite, and had undercut the leadership of his brother David, who was. But few of his policies could be clearly differentiated from those of the Tories. The electorate were not to be misled by prevarications. Labour lost heavily, even Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, losing in his assured constituency. The Liberal Democrats who had gathered voter support by posing as people with ‘a Tory head and a Labour heart’ were completely trounced, and left with no future.
During Cameron’s dark days he had held a referendum in Scotland, and around 60% of the Scots had voted to stay with the United Kingdom, though most of the youth had wanted independence. In this election, the Scottish National Party won a sweeping victory, securing 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. They want autonomy, no cuts in social spending and more of a share from North Sea oil, and now they have the power to insist. Cameron has promised devolution, but he has also promised big cuts in social spending to the Tories and big business. If he placates the Scots, his backbenchers will accuse him of being unfair to the English. Cameron can buy some time, but little else.
Straws in the wind about the new public mood are the election victories posted by even the Plaid Cymru, the Welsh national party. Its victory at the hustings is in keeping with public mood there. All road and other public signs are now given long Welsh names, and people will first talk to you in Welsh. The people at least are not lost in nostalgia about an imagined imperial past. They want a new future for themselves. Their leaders unfortunately remain enveloped in the fog of empire.

Saturday 9 May 2015

We’re Moving Off to the Nilgiris

‘Once a Hyderabadi, always a Hyderabadi’, they used to say. No question, it was the favoured metro city in India, with its ‘ganga-jamuna’ culture. But times are a-changing, with urban sprawl, cancerous growth of pollution and garbage,  noise, dust and irritability all round. When little Azad arrived, we started a determined search for a haven – but where? We first thought of Quebec’s eastern townships, of New Zealand’s south island, and Ireland’s west coast. Then a serendipitous thought struck us – why go far when the Nilgiris are just an hour’s flight from Hyderabad? Everyone of us has a special fondness for these hills. The oldest is reminded of his happy Central-Indian childhood in the midst of jungles and tribals. The North-Indian son-in-law has loved Nilgiri wilderness ever since a school trek in the stunning Upper Bhavani region. The daughter is a mountain person, happiest on a hill, sitting under an ancient tree, looking out at vast green vistas. Her Telangana mother, who resisted leaving Hyderabad, is drawn to the healthful tranquility of the Nilgiris.

A serious start was made among the beautiful undulating blue hills just east of the Western Ghats and its ‘Silent Valley’ rain forest. Our first base was the 3000 acre Craigmore tea estate. In present times when much is written about the woes of tea plantation workers this estate is a model of thoughtful care of workers and their families. Craigmore is also a haven for wild life, ranging from elephant herds to inquisitive bison coming up to the guesthouse, and if you are lucky you may even see a tiger! Later, we set out on our search from the hoary Ootacamund Club, with its parquet flooring, wood-panelled walls, strict dress codes, and photos of bygone days. English lords and ladies glared down on us seated on horses of the famed Ooty Hunt. Though foxes and jackals are no longer chivvied about, capable lady riders are still honoured as Queens of the Hunt!
We discovered an engaging history of these mysterious hills written long ago by Frederick Price. The Nilgiris were unknown to the kingdoms of south India. Only the reclusive Todas and a few other scattered tribes made their home there. News about this hidden mountain was dismissed by the people of the plains as myth. The only one who took it seriously was John Sullivan, Collector at Coimbatore in the early part of the 19th century. His discovery of the Nilgiris led other English officials to trek up on foot and horseback, away from the sweltering heat of the plains, to this paradise that was even better than their fabled Lake District. Ooty was founded at a higher elevation than Simla and became the summer capital of the government of Madras. The 100-year old toy-like Nilgiri Mountain Railway still collects passengers from Madras, and takes them meandering up the hills, through Coonoor, at the heart of the tea estate country, and past Ketti in a long beautiful valley, to its terminus at Ooty.
Maharajahs built their palaces in these heights, and manicured tea estates grew all round. Its famous garden was laid out by William McIvor in 1848 to a plan prepared by no less than the Marquess of Tweedale. Every year its flower shows bring tens of thousands to Ooty clogging the roads for hours. Several schools were established in the salubrious area, the best known being Lawrence School, named after Sir Henry Lawrence; Breeks after the first commissioner of the Nilgiris; and Stanes, after Sir Robert Stanes, the coffee planter.  The Lawley Institute boasted of ‘Assembly Rooms,’ like those in Bath of Regency England. The oldest in our family still remembers the magic of sixty years ago when he and a girl took a pine-scented evening stroll to see a 1930’s classic film there!

Post Independence, Ooty and the Nilgiris have suffered much the same fate as many other beauty spots of India. Land grabbing coupled with unscrupulous political conniving led to much destruction of the original shola forests. Fortunately, good sense has now set in and strict environmental regulations are in place. The same cannot be said about urban planning. Unplanned growth of ugly structures has been thoughtlessly permitted. The tourists who come up every weekend, from Coimbatore to the east or Kochi to the west, do not see the Ooty of their parents but a clustered township. However, some of the past beauty may still be recovered. Switzerland, which was a poverty-stricken environmental disaster in the early part of the 19th century, has reinvented itself as a tourist paradise through strict planning and community action. Strong citizens’ groups now exist in the Nilgiris and we shall play our part.
We had almost given up all hope of finding a haven in the Nilgiris when by a fortunate stroke of luck we happened upon just the spot near Ketti. The sunrises and sunsets were magnificent with the valley shelving away to the woods around the old St George’s School and rising on the other side towards the majestic Doddapetta peak. The place is conveniently within twenty minutes drive from Ooty or Coonoor, or the Wellington Gymkhana’s picturesque golf course. The pace of life in the Nilgiris is unhurried, calming to the city dweller. The people you meet are courteous and friendly, and we are reminded how enjoyable real community life can be. The historian in you comes to life as every old bungalow has a charming story to tell, and if you are not yet a photographer, you will soon be, for a walk down any road is like a stroll in a park. And we are learning to appreciate the varied fragrances of all the different kinds of tea there are, and how exciting it is to make your own cheese. Here, the fruits and vegetables unpolluted with chemicals bring back a taste we had forgotten.
To keep us cheerful company, we are building a boutique guesthouse for travellers looking for peace, beauty, and gracious living. We have light-heartedly named it The Clive & Curzon, in acknowledgment of the British strand in our colourful history, which above all helped us rediscover the enchanting Nilgiris.  

Monday 4 May 2015

Who is Responsible For Farmer Suicides?

Who is Responsible?
A question has been raised in high circles whether governments can be held responsible for farmer suicides. It is suggested that surely the taking of one’s life is an issue of mental health, unconnected with society’s political economy.
It is a fact that a suicide occurs when, as stated in legal terms, the person is not in a sane condition of mind. And such instability can occur in any class of society. There is no such condition as existential happy poverty, however much Bollywood may like to portray poor people singing and dancing. They do sing and dance, but they are equally prone to depressions like anyone of us. Only in the last two decades or so did health workers discover that the poor also fall prey to what were thought of as lifestyle problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia and migraine. We have to go back to Rousseau, who ushered in the Enlightenment, to find the root of the simplistic modern belief that somehow a life of rural poverty spares people the ills all humanity inherits.
Scandinavia has a high suicide rate. Some Japanese students living in a well ordered wealthy society are also prone to commit suicide under stress of competition. A series of teen suicides in America are said to be copycat suicides. So, Indian politicians and their ruling elite, also under stress to achieve power and amass money while the chance offers, could be tempted to relegate farmer suicides to mental disease, wash their hands of an intractable societal problem, and get on with business as usual.
The experiences of religious ministrations over millennia and the application of modern psychological and psychoanalytic practices demonstrate that people can be brought back from the edge by careful nurturing. The Norwegian painter Munch’s most famous picture is called ‘The Scream.’ It is no longer unheard and scores of citizens’ associations exist in most major cities to minister to anyone who feels driven to suicide.
But behind the despair that drives people to take their own lives resides a cause for such an unnatural act. Emile Durkheim’s famous study of suicides may now be considered outmoded, especially in some of his formulations, but the basic thesis still holds good as does his four categories of suicides. Recent Indian research has even placed ‘jauhar’ practiced by Rajput women after defeat in Durkheim’s ‘altruistic suicide’ category. The present-day suicides of many abused or abandoned women would have been seen by Durkheim as ‘fatalistic,’ oppressed and choked by family and society as they are.
The present spate of farmer suicides in India unquestionably fall in the ‘anomie’ category, linked to moral confusion caused by economic ruin, failed aspirations and crushing disappointment. Many have gambled with their lives and fortunes, and put themselves and their families under tremendous risk by thoughtless borrowing to get out of their families age-old poverty trap. Many young farmers risk everything in a legitimate aspiration to have a life at least like the middle-class families they view on TV. The confirmed impossibility of achieving this in their lifetime is a crushing blow that can lead to suicide, addiction, or violence on others.
Modern psychoanalytic practice has a far more sophisticated understanding of the mind and the unconscious, but Durkheim’s basic tenets still stand.  As Shakespeare’s Henry V says famously before battle the king cannot be held responsible for any soldier’s fate. But a leader is certainly responsible for social tragedy caused by faulty policy. If we can blame European chancelleries for the mega-deaths of World War I, we have an equal right to lay the blame for farmer deaths at the door of the Indian governments.
Nehru when he took charge said all things can wait but agriculture, for at that time large parts of agricultural land had gone to Pakistan. A ‘Grow More Food’ programme was initiated, and the President, Rajendra Prasad, even led with a ‘miss a meal a day’ campaign. But soon all this was forgotten in the rhetoric of industrialisation, and the grinding poverty of the majority of small and farmers was never addressed, except with fitful subsidies and loan write-offs which mostly benefitted business or better-off farmers. A late 19th century British scientific study of Indian farming methods found nothing wrong with them and said plainly that poverty itself was the root cause of the woes of the ryots, exacerbated through Mughal and colonial governments squeezing the last penny out of them. The Nehruvian and successor governments plumped for mega dams, canal irrigation and fertilizer factories which all went to support the rural landlord class. The powerless small farmer majority was neglected since their votes would be garnered by feudal power elites.
Elite economists and decision makers till today honestly believe that nothing much can be done for the rainfed small farmers, who are committing suicide in numbers, because the elite believe that their livelihoods are unsustainable. Unfortunately, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh State, one of the worst affected, was ruled for two decades by two men, Chandrababu Naidu and YSR Reddy, who were fascinated by the money that could be made by supporting corporate India and the rich. Their only solution for agrarian tragedy was to throw largesse in the shape of loan mafis. Even the central government’s much touted MNREGS is a mere extension of the 19th century British food for work programme, fashioned to prevent rioting but not hunger. Naidu, despite the bitter lesson taught him by farmers at the hustings, now plans to take away over 30,000 acres from farmers for his capital and real estate development, and destroy the secure livelihoods of over one lakh people!
Such egregious folly is buoyed by fallacious economic reasoning that sees a future when the bulk of rural people would move to work in urban-based industry, and corporate farming takes over the countryside. They dream of an unrealistic ‘great leap forward’ to catch up with the West. The wealth bubble created almost by happenstance by IT professionals is seen as a result of good governance, and confirms leaders in the belief that only corporate India can produce growth. Fashionable economists advising governments have failed to read economic history and Gunnar Myrdal’s warning that initial conditions are very different in the economic histories of the West and India. Stagnating manufacturing cannot absorb hundreds of millions of workers. It first needs to grow with strong domestic demand, which itself is dependent on the very same rural poor having an increase of purchasing power.
The only long term solution for India’s growth problem is to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the small and marginal farmer communities by building supportive infrastructure, with careful linkages to financial and marketing bodies, and advise on farming systems that makes farmers independent of the disastrous pressures brought on them by selfish dealers.