Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Nationalists

Like the rest of the world, India woke up this morning agog at Obama’s victory. His speech as President-elect was relayed live on every one of the three dozen local language news channels this morning displacing the usual blizzard of crime, stock market and cricket statistics.

Rolling interviews with beaming African Americans, both voters and punters, probably meant that Indians saw more black people on their screen over breakfast than ever before.

That said the US election chatter was numbing. There were vapid interviews with Indian journalists from America, chats with Bangalore geeks reminiscing about time spent in the States and Indian psephologists attempting to draw comparisons between the world’s oldest and the largest democracies.

In a country that sees itself as the third great democratic revolution (the US and France being the first two) Obamania knows no bounds. I spoke to the foreign editor of one of India’s biggest English newspapers who could barely draw breath relaying her a near-spiritual experience of Obama’s victory at Delhi’s American centre.

There is a presumption that democracies are all built the same. India and America were both colonies and are now open societies with a free press, independent judges and rights enshrined in law. However the philosophies that underpin freedom are different in each nation. America, as the President-elect, told Chicago’s Grant Park is place where “all things are possible”.

In India this is not true. People have yet to break the boundaries of gender and social-standing in India and are unable largely to choose a life for themselves. The reality is that identity – be it caste, class, race or religion - is central to the character of India's public life. It matters where you come from and who your father was in way that Americans would find bizarre.

Democracy in India is too immature to produce a President Obama. Although the country has had a Muslim nuclear scientist as president, a Sikh economist as prime minister and a Roman Catholic woman as leader of the biggest party these are merely outcomes of patronage.

All were picked to be leaders with only Sonia Gandhi having a popular mandate to be prime minister – one she could not accept as the Hindu nationalist party threatened to campaign against her on the basis of religion. It would be like white American politicians saying they could not co-operate with President Obama because he was black.

Indians love the symbolism of Obama and many compare their impressive Dalit politician Mayawati with him. In politics symbols are important. A black man in the White house is powerful stuff – just as a Dalit woman as prime minister would be in India.

Such victories can be seen as a spur for minorities in democracies who see a conspiracy to keep them out of power. But images are themselves powerless. President Obama will not be able stop everyday racism or immediately change the appalling incarceration rate of young black men in America. Neither can Mayawati stop Dalit atrocities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where she is chief minister.

What is missing from India’s coverage of Obama’s electrifying election is the acknowledgement that there are escape routes in America and there are few in India. There’s still too much emphasis placed on everyone knowing their place in India. There’s a little too much reverence for the hereditary principle. Too little importance is given to the rights of the individual. The result is that India will have to wait many years before the country can claim to have an Obama moment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

white-hot elephants in the sky

India’s lunar rocket blast off this morning from the balmy island shores in the Bay of Bengal is about a country asking for the moon – and getting it. To brush off those who wonder why India – the country with the world’s greatest number of poor people - is spending $86m on repeating what the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese and the Japanese have already done Indian space officials have talked of the holy grail of nuclear energy: fusion.

You see the moon has 5m tonnes of Helium 3 - which is the ideal fuel for nuclear fusion power. Fusion’s the next new, new nuclear thing. Indian officials will tell anyone who asks that fusion creates four times as much energy as boring old nuclear fission.

Although nuclear fusion can be best described as experimental, the technologists say it does not produce environmental problems like radioactive nuclear waste. The message is it is clean and green.

To create the right amount of anxiety at home, the space officials will point out that Indians must act before the Chinese do. You see the Chinese have already worked out that three space shuttle missions a year could bring enough Helium 3 for the whole planet. These are not outright lies - just calculations not grounded in reality.

Nuclear Fusion is the stuff that stars are made off. Basically it’s the energy released when two light atomic nuclei are smashed together to make a heavier one. All you need to do is heat gas up to the temperature of the centre of the sun and then design a material that can contain this superheated plasma and collect loads of neutrons.

Although the science was worked out in the 1940s fusion has led to the thermonuclear explosion and little else but a series of hugely expensive white elephants. The latest of which is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – a $12bn project backed by the US, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, India and South Korea. No surprise then that they all have eyes on the moon.

To sell a problem that has eluded science’s best brains for more than half a century as a solution smacks of desperation. India is a nation with a proliferating development needs – the global hunger index ranks it below Laos and Burkina Faso. Hundreds of millions of Indians still openly defecate in fields, at roadsides and beside train tracks. Common tropical diseases easily overwhelm the country’s poorly-funded public health system. Its roads, railways and airports all need money and managerial overhauls.

It’s not that India should not have a space programme. It should. To those who ask why bother to reach the moon, the answer is why did we bother to reach America. Human expansion is about expanding our capabilities. In that respect India is precocious - doing many things well ahead of what countries usually do at similar stages of development. But with precocity can come a hubris that is hard to shake off in later life. Perhaps the country would do well to direct some of its remarkable talents to the more obvious, acute problems it faces rather than inventing reasons to reach for the stars.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the crash in indian politics

History seems to show that big crashes teach big lessons – and many of the new rules born out of panic and chaos remain both in law and common sense. So the humbling of Wall Street and the City of London has ended the idea that the market rules and financial capital is king.

Instead the state has returned with a vengeance – nationalising and regulating its way back into the public’s mind. Government is back in the United States, Japan and the European Union and is busy attempting to stave off “a meltdown”. Meanwhile the world is kept afloat by China and India.

Neither Asian giant will be untouched by the crisis – and growth will slow in both countries. The International Monetary Fund sees China growing at 9.3 per cent this year down from 11.9 per cent last year. India will manage 7.9 per cent, off from 9.3 per cent.

Economic developments have political consequences. But they are not the ones you might expect. The question here is not about growth but about the model of government - what works best after the crash?

India’s government would like to take the credit for running the world’s second fastest growing major economy over the last five years. It would also like electors to believe it had nothing to do with the half a trillion pounds that evaporated from the country’s stock markets since January.

The fact is none of this is relevant to Indian democracy. Most governments in India are thrown out of office – because voters do not believe they have done anything deserving to remain.

Paradoxically the lack of democracy in China has meant that performance is a necessity. Beijing’s Communist Party has to deliver public goods such as education and electricity to remain in power.

India’s democrats remain in power because the public had to vote for someone. When the polls arrive, eighty per cent of the time Indian politicians are booted out of office. Little wonder communists in Beijing think elections are bourgeois diversions.

India has built its economy without the tools of an autocratic state. The country has a legal opposition and channels for protest. But it has not had a revolutionary break with the past. There is no need for the elite to overthrow the Indian state because they benefit hugely from it. After all why would they get rid of a social structure that maintains their privileges?

Indian democracy appears a squabble for spoils rather than an urge to improve. What the west cannot see is that India’s democracy is largely built around competition by different groups, who vie to control parts of the economy. They have a shared interest in growing the economy but only to seize a larger chunk for themselves.

That’s why caste remains such a big issue – especially when government jobs and university places can be got on the basis of your ancestor’s alleged persecution. India is also a rural, unindustrialised giant so issues of class are a much smaller factor than in the west.

This is kind of talk does not sit well with the western narrative that the development of individual reason lead to capitalism and more individualistic societies. That’s because it’s wrong. The west got rich first and then got democratic.

Because the poor did not have rights, the transformation from agriculture to industry was a violent one. In England, peasants in the 18th-century were simply thrown off the land. Parliamentary acts, pushed through by a landed upper class, cut down the amount of common pastureland. The result was to create a rootless labour force that fuelled the industrial revolution. China’s modern day version is just on a bigger, perhaps bloodier, scale.

If India is to take advantage of its newfound economic might and create an industrial base for deploying mass production and employing its teeming millions, then it will need to reconcile politics with history. If India cannot industrialise, it will never be rich. But Indian democracy has shied away from the conflict that development brings – preferring talking to doing.

Although no one wants violence, Indian democracy is failing to deliver the step change it needs and instead is planting the seeds of its own demise. The fate of the world’s cheapest production car – the Tata Nano – is symbolic of problems inaction will bring.

The administration of West Bengal could not manage to negotiate with a few thousands farmers for a 1,000 acre plot of land to build a factory for the Nano. Instead the car plant will now be in Gujarat – boosting the profile of Narendra Modi, the right-wing Hindu leader of the state whose administration has been accused of orchestrating mobs to kill Muslims in 2002.

Mr Modi is a populist leader with a demagogic style. He is revered and feared. The United States has twice refused him a visa on state department advice. Yet in taking up the Tata project he is seen as a man who gets things done when others cannot. Mr Modi is a religious conservative who promises a reactionary revolution from above.

Mr Modi is also a clever politician, building a nationwide reputation as an economic reformer who has cracked down on corruption. He appears to recognise that the globe is at a turning point and portrays himself as seeking office by accident, swept into power by circumstance. If that were to happen India would regret it. So would the rest of the world.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On screen confidence without reason

While the rest of the world gets used to harder times, the boom of Indian cinema appears to go on. Steven Spielberg is being bailed out by an Indian billionaire. Disney is setting up shop in Bollywood. Another movie mogul with a billion dollars to put into the movies talks of exploiting the talent of the “brown race”.

What worries me is not the fusing of art and commerce but the homogenizing spread of Indian cinema. Despite being an old civilisation, India is a young country obsessed with itself. With a billion people and a vastness to explore, Indian movies do not tend to look outside for inspiration.

The result is that Indian films have a distinctive subcontinental flavour about them. Female characters rarely go beyond eye-candy. Heroes are there to be admired not understood. Nobody appears to be able to take their life into their own hands and make decisions that transcend their place in the social hierarchy.

To escape this suffocating Indian landscape, mainstream filmmakers put Hindi-speaking actors in foreign countries. In a tacit admission of their own nation’s shortcomings, Indians abroad can have live-in relationships in Australia (Salaam Namaste), adulterous affairs in New York (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna) and marry who they want in London (Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham).

Even when the ambitious is attempted, the interpretation lacks a punch. Take Shakespeare’s Othello, the black warrior hero who is innocent in love and hence vulnerable to the treachery of his companion-in-arms, which was translated by Bollywood into Omkara. In the Indian version the main character is a “half-caste” political strongman who loses his way in the badlands of north India.

Whereas seventeenth century audiences in England could make sense of the Moor’s existential angst, twenty-first century Indians could not countenance an “untouchable” leader – a true outsider in society - preferring instead to make sure he had Brahmin blood.

Even in the new capitalist-realist genre of movies such as Mumbai Meri Jaan, which are supposed to somehow mirror real life, emotions are thick and creamy. Plots curdle, congealed by a mixture of bad acting and terrible script-writing. If you want a taste of how sour things can turn out sit through a Bollywood blockbuster like Tashaan, which is notable for little else but the stick-thin figure of starlet Kareena Kapoor in a bikini.

Of course there is cinema in India that does some real thinking about society, politics and human purpose. Malayalam films, from Kerala, can be both touching and funny. There’s often an attempt to portray people who are caught up in a web of circumstances that they are struggling to understand. But these are gems in the cinematic slurry.

Those who do produce remarkable films depart – tired perhaps by the provincialism of Indian cinema. Mira Nair, whose Salaam Mumbai is the best movie about the city for years, left India for the west and continues to make good films where characters are explored and audiences allowed to analysis situations in the light of their own experiences.

Western movies for all their faults have shown tremendous staying power, able to reinvent themselves in clever ways. The surge of ironic pop culture race humor – just look at Borat – is a sign of self-confidence. In India there’s an urge to protect the native culture that leaves a whole series of sexual, caste, racial issues untouched by any degree of purpose.

For all the triumphalism in India about its nascent soft superpower onscreen, it is sobering to note that other developing countries have produced films of lasting aesthetic value. Brazil put out the stunning favela violence of City of God. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki produced the wonderful Caramel about forbidden love in Beirut. Ominously the People's Republic of China is once again becoming a major artistic force in world cinema.

Even worse just consider the output of American television to see the gap between what India can offer and what the rest of the world chooses to watch. There’s no matching the psychological dramas and human tangles found in the Wire or Tell Me You Love Me. There’s nothing in Indian comedy that could like The Office transform the everyday into laughing gas. Even the BBC’s rendition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles reminds only of how far Indian scripts have to come.

There’s a lot of talent in India. There’s a lot of money. There’s a lot of technical know-how. But the verdict on the country’s cinema has been in for some time: guilty of producing nationalist ephemera that prefers to explore the Indian condition rather than the human one.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Eastwad Ho!

The United States is slowly but surely being ravaged by demons of its own design. Unlike Britain at the height of its powers America does not export people or capital. It imports them. Driven by a deep sense of insularity Washington has attempted to shape the world to suit its interests without ever leaving home – unless fully armed.

The contradiction is that the United States has been a military hegemon without being a financial one. Since World War II the country has looked instead to others to carry the heavy burden of producing cheap goods and inexpensive services while it made profits.

First Europe was rebuilt by exporting to the US, then Japan, then South-east Asia, then China and more recently India. Although Chinese manufacturing workers have improved their lot in the last fifteen – real income was effectively transferred to American consumers. Indian software companies were the beneficiaries of the distribution of American outsourcing, but the American companies took home the real money.

The United States has been gobbling up the world's resources – be it labour, capital or minerals – so that Americans can live beyond their means. That these might run out has never bothered the United States. The unshakeable belief in the march of science to solve any problem no matter how big is an essential part of the American dream.

This is why the credit crunch is such a blow. The finance sector was at the heart of the United States’ economy – its profits accounted for 40 per cent of all private companies’ and top workers earned wages beyond the dreams of ordinary workers.

Yet all those high-powered PhDs could not say what their firms had been trading in, what their bankers were doing, what the risks were and how many bombs were ticking in the basement. The first went off in Bear Stearns. The rest have blown up most of Wall Street in a chain reaction that shows no sign of stopping.

The events of the last few weeks also calls into question the country’s financial sophistication – its ability to raise cash from taxpayers and borrow from investors. After all if the fact that Lehman Brothers was short by hundreds of billions of dollars slipped past regulators what else could they miss in the national accounts?

The perception that America remains an exceptional country has blinded many. For too long the world has seen America as the consumer of last resort. China has been its mirror image: the producer of first resort.

Beijing has done so by manipulating its currency so that its exports remain cheap – leading to a trillion-dollar cushion of dollar reserves. Others did the same: India has reserves of $300bn.

The consequence is that the world has allowed America to borrow egregiously and excessively in its own currency. Any other nation would have been put on bankruptcy alert by the international watchdogs such as the International Monetary Fund.

This runaway behaviour has fuelled American consumption well beyond reasonable levels. Americans need to stop buying so much and saving too little. There has to be some public acceptance that government borrowing today implies cuts in spending or increases in tax in the future.

What has not been fully recognised is that amidst the wreckage, growth in India and China has dropped but it remains high – at about 8 per cent a year. The centre of global economic gravity is still shifting away from the West to the East.

Percy Mistry, one of India’s best known investment bankers, points out that in little over a decade there are likely to be two new global currencies that will change the rules of the game: the Chinese yuan and the Indian rupee.

There is a difference in perception here between these two Asian giants, as Mr Mistry is quick to acknowledge. “China is seen by the world and treated by it as a majestic tiger; India is more like a Labrador intent more on scratching its itches than on going anywhere.”

Despite the contrasting image of and propaganda issued by the Himalayan neighbours, both are on a high-growth trajectory with prospects in India appearing even more rosy than in China.

Mr Mistry’s logic is compelling. If these two Himalayan neighbours become the biggest economies in the world then how long will developed countries allow them to gain from undervalued exchange rates?

With protectionist pressures building in the US – Clinton’s Labour secretary Robert Reich is already calling for an era of Angry Populism – it cannot be long before the yuan and rupee will be valued by the money markets. This will subject the policies of those ruling these vast populous countries where per capita incomes remain low to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny.

Should we not expect the same of the richest among us? The answer is certainly yes. Although the presidential candidates in the United States have talked about change, they have not spelt out what that change should be.

There is still a perception of prosperity round the corner. Even climate change is being sold, by none other than Thomas Friedman, as a great new way of exporting American technological breakthroughs to the rest of world. No one is being honest enough to say what is really required: to put the American way of life up for negotiation.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Clash Within

Standing next to France’s President Sarkozy, the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh today made a heartfelt plea over the spread of anti-Christian violence in India.

The sight of Hindu mobs smashing churches and prayer halls while Christians in the country are killed or left cowering under tarpaulin sheets in refugee camps is, as Dr Singh rightly described, a “national shame”.

There are calls from within the ruling Congress party, which relies on the votes of Christians and Muslims in India, to ban Hindu extremist organisations such as the Bajrang Dal, who use force when the force of argument fails.

There’s been bloodshed on both sides. One Christian priest was “cut to pieces” in front of his wife. A Hindu priest was shot dead for campaigning against religious conversions.

The violence, which has left nearly two-dozen dead, has spread across six states. Even after the Pope intervened, the Roman Catholic archbishop of one of the worst affected areas in eastern India said the situation was “out of control”.

What lies behind this violence is nothing less than a struggle for the soul of India. Religion is deeply rooted in this country of one billion. The divine was fundamental in the creation of post-independence India. Unlike Europe, in India the Gods will not disappear in a blaze of rational thinking.

But views of God led to a schism in Indian nationalism. One side is rooted in secular thinking: that beneath the differences among India’s religions there is a common creed, a moral order articulated in the country’s constitution.

Opposing this is the Hindu right. Their philosophy aims to unify the country under the banner of the majority religion. It sees the country’s post-independence constitution as an instrument forged by “pseudo-secularists” which now needs to be updated to reflect the Hindu character of India.

Christians in India long pre-dated the British who sponsored missionary activity with little success. In 1947 only three per cent of the country was Christian. There’s an unmistakable tint to Christianity in India: the priests are mostly upper-caste Brahmin converts and the flock are mostly drawn from the country’s untouchable communities known as Dalits.

Contemporary Hindu anger centres on the idea that India’s rise will see an explosion of Christians in the country – a takeover by a foreign ideology like that experienced by South Korea in the 1960s. The Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, says it is against proselytization through coercion, inducement, or by vilifying any faith. That conversion continues and it remains legal drives Hindu groups into a bloody frenzy.

By decrying the violence but remaining powerless to prevent it, the Indian prime minister exposes his strength and weakness. The Indian federal government could suspend state administrations – for failing to quell violence. This is the nuclear option of unseating a democratically elected local regime. Instead the Indian prime minister chooses only speak up.

Martha Nussbaum, the noted American philospher, draws a comparison with 1950s America where only a few groups such as the Ku Klux Klan would openly advocate violence but “where the whole society was suffused with attitudes that …often condoned violence against African Americans, attitudes that clearly affected the behaviour of the police and other officers of the law”.

This remark is telling because in the southern Indian town of Mangalore it was Christian churches which were attacked yet the leaders of Hindu mobs walked free for days, untouched by the police.

The violence is the really about the clash within. Like the United States, India has never had a state-imposed religion. It has always had a tradition of sects and religious minorities who coexist and compete with each other without suffering state persecution or patronage.

Instead of trying to capture state power for the purpose of waging a cultural war, the Hindu right would do the country a service by reforming itself from within – promoting equality and unifying its denominations and sects. Religion’s role in India must be one of restraining passions, not inflaming them.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

where's the beef?

My first post after a longish break in Blighty is about one of my favourite foodstuffs - beef. I never miss the chance to eat the meat and gorged on cooked cow when back home. Returning to Delhi is a necessary culinary torture I'd rather not have to live through. So the first thing I like to do when I am back is get some cow. This is not easy in north India where they take Hinduism into the kitchen and cow-slaughter can lead to riots.

However you can find the real thing in Delhi, usually tucked away in some shady backstreet. The place I'd currently recommend is a Korean restuarant called Gung, the Palace. Went there last night and the melt-in-my-mouth beef was cooked at my table. The owner, a Korean expat whose mum does the cooking, told me that the fifty percent of the clientele was now Indian. "Now that is India progressing. Last year it was only 10 per cent".

Friday, May 23, 2008

It's not cricket

This first appeared on comment is free, but what the hell...

If sport mirrors society, then India's Twenty20 cricket league has been a revelation. There have been allegations of racism, on-field violence and blunt sexism directed at imported cheerleaders. Off-field bigotry and pitch fisticuffs are deplorable, but the fact that they are being debated is not.

For this we have to thank the arrival of Twenty/20. Although cricket has always been seen as a religion in India, it was one that was only observed when the national team played. Very few people ever turned up to watch the domestic game in India, which was a poor preparation for the big occasions and did not garner meaningful television audiences.

The result was that Indian cricket became a trainspotters' delight - full of obscure language and rows over statistics, which only emphasised its idiosyncrasies. Twenty20 has finally ended this exceptionalism, asking Indians to think themselves as global trendsetters. That in turn has made the country take seriously debates about sporting attitude, fans' behaviour and the influence of money.

By borrowing from baseball and football and with a billion dollars behind it, Twenty20 has also revived a wilting sport. In this incarnation cricket has at last caught up with modern sporting age.

Like other spectator sports, razor-sharp reflexes in Twenty20 must be melded with technique. Pouring a day's game into three hours and 240 deliveries means that wrong decisions are mercilessly penalised. Purists might complain that gone is the tussle of wits between batter and bowler, replaced only by a slugfest of runs. But fans like a game that fits nicely into an evening. There is also no option for sides to draw - finally recognition that rewarding sporting prowess matters more to fans than competitive balance.

There is more to sport than watching teams vie for supremacy. Shorn of nationalism, Twenty20 has at last made cricket in India a cultural obsession in the same way football is in England. Thousands turn up at stadiums. The teams are multi-national and multi-ethnic. Indians have finally learned to love the brilliantly coarse Shane Warne, who has seen his unfancied team, the Rajasthan Royals, dominate.

The league has also proved you cannot buy success: billionaire Vijay Mallya spent a small fortune on Bangalore's Royal Challengers only to see them bottom of the league.

The game itself is a vehicle for change - challenging Indians to ask whether they as a society are really as modern as they think they are. In sport, when a country has issues, its teams face many of those same issues. So Indians have had to own up about the racism that blights their society - the apparent sending home of two black cheerleaders because of their race was front page news in Delhi. When the bombs exploded in Jaipur, home of the Rajasthan Royals, international players were not condemned for wanting to return home.

It is clear that the game is here to stay. In the coming years it will be interesting to see how the Twenty20 league shapes up. There have been calls from the Pakistan cricket board for a team to be based in Lahore. This presents risks as well as opportunities. It is true that good sporting rivalry is good for business, but it'd better if this did not stir a religious version of hooliganism.

Do not blame the game if passions explode. Twenty20 is the illustration, not the explanation, of the problem. That's why it has had a profound and welcome cultural impact in India. There are promising signs that it will become a sporting glue, binding together people from different backgrounds in support of the game. If that is not cricket, who cares?

Friday, May 16, 2008

The impotence of being

You won't find me saying this too often, but there's a piece worth reading in the Hindu. In the opinion pages, Vidya Subrahmaniamexamines why Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's powerful ruling family, will fail to attract voters from the Dalit or untouchable community in the country's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh. She contrasts this with the vote-building success of Uttar Pradesh's chief minister, Mayawati, who leads a Dalit-empowerment party that swept to power last year.

The bottom line is that the Congress still functions as a royal court which pays lip service to the concerns of the downtrodden but is unwilling to let Dalit leadership advise the throne. In politics symbols are important. Mayawati's success as a politician is a spur for Dalits who see a conspiracy to keep them out of power. But images are themselves powerless. As Ms Subrahmaniam points out Mayawati is helpless to stop the everyday brutality perpetuated by other castes against Dalits.

Why the untouchable question remains central to the politics of India might confound western readers who are fed a daily diet of economic success stories about the rise of the country. The reality is that caste is central to the character of India's public life. People have yet to break the boundaries of gender and social-standing in India and are unable largely to choose a life for themselves.

Mayawati's rise seems to signify one big change. The first Indian regime was concerned with freedom from the British. It was also about defining the freedom of the self in the constitution. We are in the midst of the second regime where power is paramount. Power between the states and the nation and by one person over another.

The first regime, dominated by the Congress party, lasted more than 40 years. Mayawati's dream may be to be prime minister but I suspect her real role in politics will be to push India to the next stage of political development: that of rights of people and groups. When these become important in India, Mayawati will have won.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Left at the barricades

If there is one place where the intellectual is venerated and his or her presence in or influence upon politics celebrated, then it is leftist India. The left-wing Indian leaders are clever, articulate types usually well-travelled and better read than their contemporaries.

So it is always disappointing to see them entangling themselves in knots. The thinking is never a problem. The “thinking through“ a disagreeable situation is. So on the nuclear deal with India the communists see the risks but weigh them too heavily. Indian leftists want to be seized by the moment, rather than to seize it.

Take Sitaram Yechury's piece today in the Hindustan Times, which name checks the New Statesman as the source of analysis. Again the understanding of the situation is correct: the US seeks to be top dog and cloak the pursuit of its national interest by blaming the rise of the rest.

But the solution is not to ban a form of trading, a bugbear of the communists and the demand of a very clever left-wing economist at the Planning Commission. This is merely an attempt to popularize a key part of the left's agenda, one which spectacularly failed to capture the attention of the public.

What is worrying that this strategy of permanent opposition turns off the electorate, who understand that those who shy from the logic of events can never be trusted to be masters of fate.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Would You Choose to Live in Tory Britain?

Eh no. Unfortunately I don't have the casting vote in any British election. It is going to be pretty difficult to go back and have to put up with the smugness of David Cameron's Tory party.

If he does make it to No 10, it will be on the back of a slick media campaign and the tiredness of a Labour government. I interviewed "Dave" in Delhi in September 2006 and he was not the great triangulator, straddling left and right to come through the middle. He came across as a upper class public school boy on the make, resembling all those PR guys you'd meet in the 90s who were, to paraphrase Paul Keating, "shivers looking for spines to run up".

I hope this is just the public's way of saying shape up Labour.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

English as she is speaking

I read today that India will overtake the US as the world's biggest English-speaking population in 2010. What will this mean? The answer came in the form of a pamphlet slipped in with my newspapers. its content is reproduced below:



All the 10thees! It is my pleasure to announce that I'm coming back again to get you succeed like genius as we did in the past.
It is an opportunity for both you and me to play English, the language of words to make outstanding performance in your board examinations within the remedial period of just three months. Let's Learn, Practice and Achieve the success."

Anyone who needs help with their English would gain from avoiding this teacher but if you feel the need to "play English" with Madam Nancy then drop me a line and I'll send you her address.


Sunday, April 27, 2008


Was out in Delhi last night witnessing something very different in the coming class of cosmocrats, that group of people who run the world and line the corridors of the WB, IMF, UN etc. Despite the dust and heat of an incoming summer, all seemed to think their move to India was the right one to make.

These 20somethings talked about the opportunities and the energy of the place in a way that surprised me. India it appeared to them was rich with chances to flex their intellectual and creative muscle in a way that the US etc never offered. Where I saw sloth, they saw pensive refection. Where I saw bland pastiche, they saw innovation.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tragedies in Paradise

Been out of station in Sri Lanka, seeing the mockery of elections they call polls in the east of the country unfold, and then following the equally depressing drama of a mother struggle to get the police to investigate the patently obvious murder of her teenage daughter on a Goa beach.

Sri Lanka’s eastern coast is both beautiful and brutal. Death and murder hangs in the air, much like the shimmering heat that makes the place unbearable. The war over the territory has disappeared only for a reign of terror carried out by thugs, armed with weapons and attitude. Everyone is dirty. The police, the army, the officials, the would-be politicos, the rebels, the breakaway rebels. Filled with cruelty, Sri Lanka’s civil war is turning into a meaningless disaster. No winner, just buckets of blood split in the quest to impose democracy on a people who had gone to war for democratic rights.

For Scarlett Keeling and her mother Fiona MacKeown, the story is one of naivety. Fiona’s credulity for believing anyone would care if her teenage daughter dabbled in drugs and sex while she was missing from Planet Parent. Scarlett’s life was later lost in the beach spray of murder.

Worst is the Indian media’s haughty cynicism. Where were the reporters for two weeks while the mother went begging for someone to listen to her story? It took London’s Mail on Sunday to publish her distraught cries for help. And then a phalanx of Fleet St’s finest to turn up and basically expose the local drug tourism that passes for holidays in Anjuna beach.

I got into an argument with a local television reporter who turned up at the office to interview me over the Keeling case, because her private view was that Scarlett was obviously asking for it. When I got angry, the woman reporter said she’d been racially abused in England and nothing had happened. Words versus sticks and stones, I thought.

Maybe I am the na├»ve one. I must be stupid to believe that the world is fair. That crimes must be seen for what they are. That lives shouldn’t be lost cheaply. That when they are, someone has to pay. I don’t think these are just morally convenient notions of justice. Sure it’s hard to sift the wicked from the good. But not to bother, as in Sri Lanka and Goa, leaves it impossible for people to believe in possibility of justice. Rather humankind would be left, as I was, with the awful realisation that the world remains indifferent or even hostile to their plight.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Grating Indian Bizarre of Paul Theroux

Last week attended a talk by Paul Theroux, who luxuriated in the attention of the great and good at a talk in Delhi's American centre. I've never read a book by the 68-year-old author (he's written dozens) and after this session I never will.

Mr Theroux had nothing illuminating to say about his wanderings only remarking , immodestly, that he was one of the few travel writers to go back and retrace their steps. chatwin never did, he said with pride.

Paul Theroux went to find a tree he had planted in Kenya in teh 1960s. He talked at length about the trip, with the vim of some editor of Lonely Planet Africa. He went from London to north eastern India decades ago and said he'd done it again. And written about it again. Fascinating. Mr Theroux, like the V S Naipaul he condemns and so obviously admires, appeared supremely self-confident.

The audience had some interesting questions, among the foamy appreciation. Had he ever been wrong? (No). What civilisation did he most admire? (Vietnam because they forgave America). To a Sikh Mr Theroux went on about how he must know how difficult it must be to invade Afghanistan. he said here must be something wrong with giving aid to africa because the locals all had gone off to be English teachers in the west not in Africa. Given the difficulty of travelling for poor africans to America he sounded like some colonial worrying about uppity locals.

What Paul Theroux gave was a performance, a strut amongst the natives. Perhaps he should never have left home.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The beginning of history

The unilateral declaration of independence by Muslim-majority Kosovo from orthodox-Christian Serbia has focussed the world’s gaze on Balkans again. The region is a rare piece of real estate in geopolitics — one that is able to provide a base to meddle in the soft underbelly of your adversary.

The pokers here is the EU-US axis. The target here is Russia, whose gas and oil wealth has propelled it back into the first rank of powers. Under President Putin, Russia seeks to expand its sphere of influence and curb meddling foreign powers who he sees, often rightly, as being behind the country’s decline in the 1990s.

These are not mere phantom theories. Russia knows to its cost the emergence of US-backed Islamism. The current secretary of state, Robert Gates, has admitted in his 1997 book “From the Shadows” that the US was giving aid to Islamic rebels in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet Union invaded. Zbignew Brzezinski, then President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, defended this action saying it gave the Soviets “their Vietnam War”.

In many ways we are present at the beginning of a new world. Kosovo can be seen as the convergence of two trends. The first is political. There is a divide between those who favour single-party nationalist perpetual government, like that in Russia, and the multi-party system of political representation, like that of the EU. Note there is no need for the system to be secular, in effect recognising the shadow of religion on societies.

The second trend is the emergence of small nations when for centuries there was a tendency for countries to get bigger. Building large industries using captive home markets under the protection of trade barriers was the global economic norm until the mid-seventies. This favoured big nations. But the consensus fell apart in the 60s and 70s. A series of trade talks in the 1970s led to national governments scaling back tariffs.

Then came the movement of capital flows across borders in the eighties. This meant small countries did not need large populations to accumulate savings – they could attract cash from global investors who wanted better returns than they got at home. There was also an acceptance that the absolute amount of capital was not important; rather, it was the amount of capital per worker. Again small nations benefitted - despite calls for protectionism in larger economies suffering under high oil prices and unemployment.

Kosovo is a sliver of Europe and will almost certainly have a noisy multi-party system of government. It almost certainly be within a new western bloc – with its security guaranteed by the US and eventually federation with the European Union. Kosovo’s political and economic model will be modelled on the west and its stability reliant upon it.

We can see this process at work in Afghanistan, Georgia and Lebanon. Again the powers that have regarded these as virtual backyards are being replaced by western powers.

But Kosovo is a step further – carving out a state from Serbia. This is a direct result of the mid-90s war which the international community has decided was Serbi’as fault. Belgrade was simply unable to ensure human security in Kosovo. That Saddam Hussein massacred his own people was also the excuse the Blair and Bush war on Iraq.

The rising powers of the world, Russia, India and China all face Islamic insurgencies. Like Serbia they no doubt would not countenance the principle of independence for Chechnya, Kashmir or Xinjiang. All three nations might consider themselves too big and powerful to worry what the world thinks. But Kosovo is an important marker in international relations - emphasising that sovereignty and territorial integrity will be balanced with human rights. As long as it suits the US.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mirage of power

Pakistan again. My comment is free piece went up.

Despite the impression many have Pakistan is not a failing state. It is an extremely centralised one, run by set of actors over which there is little oversight. The most importnat of these is the military. In fact the only reining in is done by the Saudis, the Chinese and the Americans.

This for me remains the central point - and one upon which the Pakistani state needs to act. Whoever wins needs to be responsive to popular concerns especially on the economy. More attention perhaps on what the common man wants and less on containing India/Iran/Taliban or whatever else foreign backers desire...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The illusion of power

At a talk the other night in Delhi to hear about Pakistan's forthcoming elections from various Indian thinkers - and a Pakistani diplomat - the mood was pretty somber. For the Indians Pakistan is either a failing state on the verge of collapse or a state about to fall into the hands of radical extremists. Either way it looks bad.

The elections were considered rigged - no independent judges, no independent election commission and local administration in the hands of feudal landlords. The caretaker government, which oversees the polls, is run by General President Musharraf's (GPM's) hand-picked PM. All true am afraid.

Almost uncommented upon by the western press are the millions of missing voters in this election. The election roll has shrunk in Pakistan by 20m electors since 2002 when the last (rigged) polls were held.

The Pakistani diplomat defended his country saying it was a victim of three historical earthquakes: the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11. These had seen the rise of extremism. This is a brave defence and one that is hard to swallow given that the Pakistani army bred its own extremists to gain depth in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

But the Pakistani diplomat, from the NWFP cadre, put his finger on exactly the problem. The politics of Pakistan is too important to be left to voters. The casting votes are in foreign hands. Truly popular policies - like ending US influence and subsidies to cope with rising food prices - won't be considered.

That underlines the grubby little secret of the west's engagement with Islamabad. For the US, the impression that a "free and fair" poll will be enough. For the Europeans, facing Afghan ire it will also be enough to rubber stamp these polls as acceptable. Saudi Arabia and China need no convincing on the need to avoid popular mandates.

Pakistan's voters will not decide the government this time. Despite plummeting popularity GPM will not face impeachment - you need 225 plus seats in a 342 seat house. Punjab has about 150 seats. Sindh another 60. No wonder Nawaz Sharif, son of Punjab's soil, and Asif Zardari, Benazir's Sindhi businessman husband, are talking.

It will remain just that. GPM has only to get his quislings, the MQM and religious parties together for long enough to frustrate the Nawaz-Zardari bandwagon. In a few months, I suspect, GPM thinks the alliance will crumble - and he will be able to divide and rule a sham chamber elected under shameful conditions.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Kerala, Naveen Andrews and me

I loved this interview in the Guardian with Naveen Andrews because it deals with a lot of issues that I think about.

Like Andrews my parents came from Kerala to Britain in the 1960s. I too was slapped. I too was never gifted a linguistic heritage (my Malayalam stinks and I have learnt Hindi the hard way) because my parents wanted me to fit in. I also prefer the in-your-face working class racism in Britain to that found in the mouths of the smug middle-class. Unlike Andrews I was not a teenage dropout or an alcoholic. Drugs never led me to a serious addiction. I also do not have kids.

But in the piece I sensed something of Andrews that a group of young British Black people who grew up in 1970s London shared. That of hubris and defiance. I can see his point when Andrews talks of never feeling "at home in London, because people were constantly telling me I didn't belong here, so after a while, you tend to believe that." He is spot on in saying "people who would blanch at the idea of being thought of as being racist when they know that it fucking well is obvious."

Britain's self-perpetuating elite and its frozen snobbery is only softened by London's recent blaze of ethnic diversity. But I think Andrews found himself, like a lot of us, defying the order of things. The result is that you become an outcast. When you run afoul of the people in charge, you soon learn that you have to be chastized regardless of the value of your services. Maybe that is why he left Britain - and found love and a life away from home.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

My enemy's enemy is my friend

This week's Economist has a story which asks: "How America's own intelligence services have brought international policy on Iran to the edge of collapse". It concludes

"Iran may not yet be home free, but the international campaign to stop it getting the bomb that many countries think it wants is on the point of failure."

The story's theme is that US spies fumbled badly in producing a report last month which said Iran stopped its secret nuclear-weapons programme in 2003. A disaster for the Israelis who fear annihilation, the French and Germans who were working at the UN to contain Iran and of course the UK-US nuke-busters who consider Iran the Great Satan. Only the Russians and the Chinese (who else?) will gain.

My conspiracy theory of the day is different. The US economy is sinking - laid low by the bursting of the credit bubble. Having oil prices touch $100 is a burden the US can do without. So the president was seen begging the Saudi oil minister to increase supplies - and hence reduce the price on world markets. The Saudis are unmoved.

What could pressure them? Of course, Riyadh's rivals to the supremacy in the Middle East are the Mullahs of Teheran. So the US eases up on the Iranians - and brows furrow in the Arabian landmass. The US also wants the Saudis to tow the line in Pakistan, where they have considerable sway in the upcoming elections. Again giving Iran some leeway to chase after the Persian bomb would have the Saudis reaching for the rosemary.

None of this behaviour would surprise anyone in the Middle East where everyone knows my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Profits of Greed

Am in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, when my eyes chanced upon Michael Lewis’ Bloomberg column in Mint about John Paulson, the Wall Street player who made $3bn betting that lending to US homeowners was a bubble that was going to go pop.

Lewis gave up a life on the trading floor for one behind the keyboard and knows a thing or two about the new rich. He’s pin point in identifying Paulson as the “truly satisfying villain” of the current bloodbath on Wall St. “All sorts of people are being sued, but most of them lost money, just like the victims. The first rule of financial villany is that the villain must have made off with a pile of loot”.

Paulson has made billions, garnering fame on the way. In the Wall Street Journal, Mr Paulson appears all too glad to say how easy it had all been as millions of Americans struggle to keep their homes. "I've never been involved in a trade with such unlimited upside," Paulson, 52, told the Journal. "Mortgage experts were too caught up" in their own happy talk, he added.

Although Paulson appears to be the epitome of the American Dream, having become a billionaire from humble roots in Queens, he has succeeded by undermining the foundation from where such aspirations stem, John Locke’s pusuit of “life, liberty and property”. In doing so he appears to have committed a cardinal sin: profiting by undermining everybody else in America.

This will have deep consequences. Balzac summed it up best: behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Paulson has not broken any laws. He was no rogue trader like the dodgy book-keeper in Paris’ Societe Generale. He bet on the greed of the US public overtaking its better judgement.

But Americans will undoubtedly soon start screaming at politicians, regulators and even the banks themselves for being not clever enough to not see that their world was falling apart and for not doing something to hold it all together. Paulson on the other hand will be simply counting his money. This may take some time.

Monday, January 28, 2008


I am starting a blog so that I can put down in realtime my thoughts and views.