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.