Narendra Modi ran the 2014 election campaign, asking for a mandate in his name; the party was secondary. In the event, he helped the BJP secure 282 seats in Parliament, an absolute majority. The last time any party singly won so many seats was in 1984 when the Congress won 404. Modi seems to have interpreted the mandate as an irreversible affirmation of his popularity as a leader, right up there with the luminaries who won India its independence, then nurtured its democracy and diversity and finally transformed it into a dynamic new player on the world stage.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
At a boarding gate in Delhi’s chaotic Terminal 1, an Armani-clad young man bristling with the accoutrements of wealth: flashy phone, big watch, designer sunglasses, tried to push past me. “Excuse me, we’re all going to board the same aircraft; it will not leave without you,” I admonished him. He stared back uncomprehendingly, insolently. It was not language that was his problem; what he didn’t understand was why I was not letting him through. The civility of queuing up seemed to be completely beyond his experience.
This young man is a representative of the newly emergent middle class that the early decades of 21st-century India have thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. This new middle class is the polar opposite of the privileged class that presided over socialist India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the vulgarians.
The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: the right connections, the right schools and Oxbridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. Similarly, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The new vulgarians make no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.
During privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites who drained state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided almost no public goods or services in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, water, public transport, or roads, no airports, telephones, jobs, no primary education, housing, public healthcare and sanitation.
The minuscule unprivileged middle class was targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate witnessed rapidly declining conditions: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation of 1975 and finally total national bankruptcy, which forced the government to fly out the country’s gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.
Forced to free the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and numerous other controls. In the process, it unleashed the long-suppressed entrepreneurial spirit of the people which has transformed the economy. From being pitied as a ‘basket case’, India quickly gained admiration as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With the annual GDP growth rate doubling to 7-9 percent, millions were lifted out of poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and global business rushed in to cater to it while local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive service.
Sadly, post-independence India’s long neglected education system inhibited the transformation; it has achieved less than what it should have. Under privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them”. Thus, the ordained ones went on to Ivy leagues and Oxbridge to return to exalted positions within the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or struggled through an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble-rousers for political parties.
On the other hand, the IITs and IIMs produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift Ambassador car economy. Consequently, these heavily subsidised elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.
In sum, free India offered three types of ‘education’. The first was the classic Oxbridge type whose quality didn’t matter because you came back to an exalted place in the elite establishment. The other was technical training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations, universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs. Undergirding this is a vast pool of illiterates, the cannon fodder of India’s increasingly confrontational politics.
This unfortunate outcome is the result of continuing neglect of primary education, politicisation of secondary education, and usurpation of higher education by a technical and managerial aspirational class. At a time of an existential challenge to the very idea of India, the need is for a growing mass of the population to be schooled in the liberal arts. Illiterates, semi-literates and technocrats are simply not up to the challenge of nation-building.
(This article appeared in Education World, November 8, 2016)
Monday, November 7, 2016
According to Christian belief, there is an afterlife. But first you have to die. That is roughly what Donald J Trump, Republican presidential nominee, tells his audiences.
"The system is rigged. It works against you. You are the fall guy, victim of big finance, international trade, unchecked immigration, violent crime... you name it. I can fix it."
But first you have to vote for him. Just as most people wouldn’t kill themselves to test the afterlife proposition, not many American are buying into Trump’s airy-fairy promises.
In the waning hours of the most bizarre presidential campaign in US political history, Latino and African American voters are rallying to vote against him; it’s pretty much the same for women. These are the major groups the Republican candidate has insulted with racist and misogynist remarks on the campaign trail.
One of the main reasons Trump was able to come so far also has to do with the systematic weakening of the liberal hold on the American imagination. It began in the 1960s, when Senator Barry Goldwater first hoisted the conservative standard, embracing a hawkish foreign policy and challenging the liberal agenda of social welfare and civil rights.
The Goldwater 1964 campaign was met with an aggressive response by the Democratic Party, the mainstay being a commercial that preyed on growing American paranoia about nuclear Armageddon and effectively destroyed the Goldwater candidacy.
In the following 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon became only the second Republican elected to the Presidency since 1932; the first was Dwight D Eisenhower in 1952. Eisenhower, the war hero, won the Republican nomination as a moderate, vanquishing Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was supported by the party’s conservative wing.
During his six years in office, Nixon did not do much to further the conservative cause, first getting embroiled in the divisive Vietnam War, and later, in the .
It wasn’t until 1980 that the conservative agenda was revived by Ronald Reagan and persisted through the decade. The single-term presidency of George H W Bush got caught up in the war for the liberation of Kuwait that had been invaded by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. It paved the way for Bill Clinton, whose two terms were marred by impeachment proceedings in Congress, having to do with an alleged dalliance with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.
The two terms that George W Bush served in office were eight years of intense ideological polarisation, which saw the rise of an extreme neoconservative movement, the religious Right and the populist Tea Party.
The liberal agenda receded on the domestic front, while on the international front, a militant, shock-and-awe nationalism in response to the attacks of 9/11 dragged the US into messy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the two terms of Barack Obama, though there were important initiatives, both globally and at home, the liberal agenda continued to flounder under the onslaught of uncompromising Republican partisanship. An immensely popular president, Obama could not get his nominee to the Supreme Court to be heard, leave alone confirmed, by Congress.
As such, the solid liberal base got eroded in the Democratic Party, leading to the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a major challenger for the party nomination in 2016.
With an avowedly socialist agenda, Sanders divided the party into true believers (his adoring faction) and workaday supporters of Hillary Clinton.
By the time Clinton sealed the nomination, doubts had arisen that the loyalty of Sanders’ supporters may not be necessarily transferred to Clinton. This left a gaping hole in her campaign.
On the Republican side, the Bush inheritance saw the party fall into the clutches of extremists, replacing mainstream conservative themes of fiscal rectitude and globalisation with dubious themes of bigotry and isolationism.
Trump fell upon the riven party and launched a campaign that plumbed the depths of abuse and violence. Yet, miraculously, he convinced voters he was capable of winning.
When Trump is finally defeated, Republicans will be staring at a massive overhaul of the party’s organisation and reputation. What happens to country-club suburban membership that is typical of the party and to the "lock her up" less educated, poor and blue-collar whites that have emerged, egged on by Trump’s reckless exhortations?
What will be the new mainstream? Is the party doomed to fall into the hands of bigots and nativists?
On the Democratic side, will Hillary’s win bring the Sanders radicals to her side? Or will she have to contend with incessant sniping from the left of the party spectrum?
If she wins handsomely, she may have some breathing room before the ideological sniping begin. The question is whether the new normal will be considerably left of center under the influence of Sanders.
Either way, there is no doubt that American politics has been shaken up like never before and it will take time for new majorities to be established in both parties.
Is there a lesson for India in the US political maelstrom? Actually, there are striking similarities.
Modi captured the BJP at the Goa conclave in May 2013, leaving the old guard agape and soon after, installed his comrade-in-arms Amit Shah as BJP chief.
Just as they did in Gujarat, they sidelined just about every power center in the saffron party. In the process of elevating themselves to such rarefied heights, they appear to have lost touch with political reality and appear to be lurching around to find solid ground while using the sovereign power of government to stifle dissent and opposition.
On the opposite end, just as there is Hillary Clinton in the US, there is in India as well a member of a famous family that’s been around since the freedom struggle.
The Modi-Shah duo played a huge role in discrediting the Gandhis but now must face a sustained challenge from them. This is largely because Modi’s personality cult helped win a parliamentary majority but is clearly of no use in running a government. Their panic is palpable, their actions condemnable and their prospects dim.
In the US, the equivalent of Modi appears set to lose. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton could become not just the first woman president but the first wife to follow her husband to the White House.
(This article appeared in www.dailyo.in, November 7, 2016).
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Saturday, July 16, 2016
American historian Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize winner from Columbia University. His area of specialty is , the rebuilding of the American south after the Civil War.
Sensing money-making opportunities in the Confederacy of the so-called "slave states" that lay prostrate in 1865 after the four-year Civil War, many soldiers of fortune made their way south.
They swept through the defeated states buying up assets and parlaying them into fortunes.
Named after the cheap baggage they carried, these "carpetbaggers" were reviled as vultures, come to feast off the decay of the South.
That’s what Donald Trump is: a carpetbagger come to grab at the remains of the Republican Party.
Reeling from assaults by an assortment of increasingly extreme right-wing groups that began to flourish during the administration of George "Dubya" Bush, the party fell down an ideological mineshaft.
Pulled in many directions by neocons, evangelists, white supremacists, soldiers of fortune, gun nuts, religious bigots, the party seemed to lose its bearings.
Jockeyed by loose associations like the Tea Party: a grab bag of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-corporate, anti-bank, anti-welfare, anti-tax, anti-government isolationists… anyone with a pet peeve, the GOP seemed to jettison its traditional conservative agenda of lower taxes, national security and fiscal rectitude in favour of divisive social nostrums such as abortion, school prayer, gun control, immigration.
From this miasma emerged Donald Trump to claim his prize: the presidency of the United States that includes not just the most powerful financial system in the world and the world’s greatest military machine with global projection capabilities, but more important, the most destructive nuclear arsenal known to mankind.
Like India’s Narendra Modi, Trump is an unrestrained megalomaniac; he says the most egregious things but nobody knows what he stands for except showmanship.
Like Modi, Trump seems willing to embrace the most egregious forms of bigotry, something America is not used to and India is finding hard to deal with.
Modi already controls the resources of a trillion-dollar economy, the world’s largest armed forces and a nuclear weapons stockpile of which little is known whether of its size, its technological sophistication, its chain of command.
In that sense, he is way ahead of Trump.
For those of us who have been shocked and awed by the rise of Modi, it appears depressingly possible that Trump could win the election in November this year.
Modi springs from a revivalist Hindu cult and has raised bigotry to a winning election manifesto.
A narrow worldview bred by prejudice against Marx, Muslims and Macaulayites, his bigoted agenda, Hindutva, was asserted by denigrating opponents and then weaving a fantastic web of deception about El Dorado, aka achhe din.
The origins of Trump, according to recent revelations, can be traced to the wide-open frontier ways of his German-born grandfather, a saloon keeper, who celebrated guns, booze, debauchery and devil take the hindmost.
The grandson’s candidacy has been powered by his own wealth, both inherited over three generations and accumulated in his lifetime.
His financial success represents the most unsavoury strand of capitalism that combines avarice, violence and a belief that poverty is a mark of personal failure.
Modi and Trump share qualities that define the word redneck: a visceral hatred for an establishment they seek not to crash but destroy; a lack of aesthetics including clothes and churlish public behaviour; an overt appeal to violence and hate.
And yet, neither Modi, despite his chaiwalla deception, nor Trump springs from poverty; they both emerged from the margins of social class and project without much finesse that they are victims of relative deprivation.
There is one crucial difference between the two.
Trump emerged from the decline of the mainstream Republican Party that began with Richard Nixon on down through Reagan and the two Bushes. He simply seized the opportunity, carpetbagger style, to catapult himself into the reckoning.
Like it or not, he mocked the Republicans, I am your party nominee by acclamation from the white detritus, the kind of people you wouldn’t admit to your country clubs or the towers I built for you; the kind of people who thronged my grandfather’s Seattle saloons at the turn of the 19th century.
Completely unnerved, the Republican establishment finds itself without a cogent response to Trump’s extreme and ever-changing manifesto but especially to his sweeping primary wins.
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works ye Mighty and despair," Trump seems to mock them.
For his part, Modi also cocked a snook at India’s established liberal democracy. India is a Hindu nation, was his claim in the 2014 election.
He attacked and denigrated the Congress Party, the mainstay of the UPA coalition government that gave India ten years of unprecedented growth and a new spirit of inclusion.
Using innuendo and lies, Modi succeeded in his shock-and-awe campaign portraying the Congress as a corrupt, anti-Hindu force that perpetuated poverty and neglected infrastructure.
It was an amazing act of chutzpah that enabled his party to win an absolute majority in Parliament with just 31 per cent of the popular vote.
Just as Trump had a free ride in the primaries, raining curses and indignities on the journalists, Modi has enjoyed a two-year stint unquestioned by media.
Like Trump, he has kept journalists at arm’s length: no interviews, no press conferences; only one-way communications: government press releases, radio addresses, tweets and social media posts. And there was, of course, the interview with Arnab Goswami.
Now it is beginning to catch up, this brazen lack of accountability. The social media, in which he reigned unchallenged, have now become channels of opposition and ridicule.
Also, new digital alternatives have emerged to the mainstream media: influential news portals, widely circulated blogs in the digital editions of mainstream newspapers and television channels and numerous other outlets to reach audiences by the million.
Trump evaded hard questions in the primaries because his rallies frequently were overwhelmed by violence between supporters and opponents.
He nevertheless used the platform to denigrate his opponents as people who did not want to "make America great again", a dog whistle appeal to racists, misogynists, the sullen white trash in their survivalist camps and costumed meetings.
It remains to be seen if Trump can handle post-primary national scrutiny in the same scruffy way. India’s Modi will also find it difficult to repeat his sucker punch campaign in 2019.
Comeuppance looms on the horizon for both the American carpetbagger and the Hindu revivalist.
(An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, July 16, 2016.)