January 25, 2007
Uttarayanam: A time of hope, of new beginnings
Rajeev Srinivasan reflects on the season of hope
According to traditional lore, Makara Sankranti is the peak of Winter: after all, it marks the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day, although it is late by a couple of weeks because of the precession of the Earth’s axis. In the Indian calendar, there are six rtus or seasons: vasantam, grishmam, varsham, sarat, hemantam, sisiram. I always find this a time to take stock, contemplate, regroup, and await the arrival of Spring, vasantam.
I remember the patriarch Bhishma, grievously wounded and resting on his bed of arrows, awaiting the arrival of the auspicious time of uttarayanam, literally the passage of the Sun to the North. For he had been given a boon that he could die at a time of his choosing. It is telling that, in contrast to the very European Dr. Faustus, who could never decide on the perfect moment, the very Indian Bhishma knew exactly what the moment was. India, in a way on its own sara-sayya, awaits its time to blossom again.
I wonder about the moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata. What would the just Vidura have made of Singur and Nandigram, of the dispossessed and the damned? Where would he draw the line? Is it acceptable in a spirit of utilitarianism to evict farmers? I remember the striking Aravindan film Vaastuhara, about dispossessed refugees from Bangladesh, endless columns of the wretched in 1971. What is it about Sonar Bangla, that blessed and spirited land, the home of the Indian renaissance, that makes it so bleak for its children?
The Brahmaputra Delta and the Kaveri Delta were the two most prosperous parts of India prior to European imperialism – it is no wonder those were precisely the areas the marauding British first targeted. Together, these two areas, rich from agricultural surplus, accounted for 10-20% of the world’s manufacturing – yes, almost a fifth of the entire world’s – before 1750 CE.
The Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE was a strategic inflection point, as it caused the products of these lands to go from high-value, specialty goods with high demand (eg. fine muslin) to low-value subsistence commodities (eg. indigo) with little differentiation. The colonialists decimated Bengal and forcibly impoverished the artisans and craftsmen: overnight, skilled, urban, middle-class people were turned into unskilled, landless laborers, and permanently made into an underclass – with results visible to this day.
This of course was followed by a series of man-made famines orchestrated – or at least tolerated – by the imperialists, which led to the deaths of some 20-30 million people in Bengal and the Deccan. For details, see the classic Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davies. For the impact on India and Britain – India’s share of world GDP went from roughly 25% to 2% in a century, and Britain’s went from 1% to 18% — see Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. India, the richest country in the world for a millennium and a half (per Maddison’s data from 0 CE to 1500 CE), was systematically plundered (of some $10 trillion in today’s money) and reduced to penury.
How very ironic, but how very unsurprising, that the Marxists are now repeating this rape of Bengal, in the name of industrialization! The Marxists, while spouting rhetoric about the common man, have, just as the British did, conspired to destroy Bengal’s industrial base, and allowed its agriculture to stagnate: all the better to keep the average Bengali illiterate, starving and poor. Otherwise they might wise up and cease voting for the Marxists (and the Congress’s) empty slogans.
Bengal’s parlous state is a testament to the utter futility of the Nehruvian model, wherein the mixture of capitalism and socialism resulted in a chimera that had all the ills of both (crony capitalism on the one hand and the dead hand of central planning on the other) and none of the benefits of either. How likely is it that the Salim Group of Indonesia enriched the coffers of the Marxist party handsomely?
The fact of the matter is that India’s prospects look better day by day – for instance, see the Economist survey of the global economy, The new titans, from September 16th, 2006. On January 24th, 2007, Goldman Sachs updated its earlier BRIC report to paint an even more rosy picture of India’s prospects, in India’s Rising Growth Potential, also available at http://www.business-standard.com/general/pdf/012407_01.pdf link thanks to reader horizon. They suggest India is going to overtake the US by 2050.
The Marxists and other demagogues are irrelevant in the new scheme of things, and they know it, but they are determined to not go ‘gentle into that good night’: they insist on dragging thousands of innocent peasants down with them. They cannot get over the mantra that heavy industry is the savior of the masses – after all, that is the only thing they have seen in their sacred homelands, the Soviet Union and China.
On the contrary, India’ core competence has always been in agriculture and intellectual property generation; as remarked by reader Ghostwriter on my blog, this is reflected in the respect given to the cow and the Brahmin in Hindu lore. India’s future lies in these areas and in light engineering; massively polluting heavy engineering has about as much of a future as a dodo – or a Marxist. Send that to China, let them poison their land.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, George Dubya Bush has just made a rather subdued State of the Union address. He has reason to be restrained, as the new Democratic majority in Congress is in no mood to give him an inch, especially now that several of their own have stepped into the ring for the 2008 elections. Many Indians have a knee-jerk preference for the Democrats, but I can guarantee that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama aren’t exactly lying awake nights figuring out how to work with India.
Bush has more immediate problems, however. The blunder in Iraq has presented him with a miserable Hobson’s Choice: he’s damned if he pulls out, and damned if he doesn’t. Bush really doesn’t have any good strategic options, but it is clear the tactical option he has chosen, the ‘surge’ of adding new troops to those already in Iraq, is pretty much the only thing he could possibly pursue.
The Iraq invasion wasn’t a brilliant idea in the first place, but I thought it was on balance a good thing because it opened up another front against Mohammedan fanaticism. But I admit I did not expect the Americans to get bogged down so comprehensively: Iraq is a tar baby, a Himalayan blunder.
The reason why Bush cannot afford to pull out is that it would give an immense psychological boost to the Mohammedan fundamentalist: he can claim, with truth, that he defeated both the Soviets and the Americans. Thus having dispatched both superpowers, triumphalist fundamentalists will believe that world domination (promised to them) is in sight. They will get bolder in their terrorism and other acts to bring about the Millennium, as it were. This is bad news for America, and everyone else.
Having badly miscalculated the magnitude of opposition to their occupation, the Americans now have to go to Plan B. The original Plan A, I suppose, was to quickly subdue the stray elements of the Ba’ath party, put in place a government of national reconciliation with due representation for Kurds, Shias and Sunnis, and move out gracefully to wild applause from all bystanders.
The reality, as we know, is different: sectarian violence, an ungovernable population, increasing American casualties, complete chaos. And an Iran that seems to be going from strength to strength via its Shiite allies in Iraq and the region (eg. Hezbollah in Lebanon).
Therefore Plan B may well be as follows: do a balancing act by getting the Shiites and Sunnis to checkmate each other. There is some evidence that this is working. The two sects have begun indulging in mass reprisals against each other, and each has out-of-control militias running around. Intriguingly, a new fatwa http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/12/29/africa/ME_GEN_Saudi_Shiites.php by a top Saudi scholar declares Shiites to be infidels, worse than Jews and Christians, link thanks to reader Shahryar.
Thus, if the Arab Street can be manipulated into all-out Sunni-Shia fratricide, America would escape being Number One on the hit list of the most violent Mohammedan fundamentalists. This may well be the best Americans can hope for. It would achieve several things at once: reduce Iran’s (Shiite) growing influence over Arab (mostly Sunni) populations, cause extensive bloodletting (Shiites are numerical minorities in most Mohammedan nations, and vulnerable), and help Saudis to retain their primacy over Iran.
There is Plan C, of course, a scenario that Americans have war-gamed extensively: physical control over Mecca and Medina. This is what America will do if driven to the wall. The calculation is that an American takeover or destruction of Mohammedan holy places — or even the restriction of access to them — would cause severe trauma to the psyche of the Mohammedan fundamentalist. After all, destruction of others’ holy places has been a hallmark of psychological warfare by Mohammedans (and Christians) – see Bamiyan or the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa.
The other aspects of Bush’s speech were overshadowed by Iraq, but there is a welcome proposal to accelerate the search for alternative energy technologies, to reduce dependence on foreign (read Arab) oil, and to reduce emissions. He called for an attempt to reduce oil consumption by 20% in 10 years. There is a rising tide of support for alternative fuels – as seen in the spirited debate over Proposition 87 in California and in the increased investment by venture capitalists in these areas (including by India’s own, rock-star VC Vinod Khosla) – which in the long run will help India’s interests as well.
A chastened Bush, alternative energy on the horizon, some attempts to control sky-rocketing health-care costs in the US; and a semi-successful effort to rein in rampaging Marxists in India: not bad for a Winter’s tale.
Interestingly, in contrast to the Marxist’s travails, the much-reviled Narendra Modi has succeeded in getting industrialists to commit enormous amounts to developing ports and SEZs (no farmers involved, as the coastal land is mostly marginal and saline) through the Vibrant Gujarat initiative. See the excellent article in The Pioneer by Ashok Malik, India’s China, http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnist1.asp?main_variable=Columnist&file_name=ASHOK58%2Etxt&writer=ASHOK&validit=yes link thanks to readers Kapidhwaja, Abhiha and habc.
It is worth remembering that Bharuch in Gujarat and Muziris in Kerala were the greatest ports on the West Coast in classical times. Alas, in Kerala these days, it is Marxist rule again, and their friends the Mohammedans are running amok. Hindus are being killed, probably by Abdul Nasser Mad’ani’s NDF cadres, and hate posters are being put up all over Mohammedan-dominated Malappuram district http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/jan/24kerala.htm and http://www.hindu.com/2007/01/18/stories/2007011808880400.htm . Why? Because Narendra Modi has been invited by a Hindu organization to give a speech in Trivandrum.
This is a stark reminder, along with endemic abuse of Hindu rights all over the world (eg. riots in Bangalore, the silence by the government over temple demolition and religious persecution in Malaysia and Central Asia, the astonishing fatwas by UPA big-wigs to give preferential claims on national resources to non-Hindus, the move to outlaw the swastika in Europe) that there is still a long way to go towards fairness and equity. That promised Spring is indeed far off.
The Aravindan film Uttarayanam ends with the protagonist consigning his mask to the flames: India too needs to stop pretending it’s something other than what it really is. “This above all, to thine own self be true”. Only then will its native genius allow it to reach for the stars, once again.