Pushing India Toward a Dollar Democracy

by ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA

In an article concerned with the rapid urbanization of India and China, a writer for London’s Financial Times (August 5/6, 2006) points out that Bangalore "has become a byword for a catastrophic failure of urban planning."

Interestingly, he attributes this lapse to "Indian sentimentalism about the supposed benefits of village life, and the consequent incompetence in managing cities" which "contrasts starkly with the ruthless pragmatism of the central and local authorities in China."

Let us not bring up that bugbear of the absence of democracy in China just yet, no matter that the Anglo-Americans are all so keen to bomb us all to "freedom" these days, China being that fearsome and much envied exception.

More worrying are the writer quotes from supposed Indian experts. One of them is K.E. Seetharam, a water and sanitation expert from the Asia Development Bank in Manila, according to whom "civilizations have always been urbanised" and "this concept of rural development is something more recent and in my view doesn’t exist."

Is this man truly Indian? Has he forgotten those school history lessons about the Indo-Gangetic plain and the role it has played throughout time in sustaining the economies and cultures of empires from the Mauryan to the Mughal? Or, seeing as he comes from South India, he might visit a library and read about the role of the farmers of the Kaveri and Krishna basins whose taxes helped maintain the splendour of the Vijayanagar courts.

However, to be fair to Mr. Seetharam, his view has widespread currency today. And this is why it is so dangerous. The reasons for the prevalence of the view are not far to seek. The industrial revolution treated from the beginning the countryside as a hinterland for mineral resources or as a sink for its effluents. It made it easy to forget the fact that industrial workers (often dispossessed peasants) and their bosses were fed on food that the farmers grew in the villages. Also, since cities grew around industries, it gave birth to the illusion that civilisations have always been urban.

Even when civilisations have been formally urban, as in the cities of the ancient world, like Athens or Sparta, they have often had, believe it or not, little to do with commerce or industry (those being of least importance to Greek citizens and thinkers), unlike our cities today, offshoots as they are of industrial growth.

We would be well-advised to suspend our intoxicating amnesia, bred of industrial affluence, (and effluence) and recall at least a bit of what the countryside has contributed to human civilisation. From legends and myths to melodies and dances, human culture anywhere is unimaginable without the backdrop of rural inspiration.

This is not the place for it, but here is a sampler, unjust as it necessarily is. Great landscape art ­ from delicate Chinese woodcuts to Van Gogh’s majestic canvases ­ have been inspired by nature, available only in the countryside. Beethoven’s pastoral is hard to imagine being inspired by urban industrial noise. Nor can the poems of the Romantics, whether in India or in Europe.

Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a free American republic was peopled with farmers. Gandhi championed the idea of village republics for a reason. Rabindranath Tagore set up Shantiniketan in the countryside when he could as easily have done so in Kolkata. So many of our great bards, from Lalleshwari to Tukaram, sang to the lord in the jungles and the meadows.

Our tragedy today is that William Blake’s warnings about the "dark, Satanic mills" of London went unheeded by Western culture. Independent India, which has never decolonized culturally, followed suit.

The concept of rural development does not exist? Would the Prime Minister be willing to repeat that in front of a meeting of villagers anywhere in India before the next elections, apprising them of the latest wisdom of our policy experts?

Even more chilling, the Financial Times article goes on to argue that the mismanagement of Indian cities is to be blamed upon the fact that Indian politicians are "obsessed with the problem of rural poverty" and thus drag resources away from urban development! "One reason for this illogical approach is politics: India is a democracy. For historical reasonsthe countryside is over-represented in the political system and power rests with the state government, not with the cities."

So the lament is that, alas, for "historical reasons", India is a democracy and the villagers carry too many votes. Talk about doublespeak in the mainstream of the Western media!

The FT writer seeks further explanation for the state of Indian cities from someone much more influential than Mr. Seetharam. Nandan Nilekani is the CEO of Infosys, one of India’s software flagships. He represents Indian business interests at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos every year. He is approached by all the Western media outlets whenever representative views from Indian corporate circles are wanted.

Listen to what he says: There is "a disconnect", he points out, "between the economic power and the political power." Bangalore with only 10% of the population of Karnataka state contributes 60% of the state’s GDP. However, it has only 7% of the state assembly seats.

So what is to be done? Here might be a foretaste of things to come: "In China you don’t have that problemIndia is the only example of urbanisation (on this scale) happening with universal adult franchise."

So the moral of the story is that urbanisation shouldn’t happen with universal adult franchise. When the West urbanized it did not have universal suffrage. China continues to urbanize only because there is no democracy. Nilekani’s diagnosis of the problem is accurate. The problem lies with its one-eyed superficiality, drawn as it is from the premises of industrial growth, predatory on the countryside.

Shall we take the Chinese route to industrial greatness and do away with the nuisance of democracy which, in any case, has nothing to do with capitalist success and does plenty to put brakes on it? That, at this stage of history, might prove to be politically explosive in India (no thanks to the West that we are democratic). What the increasingly political corporate elite will want to experiment with is a set of constitutional amendments that fiscally empower cities at the cost of the countryside, correcting in favour of urban India the disconnect that Nilekani mentions. This cannot happen without deep-rooted changes in the very structure of Indian government and politics. Jurists would be able to tell us more though there are surely many corporate fantasists dreaming of globally networked, autonomous post-modern city-states!

Let us be clear. Nilekani is arguing, in effect, for a "dollar democracy", where one rupee will count for one vote, rather than one person. Does anyone see how gigantic a retrograde step this would be in human affairs? It means setting aside all the mammoth political and cultural efforts ranging across the centuries and the continents that have gone into enfranchising the historically powerless. In the long historical argument between town and country, the metro now wishes to intervene with decisive finality. It is a dangerous trend, whether it is observed in India, China or elsewhere.

In the US they have achieved a dollar democracy without major constitutional amendments. However, it is easier to brainwash and fool a well-fed electorate which can take out loans to buy vacation homes and BMWs. Achieving the same political feat in India is not going to be easy at all. That, in fact, is the reason why during the past 17 years, in the six general elections the country has had, the incumbent party has not been returned to office even once, a fact unmatched by any world democracy.

What people like the writer of the FT article, Seethram, Nilekani and so many others, for whom they are the spokespersons, would ideally like to see is India grow as "smoothly" as China (or 19th century Dickensian Britain), with the nuisance of things like "democracy" and "rural development" out of the way. Indian cities, their slums duly demolished and put out of sight of visiting investors in air-conditioned cars, will then wear the gloss of Singapore or even London, starved rural underbellies not in view.

But alas, you cannot hide 300 or 400 million starving mouths, and the insistently unjust social reality of India will break through into one or another rear-view mirror, disturbing the fantasies of financiers’ wives and girlfriends.

Time to recall William Blake once more: "When nations grow old, art grows cold and commerce sits on every tree."

ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA is an independent writer. He can be reached at aseem62@yahoo.com.


 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?
John Halle
On Berniebots and Hillary Hacks, Dean Screams, Swiftboating and Smears
Stephen Lendman
Cleveland Police Attack Black Activists
Patrick Cockburn
Only Iraq’s Clerics Can Defeat ISIS
Ralph Nader
Sending a ‘Citizens Summons’ to Members of Congress
Clancy Sigal
Scratch That Itch: Hillary and The Donald
Colin Todhunter
Working Class War Fodder
Gareth Porter
Obama’s Version of Iran Nuke Deal: a Second False Narrative
Joshua Sperber
What is a President? The CEO of Capitalism
Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Politics of Coercion in Greece
Vacy Vlanza
Without BDS, Palestine is Alone
Laura Finley
Adjunct Professors and Worker’s Rights
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode Three, Where We Thrill Everyone by Playing Like “Utter Bloody Garbage”
Weekend Edition
July 24-26, 2015
Mike Whitney
Picked Out a Coffin Yet? Take Ibuprofen and Die
Henry Giroux
America’s New Brutalism: the Death of Sandra Bland
Rob Urie
Capitalism, Engineered Dependencies and the Eurozone
Michael Lanigan
Lynn’s Story: an Irish Woman in Search of an Abortion
Paul Street
Deleting Crimes at the New York Times: Airbrushing History at the Paper of Record
ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH
Making Sense of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Geopolitical Implications
Andrew Levine
After the Iran Deal: Israel is Down But Far From Out
Uri Avnery
Sheldon’s Stooges: Netanyahu and the King of Vegas
David Swanson
George Clooney Paid by War Profiteers
ANDRE VLTCHEK
They Say Paraguay is in Africa: Mosaic of Horror
Horace G. Campbell
Obama in Kenya: Will He Cater to the Barons or the People?
Michael Welton
Surviving Together: Canadian Public Tradition Under Threat
Rev. William Alberts
American Imperialism’s Military Chaplains
Yorgos Mitralias
Black Days: August 4th,1914 Germany and July 13th, 2015 Greece