Obama’s Indian

Barack Obama has appointed John Podesta to run his transition. During the lean years of the Bush administration, Podesta, native of Chicago, ran a shadow cabinet for the Democrats. Since 2003, the home of this government-in-exile has been the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank set-up to rival the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The money, about $10 million per year, came from George Soros, Peter Lewis, Marion Sandler and Herb Sandler – the main liberal financiers. CAP has its set of fellows. Many of them worked in some capacity within the Clinton administration (where Podesta was Chief of Staff). There are hard-nosed people like Rudy deLeon (who went through every Defense secretariat in the Clinton years) and Jeanne Lambrew (who served as a health analyst in the National Economic Council during the waning years of the Clinton administration). But there are also the fresh faces, young people who came to Washington with glowing references from the Ivy League. Others marched over from the Hill, after serving various terms as staff members for the Democratic warhorses. They have been groomed to be part of the next Democratic administration. Their hibernation is over. Obama has called.

The likely suspects have picked up the phone and moved to the transition headquarters. Among them is a former CAP fellow and now Google employee, Sonal Shah. Shah is well known in the South Asian American community, and is a fixture in the Washington liberal circuit. The latter know her for her Democratic credentials, most of which seem to lie somewhere between neo-liberalism and welfare liberalism. The bleeding heart pauses, but then ticks again to the tune of pragmatism. This is perfect material for the CAP, which is hardly enthusiastic about the Democratic Leadership Council’s total commitment to triangulation (which means capitulation to conservatism), but it is not averse to a little political calculus itself. Shah, a product of the University of Chicago, shined her corporate shoes at Anderson Consulting (who was Enron’s accountant), which probably made it easier for her to go into Clinton’s Treasury Department, where she helped Robert Rubin put a U. S. stamp on the post-1997 Asian economic recovery. The corporate side was balanced with an interest in the ideology of “giving back.” When Bush took office, Shah went to the Center for Global Development, and while there joined her brother Anand in forming Indicorps. Knowing full well the desire among many South Asian Americans to give back to their homeland, the Shahs created an organization to help them go and volunteer in India, to do for them what the Peacecorps did for young liberals in the 1960s. Shah left the CAP to work for Goldman Sachs, and then went to Google. Shah’s story is not unlike that of most of the CAP fellows, many of whom honed their dexterity at trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, capital and freedom, private accumulation and human needs.

But there is a less typical side to the Shah story. Born in Gujarat, India, Shah came to the United States as a two-year old. Her father, a chemical engineer, first worked in New York before moving to Houston, and then moving away from his education toward the stock market. The Shahs remain active in Houston’s Indian community, not only in the ecumenical Gujarati Samaj (a society for people from Gujarat), but also in the far more cruel organizations of the Hindu Right, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Overseas Friends of the BJP (the main political party of the Hindu Right) and the Ekal Vidyalaya. Shah’s parents, Ramesh and Kokila, not only work as volunteers for these outfits, but they also held positions of authority in them. Their daughter was not far behind. She was an active member of the VHPA, the U. S. branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India. The VHP’s head, Ashok Singhal, believes that his organization should “inculcate a fear psychosis among [India’s] Muslim community.” This was Shah’s boss. Till 2001, Shah was the National Coordinator of the VHPA.

In 2004, I ran into Shah at the South Asian Awareness Network conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At an earlier panel I questioned her links to the Hindu Right, and so asked people to be wary about her organization, Indicorps. She was furious, and we had a bitter exchange in the Green Room. But at no point did she deny her active connections to the Hindu Right. Her brother, Anand, wrote to me not long after, concerned that Indicorps, which he runs full-time from India, would be tainted by our tussle. “I was curious about Sonal’s own personal relationship with the VHPA,” I wrote back, “That sparked some concern for me. Of course we are free to have our multiple associations, and there is no expectation that all our affiliations necessarily influence each other. That necessity is granted, although it is my understanding that the VHPA is a very disciplined organization that demands a lot from its members – notably congruence in all the work that they do. Which is why I raised the question.”

And so I raise the question again.

Don’t Cry for her, Gujarat.

Gujarat was once a tolerant society, made vibrant by its role in the Indian Ocean trade. People of all faiths lived there with the kind of pre-modern conviviality that did not always include respect for each other, but which did not at least dissolve into the kind of virulence on display in recent years. Certainly, oppressed castes bore the full brunt of an unequal social order, but even for them there was escape into Islam and there was a history of protest against the madness of caste rigidity. Gujarat gave us Gandhi, who went off to South Africa to learn his politics and returned to his state in 1915 to incubate the massive nation-wide movement he was to lead. In November 1917, Gandhi launched a major campaign among the Gujarati peasantry at the town of Godhra. He began his meeting there by tearing up the oath of loyalty to the King, making it clear that the new grammar of Indian politics did not require such obescience. From Godhra, charged Gandhian activists went into the villages of Gujarat to organize the peasantry against the many abuses of colonialism. The uprising that resulted, historian David Hardiman points out, made the area “the strongest center of rural nationalism in India.” From Godhra, in 1917, went the quiet fury of freedom.

In 2002, other elements came out of Godhra, showing us how different today’s Gujarat is from its own history. This time Godhra was the flashpoint not for rural protest against tyranny, but for the forces of Hindu fascism. A disputed train fire that killed fifty-eight people (most of whom were activists of the Hindu Right) led to a massive pogrom against impoverished Muslim families and modestly well-off Muslim merchants. Even the normally reticent Human Rights Watch could not hold back, and its report’s title revealed not only the anger of the investigators but also their own principle finding, “We have no orders to save you” State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (April 2002). The Hindu Right let loose its warriors who killed two thousand people and displaced several thousand more. The state apparatus either stood by or actively participated in the torment. Investigators who traced the line of violence routinely met people who told them, “They killed my whole family.” The carnage was ghastly. Historian Tanika Sarkar wrote of a “breathless climate of terror,” as people fled their homes for poorly managed relief camps, afraid not only of the organized mob but also of the police. People couldn’t sleep, afraid that their tormentors would come again. Chief Minister Narendra Modi came to one area and told the terrified residents, “You will be taken care of.” The language chills: he might have meant that the state will protect them, or that it would punish them. His scowl and his brazen defense of his mobs was no comfort.

Gujarat remains a manufacturing center, but in the 1970s the social basis of industry changed. From the 1910s to the 1970s, the textile factories hired large numbers of workers, most of whom were members of the Gandhian trade union, the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (MMS). They had their various grouses with the system, but most had grown accustomed to the rhythms of industrial society. When a major riot between Hindus and Muslims broke out in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad in 1969, the police moved their headquarters to the MSS office, and the union and the state jointly helped to calm things down. But in the 1970s, the large textile factories snuffed their fires, sending their workers from the formal into the informal economy. The social infrastructure of the towns and cities collapsed. Workers went into the piecework economy, driving the economic fortunes of the big businessmen through the roof but at the cost of the workers’ health and social dignity. Globalization arrived in Gujarat.

The disgruntled workers regrouped out of the MSS into the arms of the newly aggressive Hindu Right, which welcomed their grievances and reshaped their dignity around hatred of Muslims and oppressed castes. The riot of 1993 was a dress rehearsal for the pogrom of 2002. Lumpen-capitalism led to the social collapse of Gujarat. In mid-March 2002, a few weeks after the pogrom, sociologist Jan Breman went to meet MSS’s secretary general, who sorrowfully recounted his inability to reach the police during the killings. It is a sign of the eclipse of the Gandhian platform in favor of what has been called the Vedic Taliban.

The Vedic Taliban includes not only the BJP, the party in power during the Gujarat killings, but also a host of organizations known as the Sangh Parivar. These include groups whose U. S. affiliate drew in Sonal Shah’s parents, and to which she also gave her time and energy. This is not in the distant past. In 2004, while at the CAP, Sonal Shah gave the keynote address in Miami for the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of the USA. The Ekal Vidyalaya is an organization given over to “education” in tribal areas of India. It is the policy of the Ekal Vidyalaya to organize tribal peoples into the “Hindu community” and to eschew the Christianity and animism that many practice. The climate created by the Ekal Vidyalaya and the VHP in the tribal areas of India led to the recent massacres of Indian Christians. Sonal Shah’s father Ramesh is in charge of the Ekal Vidyalaya in the U. S. She didn’t take the time in Miami to raise these concerns. Rather she talked about her Indicorps project, which has sent volunteers to work with groups like Ekal Vidyalaya. The language of social justice and cultural rights work well to cover over the fascism that is otherwise being promoted.

In 2004, the hard Right government in Gujarat honored Shah with the Pride of Gujarat (Gujarat Garima) award. Sonal Shah could not attend, but her brother was there, to get the award from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the presence of the venomous Narendra Modi.

Hold It In Your Heart.

Obama’s campaign was monumental. The energy unleashed within the country was something to behold. The small dissident wings of the anti-war and anti-free trade movements had not been able to cultivate such a massive wave, and even as many of us had our doubts about this or that element of the Democratic agenda, it was hard to be unmoved by the urgent enthusiasm of the people. Obama himself was super, a disciplined candidate who not only carried the weight of history lightly, but also made sure to remain unruffled by the riotous attacks of the Republicans. Coming to power with an incredibly efficient campaign, it is therefore all the more surprising that he had to turn to the likes of Podesta to form his governing team.

But this is also no surprise. Podesta played a role in the mysterious Democracy Alliance, the group of high rollers around the Democratic Party who were frustrated with the Clinton theory of triangulation and wanted a more robust liberalism to command their party (it was for a time presided over by Rob McKay, the Taco Bell heir who gave some of his millions to finance the San Francisco living wage battle). The Democracy Alliance came together to bridge the gap between the two arguments that tore at the Democratic Party in the Bush years. The principled argument ran between those who pushed a more liberal strategy and those who wanted to take Clintonian pragmatism to its limit. The organizational argument took place between those who felt that the Democratic Party should compete in all fifty states (Howard Dean) and those who wanted to maintain the focus on the fourteen competitive states (Rahm Emanuel). This was a bitter battle. Podesta’s calmness usefully held these two sections together. His CAP, in fact, not only became a neutral ground for these two sections of the Democratic Party, but it also had ambitions to link the Party to the various progressive movements that lay on its outer rim and beyond.

Many of the Centers’ ideas, however, strayed far from progressivism, keener to be bold against its base (such as teacher’s unions) than against the world of finance. A recent study complained about teacher absence in the public schools (ten days a year), something that disproportionately impacted students in low-income neighborhoods. But not a word about the ruin of social welfare by the Clinton White House that resulted in the lack of institutions to shore up parents, teachers and students in these neighborhoods. For our intrepid liberals it is far easier to utilize their calculus of triangulation to blame the teachers.

On foreign policy, the champions of humanitarian interventionism based at the CAP remain confident, regardless of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are blamed on Bush’s incompetence rather than on the exhaustion of U. S. imperialism. To revive their interventionist fantasies, the CAP liberals use Darfur. It stiffens the spine. John Prendergast holds the reins here, running the ENOUGH project of the CAP. He is committed to the merits of doing something in Darfur, but has little sense of the role that “Darfur” plays within the U. S. in keeping the terminally ill concept of humanitarian interventionism alive (for more on this, look for Mahmood Mamdani’s Survivors and Saviors, coming out in 2009). Right after Obama’s election, Predergast co-wrote a letter to the president-elect asking Obama to “lead a concerted international peace surge for Sudan.” This letter went out just as violence increased in the Great Lakes region of Africa (ground-zero for the Cell-Phone Wars of our day; the region is the source of coltan, an essential element for cell-phones) and as Israel’s armies once more struck the civilian populations of Gaza. Not a word from CAP on this. Nor on the Gujarat violence, or the killing of the Christians by the Hindu Right. No humanitarian interventionism when this affects U. S. imperial interests. Which is why Shah’s own far Right commitments in India are not contradictory to those of the CAP liberals; many of them have similar commitments to the far Right in Israel or in other parts of the world.

When asked to name his favorite books, Obama mentioned that one of them is Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I encourage him to go to his edition (mine is the Beacon Press one from 1957) and turn to page 155. There he will find a simple sentence, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.” The Hindu Right thrives on the humiliation of Indian Muslims, Christians, and oppressed castes, and it derives its social power from those who are survivors of the failed experiment in globalization. Those millions, like myself, who feel a joy in snubbing the Bush dynamic and the entire history of social exclusion in the United States should demand that our hopes be held to a higher standard. Not to the howling dogs, but to the doves.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).