An Interview With Tariq Ali

New Delhi.

A clamour is up to name Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate at India’s general election next year. His backers say he should be judged for bringing development to his state. His opponents hold him responsible for the killing of Muslims in 2002 by Hindu sectarian and supremacist mobs. Just what do you think makes Modi a front-ranker?

A startling absence of talent in mainstream politics. Modi, the argument goes from the Right may be a killer, but he’s a developmental killer. So if a few thousand Muslim lives have to be sacrificed to build a solid electoral base, “modernise” Gujarat, and by extension, India, then why not? At least, they say, he’s not hypocritical. The Right see him as a potential unifier for their project, which is not as some on the Left argue, to create a fascist state in India, but to establish a long-term hegemony for the Right: an authoritarian ethno-religious populism on the basis of which Indian capitalism can be strengthened and its opponents weakened for at least a decade or two. The Congress, both in Gujarat and elsewhere, is incapable of taking him on and so accepts to fight on the battleground that the BJP has demarcated. A fatal weakness which no dynasty can transcend. How can the Nehru-Gandhis compete with the real epics of Hinduism?

A substantial section of India’s middle class, especially the educated English-speaking people, appears to solidly back Modi for prime minister. What is their motivation?

For the reasons I have stated above. And they want a period of stability, some control over corruption, some softish religion, so they can identify with in this time of uncertainties. The BJP fills the vacuum. Nehruvian nationalism is over. Its substitute is an ethno-religious chauvinism. This is the Indian version of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which also has large support within the middle classes. The BJP has its own equivalent of salafis and its ‘soft’ believers. Modi satisfies both sides.

Isn’t it ironic that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was once the darling of the Indian middle classes, is now pilloried by them as ineffective, weak and inefficient? Why do you think the middle classes and the intelligentsia have turned their back on him?

Because for them (and for anyone else) he is ineffective, weak and inefficient. An old financial bureaucrat out of his depth in the swamp of Indian politics, he rules courtesy of Sonia Gandhi. He is a pathetic figure and they can’t cover this up any longer. Will Rahul Gandhi be any better? I doubt it, though he will project a pseudo-dynamism that will mean nothing in real terms and will not be able to confront the BJP.

In the last two years India has seen unprecedented focus from activists and common citizens on government corruption. Nationwide protests have been covered unendingly on television. A whole new political party has been launched by anti-graft activists. Where do you locate that public movement in today’s India? Do you fancy the electoral chances for this new political party?

I am, in general, favourable to activism and social movements and hostile to graft and corruption. But leaping from this to an anti-politics political party is usually little more than a thunderbolt from a blue sky. It startles but its impact is limited. Look at the Pirate Party in Germany and Sweden or the demagogic movement of the Italian clown, Beppe Grillo. The only continent where social movements have led to political parties that have pushed through serious social and political reforms is in South America. And the new Indian party is far removed from the latter.

You must have followed the news of the gruesome death by burning of a factory manager at India’s largest automobile company, Maruti, near New Delhi a few months ago. Workers protesting for months with a slew of demands had allegedly attacked him. How do you see that incident and what does it say about labour-industry relations in India’s liberalised economy?

In the old days, confident of their political strength, workers in many parts of the subcontinent developed the gherao: occupy a factory and lay siege to its owners/managers. They were never, as far as I can remember, killed. Today there is hardly any political self-confidence within the workers movement. A class in itself? Certainly. But a class for itself? Not really. Angry, embittered, desperate, abandoned by the mainstream parties, workers burn an individual to demonstrate their frustration. Tragic but the reasons are obvious.

India‘s foreign policy was once premised on the ends of social and political justice. It was one of the few nations described as the conscience keepers of the world. When and how did that change?

Whether it was ever premised on that rather than an enlightened self-interest is debatable. But in any case, all that has gone. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s was the decisive event in this regard. It witnessed the emergence of the US as the only global power and the Indian elite buckled under the pressure.

The last eight years have seen a dramatic reversal in the once cold relations between India and the United States. Many in India believe that a tighter embrace with the US, especially a strategic military alliance and closer business ties, has been beneficial for India. How do you see India-US relations playing out in the coming years?

The closer business links may be beneficial for India’s capitalist class and some middle-class layers, but I doubt very much that this is the case for 70 percent of the population. The strategic military alliance is a short-sighted decision in my opinion. It makes India a US partner in the encirclement of China. Here there is little difference between the two major political configurations- Congress and BJP are both wedded to this policy and Indian-Americans exert a considerable pressure on this front. India is the weakest component of the BRICS states, in themselves not a very strong alternative. The obvious complementarity is with China, but this has been underplayed and those arguing in favour sidelined.

India and Israel have come a long way since 1992 when they established diplomatic relations. Today, India is the largest importer of military equipment from Israel. Business ties are also expanding exponentially between the two nations. Just what has made India forge such close ties with Israel when even some European nations keep Israel at arm’s length?

Money. But also the knowledge that close links with Israel open many doors within the United States. And a total indifference to Palestinian suffering. How could that not be the case when India’s treatment of Kashmiris is fairly similar. So a common colonial outlook draws them closer and in both cases the “enemies” are Muslim. So Israeli military advice in Kashmir is warmly welcomed.

The Iranian government and people have been stung by the U-turn in India’s historic compact with that nation. Tehran finds that unfair, citing its support for India, especially on Kashmir. Where do you see India-Iran relations headed?

Nowhere. For India the links with the United States/Israel are the centrepiece of its foreign policy.

Pakistan cites India’s presence in Afghanistan as an impediment to improving India-Pakistan relations. What role do you see for India in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the US-led international military forces from that country next year?

I wish that was the only impediment. The US might want India to be its point-state after they leave, but they know fully well that Pakistan and Iran are crucial to any stable future. And of the two they prefer Pakistan. Depending on what government is formed, I think India’s role will be that of an important trading partner.

What do you think are the major fault lines between India and Pakistan that hold back peace?

The military in both countries needs an enemy to justify such obscenely high levels of military spending. Kashmir remains a barrier to a lasting peace, though I have long argued that a regional settlement of some sort is required for an agreement on Kashmir and the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. There are no political leaders in either country visionary enough to do a deal, but here India as the largest entity in the region is much more responsible. Indian national-egoism is now so pronounced that it barely thinks of its smaller neighbours. It sees itself as the equivalent of the US in Asia, which is a fantasy (I hope), though it is the largest US [partner] in the continent. Pakistan is a frontline [US] ally of convenience, its Army bought for a few billion dollars. India is considered a strategic ally.

India‘s relation with China appears to be the elephant in the room insofar as public debate in India is concerned. What are the key issues that India has with China, and how do you see them progressing now that a new leadership is in place in China?

The key issue has nothing to do with China as such. It is the US-Indian alliance. This is India’s priority and so China is kept at a distance. The brave Cabinet minister who suggested many years ago that a Sino-Indian alliance was the most rational choice was sacked by Manmohan Singh at lightning speed. Strategic choices. India could have developed close links with China, but chose to do so with the United States. Short-sighted and foolish, since the US is on the offensive in Asia. The traditionally servile Australian elite recently agreed to a new US military base in Australia with alacrity. All this accompanied by hard anti-Chinese talk. President Obama (certainly the most inventive apparition of the Empire since the Second World War) underlined the imperial presence in the Far East, stressing that the US was an Asian power and warning the Chinese to “play by the rules of the road”; rules that the Chinese know are formulated, interpreted and enforced by the US. India could have played a better role in all this, but global capital has displaced national sovereignty on some levels.

India is touted as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with a robust middle class whose talent meets the best global benchmarks. With China, India is believed to be on an upward trajectory to be one of the world’s most powerful nations in a couple of decades. What do you think?

As the late Cambridge economist, Joan Robinson, famously said: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” Both economies are slowing down, but even before the onset of the 2008 recession, the robustness of the new middle classes in both countries was overrated. That they have grown is indisputable, but the disparities of wealth in both countries are huge. China is more unequal than the United States in this regard and, as the Dutch scholar Jan Breman has written in numerous books and essays, the statistics paraded by the global institutions of capital are both exaggerated and don’t take into account a number of indices that make for more sombre reading. Statistics related to the huge informal sector can be easily misread and misinterpreted. A repetition of the development of capitalism in Northern Europe and the creation of a new urban order is extremely unlikely in India and there are too many imponderables in China. Effectively what we are witnessing is huge reserve armies of unemployed and semi-employed labour who leave the land, return to it and travel [again] to find jobs wherever they can, and this circular internal migration fragments their lives, their class locations, their ability to fight for improvements, etc.

Let us turn to Pakistan, which will vote for a new government this month. The elections are considered historic because a popularly elected government has completed a full five-year term for the first ever time since its founding in 1947. How does this augur for Pakistan’s democracy?

Not accurate. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government had also completed its first term in office from 1972-77. Then General Zia-ul-Haq struck to prevent a second term. The fact that there is an election due is not a big deal as such. The question is will the power of the two rival money-making machines, Zardari’s PPP and the Sharif Brothers’ Muslim League, be broken or will the latter simply replace the former? If so nothing will change. A dark horse exists in the shape of Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party) which does promise change. If this party emerges as the single largest or second-largest then a new space might open up in Pakistan. We shall see. One huge difference between India and Pakistan is that Pakistani TV channels are light years ahead in discussing serious political issue and the debates taking place are educating the public. That is a huge plus for the democratic process. In India all the mainstream channels appear to be produced and fronted by airheads for airheads.

Former Pakistan president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf has been arrested. Reports say the Pakistan army may not be happy with the way the judiciary is moving on Musharraf. Do you think the army in Pakistan has weakened from the five-year civilian rule? Do you think democratic impulses have finally relegated the generals to the background as happened in Turkey?

The Army advised Musharraf not to play politics. He refused and got what he deserved. His sycophants should not have been trusted. It’s not democratic impulses but the United States that have kept the Army in the background in Turkey and Pakistan. They are not in favour of military rule in the present situation.

Since January 2002 when Musharraf, under US pressure banned a clutch of terror outfits, Pakistan has fought a full-scale war against militancy. Has state sponsorship of terrorist groups finally ended in Pakistan? Or do you see a re-emergence of that connection once the US-led security forces withdraw from Afghanistan?

Difficult to say. A NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would certainly help. The reason why the Pakistan Army has not launched a frontal offensive against these groups is linked to Afghanistan. They might still need them. Once that is over there are no excuses. The ISI knows perfectly well who these guys are and how they operate.

You have reported from and written on Bangladesh extensively for decades. How do you assess the recent protests against the Jamaat-e-Islami for its role in attempts to suppress the liberation movement until 1971?

I have not written on Bangladesh for a very long time. The protests are perfectly understandable and commendable but due legal processes must be followed. No lynchings. And the question arises as to why the protests are restricted to the Jamaatis. After all, major Maoist currents also operated in the same way and helped the Pakistan Army (this was China’s position at that time).

Ajit Sahi writes for the New Delhi-based paper Tehelka, where this interview originally appeared.