Global India?


Full-page ad in the Times of India, February 15, 2017. Photo: Kenneth Surin.

I was last in India over 50 years ago.  In the mid-1960s I was on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London, and Mumbai (or Bombay as it was then called) was a refuelling stop.

In the transit lounge we were informed that “all civilian flights are suspended until further notice due to military operations”.

India was having one of its periodic wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, so I spent the next 12 hours or so wandering around a very crowded airport that was stifling hot and without air-conditioning, with very little in those days to distract the delayed traveller, except to watch the seemingly endless procession of Indian Air Force giant Hercules turbo-prop cargo planes lumbering towards their take-off runway.  As one took-off another landed.

It was so hot that the planes had their cockpit windows wide-open as they were taxiing, and many were piloted by Sikhs in imposing Indian air-force turbans, but otherwise dispensing with their uniforms and wearing much more comfortable but incongruous-looking “wife-beaters” instead.

The several inconclusive wars over Kashmir have only served to entrench both sides more deeply in a status quo that persists to this day.

Today Mumbai has a spanking new international airport that is the glorified mall all contemporary international airports have become.

What hasn’t changed is the Indian fondness for labyrinthine bureaucracy.  At the immigration desk, all fingers and thumbs had to be scanned, the thumbs separately, and the fingers of the left-hand first, followed by the right-hand.  The scanning machines were refusing to cooperate, so each individual procedure had to be repeated a dozen times or more before a satisfactory result was achieved.  Other passengers seemed to be encountering the same problem.

I was tempted to suggest that simply finger-printing one hand would suffice, or India could arrange with China to import the finger-scanning machines used by its immigration service, which are the acme of bureaucratic-technological excellence, but decided my potentially helpful suggestions would not be received in the right spirit.

Moreover, the Indian love affair with bureaucracy, given the pejorative name ‘babudom” (a babu being any kind of scribe or official dealing with forms, signatures, and official stamps and seals), has an undeniable charm in a world dominated by impersonal barcodes, chip-IDs, and scanning machines.

There is of course an obverse side to this charm– a scanning machine can’t demand a bribe (at least not yet), but officialdom can, as we were reminded by a large poster in the airport’s immigration and customs area, which provided a hotline number to call in case any kind of unofficial payment is solicited from travellers.

The hotline information seemed to be there less for the traveller, and more for the “benefit” of the functionaries sitting at the booths next to the large poster.

Our friendly little hotel has an old-fashioned register that had to be filled in by hand.  Anyone who watches those American TV shows with titles like “Hotel Impossible” or “Hotel Hell” will know that anything that must be handwriting at the registration desk is recommended for the chop in the first few minutes of the show.  At our hotel, I had however several opportunities to produce my signature in the best cursive I could muster.

India, confronting the inrush of globalization but also understandably dragging its feet when it comes to abandoning its past, or even reinventing a Disneyfied and fantasized version of this pre-globalized past, is clearly at a social and cultural crossroads.

In Mumbai one is confronted by signs of Disneyfication, but it all seems to be imported because the modus operandi associated with Disneyfication in the non-west is… westernization, or “modernization” (to give it its other name).  Hence, the omnipresent western fast-food chains of deserved notoriety are much in evidence, but so too are local establishments advertising “western food” — “Belgian” waffles, “Mexican” tacos, “English” fish and chips, “French” pastries, and so on.

A litmus test of sorts to be used when visiting a non-western culture is to ask the question “what here can’t be Disneyfied?” (the assumption here being that nearly everything in the west is already Disneyfied or on the threshold of being Disneyfied, that is, commodified on a more or less massive scale).

Of course, as locals will be the first to tell you, some things can’t be Disneyfied because they are just too awful to be “-fied” in any way– a hell-hole of an eatery for instance.

But a lot else resists commodification, including many kinds of artisanal production.  The obvious danger here is that these will be wiped-out precisely because they can’t be commodified for standardized consumption, or else driven lower down the value-chain in order to survive, with detrimental outcomes for the livelihoods of producers and the quality of what they produce.

Globalization goes hand in with neoliberalism, and in India today this is synonymous with its ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which promotes an amalgam of Hindu cultural nationalism (Hindutva) and economic neoliberalism.

The cultural nationalism serves as an enticement to the Hindu majority and the neoliberalism appeals to the upper-middle class, while the neoliberalism also stiffs those who are thus enticed but not really able to benefit from economic neoliberalism.

Pretty much the same toxic formula has been adopted by Bannon-Trump in the US, and by the Little Englander Brexit Tories in the UK (with whom Theresa May, the archetypal “woman without qualities”, has cast her lot, despite having voted Remain in the referendum on EU membership).   It’s one big con, and so far, it’s been working.

The leader of the BJP and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is praised in the mainstream media for his policies on development, but his achievement, both as Prime Minister since 2014 and the Chief Minister of Gujarat before that, has been to raise GDP with no corresponding increase in the standard indicators of human well-being.

In fact, there have been declines in some key indicators, which is hardly surprising, given that Modi has boosted the private sector by slashing social spending.  (Modi’s slogan for the upcoming elections: “A thumping victory for total development”.)

Under the BJP, big industry and agriculture, thanks to significant corporate tax reductions, privatizations, and the weakening of environmental regulations where industry and larger-scale agriculture are concerned, have flourished at the expense of small farmers, daily wage labourers, construction workers, and farm labourers.

A previous freeze on GMO crops has also been lifted, much to the delight of Monsanto and Beyer.

The less privileged have been fobbed-off with the BJP’s “Clean India” campaign, involving a raft of sanitation measures (in lieu of actual spending on healthcare), including an attempt to stamp out defecation in public by building more toilets.

The rich people get the real goodies, the dirty poor are made to clean up their act, albeit with a little help from their government.  Shades of Victorian England, with its missionary zeal for improving the hygiene of the impoverished masses (while cramming the most indigent of them into poor houses).

This skewed policy outlook was very much in evidence in the recent demonetization scandal.  A lot of the activities associated with India’s shadow economy involve transactions using 500 and 1000 rupee notes.  Many of these activities are deemed by the government to be criminal.

On 9 November 2016 Modi made a televised speech at 8.15pm, saying that at midnight the same day the 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender, and would have to be exchanged for the equivalent denominations in a new currency.

Immediate chaos ensued, as banks ran out of the new notes, and liquidity bottlenecks jammed-up key economic sectors.

Especially hard hit were the rural poor, who tend to hold whatever savings they have in hard cash, and did not have enough time to make long journeys to the banks in towns and cities to exchange their cash holdings for the new currency.  Those unable to do this in time were wiped-out financially.

Demonetization was publicized as a populist gesture directed at the ill-gotten gains of the rich.  However, the well-off, unsurprisingly, had the resources and know-how to avoid the inconveniences and traps encountered by the poor when the currency change was implemented.

Employers off-loaded their old currency by paying their employees a year in advance, thereby placing the onus on the latter to make the requisite exchanges for the new currency.

Immediate purchases of jewellery, gold, and other high-value items were made in the old rupee notes, ensuring in this way that personal stocks of equivalent value remained despite demonetization.

Direct cash transfers to relatives in foreign countries also preserved these stocks of value, by placing them in the temporary custody of relatives in the form of US, Australian, or Canadian dollars, British sterling, or the currencies of the Gulf States.

If you were Indian and had a fair amount of money at the time of Modi’s speech, this was a good time to have a daughter or son in Palo Alto, Dubai, Toronto, Sydney, or Birmingham, England.

The demonetization debacle has however barely dented Modi’s consistently high ratings in the opinion polls. This is based on the perception that he is competent, and has so far avoided the more obvious kinds of venality.   In any event, the bar for this had already been set pretty low by the rival Congress party which ruled India since independence.

Gorging itself on decades in power, the Congress party, beholden to political dynasties at every level– beginning with the Nehruvian dynasty at the top (though largely going by the name of Gandhi once Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi took over) — became a byword for corruption, nepotism, and clientelism.  When discussing specific Indian politicians with people at my academic conference the term “goonda (thug) politician” was much used.

Modi, by contrast, is known to be frugal and unostentatious (except when it comes to fashionable clothes) in his personal life.  A few instances of corruption apart, the BJP is widely perceived to follow Modi’s personal example.  But the story does not end here.

Hindutva at its core is a form of authoritarian communalism, and Modi, without actually falling foul of the law, had a highly troubling record in his handling of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat.  He has been cleared of complicity in the riots by the judicial system, but at the same time it is clear he sat on his hands in his capacity as Chief Minister while Muslim-majority areas were ethnically cleansed by gangs of Hindus.

During the 2002 riots, Modi effectively did what Brits call a “Nelson”, a reference to the famous admiral Horatio Nelson who originated the phrase “turning a blind eye”.  Nelson, having lost an eye early in his naval career, was ordered to retreat by his commander during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.  In those pre-radio days communication between ships was by a system of signal-flags, and Nelson ignored his commander’s order by putting his telescope to his blind eye when the flag for a retreat was hoisted on the commander’s ship.

If Nelson’s act could be considered brave (he won the Battle of Copenhagen, and his over-cautious superior who ordered the retreat got the sack and was replaced by the intrepid Nelson), Modi’s turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing can only be viewed as an act of cowardice or much worse.

The BJP’s combination of communalism and neoliberalism is not going to work for India.

Hindutva, like white nationalism in the US, is a fabulation, albeit with real effects, some of them disastrous.  This fabulation is incapable of dealing with the problems of a vast multi-ethnic country with a complex society.

At the same time, neoliberalism– the quintessential ideology of the 1%– is not going to meet the needs of those who are much more likely to be its victims than its beneficiaries.

A striking sight at any restaurant or commercial establishment here is the ample presence of attendants, retainers, door-openers, bag carriers, sweepers, and so forth.  Some seem barely able-bodied.

The academic economists, in their “objective” social-scientific way, call this phenomenon “disguised unemployment”, while their corporate counterparts use the terms “over-staffing” or “over-manning”.  In the west, these employees are invariably viewed as a drag on profits and given the boot in the name of “efficiency”.

Call it what one may, there is something deeply humane about this way of employing people.  Every human being has the right to a decent life, and for most people in capitalist societies a job is the minimal enabling condition for having this life.

The practice of sharing work, for this is what it is, is a superior alternative to the dog-eat-dog neoliberal world of atomized “gig” jobs, “zero hours” contracts, and so on– the kind of world Narendra Modi wants for India.

What the west, and not just India, needs is in fact the massive extension of work-sharing, buttressed by a basic income.

The expansion and deepening of solidaristic networks, and practices based on mutualism and cooperation, is the only alternative to barbarism.

Striving for this is much more significant and far-reaching than fretting about whether you’ll have a Muslim or Pole (or union member!) as your new neighbour when the people next door move house.

Fox News, the Daily Mail and Daily Express, as well as the Bannon-Trumps and Theresa Mays of this world, would rather you fretted in this way and voted accordingly.  This, after all, is their best chance of remaining in power.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.