A Day in Delhi

On my way from Pakistan to Kerala, I stopped for a day in Delhi – I have a couple of hours left in this very interesting city. Thanks to friends I had an excellent 48 hours, though I could have stayed much longer and learned much more.

Still, a few thoughts to share. My teacher Gita Kolanad and editor of Seminar Tejbir Singh booked me into the India International Centre, which is a very comfortable haunt of academics and artists (across the street from the International Monetary Fund office actually) with an exhibit on Nelson Mandela and the South African Freedom struggle currently on and a well appointed library where I spent a few hours perusing the remarkable collection of Indian magazines.

I couldn’t help but spend time on the Economic and Political Weekly, which is always very deep and the issue I read was fantastic. It had an article on the food crisis by Prabhat Patnaik, who is a very good left economist. He argued that the current global inflation in food and energy prices masked an earlier phenomenon of global income *deflation* in the neoliberal era. The poor had experienced a drop in their income and their consumption in this period through deflation. How? Three reasons, presented here as I understand them. First, through the neoliberal restructuring and the destruction of welfare programs and subsidies that benefited them. Second, through changes in the economy that devalued their agricultural production relative to other goods (especially manufactured goods that they needed as inputs). Third, through a process he describes in another book, in which elites in the developing world spend on first-world produced goods as status symbols, leaving little surplus left over for investment or advancement of developing economies to higher technological levels (this last is an interesting argument and I think original to Patnaik). Having lost income through deflation, they are now losing again through this new type of inflation, in which basic commodities – especially energy – are rising in price. Patnaik thinks that technological substitution and advance and increased land productivity are all possible with investment, but that capitalism prevents these from being emphasized as possible solutions. I think that the scope for these is limited, but we won’t even have a sense of what the balance between limits of nature and the limits of economic organization until we have a more decent economic organization.

Most of my itinerary yesterday was orchestrated by the extraordinary Badri Raina (with honorable mention to Girish Mishra) who introduced me to Dr. Arjun Dev of NCERT, to some CPM folks, and to some folks at the journal Secular Democracy.

Arjun Dev told an interesting story of a controversy on Kerala textbooks, which he is on a committee to decide on. Apparently in a 7th grade (or 6th grade) textbook, tells a story of a young man whose father has a Muslim name and mother has a Hindu name. He registers for school and where he is to put "religion" and "caste", his father suggests he puts "none". The clerk asks the father, what if he is being grouped by religion, where will he fit. The father says if as an adult he develops religious feeling he’s free to choose.

This little lesson has apparently united the orthodox of all religions against it, from those who argue the boy’s parents’ marriage itself is illegal, to those who argue that it is encouraging atheistic ideas among youth at a tender age.

And, well, there is also one other issue that is somewhat in the media here.

That is the Indo-US nuclear deal, which is actually on everyone’s minds. The basic contours of the deal: India gets nuclear technology and aid from the US, US companies profit, India gets the chance to increase its share of nuclear energy production from about 3% to about 7%, the US gets a more reliable ally in the region, India sacrifices its chances at further integration with Iran and other neighbours, the US gets a reliable client for its military, India gets military technology by forfeiting its technological and military independence, and accepts some kind of monitoring of its nuclear program by the US. Both strategic and energy/economic arguments have been advanced for and against the deal. Proponents argue India needs the energy. Opponents argue it won’t provide much energy and will provide it at very high cost, crowding out other options (like cheaper and dirty coal, or renewables like solar and wind), and at the biggest cost of independence and integration in the region. I find the arguments of the Left on this issue to be compelling.

In two days there will be a confidence vote of the Congress-led coalition (UDA) government that the government will probably survive, freeing the government to go ahead with the nuclear deal. But in the meantime the opposition parties and the Congress are doing dozens of deals to try to get enough parliamentarians to keep the government alive (for the ruling party) or bring it down (for the opposition). Those who will vote against the government include the religious (Hindu) right-wing BJP, who helped run the country into the ground and unleash horrific communalism while they were in power, and the Left, who oppose the nuclear deal because it subordinates India’s foreign policy to that of the US in Asia.

The nuclear deal obviously needs more explanation and I will do some more of it here, I hope, in the coming days, but I did want to say that while many are accusing the Left of effectively supporting the BJP, it seems to me that the Left had to do what it did. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M or CPM) supported the Congress-led coalition from the outside on the basis of a common minimum program. It did so to prevent the right-wing from forming a coalition and in the process helped shift the center of gravity of the government at least somewhat left. When the Congress party started trying to push through the nuclear deal with the United States much more rapidly, probably because of US electoral timelines (and possibly US short-term strategic considerations in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran) and including using procedural tricks to exclude the CPM from the details and timing of the deal, the Left either had to call the bluff or back down. Because they withdrew their support, they are accused of effectively helping the right and of being dogmatic. Had they not withdrawn their support, they would have been accused of acceding to imperialism and of being weak and unprincipled. In any case, what credibility does the smaller party in a coalition have once it is known there are no red lines that it won’t cross? It is unfortunate that it is only such threats that can force centrist parties to not act like right-wing parties (and that only sometimes), but it in this world is better to have such threats than not.

(I can’t help but think of the Canadian parallel. In 2006, the NDP was supporting a Liberal minority government and asked the Liberals for a ban on private health care in Canada among other things. The Liberals wouldn’t do it, so the NDP withdrew support, and the Liberals lost the election. Now we have Conservatives in Canada and it sucks. But the Liberals and Conservatives share most policies on economics and have virtually no differences on foreign policy. JK Galbraith, economist and observer of the US, once said something like when voters have the choice between fake right-wing and real-right wing, they’ll chose the real thing. Hopefully they will have more choices in Canada, and India too).

Badri anyway doesn’t think the BJP can win much more than they already have in an election. As we drove by the house of LK Advani, the BJP leader (who just wrote an unbelievably long and, by the reviews, not very good, autobiography), Girish said: "That’s the house of the Prime-Minister-in-Waiting". Badri replied: "Yeah, he’s going to keep waiting."

I hope in the coming days (depending on uncertain internet connections and schedules) I’ll get to explain a little more about the details of the nuclear deal and the politics of it. Also some more thoughts on India’s economy, its progress, and its attempts to join the first world – in wealth, in consumerism, and in exploiting and excluding vast numbers of people. All first world countries have an internal third world. With India, that world is still the majority and the gap between the worlds is bigger, and in some ways, more stark.

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