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01 August, 2009

The Zen Tiger: India 's Elections And The Magic Of Fareed Zakaria


Writing a defence of unfettered capitalism after the economic meltdown that left millions of people in the U.S. and all over the world jobless may seem a daunting task, rather like convincing people mauled by a tiger that the beast is actually a vegetarian and a practising Buddhist, and its latest manifestation of bloodthirstiness is merely an aberration in a life steeped in good works. In short, we need a virtuoso display of smoke and mirrors by skilled wordsmiths, able to perform the linguistic legerdemain to avert the danger that people may begin to question the system or seek to curb its excesses. Fortunately for the system, such commentators are not in short supply. Pay them well, and they will spin your yarns for you. They will lull and soothe. They will numb and dumb. In their hands, words anesthetize us into compliance; they keep us cheering for our oppressors even as we are devoured to the last crumb.

Consider Fareed Zakaria's recent cover essay “The Capitalist Manifesto,” ( Newsweek , June 22, 2009 ). Like other articles of the “everything's OK, relax” school, it unspools line after line of lucid, well-considered prose, all in a bid to convince us, the public, that the system that left so many of us jobless, homeless, uninsured, that gutted our life savings and splintered our dreams, is still the best option we have. If we could only overlook the tiger's unfortunate propensity occasionally to run amok spreading death and destruction in its wake, we would realize that it's really our best friend and how silly we would be to ever think of shackling such an adorable creature. The crisis now upon us, says Mr. Zakaria, is not one of capitalism, but of ethics. A few ethics management classes, and voila! The magician will have produced his miracle. The tiger will fetter and muzzle itself – it's a Buddhist, remember? A cuddly Zen tiger. A tiger you can trust.

or a moment Mr. Zakaria almost had me believing in miracles.
Until, that is, I confronted the following lines:

The simple truth is that with all its flaws, capitalism remains the most productive economic engine we have yet invented. Like Churchill's line about democracy, it is the worst of all economic systems, except for the others. Its chief vindication today has come halfway across the world, in countries like China and India , which have been able to grow and pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty by supporting markets and free trade. Last month India held elections during the worst of this crisis. Its powerful left-wing parties campaigned against liberalization and got their worst drubbing at the polls in 40 years.

The Indian elections, in Mr. Zakaria's view, constituted a popular mandate for “free trade” and “liberalization.”

Suddenly I am alert again, skeptical, sullenly refusing to accept Mr. Zakaria's avuncular assurances that uncontrolled capitalism is my ticket to the best of all possible economic worlds. I have breached the cardinal rule of successful magic: do not look too close; do not examine too deeply; allow yourself to be swept up in the moment; accept the illusion and feel its soporific joys stealing over your faculties of reason and logic. Alas, that some of us are born to cavil and to quibble, to peer into hats and to twitch aside curtains, to ask the questions that break the spell and spoil the fun! We are a tribe of heretics and party poopers, and if you decide to stay enchanted, stop reading here. What lies ahead is not pretty, and not prettified.

Others have preceded me in responding to the broader aspects of Mr. Zakaria's essay, notably Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone and Nick Beams of WSWS . What interests me most, however, is not so much Mr. Zakaria's defence of capitalism, for in this he is by no means alone. There exists a whole constellation of media luminaries, from Thomas Friedman to George F. Will, who constantly remind us of the virtues of the free market. I address Mr. Zakaria's work in particular here not for the claims he makes, which are not new, but for the context – India 's elections – in which he makes them. As Newsweek 's International Editor, Mr. Zakaria's words reach a vast audience, some of whom may not be familiar with the real issues that underlay this year’s election results in India . In fact, it might not be too much to say that many readers will form their opinions of the contemporary political climate in India based on what Mr. Zakaria and other widely known mainstream commentators tell their readers. It is necessary, therefore, to examine more carefully Mr. Zakaria's implied claim of widespread popular support for “free trade,” “capitalism,” “free markets,” liberalization,” call it what you will – a tiger by any other name - in the world's largest democracy – India.

Mr. Zakaria manages a fairly impressive series of rhetorical feats here, which are worth analyzing at some length. Without saying so directly, he succeeds in implying that the “hundreds of millions of people” supposedly pulled out of poverty, arising like so many Lazarii out of their grave-clothes, have recognized and feted the messiah of free trade responsible for their revivification. Such a mandate, if given at all, would apply only to India, for China's newly enriched millions, if they exist at all, never had the pleasure of endorsing their free trade bonanza. All the same, reading Mr. Zakaria's paean, one is left with the distinct impression that had the Chinese been able to vote, they would have supplied such endorsement. Lost in all the rejoicing, however, is one small detail – China is not a democracy in any sense of the word. Its people do not get a chance to say what they think – electorally or otherwise -- and the Chinese government has built up something of a reputation for the swift and brutal crushing of most forms of dissent. These finer points, however, find no mention in Mr. Zakaria's ringing exaltation of the capitalist system. As long as a nation's government embraces capitalism, he seems to be saying, whether or not its citizens live in a participatory democracy is a secondary consideration.

Passing lightly, then, over Mr. Zakaria's personal miracle – that of conflating two such different political systems as those of China and India under the unifying banner of “free trade” -- I approach the second part of his statement: India 's “powerful left-wing parties campaigned against liberalization and got their worst drubbing at the polls in 40 years.” By this point in the argument, one is beginning to appreciate the more subtle nuances of Mr. Zakaria's style. The above statement is not, strictly speaking, a lie – at least the latter part is not, the former being very partially true. Yet the gap between Mr. Zakaria's analysis and the realities on the ground yawns so wide that readers are likely to come away with a staggeringly distorted picture of what really happened.

One must give credit where it is due – Mr. Zakaria is a very fine writer, even if he chooses not to employ his considerable gifts in the service of the truth. Language can be used to clarify as well as to obfuscate; to serve the interests of the rich and powerful or to lend eloquence to the sufferings of the poor and voiceless. It can be used to buttress the status quo or to stoke the fires of revolutionary social change. Mr. Zakaria, it is clear, has chosen the former course. For instance, he makes no mention of the fact that the only “anti-liberalization” plank of the Left was its opposition to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. The Left's position in this regard may have displeased those members of the upper and middle class of English-speaking Indians who are enamoured of the idea of India as a “global power,” as Ms. Clinton has recently dubbed a country whose infant mortality rate is worse than that of some countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Zakaria, born in Mumbai, is himself a member of this elite class, and it is perhaps natural that he should share with them the kind of blinkered reality that sees no implausibility in this fabulous monster, no contradiction between some of the worst development indices in the world and a budding superpower identifying one and the same country. But it is hardly to be expected that the people whose misery such indices quantify are going to be very impressed by the mendacious logic of a Zakaria or a Clinton.

In fact, even the Left, and its leading party the CPI(M), did not make much of an effort, beyond a poorly executed public march, to use the nuclear deal as a political hobby-horse. In any case, the Indian Left had a strong presence in only two of the country's 28 states: Kerala and West Bengal. Of the two, Kerala is a swing state, alternating between electing a Congress and a Marxist government. In West Bengal , on the other hand, the CPI(M)-led Left coalition defeated the Congress in 1977 and has since then been returned to power every time for the past 32 years. West Bengal's electoral results thus provide a crucial part of the evidence for Mr. Zakaria's assertion of the Left parties receiving “their worst drubbing in 40 years.”

Responsible for the electoral outcome that humbled the once mighty left were Bengal's humblest themselves, the peasants and sharecroppers whose unwavering support had sustained the coalition for over three decades. Aligned with the Left were big business houses, and the electoral result therefore constituted not only a clear mandate against liberalization, but also a vote for “Ma,” “Mati,” and “Manush,” (Mother, Land and People), the campaign slogan of the TMC, the party that stepped adroitly into the breach that the Left's rightward tilt had providentially opened up in the public goodwill. Even mainstream media outlets attributed the Left's poor showing at the polls to its anti-populist and pro-business policies. Indeed, some news reports went so far as to express anxiety for the party's prospects before the elections had actually taken place, noting that the Party had already been defeated in the local Assembly elections in those places that had been most affected by its unpopular policies: Singur and Nandigram. To talk of the Left receiving a drubbing without mentioning these two names, as Mr. Zakaria has done, is rather like narrating the tale of Napoleon's defeat without once alluding to Waterloo.

The Defeat of the Left: Singur

Singur was the first place to feel the winds of political change ushered in by a “reformist” Left. The government's tactics were rich in Orwellian irony: it used an ancient 1894 British colonial era land acquisition law to tell the farmers of Singur that they were shortly to be dispossessed of their land, where plans were afoot to set up a car manufacturing factory for the “people's car,” the low-cost Nano, by the Indian multinational, Tata, one of the country's richest and most influential business conglomerates. The farmers and sharecroppers at Singur learned, to their shock, that the fertile, multi-crop land where they grew greens and potatoes and which had sustained them for generations was somehow set down in the government's records as “mono-crop.” The government further insulted the farmers by offering them a one-time compensation for the land many regarded not as a mere possession, but as the source of their common identity.
When the tiger is close upon you, and you can feel its hot breath in your face and see the jaws open and the teeth gleam, reality has a way of breaking through the wordspell. Not all Mr. Zakaria's eloquence could have convinced Singur's residents of the benefits of “liberalization” when their lands and livelihoods were the sacrifices demanded. They rose in revolt against the expropriation of their land. The government fought back, using state police and thugs who had long formed the muscle power of the party cadres. A teenage girl, Tapasi Malik, who had been in the forefront of her people's struggle for land preservation, paid a horrific price. She was raped, apparently by a gang, murdered, and her body burnt and thrown in the fields. Others who lost their land committed suicide, acts that the government refused to acknowledge as having anything to do with the forcible dispossession of land – when it acknowledged them at all.

The CPI(M)'s political rivals, the Congress included, were not slow to take advantage of the situation. Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress, who had long languished in the political wilderness, being the only member of her party to win a parliamentary seat from West Bengal, swiftly cast herself and her party as the new champions of the toiling masses – the very people who had been the Left's staunchest supporters. Banerjee also formed a politically convenient alliance with the Congress. The high-handed attempts of the CPI(M) to suppress the popular resistance created a gap into which the TMC quickly and gleefully stepped. The resistance continued for so long that the Tatas were finally compelled to announce that they were withdrawing from Singur, but by then the seeds of distrust in the Left had already been sown in the popular psyche – and they would bear swifter and bloodier fruit in the next town to be mauled by the Left's new found capitalist sympathies – Nandigram.

The Defeat of the Left: Nandigram

With Singur, it had been a car factory; in Nandigram, the Left Front wished to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for the Salim group of Indonesia, which had first risen to prominence during the murderous U.S.-supported dictatorship of Suharto, and which maintains close ties with the Suharto family. Here again the government attempted to dispossess the farmers to make way for the “free trade” saviour, but the residents of Nandigram, like those in Singur, proved curiously disinclined to assist in their own salvation – perhaps because they did not see it as such.
Moreover, they had been alerted by what had happened in Singur and were better prepared to resist. They dug up roads, formed a committee, the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (Land Expropriation Resistance Committee) or BUPC and blockaded their village, refusing access to outsiders.

This time the government, finding that persuasion was vain, unleashed a series of brutal state terror campaigns. Throughout 2008, on several occasions, government-sponsored death squads, including police, descended on Nandigram and went on a spree of vicious beatings, rapes, lootings, arson and murders. Police refused to register the victims' complaints and the government hospitals refused to provide needed medical care for the injured. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented the abuses and subsequent government indifference. More than a hundred people had died and Nandigram had become a national flashpoint for workers' rights when the government finally decided to move its SEZ elsewhere. It left behind a people bereaved, traumatized – and a general distrust and seething anger in large sections of the poorest citizens, who had thought of the Left as at least having some concern, however inadequate, for their well-being. Now that faith lay irrevocably shattered.

The Defeat of the Left: The Muslim Angle

Other reasons also contributed to popular disaffection with the Left, though none of them had to do with some newfound enthusiasm for “free trade.” One such incident was the Rizwan Noor case, where Noor, a young Muslim man, was allegedly murdered while in police custody for having a relationship with the daughter of a wealthy Hindu family. Many strongly suspected that government collusion in the cover-up of any investigation into Noor's death, causing widespread resentment among Muslims, who had earlier been largely supportive of the Left because of the latter's secular credentials. The second such blow to the image of the Left fell when the Sachar Committee released its report. The committee found that even though one in four of West Bengal 's population was Muslim, they made up only 4.7% of the nation's workforce. Not unnaturally, many Muslims began to rethink their support for the Left.

Left, Right, Left: The Struggle Continues

At the time of writing, the resistance of West Bengal 's poor against the unholy alliance of big business and a government that calls itself communist still continues apace. The tribal populations of Lalgarh (the name, tellingly, means “Red Fortress”) now face similar dispossession from their land in order to make way for a steel plant, to be built on another such “liberalized” SEZ. The tribals, understandably unwilling to buy into this definition of “liberalization' that threatens to deprive them of their livelihoods and reduce them to a sort of economic slavery, have put up a spirited fight to retain possession of their land. This response has resulted in the usual repression by a government determined not to tolerate stubborn citizens who refuse to participate in their own destitution, who see through the spin and will not be deluded. Zen the tiger, if you can; if you can't, send in the militia.

Beyond West Bengal

Although this article has focused mostly on West Bengal, for reasons that I have already explained, the defeat of the Left Front and the victory of the Congress at the Centre do not constitute, by any means, a popular mandate for “free trade.” As the respected economist Venkatesh Athreya has pointed out, a host of factors, both local and national, have brought about the Congress victory. What has been conspicuously absent is the very thing Mr. Zakaria claims to be largely responsible for the Left's defeat: a public expression of support for big business and its concomitant policies of forced expropriation of land, suppression of dissent by violence, and intended suspension of human rights and environmental protections. On the contrary, the people have rejected strongly the hypocrisy of a Janus-faced party that calls itself “Left,” and “Communist,” yet aligns itself with powerful capitalists against its own constituents.

Mr. Zakaria's analysis Zens the tiger. It perpetuates the lie that the economic hardships we now face are temporary, that though slumps may come, they are merely interruptions in a larger narrative of shared prosperity, that capitalism is inherently a sound system needing no outside control. Myths like this are very comforting, especially in a time of crisis, when people cling all the harder to the ideological absolutes in which they have been taught to put their trust. But tigers are not vegetarian; they are not Buddhists; they are not naturally inclined to pacifism. Not very comforting. Not very reassuring. But the truth.

Pubali Ray Chaudhuri lives and writes in Newark , California . Her articles have appeared in India Currents, Axis of Logic and Online Journal .

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