Could Tamil Nadu become a republic?
India's future is bleak
Fabian Heppe and Marius Mühlhausen - The writer PANKAJ MISHRA lives part of the year far away from the Indian metropolises in the village of Mashobra not far from the Himalayan mountains. He is one of the leading intellectuals in his country. The 45-year-old has received numerous awards for his recently published book "From the Ruins of the Empire". Fabian Heppe and Marius Mühlhausen spoke to him about the central challenges of the largest democracy in the world for the "Berlin Republic"
In the Indian parliamentary elections in April and May, the Hindu nationalists of the Indian People's Party achieved an absolute majority. How did the newly sworn Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party achieve such a success?
It is mainly young unemployed people from the middle class who hope that Modi will bring the country forward. This partially angry and frustrated mass now finally wants to reap the fruits of capitalism. Modi promised that, and voters believed him. But anyone who knows Modi's history must doubt his leadership qualities.
Tell us his story.
In his home state Gujarat there is still a climate of hatred today: Muslims live marginalized and frightened in ghettos - nobody wants them. Modi has been the head of the Gujarat government without interruption since 2001 and has failed to pacify the conflicts. It has even been linked to the 2002 killings of Muslims. During the election campaign, Modi and his supporters identified Indian minorities as a threat to the country. Anyone who thinks that India is now flourishing modern progress is very wrong.
In the past, it was often elections that saved India from further outbreaks of violence because people felt upset. Isn't the high turnout of 66 percent a good sign?
The political unity of India remains fragile. Many voters - regardless of whether they are Christians or Muslims - are demanding more rights of self-determination for their own region or even independence. The previously ruling Congress party had managed to unite all castes and communities reasonably peacefully under its roof. With a Hindu nationalist party in power, India now faces an uncertain future.
How did this radical change in voter behavior come about?
India has long been a one-party democracy, but the rising politicization of the lower castes and uneven economic growth have increased centrifugal forces in the country. This is mainly due to the new inequality that is closely interwoven with the capitalist system.
India's fragile situation has long since become permanent. The country has been in an identity crisis since its independence more than 60 years ago.
To understand that, one has to look far back in history. One can begin with the division of the country in 1947: The division into Pakistan and India was a momentous setback for both countries. Half a century of hostilities followed, while politics was ruled by an extremely expensive arms race with Pakistan.
To what extent does the past occupation by the British Empire still play a role in politics in India today?
The colonial rulers drove many Indians into dire straits and demanded great hardship from the country. Therefore the level of education, the public health system and the infrastructure were completely underdeveloped. Unlike many East Asian countries like South Korea, Japan and even China, we have never really invested in these key public goods. We also missed entering international trade at the right time. Our industrial sector was never really competitive and not innovative enough for the world market.
The liberal economic reforms introduced in 1991 finally brought high growth and jobs to India. They are also the reason why many experts today are calling for the country to be further liberalized.
In particular, economists at the elite universities in the United States such as Jagdish Bhagwati believe that this economic course should be pursued. However, they deliberately remain vague in their explanations. Nevertheless, these people now play a decisive role in Indian economic policy and their importance should not be underestimated. In their influence they resemble the Chicago Boys in Pinochet's Chile or the Harvard Boys in Yeltsin's Russia. It is clear that economic liberalization primarily benefited those corporate families that had previously benefited from protectionism. In the end, a few got very rich, while the majority did not feel any change and will not feel it in the future either.
Because India's economic structure is still not creating enough jobs?
Yes, our industrial production is too weak for that. It doesn't grow, it actually decreases. Meanwhile, politicians miss out on investing enough in public goods. As a result, much of society simply does not have the education to become part of India's acclaimed computer science sector.
The new prime minister wants to attract foreign investors first in order to stimulate the ailing growth ...
... and overlooks the fact that an economy has never been successful in the long term through external investments alone. Money can migrate too quickly and the 1990s have shown in many East Asian economies how fatal the consequences are. India is a land of small farmers and small to medium-sized business people. Any action must take this into account instead of meeting the needs of international finance, rating agencies and investors. But that is exactly what Modi intends with his course, which is highly dubious.
Where do you see the greatest dangers for India?
A look at Europe's history shows us that the European fascists also promised the masses to advance modernization. Today we know at what price they did this. India should learn from Europe's terrible experiences that individual freedom and social diversity must not fall victim to economic efficiency. It is tragic that India has to experience this itself, but that is the fate of all states that believe in the ideology of economic growth without finding their own way into modernity.
According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, the net worth of Indian billionaires has increased twelve-fold in the past 15 years. Couldn't redistribution programs also reduce the poverty rate initially?
The next government would be expected to redistribute more, but the billionaires' tax breaks will continue to apply. The large landowners and the natural gas and telecommunications moguls have been receiving enormous loans from state banks for years, which they usually do not repay. Then even if there is growth, it is growth at the expense of the community.
Modi is also so popular because he promises to ensure law and order and to work against corruption by politicians.
He won't keep this promise either. The politicians and their parties are financially dependent on the big companies. It is therefore clear: the hopeful masses will not benefit from Modi's economic policy, but the large corporations.
Poverty remains one of India's greatest challenges.
The topic is currently mainly left to economists with their penchant for statistical gimmicks. But measuring poverty on the basis of income alone does not go far enough. How can we explain that the per capita increase in calories in India has decreased when poverty is said to have decreased statistically at the same time? I live in an Indian village and I know that even if people earn a higher income from a job in a factory or an office, their quality of life can decrease due to environmental pollution, disintegrated family structures and poor nutrition.
In many cities, pollution is already a health hazard. But how can India imitate Western capitalism without causing an ecological catastrophe?
This shows once again that we have to fundamentally rethink our conception of Indian society and its economic policy. Pollution is essential because it will increase in the years to come. This is another reason why we cannot allow ourselves to push ahead with urbanization like in China. We also have to consider that too many people in India still live in a pre-modern world. Who wants to force them to give up their traditional life - only to end up living in a polluted city like Mumbai in a slum where poverty is rampant? Trying to catch up with the West in global competition and only imitate the superficial aspects of modernity must fail in a state like India.
The Indian caste system also cemented poverty.
In general, the rigid caste system is the greatest obstacle to a modern Indian society. The profound hierarchical order inhibits any progress in the country that could enable liberal civil rights for everyone. For the past two decades, some free market enthusiasts - who prefer to live in the United States themselves - have tried to convince us that the market economy is a free place for all walks of life. The market, they say, can break through any obstacle to advancement and create justice. We now know that origins dominate the future, even in rich western countries.
How can this system be abolished?
The solution cannot be of a purely economic nature, but has to be shaped politically. Our constitution founder Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who himself belonged to the lowest Dalit caste, pointed out early on that rights can only be achieved through active struggle. They are not simply granted by political power. Strong civil society movements have emerged in Indian states such as Kerala, Tamil and Nadu. The caste system there is now the weakest in a domestic Indian comparison. People must stand up for their rights and dignity.
What should Modi tackle most urgently?
He is the prime minister of a large and unpredictable country. In order to rule, he needs social and ethnic harmony. That is clear even to Modi. At the same time, what he can and will do must not obscure what he stands for. He wants to resurrect India as a military nation-state supported by a common Hinduism. At best, minorities are only excluded from the majority society. A reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus, for example, can only succeed if Modi breaks with his followers. Otherwise he cannot become a liberal democrat and free India from sectarian political culture under his government. Then things will look bad for the country in the future.
Thank you very much for the conversation.
Pankaj Mishra's new book "A Great Clamor: Encounters with China and Its Neighbors" will be published in spring 2015 in German by S. Fischer Verlag.
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