Prem Shankar Jha

With every passing hour since the hold up on the flyover in Punjab, it is becoming more and more apparent that Modi intends to use it as an excuse for avoiding an election in Punjab that the BJP is bound to lose.

Modi Is Most Dangerous When He Senses He Is Losing Ground
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: pmindia.gov.in

Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi not attained the height of power in politics, he would have reached the heights of fame in theatre. For that is all that his nearly uncontrollable rage at having been thwarted from reaching Hussainiwala for his scheduled public meeting on January 5 was – pure theatre. All that had happened to provoke his rage on January 5 was a 15-minute hold up on a flyover 30 km short of where he was scheduled to unveil a National Martyrs Memorial that day.

Such holdups have happened to virtually every prime minister in the past 75 years, including at least twice to Modi himself. But neither his predecessors nor he had thought of turning these minor setbacks into a pretext for declaring president’s rule and dismissing an elected state government.  

But with every passing hour since the hold up on the flyover, it is becoming more and more apparent that even if it was not engineered by the BJP from the start, Modi now intends to use that minor mishap as an excuse for avoiding an election in Punjab that he and his party are bound to lose. 

Modi’s accusation that the Punjab government was behind the farmers’ blockade is ridiculous. Neither the government nor the farmers could have known that the prime minister would be travelling by road, as the decision not to travel by helicopter because of inclement weather was taken only after he reached Bathinda airport by plane from Delhi. 

The flyover was 92 kilometres from Bathinda airport, so it would have taken ninety or so minutes for his cavalcade to reach the flyover. That is an extremely short period of time even for the farmers’ union, let alone the state government, to organise a jatha and get it to the flyover. It is far more plausible, therefore, that the blockade had been organised, as farmer leaders have insisted, to stop buses ferrying BJP supporters from reaching the meeting ground. 

Farmers stage a demonstration to block Prime Minister Narendra Modis cavalcade, in Ferozepur, January 5, 2022. Photo: PTI

Had Modi been determined to reach Hussainiwala, his cavalcade could easily have diverted to one of the many metalled rural roads with which rural Punjab is crisscrossed. A vast network of such roads has been created by mandi committees over the past several decades to facilitate the rapid transport of the harvest.

But Modi did not even contemplate doing so. It is far more likely, therefore, that he decided to turn back because he was informed by his security staff, who had been at the site for the previous five days, that the crowd turnout at the meeting ground, when the BJP had hired chairs to seat 70,000, was not very encouraging. 

Modi’s barely veiled accusation that the Punjab Congress had conspired with Khalistanis and Pakistan to put his life in danger is as ridiculous as his party’s earlier accusation that the farmers’ struggle against the new farm laws was also the work of anti-national ‘Khalistanis’. But the way in which he made it – by thanking the Punjab chief minister for “allowing him to return to Bathinda alive” – smacks of more than merely an oversized ego that does not take any setback easily.  

For Modi had an hour or more to think of what he would say to the media when he returned to Bathinda. And since then, his party has spared no effort to paint the hold up on the flyover as a premeditated attack upon the prime minister by an opposition party, and create a justification for declaring President’s rule in the state through relentless repetition of this lie till, to untutored ears, it begins to sound like the truth.  

Since then everything that the prime minister, his home minister and party men have said and done, has looked like a well rehearsed script in a theatre of evil. On January 6, Modi visited Rashtrapati Bhavan to brief President Kovind about the lapse, with the latter calling the hold up a ‘serious lapse’. 

President Ram Nath Kovind met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 6 to receive “a first-hand account of the security breach” in his convoy in Punjab on January 5. Photo: Twitter/ @rashtrapatibhvn

That nothing at all actually happened on the flyover; that newspaper photographs published the next day and video clips of the alleged ‘deliberate’ security lapse show Modi’s (presumably armoured) black Toyota SUV, surrounded by no fewer than six SPG troopers carrying machine guns, none of them showing any alarm or anxiety; a vacant space for several metres all around the SUV, and on the other side of the four-lane flyover a large number of BJP demonstrators sporting saffron insignia and carrying tricolours chanting Modi’s praises, with not a single protesting farmer in sight, has not seemed to matter to a prime minister who has grown so used to manufacturing truth that he has felt no need to reign in the chorus even in order to maintain his credibility.

A dangerous game

The grounds on which Modi plans to impose President’s rule on Punjab are not hard to discern. Article 356 of the constitution, which empowered the President of India to dissolve any state legislature virtually at will, had been abused 82 times before the Bommai judgement of the Supreme Court in 1994. It has not been invoked by any government since then. That judgment allowed future Union governments to pull down an elected state government on only three non-procedural grounds but expressly disallowed it on even other grounds. 

The former are:

  1. Where a constitutional direction of the Union government is disregarded by the state government;
  2. Internal subversion where, for example, a government is deliberately acting against the constitution and the law or is fomenting a violent revolt, and 
  3. Physical breakdown where the state government wilfully refuses to discharge its constitutional obligations and thereby endangers the security of the state.

The latter are: 

  1. Where a ministry resigns or is dismissed on losing majority support in the assembly and the governor recommends imposition of President’s Rule without probing the possibility of forming an alternative ministry; 
  2. Where the governor makes his own assessment of the support of a ministry in the assembly and recommends imposition of President’s Rule without allowing the ministry to prove its majority on the floor of the assembly;
  3. Where the ruling party enjoying majority support in the assembly has suffered a massive defeat in the general elections to the Lok Sabha such as in 1977 and 1980; 
  4. On the grounds of Internal disturbances not amounting to internal subversion or physical breakdown;
  5. Allegations of maladministration in the state or allegations of corruption against the ministry or stringent financial exigencies of the state; 
  6. Where the state government is dismissed without  giving it prior warning to mend its ways.
  7. The judgement ends with a portmanteau dismissal of any purpose that is ‘extraneous or irrelevant’ to the one for which the power has been conferred on the President by the Constitution.

From home minister Amit Shah and BJP spokespersons’ endless harping on a security breach deliberately created to endanger the life of the prime minister, it is apparent that the government intends to justify using the second and third grounds for invoking Article

356 in Punjab. To make this credible, Modi and Shah are playing an incredibly dangerous game, for they are allowing their party members to harp endlessly upon the possibility that in this Sikh majority state, an insecure Congress chief minister is seeking the support of Khalistanis linked to, and backed by Pakistan, and has not hesitated to put the prime minister’s life in danger. 

As recorded by innumerable video recordings of what transpired on the flyover, this is utter nonsense for there was not even a hint of violence in the air. But Modi, and if not him then the leaders of the RSS, need to reflect on what bringing down a government headed by a Sikh on grounds that amount to treason will unleash in Punjab. For it could easily trigger a chain of events that ends in a revival of insurgency in Punjab, as the scrapping of Article 370 and imposition of what is in effect police rule is threatening to do even now in Kashmir. 

Security forces in Kashmir. Photo: PTI/Files

Even that may not be the end of the damage the BJP will do to India. Other political parties in India will see in the dismissal of the Channi government a threat to their democratic rights and take to the streets. If the BJP reacts to their demonstrations as it has done in Punjab, we could find ourselves at a crisis point for the Indian Union. 

I wish to end by showing readers where my gloomy forebodings spring from. Thirty-two years ago, Barbara Crossette, the India correspondent of the New York Times, wrote the following despatch on December 8, 1989: 

“In his first official trip out of the capital since becoming Prime Minister of India, V. P. Singh went to Amritsar today to pray at the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, promising to heal ‘the heavy, bleeding heart’ of Punjab state. Thousands have died in confrontations there in the last five years. 

In a gesture of reconciliation to a state so alienated it elected separatists to Parliament in the November elections, Mr. Singh told a largely Sikh audience at the shrine, the Golden Temple, that the heart of Punjab needs ‘a healing touch’. ‘The healing touch cannot be brought about at the point of bayonets, but with love, faith and the people’s cooperation,’ he said after riding through the town, in militant Sikh territory, in an open jeep. Indian reporters accompanying the Prime Minister said crowds surged forward along the route to greet him.” [Emphasis supplied]

Compare this to Modi sitting, brooding and nursing his anger for 15-20 minutes in an armoured SUV, and you can see the kind of prime minister India needs and the kind it does not.

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In the face of a surplus of cereals and ever-dwindling prices as a consequence, farmers with small and medium sized land holdings have tried to shift to the cultivation of perishable fruits and vegetables. Their incomes, however, are still hamstrung by a lack of rural cold storage facilities in the country.

The Farmers Have Won an Epic Battle, But the Real War Lies Ahead
Farmers return to their homes after their year-long agitation against the contentious farm reform laws, at Dhareri Jatta Toll Plaza in Patiala, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Farmers have called off their agitation after receiving a formal letter from the Centre on Thursday agreeing to their pending demands. Photo: PTI

The farmers of India have won an epic victory. For 15 months, they braved the biting cold, cruel heat, misrepresentation, calumny, assault by the police and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 to wage the most disciplined and peaceful protest against government policy that this country – or for that matter any other democracy – has ever seen. More than 500 of them have lost their lives over this period to natural and man-made causes, but they have prevailed. 

This is not their victory alone; it is a victory for Indian democracy as well, for the most difficult decision that any democratic government faces is to admit that it has made a serious mistake. This is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never, done. The repeal of the farm laws is therefore a first step back for him. His courage – and that of the advisers who persuaded him to take the decision – needs to be acknowledged. 

But winning a battle is not the same as winning a war. The war the farmers of India still have to fight is against the deepening crisis that grips agriculture and continues to endanger their future. This is born not out of shortages, be it of food or inputs, but of mounting surpluses of produce. It is, therefore, a crisis of overproduction, not of under-distribution.

How has this paradox occurred in a country otherwise besieged by shortages of everything else?  The short answer is: it is the unintended product of incorrect policy choices and policy failures in virtually every other sector of the economy. These have resulted in slow GDP growth, averaging just over 5% since 1951 and a highly capital-intensive industrialisation that has created very few permanent jobs and woefully few casual ones. 

Slow job creation has prevented the rural population from moving off the land, as happened during the industrialisation of Europe and the USA and, more recently, that of East and South-East Asia. Farm families have therefore been forced to live off ever-shrinking land holdings by cultivating them more intensively. It is their Herculean efforts, aided by the Green Revolution in cereals, that has created the agricultural economy of surpluses that Modi tried to ‘reform’. The measure of their success is that India today is the world’s largest exporter of rice and sugar and the second largest exporter of onions, potatoes and dairy products. 

A vendor sorts potatoes, at wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Prayagraj, October 27, 2020. Photo: PTI.

The Modi government’s motives for hurriedly passing the three farm bills last year have been condemned by farmers’ leaders  and civil society members as being a pretext for handing over this huge export bonanza to some of his favourite businessmen, who have made no secret of their interest in entering the field of agro-marketing.  Had the Bills gone through, the capture of the Indian agro-market by a handful of large companies would have been the inevitable consequence of the so-called reforms, not their purpose. 

The official purpose of the Bills was to find a way of halting the ever-rising surpluses of cereals which the government can neither dispose of, nor find a use for any longer. It was based upon recommendations, possibly drawn up in haste, by two standing committees of Parliament in 2017 and 2018; and the recommendations of neoliberal economic advisers for whom The Market is a panacea for all economic diseases, second only to God. 

Few of the policy makers who crafted the three Bills realised that the farmers not only understood their predicament but had begun trying to get out of the ‘cereals trap’ almost four decades ago. As a result, the area under cultivation for wheat and rice had first stalled as long back as the early eighties and had then begun to shrink. The first cash crops they turned to were non-perishables, notably sugarcane and cotton. But by the early nineties, farmers with small and marginal holdings but also large families and, therefore, an abundant supply of free family labour, had begun to shift to the cultivation of perishables, notably of vegetables. They were doing so because horticulture, especially vegetable farming, payed more generously. 

Manmohan Singh’s UPA government recognised this and set up a National Horticulture Mission in 2006, tasked with creating infrastructure for storing and marketing fruits and vegetables. Under its aegis, thousands of cold storages were built and a vibrant national and international market was developed for India’s fruit and vegetables. 

By March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold stores with a total refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres in the country, capable of storing  37-39 million tonnes of perishable produce. But all of these were in towns and cities. Punjab, for instance, had 379 cold storages in 2018, but not a single one in a village. Other states are no different. 

As a result, all the benefits from the development of this infrastructure have been going to the traders and cold storage owners who bought and stored the fruit and vegetables. The horticulturalists, nearly all of whom were small and marginal farmers, found themselves in exactly the same plight as before: they had to sell all of their produce within days of its ripening, at whatever price the traders were prepared to pay. 

Lack of cold storage facilities has also made it difficult for farmers to sell their apple and pear harvests. Photo: Athar Parvaiz

Data on the wholesale prices of onions, potatoes and tomatoes, published annually by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, shows that these prices are lowest from January to April every year – when the vegetables ripen – and rise progressively through the summer until they peak, in October and November. Without cold stores, farmers have to sell their crop as soon as it ripens, between  January and April. A study of revenues and costs for potatoes and tomatoes based on a sample survey conducted in 66 clusters of villages in Punjab found that the average price farmers obtained for their potatoes in 2015-16 was Rs. 4.77 per kg. 

This gap gets wider as the produce becomes more perishable. The agriculture ministry’s surveys of horticulture in 2019 showed that over the six years from 2014 to 2019, farmers had seldom received  more than  Rs.4-5 per kg of potatoes and onions and Rs 6-8 per kg of tomatoes. But by the end of the summer, tomatoes were selling in urban markets for more than Rs 60 per kilo. 

In the average Punjabi village, cereal farmers grow 9 tonnes of wheat and rice per hectare and sell it to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for Rs 1,62,000. In the same village, vegetable farmers, who usually own about a quarter of the land that cereal farmers own, grow 19.93 tonnes of vegetables per hectare of land but seldom receive even Rs 1,00,000 (gross) for their produce. 

That is why, not just in Punjab but all over India, vegetable growing remains the preserve of small and marginal farmers. Cereal farmers who would like to shift out of rice and wheat look at the plight of their poorer neighbours, shudder and buy more fertilisers to sustain their rice and wheat output, clinging even more desperately to the MSP system. 

Stubble burning is a popular practice for getting rid of residues of the rice crop to prepare the land for the sowing of wheat, exacerbated by the emphasis placed on cereal production. Photo: Flickr/2011CIAT/NeilPalmer CC BY-SA 2.0.

The true solution to the crisis of agriculture is the establishment of a cold stores in every village. But cold stores need uninterrupted, stable voltage power and in the last 75 years of supposed economic development, 17 successive Union and state governments have failed to provide this to any, let alone every, village in the country. 

More than six decades of rural electrification have provided villages with an average of 14-16 hours of power supply in a day. But even this is with fluctuating voltages as well as frequent interruptions and break downs. One virtually unnoticed consequence of this has been that there is not a single grid-linked cold storage in any village in India. 

This is despite the fact that the solution has been staring us in the face for the past two decades, if not longer. It is to set up a small, 5-10 tonnes-a-day biomass gasifiers in every village (or cluster of two to three villages),  gasify the rice and wheat straw that farmers are now burning to clear their fields  in simple, air-blown gasifiers and use the lean fuel gas this yields to run a back-up generator for the power supply to the cold store. 

Cold stores in the villages are the key to a second Green Revolution that could be far more powerful than the first. By endowing farmers with the power to determine the supply of fruits and vegetables to Mandis, they will double the earnings of potato and onion growers and treble (or more) those of the more perishable produce, such as tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, spinach, salads, and okra (bhindi) and fruits such as mangoes, lychees, guavas and melons .  

What’s more, horticulturalists will not be the only beneficiaries. Biochar (the other product of crop residue gasification) is 80-90% pure, sulphur-free, carbon. It can, therefore, not only replace imported coking coal with a non-fossil fuel in the steel industry, but also replace imported oil as the primary energy source for the production of transport fuels, as Germany did during World War II and South Africa did when trade sanctions were imposed upon it in 1986 to force it to end Apartheid. 

In the 1990s, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) – then known as the Tata Energy Research Institute – had developed a simple gasifier, complete with its straw-feeding and gas cleaning systems, for less than Rs 12 lakh. But the Union and state governments never even came to know of it. With no demand from agriculture, a few thousand of these got made and were sold to small and medium scale manufacturers of dried fruit and puffed cereals in the food processing industry. 

Last year, TERI unveiled a more sophisticated – and only slightly more expensive – two-stage gasifier in a village in Odisha, which can gasify not only straw and other crop residues, but also the carbon-rich sludge that is left behind by biogas plants. But once again, no one has thought of linking this to a cold storage to transform the future of rural India. 

Last year, the Modi government drew worldwide criticism when it announced that it would set up four large coals gasification plants by 2030 to produce coal gas from 100 million tonnes of coal as a replacement for the natural gas and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) being imported today. These plants will work far better on cleaned biochar. Moreover, the government has sanctioned the  establishment of nine such plants to produce transport fuels from coal. Not only will these work much more efficiently with biochar briquettes, they will eliminate CO2 emissions and generate vast amounts of regular, salaried employment in rural areas, where it is needed most. 

The Bharatiya Kisan Union has achieved its immediate purpose and staved off disaster but it should now use the bonds it has forged within India’s vast community of farmers to promote policies  and technologies that will enable farmers to break out of the cereals trap on their own and in their own time. Biomass gasification is the most promising of these policies. But as described above, there is a wealth of others to choose from.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former editor. He is the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: an End to Global Warming and Fear (Sage 2017) and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Environment Studies, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.   

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The deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha was little more than an abject surrender.

Instead of Pointing Fingers, Focus on Creating Spaces Where Afghan Liberal Spirit Can Survive
People carry Afghan flags as they take part in an anti-Taliban protest in Jalalabad, Afghanistan August 18, 2021 in this screen grab taken from a video. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News/Handout via Reuters

With devastating suddenness, history has repeated itself: 46 years ago, Americans had to be evacuated from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon. This week, they were evacuated from the rooftop of the US embassy in Kabul. American public opinion has already begun to look for scapegoats, and President Joe Biden is in danger of being  selected, despite the fact that it was Donald Trump who took the pivotal decision that led to this second humiliation.  The coming days will see a deluge of recrimination and finger pointing, but none of it will serve an iota of purpose.

India’s strategic analysts will do their share of it. Many of those fingers will point at Pakistan. President Ashraf Ghani  started the ball rolling by accusing Pakistan of sending 10,000 Mujahideen into Afghanistan in the past few months to bolster the Taliban offensive. There is no reason not to believe him, for had a government in New Delhi been caught in Islamabad’s predicament, it would probably have done the same thing.

That predicament is the likelihood of history repeating itself. The deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha was little more than an abject surrender. All that the Taliban agreed to was that it would not allow al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist force, to operate in the areas it controlled. Since the Americans cannot tell one ‘raghead’ from another, this was an empty commitment.

Not only was the Ghani government not a party to it, but none of its concerns were taken on board. So it was no surprise that the agreement contained no explicit commitment by the Taliban to refrain from the use of force against the Ghani government, and no requirement, let alone a time-bound one, within which to work out the modalities of power sharing with the Ghani government. And no penalties if it did not.

The US took this agreement to Kabul for its ‘talks’ with the Ghani government only after it had signed its agreement with the Taliban. One does not need any great acumen to understand the significance of this action: it meant that the US and the Taliban had decided the future of Afghanistan. This became apparent when the US agreed in Doha to a Taliban demand that Kabul release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan soldiers, as a pre-condition to its holding follow-up talks with Kabul from March 10, 2020.

The prisoner exchange did not take place, so neither did the talks. But that did not deter the Trump administration from proceeding with the pullout. It would therefore have been surprising indeed if the Ghani government – the democratic government that the West had itself helped to create – did not consider this agreement and its aftermath to be a betrayal. This was compounded by the US’s refusal to supply the 300,000 plus Afghan national army with any of the modern attack helicopters, fixed wing military  aircraft and logistical systems that enabled US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan to call up an air strike within three minutes of coming under attack by the Taliban.

A handout photo obtained from Twitter via @Bw_Einsatz on August 17, 2021 shows evacuees from Afghanistan as they arrive in an Airbus A400 transport aircraft of the German Air Force Luftwaffe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Photo: Marc Tessensohn/Twitter @Bw_Einsatz/Handout via Reuters

The US did not even consider the alternative, of leaving squadrons of its own air force at Bagram and a few other strategic air bases to provide air support for the Afghan army, although it has kept and continues to keep it there to facilitate the pullout of the remaining American troops.

In the face of this rampant, racist colonialism, can anyone blame Ghani for deciding that he would not be a party to Afghans shedding still more of other Afghans’ blood, only to ensure a slightly less humiliating exit for the Americans from Afghanistan? Whether this was his intention all along or not, far from betraying his people, Ghani has saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives, and prevented a third destruction of Kabul in 30 years.

In fact, seeing the speed with which Ghani surrendered Kabul, it cannot be ruled out that the Taliban’s lightning advance was also facilitated by the government having decided, secretly, to avoid a war over other cities as well. Ghani may also have been motivated by the hope, probably well-founded, that an army which enters a city peacefully will  behave far more responsibly towards its civilians and not indulge in the pillage, murder and rape that usually follows, because it will be relatively free of the bloodlust that the stress of conflict, fear of death and the injury and death of comrades brings out in soldiers.

The real losers in Afghanistan – the sacrificial victims of Ghani’s surrender – will be members of Afghanistan’s still renascent but rapidly growing civil society, who had trusted the ISAF’s promise to create a peaceful and free society. These are the people TV has shown clambering onto the few civilian aircraft still leaving Kabul on Monday. In numerical terms they may be few. But the blow to human freedom that their exit or, worse still, incarceration and death will inflict upon Afghan liberals’ struggle for freedom will be humanity’s real loss.

It is one that this poor, benighted, country will not recover from during our lifetimes. The duty of the rest of the world today is therefore to provide the sanctuary in which the Afghan liberal spirit can survive. India has been the favoured destination of Afghan refugees since the overthrow of King Zahir Shah. The Narendra Modi government can still redeem itself if it opens India’s doors to the new wave of refugees that is now developing, once more.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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We do need to remember the horrors of Partition, to remind ourselves not to allow, let alone participate in, a destruction of the uniquely tolerant fusion of religions that India created over three millennia.

PM Modi, at the End of His Tether, Is Intent on Wilful Destruction of Syncretism

Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the long Independence Day panegyric to himself two years later, even his bitterest critics would have regarded it as nothing more than the starting gun of the BJP’s 2024 election campaign. But the fact that he chose to give it when he is not even half way through his current term in office shows that he is not only at the end of his tether but knows it. 

From failed economic promises to misbegotten economic reforms; from relentless communal polarisation, to the crushing of civil dissent and the destruction of citizens’ fundamental right to liberty, he has tried everything to shore up the superman image of himself that he has tirelessly built over the past seven years.

But, as India Today’s ‘Mood of the Nation 2021′ poll has shown, his approval rating as prime minister has plummeted from 66 to 24% in a single year. 

But Modi is a fighter and is not prepared to give up. That is the message he has sent out with his decision to commemorate  August 14 as the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. The announcement is mystifying, to say the least. The slaughter and displacement of millions that it triggered have turned the memory of what should have been the most memorable event of my life into one that I have unthinkingly avoided for the whole of my life. Why is Modi reminding me of it now?

The government’s notification says that the country needs ‘to remember the Pain and Violence of Partition”. But BJP president, J.P. Nadda has been more forthright. “Partition,” Nadda intoned, “created the circumstances (opportunity) for the politics of appeasement and negativity to dominate our politics (Vibhajan se utpann paristhitiyon ne tushtikaran ki rajneeti aur nakaratmak shaktiyon ko haavi hone ka mauka diya).”  

Nadda’s remark does more than explain Modi’s purpose: it gives us a glimpse of a dark mind that confuses negotiation with cowardice, and compromise with surrender. And it gives us a terrifying glimpse of where this government could take us in the next three years in Modi’s determination to avoid both at no matter what cost to his country and people.

Partition did turn Indian Independence into an event that evokes only painful memories – a “horror”. But not because it involved any weakness or appeasement on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s part. On the contrary, because they had no previous experience of statecraft, both the Congress and Muslim League leaders dallied over decision-making and fought small battles with each other till the opportunity for fruitful compromise was taken away by others less scrupulous and more hungry for power than themselves. 

India’s last two prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, had understood this and come within a hairsbreadth of repairing the damage that Partition had done to the entire sub-continent. But in the last seven years, Modi has succeeded in undoing everything they had achieved. Today, with the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, and relations with both China and Pakistan at an all-time low, even the truncated India that Partition left us with is in greater danger than it has ever been. 

A file image of former Prime Minister, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with his Pakistani counterpart Parvez Musharraf. Photo: PTI/File

So, much as I would not like to, I too find it necessary to revisit the “horrors of Partition,” to learn how we allowed ourselves to be plunged into them, so as not to plunge into them once more. 

The first misconception is that the Muslims of India were bent upon carving out a separate state for themselves. Partition was not the original objective of the Muslim League. Jinnah’s goal, from the day he agreed to become the president of the newly formed Muslim League in 1916, was to obtain a guarantee of the rights of minorities, with one-third representation of Muslims in all legislatures, based upon reserved constituencies. This was why he remained a member of the Congress even after being elected the head of the Muslim League.   

Twenty four years later, the March 1940 Lahore resolution of the party, which is now universally regarded as its “Partition Resolution,” resolved only to create “an autonomous or semi-independent Muslim majority region within the larger Indian confederation.”

This was not only Jinnah’s preference but that of the two large Muslim majority provinces of the country, Punjab (which then stretched from Delhi till the Khyber pass) and Bengal. 

Punjab was ruled by the Unionist Party, in coalition with the Akalis and the Congress. This had been led, till his death, by Sir  Sikandar Hayat Khan, who was adamantly opposed to Partition because this would require “disrupting the Punjab and the Unionist Party, and he was not prepared to accept that”. Although the Muslim League had made impressive advances in the Muslim reserved constituencies, the Unionists had remained the dominant party in the province. 

Opposition to Partition was even more vehement in Bengal. Its Prime Minister, H.S Suhrawardy, was a stalwart of the Muslim League who shared Jinnah’s vision of a confederal India in which Punjab and Bengal would form the major part of the Muslim-governed areas of the county. When Lord Mountbatten unveiled an interim Partition plan in April 1947 that involved the partition of both Punjab and Bengal, Suhrawardy opposed it vehemently and proposed the creation of an independent, united Bengal. In a stirring speech on April 27 in Delhi, he said:

“Let us pause for a moment to consider what Bengal can be if it remains united. It will be a great country, indeed the richest and the most prosperous in India capable of giving to its people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature…”

The significant phrase in his advocacy was ‘the most prosperous in India’

Unless this was a slip of the tongue, Suhrawardy did not propose the creation of a separate state of Bengal. He wanted a United Bengal that remained part of an as yet undefined Indian confederation. What is equally significant is that his proposal did not raise hackles in the Congress, for several of the party’s leaders in Bengal, like Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy, felt that there was a good deal of merit in it. The Congress opposed it only after it began to be interpreted, notably by Sir Fredric Burroughs, the Governor of Bengal, as a proposal to create a separate dominion of Bengal as one of three successor regimes in India.

So what was it that triggered the holocaust that followed? 

The short answer is the campaign of ‘Direct Action’, i.e ethnic cleansing – begun by an increasingly radicalised Muslim League to force the creation of “Pakistan”. Its chosen instrument was the Muslim League National Guard, which had been started in 1931 as a youth wing of the League, but been revived at a meeting of the League’s ‘Committee of Action’ at a Lahore in 1946 to serve a different, murderous end.  

Calcutta, after the 1946 riots. Photo: Public domain

By August 16, 1946, when it initiated the planned killing of Hindus in Calcutta, the Muslim Guard, as it came to be called, had 22,000 members. In Calcutta, ‘Direct Action’ served the radicals’ purpose by causing the angered Hindus to retaliate. More than 4,000 lives were lost and, in a preview of what was to happen a year  later, both Hindus and Muslims began to move to safer parts of the city.

In the ensuing months, ‘Direct Action’ spread to the NWFP and Punjab and culminated in an organised massacre of Sikhs in Rawalpindi. By December, it had forced virtually all the Hindu and Sikh traders and land-owners of the NWFP and Northern Punjab to flee to eastern Punjab, Delhi and Muzaffarabad in Kashmir. ‘Direct Action’ spread to Noakhali in Bengal in October 1946, and to the rest of Punjab in December.

The resulting breakdown of law and order that followed, in particular the communalisation of the police and lower bureaucracy, forced the Unionist-Akali-Congress coalition government, then headed by Sir Sikandar Hayat’s son Khizr Hayat Khan, to resign in March 1947. Only weeks later, ‘Direct Action’ achieved its purpose when the Congress reluctantly accepted the Partition of India, stating that  it was doing so only to prevent the ‘communal poison from spreading to the rest of the country and tearing its social fabric apart’.

There is thus ample justification for holding the Muslim League responsible for initiating the communal violence that tore India apart in the next 12 months, but none for laying the blame at the doorstep of ordinary Muslims. For the express purpose of ‘Direct Action’ was to break Indian Muslims’ traditional support of the Congress

To do this, the radicals in the League deliberately aroused two of the basest motives in human nature: greed and lust.

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If there is anything to be learned  from Blinken’s visit, it is that the era of the cloistered nation state, which enshrined the absolute right of governments to deal with their people as they wished, has come to an end.

Anthony Blinken Conveyed a Warning to the Modi Government But Did the Prime Minister Hear It?
Indian external affairs minister Dr. S Jaishankar with US secretary of state Antony Blinken during their meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

In the joint press conference that ended his one-day visit to India, United States secretary of state Anthony Blinken did not try to hide the US’s discomfiture over the turn that Indian democracy has taken in the past several years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Answering a question posed by the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent, he readily admitted that “shared democratic relations and high ideals were very much a part of our conversation”. Since busy world leaders do not waste time having conversations on things they completely agree on, Blinken was signalling, in diplomatese, that the two sides do not see eye on the fate that has befallen these high ideals.

“The relationship between our two countries,” he elaborated, “is strong and important because it is a relationship between democracies and at its core a relationship between its peoples. One of the elements Americans admire the most about India is its steadfast commitment to democracy, to pluralism, to human rights and fundamental freedoms. We see ourselves reflected in that. India’s democracy is powered by its free-thinking citizens.”

The language of diplomacy has its own conventions. One of these is to disguise admonition as praise. The former was abundantly visible in Blinken’s statements. The secretary of state lavished praise on India’s democracy, but its underlying message was that the Biden administration’s relationship with India would depend upon the  extent to which the Modi government respects the written and unwritten rules and conventions of democracy. He softened the message by admitting that American democracy too was a work in progress, but his message was clear: violations of human rights and freedoms occurred in the US too, but its federal and state governments did not shirk from taking corrective action. The Modi government had to stay the course too: backtracking was unacceptable.

Jaishankar is far too seasoned a diplomat not to have got Blinken’s message. Members of Biden’s administration had expressed their discomfiture over the Modi government’s disregard for civil rights and liberties more than once in the past six months. The Pegasus revelations have only served to heighten that concern. So Jaishankar’s response to Blinken was anything but spontaneous. His response was chilling.

“…it is the moral obligation of all polities,” he responded, “to really right wrongs, when they have been done, including historically and many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in last few years, fall in that category. …freedoms are important,” he elaborated, “we all value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.” (emphasis added)

After seven years of Modi rule, it is not difficult to read between the lines of his response: the Modi government will continue to pay lip service to democracy but, as a sovereign nation, it had the right to decide why, when and how it will curtail the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people by India’s constitution. Jaishankar did not stop there, but claimed further that this was not merely a constitutional, but a moral right, in short a right that transcended those inscribed in the constitution because it came directly from some higher authority.

Jaishankar then claimed that this “moral right” did not cover only present day wrongs but ‘historical’ ones as well. To describe this response as outrageous would be an understatement. Every government has not only the right but a duty to set perceived wrongs right. But it can only do so in the present, while the instruments for doing so still exist. As the last Ming emperor of China wrote before hanging himself, he had forfeited his right to live because he had not kept himself informed of his peoples’ plight, and therefore failed them in their hour of need.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US secretary of state Antony Blinken during their meeting in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

But how can a government correct a historical wrong, especially the ones the BJP the believes happened? For history is irrevocably a part of the past. It can be studied. We can learn lessons from it. But it cannot be changed. A wrong done in the present can be undone. But how does one undo a wrong done in the past?

The Sangh parivar’s answer has been staring us in the face for the past seven decades: it is to punish the descendants of the ‘wrongdoers’. These are the descendants of “the Muslims” who  conquered  north India. The ‘historical wrongs’ the parivar constantly harps upon is the pillage that accompanied the conquests, the destruction of temples, the driving out of the Brahmin priesthood and  the forcible conversion of a large section of Hindus to Islam.

As innumerable historians have pointed out, many of these assertions, especially of forcible conversions to Islam, are greatly exaggerated. But to the extent that they happened, they did so hundreds of years ago. The perpetrators have been dead for centuries. So the moral right that Jaishankar, perhaps unwittingly, claimed was not the right to seek justice but to inflict retribution.

How could a seasoned diplomat have made such a remark? The most plausible answer is that he was required to do so by his prime minister. Blinken had made no secret of the purpose of his visit to Delhi. Not only had he made it clear that the continuation of close relations with the US depended upon India remaining a democracy in letter and also spirit, but that the Biden administration would not allow India to drag it into a conflict with China. In a few terse sentences, therefore, he had destroyed every pillar of the ‘special relationship’ with the US, that Modi had made the talisman of his success in foreign policy.

For the prime minister, this was a double blow because it also punctured the larger-than-life image he had sought to create for himself as the heroic defender of India’s dominant position in South Asia and challenger to China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. He cannot therefore be blamed for concluding that the US has not only emboldened his political rivals within India, but within the Sangh parivar itself. That would account for the belligerent manner in which Jaishankar asserted his government’s right to redress the wrongs of history. It was, in effect, a warning to the US to mind its own business.

That is not going to happen. If there is anything to be learned  from Blinken’s visit, it is that the era of the cloistered nation state, which enshrined the absolute right of governments to deal with their people as they wished, has come to an end. The revolutions in transport and communication technology of the past half-century, and the mass migration of highly educated workers from the developing to the developed world, have made every government’s business a part of the business of its peers.

The era of insular nation states is over, but the Sangh parivar remains locked within the cage of its outmoded perceptions. This has prevented Modi from perceiving how far he has taken India down the road to becoming a state of questionable democratic credentials. That his own foreign minister should have been unable to prevent this, speaks volumes for the way in which he has centralised power within the government without understanding how to use it.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Although popular perception views the Belt and Road Initiative as an offensive project, it is a defensive venture by China to safeguard its international trade, the source of its growing wealth.

What Lies Behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

This is the first article in a two-part series on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The second one deals with the politics surrounding the BRI. 

China’s prompt withdrawal of its troops and armour from the eastern part of the grey zone around Pangong lake between the Indian and Chinese defined Lines of Actual Control has confirmed the hypothesis advanced in several previous columns on this platform, that its purpose, from the start, was not to nibble Indian territory away in small slices but to force the Modi government to reconfirm India’s commitment to the agreements on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region arrived at in 1993 and 2005.

But, why should China be so intent upon re-establishing a durable peace with India, when this sentiment is clearly not reciprocated by either the Modi government or the Indian populace? The short answer is that China needs the backing of India’s ‘soft power’ to prevent the intensifying struggle for hegemony between it and the United States from spilling over into a war from which no one, least of all China itself, will emerge as a winner.

China also covets deeper economic engagement with India, because, after the end of its Fiscal Stimulus programme, it needs to find new avenues of investment to keep its factories busy and workers employed. India can provide both.

But most defence analysts in India discount these motives and have swallowed the Western view of China as a relentlessly expansionist power bent upon reshaping the international order and establishing its hegemony over the Asia-Pacific, if not the whole world.

However, two books published a year before its May incursion can help us to do get a better view of its motives. The focal point of both is the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), but one looks at China’s motives for establishing it from inside outwards, while the other does the opposite.

Understanding the motive

Bruno Macaes’ Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order suggests that these lie in China’s attempts to avoid the “middle income trap” that, many economists believe, develops when rapidly industrialising, export-led, economies move from the early, low-income phase of their industrialisation to its middle-income phase.

The BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its ports in and around the Indian Ocean are not therefore offensive but defensive projects, designed to safeguard the international trade that is the source of its growing wealth.

By contrast, Bertil Lintner’s book, The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean, examines the tectonic shocks that China’s growing involvement with the littoral states of the Indian ocean under the banner of the BRI is giving to the settled structure of power in the region.

Both books throw much-needed light on China’s motives, but do so from polar opposite directions. 2013 is the pivotal year in both books because it is the year in which the concerns of the West about China’s growing hegemonistic ambitions began to take concrete shape.

Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order (L) by Bruno Macaes’ and The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean (R) by Bertil Lintner. Illustration: The Wire/Penguin Viking/Context.

Early in that year, Xi Jinping became the President of China. In the same year, he announced the creation of a Belt and Road, Maritime Silk Road that involved building a string of ports in the Indian Ocean. 2013 was also the year in which the first Chinese nuclear submarine entered the Indian ocean, and when China decided to lease a tract of land in Djibouti and build a naval base there, to support its anti-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea.

The base was built in a record period of two years and became operational in 2016. Since then a Chinese anti-piracy task force has been paying about 10 visits to the port every year but has kept a low profile. Chinese submarines have also made seven more such sorties till 2018, and visited Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan on two of those occasions.

Today there are seven such ports/container terminals being constructed, or on the drawing boards, in the immediate vicinity of India: two in Malaysia, one each in Myanmar and Bangladesh (Chittagong). Two in Sri Lanka (Hambantota and a container terminal at Colombo) and one in the Maldives on Gan island in the far south.

In addition, China has taken up four ports and container terminal construction projects in the Red Sea, and six more down the East coast of Africa in addition to Djibouti, through Kenya and Tanzania to Mozambique and Madagascar. In all, therefore China is now involved in 18 major port and railway construction projects around the Indian Ocean.

What brought about this sudden change in 2013? Lintner is content to give a one-sentence answer: It is China’s overweening desire to “bolster its geo-strategic influence” in the region. This is an uncritical acceptance of what Germany, France and the US (but not the UK) have categorically declared the BRI to be.  Xi Jinping’s lineage — his being the son of a Long March General — fits neatly into the formers’  construction of him as a new Mao Zedong.

The thesis of ‘middle-income trap’

Bruno Macaes’ answer is more fine-grained: the BRI, according to him, has been born out of China’s need to safeguard, and expand, the structure of trade relations that it has built since the 1990s, and upon which its internal stability and prosperity now rests. This need has become especially acute since China’s growth began to slacken in 2011. Macaes attributes this to its having, in per capita income terms,  entered the “middle income trap”.

The middle-income trap is the stage of growth in which rising labour costs start pushing export-led economies out of the most labour intensive sections of the global production chain and forcing them into entering the more technology-intensive middle sections where technology becomes a more and more important component of the final product.The BRI is an attempt to create the infrastructure that China will need in order to move progressively up this chain of production. His chapter on this issue gives the best insight into Chinese thought upon the evolution of its role in the 21st century world, that I have read.

In his analysis, Macaes implies China became fully aware of the middle-income trap only when wage rates rose by 12% a year from 2009 till 2013. This is what trigged the attempt to move up the production chain, which is at the base of the BRI.

His explanation resolves several of the anomalies that the hawks in the strategic analysis community are unable to explain above all its universality of focus: even the 24 projects in the Indian Ocean and the Red sea mentioned earlier, and the three giant railway networks it is building across Central Asia are only a part of the Chinese global outreach, for there are another 60 port and rail/road projects spread across Latin America, Europe and the Mediterranean, of which five are in the USA.

But Macaes’ analysis is incomplete because it does not explain the timing of Xi Jinping’s announcement of the One Belt One Road initiative, (as the BRI was originally called), and his hurry to make it only months after coming to power.

China did not descend into the middle-income trap suddenly, and it certainly was not taken by surprise. As far back as 2002, it had forged a Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Peoples Republic of China. Through 15 subsequent refinements, it had hammered out a free trade agreement whose purpose was to source components for their manufactured exports from the cheapest source.

How far this strategy broke the middle-income trap can be judged from the trade data for the first quarter of 2020. In this quarter, it was ASEAN, not the US or the European Union, which became China’s largest trading partner. What is more significant, while its trade with ASEAN as a whole grew by 6%, its trade with Vietnam and Indonesia within ASEAN grew by 24% and 13% respectively. China’s imports from ASEAN, therefore, include products that incorporate cheap labour and those that incorporate sophisticated technology.

The timing of Xi’s announcement was dictated by the fact that when he came to power, China was in the midst of a crisis such as few countries have had to face in recent times:  The Communist party had reached the nadir of its standing with the Chinese people. Coming on top of almost two decades to gradually rising public disenchantment, the Bo Xilai affair had severely damaged its image.

File Photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters.

As a result, the Party was about to lose its Mandate from Heaven. As if that was not enough, the economy was in a shambles. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s 4.3 trillion Yuan fiscal stimulus to counter the impact of the global recession of 2008 had gone completely out of control. In the 27 months of the stimulus from October 2008 till December 2010, the country invested not 4.3 trillion but 24.5 trillion yuan – more than 3 trillion dollars.

China’s production of steel soared to 683 million tonnes in 2011, 45% of the entire world’s output. Newly constructed steel plants had to be moth-balled because there was no demand. The producers resorted to dumping steel on the world market at throwaway prices, incurring the US’ wrath. Under severe US pressure, the Central government cut back 290 million tonnes of this capacity.

Much of the steel produced had gone into construction. As a result, by June 2014, there was 544 million square metres of unsold private housing space, almost half again as much as the space that had been sold till then, in earlier years.

A similar scramble had taken place in the power sector. In the five years from 2009 till 2013, China added 300,000 MW to its coal-based generating capacity, when there was no power shortage in the country. As a result, existing power plants had to reduce their capacity utilisation to below 50% to accommodate the new ones.

When the stimulus finally petered out China’s huge heavy-machine building sector, it found itself virtually without orders. As a consequence, the local governments that owned or partly financed them found themselves not only short of revenue but forced to lay off workers. In China, this is a far more serious issue than in market economies because it strikes at the roots of the legitimacy of the Communist party— at its Mandate from Heaven.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, employment fell by 80 million after the end of the fiscal stimulus. But the number may be higher because a large proportion of its millions of migrant workers also did not get letters of re-employment. One of the  BRI’s main purposes has been therefore to provide th

For instance, 190 out of the 290 million tonnes of steel output that China had to cut back had not been authorised by the National Reforms and Development Commission. Xi Jinping was determined to make sure that this did not happen again. That was one of the reasons for his bringing all new projects abroad under the umbrella of the BRI. Only the projects sanctioned by the NRDC could avail of the financial and other assistance that the state was prepared to provide infrastructure projects that could keep these enterprises working and their workers employed.

Its second purpose has been to bring some discipline into China’s investment both at home and abroad. The fiscal stimulus had overshot its mark ruinously because two-thirds of this investment was made by the provincial and prefectural parastatals, with loans obtained from the second tier of banks that had come up after the banking liberalisation of 1998 to 2006, and over which the Central government had little control.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Based on the current trend line of active cases, the growth may be slowing but India will hit its peak only when daily recoveries outpace new cases. There are signs this may be happening in Delhi, which is why other metros need to pay attention to its strategy.

How Long Will the Pandemic Last? Rate of Growth of Active Cases Holds Key.

A woman watches as healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) check the temperature of residents of a slum during a check-up camp for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India June 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Just over a  week ago, Prime Minister Modi asked his ministers to prepare “emergency plans” to deal with the spike in COVID cases in the five most severely affected states of the country. If one is looking for an admission from the government that its lockdown had failed, then this is it: instead of taking 21 days, Modi’s Mahabharata has lasted over 100 days. And the battle is only growing more intense by the day.

So how long will it last? How long before the case count reaches its peak and starts to decline? After how many deaths? If anyone in the government has an idea, she or he has kept it a deep secret. Mercifully, we have enough data now to make a reasonable estimate by ourselves. The news is not all that good, but the data on the rate of growth of active cases (i.e. total cases minus those who have recovered)  is sufficiently reassuring to make panic unnecessary. While across India, daily new cases are outpacing daily recoveries, the picture in Delhi is somewhat reassuring and could serve as a guide for what needs to be done if the duration of the pandemic is to be shortened.

The following table gives data, from  May 15 till July 6, for the total number of cases, the number of patients who have recovered, and the number of patients under active care.

May 15 has been chosen as the starting date because phase 3 of the lockdown had ended and normal life was just being resumed. It therefore gave the data a fairly uniform base, free of policy change-induced shocks. A comparison of the rates of change in these parameters makes it possible to discern the slowing down of the diseases and, barring, a surge in news cases, broadly map the trajectory of cases.

Of course, a caveat is needed. Two big confounding factors remain testing rates and the government’s denial of community transmission. Recovery rates do increase because that’s the natural course during a pandemic and we won’t discover more new cases unless we test more, which is why leading epidemiologists like Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil think most cases are going under the radar. For this exercise, however, we will take the government’s data at face value.

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Modi did not want only to prevent a second wave; he wanted all the credit for stopping COVID-19 in its tracks to go to him and him alone.

Modi's Gamble, and How Many Lives It Will Cost
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In her heart-rending description of her desperate search for oxygen to save her father’s life, the celebrated TV news anchor Barkha Dutt ascribed his death to three features of governance that have defined Modi’s India: complacency, callousness and incompetence. She could have added a fourth – an insatiable, almost suicidal appetite for risk born of a compulsion to keep reinforcing an already swollen image of himself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed this penchant half a dozen times in the last seven years: his personal announcement of  demonetisation before the new currency notes had even been printed; his imposition of the Goods and Services Tax with immediate effect, denying India’s 71 million small manufacturers time to set up the required accounting systems; his sudden  confrontation of the Chinese at Doklam in Bhutan without consulting Thimpu, and his equally sudden removal of price and marketing protection from farmers without even a rudimentary examination of how it would affect them.

His appetite for risk surfaced yet again, within days of being told that the first wave of India’s COVID-19 epidemic had peaked in September last year. Of the 50 lakh Indians who had been infected until then, 81% had recovered. Some 10 lakh patients remained under medical care, most of them at home. A little over 84,000 people had died. The mortality rate of 1.68 % was about the lowest in the world and the envy of other nations (notwithstanding fatality undercounting and underreporting).

But everyone involved in the actual fight until then knew that it was too good to last. Scientists always knew of the danger that the ‘original’ virus could mutate into more dangerous forms. Second ‘waves’ of COVID-19 had already developed in the summer and autumn of 2020, spreading through parts of Belgium, Iran, South Korea, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and the US.

When researchers in the UK reported the B.1.1.7 variant in December 2020, the country’s government immediately extended its existing lockdown. The variant was found to be more infectious but no more dangerous than the original. Within weeks, scientists reported two more ‘variants of concern’, from Brazil (P.1) and South Africa (B.1.351), in addition to numerous other strains and mutations. P.1 and B.1.351 have been found to be able to partially evade the human immune system, endangering prospects of vaccines being developed at the time.

Therefore, every government took the risk of a second outbreak seriously from the start. By early January 2021, the B.1.1.7 strain had been detected in samples in Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore. All of these countries took quick precautions, imposed lockdowns and/or stepped up their vaccination schedules.

There were only three exceptions – all in large democracies with insecure but ruthless leaders in power: Brazil, the US and India.

India’s scientific and medical establishment, and its health minister Harsh Vardhan in particular, were fully aware of the threat that later strains of the virus could pose. Vardhan had overseen the last phase of the polio eradication campaign during Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, so he had an experience of disease control that no one else in the government did.

But from the very first days of the pandemic, the Modi government developed two conflicting aims. While the administration wanted to chart a course of action that would minimise the risk of a second wave, the political establishment – headed by Modi himself – was concerned only with extracting every ounce of political advantage from the crisis.

The conflict emerged in the very first week of the March 2020 lockdown. In speech after televised speech, Modi reminded his audiences that just as the Pandava had won the battle of Kurukshetra in 18 days, he would win the battle against COVID-19 in 21 days. He thus turned the lockdown into a personal battle between him and the virus.

As the days passed, and the number of new cases increased instead of declining, Modi began to look for something, or someone, to blame. Conveniently for him, the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi gave him just the scapegoats he needed – foreign religious clerics belonging to a religion he detested and had targeted to attain power. The strictest possible lockdown was therefore imposed on the entire Nizamuddin area of New Delhi and criminal cases filed against the organisers – despite the fact that the conference had ended two days before the government imposed the first travel restrictions on foreigners, on March 14.

But new cases continued to mount long after the event’s conclusion, so Modi sought help from the occult. To invoke the gods to come to his aid, he asked  people to turn off their lights and beat thalis at preordained times and used the Air Force to shower flowers over Delhi.

While he was monopolising TV time, his administration was setting up 11 empowered groups under the National Disaster Management Act, to deal with the material aspects of the forthcoming challenge. One of them, within days of being set up, warned the government in unambiguous terms that a second wave was likely and provided detailed recommendations on how to prepare for it, should it happen.

Among its most important recommendations was that India immediately import 60,000 tonnes of oxygen and upgrade 150 district hospitals – mainly by supplying them with 162 pressure swing adsorption plants to isolate oxygen.

The 162 plants were expected to cost Rs 200 crore. At the time the empowered group made these recommendations, the PM Cares fund, which Modi had set up to fight the pandemic, had already received Rs 3,076 crore, mostly from public sector companies. So Modi had the money he needed, in abundance.


A COVID-19 patient on oxygen support waits to be admitted at Patna Medical College and Hospital, during the second wave of coronavirus in Patna, Friday, May 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

But Modi did not want only to prevent a second wave; he wanted all the credit for stopping COVID-19 in its tracks to go to him and him alone. So when the  first wave peaked in September 2020, his propagandists immediately  proclaimed that Modi’s harsh lockdown had defeated the outbreak and saved India. From then on, it was business as usual for Modi, and business as usual had  only one goal: to wrest West Bengal from Mamata Bannerjee and the Trinamool Congress, no matter the cost.

In Modi’s highly centralised, PMO-centred decision-making process, this shift of attention sowed the seeds of today’s disaster. The government’s first act was to wind up five of the 11 empowered groups and discontinued the meetings of the group tracking the virus’s spread. The programme to upgrade district hospitals went into limbo – as did the plan to create an oxygen reserve by  importing 50,000 tonnes of oxygen.

Genome sequencing, which is essential to determine which mutations are spreading in which population, took the back seat. It was not till December 25, 2020, after B.1.1.7 had already arrived in India, that the health ministry created the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) – a chain of 10 laboratories to sequence and analyse virus samples.

By March 24 INSACOG had tested 10,787 samples and found 771 instances involving three of the eight ‘variants of concern’ the US Centres of Disease Control had identified. Of them, 94% were of B.1.1.7.

This should have set the alarm bells ringing in every office in the PMO – but four state elections were imminent and Modi could think of nothing else but the stentorian speeches he was preparing to give in the 23 election rallies he intended to address in West Bengal and Assam.

In fact, the absence of any sense of urgency in the government after September was so complete that it took eight months, until November 2020, just to invite tenders for the oxygen plants. As a result, on April 18, 2021, only 11 of the 162 oxygen plants had been installed.

Also, none of these had been funded by the PM Cares fund. In fact, it was not till April 15 that the PMO coughed up a measly Rs 100 crores from its corpus to complete the construction of 59 more plants and bring the number up to 80 by the end of May.

There was a similar departure from responsibility  in the vaccination programme. From January 16, the government concentrated on vaccinating frontline and healthcare workers. Vaccination for those above 50 years began on March 1, but with that private interests and preferences came roaring back into play.

Pfizer was refused permission to sell their vaccines in India. The Centre also failed to strike advance purchase agreements with vaccine-makers and grossly underestimated Indian manufacturers to satisfy the domestic demand for doses.

The government also forced Covaxin, an ‘indigenously developed’ vaccine, on government hospitals before the latter had completed its crucial phase 3 trials. As a result, vast numbers of eligible persons refused to take the vaccine, slowing immunisation still further.

Despite this rampant irresponsibility,  Modi’s luck held for five months after September. Through these winter months, the number of active cases continued to ebb. When it reached a minimum in the week of February 11, 2021, there were fewer than 138,000 patients under treatment and a hundred or so deaths a day. The country heaved a sigh of relief. Markets, restaurants and malls began to function again and life was returning to a semblance of normal. But by then, the seeds of the second wave that is now ravaging the country had been sown.

The second wave

The first warning came, almost unnoticed, in late-February when the number of new cases daily began once again to exceed  recoveries, causing the number of active cases to start rising.  This was slow at the beginning: the first doubling of active cases, from 137,000 on February 14 to 273,000 cases on March 18, took   32 days. But after that, and within six days of INSACOG’s warning, the speed tripled and each doubling took only 11 days or so.

The number of active cases breached the 1 million mark on April 10 and the 2 million mark on April 21. Not until then did it register on Modi that there was something more important happening in the country than the West Bengal and Assam elections. But by then he had already addressed 10 million persons in  23 rallies, where neither he nor anyone in his audiences wore a mask.

Modi’s utter disregard for the consequences of his actions emboldened lesser leaders in his party to follow his lead. The chief minister of Uttarakhand not only refused to cancel the Kumbh Mela but put out advertisements to draw more devotees from around India.

When a special leave petition to the Supreme Court pointed out on April 16 that “there is no protocol in place to ensure that devotees who get infected do not go on to spread the virus when they return”, he retorted that “nobody will be stopped (from attending the mela). We are sure that faith in God will overcome fear of the virus”. As a result, an estimated 28 lakh persons attended the mela, took holy dips in the Ganga, jostled with each other in the crowded, polluted waters of the river, and then dispersed to all parts of India to spread the virus.


Devotees gather to offer prayers during the third Shahi Snan of the Kumbh Mela 2021, at Har ki Pauri Ghat in Haridwar, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

Therefore, to Modi’s surprise – and perhaps only his – there were three and a half million active cases on May 4. Hospitals were full to bursting, doctors couldn’t even reply to anxious calls from infected patients, helplines were overloaded and distress calls received no answer. An acute shortage of oxygen killed patients by the scores every hour.

Although the data has not been released, and may never be, I speculate from personal experience that more people have probably died because of the lack of oxygen than from any other single cause. In fact, the shortage of oxygen is therefore the one issue on which the world needs to hold the Modi government, and Modi in particular, criminally responsible. For there is not a shadow of an excuse for the shortage that has developed.

In a report a report submitted to the Lok Sabha in 2020, a committee headed by MP Ram Gopal Yadav pointed out that the country’s oxygen production capacity was 6,900 tonnes a day; that at the peak of the first wave the demand for medical oxygen had reached 3,000 tonnes a day, but as the wave subsided it had fallen to 1,000 tonnes a day. This allowed the remainder to be diverted for industrial use.

So in March, when INSACOG identified the B.1.1.7 strain as the main threat to the country’s population at the time, the government could have diverted at least 2,000 tonnes a day of oxygen back from industrial centres with a single stroke of the pen. But at the end of March, Modi’s fixation on winning the West Bengal and Assam elections was so complete that he ‘forgot’ to make that stroke of the pen. And by the time he ‘remembered’, it was April 19, and  people were dying in their cars and as their relatives took them desperately to one hospital after the next in search of oxygen.

So in March, when INSACOG identified the B.1.1.7 strain as the main threat to the country’s population at the time, the government could have diverted at least 2,000 tonnes a day of oxygen back from industrial centres with a single stroke of the pen. But at the end of March, Modi’s fixation on winning the West Bengal and Assam elections was so complete that he ‘forgot’ to make that stroke of the pen. And by the time he ‘remembered’, it was April 19, and  people were dying in their cars and as their relatives took them desperately to one hospital after the next in search of oxygen.

 

 

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The resignation of top academics from Ashoka University is reflective of the current atmosphere where centres of education that encourage us to question beliefs and prejudices pose a direct threat to the Hindutva state.

Hindutva's Dead Hand in Destroying India's Future: A Personal LamentIllustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University has filled me with an immeasurable sense of loss. I have known Pratap since he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard in the mid-1990s. His field was moral and political philosophy and, even before he had completed the book whose peer-reviewed acceptance for publication is virtually a pre-condition for even applying for, let alone securing tenure (i.e lifetime professorship) at Harvard, his colleagues had taken it for granted that he would be among the very few post-docs who would be granted it when his fellowship came up for review.

But Pratap did not wait for the tenure review and returned to India because his heart had been set upon it from the very beginning. What pulled him back was, simply put,  a burning desire to serve his country. Soon after he returned, he submitted his first article to the Indian Express. I remember that one very well because on reading it I realised straight away that he had brought an element into political commentary that had been lacking before. This was an ethical yardstick, based upon his understanding of the moral and political foundations upon which great nations have rested, and whose betrayal has led to their downfall. Needless to say readers of the Indian Express, and its editors, also saw this, and Pratap’s column in the Indian Express, which he has sustained till this day, was instantly born.

When the founders and trustees of Ashok university chose him to succeed its first vice-chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, they could not have made a better choice. For not only had they chosen a renowned scholar, but one who had already shown, as the director of the Centre for Policy Research, that he has the self-confidence to allow an already well-governed institution to continue governing itself and grow through collective endeavour, and confine his role to protecting that growth.

Ashoka University’s haloed place at risk 

Among the several private universities that were set up in the glory days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the distinctive feature of Ashoka University was its decision not to open the gates of admission wide to ensure its financial viability but to enrol only students who meet admission standards comparable to those of the best universities in the world. As a result, the quality of its student body, its faculty, the seminars they hold, and the research the PhD students do has been attracting growing respect in centres of higher education across the world.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: Youtube screengrab.

This had not come as a surprise to me because, having taught as visiting faculty at Harvard, the University of Virginia, Sciences-Po in Paris and The New School University in New York, I had realised from my very first interactions with the faculty and students at Ashoka, that the quality of education it was giving, and of the research being done there, was second to none.

I was convinced that it was only a matter of time – and not much time at that – before Ashoka came to be recognised as one of a couple of dozen best liberal arts universities, something no Indian university has managed to do so far. I had also all but persuaded my daughter that to ensure a world class university education for my grandchildren, it was no longer necessary to look outside the country. That hope too is now fading as I look at the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Tragically, in a country with an unparalleled record of missed economic opportunities, and failed moral and political development, it is this single-minded pursuit of excellence that has endangered Ashoka’s future, for it threatens the very base of the edifice of power that the RSS has created for the Sangh Parivar. For that base is fabricated from ignorance, dogma, prejudice, an utter misreading of Hinduism,  and a twisted, sometimes fictitious rendering of Indian history from the Mauryan ‘Golden Age’ to the present day, and the perpetuation of the communal hatred that was Britain’s parting present to India.

Hindutva brigade aversion to knowledge

It has been apparent from the Modi government’s first days in power that it considers knowledge, and sincere, dispassionate debate to be its enemy, because it knows that the promotion of “Hindutva” and his government’s very survival, depends upon the relentless fostering of the myth, passion, and prejudice. Freedom to debate, and the right to disagree, are its enemies because they allow us to question existing beliefs and discredit myth and prejudice. Centres of excellence in education that encourage both are therefore direct threats to the Hindutva state.

Modi’s advisers have made no secret of their belief that knowledge is an enemy of the state. So it is hardly surprising that they have targeted liberal arts universities like Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and now Ashoka, in particular. They destroyed Delhi’s academic integrity first over the Ramayana issue;  they have all but succeeded in taming JNU by appointing an unknown professor from a different institution who is a known member of the RSS as its vice-chancellor and permitting him to hound dissident students, bring the police onto the campus, and systematically emasculate its academic council.

But the government’s bete noire has been a section of the print media and the proliferating online journals to which many of the best and brightest in civil society have migrated. So it is hardly surprising that its baleful gaze has now fallen on the digital media.

Chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian. Credit: Reuters
Following Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit from Ashoka University, Arvind Subramanian too followed suit. Photo: Reuters

Its favourite mode of attack has been the choking off of funds, through layer after layer of draconian and intrusive laws whose cumulative effect has been to ban foreign funding, open domestic donors to ever heavier and more intrusive investigation, and declare any criticism of the government or its policies an ‘unlawful act’ that opens the alleged perpetrator to a minimum of six months in jail without a judicial hearing, at the will and command of the police and its masters.

Ashoka University has so far escaped this fate, but the pressure upon it to bow to the government’s will has been mounting for at least the past four years. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been the focus of this pressure because he is among the very few persons in the country who has the stature and credibility to defend the right of dissent in both academia and through his columns in the Indian Express. This has been far too much power for the government to stomach. Pratap Mehta has been at the head of this select list.

Pratap Mehta alleviated the pressure on the University for the first time in 2019 by resigning from the vice-chancellorship but staying on as a Professor. But the Modi government did not relent, so the government’s pressure on the university’s founders and donors continued.

Mehta has tried to save the university a second time by resigning from his professorship also. But this too will not suffice, because the government’s main purpose has not been to push him out of the university but stop his column in the newspapers. That is the request that the board and some of the trustees of Ashoka are believed to have made of him. Pratap has chosen the alternative of cutting all his remaining links with the university.

But instead of dousing the fire, this has added fuel to it. The resignation from its faculty of Arvind Subramaniam, Arun Jaitly’s former economic adviser, and the rebellion of the student body has seriously jeopardised Ashoka’s future. Other faculty members are presently awaiting the outcome of the struggle, but it is a safe bet that should the Trustees not rediscover the courage to stand up to the government, there will be more resignations and a fairly rapid departure of the best professors to  universities abroad.

Ashoka university may survive, but it will do so not as a liberal arts university comparable to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge but as a successful skill imparting university comparable to Jindal University next door.  Should this happen far more will have failed than just another foray into higher education.

For one has only to look at the place that is occupied by the above-mentioned universities in the US and UK, and of Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France, to understand the role that liberal arts universities that have played in creating  the thinkers and policymakers  – Plato’s Men of Gold – who have guided the destinies of their nations.

Oxford and Cambridge were training colleges for the clergy before Britain became the archetypal nation-state

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” our courts have intoned, most eloquently in Romila Thapar versus the Union of India. But it is Pratap Mehta again, who has described the constructive power of dissent in the making of a nation.

In the annual lecture he delivered for Project 39A on December 10, last year, he said,  “Dissent is not a freestanding value because it is grounded in moral judgment. It has, as George Elliot said, to speak in the name of a higher rule; it has to speak in the name of a common good; it has to be reaching for something better. Otherwise, it simply is a disposition to subvert, where the means become the ends (emphasis added).”

Today the BJP is on its back feet. In the past year, it has succeeded in alienating just about every important group in the country – the entire working class, especially its migrant component, the farmers, and the small and medium enterprise owners and their employees.

These are vast economic strata that cut across every ideological and religious grouping in the country, so its standard appeals to religion and hate are failing. It has fallen into this trap, not because of the COVID pandemic, but because it has choked off public debate and dissent. Ashoka university was primarily, and could still be, its best vehicle for bringing the global debate into India. But all that this government seems intent upon is to destroy its future.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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Starting 1980s, a considerable number of Americans in relatively poor rural and suburban America have slid into poverty as globalisation and costly wars wreaked havoc on American society.

Joe Biden's Victory: It Is High Time the Concerns of 'Middle America' Are Addressed
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is joined on stage by her running-mate, U.S Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, after she accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination during an acceptance speech delivered for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 

Joseph Biden’s victory has been greeted with the expected exhilaration and apprehension, which every newcomer to the White House experienced before. This time the exhilaration is more striking because it marks the end of a presidency that had trivialised American democracy, and held it up to global ridicule. But the apprehension will surface soon when the hoorahs are over and the changeover in Washington has been completed. The new administration will face the same challenges that its predecessors have faced since the end of the Cold War, and failed to address them.

Three decades after winning the Cold War the American state is facing a crisis that no one could have foreseen when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Instead of bringing peace, these decades have brought incessant war; instead of creating a new global order these wars have created global anarchy and fostered terrorism.

Abandonment of Middle America

In place of prosperity that followed the Allied victories in World War I and World War II, these decades have seen the withering away of blue- and white-collar employment, the end of working class job security, status and affluence. It has also brought to fore an obscene widening of the income gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinkage of the state’s capacity, or even intention, to safeguard the health, lives and peace of mind of its poor.

black lives matter
A demonstrator holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a protest over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, US September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Cruelest of all, it has created a world in which young people no longer control their future. Today more and more young Americans cannot plan to marry, cannot take out a mortgage on an apartment, cannot even think of having children, and can only buy a second-hand car, because they do not know when they will find a job, and how long it will last.

Calculated neglect over decades has caused the nation’s infrastructure to run down to a level below that of China, let alone Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China, for instance, has constructed a high-speed rail network spanning 19,000 km of track in the past 15 years, on which it is running 2,300 bullet trains every day. America has built none.

But none of this compares with the abandonment of middle America to chronic stagnation, hopelessness and despair. This began as far back as the 1980s, and neither the Democrats nor Republicans have considered it necessary to check the region’s slide into poverty. A great deal has been written on economic, social and political consequences of this neglect, but much less on its cause, and how it can be ameliorated.

The roots of today’s Blue-Red schism lie buried in the de-industrialisation of America and northern Europe, which began with the onset of globalisation half a century ago. As manufacturing began to move from the high wage economies of Europe and North America to low-wage, skill-intensive industrialising countries in Asia and Latin America, the share of manufacturing in the US GDP fell, from 26% in 1968 to 12% in 2009. Its place, as the prime mover of economic growth, was taken by business and financial services whose share in the GDP rose from 19% to 35% during the same period.

But while the bulk of the de-industrialisation has occurred in middle America, where job losses have ranged from 8% to 75% of the workforce during the last 40 years, nearly all the increase of employment in business and financial services has been concentrated in the two coastal ‘blue’ fringes, and in the Florida-Texas sunbelt. Middle America has been left to fend for itself.

Tea Party movement

In 2009, after four decades of sustained neglect, middle America found a political sponsor in the Tea Party movement. Liberal America considered the Tea Party an embarrassment – an extremist movement that backed every reactionary cause and wanted to turn the clock back to a vanished past, because it could not connect with the future.  What it lost sight of was that the Tea Party was also a protest movement, born of desperation, among people who had been robbed of their future. The Tea Party needed understanding, not condemnation. It got none.

Donald TrumpU.S. President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a Make America Great Again rally in Johnson City, Tennessee, U.S. October 1, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

 

Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 was its first major political success. Since then liberal America has done everything in its power to pretend that this was an accident and to trivialise its significance. It has taken this to the point of portraying it as the product of Russian intervention in the election campaign. But Biden’s relatively narrow win last week has shown that the new, hard-Right is here to stay, and that its rancour will continue to fester and grow so long as the neglect and injustice that gave rise to it remains unaddressed.

Enormous task lies ahead of Biden-Harris

This is the responsibility that American voters have asked Biden and Kamala Harris to shoulder. Judging from his speeches, Biden is fully aware of its weight: in his victory speech he repeated his commitment to be “a president who seeks not to divide but unify…who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States”.

But similar promises were made by his predecessors in their moments of triumph. So, what prevented them from fulfilling such promises when the hoorahs ended and the work began? One, amidst the plethora of explanations put forward over the years, stands out: it is ‘legislative gridlock’.

Intra-party discipline has never been the US Congress’ strong point, for the American system contains no penalties for cross-voting. This has allowed legislators in both houses to become representatives of special interests in their states, instead of representatives of the people of their states. To make matters worse, in only 10 of the 28 years after the Cold war, there has been a president whose party has enjoyed a majority in both houses of Congress. Thus, the American democratic system did not have the capacity for united action in domestic affairs that was needed to cushion the wrenching impact of globalisation and de-industrialisation upon those who stood to lose from it.

Costly wars and the detrimental effects on the American economy

The only area in which the gridlock has not paralysed policymaking is foreign policy. Achieving a consensus in this area has been made easier by the heady sense of entitlement imparted by victory in the Cold War. This has created a brand of liberal imperialism which is shared by both Democrats and Republicans, whose goal has been the creation of unipolar world order under the leadership of the US.

American soldiers. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

This was a democratic party goal long before President George W. Bush adopted it formally in the wake of 9/11. In February 1999, after bombing Iraq daily for 11 months till there was not even a milk plant left to destroy, and on the eve of doing the same in Kosovo, Clinton justified unilateral intervention in the following words:

“It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”  

The significance of his declaration lay hidden in what he did not say. The right to intervene was already a part of the UN Charter.  But it had to be exercised collectively through the Security Council. Clinton’s declaration did away with the need for creating an international consensus, and therefore ruled out the creation of a multipolar, democratic, world order.

The wars that followed have bankrupted America. In December 2014, the Congressional Research Service of the US estimated that the wars the US had waged in the 13 years since 9/11 had cost the treasury 1.6 trillion dollars. ‘Continued funding’ to maintain military preparedness in the occupied added  $95.5 billion in 2014, and no doubt continue to add similar sums till today. Add Operation Desert Shield in Iraq (1998), and the war on Serbia (1999), and the figure probably exceeds $2.2 trillion.

But that is only the military part of the expenditure that the US has incurred. A 2016 study by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the total military and economic cost of America’s wars was well over 3 trillion dollars. Had this money been used to modernise the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and encourage the shift of service sector businesses to the middle of the country, the blow dealt by globalisation to middle America could have been softened, and the ‘Red-Blue rift’ might not have reached the crisis level that it is at today.

‘Leveraging’ climate change

Biden is fully aware that healing this rift is the obligation, beyond all others, that his victory has thrust upon him. And he has made it clear that he intends to meet it. Fortunately, he has a new ally in this venture, the threat of climate change.


A crowd of thousands march in a climate strike featuring climate change teen activist Greta Thunberg in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada October 25, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier/files.

Technologies that can harness the energy of sun, wind, and biomass have now matured to a point where they can supplant fossil-based energy at a competitive price. Unlike fossil fuels, these technologies need vast amounts of land, sunshine and wind. These are precisely what the states of the Midwest and the Great Plains have in abundance.  Harnessing these have already begun: In 2016, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas were meeting 20% to 35% of their electricity demand from wind. Other states like Texas and Minnesota were joining them.

The change that renewable energy is making to the lives of the people affected by it cannot be captured in aseptic data on energy generation, costs and returns. A recent, heart-warming article by Elizabeth Wiese in USA Today that describes the impact of wind farms on the farmers of Cloud County, Kansas, is worth quoting:

“In an increasingly precarious time for farmers and ranchers, some who live in the nation’s wind belt have a new commodity to sell – access to their wind. Wind turbine leases, generally 30 to 40 years long, provide the landowners with yearly income that, although small, helps make up for economic dips brought by drought, floods, tariffs and the ever-fluctuating price of the crops and livestock they produce. 

Each of the landowners whose fields either host turbines or who are near enough to receive a “good neighbor” payment, can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly for the small area – about the size of a two-car garage – each turbine takes up.  

The median income in Cloud County is about $44,000, according to the 2018 U.S. Census. For Tom Cunningham, who has been farming between Glasco and Concordia, Kansas for 40 years, the Meridian Way Wind Farm income has made an enormous difference. Cunningham’s lease payments allowed him to pay off his farm equipment and other loans. 

Before the wind turbines, things were rough, he recalled. Depending on the national and international economy, some years he broke even, some years he made money and, for more years than he cares to think about, he was on the edge. He had to take a job in town to make ends meet and for a time was what he calls “functionally bankrupt.”

“This isn’t money that other people would think is very much,” he said. “But it made an enormous difference to us.”

What wind is doing in the Great Plains states is what solar energy can do in arid and semi-arid states like Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, and parts of Texas and California. Straw and other crop residues in the wheat-growing states can be converted into the transport fuel of choice through the exciting, relatively new, technology of plasma-assisted gasification in far larger quantities than it can be converted into cellulosic ethanol through fermentation.

America’s way out of the increasingly poisonous partisan politics in which it has been trapped, therefore, lies in precisely the same technologies that it needs to harness, in order to fight climate change.

To many, it might come as an unsettling thought that the way out of the relentless militarism in which America is trapped may also lie in rejuvenating middle America by enlisting it in the battle against climate change. But it is a thought that is worth pursuing.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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