Friday, November 14, 2014

India's Debt to Jawaharlal Nehru

"He (Jawaharlal) has all the makings of a dictator in him- vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well defined purpose, energy, pride, organizational capacity, ability, hardness, and, with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and the this revolutionary epoch Caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar? Therein lies danger for Jawharlal and for India. For it not through Caesarism that India will attain freedom, and through she may prosper a little under a benevolent and efficient despotism, she will remain stunted and the day of the emancipation of her people will be delayed".

The article 'The Rashtrapathi' signed by 'Chankaya' appeared in The Modern Review of Calcutta in November 1937 (actually it was published anonymously). The article caused ripples in the then Congress as Nehru was then President of the party. Only later it became known that the author was none other than Jawharlal Nehru. Other than Gandhi, amongst the pantheon of Indian leaders, no one comes close to Nehru's sense of dread about the ability of power to corrupt one's soul.

Nehru continues mercilessly in that article to assail himself, "men like Jawaharlal, with all their capacity for great and good work, are unsafe in democracy. A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy. He might still use the language and slogans of democracy and socialism, but we all know how fascism has fattened on this language and cast it away as useless lumber". Sadly, not he, but his daughter would prove every word prophetic.

Speaking to the Indian parliament on the issue of reorganization of states along linguistic lines Nehru would obsessively return to the question of what would happen to linguistic minorities, especially those who may live along the borders and cannot be easily lumped into either this or that state. The voluminous correspondences of not just Nehru but also that of Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad show that Nehru was a stickler to democratic principles in matters of state and party. Nehru's letters to the Chief Ministers, occupying a bulk of the Selected Works, shows a leader who corresponded with all constitutional functionaries, irrespective of intellectual disparities, with great regard for the office they hold. His letters, completely devoid of any imperiousness of the office he held or the popularity that he enjoyed, were suffused with respect for democracy. Nehru practically tutored all leaders in the traditions of democracy. He'd honor the parliament's Question hour by making an effort to not just be present without fail but also to answer questions. One can safely pick any page from the 50 volume Selected Works and be assured that there would not be a single word that would smack of the fascism that he so feared would lurk ever in the shadows of a leader like him.

The very learned Meghnad Saha smugly declared "ninety percent of the people cannot learn another language". Nehru, very respectfully and politely, dismantles Saha's argument and shows his deep understanding of people and democracy. "You and I may have some difficulty in picking up another language because we proceed by grammar and all that. But you take persons-pick them out out from Delhi bazaar and put them in an environment of another language. you will find in three months they will talk that language which you will not know". He further rubs it in by pointing out that in India's embassies while the secretaries and others, supposedly learned, struggle to learn the native language it is the "lower staff who have to work there pick up a language of that country".

Nehru bore no malice towards his detractors or ideological opponents. Nehru included a stinging letter by Rajendra Prasad and Sardar Patel in his book 'A bunch of old letters'. Prasad and Patel had offered to resign from their party posts when Nehru, as president, sought to push his ideas on socialism. Nehru's reply was gracious and magnanimous enough that they stayed on. A man who includes a letter critical of him in his own anthology is rare indeed.

The man who wrote a sweeping history of the world sitting behind bars would, with all humility, refuse to call himself a historian when he addressed academic historians. The author of several highly regarded books and an avid student of literature would refer to his position as head of Sahitya Akademi as an honor that exceeded his qualification in a public address. Nehru never missed attending the science congresses and never, for once, cast himself as anything beyond a layman of science.

Nehru, ably assisted by Maulana Abul Kalal Azad, unleashed a revolution in establishing India's educational policy. Research institutes and world class academic institutes of higher learning were established at a rapid clip and would serve as islands of hope in the following decades amidst a sea of mediocrity and hopelessness. Indians who heap abuse on Nehru, today, as a dreamer little realize how much they owe to the man who was unafraid of dreaming of an MIT like institute, an atomic research institute and more in the 1950s when India was mired in poverty and still nursing the wounds of a searing partition. 4 IITs, modeled on Ivy League universities of US, were opened between 1951-59. The next set of IITs were opened only in 2008. Till today India's educational policy flounders when it comes to allowing foreign capital and foreign collaboration and yet the IITs were established by a nascent independent country that has just thrown off the yoke of foreign domination with foreign collaboration. In an era when the government controlled most aspects of industry and education the IITs, by a special act of the Parliament, was given unprecedented, by Indian standards, autonomy. A premier medical institute like AIIMS was established by a special act of the parliament in 1956. The next AIIMS was mandated only as recently as 2012.

In all of Sardar Patel's or Rajendra Prasad's or Ram Manohar Lohia's collections of writings can we see the ambitious vision of establishing a nuclear research institute like BARC in 1954, by an impoverished nation barely 7 years after independence. It can scarcely be appreciated today without a leap of imagination what it is to even envisage such a research institute in the India of 1954. When ISRO launched a Mars probe in 2014 it did so standing on the shoulders of Jawaharlal Nehru who had setup Indian National Committee for Space Research in 1962. Nehru-baiters would rush to point out the contributions of Indian scientific giants like Vikram Sarabhai, Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, C.V. Raman and others and ask "is Nehru being credited liberally?" I'd say just go and read the correspondences between Homi Bhabha and Nehru to realize how intricately Nehru was involved at policy level with each of them to create such institutions. The exchanges also underscore the point that nobody but Nehru could've earned the respect of such giants much less been eager to realize in concrete terms their ideas.

That Nehru charted an independent course in economics between the extremities of Lohia's communism and Rajaji's free market theology is in itself a creditable achievement. Contrary to popular myth the Nehru years were actually friendly to foreign capital. Economists Aravind Panagariya and Jagdish Bhagwati, both currently supporting Modi, have pointed out in their books on Indian economic policy how the Nehru years were actually welcoming to foreign investment. It was partly necessity too for a capital starved country. Those who rant about Nehru's socialism are willfully ignorant or blind to the realities of those perilous years within the country and the world at large. The world was digging itself out of the rubble of a war that saw countries destroyed, borders redrawn, power equations altered for the next 50 years, tens of millions killed, millions more displaced, a retreating colonial power, newly emergent world super powers and amidst all this chaos a sub continent stumbling into independence accompanied by the world's largest migration of people. To even formulate a coherent economic policy for those years is an achievement by itself. In their eagerness to ridicule Nehru the baiters forget stellar personalities like Shanmukam Chetty and C.D. Deshmukh.

America learned at great cost as recently as 2008 that the government is the lender of last resort when an economy teeters on the brink. The immediate post wars were the high tide of liberalism and welfare state fueled by Keynesian economics which was at its apogee then. FDR, Truman and even Nixon instituted economic policies that could easily be called Nehruvian. The free market of Rajaji and his Swatantra Party reads more like the manifesto of today's Republican party and was ill suited for India. The so called libertarian streak of Swatantra party was thinly disguised upper caste elitism that had little sympathy for the vast dispossessed millions who were eking out a living on pathetically paltry incomes. I was amused to read how Ram Manohar Lohia pours scorn over Nehru's notion of private enterprise existing along side government owned enterprises. The West finally shook off the shackles of Keynes only in the 80s underscoring how Nehruvian economic policies were very much in line with almost the entire world at that time.

Yasmin Khan in her masterly book 'Great Indian migration' mentions how the Central government was compelled to institute welfare and rehabilitation policies for the millions of refugees who trekked into India. State governments bowing to local pressure did not want to host the refugees lest it upset local economy and the Central government, under Nehru, had to step in with unprecedented economic measures to help the refugees and to stabilize a very volcanic situation.

Little do we appreciate today how much government funding was essential to the economy at that point in India. Establishing educational institutes, research institutes, health care facilities, badly needed industries, transport to every corner of India and more needed the urgent role of government.

Almost all failures of Nehru, some real and mostly imaginary, cited by his naysayers will invariably all culminate in the final accusation that he pandered Muslims. Nothing about Nehru animates his enemies more than his steadfast commitment to secularism. If there was one aspect where Nehru was better than Gandhi it was on the score of secularism. Nehru was a true agnostic and eyed all religions with skepticism while respecting their rich contributions to humanity. Barring Gandhi and Nehru almost all of the Congress leadership either looked at secularism as strategic good or at worst a necessary evil to keep the country united.

To argue that secularism was an intrinsic feature of Hinduism, as is done by Hindutva bigots, is complete bunkum. Sunil Khilnani in his contentious book 'Idea of India' argues that until the advent of the British the Indian princely states were not the classic nation-states as modern political science would define a state. The distinction that Khilnani specifies is how the state uses its power to organize society by sometimes changing long entrenched customs. Hindu reformers petitioned British viceroys to reform Hinduism's pernicious customs like child marriage and Sati, the custom of burning widows.   Fueled by the progressivism of the independence movement there was a demand to reform the laws governing Hindus to change some backward customs particularly relating to the status of women.

Ambedkar and Nehru formed an unexpected duo in pushing for what later came to be known as the Hindu Code bill. Rajendra Prasad and fellow orthodox Hindus in Congress stymied Nehru's attempt for such a bill during the provisional government arguing that the provisional government lacks the mandate to do such a sweeping legislation. Ambedkar quit the ministry in a huff. Nehru then went to the electorate and campaigned on it. Strengthened by the political capital he earned Nehru shepherded the Hindu bill piecemeal but ultimately changing the contours of an ancient religion that stretched back into several millennia. One could call Nehru a Manu for the 20th century. Much later LBJ would earn the praise of historians for a similar attempt to pass the Civil Rights bill in US. Nehru's achievement ranks above that of LBJ.

The Kashmir tangle is another favorite stick to beat Nehru with. The unification of India, the accession of the princely states, were all without precedence in all of human history. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins quote Nehru as telling Mountbatten "just as Calais was written upon the heart of your queen so is Kashmit written upon mine". The internationalization of the imbroglio is an oft cited example of Nehru's romanticism albeit muddle thinking where, his detractors like to conjecture, the earthy pragmatism of Sardar Patel might've brought about a cleaner solution. All of that, as the Americans says, is Monday morning quarter backing. The Kashmir imbroglio has more myths to it than reality. The so called plebiscite pledge by Nehru is more nuanced than is commonly acknowledged. The pledge clearly states that a plebiscite will be conducted in Kashmir only when Pakistan stops meddling in Kashmir.

The China war is a true blot on Nehru's regime. The viciousness with which Nehru is savaged on account of Kashmir and China, of course the real reason is as I cited above his strident secular outlook, is appalling. Americans have learned to appreciate FDR for what he did and not trash him for Pearl Harbor. In fact FDR is rarely blamed for Pearl Harbor. It is fantasy to assume that a country like India could've spent on defense without sacrificing more urgent and far more pressing concerns like education, health care, welfare and rehabilitation.

Was Nehru without vices or shortfalls? Of course not. The man who argued in that anonymous article that he should not be allowed a third term as Congress president could have followed the example of George Washington and resigned after his second term. But then Washington had John Adams and Thomas Jefferson waiting to take over unlike the unsparing second line of leadership in Nehru's days. While Nehru never became the fascist that he feared he could become he was not above playing politics in easing out those he disliked, mostly justified. The Kamaraj plan, put in motion to remove potential challengers, unfortunately removed much needed leaders like Kamaraj himself from offices they then held thus paving way for second rate leadership. Nehru's fascination about communism, despite his aristocratic aversion to its vulgarity and violence, made him less sympathetic to US while being drawn towards USSR. Then there is the weakness for having colleagues like V.K. Krishna Menon and acquiescing to his daughter's nagging and dismissing the world's first elected Communist government in the state of Kerala.

The vices and shortfalls of Nehru were not unique to him but his virtues and visions were almost singularly unique to him and for that India is deeply indebted to its finest son. Browse randomly through any page in the many anthologies of Nehru's writings and speeches the one unfailing character a reader can readily discern is that Nehru had only one motivation that his filled his days and nights, to make India a better country for the poorest and weakest citizen. There was poetry even in his death. The night before his death he ad written out on a piece of paper the lines of a poem by Robert Frost that best summed up the life he had lived.

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep".

As was his wish his ashes were strewn all over India forever mingled with its soil and water. It is highly indecent to accuse a man who wanted his ashes to be sprinkled in the Ganges as disrespectful to India, Indian traditions and Hinduism. On this 125th anniversary of Nehru's birth let us remember that Modi's India is being built on the foundations laid by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Obama's Failed Presidency and America's Leadership Crisis

"The glory and freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore". The words of Wordsworth best befits the state of Obama's presidency. Barack Obama came to Washington D.C. like a triumphant Ceasar and he will leave the White House like Nero. America exulted in the election of the nation's first black president and few would've foreseen a day when his own party candidates, like St. Peter, deny any knowledge of him. The world's richest, most powerful and most innovative country is practically leaderless. What happened and why did a dream become sour?

Nothing about Barack Obama, especially his over-hyped oratorical skill, has ever impressed me or inspired trust in his ability to lead a great country. Today when Obama's approval rating hover in the low 40s I stand vindicated. A New York Times headline humiliatingly informed that "on campaign road, uneasy Democrats show Obama their tail lights". The Democratic party, another article pointed out, is now Clinton's party, not Obama's party. Dana Milbank of Washington Post headlined an article, "Conservatives are finally right: Obama is not a dictator. He's a bystander". Milbank pointed out that he had in the past called Obama as "President passerby", "hapless bystander" and charged that Obama functioned "oddly like a spectator".

The unkindest cuts came from Obama's own former cabinet members. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of state, former opponent and prospective candidate created a furore by saying that Obama's policy of 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an 'organizing principle'. Leon Panetta, former director of CIA and Secretary of defense, was withering in his memoir "Worthy fights". Panetta focused on Obama's disengaged style and lack of thinking through strategic decisions like Syria. Robert Gates, a Bush appointee as Secretary of defense and retained by Obama, was open about how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both saw the Iraq war through only a political prism. Not even George W Bush came in for such stringent criticisms from senior members of his cabinet.

Obama came to office vowing to show that the government can be 'smart' and disprove conservative criticism that government, dysfunctional by nature, needs to be as small as possible. On this score more than anything Obama is a grand failure. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into the appallingly shoddy roll out of the health care web site that left many including his supporters fuming. News reports repeatedly pointed out how disengaged Obama was on the roll out of a landmark law. The department of Veterans Affairs charged with healthcare of veterans was a cesspool of incompetency where a huge cover up, across the nation, took place to cover the inordinate waiting time for veterans to receive care. The IRS was caught acting partisan. The Secret Service was caught in a web of scandals involving prostitutes and gross negligence leading to the firing of their chief. The CDC's handling of the Ebola breakout eroded faith in the one agency that Americans tended to trust more than any. The incompetence of Obama's administration makes Bush's administration look better by contrast and that says a lot. In all instances the worst part was that Obama learned about a crisis from news reports. Democratic supporters and columnists sympathetic to the administration themselves have now started saying in chorus that the dysfunction is the direct result of Obama's lack of management.

In his inaugural address Obama declared, airily, that Americans reject the 'false choice between security and values'. That Obama is the president who oversaw the worst administration that willy nilly spied on American citizens in a scope that shocked the conscience of many. He also has the dubious honor of launching punitive drone strikes where the casualties are counted in such a way, according to principles accepted by him, to undercount civilian deaths. Jill Abramson, former editor of New York Times, called Obama's administration the "most secretive administration" since Richard Nixon's administration. Susan Page of USA Today said this is the "most dangerous" administration. Obama's Department of Justice has pursued reporters with a zeal and tyrannical glee that has sent the chill down the spine of many a reporter. A Fox News reporter was even charged with being a co-conspirator for refusing to reveal source of a news. Frankly, if the President had been a republican the press would have pilloried him endlessly and mercilessly unlike the muted condemnations that are being sprinkled now. In any other administration if US senators had been spied upon by CIA the press and Congress would've erupted in volcanic rage. Obama has made Bush appear reticent when it comes to testing the limits of constitutional propriety.

Restoring US credibility in the world arena was a prime commitment of Obama after the Bush years. Spying on the leader of a nation that's a close ally is not a good way to make friends and Obama learned that lesson after the NSA was caught snooping on Angela Merkel of Germany. After declaring haughtily in a press meet that he is drawing a 'red line' in the Syrian imbroglio Obama walked back his words and declared, again haughtily, that it was the world that drew a red line. By now the world understood that the US President's bluff can be called out. Obama mocked Romney for calling Russia our enemy number 1. Thanks to Putin Romney stands vindicated. In his zeal to be defined as the 'not-Bush' persona Obama pulled out of Iraq in haste and today Iraq appears to be run over a murderous ISIS army. There is no part of the World today where Obama's words carry any weight. Other than ending wars Obama's foreign policy has been a disaster. Fresh after his Ceasar like inauguration Obama and Michelle went abroad to lobby for Chicago to be the city to host the next Olympics. Thanks to their lobbying Chicago was eliminated in the first round.

Bill Clinton is often derisively called the master of triangulation but grudgingly admired for his ability to mud wrestle with his opponents to finagle an agreement or a compromise. Obama with his airy "I shall not soil my hands" attitude and undisguised contempt for the political process is singularly devoid of any ability to be a leader. Bob Woodward recounts in his book 'Price of politics'  the vacuous leadership of Obama during the debt deal negotiations in 2012. While Woodward faulted both Democrats and Republicans for failing to resolve America's debt issue he singled out Obama for harsh criticism since as President he has  to take the blame for lack of leadership.

America faces serious challenges. Prophesying the decline of American power is a cottage industry amongst authors. The biggest challenge facing the country is the crushing debt that is driven by 'entitlement spending'. New York Times has called the Affordable Care Act, pejoratively called by many as Obamacare, a success based on the millions of previously uninsured who had enrolled. The same article also stated that a vast majority of the new enrollees are in Medicaid, the Federal program to provide insurance to low income people, and that too a majority of such enrollees receive subsidies. Essentially this is the largest wealth transfer program in US history. Romney lost the presidency for stating a fact- that nearly 47% Americans do not pay taxes. Obama, in his role as high priest of liberalism, thinks he can balance the debt on the backs of just 2% of American tax payers. Overhauling the byzantine tax code, broadening the tax base, realistic cuts to entitlements are needed urgently to ensure the fiscal health of USA.

Immigration is another very serious challenge facing America. While Democrats, especially Obama, have happily reaped votes from the Hispanic lobby promising immigration reform they have been equally happy on not doing anything to resolve the issue lest they lose a wedge issue that is advantageous to them. The GOP is being ridiculously bull headed in not just falling to resolve this but in damaging its electoral prospects when a presidential candidate suggests illegal immigrants to 'self-deport' themselves. Obama's administration deported hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants until Obama, facing an election, decided to stop the deportations. Obama repeatedly allowed politics to determine what he does or does not do about immigration. When Obama announced he was going to announce executive actions this summer Democrats facing re-election pleaded that he postpone any action until after the election. The Hispanic lobby is livid that lives are being treated like a political football. At last they too understood who Obama is.

Has Obama ascending to the White House done any good for African-Americans? In a word, no. Obama, ever eager to win re-election and political success sought to actively distance himself from even appearing to address any problems specific to Afro-American community. When supporters were invited to the White House and given talking points for re-election the Afro-American representatives found themselves with no instructions since the White House did not want to be seen as advocating any issue relating to them lest it anger the rest of the electorate. Early on during Obama's first term Shirley Sherrod, an African-American employee in the Department of Agriculture,  ran into a controversy when an edited video of her speaking appeared in a right wing online site and seemed to show that she was unwilling to help White farmers. The Obama administration and NAACP eagerly condemned her and forced her to resign. Only later did the full video surface and Sherrod was vindicated that she did not refuse help to a couple because they were white. If this had happened under a White president and that too a Republican president the entire black community would have been enraged.

Obama has single handedly encouraged the politics of envy with his rhetoric about Wall Street, corporations and the top 2% of the income demographics. The Economist magazine recently pointed out how Democrats win elections by populist promises and shrill rhetoric about the rich. Never in recent history have achievers and job creators had it so bad as in the Obama era.

Infrastructure, roads, bridges and airports, in the world's richest country is crumbling. Anyone passing through JFK or Newark International Airport and driving through Verrazano Narrows Bridge or I-95 will be appalled at the state of America's infrastructure. Obama supports infrastructure spending only as an avenue to grease the greed of construction unions. Between the greed of unions, avaricious lawyers and a run away environmental lobby it is almost impossible to build a Golden Gate bridge or a Brooklyn Bridge or a sprawling airport.

Republican party, for their share, have become the party of crazies. The Tea Party revolt yanked the GOP to a crazy far right wing corner. Pushing to the country into a debt default, ranting about abortions, ludicrous ideas on 'legitimate rape' etc have alienated the GOP from a large section of the population. Though the GOP might deliver a blow to democrats in Tuesday's mid-term elections winning the White House remains a dream. Republicans lost the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 Presidential elections, of which 4 were lost in landslides. Mitt Romney, being no Reagan, could not become the voice of capitalism and rebuff Obama team's malicious attacks on him and the free market that made him rich. The GOP lacks an intellectual leader who can be the voice of free market against a democratic party that is fast becoming Marxist in its outlook.

All is not gloom however. American economy still remains the most resilient, the most dominant and the most innovative in the world. Facebook, iPhone, iPod, Twitter, Google, Driver less cars, Tesla and many other technical innovations of the past decade are still coming out of only America and are impossible to happen anywhere else.America still remains, by comparison, an open economy welcoming thousands of foreigners as students and workers. Much to the chagrin of many the American financial sector remains a robust component of a great economy. America, to the surprise of the world, is now a net energy exporter thanks to the fracking boom that has unleashed America's potential on energy and remade the energy landscape.

America is looking for a leader to emerge and be its voice. The list of presidential hopefuls from both parties is uninspiring. Whether it is has-beens, like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush or scary ideological extremists like Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren or head scratching flip floppers like Rand Paul or a novice like Marco Rubio, that are spoken of as presidential contenders. In one word, uninspiring. The country needs a leader who will unleash America's innate unmatched energy to innovate, to create, to take risks and be rewarded handsomely. The country needs a leader who will speak of equal opportunities and not equal outcomes.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

                                              --- 'The Second Coming' by W.B. Yeats

Let not some candidate slouch towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. America needs a leader to tell her that she is still the shining city on a hill. America needs a president who will embrace the American spirit and American exceptionalism.