India. What a place. A country the British built and the populace wrecked. I know, I know. Colonialism is evil. One country should never rule another. This is Holy Writ in the politically correct world of the 21st century. But just keep reading.
The Brits made plenty of mistakes in their first hundred or so years, and not just errors but acts of greed and ill will. The Rebellion of 1857 didn’t happen for nothing.
But their response to the uprising was simply extraordinary, and reveals the British as masters of the art of colony-building. They poured massive resources into creating a highly educated class which would effectively run India for them – the Indian Administrative Service. Now the Indian Civil Service, a vast sink of corruption and nepotism which daily sucks the lifeblood from the country. Bravo.
By the turn of the 20th century, having established top-quality schools modelled on Eton and military and engineering colleges of equal quality, the British were doing their very best to rule the country as well as they could. Of course the petty corruption flourished under their feet, but the big things were mostly done fairly. Their greatest offence by that time was their intensely irritating, condescending racist behaviour, when judged by modern standards. Yes, they held themselves above the ‘natives’. But it is sheer revisionism to see this as wrongful in the way it would be today. It was a necessity. Although India is enormously diverse, one quality the common people share with many Eastern cultures is their reservation of duty and respect to those who occupy a rarefied position above them. You think the Mughal emperors chummed around in the bazaar with the hoi polloi? Hardly. Look at the behaviour of the rulers of the princely states like Hyderabad. Absolute despots. And at the present day, they tolerate the most flagrant corruption and self-serving in their numerous ‘royal families’ like the Gandhis, people who live lifestyles of extreme luxury and occupy a fairytale zone not unlike that of England’s royal family.
The British attitude to Mahatma Gandhi and the other leaders in the independence cause was correct. They had been in the country for a long time, many of them loved it, and they foresaw that the end of the Raj would bring a serious setback to the lives of most Indians. They were right, even leaving aside the millions who died during Partition. What we see, still, is a country stumbling though a mire of corruption and neglect.
The British built the largest, most comprehensive rail network in the world, a task no Indian government since could even contemplate. And here’s a sobering statistic: it is estimated that one Briton died for every mile of rail laid. Of disease, alcoholism and exhaustion. The British gave the Indian people the only honest judicial system they have ever known. Gone. And not only through the courts, but by the District Inspectors who would decide petty cases judiciously, quickly and fairly, by and large, and – perhaps most importantly – at no cost. Unimaginable in modern India. Of course there were exceptions, but they did their best.
Gandhi was a genius, and many of his writings touch the deepest truths of human existence. But he was also a nutter. He was. His ashrams were nightmarish; in declaring caste nonexistent he created, among many other quarrels and privations, the absurd situation where Brahmins would sneak out at night and ritually cleanse themselves. He spent most of his energy doing battle with his own body; his greatest frustration, by his own declaration, was that even by restricting himself to five plain foods in minimal quantity he failed to quell his appetite. He was brahmacharya, a celibate, although he was married. He did not ask his wife’s permission to sentence her to a life without sex. Hardly a model of compassion, but consistent with his view that women should remain in the background, serving their men. When the independence struggle was at his height, he envisioned victory coming through mass spiritual purification. He wrote that the people of India might have to forgo having children for a period of time in order to achieve this purity. In fine, Mohandas Gandhi has been of infinitely more use to his people dead than alive.
Now India is preparing to go to the polls and we see the mess in its glory. The Indian obsession with politics is in full cry and newspapers are packed with even more political stories than usual. But any observer from a Western-style democracy would be baffled: there is virtually no discussion of policies and platforms. In three weeks of reading the daily paper, snowed under with acronyms – UPA, CPI, CPM, BJP – and politicians’ names, (many have only one, others two or three different names), this morning I came across my first story mentioning specific issues. That is all they were – mentioned.
So what are the stories about? Alliances, mostly. Who is prepared to get into bed with whom. And political debuts, all either of celebrities from the world of the screen and the sports field or of young members of political families, because in India politics is a family business. They are basically gossip. One of these was the most extraordinary political story I have ever seen.
This handsome young son of a senior political figure, having starred in a Bollywood flop, has decided to go in for politics. The interview filled half of a tabloid page and contained not one word about issues, problems he wanted to help solve, beliefs, aspirations, political philosophy. Nothing. The theme of the piece turned on whether he had the know-how and clout to win a following. Correctly, actually, because Indian politics is entirely about charisma and followers. His answer, “The offspring of a fish does not need to be taught to swim,” was satisfactory and appropriate, because it constituted a claim that he knew the individuals and their followers. He knew who owed what to whom. He knew the history of the major players’ affiliations. Which meant he knew how to get things done.
Another story demonstrates the importance of followers. The Ghorka people in the Darjeeling hills are up in arms because Mamata Bannerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister, has fielded an ‘outsider’ for the seat of Darjeeling, a soccer star called Baichung Bhutia. But hang on. Bhutia? The Bhutias are a clan of Tibetans whose presence in Darjeeling and adjacent Sikkim, which used to include the territory of Darjeeling, long predates the Chinese invasion of Tibet. He’s from Sikkim. How can he be an outsider in the hills?
Their point is, he has no followers. So who cares, if he wins the seat on the back of his established popularity? The followers of a local candidate, that’s who. Because in Indian politics the followers of the successful candidate win prizes. Big ones. Jobs, first and foremost, for themselves and theirs. Projects they favour get funded, and the jobs on the projects go to them and those around them. And at least 20% of those funds go straight back to the politician who signs them off. Always. These vast networks run India.
If Bhutia wins, and he probably will, there is no-one there to collect. For the followers of the local aspirant this means years of work and support wasted, a disaster. So what will happen? No-one can say, but historically it is not unlikely that the local Ghorka Alliance will break away and join forces with another party, in the hope that their combined votes will defeat Bhutia and everyone will be rewarded.
To try and understand how life in general and in business in particular functions in this bizarre system, I spoke to my friend Sanjay, a successful businessman, devout Christian, a man who would greatly prefer to play with a straight bat. I asked him if it is possible to run a business in India while refusing on principle to pay bribes and kickbacks.
“I wish it was. But the answer is, absolutely not. Impossible.”
“Well, let’s consider tax. When the tax inspector comes to look at our books, I have to pay him or he will take me apart. You know how many people work in these departments? They will go though everything with a fine-tooth comb. Of course there will be mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. For every mistake, I will be fined. They will come back again and again. Multiply that by four, because there four departments, all huge – central government income tax, luxury tax, that’s the state tax, service tax, an industry thing, and VAT. If I don’t pay, can you imagine the consequences? I won’t have time to run my business. They will ruin me.”
“So what happens?”
“What happens? He comes, he says, ‘I don’t want to waste your time. I will fine you a few thousand rupees. Then it can be seen that I am doing my job. Whatever you declare, that will be satisfactory. I don’t need to look’. Of course, over and above the fine, I have to pay him. And it is not just paying him once. He comes to my restaurant on a Sunday with his family and …”
“He doesn’t get a bill?”
This may indicate why in Gujurat recently there were 400,000 applicants for 1,500 jobs as junior tax officers.
“Now, we pay tax. We don’t have to. My competitor down the road pays no tax and I have to sell my goods at the same cost as his, because of competitive pressure.”
“How can he pay no tax?”
“Simple. He doesn’t keep accounts, runs a pure cash business.”
“Why don’t you do the same?”
“Because to do that, you have to sit with the cash, all day long. You go into his shop, either he or his son-in-law will take your payment with his own hands. You will get no receipt. (I tested this; it was as he said.) I don’t have time to do that. And of course I can’t trust employees to do it. They will help themselves. So at least, keeping a full set of books we get all the money which comes in the door.”
He goes on to paint an ever more detailed picture of how corruption pervades everything. To buy a new house one must pay the developer at least a quarter of the price in unaccounted cash. I suggest that this places an obstacle before the buyer, a problem usually solved by open competition. Surely a developer who does not make such a demand will sell his house more easily?
“No, because his house will cost you more. If he pays tax on the whole price the buyer has to fund that.”
I noted that Chief Minster Bannerjee was promising to deliver a new water supply to Darjeeling. What will happen? Will Darjeeling get its water?
“Actually, that project has already been funded. Sixty miles of pipes have been laid, the pumps installed. But the hills leader suddenly announced that the water from that source is not fit for drinking and that it needed to come from somewhere else. So everything has stopped.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Because the party pushing the project through is not his. He gets nothing from it.”
I pause to absorb this, the consequences. They are barbaric. People get sick every day, babies die, because of the state of Darjeeling’s water supply. But one of their own leaders will let that go on and on until someone pays him to get out of the way. Horrible. But consistent with everything else I know about India minus the Raj.
“OK. Say that had not happened. How would the money flow? The money voted for the project – will that all get spent on supplying the infrastructure?
“No way. First, the person approving the project, the politician, will take at least 20% of the funds. Then every pair of hands the money passes through will take its share.”
“So how can the project happen? Surely there won’t enough to do it?”
“Oh, it will happen, because the contractor who gets the tender will quote twice, or three times the actual cost of building it.”
“But surely others can come in with lower prices?”
“No, because the tenders have to be handed in. When a contractor who is not part of the system goes to put his tender in, there will be a bunch of goons who will stop him from delivering the papers. That’s assuming he can get his hands on the tender documents, which is unlikely.”
“But I saw an ad in the paper calling for tenders, and they were on-line. You could download the tender documents.”
“Is that right? Well, there may still be obstacles. But actually, it is getting better. They are using the Internet and other things to try to change things where they can. The UPA government has put a lot of good laws in place, for instance the Right to Information Act, other laws like that. Rahul Gandhi (Indira’s grandson) has a very modern outlook. He is trying his best, I believe.”
“But it’s a long slow job.”
“A very long, very slow job. But I will say this: twenty years ago it was worse – much worse.”
He explains how technology is transforming the economy.
“Now I can pay my tax online. You can’t imagine what a blessing this is. Also, now, to open a bank account you have to provide ID and this is checked. This means that black money which people used to stash in multiple bank accounts has to be kept in the house, or somewhere out of sight. This make it more difficult. This is a definite improvement, thanks to technology and new laws.”
People like Sanjay and his wife Sylvia are growing in number, members of an expanding middle class of professionals, entrepreneurs and industrialists. Their children are all either at or are heading for university, becoming professionals. But the young Indian in the street has no such aspirations. His or hers are focused entirely on the ICS exam, the one you need to pass to be qualified to take a government clerical job. The ultimate dream for the masses is a lifetime ticket on the corruption gravy train. The walls in town are littered with education businesses all promising the same thing – success in the exam. Not degrees, professions. Just that golden exam.
But over this agonisingly slow improvement a dark cloud now hangs. If the predicted outcome of the upcoming elections is correct, the next Prime Minister will be the charismatic demagogue Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, basically an alliance of Hindu extremists. He has been the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001. In 2002 Hindus, following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims by a Muslim mob, went on a rampage, massacring Muslims, with Muslims responding in kind. Modi, who held sole responsibility for internal security, insisted on bringing the bodies of the train victims to Ahmedabad against specific police advice that this would cause a riot. When the riots started it took the police 24 hours to intervene; more than a thousand people died in the worst communal violence since the granting of independence and the creation of Pakistan. Modi went unpunished, but he is recognised as so rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti all non-Hindus that he was banned from visiting the UK for 10 years, and denied a diplomatic visa to the US. It was in his state, where he claims to have solved the problem of unemployment, that the 400,000 applied for 1,500 government jobs. Some 800 farmers have committed suicide there in the last few years. A million famers have no electricity. And he is accused of giving his industrialist cronies huge tracts of government development land at nominal prices, often driving farmers off their land.
We in New Zealand remember a populist demagogue, Robert Muldoon. He used divisive, populist strategies, cynically stirring up hatred and fear to hang on to power. The consequences for New Zealand were serious, but no-one died. But if Narendra Modi and his BJP cronies win, as anticipated, people now alive in India are about to die horrible deaths. Many, many people. I expect that even the announcement of victory will spur riots, with ecstatic Hindus burning mosques and churches in celebration and butchering whoever gets in their way.
Only India’s federal structure stands between Modi and a terrifying fundamentalist regime; thankfully the real power on the ground lies with the state governments, who control the police. But in states like Modi’s Gujarat, with small Muslim minorities and vast numbers of illiterate or semi-literate Hindus, the embers of communal violence never die. The election of a BJP national government may well blow them into a blaze. And it is not only a problem for Muslims. Sylvia tells me that millions of India’s Christians are openly afraid of what is about to happen.
18 May, 2014. Modi’s BJP wins by a landslide.
Nine days later two untouchable girls are raped, strangled and hung in Uttar Pradesh, another rural, backward state like Gujarat.
The police ignore the father’s call for help. Only because all the villagers create an international scandal by gathering around the girls’ hanging bodies and refusing to allow their removal are some of the offenders arrested.
Had they simply buried the girls, or dumped them somewhere, they would have got away with it. Hundreds of such cases are reported every year; the files sit untouched in police cupboards. So why did they leave them hanging in full view, on a fruit tree? As a layered message – untouchables have no rights in Hinduism. We can do what we like. And untouchables are filthy – no Brahmin or Kshatriya would eat fruit from that tree now. Let the untouchables eat that contaminated food, to remind them of their non-humanity.
These are the ideas now known by the populace to be shared by members of their government. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that the rapists felt emboldened by the election results, to the extent that they could actually make a display of their atrocity.