Saturday, July 17, 2004

Terrorism, Democracy & Capitalism

On Tuesday September 11th I was visiting my aged mother in a village in northwest India, at her guru’s ashram by the banks of the river Beas, when my son called from China. “Turn on the TV,” he said, and we began to watch in stunned disbelief the barbarous tragedy unfolding on the other side of the globe. The second tower of New York’s World Trade Center came down before our eyes. After the initial horror had passed, I felt like many Indians that perhaps now the world might begin to understand what we have been going through. For over a decade we have been victims of Taliban trained terrorism that has taken hundreds of innocent lives.

Ironically, the same dreadful Tuesday was the deadline given by faceless terrorists to force women in Kashmir to cover themselves in veils. Tailors in the valley had been busy for weeks, but they could not catch up with the demand for burqas. An innocent 15 year old girl, whose tailor failed to meet the 11 September deadline, found acid sprayed on her face as she was rushing home from school. She lost an eye and her pretty face was disfigured for life.

Two years ago Osama bin Laden had announced from his hideout in the mountains deserts of Afghanistan, “India and America are my biggest enemies and all mujahideen groups in Pakistan should come together to target them.” Why are India and America the prime targets of Osama and the Taliban? It is because they are the most pluralistic societies and share the same ideals and liberal values. America is the oldest modern nation, and India is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. They are the two largest democracies in the world. They are also the only two nations, as far as I know, where democracy has preceded capitalism.

Migrations of diverse people have created both America and India. America is a nation of immigrants and the historic wanderings of many peoples and tribes of Asia over thousands of years created India. America dealt with its diversity historically through the “melting pot”; India accommodated its migrant minorities through the caste system, which made it possible for a vast variety of people to live together in a single social system. Today, India and America have emerged as unusually open pluralistic societies and diversity is their most vital metaphor. Both present a challenge to fundamentalists, who are only comfortable in monolithic states with one religion, one language, and one mind. Indeed, India faces this problem with its own Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. These societies are vulnerable to terrorists because they are so open.

The U.S. got democracy in 1776 but it did not embrace full-blooded capitalism until the early 19th century with the industrial revolution. India became a full-fledged democracy in 1950, with universal suffrage and extensive human rights, but it was not until 1991 that it opened up to a freer play of capitalist forces. For the rest of the world it has been the other way around. Suffrage and rights were gradually extended in Europe and they altered the capitalist institutions that had come up after the industrial revolution. This historic inversion has made all the difference, and it goes a long way to explain these two noisy targets of terrorism.
In the past half-century, Indians went to the school of democracy. They learned to change their governments periodically and peacefully; they gave free reign to their litigious natures and pushed the courts to the limit; they created a vigorous free press and more recently a lively electronic media; and they began to internalize the rule of law. As a result, diverse voices have risen, backward castes have come forward, a more pluralistic middle class has developed, and there is a greater balance of opportunity.

While they were at the school of political liberty, Indians however gradually lost their economic liberty to a domineering socialist state. Hence, they failed to create an industrial revolution, though the farmers did manage to create a green revolution. But this changed in 1991 and since then India’s economy has grown 6.4 percent a year (and 7.5 percent for three years in a row), making it one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. More recently, population growth has begun to slow, and in 1998 it was down to 1.7 percent compared to an historic 2.2 percent growth rate. Literacy has climbed to 65 percent in 2000 compared to 52 percent in 1990, with women and the backward states registering the biggest gains. More than 120 million Indians have pulled themselves out of poverty in the past decade as the poverty ratio has declined to 26 percent. And India may have finally found its competitive advantage in its booming software and IT services.

If the economy continues to grow at this rate for the next two to three decades, then half of India (that is, the west and the south) should turn middle class in the first quarter of this century and the other half should get there in the second quarter. If growth accelerates to eight percent with greater reforms, then this happy day will arrive sooner. At that point poverty will not vanish, but the poor will come down to a manageable 10-15 percent of the population, and the politics of the country will also change. By 2025, India will see its share of world product rise from 6 to 13 percent, making it the third largest economy in the world. By then India and China will account for 39 percent share of global output, which is about equal to the present share of United States and Europe combined.

The curious inversion between democracy and capitalism means, however, that India's future will not be a creation of unbridled capitalism, but it will evolve through a daily dialogue between the conservative forces of caste, religion and the village, the leftist and Nehruvian socialist forces which dominated the intellectual life of the country for 40 years, and the new forces of global capitalism. These “million negotiations of democracy,” the plurality of interests, the contentious nature of the people implies that the pace of economic reforms will be slow and incremental. It also suggests that India might have a more stable, peaceful, and negotiated transition into the future than say China. Equally, it will avoid some of the deleterious side effects of an unprepared capitalist society, such as Russia. Although slower, India is more likely to preserve its way of life and it’s civilization of diversity, tolerance, and spirituality against the onslaught of the global culture.

Despite appalling governance, corruption, and the indecisiveness of their democracy, most Indians believe that their plural, democratic and capitalist society is worth fighting for, because it offers the promise of preserving and enlarging human freedoms, creating prosperity, diminishing poverty, and upholding the dignity of a human being, and it does it better than any other system that human beings have tried so far. Because India is unique in this, like America, it is vulnerable to terrorists.


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