Yogi Takes on India’s Elite, Nobody Wins: Pankaj Mishra

A few years ago, I visited a yoga camp run by Baba Ramdev near my home in the Himalayas. Ramdev is India’s latest bushy-bearded guru, and gained worldwide fame this month when the government on his anti-corruption crusade in New Delhi.

Over the years, I had glimpsed the orange-robed yoga instructor on television, rippling his abdomen, or boasting about his ability to cure cancer. I didn’t think much of him. Charlatans proliferate in “rising” India; Ramdev seemed one of the more harmless sort.

It was my landlord, a conservative Hindu, who persuaded me to take him seriously. Ramdev, he reverently informed me, was on a messianic mission to “cleanse” politics through yoga and restore India to its ancient power and glory. As I toured his camp, it became clear that Ramdev aimed at more than improved digestion and muscle tone.

The audience, sitting on the floor in orderly rows, received his every word with pure rapture as, half-hidden behind a bank of marigolds, Ramdev rambled from one grievance (denim jeans) to another (cow-slaughter). Much of the mixed-gender crowd consisted of middle class-housewives in their best saris, hoping to attenuate ghee-fed paunches with yoga.

A couple of mom-and-pop retailers I talked to told me they had traveled a great distance from their hometowns for Ramdev’s darshan (“vision of the divine” in Sanskrit). They were particularly receptive to Ramdev’s rants against multinational companies and his advocacy of Taliban-style justice (chop off the hands of thieves, hang the corrupt, that kind of thing).

The Resentfully Idle

But most of Ramdev’s eager camp-followers belonged to India’s awesome mass of the “semi-educated unemployables,” people forced or coerced out of the crisis-ridden agriculture sector -- which still engages a majority of Indians -- but who are unable to join India’s new knowledge economy because of the poor quality of their social networks and education. Resentfully idle, they seemed most susceptible to Ramdev’s vengeful fantasies of a country cleansed of corrupt Indians and corrupting foreigners.

Their rhetoric was disturbing, and made me fear the often-complacently hailed future in which India’s demographic “dividend” -- 600 million people under the age of 25 -- translates into an unbeatable advantage over aging China.

Traveling in the early '90s for a book on small town India, I had met many such frustrated young men. Most of them belonged to the upper castes and, finding their futures blocked by affirmative action in government jobs for low-caste Hindus, were slipping into a militant, even murderous, mood. These provincial no-hopers were at the forefront of the many vicious anti-Muslim campaigns organized in the 1990s by Hindu nationalists.

Empowered and Angry

Yet many other Hindus who constitute Ramdev’s base belong to the so-called backward and low castes. Politically empowered in recent decades, they have also been partaking of the general desires for prosperity and power unleashed by economic globalization.

As early as 1990, V.S. Naipaul intuited that a new generation of Indians was fast developing ideas “of who they are and what they owe themselves.” Today, the information revolution and rapidly disseminated images of global affluence ensure that many more Indians know what they owe themselves. One can see this attitude everywhere from the industrialist Mukesh Ambani -- who last year unveiled his billion-dollar, 27-story home in Mumbai, mocking old Indian expectations of austerity from public figures -- to the landless peasants and indigenous forest-dwelling people who lead a “Maoist” insurgency against an Indian state they see as advancing corporate and mining interests.

Revolution of Aspirations

The revolution of aspirations is well under way in India. Nevertheless, employment rates in the countryside, where most Indians live, have barely moved in the last decade, when India's 100 wealthiest people increased their combined worth to $300 billion, a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.

Neither India’s service nor manufacturing sectors can grow fast enough to absorb the poor forced to migrate out of rural areas. Furthermore, entrepreneurial energies remain fallow, largely because “twenty years on from reforms that prized open India’s economy, the system still favors the insider,” as a Financial Times analysis comparing Indian business families to Russia’s crony capitalists put it.

As the euphoria provoked by India’s “roaring capitalist success story” fades, it has become a truism that “economic liberalization has not even nudged the lives of the country’s bottom 200 million people.” A comprehensive report in Foreign Policy on the Maoist insurgency points out that the “percentage of people going hungry in India” hasn’t changed in two decades.

Rising Economy’s Losers

However delayed, this focus on the biggest losers of economic liberalization is welcome. But it can deflect attention from the deep frustration building up among the putative winners of India’s capitalist transformation: the Indian middle class optimistically pegged at 300 million, and the many more aspirants to its ranks.

These urban or semi-urban Indians are much more directly affected than their forest-dwelling compatriots by the fact that, as Foreign Policy puts it, “India is now one of the most economically stratified societies on the planet; its judicial system remains byzantine, its political institutions corrupt, its public education and health-care infrastructure anemic.”

For many supposedly rising Indians, private secession to the many gated communities of the rich is an attractive possibility. But social mobility remains a mirage, as the great wealth created by a booming economy remains concentrated in very few hands. According to a widely cited report by Michael Walton, an economist at Harvard University, the quality and distribution of India’s amazing rate of GDP growth are structurally “disequalizing.”

Road to Oligarchy

It’s not only that India isn’t “overflowing with Horatio Alger stories,” as the Wall Street Journal claimed in an article this month on the country’s extreme disparities. It is also developing all the ingredients necessary for a Latin American-style oligarchy, according to Walton.

This appalling possibility has been illustrated for millions of Indians by a series of recent scandals, which have badly tainted not only the country’s notoriously venal politicians and bureaucrats but also the poster figures of the “New India“: some of the most respected industrialists as well as television celebrities.

For many educated Indians, economic liberalization increasingly seems to have provided cover for a wholesale plunder of national resources by a small incestuous minority. Their simmering rage and discontent have found a handy outlet in a series of recent mass movements against the wide target of “corruption.”

Paying no Taxes

Financial malfeasance has long been an accepted fact of everyday life in a country where most people, including Baba Ramdev, avoid paying taxes, and where the smallest transaction requires the greasing of palms. But for many Indians tormented by rising inequality and almost 10 percent inflation, the scale of the looting indulged in by the nation’s richest businessmen and politicians ($39 billion in one recent scandal) is simply too shocking.

India’s elected politicians, a startling number of whom have criminal records, have long been losing credibility. But now the perception that India’s business, as well as political, elites have no higher aim than rapid self-enrichment at all costs has gained broad support. Not surprisingly, Ramdev could mobilize almost 50,000 dedicated volunteers at his camp in central Delhi in early June, part of his campaign to recover the $1.5 trillion reportedly stored by powerful Indians in foreign banks.

Assaulting the Followers

Fearful of Ramdev’s followers, India’s government at first sought to appease him, sending no less than four Cabinet ministers to receive him on his arrival by private plane in New Delhi. When Ramdev proved recalcitrant, the government ordered the police to clear his camp. The clumsy assault on sleeping protesters in the middle of the night caused widespread revulsion -- it’s unclear how many were injured. It also underlined the government’s increasing recourse to violence against political opponents.

In central India, the government has raised one particularly vicious private militia in addition to deploying many thousands of paramilitary troops against the Maoists. Elsewhere in India, peasants protesting against the government’s appropriation of their lands often meet with tear gas and bullets.

Monopoly on Violence

This reflexive preference for brute force only stokes the growing perception that non-violent and democratic movements stand no chance of making themselves heard. Left-wing radicals are already challenging the state’s traditional monopoly on violence. Barely a week goes by without news of another audacious raid by the Maoists, and Ramdev, humiliated by his eviction from New Delhi, vowed to raise an 11,000-strong army for “self-defense.”

Welcoming India’s “million mutinies” in 1990, Naipaul didn’t fail to anticipate the near collapse of public order that might follow acts of individual and collective self-assertion. It was inevitable, he argued, that material and intellectual growth in a country like India “with its layer below layer of distress and cruelty” would initially translate into “rage and revolt.”

Naipaul pinned his hopes, somewhat mystically, on a wise Indian state that rescues its citizens from extremism -- a state that is “the source of law and civility and reasonableness.” But what if the state itself starts to lash out blindly and loses its moral legitimacy as the ultimate arbiter of India’s many struggles of class, caste and identity?

This is the socio-economic impasse India finds itself in. Ramdev’s threats may amount to nothing. There is no doubt, however, that messianic populists like him will continue to flourish, feeding on the free-floating anger of an overwhelmingly youthful people who are just beginning to realize that they may never get what they are owed, even in the “New India” of growth and opportunity.

(Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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