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Monday, May 28, 2012

WHAT SIMILARITY? (In Re: Manu Joseph, NYT, 23 Nov 2011)

Let me freely admit to a long-standing degree of impatience with, even animosity for, Manu Joseph. It isn't personal, in that I do not know the man. It comes only from whatever I've read of him, because in my experience his hallmark as a writer - and he can, in a technical sense, write well - is the tendency to present his ideas & impressions as some form of empirical reality. This makes him, of course, a very bad journalist - because good journalism relies rather a lot on empirical evidence!

The piece I'm responding to here - linked to me recently by a friend - is typical for him - unresearched pseudo-elitist drivel of the worst kind. You can read it at:

I want to do this point by point. SO MANY points of annoyance!
(My suggestion is that you open his link in a parallel tab, and compare points as we go along.)

First paragraph, straight off the bat, exactly what I've come to expect from him - pure assertion. So convenient to summarise the complex history of colonial occupation, integration & post-Independence organisation / reorganisation into one sweeping generalisation that just happens to chime with your particular mindset, and that of those inclined similarly to you!

(Frankly, Europe is far more concerned with a homogeneous destiny than India ever was. Diversity is always considered an asset here, even if only at a cultural level, right?)

(Disclaimer to next segment: I am a long time Mumbai resident, and probably prone to get defensive about my city. Permit me the impassioned defence so long as it remains empirically sound?)

The next two paragraphs are equally typical. Joseph knows, but chooses to ignore, a number of factors related to infrastructure: the political manoeuvres that have governed infrastructure development in Mumbai (more to do with loyalty to coalition allies than allotting funds to poorer states) ; the fundamental difference between Delhi (being a planned city built specifically & exclusively for government) & Mumbai (being an organic economics-oriented sprawl that agglomerated & calcified into the city we know today) ; the strain present on travel infrastructure in Delhi as well (which is very high) ; in turn, the consistent efforts to upgrade infrastructure as well as the efficiency of its usage in Mumbai (so Delhi, with such superior infrastructure, STILL faces jams & high travel times not unlike Mumbai, while transporting fewer people) ; geographical differences (Delhi is flat land on either banks of a river; Mumbai is a network of islands, swamps, straights, canals & reclamations) ; climatic differences (travellers do not die of heat strokes in Mumbai, so air conditioning remains a luxury) - this, from the top of my head. Even discounting ALL these, he somehow overlooks that (Delhi, for the above reasons, aside), Mumbai has THE BEST FUNCTIONAL PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM and public infrastructure of any Indian megapolis - while handling population pressures significantly higher than its nearest competitors - Bangalore, Chennai & Hyderabad.

Does Mumbai deserve better infrastructure? Hell, yes. Can this be done without bringing the city to a grinding halt? This is a technological question, but let's say it can. Can it be done faster & cheaper than it is? Corruption factors aside (since those are nationwide), that would be a technological question as well - but the odds are that surgical impact, rapid deployment technology is more expensive than current approaches, not less. Does infrastructure development in Mumbai, therefore, need MORE investment than similar moves in other cities? Of course, for reasons of both scale & technological complexity - & the high saturation of available space in the city will not help either. Does Joseph touch on ANY of these nuances? No. Just the tired old - we make more money, we deserve a greater slice of it. In percentage or absolute terms, name ONE other municipality that receives revenues like Mumbai does? Of course, it NEEDS even more. But while this gap can imply a deficit in intelligent governance, it is hard to see how it automatically means injustice or prejudice aforethought.

[ADDENDUM: A friend pointed out an even deeper flaw, while commenting on this piece in another forum: Mumbai probably has the highest ratio of commercial establishments to industrial ones. What this means is that a lot of this money Joseph speaks of is not 'made' in Mumbai in any real sense. It is simply paid here. So, for instance, Tata has no factories in Mumbai, or even Maharashtra that I know of. But they file their taxes through their corporate head office in Mumbai. Can the states where the factories are located complain about deprivation of revenue from 'their' production? Can Mumbai claim to be 'deprived' of it if, for whatever reason, Tata shifts HQ to Gandhinagar? The absurdity of the claim to 'making more money' could not be more evident.]

Jump to an equally non-nuanced cultural-political analysis of the migrants vs. sons-of-the-soil clashes. Is there even a hint of analysis of the mix of push / pull factors behind the migration? (None, but who expected any anyway?) Enforce labour laws, so that the same wage MUST be paid to both migrant & local labour, set up mixed-composition unions to bargain for above minimum wage for ALL workers - then see how many of those "thriving businesses" in Mumbai continue to thrive or even do business there. They will move to where the labour is cheaper still - perhaps, finally, redirecting that migration to multiple rural centres? And from a sociological perspective, see how many of the local workers are WILLING to work under these conditions. Because, you know, it's easy to resent someone who will work twice as hard as you for half the pay - but (assuming the hours & pay are legal) that just makes you a lazy thug, not an entitled dissident. I may be unfair to my own state / linguistic community in saying this, but "hard working" is not a trait widely associated with us - or, at any rate, more readily associated with some of those migrant communities.

The next paragraph - RIGHT AFTER talking about migration - links political power with population in the State. Do I need to point out the contradiction? Shouldn't we be eager for migrants, then - to vote in sympathetic elements from the cities to which they migrate (so that their lot can be improved) incidentally gaining political power for their new residences rather than their home states? Again, if the distribution of seats lags behind population migration trends, is that the fault of the migrants? Of their home states? Or are we suggesting these migrants all trek home every election to vote?

And so we come, at last, to his real bug-bear. The idea that an intellectual 'Germany' (and we're taking this comparison at face value because it's an easy reference to follow, which is pretty much the kind of association Joseph relies upon for any of his writing to resonate), consisting of a financial / managerial / technocrat elite, feels they are not "getting their money's worth" out of politics. That this is a naked argument for elitism ought to be apparent, but then Joseph seems to have the good fortune of writing to sympathetic audiences.

The "objection" is ridiculous on many levels. The business of business is business, yes, but the business of government is governance, not business, so you do NOT assess it as returns to investment on the level of the individual citizen. Its purpose is developing the nation, not YOUR little bit of it. AFTER a common minimum is achieved, THEN you can look for something like proportionate gains to your contribution - until then, your entitlement is just the minimum your condition requires. This assumes, too, that you ARE investing heavily in the government, and that's just not true. P. Sainath (most famously amongst a host of others) documents, year after year, the quantum of corporate taxes written off / unrealised by the government; the short version is, in any given year, we could meet all our payments, balance all deficits & perhaps even run a surplus budget if we refused to write off that amount. As I was reading in a different context, this attitude is less about a failure of government & more about a cultural disconnect where an Ayn-Rand-style atomistic capitalist hedonism is placed above an ethic of contribution to society & nation. Economically, anybody COULD be really rich even in the licence-permit era, but there were enough people who felt this was improper when large parts of the country did not even have food to eat. Today, that taboo seems to have vanished - in fact, the dominant narrative appears to be one of individual entitlement to wealth, which is to be protected from the government at all costs. (Ref. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976 - or this article by his student Block -

Of course, there is the question of corruption. Just because I am not entitled to a direct quid pro quo gain for what I contribute to society / nation, does not mean I cannot insist on being satisfied as to proper end-use of my contribution. In that sense I am an important stakeholder in national development, and there is certainly no call to tolerate some politician, government functionary or interloper enriching himself off my contribution while its intended recipients remain in abject or relative poverty. (This was me adding nuance. Notice the contrast, because - again - Joseph has none.)

The 'chief grouse' of this so-called German segment of India is not that the 'Greek' segment determines economic policy. It is that they are not permitted to enrich themselves to the extent they believe possible because the 'Greek' segment stakes a claim. And it is here that the comparison falls apart: the actual Greek government, through a series of measures charitably described as ill-advised, BY ITS OWN ACTIONS went from being a comfortable economy to being in a position of weakness & debt, from which it now clamours for rescue. The German government, amongst others, JUSTIFIABLY wishes to know why its people (to whom it owes prime allegiance) must undergo hardship to correct for the follies of the Greeks - especially when the Greek people themselves stubbornly refuse to take on such hardships themselves. (For their part, Greek voters ask why they, the vastly uninvolved & guiltless majority, must pay the price for mistakes made by a small finance-industry-government clique, exacerbated by opportunism from similar cliques in other countries.

What Joseph calls the "Greek" segment of India is different in that key aspect - they did not fall into that position by their own follies, but rather have been kept there through a significant history of economic repression - often with the complicity of some of those who form the "German" segment. (This is a simplistic summary of the Indian socio-economic scenario, & its history - but again, one I believe should hold.) Their contract with the State requires their upliftment, just as the contract of the "German" segment in turn implies that they bear not merely the brunt but the ENTIRETY of this burden at need. If you don't like having to bear that burden, leave. ONLY in this respect is there a similarity to the European Union, because the answer to the German question - why should we sacrifice? - is the same: for the benefit of a larger community than yourselves, and not least because elements from among you contributed to this problem as well. The perceived difference between these common answers lies only in the fact that the EU is a RECENT & purely consensual supra natural entity, whereas India is a relatively ancient supra-natural accommodation that's had a long time - & the benefit of coercion by military force - to adjust to being a single, integral entity.

Joseph then reduces politicians' behaviour (by recourse to Keynes) to purely a function of short-term profit, and that of the proletarian "Greek" segment (which votes en masse, while the elite "German" segment is hardly participatory) to wrangling for those gains, or else sheer communal clannishness. What sophistry! Could you perhaps articulate that "German" segment dream a little more clearly, sir? How can my vote & theirs be equal? I am the true citizen, it is mine that should carry weight. 

Naked elitism hidden by sophistry. Essentially an argument for oligarchy - or, ironically, the old Athenian democracy, where the franchise went only to the plutocracy. Merge this with that equally cherished middle class dream (one is not sure if this middle class is Greek or German. That enforced dichotomy has played its role, and can now be discarded) of political power without political involvement, by referencing the "second revolution" that Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement was occasionally built up to be. If fulfilled, of course, this is a dream that would give us more distinguished looking politicians, essentially supplanting the thugs of the current crop with suave scamsters & white collar confidence artists - because it would no more solve the problem of the preponderance of short-term gain over consideration of long-term sustainability that Joseph identifies as the source of opportunistic political behaviour. Less murderers, more employers of contract killers. To put in Joseph's terms, we don't want the "Greeks" deciding, so let's hand it over to La Familia! At least they wear nice suits... Why this is worse, of course, is that the mafiosi are not there to benefit "Greek" or "German", merely to milk both dry by all means available - it is not least the knowledge that this is the alternative that makes control of policy by the "Greek" segment preferable.

And so, to the homily to patriotism in ending. Are people bound by virtues & ideas, or simply time & habit? Could it be, just possibly, that they are bound by an actual belief in a collective benefit that more atomistic views do not offer - and that this comparison simply may not transpose to the European context, where the trade-off between benefits for individual members vs. the collective is a lot sharper? One is not sure that Mr. Joseph could answer, but he resorts to his sole skill - the soundbyte - to sign off instead. Some nonsense about arranged marriages growing stronger when divorce is not an option. Yes, in the ideal, that will happen. But we've seen every degree of dysfunctional & broken home result as well, which is precisely why it was seen as ultimately beneficial for family welfare to bring that option to the table. Or do you think the "Greek" segment should simply volunteer to be the docile, battered wife, and bear all the costs of the marriage while continuing in servile submission?

Thank you for your patience. Pray that I may have the same when I encounter Mr. Joseph's writing once more. As it is, I can only worry what reading such pulp fiction in the New York Times does for a non-Indian reader's view of my country.


  1. I love the humour and sarcastic wit that is so typically Ameya-esque!
    Good job you fish cutlet you!

  2. Am going to read this again and again....cleared up a lot of things in my brain.....certain thought processes have been woken up and re-adjusted! Waiting to read more on this blog...oh! as for the writing, been long since I enjoyed the writing itself ....