Thursday, 4 November 2010

NOT PJ: Jalebis and Jealousies

This week Bernard Darnton wishes everyone a happy Diwali.

If you like fireworks and deep-fried balls of milk-powder soaked in syrup, then Diwali, falling on November 5th this year, is the holiday for you. Originally the Hindu festival of light, it is now often treated as simply a celebration of Indian culture in much the same way that Christmas used to mark the birth of Jesus but is now about decking malls with plastic holly.

Diwali celebrates the climactic events of the Ramayana, a 24,000-verse Sanskrit epic telling the story of Lord Rama, a mythological Indian king. To cut a 24,000-verse story short: Rama is exiled from his kingdom, his wife Sita goes with him against his advice and is kidnapped by the demon-god Ravana, much hardship endured by everyone but Sita remains chaste and Rama defeats Ravana’s army. The story ends with Rama and Sita’s triumphant return from exile and a happy ending more syrupy than a kadai full of gulab jamen.

Diwali is marked by the lighting of lamps in imitation of Rama’s welcome by the ecstatic populace of his home town, Ayodhya.

The name Ayodhya probably rings a bell unless you’re a Commonwealth Games reporter caught unaware by a real story. The name comes from a Sanskrit word for war and roughly means “unconquerable”. The area was conquered by the Mughals in the 16th Century.

After the conquest the Mughal emperor (allegedly) tore down a temple to the infant Rama and erected a mosque on the site. Hindu nationalists returned the favour in 1992 and 2000 people died in the ensuing riots.

An Indian Supreme Court decision a month ago determined that the site “kind of belongs to everyone” and that “we should all get along peacefully.” Indian history suggests that this won’t happen because it’s hard to reason with people when both sides will spill blood on the basis that “my invisible friend is better than your invisible friend.”

India is awash with invisible friends and people who would fight over them. It is also awash in ineffective and corrupt government, where a Supreme Court mincing words to try and avoid religious bloodshed is the least of the problems. But India is rapidly turning itself into a modern nation in spite of all that. A recent Economist article touts India’s surprising economic miracle.

One of India’s big advantages is demographic. China is very soon going to find itself turning grey because all the workers who should be there to support and replace the retirees simply never came into existence due to China’s one child policy. India’s workforce is young, growing, entrepreneurial, and productive.

In the 1970s, when the fashionable worry was overpopulation, totalitarians from Peking to Harvard were advocating stringent population control measures in Asia. In China, the Communist Party inflicted misery upon millions with forced sterilisations and compulsory abortions.

Indira Gandhi tried to do the same in India during a period of dictatorship known as “The Emergency”. The move was incredibly unpopular, democracy was restored in 1977, Indira Gandhi was sent packing, and the country carried on its fecund way. Right-thinking people across the world were horrified by India’s chaotic, unplanned, rabble.

China’s spectacular rise will begin to slow as the country runs into demographic problems that are the direct consequences of deliberate demographic policy. The lesson is the same one that planners everywhere fail to learn every time: Planners don’t know shit.

India’s new capitalism is more vibrant than China’s government-approved sort, and its industries are more modern and information-centric than China’s manufacturing.

If you want a story that celebrates the victory of light over dark, there’s no need to peek into the dim recesses of mythology. It’s right here: a nation of people who rescued their democracy from the brink of dictatorship, who have dismantled one of the craziest bureaucracies in the world, and who are on the verge of meteoric success largely through doing just whatever the hell they pleased.

* * He’s not PJ O’Rourke, but he’s not bad either.  Read Bernard Darnton’s NOT PJ
column here every Thursday, barring drinking accidents. * *


  1. Is there sufficient evidence to hope India will be a huge success? (I'd really like to see that; rather than seeming negative/critical). About 700million are peasants, living in rural poverty and ignorance, seems the more current (and old) picture.

  2. Honestly, I think it's too early to say.

    India's still got massive problems with corruption, poverty, ethinic strife, etc. but many of the signs are encouraging.

    There have been incredible economic reforms in the last twenty years, some very impressive businesses have thrived, and amongst the poorest literacy is improving rapidly.

    I think India is poised for success and that view is based partly on evidence and partly on hope. The future isn't written yet and if India is to be a success people have to choose that outcome.


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