Saturday, June 23, 2012

As a matter of fact

Facts come in every shape, size, variety. Their survival is determined
not by value but by how inexplicable they are. The human being has
23,000 genes, only “half as many as a tomato”, I am told. But humbling
as this formative fact of life might be, it does not quite catch the
imagination as much as the perplexity called death, particularly when
death escapes the boundaries of reason: A plague decimates a
continent, war murders a generation, or an evil maniac orders a

Statistics distil facts to stark simplicity. Between September 1939
and August 1945, the period of the Second World War, 27,000 people
were killed each day.
(This figure does not include war-related casualties like the three
million-odd Bengalis who died of a famine that was a direct
consequence of war policy.) There is always enough to be learnt from
war, its machines and its machinations. Guess who is the largest buyer
of oil in the world? If you thought it was a country,  wrong. The

America’s military consumes more oil each year than the whole of
Africa. And yet, when you think about it, is this very startling? The
armies of the British Empire surely drank up more oil than all the
colonies they ruled. None of us were there to count, and contemporary
historians had more delicious details to record, but you can safely
bet that Rome alone had more chariots than the rest of the Roman

It has always been thus. To the victor goes not only the spoils of war
but also the far more substantial rewards of its blanket peace: A Pax
Romana then, a Pax Americana now. So what’s the story? The privileges
of power have not changed, but the world has.

If the ascent of America begins with victory in the First World War;
its supremacy after the Second; and domination after the Third (also
known as the Cold) War, then many of today’s contradictions also lie
in the liberal ideas that America encouraged as a template for the
future it hoped to control. America sought the rights of power without
the problems or obvious injustice of foreign rule. It tried to
fashion, particularly after 1992, what might be called the Good Empire
as distinct from the Evil Empire (Ronald Reagan’s description of the
Soviet Union). The thesis, broadly, was this: All nations would be
equal; post-colonial nations would be formed on the basis of public
will, with claims being resolved by plebiscite; the world as well as
its parts would be governed by the broad principles of democracy.

Confusion is the bridesmaid of change, so after the applause died down
there was achievement, failure and bewilderment in roughly equal
measure. The fault line of democracy is that while it offers equal
rights in theory, it does not guarantee equality in practice. Every
vote has the same weight, but every voter does not possess equal
weightage, whether in a municipality or the United Nations. Wealth
feeds power and power reinforces wealth, both at the macro and micro

In countries like India, the co-existence of democracy with degrading
poverty cannot be easily justified, by either idealism or intellect.
But poverty is both absolute and comparative. America’s poor,
famously, are better off than the middle class in most of the world.
However, they do not compare themselves to sub-Saharan Africa, thank
God for their good fortune, and live happily ever after.

They get angry with their president when their comfort zone is
threatened. No child suffers the anguish of malnutrition in Greece,
and yet Greek rage at loss of standards of living has boiled over into
a volatile crisis.  The battles being fought across the world are over
inequity, a perception of injustice. Democracy does not, unlike
socialism, offer economic equality, which is impossible; but its
spirit does insist on economic equity. When disparity between the top
5 per cent and bottom 50 per cent becomes obscene, the deprived do not
remain silent forever.

The establishment’s traditional response has been to blame the victim.
But democracy permits a victim to scream, and the Greeks are doing so
pretty loudly. Europe and America are rushing to its help, as they
should if they want to. It does seem odd, though, that India, where 50
times the population of Greece lives below the poverty line, should
gift $10 billion to help resolve a problem it did not cause. Till two
decades ago, rich nations still felt some mild moral obligation to
reduce poverty through aid. They now expect aid from the poor.
Miraculously, they get it. Delhi cannot find Rs 20,000 crore for
Bengal, but hands over Rs 56,000 crore for Greece. Bengal’s poor can
shout as much as the Greeks. Will India ever get this money back? Fact
from history: Greece is still waiting for Germany to pay what it
claimed as reparations after the Second World War.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Days of Judgement

Politicians fear the law, as indeed they should. But what truly terrifies them is the great hall of justice known as the court of public opinion. A court trial may be no more than an occupational hazard; the law, moreover, is known to take its own course, particularly when like an ass it defeats its own purpose through delay. But public opinion, while it may take a while to reach the crescendo of judgement, is unwavering. It is also relentless, delivering an unsentimental sentence every five years or less through a set democratic framework.