ON the 71st anniversary of Britain’s hasty departure this week, most of South Asia remains a seriously troubled region. We have experimented with various forms of governments and ideologies — from monarchies to communist rule, from anaemic democracies to civilian and military dictatorships. The experiments are still on, and that is a source of mortal fear.
Some would see hope here, however. What is the source of the pain? People randomly see religious revivalism, particularly its bloodier avatar as the prime suspect. This is only partly true.
From Myanmar to Afghanistan via Sri Lanka and the Maldives, it seems as though a fanatical soul of faith has been uncorked like a genie, which is nearly impossible to put back in the bottle. Let’s regard, however, a less-perceived villain as the precursor of the ailment — the pursuit of an economic chimera that throws up religious strife as a smokescreen to thwart a lucid view of the perfidy.
And this is where Imran Khan, to the surprise of his leftist critics, offers hope as no other South Asian leader has done in some years. Hope can be the proverbial straw in a tempest or it can be the light at the end of the tunnel. It can also be nothing more than an illusion.
Yet, a less-discussed aphorism of Imran Khan is worthy of our attention. Consider what he told an anchor in a TV interview, not too long ago. He said he was an ardent opponent of neoliberal economics in which the rich become richer and the poor poorer. He said it in as many words.
He was also against the privatisation of education. Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s besieged wellspring of higher academia, should be pleased with the leader in the neighbourhood for sharing their view. If he means what he says and he understands its implications, and if he is up for the fight, the arriving prime minister of Pakistan could usher a revolutionary agenda in the region if not also elsewhere.
A close second would be Arvind Kejriwal who believes with clarity that he is not opposed to capitalism, but would fight neoliberal crony capitalism tooth and nail. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders would not disagree.
If Imran Khan succeeds in implementing a policy that reverses the most virulent form of capitalism bedevilling the world since the advent of Ronald Reagan, in his backyard, it would make his critics sit up in awe.
Let me step back a bit. It was not unexpected that the US embassy’s Span magazine in Delhi, which promoted free democracies versus human rights-deficit communism during the Cold War, was trimmed substantially in size soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. The new global mantra became ‘free-markets’ democracy. Openness to the market became mandatory to validate a political system, more so if it were a reasonably functioning democracy. Those who were not convinced paid with their lives, namely Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi.
Nehru’s command economy and Indira Gandhi’s nationalisation of private banks had to be dealt with, as was Bhutto’s half-baked socialism. Nawaz Sharif and Shaukat Aziz were promoted in Pakistan, while the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo was to do the deed for India. Privatisation, a key plank of neoliberal economics, was thus enforced by the IMF through dictated secret prescriptions. In some cases, as with the nationalised banks, for example, it was politically risky to undo the good work.
Secret labyrinths and not-so-secret back doors were opened to bleed state-owned banks. New social mores were co-opted. Particular brands of cement or soap or cricket kits were declared essential ingredients that defined South Asia’s neo-consumerist nations. For better or worse, street beggars and urchins got to wear jeans but without the option of going to school.
Private pilferage was never absent in India, only now the scale of loot leapt into exponential zones. Harshad Mehta and Nick Leeson were the by-products of the neoliberal collusion with a community of traders that masqueraded as industrialists. Neerav Modi and Vijay Mallya surfaced as the tip of the iceberg. Courts barred the few journalists still keeping the vigil from publishing more damning exposés linked to influential crony clients of the establishments.
India and Pakistan claim to be independent but they have both missed the point about being a free people. They have fought debilitating wars, aligned with foreigners against each other, usually mauling their own and gaining little except expanding defence budgets. And apart from winning a few gallantry awards for the dead soldiers the wars have been good only for the arms merchants. I quoted the couplet to a foreign minister, bringing his televised news conference to an end. He was ordering the closure of all civilian links to Pakistan following the botched terror attack on the Indian parliament, ahead of a military mobilisation.
‘Jang mein qatl sipahi hongay/Surkhru zilley ilahi hongay.’ (In war, the foot soldiers die/ For the halo, for which the monarchs vie). Wars are a great asset for the neoliberal worldview. Domestic strife is second best. Narasimha Rao pretended to be asleep when a mob was tearing down a 16th-century mosque. Then he went to the ramparts of the Red Fort to say he would rebuild it, which is pretty much what the Americans claim to be doing in Afghanistan after reducing the country to rubble. Since the resources of any scam are finite the system has to throw up more novel smokescreens to succeed, for example Trump and Modi.
In 1992, a doppelganger was conjured from the rubble of Ayodhya to shadow India’s free-markets pursuit. Before the advent of a neoliberal world order, the Buddha statues stood safe in Bamiyan’s very traditional Muslim society. If Imran Khan keeps his word, South Asia could renew its tryst with destiny with a better chance to win.
Dawn.com, August 14. Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
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