Myths are obscuring the truth about the Indian economy

Published in The Huffington Post

India’s reverence for her cows, considered holy by Hindus, is well-known. But one sacred cow has long had even the Western world genuflecting before it: the belief that since the ‘dismantling of the licence Raj’ in 1991, India has exploited its economic freedom to become what Foreign Affairs once declared on its cover “A Roaring Capitalist Success Story”. A narrative of the Indian economy’s elephantine forward stomp, regularly achieving annual growth rates between 7.5% and 9%, is pushed by observers, from the likes of former Procter & Gable CEO Gurcharan Das’s bestselling India Unbound to even the CIA’s futurologists, who expect India to overtake the US by 2050.

 

Yet India now sits on the brink of a currency crisis. In a rupee avalanche of Himalayan proportions, India’s currency has depreciated 14% since the beginning of the year, hitting an all-time low in August of 68 to the dollar. Despite the rejuvenatory efforts of India’s new “rockstar” central banker Raghuram Rajan, the rupee’s value remains below 60 to the dollar, a widely-held “psychological benchmark”. An exodus of equity investors looms. Although Unilever recently did kindly buy out minority stakes in its Indian division, foreign bondholders have withdrawn $6.5bn since mid-May.

 

Indian officials blame the prospect of US tapering (the rolling back of quantitative easing), dismissing the crisis – as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did in his last speech on the economy – as “a short-term shock”, while the likes of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani continue to claim “India is still rising”. But although the rupee, like most emerging market currencies, will prove a casualty of the US Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, the rupee crisis in fact points to a fatal seam in India’s entire progressive narrative.

 

For starters, US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke can hardly be blamed for India’s enormous trade deficit (Ajit Ranade of AV Birla approximates to be $300bn by 2013/14), which, coupled with lower capital inflows owing to uncertainty over economic reforms, have summoned the spectre of a 1991-style current account crisis, a spectre Manmohan Singh supposedly banished to its grave during that era’s subsequent reforms.

 

Spellbound by India’s noughties growth rates, policymakers were unbothered by the fact that, unlike China, India was (and still is) importing more than exporting, neglecting manufacturing to become instead the world’s IT outsourcing capital. This despite the truism that no country in history has undergone an economic transformation without a labour-intensive manufacturing boom; India has yet to experience industrial revolution. The likes of Gurcharan Das hubristically believed that India could become the first economic superpower without a substantial manufacturing base: “The notable thing about India’s rise is not that it is new, but that its path has been unique.”

 

This illusory notion of Indian exceptionalism has been one myth among many that inspired the intoxicating vision of India’s tiger-like economic leap. Others include India’s much-vaunted ‘demographic dividend’, which, as Amartya Sen’s forthcoming book An Uncertain Glory points out, has been squandered on child mortality that is 25% higher than in neighbouring, infamously poor, Bangladesh. What human resource capital remains is a more likely booster of crime than GDP. India’s skilled, English-speaking workforce is similarly mythical, with a quarter of Indians effectively illiterate. Sen explains how literacy has always been at the forefront of any economic transformation, from present-day China to Meiji Japan, the latter’s 1868 literacy levels higher than India’s today.

 

And there India’s economic problems come full circle. To stave off a current account crisis, India needs to scale back government spending. That, inevitably, will result in the rolling-back of literacy and healthcare programmes essential for the healthy, educated workforce investors expect.

 

There are no easy answers to India’s economic bind. The only certainty is that the illusions haven’t helped. The Indian novelist Aravind Adiga’s insight that “the greatest danger to the nation’s future is no longer poverty or Pakistan, but overconfidence,” is an astute one. In a country famed for its mythology, such are the pitfalls when a tradition for myth-making pervades even the economy.

 

 

Is Sacha Baron-Cohen obsessed by Islam? And why?

Published in The Huffington Post, June 2012

Admiral General Aladeen is the dictator of the fictitious North African nation of Wadiya. Is he a Muslim too? Many Muslims are inclined to say so in a debate that continues to rage online, weeks after the film’s release. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacha Baron Cohen’s work reeks of the “regurgitation of a century old anti-Muslim depictions” or, as one Muslim blogger puts it, “Arab-faced minstrelsy”. Kabobfest even accuses him of“Muslim-bashing”.

They might have a point. All of Cohen’s most successful comic creations are steeped in Islamic insinuations. While his faith is never explicitly stated, Aladeen – a parody of an Islamic name – hailsfrom the Islamic world, just like his Kazakh forerunner, Borat Sagdiyev. Real-life Muslims spawned both characters, the one by ex-Libyan despot Colonel Gaddafi and the other by the Turkish journalist Mahir Çağrı, who even sued Cohen for exploiting his identity. Although Ali G is British, he bears an Islamic name and is a send-up of a hiphop culture visibly embraced by Britain’s Muslim youth. Harry Thompson, the producer responsible for Ali G’s early outings on The 11 O’ Clock Show, has confessed the character was designed to “have a whiff of Islam about him”. When even Cohen’s sole obviously non-Muslim character, Bruno, infamously delves into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s difficult to deny Cohen’s habit of returning to Arabo-Islamic themes.

A comic’s choice of a particular community as his or her subject is a classic beat, from Woody Allen’s Jews to Goodness Gracious Me‘s Asians. But they all have in common membership of the communities they poke fun at. Such comedy is supposedly the insider’s prerogative and preserve. Sacha Baron Cohen, as an outsider to Islam, is upsetting Muslims. As a Muslim comedian, Dean Obeidallah, put it on CNN: “this is essentially the same as white performers in blackface portraying black people in buffoonish negative stereotypes for the enjoyment of white America.”

But is this really an outsider’s sneer-and-smear? Baron Cohen’s work differs from the racist fare Obeidallah cites in that it is not obviously served up for the delectation of diehard Islamophobes in the way a minstrel show deliberately angled for the racist guffaw. True, The Dictator is a direct mockery of an Arab in that Aladeen is modelled on a pretty infamous one (Colonel Gaddafi), with a storyline supposedly based on a novel, Zabibah and the King, by another pretty infamous Arab, Saddam Hussein.

But Cohen is merely doing what his fellow comedian – Charles Dickens – did: magnifying the grotesque, wherever he finds it. There is no suggestion of an essential grotesqueness about Arabs and Muslims. Aladeen even insists he isn’t an Arab. Ironically, it is the critics of Sacha Baron Cohen who are blackening the reputations of those they seek to defend; when the overwhelming majority of Arab and Muslim countries banned Borat and The Dictator, they were playing to the racist notion that these grotesques were representative.

Moreover, Baron Cohen’s racial humour is a more complex affair. For example, when talking with a compatriot on a flight, Aladeen speaks aloud in his native tongue, evoking suspicion in his fellow passengers who fear a terrorist hijacking. But the language is actually in large part Hebrew and Yiddish; Baron Cohen manages both to mock Arabophobia as well as the conspiracy theories, rife in the Arab world, that 9/11 was perpetrated by Jews. He pulled off a similar feat in Borat, where he plays an anti-semite, who, as film critic J. Hoberman astutely observes, is simultaneously “a crypto-Jewish outsider”. Baron Cohen’s comedy “is designed to offend Arab and Jew alike”.

The yoking together of Jew and Arab is a clue to what might really be at work here: not Islamophobia, rather a more interesting phenomenon, a long tradition of Arab-Jewish cultural symbiosis, in particular the Arab world providing the pallet for Jewish artists’ and intellectuals’ preoccupations. It’s a Jewish tradition that includes the poet Heinrich Heine as well as the historian Ignaz Goldziher.

Scholars like Goldziher were steeped in Muslim history and were pioneers in popularising it in the West. From the Crusades to the Convivencia, when Muslims and Jews were on the same side, Muslim history and culture became, as Martin Kramer says, “allegories for the predicaments of Jewry”: the Muslims were crypto-Jews, just like – in Hoberman’s contention – Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.

In Heine’s work, too, Muslims are marshalled in a proxy polemic against Christian Europe. Cohen studied history at Cambridge and constantly returns to the theme of anti-semitism, so he will – like any student of the Holocaust – know the Heine quote perennially cited with reference to Nazi book burnings, that “where they burn books, they will in the end burn humans”. He is also likely to know, as few do, that the quote is from a play called Almansor and laments the burning of the Qur’an by the Islamophobic inquisitors of medieval Spain.

So it was that Muslims became an integral part of what the renowned critic Geoffrey Hartmancalled “the Jewish imagination”. This identification with Islam looms most visibly on in the form of those few surviving synagogues built in the Muslim manner, like the Budapest Synagogue or thisone on Cincinnati’s Plum Street. Sacha Baron Cohen retains a little of this flavour: Islam is a part of his native imagination just like Judaism. Perhaps he isn’t an outsider after all?

This is an old tradition that antecedes the Middle East conflict that has tarnished the tradition’s legacy. Muslims and Jews both should be glad the tradition might live on in Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy, for it alone provides the greatest hope for any rapprochement in the rift between the two communities. And not, as Bruno believed, hummus.

The Rapprochement Between Pop Music and High Culture

Published in The Huffington Post, 9th May 2012

“Pop and thought don’t go together,” a BBC controller once said, resisting the introduction of pop music to his schedules. That battle was won a long time ago, but the sentiment behind it lingers still; pop music lacks the esteem accorded to other art. Poets, not pop-stars, win Nobel Prizes. But several recent developments suggest the guardians of high culture are carving an alcove for pop music in the pantheon of high art.

This month, The Mays“, Cambridge-based literary launch-pad of Will Self and Zadie Smith, appointed singer-songwriter John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats its poetry editor. The indie rockstar’s predecessors once included heavyweight poets like Ted Hughes and Andrew Motion. Last year’s guest editor, however, was Jarvis Cocker.

The Britpop pioneer has meanwhile been invited by Cambridge don John Kinsella to give a reading at the university’s English Faculty – part of a series that’s already featured Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore and this month hosting readings by Nick Cave-collaborator Blixa Bargeld and Lee Ranaldo(also of Sonic Youth). Addressing his critics, said Prof Kinsella: “I’ve always felt that poetry lives in many spaces and I’m not that interested in boundaries, other than crossing them.”

Cambridge has form here; a few years ago Dr Eric Griffiths, once denounced as elitist for mocking an admissions candidate, set Amy Winehouse to be parsed in a poetry exam. Pop music has scaled the heights of Cambridge University’s ivory tower.

And not just Cambridge’s. Oxford Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, whose previous books had been on Milton, Tennyson and Housman, famously wrote a serious work of literary criticism about Bob Dylan, Visions of Sin, in which Sir Christopher dares to ask whether Dylan is better than Keats.

Pop music’s respectability stretches beyond academia to the august world of literary publishing. This year, prestige poetry press Faber & Faber, made Jarvis Cocker editor-at-large, a position originally occupied by that consummate high-culture contrarian, poet T. S. Eliot. Director Lee Brackstone insisted “Jarvis just seemed a natural fit with the Faber sensibility” – a sensibility that is publisher to 12 Nobel Literature Laureates.

Britain’s pre-eminent literary magazine, The London Review of Books, raised highbrow eyebrows, too, by including in last month’s issue alongside essays on Karl Marx and Sir Thomas More 6768 choice words on David Bowie. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the crusty Spectator, whose disdain for popular culture is well-known, last week had two posts celebrating Bob Marley, one exalting his “perfect songs of freedom, love and redemption.”

Is time acting as the great critical arbiter, pop music acquiring respectability just as the popular tunes of the operetta or Tin Pan Alley have long been elevated to exemplars of a highbrow sensibility? But from Johann Strauss II to Oscar Hammerstein II, popular musicians used to spend a lot longer in the waiting room before Radio 3 deigned to come knocking. There is something more meaningful afoot.

From Joy Division’s reverential mining of J. G. Ballard (The Atrocity Exhibition was a novel before a song) to Mark E. Smith’s post-punk band The Fall (named after the existentialist tome by Camus), well-read British pop has been a fluctuating phenomenon. But only recently has it garnered such wholesale acceptance by the high culture establishment. All the while we see in pop music a reinvigorated, pervasive embrace of literary influences, whether in The Klaxons’ allusions to Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow or in the literate lyrics of Betjeman-obsessed British Sea Power, reputed to be “the brainiest band in British pop”.

An engagement with poetry looms large, especially Betjeman. As Noble from British Sea Power put it: “Betjeman’s wit, furtiveness and charisma made him a prototype for some of pop’s recent best lyricists – Jarvis Cocker, Stuart Murdoch, Morrissey.” Yeats, too – last September, The Waterboys’ album An Appointment with Mr Yeats, was the latest pop interpretation of the Irish bard’s lyrics (a trend encompassing musicians from Idlewild to Carla Bruni).

British pop’s conciliatory overtures to high culture have provoked a counter-reaction from its old-fashioned scions, amusingly coming to the fore in Liam Gallagher’s dismissal of the bookish Bloc Party as a “band off University Challenge”. Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke, an English graduate, had a riposte typical of pop’s intellectual turn: “It is really daft to reinforce the idea that there is something cool about being dumb.” The packed crowds at the concert-cum-literary-salons organised by Bands and Books are inclined to agree.

All of these developments exhibit a welcome contemporary rapprochement between the worlds of pop music and high culture in Britain. All that lacks now is, in true pop-fashion, a bold gesture that could cement the union. Nobel laureates in literature are a curious company, encompassing a Tory statesman, a leftie logician, even a communist comedian. Perhaps it’s time a pop star, too, acceded to the honour – as a certain guitar-strumming Minnesotan minstrel very nearly did last time round…