• Sunday, Sep 19, 2021
  • Last Update : 03:09 pm

OP-ED: Is the sub-continent tilting?

  • Published at 06:15 am May 5th, 2021
India coronavirus funeral pyre mass cremation
A mass cremation in New Delhi. Modi has proven himself a master at Covid-19 mismanagement REUTERS

Political drama won in the East, but does the South point to the future? Why are generals jetting into the Bengali delta?

The economic gravity of the sub-continent lies in the South and West, but the political centre is lodged firmly in the North. 

As if to emphasize the latter point, America’s new point man, Donald Lu, will head the Bureau of South and Central Asian affairs. His impressive linguistic background added to his work experience might suggest American focus on the sub-continent’s North and further to China’s west. All eyes on the Indus, ignoring the Meghna, the traditional way of doing things post-Curzon. 

Military diplomacy

India’s chief of army staff, General Manoj Mukund, visited Dhaka two weeks ago, staying five long days, wrapping up a military exercise, among other things no doubt. This was swiftly followed by China’s defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, passing through Dhaka for a day and then spending three days in Colombo. 

Besides vaccine support, some media suggest the Chinese apparently briefed both hosts about how they perceive the actions of “non-Asian” powers in the region. Decoding diplomatic speak, this implies the Chinese are indignant about a creeping military alliance of the QUAD, where America prods India and its neighbours to put up a military cordon against it. 

As a purely hypothetical example: Beijing might not understand Dhaka potentially participating (in any form) in this new menacing grouping, on the one hand, and then asking for, say, $20 billion worth of world class economic infrastructure, on the other. 

Along with some escalating speculation about Western interventions in Myanmar, on China’s southwestern border, one can understand their desire for clarification. 

Amongst all this, Delhi was nonplussed about last month’s unannounced intrusion by an American warship into India’s southwestern waters. Washington was being deliberately provocative to prove a point to its “junior ally.” Delhi is not getting the love even though without India, the QUAD is a dead duck. Even with India, it is an anachronism, yesterday’s ways of doing things. 

Which brings us to those state elections from Kerala to Assam. 

A rich South being held back?

The Modi message was never confined merely to Hindutva supremacy. Modi rode to the premiership seven years ago on the basis of his supposed Miracle of Gujarat. 

Modi’s track record since in Delhi has been diabolical. Where Narendra Modi’s theological project did not appeal, his electoral machine in 2014 convinced millions of Indians that the Gujarat Model would be replicated all over the country. There might be some rough edges, but at least he could make the trains run on time, as it were. 

Seven years later, we see that Modi has been a master of mismanagement, lurching from one unnecessary disaster to another: Demonetization, war on Muslims, shocking incompetence over the pandemic, and the frontal attacks on farmers’ livelihoods, provoking the largest one-day worker strike in world history, and a Delhi siege. 

Why should we be surprised? The Gujarat story had substance but was over-hyped. Its faster economic growth rate hid the fact that Tamil Nadu and the South are generally richer per head. While Gujarat packs a much bigger punch than West Bengal, it is not the only one. 

World Bank figures for 2017 compare Tamil Nadu’s GDP (PPP) of $821 billion to Gujarat’s $738 billion. Maharashtra dwarfs both, but it has a much larger population, which leaves its per capita figures comparable. 

Chennai is piloting a broad-based range of manufacturing in missile defense, electronics, cars, mobile phones, wind turbines, locomotives, chemicals, and steel: Along with the more traditional textiles and leather sectors. It is also pursuing the high tech services route along with neighbours such as Karnataka. 

The broader South Indian region with a population of 270 million have GDPs around double that of the Eastern states of West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, and Jharkhand. Assam and the North East are even poorer. 

The sub-continent has an economic imbalance which is not reflected in associated political powers. Over-centralization from Delhi, keeping the states on a fiscal leash, is holding the regions back. The campaigns in the South included similar welfare promises as in Bengal but also outlined longer-term economic and industrial visions. 

The BJP hardly made a dent in the South. It however hoped to trump its failures with a culture war pitting Hindi over Bengali, supposedly in disarray. 

In the contest, the Unstoppable came up against the Unmovable and retired with a bloody head wound. 

If the next three years are to culminate in a Bolsonaro vs Lula contest, then Rahul Gandhi is not Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The disunited peripheral states usually fail to get their act together to dislodge the bastions of power in the North. It might be different the next time. Hollow Hindutva may have passed its high point. Modi-mania may have bitten the dust. Both possess phenomenal survival instincts. When in trouble, foment a war. 

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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