Category: India

NaMo and me: Thoughts on the Indian election

ModiThe Indian electoral map is now covered in a swathe of orange (my favourite colour, the irony…) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi (NaMo) prepares to become the first single party majority government since 1984. Their victory was enabled by a big swing away from the ruling party, and a first past the post election system that leaves them in absolute power with less than a third of the electorate voting for them. This post is not about numbers and electoral analysis, there’s plenty of of that elsewhere.

As a left-wing, non-religious progressive sitting far away from India, I am dismayed at the power the BJP will have to make things difficult for minorities of all kinds, non-Hindus, the GLBTQ, and more. The BJP has made noises about “simplifying” environmental clearances, which only means more mines, more coal and more displacement, especially of poor people and tribal communities. Fundamentalist acts of violence may also increase, Kafila has already compiled a number of incidents of Hindu aggression towards mosques and Muslims. This parliament will have the lowest Muslim representation in a while, with not a single Muslim BJP representative.

Pankaj Mishra writing in the Guardian has a good summary on Modi, the BJP, its religious cadre the RSS, and more…

Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a “manly” nation. Vivekananda’s garlanded statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi’s public appearances as his dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced


So, what happened?

India party-wise election resultsThis NDTV article is a quick and basic summary of why Modi and the BJP won. On the negative side for the congress, the atrocious corruption, a reluctant leader (5th generation placeholder of a once “great” ruling family), a prime minister who has to sit in the upper house because he can’t win elections, a country with infrastructure gaps and poverty greatly in odds with the aspirations of its people, and general disgust with the status-quo. I would have been dissatisfied with the congress as well.

On the positive side for the BJP, their party was well organized, they had a big ground advantage with the RSS and more, Modi’s long tenure as chief minister of an outwardly successful state (Gujarat’s success predates Modi by more than 10 years, but why let facts get in the way) helped, and the cult of personality around his “decisiveness” was built by the BJP and amplified by the media. India is of course a very complex electorate which requires very different messages to the different groups. But the overall message was simple, Modi rocks!, we’ll do better, Rahul Gandhi is an idiot, and the congress is corrupt.

What next?

I find it hard to believe the unqualified declarations, like this one on live mint, that this is some kind of “capitalist” revolution. India has been here before. There seems to be a collective amnesia on the previous BJP-led administration that was in power between 1998-2004, made very much the same noises, albeit with a moderate face in front, Mr Vajpayee, and made a big show of development in cities, “business friendly” (code for crony capitalist) policies, nuclear chest-beating and more. All this culminated in the infamous “India shining” election of 2004, where the BJP’s triumphant march to re-election was upended thanks to the utter failure of trickle-down economics to actually better the lives of the millions without basic infrastructure and a route out of poverty. While India’s upper class celebrated victory, rural India unexpectedly returned the congress to power. The BJP would do well to remember this. They can’t ignore basic income/food support to the poor, or ignore the vast inequality, riots will break out. So, it will be a hard slog. I also don’t see any answers on how the BJP is going to transform India’s institutions to provide its people with their basic needs, because this is not about who is in power, this is about the quality of a country’s institutions (What I learned from “Why Nations Fail”).

How do I feel?

I have not lived in India for more than 15 years, so I have missed most of this, and when I visit, I live in a state that is generally doing well, one where regional parties dominate, and where the BJP won one out of 39 seats. I also avoid the shouty political media when I’m there. I was born into an elite-caste middle class community with much privilege. Indian politics left me cold and disgusted when I lived there, so anything I say needs to be clearly filtered as coming from one who was an outsider then, and even more so now.

While I am disturbed, I am not sure what many other progressives dismayed by the results would have wanted instead. Yes, the conservative BJP will treat its minorities atrociously, people may die, and their so called market reforms are likely to only exacerbate India’s already unacceptable inequality. But I don’t see what alternative the voters had. The ruling party was corrupt, disorganized and bereft of vision and inspiration, the various left of centre parties fragmented, inexperienced, and generally shut out. A change was coming, and the BJP was the only party positioned to take advantage of that change. I can’t bring myself condemn the Indian electorate for going with a message of change and good governance (true or not). The gap is in the inability of progressive Indian polity to build an alternative. While the Aam Aadmi Party and Kejriwal has made progressive and populist noises recently, and even managed to win state elections in Delhi, they are young and in Kejriwal, they have a rather unpredictable leader. They were not ready, and voters can’t be expected to trust inexperience.

Going forward, there are many routes for a left of centre progressive movement to take hold in India. The AAP, and other smaller parties would do well to look to countries like Brazil where worker and peasant movements slowly built and organized their way into power, and are still doing well by making their countries’ institutions better. India deserves a good progressive political option and one that is able to provide good governance without abetting pogroms against minorities, a low bar, but one both the BJP and the congress has so far failed to meet. I don’t know if the AAP is the answer, they performed reasonably well first time out with a 2% national vote percentage (not much, but good given the party fragmentation in India), and has room to grow as long as they can attract good people and build from the grassroots. They will have plenty of time before the next election to get better organized, more experienced and be a bigger force. And who knows, maybe the congress could reinvent itself as a centre-left Gandhi family-free party of good governance, stranger things have happened.

Meanwhile, I hope (with little evidence) for everyone’s sake that the BJP concentrates on good governance and building institutions, and gives its chest beating and macho Hindutva glorification a rest (yes, asking a lot). The people of India voted for change and a better life, not more violence, military aggression and fighting with Pakistan. I hope that in my naiveté, I am not being blasé about the ascendance of a very dangerous administration. But I remain a strong believer in the power of the Indian electorate to stick to basics and put authoritarians in their place, not like it did not happen before.

PS: The really nice picture of Modi tattooed (temporary I hope) is from this Jacobin magazine article on Modi,  his “neoliberal orthodoxy and violent Hindu nationalism.

My alma maters take a stand against India’s anti-homosexuality laws

377On January 28, 2014, India’s Supreme Court declined to review its terrible decision to re-legitimize India’s colonial era laws against “unnatural sex”. I am disgusted by the judges’ decision to use “judicial restraint” to mask their prejudice. I wholeheartedly endorse this message from the Indian Institutes of Technology against the ruling. The IITs I attended in the 90s were misogynistic environments, with the student bodies being >90% men, with the women present being subjected to either constant attention or unbelievably nasty talk (mostly behind their backs). We received absolutely no guidance on how to treat women well. There was no dating culture, and given that I knew very little about homosexuality or queerness then, I shudder to contemplate what anyone not conforming to 100% heteronormativity went through. This blog post from 2012 appears to signal that not much has changed. The large number of people (including me) who felt deeply uncomfortable in this environment were mostly silenced. I remember speaking against the entrenched misogyny occasionally, but I also remember being silent often. I am glad that so many people associated with IITs all over India signed on to this statement condemning the Supreme Court. Do read their statement in full at the link below.

Where the Delhi High Court’s ruling was a bold effort to give life to the promise of Indian Constitutionalism, the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse it is a deceptive attempt to use judicial restraint as a cover for its refusal to critically interrogate the social effects of legal provisions. Ignoring the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in India altogether, it argues that Section 377 merely penalizes certain acts and does not stigmatize a class of Indian society based on sexuality and gender identity. By failing to recognize the fact that the law exposes LGBTQ people to illegal extortion, harassment and persecution, and by suggesting that the rights of LGBTQ individuals are less worthy of protection because of their “miniscule proportion”, the Supreme Court has failed to perform its constitutional responsibility and betrayed the trust of the Indian people.

Indian Supreme Court refuses to strike down anti-homosexuality laws

In a major setback to gay activists, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held that homosexuality or “unnatural” sex between two consenting adults under Section 377 Indian Penal Code would be an offence and this provision did not suffer from any constitutional infirmity. I am appalled, disgusted and feel for the millions of Indian LGBTQ. India’s laws against homosexuality (section 377) were written by British colonizers in 1860 (pdf) and no parliament since has bothered to strike them down. They are not enforced with vigour, or at all, perhaps, but the very presence of such a law silences, intimidates and oppresses the people of India, and in fact, anyone visiting as well. The LGBTQ in India suffer from oppression and silencing for reasons that go well beyond the presence of a law, but changing laws is often the first step in societal change in India. The Delhi High Court in 2009 did the right thing (and politicians a favour) by ruling the law unconstitutional. The supreme court had other ideas, apparently. The court argues (very disingenuously) that they find nothing nothing wrong with a law that the Delhi court found violated Article 14 of India’s constitution, and that the onus is on the legislature to repeal the provision. Given the idiocy of defending laws that clearly discriminate between different types of sexual activity between consenting adults, who is to blame here?

  • The British: Thanks for imposing your morals on India, no one asked you to.
  • The Congress-led ruling coalition, which initially opposed the Delhi verdict, then supported it, then mounted a tepid defence at the supreme court (like Obama on gay marriage in the US). They had the opportunity to strike the law down legislatively in 2009, and could have used their majority to do so at any point in time, they did not.
  • Indian fundamentalists. The Christians, Muslims and Hindu fundamentalists launched a united front against the ruling and argued in court together.
  • Civic organizations like Prayas, who seem to think that sex between consenting adults has something do with protecting children.
  • The Delhi Commission for protecting children? This is a governmental organization tasked with preventing child abuse. Again, they seem to think that sex between consenting adults and abuse of children are somehow connected. Sexualized abuse of children in India is terribly common and primarily perpetrated by family members,
  • The Supreme Court in India, which by law should not always be deferential to legislative process, especially when the constitution is concerned. It is well within the court’s jurisdiction to look at laws enacted before the Indian constitution and void them if they violate the constitution. The fact that they decided in this case to pretend to “see nothing wrong” indicates that they made up their mind and found a rationalization.

rainbowWhat next? India’s election is in 4 months, nothing will happen then. Given the congress coalition’s recent weakness, and the BJP’s resurgence, India may be looking at a right wing coalition led by the BJP coming to power. Given their close ties and identification with Hindu fundamentalism, and their social conservatism, the law is likely to stand for a while longer. It will oppress millions.

The India Pakistan Partition in Indian Textbooks

Partition_of_Punjab,_India_1947Via Kafila, Shivam Vij on how India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)’s history curriculum for 12th graders (They publish the entire curriculum on the web for free, read/download) addresses the violence that accompanied India and Pakistan’s independence from British rule (the partition), and its aftermath.

I’m startled to see that a government textbook has progressed so much that it begins talking about Partition with oral narratives, that too from 1992 and not 1947. In one go, it has told 17-year-olds the importance of oral history, introduced them to the idea of Partition as a continuing event and showed them how their own family narratives about Partition have a mirror image across the border. The chapter’s last four pages discuss oral history and its limitations in understanding the past.

What I learned about Partition – The Express Tribune.

Class12 IndianHistory3 Unit14 NCERT TextBook EnglishEditionIndiaPakistanPartition

Read embed here.

Wow, oral histories, neutral points of view, narrative and people-based history, this is definitely not my history textbook. The history I learned in school (10th grade and below) was simplistic, date and event based, and painted Jinnah and the British as caricature villains dividing South Asia on religious lines during the partition. I remember the year the Brits massacred thousands of unarmed meeting attendees in Jallianwala Bagh (1919), not what it led to, and why it happened. Divide and Rule was all you needed to know about the partition.

I really enjoyed reading this more nuanced and sophisticated treatment and look forward to reading more of the curriculum on Indian history, all the textbooks are online for free. Well done, Indian government!

Only Indians choosing the “arts” stream would be exposed to this curriculum. The overwhelming majority of those who take science or economics streams would not see this at all. I wonder what kind of history is being taught to 13-14 year old kids taking required social science courses, hopefully, better that what I was exposed to.

School Meals and Child Death in India


Like most, I am appalled and saddened by the death of 20+ (and rising) children in Bihar, poisoned by pesticide in their state-provided school lunch. This guardian article has a good run down on the issues that beset the program.

The fear is that attention is being diverted from what is an acute problem in many of India’s state-run or state-assisted schools. While the ruling party in the state looks for excuses, the harsh reality is that food provided to children all over the country is often substandard, and sometimes not even fit for human consumption.

Indias deadly problem with school meals | Kishwar Desai | Comment is free |

What is missing from the analysis is the magnitude of the hunger problem India is trying to solve. It is estimated that over 40% of children are undernourished in IndiaSchool meals have large public health benefits if done right. So it is vitally important that this program work, as this Indian teacher so eloquently details in her blog post.

It’s this absence of monitoring, I believe, that’s sabotaging a scheme that’s helped bring millions of children into school. The scheme was originally envisaged as government-run, but community aided and supervised. In practice, because parents and teachers are both busy, the whole system lacks anyone to ensure hygiene and quality.

The entire post is worth a read.

India reduced its global hunger index by about 24% since 1990. But note that Bangladesh’s percent reductions have been higher. As The Week points out, the last thing you want is for parents to pull their kids out of school because their kids will get poisoned, and for this program to end because it cannot be implemented without poisoning the kids.

What is especially egregious in this case was that the children noticed something was amiss, and alerted authorities, who did not listen. India’s authoritarian school institutions do not abide any feedback from children, especially the children of low/no privilege that attend government schools. Hunger and lack of choice probably played a part as well. There’s also early evidence that the school administrator ignored warnings from the cook about the cooking oil, calling it “home made”.

In the end, like everything else in India, it comes down to institutional quality and money. For all the complaints about excessive “regulation”, programs like Food Safe in BC are designed to ensure that people working with food know how to handle food, what to avoid, and how to identify and prevent dangerous situations. It takes effective institutions to ensure that quality and safety are maintained consistently and the people involved do the right thing most of the time. India’s performance in providing reliable services for its poor is also complicated by vast state-to-state disparities in institutional quality. India’s so called growth has also been top-heavy. People living in villages and the urban poor have not been a part of India Shining (or its new incarnation Bharat Nirman).

Can regulations on food safety, quality and delivery be enforced in the absence of a good monitoring and accountability system? Can India use the money it gets from “developing” to provide better services for its people? It will take time, and hopefully, eventually tragedies like the one above will be less frequent.

Indian firms push down global vaccine prices – Lessons for Canada

Cheaper vaccines from India are forcing global giants to slash prices. GSK announced its rotavirus vaccines at $2.50 per dose — or $5 to fully immunise a child — in response to a current tender administered by UNICEF.The offer is a 67% reduction in the current lowest available public price.

Hindustan Times

This is good news for many reasons. Preventable diseases kill over a million people every year, and one of the biggest factors in getting vaccinated is cost. India’s healthcare spending was estimated at US$ 40 billion in 2008, going up to 300+ billion in 2023. Forty billion is less than $40 per person, so saving 7-8 dollars on vaccinations alone for every one of the 26 million children born every year is a huge deal.

Development costs of vaccines and drugs are high and success is often uncertain. Pharmaceutical companies have used this to justify government enforced monopolies and per dose prices that are sometimes a 1000 times higher than the incremental cost of production. While this makes for good profits, it means severe lack of access in India, many African countries, and many excess deaths that could have been prevented. For years, India had what was called a process patent, not a product patent, which meant that if you could make a drug with a slightly different process, it would not get patent protection any more. How did this help India?

  1. Affordable drugs – Indian companies could make and sell drugs at a fraction of the cost without paying for drug development.
  2. Pharmaceutical Industry – This enabled the industry to grow and mature.

Of course, this also meant that India was considered an outlaw, and Indian pharmaceutical industry came under great pressure from the WTO to tighten patent laws, which it did. At the time, the concern (rightly) was that tightening patent restrictions would harm India’s pharmaceutical industry and reduce access to drugs. Has this come to pass? In some ways, yes. But the Indian pharmaceutical industry has also matured, and with government help, has been able to do its own development, clinical trials and production (which it was always good at). The focus on tropical diseases like rotavirus also means that US, European Companies, which have since moved away to treating chronic conditions like high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, etc., have much more competition in the tropical diseases area and cannot charge premium prices to poor people any more.

So dear Canada, while you are negotiating with Europe about “free trade”, and trying to give European companies much greater patent protection for their drugs, know that this will very surely raise costs in the short term. Two important questions:

  1. Will Canada’s drug companies benefit?
  2. Will Canada’s consumers benefit?

Um, let’s take a look at Canada’s top 10 in 2009:


Rank Leading Companies Country Market Share (%)
1 Pfizer US 13.4
2 Apotex Canada 7
3 AstraZeneca UK 6.6
9 Merck US 6
4 Johnson & Johnson US 5.3
6 Novopharm (Teva) Israel 4.2
7 Novartis Switzerland 4
5 GlaxoSmithKline UK 4
8 Abbott US 3.9
10 Roche Switzerland 3.1
Source: IMS Health

There is one Canadian company in the top 10, and four European companies. Our pharmaceutical industry is not well positioned to be independent, or work to reduce Canadian drug prices, especially if laws strengthening patent protections for European companies come into effect. This will serve to weaken Apotex, and Canada does not have a big independent pharmaceutical company network born out of years of “isolation” to take advantage of any competition, or competitive advantages. So, while patent “reform” seems to not have hurt Indian industry as much as feared, it sure will hurt Canadian consumers.