Anything and Everything?

Argumentation on pretty much anything and everything is undeniably part of the Indian psyche across that vast subcontinent. An attaching virtue perhaps in the normal run of things but something of an irritant during this pandemic spike

By Jan Arden

A section of the Indian media and some Op-eds have resorted to the political blame-game and finger-pointing in the midst of India’s worst nightmare, some squarely throwing the sink at the Union government, the ruling BJP philosophy or PM Modi personally. Those of us farther away from Indian shores, who might have thought the images, horror stories and desperate shortages of anything and everything, from hospital beds, oxygen, trained nursing personnel to medical and vaccine supplies, would be a time to focus on immediate, concrete solutions and urgently revising mid-term priorities, may feel bemused, if not outraged.

Around mid-2000, I read ‘The Argumentative Indian’, from world-renowned economics Professor Amartya Sen, working since 1972 in the UK and the USA who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1998 for his seminal contributions in the less fashionable areas then of poverty, development and welfare economics. I was intrigued by the title, even if the author seemed to be straying afar from his fertile fields and was probably addressing a western audience, unfamiliar with the intricacies of India in the early years of this millennium.

From what I recall, Prof Sen was trying to demonstrate to his readers that Indian culture is a rich tapestry where the fundamental tolerance of the Hindu ethos has, over its multi-millennial history, broadened the country’s heritage and endowed it with a long and rich tradition of argumentation – a recipe, he believed, against fundamentalism. It was a strange paradox he did not fathom how and why such vaunted tolerance was giving way to a Hindu renaissance, that liberal and western schools term as fundamentalism.

This benign view might have earned plaudits from other like-minded academics, but I felt disappointed with the rather light and perhaps disjointed collection of essays, that started off surprisingly with the quiet acceptance of the main tenets of the theory of Aryan invasion that, by the turn of this century, had been already discredited by the international scientific community after decades of data mining and soul-searching.

As I recall, the Indian-born but largely Western based erudite also made light of the centuries of historical resistance to foreign invasions and their overlords, to the liberation struggles leading to political independence or to the hard-nosed real-politics of constant harassment of weakened post-partition India by hostile neighbours east, west and north. Assuming that India was a lumbering and slumbering elephant that should be permanently fixated in some stoic fortitude, complaining now and then to the United Nations only when the harassment was overbearing, has become the epitome of what a vast majority of Indians seem to reject today.

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Indian polity

But moving away from Prof Sen, it can certainly be argued that argumentation on pretty much anything and everything, specially but not only on politics, is undeniably part of the Indian psyche across that vast subcontinent. An attaching virtue perhaps in the normal run of things but something of an irritant during this pandemic spike. Might the Indian political fraternity and their media have held off their sparring instincts in a country buckling to desperately mobilize all its resources to stave off a much worse nightmare?

There are probably undoubted failings of the BJP-led Union government as the first wave of coronavirus was slowly being brought under control for much of the third semester of 2020 up to march 2021. The Opposition has a point that instead of using that vital space for planning and getting ready for a second phase, which was more infectious or deadly elsewhere, a false sense of security had focused BJP’s government messaging on India’s rise as a pharmaceutical and vaccine world-supplier. As late as march 2021, the Indian Health Minister, a medical doctor, was claiming to the Delhi Medical Association that India was in the “end-game of the pandemic”, a confident assessment he might long regret.

The grim toll of 400,000 infection cases a day, with peak forecasts of anywhere between 800,000 to 1 million in the coming months, leaves room for neither complacency from Union and State governing structures nor futile and gloating political point scoring. In India’s complex constitutional federal structure, public health, outside the circumstances of this pandemic, fall squarely in the lap of State authorities, many of which are extremely allergic to outside interference from the Union government in New Delhi.

Federalism forces PM Narendra Modi or any Indian PM, the only avenue of consultation and arbitration on many tough choices, whether for oxygen supplies, hospital beds, medical staffing or even vaccine pricing, in fact over most public health matters during the pandemic. That leaves a lot of room for blame apportionment, should this be the right priorities of the day in the midst of this utter and desolate chaos facing India Inc.

* * *

Arundhati Roy

But in keeping with India’s age-old anything-and-everything-goes tenet, we can suspect that PM Modi is such a convenient punching ball and pet-hate figure, that many won’t resist the temptation to throw the sink squarely at his feet. One such highly literate voice is Arundhati Roy, who blasted away with typical flamboyance her anti-Modi leitmotiv “…what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity.” She knew her by-line would be taken up and regurgitated by the trendy “radical chic” bourgeoisie in India and elsewhere.

Feted in overseas liberal circles, Roy has the undoubted ability to string words, sentences, idioms and images into blistering attacks of anything and everything. From global capitalism, greed and cronyism, the IMF/WB twin sisters, Mahatma Gandhi, US Imperium and its “stooges”, the wars on Iraq and Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, to her consistent controversial railings against India since 1998, nothing has found grace from her haughty perch over the past quarter-century.

Sadly, the biological cross between two feisty fiefdoms, Kerala and Bengal, the cleverness with words makes for fiery pamphlet prose, but one cannot help feeling that contrarily to Prof Sen, her somewhat predictable, tiring and despairing accusations offer even her audience little hope or constructive avenues where salvation might lie. Except perhaps from her generational fixation on “peace and love” or her professed comradeship for urban naxalites and Maoist guerillas.

The touchingly evocative author of the Booker-prized ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997), challenging some of India’s taboos, has morphed into a country-less citizen, a self-styled passionaria that the Che might have lauded, but to many, a poignant figure of the quintessentially Indian anything and everything ethos.

As for fans of the main national Opposition party, the Indian National Congress, the tweets and accusations are out already, no doubt a convenient switch from any analysis of another drubbing in the five State Assembly polls to which it happily participated this year. A wipe-out in West Bengal and defeats in Kerala, Puducherry and Assam are certainly not subjects the Indian National Congress and its leadership would dwell on, yet they have a bearing for India’s democratic space.

The BJP, after the immediacy of coordinating and directing immediate assistance to States as they combat the deadly surge, will have food on its plate to analyze where it went wrong, both in second wave preventive measures and in failing to make an impact in the highly prized battle for Bengal, personally led by political heavyweight Amit Shah.

* * *

The Agalega issue

Many might consider these as rather distant from our local conditions, even if we share historical and cultural affinities that run deep for a large fraction of the population, not to mention steadfast Indian technical and financial generosity, vaccine maitri being only the latest example. Considering the vastness of our maritime frontiers, its secure surveillance needs and its exploitable potential, we have every reason to wish for greater collaboration with India, and indeed a strategic partnership between whatever governments are in place across the seas.

Mauritius lives with the quasi-permanent scars of the unlawful and immoral pre-independence excision of the Chagos, an overhang that India understands fully as it stood by our country in the latest and ongoing UN battles for its sovereignty on that archipelago. Those clouds will continue to hover above the Agalega status and developments, about which little information is forthcoming in the National Assembly, no doubt for valid national security reasons. There may be room however to consider within those parameters, both from Indian and Mauritian sovereign perspectives, whether some degree of greater openness would not be incompatible with our long and traditional ties.

* Published in print edition on 4 May 2021

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