Selling tea to the Indians

It is often assumed that Britain acquired its love of tea from India. In fact, it was the other way round.

Some stereotypes are true. Brits do indeed love tea. We drink three times as many cups of it as we do coffee. But even our enthusiasm for tea is outweighed by that of the Indians. They drink nearly nine times as much.

It’s therefore surprising that this infatuation has a rather short vintage. In Curry: a biography (which I reviewed here), the historian Lizzie Collingham observes that:

When the interpreter for the Chinese Embassy of Cheng Ho visited Bengal in 1406, he was surprised to note that the Bengalis offered betel nuts to their guests rather than tea. Coffee had been introduced into India by the Arabs, Persians and central Asians who found employment under the Mughals….For the most part, however, the … habit was confined to wealthy Muslims and did not spread to the rest of the population. As the chaplain Edward Terry noticed, Indians preferred water: ‘That most antient and innocent Drink of the World, Water, is the most common drink of East-India; it is far more pleasant and sweet than our water; and must needs be so, because in all hot Countries it is more rarified, better digested, and freed from its rawness by the heat of the Sunm and therefore in those parts of it is more desired of all that come thither.’ In northern India the villagers also drank buttermilk, a by-product of the Indian way of making ghee, by churning yoghurt (as opposed to the European method of churning cream). If they wanted something stronger, they drank arrack or toddy.

By contrast, tea has been popular in Britain since the late seventeenth century. The nation imported so much of it from China that the effects became macroeconomically destabilising. This led to efforts to wipe out the trade imbalance by selling the Chinese opium, a venture that culminated in the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars – the injustice of which still colours Chinese views of the west today.

Another way of trying to solve this problem was to shift tea cultivation from China to British controlled India. And throughout the nineteenth century India became a more and more important tea grower. Collingham explains that between 1870 and 1900, China went from supplying 90% of the tea drunk in Britain to just 10%. The gap was filled very largely by India and Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). This fostered such a close link between tea and India in the British mind that Thomas Lipton actually employed an Indian to stand in front of cafes as a form of advertisement.

But while India had become a substantial producer of tea, its population didn’t consume all that much of it. No less a figure than Gandhi observed that while some westernised Indians had begun drinking tea in imitation of the British, the practice was sufficiently rare that it could be passed over with only “the briefest notice”.

Collingham attributes the drastic reversal of this position, to the efforts of a trade body called the Indian Tea Association. It sent both European and Indian salesman around the country trying to persuade both consumers and wholesalers to buy more tea. However, these efforts only really gained momentum during World War I. The war resulted in economic hardship for Indians and the Tea Association persuaded factory bosses that providing tea breaks and samples was a way to mollify their workers.

Next, it:

….equipped small contractors with kettles and cups and packets of tea and sent them to work at the major railway junctions in the Punjab, the North-West frontier and Bengal…Although the European instructors took great care to guide the tea vendors in the correct way of making a cup of tea, they often ignored this advice and made tea their own way, with plenty of milk and lots of sugar. This milky, intensely sweet mixture appealed to north Indians who like buttermilk and yoghurt drinks (lassis). It was affordable and went well with the chapattis, spicy dry potatoes and biscuits sold by other station vendors, running alongside the carriage windows as the trains pulled into the station.

Further campaigns took tea into India homes. Then another World War spread its influence even more widely as rural Indians were pulled into army units that were served by tea vans – supplied of course by the Indian Tea Association.

Collingham says of these marketing campaigns:

They were so successful at introducing tea into India that at the end of the twentieth century, the Indian population, which had barely touched a drop of tea in 1900, were drinking almost 70 per cent of their huge of 715,000 tons per year.

Tea is now a normal part of everyday life in India. The tea shop is a feature of every city, town and village. Often they are nothing more than ‘a tarpaulin or piece of bamboo matting stretch over four posts … [with] a table, a couple of rickety benches and a portable stove with the kettle permanently on’. Men gather round, standing or squatting on their haunches, sipping the hot tea. The tiny earthernware cups, in which the drink is served, lie smashed around the stalls. Everybody drinks tea in India nowadays, even the sadhus (holy men), the most orthodox of Brahmins and the very poor, who use it as a way of staving off hunger.

She goes on to suggest that this gradual revolution has had important social impacts. She posits that as a new element in the Indian diet, tea is less enmeshed in traditional taboos. It is therefore possible for people who would be prevented by barriers of caste and religion from eating together to share tea. It has therefore been a factor in the emergence of a more modern and democratic India.

Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham (review)

Come for the mouthwatering history. Stay for the meditation on how Britain and India have changed each other.

I’ve made a habit of reading for about twenty minutes before I go to bed. That made Lizzie Collingham’s ‘biography’ of Curry problematic for me. Her descriptions of sauces, samosas and other treats left me trying to sleep whilst uncomfortably hungry. This is a book as rich in flavour as the cuisine it describes.

Yet Collingham is also adept at using culinary anecdotes to evoke bigger stories. Take, for example, the passage below. On the surface it is discussing the discrepancy between Indian and British Indian food. But what it most vividly is communicating is the difficulty of cross cultural communication and that as a result being a migrant often means living in that chasm.

The majority of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent would not have recognised the food served [in British Indian restaurants) as Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. In the early 1960s Margeret Orr Deas took an Indian friend to a restaurant. He politely remarked that ‘we have very different food in India’ and in the following days worked his way along all the Indian restaurants on Westbourne Grove trying to find something that approximated the food that he was used to at home. Besides the inexperience of the cooks, and the need to take short cuts, there was also the problem of unadventurous British palates. ‘In those days garlic was not liked at all; even coriander was frowned on’. The cooks produced milder, creamier dishes with far less chilli and black pepper than would have been used in India. [The successful restaurateur] Haji Shirajul Islam  commented, ‘Of course the food is not like in [his Bengali home of] Syhlet – there we use all fresh things, fresh spices, that makes a lot of difference, and the meat and fish and everything, all fresh’. He never ate the curries prepared in his own restaurants preferring to cook for himself at home. On the other hand, for a generation of Indians growing up outside India, this food was as authentically Indian as the food they ate in their homes. Haji Shirajul Islam’s son even preferred his father’s restaurant curries. ‘When he goes to the restaurant he eats Madras – hot one…Me I always eat in the house. When I offer him food he eats it, but he says it’s not tasty like restaurant food, because he’s the other way round now’. For generations of British customers, and even second-generation Indians, are Indian food. In comparison, food cooked in an Indian home can seem disappointingly unfamiliar and lacking in restaurant tastes.

The complicated processes by which British and Indian influences are meshed is the book’s driving theme. True, there are a couple of early chapters that deal with period before the arrival of the East India Company’s corporate raiders. But it is with their rise that Curry finds its purpose and momentum.

And it is an important theme. Throughout the entire era of European imperialism, no colonial occupation lasted longer than the British rule of India. That led coloniser and colonised to have an unusually deep influence on each other. In my current home of Vietnam, it is often hard to detect any distinctively Gallic legacy of French rule. By contrast, in India everything from cricket and milky tea to parliamentary democracy show just how strong the British influence. And much to the surprise (and in many cases disgust) of the colonisers the homeland was changed by the colony. The prevalence of Indian food in Britain attests to the movement of millions of migrants from the subcontinent to the UK.

But observing this does not necessarily mean the two countries are converging. As curries have been adjusted for British tastes, so democracy has been adjusted to Indian conditions. The hum drum contests between Labour and the Conservatives would be hard to mistake for the uproarious battles between Congress, the BJP and numerous regional parties. Any Britain beholding Indian democracy must be awed by its scale and heartened by its survival in a society marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy. But they must also be alarmed at the large part violence and corruption still play in the process. As Collingham shows so well, the two nations have not only borrowed from each but adapted. It is not simply that British practices have appeared in India and Indian ones in Britain. Their relationship has involved plenty of creation.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Collingham eventually reaches a nuanced judgement regarding the output of an ‘Indian’ takeaway. She concludes it is not some kind of imposter. Rather she observes that there’s always been an incredible diversity within Indian cuisine. The subcontinent has larger population and landmass than Europe, and accordingly its food varies as much Yorkshire Pudding and Kebab. In the south there are largely vegetarian cuisines built around rice, while in the north meat and wheat play a large part. Given this Collingham suggests we should see British Indian food as one of these cuisines and recognise it an expansion of the world’s great culinary repertoire rather than a subversion of it.

As a Britain living away from my homeland and missing much of its food – and especially its ‘Indian’ food – I heartily agree.

India is about to replace China as the world’s largest country

The UN has revised its estimates and now thinks will India will have a larger population than China within a decade. That changes more or less everything.

It’s a commonplace observation that we are moving into an Asian century. Indeed it’s rather trite. But that’s not the same as a Chinese century.

The Middle Kingdom will in the not too distant future become the world’s largest economy but before it does it will cease to have the world’s largest population. That demographic crown will pass to India. In the absence of a one child policy it’s birthrate is significantly higher than China’s: the average Indian women has one more child than her Chinese counterpart.

The UN has recently updated its projections and now believes the two countries will switch position as soon as 2022. And what’s more the gap is likely to continue widening. Indeed, it seems likely that for much of the century there will be 3 Indians for every 2 Chinese.

Anyone assuming that we are heading into an era of Chinese hegemony or of China and America carving up the world between them may be in for a surprise. We might soon be looking at a world where India has the largest population, China the largest economy and America the most powerful military. That potentially makes for messy geopolitics reminiscent of the run up to World War I. As that comparison suggests such complexity is dangerous with a rapidly shifting balance of power allowing nations to kid themselves that conflict is in their interests.

India’s rise may also require us to change how we think about democracy. Not for nothing is the American president unofficially known as ‘the leader of the free world’; since at least 1945 the success of America politically, economically and culturally has been the barometer of democracy’s success. But as Asia becomes more central to our perceptions of the world as a whole and India rises demographically and economically it rather than US may become the paradigm example of democracy. It is (somewhat simplistically) argued that America one the Cold War because people behind the Iron Curtain wanted Levi’s rather than Ladas. Soon people in autocracies may judge whether they want to change their political system by comparing what Indians have with what the Chinese do.

Source: the Economist

No Bollywood film has ever been nominated for a music Oscar

^Bolo Na from Chittagong. Winner of the 2013 Silver Lotus Award for best lyrics. In the same year the Academy decided only to nominate two of a possible six films for the Best Song Oscar^

I have pretty big reservations about the Oscars. When this year’s nominations were announced I blogged that:

The pale, male and stale voters of the Academy retain a strong preference for a particular kind of film. The nominations have as always gone disproportionately to English language dramas at the more worthy end of the mainstream with actors and directors the academy is familiar with which go on general release in the United States.

A particularly stark illustration of this comes from the Academy’s music categories.

They are generally much criticised. In a recent article for AV Club Jesse Hassenger works through the most striking songs in the films of 2014 and shows how technicalities kept virtually all of them were kept off the Academy’s Long List. For example, he observes that none of the songs from Belle and Sebastian film God Help the Girl were eligible because they’d appeared on a 2009 album by the band and were therefore not originally from a film. This rule applied even though it appears that the songs were written with the specific intent they be used in a musical and the album was an attempt to garner interest in a project that eventually became God Help the Girl. Hassenger writes that the result is that:

the music division’s old-fashioned tastes combined with various rulings makes them seem vaguely hostile to any musical artists operating outside of a standard movie-score (or in the case of songs, Broadway-style) framework.

Possibly the worse year for the best song category was 2012 when the Academy found the year’s offerings so limited that it only nominated two rather the usual six. ‘Am a man or a muppet’ from the Muppets went on to win. Which is a charming but otherwise not particularly interesting song.

Now had the Academy wished to look for a wider selection of songs from films where would it have had to look? I would suggest the obvious answer is India. It has the largest film industry in the world as measured by the number of feature films produced each year. And of course music plays a massively larger part in those films than it does in Hollywood’s output. This point is illustrated by the fact that India’s National Film Awards have (by my count) six categories devoted to music compared with the two at the Oscars.

Yet the Academy appears never to nominate songs or scores from Bollywood films. Wikipedia’s (extraordinarily short) list of Indians nominated for Academy Awards can be to divided pretty easily into categories: 1) nominees for Best Foreign Language Film and 2) Indians working on British or American produced films. This later group do get nominated and indeed win. A.R.Rahman picked up golden statuettes for both score and song for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. Yet it seems that no one working on an Indian film for a South Asian audience has even got a nomination.

I’ve looked in vein for an explanation of why this is. It might be that they also fall victim to technicalities, that the people drawing up the long list simply don’t think to include choices from Bollywood or that Indian distributors don’t put their films forward. Whatever the reason it is a stark illustration of the parochialism of the Oscars.

The Academy may theoretically be an international organisation but its based in the US and that’s where the vast bulk of its membership comes from. The National Film Awards are sometimes called ‘India’s Oscars’ and perhaps it would be better if we thought about the Academy Awards not as ‘the Oscars’ but as ‘America’s Oscars’. They represent primarily American tastes and a small slice of American tastes at that. They are the output of a process by which a series of heavily lobbied old, white, American men make subjective choices about which films they personally preferred. There’s nothing wrong with that but it means they are not the definitive marker of cinematic quality they are often taken to be.

Why we need to watch what happens in Delhi tomorrow

Delhi went to the polls on Saturday to elect a new regional assembly. The results are not due till Tuesday but exit polls indicate that the AAP or Common Man Party has scored a clear win over the Hindu nationalist BJP.

If this comes to pass it would be a significant result because:

1. It will be the first major setback for Narendra Modi

Indian PM and BJP leader Narendra Modi

Since the BJP and its candidate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the seemingly impossible and won an outright majority in the Indian parliament last year they’ve been having an excellent run. A pretty striking example is that the BJP is now the second largest party in Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir.

Delhi would break this streak. I would suggest that is to be welcomed.

I am rather conflicted about Modi. On an instinctive level I regard his sectarianism and links with violent Hindu extremists with horror. On the other hand, he probably is the person most likely to deliver the kind of economic reform India needs. My calculation is that an emboldened BJP is more likely to pursue its own sectarian agenda, whilst a chasten one will feel more need to keep voters on side by delivering economic results.

2. Congress is in a terrible position

I recall a joke on Have I Got News for You from the time of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament when the Conservatives were at the nadir of their popularity. The show was recorded before results had been announced, so presenter Angus Deaton warned “we cannot tell you how Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Socialists have done. However, we can tell you the Conservatives have done very badly.” Similarly, while we await to see how the AAP and BJP will have done, we can say with confidence that Congress will have a miserable time when results come out.

Until two years ago, it ran both Delhi and India. Then it was hammered by Modi at a national level and Assembly elections in the capitol saw the BJP take the most seats followed by the AAP with Congress trailing far behind. The party then joined an AAP lead coalition. However, the AAP walked out a few months later claiming that Congress had sabotaged its efforts to combat corruption. Now, one exit polls indicates Congress may come away with no Assembly seats at all.

Essentially Congress’ predicament is similar to that of established centre-left parties in Europe. Its bond with its traditional voters has broken down and it is now perceived by most as a political machine rather than a genuine movement. That leaves it vulnerable to upstarts like the AAP.

In the light of the apparent result in Delhi, the Economic Times asks what must be a disturbing question for Congress:

If the AAP can smash the Congress’ entrenched base in Delhi in a matter of two years, what would happen if it decides to expand its role as a new “Leftof-the-centre” alternative to BJP by trying to occupy the receding Left turf in West Bengal as a new challenge to Mamata; or to emerge as an alternative in Bihar, in place of the much discredited JD(U) and RJD, to put up a credible resistance against BJP? The Congress too is aware that a victory in Delhi would boost AAP’s national ambition and chances.

APP could look at Punjab where it won two Lok Sabha seats as its another area for growth by breaking the bipolar politics of Congress and Akali-BJP combine. A victory in Delhi could boost the confidence of underprivileged social sections as well as minorities to look at AAP as the new force that can confront the BJP and Modi. Even a sizeable sections of urban middle class, the traditional supporters of the BJP may once again start looking at the AAP as a new platform to park themselves.

3. The AAP is an important test case in whether Occupy style protest movements can be converted into successful political parties

Arvind Kejriwal: the likely next First Minister of Delhi.

The rise of new radical left parties opposed to austerity like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain has been a subject of much analysis. However, this has generally viewed it through the prism of the Eurozone crisis. The rise of the AAP indicates there may be broader forces at work.

Like those European parties, the AAP has its roots in a protest movement: Indians Against Corruption. This emerged from the backlash against a string of high profile scandals including the disastrous Commonwealth Games held in Delhi and a rigged sale of 2G spectrum licences that appeared to cost the country $40 billion. It rose to prominence in 2011 at a similar time to the Occupy protests and the Arab Spring. It used similar tactics to those movements but reflected them through India’s tradition of Ghandian social protest. The movement came to be focused on a hunger strike by an activist Anna Hazare. This helped to force the government to create a stronger anti-corruption ombudsmen.

Hazare wished to keep the movement apolitical. But many other participants including his ally and likely new First Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal took a different view and the AAP was the result. Unlike most Indian parties it was based not on patronage networks but on social movements. Before the poll on Saturday it sent activists out into the poorer areas of Delhi armed with smartphone cameras to ensure that no one from rival parties could offer inducements to vote without detection.

There are two important lessons the likes of Alexis Tsipras might take away from the AAP’s apparent success. Firstly, moving from protest to party politics does not necessarily mean narrowing your base. Indians Against Corruption was a mostly middle class movement but now the AAP seems to draw most of its support from poorer voters (albeit still generally those in richer areas). Secondly, it viewed power in a very instrumental way. When being in power as part of a coalition was not delivering the results it wanted, it walked out. Now a few months later it seems like it might be about to be headed back into power with the majority that will enable it to push its anti-corruption measures.

Mandarin is not about to replace English

English in Mandarin

Probably the best article I’ve read this week is Columbia University Linguist John H. McWhorter discussing how the languages of the World will look in a century. His broad hypothesis is that we will have fewer languages that will be simpler. Along the way, however, he touches on a particularly interesting question: will English continue to be the second language of choice?

Some may protest that it is not English but Mandarin Chinese that will eventually become the world’s language, because of the size of the Chinese population and the increasing economic might of their nation. But that’s unlikely. For one, English happens to have gotten there first. It is now so deeply entrenched in print, education and media that switching to anything else would entail an enormous effort. We retain the QWERTY keyboard and AC current for similar reasons.

Also, the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it. In the past, of course, notoriously challenging languages such as Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian and even Chinese have been embraced by vast numbers of people. But now that English has settled in, its approachability as compared with Chinese will discourage its replacement. Many a world power has ruled without spreading its language, and just as the Mongols and Manchus once ruled China while leaving Chinese intact, if the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English.

As I now teach English for a living, I’ve got a financial interest in this being true. However, McWhorter’s case seems sound and if anything understates the situation.

What people discussing the impact of China’s rise tend to neglect is that India is also on the rise. Without a one-child policy it is likely to overtake China as the World’s most populous country. So while its people will remain considerably poorer than the world average, their sheer number will mean its economy will likely match the size of the US’s by 2050.

India is not an English speaking country per se but it is the language in which Indian commerce, academia and law are conducted. This is kind of inevitable as all of India’s indigenous languages (including Hindi) are only spoken by a minority of the population. As a result there may already be as many English speakers in India as in America.

The upshot of this is that for people whose native language is neither English nor Mandarin, the choice may well wind up being to learn an incredibly difficult language that allows you access to China or a relatively easy one that does the same for India and the US it may not be a tough choice.

Hat tip: IO9

Memo to Natalie Bennett: Not everyone in India is poor

The Green Party leader thinks being poor in India isn’t as bad as being on benefits in the UK “because at least everyone else there is poor too.” This suggests Ms Bennett has a strange view of India.

Business magnate Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion mansion in Mumbai’s business district


A House in Mumbai

The house of Mukesh Ambani is a rather remarkable property. Forbes magazine describes this structure in Mumbai’s business district thus:

The twenty-seven story, 400,000-square foot skyscraper residence, named after a mythical island in the Atlantic, has six underground levels of parking, three helicopter pads, a ‘health’ level, and reportedly requires about 600 staff to run it. It is the world’s most expensive home far and away with construction costs topping $1 billion.

As you might have gathered Mr Ambani is a phenomenally wealthy man. The managing director and majority shareholder of Reliance Industries Limited has a net worth of upwards of $23.6 billion. He is far from being the only billionaire in India: there are at least a hundred others.

‘At least everyone else is poor…’

Men (and a much smaller number of women) like Mr Ambani came to my mind today while reading about what Green Party leader Natalie Bennett told the Economist’s Bagehot columnist:

[The Greens] talk about the world sparingly and mainly to illuminate leftist British issues. They are broadly against consumption, for example: “The world is sodden with stuff, it cannot have more stuff,” said Ms Bennett. Yet they do not appear to have considered what that would mean for billions of the world’s poorest people, almost none of whom live in Britain. When Bagehot suggested to her that there was a problem with this, Ms Bennett said he was worrying too much: to be poor in India wasn’t so bad as to be on benefits in Britain, she suggested, “because at least everyone else there is poor too”.

I disagree with the sentiment of the entire piece. Nonetheless, it was this final sentence that struck me as a particular clanger. India is second only to Africa as a recipient of condescension from rich westerners. Ms Bennett’s image of Indian’s contentedly living in shared poverty is as patronising as it is untrue. It is true that Indian has more people living in absolute poverty than the whole continent of Africa. But it also has a middle class numbering 250 million. The World Bank estimates that statistically speaking the gap between rich and poor in Britain and India is virtually identical. However, those statistics don’t really capture the starkness of that divide because it is often the divide between comfort and desperation, between your children being malnourished or not, or between having running water or not. What’s strange about this point is that it even needs making. These kinds of divides in Indian society are obvious as soon as you step off the plane. That’s not much of an exaggeration: during my taxi ride from Mumbai airport to my hotel a few blocks away from Mr Ambani’s pad, you could see people sleeping rough on the steps of massive branches of multinational banks!

Benefit of the doubt?

There are a few points that could be said in Ms Bennett’s defence. Firstly, she claims that the Economist’s article did not accurately reflect what she said. But her explanation of the purported error seems more like an elaboration rather than a correction. She clarifies that she was talking about relative rather than absolute poverty, which seemed to me crystal clear from what appeared in the Economist though not necessarily from the coverage that followed. However, I’d suggest that doesn’t really deal with the point we’re discussing here. If you’re worried about comparative poverty then you probably want politicians to realise that the second most populous nation on earth has rich people as well as poor ones.

Secondly, we could perhaps excuse her some sloppiness given that she was speaking off the cuff. However, one would have to be a very indulgent soul not to see her comments as reflecting poorly on her. Apart from anything else she actually has a degree in Asian Studies, so this is a point that really should have been familiar to her.

New India, Old India

Finally, I suppose she could (in the unlikely event that she addresses what I’m saying here directly) respond that it’s all very well for me to come along with my anecdotes about what’s going on in Mumbai where neo-liberalism has taken hold but she was talking about life in the traditional rural communities where the majority of Indians still live. This is fair enough up to a point. However, I would observe that the figures on inequality I mentioned earlier were for the country as a whole including both towns and cities. It is also not as if rich Indians only emerged with economic liberalisation in the 1990s. In the 1940s, when India was still a firmly rural and agricultural society, Osman Ali the prince of Hyderabad was reputed to be the richest man on the planet. And even in an Indian village where there is something approaching material equality, there may well still be deeply unpleasant status hierarchies arising from the caste system. How this is being affected by economic growth and the move to cities is a complicated area. However, we can hope that the sheer mass of humanity in large cities will render the most stigmatising elements of the caste system, the notion that the mere presence of a Dalit or a member of another ‘backward’ caste is a form of pollution, will become untenable when living and working in such close proximity to so many people as one does in a city. Lest anyone think these kind of status hierarchies are a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, I would observe that the Duke of Wellington disliked the building of the railways because it would: “only encourage the lower classes to move about”.

Why it matters

I find Ms Bennett’s misapprehensions about India concerning for several reasons:

  • As the Economist’s reporter observed it perhaps speaks to a frequent flaw with leftist thinking whereby they proclaim solidarity with those in less economically developed countries but wind up treating them as props for their chosen narratives. Far from wanting saving from capitalism, a recent piece of research by Pew suggested people living in developing and emerging economies are more supportive of free markets than those in wealthier economies.
  • I would like politicians to have a reasonable grasp of big economic trends like the fact that India is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
  • An implication of the Ms Bennett’s comments seems to be that we choose between absolute and relative poverty. In fact, there are countries like Sweden in which both are low and countries like India in which both are high.


None of this is to say that there is not a legitimate debate about the role of economic liberalisation and growth in India. Witness, for example, the very public battle between economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati in the run up to the last Indian General Election. It’s just that such debates ought to be well informed and be about India and not the West by proxy.

My worst blog post so far

I just noticed a pretty terrible prediction I made back in December 2013, which I thought I ought to own up to. I wrote a post called “How First Past the Post has Given India Perpertual Coaltition Government.’ In it I wrote that it was a forgone conclusion that “India will get is a prime minister drawn from one of the two main national parties constantly haggling with regional bigwigs to stop them withdrawing their parties from the governing coalition.” In reality, the opposition BJP went onto to win an outright majority. The first since 1984.

I also said that the “BJP may be on the rise at the moment but it will still be locked out of vaste swathes of Southern and North-Western India.” Even that prediction is now looking shaky. There are indications it may do well in elections to the State Assemblies in no previously weak areas like West Bengal and Kashmir.

The world’s largest book fair


Fellow bookworms: you still have one more day to get to Kolkata (formerly in Calcutta) in the India state of West Bengal. Because tomorrow is the final day of the world’s largest book fair. As the New York Times reported last week:

Organized by the Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild at the Milan Mela Ground, the annual book fair, which begins Wednesday at noon and runs through Feb. 9, is the largest retail book fair in the world and an important event in Kolkata’s literary and cultural scene.

The book fair, open from noon to 8 p.m., will include 770 stalls spread over 18 acres (800,000 square feet), offering books in English, Hindi, Bengali and many other languages. Publishers from 29 countries are participating. From Bangladesh alone, 25 publishers will be in attendance.

About 200 stalls, housed in the Little Magazine Zone, are dedicated to small magazines — independent, experimental and noncommercial publications.

Peru is this year’s focal theme country, marking the golden jubilee of India-Peru diplomatic relations. The Peru pavilion presents an elaborate exhibition on the country’s culture and history in the form of labyrinth. The exhibition leads visitors through different aspects of Peruvian life, ending with Machu Picchu at the center.

The Kolkata Language and Literary Festival begins Thursday with a ceremony presided by Mr. Tharoor. At the festival, which runs through Saturday, the noted Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay will introduce the Bengali translation of Mr. Tharoor’s book “The Great Indian Novel” by Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey.

John Kerry’s next big headache – the US’s travel ban on the next PM of India?


Narendra Modi

Earlier this week, I blogged about the challenge that a new Hindu nationalist government might pose for the West. Potentially the trickiest of these issues is how the US deals with its travel ban on Narendra Modi, the man whose very likely to be the next prime minister of India for his role in anti-Muslim pogroms in his homestate of Gujarat. Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog explains the dilemma:

“If he becomes prime minister, the U.S. will have to find a way to do business with him,” Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project, told The Cable. “The question is whether or not to do something before next year’s election.”

Both options present risks.

If the United States continues to restrict Modi’s travel and freeze him out of diplomatic discussions at the ambassadorial level, it risks alienating an important partner on everything from trade to security to finance to diaspora issues. By contrast, the European Union, Britain, and Germany have all engaged in ambassador-level discussions with Modi. This status quo also risks insulting hundreds of millions of Indians.

“The travel restriction has created resentment amongst the leadership and some amongst the rank-and-file BJP party workers,” said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We’re talking about a three-time incumbent chief minister. He hasn’t been found guilty by any court of law, he’s not under indictment for any crime, and there hasn’t been a smoking gun in their view. So how can you, the United States, prevent this guy from coming to your country?”

But not everyone agrees with the BJP’s interpretation of history. There is currently a trench war playing out on Capitol Hill over Modi’s legacy. Anti-Modi groups, such as the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), promise to name and shame anyone supportive of Modi, whom they consider a genocidal Hindu supremacist. IAMC has hired the lobbying firm Fidelis to advance its goals on the Hill, including a resolution critical of violations of minority groups in India that was introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA).

The Cable has learned that anti-Modi groups are also planning a legal challenge against the chief minister should he ever travel to the United States. “Some of us are working with the next of kin of victims of the Gujarat 2002 violence living in the United States,” Shaik Ubaid, founder of the Coalition Against Genocide, said. “We will be ready to file criminal and tort cases against Modi should he try to come to the United States.”

Pro-Modi groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation, have accused these anti-Modi groups of slandering the reputation of India and its leaders. “It is certainly disappointing to see Indian- Americans hiring an American lobbying firm to advocate for a deeply flawed and insulting American resolution critical of India,” said the Hindu American Foundation‘s Jay Kansara.

The pro-Modi camp has courted high-profile Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Aaron Schock, but to varying degrees of success. After heaping effusive praise on Modi following a 2013 visit to Gujarat, McMorris Rodgers denied association with him in November after anti-genocide groups complained about an invite for Modi to talk to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill via video link. “They don’t have a relationship,” a congressional aide told The Cable.

Technically, it would not be difficult for Foggy Bottom to resolve Modi’s travel status. Although the department originally determined that Modi was ineligible for travel under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it’s not bound by that earlier decision.

“Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant,” Harf told The Cable. “That review will be grounded in U.S. law.”

However, Modi is unlikely to reapply for a visa between now and the 2014 elections.

Alternatively, the United States could implement a half-measure, such as issuing a statement that clarifies that America would never bar the leader of India from entering the country. But even that poses problems.

“Friends at the State Department say they’re hyperaware of this issue but constrained because of the elections,” said Vaishnav. “They don’t want to be seen as endorsing a candidate or meddling in Indian politics. The State Department doesn’t want to be on the front page of Indian newspapers.”

Madan agrees. “Any sign of foreign interference would be taken extremely negatively in India,” she said. “The Congress party would latch onto that, saying the U.S. has endorsed Modi.”

By and large, Foggy Bottom is boxed in on the issue. “There is little doubt that this poses a dilemma for the State Department,” said Madan. “Modi is a major figure in Indian politics. It’s impossible to imagine that they haven’t thought through the various scenarios, but it’s unclear what they’ll do.”