“If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart.
If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.”
– Frequently credited to British statesman Winston Churchill, albeit without any original reference.

What does a deity worshipped by millions have in common with nuclear reactors? Quite a lot, if you happen to belong to the unwieldy coalition that runs India’s federal government. The train of logic apparently started with the United States-India nuclear pact that opens up access for the latter to US nuclear reactor technology, albeit with built-in safeguards against misuse of reactors for uranium enrichment to weapons grade, as well as a moratorium on some types of tests going forward.

Always looking for an excuse to assert their dominance, communist parties which support the Indian government by providing it with a necessary majority in Parliament that it lacks by itself, threatened to abrogate the deal. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staking his government’s survival on the deal going through Parliament, the next few months promise to bring more tumult and with it a sharp reduction in India’s economic growth rate, as well as its longer-term prospects.

Apparently responding to the threat by communist parties to cease support for the government, the ruling Congress party may have instructed one of its other electoral allies to make provocative anti-Hindu utterances, which the chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state and prominent member of the federal coalition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), duly obliged.

His comments, which cast doubts on the historical accuracy and the very existence of Lord Ram, predictably elicited protests from right-wing political parties. This turn of events may also have reunited the country’s communists with the Congress, with the left parties promising another look at the nuclear pact with the US.

India’s weapons of mass destruction

India’s communists are a separate sub-species of global idiot culture that spawns left-wing ideology. They tend to cling to the principles of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin (and Mao Zedong, albeit more obliquely) even as communist governments in other parts of the world have quietly embraced capitalist principles for running their economies.

That they are actually elected to power, and participate in a free-wheeling liberal democracy, is testament to their adaptive genes, even if those self-same genes have not delivered any meaningful adjustments on the economic side of things.

The two Indian states with the longest history of communist (mis)rule are West Bengal and Kerala, and true to the expectations of any liberal economist, the two states are colossal economic failures. To be sure, there is much to like about both states, especially on the social front, when literacy and overall social coherence are considered. However, the two states are minnows in the economic stakes across India, attracting the least amount of investments [1, 2] for their population sizes, as well as in terms of overall economic growth.

The two export-oriented industries that India is best known for globally, namely information technology (IT) and jewelry, are nowhere to be found in the two states, despite excellent literacy standards. The reason is that an overly-intrusive state government will scare away even the most dedicated Indian businessman on the IT side, while onerous rules on worker protection would make jewelry businesses highly uncompetitive both within and outside India.

Even the industries that are currently in place – autos in West Bengal for example – have been in the middle of a long-term decline as new factories coming up elsewhere in India manage to out-price companies with factories in these two states.

Given their record for lasting economic damage, it is amazing to note that India’s communist parties manage to retain their elected seats. As with most things in India, the answer lies just below the surface and involves organizational skills. The communist parties are well-organized, with trade unions and left-wing intelligentsia forming the core operating groups. Other interest groups such as farmers’ lobbies and students generate the foot soldiers.

I have written in past articles about the attraction of extreme communist movements, such as the Maoists, for India’s desperately poor, that is part of the framework supporting the overall base of communist sympathizers in the country [3]. In comparison to the communists and with the exception of the Congress and some regional parties, most Indian parties appear to have ad-hoc members and operating groups.

The second reason for the communists’ success in India is, interestingly enough, the Hindu-Buddhist ethos that underpins Indians’ morally anti-material view of the world. Even if much of this ethos appears hypocritical, contrasting between public support for anti-materialistic views while privately pursuing wealth maximization, there are enough Indians who actually believe in this malarkey enough to support the country’s communists. This then is the core of the Indian idiot culture that underpins the communists who have single-handedly caused more poverty and death in India than any nuclear weapon attacks ever could.

Nuking Ram

Coalition politics [4] are relatively new to India, starting in the 1990s, but going forward it is difficult to envisage a government led solely by one of the major political parties. This is due to the fracturing of the national vote in favor of regional political parties, leaving in essence the Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the surviving national parties. In turn, both these parties would need the support of key regional allies, including the religion-based and caste-based groupings [5], as well as the communists who dominate key electoral belts, as mentioned above.

About the only thing that may be set in stone in the chaotic coalition politics of India appears to be the lack of any common ground between the communists and the BJP, which leaves the former beholden to the Congress or outside the government entirely. As a general rule, the two main national parties do not have much to choose between them in terms of actual policy differences, due to their need to manage coalition partners pulling in many different directions.

Differences between the Congress and the BJP appear mainly cosmetic and personality-driven, with the former positioning itself as the “party of Nehru and Gandhi” and the latter as a “Hindu mainstream” grouping.

Regional parties are more malleable in general. For example, an Indian journalist friend pointed out that the BJP had been in an electoral alliance with the DMK (the chief of which made the derogatory remarks on Lord Ram) less than five years ago. The friend also pointed out that the DMK needed Congress support to further the business interests of its key leaders, including those of the chief minister who made the remarks.

The point of bringing in Ram, interestingly enough, came from a project to deepen the coastal waters between India and Sri Lanka that necessitated the destruction of a submerged land bridge between the two countries. (Opponents of the plan claim the project would interfere with the sub-sea structure of a bridge to Sri Lanka constructed in ancient times under Ram’s instructions by an army of monkeys – See Hindus say don’t mess with Rama’s Bridge, Asia Times Online, September 25, 2007.)

Other critics of the project have pointed to significant environmental hazards associated with the idea of bringing oil-bearing tankers and other large ships to a rocky coast that hosts unique ecological systems, including a marine bird sanctuary.

Businessmen have meanwhile pointed out that the channel between the two countries is still too narrow and water flows too fast to make any realistic difference to transit times. Last, security experts warn that the new channel will just make it easier for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels in Sri Lanka to flee to Indian waters when pursued by the Sri Lankan navy.

Anecdotal imagery

As an aside, it is difficult to see why the DMK’s recent comments on Lord Ram have provoked so much anger. Many prominent politicians, starting with the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, have criticized Hinduism extensively and compared Sanskrit epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata to Greek poems like the Iliad rather than to the Bible or the Koran.

This is perhaps understandable in the context of the Hindu-Buddhist use of anecdotal imagery to convey profound philosophical observations. In turn it makes such epics assume literal rather than religious importance to atheists and agnostics who reject or fail to understand the philosophy being espoused.

That long history of criticism, though, benefited from being outside the public eye, without a 24-hour media presence to scrutinize every move. In much the same way that recent television images of queues outside a British bank [6] made global headlines that helped cast the country in the same light as “banana republics”, the public criticism of Lord Ram by a coalition leader that was carried almost verbatim by television and radio stations instantly helped to inflame passions much more than if they had been reported simply in regional publications.

Another characteristic of politicians criticizing religion in India appears to be that while attacks on Hindu culture, rituals and traditions are perfectly acceptable to left-wing leaders on the grounds of furthering rationality and countering superstitions, the same is not true when minority religions such as Islam and Christianity are concerned. According to the aforementioned journalist, making light of the Prophet Mohammad or Jesus would earn a quick dismissal from government jobs, along with lawsuits and threats to life.

Beyond politics

Hindu parties, sidelined by the electorate for a few years, seized this opportunity to take center stage, but in doing so may have played straight into the hands of the Congress that wanted the communists to come running back into its fold. The government has also expanded some politically valuable economic programs – such as guaranteed employment for the rural poor, a scheme so awful that it boggles any rational person’s mind.

The government proposes to simply pay rural poor for work that is not done nor needs to be performed – in other words, the ultimate pork barrel giveaway. The scheme, costing over US$5 billion, will prove inflationary in the medium term, but that is obviously not a big consideration for a government seeking to remain in power.

Away from ill-thought economic programs that belie any reform credentials of either the prime minister or Finance Minister P Chidambaram, the government has also failed to take any decisive stance on foreign-policy issues. There is no official criticism of Myanmar, for example, for fear of offending the communist parties who have obviously much in common with anyone who beats Buddhist monks to death and tosses their bodies into rivers.

The ultimate cost of the present period of chaos in Indian politics, though, may be felt by the economy. Increased budget deficits and government intervention in the economy, which are hallmarks of communist-led governments, will help to push down economic growth in the coming years. Lacking any energetic leaders, it is unlikely that the BJP can actually ramp back into power at the next husting, even if that may turn out to be the best thing for the economy in the coming decades.

1. Government of India statistics – www.indiastat.com
2. www.cmie.com –subscription required by CMIE – Center for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt. Ltd.
3. The jihadi ate my homework Asia Times Online, February 24, 2007.
4. Much of my political analysis is based on a perusal of Indian media, both on the Internet and in hard copy, over the past two weeks. Any errors are my own. 5. Caste-away Asia Times Online, June 15, 2007.
6. Rocking the land of Poppins Asia Times Online September 22, 2007.