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The link between great power and great suffering — from Mao’s China to Modi’s India

Is mass suffering, inflicted by policy design or emerging as a policy byproduct, an integral part of the Narendra Modi regime’s view of national power and national revival? Can suffering and strength be viewed as mirror images of each other? Surprising as it may seem, this paradoxical question has a long history in politics. But post-independence India has not had the occasion to debate it. Now is the time to consider what is involved.

Consider three of the big events causing mass suffering in increasing measure since the Modi regime came to power. First, the 2016 demonetisation produced long lines of people waiting to convert their currency, many collapsing out of sheer exhaustion, some losing their jobs. Second, the national lockdown of 2020, with a mere four-hour notice and a complete suspension of public transport, witnessed millions of rural migrants — tired, shocked and hapless — walking miles and miles to reach their homes. Finally, we have the biggest spectacle of all, unfolding in our midst today, bringing sickness and death to thousands and thousands of Indians.

The prime minister neither expresses adequate remorse, nor sufficient compassion. What he does is the opposite of remorse and compassion. Demonetisation was celebrated as a way to clean up and modernise the economy, taking it to a paperless utopia. The draconian lockdown was hailed as a strong India’s powerful attack on a potentially killer virus. And while the current wave of mortality has not been celebrated, it is clearly a byproduct of a monumental governance failure. It is partly a consequence of India’s export of vaccines to the world, presented as a sign of India’s power, and has partly resulted from a lack of preparation rooted in Delhi’s hubris about India’s conquest of the virus. The Modi regime can’t accept governance failure, for to accept failure is to show weakness. One is reminded of how Donald Trump dealt with COVID-19 last year. How could a strong government, and a strong leader, have any weaknesses?

In the history of political scholarship, the obsession with state strength, national power and leader infallibility on one hand and insensitivity to mass suffering on the other has been associated mostly with the big Communist polities. The most widely discussed case is that of Mao Zedong and China. But it has also been discussed with respect to right-wing dictatorships such as Nazi Germany. Though left- and right-wing dictatorships are different in several respects, they have one thing in common. Both use state power and charismatic leadership to prioritise nation-building and national power over individual lives. The pursuit of national glory vastly supersedes mass suffering.

Two episodes of Maoist China are highly relevant to what is happening in India today: The Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1967-76). The purpose of the Great Leap Forward was to catch up with the West economically in 10 years, even though, at the time of its birth (1949), Communist China was the “sick man of Asia”. In the late 1950s, Mao wanted to build a steel mill in every commune, for steel was the currency of economic power. Inspired by this vision, the Communist Party re-organised the vast countryside of China into a mere 26,000 communes. In the process of producing steel, food production dropped precipitously, even as food procurement for urban China went up, resulting in a famine that killed over 40 million people in three years. Scholars call it the biggest man-made disaster in history.

But Mao was unmoved by the suffering. After temporarily retreating and fixing the food deficit, he returned to the theme of national reconstruction and Chinese glory. The Cultural Revolution was inaugurated. The argument now was that a new man had to be created in China, an unselfish and unacquisitive man who would give up everything for the larger cause of the Chinese nation and its rebuilding, as envisioned by the great leader. If those who resisted were killed or lost their lives, that was no cause for mourning.

In short, national reconstruction was not possible without violence and suffering. Yasheng Huang, professor at MIT and a specialist of China, tells me that an estimated 2 million Chinese died within the first three years of the Cultural Revolution. National renaissance and a return to China’s glory, lost since the Opium Wars (1840s to 1850s), was infinitely more important than a couple of million lives.

Modi might want a powerful India and a $5 trillion dollar economy, but he is no Mao, of course. Left-wing and right-wing rulers tend to have one key difference. Right-wing ideologies privilege social Darwinism, celebrating the strong over the weak. Left-wing dictators use violence to serve the poor. Both are indifferent to mass suffering, but in different ways.

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Modi also does not have the political advantage of Mao, who did not have to deal with a democratic polity. Modi, I might parenthetically add, does not have the racial privilege of Trump either. While the virus in the US killed the minorities disproportionately, the virus in India is not making a distinction between Hindus and Muslims.

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Is it too much to expect Modi to admit that even if the virus is more virulent, India is actually going through a man-made disaster? How else can one understand the lack of oxygen, the scarcity of hospital beds and, most of all, the shortage of vaccines in the vaccine capital of the world? Couldn’t the planning have been better?

Long years back when I was researching India’s agriculture, I discovered some extraordinary speeches by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, admitting the failure of his agricultural policy. India’s food production began to plummet in the early 1960s, and it was clear that no industrial revolution, which Nehru wanted, was possible if agriculture failed. “Though we all know that agriculture is essential”, said Nehru, “it has been rather neglected. I say neglected in the sense that people hope that crops will grow by themselves, and not by much effort on our part.” This admission of mistake paved the way for a Green Revolution policy after his death, saving India from a famine and enormous suffering.

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This article first appeared in the print edition on May 6, 2021 under the title ‘Great power, mass suffering’. The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University

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