Friedman’s Imaginary India

Friedman’s Imaginary India

India has a billion people in it, and in reality, maybe 2 percent of them get to fly in a plane or go online.


Duck and cover, fellows, Thomas Friedman’s back in India, and the mysterious subcontinent is exercising its usual sorcery on the wandering pundit, eliciting paragraphs of ecstatic drivel, as it has from so many Times-men.

My favorite remains a post-Christmas dispatch, published on December 27, 2002, by the New York Times‘s resident correspondent in India at the time, Keith Bradsher. It was a devotional text about neoliberalism’s apex poster boy at the time, N. Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, Time‘s “South Asian of the Year.”

After composing a worshipful résumé of Naidu’s supposed achievements, Bradsher selected for particular mention a secret weapon that the canny reporter deemed vital to Naidu’s political grip on Andhra Pradesh. “Naidu and his allies,” Bradsher disclosed to NYT readers, “speak Telugu, a language spoken only in this state and by a few people in two adjacent states.” What Bradsher was saying was that Naidu spoke the same language as the 75 million other inhabitants of Andhra Pradesh. It was as though someone ascribed Tony Blair’s political successes in Britain to his command of English.

Apart from Naidu’s wondrous fluency in his native tongue, Bradsher fixed upon other achievements likely to excite an American business readership: “Mr. Naidu,” he confided, “has succeeded in raising electricity prices here by 70 percent” and “has enacted a law requiring union leaders to be workers from the factory or office they represent…. Andhra Pradesh has also relaxed some of the restrictions on laying off workers.” In May 2004 the poster-boy pal of Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and the World Bank’s then chief, James Wolfensohn, endured the verdict at the polling booth of his fellow Telugu speakers. The verdict was harsh. He and his coalition were ignominiously tossed from office.

I remembered Bradsher’s excited commendation of Naidu’s hikes in the price of electricity and his anti-union rampages when I read the reports filed by US correspondents and pundits from Paris after the French Non! in May to the EU’s proposed Constitution. It was striking how many of them started lecturing the French in the tones of nineteenth-century Masters of Capital.

The Non, they howled, disclosed the cosseted and selfish laziness of French workers. This turned out to mean that French workers have laws protecting their pensions, health benefits, leisure time and kindred buttresses of a tolerable existence. No one was more outraged than Friedman, a man who, we can safely surmise, does have health benefits and enjoys confidence about his retirement along with a robust six-figure income.

From Bangalore on June 3 Friedman issued a furious rebuke. “French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day…. Next to India, Western Europe looks like an assisted-living facility with Turkish nurses.” I guess it does, though “engineers” is rather a dignified label to fix on the cyber-coolies–underpaid clerical workers–who toil night and day in Bangalore’s call centers. But if you want a race to the bottom, of the sort Friedman calls for, you don’t have to travel too far from Bangalore, maybe northeast–though any direction will do–into the former realm of poster boy Naidu, to find an Indian reality compared with which the so-called IT breakthroughs in India are like gnat bites on the hide of one of those buffaloes you see in photos in articles headlined “Timeless India Faces Change.”

In Naidu’s state at least 5,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide, and across India thousands more. Millions live millimeters from ruin and starvation. For hundreds of millions of poor Indians, Friedman’s brave new world of the 1990s meant globalization of prices, Indianization of incomes. The state turned its back on the poor. Rural credit dried up. As employment crashed in the countryside to its lowest ever, distress migrations from the villages increased by tens of millions.

By 2002-03 foodgrain available per Indian was less than it had been at the time of the great Bengal famine of 1942-43. Kids get 600 calories a day where once they had 900. New user fees sent health costs soaring, and such costs have become a huge component of rural family debt. Newly commercialized education destroyed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of women, as families, given the narrowed options, favored sons over daughters. Farm kids simply dropped out. Even as Friedman hailed India’s Tiger Economy, the country slipped to rank 127 in the UN’s Human Development Index of 2003.

Remember, India has a billion people in it. Maybe 2 percent of them get to fly in a plane or go online. Around 10 percent are well-off, another 10 percent doing OK. By the most optimistic count we’re left with more than half a billion of the poorest people on the planet. You could build call centers every mile from Mumbai to Bangalore, stuff teenagers with basic American slang in there working Friedman’s stipulated thirty-five hours a day servicing American corporations, and you wouldn’t make a dent in the problem, which is that you can’t dump an agricultural economy, build a couple of Cyberabads and say with any claim to realism that a New and Better India has been born. New, yes. Better, no.

Most Western correspondents only travel to Kerala to deride as “hidebound” a state that elected a Communist government in 1957, distributed land to the poor, has decent health stats, near 100 percent literacy. In recent years the neoliberals have been running things there too, and in early June this year in a by-election, voters gave their opinion on such matters as recent efforts to privatize education. Normally elections in Kerala are razor-thin affairs. The by-election saw the ruling Congress party candidate shattered by one from the Communist Party (Maoist), who won with a margin of more than 40,000 votes, a Kerala record.

Take the Kerala result, throw in the shattering of Naidu and the BJP coalition last year, and you get a pretty good idea of what Indians don’t like, namely Friedmanism in any shape or form, whether they read his columns in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or even his crude versions of English.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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