What’s in a name? That which we call Covid-19 by any other name would cause sickness, hospitalise or kill us. Why are we then getting our knickers in a twist if some across the world are describing the latest and the most notorious variant B.1.617 as ‘Indian’? And by the way, that ‘knickers’ idiom is fully printable, neither obscene, nor politically loaded any which way.
These are those kinds of times, though. The Chinese set the new norm by attacking anybody who dared to name the virus after China or Wuhan.
The world, by and large, especially the WHO, did as the Chinese ordered them to. We, in India, are only taking our touchy nationalism cue from our more prickly neighbour.
The WHO, meanwhile, is trying some conflict resolution. It is now using Greek alphabets to name the variants. It is difficult to see if this will assuage hurt feelings in India, or elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the WHO has its own challenges. We know Louisiana Senator John Neely Kennedy, a Democrat-turned-Republican, is known for his particularly over-the-top wit and colourful expression but the question he asked Dr Anthony Fauci at the Senate hearing would better characterise the reputation and stature the WHO has been left with right now. “If you lifted Xi Jinping, held him upside down and shook him hard, don’t you think the WHO will fall out of his pocket,” he asked. Chances are, in the weeks to come, the WHO will have to address more serious concerns about its own performance, rather than merrily shove lollipops and pacifiers in the mouths of cry-baby nationalists. Like ours.
If you are another thin-skinned Indian nationalist, as most of us are, we have tougher questions staring at us. All I am trying to do is hold up the mirror to all of us. It’s the rear-view mirror, in fact. And repeat that awful old warning: Objects in the mirror are closer than they seem. Let’s see how.
Those who interacted with noted American South Asia expert and strategic scholar Stephen Cohen would remember the one thing he always repeated: Never use the expression Third World, or Superpower. His reasoning was, these are oversized, broad-brush labels. They close our minds to analysis, nuance, complexities. But all of the world wasn’t his disciple. So, the terms caught on. We have seen, over time, many countries take pride in breaking out of the Third World, and aspiring to be a superpower.
We are one such. And with good reason. In the three decades between 1990 and 2020 we pulled more than 30 crore people out of extreme poverty. Our economy became the fastest growing large economy in the world. We became the back-office of the world, built humongous foreign exchange reserves, the value of which has to be understood once we note the event that sparked our economic reform: A balance of payments crisis so bad in 1991 that we had to fly out our gold reserves to avoid a default. People of Indian origin run the sexiest global corporations, hold key public positions, from Vice-President of America to the finance and home ministers of the United Kingdom, and Prime Minister of Portugal.
That India’s stature has risen globally is a reality, and evidence of it comes in pointers more substantive than the UN declaring an International Day of Yoga. Strategically, our growing weight is underlined by our membership of the Quad, special invitee status at G-7 and more. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been sought after and feted by his global peers.
At which point, we might be inclined to call out a warning: Raisina Hill, we have a problem.
Besides superpowers and the Third World, another geography got defined with political, economic and social implications: Sub-Saharan Africa. It became the globally accepted description of the worst of everything. As in, oh, that country’s indicators are worse than sub-Saharan Africa.
Sometimes it’s been said about many of India’s key social indicators as well. But then we always have an array of global success stories, including world-class corporations, to talk about. We are the birthplace of some of the greatest religions in the world, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism. We have the scriptures, history, moral authority. How can you even compare us with sub-Saharan Africa if we falter on a few indicators here and there? Anyway, we know where these rating agencies are coming from.
I got my epiphany earlier this week as a little social media kerfuffle broke out over Kenya’s “aid” to India in times of the pandemic. It was a modest offering of 12 tonnes of coffee, tea and groundnuts.
One side was offended that a nation was offering such peanuts (remember Gen Zia on President Jimmy Carter’s $500 million?) in aid to an almost-superpower. “Auqat jaante nahin apni? (How impertinent of you?)”. The other, more vocal, was more like, “#ThankYouModiji you have reduced India to accept aid in tea, coffee and peanuts.”
There was, however, a common thread to the sentiment on both sides: Kenya is an African country. A sub-Saharan one. How can India be so diminished as to be sent this? Africa is the perennial aid recipient not giver.
Which also sent me on a socio-economic exploration of that part of the world rated lower than, or maybe at the bottom of, the Third World. Until figures hit me in the face. Real shockers, as our primetime anchors would’ve said, led me to build an episode of my daily YouTube show #CutTheClutter around it.
Contrary to our ‘bhookha-nanga’ stereotype of that continent, about 20 African countries are richer than India on a per capita GDP basis. Most of these are in the sub-Saharan landmass. No, the defence of “oh, don’t you compare us with these small-population nations” doesn’t work.
International Monetary Fund data (you can choose World Bank or CIA) shows that the 20 African countries richer than us add up to 68 crore people. All of Africa, with a population of around 128 crore, has an aggregate GDP of $2.6 trillion. India’s is at almost exactly $3 trillion, but there are also a few crore more people.
Go a step deeper. Check out the IMF projections for per capita GDP for 195 nations for 2021. India falls some steps this year to 144 with Ghana, Congo, Ivory Coast and Morocco above. And of Botswana (84) and Gabon (80), way above, besides South Africa, Namibia and the two islands of Mauritius and Seychelles. If Bihar was a nation, it would likely rank at 184 of 195. Just above Niger, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and a couple others. You want to use the population defence? Bihar has more people than all the nations listed from 185-195 together.
I apologise if this ruins your weekend. If Uttar Pradesh was a nation, it would rank around 172, competing with Mali. Tanzania and Togo will be above it. Again, its population would likely be more than the aggregate of all the nations from 172-195. Together, these two states that determine who rules India might have more people in extreme poverty than all of sub-Saharan Africa together. And on most social indicators. It is a lot of poor, and poorly governed people.
Two conclusions arise. That along with Dark Continent, “even worse than sub-Saharan Africa” was a deeply racist and unfair construct. And second, that with the adverse global focus turning on India now, a part of our country runs the risk of attracting some similar epithet. The pictures of bodies floating in our great rivers and strewn alongside them, are threatening to become the abiding image of shambles in the Great Indian Heartland. What if somebody were to start using the description: Human indicators even worse than in the Indo-Gangetic plains? That sounds worse than B.1.617 being called the ‘Indian Variant’, no?
This is the picture in the rear-view mirror that’s closer than it seems. Our mis-governance, lousy identity politics of caste or religion, corruption, fake socialism, self-congratulation, empty triumphalism, are catching up and ruining our self-image faster than we imagine. It’s a brutal, unforgiving world out there.