Watching the British street fill with rioters and looters may have filled some Indians with Schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortunes). For, they ask, isn’t this the country that ruled us till 64 years ago? It’s as if the tables are being flipped over. You can almost see the trajectories of two nations: one once the ruler, now a part of the declining West; the other a former sufferer of a millennium of invasions, now part of a rising Asia.
Let’s not get too gleeful: firstly, we’re not yet a superpower, and England remains a dream for many Indians. Secondly, it isn’t as if riots are alien to India; most of us know that it wouldn’t take much to spark one. (Perhaps every society has chaos lurking just beneath its surface, and civility has a tenuous hold.) Thirdly, England have comprehensively slaughtered us in the current Test series, so any Schadenfreude sounds suspiciously like sour grapes. And fourthly, let’s not forget how dysfunctional our own politics is at the moment.
The UPA-2 government is paralysed; various scams have caused such a loss of credibility that even when an experienced and wise voice like finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s said India was unlikely to be scathed by the turmoil in the global financial markets, many did not pay him much attention. Of course he’s right. But who believes the government right now?
So let’s not get carried away smirking at the Brits.
You could argue that India’s problems are a passing phase and that our politics are a self-regulating ecosystem; it’s precisely when things look most chaotic and confusing that a fresh solution emerges. What is undeniable, though, is the eclipse of the West.
Sure, the US will remain at the top for decades to come, but what about the Europeans? The double-dip recession, of which signs are loud and clear, will possibly and irretrievably ruin Europe.
The US may lose a generation, and though its decline has begun no one expects it to become a basket-case soon because one, it is still the world’s economic, political and military superpower; two, at US $14 trillion its economy simply dwarfs those next in line; three, it remains the technological and scientific innovator for the world; four, it is demographically in far better shape than Europe; and five, its world-view is optimistic, unlike that of the cranky Europeans.
England’s riots showed how deep the malaise is in Europe. It is difficult to argue with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that the rioting was the handiwork of criminals. But he (and
the rest of his political class) tried to pre-empt any talk of deeper causes. In which case, Cameron and the other European leaders had better brace themselves for more riots in the years to come. Their countries have no money and they have no jobs. They have no society and they are squeezing out the middle class.
The West began unthreading its social fabric long ago by corporatising the basic social unit, the family. At a panel discussion in Mumbai this week, British writer Patrick French suggested that while in India, your family would tell you to not go out and riot or loot (and you would heed them), in England that very social pressure no longer existed.
Perhaps the conservatives are correct in saying that their society’s welfare systems have spoilt them; perhaps the Left is correct in saying that slashing social spending is tearing up families and breeding violence.
Whatever the truth may be (and it’s probably a bit of both) the fact is, there are only so many CCTVs you can put up in your cities, or only so many jails you can build. And for either of these things, you need money; which the Europeans have run out of.
Perhaps the real measure of who’s headed where is the middle class. Even in America, the worry is about the middle class getting squeezed out, and this will be in evidence during their next presidential elections, when Barack Obama will portray the Republicans as pro-rich and they will portray him as pro-poor.
The middle class, which by most economic measures has been shrinking (in their share of the national wealth, in the types of jobs that have been lost, etc), will get left out of the debate. At least, however, it is not as bad as it is in England, which is going from being a nation of shop-keepers to a nation of shop-sweepers.
In India the opposite holds true. At the Patrick French panel discussion, participants moaned on about how India’s middle class has grown, how it dominates the politics, the industry, the bureaucracy, and the media, etc. Even those Indians who fear the middle class admit that it is growing. That it is a good thing can be gauged by the fact that the other major middle class that is growing is China’s.
There’s your barometer. Keep this in mind when you watch a very middle-class ritual on TV tomorrow, the Independence Day function, or a very middle-class hero named Anna Hazare the day after, as he begins his hunger fast. And contrast all this with the violence you saw in Britain. But go easy on the Schadenfreude.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai