It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Thanks to native acumen, political patronage and conditions that Karl Marx would at once have recognised as uncannily similar to nineteenth century England in the throes of the Industrial Revolution — the inspiration for his own magnum opus — India’s rich became richer amidst the pain and penury, death and disease that marked 2020 as a year of suffering. Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani and Ramdev, whose “Baba” or “Swami” prefix is a courtesy title like the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s “Yogi”, saw their fortunes soar astronomically.
It wasn’t only because of the pandemic which killed nearly 150,000 people that India’s economy shrank by around a tenth. In jubilantly noting that the United Kingdom had leapfrogged India to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, Britain’s Centre for Economic and Business Research confirmed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India “had been losing momentum even ahead of the shock” of Covid-19 and was “knocked off course” during the pandemic. The further news that an enfeebled India is not expected to regain momentum or be able to overtake the UK again until 2024 must have gladdened Britain’s boisterous Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, already crowing triumphantly at having at last concluded a 1,246-page deal with the European Union (though it still has to be ratified by both sides at the time of writing), as he prepared to pack his bags to take the salute at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.
He will no doubt try to trump the European Union pact with a UK-India trade deal, especially since his predecessor, Theresa May, had failed in the task in 2016. The following year Mr Johnson, then foreign secretary, flaunted a flamboyant saffron turban in a gurdwara in Bristol and announced that he would get Mr Modi to reduce import duty on alcohol and buy more Scotch. He told the Sikh congregation that his Indian “relatives” (meaning the maternal family of his half-Sikh ex-wife Marina Wheeler) were constantly badgering him to bring them “clinky”, their word for bottles of whisky.
But for all the bluster and despite the now divorced Marina, Britain’s Prime Minister is embarrassingly innocent of Indian reality. Recently, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough and the first to sport a turban in the House of Commons, asked him to intercede with Prime Minister Modi on behalf of the farmers protesting at Delhi’s borders. To everyone’s astonishment Mr Johnson replied that India was quite capable of handling its problems with Pakistan. Clearly, no echo of the hundreds of thousands of farmers who have been on the rampage around the National Capital Region since August had reached Number 10 Downing Street. A foreign leader who knows nothing and knows that he knows nothing can be instructed, but one who thinks he knows it all but knows nothing is of little use.
If Mr Johnson does want to sell whisky to India, he should know that the newly minted desi sahibs of New Delhi, Mumbai and even what was once called Calcutta nowadays ostentatiously imbibe only “single malt”. He should also understand that a taste for “clinky” offers no clue to life in a country that was already home to one-third of the world’s poor before the coronavirus pandemic plunged it into even more grinding poverty so that a billion Indians are struggling to survive on less than the global subsistence wage. Single malt is the rage in certain rarefied circles because the ranks of our billionaires doubled in what Charles Dickens would undoubtedly have called the best of times that is also the worst of times.
It is a global phenomenon. Billionaires wallow in greater riches than the 4.6 billion people constituting 60 per cent of the planet’s population. But they are not multiplying rapidly like India’s super-rich. In fact, the 2,095 billionaires’ list worldwide with a total net wealth of $8 trillion that Forbes compiled for 2020 was 58 fewer than in 2019. Their collective assets fell some $700 billion below the previous year’s total. More to the point, even in the year of Black Lives Matter, the 614 American billionaires, leading the global wealth parade, are not accused of lining their pockets at the expense of other Americans. That can’t be said of Asia’s rich. China’s 456 billionaires cannot escape responsibility for the conditions in Tibet and Xinjiang or the deprivations of millions of Han people.
The World Bank has predicted that the ranks of the extremely poor will increase to 150 million in 2021. The United Nations has warned grimly that between 240 million and 490 million people in 70 countries will be pushed into “multidimensional poverty”. The death toll from Covid-19 seems lower than the predictions based on the 1918 Spanish flu fatalities but global growth has been hit much harder, suffering the biggest contraction since World War II. Homeless families, hungry children, clean water a rare luxury, rampant disease, famine when a crop fails, death because medicine is unaffordable — these are the stark features expected of the year ahead. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be the worst affected.
Confronted with a similar trauma which he examined and analysed on the basis of meticulous personal investigations and voluminous official and parliamentary reports, Marx decided the villain of the piece was the employer who controlled the means of production. That laid the foundations of a theology that one day permitted Vietnam’s urbane foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, to boast smugly: “We are not without accomplishment. We have managed to distribute poverty equally.”
A capitalist proletariat committed to wealth generation seemed — and still seems — a contradiction in terms. But it could be the dazzling icon of a new era to heal the ravages of the old. As Queen Elizabeth II said in her annual Christmas message to the Commonwealth, “Even on the darkest nights — there is hope in the new dawn.”