By Vijay Prashad, 12 November, 2008
Barack Obama has appointed John Podesta to run his
transition. During the lean years of the Bush administration, Podesta, native
of Chicago, ran a shadow cabinet
for the Democrats. Since 2003, the home of this government-in-exile has been
the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank set-up to rival
the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The money, about
$10 million per year, came from George Soros, Peter Lewis, Marion Sandler and
Herb Sandler – the main liberal financiers. CAP has its set of fellows. Many of
them worked in some capacity within the Clinton
administration (where Podesta was Chief of Staff). There are hard-nosed people
like Rudy deLeon (who went through every Defense secretariat in the Clinton
years) and Jeanne Lambrew (who served as a health analyst in the National
Economic Council during the waning years of the Clinton
administration). But there are also the fresh faces, young people who came to Washington
with glowing references from the Ivy League. Others marched over from the Hill,
after serving various terms as staff members for the Democratic warhorses. They
have been groomed to be part of the next Democratic administration. Their hibernation
is over. Obama has called.
The likely suspects have picked up the phone and moved to
the transition headquarters. Among them is a former CAP fellow and now Google
employee, Sonal Shah. Shah is well known in the South Asian American community,
and is a fixture in the Washington
liberal circuit. The latter know her for her Democratic credentials, most of
which seem to lie somewhere between neo-liberalism and welfare liberalism. The
bleeding heart pauses, but then ticks again to the tune of pragmatism. This is
perfect material for the CAP, which is hardly enthusiastic about the Democratic
Leadership Council’s total commitment to triangulation (which means
capitulation to conservatism), but it is not averse to a little political
calculus itself. Shah, a product of the University of Chicago, shined her
corporate shoes at Anderson Consulting (who was Enron’s accountant), which
probably made it easier for her to go into Clinton’s Treasury Department, where
she helped Robert Rubin put a U. S. stamp on the post-1997 Asian economic
recovery. The corporate side was balanced with an interest in the ideology of
“giving back.” When Bush took office, Shah went to the Center for Global
Development, and while there joined her brother Anand in forming Indicorps. Knowing
full well the desire among many South Asian Americans to give back to their
homeland, the Shahs created an organization to help them go and volunteer in India,
to do for them what the Peacecorps did for young liberals in the 1960s. Shah
left the CAP to work for Goldman Sachs, and then went to Google. Shah’s story
is not unlike that of most of the CAP fellows, many of whom honed their
dexterity at trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, capital and freedom,
private accumulation and human needs.
But there is a less typical side to the Shah story. Born in Gujarat,
India, Shah came to the United
States as a two-year old. Her father, a
chemical engineer, first worked in New York before
moving to Houston, and then moving
away from his education toward the stock market. The Shahs remain active in
Houston’s Indian community, not only in the ecumenical Gujarati Samaj (a
society for people from Gujarat), but also in the far more cruel organizations
of the Hindu Right, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Overseas
Friends of the BJP (the main political party of the Hindu Right) and the Ekal
Vidyalaya. Shah’s parents, Ramesh and Kokila, not only work as volunteers for
these outfits, but they also held positions of authority in them. Their
daughter was not far behind. She was an active member of the VHPA, the U.
S. branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India.
The VHP’s head, Ashok Singhal, believes that his organization should “inculcate
a fear psychosis among [India’s]
Muslim community.” This was Shah’s boss. Till 2001, Shah was the National
Coordinator of the VHPA.
In 2004, I ran into Shah at the South Asian Awareness
Network conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
At an earlier panel I questioned her links to the Hindu Right, and so asked
people to be wary about her organization, Indicorps. She was furious, and we
had a bitter exchange in the Green Room. But at no point did she deny her
active connections to the Hindu Right. Her brother, Anand, wrote to me not long
after, concerned that Indicorps, which he runs full-time from India,
would be tainted by our tussle. “I was curious about Sonal’s own personal
relationship with the VHPA,” I wrote back, “That sparked some concern for me.
Of course we are free to have our multiple associations, and there is no
expectation that all our affiliations necessarily influence each other. That
necessity is granted, although it is my understanding that the VHPA is a very
disciplined organization that demands a lot from its members – notably
congruence in all the work that they do. Which is why I raised the question.”
And so I raise the question again.
Don’t Cry for her, Gujarat.
Gujarat was once a tolerant society, made vibrant by its
role in the Indian Ocean trade. People of all faiths
lived there with the kind of pre-modern conviviality that did not always
include respect for each other, but which did not at least dissolve into the
kind of virulence on display in recent years. Certainly, oppressed castes bore
the full brunt of an unequal social order, but even for them there was escape
into Islam and there was a history of protest against the madness of caste
rigidity. Gujarat gave us Gandhi, who went off to South
Africa to learn his politics and returned to
his state in 1915 to incubate the massive nation-wide movement he was to lead.
In November 1917, Gandhi launched a major campaign among the Gujarati peasantry
at the town of Godhra. He began his
meeting there by tearing up the oath of loyalty to the King, making it clear
that the new grammar of Indian politics did not require such obescience. From
Godhra, charged Gandhian activists went into the villages of Gujarat
to organize the peasantry against the many abuses of colonialism. The uprising
that resulted, historian David Hardiman points out, made the area “the strongest
center of rural nationalism in India.”
From Godhra, in 1917, went the quiet fury of freedom.
In 2002, other elements came out of Godhra, showing us how
different today’s Gujarat is from its own history. This
time Godhra was the flashpoint not for rural protest against tyranny, but for
the forces of Hindu fascism. A disputed train fire that killed fifty-eight
people (most of whom were activists of the Hindu Right) led to a massive pogrom
against impoverished Muslim families and modestly well-off Muslim merchants.
Even the normally reticent Human Rights Watch could not hold back, and its
report’s title revealed not only the anger of the investigators but also their
own principle finding, “We have no orders to save you” State Participation and
Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (April 2002). The Hindu Right let
loose its warriors who killed two thousand people and displaced several
thousand more. The state apparatus either stood by or actively participated in
the torment. Investigators who traced the line of violence routinely met people
who told them, “They killed my whole family.” The carnage was ghastly.
Historian Tanika Sarkar wrote of a “breathless climate of terror,” as people
fled their homes for poorly managed relief camps, afraid not only of the
organized mob but also of the police. People couldn’t sleep, afraid that their
tormentors would come again. Chief Minister Narendra Modi came to one area and
told the terrified residents, “You will be taken care of.” The language chills:
he might have meant that the state will protect them, or that it would punish
them. His scowl and his brazen defense of his mobs was no comfort.
Gujarat remains a manufacturing
center, but in the 1970s the social basis of industry changed. From the 1910s
to the 1970s, the textile factories hired large numbers of workers, most of
whom were members of the Gandhian trade union, the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (MMS).
They had their various grouses with the system, but most had grown accustomed
to the rhythms of industrial society. When a major riot between Hindus and
Muslims broke out in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad
in 1969, the police moved their headquarters to the MSS office, and the union
and the state jointly helped to calm things down. But in the 1970s, the large
textile factories snuffed their fires, sending their workers from the formal
into the informal economy. The social infrastructure of the towns and cities
collapsed. Workers went into the piecework economy, driving the economic
fortunes of the big businessmen through the roof but at the cost of the
workers’ health and social dignity. Globalization arrived in Gujarat.
The disgruntled workers regrouped out of the MSS into the
arms of the newly aggressive Hindu Right, which welcomed their grievances and
reshaped their dignity around hatred of Muslims and oppressed castes. The riot
of 1993 was a dress rehearsal for the pogrom of 2002. Lumpen-capitalism led to
the social collapse of Gujarat. In mid-March 2002, a few
weeks after the pogrom, sociologist Jan Breman went to meet MSS’s secretary
general, who sorrowfully recounted his inability to reach the police during the
killings. It is a sign of the eclipse of the Gandhian platform in favor of what
has been called the Vedic Taliban.
The Vedic Taliban includes not only the BJP, the party in
power during the Gujarat killings, but also a host of
organizations known as the Sangh Parivar. These include groups whose U.
S. affiliate drew in Sonal Shah’s parents,
and to which she also gave her time and energy. This is not in the distant
past. In 2004, while at the CAP, Sonal Shah gave the keynote address in Miami
for the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of the USA.
The Ekal Vidyalaya is an organization given over to “education” in tribal areas
of India. It is
the policy of the Ekal Vidyalaya to organize tribal peoples into the “Hindu
community” and to eschew the Christianity and animism that many practice. The
climate created by the Ekal Vidyalaya and the VHP in the tribal areas of India
led to the recent massacres of Indian Christians. Sonal Shah’s father Ramesh is
in charge of the Ekal Vidyalaya in the U. S. She didn’t take the time in Miami
to raise these concerns. Rather she talked about her Indicorps project, which
has sent volunteers to work with groups like Ekal Vidyalaya. The language of
social justice and cultural rights work well to cover over the fascism that is
otherwise being promoted.
In 2004, the hard Right government in Gujarat
honored Shah with the Pride of Gujarat (Gujarat Garima) award. Sonal Shah could
not attend, but her brother was there, to get the award from Prime Minister
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the presence of the venomous Narendra Modi.
Hold It In Your Heart.
Obama’s campaign was monumental. The energy unleashed within
the country was something to behold. The small dissident wings of the anti-war
and anti-free trade movements had not been able to cultivate such a massive
wave, and even as many of us had our doubts about this or that element of the
Democratic agenda, it was hard to be unmoved by the urgent enthusiasm of the
people. Obama himself was super, a disciplined candidate who not only carried
the weight of history lightly, but also made sure to remain unruffled by the
riotous attacks of the Republicans. Coming to power with an incredibly
efficient campaign, it is therefore all the more surprising that he had to turn
to the likes of Podesta to form his governing team.
But this is also no surprise. Podesta played a role in the
mysterious Democracy Alliance, the group of high rollers around the Democratic
Party who were frustrated with the Clinton theory of triangulation and wanted a
more robust liberalism to command their party (it was for a time presided over
by Rob McKay, the Taco Bell heir who gave some of his millions to finance the
San Francisco living wage battle). The Democracy Alliance came together to
bridge the gap between the two arguments that tore at the Democratic Party in
the Bush years. The principled argument ran between those who pushed a more
liberal strategy and those who wanted to take Clintonian pragmatism to its
limit. The organizational argument took place between those who felt that the
Democratic Party should compete in all fifty states (Howard Dean) and those who
wanted to maintain the focus on the fourteen competitive states (Rahm Emanuel).
This was a bitter battle. Podesta’s calmness usefully held these two sections
together. His CAP, in fact, not only became a neutral ground for these two
sections of the Democratic Party, but it also had ambitions to link the Party
to the various progressive movements that lay on its outer rim and beyond.
Many of the Centers’ ideas, however, strayed far from
progressivism, keener to be bold against its base (such as teacher’s unions)
than against the world of finance. A recent study complained about teacher
absence in the public schools (ten days a year), something that
disproportionately impacted students in low-income neighborhoods. But not a
word about the ruin of social welfare by the Clinton White House that resulted
in the lack of institutions to shore up parents, teachers and students in these
neighborhoods. For our intrepid liberals it is far easier to utilize their
calculus of triangulation to blame the teachers.
On foreign policy, the champions of humanitarian
interventionism based at the CAP remain confident, regardless of the failures
in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are blamed on Bush’s incompetence rather than on the exhaustion of U.
S. imperialism. To revive their
interventionist fantasies, the CAP liberals use Darfur.
It stiffens the spine. John Prendergast holds the reins here, running the
ENOUGH project of the CAP. He is committed to the merits of doing something in
Darfur, but has little sense of the role that “Darfur” plays within the U. S.
in keeping the terminally ill concept of humanitarian interventionism alive
(for more on this, look for Mahmood Mamdani’s Survivors and Saviors, coming out
in 2009). Right after Obama’s election, Predergast co-wrote a letter to the
president-elect asking Obama to “lead a concerted international peace surge for
letter went out just as violence increased in the Great Lakes region of Africa
(ground-zero for the Cell-Phone Wars of our day; the region is the source of
coltan, an essential element for cell-phones) and as Israel’s armies once more
struck the civilian populations of Gaza. Not a word from CAP on this. Nor on
the Gujarat violence, or the killing of the Christians
by the Hindu Right. No humanitarian interventionism when this affects U.
S. imperial interests. Which is why Shah’s
own far Right commitments in India are
not contradictory to those of the CAP liberals; many of them have similar
commitments to the far Right in Israel
or in other parts of the world.
When asked to name his favorite books, Obama mentioned that
one of them is Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I encourage him
to go to his edition (mine is the Beacon Press one from 1957) and turn to page
155. There he will find a simple sentence, “It has always been a mystery to me
how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.”
The Hindu Right thrives on the humiliation of Indian Muslims, Christians, and
oppressed castes, and it derives its social power from those who are survivors
of the failed experiment in globalization. Those millions, like myself, who
feel a joy in snubbing the Bush dynamic and the entire history of social
exclusion in the United States
should demand that our hopes be held to a higher standard. Not to the howling
dogs, but to the doves.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of
South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College,
Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People's History of the
Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: email@example.com