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As a matter of fact
Publication Date : 28-06-2012
Facts come in every shape, size, variety. Their survival is determined not by value but by how inexplicable they are. The human being has 23,000 genes, only "half as many as a tomato," I am told. But humbling as this formative fact of life might be, it does not quite catch the imagination as much as the perplexity called death, particularly when death escapes the boundaries of reason: A plague decimates a continent, war murders a generation, or an evil maniac orders a genocide.
Statistics distil facts to stark simplicity. Between September 1939 and August 1945, the period of the Second World War, 27,000 people were killed each day. (This figure does not include war-related casualties like the three million-odd Bengalis who died of a famine that was a direct consequence of war policy.) There is always enough to be learnt from war, its machines and its machinations. Guess who is the largest buyer of oil in the world? If you thought it was a country, wrong. The Pentagon.
America's military consumes more oil each year than the whole of Africa. And yet, when you think about it, is this very startling? The armies of the British Empire surely drank up more oil than all the colonies they ruled. None of us were there to count, and contemporary historians had more delicious details to record, but you can safely bet that Rome alone had more chariots than the rest of the Roman Empire.
It has always been thus. To the victor goes not only the spoils of war but also the far more substantial rewards of its blanket peace: A Pax Romana then, a Pax Americana now. So what's the story? The privileges of power have not changed, but the world has.
If the ascent of America begins with victory in the First World War; its supremacy after the Second; and domination after the Third (also known as the Cold) War, then many of today's contradictions also lie in the liberal ideas that America encouraged as a template for the future it hoped to control. America sought the rights of power without the problems or obvious injustice of foreign rule. It tried to fashion, particularly after 1992, what might be called the Good Empire as distinct from the Evil Empire (Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union). The thesis, broadly, was this: All nations would be equal; post-colonial nations would be formed on the basis of public will, with claims being resolved by plebiscite; the world as well as its parts would be governed by the broad principles of democracy.
Confusion is the bridesmaid of change, so after the applause died down there was achievement, failure and bewilderment in roughly equal measure. The fault line of democracy is that while it offers equal rights in theory, it does not guarantee equality in practice. Every vote has the same weight, but every voter does not possess equal weightage, whether in a municipality or the United Nations. Wealth feeds power and power reinforces wealth, both at the macro and micro levels.
In countries like India, the co-existence of democracy with degrading poverty cannot be easily justified, by either idealism or intellect. But poverty is both absolute and comparative. America's poor, famously, are better off than the middle class in most of the world. However, they do not compare themselves to sub-Saharan Africa, thank God for their good fortune, and live happily ever after.
They get angry with their president when their comfort zone is threatened. No child suffers the anguish of malnutrition in Greece, and yet Greek rage at loss of standards of living has boiled over into a volatile crisis. The battles being fought across the world are over inequity, a perception of injustice. Democracy does not, unlike socialism, offer economic equality, which is impossible; but its spirit does insist on economic equity. When disparity between the top 5 per cent and bottom 50 per cent becomes obscene, the deprived do not remain silent forever.
The establishment's traditional response has been to blame the victim. But democracy permits a victim to scream, and the Greeks are doing so pretty loudly. Europe and America are rushing to its help, as they should if they want to. It does seem odd, though, that India, where 50 times the population of Greece lives below the poverty line, should gift US$10 billion to help resolve a problem it did not cause. Till two decades ago, rich nations still felt some mild moral obligation to reduce poverty through aid. They now expect aid from the poor. Miraculously, they get it. Delhi cannot find 20,000 crore rupees ($3.51 billion) for Bengal, but hands over 56,000 crore rupees ($9.83 billion) for Greece. Bengal's poor can shout as much as the Greeks. Will India ever get this money back? Fact from history: Greece is still waiting for Germany to pay what it claimed as reparations after the Second World War.
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.