Puncture Mishra

The 21st century will be India’s (though some people simply won’t get it)

In a recent op-ed first published in the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra misunderstands or misrepresents the motivations behind the Bush administration’s policy of reaching out to India: far more than a sop to the Indian-American lobby, it is a result of a keen recognition of America’s long-term geopolitical interests. He misunderstands or misrepresents capitalism: for it is the presence of functioning, well-regulated stockmarkets rather than the movement of their indices that characterises capitalism. He misunderstands or misrepresents electoral politics in India: for every losing Chandrababu Naidu, there is a winning Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. For despite dissing the “India shining” story, the coalition government that came to power in 2004 had to put India’s best known reformist in charge.

He misunderstands or misrepresents the nature and demands of jihadi and Naxalite terrorists: for few in India believe that only regular elections will satisfy them. He misunderstands and misrepresents facts about economic growth and reduction of poverty: and these have been pointed out by several commentators. And most surprisingly of all, in spite of being a journalist in Britain and the United States, he misunderstands or misrepresents the foreign media’s coverage of India: by insinuating (not directly alleging, mind you) that publications like Foreign Affairs, The Economist and TIME take their cue from the Bush administration, and also by ignoring what they actually say in some of those articles. But if Mishra is right, what of the New York Times’ unsympathetic treatment of India, the nuclear deal and, for that matter, even its publication of Mishra’s own article? Who did it take its cues from?

Little wonder that he ends up totally misunderstanding and misrepresenting what the new India story is all about: that regardless of its problems (and no one denies it has many), the world—and India—believes that there is a good chance that India will be a 21st century superstar.

But like the metaphorical stopped clock, Mishra did get something right:

Many serious problems confront India. They are unlikely to be solved as long as the wealthy, both inside and outside the country, choose to believe their own complacent myths [IHT/NYT]

Unlike what Mishra suggests this does not constitute a major risk to India’s rise as a global power, which is achievable even at the current, sub-optimal pace. What it means is that Indians—wealthy or otherwise—cannot be complacent and continue debating whether the 1991 reforms worked. Economic freedom and good governance are necessary to accelerate the rate at which Indians improve their lives and livelihoods. However, both the New York Times and the Guardian stand out as a curious platforms to remind Indians—even the wealthy ones, for the foreign wealthy have less care and lesser influence over the state of India’s poor—of the need to shake off ‘complacent myths’.

Indeed it is Mishra’s three-fold misunderstanding of the Mittal example that sums up why he doesn’t get it. First, unlike Google’s Sergey Brin, steel magnate Laxmi Mittal was not only born and educated in India, but he also cut his teeth doing business at home before stepping abroad. Second, the fact that he decided to take on European protectionism before turning his attention to Indian red-tapism suggests that he considered setting up a plant in India a bigger challenge. Absent the red-tape, thousands of Indians would probably have found jobs in the steel industry. Third, that in spite of knowing all this, he still could not ignore India. Credible evidence of India’s emergence as a global economic power comes from the likes of Mittal and IBM who are backing up their opinion with billions of dollars. Mishra’s attempt to pass off the shrinking underbelly as the whole elephant is just cheap talk.

This post also appears on The Indian Economy Blog

Update: Falstaff examines Mishra’s arguments more closely

16 thoughts on “Puncture Mishra”

  1. Ganga Din has undergone a darwinian evolution of sorts, adapting himself to contemporary Western manner and style of showing ‘concern’ for the less privileged. P Mishra is not worth paying attention to, seriously.

  2. Really, I didn’t find the article offensive at all. Much of it was reflection of realities in India. While we must be happy at the performance of some sectors of the economy, and be glad about the recent positive coverage of India in the international media, we should be careful to avoid going into a state of self-adulation. I found the article to be a true reflection of India. Lets not portray every article that half-critisizes India as being misinformative. Thanks.

  3. Nitin,

    You rock. Absolutely and truly.


    May be one can reverse this question and ask nattering nabob of negatavism (example being that asinine commie Pankaj Mishra) to be objective and dispassionate in their analysis and forget their self loathing and soap box tactics for a change

  4. Nitin, with your “misunderstanding or misrepresents”, you’re being charitable. Could someone do that repeatedly, if not on purpose, after others point those “misunderstanding or misrepresents” out to him, repeatedly?

    RR, Mishra distortions are getting more and more space in main stream western media. It’s important not to ignore them.

    Suren, you don’t know much about Pankaj Mishra, do you?

    It’s one to say we have lot of issues that needs to be dealt with in India (even if you are not the celebrating kind); it is completely another thing to denigrate anything positive.

    Mishra adores the mass murder Mao; he loves the deprecated socialist license raj of 60s-80s that kept Indians poor for three decades (in fact, he is nostalgic about it); and he hates Hindus (but then many people do) and, beyound that, he hates anything positive that is been said about India.

    He worries that India (and China) is following the western capitalist model to improve its people lives. He wants a different path. And if you read his wistful writings (and know 20th century history), the only path his suggestions point to is communism and tyranny that takes to keep the unnatural communism going (hence his sympathy for those terrorizing naxalites).

    Read the excellent rebuttal Salil Tripathi offers to Mishra’s twisted logic in commentisfree section, in mid-June, in UK’s Guardian. When pinned on specifics, Mishra’s response is “you don’t understand me”, “that’s not what I said”, and “these are very complex issues”. Exactly the same excuses he offered Prem Shankar Jha, in Outlook India, when he pinned down Mishra’s unsubstantiated accusations that Indian Army killed those poor Sikhs in J&K many years ago.

    There are lots of good people (Indians or otherwise) who genuinely worry about Indian poor. Mishra is not of one of them.

  5. Today is the day I become a Nitin Pai fan….
    how the heck did you get to write to well?
    You and people such as you are much needed on the India scene (badly)…we have enough of our Pankaj Mishras, Arundhati Roys and Medha Patkars and not to mention our **** roaches infesting our public life and claiming to be THE voice of India..
    Let us pray that a good media outlet that is rational and India focussed (read a tad bit nationalist, right wing etc) comes along that can kick some of these losers to where they belong..
    Pray tell me what you do for a living? Is this a full time gig or do you write as a hobby?


  6. Chandra, and others, I admit my knowledge of Pankaj Mishra’s beliefs is not that great. And I admit, I haven’t read a great deal of his past writings. All I want to say is that I dont find his article referenced by the current post as full of negativism as some see it. I dont know enough to claim that he is not what you say he is (India-hater, Hindu-hater, free market-hater). Hell, he might be exactly that. But all I know is his one article referenced above, and in that, I see a reflection of reality, not anti-India-ness. Thanks.

  7. Quite honestly – while I despise puncture mishra, I did not find the op-ed offensive. Perhaps my reaction is mild owing to his other writings being far more incendiary.

    Granted the Mittal/Brin example is typical Mishra quality writing (shallow and uninformed). However, the references to poverty and relative joblessness of Indian growth are real. Like Nitin points out, we cannot afford to get complacent.

  8. Suren, Manu,

    Offensive or not is a matter of subjective individual interpretation. The trouble with the article is, as I point out, that it misunderstands facts, misrepresents many of them and eventually arrives at misleading conclusions. The question was never whether India has problems, or that these problems are trivial, or even whether Indians are unaware of them. Even judging from the comments here and on the Indian Economy Blog, it appears that very few people actually believe in a “everything is hunky dory for India’s millions” theory. I won’t be surprised if the people doing the commenting are among the well-off of the Indians. Few Indians will be shocked to read the problems that Mishra lists off. So what ‘complacent myths’ is he talking about?

  9. “Few Indians will be shocked to read the problems that Mishra lists off…”, I think that’s the real problem. We see poverty and denigration all around us and get used to it.

    We should be shocked and ashamed everytime somebody writes about the sad truth and use it as fuel to change things, even a little at a time. India Shining Story is still that, a story, for many.


  10. dazedandconfused,

    You are right. We ought to be shocked and ashamed. But if we are not shocked and ashamed after reading/watching so much of it everyday, why do you think one op-ed in the New York Times will suddenly make a difference?

  11. Nitin,

    I must say this whole concept of shocked and ashamed to bring change, to me seems naive and misplaced.

    Nothing positive comes out of shame.


  12. I must say this whole concept of shocked and ashamed to bring change, to me seems naive and misplaced.

    Darn right. What’s more, it seems to me that it is the Shining of India, if only a part of it, that is shocking people like Mishra. It is also shaming them because it is a very break from the policies and ideologies that they are advocating that is causing the shining.

    It is a red herring for them to talk about shock and shame in OTHERS.

    If anything we should derive pleasure from their squawkings; it indicates that the vultures are in their dying phase. They see their end, and all they can do is squawk. And insist that others should feel shock and shame.

  13. Nitin, you are far too charitable to the dense Pankaj Mishra. Besides being an idiot, he is an idiot with an agenda, which makes him dangerous. I understand that you wish to be polite and civil, but does anyone seriously think he ‘misunderstands’ facts? No one thinks our army/democracy/economy is perfect and people have a right to voice their criticism. But Mishra seems interested only in painting a picture of India as a state where poor are expolited, minorities are ethnically cleansed and the well-off are unconcerned about the well being of the under-privilieged. Read the review of his book in The Economist.

    He should go live in North Korea, where they still pursue Maoist policies. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a closet naxalite.

  14. Shocked & ashamed is all bs. If P Mishra wanted to shock and shame us, the dude won’t be writing for the benefit of the well-heeled readers of New York Times who have no stakes in India. I am shocked and ashamed that we have people like him who are earning in US $ simply by making a laundry list of India’s problems in the pages of NYT! Gandhi would call such people “gutter inspectors”.

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