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Fareed Zakaria GPS
U.S. Shoots Down Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon; On U.S. Economy, Unemployment Rate and the Debt Ceiling Crisis. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired February 05, 2023 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you from New York.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the program, we will bring you the latest on that suspected Chinese spy balloon. Then we'll move to the economy. But for a change, it might not be bad news.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We got some very good news about the American economy.
ZAKARIA: The IMF's new global outlook is less gloomy than it was just a few months ago. Then the Fed said it wasn't ready to declare victory on inflation yet, but signaled optimism that inflation is cooling. I'll ask former Treasury secretary Larry Summers if he agrees.
Also Crimea. Many powerful people have suggested Ukraine should be prepared to officially cede the peninsula to Russia as part of peace negotiations. But I'll talk to General Ben Hodges who says no, Kyiv can and should take Crimea back.
ZAKARIA: But first, here's my take. This week marked the third anniversary of Brexit and it coincided with a grim verdict from the IMF. This year the British economy will do worse than all of the world's major economies including Russia.
The 2016 vote to leave the European Union marked the start of the wave of populism that has been coursing through much of the Western world ever since. It was a decision by a major country to consciously choose to have poorer economic relations with its largest market. The European Union takes in about 42 percent of British exports. British voters does put nationalism and politics above economics.
On virtually every measure, from business investment to exports, to employment, Britain is falling behind its peers. The think tank scholar John Springford put it simply, "If you imposed barriers to trade, investment and migration with your biggest trading partner, then you're going to have quite a big hit to trade volumes, and to investment and GDP."
Everywhere you look, Britain is feel the pinch. From a shortage of workers to small companies struggling to send their goods into Europe, to reduce traffic on Eurostar train between Britain and Europe. "Bloomberg Economics" estimates that British GDP would be 4 percent higher had it stayed in the European Union.
Britons know that they were conned. According to one survey, a clear majority now believe that leaving the European Union was a bad idea, and almost two-thirds want a future referendum on rejoining. The current prime minister Rishi Sunar was a Brexiteer himself and continues to mouth platitudes about its virtues while he faces a series of crisis that have in part been generated by Brexit. Even now Britain has not resolved how it will handle the border between itself and the European Union in Northern Ireland which could further derail economic growth.
Brexit was part of a broader collapse of British confidence. Ever since the global financial crisis of 2008, British productivity turned downward sharply and has never recovered. Austerity policies made things worse as Tory government slashed public spending, widening inequality and heightening general anxiety. As always, when times get tough, it's easy to blame foreigners, and opportunistic politicians like Boris Johnson did just that, promising that Brexit would cure all the evils that faced the country and even lying about the cost and benefits.
Johnson's fantasies of a lean and productive global Britain that once unshackled by Brexit would become a kind of Singapore on Thames have gone nowhere. In fact Britain now spends more on its welfare state, faces strikes across many crucial sectors, and is experiencing deepening wage stagnation. According to the "Financial Times" reporter John Burn-Murdoch, if things continue this way, the average British family will be poorer than the average Slovenian family by the end of next year.
ZAKARIA: The effects go beyond economics. Over the years I've listened to every British prime minister from Margaret Thatcher through David Cameron. They varied in political philosophy but all had an ambitious conception of Britain's role in the world, though they acknowledged that it would never be the superpower like the United States or China, they envisioned it as an energetic, engaged global player that cared deeply about the world.
The U.K. has a powerful voice in the European as one of its three biggest economies. It enjoyed special status thanks to its U.N. veto, its close relations with Washington, and its impressive armed forces. Most important it had a long tradition of generating ideas and agendas on global issues rooted in its legacy as a liberal free-trading country with deep historical ties around the world. It was a voice that was heard everywhere and listened to seriously.
But over the last decade, defense spending has stagnated while funds for the foreign service, foreign aid, and even the BBC have been cut in real terms. With Brexit, even the rhetoric about a larger role collapsed as politicians ran away from anything that seemed too global. Now British prime ministers rarely speak to the international press and when they do, they have nothing to say.
Britain has become a middling island nation, isolated off the coast of Europe without the heft to matter on its own or to set the agenda in its partnerships. Even Washington has little time for a country that is not even part of the European Union. As journalist Neil Ascherson once feared, Great Britain has become little England.
There is a remedy that would restore British growth. Enlarge the country's ambitions and return it to a central place in shaping a new world of great power competition. It would of course require that Britain return to the European Union. Rishi Sunak is looking for a way to make a mark and turn Britain's fortunes around. He has the solution staring him in the face. He just needs the courage to grab it.
Go to CNN.com/fareed to a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.
The big white balloon that captured the American public's attention was first noticed by the U.S. Military last Saturday as it was flying over Alaska. On Thursday when the overflight of the suspected Chinese spy apparatus was made public by the Pentagon, the balloon became a political hot potato. The burning question to shoot it down or not. The answer came Saturday afternoon when some of America's most powerful stealth fighters, F-22s, met the balloon off the coast of the Carolinas and took it down with a single side winder missile.
China's Foreign Ministry responded with a statement expressing strong dissatisfaction and protest. A day earlier Secretary of State Tony Blinken had postponed a planned trip to China.
Joining me now to talk about all this is Phil Mudd, who had top roles in both the CIA and the FBI.
Phil, welcome. What do you make of this incident?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, on a scale of one to 10 on national security issues, I'll politely, Fareed, give it about a two. This says a lot more about the inability of Washington and Congress and the White House to talk about relatively insignificant national security issues than it does about intelligence.
Look, if the Chinese want to collect photos of America, you could get to Google Earth, you can get a Chinese secret satellite if they want to intercept communications. They can do it with satellites. I would agree that there are certain advantages a balloon would have. But, Fareed, we twisted ourselves around a balloon for days in Washington, D.C. and the secretary of State canceled a trip for a balloon. Give me a break. This is a two on a scale of one to 10.
ZAKARIA: Yes. It also does strike me like that line in "Casablanca," you know, we're shocked to discover the Chinese are spying on us. We spy on them all the time, right? We have the largest spy apparatus in the world. You know, should we be -- it makes me think that there is a broader issue. We need to recognize that China is the second largest economy in the world. It's going to spy on us the way, you know, frankly lots of other countries do.
MUDD: Well, I think what we need to recognize is that typically in the past, you go back 20, 30, 40, 50 years when there are conversations in the Congress, at the White House, politics stops at the shores. The conversation here should not be about a potential threat to China. The FBI should be able to evaluate with that balloon collected. But I'd be surprised if it's incredibly sensitive. The conversation should be, why can't the White House sit down with Congress for 10 minutes and say, look, what are we going to do about this, and why can't the White House simply say we're going to shoot it down, which they might have done.
I would say one more thing which hasn't been discussed. There's an interesting opportunity that I'm sure the Chinese didn't anticipate and that is, how can they think in the future about doing things like balloons that distract America in terms of national security issues. I think it's a really interesting opportunity for the Chinese to evaluate the American political response, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: What you seem to be implying, Phil, is that you think that the administration acted as it did because they felt pressure not from the Chinese but really from Kevin McCarthy and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
MUDD: I think, in the end, they would have shot it down anyway. But I'm saying it's along the way, instead of all the front page news about Republicans suggesting that the White House was weak on this, the two sides should have just spoken. I think there is an opportunity in letting the balloon go. For example, I'm sure the intel guys were trying to collect on how that balloon was communicating back to China and what the balloon was collecting on.
But eventually when you shoot it down, you should be able to look at things like the optics in their interception sort of equipment on the balloon to figure out what the Chinese were up to. I just don't think it's a big deal. I think the political issue is more interesting.
ZAKARIA: This reminds me, Phil, of, you know, the Dubai ports controversy, which you will remember but some of our viewers won't, right?
MUDD: Yes. Yes.
ZAKARIA: In 2006, a Dubai company was taking over the leasing of L.A. port and we had this massive collective freakout. Didn't allow it to happen. And of course meanwhile, by the way, people probably don't know, but the Port of Delaware is currently run by another Dubai company. You know, it feels like a spasm that goes through the system.
MUDD: It does. I think, as a bit of an aside, one of the reasons you're getting that in this case is simply because in terms of U.S. media, you have a visual. Americans can look up and see a balloon. Media across the country including CNN gets to show you a balloon. It's not like a satellite you can't see or somebody at an embassy collecting intelligence for the Chinese. It's a real captivating story because it looks like a spy movie, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: You know, the administration clearly put out the fact that three such balloons crossed the United States during Trump's presidency as a way of humiliating Trump because he said, you know, we should shoot it down. He was urging the people in Montana to take their own muskets and shoot it down. But, of course, it also points out that the administration, by that very fact, suggests the administration overreacted because, I mean, if this thing has been happening in the past, why was this the one time it had to be done?
As you say, this seems the ultimate CNN effect, where it is the visual identification that was the controversy or the scandal, not the fact of the balloon.
MUDD: I agree. And I suspect one of the reasons that you saw those previous overflights go by is that, A, the Americans -- the intel community was telling the president, if they had a conversation that this was not a huge deal. But as I said earlier, I would see this as an opportunity for the Americans which most people aren't talking about. When that balloon is up, obviously it's communicating back to China. It's not only communicating data, it's communicating a sense of what the Chinese are collecting on and therefore what they're interested in.
As an intel guy, that's something I really want to know. So it's a collection opportunity for the Americans, not only for the Chinese.
ZAKARIA: Always so interesting to talk to you, Phil. Thank you so much.
MUDD: Thank you. See you.
ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, America's unemployment rate has not been this low since 1969, the year of Woodstock and the moon landing. What do we make of that? Former Treasury secretary Larry Summers will help us understand the big picture of the U.S. economy in a moment.
ZAKARIA: Friday's usually strong jobs report showed that the United States added 517,000 jobs in January, unemployment ticked down to 3.4 percent, the lowest since 1969. That came after the Federal Reserve once again hiked interest rates this week but less aggressively than it has been doing in the past, reflecting a sense that inflation is cooling.
Can the United States pull off a soft landing, bringing down inflation without triggering a recession?
I'm joined by Larry Summers, Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, director of National Economic Council under Barack Obama, and a former president of Harvard University.
Welcome, Larry. So it seemed to me over the last few months that the people who felt a soft landing was likely had gotten very optimistic. You know, somebody like Paul Krugman was saying all the evidence was pointing in the direction that inflation has cooled. But in any advanced industrial economy, wage inflation is the most important thing, and does this type of job market, two vacancies for every person looking, does this show that you still have a real inflation problem?
LARRY SUMMERS, FORMER TREASURY SECRETARY: Fareed, you're asking the right question and nobody can know the answer for sure. I've said often that soft landings are, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience. But from time to time, hope does triumph over experience. So it looks more possible that we'll have a soft landing than it did a few months ago.
My continued fear, though, is exactly the one that you describe. That we have a set of inflation indicators during 2022 that were very strong, that have now come back to earth, but they are still too high.
They're still unimaginably high from the perspective of two or three years ago, and that getting the rest of the way back to target inflation may still prove to be quite difficult. So I'd say I'm encouraged but it will be a big mistake to think that we were out of the woods.
ZAKARIA: So one of the things that people wonder, I suppose we end up in this situation with 3 percent, 3.5 percent inflation, as the kind of norm rather than 2 percent which is what most central banks target. Is it worth triggering a recession to get inflation down? How should we think about that tradeoff between unemployment and inflation?
SUMMERS: So I think the most important thing to recognize about that tradeoff is that it's a tradeoff between short-run reductions in unemployment and permanent changes in inflation. And so the benefit we can get from pushing unemployment low is on almost all economic theories likely not to be a permanent one. But if we push inflation up and those inflation expectations become entrenched, we're going to live with that inflation for a long time.
ZAKARIA: One of the reasons that the labor market is so tight, it's difficult to find workers in America, is about three million people have kind of stopped looking for work. And we're not quite sure why. And I wondered if you had any theories. I heard -- I think it was a time spot where they interviewed a lot of these people and it sounded like essentially Americans were moving toward a somewhat European attitude towards jobs.
They were saying, look, these jobs were not very good. You know, we worked very hard and we've moved back to our home, you know, which is lower costs, where we've got a couple of gig jobs in the gig economy. We're making 60 percent or 70 percent of what we were making but that's fine. Is it your sense that there is some change in the way that Americans are approaching work?
SUMMERS: So, I think, Fareed, if you look at that three million people, a lot of it is older people who stopped working during COVID and decided to retire earlier than normal patterns would suggest. So I think that's the largest part of it. Beyond that, I think there is definitely a kind of grand reassessment going on after COVID about how hard people want to work and how much they want to work and how much they want to be part of hierarchies.
You don't get to be a CEO if you don't love being in the office. And so CEOs want all their people to come back and be working. But lots of people like their dens better than they like their cubicles, and for those people they're going to decide to work intermittently, to not work as many hours, in some cases to leave working to their partners. So I definitely think we've got a great reassessment on, and my guess is that it's not going to change that much.
I think if people were going to go back to work when benefits ran out, they would have already gone back to work because that was now more than a year ago.
ZAKARIA: Stay with me, Larry. When we come back, I'm going to ask Larry Summers about the crisis in Washington over the debt ceiling. It seems like a game of chicken. I'm going to ask Larry Summers who will win.
ZAKARIA: The United States has an utterly bizarre system where the U.S. Congress votes on budgets and then separately has to authorize paying the bills incurred by those budgets. That is what leads the country to the debt ceiling crisis that happened constantly. And a crisis is brewing right now.
House Republicans don't want to pay the bills until President Biden agrees to spending cuts even though these are budgets that were set by both parties.
Joining me again is former Treasury secretary Larry Summers.
Larry, everybody decries this and says it's totally irresponsible and it's unimaginable that we won't pay our bills. But here we are again. If you were advising President Biden, what would you tell him to do?
SUMMERS: I would advise him that it's not a viable strategy for the country to default on obligations, whether it's interest obligations or obligations to pay contractors or obligations to pay federal workers or obligations to pay Social Security benefits. That that's the stuff of banana republics, and that he's not going to engage in any of that stuff. I'd advise him to basically insist that Congress do its job and approve the borrowing to finance the spending it has already both authorized and appropriated.
[10:30:00] Will there be any cosmetic things affecting -- looking at future spending at some point? Maybe there will be. But fundamentally, this is not something where there should be bargaining. You can debate who will win the game of chicken, what you can't debate is that the American people will lose.
ZAKARIA: But you do have this problem where there is a bunch of people in the Republican Party who do seem like they're willing to blow the whole thing up. And it is a larger percentage than I think you dealt with during the tea party days when they also threatened to default. Are you worried that, you know, that there is -- even if it is a 15 percent, 10 percent chance that these Republicans can hold up the process and we do have a real crisis?
SUMMERS: I am worried, but I'm more worried about the consequences of kowtowing to terrorists or setting precedents for completely out of scope executive actions. You know, 15 people can't stop the debt limit unless 215 other -- 210 other Republicans are committed to vote with them. It only takes a few responsible Republicans for the Democrats and some Republicans to raise the debt limit and I think that is what the president should be insisting on in terms of isolating the extremists. That some in the Republican Party may bow to the demands of the extremists, does not mean that the president of the United States should do that.
ZAKARIA: Larry, since I have you, let me ask you one more thing. One of the biggest surprises to me in terms of economic data that has come out recently is the IMF projection on the Russian economy. It doesn't sound like it is going to do that badly. It didn't do as badly as we had imagined last year either.
Do you think the fact that the Russian economy is not contracting that much, much less than it did during the '08 financial crisis, does that show that the sanctions are not working? What conclusion do you draw?
SUMMERS: I'm surprised by that also, Fareed. In part it is that the Russians have over the years been isolating themselves from the global economy. It is in part that the sanctions have been more leaky and porous than they should have been because of exceptions granted to commercial interests in the west.
It is in part because of what I think is perhaps the ultimate issue, while the United States and Europe are together and super strongly unified, and you and I and most others that we talked to every day, see this conflict in very clear terms the rest of the world -- places where billions of people live like India, for example, don't see this as clearly as we do. And that points up the difficulty of the sanctions regime in a world where not everybody is participating.
I think this also suggests that we need to be very measured in any theory we develop that somehow isolating China is going to do damage to its economy because if we can't succeed in imposing huge pain on Russia, with our allies united and with the goal being draconian pain, I think that needs to make us humble about the benefits of any kind of decoupling strategy.
ZAKARIA: Larry Summers. Always gets smarter talking to you. Thank you so much.
SUMMERS: Good to talk to you, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, should the United States arm Ukraine to the point that it can retake Crimea now? A retired general says yes. We will talk to him next.
ZAKARIA: In 1954, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided that Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, should be part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic instead of the Russian one. And so it was transferred. And so it stayed Ukrainian territory even after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But in 2014, Russia took it back with force. Today many have suggested that Russia will never let it go and Ukraine can never get it back. My next guest begs to differ. Retired General Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, wrote about his view in a recent piece in "The Economist." He joins me now.
Welcome, General Hodges. Let me first ask you, what do you make of the state of play right now given that we've been hearing all of this talk about the Germans giving tanks, the Americans giving Abrams tanks, what is happening on the ground?
LT. GEN. BEN HODGES (RET.), FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL, U.S. ARMY EUROPE: Well, it is important that the United States and Germany and U.K. and others are finally delivering this sort of capability that would give Ukraine overwhelming combat power for an armored thrust that would be an important part of the next counter offensive.
My only regret is that it has taken so long and it is still going to be months before the American contribution, the Abrams tanks specifically, can be part of this.
ZAKARIA: Is there a big Russian advance being planned from what you can tell on the ground? You know, it does seem like there is a bit of a stalemate right now. What is going on as you see it?
HODGES: I would not call it a stalemate because a stalemate implies that both sides are doing everything they can and you just can't move either way. I would say actually right now we are in this phase of the war where both sides are preparing for the next mobile phase of the war.
The Russians, of course, have talked a lot about the next round of mobilization. You hear even Ukrainians talk about there might be 500,000 Russian soldiers that are being mobilized. I'm very skeptical about those numbers. And of course the Russians want us to be worried and thinking about a looming offensive so that we're -- so that we're focused on that rather than focused on the main effort, which is helping Ukraine liberate Crimea.
ZAKARIA: So tell us why you think just first strategically this is the right thing to do. Because you know a lot of people say, look, this was Russian until Khrushchev gave it in 1954. That this is -- this would be Putin's red line. That this would be the one thing it is 95 percent Russian speaking. This is the one area that Ukraine should not go into. You on the contrary say very much it is the place that Ukraine should stage an invasion.
HODGES: So, it is important to remember, of course, that everybody, including the United States, recognizes that Crimea is sovereign territory of Ukraine. So, there is no disputing the sovereignty of Crimea as part of Ukraine.
I can't imagine a situation where it would be a good idea for Ukraine to go ahead and give up Crimea. Crimea is the decisive part of this war. Ukraine will never be stable or safe or secure as long as Russian forces still occupy Crimea. And they'll never be able to rebuild their economy as long as the Russian fleet is there sailing out of Sevastopol interdicting traffic coming in and out of Odessa. So, in terms of what is decisive how can we press Ukraine to go ahead and give up Crimea?
ZAKARIA: OK. So now explain to us why it is doable militarily. I mean, Russia is a much bigger country. This is a matter of pride for them. They're a much bigger economy, defense budget and yet you say this is doable.
HODGES: Yes. So I'm not sure that it is a matter of pride for all Russians. You'll remember, 500,000 Russians left the country last year rather than be mobilized. I'm sure they like going down to Crimea to the Black Sea for their holiday as we saw last summer but there are no Russian soldiers that want to be in Ukraine.
War is a test of will and a test of logistics. The Russian logistics system is barely able to supply the Russian troops that it has in the field right now. The Russian Black Sea fleet is terrified of going anywhere near the Ukrainian coast and Ukraine doesn't have a Navy.
So I think when you start comparing populations and logistical systems, Ukraine does not have a manpower problem. They have got over 700,000 in uniform and another 2 million that are ready to step forward. And of course, will power. It is very clear that Ukrainians have the superior will, the soldiers as well as the people.
What Russia has, and I think this is what you're alluding to, what Russia has, of course, is mass. They don't care how many get killed. We see that. They're losing between six and 800 people a day killed. They'll keep pushing those troops into the meat grinder in hopes of eventually overwhelming Ukrainian defenders. But as the SACE says, General Cavoli, Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, precision can defeat mass if you have enough time.
ZAKARIA: How likely is it do you think the Ukrainians are going to take your advice? HODGES: Well, one thing I'm sure of is that they are absolutely going to keep fighting to get back Crimea because they know they will never be safe or secure, and they know they will never be able to rebuild their economy, and they also know based on the history of the last 30 years, that Russia will never live up to any agreement but the Russians will wait for us to lose interest as we did after the invasion of Georgia back in 2008.
So I think that is why Ukraine realizes this year this needs to happen now. And it has got to be very frustrating for them when they hear the joint staff or the Pentagon or the administration talk about, oh, it is going to be very hard.
I don't think they can defeat them this year. And then that is used as a reason not to provide capabilities that would help them win this year. So kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy and I think this is a manifestation of the fact that the administration just cannot bring themselves to say they want Ukraine to actually win. Instead, we talk about we want them to be successful, or we don't want them to lose. And that is why we stop short of providing what is needed.
ZAKARIA: General Hodges, fascinating perspective and important message. Thank you so much.
HODGES: Thank you for the privilege and the opportunity.
ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, this week mark the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Seventy-five years later some in India are working hard to assassinate his character. Find out why and how when we come back.
ZAKARIA: And now for the last look. If you were to ask most people what single figure comes to mind when they think of India they would probably say without hesitation Mahatma Gandhi. His successful resistance to colonial British rule, his insistence on nonviolence, his championing of society's most vulnerable, all this is why he is known as the father of Indian independence.
But even though Gandhi is a towering figure virtually synonymous with India abroad in India itself he is losing favor. This week was the 75th anniversary of his death, his assassination by a member of the right wing group the RSS. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to Gandhi at his memorial in New Delhi to mark the occasion. But that gesture conceals a contentious attitude toward the famous freedom fighter on the part of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party which is itself an off shoot of the RSS.
As the historian Ram Guha writes in the FT that contentious attitude is born of the fact that the religious harmony that Gandhi preached is anathema to hardcore elements of the Hindu rite which seek to make India into a Hindu state.
Though Gandhi was himself an upper caste Hindu he celebrated the diversity of India both its many languages and its many faiths. But the nation's current leaders sometime seem to believe that Hindus deserve and ought to see supremacy in a land in which they are the overwhelming majority. Take one example of the antipathy of the ruling political class toward the icon. Gandhi's killer, Nathuram Godse, has become for many a national hero.
Numerous BJP lawmakers have publicly praised Godse, the party brass usually distance themselves from such comments. What the BJP has done is popularize competing figures in India's independent struggle. People who frontally challenge Gandhi's message. That includes men like Veer Savarkar, known as the father of Hindu nationalism.
As Guha notes he was a man who hated Gandhi and Muslims. He was also the ideological inspiration for Godse, Gandhi's killer. A previous BJP led government hung a portrait of Savarkar in the parliament building. Modi has bowed before it, saluting Savarkar for his undying love for India.
This moment represents a sea change for Indian politics which for most of its independent history has been heavily influenced by Gandhi and his ideas. But a militant Hindu rite has popularized a muscular nationalism that looks down on Gandhi's insistence on nonviolence. They also hold him responsible for the partition of India and Pakistan, and accused him of being too willing to appease Muslims.
Disinformation about Gandhi as an enemy of Indian Hindus circulates freely online. Posts accuse him of having urged Hindu women to cooperate with Muslim rapists, completely false of course. Others suggest bizarrely that he was secretly working for the British. And while the 1982 loving biopic "Gandhi" made by Britain incidentally was an international hit today Indian film-goers favor a more aggressive protagonist.
Take last year's blockbuster "RRR," one of India's highest grossing films ever. It's an action packed buddy movie about two freedom fighters who take on the British in 1920s India. As the "Washington Post" notes the closing song and dance number involves our protagonist singing about India's national heroes. Behind them the faces of real life freedom fighters appear. Missing from the montage is the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.
Unless you think that is a mere oversight the screenwriter, Vijayendra Prasad, who developed the story for the film told the "Post," "The time has come to let Indians know the truth, the real warriors who should be honored, the real reason why we got independence was not because of Mr. Gandhi. That's the fact."
Now, I'm all for subjecting hero worship to rigorous scrutiny and many worthy historians have taken a very critical eye to Gandhi in recent years. All the same we ought not to forget that Gandhi was genuinely a world historical figure. One who pioneered a strategy of nonviolence and transformed India's struggle for independence into a grassroots based mass movement that inspired people everywhere outside of India, from Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. This is a man who took on the greatest empire in the world nonviolently and defeated it.
In a country riven with divisions, he built a coalition that included and honored everyone. He was uncompromising about the need to reform inequities such as India's caste system, renaming the lowest caste often called untouchables as children of God. He was passionate about bridging the Hindu-Muslim divide. In fact he gave his life for it.
People often describe Albert Einstein as the greatest genius of modern times. "Time" magazine named him man of the century. Well, Einstein kept a photograph of the Mahatma in his study. And on Gandhi's 70th birthday, gave his own assessment of the man and his place in history. "Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."
Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week and I will see you next week.