Tag Archive for 'democracy'

Five reasons Pakistan is better off than you think

Mosharraf Zaidi in Foreign Policy:

1. Feisty democracy

This first-ever transition from one elected government to the next is a big deal, partially because Pakistanis are depressingly familiar with military interventions preceding power transfers. But it’s also important because Pakistan’s recent experience with democracy has been so unpleasant.

The word “democracy” has become a tragic punchline in Pakistan, ever since President Asif Ali Zardari appealed to rioters reacting to his wife Benazir Bhutto’s December 2007 assassination by stating that “democracy is the best revenge.” Elected to succeed his wife, Zardari now oversees a notoriously inept government: his nominees for prime minister have all been investigated, indicted, or convicted for corruption.

2. Activist judges

When then President Pervez Musharraf tried to fire him in 2007, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry refused to go quietly into the sun. Like his predecessors, Musharraf had used the judiciary to help him discredit and imprison political opponents, and then disposed the judges that grow a conscience or chose a different team. More:

And in New Yorker, Basharat Peer on Pakistan’s heady vote

Modi, the man and the message

Harish Khare in The Hindu:

During a recent three-week stay in the United States, I was often asked to explain the Indian media’s current obsession with Narendra Modi. The only reasonably cogent answer to give was the convergence between the corporate ownership of the electronic media and Mr. Modi’s corporate bank-rollers. The Gujarat Chief Minister’s induction in the Bharatiya Janata Party central set-up has been celebrated as if he has already been invited by the Rashtrapati to form the next government at the Centre.

Like most Indian political leaders, Mr. Modi is a non-biodegradable entity. He will not disappear. Machinations by the BJP central leadership may delay his storming the party headquarters, but he is not going to be talked out of his national ambitions. It is only the voters who can knock the stuffing out of him and his outsized pretensions.

Mr. Modi promises to do things differently and better than what is being done in New Delhi or even in the other BJP ruled States. Not only is he contemptuous of the Manmohan Singh style of consensus approach to resolving contentious issues, he is also derisive of his own party and its leadership. He believes the BJP has become too flabby as an organisation and that most of its impresarios are compromised and tired.More:

We call this progress

Arundhati Roy in Guernica:

I don’t know how far back in history to begin, so I’ll lay the milestone down in the recent past. I’ll start in the early 1990s, not long after capitalism won its war against Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan. The Indian government, which was for many years one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement, suddenly became a completely aligned country and began to call itself the natural ally of the U.S. and Israel. It opened up its protected markets to global capital. Most people have been speaking about environmental battles, but in the real world it’s quite hard to separate environmental battles from everything else: the war on terror, for example; the depleted uranium; the missiles; the fact that it was the military-industrial complex that actually pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression, and since then the economies of places like America, many countries in Europe, and certainly Israel, have had stakes in the manufacture of weapons. What good are weapons if they aren’t going to be used in wars? Weapons are absolutely essential; it’s not just for oil or natural resources, but for the military-industrial complex itself to keep going that we need weapons.

Today, as we speak, the U.S., and perhaps China and India, are involved in a battle for control of the resources of Africa. Thousands of U.S. troops, as well as death squads, are being sent into Africa. The “Yes We Can” president has expanded the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan. There are drone attacks killing children on a regular basis there.

In the 1990s, when the markets of India opened, when all of the laws that protected labor were dismantled, when natural resources were privatized, when that whole process was set into motion, the Indian government opened two locks: one was the lock of the markets; the other was the lock of an old fourteenth-century mosque, which was a disputed site between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindus believed that it was the birthplace of Ram, and the Muslims, of course, use it as a mosque. By opening that lock, India set into motion a kind of conflict between the majority community and the minority community, a way of constantly dividing people. Finding ways to divide people is the main practice of anybody that is in power. More:


Suu Kyi party’s landslide win in Burma election

AP report:

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party claimed today she has won a seat in Burma’s parliament after a landmark election, setting the stage for the pro-democracy leader to hold public office for the first time.

The victory, if confirmed, marks a major milestone in the south-east Asian nation, where the military has ruled almost exclusively for half a century and where the government is now seeking legitimacy and a lifting of Western sanctions.

Today’s by-election was called to fill just 45 vacant seats in Burma’s 664-seat national parliament and will not change the balance of power in a new government that is nominally civilian but still heavily controlled by retired generals.

Ms Suu Kyi and other opposition candidates would have almost no say even if they win all the seats they are contesting. But her candidacy has resurrected hope among Burma’s downtrodden masses, who have grown up for generations under strict military rule. If Ms Suu Kyi takes office as expected, it would symbolise a giant leap towards national reconciliation.

Prashant Jha in The Hindu:

Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) are set to sweep the historic by-elections held in Myanmar on Sunday for 45 parliamentary seats.

After a day of peaceful voting, interspersed with some allegations of irregularities, the NLD said Ms. Suu Kyi won her seat of Kawhmu on the city outskirts. While the official results are not expected for a few days, the party, based on reports sent in by its representatives from counting centres in different townships, has claimed a landslide win.

Hannah Beech in Time:

On April 1, Burmese went to the voting booths for just the third time in more than half a century. At stake were fewer than 50 parliamentary seats being contested out of 664 total. But this small by-election was the first time that the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s beloved opposition force, was participating in the political process since 1990 polls, which the party won by a landslide only to have the military regime ignore the people’s will. With reforms blossoming across the country after a hybrid civilian-military government took office last year, ordinary Burmese were reveling in the chance to vote for the party led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.


Imran Khan: A Kennedy for Pakistan?

Mohsin Hamid in NYRB:

Most likely to be cast as heroes are the media, the country’s independent-minded Supreme Court, which has recently indicted the Prime Minister on contempt of court charges (related to the corruption investigation of Zardari), and the Pakistani “people.” There is much talk of democratic ideals, but little love for the country’s current crop of politicians, and so there seems to be a yearning for a new kind of leader able to break the cycle of weakness and mediocrity.

Into this situation has surged the former cricket superstar Imran Khan, who in recent months has suddenly become the country’s most popular political figure. My first intimation that people might be taking Khan seriously as a politician came in February 2011, in Karachi, when I asked the driver of a car belonging to my publisher whom he’d vote for if elections were held today.

“Imran Khan,” he replied without hesitation.

I was surprised. Khan’s fifteen-year-old party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, had never managed to win more than a single seat in the country’s 272-member parliament. Yet my publisher’s driver was on to something. By October, well over 100,000 people were thronging a Khan-led PTI rally in Lahore, an event that seemed to change Pakistan’s political landscape. It had been billed as a make-or-break chance for Khan to show, finally, whether he was capable of building a true mass movement. More:

‘Democracy is India’s Achilles’ heel’

From Intelligence Squared

This debate took place at the Royal Geographical society on 27 September 2011. The Participants were Mani Shankar Aiyar, William Dalrymple, Suhel Seth and Patrick French. The audio below is courtesy Intelligence Squared.

Democracy is India’s Achilles’ heel by intelligence2

Controversy over dam fuels rare public outcry in Myanmar


Myitsone, Myanmar — The massive dam under construction in this remote corner of Myanmar is generating a litany of concerns that are not uncommon to such projects: about the risks of tampering with nature, about damage to wildlife, about the displacement of villagers.

But for many people in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the fears surrounding the Myitsone dam go much deeper. It will be the first dam across the Irrawaddy River, the iconic, even mythic waterway that has given life to centuries of Burmese civilization.

Passions are high. A government minister broke down in tears at a news conference last month when asked about the dam. High-ranking officials are said to be sharply divided over the wisdom of the project.

And in an authoritarian country that has begun to experiment with looser controls on the news media, the controversy has raised the prospect of something exceedingly unusual: that public outrage might actually force the government to reconsider its plans.

The Myitsone dam will flood an area four times the size of Manhattan. Government officials who support the project say it will be an invaluable source of electricity and cash, a milestone in Myanmar’s development. Critics say it will cause irreparable damage to the Irrawaddy, the lifeline of millions of Burmese downstream. More:

Anna for his thoughts

Mumbai-based social commentator Usha Subramanian in Hindustan Times:

How many of us rooting for this movement are thinking beyond our own experiences with corruption? How many acknowledge that many among us do not even feebly resist corruption but see it as the easy, even the smart, way out?

We pose as victims; very often we are willing collaborators. Doubtless the people with power need to exercise it honestly. But if we, the people, have the power, as is claimed today, why did we wait so long before putting our individual houses in order, if we have at all?

Even now, how many of us will not hand out currency notes along with our driving licences when caught by the cops? How many parents will refuse to indulge their 16-year-olds’ desire to drive a car?

How many will refuse to pay sub-rosa to get admission into colleges? If even 25% of the Anna aficionados remain steadfast in refusing to bribe, the movement would be worth it.

Participatory democracy in the sense advocated by Team Anna is not the cure. It has worked in Switzerland but has pushed California from being one of the richest states to the bottom.

This present juggernaut could well become obstructive and threaten the very fabric of our country’s democracy. A reality check is due before the honeymoon is over.

Read full article here

The absence of Ambedkar

Hartosh Singh Bal in 3quarksdaily:

At a recent lunch with a writer from the US, discussing our common interest in rivers, I asked him what had led to his new project. He told me that he had first visited India several years ago and had toyed with several ideas, one involved travelling through the forested areas under Maoist influence, a journey that would take him from the South of India to the foothills of Himalayas, the second involved writing about the Narmada after a visit to some tribal villages on the verge of submergence. His agent in the US, he said, had told him to get real, no one would publish such books, and so now he was planning to travel down the Ganga.

It would not be the first such book, and the logic that drives it is the same logic that has led to a surfeit of books on Gandhi, Joseph Lelyveld’s recent contribution only one more in a long list. In this the world is only responding to the hold the Ganga and Gandhi have over the Indian popular imagination. The burning ghats, the loincloth, the fasts and the satyagraha, platitudes about the soul of India. In each case there is no shortage of outsiders eager to respond to our myths about ourselves.

It will be argued that there is little harm in either obsession but to do so is to forget that non-fiction in India is a genre that is constrained by the resources local publishers can offer. The possibility of devoting a couple of years to a subject and spending what is required on travel and research remains unlikely. Publishers abroad who do have the resources have limited bandwith, both in terms of money and in terms of interest in India. Give or take a few India books, this bandwith is largely exhausted by Gandhi and the Ganga. What is true of publishers and writers is as true of academics and academicians and the result is a neglect of people and places crucial to our existence as Indians.

Recently I believe we have had much reason to rue this fact. A gaggle of civil society activists in India have turned to a man named Anna Hazare, who professes to be a Gandhian, in their battle to draft a Bill for setting up a new Constitutional authority to fight corruption. He has resorted with some success to a Gandhian tactic, the public fast, to ensure the government gives in to their demand. More:

Why politics matters

Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:

The voter votes not for an idea or an ideology but for the possibility of individual benefit. This possibility is not as straightforward as accounting for the money, a television or alcohol handed out even though each counts. If roads matter, they will be weighed in, it is just that the importance given to each factor varies from individual to individual. And since the individuals whose aggregated vote decides most elections are not from the middle class, this class feels left out because its own individual benefit is often discounted in such a result.

This is a simple conclusion but one that irritates the elite no end. It may be true that the CPM and the DMK were both embodiments of certain ideas, but the response was not to an idea, whether it be the Marxism of the CPM or the atheistic Dravidianism of the DMK, but to the possibility that the old structures would change for the better, that they would have some access to the institutions of power. In the case of the CPM, this possibility was real for more than a decade but that changed with the creation of a new elite that controlled power. Mamata is not an idea, she is a possibility as easily accepted as renounced if things do not work out.


It is easy to be cynical or sceptical about such a democracy but the fact remains it delivers in ways that the elite fails to anticipate. A Mayawati, Mulayam or Lalu are products of such a system, and for all the mockery made of them by the elite, they have changed the political landscape of the country. It is difficult to ascribe ideology or even ideas to the politics these three actually practice, but over the past 20 years, they have reshaped Bihar and UP by dismantling the hierarchy of caste. More:

Nepal’s stalled revolution

Manjushree Thapa in The New York Times. Thapa is the author, most recently, of the novel “Seasons of Flight.”

I WAS at a dinner party in Kathmandu when a journalist friend looked at her cell phone and made a joyous announcement: “Mubarak’s gone!”


“He left Cairo for Sharm el-Sheikh. The army’s taken charge,” she said. No one at that Feb. 11 party, neither the foreign-educated Nepalis nor the expatriates who call Nepal home, had any connection to Egypt. Yet the victory felt personal. A bottle of wine appeared and we toasted Egypt.

As protests spread in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Libya, what is emerging as the “Arab Spring” continues to resonate here. Just five years ago, the world was watching Nepal as it now watches the Mideast and we had our dreams of democracy.

“I don’t know why, but I love to see people revolting against their leaders,” Jhalak Subedi, a magazine editor, wrote on Facebook.

“We Nepalis, we grew up with political movements,” he explained over a cup of coffee. He had came of age amid student politics, was even jailed in 1990 for his activism. “Despite all our movements, we still haven’t been able to have the kind of change our hearts are set on,” he said. “I think that’s why we feel so happy when we see change taking place elsewhere.” More:


Dancing around the flame

Madhusree Mukerjee in Dissent:

On Christmas Eve, 2010, an Indian court sentenced Binayak Sen, a doctor who has for decades given medical care to indigenous people in forests of central India, to life imprisonment for sedition and conspiracy. Sen’s real crime was to have investigated and publicized the forced expulsion, accompanied by killing, rape, torture, and house-burning, of about 350,000 aboriginal villagers in a state-sponsored campaign against Maoist guerillas. Months earlier, policemen had shot dead Maiost leader Cherukuri “Azad” Rajkumar, who had emerged from his jungle hideout to engage in peace talks with the Indian government; a journalist accompanying him was also killed. The close range from which the shots were fired point to murders in custody. (According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the Indian administration reports the deaths, in police and judicial custody, of more than 1,500 prisoners each year, and the number has increased steeply in recent years.) In October 2009, when security forces razed the village of eighteen-month-old Katam Suresh, they chopped off three of his fingers and killed his mother, grandmother, grandfather, and eight-year-old aunt. His twenty-year-old father was saved by being away. But this January, possibly because their names had featured in a court petition filed by human rights workers, the boy and his father were taken away by the police. Both remain missing.

Why is the world’s largest democracy “killing its own children,” as a judge on India’s Supreme Court recently remarked? There are several answers, but when it comes to the jungles of central India, most observers point to a 2009 statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “if [Maoist] extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment.” Almost all of India’s Maoist guerillas are indigenous people who shelter in rugged terrain that is rich in minerals and water. As the state fights them back, it appears to be clearing the land of residents in order to access these resources—and motivating ever more of the dispossessed to join the insurgency in the process. The real reason behind India’s worsening human rights record could be the investment boom and resource rush that underpin its explosive economic growth. More:

Why India is democratic and Pakistan is not

Christophe Jaffrelot in Foreign Affairs:

India, Pakistan, and Democracy; by Philip K. Oldenburg. Published by Routledge

There was also more popular support for India at the time it was created than there was for Pakistan. The Indian National Congress, the torchbearer of India’s nationalist movement, had enjoyed mass support since the 1920s, when Mohandas Gandhi became the party’s leader. The Pakistani nationalist movement, the Muslim League, was not popular at all among Indian Muslims until the mid-1940s, just before partition. As a result, writes Oldenburg, referring to his famous 1985 Journal of Asian Studies article, one of the foremost on the 1971 breakup of East and West Pakistan, Pakistan was “a place insufficiently imagined” among those who would eventually live there. Feeling that lack of popular support, Muslim League leaders were hesitant to let other political parties develop once the country was created. Additionally, they feared that parties would divide an already weak nation. Since independence, the government has tried to limit Pakistan’s political liberalization by introducing notions such as “controlled democracy,” which has involved holding partyless elections at times. India’s party system, on the other hand, is a venerable and robust arena for aggregating and articulating citizens’ interests, and the field of parties is ever expanding.

Pakistan’s need to forge a collective identity after 1947 was complicated by its ethnolinguistic arithmetic: the political and military center of power was in West Pakistan, but 55 percent of the population lived in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Pakistan’s elites in the west of the country could not uphold democracy without loosing power to those in the east. Centralization and authoritarianism were the logical next steps. These were encouraged by the Punjabi-dominated army, which seized power for the first time in 1958. In one of the most interesting chapters of his book, Oldenburg writes about the attempt of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to impose Urdu — a language spoken by a minority of the population — as the national language, sparking protests among the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan, which seceded during a violent war and became Bangladesh in 1971. In contrast, a 40 percent plurality of Indians spoke Hindi, and India tried to diffuse any ethnolinguistic tensions in the years after partition by recognizing several official languages — including English — and redrawing the federal map along linguistic lines to give each group its own administrative unit. Any account of the diverging paths of the two countries in the 1950s must start from this baseline. More:

An annotated Foreign Affairs syllabus on Pakistani politics.

Can India leapfrog China?

On 26 January, the New York Times website ran this article in its DealBook section:

Davos, Switzerland: India is trying hard not to be forgotten at the World Economic Forum amid the China-focus. The country has brought the single biggest delegation to Davos and ads for its “Inclusive Growth” slogan could be seen not just in the conference center but on public buses in Davos.

Indian executives here prided themselves on the things that set their country apart from its biggest rival among emerging markets, China: democracy, a reliable legal framework for investors, a widespread command of English, a young population due to overtake China’s by 2030, and of course its famed information technology sector.

But there was also an acute sense of envy of China’s superior infrastructure, Beijing’s capacity to map out long-term economic development unbound by election deadlines and the country’s comparatively high literacy rates, particularly among women. More:

Click here to read readers’ comments. Below, a sample:

“India ought to stop thinking of itself as being on the same level as China. China is so far ahead in every measure. Today we talk of China being part of the rescue package for Europe. Does anyone think India is in anyway to fulfill taht kind of role today?”

A nation consumed by the state

Ramachandra Guha in Outlook:

Let me begin with two epiphanies. A few years ago, I visited a book fair held on the seafront in Kochi. The local publishers were represented, as were Indian and foreign firms. In between the stall of Oxford University Press and a shop stocking Malayalam translations of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, I came across a man selling, of all things, pickles from Bikaner. His wares were contained in large open buckets, one containing aam ka murabba, another shalgam ka achar. I asked the young man how he had come from a far northern desert to participate in a book fair in this southern port. “Maine suna ki Keral mein mela lag raha tha,” he answered, “aur maine socha ki wahan ek dukan khol doon (I heard that there was some kind of fair on in Kerala, so I thought I would bid for a stall there).” Thus spoke a pickle-man in a salad bowl nation, adding his charmingly naive logic to an apparently illogical country.

Some months after this encounter, I was travelling by car from Patiala to Amritsar. It was a hot day, and the countryside was monotonous. I fell asleep, and woke when the car slowed down. We were now in the market town of Khanna. I scanned the buildings and their signs. One, particularly, caught my attention: it read, ‘Indian Bank, Khanna Branch, Head Office, Rajaji Salai, Chennai’. I was charmed and uplifted, sentiments that (especially for the young) perhaps need explaining. For ‘Rajaji’ was C. Rajagopalachari, the scholar-statesman who had been Governor-General of India, chief minister of Madras State, founder of the free-market Swatantra Party and author of best-selling versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In his person, he embodied all the Punjabi stereotypes about the Madrasi; he was slight, wore thick glasses, had never played a single sport or consumed an alcoholic beverage, and was vegetarian. Yet here was evidence of his enduring legacy in the Punjab, where—as that sign informed me—there were many whisky-guzzling, chicken-eating Sikh farmers banking their savings in an institution headquartered in Chennai on a road named after a dhoti-wearing, rasam-drinking, austere Tamil scholar.

The poet Wallace Stegner once remarked that “the tracing of ideas is a guessing game. We can’t tell who first had an idea—we can only tell who first had it influentially, who formulated it in some form, poem or equation or picture, that others could stumble upon with the shock of recognition”. So it is with the idea of India. Rabindranath Tagore used the phrase in a letter to a friend in 1921, writing that “the idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts”. There may have been others who used the phrase before him. But it was only in 1997, when Sunil Khilnani used it as the title of his wonderful book, that his fellow citizens stumbled with a shock of recognition at what the idea of India represented. More:

Aung San Suu Kyi keeps her people, and the junta, waiting one more night

Jack Davies in Rangoon in The Guardian:

After seven years under house arrest and 15 of the last 21 incarcerated in some form by Burma’s military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi today chose one last night of imprisonment so that she might walk truly free.

As speculation over her imminent release reached fever pitch in her home city of Rangoon, word spread that military officials had visited her house and that the order had been signed authorising her immediate release.

Mid-afternoon Burma time, the Guardian understands, the 65-year-old was told she was free to leave the two-storey lakeside villa which the junta had made her prison for most of this decade.

Attached to her release, the military sought to impose strict conditions, understood to be restrictions on where she could travel within Burma, and with whom she could meet. More:

Aung San Suu Kyi: the private photo album

Knight of the Generals?

Shashi Tharoor in The Times of India:

As stage-managed elections ratify the consequences of three decades of military rule in Myanmar, the perspective from its neighbour India may help explain why there is continued international acceptance of the country’s long-ruling junta.

Burma was ruled as part of Britain’s Indian empire until 1935, and the links between the two countries remained strong after Burma gained its independence in 1947. An Indian business community thrived in Burma’s major cities, and cultural and political affinities were well established. India’s nationalist leader and first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a close friend of the Burmese nationalist hero Aung San, whose daughter, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, studied in New Delhi.

For many years, India was unambiguously on the side of democracy, freedom and human rights in Burma – and in ways more tangible than the rhetoric of the regime’s western critics. When the generals suppressed the popular uprising of 1988, nullified the overwhelming election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990, shot students, and arrested the newly-elected leaders, India’s government initially reacted as most Indians would have wanted. India gave asylum to fleeing students and a base for their resistance movement (along with some financial help), and supported a newspaper and a radio station that propagated the democratic voice. More:

Will Aung San Suu Kyi be freed at last?

Aung Zaw is the founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine, on Asia Sentinel:

Unnamed official sources in Burma have recently said that Aung San Suu Kyi will be released from house arrest on Nov. 13, when her current period of detention is due to expire. But is the Burmese regime really planning to free the detained Nobel Peace Prize winner? The answer to this question very much depends on one person: Senior General Than Shwe.

If Suu Kyi is released in November, it will not be before next month’s election. Pro-regime parties are expected to engineer a victory in the polls, which raises further questions about how Suu Kyi will respond to this situation if she is allowed to leave her home.

For the regime’s paramount leader, this is the crucial issue. He regards Suu Kyi as a potential threat to national security, and if he believes that she will continue to challenge his rule after she is freed, he will almost certainly find some pretext to extend her detention indefinitely. More:

China and India: Contest of the century

From The Economist:

A hundred years ago it was perhaps already possible to discern the rising powers whose interaction and competition would shape the 20th century. The sun that shone on the British empire had passed midday. Vigorous new forces were flexing their muscles on the global stage, notably America, Japan and Germany. Their emergence brought undreamed-of prosperity; but also carnage on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

Now digest the main historical event of this week: China has officially become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan. In the West this has prompted concerns about China overtaking the United States sooner than previously thought. But stand back a little farther, apply a more Asian perspective, and China’s longer-term contest is with that other recovering economic behemoth: India. These two Asian giants, which until 1800 used to make up half the world economy, are not, like Japan and Germany, mere nation states. In terms of size and population, each is a continent—and for all the glittering growth rates, a poor one. More:

The India gene code

India’s many failings are obvious enough. But most of its considerable achievements spring from the exalted vision of its constituent assembly. Patrick French in Outlook:

There was nothing inevitable about India becoming a democracy. At Independence, even before the partition massacres took place, the nation was falling apart. The Quit India movement had left large parts of the north ungovernable, and civil power was breaking down across the country. The armed forces were about to be divided between India and Pakistan and the most senior Indian officer, Gen K.M. Cariappa, told the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, it might be a good idea to have a short spell of military rule. Fortunately, this idea was rejected, and India did not go the way of some of its neighbours, where politicians share power uneasily with the armed forces.

The new government directly inherited less than half of the Indian empire’s original landmass. The northeast and the northwest became Pakistan, leaving six complete provinces (Bombay, Madras, Orissa, Bihar, the United Provinces and Central Provinces) which had been under direct colonial rule, and the partitioned remnants of three others (Punjab, Bengal and Assam). The princely rulers, whose states covered more than a third of the empire, were now in theory free to do as they liked. Some had private armies, while the larger kingdoms, like Kashmir and Hyderabad—which had a government income equal to that of Belgium—thought they might stand alone.

Yet, despite the chaos, killing, unrest, kidnapping, food shortages and refugees, discussion was quickly under  way about a lasting constitutional settlement. Less than a week after the transfer of power from British hands, nationalist politicians were busily debating such matters as flag protocol, and the president of the Constituent Assembly in New Delhi, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had to remind them of the important matter at hand: “May I point out that we have met here today for the purpose of proceeding with the framing of the Constitution.”

The British had never shown much interest in what form of government India might have after Independence. More:

Losing faith in Pakistan

Aatish Taseer in Mint Lounge. Taseer is the author of two books, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands and Temple-Goers:

Aatish Taseer

It is one of the vanities of a war, like the war on terror, to believe that your enemy’s reasons for fighting are the same as yours. We are bringers of freedom, democracy and Western-style capitalism; they hate freedom, democracy and Western-style capitalism. It is an irresistible symmetry; and if not a way to win a war, it is certainly a way to convince yourself that you’re fighting the good war. But there is another possibility, one that the Americans, and other defenders of post-colonial thinking, are loath to admit: that a place’s problem might truly be its own; that your reasons for fighting are not your enemy’s reasons; and that you might only be a side-show in an internal war with historical implications deeper than your decade-long presence in the country.

In the case of Pakistan, the imposition of this easy West versus Islam symmetry has helped conceal what is the great theme of history in that country: the grinding down of its local syncretic culture in favour of a triumphant, global Islam full of new rigidities and intolerances. It is this war, which feels in Pakistan like a second Arab conquest, that earlier last month saw, as its latest target, the Data Sahib shrine in Lahore—among the most important of thousands of such shrines that dot the cities and countryside of Punjab and Sindh. More:

The reactionary

Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic on Arundhati Roy“s Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers:

If Roy’s disgust with America helps to explain her opinion of India, then her opinion of democracy helps to explain her disgust with America. From the very start of her book she shows nothing but condescension and contempt for democracy. “While we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death,” she begins, “can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or aspiration. I mean the working model–Western liberal democracy and its variants, such as they are.” According to Roy, “the West” is no longer democratic. “The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy,” she writes. “What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something malign and dangerous?” The strangeness of this passage–its false idea that Europe and India and the United States are less democratic than they used to be–is never really explained or expanded upon. It is quite remarkable to see the arch-progressive Roy so unexcited by great strides toward minority rights, gender equality, the acceptance of homosexuality, and a whole range of other breakthroughs in social fairness. One begins to get the suspicion that Roy simply dislikes democracy.

She certainly has no use for democratic institutions. “The politics of mass markets and vote banks is leading to majoritarianism and eventually fascism,” she ominously observes. “These essays show how the institutions of democracy–the courts, the police, the ‘free’ press, and, of course, elections–far from working as a system of checks and balances, often do the opposite.” After commenting on an unsavory Indian politician and his style of campaigning, she adds scornfully: “One person’s monster is the other one’s messiah. That’s democracy.” Well, no, that isn’t democracy. Democracy is much more, and much harder, and much more precious, than that.

Most appalling, and most revealing, is her attack on the Indian judiciary. The Indian Supreme Court has long been one of the country’s most resilient and democratic institutions. But sometimes it interprets the law on issues of land management in a manner that allows for large-scale development projects, and so Roy has only contempt for it. “The higher judiciary, the Supreme Court in particular, doesn’t just uphold the law, it micro-manages our lives,” she warns. “Its judgments range through matters great and small. It decides what’s good for the environment and what isn’t, whether dams should be built, rivers linked, mountains moved, forests felled. It decides what our cities should look like and who has the right to live in them. It decides whether slums should be cleared, streets widened, shops sealed, whether strikes should be allowed, industries should be shut down, relocated, or privatized…. It has become the premier arbiter of public policy in this country that markets itself as the World’s Largest Democracy.” A judiciary that settles disputes, that concerns itself with environmental questions, that reviews the laws of the elected branch: imagine! More:

Arundhati Roy and Indra Nooyi among Forbes’ 30 most inspiring women

Social activist and writer Arundhati Roy and Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, feature in the Forbes list of 30 most inspiring women. Roy ranks third on the list while Indra Nooyi is the tenth most inspirational woman figure. Read more here

Burma’s ‘three princesses’ prepare for election they have no chance of winning

From The Guardian:

A lifetime of frustration in Burmese politics has not wearied Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein. Her years as a political prisoner have not blunted her sense of humour.

“Some people call us the ‘three princesses of Burma’, but to the government, we are the three witches,” she laughs as, free now, she walks through the gardens of her once stately, now crumbling colonial home on a hilltop in the Burmese capital.

The “princesses” – she, Nay Ye Ba Swe, and Mya Than Than Nu – are too old for fairytales, she says, and the appellation she still finds faintly humorous.

They are princesses because their fathers were all prime ministers of Burma, part of the revered generation that fought for, and in 1948 won, freedom from British rule before it was snatched away again in a military coup in 1962.

The daughters have been friends since childhood, and have remained part of each others’ lives despite long years in prison and in exile. More:

Waiting in Nepal

Manjushree Thapa in The New York Times:

In her 1967 travelogue, the Irish writer Dervla Murphy described my homeland, Nepal, as a country that had just emerged from centuries of isolation, and was baffled about how to be part of the modern world. Most of what the Nepalese — and she — did was to wait for something to happen.

“We waited endlessly for everything,” Ms. Murphy wrote. “For glasses of tea to be carried on trays from the bazaar, for a policeman’s bunch of keys to be fetched from his home down the road, for an adjustable rubber stamp which would not adjust to be dissected (and finally abandoned in favor of a pen), for a passport officer to track down Ireland (whose existence he seriously questioned) in a dog-eared atlas from which the relevant pages had long since been torn, and for the chief customs officer, who was afflicted by a virulent form of dysentery, to withdraw to a nearby field between inspecting each piece of luggage.”

The main wait in Nepal, at present, is for an end to the nationwide general strike that began on Sunday. The Maoists, who led our Constituent Assembly until losing their coalition partners last year, have trucked tens of thousands of party cadres into Katmandu to enforce the strike. They are trying to stage what they call a “people’s movement” to form an all-party government — with the Maoists in control. More:

Is India a flailing state?

From Shunya’s Notes, in which Lant Pritchett argues that India, despite its economic strides and democracy, is a “flailing” state:

How does one reconcile the contradictions of a booming economy and democracy with world class elite institutions and yet chaotic conditions in service provision of the most rudimentary types? I argue that for India we need a new category. I argue that India is today a flailing state—a nation-state in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs. In many parts of India in many sectors, the everyday actions of the field level agents of the state—policemen, engineers, teachers, health workers—are increasingly beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level.

The contrast with China could not be more striking. In China one worries that, due to the lack of the processes of democratic representation the head of the state, while capable, is beyond the control of the citizens. Yet, at the same time one reads of local government officials being executed for corruption. Clearly the head has a strong interest in retaining control of the administrative apparatus of implementation. More:

My father’s Burmese newspaper, the Rangoon Nation

Her father was a pioneering editor in Burma, but it wasn’t until Wendy Law-Yone discovered his life’s work in a nondescript north London building that she truly understood his legacy. In The Guardian:

The first edition was produced by the light of a hurricane lamp, on a portable typewriter with a missing “e”. Rent was cheap because the office building was still strewn with rubble from allied bombings. My mother’s jewellery – her entire life’s savings – were sold (not pawned) to a Ceylonese pawnbroker, to finance in part an essential mimeograph machine.

The Nation’s maiden print run – on a borrowed press – was 2,000, of which 20 copies were sold. Even at its peak, when it was Burma’s leading English language daily, the Nation’s circulation never exceeded 16,000. But the paper’s influence and reputation throughout the region were disproportionate to its size.

Because I was born just a year ahead of its launch, I never knew a time when there wasn’t a Nation. And perhaps because I grew up taking Dad’s paper for granted – as a birthright almost – I seldom bothered, even as a young adult, to read it regularly or carefully. More:

Arundhati Roy on Obama’s wars, India and why democracy is “the biggest scam in the world”

The biggest pain in Asia isn’t the country you’d think

How India gives global governance the biggest headache. Barbara Crossette in Foreign Policy:

India happily attacks individuals, as well as institutions and treaty talks. As ex-World Bank staffers have revealed in interviews with Indian media, India worked behind the scenes to help push Paul Wolfowitz out of the World Bank presidency, not because his relationship with a female official caused a public furor, but because he had turned his attention to Indian corruption and fraud in the diversion of bank funds.

By the time a broad investigation had ended — and Robert Zoellick had become the new World Bank president — a whopping $600 million had been diverted, as the Wall Street Journal reported, from projects that would have served the Indian poor through malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and drug-quality improvement programs. Calling the level of fraud “unacceptable,” Zoellick later sent a flock of officials to New Delhi to work with the Indian government in investigating the accounts. In a 2009 interview with the weekly India Abroad, former bank employee Steve Berkman said the level of corruption among Indian officials was “no different than what I’ve seen in Africa and other places.”

India certainly affords its citizens more freedoms than China, but it is hardly a liberal democratic paradise. India limits outside assistance to nongovernmental organizations and most educational institutions. It restricts the work of foreign scholars (and sometimes journalists) and bans books. Last fall, India refused to allow Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan journalists to attend a workshop on environmental journalism. More:

Arundhati Roy on Democracy Now!

Author Arundhati Roy on the Human Costs of India’s Economic Growth, the View of Obama from New Delhi, and Escalating US Attacks in Af-Pak. Click here for transcript.

I prefer to fight today’s battles: Amartya Sen

In Outlook, Vinod Mehta and Anjali Puri interview Amartya Sen:


In the 63rd year of Independence, how many cheers would you give Indian democracy?

Out of a total of three (laughs)? That was a scale invented by E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy. I think I will give it a bit more than two but somewhat less than three. If you take the view, is democracy functioning as well as it could, it may even be one. But given the adversities we have had-a very poor country, largely illiterate, border wars with China and Pakistan, with Pakistan going its peculiarly difficult way, the relationship problems that we have had with the United States and the global powers-have we done as well as expected? Yes. Except in one big respect, namely that I had expected that non-dramatic deprivations would receive more attention than they ended up getting. Famines did go away with democracy, as I had expected, but I thought other things like gender inequality and the huge undernourishment of children would get more attention, but they did not get enough. That’s the disappointment.

Of all the injustices that haunt India today, the deprivations you have just spoken of, what disappoints you the most?

They are all complementary. One of the reasons that child undernourishment is so hard to remove in India is that children are born much more deprived here than in much of the world, because women are very deprived when they are pregnant. One basic issue is gender inequality. But I don’t want to say it is the only important one. I would rather speak of a cluster of deprivations. And we should address all of them together. More: