Absent Indian Voter Syndrome

Urban India’s failure to vote requires greater study

The Acorn has previously invited the ire of the citizens of Mumbai and Bangalore by blaming their neglect of voting for the sorry state of their cities’ (and India’s) governance.

Now, you would have thought that the series of terrorist attacks over the last few years—in commuter trains, places of worship, markets and finally, on Mumbai on November 26th last year—would have sensitised the urban voters of the need for all round improvement in governance. There were also reasonably well-publicised campaigns exhorting citizens to vote.

Yet, the turnout remained in the 40-45% range: more than one in two voters, it turns out, still didn’t turn up at the polling station. (Yes, there were some misguided initiatives that might have confused voters, but still…)

It’s terrible news. It confirms the belief among party political strategists that the urban middle class is merely a self-righteous, noisy segment that is electorally irrelevant. Sure, it’ll send undergarments to lumpen troglodytes, express eloquent outrage when a film is banned, take to the streets against politicians after terrorists attack and keep the candle industry in business, but it will not make a difference in terms of the composition of state legislatures and the national parliament. Why should they care?

That’s all very well for political parties and their strategists, but it means that it is unlikely that Indian politics—and governance—will see much of a break from the past. This is unacceptable.

Those individuals and organisations who are interested in improving governance need to study the Absent Indian Voter Syndrome in greater detail. It is clear that simple explanations of why eligible voters don’t vote are insufficient to explain AIVS phenomenon. Better analysis is required.

An exchange at Five Rupees

A conversation with a Pakistani foreign affairs scholar

Ahsan Butt, at Five Rupees, proposed a public conversation on India-Pakistan relations after the Nov 26th terrorist attack on Mumbai. He has posted our email exchange on his blog.

You should see it, and perhaps add your thoughtful two cents worth.

Why kill the rabbi?

A question for the apologists of terrorism

It is certainly not easy for professional analysts, leave alone television-friendly commentators and editorial writers, to offer solutions to the central problem—what are we to do with Pakistan? So many take the lazy way out by inserting the word “Kashmir” somewhere in their answer. As V Anantha Nageswaran wrote in his rejoinder to a Financial Times editorial, it is as if jihadi terrorists would suddenly stop attacking India if only Kashmir were to be handed over to them. No, they don’t even bother to read the manifesto of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. If they do, they’d know that the Lashkar-e-Taiba has enough on its wish-list to make the “solve Kashmir and make the problem go away” line appear more than a little ridiculous. But they don’t, so they avoid appear ridiculous to themselves.

Thankfully, there are some good men who expose this intellectual fraud. Like David Aaronovitch of the London Times who asks why the terrorists had to target a Jewish centre, and torture and kill Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife and their unborn child if it was about Kashmir. Mark Steyn (linkthanks Harsh Gupta) echoes this argument.

And Tom Gross, who takes a number of media outlets—many of them British—to the cleaners for indulging in grotesque contortions of common sense to avoid using the term jihadis and terrorists. Among those Mr Gross exposes is British TV anchor Jon Snow who deserves a pride of place in it for calling the terrorists “practitioners”.

While most editorialists and op-ed writers hovered between the banal and the callous, Greg Sheridan, Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria provided the most useful insights. Mr Sheridan (linkthanks: ST) leads the pack, because he accurately points out that “modern terrorism is not so much the emergence of non-state actors on to the strategic field but, rather, the latest refinement of state power, giving the option of state military and terrorist action with plausible, or at least politically useful, deniability.” The solution that both Mr Friedman and Mr Zakaria offer—that it’s up to the Pakistani people to realise the danger and drive the necessary change—might inspire some hope, but does not inspire much confidence.

Related Link: Niranjan Rajadhyaksha posted a roundup of editorials from foreign newspapers on his blog last week.

Update: A good piece in NYT by Patrick French (linkthanks: Mohib); and Bill Kristol was one of the first to call it right.

The Kagan Proposal

If the Pakistani government cannot control the military-jihadi complex in its territory, the international community should step in

Many pundits have spoken. Most of them explained just how difficult and dangerous the situation in Pakistan is. But only a few had some good ideas on how exactly Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex—the nucleus of a terrorist threat to many countries—could be contained, if not completely dismantled. One of those few is Robert Kagan. Mr Kagan’s proposal deserves to be taken seriously in the capitals of any country, not least because what happened in Mumbai could happen in any of the world’s cities.

One can feel sympathy for Zardari’s plight. He and his new civilian government did not train or assist the Pakistani terrorist organizations that probably carried out last week’s attacks in Mumbai…So if the world is indeed not to be held hostage by non-state actors operating from Pakistan, what can be done?

…Rather than simply begging the Indians to show restraint, a better option could be to internationalize the response. Have the international community declare that parts of Pakistan have become ungovernable and a menace to international security. Establish an international force to work with the Pakistanis to root out terrorist camps in Kashmir as well as in the tribal areas. This would have the advantage of preventing a direct military confrontation between India and Pakistan. It might also save face for the Pakistani government, since the international community would be helping the central government reestablish its authority in areas where it has lost it. But whether or not Islamabad is happy, don’t the international community and the United States, at the end of the day, have some obligation to demonstrate to the Indian people that we take attacks on them as seriously as we take attacks on ourselves?

Would such an action violate Pakistan’s sovereignty? Yes, but nations should not be able to claim sovereign rights when they cannot control territory from which terrorist attacks are launched. If there is such a thing as a “responsibility to protect,” which justifies international intervention to prevent humanitarian catastrophe either caused or allowed by a nation’s government, there must also be a responsibility to protect one’s neighbors from attacks from one’s own territory, even when the attacks are carried out by “non-state actors.” [WP]

Vote, you fools!

A government that can’t protect us from rainwater can’t protect us from terrorists

What can ordinary citizens do? Well, go out and vote. Salil Tripathi on the attack on Bombay:

New York has been attacked, London has faced – and avoided – attacks. Israelis are used to dealing with terror. And yet, the perception about India is that it takes these attacks in, as if nothing has happened. Returning to normalcy is an important part of dealing with terror. Preventing terror, and making people feel secured without imposing arbitrary restrictions on their lives, without suspecting individuals because of the collective they may belong to – religion, caste, language – and inspiring a sense of security among those who want to trust the law: these are the things a government must do. And it is in that area that the state has failed its people.

Fixing that also requires greater political participation. South Bombay, the epicenter of the attacks, is among the wealthiest parts of the country. And yet, that parliamentary constituency routinely has low turnout during elections. Voters don’t turn out for municipal elections as well. They must register their voice, they must protest, through the power the Indian constitution gives them, and elect a government that delivers, and not one that gets in through default, due to overall apathy. India has a phrase – chalta hai – this will go on. That must not do. Bombay’s citizens cannot, and should not, go about being vigilantes. But they can be vigilant about their rights, through their right to vote. [FEER]

Monumental folly

A statue to end all your troubles

A bunch of violent thugs attacked the residence of Kumar Ketkar, editor of Loksatta for writing a satirical piece criticising the Maharashtra government’s decision to engage in monumental folly. In support of Mr Ketkar’s freedom to write what he thought was right, and in support of writing what was right, here are excerpts from the English translation of his editorial.

Naturally, the government felt that having solved all the problems of the people, what remains to be done is to tell the whole world of the greatness of Shivaji. The government has decided to have more than one acre of land inside the sea acquired and filled so as to build the monument, which will attract all global tourists. All facilities will be given to the tourists. There will be a museum near the statue, artifacts of the 17th century, Shivaji’s personal effects, swords and shields and attire. There will also be directives issued by the Maharaj to his administrators on how to govern and make the people happy. Along with the museum, there will be shopping malls, selling T-shirts with Shivaji’s painting. There will be Shivaji key chains, Shivaji gift items, including cutlery.

Of course, there will be no beer bars. So obviously, there will be no dance bars, which the Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil detests so much. There will be perhaps wine, which according to the leader of NCP, Sharad Pawar, is not alcohol. So wine will be sold and served along with Coke and Pepsi and other soft drinks. There will be swadeshi McDonald’s as well as vintage Marathi vada-pau, which has been renamed by Uddhav Thackeray as ‘Shiv Vada-Pau’. There will also be ‘pani puri’ sold by the MNS activists of Raj Thackeray. No ‘bhaiyyas’ will be allowed to do business, only locals will be engaged. [IE]

Those concerned about Maharashtra and Mumbai need to explain their quiescence when the plans to revitalise Mumbai city and to turn into into an international financial centre were put in cold storage.

Having nothing much to show for its term in power, the Congress Party-led government is merely stoking up Marathi-chauvinism to distract public attention ahead the coming elections. Voters in Maharashtra should see through the trick.

Attack of the belittlers

But who is opposing the parochial reductionists?

Tarun Vijay is right on the ball on the nature of the threat posed by the likes of Raj Thackeray.

A polity that draws sustenance from a fractured society and from reductionism become more rewarding than the all-inclusive embrace; the fallout is bound to reach us in various extremist forms, divisive polity being one of them.

When a narrow, shrunken vision is preferred over a national outlook and national perspective, the Raj Thackerays emerge winners. What’s the difference between a Raj making Indians fight with other Indians and a UPA government sowing the seeds of distrust and hate among Indians on the basis of religious reservations for one community and assaulting the faith icons of the other? Or for that matter, ULFA in Assam killing Hindi-speaking Indians and outfits like Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad murdering Hindu Indians in Jammu and Kashmir? Someone shoots from guns, another uses a microphone and the third does it by abusing constitutional authority. The result is identical – India is bruised and shrunk.

They are the reducers of an idea called India. Unfit to be called Indians yet they use the democratic freedom and the egalitarian values enshrined in the constitution. They reduce Shivaji to a Maharashtrian leader, nay a Maratha, and over and above a Kurmi icon. The caste and vote machine is their nation, the rest is wasteland. [TOI]

Here’s the challenge: everyone knows the proper response to Raj Thackeray’s actions: violence and the incitement to it should not be tolerated. In a country where police complaints can be lodged against those who offend one group or the other, it should be rather straightforward to arrest Mr Thackeray for going beyond mere offence. [See Offstumped’s take]

The question is this: who will bell the cat? Most political parties—in government and in the opposition—have ridden to power through “divide and rule”. You see it in the political response to Mr Thackeray—politicians claiming to represent ‘North Indians’ are threatening to respond in kind.

No one, it seems, is batting for India. The good news, though, is no one sees young Mr Thackeray as anything but a thuggish troublemaker staking a political claim.