Inflation and the junta

The regime in Dhaka “tilts at windmills”

The dictatorships in the subcontinent have had to contend with public unrest due to the global rise in food prices. They’ve done it in characteristic style. The Burmese generals cracked down hard on protesters. The Pakistanis sent troops to warehouses and flour mills, acting rather late in the day. The Bangladeshi regime, meanwhile, is caught between going the repressive way and the costs of being bracketed with the ill-reputed juntas of the region.

Mashuqur Rahman writes that they blamed ‘a foreign body’ for stoking labour unrest, arrested Mehedi Hasan, a trade unionist, and forced him to confess. Confess what? Well, that he did his usual job of collecting information of collecting information about worker’s problems and reporting it to Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which “represents 178 American colleges and universities who buy garments from brands with factories in countries like Bangladesh. WRC defends the rights of garment workers against abuse. Its reports hold the garment factories’ feet to the fire”.

Meanwhile food prices are rising, and calls for subsidies are becoming louder. Bangladesh’s generals know that they need international assistance in order to make food available and affordable. So it is not surprising that they decided to release Mr Hasan.

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.

Kargillian blunder

A neologism and a rap sheet

The editorial board of Lahore’s Daily Times, always the one to tread softly around Musharraf—blaming his ‘advisors’ rather than the man himself—deserves honourable mention today.

Not only does the editorial contain a veritable rap sheet against the man. It has topped it with inventing a new adjective: “Kargillian”, to describe blunders of the kind Musharraf made.

Now, what would have caused the newspaper to be so brave as to rub it in so.

Swatantra and secularism: setting the record straight

S V Raju responds to Vir Sanghvi’s allegations

In this article in Hindustan Times, among other things, Vir Sanghvi clubs Jan Sangh and Swantantra Party together and claims that they “made the point that there was no harm in declaring that Hinduism was India’s state religion”. We asked S V Raju, an office-bearer of the erstwhile Swatantra Party, whether this was accurate.

Mr Raju’s response (via email):
During the life of the Swatantra Party there were many epithets hurled at us beginning with Nehru’s “Rich Man’s Party” and a “Party of Rajas and Maharajas” but none called us a a “Hindu” party much less one advocating a ‘Hindu State’. No one clubbed us with the Jan Sangh other than drawing attention to the fact that we had apparently similar economic policies. Even this was a half truth.

Though I was sure Sanghvi was talking nonsense about the Swatantra Party, I looked up some documents, including my Party’s three manifestos for the ’62, ’67 and ’71 elections and confirmed that none of them have we even remotely suggested support for a Hindu State.

It is a fact that both Rajaji and Masani used the word ‘secular’ very sparingly. Masani preferred to describe India as a ‘non-denominational democracy’ and Rajaji in an article on ‘The Secular State’ had to say this: “It has been repeatedly affirmed that when the Indian Constitution laid down that India shall be a secular state it was not intended that the State shall discourage or be hostile towards religion, but that what was intended was impartiality towards all creeds and denominations. It was a refusal to accept the theory that different religions made different nations or that the State should belong to one religion more than another.”

He wrote this on August 3, 1957 in Swarajya. This formed the basis of the Swatantra Party’s policy, founded two years later, on the relationship between religion and the State. Sanghvi’s hindsight is, to say the least, flawed.

From the archives: Any party you like. As long as it’s socialist (Mr Raju responds)

My op-ed in Mail Today: Pakistan’s food crisis

The food crisis might push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge

The headline writers at Mail Today were certainly creative. What was originally “Anger over atta” (based on this post) became “Pakistan could now be hit by a food bomb”, in yesterday’s edition. Some excerpts:

Frequent power cuts affected flour mills, disrupting the production of wheat flour. By end November 2007, queues started forming outside provision shops across many Pakistani cities. Political violence, after the attack on Benazir Bhutto’s Karachi rally in October and after her assassination in December made the supply situation worse. The government decided to import wheat from the international market, but prices had risen by this time. It has had to subsidise wheat in order to keep the prices low enough. But as is expected in such situations, traders and sellers have found ways to divert the subsidised wheat into the open market, where it sells at a almost double the price. The government now hopes that paramilitary troops will be able to prevent millers and traders from hoarding and ‘smuggling’.

The crisis also reveals why the Pakistani establishment is opposed to granting India most-favoured nation (MFN) trading status. Beyond the hang-up over Kashmir, freer trade with India is inimical to the interests of the feudal and business elite. The current arrangement suits them better: they have access to the Indian market through indirect routes which allows them to export goods if world prices are higher. Blocking imports works to their advantage by strengthening their stranglehold over the supply, even if ordinary Pakistanis have to suffer for it. Little wonder that a free-trade agreement with Pakistan remains elusive.

The Musharraf regime is mistaken in thinking that deploying troops around warehouses and flour mills will solve the problem. Yet that might be the best it can do. That is bad news, because a hungry population is an angry population. And anger, unfortunately, is one commodity that the Pakistan is not short of. While lawyers, civil society groups and opposition party supporters have led public protests over the last year, ordinary Pakistanis by and large, have refrained from taking to the streets. A persistent shortage of food and other essential commodities might just push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge. [Mail Today JPG PDF]

Thanks to Amit Varma for introducing me to Mail Today, a partnership between the India Today group and the UK’s Daily Mail.

Update: A great post by Fatima Shakeel over at Metroblogging Islamabad.

Musharraf’s favourite word

The First Person of Pakistan

Der Spiegel interviewed Musharraf recently. Here is the last question:

SPIEGEL: Are there any circumstances under which you could imagine resigning from your post as president?

Musharraf: Yes.

SPIEGEL: Which?

Musharraf: First of all, there is my own disposition. Following the developments of the last seven or eight months, to resign would be the easiest thing. I like playing golf, bridge and tennis, and I feel like socializing more often than is possible in my position. I like relaxing. Believe me: On the day I think the people, the majority, don’t want me any more and the day I think I have no contribution to make to this country, I will not wait a second. I will leave. [Spiegel Online emphasis added]

So it’s all up to him.

Socialism and the Supreme Court

Expunging socialism from it should matter to all those who take the Constitution seriously

Whether it was Indira Gandhi, Joan Robinson or Shashi Tharoor who first came up with the aphorism, India’s highest constitutional authorities proved it right this week.

Refusing to entertain a petition that sought the deletion of the word “socialist” to describe the Indian republic, a bench of the Supreme Court—presided over by the chief justice of India—said, “Why do you take socialism in a narrow sense defined by Communists. In broader sense, it means welfare measures for the citizens. It is a facet of democracy.” The next day India was described as the “fastest growing free market democracy” by the president. Whatever you might say about India, and its opposite, it turns out, is equally true. (Also true, perhaps, is another aphorism: that the truth is somewhere in between.)

What the president says at NRI conferences is of little import. What the Supreme Court says matters a lot. So it is rather disappointing to see the Supreme Court’s decision and justification for not entertaining the petition to restore the Preamble to the Constitution to its original state. While the bench did admit (via Lex) a petition to review the requirement that all parties swear by Socialism in order to register with the Election Commission, this is as much about principle as it is about practical matters like election rules.

Socialism, the bench said, “hasn’t got any definite meaning. It gets different meaning in different times”. It is strange that the bench should think this justifies keeping the term. If it has no definite meaning, and can mean different things at different times, then it stands to reason that such terms should be kept out of an eternal document like the Constitution. Going by the bench’s logic, would it be justified to amend the Constitution again and declare India a “sovereign, socialist, secular, generous, benevolent, popular, liberal, political, equal, fair, reasonable, indefinite, nice, happy democratic republic”? This might sound flippant, but if there are grounds to keep words that lack definite meaning then why only socialist, why not these other fine adjectives that too broadly mean welfare measures for citizens?

Indeed, the Constituent Assembly debated—and discarded—the idea of including the word “socialist” in the Constitution. And the bench’s position squarely contradicts Ambedkar’s. Socialism, the chairman of the Constituent Assembly held “cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself”, because it amounts to “destroying democracy altogether”. The meaning of the word “Socialism” has not changed since Ambedkar’s time. The Supreme Court bench has failed to give this question the attention it deserves.

The preamble is the place where India describes itself. One would think that the adjectives used there mean something definite. If they don’t, then there’s no reason to keep them there.

Related Posts: Any party you like. As long as it’s socialist. (views, views & views; and the judicial challenge)

Look East, and frown at Malaysia

Malaysia has the right to decide its own immigration policy. And India has the right to react

Update: Malaysia clarifies that there is no ban on Indian workers

It is laughable. A day after the Indian defence minister completes his trip to Malaysia, that country announces a ban on the intake of workers from India. Existing workers will be asked to return to India after their work permits expire. The Malaysian government took this decision—it claims—in late December 2007. It probably held back the announcement to ensure A K Antony’s visit took place. Yet, the timing of the announcement—a day after India agreed to train Malaysian air force pilots, among other things—should be embarassing for Mr Antony. Continue reading “Look East, and frown at Malaysia”

We don’t need no indecisive slobs (2)

Cite Pakistan’s failure and draw your favourite conclusion

What’s with editors of leading Indian newspapers? After Mr Gupta, the articulate Vir Sanghvi falls into the same trap: of declaring that democracy is better than dictatorship (linkthanks Pragmatic) and then tripping up while attempting to draw other conclusions. This time about the fates of states vis-a-vis their policy towards the United States.

There were only two major Asian countries that rejected the US prescription for development and foreign policy: India and China. And look where they are today. And look at America’s client states.

Of course, Nehru made mistakes. But can anybody really deny that the principal reason why India and Pakistan, once part of the same country, have followed such divergent paths is because of the choices both countries made in the years following independence?

At first, India’s priorities may have seemed (from a middle-class perspective) wrong-headed and muddled. Pakistan’s may have seemed glamorous and instantly gratifying. But, in the long run, we ended up as the superpower. And Pakistan as the failed state. [HT]

Leave aside that India is far from being a superpower. But citing Pakistan to prove that America’s ‘client’ states in Asia have done badly for themselves is shoddy analysis. Japan and South Korea too were American ‘client’ states in the second half of the twentieth century. Look where they are today. And look at us. South Korea, mind you, was a military dictatorship—much like Pakistan—for much of that time. That, it turns out, did not prevent it from jumping from a poor country to a rich one within the span of one generation. And then look at Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers—it turns out that pro-American states have done rather well for themselves.

Just as it is wrong to blame the United States for Pakistan’s failure, it is wrong to credit Nehru with India’s relative success. Assessing Nehru’s role in India’s development requires the space of several books. But one would think it reasonable to credit several hundred million ordinary people of India for doing little things right that contributed to their country being where it is. It is also reasonable to blame a small number of people for doing big things wrong that left India much behind what it could have been.

Pakistan’s situation could arguably be used to highlight the importance of democracy. But this is not an issue in India. But Mr Sanghvi appears to use it to justify a lot of things in omnibus. Therein lies the danger of comparing India to Pakistan. Almost anything will compare favourably. The irony is that Mr Sanghvi does this in an article that starts off by saying how the whole world, include Indians themselves, don’t make this comparison anymore.

We don’t need no indecisive slobs

India may be forced to suffer poor leaders. But there’s no need to celebrate them

You don’t expect this kind of extra-ordinary ordinariness from a column called National Interest by the chief editor of one of India’s top newspapers.

Now, think, who finally won. The indecisive, inarticulate, ineffective slob (Vajpayee) who did not seem to have an answer to anything, or the macho, confident, smart, decisive, modern smartie (Musharraf) who seemed to have an answer to everything?

There are many interesting, and important conclusions to be drawn from this complex argument. But the most significant is this: a modern nation needs democracy and so it needs its politicians, however clumsy, corrupt, effete and power-crazed they may be. Because a military dictator can also be all of these things. The difference is, the political leader draws his power from the democratic process, so he has a stake in preserving that system, howsoever cynical he may be. The general draws his power by throttling the democratic system and its institutions and you can see the results of that in Pakistan. [IE]

Not only is the conclusion ordinary but also mistaken. That a Pakistani dictator would collapse under the weight of the systemic and his own contradictions was never in doubt. The fact is that a doddering Musharraf would have been as much in trouble as the dashing one is in. The Chinese leadership realised this in time. The Soviets realised it too late.

The failure of a dashing Musharraf doesn’t mean all dashing heads of state will fail. Nor does it mean that India should put up with “indecisive, inarticulate and ineffective slobs”. (Vajpayee can’t be accused of being ineffective, but leave that aside.)

There’s a collective failure in the Indian political class in its inability to throw up decisive, articulate and effective leaders with a national appeal—an aspect of which Ravikiran Rao deals with in this month’s issue of Pragati.

For every dashing failed dictator, you can find many more dashing successful democratic politicians. Mr Gupta’s National Interest column should perhaps have asked why is it that modern democracies are able to throw up a Bill Clinton, a Tony Blair, a Junichiro Koizumi, a Nicolas Sarkozy and an Angela Merkel while India is throwing up I K Gujrals, Deve Gowdas and Manmohan Singhs. And it now presents us with an octogenarian Advani.