Of Cults and Parties

How to become a puritanical cult or a successful political party, in seven easy steps

First, you draw a circle dividing Us and Them. You shoot Them.
Then you notice that there people on edge of the circle. You declare them Them. And then shoot them.
The circle becomes a little smaller.
You notice that there still people around the edge of the circle. You declare them Them. And then shoot them.
The circle becomes a little more smaller. And smaller.
With paranoid people inside who have marginalised themselves.
This is how you become a puritanical cult.

First, you draw a circle dividing Us and Them. You dispute, criticise and oppose their ideas.
Then you notice that there people on edge of the circle. You engage them. Then persuade them.
The circle becomes a little bigger.
You notice that there still people around the edge of the circle. You engage them. Then persuade them.
The circle becomes a little more bigger. And bigger.
With people inside who will persuade others.
This is how you become a successful political party.

The choice is yours.

Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption

And India must focus on economic freedom

In the light of the current debate over the solution to corruption, here’s something to think about. There is a correlation between higher levels of economic freedom and lower perceptions of corruption. Here’s an old chart that shows the relationship. It uses 2006 data, but it should hold with newer data as well (Update: Barbarindian has a chart with the latest data, LT @centerofright).

Economic Freedom vs Corruption Perceptions
High economic freedom correlates with low corruption

(Click on the chart to enlarge it.)

This chart shows a correlation. And correlation does not mean causation (OMIPP alert!). In other words, from these data alone, we cannot conclude that higher economic freedom causes lower corruption. We can, however, conclude that wherever there is greater economic freedom, perceptions of corruption are lower, and vice versa,

The question is: which variable should we focus on? There are enough rules, laws and agencies to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials. Clearly, there is overwhelming dissatisfaction over the efficacy of this method. There’s nothing to prove that one more super rule, super law and super agency will do the trick where so many others have failed. Indeed, it is likely to worsen the problem by adding to the red tape and logjam.

It therefore makes sense to shift focus to economic freedom. It’s worked to reduce corruption in India in some fields. You don’t have to bribe the telecom department officer and the line-man to get a phone connection anymore. That’s because there is relatively more economic freedom in the sector: from infrastructure to services, from retail to equipment, there are multiple providers. You have the freedom to choose, the freedom to switch and the freedom to reject phones, plans and providers.

But when the UPA government sought to curb economic freedom—by the blatant abuse of executive power—there was massive corruption.

Indeed, in sectors where there is relatively more economic freedom, corruption has generally been “kicked upstairs”, as this article in Pragati shows. In the 2G spectrum case, it was not prevented and punished in time by a man of well-known integrity. This should be an indictment of that man rather than the system.

Related Link: The 2011 Economic Freedom of the States of India shows how states that have greater economic freedom do better in a wide range of governance outcomes.

Against Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes

Tackling corruption requires economic reforms and a popular re-engagement with electoral politics

The idea of a Jan Lok Pal is flawed and profoundly misunderstands the causes and solutions of corruption in India. It seeks to create another chunk of government, more processes and rules, to solve a problem that, in part, exists because of too many chunks of government, too many processes and rules. [See Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column and this editorial in the Business-Standard]

If the Jan Lok Pal presides over the same system that has corrupted civil servants, politicians, anti-corruption watchdogs, judges, media, civil society groups and ordinary citizens, why should we expect that the ombudsman will be incorruptible? Because the person is handpicked by unelected, unaccountable ‘civil society’ members? Those who propose that Nobel laureates (of Indian origin, not even of Indian citizenship) and Ramon Magsaysay Award winners should be among those who pick the Great Ombudsman of India—who is both policeman and judge—insult the hundreds of millions of ordinary Indian voters who regularly exercise their right to franchise. For they are demanding that the Scandinavian grandees in the Nobel Committee and the Filipino members of the Magsaysay foundation should have an indirect role in selecting an all-powerful Indian official. [See this post at Reality Check India]

The argument that people should be involved in drafting legislation is fine, even if it misses the point that the government is not a foreign entity but a representative of the people. It is entirely other thing to demand that the legislation drafted by an self-appointed, unaccountable and unrepresentative set of people be passed at the threat of blackmail. If we must have representatives of the people involved in lawmaking, we are better off if they are the elected ones, however flawed, as opposed to self-appointed ones, whatever prizes the latter might have won.

The Jan Lok Pal will become another logjammed, politicised and ultimately corrupt institution, for the passionate masses who demand new institutions have a poor record of protecting existing ones. Where were the holders of candles, wearers of Gandhi topis and hunger strikers when the offices of the Chief Election Commissioner, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and even the President of the Republic were handed out to persons with dubious credentials? If you didn’t come out to protest the perversion of these institutions why are you somehow more likely to turn up to protest when a dubious person is sought to be made the Jan Lok Pal?

But this is us. Given this reality, the solution for corruption and malgovernance should be one that does not rely the notoriously apathetic middle classes to come out on the streets. The solution is to take away the powers of discretion, the powers of rent-seeking from the government and restore it back to the people. This is the idea of economic freedom. Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption. We have long argued that we are in this mess because we have been denied Reforms 2.0.

How can we have Reforms 2.0 if “those politicians” are unwilling to implement them? The answer is simple: by voting. Economic reforms are not on anyone’s political agenda because those who are most likely to benefit from them do not vote, and do not vote strategically. At this point, it is usual to hear loud protests about how voting doesn’t work, most often by those who do not vote. This flies in the face of empirical evidence—when hundreds of millions of people turn up to vote. If it were not working for them, why would they be voting? They might not be demanding Reform 2.0, but something else, and are getting what they want. Instead of ephemeral displays of outrage—what happened to those post 26/11 candle-light vigils?—it is engagement in the electoral process that is necessary. There are some innovative ideas—like that of voters associations—that can be attempted.

There are no better words than those of B R Ambedkar on the place of satyagraha in India after Constitution came into force on 26th January 1950:

“…we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.” [B R Ambedkar/Constituent Assembly]

In my view civil disobedience in general and hunger strikes in particular must be used in the most exceptional circumstances where constitutional methods are unavailable or denied, and only till the time constitutional methods remain unavailable or denied.

Some contend that the system isn’t working, or has been so perverted by the incumbent government, that it is necessary to resort to public agitation. This is a dubious argument. Constitutional democracy is an enlightened way to make policy by reconciling—to the extent possible—the diverse interests, opinions and levels of political empowerments of a diverse population. Any other way amounts to coercion in one form or the other.

If we are to allow that hunger strikes and street protests do better than constitutional methods, then how would you decide issues where there are sharp differences? If two Gandhians go on hunger strikes asking for polar opposites, do we settle the issue by seeing who gives up first? What if competing groups escalate the agitation to violence against each other? Should we condone civil war?

The working of those constitutional mechanisms can and must be improved. By us. The anti-defection law must go. India doesn’t have a comprehensive law governing political parties. It needs one. Police reforms have been stalled for decades. There is a substantial reform agenda that must be pursued. By us.

However, the inability to implement these reforms is no excuse for resorting to civil disobedience or, as it happens in other countries, calling in a dictatorship of the proletariat, the military or the priesthood.

The Jan Lok Pal bill is not a solution to the problem of corruption. It risks making matters worse. Hunger strikes are not the right means to promote a policy agenda in a constitutional democracy like ours. The promoters and supporters of Jan Lok Pal and the public agitation to achieve it are profoundly misguided. Their popularity stems from having struck a vein of middle class outrage against the UPA government’s misdeeds. That doesn’t mean that the solutions they offer are right.

The Acorn opposes Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes as much as it opposes corruption and misgovernance.

Related Links: Offstumped has a series of posts on the subject. See also Atanu Dey, Satyameva Jayate, Sanjeev Sabhlok and the Filter Coffee here on INI. The March 2011 issue of Pragati covered these themes: see Rohit Pradhan’s take on the importance of constitutional morality.

Who says nationalism must be intolerant?

Nationalism merely expresses the civilisational values of the nation

Waldemar Hanasz’s “Toward Global Citizenship?”, one of the readings prescribed for next week’s Liberty Fund Colloquium at Neemrana, organised by Centre for Civil Society, says “contemporary republications realise that today the only form of passionate patriotism is nationalism, which is often incompatible with toleration and pluralism.”

This negative view of nationalism pervades the Western political discourse. A few years ago, a European friend argued that he was sceptical of nationalism because of the crimes and violence that were perpetrated in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. In a way this is like the contemporary connotation of the swastika in the West. The Nazis appropriation of an ancient symbol sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and people of many other Indian faiths has resulted in the swastika becoming a taboo sign, not just among the ignorant, but also among the politically correct knowledgeable.

Mr Hanasz phrases his sentence carefully but in popular discourse, nationalism is automatically equated with intolerance. This is wrong.

The political expression of nationalism depends on the values of the nation concerned (the nation being an “imagined community” that has cultural kinship). If nationalism in twentieth-century Europe resulted in intolerance and violence it is because the intolerant and violent values of Europe’s nations were dominant. There is no reason to believe that this will happen everywhere else.

Indian nationalism since the middle of the nineteenth century was informed by the quintessentially Hindu values of tolerance and pluralism. As long as Indian nationalism continues to be driven by these dominant Hindu values, we need not worry too much about the colours with which Western discourse paints it with.

The politics of liberal nationalism is not only possible but presents modern society with a enlightened way to manage its affairs. Actually, this has been the way in India for much of history, with the exceptions being Islamic and European attempts to impose religious intolerance in some parts during some periods. These attempts largely failed except in 1947. Even so, the outcome of Partition showed that systems that reject the values of tolerance and pluralism will come to grief.

By invitation: Peace comes to Assam?

Betweeen Sheikh Hasina’s gift and the need to neutralise the recalcitrant faction in Myanmar

by Bibhu Prasad Routray

There is expected hype in Assam regarding the proposed 10 February round of talks between New Delhi and a faction of the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). At the same time, however, there is a terrible sense of unease with the actual delivery capacities of the negotiation process to what is being euphorically described as the ‘outbreak of peace in Assam’.

Cadre strength of ULFA, born in 1979, has continuously declined since the December 2003 offensive by Bhutan, where the outfit had maintained sizeable presence. The outfit lost half of its 1500 cadres and several important leaders to arrests, disappearances during and subsequent to the month-long military maneuvers. In 2008, two potent companies of ULFA’s main fighting arm, the 28th battalion based in Myanmar, came overground complaining of the divide between the ULFA top ranks and the field based cadres. Even though rest of the cadres and leaders, mostly based in the safe houses in Bangladesh, sat tight and vowed to continue with their three-decade long armed struggle, arrests of several of its top leaders in Dhaka provided the turning point.

By all means, the present development is a gift from the government in Dhaka. Since she came to power, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has delivered consistently on her promises of not allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used for anti-India activities. Even in the face of little reciprocation from the Indian side, Bangladesh has arrested and handed over several ULFA top leaders—including the outfit’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Barua and ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury—to India. It is this gesture, and certainly not the military operations by the army, para-military and police combine in Assam, that has broken the back of the outfit and led to the creation of a sizeable section of pro-talks leaders within the outfit.

A lot has been commented upon ULFA now agreeing to an unconditional round of talks with the government by giving up its key demand of sovereignty for Assam. However, such a stance has not emerged out of a change of heart among the pro-talk ULFA leaders, but rather is a compulsion imposed by the possibility of their prolonged incarceration. This is Mr Rajkhowa’s second hobnobbing with the peace process. In the early 1990s, he disappeared after a round of talks in New Delhi. This time, however, he and his accomplices have nowhere to run to. At the same time, a façade of negotiations and its associated paraphernalia— frequent trips to New Delhi, money bags, furnished office space in the Assam capital—is much more than the elderly ULFA leaders can bargain for.

In a politically charged and divided Assam, ahead of the May 2011 elections to the state Legislative Assembly, the initiation of talks with the ULFA will add to the list of ‘achievements’ by the incumbent Congress party and would possibly translate into popular support it badly needs while being pitted against a united opposition. To facilitate Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s return to power for the third successive time, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) appears amenable to contradict its own stand of not negotiating with factions of militant groups.

Paresh Barua, ULFA’s commander-in-chief, is believed to be in Myanmar leading a gang of 100 odd cadres. He remains opposed to the talks and continues to issue periodic statements to the media vowing reprisal attacks. Mr Barua is accompanied by a number of senior leaders like Jiban Moran and Bijoy Chinese and retains the ability to create nuisance. It is the neutralisation of this group and not the present peace talks, which would hold key to peace in Assam in times to come.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, is currently a visiting research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Three thoughts for the Republic

Organising our republic, keeping it united and improving its lot

For reflection on Republic day: Pragati’s inaugural editorial; on the grand strategy of uniting India and why we urgently need Reforms 2.0.

The three thought archive:
Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;
and on Independence Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Look who needs the Indian state!

So “mobile, independent republics” need the protection of a “corporate, Hindu, satellite state” Ha ha!

Others have written about Arundhati Roy’s latest, successful hijacking operation. Her cameo appearance in the service of the cause of Kashmiri Sunni Muslim separatism has transformed the debate from being about Jammu & Kashmir to being about freedom of speech (especially hers). So it is unclear whether the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani will invite her to speak at the next seminar they organise.

More seriously, while her remarks have backfired on the cause she ostensibly supports they have wildly succeeded in drawing attention to her—heck, even The Acorn is moved to write about her. But this post is not about her being more than just a rebellious self-promoting intellectual stuntperson. Nor is it about the wrongness of her angry opponents breaking her flower pots.

This post is about the vacuousness of her claims of personally seceding from India and declaring herself a “mobile, independent republic“. The problem with mobile, independent republics is that they don’t last more than as long as it takes to break a flower pot. For all her grandstanding against the Indian state, Ms Roy (well, her husband) “lodged a complaint at the Chanakyapuri police station, following which police personnel were deployed outside the residence.”

The mobile, independent republic couldn’t even protect itself. It (well, its husband) had no choice but to turn to the corrupt, human-rights-abusing, uniform-wearing personnel of “the corporate, Hindu, satellite state.”

But then, the mobile, independent republic has a case history of irony deficiency.

This incident tells you why Arundhati Roy is wrong at the most fundamental level. The Indian state might be imperfect, but presents the best way to protect the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. Its faults must be identified and publicised—not to build a case for its dissolution, but to organise efforts for its improvement.

Pax Indica: Work permits for Bangladeshi migrants

Illegal immigration can only be tackled by allowing legal migration

In an email exchange last week, Sanjoy Hazarika, author of one of the best books on India’s North East, told me that he has been advocating work permits for the last two decades. The proposal needs a serious consideration now.

[The] blunt, impractical and half-heartedly implemented measures we have used to address the problem have only worsened it. Attempts to force them to go back have created an illicit political protection racket that has undermined national security. Fencing is in progress, but it is impossible to erect an impenetrable barrier along the entire India-Bangladesh border. Over the years, many border officials and security personnel have become mixed up in organised networks smuggling everything from cough syrup to human beings. Indian and Bangladeshi border guards sometimes even exchange fire, indicating policy failure at so many levels. Amid all this, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants make their way into India each year.

We need a new approach. India should consider establishing a system of work permits to allow Bangladeshis to work in India, legally.

It is practically impossible to fight demographic pressure, not least given the geography of India’s North East. It is, however, possible to ensure that the flow of immigrants does not concentrate in Assam or other states adjoining Bangladesh. The real political problem is not so much the inflow, but the accumulation of illegal immigrants in one state. If work permits are subject to state-wise quotas, then it is possible to distribute the flow across Indian states. This will allow migrant workers to work in states that need them, and prevent them from crowding in certain states.

Work permits with state-wise quotas can thus address Assam’s genuine and longstanding concerns — the state can cap the number of Bangladeshi migrants it will accept. India’s national security concerns become more manageable by bringing the migration out into the open. Obviously, Bangladesh stands to benefit too, not least the immigrant who need not live a often fearful life in the twilight zone. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

This column benefits from the discussions I had with participants and friends at Economic Freedom Network Asia’s conference on international migration in Jakarta last week.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On engagement in public affairs and on happiness

For contemplation in Independence Day—So where are you? Where are you? And should the government make you happy?

The three thought archive: Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and Independence Day 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Pragati January 2010: Stepping up in Afghanistan

The January 2010 issue of Pragati discusses India’s options in Afghanistan. While there are a number of options ranging from scaling up training of Afghan national security forces to actually scaling down development projects if the United States quits prematurely, editorially, we argue that it is in India’s interests to send combat-ready troops to Afghanistan.

In domestic affairs, we present two perspectives on the demand for the new Telangana state; the challenges before the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir; and the need for an urgent reform of the laws governing political parties.

We’re piloting a new section that presents a synopsis of commentary in the international non-English language media: this month, “alif” has coverage of the Urdu & Arabic press.

There’s a lot more, for you to Read & Share!

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