Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dictator Democracy
An article Re-print of Jug Suraiya's Dictator Democracy on the ToI. While the treatment of the subject is sarcastic and humorous, it asks a very sensitive question: Whether government decrees and force feed democrcay like the one in Maharashtra is in true spirit of democracy.

Can democracy be a democracy and a dictatorship, both at the same time? Yes, it can, if it's Indian democracy. The Maharashtra government decreed that when the state went to assembly polls, Mumbai would forcibly be shut down shops, restaurants, schools, offices, factories, all closed so that people, with nothing else to be distracted by or to do, would be forced to vote.

The reason for this drastic measure to force-feed democracy or at least elections to Mumbaikars is that the otherwise 'can do' city is notoriously 'can't do' or 'won't do' when it comes to voting. This was evident in the last Lok Sabha polls in which the voter turnout was just over 40 per cent. The fact that the polls coincided with a long weekend which lured many Mumbaikars to out-of-town holidays was deemed to be largely responsible for the poor showing. However, sarkari concern was voiced over the seeming political apathy of a city which had just suffered a murderous terrorist attack and should have been all gung-ho about manning the barricades of democracy as represented by the ballot box, instead of swanning off on holiday.

To preclude the possibility of the assembly elections also proving a non-event in terms of turnout, the authorities reportedly issued orders that anyone failing to comply with the shutdown diktat was liable to face arrest under Section 135-B of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. To ensure compliance with this closed-door policy, special squads patrolled the city to make sure that no one was subverting democracy by trying to sneak into a school, or an office, or a factory, or a shop, or a restaurant. Go to vote. Or you might find yourself in jail: that was the message, willy-nilly, that officialdom sent out not just to Mumbaikars but to all of us who are citizens of this democracy.

Mumbai's case is symptomatic of a fundamental problem of our democracy. Democracy is supposed to be about empowering people, the common citizens, and helping them to get on with their daily lives as best they can (by going to schools, offices, factories, etc). But our sarkar seems convinced that democracy is only about empowering itself, at the expense of the people and their day-to-day needs.

India's political class and the successive governments that it forms, and which often comprise the strangest of bedfellows sees democracy only in terms of elections. It doesn't really matter which party comes into power, for in the end as a number of blatantly opportunistic alliances and coalitions have shown they are all fundamentally the same: cynical exploiters of the people.

Or at least that's the message that all our political parties have over the years been communicating, consciously or otherwise, to an increasingly sceptical electorate. The way our political parties, all our political parties of all shades and stripes, appear to see it is that the function of our democracy is only to hold periodic elections in which voters will, forcibly if necessary, vote one or other, or several, of these parties into power. Having fulfilled that basic duty (of having voted a politician into power) the voter can go jump. The voter's and the politician's democratic responsibility is over. Elections are the end all and be all of our democracy. And never mind what happens in between, never mind the persistent hardships and despair that citizens continue to face in their daily lives.

This is the real meaning of the Mumbai bandh on polling day: in our democracy the voter has no right of education, employment, earning a livelihood, whatever other than the right to vote. Indeed, as the Mumbai authorities would have it, the voter's right to vote is not just a right but an enforceable obligation. In other words, you've got to vote, whether you like it or not, whether you feel it's going to better your daily life in any way or not.

Jai ho to the democratic dictatorship of India that is Bharat.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Noble Cause or Noble Duplicity a Mint article on Obama, the geo-politics of disarmament and winning the Noble prize.

Prizes are usually given after the fact: Herta Mueller and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan first write about Romania or research ribosomes—they later get Nobels for their work. Then, there’s the strange occasion where a prize is awarded before the fact: US President Barack Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize for just dreaming to rid the world of nuclear weapons. If that dream comes anywhere close to becoming fact, India will find itself with nothing to celebrate.

On the same day that Obama was awarded the Nobel, he sent a letter to the US Congress or “certification” under the US-India civilian nuclear deal. This certified that the US would work to “further restrict the transfers of equipment and technology related to the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel”.

There’s no cause and effect here as yet: US law requires this general certification. But what if there’s cause and effect in the future?

The Nobel is sure to give Obama affirmation about his ideas for a nuclear weapons-free world. The trouble is that he is unlikely to be able to get countries such as Iran and North Korea to back off from the path they’ve chosen. He is also unlikely to be able to get Russia and China to disarm before the US takes such steps. That leaves players such as India that are considered easy to arm-twist in this quest.

It’s no secret that the White House has pressured India in the last few months on this issue. Post-Nobel, there’s the danger this pressure will increase.

Part of this centres on the US Democratic Party’s perception of India as being “obstructionist”. While they kowtow to China, progressives refuse to acknowledge, unlike—and perhaps even in reaction to—Bush, the exception the civilian nuclear deal seeks to give India.

The other part centres on what US journalist Walter Lippmann observed in 1943 about the disarmament movement—that it had been “tragically successful in disarming the (very) nations that believed in disarmament”. India, as its no-first-use principle shows, shudders at the thought of deploying such weapons. Others don’t share that apprehension. Yet, India’s responsible behaviour makes it the low-hanging fruit the disarmament ayatollahs can pick on. The true rogue states are instead appeased.

India must resist these pressures and double standards. This means not only forceful diplomacy, but—in light of the US-India talks that recently commenced in Vienna over reprocessing nuclear fuel and that further facilitate commercial negotiations—also making sure it doesn’t rely too much on the US for materials or diplomatic favours.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Austerity Raj: Lessons from travelling Cattle Class

Stories about Sonia Gandhi and the Congress's austerity drive are all around and all over. Thanks to Tharoor's generous tweeting, the mesaure got more meia coverage than it deserved. Here's Jug Suraiya's sattirical take on the situation. Does it set and example, is as ineffective or doess it genuinely make a difference.

Sarojini Naidu's remark that it cost the Indian taxpayer a lot to keep the Mahatma in the poverty he was accustomed to has gained relevance again, more than 60 years after it was originally made. Sarojini was referring to Gandhiji's habit of travelling by III class on trains, with the result that, for security reasons, an entire coach had to be reserved for him alone. Like history, austerity repeats itself. And the Congress-led UPA government has energetically been embracing conspicuous austerity to win kudos and influence the electorate.

Ostentatious austerity, or spendthrift thrift, has become politically correct in view of the deficit monsoon which is likely to adversely impact the rural economy and act as a brake on India's growth story, already affected by the global slowdown. Taking the cue from Sonia Gandhi, Congresswallas and their allies have been scurrying to show solidarity with what might be called the alms janta by flying economy class on airlines. As 'airdashing' to sundry places the farther off the better is the preferred pastime of our netas, the economy-package rule is likely to cramp their style, amongst other things.But what price such cut-price netas? Just how effective will this austerity raj prove in wooing the once and future voter? Does the average voter - whoever she may be actually want bargain-basement, cheaper-by-the-dozen desh ka netas? Or is this mythical average voter more likely to be impressed by larger-than-life, literally high-flying and big-spending brand leaders, be they political fat cats, Bollywood superstars, or cricket crorepatis?

The misapprehension that a lot of armchair ascetics make is that austerity is a virtue in the eyes of the poor; it isn't. Austerity is a virtue only in the eyes of the affluent (people who observe religious fasts or go on diets to lose the excess weight their wealth has burdened them with). For the poor, austerity is an ever-present evil, an inescapable nemesis; it's the gnawing pain of an empty belly, the skeletal spectre of despair.

The poor don't want to see people whom they know to be rich and powerful as their netas must be, or why are they netas in the first place? to enact austerity; the poor recognise this for the sanctimonious hypocrisy that it is. (Fly economy and how many of the poor can afford to fly at all, forget economy? and continue to live in a Lutyens' bungalow which costs over Rs 150 crore, which would provide a school and a hospital each for some 150 villages.)

Marie Antoinette almost got it right: if the poor can't eat bread, they can eat vicarious cake through others. Mayawati is one of the few Indian politicians who seems to have understood this. Behenji long ago realised that leave alone cake, even enabling the poor to eat bread is a task beyond her capabilities (or her inclinations, or both) as a political leader. So she did the next best thing. She enabled the poor to watch her eat birthday cake, and wear diamonds in her hair, and put up hundreds of crores worth of statues to herself.

Mayawati's political strategy is the mirror image of conspicuous austerity; it is proxy prodigality, second-hand cake. True, this strategy doesn't seem to have worked any too well, going by the results of the last polls.

But it's early days yet. Sooner rather than later, the Indian voter poor or otherwise will see through the sham of conspicuous austerity just as she sees through Behenji's conspicuous consumption. In that they both end up beggaring us, they're both the same: a pain in the austerity.

As an Indian subject to vagaries of "being Indian and staying in India", i wont care less if our ministers travel cattle class or not. What makes a difference is, how much effort and what results do they bring to this country. Austerity is good, planning is better, excution is best.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Social development: Terrorisms' antidote!

Pakistan had declared Osama bin Laden dead. However, to mark 9/11, Osama and a 11 minute video released by As-Sahab media production have now surfaced putting the Pkaistan claim to shame. The Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden described President Barack Obama as "powerless" to stop the war in Afghanistan, and Americans' inability to grasp why the 9/11 attacks occurred has "cost you a lot without any result whatsoever". This is not about Osama or his alive or dead status. It is also not about the threat ,which for the first time appears rather muted. There is a deeper thought in the statement.. a thought that is yet to be captured by America and its allies.

Edward Girardet, a world renowned journalist has commented in his new book that the war in Afghanistan can not be won by a military victory. Girardet says "My thesis is that no one can win a war in Afghanistan. You can win peace with development." Whether it is the LTTE in Sri Lanka or Troubled Kashmir or the pirates from Somalia, or the home grown Naxalite movement, Terrorism is a social issue stoked by political and monetary intent. "It's all about outside interest. Whether it is Pakistan, US, India, Russia or Iran, everyone is here for their interest. The parallels are numerous."

Girardet points out to the fact that the old mistakes being repeated over and over again! Quoting Girardet:

"The Mujahideen never fought fixed battles. The same thing is happening now. There's a problem with a conventional army trying to fight a guerrilla war. So when i hear the ISAF claiming that they have cleared an area of Taliban, it reminds me of the days when the Russians would make similar claim about the Mujahideen. And the truth is that you don't have the population on your side. Also, the Americans put a lot of money into aid but it was not monitored. All these things are happening again."

"Experienced people have been telling the international powers here to 'go slow, don't throw money at them, let Afghans consult Afghans, and get the community involved', but none of the big donors here have any patience. So it's not going to work. The Afghans are not dumb. They know exactly what's going on. And the most shocking thing is that most of the people in the higher and middle positions have no idea what this country is all about. My thesis is that no one can win a war in Afghanistan. You can win peace with development. "

If all the monies that were blown up in buying weapons, sending armies, deputing militias and cost of operations were simply put to a better use in developing these nations, the efforts would have built a public consensus on development and growth. That by itself would have weakened the terror idealogies. That would have won the war against terror!The best example of this was the elimination of Taliban from Swat valley because of loss of their idealogical base due to attrocities they committed in the area.

Instead millions of "war" dollars have been spent, usually not yielding any results decades after the first bullet was shot, the first man killed. The governments and international agencies would just had to control the "outside interference" and peace would have taken care of itself.

At the current juncture, Girardet is of the view that a sudden withdrawl of UN/US troops out of Afghanistan would create chaos in the country. He advocates for a well trained and well paid army and internal security force in Afghanistan. Girardet stresses the need to talk to Taliban, to the provinces, to the local communities and leaders and chalk out a plan of development. The only way out of the Afghan war is to work with the people of the country.

The same rule applies across all nations, people and communities in the world. "Give a man a reason to live and he will not resort to any terros tactics ever"

Reference posts:

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Delhi's headed for a traffic grid-lock!

Delhi’s arterial roads are breaching capacities before schedule. The City’s traffic has mostly grown to a point where new flyovers no longer help in clearing the congestion. Transport experts say Delhi is well on its way to becoming the next Bangkok, notorious around the world or nightmarish traffic jams. There are several ominous indicators across the city of intersections and flyovers breaching their designed carrying capacity a lot earlier than expected.

According to a 2008 RITES study on vehicular and traffic information around Delhi:

  • Since 1972, traffic has increased by a whopping 21 times while road space has risen just 3.7 times.
  • 44% of stretches are carrying more vehicles than they were designed for, 19% more are on the verge of exceeding capacity.
  • Peak hour speed is 22kmph and the off peak speed is 26kmph.
  • Ring-road which was designed for 75000 vehicles a day, has 160,000 vehicles and will hit the 400000 mark by 2011.
The reason behind the traffic mayhem is simple. The Capital’s vehicular population has simply exploded in the past decade. As per the economic survey, Delhi registered 564 private vehicles a day which has jumped to 1054 personal vehicles per day in 2006-07, an almost two fold increase and a CAGR of 6.42%. Private vehicles constitute 94% of the total vehicular strength. Delhi at present has 6 million vehicles, which is 10% of the country’s vehicular population. If the trend continues, it will have 250 lakh vehicles in the next 20 years. Much before that, the city will have ground to a complete halt.

Flyovers , Grade separators and signal free intersections are just a short and medium term solution for the traffic problems.

  • One would probably need to reduce the load on roads and the Delhi Metro is doing quite a bit of that.
  • Road widening is another critical point for reducing bottlenecks. This would require work in terms of removing permanent/semi permanent unauthorized buildings. It would also need to work at a “day to day” traffic discipline, specially with the Blue-line busses and large vehicles, which have shown scarce respect for traffic and traffic sense.
  • One would also need to remove the slow moving vehicles from the road such as rickshaws, hand carts and in some cases auto rickshaws and busses as well etc.
  • Civilian movement on roads would have to be prosecuted and which will need airways and foot over bridges, underpasses to handle foot traffic.
  • The Singapore traffic model would also be a good one to follow with restricted entries to classes of vehicles on select roads. This would be marked by higher taxes and different colour numbering boards.
  • SEZs, Office campuses and Residential complexes would have to be moved out of the city. This will require a comprehensive long term urban planning.
  • Goods movement would have to restricted and non peak hours designated for goods movement.
  • Parking lots for busses and other large vehicles need to be designated
  • Finally, an awareness campaign targeted to the commuter and a strict and corruption free enforcement is needed.