Modernity, South Asia / 04.04.2008

The bottom line in our last post on this subject was the conclusion that there is no distinct event in South Asia quite like the Enlightenment in Europe that can be used to distinguish between pre- and post-event values in terms of ways of thinking about the world. The 1857 Mutiny and the 1947 Partition are both major events in recent South Asian history but they do not mark a profound break in ways of thinking or of comprehending the world. Thus the defining characteristic of South Asian values is their continuity. This was the reason why in an earlier post we had remarked that “South Asians have either always been modern or they remain pre-modern depending how one prefers to look upon the phenomenon.” Subsequently we have dropped the use of the term “modern” because of its various distracting connotations. Our inference is that South Asian...

Leadership, Pakistan / 31.03.2008

By Samia Altaf  There is a fascinating news report (Jinnah’s New Republic) in an American weekly datelined November 15, 1947 that puts its finger on Pakistan’s most critical weakness – the quality of its leadership. Reporting from Karachi, the author comments on the country’s first cabinet: “With enormous problems, Pakistan has only a very ordinary set of leaders to cope with them”; barring a few “the other members of the cabinet are all mediocrities.” The exceptions identified by the author were the “brilliant” Mr Jinnah, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. In 2008, the problems have become much more enormous and the leadership has become much more mediocre. Even the exceptions at the very top are conspicuous by their absence. The quality of political leadership went into a steep decline after Mr Jinnah. This was exacerbated by the military’s interruption of the political process that serves as the...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics, South Asia / 28.03.2008

By Samia Altaf An editorial in The News on March 21, 2008 (“Bilawal to the rescue”) got it wrong when it expressed sadness at the “strange dynastic politics that have taken root in the region.” Dynastic politics have been rooted in the region much like they were in most other parts of the world in the past. The distinction of South Asia is that, unlike elsewhere, it has not left dynastic politics behind. Three centuries ago it was quite normal to have a Dauphin and a regent in France. Today, a French citizen would be completely nonplussed by the thought of such a practice. In South Asia, however, the practice is not only familiar, it is actually demanded by the citizenry. How else would one explain a democratic India feeling the need to transplant Rajiv Gandhi from an airline pilot to a Prime Minister? Examples abound across...

India, Modernity / 26.03.2008

By Dipankar Gupta Why should the best graduates from a strong middle class society cash in their chips to head for the Silicon Valley? But this is what happens in India. As a knowledge society, can we hold our head contents high when even the Philippines has more than six times the number of qualified engineers per thousand than we have here? Is it surprising then that in a land of a billion people the Information Technology sector employs only three million and no more? If we now go below the brain line then is our consumption standard at least indicative of a strong middle class? In which case, why is it that only 3% of Indian households own cars?  Does our boast not sound ridiculous especially when more than 4.5 million American households below the poverty line own cars with 290,000 of them actually owning three...

Modernity, South Asia / 23.03.2008

We are very far from clarity on the issue of the modern South Asian as would be obvious from the comments on the previous post on this topic. First of all, the very word ‘modern’ is problematic leading us astray in our discussion. The point to note is that there is an episode in Europe called the Enlightenment that Europeans use to mark a break in their value system. We can just as easily call them pre- and post-Enlightenment values and ignore the fact that Europeans have appropriated the term ‘modern’ for the latter set. We have no interest in arguing whether post-Enlightenment values are ‘better’ than pre-Enlightenment values in any way. We are aware of the post-modern critique of ‘modern’ values, attributing to them all sorts of ills from the Holocaust and the viciousness of our ways to alienation and the emptiness of our lives. This...

Governance, Politics / 20.03.2008

By Samia Altaf  SHORTLY after the emergency was imposed in Nov 2007, I wrote an article that used cricket as a metaphor to ask why Pakistani citizens accept the kind of blatant manipulation in the realm of politics that they would instantly reject in the world of cricket. After the Feb 2008 elections, I find that cricket still provides a good analogy to describe the present situation. In one sentence I would characterise it as follows: the bowlers have done their job; now it is up to the batsmen to deliver. The voters have performed beyond expectations and left it to the politicians to wrap it up. Will they? How many times have we been here before? How many times have the batsmen managed to defy all odds and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? How many times have we needed a sensible display of maturity...

Modernity, South Asia / 15.03.2008

We have been struggling to understand the nature of modernity in South Asia and in one of the posts on the topic (How Modern is Modern?) had left off with the following observation from a reader: “Even the small segment one might call modern has never experienced anything like the Enlightenment directly so that culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.” This prompted us to look up the literature on the Enlightenment in greater detail and our search could well leave us with the conclusion that there is really no such thing as a modern South Asian. We will follow up this heretical thread later in this post but let us first introduce an exceptionally illuminating book on the subject of the Enlightenment. In Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford University Press, 2006), Jonathan Israel enumerates what he...

Governance, Politics / 14.03.2008

By Samia Altaf  There is a certain purpose and a value in an apology. Even when it is a century late and unable to redress the wrongs as in the Australian apology to its aboriginal citizens, it suggests a reflection on the past, an acceptance of responsibility, and a promise for the future. Now that Pakistan is on the verge of a new beginning, its major players should mark it by coming forward and apologising to the citizens who have given them and the country another chance. This will be an overdue apology and one that would be of immense value in setting the tone for the future. It would communicate to the voters a clear sense of what is unacceptable in modern politics and a measure of the standard by which political leaders and public servants agree to be judged in future. First, it should be the chief...

Politics / 09.03.2008

With reference to our comment on the Politics of Identity, a number of readers have taken issue with our conceptualization of rationality and the claim that all voters are rational. In this post we respond to the issues raised by the readers.  The gist of the points raised is as follows: You have failed to stress that the rationality of the Pakistani voter is different from that of the liberal citizen who was the subject of the Stanley Fish column on which you commented.  What about the frequent comments made that Bush was a great guy to have a beer with and that is why he was worth voting for? How do you view that? Is voting always rational or is it sometimes visceral?...