Democracy/Governance / 14.04.2010

By Vijay Vikram I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India's choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that it...

Democracy/Governance / 15.12.2009

The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion. There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day. But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?
Democracy/Governance / 15.12.2009

The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion. There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day. But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?
Democracy/Governance / 08.09.2009

Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare. Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance?
Democracy/Governance, India, Pakistan, South Asia / 26.06.2009

There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music. The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence. Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were burning with...

Democracy/Governance / 22.06.2009

The only significance of the events in Iran is the proof that when it comes to politics even Ayatollah’s cheat. Otherwise, everything remains the same. But the proof is of immense significance because it demolishes some strongly held beliefs about religion and democracy. Think about it. If those whose vocation it is to tell the truth, who insist they represent God’s will on earth, who claim they will have to answer to God for their doings in this world, if even they have been forced to cheat, something very compelling must be going on. But whatever it is, it is not new. Let us begin from the beginning.
Democracy/Governance / 11.06.2009

We have been discussing the census, electoral rules, and the nature of democracy in South and East Asian countries trying to draw lessons from events that happened between fifty and a hundred and fifty years ago. It was therefore eerie to read a virtual replay that took place in Iraq only a few years back. We truly ignore history at our own peril. The account is from the 2006 book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone), an account of the American occupation of Iraq and the attempts to reconstruct the country. Here we shall reproduce just the bare essence that indicates the overlap with our earlier posts. Readers interested in the details should be able to obtain the book fairly easily. From April 2003 to June 2004, Iraq was governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration, headed...

Democracy/Governance / 24.05.2009

Every five years there is an election in India and we interpret the results to conclude what we think the majority of Indians want. But what happens between two elections? How do we know where the majority of Indians stand on the various issues that crop up between elections? Let us take an issue like the relationship of India with any of its neighboring countries that might become salient because of some random incident. What determines the policy response of the Indian government to such an incident? If we are not Indian and are outside India, all we have to go by is the English language media. How representative is this of the voice of the majority of Indians who are rural?
Democracy/Governance, Education, Governance, South Asia / 18.08.2008

It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions? Let us start with a couple of concrete examples: Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy. India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years.  The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy. This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one...

Democracy/Governance, India, Modernity, Politics / 26.07.2008

Let us put the big question on the table. Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India? In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal...