Governance / 07.10.2008

The implication in an earlier post (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) was that the non-existence of political parties advocating peace was evidence that voters did not want peace with neighboring countries. Here we immediately fall into the trap of taking foreign concepts and applying them uncritically to alien situations. Are political parties in Pakistan really ‘political’ parties or are they something different? When one thinks about it, there are no major political parties in Pakistan today that advocate anything specific in terms of policy. One would be hard pressed to unambiguously associate a party with big or small government, free trade or autarky, protection or competition, privatization or public sector dominance. What one does find are parties associated with various personalities all of whom promise to do the same things better than anyone else. This observation calls for a closer look at the nature of democratic systems...

Governance / 27.08.2008

People are frustrated with continued poor governance in Pakistan. So frustrated that one often hears a strange claim – we are afflicted with poor governance because we are bad people; we deserve our fate. This logic implies that good people get good governments while bad people get bad governments. Does this logic make any sense? First of all, there is no country in the world where people are all good or all bad – however good and bad are defined. And no one has yet adequately demonstrated that some countries have a larger proportion of bad people than others. (Of course, some countries have relatively more educated populations but education has little to do with the mix of goodness and badness. In any case, all countries have passed through the stage when education was much less common than it is today. It is difficult to make the case...

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...

Governance, India, 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...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Politics / 20.07.2008

The BBC is doing a fine job in India reporting events that compel readers to think about the broader implications of the story. We had earlier picked up a story about the threat by purists to mixed religious communities. The post (Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?) has become quite popular on the blog suggesting that readers enjoy being engaged by challenging questions. Now the BBC has reported on the goings-on preceding the July 22 vote of confidence in the Indian parliament. This too raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy in India. The story itself states very clearly: “When India is described as 'the world's biggest democracy' it remains strictly true.” A story like this in Pakistan would most likely have found the reporter on the first plane out of the country. So there is no doubt that in relative terms governance in India has a much better...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Pakistan, Politics, South Asia / 26.06.2008

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, Governance, Politics / 20.06.2008

Can one country bequeath a full-blown democracy to another? There are two ways to approach the answer to this question. The first is to examine the outcomes of all the cases where such an experiment has been tried. The universe of such cases would include most of the ex-colonies of Western countries. In any such examination of the historical record, it would be hard to find too many examples of a successful graft. More often than not one would find a caricature — a democratic form distorted by a reversion to authoritarian rule. The genotype of the latter would be determined by the type of governance that existed prior to the attempted graft — rule by a monarch, a tribal chief, or a warlord. This is an easy, empirically verifiable approach to determining whether an alien system of governance can be transferred instantly from one country to another....

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics / 11.06.2008

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, Governance, India, Politics / 10.06.2008

In this series of posts we have thus far highlighted the following propositions: 1. The census introduced by the British in India (around 1870) classified people by religion. This was unlike the practice followed by the census in Britain itself. 2. Instead of using the religious beliefs as reported by the respondents themselves, the census classified them into the broad categories of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc. 3. A complex social reality that comprised of many mixed traditions, practices, and beliefs was simplified into set of broad overall categories. 4. When religious identity moved into the political domain with the adoption of separate electorates the rigid classifications assumed a new importance because one group could only gain at the expense of others. In this post we shall see with the help of Kmaljit Bhasin-Malik’s text how this new reality and realization affected the behavior of different groups and the impact...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Politics / 06.06.2008

A number of readers have expressed reservations about our comments on the first census in British India (Democracy in India – 3). It is argued that disclosure of full information is always for the better and cannot but be helpful in the long run. This misses the point. It is not always the case that pre-existing information is lying unobserved and a neutral process is involved in bringing this knowledge into the public domain. With the first census in British India, knowledge was actually created. This is what Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik explains in her essays on the census: The Punjab census illustrates that the census was not a passive data-gathering instrument. It did not merely count what is.  Census officials first had to create categories and define them. But this was no simple process and the realities that census takers encountered collided with their imperial taxonomies, which assumed Punjabi society...