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...

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

BySamia 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 South...

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...

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...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Modernity, Politics, South Asia / 23.02.2008

In setting up the next set of articles we use a thought-provoking op-ed by Professor Stanley Fish as the point of departure. Professor Fish deals with an issue, identity politics, which is of great relevance for us in South Asia. While the author’s application is to the election in the US (voting on the basis of color or gender), we can easily extrapolate some of the ideas to our context. Here is Professor Fish’s definition of identity politics: You’re practicing identity politics when you vote for or against someone because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker that leads you to say yes or no independently of a candidate’s ideas or policies. An identity politics voter says, in effect, I don’t care what views he holds, or even what bad things he may have done, or what lack of ability...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics, South Asia / 22.02.2008

It is useful to study the history of democracy in Japan to highlight an aspect that is almost completely overlooked in South Asia – the critical relevance of electoral rules. Japan is termed “the only stable industrialized democracy in Asia, with a well-established parliament, political parties that vigorously compete in elections, and a solidly legitimate democratic constitution.” It is a “predominant party democracy” in which the same party was consistently supported by voters under free and competitive conditions for a very long time (38 years). However, “the Japanese formula for a successful, dominant party democracy has had its negative effects – the role of excess money in politics and corruption.” All these aspects are related to electoral rules “since the electoral system is a major determinant of a political regime:” In many newly-emerging democracies the choice of an electoral system is increasingly being recognized as a vital element...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics, South Asia / 17.02.2008

Continuing our tour of the post-colonial transitions in governance, we take a look at the unique experience of Hong Kong to see if we can add to our understanding of the relationship between governance and social, political and economic outcomes. The outstanding feature of the political set-up in Hong Kong was its institutional longevity – it was formally the same in the 1980s as it was a hundred years earlier. “There was no election and no universal suffrage until 1982, no political party until the 1990s and still, on the eve of the handover [in 1997], no fully elected assembly.” The question that comes to mind is why the British who were so eager to introduce electoral politics in India and Sri Lanka where the polities were rife with social cleavages, not willing to do so in Hong Kong where there was so much ethnic homogeneity? Leaving aside...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Politics, South Asia / 08.02.2008

The subject of the nature of democracy in India is important and we will continue to record our thoughts and ideas here to improve our understanding and hopefully to converge to a better sense of the phenomenon. In this post, we reproduce some ideas from Dr. Bettina Robotka, a historian at Humboldt University in Berlin.  Dr. Robotka had commented on one of our earlier posts (How Modern is Modern?) and impressed by her arguments we obtained her essay “Democracy in India – A Historical Perspective” which is a chapter in a 2000 book (The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia) edited by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo. Dr. Robotka characterizes the form of governance in India as a “colonial democracy” (the word colonial has no pejorative connotation in the context; it refers to the historical origins of the present system) in which a centralized state replaced the...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Modernity, Politics, South Asia / 04.02.2008

I must admit I was surprised to see a reference to the “lower orders” in Ramachandra Guha’s book (India after Gandhi) in connection with the voting in the 2004 elections in India (How Modern is Modern?). I was curious to see when this sort of characterization disappeared in Europe. Given that we dealt with Hobbes’ articulation of equality in the previous post (Individualism, Social Contract, Governance and Modernity) this also provides a neat opportunity to round off this discussion. As we mentioned, Hobbes’ formulation in 1651 was a theoretical one. It is only when we get to the French Revolution that we see a concrete demonstration of how things changed. Tim Blanning provides a nice account in his 2007 book (The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815) of what happened when a crisis finally forced Louis XVI to call a meeting of the Estates General in 1789....

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Modernity, Pakistan, Politics, South Asia / 02.02.2008

In the last few posts we have left a few loose ends dangling: there have been references to individualism in the context of hierarchy, to social contract in the context of monarchy, and to reason in the context of modernity. In this post we will try to tie the loose ends lightly to highlight some of the connections and hope to come back for a fuller discussion at a later time if there is demand. There is no one better to weave the argument around than Thomas Hobbes (1558-1679) whose famous book The Leviathan (1651) became the foundation for most of Western political philosophy. Of course, Hobbes did not emerge in a vacuum. The seventeenth century is widely accepted as a decisive turning point in Europe that marked the transition from an old decaying order to a new emerging one that many equate with modern society. Very briefly,...