Behavior / 18.06.2014

By Anjum Altaf A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me: He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her. This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows: “He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.” One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in...

Modernity / 25.05.2014

Here is a headline from today’s newspaper: Pakistan frees 151 Indian fishermen ahead of Sharif’s Delhi visit What can we infer from this headline about the world we live in? Recall the stories of bygone times that marked auspicious occasions: It was the king’s birthday – he ordered 100 prisoners to be released. The queen gave birth to an heir – the dungeons were emptied. The heir apparent got married – all death sentences were commuted. Are we living in bygone times or have the bygone times never left us? King Sharif? I am going to India – let us free 151 fishermen. Not only that, let us drive them from Karachi to Wagah in an air-conditioned bus. Let us give the ‘poor’ fishermen royal treatment because we are particularly pleased by the invitation – phooley nahiiN samaa rahey. Remember Diwali last year? We celebrated by releasing 15 fishermen as a gesture of our goodwill. We still...

Democracy/Governance / 04.05.2014

It was the late Richard Holbrooke who said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.” That, indeed, is a dilemma. For the Americans, even the election of a remotely anti-American government was a dilemma and they spared little effort in overturning the verdict of electorates whenever such an ugly possibility reared its fearful head. So, it could have been an occasion of smug satisfaction for the rest when the American electorate voted in Bush except that he inflicted incalculable harm on the world while driving the US deep into the hole. That highlights the other dilemma – whether those freely and fairly elected are racists, fascists, separatists, or just megalomaniacal fools and simpletons, the damage they end up doing to themselves and others is serious business. Enter Mr. Modi. Mr. Modi has not been elected yet but it seems...

Politics / 28.08.2013

By Anjum Altaf A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives. At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the courting that...

Development / 05.06.2013

By Anjum Altaf Is poverty a violation of human rights? I was asked recently to speak on the subject and faced the following dilemma: If I convinced the audience it was, would that imply the most effective way to eliminate poverty would be to confer human rights on the poor? Two questions follow immediately: First, if that were indeed the case, why haven’t rights been conferred already? Second, over the entire course of recorded history, has poverty ever been alleviated in this manner? Likely answers to both suggest it would be more fruitful to start with poverty than with rights. Poverty has always been with us while the discourse of rights is very recent. Studying the experiences of poverty elimination could possibly better illuminate the overlap with rights and yield appropriate conclusions for consideration. We can begin with the period when sovereignty rested in heaven and monarchs ruled with...

Cities/Urban / 20.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics. It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out. It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. Almost every news report in the election season makes...

Reflections / 11.05.2013

The South Asian Idea is opening up this space for your comments, thoughts, and reflections on the elections. Please use the Comments space below to voice your opinions and join the conversation on the future of Pakistan and of the region. Thanks, Editors The factual information appended below on the 2013 elections in Pakistan is courtesy of the British Pakistan Foundation who have further acknowledged their sources. On Saturday, May 11th Pakistan will be voting its new parliament at its general elections 2013. For this reason we have compiled some relevant information to understand how the General Elections will influence the country's political landscape. Please find below an infographic of AlJazeera on the Pakistan Elections 2013 (click on the link below the picture to view a larger image) as well as some information on the major political parties.
Democracy/Governance / 01.04.2013

By Anjum Altaf Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention. For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them. With representative governance, sovereignty,...

South Asia / 10.03.2013

By Anjum Altaf Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon. The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples. It follows immediately from this perspective that the violence under consideration is an outcome of the...

Development / 26.08.2011

By Anjum Altaf Is there an alternative to taking sides on the Anna Hazare controversy? Could one step back and gainfully employ an historical and institutional perspective to understand it better? Would it help to argue that the mismatch in speeds at which economic and political institutions have rooted themselves in Indian society is contributing to a disorienting disconnect between modern ends and pre-modern means? The supply and demand of goods and services is mediated through the economic market and Indians have been dragged into it whether they liked it or not; they had no choice. The theory of perfect and imperfect economic markets is well known. In brief, markets can exhibit friction, they can fail, and they can exclude large segments of the population without effective demand. In all such cases, the state has to step in thereby creating the interface between economics and politics. Corruption is...