Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Blocked Elite: Best Explaination for ANNA HAZARE Phenomenon

The problem with most middle-class political movements is that they know whom they don’t want, but rarely do they know what they want. This is the case as well in what is going on in Egypt and in other Arab countries currently in the grip of uprisings. Rest assured all these are largely middle-class driven uprisings, emerging from what is called the ‘blocked elite’ — i.e. an educated middle-class that feels it has what it takes to become a power-elite but its path is being blocked by a corrupt, unfair and autocratic regime.

Thus whenever this blocked elite does manage to stir up a movement, it is almost always focused on a single personality, and not necessarily the system as such. The rallying cry in the troubled Arab nations is against despotic individuals, but nobody has a clue what is to follow. The protesters, largely coming from middle and lower-middle-class strata of society have so far failed to produce their own organisations that can systematically suggest a political and economic plan and an alternative to what the hated individual symbolises.

Though such movements might be able to topple these individuals, they end up creating a vacuum that is often filled by political entities that may also be against the toppled individual, but their ways are not necessarily in tune with the ideals of politics and society of the middle-class. But the question arises, what exactly are middle-class ideals? In the classical sense they should be democracy, economic stability, good governance and the maintenance of law and order. But in the post-modern world such ideals have become blurred, especially in Muslim countries where the middle-class has largely begun to perceive democracy as something akin to populist chaos or a way for the West to impose its own political agenda and values.

The irony is that only a handful of Muslim countries have a democratic system in place, and the most organised opposition to autocratic regimes there is coming from the religious right. But in the last two decades or so, though the religious right has made a lot of headway in penetrating the psyche of the Muslim middle-class, people are still not quite sure whether to support the religious groups on political basis as well. The same is the case in Pakistan, in spite the fact that it is one of the few Muslim countries that has seen a number of democratic set-ups. Nevertheless, even here, though religious groups have made deep inroads into the middle-class psyche and this class usually airs these groups’ thoughts and anti-West rhetoric, it usually ends up supporting the so-called moderate conservative parties like PML-N, while the ‘masses’ (at least as voters) have always kept religious parties at bay by voting for various democratic and quasi-secular political parties.

But the vacuum created by even the most positive action by the middle-class in most Muslim countries remains. Two examples in this context can further strengthen this theory.

The first is the 1977 protest movement in Pakistan against the Z A Bhutto regime and the other is the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The movement against Bhutto was born out of the frustration the industrial and middle class faced due to the (democratically elected) Bhutto regime’s widespread nationalisation policies and its perceived favouring of Sindhis.

The frustrated middle-class which, till then was largely liberal and also had progressives in its midst, was not politically organised. For the better part of Bhutto’s regime a significant section of the young, urban middle-class aligned itself with the Jamat-i-Islami’s student wing, the IJT, on campuses and then squarely fell for the religious parties’ movement against Bhutto in 1977.

Though this movement raised Islamic slogans, it was really entirely aimed against an individual, Bhutto. Bhutto’s gradual weakening in the face of this middle-class uprising generated a vacuum that was conveniently filled by the military, that took over using the same abstract slogans used by the movement, and preying upon middle-class fears of political chaos. In Iran, the groundwork for what erupted into a full blown revolution against the Shah was undertaken by various secular-liberal and leftist groups, so much so that influential Iranian Islamic activist-scholar, Ali Shariati, borrowed heavily from leftist philosopher J P. Sartre and Marxism to attract middle-class attention against the Shah.

The result was desperate groups of middle-class Iranians squarely aiming against an autocratic individual, without any alternative plan as such — until the vacuum was filled by the organised political clergy who replaced an autocratic and corrupt monarchy with a faith-based and reactionary regime.

Today, urban middle-classes in Muslim countries have begun to shape themselves into vital economic and political entities. But as seen in Egypt and also in Pakistan, this class has failed to elaborate exactly what it wants as a political and economic system. In Pakistan it is somewhat repulsed by populist democracy, fearing that a popularly elected government too may end up blocking their upwardly mobile ambitions as does an autocratic one.

In the process this class continues to linger as a fragmented set of malcontents, willingly alienated from mainstream political entities, and thus, always susceptible in the end for settling for either the desired rule of an unelected technocrat, or worse, being hijacked by right-wing aspirations that promise them a check on populist masses-driven ‘chaos’.
(By Nadeem Paracha, Pakistan)

And He is right. The rise of Islamic parties in Egypt and Annaji joining hands with Ramdev, interest of Religious Guru's etc. factors indeed indicate a right wing flavour to these movements.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Public Reason, Indian Style: The reality

In a democracy, public opinion is the ultimate God, or so it is said. Even authoritarian regimes, at some point, fear its wrath. 2011 was the year, not of individual heroes, but of public opinion: public opinion railing against authority, oligarchy and corruption. But it was also a year in which public opinion, or so we are told, was transformed by the medium it used. Authoritarian governments found it hard to control flows of information and opinion. But the proliferation of new media — from TV to Twitter — also raised profound questions about the ways in which public opinion was going to be formed. Was the proliferation of new media forms genuine empowerment or did it rest on its own set of exclusions? Was it easier or harder for ordinary people to be heard? Where more people were expressing their opinion, did one have to shout harder to be heard? Would older forms of contribution to public reason survive? Could the old-fashioned, essay-style column, with complexity and nuance (and full disclosure, I have a vested interest in defending that genre), survive the Age of 140 Characters? Was the sound bite going to replace the sound thought? In short, what is the future of democratic discourse?

It is said, rightly, that in a democracy, nothing has special authority: not God, not History, not Reason. In fact, the radical promise of democracy is just that as Kant put it, “Reason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens.” But how are these agreements going to be produced? Every democracy has worried about this. We don’t know how to institutionalise a conception of public reason in which all individuals can participate as free and equal individuals. But 2011 was an object lesson in the ways in which discourse operated in a democracy. Indian democracy is a feat of improvisation, and nothing reflects this more so than the character of our public argument. Here are some randomly collected lessons from 2011.

There are two dangers in a democracy. The first is what Aeschylus warned about: Freedom will be interpreted to mean, “Say whatever just came to your lips.” The second danger is freedom will be interpreted to mean, “Say just what you think others want to hear.” Both the excess of the first and the restraint of the second pose dangers to genuine public reason. In most parties, spokesman succumbs to the first temptation, government to the second.

Public Opinion can make the horse come to the water, it cannot make it drink.

The most valuable trait in politics is not rhetorical power. It is silence. Those who speak the least shall be prime minister the longest.

So long as the Anna movement used the power of music and maun vrat, they had a chance. The minute they took to the megaphone they blew it.

Arguments are made for cutting others, not for advancing understanding.

Representation is Reality — till the Representation changes.

For every argument, there is an available statistic.

In economic discourse, the most important part of any claim is “other things being equal”. This is the part we are also most likely to forget.

On important policy issues like the Food Security Bill, politicians can heed complex evidence: until the NAC weighs in.

Those who speak in the name of the poor will never let the poor speak.

Those who invoke the “people” really mean to say, “It is my way or no way.”

Those who work for the public good work away quietly. Those who cannot, demand new laws.

Our discussions are very principled. On each subject we invoke plenty of principles — except the one relevant to the subject.

The camera almost always lies. Or rather, the truth it represents is a function of the magnification angles of the camera.

The allure of a camera may be even more corrupting than the allure of money. The thought that millions are watching them, brings the worst out of most people.

If you want facts don’t look at news stories. There you will get opinion. But in an opinion column you might actually get an occasional fact.

A news channel will have more opinion than news. The more important a news channel thinks it is the higher will be its ratio of opinion to news.

India has immense diversity of opinion. Except that it is the same diversity over and over again.

“Search for consensus” means: “I don’t want to be held responsible for making a decision.”

There is no immortality except through being recognised by the press. Alas, that is also short-lived.

The professional standards of every profession have fallen, other than one’s own.

There is more space for book launches than book reviews.

The difference between Hindi and English media is exaggerated. The English media pays homage to the vernacular by ethnic chic. The Hindi media pays homage to English by translating content.

The power of Twitter is like the medium itself: confined and short-lived.

Media is more likely to want war than the people.

In a contest between fear and hope, fear always triumphs.

The “A” word will remain prohibited in the media, if used in a critical context. Guess what it is? Hint: Something to do with people who own a hideous house.

Only Indians can take the epithet “Argumentative Indian” as a compliment. Argumentative means someone who goes on arguing for the sake of it even after the issue has been settled.

There are many more lessons to be learnt. But it is all of this that makes our democracy so wonderful and vibrant. It is, in Plato’s resonant description of democracy, “a many coloured cloak decorated in all hues; this regime is decorated with all dispositions.” You have to admire a democracy where Rajya Sabha debates can get high TRP ratings. God forbid, we don’t want to tamper with this edifice. 2011 was the year of public mobilisation. Will 2012 be the year of public reason?
(By Pratap Bhanu Mehta)

Weapons: The South-Asian Pride & Preoccupation

Why can't we in India be more business-like? When we tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the government, the media, and the Indian public were spectacularly undignified. A lot of vulgar and foolish things happened in the ensuing months - intemperate statements by our leaders, media coverage that was adulatory and clownish, and public behaviour that was childish (handing out sweets in the streets).

Predictably, the Pakistanis punctured our bubble. They tested immediately and then attacked in Kargil to show that nuclear weapons did not scare them. Pakistan's public reactions were as juvenile as ours, if not more so, which shows that South Asians are cut from the same cloth.

With India's Agni V missile test two weeks ago and Pakistan's Hatf IV Shaheen-1A test, we have had a replay of 1998. Missiles are not as big a deal as nuclear weapons, so our leaders were more restrained this time round. The media, though, was pretty much as bad as before, thinking it appropriate to talk a lot of nonsense about India's ability to project power (to Europe, amongst other destinations). Unlike 1998, the public did not rush out into the streets to party, which was a relief; instead, the blogosphere, the new public square, lit up with commentary, most of which would shame a nine-year-old.

When the Agni V has been properly tested, it will certainly strengthen India's deterrent with respect to China. Having said this, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) goes back to the 1980s. That it managed to produce a missile which can carry a nuclear warhead 5,000 km is noteworthy but hardly the stuff of national celebration. After all, it took nearly 30 years to produce a missile of that range.

Any one of a dozen countries today could do it - and in short order. These include Japan and both the Koreas, just in Asia, and surely it would not take Australia very long. Pakistan's latest Shaheen already has a range of 3,000 km, so it is not technologically beyond our next-door neighbour's capabi-lity either. And Iranian missile technology is catching up fast.

The point is that missiles, as much as nuclear weapons, are old technology. Hopping up and down about them is silly. India's scientists have not particularly distinguished themselves (nor have Indian social scientists). If we look at the number of scientific papers published in leading journals, patents filed, and inventions credited to Indians, our scientists do not rank high. China ranks well ahead, as do Japan and South Korea. Britain, with 60 million people, has had 76 Nobel laureates in science and technology.

India has had only one that worked in India (C V Raman, who worked in British and not independent India) and three that worked outside India (Har Gobind Khorana, Subramanyan Chandrashekhar and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, all in the US). There are probably only two Indian technologies that have international name-recognition - the Jaipur leg prosthetic device and the Nano mini car - which are home-grown.

Why are we so undignified over things like the missile test? The answer most likely is that we have so little to celebrate, with human development indicators lower in key areas than our South Asian neighbours and sub-Saharan Africa. Indians are eating less in calories terms than a decade ago. We have millions of more males than females in our population: the social consequences of this male surplus will be massive. Our education system is in a shambles. Our infrastructure is scarily bad. The only town in India with clean drinking water is Jamshedpur. We have a fiscal crisis looming, stuttering growth, rising prices, stagnating agriculture, caste and religious discrimination, partisan politics to the maximum, and policy paralysis. Governance, particularly at the state-level, where one absurd chief minister replaces another, is so awful that you run out of adjectives.

If India wants to be respected and secure in the long run, it should celebrate clean renewable energy and the eradication of polio far more than the launching of a new missile. That would be worth many sweets in the streets. (By- Kanti Bajpai)