Saturday, 21 August 2010

Australian Election 2010, and What It Means

I must say I expected something like this. In fact, a hung parliament with Labor slightly ahead of the Liberals reflects my feelings exactly. It's nice to know the entire country feels the way I do :-).

I daresay we wouldn't be in this situation if we had Peter Costello leading the Liberals. It would have been a slam dunk. Instead, we have the aptly named religious nut Tony Abbott in charge. Call me what you will but I refuse to vote for a politician whose policy manual is religious scripture (and it doesn't matter what religion we're talking about). Abbott has been considered unelectable for a reason, and that is now clear in these results.

At the same time, there's tremendous anger against Labor, and Julia Gillard by extension, for what was done to Kevin Rudd. They were punished for their backstabbery by the loss of 17 seats. I hope the back room boys like Mark Arbib and Bill Shorten are pulled back into the same back room and given a wedgie. (I can't be sure, of course, that other voters have had qualms about Labor for the same reasons. There are some troglodytes even in an advanced Western democracy who oppose Gillard's leadership because of her gender, those who believe that an unmarried person without children cannot understand the problems of Australian families, and the religious right who oppose her for being an atheist and/or for "living in sin".) Still, I like to believe the Rudd factor was the most important.

At the time of Kevin Rudd's victory in 2007, the swing in Labor's favour was so great that psephologists called it a "two-election swing", which meant that the next election was Labor's to lose. And true enough, they lost it. I guess they could still crawl back into government by bribing two independents, but then it'd be official: Julia Gillard as Australia's first female lame-duck Prime Minister.

[See this hilarious Taiwanese spoof on the Australian election.]

Australia now follows the UK into the new era of hung parliaments and coalition governments. India moved into this era in 1989. 1984 was the last time the Indian electorate delivered an outright majority to a single political party. European democracies have seen coalition governments for decades. I think messy as they are, coalition governments more truly represent the views of a diverse society. They're complex and unwieldy, but ultimately fairer.

The Americans seem to have sidestepped the need for coalition governments by splitting the power of the State three ways - into an independently elected executive (the President), independently elected legislative bodies (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and a judiciary that although subject to appointments by the administration of the day, acts like a capacitor in an electrical circuit by slowly absorbing and discharging right- and left-wing constituents over the course of many administrations. Westminster-style democracies like Australia, the UK and India, in contrast, have the executive and legislative arms joined at the hip. The government is formed by the majority party in parliament. Hence the only way for the State to reflect the diversity of its polity is to elect a hung parliament with no single party gaining an outright majority. Coalition governments are then inevitable.

From a historical context, I think the world is therefore progressing. There is greater accommodation of diversity, and our democratic institutions are changing to reflect this.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Pakistan Must Not Refuse Flood Aid From India

Now this is the flip side of my earlier post.

Apparently, the Pakistani government is still “considering” the Indian aid offer of $5 million.

Wow, that seems to be a really hard problem! What should they do??? Can someone help them make up their minds?

It's sort of like the USSR refusing US aid under the Marshall Plan after World War II. Ideology is far more important than human life and suffering, it would seem.

According to this article, India’s initial offer of just $5 million is to test the waters. If Pakistan responds favourably, India will donate more. That makes sense given Pakistan’s contemptuous treatment of Indian aid during the 2005 earthquake (allegedly letting food rot at the border, ripping off the Made in India tags before distributing aid, etc.) Even now, they seem to want Indian aid to be routed through the UN rather than be made available directly.

All I can say is, this is a really callous leadership that doesn’t have the best interests of their people at heart.

From the article,

“Sources said the [Indian] government has already begun preliminary work on an assistance package with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA - awful website, by the way) which is resource-rich, and would even be willing to route the assistance through the UN if that’s what Pakistan wants.

But it feels the bilateral approach is better because given the short distances, India would be able to reach assistance much faster to the affected areas in Pakistan. In fact, India is even willing to be the source country for assistance material for other countries, multilateral organizations helping out Pakistan, even NGOs.

[...]

During the civil war in Sri Lanka, India had sent across family-packs that contained everything for a family for a specific time period. In Afghanistan, India supplies fortified biscuits which could be a good source of nutrition for children in Pakistan right now.”

Will Pakistan allow India to fly supplies directly to where it is needed, or will it prefer to let its own people die rather than grant air access to the “enemy”? Courage is not just the ability to face enemy troops in battle. It takes courage to once again venture help to someone who has never been gracious in the past, and it also takes courage to trust someone who is offering to help you.

India has passed the test of courage. Let’s see if Pakistan does.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

What Pakistani Schoolgirls Can Teach The Rest of Us


video

This is a very touching video (also available with better resolution on YouTube) that starts on a misleading note but has a twist halfway through. I'd encourage everyone to watch it till the end. The part where the young girl says "Hum maafi chaahte hain" (We ask for forgiveness) is particularly touching.

Little snippets like this are what lead me to believe that when Official India and Official Pakistan finally sign a peace agreement, the artificially built-up animosity of over six decades will disappear in an instant, like a bubble.

On a side note, it was amusing to see the stacks of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew books on the shelves. Pakistan and India are more alike than we imagine...

Kashmir and the Indian Conscience

Here’s a brutally frank write-up on Kashmir in the UK’s Guardian that should give liberal, educated Indians pause. The author is not a Kashmiri Muslim. Nor is he a biased Pakistani or ignorant Westerner, as our convenient stereotypes go. From his name (Pankaj Mishra), he is Hindu and of Indian origin.

I suffer great moral pangs on the issue of Kashmir, and articles like this only reinforce them. My only quibble with this otherwise powerful article is its complete silence on the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus (the Pundits). The author should have followed his own advice and dealt with that additional “messy reality concealed by stirring abstractions”, as he put it. But that omission should not cause us to sweep the larger issue under the carpet.

Indians have a certain healthy wariness towards men in uniform (the police more than the army, which is generally invisible in daily life). How many Indians would enter a police station with a jaunty step? One of the luxuries of being part of the middle or upper classes is the relative ability to lead one's life without ever coming into contact with the police. But there is no escaping the constant stream of stories (in the Indian press, not the "biased" Western media) of “death in police custody” and “encounter killings”. There is probably more than a grain of truth to what is being said about the behaviour of India's men in uniform in Kashmir. False notions of patriotism should not prevent Indians from speaking up about it. We are humans first and our national identity comes second. Indians shouldn’t go on the defensive and refuse to look seriously at the issue just because Pakistan raises the Kashmir issue for its own opportunistic reasons.

It would be good if Indians themselves could bring pressure on the Indian government to dramatically improve the situation in Kashmir. Even if we believe that a plebiscite or independence for part of the region (the Kashmir Valley) is a bridge too far, we can at least insist on greater press access and more honest reporting on Kashmir. That may shame the authorities into providing a lighter touch and better administration.

It’s the least we can do.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

India Must Not Withhold Flood Help To Pakistan

It would be very sad if politics came in the way of humanitarian feeling. The floods in Pakistan have not only taken a toll of lives and displaced millions of people, but have also wiped out agricultural crops, threatening the country with a massive food shortage.

Boston.com has some stunning pictures that capture some of the enormity of the damage. BBC has reported on it as well, and this map is from there:


In some ways, this is a golden opportunity for India and Pakistan to mend fences. The cycle of mutual suspicion and hate needs to be decisively broken, and a massive Indian aid effort in the current crisis could go a long way.

It shouldn't be purely government-to-government aid. The Indian government should mobilise contributions from the public and NGOs, so that ordinary people on the Indian side can be seen to be helping their counterparts across the border. That is the only thing that can change mindsets.

India's protestations that it has no evil designs on Pakistan continue to be ignored by Pakistani policymakers in the military, because (rightly from their point of view), they focus on capability rather than intent. A massive popular groundswell of aid may help them see that India has both the capability and the intent to do enormous good.

It's time to set petty quarrels aside and do the statesmanlike thing. Future generations will thank us.

Update 14/08/2010:

India finally broke its silence and offered $5 million in aid to Pakistan. The report comes from a Pakistani news site. The most heartening aspect is the positive response from Pakistani readers (at least the first 7 that have appeared so far).