Monday, 21 January 2008

Social Justice - The Pre-requisite for Peace and Progress

I just read Sanjiva Weerawarana's blog on the situation in Sri Lanka. The points he makes later on in the piece about finding a lasting political solution through a decentralised form of government ring very true. I can see very close parallels with the Indian context.

India is a country of very great diversity (language, religion, caste, you name it). Yet on the whole, India is peaceful and united. That's because India largely has a decentralised form of representative democracy with central, state and local governments elected by the people. When people can see that their participation makes a difference to their own lives and that they really control their own destiny, they gain a sense of belonging.

Note the exceptions that reinforce this conclusion - Kashmir, the Northeast, and many parts of rural India where feudalism still rules. Here, we find militancy/terrorism/insurgency and almost continuous violence. The official response? "Send in the troops to restore law and order. The situation isn't conducive to holding elections."

This is a Catch-22. You have armed opposition to the state because you have no democracy. Elections in Kashmir have been rigged or cancelled so many times it is farcical. And now you can't hold elections because there's too much violence?

I believe you cannot have peace and progress without social justice. Democracy is only one manifestation of social justice. If you have landless bonded labourers hopelessly in debt to the moneylender-landowner combine, then merely holding elections once in 5 years will serve no purpose.

As Sanjiva says about correcting the skewed allocation of resources in Sri Lanka, so too must all developing countries address the very real disparities and social inequities that give rise to militancy.

Waiting until law and order have been restored in order to implement social justice is a pipe-dream.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Barack Obama and "Change" - Does He Really Lack Detail?

There's been a lot of newsprint devoted lately to how Barack Obama lacks detail when talking about the "change" that he will bring about. A lot of that criticism comes from the campaign office of Hillary Clinton, of whom I've written before (Hi, Mom!). Mom, of course, has all the details required to make change happen, right at her fingertips.

But she, and all the analysts, are missing a very important part of why Barack Obama does not need to spell out how he's going to bring about change. Barack Obama is the change. People everywhere see it, and people everywhere will treat him differently, setting aside their own prejudices of what an American president is, giving him a fresh hearing, being willing to listen to what he says and even doing what he requests them to do. That's significant.

I'm approaching this very personally and viscerally, just as with my earlier analysis of Hillary Clinton. I can put Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George Bush (both father and son), and any number of previous US presidents in the same mental box, regardless of party affiliation. But I cannot put Barack Obama in the same box. He doesn't belong! I never realised that ethnicity could play such an important part in perception. Much as I want to be colour-blind, I find I cannot.

Barack Obama is clearly not part of the US political establishment traditionally dominated by middle-aged white men. As any brand consultant will tell you, that positions him differently. The brand equity of the US political establishment is entirely negative (remember Truman's "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog"?) Obama's involuntary positioning benefits him a great deal, not only in the US, but more importantly, in the rest of the world.

I'm aware of my thought processes, and I can't be alone in this:

Barack Obama => not middle-aged white man
Not middle-aged white man => not part of traditional US political establishment
Not part of traditional US political establishment => good guy

Barack Obama is a good guy. Whoever I am, my defenses are down. I am disarmed.

So now if a President Barack Hussein Obama sits down with leaders in the Middle East and puts together a peace treaty, there's likely to be far greater buy-in than if another middle-aged white man in that role does the same thing. His appearance, and his name, promise a far greater chance at peace than the details of the accord.

Another area where I predict he would have immense influence is in India-Pakistan relations. Indian leaders don't trust the US because of its past (and continuing) history as an ally of Pakistan. Paradoxically, Pakistanis don't seem to trust the US either, because it hasn't been a reliable ally (Example: Ignoring India's protests, the US sold F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Then they took payment but refused to deliver the jets because of nuclear concerns. They didn't refund the money either. Some ally. The Indians chuckled but somehow didn't see this as reason to start trusting the US.)

The current US ability to broker a peace deal between India and Pakistan is virtually zero, and it has everything to do with credibility. But enter a president with none of that historical baggage, and everything changes.

The solution to the India-Pakistan logjam is simple and stares everyone in the face, but has no chance of implementation in the current political climate. It's about accepting the status quo in Kashmir and then moving on with development, trade and all-round progress. India will never give up the part of Kashmir that it controls, and neither will Pakistan give up the other. This situation has remained static for decades. For a solution to the impasse, no real exchange of territory need actually take place. All that is required is for each party to admit publicly that they are not going to get "back" any territory from the other.

I will wager that if a certain President Barack Obama drops by in 2009 and gets the leaders of India and Pakistan to sign an accord that recognises this reality, the people of both countries will accept it. I'm not talking about the lunatic or fanatic fringe on either side. They can never be won over. It's the common people who will accept the bona fides and huge perceived moral authority of this different US President and do what he asks.

Once again, the clincher will not be in the details. It will be the person.

Hillary Clinton cannot pull this off. A white woman will not command any more authority than a white man, and in the subcontinent, may even command less, sad to say. No amount of mastery of detail will help when it comes to influencing people.

It's not what you know, it's who you are.

Barack Obama is The Man.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Why Hillary Clinton won't win the Presidency, or even the Democratic Nomination

OK, this post could turn out to be one of those embarrassingly wrong predictions, like "Dewey defeats Truman", but I'll make it anyway.

I think Hillary will fail to win the Democratic party's nomination, and it won't be because of sexism either. (That would be a factor in the Presidential election, and she won't be getting to that level anyway).

No, Clinton is competent, experienced and efficient, and most people see her as such. That's the problem.

Imagining a world where Hillary Clinton is in charge takes one back to one's childhood where one's mother was in charge - "Do your homework!", "Clean up your room!"


Mom knows best. But we're adults now, mom. And we enjoy our adult freedom to keep our surroundings messy and not do our homework once in a while.

Nobody will vote to go back to their childhood - and its powerlessness. Even if mom was around to take care of everything.

Sledging and Racism - that's not Cricket

I'm not a great follower of the game, but I couldn't help noticing cricket hit the regular news headlines over the latest Harbhajan Singh racism controversy. And this has also brought to the fore another pernicious aspect of the game - sledging. From what I understand, the world of cricket has Australians to thank for introducing that charming practice of unnerving your opponent through persistent verbal abuse.

Cricket used to be considered a gentleman's game. But these latest controversies show that there are some things that need fixing (and I don't mean matches).

Sledging should become unacceptable, and players indulging in it should face sanctions. The Australian team in particular should be put on notice that they're not winning any friends with this practice, even if they win matches. Sledging makes victories hollow.

And Indians need to understand that racism can cut both ways. As an Indian, I am aware of my countrymen's involuntary adoption of 19th century British attitudes, which leads to a fawning admiration of white people and a less-than-equal treatment of people of Asian or African appearance. Indians will often treat another Indian worse than they would a white person. As India globalises, it is time for Indians to confront their anachronistic attitudes to race and begin to treat all humans alike.

If sledging and racism are eliminated from cricket, it would go back to being a gentleman's game - and I could go back to ignoring it!

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi

It was very sad to hear of Benazir Bhutto's assassination last week. Like many other Indians, I have had mixed feelings towards Benazir. On the one hand, she was smart, articulate, Westernised (and I mean that as a compliment) and came to power both times through democratic elections. But on the other, she was not particularly friendly to India when she was prime minister of Pakistan. I don't know what peculiar property the seat of power in Pakistan has, but anyone sitting there tends to become anti-India. It's a bit like the mythical throne of Vikramaditya which conferred wisdom on anyone who sat on it, just in reverse. The memory of Benazir Bhutto to Indians is predominantly one of the hopes for peace belied.

I just want to record two thoughts here. I feel really bad for her young children. It must be absolutely terrible for them to lose their mother in this way. And now, with the nomination of her young son Bilawal (19) as leader of the party, there is fresh danger too. I hope and pray that they stay safe.

My second thought is about the many similarities between Benazir Bhutto and India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, some uncanny, some funny.

Both belonged to political dynasties and were the offspring of former prime ministers (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, respectively). Both were assassinated when they were in opposition, while they were campaigning before an election. Both their parents were assassinated too (I consider the judicial hanging of Z.A. Bhutto by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq an act of political vendetta and therefore an assassination). Both had siblings who died violent and unnatural deaths (Murtaza Bhutto shot dead in unexplained circumstances, Shahnawaz Bhutto found dead in a hotel room, Sanjay Gandhi killed in an air crash). Both had their sons enter politics as well (Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Rahul Gandhi).

The two did meet when they were prime ministers of their respective countries, at least once that I remember. Rajiv Gandhi made a personal reference to the Simla accord signed by Z.A. Bhutto and Indira Gandhi in his speech when he said, "Your father and my mother..." This personal touch was later criticised by political commentators when the India-Pakistan relationship deteriorated again. It was sarcastically referred to as the your-father-and-my-mother diplomacy.

I think Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi were both more comfortable in English than in their respective languages. Left to themselves, they would have been part of the elite of their countries who can easily survive without speaking any local language. But fortunately or unfortunately, politics in countries with large populations that don't speak English forces leaders to speak the local language - with hilarious results.

I remember watching parts of Rajiv Gandhi's speech in Assam after an accord was signed with the agitating Assam Gana Parishad. He said in Hindi, "Hum accord ko implement karenge, letter mein aur spirit mein" (We will implement the accord in letter and in spirit).

Likewise, I saw a short clip of Benazir Bhutto making a speech in Urdu to the Pakistani parliament, "Main is assembly ki floor par declare karti hoon..." (I declare on the floor of this assembly...)

I remember laughing out loud and exclaiming, "This woman is Rajiv Gandhi's sister!"

Neither could speak Urdu/Hindi without resorting to English on every alternate word.

Well, there ends another era. I wish the Bhutto children strength and courage in the days ahead. And I hope Pakistan comes out of its current turmoil and becomes stable, peaceful and democratic once more, if not for its own sake, then at least for India's. While India has always lived with the threat of a hostile and militarily strong Pakistan, a stable enemy country is far preferable to one where law and order have completely broken down and unpredictable violence can spill over the border at any time.