Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society

June 18, 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 South Asia.

Why might this be so, this stark difference of attitudes? The South Asian mind leaps straight to feudalism and, for once, it might not be wrong. Property and honor are the two of the principal attributes of feudalism and in nothing do they come together as potently or explosively as in the body of a woman. Property, no matter how unused, is to be protected, and honor, no matter how undeserved, is to be upheld. Even to steal a look at someone else’s woman could be asking for trouble.

One can explain the difference in attitudes if one believes that whatever feudalism emerged in Ireland following the Norman invasion of the twelfth century was gone by the first decade of the twentieth when Joyce was writing his early stories. In South Asia, on the contrary, it can be argued that the hangover of feudal values, if not feudalism itself, still shape attitudes and behaviors. The daily lives of women remain hostage to these values.

The persistence of feudalism in South Asia is, of course, a contentious claim. Many social scientists have argued that feudalism is dead and long gone, replaced by the values of a market economy. This, I believe, is an erroneous claim.

It can be convincingly argued that the ethos of monarchy continues to thrive in South Asia except that it is now everywhere cloaked in democratic garb. There is no other way of explaining the entrenched legacy of dynastic rule in almost all countries of the region. Nor can one explain the subservience of the ruled to the rulers without recourse to the continued survival of a monarchical culture.

Rajapaksa

The photograph above of the Sri Lankan Minister of Power and Energy, Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi, paying homage to President Mahindra Rajapakse dramatically illustrates how subservience remains alive and well even within the ranks of the rulers. In the same vein, the following is to be noted from India as reported in the news: “Gestures perceived as sycophancy must be discontinued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the newly elected MPs of the BJP, asking them to desist from practices such as touching the feet of senior leaders and offering to carry their bags.” (One indication that India is more advanced than Pakistan is that no such instructions could be expected in the latter – people strive to rise to the rank of bag carriers.)

Very similarly, forms of feudalism continue to survive in a market economy. One just has to look for them to unearth the neo-feudalism. The reason that both monarchical and feudal practices and values survive in South Asia today should be obvious – the hierarchical structure of social relations and the dependence of the many on the few continues unchanged. As long as a person is dependent upon another for anything, be it access to services, basic rights, or even good standing, the imperatives of patronage and the accompaniment of subservience cannot be dismissed.

It is informative to visit villages to see how modern neo-feudalism operates. The classic relations of feudalism defined by ties of mutual obligations have indeed disappeared – small peasants and landless laborers are no longer tied to particular landlords because alternative opportunities in the non-farm sector and in nearby towns and cities have emerged with the spread of the market economy. But the small peasant or landless laborer still does not have independent access to rights and services. For these, the intervention of the local big man is still needed although now the patron does not provide these in return for obligations on the manor. Rather, the services are often compensated through transactions more compatible with a market economy.

For more evidence of the persistence of the feudal value system, look no further than the primacy of its third major attribute – loyalty. Appointments to key public offices throughout South Asia are a dead giveaway (Presidents of Pakistan being a good example). If monarchy and feudalism were indeed dead one would expect to see a lot more emphasis on merit as a criterion for selection.

Democracy and the market are modern institutions superimposed in South Asia on a sub-structure characterized by hierarchy and extremes of social inequality. The imperatives of the latter determine values and drive behavior warping and distorting the institutions by their ineluctable force. It is no surprise that democracy is unable to deliver basic civil rights and the market unable to deliver a living wage to many.

There is of course a tension between the old and the new and the dislocations caused by the transition from feudal to capital values, the widening gap between acceptance and aspiration, is one reason for the increasing violence in South Asia. Almost all the marginalized struggling to improve their lives are its victims; women are just the most targeted ones because of their dual burden – they being forms of property as well as repositories of honor. Violence inflicted on women serves many more purposes in a feudal than in a non-feudal society.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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What the Fishermen are Telling Us

May 25, 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 have 229 fishermen and 780 boats in our custody.

We will release them on the days we are feeling particularly good or have something to celebrate – like when we win a cricket match against India or have a chairman of the cricket board we really like.

You get the point.

Is this how things are supposed to work in the 21st century?

Is there anything akin to due legal process in our land?

Here are these poor fishermen arrested for violation of some international law related to territorial waters. Can their cases not be processed expeditiously and decided one way or the other?

Have any cases ever been decided?

Or do they exist only to serve as gestures of goodwill for our monarchs?

Since we don’t feel good all that often these days – what with ungrateful Talibaan and all – many have died in custody before they could be released.

But their bodies have been handed over as gestures of our magnanimity.

Now that we are thinking of ‘poor’ fishermen, how many have trespassed into alien waters on their own volition? Who is sending them fishing across the line and not caring if they are arrested or not because there is an endless supply of poor fishermen?

Why not go after the big guys? Why take it out on the ‘poor’ fishermen and their poor families?

And, for that matter, why not go after the big Japanese trawlers? Is that because they can’t be grist to the goodwill mill?

Think too of all the poor farmers rotting in jails on charges of crossing the land borders for spying? Who is sending them across the border and not caring if they are arrested because there is an endless supply of poor farmers? Why not go after the spymasters?

The farmers can’t be released as gestures of goodwill because spying is serious business unlike the stealing of fish. Only their dead bodies can be released as gestures of magnanimity.

Sometimes when we are feeling particularly satiated, like after an extra special dish of siri paaye, we might, with an appreciative belch, allow a visit by the wives and daughters and transport them in air-conditioned buses.

But we can never release them. And, of course, the thought of trying them has not occurred to us.

Okay, Okay. You don’t really expect us to telescope into the modern age all of a sudden.

But here is a suggestion.

If we are playing this tit-for-tat game of goodwill, why not keep exchanging the poor fishermen and poor farmers as soon as we arrest them?

That way we will remain on a perpetual goodwill high.

And the modern world would be dumbfounded by the extent of our old-fashioned magnanimity.

Loag ash ash kar utheN gey.

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Mr. Modi

May 4, 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 almost all opinion-makers have conceded that he will. If he is, it would force us to come to terms with Richard Holbrooke’s painful dilemma.

No matter what you say about him, Mr. Modi is not a nice man. Indeed, that is part of his attraction. If one is to believe what one is being told, the Indian electorate is tired of nice men and women. It craves the savior who gets things done, no matter what it takes. It wants the train to run on time and if it has to mow down some obstacles in the way, so be it.

Development at any cost is what the electorate wants, a desire that brings together the poor despairing of the promise of democracy, the rich impatient with its constraints, and the young unburdened with a sense of history. Let us use the opportunity provided by democracy to vote in the authoritarianism that would deliver development. Quite akin to the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it would seem.

Governance in India has been so abysmal that one can sympathize with the desire for quick development. Except for the fact that almost all serious analyses of the experience of Gujarat call into question the fact of development under Modi and almost none question the lagging indicators of human well-being. (As examples, see the following: http://www.epw.in/insight/have-gujarat-and-bihar-outperformed-rest-india.html and this old post on this blog.) And yet, just repeating the myth often enough has turned into reality for the voters something that has little basis in fact. Yes, Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction because Mr. Bush said so.

The more astounding aspect is that it is not just poorly educated voters who have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Here are two former directors of the World Bank pinning their hopes on Mr. Modi’s “solid record in Gujarat.” For them, even secularism is to be demonstrated via development: “Indeed, the best way to neutralise his critics would be for Mr. Modi to show that secularism thrives, not through public arguments and abuse, but through development. As he has demonstrated in Gujarat, he is serious about making a difference by delivering results, and does not get distracted by playing the blame game.”

Thinking how a myth like this can assume such proportions that it can take in the entire spectrum of voters from the very poor to the very influential brings us face to face with yet another dilemma of modern democracies – campaign finance. We know the Supreme Court in the US has ruled (in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) that corporations cannot be restricted from contributing to electoral campaigns. In India, the failure to limit what parties can spend on general propaganda, as opposed to on individual candidates, essentially means big money can pretty much drive the narrative it wishes to promote.

And that is what it seems to be doing. “One estimate pegs the BJP’s advertising spend across all media including hoardings at a staggering Rs 5,000 crore. That’s just a bit less than the Rs 6,000 crore — roughly $1 billion the Obama campaign spent under all heads in the 2012 US presidential election! Once other expenses are added, the overall BJP budget will exceed that.” (http://www.alterinter.org/spip.php?article4185)

Where is all that money coming from and why? What will it ask for in return? Development, of course – but for whom, and at whose cost?

There will be time enough to answer these questions if the electorate does indeed vote in Mr. Modi. Ironically, democracy in India has survived thus far because of its incredibly fractured polity and a continuation of that pattern might help keep Mr. Modi under check. It would indeed open up a new and unprecedented chapter if the voters overcome those fractures and are swept up behind the myth of Mr. Modi.

That would really bring us face to face with the dilemma of democracy. And it would be left to Indians to work through its consequences given that India is much too big for America to undo the verdict of its voters. Indeed, the Welcome to the US mat is out, dusted, and ready for Mr. Modi.

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What Governments Do and Why

August 28, 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 is important.)

Incentives are the key variable in Downs’ proposition and in normal circumstances a government’s incentives are aligned with the objective of retaining power. Having observed Pakistani politics for decades, however, a circle of friends has inferred a variation that might better explain outcomes in the country. It might also illustrate the nature of the gulf that has opened up between the politics of India and Pakistan.

The essence of the variation is that the incentive of a typical Pakistani civil government (as a whole, not of rogue individuals within it which is a more universal phenomenon) has not been re-election but the maximum accumulation of wealth during any period in which it is in office. For one, the duration of its rule in any given period was highly uncertain given that real power was wielded behind the scene by actors other than itself. Therefore a strategy to satisfy the wants of any part of the electorate might yield no returns whatsoever. For another, it knew, given the paucity of political alternatives, that in the merry-go-round of Pakistani politics its turn would eventually come again. Thus it made strategic sense to build up a war chest to sustain it during its period in wilderness and be available when re-entry appeared possible.

This strategy was abetted by globalization when virtually all Pakistani leaders arranged safe havens abroad to recuperate when out of power or to which to escape when things got hot. Some are foreign nationals ruling by proxy from abroad; others shift abodes as and when the situation demands.

One consequence of the safe havens was that the leaders parked all their capital assets abroad and retained just running expenses in local currency. The operating game plan was then entirely tactical and risk-free – to do whatever was needed to extend their resource-extracting rule in the short term till such time when the music stopped. At that moment, they could take flight literally with the clothes on their backs and await some patron or the other to engineer their return.

With such incentives there was little need or time to do anything for the electorate barring the incidental byproducts of the process of making money (large infrastructure or service contracts, for example). This was quite unlike India where electoral strategy demanded the amelioration of some constituency at the very least. Governments could guess wrong (as with the Shining India strategy) but none could afford to ignore all the constituents all the time.

The complete apathy towards citizen needs in Pakistan is plausible in this perspective. A victim is the democratic process itself. Unlike in India, the real opposition is no longer represented by alternate political parties but increasingly by groups that reject the worldview of electoral politics altogether. The rejection also removes compunctions about the destructive economic consequences of their actions. They can survive on the bare minimum and believe everyone should too till the desired alternative is attained from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

In exploring the fundamental divide in the politics of India and Pakistan, I often think back to the 300 years of the Mughal Empire. Half this period was dominated by the six Great Mughals whom everyone recognizes. The other half was populated by dozens of emperors most of whom few can recall. This was the period dominated by behind-the-scene king-makers who shuffled puppet emperors at will, retaining them only for the legitimacy they conferred.

This could explain how democratic India and Pakistan both remain overwhelmingly dynastic and yet on different political trajectories. I am tempted to conclude that Indian politics is a continuation of the first half of the Mughal Empire while Pakistani politics resembles more the second – the rule of kings versus that of king-makers.

Of course, in the age of democracy kings don’t rule till they die or are deposed – they can take turns in office. From the viewpoint of incentives it makes a huge behavioral difference if a leader knows he has to remain at home when out of power as opposed to one prepared to flee abroad to seek a patron.

These contrasting imperatives, incentives, and strategies have led to divergent political trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different fate of their citizens – the one ignored, the other appeased.

The first completion of the political term of a civilian government in Pakistan could signal a change. Constraining further the power of king-makers could bend the Pakistani trajectory towards the Indian model, itself a variant of the Downs prototype. When that happens, Pakistani citizens would attain parity with their Indian peers. It would make little difference in their immediate conditions but place them on a better political platform for the long struggle ahead.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He would like to thank Nadeem ul Haque for discussions on this topic. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on August 27, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Poverty and Human Rights

June 5, 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 a divine right beyond challenge. For centuries under this order a very small group of aristocrats and clergy lived atop impoverished populations existing at bare survival. This did not mean the kingdoms were poor or lacked sophisticated cultures, just that they were characterized by extreme inequalities and poverty was considered a natural condition, an element of a divinely ordained order, not a social problem. At best, it was to be ameliorated through alms and charity which were deemed moral obligations.

[Since poverty is an ambiguous concept whose definition has changed markedly over time, it is useful to employ a simple characterization for purposes of this discussion. Consider as poor anyone not being able to afford ownership of a motorized vehicle (substitute horse-and-carriage for the age of monarchy). This indicator of ‘transport poverty’ can serve as an adequate proxy for poverty itself as also for economic transformation.]

The first major change in the monarchical social and moral order occurred in Europe, beginning in the 17th century, and over 300 years absolute poverty in Western Europe and its settler colonies disappeared for good. Poverty was next eliminated in Eastern Europe beginning with the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. Parts of East Asia followed starting around the mid-20th century with Japan starting earlier and China still in process. The last region to join was parts of Latin America beginning in the late 20th century.

The point to note is that these various eliminations of absolute poverty had very little systematic relationship with human rights. Only in Western Europe did the process proceed in parallel with the acquisition of rights as subjects were transformed into citizens bound in a social contract. But even here, rights had to be wrenched from the aristocracies: civil rights via social revolutions (the French Revolution, for example, with its explicit call for equality); political rights via the struggles for suffrage; and economic rights via the pressure of labor unions.

In Eastern Europe and East Asia, poverty elimination through accelerated industrialization was accompanied by gross violations of rights and in Latin America the sharing of wealth continues to face a violent backlash by entrenched elites and their allies.

The causes for these transitions were equally varied. In Western Europe, the first mover, they included infusion of colonial wealth (involving violation of rights of natives), emergence of capitalism (with exploitation of labor including children), replacement of communitarianism with individualism through urbanization, wars of religion discrediting divine sovereignty, and the need to protect capitalism itself from its worst excesses and its challengers.

In Eastern Europe the spur was to compete and catch up with the first movers. In East Asia, social insurgencies hastened preemptive land reforms followed by the challenge to compete globally. In Latin America, urbanization finally strengthened the hands of citizens wielding the power of the vote.

Countries with significant absolute poverty today are overwhelmingly in Africa, South and West Asia. In South Asia several characteristics are salient: communitarian identities with weak tendencies to individualism; quasi-monarchical ethos with strong dynastic traditions; sovereignty in some countries still reposed in heaven; leaders aspiring or believing in divine right to rule; populations still more than half rural; negligible economic aspirations to be globally competitive; weak labor unions; poverty still considered a natural condition with charity the preferred route to amelioration; moral crusades retaining precedence over political action.

Given this characterization, South Asia seems barely at the point where poverty is considered a social or political problem; the poor have yet to mount a sustained challenge for the acquisition of civil or economic rights – the few attempts to date having been brutally crushed. The only right, conferred by departing colonial masters, is the political right to vote and entrenched elites are determined to dilute, fracture and negate that by any means foul or fair including in places overturning the electoral verdict by force or manipulation.

It seems a mistake to extrapolate from the Western European experience and associate democracy unambiguously with human rights and poverty alleviation. The relationship is a function of the specificity of history and context. In South Asia, where the power to vote has preceded social equality and civil rights, a prolonged, bitter and often violent and anarchic struggle is very much on the cards – think of the Naxal revolt in India, the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, or the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Poverty in South Asia, much like anywhere else in the world, is unlikely to be eliminated by a voluntary conferral of human rights simply because the form of governance happens to be democratic. The reality is a lot more complex than that.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 4, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It is a summary of a talk presented at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in April 2013.

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The Politics of Urbanization

May 20, 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. (more…)

Pakistan Elections 2013: Reflections

May 11, 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. (more…)

Thinking About the Elections in Pakistan

April 1, 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. (more…)

More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 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. (more…)

The Economics and Politics of Corruption in India

August 26, 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. (more…)


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