Things done right in 2008

on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year 2008 was rough. It was a year where past excesses and lack of foresight led to perhaps the greatest recession in history; a year of reorganisation of world powers; and a year that ended in terrorist attacks on India that called into question the effectiveness and adequacy of our government, media, police and intelligence forces. The question stands--did we do anything right?

A fiscal cushion

The lack of foresight across the board--among economics experts down to the common man—is perhaps one of the most startling aspects of the global financial crisis. But taking a closer look at the Indian economy and the fiscal policies of the past year, it seems not everything was done in error or without prescience.

Ajit Ranade, Chief Economist with the Aditya Birla group, says the expansionary budget unveiled by then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in February was a measure that helped stave off some of the crisis.

When Chidambaram announced the budget, it was called ‘populist’ and the BJP said it was a ‘recipe for long term economic disaster’. The budget increased expenditure targets on rural development and education, cancelled loans made to farmers, and offered tax relief to low-income groups.

But Ranade says the criticisms were off-target. “The expansionary fiscal spending had impact on rural purchasing power. No one anticipated what was coming, but in hindsight this looks like it helped us with the slowdown,” he says.

Chidambaram’s budget increased banks’ target loan disbursals to the agricultural sector by Rs. 2.8 trillion ($70.52 billion), and Rs. 160 billion were allocated for employment in rural areas. The health sector allowance increased by 15 percent to Rs. 165.34 billion.

The budget also raised taxes on short-term investments and brought the mutual fund industry under the tax service net. At the time, this hurt market sentiment.

However, looking back, the budget provided a fiscal cushion, says Ranade. “While there was a slowdown in global markets, domestic markets kept up some momentum. We have seen our second quarter GDP show 7.6 percent growth, which was higher than expected. The budget might have mitigated some of the effects and allowed for this growth.”

The realty bubble predicted

While much of the world seems caught by surprise by the popping of the real estate bubble, Ranade says the monetary policy and stance of the RBI proved to be in the right direction in terms of the real estate market.

In December 2007, RBI Deputy Governor, Rakesh Mohan, warned against the real estate bubble in his address at Yale University on India’s financial sector reforms. Mohan said that the elevated realty prices along with non-transparency in the real estate sector might lead to an “asset bubble” and pose risks to the banking system.

He also said that the backlog in housing, growing income, and more urbanisation meant a continued demand for housing and pressure on real estate prices over the next year. “Such developments can easily generate bubbles in the real estate market because of problems in the elasticity of supply and information asymmetries,” he warned.

Mohan didn’t just talk; the RBI did something about it.

Ranade says that the RBI started tightening their policies much earlier than other parts of the world. “The RBI warned against the real estate bubble two years by starting to increase the risk rate on commercial real estate loans. They also put a cap on excessive lending to real estate.”

The policies of the RBI may have also prevented the subprime crisis in India, says Ranade, which is a minimal category in this country compared to the US.

Shift towards a multi-polar world

At a time when the global community is critical of US’ excesses in Wall Street and there is talk of the dollar ceasing to be the dominant world currency, a radical reorganising of world power seems more likely.

This unexpected result of the meltdown may be something else 2008 did right. The G-20 summit in Washington in November to discuss the global financial crisis put India and China centre stage and gave the BRIC countries more of a say as the world powers recognised the need for a global coordinated response to the crisis. The multi-polar world America has dreaded since the end of the Cold War (Vice President Dick Cheney and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz have repeatedly sworn to prevent it at all costs) seems to be in the not-too-distant future.

The United States National Intelligence Community survey of the world of 2025 in its report, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World”, confirms this. The survey found that the US was losing dominance, and China and India were lining up to fill its shoes.

In addition to the G-20 summit and other achievements such as the nuclear deal, India has proved itself in 2008 by breaking records. In April India sent 10 satellites into orbit in a single launch, setting the new world record. And at the Olympics in Beijing it received its first gold medal.

With the collapse of established financial systems and the approaching departure of President Bush, records may not be India’s primary expression of clout. As the inflexibility and egotism of larger countries like the US tempers, India’s global role may continue to expand rapidly as it did at the G-20.

Yes, we can

The election of Barack Obama may be crucial to the way world powers reorganise themselves. Countries the world over are not unhappy about it. In an Economist magazine survey of an imaginary global electoral ballot, Obama got the world vote 9115 to 203.

While President Bush may have been more pro-India than any president in US history, most notably with the passage of the nuclear deal and his policies on outsourcing, Obama may prove just as favourable. While there were initial concerns about his views on outsourcing and his promise to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir, he has since toned down those pledges.

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, Associate Fellow at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, acknowledges that there have been problem areas, but says that with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, there will be better understanding of these issues.

D’Souza also thinks there will not be a drastic change from the previous administration. “We feel that the new Obama administration will understand the strategic issue in South Asia well because Obama is interested in balance of power. He talks of change from a unilateral policy to a multilateral one, including the stand on Iran and negotiation in Afghanistan, and we think he will work to achieve that.”

Obama’s foreign policy advisor, Wendy Sherman, has stressed the future president’s plans for an overhaul in the interface between the US and the rest of the world. “He is going to engage with the world…with smart diplomacy, strong alliances and really bring America’s moral authority back into the world,” she says.

D’Souza says that despite Bush’s pro-India policies, the Obama administration is a welcome change because of a badly-managed Bush administration. “Because Obama is open to different opinions, with intellectual curiosity to absorb different things, we think he can make real change. It’s both his team and vision he has.”

2009 will show whether Obama’s policies will be beneficial to India, and whether his pledges are bonafide. But judging the overwhelming global consensus in his favour, Obama’s victory may prove to be something America did right this year.

A mature reaction to cross-border terror

More than the election of a new American president, or the reports from intelligence agencies indicating a reorganization of global power, the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai have shaken up the world. The attacks, which battered Indian nationals and Western visitors, have forced the West to take more than a cursory look at India.

Visits by Condoleeza Rice, and officials from the CIA, FBI and NYPD in response to the attacks illustrate the US’ understanding that a closer relationship with Pakistan than India may need to change.

But what has the Indian government done right in light of these attacks? Ashok K. Behuria, Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, says the policy-makers have reacted in the best way they could.

While many Mumbaikars are angry about the government’s inaction thus far, Behuria says they have been right in advocating restraint. “The government is not doing nothing. They are discussing a lot of options right now: more coordination among security forces, and the possibility of a homeland security agency. Paranoia has set in, but the people at the policy making level have their heads in the right place.”

Devyani Srivastava, Research Officer at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), agrees. “The diplomatic reaction of the government displays a sort of maturity. They have been able to separate the terrorism issue with other aspects of the relationship of Pakistan and India, which is difficult.”

Many would take issue with this notion, but the next few weeks will prove if the government can present a coherent, effective response to the situation.

The nuclear deal: New-found power

However the policy-makers react to the attacks, one thing they have already achieved in 2008 is the passage of the US-India nuclear deal.

The bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation between the two countries, exchanging the separation of civil and nuclear facilities in India for full civil nuclear cooperation from the US, was a landmark accord for India after years of being ostracized for not having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The waiver by the Nuclear Supplier’s Group that followed, allowing India to access civilian nuclear technology, was crucial.

Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, Director of the South Asia Analysis Group, says, “We had hardly done 3,000 megawatts and now by 2020 we may achieve the 20,000 megawatts goal. As our economy grows at 8 or 9 percent, this added power is essential. We had the money and expertise, all we needed was the power from countries willing to give it to us, and now we have it.”

The benefits of the deal extend to newly shared facilities of commercial aircraft manufacture, ship building, factories for power plants, steel making plants, mining and drilling hardware, petroleum and petrochemical plant building facilities. The deal also means availability of the latest technology for nuclear power generation, as well as offshoot benefits for markets which are related to nuclear commerce. New business worth $100 billion for companies at home and abroad over the next decade has been estimated as a result of the deal.

Srivastava of the IPCS says the geopolitical effects of the deal have also been big. She cites the greatest benefit to be the confidence the deal generated about Indian diplomacy and its ability for negotiation.

Chandrasekharan says India has joined the international mainstream as a result of the deal. Experts say India will be less isolated, with a new voice in forums like the UN, WTO, and world monetary lending institutions. India may become a member of G-8. And there will be more frequent inter-government exchanges on matters of mutual interest.

But Chandrasekharan warns against being too optimistic. “It’s too early to say how this will change things. Nuclear power doesn’t come in a day. Of course the general economy will improve because it will sustain economic development. Now we are getting some of the energy needed but this doesn’t completely fill the need. We have to look into other sources of energy.”

The actions of the finance minister and the RBI, the G-20 summit and the election of a new American president, the response of the Indian government to terrorist attacks and the passage of an agreement for nuclear power—2008 may not have been all pandemonium and crisis. We may have done some things right, as a country, and as a world. But like the nuclear deal, it may be too early to tell.

(Elizabeth Flock is an associate reporter with the new business magazine to be launched by Network 18 in association with Forbes, USA. )

FWD: FWD: FWD: The e-war on terror

on Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai, many citizens are feeling the need for community, and to do something. The December 3 rally at the Gateway was rife with slogans against politicians and calls for India to attack its enemies.
“Do we really believe that terrorist attacks can be prevented by citizens’ actions?’’ asks Shailesh Gandhi, who went from being a Mumbaibased RTI (right to information) activist to Central Information Commissioner in Delhi. Gandhi is convinced there’s no quick solution and that a citizen’s role is to improve the quality of governance. He says, “Every citizen has a stake in society. Normally we don’t recognise it, except for immediate concerns at maybe neighbourhood level, if that. We don’t bother whom the nation belongs to, except when there’s a cricket match.’’
Most Indians identify with a community in ethnic or religious terms, which is passive membership. Communities of choice, drawn together by a shared cause, are less common in urban middle-class culture.
Many are now seeking communities in the easiest place?online. Facebook groups have popped up like mushrooms in the monsoon. Some are discussing possible action, but others contain only news updates and opinions. Outraged emails are choking inboxes of those who haven’t set filters to delete anything with “FWD: Fwd: fw:’’ in the subject line. SMSes have been urging people to display symbols of mourning or forward a sarcastic joke until it reaches a certain politician.
Will all this frantic virtual activity amount to anything? Or is it just ‘slacktivism’, which lets people feel as though they’re making a difference without putting in much effort? Perhaps the most comforting thing about slacktivism is the heady illusion of effectiveness, as if thousands of mouse-clicks could clean up corruption, vanquish the enemy, feed starving families, or save polar bears from drowning in melting ice-caps. It does not require one to significantly alter a lifestyle that contributes to these problems, nor to take on the tedious task of making one’s government do specific things.
One volunteer notes with concern that his organisation’s website has 38 e-petitions on its campaigns page?a testimony to slacktivism’s growing popularity. However, e-petitions are ineffective, according to Barbara Mikkelson, who runs Snopes, one of the internet’s most trusted resources for debunking popular myths. Petitions usually fail as instruments of social change, she argues, because few even guarantee that anyone is collating the signatures and will deliver them to someone in a position to influence matters.
Nishank, a volunteer with the Association for India’s Development (AID), feels
e-petitions are at best a subset of public opinion, especially in India, where only about 5 per cent of people have internet access. He describes AID’s campaign to improve public transport in Gurgaon. The original plan was to get as many e-signatures as possible
and submit them to Haryana’s transport minister. But then, he says, volunteers decided to distribute pamphlets in different parts of Gurgaon and collect ink-on-paper signatures from people with no internet access who depended heavily on public transport. Mikkelson notes that paper petitions are more credible than virtual ones, because faking e-signatures is easy.
Mikkelson cautions that the more complex an issue, the more likely a petition will fail. Nishank underscores the need to be realistic. “Terrorism is a sensitive issue, whose solution requires expertise,’’ he points out. “When we talk of changing the system, we need to see where we stand, and how we can be instrumental at a pan-India level.’’
Gandhi emphasises that the problem is not just corrupt politicians, but also us and our inability to see the larger picture. “Why doesn’t it bother us that BMC schools are closing down? Why doesn’t it bother us that our government has downsized in the last 20 years, and a significant proportion of it is contract labour? What does it do to the quality of governance? Our political class is bad because we do not keep on questioning it.’’
The real work of improving one’s country is not exciting, but dull, Gandhi points out.
-Times News Network

‘How long are we expected to remain silent and watch the government mess up?’

on Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In a thoughtful analysis actor RAHUL BOSE discusses his response to the Mumbai terror attack

I have been affected by this attack on Mumbai personally – there is no doubt about it. When they cordoned off that area in Colaba, something broke inside me. That area has been part of my childhood and my life for many years now. There are a lot of memories - going for a run on Marine Drive, rugby and breakfast sessions at Bombay Gym, cracking open my first bottle of beer at Café Leopold, buying audio tapes and then CDs at Rhythm House, practicing and then performing at NCPA, watching the shows at NGMA, celebrating the Kala Ghoda festival, my first premier at Regal Cinema as an actor and then as a director – too many to list. I have been to the dome of the Taj, have seen that room and now to have seen it burning... a part of me has died – there is no denying that.

But in terms of response to the attack, my first response is that it has been an unprecedented psychological blow to a city and the psyche of its people. For 60 hours we were flooded with images of the attack every single second bringing the terror closer home. We watched and followed the drama of it all - there was a clear beginning, middle and end. We watched as the indiscriminate firing began, as blood was being spilled, as army commandos moved in, the ensuing gun battle, the destruction of iconic buildings – all of this was brought to us live for 60 hours. We have to live with those images now.

Compare this with the 1992 clashes, the 1993 riots, the 2006 blasts and the psychological impact of these was not as bad as the 2008 attack. The practical effect of the earlier attacks was people asking themselves if they can fish again in Mazgaon, if they can work at the stock exchange, or if they can re-open their shop in Zaveri Bazaar. But now, even though a smaller percentage of people are likely to frequent hotels like the Taj and the Oberoi, the terror feels more real. And that is no doubt thanks to the live streaming of images.

Second, let’s take a look at the political impact of these attacks. As a city, and I have lived here for 40 years, we have grown used to dealing with issues of health, no drinking water, no proper sanitation facilities, housing problems. We have lived through the floods and the pollution and the traffic very patiently. We are ready to make do with the government apathy, the tokenism of a handful of flyovers in 40 years. But the very least the government can do is to stop people who land in boats at Colaba carrying huge bags loaded with guns and grenades. They landed in Colaba, the heart of the city, not a deserted stretch of the coastline! And yet the government could do nothing to intercept them. To borrow a phrase from a television channel, enough is enough. How long are we expected to remain silent and watch the government mess up?

If this were not bad enough, some of the Hindu right wing organizations have been demanding the enactment of a more stringent law. What kind of a new law do we need to stop people who land up in boats carrying bags full of ammunition? Can we honestly say that we have explored the full extent and saturated the might of the existing laws to ask for more policing?

Already we queue up outside cinema halls, airports, star hotels and subject ourselves to scrutiny. We wait until they have checked us and our cars. We wait in long queues outside the cricket stadium and agree to leave our water bottles outside since they call it a security threat. We have been extremely patient and cooperative right through. And now when they want to increase the policing, increase surveillance by subjecting us to a new security act. We will be making the same mistakes that the American State made after the 9/11 attacks. Their knee jerk response has resulted in Guantanamo Bay, legalized torture, Patriot Act – all of which contributed to making it the most hated nation in the world. I believe that if we do decide that we need a new law, we need to move very slowly and with careful consideration of what the implications of such laws are for the people of this country.

My third response would be to recognize the bravery of the Mumbai Police, MARCOS, National Security Guard commandos. They have been lauded by ordinary people, by people trapped in the situation, the media – and they deserve every bit of the recognition. I have heard at least three accounts from people, who found themselves trapped inside the hotels, of how the commandos assured them complete protection; that as NSG commandos, they would take the bullets if the situation came to that. For two and a half days, they did not sleep – just went about their job as professionally as the situation demanded. I was following the coverage of the attacks very closely and I remember when the operation ended, the boys came out smiling, huddled around a flask of tea and drank from tiny plastic cups. They were happy with that – people who had risked their lives satisfied with those tiny cups of tea. For me, that moment and their smiling faces captured India and its generosity for me. It was heartbreaking.

There is another dimension that will manifest itself in the days that follow. The response to terror strikes dictates whether they have been successful or not. If the response is violent, irrational and uncontrolled, the strikes have been successful. If the response is calm, focused, patient, passionate and insistent, we have been successful. To that end there are a set of things we must not do. As a nation, we must remember that Pakistanis are not Pakistan state. The ordinary people on the street have nothing to do with decisions that the government takes. Let us not label and vilify the entire country and its people. If the cause for this attack is traced back to the Pakistani state, by all means we should demand compliance as dictated by international law.

But more importantly as a nation, we must make certain demands of our government. We could ask them to show us an anti-terror plan in 90 days and the ways in which they are going to implement that plan. This should be a preemptive measure that can be carefully considered if it is made open and available to public scrutiny.

We must demand police reforms – no government till date has had the spine to even consider or do anything about the police force in this country. And I believe we can force the hand of the government. If 1 million people assemble in Mantralaya in Mumbai, which government can ignore their demands? If 1 million people assemble in front of the Prime Minister’s Office and refuse to move till such a time when the anti-terror plan is announced publicly, how can the government ignore us? We have forgotten the culture of visible peaceful public protest and I believe now is the time to reclaim that culture.

While there is no running away from the fact that there is an instinctive bias to these attacks, there is no need to beat ourselves just because our social radars do not prioritize violence faced by a Dalit family in Khairlanji as easily as we might prioritize the violence faced by a loved one. I struggle hard to rectify the bias inherent in me, but I understand that people pick and choose battles to fight. There is no time or emotional energy to waste by decrying this selection of battles. We should instead engage in whatever battles people choose to be concerned about. We have no time to lose. We have to fight against the infringement of our rights even if that means we will be labeled unpatriotic by a few. And the fight has to be vocal, active, unflagging. No longer can we assume the silence of the past – we only have bloodied faces and bodies to show for that silence. If we want the government to act, there is no other alternative beyond citizens demanding action.

Death Of A Salesman And Other Elite Ironies

on Monday, December 8, 2008

TARUN J TEJPAL

ROHINTON MALOO was shot doing two things he enjoyed immensely. Eating good food and tossing new ideas. He was among the 13 diners at the Kandahar, Trident-Oberoi, who were marched out onto the service staircase, ostensibly as hostages. But the killers had nothing to bargain for. The answers to the big questions — Babri Masjid, Gujarat, Muslim persecution — were beyond the power of anyone to deliver neatly to the hotel lobby. The small ones — of money and materialism — their crazed indoctrination had already taken them well beyond. With the final banality of all fanaticism, flaunting the paradox of modern technology and medieval fervour — AK-47 in one hand; mobile phone in the other — the killers asked their minders, “Udan dein?” The minder, probably a maintainer of cold statistics, said, “Uda do.”

Rohinton caught seven bullets, and by the time his body was recovered, it could only be identified by the ring on his finger. Rohinton was just 48, with two teenage children, and a hundred plans. A few of these had to do with TEHELKA, where he was a strategic advisor for the last two years. As Indians, we seldom have a good word to say about the living, but in the dead we discover virtues that strain the imagination. Perhaps it has to do with a strange mix of driving envy and blinding piety. Let me just say Rohinton was charismatic, ambitious, and a man of his time, and place. The time was always now, and in his outstanding career in media marketing, he was ever at the cutting edge of the new — in the creation of Star Networks, and a score of ventures on the web. The place was always Mumbai, the city he grew up in and lived in, and he exemplified its attitudes: the hedonism, the get-go, the easy pluralism.

For me there is a deep irony in his death. He was killed by what he set very little store by. In his every meeting with us, he was bemused and baffled by TEHELKA’s obsessive engagement with politics. He was quite sure no one of his class — our class — was interested in the subject. Politics happened elsewhere, a regrettable business carried out by unsavoury characters. Mostly, it had nothing to do with our lives. Eventually, sitting through our political ranting, he came to grudgingly accept we may have some kind of a case. But he remained unconvinced of its commercial viability. Our kind of readers were interested in other things, which were germane to their lives — food, films, cricket, fashion, gizmos, television, health and the strategies of seduction. Politics, at best, was something they endured.

In the end, politics killed Rohinton, and a few hundred other innocents. In the final count, politics, every single day, is killing, impoverishing, starving, denigrating, millions of Indians all across the country. If the backdrop were not so heartbreaking, the spectacle of the nation’s elite — the keepers of most of our wealth and privilege — frothing on television screens and screaming through mobile phones would be amusing. They have been outraged because the enduring tragedy of India has suddenly arrived in their marbled precincts. The Taj, the Oberoi. We dine here. We sleep here. Is nothing sacrosanct in this country any more?

What the Indian elite is discovering today on the debris of fancy eateries is an acidic truth large numbers of ordinary Indians are forced to swallow every day. Children who die of malnutrition, farmers who commit suicide, dalits who are raped and massacred, tribals who are turfed out of centuryold habitats, peasants whose lands are taken over for car factories, minorities who are bludgeoned into paranoia — these, and many others, know that something is grossly wrong. The system does not work, the system is cruel, the system is unjust, the system exists to only serve those who run it. Crucially, what we, the elite, need to understand is that most of us are complicit in the system. In fact, chances are the more we have — of privilege and money — the more invested we are in the shoring up of an unfair state.

IT IS time each one of us understood that at the heart of every society is its politics. If the politics is third-rate, the condition of the society will be no better. For too many decades now, the elite of India has washed its hands off the country’s politics. Entire generations have grown up viewing it as a distasteful activity. In an astonishing perversion, the finest imaginative act of the last thousand years on the subcontinent, the creation and flowering of the idea of modern India through mass politics, has for the last 40 years been rendered infra dig, déclassé, uncool. Let us blame our parents, and let our children blame us, for not bequeathing onwards the sheer beauty of a collective vision, collective will, and collective action. In a word, politics: which, at its best, created the wonder of a liberal and democratic idea, and at its worst threatens to tear it down.

We stand faulted then in two ways. For turning our back on the collective endeavour; and for our passive embrace of the status quo. This is in equal parts due to selfish instinct and to shallow thinking. Since shining India is basically only about us getting an even greater share of the pie, we have been happy to buy its half-truths, and look away from the rest of the sordid story. Like all elites, historically, that have presided over the decline of their societies, we focus too much of our energy on acquiring and consuming, and too little on thinking and decoding. Egged on by a helium media, we exhaust ourselves through paroxysms over vacant celebrities and trivia, quite happy not to see what might cause us discomfort.

For years, it has been evident that we are a society being systematically hollowed out by inequality, corruption, bigotry and lack of justice. The planks of public discourse have increasingly been divisive, widening the faultlines of caste, language, religion, class, community and region. As the elite of the most complex society in the world, we have failed to see that we are ratcheted into an intricate framework, full of causal links, where one wrong word begets another, one horrific event leads to another. Where one man’s misery will eventually trigger another’s.

Let’s track one causal chain. The Congress creates Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to neutralise the Akalis; Bhindranwale creates terrorism; Indira Gandhi moves against terrorism; terrorism assassinates Indira Gandhi; blameless Sikhs are slaughtered in Delhi; in the course of a decade, numberless innocents, militants, and securitymen die. Let’s track another. The BJP takes out an inflammatory rath yatra; inflamed kar sewaks pull down the Babri Masjid; riots ensue; vengeful Muslims trigger Mumbai blasts; 10 years later a bogey of kar sewaks is burnt in Gujarat; in the next week 2,000 Muslims are slaughtered; six years later retaliatory violence continues. Let’s track one more. In the early 1940s, in the midst of the freedom movement, patrician Muslims demand a separate homeland; Mahatma Gandhi opposes it; the British support it; Partition ensues; a million people are slaughtered; four wars follow; two countries drain each other through rhetoric and poison; nuclear arsenals are built; hotels in Mumbai are attacked.

IN EACH of these rough causal chains, there is one thing in common. Their origin in the decisions of the elite. Interlaced with numberless lines of potential divisiveness, the India framework is highly delicate and complicated. It is critical for the elite to understand the framework, and its role in it. The elite has its hands on the levers of capital, influence and privilege. It can fix the framework. It has much to give, and it must give generously. The mass, with nothing in its hands, nothing to give, can out of frustration and anger, only pull it all down. And when the volcano blows, rich and poor burn alike.

And so what should we be doing? Well, screaming at politicians is certainly not political engagement. And airy socialites demanding the carpet-bombing of Pakistan and the boycott of taxes are plain absurd, just another neon sign advertising shallow thought. It’s the kind of dumb public theatre the media ought to deftly side-step rather than showcase. The world is already over-shrill with animus: we need to tone it down, not add to it. Pakistan is itself badly damaged by the flawed politics at its heart. It needs help, not bombing. Just remember, when hardboiled bureaucrats clench their teeth, little children die.

Most of the shouting of the last few days is little more than personal catharsis through public venting. The fact is the politician has been doing what we have been doing, and as an über Indian he has been doing it much better. Watching out for himself, cornering maximum resource, and turning away from the challenge of the greater good.

The first thing we need to do is to square up to the truth. Acknowledge the fact that we have made a fair shambles of the project of nation-building. Fifty million Indians doing well does not for a great India make, given that 500 million are grovelling to survive. Sixty years after independence, it can safely be said that India’s political leadership — and the nation’s elite — have badly let down the country’s dispossessed and wretched. If you care to look, India today is heartbreak hotel, where infants die like flies, and equal opportunity is a cruel mirage.

Let’s be clear we are not in a crisis because the Taj hotel was gutted. We are in a crisis because six years after 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Gujarat there is still no sign of justice. This is the second thing the elite need to understand — after the obscenity of gross inequality. The plinth of every society — since the beginning of Man — has been set on the notion of justice. You cannot light candles for just those of your class and creed. You have to strike a blow for every wronged citizen.

And let no one tell us we need more laws. We need men to implement those that we have. Today all our institutions and processes are failing us. We have compromised each of them on their values, their robustness, their vision and their sense of fairplay. Now, at every crucial juncture we depend on random acts of individual excellence and courage to save the day. Great systems, triumphant societies, are veined with ladders of inspiration. Electrified by those above them, men strive to do their very best. Look around. How many constables, head constables, sub-inspectors would risk their lives for the dishonest, weak men they serve, who in turn serve even more compromised masters?

I wish Rohinton had survived the lottery of death in Mumbai last week. In an instant, he would have understood what we always went on about. India’s crying need is not economic tinkering or social engineering. It is a political overhaul, a political cleansing. As it once did to create a free nation, India’s elite should start getting its hands dirty so they can get a clean country.

Letter by Rajdeep Sardesai

Dear Reader, forgive my self-indulgence, but I write this as an angry and anguished Indian citizen and south Mumbaikar as much as a professional journalist. Over the last few days, as I have watched the city of my youth being ravaged by mindless terror, I must confess to feeling helpless, almost violated, as if someone had defiled the shrine of an old unhurried, SAFE Bombay.

Each terror site ignites a flash of memories, the roll call of the dead consist of names I grew up with. In the geography of terror, the horror has come precariously close to home: my mother lives just a block away from Nariman House in Colaba, an area that has been traditionally the most secure in the metropolis.

Its almost as if in the space of 72 bloody hours, an entire universe of memories has been shaken, perhaps irretrievably. Leopolds Café where I had my first beer in celebration of clearing the high school exam; Colaba market, where in the congested bylanes you got the best chicken rolls and patties in the city; Metro junction where you slipped out of college to catch the latest matinee; VT station which you passed every morning to work, the Oberoi hotel which left you awe-struck, one of the first high rises that dotted the Nariman Point landscape; and, of course, the Taj.

Mumbai without the Taj is a bit like a Queen without the crown. The Taj experience isn't just about the rich and famous, it's a symbol of Mumbai's urbane, cosmopolitan identity, undoubtedly elitist, but reflecting the civility that is so precious to the city. As a south Mumbai collegian, a monthly visit to the Shamiana, the coffee shop at the Taj was part of the growing up years. You saved up for it because being in that ambience made you feel just a little adult and sophisticated. Just the thought of maybe, just maybe, rubbing shoulders with a cricketer or a film star at the next table was enough to spend hours over a cappuccino.

In that sense, 26/11 has blown apart a certain way of life, each grenade exploding the innocence of another era. Not to forget the friends one has lost. Ashok Kamte, Xavierite from the batch of 85, a police officer with the muscle of a Schwarznegger and the heart of a giant teddy bear. For Ashok, being a police officer was not just a professional option, it was a family tradition: his grandfather had been Maharashtra's first inspector general of police.

Sunil Parekh, a successful businessman, two years senior in school, shot alongwith his wife, even as they dined at the Oberoi. The ever-smiling Sabina Sehgal Saikia, a colleague from the glorious Times of India days when there were no 24 hour news channels to shatter the idyll of an extended editorial meeting. Ashok Kapur, ex-president of the Bombay Gymkhana club, whose colonial environs still provide an old school refuge from the cut and thrust competitiveness of new India.

I am not alone. Most people in this old Mumbai world have been touched directly by the terrorist. 26-11 has given a face to terror to a community which until now was happily insulated from it. While buses were blasted in distant suburbs, train commuters were targeted and the crowded bazaars of central Mumbai were hit, south Mumbai was somehow a sanctuary where you felt protected, where the tryst with terror for a majority was limited to watching it unfold on television in some distant corner.

Now, sitting in your home verandah and watching NSG commandos being airdropped and gunshots being fired, there was no escaping the reality: terror had entered your neighbourhood.

Which is also why 26-11 is very different from Mumbai's original date with terror on March 12th 1993. Then, the serial blasts across the city left us dazed and fearful. Then, we thought the terror had sprung from the ghettoes, from the grimy underbelly of the city. We knew of Dawood, although we didn't quite know what RDX was. We saw the blasts as a continuum of the riots, a cycle of violence and vengeance that we hoped would soon end.

Fifteen years later, after repeated assaults, the perpetrator of the bomb blast has transformed himself into a far more terrifying phantom than in the early 90s. In the 21st century, this lethal and evil force has just demonstrated that it can strike at will whenever and wherever it wants and so called Rising India can't do a damn thing. Which is why the fear this time is matched by rage. Its an anger felt by a citizenry which feels betrayed by their leadership. When in 1993, RDX landed on the coastal coast it was felt that this was an unfortunate breach of security. Now we know that this was no aberration: a combination of callous politicians, bumbling bureaucrats and an emasculated police force have created a feeble and corrupted system that is simply incapable of taking on trained and highly motivated terrorists.

This is not a partisan issue either: the fact is that bomb blasts have taken place across the country, from Narendra Modi's Gujarat to Vilasrao Deshmukh's Maharashtra. Intelligence failure is not the prerogative of any one political party or government, its reflective of an antiquated bureaucracy that is totally out of its depth when dealing with the international jihadist. Why, for example, does it take a formal request from the state government to the home ministry for the NSG commandos to be flown in several hours after terror has struck?

Where is the crisis management committee that needs to spring into action right away? And why should an officer investigating a terror case also be expected to be out on the street engaging in a gunfight with AK 47 wielding terrorists?

Today, every citizen is asking these questions. The candlelight vigils and sms campaigns may seem ineffectual, but lets not underestimate the power of an enlightened citizenry in the media age. There is a new vote bank out there, a vote bank of furious and articulate people, many of whom are directly responsible for driving the Indian dream forward. It is impossible for any politician to ignore this urban voter and rely on the rural masses alone. 26-11 has ensured that the Indian upper middle class emerge from its cocoon of privilege. The voices being heard at the Gateway of India are a slowly gathering momentum. Over the debris of the Taj, the Indian elite may finally be coming of age.

The Saint, The Criminal And The Terrorist

on Wednesday, December 3, 2008

SN BALGANGADHARA argues that to fight terrorism and the ideology of crime, politics needs to retain its ethical moorings


Increasingly, the phenomenon of terrorism has begun to occupy the media, politics, and the lives of people in different parts of the world. The more the attention, however, the less the clarity: what kind of a phenomenon is terrorism? What generates it, what sustains it, and what allows it to expand on an ever-increasing scale?

This lack of clarity has to do with the fact that our ideas about terrorism appear as an incoherent set. First, terrorism horrifies most of us; the acts of terrorists are seen as monstrous in scope and size. But the number of deaths or the human suffering, even if we look at an event as momentous as 9/11, is dwarfed by what traffic accidents and smoking do in any given year.
Second, despite its relatively small impact (relative, that is, to the impact of smoking, traffic accidents, etc.) and the lower probability of its occurrence (compared again to such phenomena), terrorism induces massive changes in our societies that are incommensurate with the act itself.

Third, most of us think that terrorists are monsters, lunatics, crazy and evil: they appear as pathological human beings. At the same time, we read in the newspapers that the terrorists not only increasingly draw recruits from the ordinary population, but also that they use ethical considerations like the perceived injustice in the world or attacks on their family, for instance, in their defense. Here, they reason pretty much the same way most of us do.

Fourth, we seem to think that some religion (Islamic fundamentalism) or political doctrine (Marxism) provides the foundation for terrorism. Such political and religious motives are even taken to differentiate it from ordinary crime. Yet, we see terrorism implanting itself in any and every kind of soil: Zionism, deep ecology, Islam, fascism, animal liberation, ethnic self-determination, Christianity, communism, nationalism,… This suggests that no specific religious or political beliefs are required for it to take root and flourish.

Fifth, the only things we see are the acts of crime that terrorists either plan or actually commit. Yet, it is extremely difficult to call them ‘ordinary criminals’, because they seem to do something ‘more’ than just plan or commit criminal acts: they appear more monstrous than thieves or serial killers and the impact of their acts goes far beyond that of other crimes. In short, we entertain what appear as prima facie inconsistent ideas about terrorism.

A hypothesis about terrorism must provide a solution to the above problems without discounting any of them. We propose that terrorism is a unitary phenomenon (despite internal differentiations) and formulate a single hypothesis that illumines these and other known facts about terrorism. Hopefully, the essay thereby functions as an incentive and a heuristic to develop a better hypothesis.
We would like to suggest that terrorism is a particular form taken by crime. In that case, the puzzle is why and how crime takes the form of terrorism. Attempts to characterize terrorism as “(violent) acts that intend to terrorize people for socio-political ends” do not answer this question. They do point out some of its features. However, there are many violent acts that intentionally instill fear in a population and that also have socio-political ends, but which could hardly be terrorism. The difference between murder (even if it is mass murder) and an act of terrorism that also murders (think of 9/11 in this context), we suggest, does not lie in the motives of the actor, the action, the means used, the nature of the victims, the intended goals or its realized effects. Instead, it is located in how the crime is transformed into “something else.” What makes crime into terrorism is this act of transformation.

Actually, the act goes beyond transformation: terrorism is trans-substantiated crime. “Trans-substantiation” refers to the miraculous transformation of some particular substance into another one. (During the Mass, for instance, Roman-Catholics believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.) This happens in the case of terrorism as well: crime becomes morally praiseworthy. It does not concern so much a particular crime, but rather the transformation of the entire domain of crime. This trans-substantiation results in the re-presentation of crime as morally praiseworthy. We suggest that what brings about this “miracle” is an ideology, which we would like to call “the ideology of crime.” It is our hypothesis that such an ideology exists today and that acts of crime can become acts of terrorism because of what this ideology does and how it does so.

We propose to expand on this idea in the following way: first, we explicate what the trans-substantiation consists of; second, we show how this “miracle” is possible; third, we analyze the presuppositions and implications of such a process; fourth, we dwell on its relation to the self-description of terrorism; finally, we identify some of the illumined facts and spell out the policy implications of our hypothesis.

The ideology of crime
While terrorism is not itself an ideology, it exists by virtue of an ideology. By presenting criminal actions as morally praiseworthy, this ideology performs the central function of any ideology: it enables one to lend legitimacy to actions that are otherwise considered illegitimate. The ideology itself does not provide the required justification; if it could, it would be an ethical, political, social or economic theory or even a religion. Instead, the ideology of crime merely enables such a justification, where and when necessary.
What does it mean to say that an act of crime is presented as morally praiseworthy? It means that such an act now has the force of a moral exemplar. But some action can have the force of a moral exemplar to an individual, if and only if that person is a member of a moral community and intends to live as a moral subject. Otherwise it cannot. Therefore, a terrorist to whom a crime becomes a moral exemplar must see himself (and must also be seen by others) as an ethical agent, who is a member of a particular moral community sharing its ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, permitted and forbidden and so on.
In so far as an action can have the force of a moral exemplar only to an ethical agent, the ideology of crime makes no further empirical presuppositions about the nature of such an agent. That means to say, the ideology of crime re-describes a criminal act in such a way that such a re-description is indifferent with respect to specific religious and political beliefs that an individual might adhere to. In this sense, it is indifferent to distinctions between cultures, peoples, languages, skin colors, etc. In short, if this ideology of crime has to succeed in presenting some act as a moral exemplar, it has to make the same presuppositions as all our ethical theories. Indeed it does. The ideology of crime is deeply and indissolubly rooted in the ethical domain that all human beings share.
Even though all human beings share the same ethical domain, we are initiated into this domain through the empirical communities we are born into. These empirical communities are many and differentiated: different religions, cultures, languages, philosophies, traditions, etc. mediate us to the ethical domain and mark our distinctions and differences from each other. In this process, each of us acquires notions of crime as well. Mostly, these are associated with moral infringements, even if, depending upon our differential acquaintance with law, further refinement occurs in the course of our lives. For its success, the ideology of crime not only requires that recruits belong to empirical moral communities, but also that they always remain members of some empirical moral community or the other. That means to say, the ideology of crime (a) presupposes of its recruits that they too have notions of crime that their moral communities have and (b) requires that they continue to retain them as well. Why?
The first condition has already been dwelt upon: a morally exemplary action has an ethical force only to a moral subject. As an empirical, moral subject, a person brings with him the notions of right, wrong, good, bad, criminal, legal,... that prevail in his community. The ideology of crime presupposes this fact. It also requires that the recruit continues to be a member of an empirical moral community because this membership enables an access to the reservoir of human actions. Such a reservoir is continuously replenished with new and original actions, undertaken by human beings in their widely differing circumstances. In having access to such a treasure house, the terrorist ideology has access to novelty as well. That is why new terrorist actions are possible.
It is often suggested that terrorists have “other” moral values than those held by the rest of us. Even though we shall suggest later why this appears to be the case, let us state here where we think this view is profoundly wrong: if the terrorist was not a member of the ethical domain we all share, there would be no terrorism to speak of. The very possibility of terrorism depends upon the fact that the terrorists too make distinctions between good, bad, right, wrong, criminal, legal and so on in exactly the same way we do. That is to say, much like most of us in the world, he too would find some actions (like murder, theft, rape, arson, looting, etc) immoral and criminal the way we do.
The evidence is overwhelming that terrorists possess the moral notions we have, and consider the same set of actions which we could call “crimes” also as crimes. When a terrorist confronts the rape of his mother or sister, or the assassination of his beloved leader; or the fact of his pregnant wife blown to pieces and his child maimed for life by a blast; he too reacts with the same moral judgment and moral emotions his victims have. That is to say, he reacts to these immoral acts as a moral subject: with horror and abhorrence.
The terrorist is not a pathological person lacking a moral sense or an alien with utterly strange norms (finding morally good what most of us would find morally abhorrent). He is and has to be similar to us. If he was not, terrorism would not be able to find recruits at all. If there is one thing we have learnt, it is this: the recruiting ground for terrorism is fertile, continually expanding and consists of ordinary people much like us. Unless we assume that the number of pathological people continues to increase because of some evolutionary quirk, which is very improbable, then we have to make sense of how moral subjects very much like us could become terrorists at all.
In this sense, and because of this reason, we do not define what ‘crime’ is, in order to speak about the ideology of crime. The terrorists already possess this notion (furthermore, it does not vary all that much with our day-to-day intuitions). They know what crime is, but the ideology of crime metamorphoses the actions that the terrorists consider as crimes into morally exemplary actions. If this is the case, how does he reconcile his actions with his own moral judgment and emotions? And how does the ideology transform crime into a moral exemplar? We will begin with the second question first.

The mechanism of a miracle
To answer this question and understand what terrorism is, we must take the hypothesis of the transformation, metamorphosis and trans-substantiation of crime utterly seriously. Because the terrorist is a moral subject too, the ideology of crime can make a criminal act appear ethical to him only if it re-describes and re-presents that act. What kind of change is involved in this process?
In the first place, this representation cannot transform a criminal act into an ethical one by making it morally obligatory. If it did, then the terrorist would either be inconsistent (because one and the same act would continue to be both forbidden and obligatory, since the act would both be a crime and moral at the same time), or would not have the notion of crime (because no act would be forbidden), or he would have another set of moral values than the rest of us (our “crimes” would appear moral to him). We suggest that none of these is the case.
In the second place, this transformation must somehow succeed in doubling: it must leave the domain of crime of the terrorist intact and yet re-describe these acts in such a way that they do not appear to belong to the criminal domain. That is, it must appear as though two descriptions of an act actually describe two different acts – the criminal and the ethical.
In the third place, such a re-description must place the act beyond both the “obligatory” and the “forbidden,” while retaining the distinction between these two sets of actions at the same time. Such must be the transformation that the act appears almost unique (sui generis, one of a kind). This ideology should make his act so unique that the terrorist can neither see nor comprehend it under any other description than the one provided by that ideology. It must trans-substantiate an act, which is neither unique because it belongs to a category of actions, nor moral because it is criminal too in the eyes of the terrorist, into a unique act. That is, the ideology of crime must transform crime by making each criminal action into a unique act, one of a kind. Thereafter, as far as the terrorist is concerned, this act does not have any other description than the one provided by the ideology and he cannot recognize his act under any other description.
Exactly that happens. The ideology trans-substantiates crime into supererogation and, in doing so, meets all the above conditions. “Supererogation” names the sets of actions that have the force of moral exemplars without being obligatory. Heroism, bravery, kindness, love for one’s neighbor, saintly actions, etc. are all examples of supererogation. They are not obligatory, since a failure to perform these actions does not make someone immoral. They have the force of moral exemplars without being obligatory. These actions are “over and beyond the call of duty” and as such are beyond the realm of moral obligation. That is, they are outside the domain of “moral laws,” but yet within the ethical domain.
The domain of crime and the domain of supererogation share this formal property: they are both “beyond the scope of moral laws.” In doubling the description of crime, this is what the ideology of crime does: while leaving the description of a criminal act intact, it also provides a re-description of the act as supererogation. This is possible because of the formal property that both crime and supererogation possess. Consequently, these actions appear both sui generis and ethical at the same time.
However, because such actions belong to the ethical domain, there is a need for moral justification. The ideology of crime, which, as we have said, makes the action neutral (or indifferent) with respect to religious and political beliefs, allows for any kind of defense: one could appeal to injustice in society or to God’s commandments or to oppression and exploitation or to the doctrines of national sovereignty and national interests… The list is both varied and endless. The point to note here is the following: neither religious nor secular doctrines form the intellectual basis of terrorism. They are used in morally justifying an act that has already achieved the status of a supererogatory action. The trans-substantiation of crime into supererogation is not something that these doctrines and beliefs accomplish. The ideology of crime has already done that before either religion or political beliefs are pressed into service. If we fail to see this, we end up conducting sterile and unending debates: such as whether Islam is peace-loving or whether it is antithetical to modern values.
These debates are not merely sterile and interminable. They are pernicious as well because, by conducting such debates, we countenance the self-description of terrorism and accept the legitimacy of the transformation of crime into supererogation. To see why this is so, we need to understand the sense in which the ideology of crime is truly subversive.

Presuppositions and implications
Consider what the ideology of crime does. It appeals to a moral community, to its ethical and moral notions, and presupposes its distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, and so on. On the basis of this distinction, it systematically pulls out immoral acts in order to re-present them as supererogatory to the very same community. The community is asked to judge as ‘moral’ precisely that act which is immoral and criminal in its eyes. That is to say, the community should consider one and the same act as both immoral and supererogatory at the same time and on the same intellectual and moral grounds. The ideology of crime trans-substantiates some individual into both a moral criminal and a moral saint (at the same time and on the same grounds) to that very community of which he is a part.
This is impossible: on one and the same substantive grounds, an act cannot be both immoral and supererogatory at the same time and for the same person. While one could (conceivably) think of two rival moral theories making different ethical pronouncements about some particular act, that is not the case here: a moral community is continually forced to judge actions as criminal and supererogatory at the same time and on the same grounds. Should a moral community ever allow for this to happen, it would disintegrate as a moral community and cease to exist. In that sense, while the ideology of crime undercuts its own foundation, it is also truly subversive: that which turns against and destroys the very community of which it is a part. It necessarily bites the hand that feeds it.
How does this situation translate itself in the cognitive world of the terrorist? How does he solve this tension between himself and his moral community? Here is where we see the dynamic nature of the ideology of crime. This ideology allows him to identify differing empirical communities at different times as his “relevant” moral community of the moment. Consider the Taliban in Afghanistan. At one time, both the US administration and the Pakistani government supported the Taliban fighters militarily, financially and morally. In doing so, both nations became a part of the relevant moral community of the Taliban. However, in the post 9/11 world, neither Pakistan nor the US belongs to the relevant moral community of the Taliban. Instead, they are now its enemies.
The internal problem of inconsistency between what the ideology of crime does and the moral foundation on which it rests is transformed into an external opposition between the empirical community that the terrorist momentarily attaches himself to (that community then becomes the “relevant” moral community for him) and the “rest” of the world: the opposition between the “moral us” and the “immoral they.”
The problem does not lie in the “us” and “they” distinction: all of us make such distinctions, which are based on the real differences that exist between different groups of people. Instead, it has to do with how the distinction is made and what it consists of. The “us” and the “they” are ethically hostile forces, each others’ enemies and two polar opposites locked in struggle, from which only one can emerge as the victor. The internal opposition between a moral community and what the ideology of crime does is expressed as an external battle-to-death between two communities: the “moral” community that the terrorist momentarily attaches himself to and the “others.”
The identity of these communities is of no cognitive or moral significance in this battle: it could be the Americans today, Iraqis tomorrow and the Pakistanis the day after. Each was an ally at some stage or another; each was thus once a part of the moral community of the terrorist. The ideology of crime has to necessarily turn against its own foundation; the terrorist does the same too by splitting the world into “us” and “they” in this particular manner.

The self-description of terrorism
Consequently, to say that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” does not entail subscribing to ethical relativism. It is worse than that: it is to endorse the self-description of the terrorist and to underwrite the ideology of crime. The same consideration applies to discussions about whether or not some religion or political theory is a harbinger of terrorism. This also covers the case of those who look at terrorists as “lunatics,” and as “deranged” and “pathological” persons. In all these cases, we endorse the description that the ideology of crime provides us with.
If there is something tragic about the current intellectual and political scene, it is this: both the friends and foes of terrorism have accepted the self-description of terrorism. We treat the terrorists as “exceptional” persons, who cannot be understood as “normal” human beings. We go beyond our ethical and legal limits in our opposition to terrorism and, in doing so, endorse their self-description in that we treat them as more than “mere” criminals by according them a special status.
We allow the subversion of terrorism by subverting our own legal and moral codes, and justify such subversions in the name of national security. We accept the legitimacy of the terrorist argument by endlessly debating the issue of whether or not some religion or political theory encourages terrorism or not. We endorse their self-description by identifying some terrorists as “religious” or “fundamentalists,” which is exactly what they claim they are. We act as though one “ought not to be” a fundamentalist forgetting, in the process, that should we give up the fundamental distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, we would only end up all the worse for it. We give up our notions of human rights by making or reinforcing discriminations against people from “other” religions and regions.
We endorse and reproduce the distinction the terrorist makes between the “moral us” and the “immoral they” by speaking about the terrorist as though he is not a member of the ethical domain that all human beings share, or as though he has an alien set of “moral values” when compared to the rest of the human beings. Finally, we succumb to the illusion of the terrorist: he believes that he performs a set of “special actions”; we agree with him and speak about “terrorist acts” all the time. In all these ways and more, we allow terrorism to feed on the success and legitimacy it enjoys by our acceptance of its self-description.

Conclusions
This, then, is our hypothesis: terrorism is the transformation of crime into supererogation. The ideology of crime enables such a trans-substantiation. Let us see how this accounts for some of the facts we already know about terrorism.
1. Terrorism spreads, because it appears imitable. We have seen why terrorism can recruit ordinary moral subjects; that is why it is imitable. Anyone can become a terrorist. It can spread because the ideology of crime is neutral or indifferent with respect to religious, political and other beliefs.
2. Terrorism appears to target its victims both indiscriminately and in a focused manner. As examples of the latter, consider the sustained attempts at assassinating various political dignitaries, heads of states, prominent politicians, UN personnel, etc. during the last decade. It is indifferent as to whom it targets because the “relevant” moral community of the terrorist undergoes changes over time. However, it is also focused because the terrorist is a member of a specific “relevant” moral community confronting a specific ‘other’ at any one time.
3. Terrorism inevitably bites the hand that feeds it, whether the hand that feeds it is a state (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example) or a movement (the Palestinian Liberation Organization). Terrorism has to turn against its own foundation because of the dictates of the ideology of crime.
4. Terrorism inevitably disrupts civil society in multiple ways that are incommensurate with the act itself. For instance, 9/11 changed both the US and the world so much that it is difficult to speak of commensurate effects of the act itself. Terrorism disrupts society (and sows fear) in such disproportionate ways, because its ideology and its mechanism threaten the very existence of a moral community.
5. Terrorism is surrounded by some kind of an ideology, which appears to provide a moral justification for the act. We have seen that the requirement of moral justification arises from the fact that the ideology of crime makes crime supererogatory.
6. Terrorism generates two diametrically opposed ethical reactions. In some circles, the terrorists of today are the embodiments of the highest virtues and, as such, exemplars to imitate. In other circles, they generate moral horror and ethical abhorrence. That is, both make an appeal to ethical considerations. However, it appears as though these considerations are not merely different, but also opposed to each other. Consequently, terrorism and those others who feel moral aversion to it are mutually recognized as enemies-to-death. Each wants to eliminate the other. We explained why ethical responses are enticed by the ideology of crime and why the “moral us” and the “the immoral they” appear as enemies-to-death.
Does this set of considerations generate policy conclusions? Yes, it does. Let us simply list a few of them.
1. Crime cannot be abolished in a society by exterminating the criminal population at any given moment. We have to strike at what generates and sustains crime in a society. Overcoming terrorism, besides requiring a whole series of social, political and economic remedies, needs something extra as well: both public intellectuals and academics must begin dismantling the ideology of crime. This is not the same as identifying some “other” political or religious doctrines and discoursing about them.
2. If we continue to hold “religion,” or even “religious fundamentalism” and “Islamofascism” as the cause of terrorism, not only do we fail in addressing the real issues, but we end up feeding the ideology of crime by accepting the self-description of terrorism. The current craze in the American academy and public debate about Islam reflects how successful the ideology has been here.
3. We need expert jurists, magistrates, and politicians to work on setting up provisions in criminal law that allow us to tackle the nature of this particular form of crime. However, such statutes, like all other legal statutes, should be tested for their admissibility within the moral and constitutional limits that we work under.
4. The “war on terrorism” is sensible only to the extent we can speak about “war on crime.” In the same way criminals are a danger to civil society, terrorists are dangerous as well. But, as commentators have noted, the US government has vacillated between approaching terrorism as a violation of criminal law and as an issue of war. The first approach acknowledges that terrorism is but a form of crime and thus negates its ideology, while the second confirms the ideology and views the terrorists as warriors for a cause. This leads to conflicting policies that fail to respect both criminal law and the law of war.
5. We feed the ideology of crime and terrorism when we treat the terrorists as “exceptional” individuals and, therefore, stray outside the established framework of law to bring them to justice. By setting up special military tribunals, by denying them their status as moral subjects, one concedes to the claims that the ideology of crime makes. One needs the framework of law and justice (why set up courts otherwise?) and, at the same time, denies both the requirements of law and justice (because they appear as “kangaroo courts” to the outside world). This is exactly what the ideology of crime does. In this sense, in bringing both the Guantanamo Bay and subsequent developments into existence, the ideology of crime has already begun to acquire moral legitimacy.
6. Ethical considerations, which should provide the foundations for any kind of politics, have become subordinated to petty political and party considerations in the US. To stray away from ethical foundations, in pursuit of the requirements of “national interests” or “geo-political situations,” feeds the ideology of crime. Surely, Ronald Reagan’s statement that the Taliban are “freedom fighters” rather than terrorists, has come back to haunt us today. Any institution, community, organization, or movement that feeds or nurtures terrorism (directly or indirectly) will become its victim sooner or later. That is so, because such a bond allows the ideology of crime to become dynamic by transforming many different empirical communities into possible moral communities for the terrorists. If it is to fight terrorism and the ideology of crime, politics cannot afford to lose its moorings from an ethical foundation.

Prof. S. N. Balagangadhara is director of the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (Comparative Science of Cultures) in Ghent University, Belgium. He has authored many pieces, including a book titled, "The Heathen in His Blindness" on the nature of religion.

Will India Declare War On Terrorism?

The Americans were prompt on declaring a war on terrorists and those who harbour them after 9/11, posits SUJAY SOOD

In the time since 9/11 and 11/26 happened, I've gone from becoming an Indian national to an American national. When 9/11 took place, I was surprised at the intense and single-minded mobilization of American resources—much more military than diplomatic—to hit back at a terrorist network that proclaimed itself powerful by virtue of dastardly and inhuman action.

I was Indian then, and therefore more than a little surprised and much awed by the events that followed to result in the deployment of American and allied NATO forces in Afghanistan to destroy the self-serving, destructive and inimical terrorist organization called Al-Qaeda. It's a war that is being waged even today.

My surprise stemmed from the fact that, as an Indian, I was aware that terrorists operated out of Afghanistan. I was aware that Osama Bin Laden had made it his mandate to strike out against capitalism and democracy all across the world in the name of a very misguided interpretation of his religion, Islam. I was aware that India had been victimized more than once before 9/11 by the operatives of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who were trained and abetted by the all-powerful wing of the Pakistan military—the Inter Services Intelligence agency. I was aware that the ISI had been funded by USA to siphon money to Afghanistan during its war in the 1980's against the Soviet Union. I was aware, also, that Osama Bin Laden was a monster that had benefited from the ISI training, funding and arms.

On 9/11 and in the days that followed, what surprised me as an Indian—who had become used to the Indian government never taking necessary action to prevent future terrorist attacks, to never mobilizing its armed forces in any specific type of retaliation against the enemies of the nation, to using the massacre of its citizens as an excuse to dawdle and manipulate vote banks for the next elections—was the swift and decisive actions taken by the United States government .

Here's an immediate timeline of the day that the terrorists made the cardinal mistake of testing American resolve to stand firm in her mandate to root out terrorism from the face of the earth: 8:45 am American airlines jet strikes the North tower. 9:03 a.m. United Airlines flight crashes into the south tower. 9:08 a.m. the airspace in the immediate proximity of New York State is sealed against any takeoffs. F-15's being non-stop sorties to survey the skies. 9:28 a.m. President Bush makes first public statement regarding the tragedy. 9:37 a.m. Flight 77 crashes into the east wing of the Pentagon. 9:45 am the entire US airpspace is shut down against civilian flights.

Two more flights crashed, and the American nation took toll of the tragedy. I was in Boston, holding a vigil with my colleagues and students, shocked and uncertain as to what happened, and as to what was to happen.

At 8:30 p.m. uncertainty about what was going to happen were put to rest by president Bush's declaration of war: "...we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

In less than 12 hours since the first plane had struck the first tower and wreaked terror upon America and the world, the president's proclamation was uncompromising. It put not only the terrorist organizations across the world on alert, but it also put all those countries that harbored, trained, and armed those terrorist groups on alert.

When 9/11 happened, I was a national of India. I was shocked not only by the tone of the American president's response but at its unabashed declaration of war against terrorists and terrorist states.

India had already suffered countless attacks by terrorists—aided, trained, and equipped by agencies in Pakistan—and the Indian government had never quite reached the point of resolving to do anything that would seem pro-active in terms of protecting the innocent civilians of India from future bloodshed. I wasn't the only Indian who had become inured to tragedy through endless and self-serving political dawdle-talk.

When 11/26 happened in Bombay, I was an American national. I watched in horror, with utmost sadness and dismay, the images of bloodshed in the wake of the brazen terror attack in Mumbai. But feelings of despair were very quickly replaced by anger against a corrupt and inefficient government that failed to establish a centralized intelligence network to combat terrorism in the last thirty years, that failed to stop coordinated terror strikes that had victimized 6 major cities in the last two years, that refused to heed warnings from the local coast guard against a marine infiltration of the country.

But as the events unfolded, as the hundreds of innocent civilians got injured and lost their lives, as the brave military and commando units suffered casualties in their efforts to eradicate the inhuman killers without harming potential survivors, what angered me the most was the vacillating, apologetic tone of the Indian government.

There is no doubt in the world arena about from where the terrorists embarked, and where they procured their sophisticated weaponry and training. If ever there was a time for the Indian government to emulate a precedent set by the United States and promise to its terrorized Indian population that India "will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," then that time is now.

But that time seems to have come and have more or less gone. Instead, the Indian government has had the resolve to invite the chief of the ISI to come and have a discussion in Delhi.

Which invitation was curtly refused.

In the aftermath of watching its population get massacred, the Indian government only managed to get snubbed. Talk about inviting salt in the wounds.

Instead of protecting the people of India against future bloodshed, the Indian government is happy to hold discussions—over tea and finger-foods—with those who harbor, train, fund terrorists.

Today, I am an American citizen with the utmost respect for the people of India, a people who cherish their secular and constitutional way of life, and I and proud to belong to a country that shares Indians' hatred of terrorism in all its forms.

As an American, I also share their dismay and anger at a self-serving government, which continues to bask in inaction and politicking even the face of mounting civilian casualties in the last two years.

India has battled terror for decades, but now terrorism has declared war on India. Will India declare war on terrorism?

They have failed us

Rajiv Desai

The political class is like the public sector, which seeks to run a modern enterprise in a bureaucratic fashion. Politicians and bureaucrats and their cohorts try to operate a modern nation state with command and control techniques more suited to the colonial era.
This contradiction was outlined in stark relief by the terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Not even the most modern nation state could have anticipated the strikes. However, the key is the response. Right or wrong, governments in the United States and Western Europe responded swiftly to similar attacks on their cities. Certainly in the US there has been not even a minor incident of terror since 9/11. Now compare that to the dithering, uncoordinated response of the Indian authorities. A cogent approach might, at the very least, have contained the number of casualties.
It took nearly 10 hours for commandos to show up. Plus the police proved once again unable to do the simplest job of sanitising the area. Instead, you had crowds of curious onlookers and the inevitable television crews and reporters. What’s more, television reporters, in their eagerness for ‘breaking news’, were oblivious of the negative impact that their coverage could have, especially in keeping the terrorists informed about the commandos’ tactics.
Various spokesmen fed the media with information about police plans, government strategy and commando tactics in a random manner. It was clear that no one was in charge: not the Union home minister, not the state chief minister, not the state home minister, not the NSG chief, not the police commissioner, not the state and central information ministries. It was a comprehensive failure of governance.
The question arises: Could politicians and bureaucrats have done any better? Of course, they could have. So why didn’t they? Why did it take the state chief minister so long to grasp the true nature of the attacks? Why did his deputy, who also serves as home minister, downplay the magnitude of the problem? Why did the Centre take so long to wake up? What was the national security adviser doing? What was the home minister doing? A National Disaster Management Authority office was established recently. Was this not a disaster included in its terms of reference?
Nevertheless, let’s not play the blame game. Instead, let us analyse why things went so terribly awry. One, the position of a politician in any party is vicarious. Except for the supreme leader, no one is secure. This puts a premium on sycophancy that cascades through the ranks and explains why politicians wear
several rings, undergo elaborate religious rituals and are deeply superstitious. Their survival is not on the basis of performance or leadership. If he should in some way displease the leadership, it’s curtains.
Neither chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh nor any of the Patils (former central and state home ministers) was capable of getting anything done except ceremonial posturing, which in their minds would please their overlords. In such a culture, politics becomes process rather than goal-oriented. Meaningless gestures and flatulent rhetoric are all you get. Hence Deshmukh’s “terror tourism” trip to the Taj with Bollywood celebrities or Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s gift of money to the family of a slain security officer. Compare that to 9/11, when the New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge and directed the response.
National priorities are much lower in the politician’s hierarchy of values. Every situation he faces is judged on the basis of whether it strengthens or weakens his position. In addition to sycophancy, the political culture celebrates opportunism. This explains why the chief minister of a neighbouring state rushed to the Oberoi hotel, where he swaggered before the assembled media, charging the Maharashtra government with failure and calling for new laws and what have you. If ever Modi was stripped of his recent image-building sheen, this was it. He was shown up for what he is: a small-time opportunist with an agenda that is clearly too large for him. Meanwhile opposition leader L K Advani, with his refusal to support the government,wrote his own obituary as a possible prime minister. Contrast that to solidarity shown by American and European politicians in the face of similar terror attacks.
Innovation and ideology are an intrinsic part of modern political cultures. Barack Obama steamrollered his way to the presidency of the US with a high-tech campaign and a message of change. In India, Mayawati is feted for her ability to rally the impoverished and oppressed Dalit castes, flaunting diamond jewellery and disclosing mind-boggling assets. The BJP, with its pursuit of a communal anti-Muslim agenda, offers no real message other than hate and deceit. The failure of the party to emerge as a centre-right alternative is unforgivable and speaks of a lack of vision.
On the other hand, the Congress is hopelessly paralysed by various competing factions including a socialist left that seeks to return to the days of Indira Gandhi, feudal groups based on caste and religious affiliation, and a ruling progressive section that is held in check by the various factions. The result is reform by stealth, a hesitant foreign policy and mindless populism. Sapped by such a debilitating culture, the political class was simply incapable of responding to the terrorist assault on Mumbai.

Calling all Pakistanis

Thomas L Friedman

New York: On February 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirised the Prophet Mohammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai?
After all, if 10 young Indians from a splinter wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party travelled by boat to Pakistan, shot up two hotels in Karachi and the central train station, killed at least 173 people, and then, for good measure, murdered the imam and his wife at a Saudi-financed mosque while they were cradling their two-year-old son — purely because they were Sunni Muslims — where would we be today? The entire Muslim world would be aflame and in the streets.
So what can we expect from Pakistan and the wider Muslim world after Mumbai? India says its interrogation of the surviving terrorist indicates that all 10 men came from Karachi, and at least one, if not all 10, were Pakistani nationals.
It seems to me that the Pakistani government, which is extremely weak to begin with, has been taking this mass murder very seriously, and, for now, no official connection between the terrorists and elements of the Pakistani security services has been uncovered.
At the same time, any reading of the Pakistani English-language press reveals Pakistani voices expressing real anguish and horror over this incident. But while the Pakistani government’s sober response is important, and the sincere expressions of outrage by individual Pakistanis are critical, one is still hoping for more. I am still hoping — just once — for that mass demonstration of “ordinary people” against the Mumbai bombers, not for my sake, not for India’s sake, but for Pakistan’s sake.
Why? Because it takes a village. The best defence against this kind of murderous violence is to limit the pool of recruits, and the only way to do that is for the home society to isolate, condemn and denounce publicly and repeatedly the murderers — and not amplify, ignore, glorify, justify or “explain” their activities.
Sure, better intelligence is important. But at the end of the day, terrorists often are just acting on what they sense the majority really wants but doesn’t dare do or say. That is why the most powerful deterrent to their behaviour is when the community as a whole says:“No more.What you have done in murdering defenceless men, women and children has brought shame on us and on you.”
Why should Pakistanis do that? Because you can’t have a healthy society that tolerates in any way its own sons going into a modern city, anywhere, and just murdering everyone in sight — including some 40 other Muslims — in a suicide-murder operation, without even bothering to leave a note. Because the act was their note, and destroying just to destroy was their goal. If you do that with enemies abroad, you will do that with enemies at home and destroy your own society in the process.
“I often make the comparison to Catholics during the paedophile priest scandal,” a Muslim woman friend wrote me. “Those Catholics that left the church or spoke out against the church were not trying to prove to anyone that they are anti-paedophile... They wanted to fix a terrible problem” in their own religious community.
We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilise quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here.
Because this kind of murderous violence only stops when the village — all the good people in Pakistan, including the community elders and spiritual leaders who want a decent future for their country — declares, as a collective, that those who carry out such murders are shameful unbelievers who will not dance with virgins in heaven but burn in hell. —

Why It Won’t Happen in India

on Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ashutosh Varshney

On January 20, when Barack Obama is formally inaugurated as president, the US will have a tryst with destiny. As famously defined by Jawaharlal Nehru, a national tryst with destiny is “a moment...when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
Scholars of nationalism agree that the US was founded upon an ideology, not ethnicity or race. The ideology was contained in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, it said, “that all men are created equal”. Europe, the Old World, was horribly tied up in feudal hierarchies.The New World would have political and social equality at its core. As a corollary, rising from below became the socalled American dream. In reality, however, the US has not fully lived up to this ideal. Indeed, the creed of political equality came entwined with a founding ambiguity. The founders did not abolish slavery, an institution diametrically opposed to equality.
This original ambiguity has haunted the US. The election of Obama as president liberates America from its basic contradiction. It is a shining moment in the historical journey of American nationhood and a landmark moment for world history. No society has yet elected someone from its deepest subaltern trenches to the highest office of the nation. Obama is not a slave’s descendant, but he is African-American. It should be no surprise that an international debate about whether other nations can produce an Obama has begun. The debate in India, too, has been vigorous. Can Mayawati become India’s Obama? Can a Muslim be elected India’s prime minister?
A Muslim PM would, indeed, be a celebratory landmark for Indian secularism, but that is not an exact comparison. No community of India has suffered more than the nation’s Dalits. Muslims have historically had a dualistic structure: a ruling class and an aristocracy on one side and a vast mass of poor on the other side. In significant ways, that dualism continues to this day: the Azim Premjis and Shah Rukh Khans on the one hand, and the teeming millions on the other. In contrast, no film and sports stars or business leaders have come from the Dalit community. Though not enslaved, at least in modern times, Dalits, much like the African-Americans, have been segregated, stamped upon, and treated shabbily. India also has a founding ambiguity. Our Constitution abolished untouchability, but it is still widely practised. A Dalit PM would constitute a true parallel to the election of Obama.
Can India produce an Obama? Three great differences between India and the US make it unlikely. First, party establishments cannot easily be challenged until there are open
intra-party elections for the leadership of political parties. American elections start with the primaries, allowing anyone in a political party to stake a claim to leadership. Lacking internal elections, India’s parties today are on the whole family properties. The partial exceptions are the BJP and CPM. But the BJP cannot easily have a leader not approved by the RSS. And the CPM is ruled by an unelected politburo.
The Congress was historically based on internal elections, but with the exception of a feeble attempt in the 1990s, internal elections, suspended by Indira Gandhi in 1973, have not been restored. The institutional decay of India’s political parties means that rank outsiders, like Mayawati, tend to create new political parties, but it is well known that it is much harder to create a new nationwide political organisation than use an existing one. The competition between political parties in India is remarkably vigorous, but competition inside is its exact opposite.
Second, the US has a presidential system, India a parliamentary one. Since a US president is elected by the whole nation, a presidential system creates a national political arena. Every presidential candidate has to think of how to lead the nation. In a parliamentary system, the electorate votes for an MP, but there is no national election for the PM. Only when a parliamentary system has two (or three) nationwide parties, as in the UK, do political leaders tend to compete the way American presidential candidates do. India does not have a two-party system.
Third, to mobilise citizens for vote, one has to speak in a language that the citizens can understand. Political campaigns take place in a linguistic register. Until India becomes more or less fully literate and also bilingual, India’s primary political arenas will be linguistically diverse provincial units. As a result, state-level Obamas will emerge, but national-level Obamas will be extremely hard to come by. Mayawati is at best a provincial Obama, with one major difference. Obama never ran a campaign of bitterness and anger; he subscribed to post-racial politics. In contrast, before the current Brahmin-Dalit brotherhood phase began, Mayawati conflated the politics of dignity with the politics of revenge.
Only movement politics, aimed at putting the various communities together, can tear down India’s institutional constraints. The freedom movement was the last great movement that built unity in India. It produced impressive national political leaders. The JP movement in the 1970s presented an alternative version of national unity, but it could not really take off. The Advani-led rath yatra was also one of the biggest movements of 20th century India. But it did not unite; it only divided. Until such time as India’s political parties become more internally democratic, a national level two-party system emerges, or strong movements of national unity come to the scene, India’s national leaders will continue to come from party establishments, not from the lower reaches of society.
The writer, a professor of political science, will shortly join Brown University.

Desperately seeking our own Obama

on Friday, November 14, 2008

With the White House set to receive its first black president, the temptation to seek parallels at home is alluring. There is, for one, the question of when India will get its“Obama moment”: A Dalit assuming the country’s highest political office. But there is also the broader theme of whether India will get a young leader who can communicate with the felicity Obama has displayed.
A truth about the US elections is that Obama is a change not only from GOP poli- cies and leaders, but also from senior Democrats who seem just as jaded. Yet, it is remarkable that Obama came from nowhere in a matter of two years or so.
Placing charisma, change and new leadership in the Indian context can be a case of overreach. There are, however, strands common to most democracies and India is no stranger to charismatic leaders. The Gandhis have provided their share, with Rajiv’s stupendous win in 1984 standing out. His youth and ‘Mr Clean’ image took the nation by storm.
A few years later, Congress outcaste V P Singh mesmerised the middle classes and the Hindi belt as he swept Rajiv out of office. Around the same time, L K Advani, in a very different manner, held audiences spellbound by his advocacy of the Ram temple. In 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the “man India awaits” as his charisma delivered a winning edge to the BJP.
In all cases, charisma did not obliterate caste calculations, but provided the X factor. It is equally true that charisma is not
permanent and even though leaders have embodied change, their spell does wear off. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are a case in point. As general elections approach, possibly as early as February, the principal combatants are in their late 70s and early 80s. Most major political figures are battle-hardened and youth is at a premium. Does a fresh face and ideas require the prop of dynasty or does the system offer a break to one less blessed?
There are MPs, some from political families as well as others, who do reflect a certain dedication to their chosen profession. BJP’s Kiran Maheshwari, a first-time MP from Udaipur has demonstrated both perseverance and grit, while her colleague Kharabela Swain, a third-term MP from Balasore, has shown he has the smarts when taking on leading figures in the government such as finance minister P Chidambaram.
Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu is not in his party’s core group, but despite his four terms, he is refreshingly uncynical in his approach to politics. He is not clueless when it comes to issues such as climate change, finance and security. Among other MPs who stand out are Asauddin Owaissi, who commands a one-seat party but can draw on his oratorial gifts and a foreign education.
Though she has a limited ouevre, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti is both articulate and brimming with confidence — although being a woman politician from Kashmir can itself be a daunting task. Her rival, NC’s Omar Abdullah, has drawn both praise and flak for his speech during the July 22 trust vote. Though he must keep an eye on regional imperatives, he seems to have the leadership gene.
In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has the obvious advantage of dynasty. But that’s not the only thing on his CV. He manfully withstood jeering and ribbing over his
“Kalavati” speech. Sachin Pilot hails from a political family, but doesn’t take this advantage for granted. He does his homework and gives thought to issues before taking a stand. Similarly, Selja, who is on her second stint as a junior minister, combines both the urban and rural experience like Pilot.
Though there is talent in the current Lok Sabha, the question whether it will fulfil its promise is not easy to answer. The structure of India’s political system and the nature of parties — dynasty often rules in both national and regional outfits — makes progress to the top unpredictable. Merit often requires an accident. In parties where dynasty does not rule, such as the BJP, running the factional maze can test the hardiest of nerves.
But politics defies predictions. No one gave Obama a fig of a chance. But when the opportunity arose he grasped it with both hands. India may yet surprise the world.

The celebration and the hangover

SWAMINATHAN S ANKLESARIA AIYAR

The US has al ways had two very different faces, one inte rnal and one ex ternal. Inter nally, it has be en a global be acon of dem ocracy, empowerment, and equal rights for the powerful and pow erless. Externally, it has used its military and economic power to bully others into submission sometimes gently and sometimes bloodily. Its internal face is ad mired across the globe, while its external face is widely disliked.
Barack Obama’s victory bur nishes the US internal face as nev er before, and has rightly been cel ebrated across the world. How fan tastic that a country that enslaved black people for centuries, that did not even permit them to vote freely till 1964, should now elect a black president! The US has triumphed over its own history, making race and colour irrelevant in ways unimaginable even four years ago It is a triumph not only for Oba ma but for all Americans, and for the very idea of America.
Having celebrated the internal US triumph, we must now ask what Obama’s victory means for the external face of the US. The answers are sobering. Indeed, one cannot rule out a hangover.
Indian politicians and busi nessmen have hailed Obama’s vic tory, yet plainly have reservations Obama’s campaign slogan for change, chanted endlessly by his followers, was ‘‘Yes, we can’’ What exactly does that portend on specific issues?
Now that the US is slumping into the worst recession since 1979 can Obama take measures to re duce the outsourcing of software and business services to India, and reduce visas to Indian software engineers? Yes, he can.
Can he take measures to reduce the flow of direct and portfolio in vestment to India? Yes he can. He wants to raise the capital gains tax from 15% to 20%. That worsens the risk-reward ratio for US in vestors, and will make them more reluctant to invest in emerging markets like India, which are con sidered riskier than the US.
Can Obama devise tax and oth er measures that will penalise US companies that invest abroad, in countries like India, rather than in the US? Yes, he can.
Can Obama come out with pro tectionist measures to shift jobs from poor countries to the US? He not only can, he has promised to do so.
Can he increase subsidies for and compulsory use of corn-based ethanol, measures that have caused a big spike in world food and fertiliser crisis? Yes, he can.
Can he kill the Doha Round of the World Trade Organisation by taking a much tougher line than Bush on keeping US farm subsi dies high? Yes, he can.
Can he act against India for building up its forex reserves, and hence keeping the rupee weaker than it would otherwise have been? Yes, he can. He has in the past voted to penalise China for doing just this. In the current fi nancial crisis it is wise for Third World countries to keep high forex reserves, but this is not recognised by protectionists in the US.
Now, we must not exaggerate the risks. Politicians are typical ly more populist during an elec tion campaign than when they as sume office. Obama’s most pro tectionist rhetoric has been aimed against China and NAFTA rather than India. But a major recession has begun, and US unemployment could rise to 8-9%. There is talk of Obama engineering another New Deal. Warning: the New Deal was the most disastrously protection ist era in US history.
What about foreign policy? There are some positives here Obama voted against the invasion of Iraq. Bravo! He has pledged to bring US troops back from Iraq quickly, and favours negotiations with Iran. Yet, the Bush adminis tration has already moved in these directions in the last 12 months reversing its earlier muscularity Obama plans to bring some Re publicans into his cabinet, in search of political unity. This sug gests that foreign policy may not change all that much.
To the extent it does, it may not be comfortable for India. Can Obama put pressure on India on Kashmir? Yes, he can. He has said that if only the Kashmir issue is settled, Pakistan can bet ter concentrate on al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The Indo-US nuclear deal is through. But can Obama come up with hurdles on details, like licences for dual-purpose technology? We hope not, but yes, he can. His sup porters include non-proliferators who still want to punish India.
Can he insist that India should enact a law limiting the liability of US nuclear suppliers in the event of an accident at an Indian nuclear power plant? Can he urge India to sign an international con vention shifting liability from equipment suppliers to the com pany running a nuclear plant? Yes, he can.
Here again, we must not exag gerate the risks. In practice, US policy may not change much. But history shows that Indo-US rela tions have usually been better un der Republican than Democratic presidents. Democrats are more protectionist, and tougher on nu clear non-proliferation.
Bill Clinton was personally popular in India, but never did anything for us except impose sanctions after Pokharan II. Bush was personally unpopular in In dia, yet did us yeoman service by pushing through the nuclear deal Can Obama do anything to match that? Yes, he can, but i rather doubt that he will.