governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘North Africa’

Will the Indian “Malalas” please stand up

saarah-ahmed-indian-pilot-8-march-15-513x239

Photo: Sarah Ahmed: Indian. Pilot.

July 4, 1995 — America’s Independence Day — Islamist militants take six tourists hostage in Kashmir. They decapitate a Norwegian and kill the rest, including two Americans. There has been no letup in the orgy of violence since. But now Islamists — Sunni and Shia militants — are eliminating each other in West Asia. Glee that the “enemy” is disintegrating is inevitable in both Christian and Hindu right-wing camps. But as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly stated, albeit with scarce substantive effect, terror has no loyalties beyond the willingness to kill and maim.

The political economy of terror

Islamic terror, like terror anywhere, comes heavily loaded with political and economic objectives. The Taliban was created by the US to oust the Russians from Afghanistan in the 1980s. They and the Army are the only credible political actors in Pakistan today. Even China engages directly with them to protect its infrastructure investments and workers in Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia funds Sunni Iraqi militants to dominate the Shias of Southern Iraq and to undermine Syria’s Shia regime — all because Shias are perceived to be universally aligned with Saudi arch-rival Iran. Conversely, Russia and Iran support Shia militants in Iraq and the Shia regime in Syria. It is not inconceivable that in future Shia militants may be used to neutralise the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani — the technocratic President of Afghanistan — would probably welcome a dilution of Taliban power so that he can get on with implementing the development agenda.

Endemic warlordism and militant factionalism in North Africa and West Asia was constrained during the Cold War (1960-1990) by authoritarian regimes supported either by the US or the Soviets. Ironically both the democratic US and the Communist Soviet Union had no qualms about imposing authoritarian regimes as the norm in the region. It helped that till 1990, even the metric of development ignored politics as a factor and focused primarily on enhancing per capita income levels.

Democracy as a metric of development

The change came with the surprisingly sudden collapse of the seemingly well-off Soviet Union, a middle income country in 1990. Soviet unsustainability was ascribed to the absence of Western-style institutions — elective democracy, rule of law, small governments, markets, competition and choice.

Post 2001 (9/11), this development mantra acquired evangelical fervour, as an instrument to “civilise” the “arc of Islamic terror” stretching from Afghanistan in the east, through Egypt and Sudan to Mauritania in western Africa. The Arab Spring (2011) was hailed as the blossoming of democracy in time-warped North Africa. Once invincible, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia bit the dust and the people won. This was the expected upside.

The unintended consequences of Democracy: strengthening traditional fault lines

But two unanticipated downsides were less palatable. First, democracy became uncontainable — like a nuclear explosion. Democratic contagion travelled south and shook the gilded birdcage lives of the Sunni sheikhs of the Gulf states and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen via tribal bloodletting which rode on the aftershocks of the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution”.

Second, democracy in Egypt empowered the Muslim Brotherhood — a transnational Islamic party pushed underground by Mr Mubarak. For the G7, “Islamists” ruling Egypt was a horrific replay of the deposition of the “modernist” Shah of Iran in 1979 and the subsequent rise of a “renegade” nuclear, Islamic Iran. The Egyptian “Brothers” — beneficiaries of Islamic democracy — were presented as role models for disenfranchised commoners across the region. This questioning of the elite order was not what the sheikhs or the G7 had bargained for, or desired.

The G7 were comfortable with a “managed democracy” — the bare-bones institutions of a democracy, never mind if the

democratic spirit was non-existent. What they got was an unruly explosion of the democratic spirit — a magnified version of rumbustious, Indian style democracy, where rights trump responsibilities.

Libya disintegrated into armed militias and cost the US the life of its young, well-liked ambassador Chris Stevens. Yemen remains a cauldron of tribal militias. This democratic disorder is much like the persistent clan and tribe-based militancy in Manipur and Nagaland in India’s Northeast, funded by the drugs and arms trade with “wink-nod” support from China.

The recent bomb blast in Tunisia, which killed several British tourists, is similar in intent to the blasts in Mumbai in 1993 and the terror attacks in 2008. The former, managed by smuggler and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, rode on the back of Muslim anguish at the unlawful destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu right-wing groups. The 2008 strike is credited to the Inter-Services Intelligence — Pakistan’s dirty-tricks entity. Both aimed at hitting where it hurts the most — the economy.

Tackle Islamic terror with targeted incentives for peace and development

Can we really expect Indian Muslims to remain unmoved by the global trends in Islamist terror? A few misguided young men have already joined Islamist groups in Iraq and paid the final price. But most Indian Muslims look inwards to a domestic solution to break out of the downward spiral that events drag them into. This is where government intervention can help.

First, reducing poverty helps all marginalized groups. There is a broad congruence between Muslims and poverty in India even today. Focusing on  poverty reduction more vigorously also reverses the marginalization of poor Muslims in Independent India.

Second, a more visible signal is also needed. Positive discrimination like reservations is unhealthy. It pits Muslims against the existing beneficiaries — dalits and backward castes by generating a scrabble for a fixed pie. Far better to instead to empower young Muslims to work productively in the modern economy. Modernizing the curricula of the madrasas is a long-term, sensitive but powerful option. Indian Muslims shine in private enterprises where success is meritocratic and not dependent on connections, networks or preferential access to education or progress at work. They are the core of Bollywood, handicrafts, the arts and our cricket team.  Ashwini Kumar’s Inshallah, Football is a touching film about how a dedicated Brazilian coach uses football leagues to meet the needs of aspirational youth in strife-torn Kashmir. They must be directly supported to do be better prepared for private enterprise which, is in any case, is the growing sector. Indian Muslims must also be assured that being part of the modern economy does not and should not, mean having to abandon traditional beliefs or culture. India is not France. We are a plural society.

Third, politics must lead by example.  Religion is deeply embedded in India. Politics must learn to live with religion as a political force rather than pretend to work within an a-religious framework. In this context, the new government in Jammu and Kashmir which federates the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party of Jammu with the Kashmiri Muslim’s People’s Democratic Party in the governance of the state, is a progressive model which explicitly recognises that religion, like caste, is a legitimate basis for political action. True secularism is recognizing the right of citizens to organize themselves politically on any basis which provides a legitimate common cause.  Better to reflect traditional fault lines honestly rather than paper them over with the Band-Aid of pseudo-secular, socialist gibberish.

Fourth, women are the prime movers of social change, particularly in South Asia. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Mayawati, the Dalit leader of Uttar Pradesh, and the young Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai are examples. Leveraging potential Malalas in India via expanded and targeted education and health is what the government should be doing, if one-third of our population — Muslims and Dalits — are to make common cause with the rest of India.

Adapted from the authors column in Asian Age July 2, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/terror-s-echoes-home-748

Paris Takeaway: One Culture Is Not a Quick Fix

Indian bus

(Photo Credit: www,m,inmagine.com)

For the French, “culture” is everything. It encompasses the language one speaks –French of course-; the food one eats-mildewed “blue” cheese; the wines one imbibes and the best of fashion. One Just has to compare the tres chic Christine Lagard-Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund with the practical, stodgy Mrs. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, to  visualize why France was so very different from the rest of Europe.

The idea of “one culture, one people” was peddled by France across its colonies, particularly in West and North Africa to create vast populations who, “in their heads”, were French, not African or Arab. Macaulay’s Minute (1835) did the same in India, except that British “Shepherd’s Pie and warm Beer doesn’t have quite the appeal as French cuisine.  No surprise then that in a cruel twist of fate Asian “curry” is the favorite British dish today. This would not have been possible in France.

French culture is emotively attractive. English has to be bit into-like a tough roast- to speak it but one has to swim languorously into French to speak it well. Listen to the French song “je t’aime”; a duet written by Serge Gainsbourg and immortalized by the Goddess of sensuousness- Brigitte Bardot in 1967. Compare this with the somber notes of Don McLean’s “And I love you so” and you will feel the difference between the cold Anglo Saxons and the emotive French.

The French, including the French co-optees- are a warm and loving people with their heads full of wooly, socialist ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Of course all these ideals are bounded by a narrow regard for “French culture”. Take the case of dress codes. Muslims, who increasingly regard the “hijab” as an Islamic symbol, were not permitted to wear one in public. It is just as difficult to break through the French tradition of a large and inefficient public sector and taciturn trade unions- though we in India could give them a run for their money in this aspect.

Many nations, including the US and India, borrowed the ideals of the French Revolution 1789 but all applied them in a practical manner. Slogans like “we are all one World” sound great in a hippy hangout but are impossible to implement. End goals like Equality are just that. They define a glorious possibility but can never reflect the cruel, everyday reality of power hungry elites, patrimony and dissimilar endowments, as it exists everywhere in world.

The killings in Paris are being explained away as caused by religious, ethnic or economic cleavages. All of the above or any one of these could have been the immediate reason for the killings. But what they have laid bare is that the basic underlying assumption in France that one culture can laminate over all other cleavages is a lie.

A common culture is not enough of a glue to paper over the growing gaps between immigrants and insiders; white and the others; the Muslims (10% of the population) and the majority Christian faith; the educated and aspirational and the hopelessly poor and forgotten. Even Communist China has spectacularly failed in elevating the God of Communist Nationalism as a substitute for religion or ethnicity. This is despite the assistance of State machinery which is at its best in very heavy handed policing.  But a Common Culture is surely anathema alongside a belief in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Our deepest sympathies are of course with the French for what has come to pass to their beautiful country. But no Indian can resist the deep sense of relief that despite our poverty; our widespread illiteracy; our linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious heterogeneity we as Indians have hung together fairly well in relative terms.

This is not to say that minority rights are well protected in India. Nor do we hold that India has done well by its marginalized populations. But for a relatively new State and a less developed economy with deep rooted traditional cleavages, it is a remarkable achievement that we are bound ever tighter by our non-traditional beliefs in democracy; equity in access to public opportunities and freedom of choice in all aspects of life.

India has weathered violence more extreme, that seen in France recently, despite it being directly as viciously and specifically at a particular sect; religion or ethnicity. The reasons why we have managed to do so are ironical.

First, a weak State can be an asset. Unlike France we were never able to become a “Nanny State”. Every Indian knows that if she or her extended family does not look after themselves no one else will step in-least of all the State. This lack of an efficient, impersonalized, State provided social protection is cruel for the poor. But the consequential, pervasive, economic pressure of constantly working to make two ends meet keeps us on our toes. The desperation to keep working reduces the availability of idle human fodder to perpetrate the kind of terror in Paris.  The downside is the magnified roles local elites play in shaping opinion due to their economic and political clout.

Second, Indians happily accept that all 1240 million of us we are NOT one big happy family with a common culture. No Indian wants a common, Pan-Indian culture. Indians are used to living and working in an aggressively antagonistic, “non-localized environment”. The French in contrast are more molly coddled and less “internationalized” than us. 25% of Indians do not live in the place they were born and large scale migration is a fact. 2% of Indians live in foreign countries. We have assimilated and adapted to invaders, foreign conquerors and traders over the last 1000 years.

So let’s take heed of what has happened in France and the failure of the “one culture” project of the French. The world is too open; too complex and too integrated today for seeking “autarkic” options.

Culling our traditions to get options for the future is sensible but must have the caution that our greatest tradition has been of keeping our windows open, not tightly shut and making space for anyone wanting to clamber onto the “bus”, which is India.

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