Sunday, April 26, 2009

Michael Jackson and Balasaheb Thackeray

From Suketu Mehta's Maximum City:Bombay Lost and Found:
Shiv Sena's notions of what is culturally acceptable in India show a distinct bias towards kitsch: Michael Jackson, for example. In November 1996, Thackeray announced that the first performance of the pop star in India would proceed with his blessings. This may or may not have had to do with the fact that the singer had promised to donate the profits from his concert -- which eventually ran to more than a million dollars -- to a Shiv Sena-run youth employment project. The planned concert offended a number of people in the city, including Thackeray's own brother, who saw something alien in the values singer represented. "Who is Michael Jackson and how on earth is he linked to Hindu culture, which the Shiv Sena and its boss Thackeray talk about so proudly?"

The Shiv Sena Supremo responded, "Jackson is a great artist, and we must accept him as an artist. His movements are terrific. Not many people can that way. You will end up breaking your bones." Then the Saheb got to the heart of the matter. "And, well what is culture? He represents certain values in America, which India should not have any qualms in accepting. We would like to accept that part of America that is represented by Jackson." The pop star acknowledged Thackeray's praise by stopping off at the leader's residence on his way from the airport to his hotel and pissing in his toilet. Thackeray led photographers with pride to the sanctified bowl.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Queues at polls

Queues of all sorts fascinate me, and in this season of elections, it is only understandable that they are rampant at polling places. India and Indonesia are having their elections, and so is South Africa. The news from South Africa is that the turnout is massive -- officials are struggling with "angry queues at polling stations and too few ballot papers" [BBC]. The balance between demand and supply is askew and that, of course, is the perfect recipe for queues.

And there's nothing like a good image to tell a story. I love this picture, which I pilfered from the same BBC article: democracy -- or at least one of the steps of modern-day democracy -- expressed by a long, snaking line of people patiently waiting to have their say.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr.President, let me teach you batting

For those who may not know, this is batting maestro Brian Lara teaching the President how to hit a good front-foot cover drive. But from the awkward footwork and squatting that is on display, it looks as if the President may splay his feet and rip his pants. Ah, cricket doesn't come easy to the uninitiated. Let's hope this isn't a metaphor for the President's political skills. But at least, you could say, he's trying to learn.

Photo via Amitava.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What it means to be Christian

A Spanish evangelist, Fray Domingo de Santo Tomas, traveling in Peru circa 1560 finds out what being Christian means to the Indians of Peru:
It is of note that the Indians of Peru, before we Christians had come to them, had certain and particular modes of swearing, distinct from ours. They had no assertive oaths, such as 'by God' or 'by heaven' but only execration or curses...e.g. 'if I am not telling the truth, may the sun kill me' they said...Once when I asked a chieftain in a certain province if he was Christian, he said, 'I am not yet quite one, but I am making a beginning.' I asked him what he knew of being Christian, and he said: 'I know how to swear to God, and play cards a bit, and I am beginning to steal.'
This is an excerpt from one of Fray Domingo's books - which interestingly happens to be a book on Quechua grammar. Quechua is a Native American language of South America, still spoken by indigenous people in Peru, Bolivia and also in other countries - there are an estimated 10 million speakers. I found the above excerpt in Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (the link takes you to one of my earliest posts -- way back in 2005, when the earth was cooling).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Atanu Dey on the military-industrial complex

Great piece here on how certain parties in both rich and poor countries have strong incentives to proliferate weapons in the global market, and -- unsurprisingly -- how this is very good for business. Consider the recent news where the US appears to be thinking of selling predator drones to Pakistan. Atanu writes:

The absurdity of the situation is resolved if you consider that the military-industrial complex of the US is involved in a simple dollar auction.

Briefly, the US gives Pakistan drones under some pretext. Since Pakistan is broke, it cannot pay for them. So the US gives military assistance to Pakistan to buy the drones with. Which basically means that the US pays its weapons manufacturers for supplying the Pakistanis. That’s the first-order effect of military aid to Pakistan: US weapons manufacturers continue to be in business.

The second-order effect follows predictably. India now has to match Pakistan’s weapons. India pays the US to buy drones. This means more business for US weapons manufacturers.

The war on terror has to continue because that’s what allows the machinery of the military-industrial complex humming away. The US is a military superpower and any day of the week it actually wants to, it can totally wipe off global Islamic terrorism. That it chooses not to do so is simple: its weapons industry will hurt like hell. Sure the US exports a lot of stuff other than weapons. But the politicians who make the policies are in the pockets of the weapons manufacturers.

All this reminds me of Dwight Eisenhower's prescient Presidential farewell address in 1961. Eisenhower was a military man himself, and he must have known well the ugly nexus that was developing between making of weapons and the making of money. This is the exact sentence he used:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
Nobody seems to have heeded. The military-industrial complex is a reality now -- a major reality, and not just in the US. How do we get out of this one?

Also see, Why We Fight.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Contrasts in history: The example of Prostestant colonialism

History’s biggest insights lie in understanding contrasts. Why did things turn out a certain way in one part of the world and so differently elsewhere? Answers to such questions can be revealing. After Columbus’ journey to the Americas, Europeans sailed to all inhabited continents. The results have been very different: in most of Africa and Asia, they left eventually, leaving the natives to figure out their post-colonial trajectories; in Mexico and South America, they mixed with the natives, giving rise to the mestizo; and in North America and Australia, they almost entirely displaced the existing indigenous population. Understanding these differences and their associated circumstances explains to a large extent why the world is the way it is today. This was also the subject of Jared Diamond’s superb Guns, Germs and Steel.

Recently, while reading Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (earlier posts here and here), I found a fascinating comparative study that builds on the same idea though on a smaller scale. Dowden’s analysis has to do with Protestant groups that colonized peoples in different parts of the world. He first compares the Afrikaners of South Africa (who were Protestants), and the Ulster Protestants of Ireland:
“While working in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, I had begun to notice the strong parallels with South Africa. The most striking parallel was between the Afrikaners and the Ulster Protestants. Both had arrived as colonists during periods of religious persecution in seventeenth century Europe. Both embraced orange as their color, derived from the House of Orange, the Dutch monarchy who had stood out against the Hapsburg Catholics. The hero of the Irish Protestants was William III, the Dutch king who finally defeated the Catholic James II and established Protestant British rule in Ireland. The Afrikaners were Dutch Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution in the Netherlands...

The Ulster and South African varieties of Protestant fundamentalism had a lot in common. Theirs was a whole world view, an attitude to the meaning of life, self and land. Both believed that they were God’s chosen people, rewarded for their faithfulness by the gift of the land they now occupied. The fact they had won the land by conquest reinforced in their minds the idea that God was on their side. They also believed in the puritan values of hard work, thrift and honesty. When I heard an Afrikaner clergyman talk of black Africans as lazy, dirty and unpunctual, I could have been listening to some of the militant followers of Ian Paisley, the Ulster Protestant political clergyman, talking about Catholics.
Now throw into the mix yet another Protestant group, which would go on to build one of the most successful and powerful nations in the world, and things become even more interesting:
A third group of migrating Dutch and English Protestants left their homes at the same time as the Afrikaners first settled in South Africa. They sailed west rather than south and helped found the most liberal state known to humankind, the United States of America. They too were informed by the puritan ethic and the gratifying feeling that God had rewarded them with land of their own. But although they were liberal towards each other, the new Americans overwhelmed – and virtually exterminated – the native population. If today’s white South Africans are colonists, so are the non-indigenous populations of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. The only difference is in the numbers of surviving native peoples. In the United States, descendents of the original inhabitants represent 1.5 percent of the population, in Canada it is 2 percent, in Brazil less than 0.4 percent. Aboriginals make up 2.4 percent of Australians. The Maori make up 14.6 percent of New Zealand’s population, though only 4.3 percent use Maori as their first language. In South Africa, the indigenous people are 75 per cent of the population. I once heard an Afrikaner quip to an American diplomat trying to foist non-racial constitution on South Africa, ‘At least we left our natives alive.’
There is truth to that assertion (though it's a ridiculous and completely unacceptable excuse for Afrikaner colonialism and apartheid). Whatever the ignominies black South Africans have had to go through, and whatever their troubles in post-apartheid South Africa, they at least have a chance to define their own destiny now. As do other formerly colonized peoples of Africa and Asia. I do not mean to trivialize the problems such nations face. But when an entire continent is silenced through a combination of devastating disease outbreaks (inadvertent) and relentless land-grabbing and conquest – as happened in North America and Australia – there is little a people can do. So, while the Indians of India may rejoice their country’s increasing presence on the global stage, the Indians of North America can only look back and ponder at what might have been.

It is the most tragic thing that can happen to a people: suffering a demographic decline that robs them of their chance in history.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

And Indonesia too...

Close on the heels of my post about the logistical complexity and scale of the India's upcoming general election, comes this short one on Indonesia. Yes, Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, with a population of 240 million, also goes to polls this year, and The Economist has a feature on the country in its latest issue.
The poll itself is an exercise whose scale and logistical complexity are second only to those of a general election in India. Across more than 900 inhabited islands, 171m people have registered to vote. They have 38 national parties to choose from, and an estimated 800,000 candidates for the national parliament, known as the DPR, and lower-level provincial and other legislatures. And this is only the start of what may be a three-stage process.
Strangely, Indonesia's national motto is "Unity in Diversity" -- exactly the phrase I heard growing up in India.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Looking back: India's first General Election - Excerpts from Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi

India holds its general elections this month. This is, on paper at least, the largest exercise of democracy in the world. However bizarre democracy and politics in India might be – incredibly fragmented and rife with opportunistic alliances: the economist and blogger Atanu Dey calls it Cargo Cult Democracy, democracy of the cosmetic kind – whatever the shortcomings, you cannot but marvel at the scale and logistics of the election itself. More than 700 million people will have the ability to vote this time. The election will be held in staggered fashion, in five phases – beginning April 16th and ending May 13, with results announced on May 16th. There will be 828,804 polling centers; and as in 2004, the election will be conducted using electronic voting machines – there are 1,368,430 of them across the country.

The Indian general election interests me precisely because of these operational aspects. My doctoral training in an area called operations research, which can be described as the science (or mathematics) of planning well. Needless to say, a general election involving huge numbers of people and parties and covering a vast area requires some very careful planning.

Behind all this is the Election Commission of India (ECI), a remarkably efficient organization – surprising, because it is a governmental administrative organization. ECI was formed in 1950, and set its high standards at the very outset. The first Chief Election Commissioner was Sukumar Sen, who had the unenviable task of conducting India’s first general election in 1951. Born in 1899, Sen was educated in Presidency College and London University, where he won a gold medal in mathematics. And mathematics is a useful skill to have when you have to get the numbers and the coordination right for an election and an electorate spread over the area of a million square miles.

In 1951, India had a population of roughly 360 million. The size of the electorate was about 176 million. The 2009 general election will be a larger operation, but the first election, in 1951-52 (it was staggered then too), was quite the leap in the dark. The country had been independent for just four years and a significant portion of the electorate was illiterate. A successful election meant that an effort of that scale could be confidently mounted again and again over the next decades -- what was daunting then is now a routine business.

Here are some excerpts from Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi about the election of 1951.

1. India’s first election, Guha writes,
was, among other things, an act of faith. A newly independent country chose to move straight to universal adult suffrage, rather than – as had been the case in the West – at first reserve the right to vote to men of property, with the working class and women excluded from the franchise until much later.
2. Numbers from the 1951 election:
224,000 polling booths were constructed, and equipped with 2 million steel ballot boxes, to make which 8,200 tonnes of steel were consumed; 16,500 clerks were appointed on a six-month contracts to type and collate the electoral rolls by constituency; about 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls; 56,000 presiding officers were chosen to supervise the voting, these aided by another 280,000 helpers; 224,000 policemen were put on duty to guard against violence and intimidation.
3. Geography complicated election logistics, but here’s a peculiar social challenge ECI faced that is also somewhat comical:
A second problem was social rather than geographical: the diffidence of many women in northern India to give their own names, instead of which they wished to register themselves as A’s mother or B’s wife. Sukumar Sen was outraged with this practice, a ‘curious senseless relic of the past.’, and directed his officials to correct the rolls by inserting the names of the women ‘in place of mere descriptions of such voters.’ Nonetheless, some 2.8 million women had to be struck of the list. The resulting furore over their omission was considered by Sen to be a ‘good thing’, for it would help the prejudice vanish before the next elections…
4. How did ECI improvise to accommodate the largely illiterate electorate? Pictorial symbols and multiple ballot boxes. Details:
Where in Western democracies most voters could recognize the parties by name, here pictorial symbols were used to make their task easier. Drawn from daily life, these symbols were easily recognizable: a pair of bullocks for one party, a hut for a second, an elephant for a third, and an earthenware lamp for a fourth. A second innovation was the use of multiple ballot boxes. On a single ballot, the (mostly illiterate) Indian elector might make a mistake; thus each party had a ballot box with its symbol marked in each polling station, so that voters could simply drop their paper in it. To avoid impersonation, Indian scientists had developed a variety of indelible ink which, applied on the voter’s finger, stayed there for a week. A total of 389,816 phials of ink were used in the election.
5. And, finally, a little anecdote that tells us of the earnestness of many election officials who tried their best to make things tick in remote places:
An American woman photographer on assignment in Himachal Pradesh was deeply impressed by the commitment shown by the election officials. One official had walked for six days to attend the preparatory workshop organized by the district magistrate; another had ridden four days on a mule. They went back to their distant stations with sewn gunny sacks full of ballot boxes, ballots, party symbols and electoral lists. On election day, the photographer chose to watch proceedings at an obscure hill village named Bhuti. Here the polling station was a school-house, which had only one door. Since the rules prescribed a different entry and exit, a window had been converted into a door, with improvised steps on either side to allow the elderly and ailing to hop out after voting.
It's true, isn't it: that it takes small and sincere efforts like these to achieve something larger. Even if that something larger -- democracy -- is only, as BR Ambedkar once said, "a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic".