Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fire and Rose

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

T.S. Eliot. Little Gidding


Unrelenting hope amidst unfathomable despair.

India was here before. Bofors, Shah Bano, Mandal, Kashmir, LTTE, Masjid, IMF, Bluestar, Bhopal. India endured.

Best part, it wasn't a messianic strongman who led us out.

Gandhi spoiled us. We search for superheroes who do not exist.

Democracy spoiled us. We seek angelic outcomes from human institutions.

Vastness spoiled us. We summon strength from our continent-sized weaknesses.

It isn't a superhero or an institution or her vastness that will save India, rather the common sense and ability and hard work of ordinary Indians.

I learned this from an illiterate Indian carpenter. Born in caste-riven Eastern UP to parents who could give him nothing, he bootstrapped himself out of despair, went overseas, and became indispensable to privileged hotshots like me. I asked him, why? So that, one day, my children will grow up to be like you, he told me.

I've never been more humbled in my life.

He couldn't care less for patronizing superheroes who saw only his faith and caste and poverty as vanity projects to pad their egos. There were no institutions where he grew up. He was a nobody among India's intimidating vastness. 

But this illiterate carpenter taught himself to be more skilled at what he did than superheroes could ever dream of being. He saved himself with unrelenting aspiration, sheer will, and his own two hands.

This is how India will be saved. All she needs is for superheroes to get out of her way.


Let me end where I started.

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one

Happy new year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


India's median age is 26 years and falling. A majority were born after Bangladesh. The '71 war is a fading memory. Alas.

Forty years have elapsed since that emphatic victory of light over darkness. Bangladesh finally became free. India emerged as a military power to reckon with. Pakistan shied away from overt war since.

The partition of Bengal in 1947 followed a debilitating famine. Its proud people, who share Tagore's music as their anthem, were torn asunder by forces impossible to comprehend. Denied basic human dignity, they asserted their nationhood. The Pakistani Army, which hasn't seen a war it cannot lose, unleashed a campaign of terror - a genocide on its own people that the world looked away from. Tellingly, there were no UN Security Council Resolutions on Bangladesh until December of 1971.

Yet, Bangladesh won the war. She thrives today, a nation at peace with her neighbors. Pakistan never found its footing again.

India did what any moral nation must. It intervened with decisive force and clear military purpose. Few military campaigns have been so effective since the Second World War. Korea remains in armistice. Vietnam burned America. Afghanistan toppled USSR. Other "savage wars of peace" have been costly, prolonged, and bloody. In Bangladesh, in a matter of weeks, Pakistan was crushed and shattered forever.

I look at Balochistan where Pakistan still wages the exact same war that lost it half of its bifurcated nationhood and most of its boastful manhood. But Pakistani Generals, sadly, see no parallels. If there were an exemplar of insanity, surely this is it.

Are there lessons from that great moral and military triumph? At a time when India is mired again in self-doubt and political paralysis, it's instructive and satisfying to note that - when the moment called for it - the nation came together, stared down two superpowers, and demolished the enemy with remarkable ease. It took conviction, iron will, and leadership. I watch Mrs Indira Gandhi's interview from then ( and take solace that, even in the era of Manmohan Singh and L K Advani, India may yet find a decisive leader among its Billion people.

Let me close by saluting the brave people of Bangladesh who won the war and the triumphant Indian army that made this happen.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Thunder, Perfect Mind

I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.

From The Thunder: Perfect Mind


Veena Malik bared her body and exposed the nakedness of her society.

But she is not alone. In recent weeks, Egyptian Aliya Magda Mahdi posted bold self-photographs on her blog. Tunisian actress Nadia Bostah posed provocatively to promote a film.

Something's happening here. And it could be very significant.

We heard the footsteps of what was coming in Naipaul's 1982 classic Among the Believers. We sensed it in 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini threatened Salman Rushdie over Satanic Verses. We saw it in the 1997 film My Son the Fanatic (based on Hanif Kureishi's short story).

Then we saw it play out on our television screens on 9/11.

The destructive anger, the rejection of modernity, the war on freedom.

Something had gone badly wrong in Islamic societies.

Much has been said about how to change this dynamic.

From toppling dictators to killing terrorists, from settling intractable political conflicts to encouraging democracy - all manner of ideas have been proposed to change this ugly bend of history.

There has been some success. Arab societies, in particular, have rebelled against their stagnant status quo. Their dictators have been shown to be paper tigers - they hide in spider holes and gutter pipes when under fire. Their armies are weak - they run from the battle and don't dare defend national sovereignty. These tigers, that roared at home and terrorized own people, turned out to really be mice.

Where change has been slower is social practice. The community's failure to stand with Shah Bano, the illiterate stabbing of Naguib Mahfouz, Salman Taseer's assassination by his naat-singing bodyguard all tell the story of social darkness. Honor killings happen even in the West, Saudi women still can't drive, Ahmadis cannot exhibit the Quran in India, and raped women are still put in prison. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report drafted by distinguished Arab intellectuals is a stunning and powerful lament on the horrendous state of that society.

This sad circumstance is partly due to a community frozen in the glare of excruciating scrutiny. Also, Wahabi and Salafist financing of mosques and madrasas is a major problem, even in secular societies. Finally, the men in this male-dominant community - with rare exceptions - have failed to champion change.

In response, non-Muslims have either taken the multicultural view of "respecting" the community's practices, looked to "moderate Muslims" to make change happen, or (in bigotry) claimed that Islam is somehow incompatible with modernity.

But none of this has led to change.


Then, Manal al Sharif decided to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Prof Amina Wadud led Friday prayers in America. Shaista Ambar released a model nikahnama to protect women's rights in India.

And, yes, Veena Malik, Aliya Mahdi, and Nadia Bostah boldly defied the purdah.

These may seem like acts of small defiance but they are no less significant than an old man making salt to challenge the empire in which the sun never set.

We may be witnessing a nascent social revolution in Islamic societies. Their women have wept through vicious wars and suffered through brutal suppression. Now they are leaping to lead.

This is perhaps the most promising development of the last decade of war.

Social change won't be easy. Entrenched tradition and extreme misogyny are hard to overcome. But, such change is surely an idea whose time has finally come.

It's not our wars or diplomacy or aid that will make this happen. It's not moderate Muslims or reformist Kings who will make this happen. It's the humble Muslim woman in all our communities who will lead this change.

Standing with her as she fights to honor her faith, community, and society is the most important thing non-Muslims can do.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Are All Soni Sori

Not long ago, I was in mofussil UP for a cousin's wedding. We woke up one day to a commotion. My aunt was arguing with the sabziwallah about a payment she thought she had already made to him. He was pleading she hadn't.

A family friend, a police man, grabbed the sabziwallah by his collar and slapped him black and blue. Didn't ask anything, didn't hear anything, just beat him up. The poor man left humiliated and in tears.

Shellshocked, I harshly protested the violence. My friend told me this is how he and his colleagues deal with "these people" all the time, and that I should keep out.

This is the heartland of India's political culture, the region where several Prime Ministers have found their respective paths to parliament. There's a lot of baggage here - caste and class, history and tradition. The modern State is here too - it wears the wardi and beats people up.

Of course, it turned out, my aunt was mistaken about having made the payment.


In his seminal book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama told us we were witnessing the end point of mankind's ideological evolution, that liberal democracy had prevailed in the clash of ideas.

Independent India has been on the right side (for most part) in this clash. Whatever challenges the Indian State confronts, we know, it will eventually prevail due to the superiority of its ideas.

All Maoists have is a discredited ideology. Religion-based separatism is not exactly the world's cup of tea. Finally, Hindutva is so ideologically bankrupt, it can't even convince devout Hindus of its purpose.

India is impregnable. This is a wonderful thing. But, it also makes the brutality of its State instruments extremely dangerous. This brutality is here to stay and there is no escaping it. We can endure the murderous ways of all manner of cults and movements because we know they will eventually fade away. But how can we possibly cope with the murderous ways of a State that is here forever?

This is Dante's inferno.


India's defense budget in 2011 was ~$36 Billion. The budget for police was ~$9 Billion.

I don't have the data on this but I'd wager more Indians die each year just from murder and violent politics than from war or terrorism by foreigners.

Police in India are resource deprived. This leads to bad recruitment, weak training, sub-standard equipment, stress filled facilities, poor wages, limited accountability, shattered morale, and non-existent leadership. Let's not even talk about outdated laws, political interference, and a broken justice system.

Police find themselves trying to survive in a brutal environment. To this end, they can really only rely on the nobility of our constitution, the authority of their wardi, the command of their superiors, and the brotherhood of their peers.

This must be a highly insular, morally corrupting, and terrifying context to operate in. As Milgram experiments have shown, even moral people can be coerced into "obeying authority figures who instruct them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience". And as William Golding describes in The Lord of the Flies, terror creates the perception of a beast that has to be viciously destroyed for survival.

Does it surprise any of us that men in these conditions would psychologically succumb to slapping an innocent sabziwallah, shattering shins of under-trials, shooting dead college girls, watching passively while mobs lynch Indians pleading for their lives, and now - engaging in the most vile (alleged) sexual torture on Soni Sori?


For too long, India's middle class has looked away. After all, the police are instruments of our State, the people they torture are not like us, and they have surely committed crimes for which they deserve to be harshly treated. Besides, they are likely making false allegations any way.

The sheer moral bankruptcy of such thinking is self-evident.

We don't fear evil because it is dancing on the screams of, what my friend in UP called, "these people". What I didn't tell you is that he also said the police could do the same with me - and I, with all my means and vocabulary, could do very little while they trample all over my constitutional rights.

It may not seem it but, at the wrong time in the wrong place, I could be Soni Sori too.

And because my tormentors would be the instruments of a State that will always be here, so will my tormentors. Waiting for me. Waiting for you.

This, ironically, is how impregnable India will fall. From deep within, at the hands of its own protectors.

Better men than I have written about this topic. All I can do is plead that we make police reform the highest priority of our nation. Thank you for reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reflection on 26/11

Indians don't wish ill of Pakistan. Rather, we are apathetic to its fate. The only thing we really care about is expanding prosperity and security for our people.

Pakistan sought and obtained divorce. Sixty four years on, Indians are glad. Other than a few lunatics, most Indians are relieved Pakistan's 180 million are not part of our national life.

If Pakistan is burning itself down, we care about it as much as we care about Rwanda.


To the extent, Pakistan has presented itself directly to India, it is through war. Interestingly, for all our angst about this, India has already prevailed.

This in spite of the apparent Pakistani belief that each of their soldiers is equal to ten of ours :p

There are good reasons for this. While Pakistan has inflicted a painful cost on India, it hasn't been nearly enough to derail our economic advance. And while India has seemingly been passive, it has craftily expanded the war from lonely glaciers and crowded bazars to the high tables of economic globalization.

Arrival of nuclear weapons in the region has prevented outright conflict. For Pakistan's commando generals, this means we are now in the era of - what Steve Coll called - Ghost Wars. These are fought mostly in the shadows and, on occasion, on world's television screens.

What their tunnel vision misses is that, while still painful, such terrorism no longer terrifies. When something is expected, it doesn't shock any more. It still hurts, but more like a rubber band snap than a scorpion sting.

Anything more than a scorpion sting risks provoking all out war. Anything less than a rubber band snap is futile. The terrorist finds himself deterred into a range of tactics that are too weak to hurt India while sufficiently ghastly to make the world recoil from Pakistan.

India has wisely portrayed this dynamic as Pakistani terrorism against Indian economy. This is a real powerful narrative that doesn't require India to compromise on her values. Sixty four years after the war began, the increasingly globalized world sees India as an emerging economic superpower while routinely calling Pakistan a failed State. Easy to see who has prevailed.

The definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior while expecting different outcomes. By this definition, Pakistani huqmaran have not only lost the war, they have lost their sanity too.


I disagree with those who call on India to match Pakistan's murderous ways.

We have an approach that is already very effective. All we need to do is to keep reinforcing the narrative of Pakistani perfidy in every possible forum - in this, we are aided by Pakistan's galactically stupid conduct. Each terrorist gambit of theirs only serves to make our point. You'd almost think Pindi and Aaabpara are agents of New Delhi!

Each time we ask Pakistan to arrest and bring to justice the perpetrators of Mumbai, they come across as dragging their feet. It doesn't take a 150 IQ to see how self-destructive this conduct is.


Where we really should focus, is hardening our defenses against Pakistani terrorism. We need ever higher walls to hold back their pawn soldiers - not bridges to engage their killer brass.

We need homeland security of the sort that has prevented attacks on US since 9/11. I favor adopting the 1% doctrine on these matters.

We need police reform to focus on real terrorists rather than gunning down college girls and pretending this somehow makes us safe.

We need to ensure that our economic growth brings prosperity to Indian muslims and that they emerge as role models for the newly democratizing Islamic world.

We need our media and political elite to stop hobnobbing with Pakistani elite merely because they can offer titillating sound bites and scandal fodder.

As private Indian citizens, we can do even more. Indians are now an integral part of the global economy and culture. This gives us unique visibility and influence over flows in capital, trade, and ideas. We should deploy this power to deny Pakistan wherever we can.


My Pakistani liberal friends call such views of mine hate.

They tell me these views only serve to strengthen the grip of army and obscurantists on their national discourse.

They ask me to engage the good in Pakistan and stand with civilians in Government.

I believe these are great prescriptions for Pakistani liberals to follow. It's their country and they should fight to preserve its honor. Nothing will give us in India greater happiness than the day Pakistani liberals prevail.

In the meanwhile, we have to take steps to protect our people and prevail over enemies.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Starting with the man in the mirror

I love India but no longer like much of what I see.

A billion people have swung on destiny's pendulum. From scarcity of means to scarcity of class. As if trying to compensate by escaping what we used to be. Bad and good.

The past is a place we don't want to be. So we're systematically erasing it all away.

Indians are becoming refugees in our own mind.

The 80s and the 00s can't be any more different in Indian consciousness.

80s was when fate switched off the light. We were riven by identity, suffocated by air, vulnerable to theft. Bluestar, Bhopal, Bofors. And most of us were poor.

00s was when fate shone on us. The earth became flat, India became young, the world accepted our bomb. Davos, Demography, Deal. And some of us became prosperous.

On the surface, this is a great narrative. And, yet, something seems amiss.

We used to be humble. Now we are brazen.

We valued achievement. Now we value accumulation.

We thought our birth made us Indians. Now we insolently ask for loyalty oaths.

The angry young man on a bicycle could still serenade with song. Now the angry young man shoots models in the face and rapes schoolgirls in cars.

The pendulum will swing back again some day. From a surplus of means to a surplus of class. But this will take a generation or two and a lot of effort.

The refugee in the mind may yet come back home. But he'll have to start with the man in the mirror. This is the hardest thing of all, alas.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


As long as I can remember, I've viscerally disliked Hindutva.

Visceral is a strong word. Deeply felt, intensely real.

This wasn't inevitable. My family and social context would have suggested otherwise. Even my personal sense of faith.


I think this has to do with doubt, reason, and free choice - ideas on which modernity is based.

My own politics are motivated by self-interest. I doubt the Government as an institution. I reason we'd be better-off if it got out of our way. And I make a free choice on who to stand with politically to achieve this goal.

Given the secular character of India and US (where I live), faith is rarely a driving motivation in any of this. I don't feel politically more in common with random co-religionists than with folks who share my social and economic reality.


Hindutva, in contrast, demands we make unquestioning common cause with other folks merely because they too were born into a common faith. This is imposed politics of incidental commonality, of religion over reason.

There's also some caprice here. There are many incidental commonalities based on birth. Wealth, class, gender, language, left handedness - you get the point. Why is faith any more important than any of the other such commonalities?

There is a cult-like character to this strain of politics. There is no room for doubting the central artifice on which the cult is built. If outcomes are not favorable, it's because of personality issues or implementation mistakes, never the ideology itself. Since there is no room for doubt, exercise of reason makes one's loyalties suspect. And if one exercises free choice of political (dis)association, one is hounded (as whistleblowers are) and sometimes even worse.

Does this not remind one of socialism, that other great cult that has afflicted India? Except that socialism pretends to be born out of doubt and designed by reason, although it too rejects free choice.


There is no doubt that Congress' socialist legacy has been debilitating for India.

Two generations lived through undeserved poverty. Hundreds of millions still do. India's entire politics was reduced to patronage by printing money. And pitting one group of Indians against another. This is a horrendous legacy of what is essentially a personality cult.

Even worse is the reactionary whirlwind all this has spawned.

Hindutva attempts to be everything Congress is not. And yet, it has become everything it is. The cult of personality has been challenged by its cult of othering.

Instead of asking Indians to doubt our ideological chains and asking us to use reason to make free political choices, Hindutva has made that choice for us in a presumptuous and patronizing act. The choice it has made is communal hatred. And it has sought to impose this on us in an imperious manner.

Hindutva is not Hinduism. It pretends that it is and brooks no dissent. The cost of dissent, ultimately, is violence. This too is typical of how cults act.

Arun Shourie is a leading modern intellectual within Hindutva. He is also a decent man who has suffered much personal pain in life. Yet, here is his reaction to 2002: Frankly, I must say, I was more affected by Atalji’s pain than by what had happened in Gujarat. Maybe this is my inhumanity or something. I can’t claim that I was that great liberal

This comfort with, and indifference to, violence is deeply ingrained in such cults.


It is not a surprise that such attitudes attract support from sociopaths.

We see this in the so-called "Internet Hindus" who stalk the by-lanes of cyberia.

Leading Hindutva voices contemptuously dismiss them as fringe elements, in private. In public, they say nothing as they watch these demented mobs mug decent people.

Even if we concede these are fringe elements, it is worth contemplating their nature. When I blogged harshly on Binayak Sen, I was challenged by those on the left but in a relatively civil way. My own politics also has a fringe - that would be Ayn Rand purists! I do think there is a qualitative difference between the trolling by Internet Hindus and the tortured argumentation by leftists and Randists. It says a lot, doesn't it?

Lest I be accused of letting off the Left gently, I should note that while the Maoists leave the internet alone, they do reserve their violence for the jungles of Dantewada.


Sonali Ranade has written about why Internet Hindus are on the wrong side of history (). I think, the same can be said for the entire Hindutva project. History is evidence that human advance has come not from unthinking obedience to cults but from doubt, reason, and free choice. Hindutva denies us all these and is not the antidote to socialism we've been looking for.

This is why I have visceral dislike for this false idea.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

AWOL youth in a B-grade India

When I was younger, I had even less time than now with all the burdens of age.

There was so much to learn, places to see, fortunes to make, reputations to shape, fall in love, break a few hearts, rebound from heartaches, and find my authentic voice. The only things I didn't have time for is to breathe or sleep.

Can't imagine I would have given up any of that for Twitter or Facebook.

How do today's twentysomethings manage it all?

The conventional wisdom is that India's economic growth is a consequence of reform.

In truth, we've barely had any reform. India is still infatuated with socialist chains that criminally impoverished two generations. The political contest is between the secular-left and the religious-left. The economy is still micromanaged with five year plans.

How has India grown when this discredited thinking took down the mighty USSR?

I think this has to do with growing confidence. A confident population consumes more things, which creates demand for products and services, which creates higher paying jobs, which creates a confident population.

This confidence is not the result of any geopolitical change or domestic policy. Rather, I'd argue, it's because India has progressively grown younger. The median age is now 26 years and falling. The youth may lack knowledge, experience, even social graces - but they don't lack confidence. A long life lies ahead, caution is not in their vocabulary.

I've not researched this but am certain that the older the Indian, the less confident he/she is.

You can see this in the polity. The octogenarians who pretend to rule India are anything but confident. Their inferiority complex on the world stage is something to behold. And despair about.

Caught between the uninformed confidence of youth and the unfortunate caution of the experienced, India sails on as a middling nation with delusions of past glory and day dreams of future greatness.

Amy Winehouse died recently. She was merely 27.

Silicon Valley is all about the young. Fresh ideas pursued with infinite boldness.

The young are busy shaping their era. Except, I fear, in India.

Maybe they are out there. Putting their heads down and chasing their dreams. Maybe those on social media are not the dreamers and doers. We should look elsewhere.

But what if this is not the case?

What are the big ideas and achievements of the youth bulge in India?

I may disagree with him, but Mr Anna Hazare has big ideas. And, Nandan Nilekani. They are not young. Where are the big ideas of youth?

When we think of art, we still debate M F Husain & bow before Gulzar. Where is the twentysomething art to give expression to a young India asserting its place in the world?

Let's take politics. Yes, there are a few young voices but they are hardly authentic. And, no, trolling people on twitter is not a big idea of politics.


I've interviewed a lot of people over the years for jobs. Many of them Indians. I've noticed a growing brashness in Indians, not usually substantiated with real knowledge.

I think of when I came to business school. All these smooth talkers discussing swaps and options and beta and gamma and this and that. I was rather unnerved for I had never studied economics nor ever understood what stocks and bonds are. Then, in my microeconomics class, I discovered I was the only one who understood what slope of a line is. Or, how compounding works. The rest, as they say, was a breeze.

I think that Indians used to be more like me. Maybe we didn't know all the fancy stuff but the foundations we knew better than anybody. This is why we won.

Now, they have become more like my classmates. They know all the fancy stuff but the foundations are cracking. You know where this leads.


India is growing because it is increasingly confident.

But it isn't reforming. And its confidence is the callow brashness of the young.

There is so much for them to learn, places to see, fortunes to make, reputations to shape, fall in love, break a few hearts, rebound from heartaches, and find their authentic voice. The only things they don't have time for is to breathe or sleep.

Or spend their time chitchatting on social media.

I'm not so confident about India's future. I guess my age is showing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sweet Smell Of Sorrow

At a distance my God stood

With his hands folded

And said nothing at all


When I think of 9/11, I think of the smell that lasted that whole month.

The sweet smell of sorrow. The young flesh charred too soon. Some were friends. All were family.

For years, it felt like someone had socked me - and my city - in the jaw. The magic was that we took the blow but did not fall. For months the city was a dark, brooding, miserable place. Then, still in the midst of a harsh recession, we found a way to start smiling again.

It had been a tough year. The internet bubble had burst. Buddha's face was shredded in Bamiyan. Politics were ugly from the hanging chads of Florida.

America wasn't ready for jihad on its soil.

Still, there were no riots in New York. Instead, there were inter-faith prayers in Yankee Stadium. Om and Allah and Christ and Yahweh and the Gurus were all invoked.

This wasn't the blood-soaked Delhi of 1984. Too bad Gujarat did not learn.

No, this wasn't about naive self-flagellation and othering that India is so used to doing. America was going to war, united. It would - over the next decade - hunt down Bin Laden, topple a murderous Saddam Hussain, and incite Arab Spring.

I supported both wars. I desperately wished India had the same resolve when hit again and again and again in Kandahar and Kaluchak and Akshardham and Sansad Bhawan and Mumbai and Delhi and so many other places.


We had returned from a meeting that had lasted all morning. Having missed most of what happened, I was trying to grasp it all. A colleague barged in. I'm leaving to re-enlist, he said, I must be in the fight.

He was a marine. He had lost fingers in Desert Storm. He had lost firefighter friends that morning. He was ready to avenge that loss.

All I could tell him is that he should do what he felt he needed to do.

Then I started reading and couldn't stop for years. Ahmed Rashid's Taliban. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Fukuyama's The End of History, Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, Coll's Ghost Wars, Naipaul's Among The Believers, Perkovich's India's Nuclear Bomb, Maxwell's India's China War, and so many others.

I was an engineer discovering history. Radically reshaping my worldview.

I started writing. A few newspaper columns. A lot of blog posts.

It took me years to reconcile my liberalism with the new hawkishness I felt. Eventually, it became self-evident that liberalism must be fought for. That some ideas are superior to others. That while I respect everyone's right to whatever views they hold, only modernity - underpinned by the twinning of freedom and reason - must shape how we live.

I came to see myself as a neoconservative. A liberal mugged by reality.


Ten years later, my rage at jihad's temper tantrum hasn't yet ebbed.

I'm also glad that, unlike India, America doesn't move on. It fights back - whatever the cost.

I watch people taking potshots at this great shining city on the hill. Iraq was a mistake. Drones are wrong. Pakistanis see Americans darkly. The wars have depleted America. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo.

I've even heard people argue Iraqis were better off under Saddam than under freedom.

I guess they haven't spoken to the little Afghan girls freed from the tyranny of the imposed veil. Or, the Shia of Iraq liberated from genocidal chemical attacks.


Sometimes I feel we are back at 9/10. Commercial buildings are full of people in downtown. Tourists visit where the twin towers stood. Hawkers sell them trinkets. We are mired in yet another recession.

But that smell of 9/11 wakes me up quickly in the sweet hereafter.

The air has been cleansed. The clothes dry cleaned. The dead interred. But the smell is still here.


The caravan departs in a rising dust of memories

The dirge wafts in through the windows of my heart

My God turns and walks away

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Unified Theory of Everything

I find it more than a coincidence that India's Anna movement is playing out concurrently with American Tea Party resurgence, Israeli Tent City protests, UK underclass rioting, and Arab Spring revolutions.

Sonali Ranade, in her recent Daily Times column, linked middle class protests to the credit crisis. In her thesis, the enormous losses suffered by large financial institutions are being surreptitiously socialized through stealth taxation on middle class savings.

In this essay, I'll attempt to expand on this analysis.

Clearly, the aftermath of the credit crisis is crucial to explaining the global governance crisis. When highly indebted financial institutions tottered in 2008, they threatened to take down the global economic system. Governments, themselves highly indebted but with some residual ability to print and borrow money, found a variety of ways to take the bad debt off bank balance sheets.

In the US, Government partially nationalized leading banks and the Federal Reserve provided them with near-zero cost funding. In Europe, authorities did the above plus allowed banks to not fully recognize their losses. The principle was the same. Postpone the reckoning where possible, socialize private sector losses where necessary, and transfer wealth to banks so they can recapitalize.

All this played out while Governments in India and China went on debt-fueled binges of welfare and infrastructure expansion respectively.

This is how the banks were saved and the Governments imperiled.

How do deeply indebted Governments resolve their debts? They can print money to inflate it away, sell assets to pay for it, impose taxes, seize private wealth, cut back entitlements, or declare bankruptcy. No other way, really. Except war.

In all of these, there is an implicit transfer of wealth from one set of citizens to another. To expect this to happen without political push-back is naive. Each group will inevitably flex its political muscle to lay down a marker for politicians to contemplate.

Where entitlements have been cut back (e.g., UK), the underclass has revolted. Where entitlements have expanded financed by corrupt asset sales & inflation (e.g., India), the middle class has revolted. Where the debate is raging between entitlement cuts and increased taxes (e.g., US), everyone is morose. Where a kleptocratic autocracy has financed its lavish lifestyle through taxation, inflation, and forcible appropriation of national assets (e.g., Maghreb), revolutions have happened. Where utter confusion has reigned (e.g., Europe), everyone has gone on vacation!

The global credit crunch has become a local political crisis - everywhere.

This is how we must understand what's happening. This isn't about dial 101 for integrity or democracy in the desert or even a new social contract between the rulers and the masses, this is fundamentally about money. And the way this is resolved is not the tedious (and violent) battles for redistribution, rather through new wealth creation.

So how is this to be done?

Prosperity has come to the world in waves, riding the euphoria of new ideas. The end of the cold war, the peace dividend, technology, globalization, and easy credit carried us for two decades. We now need new catalysts to carry us forward.

Some of these can be the end/down-gearing of seemingly interminable wars (e.g., India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine), new agreements for expanded global trade (e.g., the much delayed Doha round), radical economic reforms in BRIC countries (e.g., privatization and professionalization of economies), dramatic increase in technology usage to rationalize the highly inefficient welfare States in OECD countries (e.g., healthcare subsidies), a new surge of investment in education for the information era, etc.

These are big ideas that require big visions and bold leadership. Our challenges are not going away by use of batons on protestors or expressing helplessness about lack of political consensus. And the Jan Lok Pal ain't going to create prosperity by diktat out of thin air. If we don't take bold steps for reforms now, we should be deeply pessimistic about the coming decade. Not only will we see Anna style protests at home, we are likely to see regional and even global wars break out. This is the lesson of our history. Every major turning point of this magnitude, where huge wealth has been taken from some and given to others, has always come with protest, revolutions, and war. We have a small window to head off this fate. This is the bottom line.

The stock market is a great barometer for our collective belief in the future. Presently, it is telling us we don't believe our leaders have it in them to be bold. Were they to start acting as leaders instead of chickens with their heads cut off, we will see this reflected in the markets immediately. Mr Hazare can then go home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Grammar of Reform

Something surely is rotten in the state of India.

Why else would Anna Hazare, a virtual unknown to many outside Maharashtra, vault into national consciousness and force our democratic Government on the defensive?

Much ink has been spilt discussing his agenda and his methods. Much mud has been slung on all sides. After all this, we have now reached a stalemate where an increasingly belligerent Government is in a staring match with an increasingly intransigent Anna Hazare.

As Indians debate this grammar of anarchy, we should separate out several threads mixed in this mire.

First, there is a real crisis of governance in India. Our existing political systems have proven incapable of checking rampant corruption at petty and epic levels. The high cost of our sprawling democracy has created a patronage state to pay for it. The vast reach of our patronizing Government has created opportunity for corruption at a continental scale. The subservience and incompetence of our investigative bodies has created near immunity for corruption. Our parliamentary system has failed to provide sufficient checks and balances on the Government of the day. Our overburdened and, sometimes corruptible, judiciary has been unable to dispense speedy justice. Even our clamorous fourth estate has been compromised in its mortal competition for audience.

Second, our people are smart enough to sense that this state of governance anarchy is not self-correcting. This is why the upsurge in support for Anna Hazare, who people may not know but see as being a potential force for change. That Indians have less faith in their Government than a man most of them do not know and whose ideas they do not understand is telling in itself.

Third, the response of Government of India to this frontal assault has been self-defeating. Its initial defensive crouch has evolved into an increasingly menacing posture. Unable to make a case for its agenda or counter the reality of its inherent corruption, the Government is attacking Mr Hazare in personal terms and his movement by use of force. In so doing, it reaffirms the negative view Indians hold of their political system. If the institution of democratic Government is under siege, it is at the hands of the Government herself - not of Mr Hazare. The many commentators who cite Ambedkar's grammar of anarchy notion to attack Mr Hazare also fall into the same trap. Grammar of anarchy is only problematic in a self-correcting political system. India doesn't have that alas and change here takes way too long to be meaningful. To attack Mr Hazare's protest on the grounds that it sows anarchy misses this obvious point and makes Indians regretfully suspect the credibility of these commentators.

Finally, it is self-evident that Mr Hazare's prescriptions are profoundly dangerous. In the best of circumstances, they will create deep levels of risk aversion among even honest Government servants fearful of painfully intrusive investigations. In the worst of circumstances, they will create a super-Government that is above the democratic process - which would be a major retreat from freedom in India.

So, what is to be done?

This is a moment of perilous opportunity for India. Thoughtful Indians should seize upon the nationwide desire for structural reform in our political system. Yes, the country must reject the fascistic ideas that Mr Hazare offers, but at the same time must embrace the change that he demands. Political and civil society leaders must begin leveling with the people and outlining their visions for a self-correcting political system. We cannot be so rigidly wedded to the current system and so harshly averse to Mr Hazare's ideas that we miss the forest for the trees. Our need for political reforms is perhaps even greater than our need for economic reform. The economic superpower that India can become is being thwarted by the political subpower that it unfortunately is. This has to change - and starting immediately.

The current moment is a cry for help from the Indian people. Using police tactics or lofty rhetoric to smother this cry would be a Himalyan blunder.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sovereignty and Modernity

I've been thinking a lot about sovereignty lately.

Like any good neoconservative, I believe that simultaneous exercise of freedom and equality is a natural human right and an imperative for sovereign nation-states with reference to their citizens. Violation of this human right by any nation-state is self-evidently against natural law.

However, I have strong aversion to internationalist notions of world government, even in weak form. For me, bureaucracies like the UN and International Criminal Court have always been problematic given their supranational and universal jurisdictions. I've also struggled with religious assertion of supranational legal authority independent of the secular jurisprudence of nation-states. These institutions are clearly violative of national sovereignty.

Ensuring that nation-states fulfill their sovereign obligations without a priori violation of their sovereignty is like trying to square a circle. You see the problem?

Now, I'm not lettered in political theory or philosophy of sovereignty. But I know this. Any nation that hounds into exile its intellectual giants violates its own sovereignty in knowledge. Any nation that legally makes some citizens less than others violates its own sovereignty in humanity. Any nation that permits its territory to be used by supranational terror groups to violate other nations' geopolitical sovereignty violates its own. Any nation that dictates to its people what they can think, express, or how they will dress violates its own sovereignty in culture. Any nation that uses its military prowess to smother its own people and rape their dignity violates its own sovereignty in manhood (am using the word in a non-sexist sense).

In the past, when the world was less connected, these violations would've remained local or at worst regional issues. With internet and jumbo jets, each such incident now is the proverbial flapping of butterfly wings that sets off storms half way around the world.

What is to be done?

Perhaps we can all agree with the simple notion that sovereignty must advance modernity. Modernity is about equality and freedom in all spheres of human endeavor. Any assertion or action by nation-states that impinges on modernity of their own or other people is anti-modern.

If so, I'd then argue, that any nation-state that - in its conception of nationhood - violates these precepts of modernity, loses the right to assert sovereignty as a defense against other nations taking actions in self-defense of modernity. This does not mean that there will necessarily be such action but, if there were any, the nation-state in question will not have sovereignty as a defense in international law. This would also remove legal hurdles for modern states to intervene militarily when such action would prima facie advance modernity.

This approach based on conception (not practice) of nationhood is a means to strip sovereignty from those nation-states that are anti-modern in design. This is a narrow dilution of universal sovereignty that will ensnare autocracies and theocracies while leaving liberal democracies alone.

Of course, merely because a nation-state asserts modernity in conception does not imply it will practice it in reality. The response in these instances is not to strip democracies of their sovereignty but to persuade and pressure them to live up to their own aspirational conception.

In a world that's struggling with failed, suicidal, genocidal, and abhorrent states, this new approach may begin to square the circle between robust defense of sovereignty with equal championship of modernity.

I'm posting this idea as a means to trigger dialog that will inform and further clarify these issues. I welcome your thoughts and insightful reactions which, for me, will be highly educational and valuable. Thank you for reading and reflecting.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The plague is coming

Doesn't this moment feel a bit like the withdrawal of USSR from Afghanistan?

The war is likely over and, with that, the gravy train for Pakistan.

They sure have perfected the art of boiling water at the right temperature. In the 80s, the water boiled just enough for a decade-long milking of the United States. In the 00s, the same happened once again.

In a perverse way, strategic depth is almost not the point. Strategic positioning to milk the patron power is the ball game. A triangular game where Pakistan is the pivot is what they seek.

The logic of concealing Osama becomes self-evident with this perspective. His capture would have ended the war. As long as he was at large, the water could be kept boiling in Afghanistan and funds could be squeezed from the US. The fate of Osama and of Afghanistan inevitably had to be secondary to this goal.

Now what?

In the late 80s, after the gravy train stopped, Pakistan was left with a bankrupt State and a jihadi infrastructure. It redirected the jihad to India.

In the early 10s, after the gravy train will stop, Pakistan will be left with a bankrupt State and a jihadi infrastructure and the bomb.

If you were the Generals, would you not pull out the 80s playbook? Redirect the jihad to India. And this time, try to even create a new triangular game.

A thought experiment. What if nuclear Pakistan uses its jihad infrastructure to tie India down in return for Chinese funds? Is this so hard to contemplate?

In this game, China becomes the new US and India, in their jaundiced eye, becomes the new USSR.

One can imagine a whole series of other scenarios where the Pakistani State unleashes its fury at India. Can we deal with this? Can we afford to not deal with this? If not, how would we preempt?

The one thing I'm certain we cannot do is to bask in schadenfreude and assume that serendipity will deliver security. It's not "aman ki asha" that's needed now, rather "jang ki tayyari". If war does come, it's not Kashmir settlement that we should seek, rather a Pakistan settlement.

I fear that things will go south quickly. I sincerely hope not. But history and Pakistani tactics are not very reassuring.

Everybody knows the plague is coming. Everybody knows it's moving fast.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Sangh and I

My first consciousness of the Sangh is as a boy, waiting for the school bus on Delhi's Ring Road. It was a quieter time and Ring Road was not the snarly mess it is today. I distinctly recall being startled by a throng of bicycles flooding the road - men in khaki shorts speeding away to who knows where. Someone at the bus stand hobbled one of the bikes, then forcibly let out the air from its pneumatic tires. Its rider in khaki shorts looked small and sullen, protesting helplessly.

I remember being shocked by the violence of the moment. Summoning my courage, I asked what this was all about? I was told, in a tone of unmistakable warning, the man in khaki was RSS - keep away from him.

I was a curious child. No doubt I must've asked my quite conservative Hindu family what RSS was. Whatever the response, it surprisingly didn't make an impression. All I remembered of the Sangh was the small, sullen, and helpless man in khaki shorts.

In retrospect, it feels odd that I didn't pay real attention to RSS till I was a young adult. There were relatives, I discovered, who were part of it. A senior ideologue even came to our family weddings. It was always around me in some form but simply wasn't relevant to my life.

I felt secure in my identity so wasn't looking for a group to validate it. I didn't fear any other faith, so wasn't looking for muscular friends to protect me from them. I was - and remain - relatively religious & literate on my faith, so wasn't looking for someone to lecture me on it.

Only as an adult, did I see RSS as a political entity. This vague organization, that kinda' hovered around my life but I knew virtually nothing about, was - in a quirk of history - important to the destiny of my nation. Perhaps it was the small, sullen, & helpless man in khaki, perhaps it was the bigoted relatives who said they were in RSS, or perhaps it was the blood-curdling rhetoric of the ideologue who came to our family weddings - whatever it was, I didn't like the Sangh. The shrillness of its Twitter supporters has only served to validate & strengthen this feeling.

As RSS comes back in view, somehow linked (allegedly) to reprehensible bombings that I usually associate with Pakistani terrorism and Indian naxalism, I wonder if there isn't something profoundly wrong with it. How is it possible that it was defined for me - a conservative Hindu boy who I'd think would've been a prime recruit at one time - by serendipitous interactions & distasteful memories? Worse still, how is it possible that the Sangh has let itself be painted, in fairly negative hues, by those who don't like it? Worst of all, how is it possible that its own anglophone supporters on social media have squandered the unique opportunity to redefine it as a modern, civil, and engagement-worthy entity versus an aggressive, angry horde that attacks, attacks, attacks?

I have no idea if the Sangh is involved in any way with the terrorist attacks it is being linked to. But I know this: either the Sangh is comfortable with or is a really poor manager of its public image. If the former, then very little needs to be said beyond the usual critique. If, as I suspect its defenders would argue, it gets a bad rap - surely it needs to do a lot better image management. Whatever its purpose is, surely it must be possible to articulate it in an intuitive manner. Whatever its achievements are, surely it must be possible to describe them in a straightforward manner. Whatever its outreach strategy is, surely it should be better than browbeating people into somehow accepting its version of reality?

This organization that apparently has been around for a long time, yet is somehow unable to do as basic a task as protecting its public image, is hardly the competent protector of the broader faith its rather aggressive supporters assert it is. Given this, I suspect, for me it will likely always remain the small, sullen, and helpless man in khaki shorts. Quite an image, isn't it?