About Kanishk Tharoor

Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy.  His writings on politics and culture have also been published in  the Guardian, The Independent, The National, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Telegraph (Calcutta), the Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy and YaleGlobal Online. His appearances on radio and TV include BBC's Today programme, BBC News, BBC Radio Scotland and the Colbert Report. He is a published and award-winning author of short fiction. He studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude with BAs in History and Literature.

Email him at kanishk [dot] tharoor [at] opendemocracy [dot] net.

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Articles by Kanishk Tharoor

This week's editor

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

Britain is good at dealing with diversity

The UK copes with the issue of ethnic difference more maturely than its neighbours, whatever the BNP may want us to believe

India's rape victims lost in political row

Indians have long grown used to tawdry eruptions and interruptions in their politics, when the contentious core of Indian political life surfaces in the most grisly, unflattering light. From corruption to sex to murder, the "world's largest democracy" is no stranger to the dirty imbroglio.

But the latest scandal to sweep through newspapers is striking in the depths of cynicism and coarseness it reveals. Rita Bahugana Joshi – a politician in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, affiliated with India's ruling Congress party – has been jailed after she made inflammatory comments regarding the state's chief minister, Mayawati. Deriding the latter's attempts to compensate victims of rape, Joshi tactlessly urged victims to "throw the money at Mayawati's face and tell her 'you should also be raped and I will give you 10m rupees'".

The response was swift and emphatic. Political rivals and allies condemned her ill-chosen words. Uttar Pradesh's authorities, with Mayawati's urging, flung Joshi into jail under a raft of charges, notable among them the crime of "insulting a person of a lower caste" (Mayawati is a Dalit, a member of the marginalised Hindu caste formerly known as "untouchables"). Joshi apologised for her remarks, but at the time of writing had not yet been granted bail. Her mood is unlikely to have improved with the news that her house has been set on fire.

Trading in such cheap, demeaning jibes is certainly reprehensible. But did they warrant the intervention of police and the courts? Mayawati's many opponents have added further fuel to the fire, claiming that her rule in Uttar Pradesh had ushered in the "law of the jungle".

But amid all this fiery uproar, the real outrage is how easily a serious issue – violence against poor women – can get lost in the muck of political mudslinging.

The calculating politics of the incident are sadly predictable. Mayawati is a populist leader who rose remarkably to the fore of the political scene at the helm of the Bahujan Samaj party, a movement of largely "low-caste" people. While her grip on Uttar Pradesh (India's most populous state with 191 million inhabitants, the same size as Brazil) remains strong, she has to fend off the resurgence of the Congress party in the state. Her much-publicised programme of compensation for Dalit victims of rape was itself aimed at solidifying a base of poor, largely rural support. Joshi's gaffe provided a juicy opportunity for further political theatrics and point-scoring.

Read the rest of this post in the Guardian

Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog

**UPDATE** In summary -- Obama began compellingly, but somewhere in the later half the speech began to drag, its thrust lost in rhetoric that was at best earnest, at worst hackneyed. There were other weaknesses: he asked Arabs and Muslims not to be imprisoned by history, but at the same time justified America's support for Israel with evocations of the excesses of the past. Critics will also have expected sterner stuff on women's issues and on democracy in the Arab world, both of which Obama treated swiftly.

Nevertheless, after eight years of arrogance and error, the speech should go some way in convincing many people around the world that Obama's administration is serious about rehabilitating its role on the global stage. Melding ideas and detail with his typical fluency, Obama was the picture of a cool, informed leader. His systematic parsing of the issues also promised an energetic approach to policy-making. Of course, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments more than his words, but as he said early on, the goal of his speech was to shift perceptions. The audience of elite students in Cairo University gave him a resounding ovation; how his speech fared in dustier parts of the "Arab and Muslim world" will be the better measure of its success.

1303 in Cairo Less than ten minutes to go ahead of one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory (Read Nader Hashemi's build-up on openDemocracy). President Barack Obama has braved criticism from many fronts in his bid to speak directly to the "Muslim world". How will he spin US involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict? Will he make a dig at his host, Hosni Mubarak, and other American-backed dictators? Will he apologise for the gross blunders of invasion and torture? Stay tuned for live updates and commentary.

1310 And we're off in Cairo University. Takes Obama a few seconds to speak in Arabic ("shukraan"). He now parses the history of relations between "Islam" and the "west", and accounts for American Islamophobia. 

1316 "America and Islam are not exclusive... they share common principles." Nation-state is akin to transcendental global faith? Mohammad Iqbal must be rolling in his grave.

1317 Shout out to the Koran! Took seven minutes.

1320 The historian in me is pleased: Obama mentions that it was Morocco that first recognised the independent thirteen colonies. Good detail. Less impressed by paeans to Islamic learning fuelling the Renaissance. Neverthless, this is typical Obama on good form, moving smoothly from rich theme to illuminating fact. 

1323 Obama subtly distinguishes the US from the secularists of Europe; the US protects the veil and the hijab, maintains a mosque in every state, and punishes religious intolerance.

1327 Human history, Obama says, is a record of self-interest, but not anymore. We are now in an era of interdependence, "our progress must be shared". Yet there's steel here: "we must face these tensions squarely". He's warmed up.

1330 He now defends military engagement in Afghanistan, playing a bit to the home audience. Faint echoes of Bush in the evocation of a coalition of "46 countries."

Time for a lovely quote from the Koran: "Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind."

1334 Describes the Iraq war as one of "choice", not necessity. He doesn't apologise or strongly condemn the invasion, but reaffirms commitment to diplomacy and Iraqi sovereignty, and spells out a timeline of withdrawal. All troops out by 2012.

1335 "Unequivocal" about stopping torture and closure of Guantanamo. He's covered most of the bases. Israel-Palestine up next.

1336 "America's bond with Israel is unbreakable." He firmly backs the need for the Israeli state, reminding viewers that he's going to visit Buchenwald after Cairo. A bit too baldly strategic for my liking.

1340 Reaffirms commitment to two-state solution, and like the good doctor he is, lays out prescriptions. Compares the history of African American resistance to slavery and bigotry and nonviolent resistance to apartheid in South Africa to the struggle in Palestinian, arguing that violence is not the way. Many Israelis will bristle at that. Strong of Obama to make the parallel. He's now slamming settlements, and demanding that Israelis must make life more livable for Palestinians. He also demands more compromise from Arab states.

1344  "We will say in public what we say in private." Only Obama can sound credible saying that.

1346 On to Iran. Recognises US involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, and subsequent decades of mistrust. But now it is no time to be beholden to the past: "we are ready to move ahead without any preconditions." Urges Tehran to come to the table.

1350 To the meat of the matter: the issue of democracy ("not an American idea, but a human right") in the Arab world. Are you watching, Hosni?

1351 Takes a dig at both autocrats and neo-cons by affirming that elections alone don't a democracy make. 

1353 He's advocating "freedom of religion", and doing well to mention the religious diversity of the Arab world. 

Delivers another rebuke to the likes of Turkey and France, that would prevent women from wearing Muslim garb.

1355 Excellent move: he separates the issue of women's dress (above) from women's rights. Eat your heart out, Martin Amis, Jack Straw et al. 

1358 "There need not be contradictions between development and tradition." We've returned to opening theme, of moving forward and closer together while remaining rooted (and respecting each other's roots). 

1401 A litany of initiatives and partnerships that will tighten cooperation in a blizzard of areas (lost track) between the US and Muslim-majority countries. Obama does soft power.

1403 We've reached the denouement. Fluffy stuff that rises above the bile of "clash of civilisations", but it's still fluffy. 

1406 Ends with a comp lit lesson; Obama paraphrases the Koran, Torah and Bible, drawing out their common message of peace. He stumbles over his last line; saying "May God be upon you" instead of "May peace be upon you". The audience doesn't care, as students raucously take up an Obama chant.

 

India: the promise of stability

Five years ago, Indian voters comprehensively shredded the predictions of their country's chattering class, toppling the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and sweeping to power the centrist Congress party. Analysts, pollsters, and journalists at the time all expected a BJP triumph, believing too readily the hype surrounding the BJP's promise of an "India Shining". The country's electorate - the largest in the world - proved them woefully wrong.

Kaplan's dreary romanticism

Robert Kaplan is not a writer who tries to get your blood boiling. The Atlantic correspondent genuinely wants to edify, not provoke. But in his bid to become the American world of letters' chief interpreter of south Asia, some of his recent pieces have quite successfully got under my skin.

His sin is not so much one of substance - though his insight often leaves much to be desired - but one of style. I don't really mind the poetry. American journalists aren't known for lyricism, so it's almost refreshing that Kaplan single-handedly attempts to make up for the austerity of modern US prose. He populates his political commentary with passages like this: 

An exploding sea bangs against a knife-carved apricot moonscape of high sand dunes, which, in turn, gives way to crumbly badlands. Farther inland, every sandstone and limestone escarpment is the color of bone. Winds and seismic and tectonic disruptions have left their mark in tortuous folds and uplifts, deep gashes, and conical incrustations that hark back far before the age of human folly.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this species of expansiveness and earnestness (certainly, it'd be fairly ridiculous of me to complain about it). The trouble lies rather in how he allows this gush to infect his view of real people and real places. It leaves his writing at best exoticising, at worst downright a-historical and reductive.

His most recent piece in the Atlantic explores the decades-old crisis in Pakistan's marginalised, restive region of Baluchistan and its new Chinese-backed port at Gwadar - a very important (and oft-discussed) subject in south Asia that deserves more of the international limelight. Typically, he can't keep the Pandora's box of his historical imagination closed. He introduces Baluchistan to American readers via classical evocations. "Through this alkaline wasteland, the 80,000-man army of Alexander the Great marched westward in its disastrous retreat from India in 325 B.C... Here, along a coast so empty that you can almost hear the echoing camel hooves of Alexander’s army, you lose yourself in geology." One can almost stomach this syrupy stuff, but it gets worse: 

Baluch tribesmen screech into these road stops driving old autos and motorcycles, wearing Arab head scarves, speaking in harsh gutturals, and playing music whose rumbling rhythms, so unlike the introspective twanging ragas of the subcontinent, reverberate with the spirit of Arabia.  

"The spirit of Arabia"? "Twanging ragas of the subcontinent"? Really? Such loose and silly language makes Kaplan seem less a polished 21st century journo than a rheumy-eyed Orientalist, the rearguard of centuries of dreadful (but often pretty) European and north American writing about the region.

Take his op-ed in the NYT on last November's Mumbai attacks. In describing how globalisation has fomented fundamentalist violence in south Asia, he lapses into feeble historical connection. "The route that intelligence agencies feel was taken by the fishing boat hijacked by the terrorists - from Porbandar in India’s Gujarat State, then north to Karachi in Pakistan, and then south to Mumbai - follows centuries-old Indian Ocean trade routes." Sensible readers should see that this observation is of no relevance whatsoever. It barely makes sense, it's tantamount to saying, "The route that the 7/7 bombers took to London followed ancient trade routes from the Pennines to the Thames Valley."

No south Asian would write like this about the west and labour under the illusion that he was saying anything meaningful, but Kaplan can do just so about south Asia. He taps into the insidious and outdated notion that somehow history is more relevant in other parts of the world, that you can turn other peoples more readily into cutouts from a storybook. If we are lured into Kaplan's world of velvet words and rich imagery, it becomes appropriate to dress political analysis with the trappings of the most saccharine tourist brochure. 

The small tragedy is that Kaplan knows better. He understands south Asia's many layers of complexity and remains, for the most part, a decent observer of the region. By and large, he seems to choose subjects already well discussed in their own context, recasting them for an American audience (e.g. this piece on the BJP's unsavoury heir apparent, Narendra Modi). Some of his larger ideas - like the notion of a "greater near east", a "single zone of conflict" extending from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal - are merely quaint in their faddish simplicity.

But when he casually refers to the "spirit of Arabia" and asks us to hear the echoes of Alexander the Great's footsteps, Kaplan ceases to be simply innocuous. It doesn't help that his piece on Baluchistan very unevenly sides with Baluch nationalist sentiment, continuing the old western tradition of romanticising desert nationalists in the middle east. For the sake of his subjects, and for the sake of his readers, Kaplan ought to trade in fluff for fact. 

India votes

The world's biggest exercise in democracy begins today when Indians in over one hundred constituencies head to the polls. Such is the size of national elections in a country of over one billion people that Thursday's voters won't know the results in their local contests till one month later, after citizens in the rest of India's 543 constituencies vote in a five-phased process.

The numbers tell their own story. An electorate of 714 million will vote in over eight hundred thousand polling stations, choosing between candidates from 1,055 political parties including seven national parties and a plethora of regional and state parties. Four million electoral officials and 2.1 million security personnel will be mobilised to ensure the fairness and safety of the polls. The month-long voting process puts so much pressure on security forces that the Indian Premier League - a glitzy cricket tournament that symbolises the optimistic and confident mood of this cricket-mad country - is taking place in exile this year, in distant South Africa. Democracy squared up to cricket, the national passion, and won.

But while the scale of Indian democracy is gargantuan, so too are the problems of security, development and governance that India's fifteenth Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) will have to address.

Clouds on the horizon

The Mumbai attacks of last November were a reminder that the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan (now joined in media parlance as "AfPak") will invariably have implications for neighbouring India. At the same time, a Maoist rebellion grips the central interior, while separatist insurgencies continue to simmer in the north and the far east of the country.

India's economic success story of recent years may also be tarred by the global economic meltdown. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had insisted in December that India, with its large domestic market and fairly sensible borrowing practices, would emerge relatively unscathed from the recession. In the last five years, the Indian economy has grown at a rate of 8.6 percent. But the country is not impervious to ripples of decline elsewhere. The southern state of Kerala, for instance, depends in large part on remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf states. Tens of thousands of migrants are now returning home after being laid off in the recession-hit emirates, forcing Kerala to face the prospect of a shrunken economy and an unemployment crisis. The prime minister, an economist by training, also has conceded recently that India's rate of growth may dip below 7 percent in the next year.

While many economic and social indicators in India have shown signs of steady improvement in recent years, rates of poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy remain depressingly high. A booming middle class cannot mask India's glaring inequalities of wealth and lifestyle, chasms made all the more unbridgeable by endemic corruption and bureaucratic indifference.

Though there are signs that the traditionally apathetic Indian middle classes may be more energised and engaged this year than in previous elections, it is disproportionately the poor of India who vote, the poor who queue for hours at polling stations in the sweltering pre-monsoon heat, who walk for miles often through jungle and mountain paths to have a say in how their continent of a country is run.

What do they have to choose from within the blizzard of India's political parties and agendas? And what should outsiders pay attention to, beyond the platitudes, as the "world's largest democracy" heads to the polls?

The grey ladies

In the last twenty years, two parties have largely dominated Indian politics. The secular, centrist and nearly 125 year-old Indian National Congress - the party of the independence struggle against the British and of the political dynasty begun by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru - currently heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. Its chief (but by no means its only) opponent is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party that fronts a fraying coalition of parties dubbed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Their leaders are talismanic figures in Indian politics. Though Congress' candidate for prime minister is the incumbent Manmohan Singh, he shares the limelight with party leader Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and mother of the party's presumptive heirs, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, scions of the Nehru dynasty. The BJP leader, the venerable Lal Krishna Advani, launched the controversial Ramjanmbhoomi movement in the 1980s that at once catapulted the BJP and Hindu nationalism into the fore of the Indian political scene and culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, an act that re-opened India's bloody communal wounds.

In the last national election in 2004, the Congress-led UPA ousted the BJP-led NDA. The Congress or the BJP will most probably head the next government.

In terms of actual policy, the Congress and the BJP share much in common. Both are keen on steering India towards a closer relationship with the United States, while maintaining strong and independent bilateral ties with Russia, China and other powers. Both are broadly committed to the program of economic liberalisation that India embarked upon nearly twenty years ago, though Congress returned to power in 2004 after the BJP overplayed its pro-free market message of an "India Shining". The BJP has since criticised the UPA's more statist welfare measures, like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005, as merely encouraging cronyism and corruption.

Their main difference remains one of ideology, with the Congress committed to the secular and pluralist principle that the Indian state is not defined by any single religion, and with the BJP claiming that a Hindu civilisational ethos undergirds modern India. This general ideological divide makes it impossible for some smaller parties - like those on the Left - to ally closely with the BJP. But the real game of Indian politics is played on a much more minute, shifting field, as the big two parties vie for the backing of a host of regional, caste and issue-based parties.

The necessity of compromise

It is a testament to the vibrancy and the chaos of democratic politics in India that neither the Congress nor the BJP will be able to form the next government without the support of other parties of varying shape and character. In the lead-up to this election, both parties' coalitions have effectively collapsed, with the withdrawal of several major regional allies. These and other regional parties, along with Leftist and caste-based national parties, have in recent months formed a number of mercurial, fractious alliances under the fanciful monikers the "Third Front" and the "Fourth Front", which exist in name more than in reality.

But their message is clear. The Congress and the BJP, the two giants of Indian politics, will have to increasingly accommodate other agendas and interests in building a workable majority in parliament.

Such is the growing strength of these alternative parties that it is not totally inconceivable that the next prime minister could emerge from their ranks and not those of the Congress or the BJP. Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which claims to represent the interests of the most marginalised castes and tribal peoples, is a potential candidate in this vein. She is Chief Minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which boasts a population equivalent to that of all of Brazil. As a Dalit - an "untouchable" - and a woman, her ascent is already remarkable and a sign of shifting hierarchies and power-bases in India. Though her becoming prime minister remains an unlikely (and to many, an unsavoury) possiblity, the BSP, which was once mostly confined to Uttar Pradesh, is now contesting in constituencies across the country and may well have a hand in playing kingmaker come 16 May.

While not unprecedented in Indian politics (a "third party" coalition held power briefly in the late 1990s), the rise of alternative parties like the BSP is symptomatic of the shrinking popularity of the big parties in vast swathes of India, in part because of their failures to deliver meaningful and enduring change throughout the country, especially in rural areas.

Coalition politics is now the modus operandi. Both the UPA coalition (twenty parties) and the NDA government before it (23 parties) managed to keep their restless allies in line and see out full terms in office. The endless negotiation and politicking required in holding these governments together is seen by some as healthy for Indian democracy.

As the historian Mahesh Rangarajan suggests, the necessity of compromise between a government at the "Centre" in New Delhi and its allies in the states, its "regional satraps", may be more in keeping with the true spirit of Indian federalism, restraining the "adventurism" of the smaller parties while still allowing their contribution to the "opening up of new spaces in politics".

Viewed from the perspective of China - India's fellow "Asian giant" and supposed rival - the horse-trading in New Delhi may look criminally inefficient and venal. But seen from within, it is part of the organic, incremental evolution of India's political system, one that is still striving to better govern, through the ballot box, a country of incomparable diversity and size.

Deepening democracy

At the same time, coalition politics by its very nature militates against decisive action at the Centre. What a ruling party gains in power from the support of its coalition members, it loses in its ability to shape a firm, coherent national policy without the consent of its jockeying allies. Last summer, the UPA government nearly collapsed after the Left parties threatened to withdraw their outside support for the ruling coalition in a dispute over the Indo-US nuclear deal, forcing a confidence vote in parliament that the UPA tortuously scraped through. The next government will invariably face similar complications as it attempts to advance policy initiatives while preserving the delicate political balance on which its power rests.

That this balance relies in large part on parties with narrow, identity-based agendas is a cause for concern for many Indians. The writer and historian Ramachandra Guha insists that coalition politics of the current brand make it impossible for governments to coherently tackle major issues like education, healthcare and foreign policy. What India needs, according to Guha, is the emergence of a new party that cuts across national and identity-based lines, and represents the aspirations of the country's growing middle class.

Part of the reason that India's middle classes don't vote in great numbers is because they find the array of parties and candidates before them uninspiring (of course, turnout is also low amongst the urban educated because apathy is high). A number of professionals from other spheres - dancers, writers, army captains and so forth - have entered the fray this year, challenging the typical, careerist politicians in their constituencies. Indian democracy can only benefit from their engagement, and from the greater engagement of all its citizens.

Paramilitaries throw Bangladesh into chaos

According to Bangladeshi government officials, an uprising by paramilitaries that flung the country into chaos and confusion for a day has ended. At a meeting on Wednesday between army officials and paramilitaries at their Dhaka headquarters, members of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) revolted. Their mutiny led to the deaths of upwards of 50 people, including several civilians trapped in the BDR's Dhaka compound and caught in the crossfire elsewhere as the rebellion spread to other parts of the country. Full casualty figures are yet to be confirmed, but officials insist that the rebelling BDR troops have stood down.

In Bangladesh - and in much of the rest of south Asia - the central government employs paramilitary units to flesh out a multi-layered security apparatus. BDR units serve comparable functions as their equivalent in India, the Border Security Forces (BSF), tasked with patrolling the frontiers. Yet their command structure is drawn from the army, not from their own ranks. BDR troops are also not as well remunerated as those in the army, and are also not eligible to join the lucrative UN peacekeeping missions in which so many Bangladeshi soldiers are deployed (Bangladesh is the second largest contributor of personnel to UN peacekeeping forces, second only to Pakistan).  

Economic grievances thus probably lay at the heart of the rebellion, which constitutes the first real test of the newly democratically-elected government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Unsurprisingly, Indian intelligence officials have suggested that the mutiny was stoked by elements of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist party. New Delhi believes that the party and its affiliates have links with Pakistan's ISI secret service, which is allegedly building a network in Bangladesh in order to further destabilise and infiltrate neighbouring areas of India. Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party tends to lean more towards New Delhi than its counterparts.

The rebellion placed Sheikh Hasina's fledgling government in a particularly precarious position. Her own centre-left Awami League-led administration faces unrelenting pressure from the opposition, led by Begum Khaleda Zia and her centre-right Bangladesh National Party. Any slip-up, any obvious error, and the opposition would score points as it continues to demand more seats in parliament.

Sheikh Hasina also had to resolve the situation quickly in order to maintain an edifice of strength and decisiveness before her own army. Bangladesh's armed forces have routinely intervened in political life, most recently shepherding the governing of the country for two years till elections this winter. The democratically-elected government's wariness of its armed forces matches the army's own intolerance for the frequent failings of civilian rule.

BDR sources say they've only laid down arms because Sheikh Hasina has pledged to look into their demands. The prime minister will have to be careful in negotiations with the rebels, conceding enough to cool tensions, but not conceding so much as to encourage further fraction in what remains a fragmented political landscape.

A video of BDR troops airing their demands before the media (in Bangla)

Also in openDemocracy about Bangladesh:

Jalal Alamgir, "Bangladesh: a verdict and a lesson", (13 February 2009)

Delwar Hussain, "Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins" (26 January 2009)

Delwar Hussain, "Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)

Timothy Sowula, "Bangladesh's political meltdown" (24 November 2006)

Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace" (25 October 2006)

Delwar Hussain, "Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (7 July 2006)

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (26 June 2006)

Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (24 June 2004)

Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (15 April 2004) 

The "poetic documentary" of meat

One of the abiding stereotypes of India is of the country's traditional vegetarianism, of its reverence for cows, of a devout, pinched people living off rice and pulses. Such images may litter the global imagination of India, but they are at best exaggerations of a very different reality and history. A small percentage of Hindus (and an even smaller percentage of Indians) are vegetarian. Pork and beef have long been consumed in the subcontinent - the Buddha's last meal was pork; Brahmins ate beef at least as far back as the Vedic age three and half thousand years ago. Even today, the apparent vegetarianism of many Indians stems more from poverty and scarcity than adherence to atavistic belief.

Though mentioned by visitors in their accounts of the land in previous centuries, the image of India's "vegetarianism" owes its currency to the period of British rule when it fed into racialised notions of Indian peoples. Diet, or perceptions of diet, played a particularly poisonous and unfortunate role in separating Hindus from Muslims. The dark divisions bequeathed by the colonial era even extend into public understandings of food.

Fittingly perhaps, traditional British butchery techniques persist in India's markets. The photographer Jeet Chowdhury visited New Market in Kolkata, the old capital of British India, and studies its butchers in vivid and arresting detail. New Market is something of a misnomer, because the crumbling Gothic complex was first opened to its originally British patrons in 1874. It remains central to the life of the city, bustling with the commerce of Kolkatans of all stripes. New Market's red meat butchers are popular amongst all the city's citizens. Though stark, Chowdhury's pictures are steeped in historical and cultural significance. Seemingly pedestrian scenes are rendered almost magical, darkly encumbered and sinuous (a selection below).

Chowdhury's study of meat is part of "Poetic Documentary", an intriguing exhibition of contemporary video and photography from India at London's AICON Gallery.

meat jeet chowdhury

meat jeet chowdhury

meat jeet chowdhury


Jeet Chowdhury, "Untitled 1" (Meat series), 2008

Jeet Chowdhury, "Untitled 2" (Meat series), 2008

Jeet Chowdhury, "Untitled 3" (Meat series), 2008

What to make of the Mumbai attacks

(This article was first published on 27 November 2008)

The dust has yet to settle on the unfolding tragedy in Mumbai. At the time of writing, hostage situations persist in the Oberoi Hotel and the Nariman House, and commandos are still clearing the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Officials have not fully agreed on the chronology of events that have left at least one hundred people dead (including the city's anti-terrorist chief Hemant Karkare) and injured hundreds others, but the verdict is already in: this is the worst attack India has ever seen.

Change we don't really need

The Obama campaign pioneered the use of 21st century social networking in American electoral politics. Its My.BarackObama.com website was a small miracle of technology and tact, building a platform that at once spread information, enlarged the supporter base, directed energy and, most importantly, raised money. Barack's Twitter feed kept thousands of supporters (and foes) abreast of his latest speeches and rallies. Obama's campaign even deployed text messages on its path to victory, considerably defter and more modern than McCain's much maligned robo-calls.

I got my last "tweet" from Obama on the morning of the 5th: "We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks". My.BarackObama.com now offers it services as a blank and vague portal for "local organising"; activity has slowed markedly on the site. Electoral victory put an end to the campaigning purpose of such tools, which in the previous months had been meticulous in their direction. Once the means achieve their desired end, they end themselves.

Yet the President-elect rolled out a new website, Change.gov, aimed at making the process of transition more transparent. A noble intention, of course, but when that intention is bolstered by such saccharine and cringe-worthy blog posts as this, it seems risible at best, propagandist at worst. We don't need the organ of the President-elect to tell us that "Words like 'brilliant,' 'sharp,' 'energetic,' and 'visionary' are coming from across the political spectrum in praise for President-elect Barack Obama's choices to lead his economic team." As a friend pointed out, much of the site reads like official Chinese Communist Party newspapers.

It is disappointing that the energy and dynamism of the previous months seems lost on Change.gov. In the hands of Obama's campaign, the internet was perfectly harnessed to build momentum and galvanise support. His new venture on the internet is on the path to becoming a reminder of the stultifying effect of power.

NYT comes out against electoral college

Following in our footsteps, a New York Times editorial today forcefully argues for the abolition of the electoral college in favour of the popular vote. There are numerous reasons to dispense with the creaking, archaic system: much of the initial rationale of the system lay in slavery; it is unconscionable that the presidency can be awarded to the candidate for whom fewer Americans vote (as happened in 2000); and the electoral college exaggerates the importance of votes in "swing states" like Ohio and Florida, while diminishing their significance in "safe states" like New York and Texas.

But most importantly, in my opinion, the system reduces the diverse political landscape of the country into monochrome blocks. It creates the crippling sense of a "red state" vs "blue state" divide. If a popular vote was in place, this perception would not have room to flourish. As the editorial points out, over 40% of voters in deep red Alabama cast their ballot for Obama, while 4.5 million Californians voted for McCain (equivalent to the number of votes the Republican got in Texas). If Obama is serious about transcending red-blue fissures, he should welcome the burgeoning national movement for the popular vote.

The "celestial" president

The New Yorker's recent issue boasts a particularly arresting cover (pasted below). Obama's "O" moon waxes high over the Lincoln Memorial, casting a pale reflection in the pool beneath. Still months before his inauguration, Obama finds himself in the longest of shadows, that of the president who steered the United States through bloody division and great crisis. It's a mantle that Obama has, in effect, placed upon himself. He quoted Abraham Lincoln extensively throughout his campaign. And in his first interview since the election, Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft that he'd been preparing for the months ahead by returning to the works of Lincoln: "I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."

The reflection of the memorial - eerily reminiscent of the pillars of light that all too briefly replaced the World Trade Centre after 9/11 - tells a cautionary tale. Even the brightest alabaster of presidential grandeur has its dark side. He probably knows this. Obama's performance on 60 Minutes was low-key and almost pedestrian, belying the tremendous anticipation weighted on the President-elect. On display was not only Obama's famous calm, but his deep respect for the office and the moment he has risen to. Perhaps he has imbibed the "wisdom" of Lincoln. The "greatness" expected of him, Obama knows, will only materialise if it ultimately draws from a deeper reserve of modesty.  

 

Hat-tip to BAGnewsNotes.

"Obama's Afghan challenge"

Elsewhere in openDemocracy, Anita Inder Singh explores the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the next president. Singh paints a bleak picture: "The Taliban now control at least one-third of the country; President Karzai's fledging elected government struggles to extend its authority beyond the capital Kabul; and wracked by growing divisions and doubts, NATO seems to be at risk of losing a seven-year old war." Read the rest of the article here.

 

Number crunching

Heading into the last weekend before the election, here's a handy tool to keep all the polls and predictions in perspective. The Takeaway condenses the spectrum of political projections in this "prediction tracker" below.

McCain: I am Spartacus...

...or rather, "I am Joe." The ad below also boasts a cameo by the McCain campaign's new puppet of the Protestant work ethic, "Tito the Builder".

Obama's "closing" argument

Ahead of a 30-minute "infomercial" to be aired across most US TV networks tonight, Obama spoke rousingly in Ohio yesterday. Billed as his "final argument", the speech mixed the older, loftier rhetoric of the primary season with the more measured and earthly tone of recent months. Not once did Obama allow himself a smile. This was a totally sober speech, concluding with the now familiar invocation of "Hope" as its grim battle cry.

He placed the flailing economy at the fore, consistently abstracting the crisis above the candidates themselves (in clear contrast to the McCain campaign's plunges into the personal). Obama repeated his commitment not to make "a big election about small things". Yet he responded to the more absurd attacks on his supposed "ideology" by strongly defending his platform.

"Government should do what we can't do for ourselves," he said, in arguing the great role government has to play in engendering prosperity in the country, before really sticking to his guns: "John McCain calls it socialism, I call it opportunity." But there is more at stake in this election than vying policies.  Showing that he could meld the political scrapper with the high-minded orator, Obama returned to his rhetorical best towards the end of the speech. "In one week, we can come together as a nation and as a people and choose our better history." As ever, Obama was finely aware of the power of narratives in this election. Both McCain and Obama have drafted stories of themselves as individuals and leaders. But only Obama's campaign has appealed to a renewed narrative of Americanness that in its craft and warmth has that strange (and often dubious) power to inspire.

Melanie Phillips the miserablist

At least one person in Europe isn't going all soft and misty-eyed for Obama. The irascible Melanie Phillips recently penned a fevered attack against the presidential hopeful, warning that Obama "will take an axe to America's defences at the very time when they need to be built up." While The Spectator may not be regular fare across the pond, equally frenzied denunciations of Obama have become common in the last few weeks in the US. Evangelicals beseech their co-religionists to vote for McCain in order to stave off a "far-left agenda [that] would take away many of our freedoms as a nation, perhaps permanently." Elected Republicans try to tar and feather Obama as a radical: "With all due respect," Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said, "the man is a socialist." In terms that echo the shrillest of these fear-mongers across the pond, Phillips claims an Obama victory would invite apocalypse.

For a hack who imagines the end of western civilization around every corner, Phillips unsurprisingly finds the most self-destructive instincts of the west in him. "Obama stands for the expiation of America's original sin in oppressing black people, the third world and the poor," she writes. "Obama thinks world conflicts are basically the west's fault, and so it must right the injustices it has inflicted."

According to Phillips, Obama is the epitome of the guilt-ridden, multicultural self-hater. His inevitable failures as president would not only be those of diplomatic compromise, but of cultural and historical surrender. Overreaching minorities will be coddled within their obliging societies. Terrorists will become objects of politically-correct sympathy. Iraq and Afghanistan will be evacuated. Israel will be sacrificed to the Arabs. Obama will strip the US - and ultimately, the "West" - of the right to assert its identity and strength. Under an Obama presidency, there will be no safe buffer zone - political and psychological - between the west and the rest.

Of course, Phillips has no real interest in looking at Obama seriously. She only wants him to be a woodcut in her shadow world of demons and angels. So it makes sense that her rant impresses other paladins of the clash of civilisations (see the comments below her piece on The Spectator website). It's as willfully deaf to reality as they are.

The "liberal" media strikes again

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times has endorsed Obama over McCain. The pillar of American print media remains the bete noire of a particularly virulent segment of conservatives, convinced that the broadsheet is at the centre of a "liberal, elitist" national media. During the Republican convention, Sarah Palin singled out the paper as an exemplar of high-falutin' coastal snobbery. 

It's difficult to gauge bias in such a venerable fixture of the American media landscape, one which in almost all respects is painfully centrist and middle-class in its sensibilities. Yes, the paper's op-ed page is predominantly populated by left-leaning columnists, and its editorials mostly take left-leaning positions. But there is little to the suggestion that the paper in the sum of its parts is somehow "leftist"; it was the New York Times, after all, that resurrected the spectre of Bill Ayers by recently making the ex-radical front-page news.

Were Obama to go on to win the presidency, many grumbling conservatives will fault a "pliant" media for giving the Democrat the edge. As Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, "The press knows who the press is for, and it isn't generally the one to the right." While Noonan goes on to blame McCain's own failings - not media bias - for his seemingly impending defeat, the image of a press corps swooning for Obama will remain a part of the narrative of this election campaign. 

But when only 18% of Americans get their news from print media, the grey lady looks more like a straw man. Talk radio and the explosive mix of news and opinion on 24/7 news channels have steered American discourse clearly to the right in the last fifteen years. In the end, newspaper endorsements don't count for much. And - despite Palin's protestations - nor do the east coast's "liberal" rags.

Al Qaeda "endorses" McCain

It seems Islamist insurgents do read openDemocracy's SWISH reports. Just as Paul Rogers urged, a poster on an al-Qaeda-linked website has suggested that a John McCain presidency would better serve the purposes of the jihadist movement than an Obama one. Revelling in the financial crisis gripping America, webby Islamists hope to further drain US resources in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping the US involved in these wars "requires [the] presence of an impetuous American leader such as McCain, who pledged to continue the war till the last American soldier... Then, al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming elections so that he continues the failing march of his predecessor, Bush."

The message, found and translated from a password-protected website monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group, went on: "If al-Qaeda carries out a big operation against American interests, this act will be support of McCain because it will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America till its last year in it."

Neither the McCain nor the Obama campaign have responded strongly to the message, which seems to play quite clearly into Obama's hands. The Democratic candidate's camp would be wise to keep fairly quiet about the message, lest they are seen to be playing politics with the musings of "terrorists".

Cartography of a massacre

The McCain campaign seems ready to concede Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa to Obama, focussing its energies instead in teetering southern states - e.g. Virginia - and, bizarrely, in Pennsylvania. Obama is thought to hold a considerable advantage in Pennsylvania, but the state once described as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama between" must seem winnable to the McCain campaign. The gamble makes gory reading for the Republican (map below from Electoral-vote.com).

 

The last debate: live-blog

03:30 Obama returns to his normal line, smooth repetition, and the debate draws to a close. Early verdict: McCain proves wanting. He falls terribly short. Despite a more combative performance, he can't expect to have made the necessary impact. This wasn't even close. Even Joe the Plumber can't save him. 

03:28 McCain scores points on vouchers in DC... we're rushed into closing statements. The Republican speaks awkwardly and vaguely, not at all persuasive. 

03:23 Sparring on education. McCain retreats to Republican talking points. Obama is more flexible, defending charter schools while attacking the voucher mentality.

03:14 Obama is strong in supporting Roe vs. Wade. Once again, McCain feebly waves at Obama's record. Rebuffed with confidence and clarity. 

03:06 The Republican continues to clutch at straws. Deploys strategic Freudian slip by calling Obama "Senator Government". 

03:01 Health insurance time: Obama wants people to band together for the greater good. Damn pinko, says McCain. Isn't that right, Joe the Plumber? Healthcare is not American, it's Canadian and E n g l i s h. Yuck. 

The final debate: McCain's last, best chance

A New York Times/CBS poll now puts Obama's lead over McCain at 14 points. With his back against the wall, the final presidential debate tonight offers McCain the possibility of clawing his way back into the race. The candidates and the moderator (CBS' Bob Schieffer) will sit at the same table in a debate format engineered to be more conversational. Such a format may encourage more direct exchanges and improvised arguments (both distinctly lacking in the previous debates).

The onus rests on McCain to take the debate by the horns. Will he eschew the negative tactics that have supposedly contributed to his slump in the polls, or will he bring up the bogeymen of William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright? How will he defend his proposed economic policies when a majority of Americans would rather have Obama steering the economy through troubled waters? Can he turn the doddering awkwardness of his last appearance into controlled and comfortable authority?

Obama is likely to continue performing as blandly as he has in the prior clashes, boring his way to a favourable-looking draw. In McCain lies the potential for pyrotechnics. The debate kicks off at 02.00 BST, tune in to openUSA for real-time commentary and analysis on our live-blog. 

Olbermann on violence in American politics

I have actually grown less convinced by MSNBC's vociferous Keith Olbermann over the course of the campaign, but his recent "special comment" is worth watching. Olbermann has spoken persuasively in the past about the proximity of violence to politics in America, attacking Hillary Clinton for invoking the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. He hits out now at McCain and Palin for failing to own up to their complicity in allowing the tenor of their rallies to reach a bloodthirsty fever pitch. Video below.

Defending God's reputation

At a McCain rally in Iowa on Saturday, Rev. Arnold Conrad asked God to remember "that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November" because "millions of people around this world" - Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims - are praying to their distinctly non-Christian gods for an Obama victory. Conrad concluded: "Lord, I pray You would guard Your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than You." Video from TPM below.

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