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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.

Follow him on twitter here. His personal site is here

Articles by Kanishk Tharoor

This week’s editor


Sunny Hundal is openDemocracy’s social media editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Pakistan's new PM

Pervez Musharraf yesterday swore in the fifth prime minister to take office during his tenure as president of Pakistan. This one may very well be the last. While Pakistan's last four prime minister have been little more than parliamentary puppets, the election of Yousaf Raza Gilani poses a real challenge to the imbalance of presidential power that has allowed Musharraf to hold sway over Pakistani politics since 1999.

US right: wrong on Obama

Barack Obama's speech on race this Tuesday is already being hailed in quarters of American public opinion as one of the finest pieces of oratory in the country's history. The embattled Democratic presidential candidate turned the pitfall of his relationship with the volatile Jeremiah Wright into a transcendent meditation on the role of race in American society and politics. Few politicians of his stature and exposure have ever dared venture into these dusty corridors of the country's identity. And few will ever be capable of both the eloquence and the probing seriousness that Obama mustered in speaking the previously unspoken (YouTube video below).

As Michael Tomasky observed in the Guardian, the speech was perhaps too brilliant for its own good. But it is a measure of its impact that the bastions of conservative thought have been unable to respond to the newness of Obama's remarks. With their knives out and the table laid, conservatives were ready to carve up the expected, feeble "distancing" act. Instead, dinner was cancelled, and Obama, resplendent in his best smoking jacket, held court in the drawing room.

Take, for instance, the bludgeon and dudgeon of FoxNews' popular "O'Reilly Factor". The grating Bill O'Reilly led both programmes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights with "Talking Points" on Obama's address. In the first, O'Reilly had the grace to praise the speech, but then asked quite curiously if "Obama's deeds matched his words" (curious in so far as the words were quite significant deeds in-and-of themselves). O'Reilly's answer was predictably "no", but only because Obama refused to appear on FoxNews. The following night, O'Reilly touched on the speech again, but only as a platform to launch a bizarre and misplaced attack on the aging Jesse Jackson. O'Reilly trotted out the familiar straw-men, failing entirely to engage with the substance of Obama's speech, probably because he didn't know how.

Nor did Dean Barnett of the neo-conservative The Weekly Standard seem to be able to parry the speech's real thrust. Barnett missed the point altogether.

Obama brilliantly answered a question that virtually no one is asking... What the analysts who are gushing over Obama's sentiments regarding race relations are missing is not only did Obama fail to accomplish the mission he needed to, he didn't even really try. He made no attempt to explain his relationship with Wright and why he hung around a man who habitually offered such hateful rhetoric. Obama instead offered a non-sequitur on race relations.

Only blinkered, wishful thinking could think of race in this context as a "non-sequitur". One of the great victories of Obama's speech is that he rose above the foam, addressing the intrinsic problems that on one level frame race relations and on a lower level generate the kind of media frenzy that made Jeremiah Wright a household name.

Never mind that Obama did more than adequately "explain his relationship with Wright" – in unflinching, human terms. Never mind that Obama's relationship to Wright should not be the preoccupation of a country mired in war, debt and division. Never mind that no Republican leaders are expected to account for their flirtations with Armageddon-seeking evangelicals. Obama cut through the chaff to address the question that should have been confronted long before. That the question was unasked is not an indictment of Obama, but of a polity (and an intelligentsia) that continues to choose fluff over fact.

One need look no further than Byron York's meek effort in the conservative National Review for an example of this kind of stilted attention. Clearly unsure of how to respond to Obama's weighty speech, he proceeded to cull quotes of support for Jeremiah Wright from members of the speech's audience, and tar Obama by association – scabrous hackery at its most desperate.

The grey lady of the right, the Wall Street Journal, seemed more equipped to weigh the import of Obama's Philadelphia address. Its editorial on the speech sought to slice through "super-structure" to a material "base" of sorts.

The Senator noted that the anger of his pastor "is real; it is powerful," and in fact it is mirrored in "white resentments." He then laid down a litany of American woe: "the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off," the "shuttered mill," those "without health care," the soldiers who have fought in "a war that never should have been authorized and never should've been waged," etc. Thus Mr. Obama's message is we "need unity" because all Americans are victims, racial and otherwise...

And the cause of all this human misery? Why, "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favo[u]r the few over the many." Mr. Obama's villains, in other words, are the standard-issue populist straw men of Wall Street and the GOP, and his candidacy is a vessel for liberal policy orthodoxy -- raise taxes, "invest" more in social programs, restrict trade, retreat from Iraq.

Obama's speech about race was, in effect, about material realities and histories, which he dwelled on particularly in minutes 18-22 and 28-32. Obama insisted that Wright's "anger" and the sense of alienation amongst American minorities (and other groups) was not only "real" but derived from real conditions and events. Suggesting that there are tangible culprits – the WSJ's scarecrow audience of "Wall Street straw men" – does, yes, have a whiff of the "populist" about it. But by speaking in historical and economic (and not just social) terms, Obama has set out a bolder political project, one in which a clear vision of race in America is not simply a box to tick, but an integral and necessary part.

See also: Which candidate will win the Democratic Presidential nomination? market on the openDemocracy Inkling Markets.

Tibet: India's local politics

All politics are local, according to the cliché. If the saying needed much more in its ballast of truth, one need only look at a recent spat in the Indian parliament. The main opposition parties in the Lok Sabha – the lower house – walked out today in furious protest over the government's refusal to take a firmer line on unrest in Tibet. Violent demonstrations in the capital Lhasa over the weekend had brought the Himalayan region once again beneath the global spotlight. Opposition politicians wanted the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to clearly condemn China's actions in Tibet and push for United Nations intervention in resolving the demands of Tibetan dissidents. The ruling coalition only managed to "express its concern", prompting the exodus of MPs. It would be a bit too hopeful, however, to read in today's parliamentary histrionics much more than domestic point-scoring.

After all, as one foreign ministry representative pointed out, India's Tibet policy has changed little since the failed uprising of 1959 which brought the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees into ongoing exile in India. While supporting the Dalai Lama and backing "non-violent" and "peaceful" political transformation in Tibet, New Delhi has done little to internationalise the Tibetan cause (with one eye, of course, on the lingering crisis in Kashmir) or to bring the force of international institutions to bear on China.

Ever since its humiliating losses to China in the 1962 war (the countries' only major clash), India has treated its looming neighbour gingerly, even as Beijing equipped Pakistan with military and scientific hardware and continuously undermined India's position within south Asia. This is even more unlikely to change now that China and India both harbour global ambitions and are wary of "balancing" each other to the west's advantage.

Why, then, did opposition MPs beat their chests about Tibet when their parties, if in power, would have done little different? Why did members of the Bharatiya Janata Party – a party linked to pogroms targeting India's minority Muslims – rail against the "cultural genocide" of minority peoples in China? The answer is local. Conspicuous in its relative silence in today's discussions was the Left Front, a bloc of communist and other leftist parties that give external support to India's ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance. All is not well with the Left-UPA fraternity, with a serious feud threatening to scupper the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left accused the UPA of selling India short and pandering to the United States, still disparaged as "imperialist" in many quarters of Indian public opinion. Yet, the Left is seen by many as happy to lean towards China. Many of its parties maintain strong links with Beijing and, upon occasion, attempt to ape China's heavy-handed development strategies (as occurred recently with such controversial effect in the prospective establishment of a Chinese-style "special economic zone" in Nandigram in communist-ruled West Bengal). Some members of the Left dismiss their UPA counterparts as "pro-American", while the latter brand the former "pro-China". Such rhetorical tags matter less in their substance than in their power to firm the impression of ideological fissures between the Left and the UPA.

Thus the issue of Indian policy on Tibet has fallen into the opposition's lap as a crowbar to pry the Left and the UPA apart. If the opposition succeeds in making Tibet a serious issue in parliament, further strain will be placed on the Left-UPA alliance, as the stubborn silence of the communists will wrestle with the reluctant, moralising concessions of UPA MPs. Instead of directing outwards, debate about Tibet in India is pointed inward.

Getting close to Musharraf

Speakers rightly fear misleading introductions, and so too should films. As an audience of scruffy aesthetes sucked on their complimentary ActionAid rock candy, a staffer of the Birds Eye View Film Festival rose to introduce Sabiha Sumar's "Dinner with the President". This was, she promised, a timely and relevant film, delving into Pakistan's abiding political crisis as the country remains in the glow of the global spotlight. But for any observer of Pakistan, the subsequent film was less timely than it was out of touch. Such is the speed of events in Pakistan that a documentary released in late 2007 can already feel sepia-toned and out-dated by early 2008.

Breaking down Pakistan's election results

As the dust settles in Islamabad, what will emerge from yesterday's vote?

Benazir murdered: what next?

With global scrutiny once more on Pakistan, Kanishk Tharoor offers a guide through the fall-out of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto

The perils of oversight

Fighting radicalism by regulating mosques is a problematic strategy

"Overcoming Extremism"

A conference in Washington suggests the US policy establishment is opening itself more to the world

The danger of culture talk

In over-culturalising the debate about terrorism, real politics and causes risk being ignored

Diplomacy unbound

Europe risks irrelevance if it doesn't soften its approach to Iran

A changing relationship

Gordon Brown's visit to the United States sees a change in style and substance

From the archive: An absolute right

Manfred Nowak, UN special rapporteur for torture, criticises the use of "extraordinary rendition" and indefinite detentions, warning that torture spreads "like an infectious disease."

Benazir's fighting sham

With her return from exile imminent, Benazir Bhutto reminds Kanishk Tharoor of the dismal state of Pakistani politics.

Democracy crumbling in Algeria?

With Islamist violence on the up in Algeria and across the Maghreb, democratic institutions are likely to come under increasing external and internal pressure.

A wrinkle in time

Part historical accident, part legal dispute, the Durand Line and the Pashtuns it divides remain central to ongoing instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Iraq: the sum of the parts

Ali A. Allawi, special adviser to the prime minister of Iraq, argues that US policies have led Iraq into sectarian strife, and US policies must help pull Iraq out.

Madrid plus fifteen

The Madrid summit of 1991 opened the way to the Israeli-Palestinian accords at Oslo in 1993. A gathering of its veterans looked forward as well as back, reports Kanishk Tharoor of Madrid11.

What to do about torture? Manfred Nowak interviewed

The post-9/11 era has raised serious questions over western governments' complicity in secret detention and torture. Manfred Nowak, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is one of the people best placed to answer them. Kanishk Tharoor of talks to him.

Kanishk Tharoor: In what ways has the Bush administration directly or indirectly allowed for torture?

Jungle dumb: Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's Mayan blockbuster is an imperialist Christian dream but otherwise an historical and cultural nightmare, says Kanishk Tharoor.

"My Name is Red", Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk's novel is less a parable for global modernity than a journey into Turkish history, whatever the author's iconic position in the political landscape might suggest, says Kanishk Tharoor

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