Antara Dev Sen cached version 16/02/2019 01:41:59 en Shaking the 'foreign hand': a view from India <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img style="margin-left: 5px;" src="" alt="" width="140" align="right" /></a>India has had a complicated relationship with the United States for most of its independent history. Things are better now - but Indians still do watch the election closely, fearing a return to old tensions.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>In India, we are fascinated by all things American – including the elaborately inscrutable US presidential elections. But I feel this time our interest has dipped. Probably because we don’t have much to gain – or lose – either way. The President may change, but the Indo-US relationship cannot change very much. And unlike Barack Obama, a Black candidate for the White House, Mitt Romney isn't exactly a challenger who would make your heart race as you watch history being made.&nbsp;So yes, we are not as deeply interested in this year’s US elections as we were last time. But that is not because we have lost interest in the US.</p> <p>There was a time when our fascination for the United States of America was a bit like a child’s amazement with ants – we keenly followed its every move but still had no clue what it was up to or how it got to be the way it is. I grew up in an India which often believed that everything was being surreptitiously monitored by the wicked CIA.&nbsp;In the frenzied bipolar world, we were aligned to the other pole, and everything that went wrong was blamed on the American ‘foreign hand’. It was a country where Indira Gandhi was the only Gandhi after the Mahatma, and probably the only Prime Minister that Richard Nixon thought of as “the old witch”, a lady who was openly critical of the US and its generous gift of arms and support to Pakistan. It was a land where over time and overuse the evil ‘foreign hand’ went from being feared to loathed to pitilessly lampooned.</p> <p>Today, the world has changed. Russia has disintegrated. India and Pakistan have come clean and flashed their nukes.&nbsp;And Indo-US ties are warm,&nbsp;cordial and somewhat trusting.&nbsp;In fact, the Indo-US relationship was so hot about four years ago that in a moment of closeness in the White House India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a man of distressingly few words, said to US President George W. Bush: “The people of India deeply love you.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Bush had indeed been “a great friend of India” as Singh pointed out, by changing&nbsp;US policy opposing nuclear cooperation with India and ending 34 years of India’s isolation in nuclear research and commerce.&nbsp;By pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal, Bush had effectively acknowledged India as an important superpower, and a trusted ally. He had broken the curious convention of treating Pakistan and India at par, while treating China with far more respect.&nbsp;On his part, Singh had risked his government for the nuclear deal, and survived by the skin of his teeth the no confidence motion in Parliament against him. After decades of slow and steady improvement in Indo-US ties, such huge political investments by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh made sure that the relationship between Washington and Delhi would not easily slide back to the horror years of the 1970s and 1980s.</p> <p>In fact, though traditionally India’s intellectuals favour Democrats, the political establishment is generally more comfortable with the Republicans. The Republicans don’t beat around the bush (no pun intended), they are pragmatic, avoid troubled waters and focus on useful stuff. On the other hand, the Democrats annoyingly watch our every move, brood over our human rights records, and focus on liberal values that we may not wish to follow. And of course both the Republicans and the Democrats pamper Pakistan with arms and funds – apparently for fighting terrorism – that they know will shore up terror attacks on India.&nbsp;</p> <p>But a change of guard in America will not really make much of a difference for India right now. The very fact that the Presidential debate on foreign policy did not mention India while deliberating at length on its nuclear neighbours, would perhaps suggest that Romney and Obama don’t differ too much in their views about India. But India is somewhat worried about US foreign policy. India differs strongly with the US on Iran, for example, a country that would gain further importance for India after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.</p> <p>In fact, India is particularly worried about the consequences of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Obama is re-elected and sticks to his word of exiting Afghanistan by 2014, it could mark – among several other worrying possibilities – the end of India’s temporary relief over the current peace in Kashmir. At the risk of sounding cynical, one must recognize that being busy on its western border with Afghanistan keeps Pakistan away from its eastern border with India, which has helped in stalling cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Add to it the Democrats’ abiding interest in an intervention in Kashmir (which, I must admit, Obama seems to have overcome) and you have a bit of a problem in the otherwise warm Indo-US friendship.</p> <p>On the other hand, a Republican President would have to withdraw from Afghanistan as well, and not much later either – since that is what the American people want. And the Republicans’ intimacy with the Pakistani army is well documented. Yet, the Republicans may be good to Indians as well, especially when they look the other way in case the tricky issues of nuclear research and proliferation come up.</p> <p>Then there are US domestic interests. Interests that have curbed outsourcing to India as well as severely reduced US work visas for Indians, for example.&nbsp;And this situation is unlikely to be reversed dramatically by any President, either Democrat or Republican, who will be struggling to boost the sagging economy and find jobs for Americans.</p> <p>In short, India is watching the US Presidential elections with much interest, but very little passion. Life is not perfect but it is less stressful now that we have the ‘foreign hand’ in a firm handshake.</p><p><em>This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click&nbsp;<a href="">here</a>.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/rengaraj-viswanathan/us-elections-as-seen-from-india">The US elections - as seen from India</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/tani-bhargava-rajeev-bhargava/united-colours-of-american-elections-in-three-continents">United colours of the American elections - in three continents</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> United States </div> <div class="field-item even"> India </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item even"> International politics </div> </div> </div> India United States Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics International politics north america india/pakistan How it looks from here American election 2012 Antara Dev Sen Tue, 06 Nov 2012 15:44:52 +0000 Antara Dev Sen 69207 at Antara Dev Sen <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Antara Dev Sen </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-firstname"> <div class="field-label">First name(s):&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Antara Dev </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-surname"> <div class="field-label">Surname:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Sen </div> </div> </div> <p>Antara Dev Sen is the founder and editor of <a href="" target="_blank">The Little Magazine</a>, published in Delhi and featuring essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism.</p><div class="field field-au-shortbio"> <div class="field-label">One-Line Biography:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Antara Dev Sen is the founder and editor of &lt;a href= target=_blank&gt;The Little Magazine&lt;/a&gt;, published in Delhi and featuring essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism. </div> </div> </div> Antara Dev Sen Fri, 26 Mar 2010 13:12:45 +0000 Antara Dev Sen 51210 at India at 61: here's looking at you, kid! <p> &quot;Even God will not be able to save this country!&quot; <a href="">fumed</a> the supreme court of India days before the nation turned sixty-one on <a href="">15 August </a>2008. A sentiment that millions of Indians would spring to agree with. Like citizens of other healthy democracies, Indians have been persistently critical of the establishment, the rebels and everything in between. The rapid changes that the ancient culture has seen since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s have also exacerbated this urge to lament, even among the devoted who worship the new India, the emerging superpower.<br /> <br /> <span class="pullquote_new">Antara Dev Sen is founder editor of <a href=""><em>The Little Magazine</em></a>, an independent publication on social concerns, cultural issues and South Asian literature published from Delhi. She is a columnist with <a href=";BV_ID=@@@"><em>The Week</em></a> magazine, the newspapers <a href=""><em>Asian Age</em></a> and DNA and the Bengali magazine <em>Ek Din Live</em>, among other publications. Sen has earlier worked as a senior editor with <a href=""><em>The Hindustan Times</em></a> and <a href=""><em>The Indian Express</em></a>. She lives in Delhi. Email: <a href=""></a><br /> <br /> Also by Antara Dev Sen in <strong>openDemocracy</strong>:<br /> <br /> &quot;<a href="/conflict-india_pakistan/article_1914.jsp">India&#39;s benign earthquake</a>&quot; (20 May 2004)<br /> <br /> &quot;<a href="/democracy-letterstoamericans/article_2047.jsp">The wrong America</a>&quot; (13 August 2004)<br /> <br /> &quot;<a href="/globalization-india_pakistan/article_2307.jsp">India&#39;s tsunami</a>&quot; (13 January 2005)<br /> <br /> </span>Because as we pursue beautiful new goals with the enthusiasm of new love, our unsolved problems lie untended, festering in the corners they have been swept into, spilling into our picture-postcard new India. We sweep them back hastily, violently, offended by the sullying of our prettified world. And return to our new passions, grooming ourselves for new conquests, much like a tomcat before the prowl.<br /> <br /> This contented calm is shattered when the emerging superpower is rocked by a string of terrorist attacks, like the recent bomb blasts in Bangalore and <a href="">Ahmedabad</a> (on 25-26 July) and <a href="">Jaipur</a> (on 13 May). Or when corruption becomes painfully visible, as when vast amounts of cash, apparently used to bribe MPs, were brandished in parliament during the trust vote. We are horrified, of course. But not because it&#39;s unimaginable. It&#39;s not the content of either message that appals us, but the form.<br /> <br /> Indians know <a href="">terrorism</a>. But we are still shocked by the cold-blooded efficiency of the multi-city serial blasts culminating in an attack on a hospital, killing the injured as well as those tending to them. Specifically targeting doctors and nurses and the wounded in serial blasts marks a new low in planned mass murders even for India, which has seen three decades of terrorism.<br /> <br /> Similarly, Indians know corruption. We take it for granted in every sphere, especially in <a href="">politics</a>. To get things done, to get your file to move, to claim your constitutional right, you very often need to grease palms. The system delivers. So while you bow respectfully to the honest politician, to get your work done you may wish to go to the dishonest one. No, the accusation of corruption is not shocking in itself. Of course there may have been MPs on either side of the motion of trust who were persuaded to switch by less than noble means. Wouldn&#39;t be the first time. But the spectacular flourish of currency notes pouring out of a big fat bag and being waved at the speaker by agitated members of parliament was undoubtedly a first. The event was instantly <a href=";id=d0875147-47bc-425e-8d54-fd0864afc1b3&amp;&amp;Headline=Cash-for-vote+sting+aired+on+TV&amp;strParent=strParentID">broadcast</a> live to millions by practically every national television channel.<br /> <br /> A recent report of <a href="">Transparency International India</a> reveals that India&#39;s poorest, those living below the poverty line, paid almost $215,000,000 in bribes over just three months to access basic public services like the police, healthcare, electricity and public distribution of affordable food grains. The fleecing of the most vulnerable does not horrify us. Like terrorism, we have learnt to live with corruption.<br /> <br /> So when respectable politicians and other Indians start pontificating gravely about shame and disgrace and brand the cash-for-votes spectacle as the darkest day for Indian democracy, I am rather embarrassed. Yes, we were all mortified by what happened in parliament on 22 July 2008. But it was only a preposterously crude <a href="">performance</a> to highlight something we have known for ages: that there is corruption in politics. Even if the accusation was true (and we have no proof to that effect yet, leading many to believe that it was staged) it would not shock the nation. We are used to far worse.<br /> <br /> <strong>The fear that kills</strong><br /> <br /> Like the way we use the threat of terrorism to trample on human rights. How we slide into paranoia, stifling democratic freedoms and celebrating brutal laws. After every terrorist attack, like the recent <a href="/article/india-after-ahmedabads-bombs">blasts</a> in Ahmedabad, there are demands for new, repressive anti-terrorism laws. But what would these new laws do that our present bunch of pitiless laws cannot? The <a href="">UAPA</a> (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), the <a href="">AFSPA</a> (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) or the Special Security Acts in individual states give the police and the army enormous powers to torture, confine and control any citizen in the name of security.<span class="pullquote_new">Among <strong>openDemocracy</strong>&#39;s articles on Indian politics and democracy:<br /> <br /> Rajeev Bhargava, &quot;<a href="/node/504">Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution</a>&quot; (2 October 2002)<br /> <br /> Rajeev Bhargava, &quot;<a href="/democracy/article_1566.jsp">The political psychology of Hindu nationalism</a>&quot; (5 November 2003)<br /> <br /> Rajeev Bhargava, &quot;<a href="/arts-multiculturalism/article_2204.jsp">India&#39;s model: faith, secularism and democracy</a>&quot; (3 November 2004)<br /> <br /> Meenakshi Ganguly, &quot;<a href="/democracy-protest/dalits_4232.jsp">India&#39;s Dalits: between atrocity and protest</a>&quot; (9 January 2007)<br /> <br /> Ajai Sahni, &quot;<a href="/conflict-india_pakistan/sahni_maoists_4451.jsp">India and its Maoists: failure and success</a>&quot; (20 March 2007)<br /> <br /> Sumantra Bose, &quot;<a href="/conflict-india_pakistan/uttar_pradesh_4638.jsp">Uttar Pradesh: India&#39;s democratic landslip</a>&quot; (29 May 2007)<br /> <br /> John Elkington, &quot;<a href="/article/globalisation/institutions_government/india_sustainability">India&#39;s third liberation</a>&quot; (21 August 2007)<br /> <br /> Kanchan Lakshman, &quot;<a href="/article/india-in-afghanistan-a-presence-under-pressure-0">India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure</a>&quot; (11 July 2008)<br /> <br /> Ajai Sahni,<strong> &quot;</strong><a href="/article/india-after-ahmedabads-bombs">India after Ahmedabad&#39;s bombs</a>&quot; (29 July 2008)</span><br /> <br /> These laws are used to smother dissent and critical dialogue, or to terrify groups and communities. Many human-rights defenders are being held under the fiercely repressive UAPA. Meanwhile, in the insurgency-affected northeast and <a href="">Kashmir</a>, the AFSPA allows the army to act with impunity. Atrocities and murders in this region have shocked the nation. And in the name of security from terrorism, the very police force that routinely fails to protect citizens and enthusiastically attacks human rights is given almost unlimited powers. Apart from being amazingly <a href="">corrupt</a>, the Indian police system is also past its use by date - it has not been upgraded for a democracy and still operates largely under archaic British rules, when the police were not really serving the Indian people but repressing unruly natives prone to rebellion against the Raj. To top it all, the Indian justice system takes forever to deliver.<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, new repressive laws are being thought up. Such targeting of civilians, especially human-rights activists, only fuels extremism as saner voices are drowned out by desperate ones that skip dialogue and take to the gun to reclaim control over their lives and regain lost dignity. Anti-terrorism laws are notoriously counterproductive. They do not reduce insurgency but aggravate political alienation. We certainly don&#39;t need more disgraceful tools of state repression.<br /> <br /> Especially because laws are slaves to our passions and biases. In times of terror, any form of &quot;otherness&quot; - whether community or intellectual differences - is <a href="/democracy/article_1566.jsp">seen</a> as a threat. Fear kills our tolerance for diversity. When we believe we are under attack, we allow assaults on democratic principles that we would never tolerate in times of peace and reason. And fundamentalists play on that fear.<br /> <br /> For example, the Jaipur bomb blasts saw a bloodthirsty attempt to punish Bengali Muslims - they were all Bangladeshi terrorists, screamed the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (<a href="">BJP</a>). Earlier, after the horrific massacre of Muslims in the sectarian violence of <a href="/democracy/article_845.jsp">Gujarat</a> in 2002, BJP chief minister Narendra Modi used the Prevention Of Terrorism Act (<a href="">POTA</a>) to clap hundreds of Muslims in jail. This was indefinite captivity without bail or democratic rights. When the POTA was repealed by the Congress-led coalition government in 2004, several of its repressive clauses were incorporated in the UAPA. But for many, the brutal UAPA is still not enough, they want the truly dreadful POTA back.<br /> <br /> These are ineffective, evasive and unjust reactions to a real problem. India has been, after Iraq, the country worst hit by terrorism, with the highest number of civilian deaths and terror attacks after Iraq. Already <a href="">this year</a>, terrorism has killed about 2,400 people in India. We have faced terrorist violence for almost thirty years. Yet we don&#39;t have a proper counter-terrorism agency or network. There is no sharing of information between states and the centre (law and order is a state subject). And we are still waiting for police reforms.<br /> <br /> Instead, we have vicious counter-terrorism laws which do not address the socio-political roots of terrorism but merely disallow dissent, cast aside civil rights and make us a ruthless, repressive nation. More than a coarse dramatic gesture about corruption in parliament, it is the persistence of these dehumanising laws that have plunged us into the darkest days of Indian democracy.<br /> <br /> Because democracy is <a href="/globalization-vision_reflections/indian_experience_3535.jsp">not just</a> about votes, it is about one&#39;s ability to be heard and recognised as a part of the process that determines one&#39;s future. It is about dialogue, dissent, public reasoning, tolerance and the acceptance of differences - physical, communal or intellectual. And it is about social opportunity, justice and access to public services.<br /> <br /> <strong>Darker than dramatics<br /> <br /> </strong>While we focus squarely on the sparkling economic giant, the cultural superstar and regional superpower, in the dark margins of our spectacular new India, our problems continue to fester and spill over. We ignore the millions of fellow citizens who cannot access basic healthcare as we fawn over international health tourists. We overlook the hundreds of thousands of farmers <a href="">trapped</a> in debt and poverty who kill themselves, and brag that India has the world&#39;s fourth largest and Asia&#39;s top billionaire population. (India has 53 billionaires - four of them among the world&#39;s top ten - with $335 billion between them.) As we celebrated India&#39;s emergence as an economic superpower last year, hunger and economic desperation forced 25,000 farmers to <a href="">kill</a> themselves.<br /> <br /> And we celebrate woman power by touting a woman president while we do nothing about the enormous socially sanctioned violence against women. Every day, some woman is killed for marrying someone she loves, for being low caste, for being poor, or merely as currency of power in family feuds. And 500,000 Indian girls are killed in the mother&#39;s womb each year. This is a country where even sixty years after independence, ruled for years by a woman <a href="">prime minister</a>, Indira Gandhi, women continue to get less food, less healthcare, less education, less opportunity and less of a life.<br /> <br /> These are dark moments in our democracy, darker moments than the crude dramatics in parliament.<br /> <br /> There are many reasons to be proud of India, both new and old. But unless we look beyond the spotlight and clean up the mess on the unlit margins, we can&#39;t really be as proud of India, the world&#39;s largest democracy, as we should be. </p> Conflict conflicts democracy & power india/pakistan Antara Dev Sen Original Copyright Tue, 19 Aug 2008 11:50:25 +0000 Antara Dev Sen 45894 at India's tsunami The Indian government&#146;s refusal of foreign aid to its devastated coastal and island regions reflects its aspiration to sit at the world&#146;s top table. Antara Dev Sen on the national dimensions of a global tragedy.<div><div class="pull_quote_article">Over half the world&#146;s population lives within 60 km (40 miles) of a shoreline. Our arts and cultures editors explored this border in its realities and our imagination, in over thirty compelling essays with poems pictures. Everything begins&#133; and ends&#133; on the beach. For subscribers only but take a <a href= target=_blank>look </a>.</div><p> After the deluge came the dogs. Left to fend for themselves as their world collapsed in the <a href= target=_blank>tsunami</a> of 26 December 2004, surviving on rotting corpses and human flesh often dug out of shallow graves, man&#146;s best friend now looked upon him as prey. These domestic or community pets in Tamil Nadu&#146;s Nagapattinam, the worst-hit district in India, have turned into violent, wild creatures that hunt in packs, attack relief workers and survivors and howl like wolves outside relief shelters. </p><p> Elsewhere in Nagapattinam, low-caste <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1807"><em>Dalit</em></a> (formerly known as &#147;untouchables&#148;) have been herded out of relief centres or banished to the far corners, and prevented from touching food or water or other relief material by upper-caste victims of the same tsunami that devastated all their lives. They are not even allowed to use the makeshift toilets around the shelters. Traditional prejudice &#151; that <em>Dalit</em> &#147;pollute&#148; anything they touch and render it unsuitable for the use of those higher on the caste ladder &#151; comes in handy in an emergency when there is limited relief for large numbers. </p></div><div><div class="pull_quote_article"><p> Also in <b>openDemocracy</b>, Caspar Henderson <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=2301">relates </a>the &#147;seaquake&#146;s&#148; terrible cost to the environmental damage caused by human, social and economic development, and Graham Wood <a href="/forums/thread.jspa?forumID=128&threadID=43761&tstart=0">criticises</a> western responses to the disaster </p><p> </p></div><p> The tsunami is estimated to have killed almost 14,500 people in India, mostly in the south and east of the country. Hardest hit are the Andaman & Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal, and the mainland states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Pondicherry. As survivors huddle in relief camps in a country where health infrastructure is inadequate and clean water scarce, close to 5 million people are in danger of contracting infectious diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis and cholera. </p><p> But India&#146;s great losses represent just a fraction of the devastation across the entire region, as the Indian Ocean, shaken awake by the earthquake in Indonesia, lashed out and swept away villages and towns from Thailand to Somalia. Around 150,000 lives have been claimed by this dance of death &#151; more than the immediate toll at Hiroshima. </p><p> And it caught its victims unawares. Inexplicably, although India knows the geophysical vulnerabilities of the Indian Ocean, it had not joined the Tsunami Society or warning group, or put in place any warning system. &#147;We have never had tsunamis here, so we did not have a warning system,&#148; said <a href= target=_blank>Kapil Sibal</a>, the science & technology minister whose brief includes ocean development. </p><p> True, since independence India has had no history of tsunamis. But at least three tsunamis have hit India in the past, the most recent in 1945, when India was still ruled by the British. The one before that, in 1883, also spread from Indonesia to devastate Tamil Nadu and the Andaman & Nicobar islands. And since 1967, scientists like <a href= target=_blank>Tad Murty</a> of the Tsunami Society have offered to assist India in setting up a warning system for the Indian Ocean. Smug in its belief that tsunamis happened elsewhere, India brushed the idea aside. More bizarrely, it seems to have also ignored the relatively recent warning by its own National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation, which charted the course of a tsunami like this seven years ago. </p><p> <b>India&#146;s disaster management</b> </p><p> The first early-morning alert from a bewildered meteorological department, ninety minutes before the tsunami struck the Indian mainland, went incorrectly to the <em>former</em> science minister &#151; who has been out of office since <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1914">May 2004</a>. After several such enigmatic acts in various wings of government, the Crisis Management Group finally met in the afternoon &#151; several hours after the calamity. </p></div><div><div class="pull_quote_article"><p> <b>openDemocracy&#146;s</b> editor chose Antara Dev Sen&#146;s article about the Indian election surprise as one of his 2004 highlights. See: </p><p><ul> <li> &#147;India&#146;s benign earthquake&#148; (May <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1914">2004</a>)</li> <li> Anthony Barnett, &#147;The editor&#146;s pick of the year&#148; (December <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=2281">2004</a>)</li></ul> If you find these contributions valuable, please consider <a href="/registration2/donate.jsp">subscribing</a> to <b>openDemocracy</b> for just &pound;25 / $40 / €40. You&#146;ll gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of all our material </p><p> </p></div><p> Like in January 2001, when an <a href= target=_blank>earthquake</a> struck Gujarat early in the morning, and the Crisis Management Group convened in the afternoon, after 20,000 had died. A Disaster Management System was promised at the time, and millions of rupees spent on it. In fact, every time there is a natural disaster &#151; like the Orissa cyclone of 1999 (10,000 dead) or the Latur earthquake of 1993 (almost 8,000 dead) &#151; there is talk of putting emergency systems in place. Years later, the system is still being promised. </p><p> Within hours of the tsunami, the Indian government launched its biggest military operation in peacetime, Operation Seawave, with 32 warships, 82 aircraft and 17,500 troopers spreading across the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. For India&#146;s approach to natural calamities is that of crisis management; it emphasises relief, not disaster preparedness or reduction. </p><p> Which is unfortunate, since the impact of most of India&#146;s natural disasters can be reduced by proper development planning &#151; like having sturdy cyclone shelters, earthquake-resistant housing in seismic zones, planned drainage in the flood plains and an efficient distribution system to counter droughts. And, of course, a proper health-care system that can deal with disasters and prevent escalation through disease. </p><p> As high-profile calamities that merit immediate damage-control measures get primetime media coverage, as Indians, we often overlook the even greater disaster in India. The fact that this sovereign democratic nation has millions dying a slow death due to malnourishment and disease, that infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are still high, that women are still killed for dowry, that the lower castes are denied basic humanity, that minorities are killed for political gain, that millions still do not have the fundamental freedoms that they deserve as citizens. </p><p> It is also these underprivileged groups whom natural disasters hit hardest. As people&#146;s income, status and political influence declines, the scale of damage to their lives, homes and livelihoods markedly increases. The Indian poor &#151; forced to live in unsafe shacks in congested clusters and often in dangerous areas, with almost no access to health care or communication networks &#151; have borne the brunt of every natural catastrophe the country has faced. And while the disaster itself may be &#147;God&#146;s will&#148;, the devastation that follows is largely caused by man. </p><p> Take this tsunami. Those hit hardest have been fishing communities which have been forced into unsafe coastal territory as beaches went commercial and hotels and resorts sprouted in the safer areas. At the same time, natural barriers have been demolished &#151; mangrove forests lost to timber trade, sand dunes to building constructors. (See Caspar Henderson&#146;s <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=2301">article</a>) And once struck by disaster, the less privileged &#151; mainly the poor, the low caste, the women &#151; get comparatively less relief, less access to healthcare, fewer opportunities to rebuild their shattered lives. </p><p> <b>Tribes and tribulation</b> </p><p> Thankfully, five of the world&#146;s oldest <a href= target=_blank>tribes</a> &#151; dating back to 60,000 years ago &#151; have survived the tsunami in the Andaman & Nicobar islands. Close to Indonesia in the Bay of Bengal these took the first wave of assault. As India mourned the loss of its oldest cultures in these remote &#147;emerald isles&#148;, and aerial rescue teams searched for survivors, a naked man in North Sentinel island looked up at the sky, raised his bow and <a href= target=_blank>shot</a> an arrow at the helicopter. Others threw stones. The Sentinelese were alive and kicking. </p><p> The Sentinelese, estimates of whose numbers vary between under 40 and around 100, are extremely hostile to outsiders. So were the 240-strong <a href= target=_blank>Jarawa</a>. Dressed only in body-paint, they fiercely protected their privacy with poison-tipped arrows until the 1990s. But soon after the tsunami, they were reported to have reached the village of a tribal welfare officer, their only contact with civilisation. The Onge, a tribe with 98 members, also seem to have approached a village in search of help. But help is not easy to deliver in flooded areas where devastated <a href= target=_blank>people</a> struggling to cope with their own tragedies suddenly face the &#147;uncivilised&#148; other. Barely a few villagers tried to overcome their terror of the hostile tribes and offer them food and water. </p><p> Several days later, all 50 of the Great Andamanese were found gathered around their elderly king and queen on a hillock. Now in hospital, the king has expressed a dislike for the cotton pants and loose shirts they have been hurriedly dressed in, and announced an interest in going back to their homeland and making their own grass skirts. And the mongoloid Shompens, the only tribe in this area that does not trace its origin to Paleolithic Africa, are also believed to be safe, after days of uncertainty. </p><p> From whatever information can be gathered from some of these isolated tribes scattered over different islands, it appears that they were saved by their traditional wisdom and indigenous early-warning system, developed through generations. They read the sound of the sea, the touch of the wind, the cries of birds, the shift of the fish and the ways of the animals. And they ran into forests, climbed trees with their children held close to their chests, and waited for the sea to go back. </p><p> But such understanding does not protect these hunter-gatherers from other dangers. Their food is stolen by Indian and Burmese fishermen and poachers. And contact with civilisation has led to new diseases that they have no traditional wisdom about. They can handle enormous natural disasters, it&#146;s civilised man that poses a threat to their limited numbers. Thankfully, the Indian government has now decided to minimise contact with these tribes, and stay entirely away from the isolated Sentinelese. </p><p> <b>The art of self-reliance</b> </p><p> India&#146;s economic loss from the tsunami is estimated at over 600 billion rupees (around $14 billion). Yet India has declined foreign aid in coping with the world&#146;s worst natural disaster in living memory, choosing instead to work with richer and greater powers as an aid-giver. And it has given away almost $24 million in relief to its sisters in sorrow, including the less devastated Thailand. It would be incongruous to accept aid when we ourselves are giving aid to our neighbours, say Indian government <a href=,dwp_uuid=e7abb2ca-5776-11d9-a8db-00000e2511c8.html target=_blank>officials</a>. </p><p> The wisdom of this stand is not entirely clear. Not accepting foreign aid in the form of humanitarian assistance for an unprecedented natural calamity by a country that still has starvation deaths in peacetime seems curious. Especially since India accepts considerable foreign aid for development projects, while it is a donor to poorer countries. True, foreign relief material and volunteers are sometimes a hindrance in culturally alien disaster-struck areas, but why keep hi-tech foreign rescue and relief machinery out? </p><p> &#147;We have enough relief material for the immediate rescue, relief and rehabilitation,&#148; explains <a href= target=_blank>Sanjaya Baru</a> of the prime minister&#146;s office. &#147;Later, for the reconstruction, more funds would be necessary. At that stage external aid could be accepted.&#148; United Nations agencies and NGOs operating in India are also being welcomed in relief work, but only to assist their own activities in the country. </p><p> The Indian government has released 50 billion rupees to the affected state governments, in addition to the money it spends directly for relief and rehabilitation. It has also announced a compensation of 100,000 rupees each to the next of kin of the deceased. </p><p> But nationalistic arrogance in the face of nature&#146;s unfathomable fury that swept away all boundaries devouring islands, beaches, villages and towns from Thailand to Somalia may not be the whole <a href=,5744,11853624%255E401,00.html target=_blank>story</a>. For years India has been trying to portray itself as a regional power, capable of assisting neighbours in any crisis. Now the fourth largest economy in the world, it needs to prove that it is self-reliant. And by working with greater powers as an aid-giver and not a feeble victim and building new military confidence with China, with whom India has a historically uneasy relationship, India may be graduating to a different class. Which is important for this country campaigning for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. </p><p> But as India snatches an opportunity for global diplomacy in this hour of crisis, it needs to change not just its image, but its embarrassing realities. Between 2002 and 2003 it slid three notches down the human development <a href= target=_blank>rankings</a>, and has not recovered from the upset. The process of compensating victims of the Union Carbide gas disaster in <a href= target=_blank>Bhopal</a> twenty years ago, is still not complete. And there is endemic hunger in this sovereign democracy that has stacks of surplus food. </p><p> India needs to pay attention to its failure in implementation, the appalling distribution system, the corruption that eats away even the best-planned structure. In a country where half the children are malnourished, it could be argued that diverting development funds to cope with humanitarian relief is hardly the best response. Bringing in transparency, widening access to information and allowing the people themselves to be part of their relief and rehabilitation process would be more useful. </p><p> For we should grant to the tsunami survivors what we seek for the nation as a whole &#151; independence, dignity and control over their own future. The affected need to be part of the rehabilitation process, and not be thrust into a structure that creates long-term dependencies. While we rave about being self-reliant and switch from being a recipient to a donor country, we need to remember that every Indian is our nation in a microcosm. As we celebrate each Indian&#146;s victory in the global arena with a burst of nationalistic pride &#151; whether in sports or academics or business &#151; we need to feel each Indian&#146;s misfortune as our own, and act accordingly. </p></div><div><div class="pull_quote_article">Over half the world&#146;s population lives within 60 km (40 miles) of a shoreline. Our arts and cultures editors explored this border in its realities and our imagination, in over thirty compelling essays with poems pictures. Everything begins&#133; and ends&#133; on the beach. For subscribers only but take a <a href= target=_blank>look </a>.</div><p> <b>The power of humanity</b> </p><p> This is what Mohammed Younus, president of the United Islamic Jamaat, <a href= target=_blank>did</a>. On the morning of 26 December, he heard of the fisherfolk running inland, chased by a furious sea. He immediately got his fellow Muslims in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, to drop everything and plunge into rescue work. Within an hour of the tsunami&#146;s attack, local members of the Jamaat &#151; mostly traders and other middle-class townspeople &#151; had left home, shut shop, and were racing towards the seashore in cars, vans, motorbikes or bicycles. They rushed the injured to hospital, set up makeshift relief camps in and around the mosque and started a community kitchen. By the evening, 3,000 local Muslims were looking after the 10,000 Hindu and Christian survivors of the killer waves. </p><p> They were also identifying dead bodies and carrying them on their shoulders for the last rites &#151; cremating Hindus, burying Christians, even marking each Christian burial with a makeshift cross. &#147;They should not feel offended in death&#148;, explained Mohammed Younus. It was hard to imagine that the last big disaster India had faced was the sectarian violence of <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1684">Gujarat</a> in February 2002, when 2,000 Muslims were <a href= target=_blank>slaughtered</a> by Hindus and hundreds of thousands affected by the deliberate fury of man. </p><p> But that is where the strength of India lies &#151; not in symbolic global glory, but in our ability to forgive, to move on, to bond as humans in a centuries-old <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=2204">pluralistic</a> culture that allows us to look death in the eye and reach for eternity. </p><p> </p></div> Conflict Globalisation conflicts india/pakistan asia & pacific Natural Catastrophe Antara Dev Sen Original Copyright Thu, 13 Jan 2005 00:00:00 +0000 Antara Dev Sen 2307 at The wrong America <div class="full_image"><p><img src="" alt="" width="555" border="0" /><br /></p></div><p> Dear Dinesh D&#146;Souza, </p><p> I write to you not just as an Indian to an American, but also as one who shares many of the memories that run in your veins, the colour of the skin over that, and the respect for a good life and democratic freedoms that nestle somewhere in between. I write to you specifically because everyday events frequently remind me of the enormous role the United States of America plays in the lives of distant mortals, and because of your unquestioning love for your chosen country that is reflected in the title of your book which has no question mark: <em>What&#146;s so great about America</em>. </p><p> No, I don&#146;t hate America. I can&#146;t. Because I was nurtured by T.S. Eliot and Pete Seeger, by Ella Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath. Because I need Charlie Brown and Alfred E. Neuman in my life. And Audre Lorde, Miles Davis, Paul Simon&#133; How can I shut out Broadway or Hollywood, or, I admit, turn off my television when <em>Friends</em> is on? </p><p> But Allen Ginsberg howls in my head: <em>America why are your libraries full of tears?</em> What I thought were ghosts no longer seem so moth-eaten. Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, Yugoslavia: millions killed for flimsy reasons. Angry bombs lobbed at Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and, for years, at Iraq&#146;s &#147;no-fly zones&#148;: on suspicion, or even as mere distractions. Governments, many elected democratically, destabilised, attacked or compromised: Chile, Nicaragua, Guyana, El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Greece, Indonesia, Brazil, Cambodia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, East Timor, Haiti. </p><p> <em>The whole operation, newspapers say / supported by the CIA.</em> </p><p> Why does a country perpetually proclaiming the primacy of democratic freedoms repeatedly violate precisely these? Could it, then, be the other way around: <em>because</em> it has such a history of undermining democracy, freedom and human rights in other lands, the United States <em>needs</em> to advertise its virtues so much? We know the supremacy of repeated auto-suggestion over lesser ways of manufacturing consent. </p><p> No, I don&#146;t believe America is evil. Partly because every wrong in my McDonald-and-Coke-deprived Indian childhood was blamed on the CIA and its agents, till I almost blamed them for my homework. Partly because it is a nation founded on splendid principles. And partly because of my friend PD in New York. In 1991, he was in an advanced stage of Aids. We cried, we prayed, we cursed our fate and his sexuality, we braced ourselves. Thirteen years later, PD is still teaching students and passionately shooting off letters against &#147;Israeli and American aggression&#148;. He is alive and active only because of America&#146;s excellent healthcare system and social security. </p><p> But my gurgling gratitude for America fades into other memories: of America pushing expensive America-made Aids drugs in impoverished African countries reeling from the pandemic, and trying to prevent them from buying cheaper generic options that would save thousands of lives. </p><p> And I remember Maria, of Angola. Beautiful Maria with her eyes brimming with dreams. She was born into the thirty-year civil war funded by the United States that destroyed her home, killed her father and crippled her country. But she dreamt on, with the unshakeable confidence of a 22-year-old single mother. Then her 4-year-old daughter died. In her bullet-riddled, caved-in family home I saw Maria&#146;s eyes dry up, and the dreams shy away from the dark night of the soul. </p><p> But the horror of 11 September 2001 hushed even America&#146;s harshest critics. Until the &#147;preventive&#148; war against Iraq, based on bogus propaganda about Saddam Hussein&#146;s complicity in 9/11 and his indiscernible WMDs. Amazingly, Saddam is being tried for crimes spanning thirty years, mostly committed when America was his fast friend. America had even helped hush up the Halabja massacre during that period, blaming Iran instead. Reminds you of when America invaded Panama and nailed Noriega &#150; and most of the crimes <em>he</em> was charged with dated back to when he was a close US ally. </p><p> <em>I turn and burn./ Do not think I underestimate your great concern.</em> </p><p> Then suddenly, you have cases like &#147;Rasul vs Bush&#148; and &#147;&#145;Hamdi vs Rumsfeld&#148; in the Supreme Court. Man to man, about Guantanamo Bay. And magnificently, the court upholds civil liberties over executive arrogance. And we rejoice. </p><p> It&#146;s this Janus-faced America that I write to you about. I would like you to recognise what it is like for us non-Americans to face the truth of the downside. America may be great, as your book so affectionately explains, but does it not also need to be good? Don&#146;t you think that to talk about what is great about the US without talking about what is wrong will inflate the country&#146;s most damaging qualities and ultimately hurt it also &#151; though not as much as the rest of us? </p><p> Take Afghanistan. A country destroyed because America fought its cold war with the Soviet Union on its soil and in the process created people like Osama bin Laden as it funded, trained and nurtured the Mujahideen. </p><p> As you know, back here in your birth country India, these Mujahideen &#150; backed by Pakistan and once glorified by America as &#147;freedom fighters&#148; &#150; have killed about 40,000 people in Kashmir. Curiously, when such &#147;freedom fighters&#148; attacked America they swiftly morphed into &#147;terrorists&#148; who needed to be &#147;smoked out of their caves&#148;. My friend Pradeep Bhatia &#150; talented photographer and proud father of a newborn &#150; who was killed in Kashmir before 9/11, would be happy to know that he had not, after all, lost his life in the course of a freedom struggle but had really been murdered by terrorists. </p><p> For decades, America has waged wars, funded insurgencies and trained mercenaries, apparently to ward off the great communist conspiracy that threatened freedom and human rights around the world. Now, it is the conspiracy of Islamic militancy. How long do we lean together, headpiece filled with straw? </p><p> Fortunately, not everyone in America is leaning together. There is space for the severe dissent of Noam Chomsky, for the criticisms of Joseph Stiglitz. People like them and other honest professionals &#150; and not the guns-blazing uncle in his top hat &#150; make us admire America once more. </p><p> Forty years after the Civil Rights Act, this is the America I would rather see, America as a just nation that lives the democratic freedoms it preaches. Every day, around the world, millions like me pick out fragments of this America &#150; a poem, a song, an argument &#150; from the angry snarl of broken promises and shameless aggression, to embellish our personal worlds. And we remain indebted to an America that is fast becoming invisible. </p><p> If it disappears altogether, don&#146;t you agree that the America it leaves behind will be just a shell, a hollow greatness emptied of the integrity and fairness that once recognised moral equality with other countries? Shouldn&#146;t your next book be called <em>What is fair about America</em> &#150; I won&#146;t use a question mark either. </p><p> Sincerely, </p><div class="full_image"><p><img src="" alt="" width="555" border="0" /><br /></p></div><p> Dear Antara Dev Sen, </p><p> Reading your letter, I feel a bit like the mosquito at the nudist colony &#150; I&#146;m not sure where to begin! </p><p> Your main quarrel seems to be with American foreign policy. You are undoubtedly passionate and sincere, but your whole critique seems to me both unbalanced and misguided. It is unbalanced because it fails to take even perfunctory note of the great and relatively undisputed achievements of America. Twice in the past century, America&#146;s actions played a crucial role in saving freedom &#150; first, from the threat of Nazi tyranny, and then, from the threat of Soviet imperialism. </p><p> Apparently you don&#146;t take the horrors of communism seriously, since you write with sarcasm about the &#147;great communist conspiracy.&#148; Could this be because none of your friends or acquaintances suffered under Soviet tyranny? I assume you don&#146;t require personal experience to recognise that Soviet tyranny littered the world with as many, if not more, corpses than Hitler. The war against the &#147;evil empire&#148; was a just war, and America&#146;s victory in that war has left the world better and freer. </p><p> Your reluctance to side with America in the fight against Soviet communism, like your reluctance to side with America in the fight against Islamic militancy, seems to spring from your firm belief that American foreign policy is two-faced and hypocritical. You note that America invokes the noble principles of democracy, peace and freedom, while in practice it &#147;wages wars, funds insurgencies and trains mercenaries.&#148; </p><p> But what if force is necessary to force a tyrant like Saddam Hussein to relinquish power? (Tyrants are not known to relinquish power voluntarily). What if funding an insurgency, like the one America supported in Nicaragua, is necessary to compel the Sandinistas to hold free elections &#150; like the one in 1990 that expelled these petty tyrants from power! If the notion that force is frequently required to achieve freedom seems implausible or paradoxical to you, remember that freedom came to the United States as the result of a revolutionary war. American blacks, too, won their freedom through force &#150; it took a civil war to free the slaves. </p><p> Your most serious misunderstanding, in my view, is that you neglect the fundamental principle of American foreign policy, which upon reflection is a deeply moral principle. It is the principle of the lesser evil. This principle holds that statesmanship is different from moral philosophy. In the real world, as opposed to the philosophy seminar, the choice is often not between the good guy and the bad guy. It&#146;s between the bad guy and the really bad guy. In this situation, it is often justifiable to ally with the bad guy to get rid of the worse guy. </p><p> The classic case of this was in the second world war. America and Britain allied with Stalin (a bad guy!) because another bad guy, Hitler, posted a greater threat at the time. Was this justified? Of course it was. So, too, in the cold war, America supported certain tinpot dictators (Ferdinand Marcos, the Somoza dynasty, Augusto Pinochet) because they were allies in a larger battle against the greatest threat to freedom in the world, the Soviet Union. </p><p> As part of the same struggle, America was fully justified during the 1980s in supporting the Afghan freedom fighters who were fighting to free their country from Soviet occupation. Support for the Mujahideen was a just cause, even if the group included Osama bin Laden! Was Ronald Reagan in 1987 expected to know that bin Laden would conclude, once Soviet communism collapsed, that the Great Satan was now American capitalism? Can American leaders in the 1980s be faulted for failing to anticipate 9/11? This is absurd. Statesmen can only be evaluated for the decisions they make based on the information available to them at the time. This is a good principle to keep in mind the next time you hear someone attack George W Bush and Tony Blair for their failure to recognise before the war facts about Iraq&#146;s nuclear weapons program that only emerged after the war. </p><p> The principle of the lesser evil also explains why America once supported Saddam Hussein &#150; because during the Iraq-Iran war he was the only counterweight in the Muslim world to Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was the first theocrat in modern times to seize control of a major Islamic state. He is the match that lit the conflagration that is now sweeping the Muslim world. Without Khomeini, it is hard to envision bin Laden. So the United States was right to recognise the danger posed by Khomeini, and to attempt to weaken him. Perhaps you disagree with this prudential judgment. If so, you and the critics of America should make your case for what America should have done. What amazes me is that you, like so many others, are content to bash America without any apparent appreciation of the hard decisions that leaders must make. </p><p> Sure, America has made its mistakes. But while judging America by the utopian standard to which it aspires, let us also remember that by comparison with other existing nations, America is without rival in recent history in its efforts to promote the ideals of freedom and democracy in the world. What would the past century have looked like if America did not exist? To answer this question is to recognise how small-minded and weak the anti-American case really is, and also how much the United States has been a force for good in the world. </p><p> Yours, </p><div class="full_image"><p><img src="'souza_sig_555.jpg" alt="" width="555" border="0" /><br /></p></div><b>Last week:</b> <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=2041">Harun Hassan wrote to Michael Maren</a>.<p> <b>Next week:</b> David Elstein writes to Irwin Stelzer. </p><div><div class="pull_quote_image"><img src="" alt="" border="0" /></div>The Letters to Americans project will run until the US presidential elections on 2 November 2004. Projects like this are challenging to organise and expensive to deliver, but we think it is worth it to bring America into dialogue with the world. If you agree, please support us. <p> <b>Copyright and Contact</b> All Letters to Americans exchanges are copyright openDemocracy. For syndication, republishing and other enquiries please e-mail <a href="">Julian</a> </p><p> </p></div> democracy & power The Americas my america: letters to americans Antara Dev Sen Dinesh D’Souza Original Copyright Thu, 12 Aug 2004 23:00:00 +0000 Antara Dev Sen and Dinesh D’Souza 2047 at India's benign earthquake The defeat of the ruling BJP by Sonia Gandhi&#146;s Congress Party was followed by Sonia&#146;s refusal to become prime minister. As Indians reel in amazement at their own democratic handiwork, Antara Dev Sen in Delhi makes sense of a political world turned upside down.<p> &#147;If you trust me, allow me to make my decision.&#148; With that Sonia Gandhi, prime minister designate of the world&#146;s largest democracy, stepped down from the podium in the central hall of New Delhi&#146;s parliament. The moment ended almost three hours of hysterical begging and pleading by her fellow Congress politicians &#150; a frenzied flurry of choked voices, joined hands, moans, tears, entreaties, eulogies, baby threats &#150; some of the most senior people&#146;s representatives beseeching their leader not to reject the prime ministership. But <a href= target=_blank>Sonia Gandhi</a> had made up her mind. </p><p> It was close to 10pm on 18 May 2004: a day that saw endless twists and turns in the drama of democracy, a day that made history. There can&#146;t be many designates in the history of democracy renouncing the post after carrying their party on their shoulders to a clear win. The original Gandhi comes to mind, but the Mahatma was a saint: he stood for simplicity, humility and renunciation. </p><p> Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, with her Italian origin, lavish parties and impeccable sense of style, is not just unrelated to her great namesake; she is unlikely to be taken for &#147;a naked fakir&#148;, as Churchill had termed the Mahatma. Why, then, was she doing this? Was she buckling under the pressure of <a href= target=_blank>threats</a> from the defeated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the &#147;white-skinned foreigner&#148;? Were her children, who had lost their father and grandmother to assassins, scared for her life? Or was this just another stunt? </p><p> After all, the lady does protest too much. For years, she has been professing reluctance, then stepping regally into the power game. Only the day before, on 17 May, Sonia Gandhi had gone to meet the president to discuss the government she would be forming, then returned home and declined the post. Only after much pleading by senior Congress leaders had she relented. </p><p> For those few hours, the country had held its breath &#150; except of course the stock markets, which had promptly plunged to a spectacular low. But that was largely due to the Left parties, allies of the Congress, waxing eloquent on television about their aspirations for economic reforms. This time, the renunciation drama continued through most of the day, and half the night, as the country <a href= target=_blank>waited</a> to exhale. </p><p> Outside the residence of the reluctant Sonia, Congress workers were slashing themselves with razors, writing protest letters in blood, and threatening to kill themselves in various ways. Amid the frenzy, one old man clambered high up a tree with astounding agility and refused to come down until Sonia accepted the top job. A former MP stood atop a car, flailing a sword to keep people at bay with one hand and holding a gun to his temple with the other. He would shoot himself if Sonia didn&#146;t accept the post, he said. And members of the Congress resigned <em>en masse</em>, as parliamentarians refused to accept anyone other than &#147;our leader&#148;. </p><p> Finally, late in the evening of 19 May, Sonia Gandhi declared that she would not change her mind, and that she had nominated for the prime ministership <a href= target=_blank>Manmohan Singh</a>, distinguished academic, ex-finance minister and the architect of India&#146;s economic reforms. </p><p> For the umpteenth time in the last few days, India staggered in astonishment. And relief. </p><p> <strong>Surprise, surprise!</strong> </p><p> The Sonia Gandhi melodrama was the culmination of a <a href= target=_blank>week</a> of stunned disbelief for Indians. We had already keeled over when we discovered that we had thrown out the National Democratic Alliance (<a href= target=_blank>NDA</a>) &#150; the right-wing, BJP-led central government &#150; and elected ourselves a &#147;secular&#148; government to be led by the Congress. </p><p> This wasn&#146;t expected to happen. Well, a lot of us in this country of one billion people <em>hoped</em> that it would &#150; clearly a lot more than we knew about. But the exit polls, the media, the industries, the bureaucrats, the ever-growing breed of psephologists, the recklessly revered astrologers, even the politicians themselves, didn&#146;t imagine that it would be such a cakewalk. Why was everyone wrong? </p><p> Frankly, can&#146;t say about the astrologers, maybe their stars were not right. But all the others were heavily dependent on each other, and I am inclined to believe that the failure to gauge the mood of the people had two main reasons: the role of the media and the overpowering arrogance of the ruling party. The third reason would be the natural political unpredictability of a vast country wracked by poverty, corruption and violence and still beset in parts by vote-rigging and booth-capturing. Meanwhile, caste politics and religious factors will, I am sure, have been taken into account by the wise psephologists &#150; and they are likely to be right on those. </p><p> First, the media. Traditionally, the Indian news media has been wonderfully free &#150; hard-hitting, fearless yet compassionate. It has exposed injustice, forced constructive action and strengthened democracy through its adversarial relation with the <a href= target=_blank>ruling powers</a>. But for over a decade now, it has been affected by the global &#147;dumbing down&#148; phenomenon. One result is a &#147;narrowcasting&#148; focus on the aspirational; selling dreams, always a good part of any business, has moved centre stage. The previously subsidiary role of entertainment has become the first priority, followed by news as entertainment, while drab, non-entertaining news is gradually turfed out. </p><p> This aspirational, Eurocentric, escapist culture being wrapped around media users &#150; readers or television watchers &#150; is not entirely invented or alien, but neither is it truly integral to their lives. It becomes unreliable primarily because it edges out other socio-cultural considerations that have more to do with the daily realities of rural and urban India: hunger, education, health care, unemployment &#151; those tedious, unappealing segments that line the cutting-room floor of television news, or are buried in single column, four-centimetre news items on the inner pages of dailies. </p><p> If we had paid more attention to those news items, we may have known better. </p><p> And even when we were attempting to understand the trends, our tools were wrong. Commercial media, threatened by cut-throat competition, likes to give the reader what he or she wants. In order to customise news for the media consumer, it serves up what their consumers would &#147;like&#148; to see, and packages news as entertainment. It revolves around celebrities and fun stories, and offers a partial picture as representative of all of reality. </p><p> Moreover, different consumers of specific media products &#150; in practice, mostly the urban middle class &#150; get to see different versions of reality. I have earlier called this the &#147;Sim-City syndrome&#148; (the computer game Sim-City had just been released). This targets a particular audience as its citizens and mostly excludes others, the non-consumers of the media product, who may get a guest appearance once in a while, but are strictly to be viewed as aliens and not worth too much bother. As a result, we seem to be building imaginary and exclusive small islands, detached from any sense of the social whole, operating according to imaginary rules and experiences. We come genuinely to believe that our little Sim-Cities are our whole nation. The syndrome has become a serious affliction. </p><p> This was vividly clear as the May 2004 elections approached. Print and television news was full of celebrities (every second film star was either standing for elections or campaigning for some party) and attractive personalities; the same set of people held debates and discussions and generated the same set of views. </p><p> This apparently &#147;commercial&#148; imperative has a significant political dimension. The left has less visibility in the media &#151; and when it does, its spokespersons are not always the best people for quick responses, given their inclination to hold politburo meetings before divulging little more than their names. The spotlight moved away from the centrist Congress during its years of exile from power, and all but its more glamorous stars were eclipsed. </p><p> The right, by contrast, contains excellent media managers, who have successfully used their six years in power to make friends and win over enemies in the media. And where they cannot convert you with ideology, they just make life so much simpler for you: in particular, the &#147;promotional&#148; culture that allows you to economise on time and news-gathering expenses seduces you into their comfort-zone. Several influential journalists and editors are also partisans of the right, and have been rewarded with prestigious presidential awards and parliamentary nominations. </p><p> The result of this media reshaping of reality is that non-news, smoothly presented by important authorities who pamper your ego, makes headlines; the alternative is harmful rabble-rousing quotes unleashed on the reader or viewer with very little editorial comment. </p><p> In short, Indian commercial news <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=598">media</a> in recent times has been losing the alertness and restraint it was previously known for. As, day after day, we saw these usual suspects debate the same middle-class issues and non-issues on various channels and publications, and as we saw the self-appointed psephologists derive their own news from these people and media &#150; then tell us wisely which way we were headed &#150; we became convinced that it was true. </p><p> Ah, the exit polls! What about them? Would you, living in a country where you might get killed for voting against the party you have been instructed &#150; or paid &#150; to vote for, come out of the booth and tell a perfect stranger how you marked your ballot? </p><p> Thus, immersed in our very cerebral, very stylish media-driven navel-gazing, we missed the basic issues that haunt the country where 70% of people live in villages. Just like the ruling <a href= target=_blank>BJP</a>, in fact. And except in a few rare cases (like the <em>Indian Express</em> or <em>The Hindu</em> or small, regional-language newspapers) we didn&#146;t get to see much of the unappealing side of &#147;India Shining&#148; &#150; the governing coalition&#146;s advertising campaign. </p><p> <strong>The ruling party&#146;s self-immolation </strong> </p><p> Which brings us to the second reason for our failure to anticipate the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance&#146;s routing at the polls: its unimaginable arrogance. Not satisfied merely to manipulate the news media, it decided to repackage <em>itself</em> as a media product. The result was a feelgood advertising extravaganza projecting India&#146;s wonderful state of being, clearly borrowed from aspirational media. The NDA government reportedly spent about 2.5 billion <em>rupees</em> (Rs) on &#147;India Shining&#148;, but additional inputs from various government departments pushed the total cost of the campaign to an estimated Rs 4.5 billion. It is also believed that this money came from the public exchequer at the cost of social development programmes &#150; like the one for &#147;development assistance&#148; under the department of economic affairs (which had only Rs 1 billion budgeted for it). </p><p> But &#147;India Shining&#148; backfired, spectacularly. </p><p> People saw these pretty pictures, their expectations were raised, their hopes soared &#150; and then they realised that they had been completely left out of the picture. In a country where millions are unemployed, the NDA prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee&#146;s promise to create 10 million jobs a year seemed to them an unkind joke. The landless in rural India now number 100 million. There is a serious deficit of working health centres and schools. The rural population still lack basic necessities like water and electricity; hunger and debt drive many farmers to suicide. But &#150; sometimes &#150; the rural poor do have access to television. When they saw the <a href= target=_blank>&#147;India Shining&#148;</a> campaign, they wondered why they should &#147;Feel Good&#148;. So they walked for miles in the blazing heat and dust on voting day, and marked their <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1431">protest</a>. As Sonia Gandhi said in declining the prime ministership, it was not a vote for <em>her</em>, it was a vote against the BJP-led government. </p><p> This same blinding arrogance led the government to do badly in urban centres as well. The target of &#147;India Shining&#148;, the urban middle class, especially its younger members, had bought the dream. In a globalised world, you want to be a <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1006">global citizen</a>. You don&#146;t want tiny salaries in public sector organisations &#150; you want Silicon Valley, holidays in Europe, all that the TV is selling to you. But the sectarian rhetoric of the government in power, with its emphasis on <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1568">Hindu temples</a>. or Sonia&#146;s &#147;foreign origin&#148;, seemed dissonant with these aspirations. The role models, and the needs, of this urban middle class had changed. A large chunk of them were tired of minority-bashing and ashamed of the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. They wanted to be not just members of a Hindu nation, but global Indians. </p><p> The fact that the BJP&#146;s allies in the south included autocrats like Jayalalitha and Chandrababu Naidu didn&#146;t help either. The party that had come to power with a show of humility and the promise of honesty and integrity had degenerated into a haughty, corrupt and self-important unit that allowed pogroms like <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=845">Gujarat</a> and refused to dismiss its hardline chief minister, Narendra Modi, even after criticism of him by the Supreme Court. </p><p> There is a further irony. The repackaging of the BJP-led government as a brand meant that slogans and quick brand-identification stood in for real issues. Atal <a href= target=_blank>Behari Vajpayee</a> was chosen as the brand logo, and a personality cult built around him. It didn&#146;t stand a chance against the mother of all personality cults &#150; the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The Congress is the party of India&#146;s first prime minister (Indira Gandhi&#146;s father, <a href= target=_blank>Jawaharlal Nehru</a>), two assassinated prime ministers (Indira and Rajiv) and three waiting in line (Sonia and her children Rahul and Priyanka). </p><p> The killer blow was that Congress, like its allies on the left, raised real issues: poverty, water, health care, the <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=691">minorities&#146;</a> right to live. It wasn&#146;t difficult for it to show that India was not really shining. </p><p> <strong>Sonia Gandhi: the path to victory</strong> </p><p> It is all clear in retrospect; but to be fair, the NDA, pollsters and everybody else were not entirely unjustified in believing that the NDA would win. The coalition had swept the elections for four state assemblies in December 2003. The economic growth figures were good. Besides, there was a doubt about Sonia Gandhi&#146;s acceptability among Indians &#150; she was Italian by birth and looked <a href= target=_blank>foreign</a> enough, she spoke accented English and broken Hindi, she wasn&#146;t a great orator. Her political judgment was also in question: when the Congress party finally managed to inflict a parliamentary defeat on the BJP-led government in 1999 by a single vote, she enthusiastically declared that it had the numbers to form the government, but she was proved wrong. Congress couldn&#146;t find partners and India went to the polls, where the party lost badly. </p><p> Sonia Gandhi was never interested in politics, and fought long and hard to keep her husband Rajiv out of it as well. It took seven years of pleading, and the 1998 election drubbing, for Congress to persuade her to join. Even as the country&#146;s symbolic daughter-in-law, she did not fit in. She was, it is true, Indira Gandhi&#146;s favourite; the prime minister had died with her head in Sonia&#146;s lap after being fatally shot in 1984 by one of her own guards. She was also the ideal wife to Rajiv <a href= target=_blank>Gandhi</a>, and maintained a remarkable dignity and composure even at the time of his assassination in 1991 &#150; qualities in contrast with the emotive breast-beating in the rest of the country. </p><p> But she was heavily dependent on a coterie inherited from her husband &#150; a group that was neither represented nor trusted by Indians. Moreover, her connection to <a href= target=_blank>Ottavio</a> Quattrocchi and the allegations in the Bofors howitzer <a href= target=_blank>scandal</a> persisted. The BJP floated rumours that her father had been an antique smuggler. She was politically uncultured, a housewife, a foreigner &#150; what chance did she have of winning against the manic muscle and ruthless diligence of the <a href= target=_blank><em>Hindutva</em></a> forces of the Indian right? </p><p> But the right underestimated both the drawing-power of the Gandhi name and the staying-power of the Italian daughter-in-law. Faced with humiliating defeat in the December state elections, Sonia tucked in her sari and did what she had seen her mother-in-law do: go from village to village, mingling with the people, sharing their fears, finding out their problems. </p><p> Her roadshows were very different from the high-flying, &#147;now-you-see-them-now-you-don&#146;t&#148; campaigns of other major leaders. She forced the Congress to descend from its pedestal and appreciate the importance of regional parties, prepare for a <a href= target=_blank>coalition</a>, and forge wise pre-election alliances with secular forces. She made friends with opponents, sent birthday messages, made phone calls, graciously hosted non-Congress leaders who were screaming against her. And &#150; perhaps to keep her sanity, after hearing out all her party colleagues and cronies &#150; she turned for final advice to her children: daughter Priyanka, an excellent speaker and her campaign manager, and son Rahul, who after finally entering the political arena won his first election in his father&#146;s constituency, Amethi. </p><p> It worked. The allied forces, now referred to as the United Progressive Alliance, won. They captured most seats in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the states ruled by the NDA&#146;s allies Jayalalitha and Chandrababu Naidu, and took about half the seats in the BJP&#146;s bastion of Gujarat, laboratory of the <em>Hindutva</em> <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=1684">experiment</a>. Also, the belief that the Left Front would back the Congress made the communist parties perform better than ever in their <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=945">Kerala</a> and West Bengal heartlands. By shedding its arrogance and bowing to the age of coalition governments, the Congress achieved what it could never have managed on its own. </p><p> <strong>Where next?</strong> </p><p> Late on 19 May, the name of India&#146;s new prime minister was announced: Manmohan Singh. Singh lost (to the BJP) the only election he ever contested; he is a nominated member of the India&#146;s upper house of parliament. He may also lack the kind of charisma that voters love in a prime minister. But, against this, his range of positive qualities is formidable. Singh has an impeccable record of unquestionable integrity, honesty and efficiency. Though he laughs at himself as &#147;an extinguished economist&#148;, his track record is impressive: educated at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the architect of India&#146;s decade-long economic reform strategy, a former member of the governing board of the International Monetary Fund, and secretary-general of Geneva&#146;s South Commission. He is also a passionate campaigner against corruption in politics, and he enjoys the confidence of the financial sector. </p><p> Yet as Manmohan Singh ascends to office, the reasons for Sonia&#146;s refusal remain <a href= target=_blank>unclear</a>. The Congress wants to credit her with a concern not to divide the country on the issue of her foreign origin. The BJP has indeed been playing the issue for all it is worth. The spitfire BJP minister Sushma Swaraj had dramatically declared on national television that this was a matter of India&#146;s honour &#150; that she would tonsure her head, wear widow&#146;s white, sleep on the floor and live on horse-gram and water as long as a &#147;foreigner&#148; was in the prime minister&#146;s chair. Uma <a href=,0016002900080003.htm target=_blank>Bharti</a>, another flamboyant BJP chief minister and a <a href= target=_blank><em>sannyasin</em></a>, had elaborately resigned in order to start a nationwide campaign against the &#147;white-skinned woman&#148; who had humiliated the country and threatened its national security. If this campaign did have an effect, this would be the first time that the fear of mob rule has prevented a legally elected leader of India from assuming its top political office &#150; and yet another example of our failure to live up to the egalitarian values of our liberal <a href="/articles/View.jsp?id=432">constitution</a>. </p><p> In any case, the Congress-led coalition is a curious alliance. Of the 542 seats now declared (in a total of 543), the Congress and its allies have 219, the NDA 188, the Left Front 63, and others 72. Around 100 MPs &#150; including leftists, regionalists and secularists &#150; might support the government from a safe distance, but not join it. But any prime minister will be aware that this group could also withdraw its support at any moment. In short, the next government will not be easy to <a href= target=_blank>run</a>. </p><p> The massive dip in the stock markets on 17 May is another indicator of the difficult task ahead. The shy, unassuming Manmohan Singh swiftly moved in, advising the outgoing finance minister, making calls, using his personal contacts and experience &#150; as former finance minister and former governor of the reserve bank &#150; to halt the markets&#146; nosedive. When, next day, his name was floated as the possible prime minister, the markets rose swiftly, blossoming in relief. The left, for its part, kept its counsel or approving noises &#150; India&#146;s economic reforms, after all, had been launched by Manmohan Singh and a minority Congress government that it supported. There is little danger of the left stopping reforms, or pulling down the government on that issue. </p><p> The new government&#146;s challenge, then, is fourfold. First, the new government has to continue the economic reforms, but in a way that puts the poor back in the picture. It needs to balance Nehruvian socialism with better living standards and <a href= target=_blank>economic growth</a>, to combine reforms with social justice. In short, in an era of heightened expectations and the inescapable aspirational media, it has to <em>deliver</em>. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, that is achievable. </p><p> Second, it needs to be truly secular and discard the soft <em>Hindutva</em> line that the Congress often takes a trend inaugurated by Indira Gandhi, continued by Rajiv, and even now indulged by senior leaders like <a href=,0016005600000007.htm target=_blank>Digvijay Singh</a> who seek legal protection of the cow as an object of worship. The new government cannot gloss over the issue of secularism anymore. </p><p> Third, it has to take a clear stand on human rights issues. When the NDA brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (<a href= target=_blank>Pota</a>), which suspends the democratic rights and freedoms of the accused and was used mostly against Muslims, the Congress and secular forces protested. They need to prove whether they meant what they said: the act should be repealed. </p><p> Fourth, the coalition government must be democratic. The Congress, which ruled the country for decades, has its own history of arrogance, which it needs to check. The BJP-led NDA was not democratic; only two or three parties (among an alliance of twenty-four) had a real voice in its decisions. The new government has an even more difficult alliance to maintain; but unless every partner in a <a href= target=_blank>coalition</a> really has a say, we cannot have a working democracy. </p><p> India&#146;s people, after this astounding week in the history of their democracy, deserve no less. </p><p> </p> Conflict Globalisation conflicts india/pakistan asia & pacific Antara Dev Sen Original Copyright Wed, 19 May 2004 23:00:00 +0000 Antara Dev Sen 1914 at