Shashi Tharoor en Mon Dec 30 14:50:46 IST 2019 high-time-for-a-global-pandemic-treaty-writes-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has everyone reacting with varying degrees of alarm. Is it, as a hopeful study from South Africa suggests, more transmissible but less lethal? Might it even mark the beginning of the end of the Covid pandemic, a sign that the dreaded virus is mutating into something no more harmful than the regular flu?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No one really knows—at least not yet. But the rise of Omicron has added renewed urgency to worldwide concerns about vaccine inequality and the global pandemic response. Soon after the new variant was reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa, leaders began discussing what to do if renewed pandemic outbreaks become a recurrent feature of human life. Is it not time, some asked, to prepare a new international agreement to better deal with these, in what one might call a “pandemic treaty”? In November, the issue has been debated at a special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s governing body, where 32 health ministers supported a treaty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fact that Omicron was first discovered in South Africa itself confirms why such a treaty is required. The arrival of a fast-spreading virus variant from an under-vaccinated country underscores the slogan we have heard ever since the pandemic first emerged: “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. We need an international legal instrument to establish a global structure that would identify threats of pandemics early on and help ensure the production of vaccines or other drugs at adequate levels and in a timely manner. That is what poorer countries want.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reaction of rich and powerful governments to the idea, though, does not augur well for such a treaty. All governments prefer to look after their own people first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A year ago, I argued in this space that Covid may well have heralded the dawn of a new age of de-globalisation. Even the outbreak of Omicron has confirmed the absence of any global spirit among nations. Immediately, governments responded with restrictions and even outright bans on entry into their countries of travellers coming from lands with confirmed cases.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All this raises the obvious question: will the world once again descend into “every government for itself”? We have already seen countries hoarding vaccines, protecting manufacturing technology and reneging on contracts and commitments to supply vaccines to others. The rich nations have prioritised their own people, imposed the most severe travel restrictions and ignored the desperate calls of poor nations (and the WHO itself) for global cooperation to stem the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, one of the casualties was the cancellation of a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council which was supposed to discuss a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines. A waiver could have allowed manufacturers to make cheaper, generic versions of highly efficient coronavirus vaccines and medicines. Rich countries, notably in Europe, have opposed the proposal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If a mere waiver could not get off the ground, is there any hope for a pandemic treaty? Its champions seek an international agreement that could commit governments to produce a certain number of vaccines, maintain a level of manufacturing infrastructure that would serve the world and not just their own people, and participate in global surveillance efforts to help identify new viruses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These all seem obvious priorities for a world reeling from the onslaught of Covid, but the response of governments has been disappointingly tepid. If we do not achieve a treaty, the next virus outbreak could see the world making the same mistakes all over again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jan 01 11:38:47 IST 2022 assault-on-our-institutions-will-weaken-the-very-pillars-of-democracy-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Constitution Day on November 26 was marked by a boycott of Parliament by opposition parties, it is worth asking what has become of the free institutions whose existence underpins our constitutional democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They have atrophied. Financial regulators like the RBI; the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court; the investigative agencies (notably the Central Bureau of Investigation); the Election Commission, which organises, conducts the country’s general and state elections; the armed forces; institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; the elected legislatures; and the free press have all come under a shadow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Part of the reason behind this systemic onslaught stems from the Moditva doctrine of the ruling party and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva, on top of which it builds the idea of a strong leader, a man with a 56-inch chest, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation and will lead it to triumph.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>‘Moditva’ depicts a fiery and articulate ideologue, projected as all-knowing and infallible, the hero on a white stallion who will gallop at the head of the nation’s massed forces with sword upraised, knowing all the answers, ready to cut the Gordian knots of the nation’s problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Autonomous public institutions threaten the dominance of the Moditva doctrine because they are independent institutions with specialised mandates that consequently challenge this oversized cult of personality. Naturally, the government has systematically sought to interfere with the independence that is a defining feature of these bodies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s Election Commission has enjoyed a proud record of independence and boasts decades-long experience of conducting free and fair elections, despite its members usually being retired civil servants appointed by the government of the day for fixed tenures. While in the past, election commissioners have largely enjoyed a reputation for integrity, this has taken a severe blow as the result of a number of decisions in recent years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The judicial system, traditionally above the cut-and-thrust of the political fray, has come under withering scrutiny, as has the repeated politicisation of the armed forces under the present government. The list goes on, from the Central Information Commission (which suffers a record number of unfilled vacancies, remains intentionally understaffed and whose salaries and terms of service can be altered by the government—a blow to the independence of the body), to the Central Statistical Organisation (which has been accused of manipulating data to make the government’s economic management appear less disastrous). A slew of governors have cast aside their constitutional mandate to sing to the tune of the ruling dispensation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for the ‘temple of democracy’, our Parliament, it has declined considerably from the deliberative forum it is supposed to be, to a combination of rubber-stamp for government bills, notice-board for official pronouncements, and theatrical stage for dramatic disruptions. Serious work still goes on in the committees, but these have also been undermined by the government’s disinclination to refer most bills to committee scrutiny.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A process combining intimidation and co-optation has weakened the press, ensuring that very few critical voices in the so-called ‘mainstream’ media are raised against such behaviour. Instead, the press largely serves as a weapon of mass distraction, purveying sensationalist and voyeuristic stories to take attention away from the government’s failures.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This does not bode well for the future of our Indian democracy. Political parties and ruling powers will come and go, but these institutions are the enduring pillars of democracy, whose independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from political pressures. If the assault on our institutions persists, the confidence that people have in these bodies will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 04 15:53:33 IST 2021 why-a-new-parliament-when-modi-does-not-respect-the-house-asks-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched a full-frontal assault on critics of his Central Vista scheme, accusing them of spreading “lies” and “misinformation” and being opposed to India’s progress. The Vista’s redevelopment, he argues, will represent New India after 75 years of independence, and cast off the colonial Lutyens “face” of New Delhi. “India is the mother of democracy. Therefore, the capital of India should be such that its central focus should be people,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a curious argument since the imperial legacy of Lutyens Delhi was transformed decades ago by a new, democratic India. The area between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan, which the government seeks to remake, has indeed been focused on the people. It is at present a grassy, pleasant place where, on any given day, families can be seen enjoying the lawns, eating ice cream, and strolling. It is a truly democratic space, freely accessible to the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That will all change: a leading architectural magazine called the prime minister’s dream project “a retrograde and anti-ecological urban plan” which could “turn an entire stretch of the Rajpath, once so free and easy, into a surveyed security zone”. The government’s decision to push ahead with the construction of this project during the mismanaged Covid pandemic is an act of staggering arrogance, exposing its indifference to the interests of ordinary Indians. The project costs 020 lakh crore at a time when adequate oxygen supplies were unavailable during the nightmarish Covid “second wave” earlier this year, migrant labourers walked hundreds of kilometres after a disastrously implemented lockdown last year, and the people of India, reeling from the economic crisis, received the most meagre fiscal stimulus of any major economy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Changing the physical face of Lutyens’s Delhi is essentially a show of power, a desire to stamp the national capital with the seal of Moditva. The “edifice complex” of this government’s fantasies reeks of a Mussolinian air, a taste for the grandiose that has nothing to do with democracy in either substance or process. The BJP’s governance style is one of unilateral top-down decision-making, with not even the pretence of consulting the public, the opposition, or indeed even architects, environmentalists, or parliamentarians. The wholesale destruction of many much-admired buildings, including the National Museum and the recently completed Jawahar Bhawan, in favour of banal and repetitive cookie-cutter government offices, is deplorably wasteful. It is one more shameful attempt to dismantle the idea of democratic India itself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government also contends that a new Parliament building is needed as the old one is no longer fit for purpose. I myself had argued that the Parliament building was in desperate need of upgradation, but I had called for a renovation of the present structure, not its replacement. Replacing an iconic Parliament building is bad enough. But the irony of conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for the new Parliament while suspending the work that should have been taking place in the old—two of the regular parliamentary sessions were abandoned or truncated—was lost on the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of focusing its energies on building a new Parliament, perhaps the government should take stock of its shameful behaviour in the one we already have. When you have reduced Parliament to a notice-board for your unilateral decisions, disembowelled the standing committees by refusing to discuss legislation in them, and got your pliant majority to rubber-stamp all the bills you want to shovel through without debate, what difference will a new building make?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Nov 06 11:17:49 IST 2021 pluralism-is-in-very-nature-of-india-bjp-is-challenging-it-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The mounting unpleasantness of communal bigotry in our country prompts me to look back at the founding of the Indian Republic. Our nationalist movement did not divide over ideology or geography; it divided on the simple issue of whether religion should be the determinant of nationhood. Those who argued that their religion made them a nation left India and established Pakistan; the rest created a nation which, like the freedom struggle itself, sought to embrace all Indians.</p> <p>There was also a practical consideration here. In dealing with the vast and complex realities of a subcontinent of 330 million people, and in devising systems and rules to embrace all of them, the founders had to acknowledge the need to produce political unity out of ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, and communal diversity.</p> <p>They realised that in the India they would rule, there was no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way” of doing things. In an era when most developing countries chose authoritarian models of government, claiming these were needed to promote nation-building and steer economic development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy—flawed, but flourishing. India’s pluralism was acknowledged in its constitutional and political arrangements, which encouraged a bewildering variety of social groups, religious communities, sectional interests and far-fetched ideologies to flourish and contend. This approach—called, with some inexactitude, “secularism”—is now bitterly challenged by the ruling party.</p> <p>Many observers abroad have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralist state. But pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history. India’s is a civilisation that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several denominations of Christians, and, of course, Muslims. Jews came to Kerala centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century to inflict it. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St Thomas the Apostle, who came to the Kerala coast sometime before 52 CE and was welcomed on shore, if the legend is to be believed, by a flute-playing Jewish girl.</p> <p>Islam is portrayed by some in the north as a religion of invaders who pillaged and conquered, but in Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travellers and missionaries rather than by the sword, a south Indian king was so impressed by the message of the prophet that he travelled to Arabia to meet the great teacher himself. The king, Cheraman Perumal, perished in the attempt, but the coconuts he took with him have sprouted trees that flourish to this day on the southern coast of Oman.</p> <p>India’s heritage of diversity means that in the Kolkata neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer routinely blended with the chant of mantras and the tinkling of bells at the local Shiva temple, accompanied by the Sikh gurdwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, with St Paul’s Cathedral just around the corner. Today, in my constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, the gleaming white dome of the Palayam Juma Masjid stands diagonally across from the lofty spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral, and just around the corner from both, abutting the mosque, is one of the city’s oldest temples, consecrated to Lord Ganesh. My experiences in Thiruvananthapuram remind me daily that India is home to more Christians than Australia and nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan.</p> <p>That is the India I lay claim to.</p> <p><b></b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Oct 07 14:36:35 IST 2021 education-policy-makers-should-not-forget-digital-divide-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some readers may recall a story from last year’s lockdown that is seared into my consciousness. A Class 10 student in Kerala, hailing from a dalit family, a young girl who was a class topper and under any other circumstances would have been set for a bright future, instead committed suicide. Why? Because as classes leapt online, her family, where the sole breadwinner was her father, a daily-wage worker now unemployed thanks to the lockdown, was unable to afford a smartphone or a data package which would have allowed this girl to follow the classes necessary to continue her education. Then the state government, in a great show of solidarity with the poor, announced that classes would also be telecast on Victers TV—a public broadcasting channel for those children who could not afford online facilities. But the family’s sole television set was broken and her father, barely able to feed his family, could not afford to repair it. Excluded and marginalised from the very field in which she had excelled, this bright student preferred not to live. She killed herself.</p> <p>This sobering and tragic event calls for a serious commitment on the part of education policy-makers to take stock of the barriers to access and inclusion that permeate all levels of our society. As classes rapidly go online in the Covid-19 era, we as a country have not sufficiently addressed a deep and pervasive digital divide that many families have to contend with. According to UNESCO, globally, only just over half of households (55 per cent) have an internet connection. In the developed world, 87 per cent are connected compared with 47 per cent in developing nations, and just 19 per cent in the least developed countries. These stark realities, along with other basic barriers like infrastructure deficiencies, have resulted in insuperable barriers for our weak and marginalised sections. This is the reality of the India we live in, reality that educationists cannot afford to forget while they sit protected by privilege and discuss the future of the New Education Policy. That is why I (and other MPs) have been organising digital-divide bridging donations of smartphones to poor students.</p> <p>And what about universities? Some have argued that, after the initial arduous period of adaptation, online education will become the new norm, and the university campus as we know it has become obsolete. I do not agree. Yes, poverty-stricken students can be equipped for online education. But that is not enough. Our current resort to online education overlooks the great value of campus interactions for students across social classes and regional or religious divides, and the comradeship that arises from shared experience and mutual learning.</p> <p>Above all, the university campus can be a place where people can be brought together, where the social barriers of class, religion and caste are left behind and young Indians are given the tools to lead an empowered life; a space that is confident enough to look at its wealth of differences as a strength and not so insecure as to look at diversity as a weakness that must be rooted out; a space where the administration is attuned to the aspirations of the students, the next generation of India’s leaders, and where these young minds, the engines of our democratic and pluralist society, are not subsumed only by personal ambition or the commercial rat-race, but are invested in the success of those around them. If we manage to create such spaces on our campuses, we can develop a new Indian university that remains open, inclusive and representative offline—an old idea reimagined for a new India.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 09 16:13:36 IST 2021 everyone-must-follow-international-rules-even-the-us-says-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On June 24, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 29th time in a row to censure US sanctions on Cuba. A staggering 184 countries supported the resolution condemning the US economic embargo on the Communist-run Caribbean island-state, three abstained, and four did not vote at all; just two states voted against the resolution—the US and Israel. The US promptly made it clear that it will, yet again, disregard the overwhelming opinion of the “international community”. The sanctions will continue. So what makes the US the self-proclaimed defender of a “rules-based international order”?</p> <p>The question is increasingly relevant as the world seems to be dividing along a new binary—between an ominously resurgent China, bent on asserting itself through “wolf warrior diplomacy” as the new gorilla on the global beach, and a group of beleaguered democracies, led by the US, who seek, they claim, to uphold the rules-based liberal international order established since 1945.</p> <p>The idea of a rules-based system goes back to the founding of the UN 76 years ago. In 1945, the UN’s far-sighted founders—determined to make the second half of the twentieth century different from the much-troubled first—drew up rules to govern international behaviour, and founded institutions in which different nations could cooperate for the common good.</p> <p>Their idea—now called “global governance”—was to create an architecture that could foster international cooperation, elaborate consensual global norms and establish predictable, universally applicable rules, to the benefit of all. After 50 years in which the world had suffered two world wars, countless civil wars, brutal dictatorships, mass expulsions of populations, and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the world would be governed by international law. Everyone would follow the same rules.</p> <p>The new UN would stand for a world in which people of different nations and cultures would look on each other, not as subjects of fear and suspicion, but as potential partners, able to exchange goods and ideas to their mutual benefit. A place where small states and big would be able to work as sovereign equals, pursuing common objectives in a universal forum, observing common rules of engagement.</p> <p>As US President Harry Truman, addressing the San Francisco Conference that founded the UN, observed: “We all have to recognise, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation... can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation.... Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organisation for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is!”</p> <p>But in the decades since, the biggest defenders of the established world order have let it down the most. USA’s behaviour in sanctioning Cuba, despite the disapproval of the rest of the world, is often seen as a typical example of its attitude. If the rest of the world disagrees, the US, instead of abiding by the rules and heeding the majority, does its own thing anyway.</p> <p>Examples like these abound. The US condemns China for its expansionist behaviour in the South China Sea, and asserts the principle of freedom of navigation—but it refuses to sign or ratify the very Law of the Sea that it excoriates the Chinese for violating. Washington waxes indignant, often selectively, about human rights violations in an assortment of countries—but it not only has not ratified the establishment of the International Criminal Court, but also passed a law authorising its armed forces to use violence to extricate any American citizens who might one day be arraigned by the Court.</p> <p>In other words, critics of the US assert, its advocacy of a “rules-based international order” is not about the rules, or the order, that the rest of the world wants, supports and votes for. It only stands up for the rules that suit it.</p> <p>When Truman waxed eloquent about the importance of international law that would bind big and small, strong and weak, equally, he was making a simple point that is essential to any democracy. If you want to uphold a rules-based system, everyone must follow the same rules. Even the world’s biggest superpower.</p> Thu Aug 12 15:23:51 IST 2021 free-our-universities-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The recent suspension of a professor at the Central University of Kerala for mentioning the RSS while talking about proto-fascism in his classes, highlights the ongoing persecution of India’s more liberal universities and academicians. The government seems entirely unconscious of the classic prescription that the supreme purpose of a university in any democracy is to create well-formed minds who can participate in our system, whose future depends on citizens’ capacity to scrutinise their elected officials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One purpose of the university is to help us expand our minds in service of our democracy. In a deliberative democracy, universities are meant to be hotbeds of argument, debate and dissent rather than centres of conformity. Universities are where young people find themselves in causes larger than their own academic careers. Many—perhaps most—students grow up in the process and outgrow the more extreme views they adopted out of youthful zeal. Two of my extreme-leftist classmates at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, for instance, are now conservative pundits associated (in one case, till recently) with the BJP. They would undoubtedly be embarrassed to be reminded of the fervour with which they espoused positions that they dismiss with scorn today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps more important, the Indian state is not so feeble that a few irresponsible slogans shouted by misguided students can destroy it. By branding dissent as “anti-national”, our BJP rulers are betraying the founding idea of an India “where the mind”, in Tagore’s immortal phrase, “is without fear”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP’s attack on universities is planned, deliberate, and dangerous to India’s democracy. The slapping of sedition charges on Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the suicide in January 2016, as a result of harassment, by a dalit student in Hyderabad, Rohit Vemula, are evidence that we have failed to protect our students and scholars from political interference by individuals and organisations that used arbitrary processes to uproot academic freedom. From Dinanath Batra’s RSS-supported curriculum in Haryana and Gujarat on “moral science” to the politically driven harassment of Vemula and the sacking of social activist and Magsaysay awardee professor Sandeep Pandey for his dissenting views at Banaras Hindu University, a deeply disturbing pattern emerges that points to an ominous political project, to exact conformity by striking at the intellectual fount of challenges to it, the universities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The filing of an FIR in October 2019 under Section 124A (the sedition law) against 49 intellectuals who wrote a letter to the prime minister deploring mob-lynching, though since dropped, remains an egregious example of the misuse of this law against freedom of speech. It is essential to clarify and restrict its application to instances in which there is a direct and immediate incitement to violence, as has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of India. This will free students as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It should not need saying, but in today’s India, it does: One can criticise the government of the day and be loyal to the nation. We must celebrate a robust and pluralistic Indian democracy, not the fearful brand of governance espoused by the current government, which sees treason in every tweet and a traitor under every desk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP seems to believe that India’s freedom is so frail that it will collapse in the face of dissent—which characterises the spirit of the nation in the first place. They have parked a tank on the JNU campus. But the flag that our soldiers have died for, even as the JNU disturbances were going on, stands for a larger idea of freedom than the intolerance of our present authorities. It is time for the government to live up to the ideals embodied in our flag.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 17 21:00:28 IST 2021 indo-pacific-will-remain-hub-for-maritime-economic-cooperation-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is fascinating for old hands of global diplomacy when new terms of art emerge and find widespread acceptance. This has happened to the “Indo-Pacific”, an expression that comes up often in my conversations with foreigners—sometimes self-consciously, sometimes automatically, and sometimes with the slight tone of deference that is used by those who are striving to be politically correct.</p> <p>Whatever the case may be, the idea of the Indo-Pacific breaks down the separation of East Asia conceptually from South Asia and links the two geopolitically. At the same time, the term reflects three interrelated developments. The first is China’s declared intention of developing a blue water navy and becoming a transcontinental economic giant. The second is India’s emergence as a regional power and a possible counterbalance to China. And the third is the role which the US will play in shaping the contours of the seemingly irresistible shift in power from west to east, and from the Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Taken together, the ideation of the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ captures the growing might, geopolitical interests, and normative visions of these powers in a dynamic region.</p> <p>Within the confluence of these complex developments, India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is one that strives to ensure a free, open and rules-based maritime space that respects each nation’s strategic autonomy and where no individual player or alliance seeks to undermine this in the quest for greater influence in this region.</p> <p>But Beijing and Moscow object to the conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific as a strategy to contain China, which remains Russia’s largest trading partner, and with whose geo-strategic interests Moscow is increasingly aligned. India cannot afford to completely disregard consistent criticism from Russia, which continues to provide the majority of our defence imports.</p> <p>And, yet, Russia’s objections point to how far Russia and India have travelled from each other in recent years. So far, India has been equidistant from the US and China, a position Russia prefers us to maintain. But it is difficult to be equidistant between a country that has killed 20 of your soldiers and transgressed your border, and another that you have no quarrel with and that tries to be supportive.</p> <p>Our foreign policy is not determined by one violent standoff and the violation of our territorial sovereignty alone, but such incidents cannot be lightly brushed aside. Beyond its belligerence on the LAC, China has increased its support for Pakistan, spending more than $90 billion on a highway to the Chinese-run port of Gwadar. The importance of Pakistan to China’s Belt and Road Initiative binds the two countries closer together than before.</p> <p>So India has deliberately embraced the US concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and is gradually abandoning its reluctance to participate in the US-led “Quad”, focused on countering China’s regional ambitions. The last Quad summit called for the Indo-Pacific to remain ‘free and open … anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion’.&nbsp;</p> <p>But whether these lofty ideals will translate to mutually agreeable outcomes remains to be seen. For instance, the recent military exercise by the US navy in India’s backyard, without prior notification too, let alone an official nod, has not gone down well in New Delhi. Similarly, while the joint statement talked about greater cooperation on vaccine production and distribution, in recent weeks Indian media has placed a growing spotlight on the US embargo on certain vital raw material that is required for vaccine manufacturing by Indian producers.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Quad is therefore not an incipient Indo-Pacific NATO. The Indo-Pacific will remain a centre for maritime and economic cooperation and a facilitator of the huge volume of global trade that flows through this region. Our ultimate objective in the region has to remain the peace, security and development of all. At a time when all of us are threatened by a deadly virus, climate change and rising levels of poverty and income inequality, that is all that geopolitics ought to be about. Even in the Indo-Pacific.</p> Thu Jun 17 15:33:47 IST 2021 moditva-doctrine-is-all-about-autocratic-concentration-of-power-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Is democracy under threat in India? Indeed, has India already ceased to be democratic?</p> <p>This may seem an odd question to ask in the aftermath of five successful state elections, conducted largely freely and fairly and only one of which the BJP won. Yet, if one were to read the annual reports of Freedom House, the American think-tank, which downgraded India this year from “free” to only “partly free”, or the prestigious V-Dem Institute in Sweden, which described India as an “electoral autocracy”, then we have indeed slipped out of the ranks of the world’s democracies. Elections can be democratic, but true democracy is about what happens between elections.</p> <p>It has not helped that since this government came to office in 2014, we have witnessed a striking dilution of independence at the highest levels of our autonomous institutions, from financial regulators like the Reserve Bank to institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; that questions have been raised about even hitherto sacrosanct bodies like the Election Commission and the upper echelons of the armed forces; and that Parliament, the judiciary and even the free press are widely perceived as insufficiently free of the government’s influence.</p> <p>Part of the reason behind this systemic crumbling stems from the Moditva doctrine and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of hindutva, but building upon it the idea of a strong leader, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation. Autonomous public institutions threaten the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent. This is why their authority must be undermined, and the “nationalist” argument advanced that opposition and dissent are by definition anti-national. The fear is that ethno-nationalism is taking India towards a peculiar hybrid, a ‘dictatocracy’ which preserves the forms of democracy while brooking no dissent against its dictates.</p> <p>If the de-institutionalisation of Indian governance proceeds like this, the greatest danger facing India will be that of the public losing faith in the system altogether. This is already taking place in many other parts of the world. In a widely discussed paper, Harvard scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is degenerating (the term of art being ‘democratic deconsolidation’). Drawing on global data, they show that there has been a considerable dilution of support for democracy and a growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generations (those born after the 1980s), and that we can no longer assume that the future of democracy is secure.</p> <p>Indeed, support for non-democratic or authoritarian models of governance is rising in many democracies. India is among the worst in the Mounk–Foa data. More than 70 per cent of Indian respondents felt that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections is a ‘good’ way to run this country”, higher than even Pakistan, with 62 per cent. In a recent CSDS–Azim Premji University survey, over 50 per cent of respondents in four large states expressed a preference for an authoritarian alternative to our existing democracy.</p> <p>While for many apologists of India’s government, the mere conduct of reasonably free and fair elections is defence enough, democracy can only flourish if the system maintains checks and balances, promotes consensus, and ensures institutional autonomy. Otherwise we become another “illiberal democracy”.</p> <p>The immortal JP argued that democracy should not be reduced to a crowd of sheep electing their shepherd every five years. The confidence that the people of India have in our system rests in the belief that it will work fairly. If their faith erodes, it will weaken the very foundations of the democracy that we take for granted. Political parties and the ruling powers of the day will come and go, but free institutions are the enduring pillars of any democracy. Their independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from the political pressures of the day. We must not let Moditva destroy them.</p> Thu May 20 16:19:49 IST 2021 shashi-tharoor-on-the-need-to-avoid-a-cold-war-between-us-and-china <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as the world continues to grapple with the ravages of the Covid pandemic, strategists with an eye on the long term are contemplating a potentially equally crippling prospect: the onset of a “new Cold War”, this time between the US and China.</p> <p>US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dubbed Beijing a “threat to global stability” and denounced its record on human rights and trade. China has been equally harsh in its condemnation of US “imperialism” and domestic problems, including racism. Beijing has made no secret of its disdainful view that the US is a country in terminal decline.</p> <p>The Biden administration appears to be embarking on establishing a network of alliances against China. Likely areas of competition with China go beyond the conventional geopolitical issues to challenges in cyberspace and the risks of technological conflict. American thinkers have called for policymakers to evolve a comprehensive strategy to counter China, much as George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 led to the birth of the “containment strategy” that hemmed in the Soviet Union.</p> <p>Ideology is seen as key to the division of the world into duelling camps. President Biden wants to forge an “alliance of democracies” against the world’s “autocracies”. The Quad is seen by some as the nucleus of a future such alliance. Democracy and liberal values are essential to keeping such an alliance together and to demonstrate that this is not just another amoral contest for military or geopolitical supremacy. This is why Washington prefers to couch its vision as being about principles, democratic governance and the maintenance of international order.</p> <p>But “Cold War 2.0” is not inevitable. The Biden administration does seem to be more nuanced than its predecessor in its approach to China. Blinken has acknowledged that the relationship with China has adversarial, competitive and cooperative aspects. This was not true of the US-Soviet Cold War, where there was simply no economic interpenetration between the two blocs and almost no examples of cooperation, let alone investment or significant trade.</p> <p>The countries that the US might hope to rope into its project also have complex concerns. Countries in southeast Asia would welcome the US or the Quad offering a counterweight to Chinese hegemony, but they are too conscious of their economic dependence on Beijing to espouse any overt hostility.</p> <p>Even the Quad countries have too much at stake in their economic relations with China to simply write off the relationship. China is not known for its ideological zeal to convert the world to communism; it is far more interested in finding itself a dominant place in the current world order than to overthrow the international system.</p> <p>Nor are there any proxy wars littering the landscape as in the original Cold War, nor much of an appetite for any in either Beijing or Washington. Positing another Cold War, therefore, overstates both the current situation and the risk of any threat from China to the global order.</p> <p>It is also inescapable today that current global crises like the coronavirus pandemic and environmental disasters oblige the US and China to confront the same problems, face the same threats and seize the same opportunities. What we used to call, in my UN days, “problems without passports”, require blueprints beyond borders to resolve. Global cooperation would serve the world better than intensified rivalry.</p> <p>As the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra put it recently in a piece for Bloomberg: “The urgent question today is not whether there will be a new cold war. It is whether modes of thought developed during the previous one… will again dominate political and intellectual life…. The crude division between democracy and autocracy won’t help us grasp such a topsy-turvy world. Though comfortingly simple, such cold war ideologies can never truly replace our messy reality.”</p> <p>The ideological battle lines are not yet joined. Perhaps, with enough imagination, they will not need to be.</p> Thu Apr 22 15:11:07 IST 2021 kerala-should-end-over-dependence-on-remittances-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As I write these words, my state is riven in a bitter election campaign, with harsh words being flung at and by the ruling party. And yet, though much criticism of the government is justified, the ‘Kerala Model’ itself cannot be disputed.</p> <p>The phrase was revived last year to praise the state’s success in initially suppressing the spread of Covid-19 and ‘flattening the curve’ till October, when cases re-escalated. But the government’s failures to maintain its performance do not discredit the Kerala model itself. For its Covid-19 response has emerged from a template that long preceded the current crisis. Among Indian states, it is unique for having allocated significant resources to public health, devolved power and funding to village-level bodies, and established a system that promotes community participation and public cooperation.</p> <p>In addition to having the highest literacy rate in India (94 per cent), Kerala also boasts a declining birth rate, higher life expectancy, more empowered women, and stronger welfare support for the marginalised. People do not beg or starve in Kerala.</p> <p>The state offers universal access to health care, and respects all residents as rights-bearing citizens. Throughout the current crisis, Kerala’s educated populace has behaved responsibly, limiting community transmission, cooperating with authorities, and seeking prompt treatment. This institutional and political culture is not the result of some one-off policy. Kerala has spent generations creating the infrastructure to support social development, placing it far ahead of the rest of India on many key indicators.</p> <p>Kerala has a vibrant civil society, free media, and a competitive political system. Its robust form of social democracy reflects the contributions of alternating coalitions of communist and Congress-led governments over time.</p> <p>Kerala has built on its tradition of decentralised governance, transparency, public trust and governmental accountability. While these must not be seen as a reason to underplay the current challenges the state faces, it offers a timely reminder that with greater sensitivity to the crisis at hand, more public willingness to continue to adopt counter measures like social distancing, wearing of masks and sanitisation measures, we can bounce back.</p> <p>Malayalis are a people of incredible resilience and fortitude. Whether it was during Cyclone Ockhi, the devastating floods in 2018 and 2019 or even in the face of similar virus outbreaks like Nipah, the people of the state have found a way to face these serious challenges head on.</p> <p>When sources for conflict have arisen, the people have found a way to remind the rest of the country that we are proud flagbearers of a phenomenon I call the ‘Malayali miracle’. No politician can claim credit for this, the “real Kerala model”—a community that has practised openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reforms, and political democracy; which has given its working men and women greater rights and a higher minimum wage than anywhere else in India; and which has honoured its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling and empowered lives.</p> <p>And, yet, this election has again confirmed the need to update the Kerala model while preserving it. We must sustain our human development not by borrowings but by attracting investment. Instead of exporting our unemployment, we must generate jobs and support entrepreneurs. Instead of relying on remittances we must develop our home-grown strengths. The red-flag culture of repeated hartals must end with an acceptance of social responsibility for the common good.</p> <p>As a Malayali and an Indian, I look forward to the day when Kerala will no longer be the exception in tales of Indian development, but again the trailblazer.</p> Thu Mar 25 13:57:08 IST 2021 hate-machinerys-new-target <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>During the unpleasantness surrounding the arrest of 22-year-old activist Disha Ravi, the most unsavoury of the many disagreeable elements in the controversy was the attempt of hindutva social media warriors to disparage her by claiming she is Christian. She is not, but what if she were? In the BJP’s “New India”, is merely being Christian enough to qualify for the epithet “anti-national”?</p> <p>The irony is that Christians have long been among the builders of modern India, and many are the BJP leaders who, like L.K. Advani, had their intellect first shaped by Christian education. My first substantial interaction with Christian teachers took place when, as a rather nervous young boy, not yet six years old, I was admitted to the Montfort Boys’ Boarding School in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. A year later I joined the prestigious Campion School, Bombay, where a majority of the teaching staff was Christian, and finished high school at the St Xavier’s Collegiate School in Calcutta, where I encountered a few more teachers of that persuasion.</p> <p>I should mention that the three schools I went to from ages six to 16 had an interesting detail in common: they were all Catholic schools, two of them Jesuit. It is remarkable how much this one order has done to educate and train millions of Indian children to make successes in their lives.</p> <p>A number of the priests at these schools were remarkably well-trained. At St Xavier’s I remember several brilliant young Jesuit fathers. The late Father Remedios, a superb guide to Shakespeare as well as “Values of Life” (Biblical ethics without the Bible!), was an excellent class teacher who, after instilling in us his profound knowledge of Julius Caesar, cycled regularly to jail, visiting prisoners to minister to their moral and spiritual needs.</p> <p>The now-eminent theologian Cyril Desbruslais, then in his 20s, took my class through an epistemological argument for the existence of God, which certainly impressed my fourteen-year-old imagination at a time when I was beginning to flirt with the idea of atheism. When you discover rationality, the idea of religion does not seem so appealing, until you discover the limits of rationalism in a world whose wonders surpass the explanations of reason. But in between I benefited from a very rational, structured philosophical argument from this Jesuit priest who lectured teenagers on why God existed, citing Kant and Thomas Aquinas in the process.</p> <p>I remember playing during the recess in our wonderful ‘big field’ with some of the outstanding Anglo-Indian students of the school, who consistently excelled at hockey in particular, and won every possible song and music competition. My debate and speech teacher at St Xavier’s, who also directed the high school’s annual play, was another sparklingly gifted exemplar of the cultural strengths of the Christian community.</p> <p>It was particularly striking to me that in our interactions with these teachers, we were absolutely free to express our beliefs and views. Elsewhere, you learn to answer the questions. The teachers I was privileged to have taught me to question the answers—and later I went on to question the questions, too.</p> <p>Thanks to them, at an impressionable age, I was given an education that combined a well-rounded tutelage with a pan-Indian outlook that made me deeply appreciative of eclectic social interests, the importance of a questioning spirit, and, above all, humanitarian regard for the well-being of others.</p> <p>The next time a hindutvavadi tries to turn “Christian” into a term of abuse, I urge my fellow citizens of that faith to wear the badge with pride. There is much that millions of Indians should remain grateful to Christians for.</p> Thu Feb 25 13:52:48 IST 2021 the-battle-to-belong <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When these words appear, our 71st Republic Day will just be behind us. Our national celebrations of this anniversary of the entry into force of our Constitution have been tempered by the raging coronavirus pandemic, which already claimed the event’s chief guest, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who cancelled his visit because of the emergence of a new mutant strain of Covid-19 in his country. But for many of us, the mood of celebration was also dampened by the realisation that never before has the Constitution we are celebrating seemed under such threat, with some scholars even writing of the dawn of a second republic that may have already supplanted the one established on January 26, 1950.</p> <p>I have tried to deal with this challenge in my new non-fiction magnum opus, <i>The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism and What It Means to Be Indian</i>, which seeks to expand our current political mudslinging into a serious debate on the concept of nationalism and Indian nationhood. These are themes that have increasingly become relevant around the world and are contested in contemporary India today, since some have been promoting a version of nationalism that foments division and fragmentation within our society.</p> <p>My book seeks, first, to outline the evolution of nationalism across the world, its manifestations globally and the various kinds of nationalism that have shaped the concept. This serves as a framework through which I introduce the contemporary challenges of nationalism and nationhood across the world and in India, particularly the clash we are witnessing today between ethno-religious nationalism (based on immutable identities) and civic nationalism (based on constitutions and institutions).</p> <p>The second theme is the evolution of Indian nationalism from the anti-colonial days to the civic nationalism enshrined in the Constitution. The nationalism that inspired the long struggle for independence was rooted in India’s time-honoured civilisational traditions of inclusivity, social justice, religious tolerance, and the desire to forge a society that allowed individuals to flourish, irrespective of their religion, caste, language or place of birth. This constitutional idea of India is being challenged by a new dominant narrative that thrives on an exclusionary, aggressive, communal nationalism based on cultural identity and the notion that India is a Hindu Rashtra.</p> <p>In the process, as I explain in the final third of the book, the idea of “patriotism” has been redefined by the majoritarians. In my view, “patriotism” is about loving your country because it is yours, because you belong to it and it belongs to you. It excludes no Indian. Whereas the nationalism being promoted in India today is a totalising vision that omits those who do not subscribe to it.</p> <p>In today’s India, the question of what it means to be Indian has attained paramount importance. Our liberal constitutionalism and democratic traditions are fundamentally questioned by rising intolerance, in which the forces unleashed by our rulers tell Indians what they cannot eat, who they cannot love, what thoughts they cannot hold, what words they must not say (and jokes they must not crack). Their political attack on opponents as “anti-national” conceals authoritarian instincts.</p> <p>In the concluding section of the book, I share my vision for India’s future, of reclaiming a nationalism that reaffirms the Constitution’s liberal and inclusive idea of India and proudly proclaims that our patriotism celebrates pluralism.</p> <p>Though I have written a lot in the past on the havoc wreaked on the social, cultural, and political values of India by intolerant and nativist forces, this Republic Day is the time to re-examine the issues revolving around the idea of India, nationalism, patriotism, and the struggle between those who believe in the ideals bequeathed to the nation by the founding fathers and those who would destroy everything valuable about our country. My book is my contribution to this vital national conversation.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 28 14:11:25 IST 2021 the-karunakaran-guide <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The 10th death anniversary of eminent Kerala politician K. Karunakaran offered a sobering reminder of a different kind of politics. We live in an era where politics is at its lowest ebb; where identity trumps performance; and where temples, pilgrimage sites, mosques and love marriages are the battlegrounds for political contestation. What we need is a refocus on what matters to people, and this is why it is essential to recall Karunakaran. At a time when development is Kerala’s crying need―when its young and unemployed are clamouring for political leadership to fulfil their aspirations―his life reminds us of an era of innovative change.</p> <p>Karunakaran was instrumental in conceiving, initiating and implementing several infrastructure projects in Kerala―notably the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and the Cochin International Airport, the latter being India’s first public-private partnership airport―that most conventional politicians had considered unfeasible. He overcame political resistance and got them done.</p> <p>The much-touted ‘Kerala Model’ of advanced human development has led to a certain degree of political complacency. Disillusionment is growing among the public with conventional politics. Kerala has to move beyond the basic issues, boldly tackle ‘second generation’ problems such as creation of infrastructure, move to a manufacturing, if not heavily industrial, economy, develop itself as a knowledge economy, improve the quality of higher education and vocational training to meet the requirements of a modern workforce, and build on its existing successes in tourism and hospitality services. All this will create meaningful employment opportunities and an increase in income levels.</p> <p>The story of the Titanic from the early years of the last century is instructive. For almost a hundred years, it was believed that its sinking on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York was caused by the ship moving too fast and the crew failing to see the iceberg before it was too late. But a book by a descendant of one of the officers of the ship revealed that the accident was caused not by speed, but by a steering blunder. It seems that the ship had plenty of time to miss the iceberg but the helmsman actually panicked and turned the ship the wrong way, and by the time the error was corrected, it was too late and the ship’s side was fatally holed by the iceberg. The error occurred because at the time, seafaring was undergoing an enormous upheaval as a result of the conversion from sail to steam ships. The change meant there were two different steering systems and different commands attached to them. When the first officer spotted the iceberg two miles away, his order was misinterpreted by the quartermaster, who turned the ship left instead of right.</p> <p>In a sense, Kerala’s development failure has been like the story of the Titanic. Today, the ruling left appears unsettled by the global changes which have moved the economic system far beyond their old paradigms and theories.</p> <p>As with the Titanic, there is nothing wrong with the ship―Kerala, its people, its resources or its potential. But the state has to move with the times and not be left behind. Reliance on NRI remittances will not solve the basic problem, since these are essentially personal savings and spent on conspicuous consumption, including purchasing land and constructing dwellings. Kerala has to attract productive investment funds, which can produce goods and services. This will only happen if Kerala is hospitable to investors, who are terrified that if they set foot in Kerala they will be greeted by red flags.</p> <p>This does not mean betraying our workers, but finding them work. It does not mean giving up our values, but adding value to our economy. It does not mean placing profit above people, but rather, using profits to benefit the people.</p> <p>“Leader” Karunakaran won public trust for his vision of development and made a remarkable success of it. He left us 10 years ago, but there is no excuse for forgetting the lessons he taught us. We must rededicate ourselves to creating once again a developed Kerala that he always believed was possible.&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 31 11:15:01 IST 2020 time-to-approve-dual-citizenship <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When my son Ishaan―a part-Malayali, part-Bengali, part-Kashmiri, who was born in Singapore and had grown up since the age of six in the US, married an American-born woman and spent his adult life working for a pair of prominent American media houses―announced in 2020 that he had obtained American citizenship, it was America’s “civic nationalism” that he celebrated, taking pains to distinguish it from the “blood and soil nationalism” of other countries.</p> <p>As a father, who had made the opposite choice in returning to the land of my forebears, I was deeply conflicted about his decision: relinquishing his Indian passport seemed almost a betrayal. And, yet even as that thought occurred to me, I realised how laughable it would seem to those of Ishaan’s generation, who, even as they are connected atavistically from the heart to the land of their ancestors, are far more concerned about identifying the right environment in which they can thrive, than on mystical notions of nationalism within old-fashioned territorial boundaries.</p> <p>Ishaan reacted to my angst by saying pointedly that he would have been happy to retain his Indian passport too, if only India permitted dual nationality. But India does not, insisting, unlike the US, that national allegiance is indivisible.</p> <p>NRIs have long argued that this is iniquitous, because while adopting a foreign country’s citizenship may be a matter of convenience (and sometimes of necessity), giving up Indian citizenship is an assault on their faith and pride. But India only grants its non-citizen diaspora a certificate fraudulently called an Overseas Citizenship of India, which it is not: it is merely a lifetime visa, which can (as happened during the 2020 pandemic) be suspended or revoked in exactly the same way as other visas.</p> <p>Many in the diaspora argue that in today’s world of large-scale and rapid migrations, the passport one holds is no proof of one’s fundamental<br> affinities and loyalties. Though not everyone’s motives are entirely idealistic, most NRIs who clamour for dual citizenship do so for reasons that have more to do with emotional identification than practical advantage.</p> <p>In fact, the Indian policy towards its diaspora reeks of bad faith, placing its expatriates in the invidious position of either retaining their Indian passport, and so seeming to exploit their host countries, or depriving themselves of their motherland if they choose a different passport. But as I know from my efforts to raise the issue, there is no traction in the Indian establishment for the idea of offering dual citizenship to diaspora Indians. And so many who would have loved to remain Indian, too, while affirming their commitment to new lives elsewhere by claiming those nationalities, have no choice but to forgo their instinctively patriotic first option.</p> <p>I have discussed this dilemma in my new book, <i>The Battle of Belonging.</i></p> <p>Those in the diaspora who have not given up their Indian passports want more. One increasingly vocal demand has been for the right to vote. NRIs, who are full-fledged Indian citizens working abroad, have made the point that while they are invited, indeed expected, to make a contribution to the country’s development and its balance of payments through their remittances, bank deposits and investments in Indian industry, they are allowed no role in influencing the policies of the country as voters. India is one of the few democracies in the modern world that have developed no tradition of absentee balloting for national elections, with the result that citizens living abroad are, in effect, disenfranchised. In 1991, the Kerala High Court even admitted a petition challenging India’s electoral laws, but the case went nowhere. Today only those NRIs can vote who are willing to travel to their home constituencies to do so, an unaffordable privilege for the vast majority.</p> <p>If NRI citizens are indeed given the right to vote from abroad, the politics at least of Kerala―a state with millions of Malayalis working abroad, and whose election results are often decided by margins of a few thousand votes or less―would be dramatically affected. But that is no reason to deny Indian citizens the right to exercise their democratic franchise. Dual citizenship could then be the next step.</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> Thu Dec 03 14:25:47 IST 2020 the-war-against-the-majority <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I received an interesting email the other day from a friend, Prabhu Guptara, urging me and other liberal politicians to stop harping on the denial of civil liberties and human rights to “minorities”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now Prabhu happens to be Christian, and he was not espousing the classic Hindutva line of argument. On the contrary, he said, the assault by large sections of our current ruling establishment “is against minorities, true, but his mobs are warring also against our majority”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Is it only minorities that are the principal beneficiaries of independent India’s progress,” he asks, “or is it in fact the majority? The benefits of our Constitution, of our Supreme Court, of our education system, of our economy, all flow naturally to the majority and not only to the minorities.” When rights are denied, dissent disparaged, activists jailed or freedoms restricted, in other words, the majority suffers much more than minorities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If minorities are victims of the communal bigotry sweeping through our land, so too are members of the majority. As Prabhu went on to ask: “Was Gauri Lankesh a minority? Narendra Dabholkar? S.R. Darapuri? Judge Loya? Swami Agnivesh?” When Bollywood comes under attack, are not its cinematic products loved by the majority? If JNU is scorned or clamped down upon, is it not an institution patronised mainly by the majority?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prabhu’s point is that critics of today’s regressive and divisive policies should stop using the word “minorities” when “the war is in the name of our majority but against our majority”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I accept his argument, but have long questioned the very notion of majority and minority anyway. In my new book, The Battle of Belonging, my just-released magnum opus on nationalism, patriotism and what it means to be Indian, I return to my proposition that we are all minorities in India. In the book, I speak of the fact that some enjoy bandying about the phrase “majority community”, but so often this is misleading in the extreme: gender, caste, language, and much else besides often puts any self-proclaimed member of a “majority” in a minority quite quickly. To reverse Michael Ignatieff’s famous phrase, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our notions of majority and minority are an emanation of electoral politics, because the quest for an electoral majority has driven much of today’s political majoritarianism. The old formula was that you constructed a majority out of a coalition of minorities. Now the ruling party, by harping on a Hindu identity that subsumes differences of caste, region, language and gender, has essentially marginalised the minorities in their quest for a majority base.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hindutva politicians have tried to make it more important to be a ‘proud Hindu’ than to be an Indian. Yet, as I have argued, Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite, and a good Indian all at once. That is the strength of our pluralism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pluralism is essentially about the co-existence of different communities, which is not just a romantic idea but the way we have lived for millennia and arguably this country’s greatest strength. Majoritarianism, despite the illusion of speaking for the majority, actually divides us. It seeks uniformity and so undermines unity. Unity is easier to maintain with an acceptance of differences than through the suppression of them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, I agree with Prabhu that we must move away from talk of minority and majority to promoting inclusive nationhood. We must reassert that such petty politicisation of identity actually divides the majority rather than unites it. And politicians like myself must remind voters that there are more important issues that affect their daily lives than asserting their communal identity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To give Prabhu the last word: let us not go on talking about “a war against minorities”, because all such talk only takes the attention away from the far more serious war being waged against our majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 06 16:38:04 IST 2020 the-leveller-of-cities <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is becoming increasingly clear that, whether we like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic is here to stay. The optimistic spirit in which we greeted the first lockdown—with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling the nation that the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata was won in 18 days, but defeating the coronavirus would take 21—seems absurd today.</p> <p>More than six months have passed since his speech, India has today the highest number of daily cases and daily deaths from Covid-19 in the world, and neither Mr Modi nor his government is making any confident assertions about the end of the pandemic. A vaccine may or may not come by March 2021, and it may or may not work, but even in the most upbeat of scenarios, it will take several months more for everyone vulnerable to be vaccinated, and even then, we will not know how long the vaccination will remain effective.</p> <p>But if we have to continue to live with Covid-19 for an indeterminate period, while somehow safeguarding both our lives and our livelihoods, it is also clear that many things will have to change. The obvious area of change will be in the world economy; in an earlier column here, I have already written of the visible risk of “deglobalisation”. There is a worldwide rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers. The demand for more protectionism and “self-reliance” (echoed in Prime Minister Modi’s call for “<i>atma nirbharta</i>”), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting. But today I am thinking more about the impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.</p> <p>Much of what we took for granted till recently—and which seemed to be knitting the world ever closer together—seems vulnerable in the post-Covid-19 era. The pandemic and the resultant lockdowns have already ended regular international travel across free and open borders. Restrictions, mandatory Covid-19 tests before departure and upon arrival and inescapable quarantine rules in each country have all hemmed in the allure of international travel.</p> <p>Professional life is another major casualty. Already, new patterns of work, following strict social distancing norms (and often with working from home a few days a week), have become the new normal. Many companies—most famously Twitter Inc—have decreed that their employees may work from home indefinitely. Teeming office buildings and crowded workspaces may soon be a thing of the past. Managers are beginning to grapple with questions they never needed to ask themselves before: do we need the expense of physical offices if people are mainly working from home? But what happens to camaraderie and team-building if co-workers are not exchanging gossip at the water cooler, arguing in the conference room or flirting in the canteen?</p> <p>Our cities will change, too. Urban planners have given us cities with a high population density within small radii. But if we are working from home anyway, do we need classic “urbanisation” anymore? Given 24/7 electricity and high-speed broadband, we could just as easily live in villages and work. Once proximity to your job is no longer indispensable, and free mingling is discouraged, the appeal of the city wanes.</p> <p>Working life is going to be very different for Generation Z (which may as well stand for zoonotic, the adjective that describes viruses that leap the divide from animal to human). Student life already is. Classes at both high school and college have largely migrated online. There seems little prospect that normal student life, with easy mingling on crowded campuses, will simply resume.</p> <p>Fear of a virus, a deadly unseen enemy, may mark our lives for a long time to come, even after this particular pandemic ends. We have already learned to fear danger in the stranger we meet, the friend we hug. The post-Covid-19 world, whenever that comes into being, is likely to bear the imprint of this disaster in far-reaching changes to our lives. To update a cliché: we may need to start dating our times as BC (Before Covid) and AD (After Disaster).</p> Fri Oct 09 14:42:39 IST 2020 word-worth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I have been a bit bemused by the reputation I have acquired in our country for wielding difficult words, especially because most of the time I was not doing so deliberately or for effect. I happened to know the words in question and thought they were the most apposite for the thought I was seeking to convey. But after my usage of ‘farrago’ spiked a huge surge in searches on the Oxford English Dictionary website, the label stuck. And one enterprising publisher suggested I make a book out of it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The title—Tharoorosaurus—was coined by Meru Gokhale of Penguin India, who proposed the idea for this book in the rear seat of a taxicab in Jaipur as we were heading to an event of the famed literary festival there. It was her idea of pitching me a book whose title would combine my name with the words ‘tyrannosaurus’ (since so many are terrified of difficult words) and ‘thesaurus’ (since people want to be able to look them up). I laughed it off then, but she persisted. I began to think it might be fun to do after all, and the result is my latest book.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not a scholarly work; I am neither a trained linguist nor philologist, and I have no pretensions to being a qualified English teacher either. It is rather the work of someone who loves words, has loved them all his life, and whose cherished childhood memories revolve around word-games with a father who was even more obsessed with them than&nbsp;I am. My father, Chandran Tharoor, was everything to me—teacher, guide, research adviser, imparter of values, my source of faith, energy and self-belief. My enthusiasm for life and appetite for learning are inherited from him; so is my workaholism, and my love for words.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My father was a Scrabble addict and played every word game that had been invented, including Boggle and the acrostics in newspapers. He would play games with my sisters and me where we would try to see how many words of four letters or more we could make from the letters in a nine- or ten-letter word. He invented word games for family car journeys, where one passenger had to imagine a five-letter word and the others had to guess it within 20 attempts by trying out five-letter words and being told how many letters matched with the secret word. His fascination for words had to rub off on his eldest child—me!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But it was not just words for their own sake. My father instilled in me the conviction that words are what shape ideas and reflect thought, and the more words you know, the more precisely and effectively are you able to express your thoughts and ideas. In addition, he delighted in the way words could be put together, their origins and shape and letters of which they were made, and how they could be used. I collected words the way another kid might collect stamps, but not by looking up a dictionary—quite simply, by reading. My whole life I have read as widely as possible, and when you see the same word being used in multiple contexts, you start to get an idea of its meaning through the way it is situated in the text.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are 53 short essays in my book that delve into the etymology of each word and narrate anecdotes about its usage, literary citations and nuggets of history. There was no particular reason for the final choice of 53 words—they were either words I had recently used in a tweet (like ‘farrago’ and ‘kakistocracy’), or words that the country was suddenly hearing a lot more often than usual (like ‘pandemic’ and ‘quarantine’), or words in the news (like ‘impeachment’ and ‘apostrophe’), or just words that I could tell interesting stories about (like ‘curfew’ and ‘defenestrate’). I have tried to make each word interesting in its own right.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Tharoorosaurus imparts to its readers some of the pleasure and delight that words have long afforded me, its purpose will have been amply served.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 11 18:26:27 IST 2020 congress-accommodates-all <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the wake of the consecration of the Ram Mandir on August 5, critics have been suggesting that the Congress has caved in to the forces of hindutva, and that the minorities no longer have the Congress to speak for them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.</p> <p>The Congress has traditionally furthered a brand of secularism that recognises India’s pluralism. It acknowledges a profusion of religions and beliefs, where all are equally respected and can peacefully co-exist. This is compatible with people being practising Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, whatever. But this does not mean we will accept a weaponised political version of any religion, as the BJP has done by reducing the complex diversities of Hindu beliefs to the narrow-minded and exclusionary tenets of hindutva. As a party we will continue to resist any attempts by the ruling dispensation to promote such chauvinistic and divisive beliefs in the country, and we will stand by anyone who becomes a victim of their narrow-minded philosophy.</p> <p>I believe that those who look at the Congress as a ‘BJP-lite’or ‘hindutva-lite’ do not take the Congress’s own assurances at face value—that it remains a party for all, the safest refuge for the minorities, the weak and the marginalised, and fundamentally committed to secularism. The BJP does not even bother to pretend that it has the interests of any of these sections at heart.</p> <p>Our critics see the Congress’s distinction between Hinduism and hindutva as specious. They reject its leaders’ arguments that the Hinduism, respected by Congress leaders, is inclusive and non-judgmental, whereas hindutva is a political doctrine based on exclusion. They are quick to conclude that what the Congress offers is merely a watered-down version of the BJP’s political messaging.</p> <p>That is both inaccurate and unjust. Rahul Gandhi has made it explicitly clear that, for all his willingness to avow his personal Hinduism, he does not support any form of hindutva, neither soft nor hard. The Congress understands that whereas Hinduism is a religion, hindutva is a political doctrine that departs fundamentally from the principal tenets of the Hindu faith. While Hinduism is inclusive of all ways of worship, hindutva is indifferent to devotion and cares only about identity. Hinduism is open to reform and progress, which is why it has flourished for 4,000 years; hindutva is regressive, with its roots in the ‘racial pride’ ethos that spawned fascism in the 1920s, which is why it is unlikely to outlast its current peak.</p> <p>There are more fundamental differences. Congress leaders profess a Hinduism that accommodates a vast amount of diversity and respects the individual and his/her relationship with the divine; the BJP’s hindutva prefers communal identity politics and seeks to Semitise the faith into something it is not—a uniform monolithic religion. Congress leaders’ Hinduism rests on Gandhiji’s and Swami Vivekananda’s ideas of the acceptance of difference; the BJP’s hindutva seeks to erase differences by assaulting, intimidating and subjugating those with other views.</p> <p>I am not saying this as a party spokesman; I am not one. I am in politics because of my convictions. I genuinely and passionately believe that what the Congress stands for and offers the nation is fundamentally indispensable to the future of the country. We represent an alternate vision of the idea of India, an inclusive and pluralist vision that reflects truly the heart and soul of the country. The ideology of an inclusive and progressive party, liberal and centrist in its orientation, committed to social justice and individual freedoms, patriotic in its determination to protect national security and promote human security, still has great appeal if it is projected properly. We must not leave the national field uncontested for the BJP’s distorted, bigoted and narrow-minded version of what India stands for.</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> Thu Aug 13 13:54:32 IST 2020 constrain-not-contain-china <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the wake of the brutal clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Galwan valley, some strategists have begun to ponder the previously unthinkable. Should India shed its habitual reserve about alliances and join those who, led by the US, are speaking openly about “containing China”?</p> <p>Hitherto, the obvious answer has been “no”. India, a founder of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, has been allergic to alliances and feels no desire to put all its strategic eggs in one basket. India is still heavily dependent on Russian military equipment, though it has diversified its purchases to include American, French and Israeli armaments. And Donald Trump’s United States has never struck India as a particularly reliable partner.</p> <p>Also, trade with China had climbed up to $92.5 billion, and if not for Covid-19, was expected to touch $100 billion this year. Modi, who has visited China five times as prime minister, has met President Xi Jinping more often than any other world leader and just eight months ago hailed “a new era of cooperation between our two countries”.</p> <p>That cooperation has been jolted by the developments on the disputed 3,500km border, the Line of Actual Control. Shrill voices argue that India should embrace the US concept of Indo-Pacific region and upgrade the US-led Quad, deepening its strategic ties with Australia and Japan. China, the argument runs, must be curbed, and we cannot do it alone. No one wants war: containment should be the name of the game.</p> <p>I am not sure. I am no fan of Xi’s more assertive and coercive China, which seems to have abandoned its old reassuring talk of a “peaceful rise” to belligerently flex its muscles with its neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and now India. But I see merit in us continuing to engage China bilaterally and multilaterally, while trying to constrain, rather than contain, its assertiveness.</p> <p>The difference between containing and constraining is not just two letters of the alphabet. A containment strategy refuses engagement and persuasion; it is a hostile policy. Constraining, on the other hand, engages with the adversary to restrict or limit the destabilising aspects of its behaviour. Australia’s former foreign secretary Peter Varghese puts it well: “Containment seeks to thwart and weaken the PRC. Constraining seeks to manage a powerful PRC.”</p> <p>Constraining China would not involve turning the Quad into a military alliance. India is right to preserve its strategic autonomy by refusing to entangle itself in alliances. Rather, it is a means of China’s neighbours using their diplomatic, geopolitical and military leverage to manage Beijing’s ambitions in a manner that limits how much it can get away with.</p> <p>Coordinating with the Quad countries—the US, Japan, India and Australia—is a way of maximising that leverage. I would go farther and expand the group to include countries like Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea, who have similar concerns about China’s newfound assertiveness. Together we can, in Varghese’s words, “collectively constrain coercive behaviour by the PRC and impose costs for such behaviour”.</p> <p>New Delhi should continue to keep all its lines of communication open to Beijing while working on a constraining strategy. We should continue to increase our trade (while diversifying our supply chains so that we are not overly dependent on a flow that can be turned off). We must continue to cooperate in regional and multilateral organisations like the UN. We must also engage with China in multiple forums like RIC, BRICS and the G20.</p> <p>China should not feel that we are treating it as an enemy, despite its support for Pakistan. But we should recognise the divergence of strategic fundamentals. It is in our interest to “constrain” China, not to “contain” it.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 16 14:07:38 IST 2020 an-era-of-deglobalisation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though it is too early to assert this with any certitude, it seems increasingly likely that Covid-19 will inaugurate an era of deglobalisation. The signs are mounting that the world may embrace isolationism and protectionism in a far more enthusiastic way than prior to the outbreak, including in India.</p> <p>The indications are evident. The pandemic has confirmed, for many, that in times of crisis, people rely on their governments to shield them; that global supply chains are vulnerable to disruption and are therefore unsustainable; and that dependence on foreign countries for essential goods (such as pharmaceuticals) could be fatal.</p> <p>There is a rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers. The demand for more protectionism and “self-reliance” (echoed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for “aatmanirbharta”), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting. Along with the global flow of capital and investments, multi-border pipelines and energy grids, as well as international travel across free and open borders, all seem vulnerable in the post-Covid-19 era.</p> <p>The world economy had thrived since globalisation began in 1980 on an open system of free trade. That had already been shaken by the financial crash of 2008-2009 and the American trade war with China. With Covid-19, exports are falling everywhere, and indications are that world goods trade may shrink by 10 to 30 per cent this year, if not more. Meanwhile, the increasing pressure to “decouple” from China means that without inexpensive Chinese labour and subsidised inputs, the era of cheap, globalised goods may be over.</p> <p>Covid-19 has also convinced many that strict border and immigration controls are essential, and that national interests should trump international cooperation. To many, including those around Modi, the answer lies in strong government, in putting the nation’s needs over individual citizens’ freedoms, and in dispensing with democratic niceties, from federalism to parliamentary oversight, in what the government deems to be the national interest.</p> <p>Those of us who had begun to imagine the globe as “one world” will have to revise our thinking. Support for nationalist strongmen may increase exponentially. Unfounded rumours and accusations against people blamed on the basis of their national, religious, ethnic or regional identity have had a field day in many countries. In India, citizens from northeast have suffered racial discrimination because of their supposedly “Chinese” features. Social media and nativist populism have amplified prejudices; the fact that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering just before the lockdown—whose attendees spread the infection to many states when they returned home—was used to justify open bigotry and discrimination against Muslims. The current atmosphere has empowered those who seek to spread communal hatred and bigotry. Similar things have happened elsewhere in the world.</p> <p>There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic was a “mega-shock” to the global system—one that is likely to disrupt the existing world order. As sovereignties are reasserted across the world, and treaties and trade agreements increasingly questioned, multilateralism could be the next casualty. President Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organisation may be a harbinger of a greater unravelling to follow—of the international system so painstakingly constructed after World War II. Instead of strengthening the capacity of our global institutions to cope with a future crisis, the world’s reaction to Covid-19 may well end up destroying the most fundamental feature it has exposed—the idea of our common humanity.</p> Mon Jun 22 08:34:58 IST 2020 a-community-at-sea <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Amid all the headline stories about the impact of Covid-19—the tragedy of migrant workers, challenges faced by health care providers, the collapse of industry and so sadly on—there is one community that has been universally ignored and neglected: the fisherfolk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our fishing communities represent one of the most economically challenged and marginalised sections of our society. Most live below the poverty line and work incredibly hard just to stay afloat. The conditions endured by fishermen in my constituency of Thiruvananthapuram—who are yet to fully recover from the devastating losses they suffered when Cyclone Ockhi struck over two years ago—are pitiable, but they are not the only ones. The impoverishment faced by the community is a reality across the nation, and little by way of comprehensive redressal has been done for them in the last few years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To make matters worse, for the last 40 days, most of them could not go out to fish. Many had already ventured out to sea when the lockdown was suddenly announced, but they came back and found they could not sell their catch, as the fish supply chain on land had been disrupted, with restaurants and fish markets closed. Fisherwomen could not go from house to house to sell their husbands’ catch because of restrictions. For a group that survives on a hand-to-mouth existence, their inability to conduct basic daily activities is causing significant economic trauma. With little cash in hand, they cannot buy medicines and emergency rations, or attend to existing debts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The lockdown was instituted at a time when weather conditions were conducive for fishing, shortly before imposition of the monsoon fishing ban. This means that fishermen, anxious to make up for the losses caused by cyclones late last year and bracing for a period without income, have had to accept another fallow period. Trawlers have been pulled ashore, fishermen are idle and big city markets are mostly closed. Even fishing harbours and fish landing centres are only able to receive customers with advance bookings, and function for limited hours. Seafood is perishable, and since it could not be transported from fishing villages to consumers in the cities for weeks, it was a disaster. Most boats will have to stay off the water until the end of August.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This crisis has laid low a group of stout-hearted people who have made the nation proud through their heroism time after time. When severe floods swamped Kerala in 2018 and 2019, fisherfolk put their own subsistence aside to save marooned citizens with their boats. They joined the Navy in looking for capsized vessels and people in distress on the seas. Though barely able to make ends meet, they have always embodied the principle of selfless service. But when they are in distress, they never get the attention they deserve. That is why I nominated them, unsuccessfully, for the Nobel Peace Prize.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But they need something more tangible, something they can live on. An urgent financial package is essential for the community—some four million people nationwide, of whom 61 per cent live below the poverty line. The “fish famine” is not less than any headline-grabbing drought or calamity. A simple allowance of Rs7,500 per month to fishing families, paid into their Jan Dhan accounts, will help them cope till they can fish again. And it is not as if they do not contribute significantly to our economy. The fisheries sector contributes 1.03 per cent, or Rs1,75,573 crore, of our GDP (2017-18 figure), and indirectly provides income and employment to more than 14.5 million people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Central government must help this community—who were betrayed by the paltry compensatory and relief packages received after previous calamities—more substantially during lockdown. It is the very least we can do for these most vulnerable Indians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 22 16:49:27 IST 2020 physical-not-social-distancing <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Early on in the Covid-19 crisis, I became convinced that, despite all the global protocols, we in India should not be speaking of ‘social distancing’. The phrase has become familiar because of its reiteration by the prime minister and in hundreds of memes, jokes, WhatsApp forwards and Facebook posts, featuring pictures and videos of people standing in circles and squares marked on the street to buy essential items. But in a country like ours, where society has for too long been stratified hierarchically and privileged sections kept aloof from “lesser” breeds, don’t we have too much social distancing already?</p> <p>What we really needed was <i>physical </i>distancing, not social distancing. The latter we have practised for too long as a culture. As retired IAS officer-turned-contrarian blogger Avay Shukla wrote not long ago, “the higher castes have for centuries made it a point to keep the lower castes at a safe distance: their water sources, toilets, houses, even cremation grounds have to be in a distant corner so as not to contaminate the twice-born....” These iniquities should make us vow to end social distancing, not advocate it.</p> <p>But physical distancing is another matter: it is the key to resisting the contagion. The WHO recommends that we stay three feet away from each other to minimise the risk of contamination by a cough or a sneeze. But how is a country with one of the highest population densities in the world going to ensure that? Many of our slums and poor urban areas are estimated to pack people in at 80,000 to a square kilometre. There are 4.5 lakh Indians in jails, living cheek by jowl in conditions that could turn a minor term of imprisonment for pickpocketing into a death sentence by a pandemic. We cannot, literally or metaphorically, wash our hands off them.</p> <p>For some of us, the lockdown was a welcome opportunity to slow down, to rest, read and sleep (and maybe, in some cases like mine, to write). But for others, quarantine occurred in tiny apartments with packed rooms and no breathing space, no access to fresh air and few facilities for recreation or exercise. For them the risk of infection was matched by the risks of proximity, both balanced by the loss of work and income. What would social distancing mean to those who live in circumstances so overflowing with people that physical distancing is an impossibility?</p> <p>Around the world, lockdowns have generated stories of social breakdown because of lack of physical distancing. News reports spoke of a dramatic rise in divorce rates in China, where couples unaccustomed to spending so much time in a confined space with each other realised that they didn’t actually relish each other’s intimacy all that much. Photos on the internet revealed long queues in the US outside gun stores, as people decided that arming themselves against their fellow men was an essential complement to arming themselves against the virus. In India, the imperative to create distance from possible sources of contamination led to unpleasant episodes—white people being ordered off a bus by fellow passengers, hotels refusing to admit foreign tourists, residential societies turning away Air India pilots and crew on their return from heroic missions to evacuate Indians stranded in contagion-affected countries. These incidents revealed unattractive aspects of our culture that will require serious rethinking once the pandemic is over.</p> <p>But there were encouraging examples, too, none better exemplified than when large numbers of Italians came out onto their balconies in Milan and sang arias to one another. Such moments give us hope that however much we may seek social distancing from each other, at heart we recognise that we all need other people, and it is interacting with them that gives our lives meaning.</p> Thu Apr 23 14:09:39 IST 2020 ahead-of-the-curve <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As health authorities around the world advise people to avoid shaking hands (and even to eschew Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s preferred bear hug) to minimise the risk of being infected by the highly contagious coronavirus, the Indian <i>namaskaram</i>, more commonly known as namaste, offers the preferred alternative.</p> <p>This desi salutation is now quite being considered the most “virus-proof”way to greet people. While various other gestures have also been tried, many world leaders have shown a distinct preference for India’s traditional folded-hands greeting.</p> <p>“Namaste goes global”, understandably chuffed Indian headlines screamed as world leaders including US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Britain’s Prince Charles adopted it on widely-televised occasions during the coronavirus pandemic. With palms pressed together and a little bow, Macron received Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia at the Elysee Palace in Paris even as his ambassador to New Delhi, Emmanuel Lenain, tweeted, “President Macron has decided to greet all his counterparts with a namaste,&nbsp;a graceful gesture that he has retained from his India visit in 2018”.</p> <p>When Trump greeted Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House recently, it was with a namaste. While that should have been easy for the half-Indian Irish prime minister, Varadkar said: “It almost feels impersonal. It feels like you are being rude.”&nbsp;</p> <p>This is no small matter, since the customary handshake is what provides world leaders the usual photo opportunity that is publicised around the world to mark their meetings. Trump admitted that it was “sort of a weird feeling”to forego the handshake. Prince Charles nearly forgot during a recent meeting with the lord-lieutenant of Greater London, offering a handshake before quickly remembering to switch to a namaste.&nbsp;But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no hesitation in recommending the Indian namaste to his fellow citizens with a demonstration at a press conference.</p> <p>India is hardly alone in having devised a greeting that does not involve the vigorous pumping of hands. The Japanese have the custom of&nbsp;<i>ojigi</i>—bowing to each other, with the depth of the bowing conveying the degree of respect in a hierarchical society. Tibetans stick out their tongues in greeting, while Eskimos rub noses. In Oman, Qatar and Yemen people touch their noses in a salaam to others. Some Arabs hug each other, the greeter’s head crossing one shoulder after another. The Europeans, of course, famously kiss each other on the cheeks. But if you want to greet someone while avoiding close contact or even proximity with the other, nothing beats the namaste.</p> <p>As I pointed out in a tweet, behind every major ancient Indian tradition, there is science. I should have added spirituality, since “namaste”is not just a gesture of greeting. It is one of the six forms of <i>pranama </i>in Hinduism and conveys that the person one is greeting, even a stranger, shares a common atman with you, so that “the divine in me bows [in greeting and recognition] to the divine in you”.</p> <p>The term namaste is derived from Sanskrit, and is a combination of the word&nbsp;<i>namah&nbsp;</i>and the second person dative&nbsp;pronoun,&nbsp;te, in what linguists call its&nbsp;enclitic&nbsp;form.&nbsp;<i>Namah </i>means “bow”or “obeisance”, and&nbsp;te&nbsp;means “to you”. The namaste sees and adores the divine in every person, and is therefore an act of both humility and spiritual bonding.</p> <p>What could be more appropriate today than this message of universal brotherhood, from the very culture that proclaimed “<i>Vasudhaiva kutumbakam</i>&nbsp;(the whole world is a family)”? As Covid-19 assails us all, we are all in this together. We share the same divinity, the same soul, and the same vulnerability. Namaste to you, dear reader—wherever you are.</p> Thu Mar 26 14:20:09 IST 2020 india-not-prepared-for-coronavirus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>India seems quite blase about the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), even as it spreads alarmingly through China, with more than 75,000 people being infected and the number of fatalities climbing upwards. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. And, India, with all its vulnerabilities, could be a prime candidate for a disaster, and we are not well prepared.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The worst may yet not come to pass. Only three cases of infection, all involving medical students from Wuhan, have been confirmed; all three have been sent home after hospital isolation ended in negative tests. India successfully evacuated 324 students from Wuhan, who were in a quarantine facility in Manesar, less than two hours from Delhi, where no one had tested positive for the virus. Some 4,000 people were reported to be under observation at isolation wards across the country. The number of confirmed cases, however, has mercifully not gone up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government has sprung into action and instituted health measures at airports and ports, including entry screening, travel advisories and signages, with checks of any travellers showing signs of cold or fever. But infected persons could still slip through in the asymptomatic yet infectious phase of the illness. One sees very few staff or passengers sporting masks at Indian airports. If a carrier enters any city and mingles with people, the potential for the virus spreading rapidly remains high. In India, which has one of the world’s highest population densities, it is impossible to maintain the WHO-recommended three-feet distance between individuals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anyone in close contact with an infected person would need clinical assessment and restricted mobility till the two-week period, within which the virus incubates, is over. But there is no doubt that we would never be able to replicate China’s draconian measures to control the outbreak. The ongoing lockdown of Wuhan would be inconceivable in any Indian city.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are worries about how well India is equipped to conduct disease surveillance, deploy adequate laboratory testing capacity, elevate hospital preparedness including infection prevention and control, and communicate effectively to the public. Hospitals are overcrowded and overburdened with little scope for a sudden influx of highly contagious patients. Public awareness is minimal, and no precautionary guidelines have yet been issued to the public by the Indian authorities, in English or in local languages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no comprehensive nationwide surveillance system in place. Lab testing facilities are few and far between: though facilities were expanded since the swine flu threat arose a decade ago, samples from Kerala are being sent to a virology lab in Pune which remains the only one in India capable of testing for Covid-19. Against a 2012 proposal to set up 150 diagnostic and research labs with virological expertise, 80 are in various stages of operational readiness—a grossly inadequate number for a population of 1.3 billion. These are also not all linked to the public health response system.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kerala’s handling of the Nipah virus, which claimed 17 lives in 2018, is our one success story. The state has learned its lessons well from handling that tragedy. However, not every state is like Kerala, and an outbreak almost anywhere else in the country is unlikely to be countered by an agile response system, adequate primary health care facilities to conduct the needed clinical assessments, sufficient lab capacity or effective isolation practices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A serious virus epidemic would have a catastrophic impact on the country. Indians have been lucky so far that the suspected cases have been few enough to be manageable. We can only pray that it stays that way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 28 14:28:06 IST 2020 no-longer-the-india-th-world-admired <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Every time I find myself arguing with a supporter of the ruling party, especially when he has nothing to say in rebuttal to my points about the economy, the social unrest and the divided political climate, the response comes: “At least India’s stature in the world has never been higher.” As my jaw drops in astonishment, the ‘bhakt’ goes on: “For the first time, Indians can hold their heads high in the world.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The breathtaking falsity of this assertion testifies to the powerful impact of the BJP propaganda, assiduously spread through social media, where repetition alone is enough to secure conviction. But the truth is exactly the opposite: India’s stature in the world has never been lower.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It gives me no joy to say this. Even as an opposition MP, I would like my country to be held in high regard globally, as a thriving democracy and an example to the world of how to manage diversity in a free and open society. Instead, I know that for some time now the world has been troubled by an India that is seen as increasingly bigoted and intolerant, one that is wilfully driving sectarian wedges between its people and is being overtaken by an intolerant majoritarianism that has no appeal to the world outside.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every major newspaper abroad, whether on the right (like The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times) or the left (The Guardian or The Washington Post) has published critical editorials about India, and the drumbeat of daily reporting as well as the op-ed columns is relentlessly negative. But the blinkered bhakt sees none of this.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At home, even neutral figures known for their reticence on political matters have expressed alarm. Former foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon said the government’s amendment to the Citizenship Act was a “self-inflicted goal”that has isolated India and resulted in the country being hyphenated with Pakistan as an intolerant state. “We have no international support apart from a section of Indian diaspora and some extreme right members of the European parliament…and the list of critical voices in the international community is also pretty long,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Referring to Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan’s comment—“let them fight among themselves”—Menon added, “If this is how our friends feel, think of how happy this will make our adversaries.” Several world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and chiefs of UN bodies on human rights and refugees were critical of the government’s recent moves. Kashmir has been discussed in the UN Security Council again after 40 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the US, the bipartisan consensus on strong India-US relations that used to exist for the last 25 years, irrespective of who was in power in Delhi or Washington, has been broken. All the significant Democratic presidential candidates have spoken out about their concerns. Hearings have been held in the US Congress, negative language on Kashmir has been inserted into the annual Foreign Appropriations Act for 2020, and a resolution critical of India is gaining co-sponsors. So is one in the European parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What the world thinks matters more to us now than ever before, not least because we are far more dependent on external trade and investment than we ever were. But foreign investment is an act of trust and faith in the future, which is fast eroding. Our credit ratings have declined; seven countries have issued travel warnings about India. For years, India was seen as a model for other countries in the developing world. Now, the ruling party’s divisive actions, driven by narrow party-political goals, have dented that image.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I, too, was proud to hold my head high as an Indian abroad. Today I am mortified when foreigners ask me to explain what is going on. “What has happened to India?” they ask in dismay. The sad answer is, we have ceased to be the India the world admired.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 31 10:56:25 IST 2020 2020-the-year-of-the-protester <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Happy New Year! The purists may argue as to whether 2020 marks the end of the second decade of the 21st century or the start of the third, but there is something striking about the number: it seems to portend all sorts of new beginnings. ‘20/20 vision’ is a phrase ophthalmologists use for perfect eyesight; Twenty20 cricket is a byword for swift, exciting sporting entertainment. What kind of 2020 might we all be able to look forward to as we cast our imperfect eyes at the world around us?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the planned (and announced) National Register of Indian Citizens seem to offer an obvious pointer. Indians have been consumed by them, yet they are by no means unique: Hong Kong has seen even more vehement protests against the might of Communist China, France’s capital has been repeatedly shut down by those defending pension rights and workers’ privileges, and protests have brought leaders down across the world, in Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan (and nearly in Venezuela and Chile).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the start of the previous decade, Time had awarded its 2011 Person of the Year distinction to ‘The Protester’, a figure symbolising the discontent with the inequalities of globalisation, the lack of democracy in many countries, rampant crony capitalism, corruption and authoritarianism. The headlines of the year gone by suggest that the trend has clearly not expired.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If discontent and upheaval are reflected in the protests, underlying them has been the inadequacy of many countries’ political systems to cope with the challenge. In places like India and the US, political polarisation has become a substitute for governance; in other societies, notably in Britain and France, political fragmentation seems to have begun. Authoritarianism is on the rise, principally because no other response seems to work; so are populism, nationalism and xenophobia (with their Indian cousin, communalism, thrown into the mix). Meanwhile, economic growth has slowed in India, income inequality is rising across the west, trade agreements are collapsing and the liberal world order seems to be in retreat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After the end of the Cold War, experts gushed about the advent of a “long peace”; it was not to be. After years of civil wars in assorted places, great power contestation seems to be back, while global governance and UN Security Council reform are no longer among the principal preoccupations of global geopolitics. The British are going through with a regressive Brexit, and US President Donald Trump seems likely to survive impeachment and seek reelection. In Europe, far-right parties, once seen as marginal, have emerged centre stage, like the Alternative for Germany and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. The backlash against globalisation is in full spate, and alternatives cannot be found on the horizon. Meanwhile, climate change threatens us all, even as many leaders remain in denial.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is, as British writer Andy Beckett argues, a sense of “perpetual crisis” these days, augmented by our seemingly full-time immersion in social media, which “have made awful events seem relentless and impossible to ignore”. In India, government propagandists argue that our national discontent with the BJP misgovernance can be cured by simply switching off our digital connections. But the turmoil in our lives is real, and hiding ostrich-like from social media will not cure it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No wonder we live in the era of The Protester. Ishaan Tharoor, in the The Washington Post, writes of the world consumed in “an epochal display of global discontent, an explosion of popular unrest that capped a decade of angst and anger”. So, far from giving us new beginnings, 2020 may promise more of the same. Only the Protester persists. As Ishaan puts it, “Far from history ending, it’s being made, day by day, by those taking a stand.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 03 11:19:35 IST 2020 why-we-should-increase-our-retirement-age <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This month, my mother turns 83 (or 84, depending on whether you go by her memory or the possibly inaccurate date on her passport). She is amazingly fit and mentally agile, and at year’s end she is travelling with us to the other end of the world for a New Year’s reunion of her entire family of descendants— three children, seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and assorted spouses. It is intended to be a celebration of our togetherness, despite the quirks of geography—among this brood, there are now three nationalities and nine different addresses around the world. But it is also a celebration of her active longevity, because somewhere between 83 and 84, she hits the fabled sathabhishekam, when she will have seen a thousand moons orbiting the planet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>(I know many Hindus celebrate the sathabhishekam in their 81st year, but they are mathematically challenged. Since you basically witness 12 moon orbits a year, 80 clocks up only 960 moon orbits, and you need the extra three years and four months to reach 1,000. Letters of protest may kindly be addressed to the editor and not to me.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was reflecting on this when I came across a study from the New England Journal of Medicine (2018) that found that the most productive age in a human’s life is not your 20s or 30s, but 60 to 70. And, the study confirms that the second most productive age is between 70 and 80 and the third most productive decade is 50 to 60.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is going on here? Is this another disinformation campaign by the oldies among us, trying to vindicate their creaking joints, swollen knees, aching backs and greying hair by purveying fake news about their superiority to the fit, energetic, six-pack-sporting, young whippersnappers who are actually producing everything that matters in the world?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not quite. Consider the evidence: The average age of a Nobel Prize winner is 62. The average age of a CEO in a Fortune 500 company is 63. The average age of popes is 76. And, in India, the average age of the cabinet is 60. Our prime minister, at 69, is a mere juvenile compared with some of his predecessors, such as Morarji Desai, who became PM at 81, or even the much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru, who died in office at 74.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Looking back at my own life, next month I will publish my 20th book. Ten of those have seen the light of print since after my 50th birthday. There is little doubt that I have been more productive in my sixth and now seventh decade than in my (at least partially) misspent youth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is a logical reason for this. It is true that when you are young you are still feeling your way, acquiring the skills you need and laying the foundations of your future achievements. Most of our 20s and 30s are spent on romance, on wooing our future partner, and in creating and bringing up our family. The responsibility of making a living, of educating our children, and of taking care of our parents is a time-consuming one that inevitably distracts us from a single-minded focus on professional accomplishment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In other words, most people’s social and personal circumstances mean that their lives are so designed that the best years of their existence are between 60 and 80. That is the age when they have acquired whatever skills they are likely to acquire, have made (and learned from) their mistakes, and can focus on sharpening and deploying those skills. Thanks to modern medicine, most people are able to remain reasonably healthy past 60 and, even if physically slower, remain capable of top-quality intellectual performance. It is an age when there are fewer distractions. It is the time when you can do your best work.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is why it is a crying shame that the arbitrary tyranny of retirement age deprives so many offices of performers at their peak. While most western countries have increased their retirement ages to 65 and 70 (and the US has outlawed compulsory retirement altogether), we are still letting people go when they could be making a major difference. In Kerala, government employees still retire at 56. (Politicians, of course, never retire. They just fade away.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, if you are turning 60, don’t give up: remember the best years of your life lie ahead!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 07 17:05:45 IST 2019 spoonerisms-for-the-soul <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>ou may all be forgiven for missing this momentous occasion, since I did too, but July 22 was the 175th birth anniversary of the Oxford don and ordained minister Rev William Archibald Spooner, who unwittingly gave his name to the most delightful of English language errors, known for a century and a quarter as spoonerisms.</p> <p>Rev Spooner was famously absent-minded and tended, in his abstracted way, to switch unintentionally the vowels or consonants in two words in close proximity. Thus, intending to say, “The rate of wages will press hard upon the employer,” the Reverend declared in a lecture, “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer.” As a preacher he referred to “conquering kings” (a phrase from a well-known hymn) as “Kingering Kongs”. These two are in fact the only examples authenticated as having been actually uttered by him, but his reputation, enhanced by mischievous Oxford undergraduates, spawned an entire cottage industry of invented spoonerisms.</p> <p>Far from being unintentional mix-ups, they were created entirely intentionally for humorous purposes. The most famous, because it was both plausible and hilariously funny, was that in a toast to Queen Victoria, Spooner—instead of raising his glass with the words “Three cheers for our dear old queen!”—invited those present to give “Three cheers for our queer old dean!”</p> <p>Another example has him saying “The Lord is a shoving leopard” instead of “The Lord is a loving shepherd”. In these stories, Spooner renders a “crushing blow” as a “blushing crow”, calls a well-oiled bicycle a “well-boiled icicle” and describes a “cosy little nook” as a “nosey little cook”. But most of the famous spoonerisms are apocryphal. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (third edition, 1979) lists only the “weight of rages” as a substantiated spoonerism.</p> <p>The Oxford provenance of most of these invented spoonerisms is apparent in their content. Thus the Reverend, wanting to find out “Is the Dean busy?”, asks “Is the bean dizzy?” Going to church and seeing his customary place in the pew taken, he intends to ask an usher to show him to another seat, but instead says: “Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet.” And the most brilliant of all has an indignant Spooner dismissing an errant undergrad from his presence with the words: “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain.” (“You have missed all my history lectures. You have wasted a whole term. Please leave Oxford on the next down train.”)</p> <p>The appeal of the spoonerism is that it is a rich source of humour even when it has nothing to do with Oxford or the queer old dean himself. For example: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” There is something hilariously accurate about describing a bad grilled cheese sandwich as “a chilled grease sandwich”. The Washington, D.C. political comedy sketch group Capitol Steps famously referred to President Reagan as “Resident Pagan” and described US elections as “Licking their Peaders” (picking their leaders). The spy wars with Russia were described as the CIA not “snooping on Putin” but “poopin’ on Snutin”.</p> <p>That indispensable source of research material, the internet, tells me that in his poem Translation, Brian P. Cleary describes a boy who speaks in spoonerisms. Humorously, Cleary leaves the poem’s final spoonerism up to the reader when</p> <p>he says:</p> <p><i>He once proclaimed, ‘Hey, belly jeans’</i></p> <p><i>When he found a stash of jelly beans.</i></p> <p><i>But when he says he ‘pepped in stew’</i></p> <p><i>We’ll tell him he should wipe his shoe.</i></p> Thu Nov 07 17:19:02 IST 2019 the-votes-are-with-the-poor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>One of the striking features of the many U-turns made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been its change of economic policy. From the right-wing rhetoric of the BJP’s 2014 campaign, featuring sound bites decrying “welfarism”, egged on by a commentariat denouncing the Congress’s “povertarianism”, and Modi’s own contempt for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, we have come to the point where the only economic “achievements” the Modi government can point to are building toilets for the poor, providing gas cylinders for rural women and enhancing allocations for the very same MGNREGA scheme.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Why am I not surprised? The reason is simple, and goes well beyond Modi—even if he sometimes sounds as if he believes India’s history of economic development began with him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s economic development has been unique because we are almost certainly the only economy of any significant size that has developed from rock bottom as a democracy. We had been the richest country in the world (by far) in 1700, when India accounted for 27 per cent of global GDP. But when the British left us in 1947, they had reduced us to a “poster child” for third world poverty, with less than 3 per cent of global GDP, a literacy rate just above 16 per cent (8.8 per cent for women), average life expectancy at an abysmal 27 and 90 per cent of our population living in dire conditions below what we would today call the poverty line. To develop our economy from so pathetic a situation was no mean task, but to do it as a democracy was extraordinary.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When economic policy choices are made in a democracy, one must remember that voters’ interests predominate; and in India, we do so in a democracy with a majority of poor voters. Even today, every Lok Sabha MP represents a constituency where a majority of his voters lives on less than the World Bank poverty line of $2 (Rs140) a day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most other democracies grew first, and became democratic later. There was no real universal suffrage when most western democracies were beginning to prosper during the Industrial Revolution. The western countries did not grant women the vote till after the First World War, and blacks in the US, and poor people in the UK, were disenfranchised well past the Industrial Revolution when they reached developed-country status. Other industrial giants of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, like Germany and Japan, were not democracies when they grew.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In most democracies, economic policies are dictated by the wishes of taxpayers, who, naturally, want a strong say in how their taxes are spent. But most voters in those countries are in any case taxpayers. In India, however, economic policy is driven largely by the interests of the poor, rather than taxpayers, since taxpayers are relatively few (less than 5 per cent of the voters) and non-taxpayers command more votes. In a democracy, the politician’s accountability is inevitably more to the majority of the voters than to the minority of taxpayers. This, again, is a special feature of Indian economic policy-making.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, this is why Modi changed his economic policies. His slogans and rhetoric were taking the country nowhere. If you want to win elections, your priority must be the poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course, as the economy grows and the taxpayer base broadens, this will change. In prosperous parts of India, taxpayers may be able to assert more influence on economic policy-making as their numbers begin to matter more electorally. But that is for the long term. For today, stop all the talk of becoming an economic super-power. We are still super-poor, and our governments had better realise that if they wish to survive and be re-elected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Oct 12 11:04:21 IST 2019 manufacturing-history <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>If much of what ails our present can be traced to our past, it is important to ask to what extent the differences that have bedevilled us were real or imagined. Of those problems that trace their origins to the colonial period, the identity cleavage between Hindus and Muslims was, as several scholars have documented, defined, highlighted and fomented by the British as a deliberate strategy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Religion, after all, was a useful means of divide and rule. The “Hindu-Muslim divide” started with the way the British taught us to regard our own history. Foundational to the colonial interpretation of Indian history was the British division of Indian history into ‘periods’ labelled in accordance with the religion of the rulers: thus the ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘British’ periods formulated by James Mill in The History of British India (published between 1817 and 1826). Implicit in such periodisation was the assumption that India was always composed of monolithic and mutually hostile religious communities, primarily Hindu and Muslim.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>By the mid-nineteenth century, the trio of Mill, Macaulay and Max Müeller had effectively established a colonial construction of the Indian past which even Indians were taught to internalise. In their reading, Indian civilisation was seen as essentially Hindu, as defined by the upper castes, and descended from the Aryan race, which invaded around 1500 BC from the Central Asian steppes in the north, displaced and merged with indigenous populations, evolved a settled agrarian civilisation, spoke Sanskrit and composed the Vedas. The Muslims came as a first wave of invaders and conquerors, in turn supplanted by the British.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>By excluding Muslims from the essential national narrative, the nineteenth-century colonial interpretation of Indian history helped give birth in the twentieth to the two-nation theory that eventually divided the country. It also legitimised, with a veneer of scholarship, the British strategic policy of divide and rule in which every effort was made by the imperialists to highlight differences between Hindus and Muslims to persuade the latter that their interests were incompatible with the advancement of the former.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, though this had no basis in precolonial history, the colonialists’ efforts to catalogue, classify and categorise the Indians they ruled directly led to a consciousness of religious difference between Hindus and Muslims. The colonial authorities often asked representatives of the two communities to self-consciously construct an ‘established’ custom, such as by asking them what the prevailing beliefs and practices were around cow-slaughter, which prompted both groups to give an exaggeratedly rigid version of what they believed the beliefs and practices should be!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, stories abound of the two communities habitually working together in precolonial times: for instance, Hindus helping Muslims to rebuild a shrine, or Muslims doing the same when a Hindu temple had to be reconstructed. Muslims served in the army of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji, as did Hindu Rajputs in the forces of the fiercely proud Muslim emperor Aurangzeb. In Kerala’s famous pilgrimage site of Sabarimala, the devotee first encounters a shrine to Lord Ayyappa’s Muslim disciple, Vavar Swami. In another astonishing example, a temple in South Arcot, Tamil Nadu, hosts a deity of Muttaal Raavuttan, a Muslim chieftain—complete with beard, kum-kum and toddy pot—who protects Draupadi in the Mahabharat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The facts are clear: large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, defined as monolithic groups, only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society. Yet, today, too many believe in the divisive notion of Hindu or Muslim identity—even though this did not exist in India before the nineteenth century.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 12 14:49:49 IST 2019 patel-was-party-to-article-370 <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As happens all too often in our country these days, the past has been evoked to fight the political battles of the present. The recent parliamentary debates on the abolition of Article 370 in Kashmir proved no exception. The ruling dispensation’s favourite whipping boy, our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has again come in for attack, with several BJP legislators demonising Nehru ji by name and alleging the Kashmir problem was his personal creation. Had Sardar Patel handled Kashmir, they averred, all of Kashmir would have been ours and there would have been no Article 370 to worry about today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is an odd claim, because it is a matter of historical record that when dealing with the three contested princely states within India which hesitated to accede to our Union—either because they wanted independence (Hyderabad and Kashmir), or because, defying geography and demography, they wished to join Pakistan (Junagadh)—Nehru ji and Patel worked together as a team in all three cases. Patel, in fact, was inclined to consider trading Kashmir for the other two, but Nehru ji would have none of it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As to the question of Article 370, the BJP has repeatedly alleged that Nehru ji came up with this clause on his own and that Patel had nothing to do with it. But, in fact Nehru ji did not do anything on his own. Maharajah Hari Singh’s instrument of accession only covered defence, foreign affairs and communications; in Article 7 of the instrument, he explicitly reserved the right to negotiate other constitutional terms. Though his monarchical despotism was stoutly resisted by the popular leader, Sheikh Abdullah, on this point the Sheikh did not disagree with the Maharajah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On October 15 and 16, 1949, Patel, Nehru and Abdullah met at Patel’s house in New Delhi. The cabinet minister without portfolio who was looking after Kashmir—its former Dewan, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar—took detailed notes. He sent a summary of the notes of these conclusions to Patel on October 16 itself with the following covering note:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Will you kindly let Jawaharlal Ji know your approval of it? He will issue the letter to Sheikh Abdullah only after receiving your approval.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That approval came the next day from Patel. Only then was Article 370 brought into the Constitution of India on October 17, 1949. In other words, Patel was party to Article 370 in every detail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The irony is that only in the parallel universe of the BJP’s reinvention of modern Indian history is this even a debatable subject. These records have now been declassified and made available.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Article 370 done away with, all this is now relegated to history. But it is only fitting that we should let the man whom the BJP has depicted as the villain of this saga—the towering nationalist who did so much to win us our Independence and consolidate it, Nehru ji, have the last word. What did he say on this subject? “I say with all respect to our Constitution that it just does not matter what your Constitution says,” he pointed out, “If the people of Kashmir do not want it, it will not go there. Because what is the alternative? The alternative is compulsion and coercion….”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And he added in the Lok Sabha in August 1952: “We have fought the good fight about Kashmir on the field of battle... (and) many a chancellery of the world and in the United Nations, but, above all, we have fought this fight in the hearts and minds of men and women of that State of Jammu and Kashmir. Because, ultimately—I say this with all deference to this Parliament—the decision will be made in the hearts and minds of the men and women of Kashmir; neither in this Parliament, nor in the United Nations nor by anybody else.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is sage advice we should remember today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 17 12:04:19 IST 2019 diplomats-usually-think-twice-before-saying-nothing <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The recent contretemps over the leaking of a diplomatic cable has suddenly thrown light on the arcane art of diplo-speak.</p> <p>The leak of a confidential cable from the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, disparaging President Donald Trump as “inept” (and worse) in an assessment sent confidentially to his colleagues in London, created a brouhaha that resulted in his premature resignation, after the president refused to have anything to do with him.</p> <p>The press coverage of the affair managed to give the impression that there was something irregular and inappropriate in Sir Kim’s choice words of contempt for the head of state and government he was formally accredited to. But the unfortunate Sir Kim was merely doing what all diplomats are trained to do, which is to speak politely and even flatteringly to their hosts, while reserving their real opinions and frankest language for the assessments they send back home. He was not the first diplomat to lose his job for doing his job, and he probably will not be the last.</p> <p>The fact is that what diplomats say in public and what they say in private are two completely unrelated things. As some readers may know, I spent 29 years as an international civil servant at the United Nations, which put me in the world of global diplomacy. Diplomacy is a very special profession, where no one openly says what they mean. So if a diplomat says yes, he means maybe; if he says maybe, he means no; if he says no, he’s no diplomat.</p> <p>Diplomats usually think twice—before saying nothing. I used to joke in my UN days that if a diplomat ever called a spade a spade, we would soon have to issue a corrigendum.<br> The fact is that when diplomats have to speak, they are trained to be polite and placatory in their choice of words even when they are expressing the harshest ideas. It is been famously said that when a diplomat tells you to go to hell, he does so in a manner that makes you look forward to the trip.</p> <p>A normal person, confronted with a lady who, to put it politely, would not win the Miss India contest, might say, “Look at that woman! She has a face that would stop a clock.” A diplomat would say, “Ah, that lady’s face would make time stand still.”</p> <p>Rudeness is always avoided. You never say, “The two prime ministers disagreed bitterly over an issue.” You say, “There was a candid exchange of views.” Instead of saying, “The minister intends to do absolutely nothing about a particular problem,” you say, “The minister is deeply concerned.” The fact that he is concerned does not, of course, oblige him to actually do anything about the issue, but you leave that unsaid. That’s diplo-speak.</p> <p>But when they want to be candid, few can beat the well-trained diplomat. When I was 21 and prowling the corridors of the ministry of external affairs to research my doctoral thesis on Indian foreign policy in 1977, I encountered the veteran Indian diplomat I.J. Bahadur Singh, who had by then already retired from South Block. He took an interest in my work and delivered a classic one-liner I have never forgotten. “International diplomacy, my boy,” he explained with a smile,“is like the love-making of an elephant. It is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for two years.”</p> <p>Much though one would like to believe that diplomacy has become more agile and sprightly since then, it’s still true that, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose—the more things change, the more they remain the same. Diplomats will defend the status quo long after the quo has lost its status.</p> <p>Which is why it reflects poorly on President Trump that when he discovered what the affable British representative in Washington really thought of him, he exploded and got him disinvited from various events and meetings. Realising that he could no longer do his job as effectively as an ambassador should, and despite the support of fellow civil servants at the British Foreign Office, Sir Kim gracefully bowed out, leaving it to someone else to repair the bridges he had unintentionally breached.</p> <p>But the president should really have known better. The ambassador was just doing what all ambassadors do. If every confidential cable about President Trump was leaked, after all, there would not be a diplomatic corps left in Washington.</p> <p>It is always wiser to take what diplomats say at face value, even while you know they are really saying something else behind your back. After all, is not that what all New York socialites do, Mr Trump?</p> Sat Jul 20 16:54:54 IST 2019 tipu-and-the-tharoor-connection <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My recent tweet praising Pakistan PM Imran Khan for remembering the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, when no Indian leader had done so, created predictable reactions in our political space, with Twitterati of a particular political stripe castigating me for my alleged soft corner for Pakistani leaders in preference to our own.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have learned to ignore such comments, and did so again, but one Facebook post sent to me by a friend drew me short. Its author asked “Who invited Tipu Sultan to invade Kerala?” and pointedly replied, “Well, it was the Palghat Raja, Raman Kombi Achan of the Tharoor Swaroopam!” In other words, the author alleged, I was merely carrying on a tradition of disloyalty up my family tree.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This took me aback. It is true that Palakkad was ruled by a Nair rajah of the Tharoor Swaroopam for a few centuries before Tipu. It is also presumed that we belonged to a collateral branch of the Palakkad Raja’s original tharavad and are descended from them. The Tharoor branches dispersed and at some point my father’s ancestors settled in Chittilamchery village where they essentially became farmers and landlords. So it is possible my critic may be right—but it is not a connection that has played a major part in family lore, and I have never heard a family member speaking of Raman Kombi Achan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So I am reluctant to accept that my anti-colonial regard for Tipu Sultan (as a great nationalist hero who challenged the British, sent emissaries to Napoleon and remained unconquerable in battle) is really some sort of genetic predisposition derived from being a Tharoor. But it is also complicated by the fact that the mother’s side of my family—and in matrilineal Nair households, that may actually be more important than the paternal line—had a very different attitude to Tipu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For my mother’s family, the Mundaraths of Elavanchery (also in Palakkad district), suffered a different fate with Tipu. The Mundaraths were the zamindars and rulers of Elavanchery and a large part of the surrounding countryside. When news came of the imminent invasion of Tipu into Malabar, the then Mundarath karanavar loaded all the family treasures—their vessels, their jewels, the gold ornaments of the women—onto several carts and took them deep into the countryside to bury them for safekeeping. (Some versions say the workers who did the job were blindfolded till they got to the spot; others claim worse, that they were killed to preserve the secret.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Mundaraths showed great prudence and foresight, including sending off two Mundarath women to some far-flung place in the hills so that if the family was massacred by Tipu’s troops, the Mundarath bloodline would continue. Except for the fact that by the time Tipu withdrew from Malabar (and then was defeated by the British), the karanavar himself had breathed his last, having failed to confide the secret of the location of his treasure trove to any survivor. A frantic search was launched the moment it was safe to do so; but the family could not find a single item ever again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anyway, this was a cataclysmic trauma for the Mundarath tharavad, which overnight lost vast wealth and riches—all that remained was 11th-century copper-plate inscriptions giving them title to their lands. I saw these inscriptions in the attic of the ancestral home in my childhood, but in a mishap they were junked along with other scrap and are lost to the family forever.</p> <p>Historical memory and family memory—how curiously they cross! In Palakkad, where the ruins of one of his forts still stands, the memory of Tipu’s depredations against the Nairs is still as sore as an old wound that never healed. But for the two sides of my family, Tipu is not just a figure from the history books. It is entirely possible that I am descended from two Palakkad families, one of whom invited Tipu Sultan to attack Palakkad and the other who lost their fortune out of fear of his attack.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jun 22 17:25:42 IST 2019 use-social-media-politically-to-inform-and-engage-but-responsibly <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The mounting worldwide concern over the misuse of social media peaked upon the Easter church bombings in Sri Lanka, when the Colombo government’s first reaction was to ban social media in the country to stanch the flow of further disinformation on WhatsApp and similar platforms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This concern will certainly grow even further in India when the availability of the internet on mobile telephones, and the advent of 4G (and soon 5G) services, make access to social media more universal. Though only 12 to15 per cent of Indians use computers, more than 80 per cent have mobile phones. WhatsApp estimates that 82 per cent of all Indian mobile phone users have already downloaded their app and use it to send messages, pictures, jokes—and disinformation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Telecommunications experts say that a communications revolution is upon us, and it will transform the nation’s social media space, and politics as well, since a majority of voters will then be on the internet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The effect of social media on current general elections is bound to be considerable. BJP’s IT chief Amit Malviya called it the first “WhatsApp elections”. With its first-mover advantage, the BJP created more than nine lakh WhatsApp groups to disseminate their election messages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In any case, no democratic politician should resist a new communications medium, particularly an interactive one. Even if Facebook and WhatsApp are overwhelmingly used for social purposes, they are used politically, too, and more and more politicians are turning to social media. The idea of using social media politically should always be both to inform and to engage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, being responsive on social media—though it adds to the sense of public accountability that is invaluable in a democracy—creates its own challenges. Jokes about politicians and political issues can “brand” a candidate, or wound him fatally on social media. And “fake news” can not only tarnish your image, as I found out in my own election campaigning, but can also take lives—as when WhatsApp rumours about child molesters on the prowl led to innocent people being lynched by recipients of such messages. Our social media is agathokakological: It provides access to means of communication to people who previously had no public voice, thus broadening democracy, but is also a tool of abuse, disinformation and “fake news” that can damage the very democracy it broadens.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the same time it is important to realise that social media is only a vehicle—the message is the issue, not the medium. As an MP who, through Facebook Live, can reach more people than a largest mass rally can, I believe that what I am trying to do brings into my party’s ambit a large number of people who would otherwise be indifferent to politics and the Congress. That is why I continue to use social media, despite all the criticism I endured early on (with the then BJP president, and now India’s Vice President, Venkaiah Naidu, warning me publicly and presciently that “too much tweeting can lead to quitting”).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The name Twitter initially put me off, and led Indian savants to suggest that it is not a suitable medium for a serious politician—but Google and Yahoo were also silly names that are now household terms. In a 2009 interview, I said that a majority of politicians in 21st century democracies—including India—would be tweeting within ten years from then.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I did not have to wait ten years to be proved right. Those who are ahead of the curve are rarely appreciated, but we do have the consolation of knowing we got there first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat May 25 11:24:27 IST 2019 vote-for-the-future-of-india-soul <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As India heads into a general election, the choice is stark. Around us lie the ruins of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetorical “naya Bharat” (new India). The problem was not with the idea, but with its execution. A nation divided, fearful, and beset with anxiety is not the new India of any Indian’s dreams.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So what should be the animating idea of a truly inclusive new India? It is the idea of one nation made of many kinds of people. An India where it does not matter what religion you practice, what language you speak, what caste you were born into and what colour your skin is. In our new India it should only matter that you are Indian. That idea of India is under threat today from those who seek not just to rule India, but to change India’s very heart and soul.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What we want in India is unity. They want uniformity. We believe in an India that unites our people. They seek to divide us. We need the strengthening of democratic institutions at all levels, with transparency and accountability enforced through the Right to Information Act and an active Parliament. They seek to weaken these institutions, hollow out RTI, disregard Parliament and promote one-man rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What we require in our new India is a leadership that empowers people and harnesses their collective strength in the pursuit of national objectives, not someone who sees people as instruments of his own power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our new India must derive its support and strength from all sections of our diverse society. Their new India speaks of one faith and reduces others to second-class status.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Their idea of new India is one of exhortation: Make in India, Digital India, Start-Up India, Stand Up India, Shut Up India. Our new India must be one of consultation. We must never speak of “India Shining” without asking who India is shining for. Our new India must follow policies that promote higher economic growth and also ensure that the benefits of our growth are enjoyed by the poor and disadvantaged sections of our society, with a guaranteed minimum income for the poorest of the poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The choice is clear. We can have a new India that belongs to all of us, led by a government that works for all of us. Or, we can have a new India that belongs to some, and serves the interests of a few.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>You can choose a new India that embodies hope, or one that promotes fear. You can support a new India united in striving, or an India divided by hatred.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I believe we can look forward to a new India with confidence, if not with optimism. But we must build the new India on solutions to our major challenges. We have to overcome our poverty. We have to deal with the hardware of development, the ports, the roads, the airports, all the infrastructural progress we need to make, and the software of development, the human capital, the need for the ordinary person in India to be able to have a couple of square meals a day, to be able to send his or her children to a decent school and to aspire to work a job that will give them opportunities to transform themselves. We have to tackle and end corruption.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We need to conquer these challenges, real challenges which none of us in India can pretend do not exist. But it must take place in an open society, in a rich and diverse and plural civilisation, one that is open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our new India must shine. But it must shine for all. Vote responsibly. Vote for the future of India’s soul.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Apr 27 17:31:07 IST 2019 the-curious-case-of-chuuk <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sometimes a political or constitutional crisis elsewhere is of such momentous inconsequence to Indians that it is safe to assume that no one in our country would have heard of it. We are congenitally absorbed by politics, yet I suspect no one would be able to place Micronesia on a map (though my twin sons, who could cheerfully rattle off the capitals of every member country of the United Nations by the time they were five years old, would have told you it is Palikir. Mind you, even they may have forgotten that by now.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But I mention Micronesia because I feel obliged to tell you of at least one political crisis you have never heard of, since Indians are masters of trivial information.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The crisis is this: the Micronesian state of Chuuk has been demanding a referendum for independence from the Federated States of Micronesia, and it has drawn China and the United States into an unseemly tussle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First, some background: the Federated States of Micronesia is a UN member country that comprises more than 600 islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, scattered over thousands of kilometres but containing a combined landmass of only and a grand population of about a lakh of people. Chuuk is the largest of Micronesia’s four states; 53,000 people, it has around half the country’s population. The people of Chuuk believe they do not receive their fair share of government resources from the government in the national capital Palikir, which is in Pohnpei state. Visitors to Chuuk speak of bad roads and poor levels of economic growth. (There have been similar rumblings from another state, Yap, which has, yes, been yapping about secession, too).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Here is why global politics has come into play: Micronesia, which is one of the world’s poorest countries (or least developed, as we prefer to call it), is in a compact of free association with the US, meaning grants from Washington sustain much of its budget and most of its services. Significantly, Micronesians also get the right to live and work in the US. If Chuuk seceded, its people would lose those rights—and about half of them are in the US already.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chuuk’s independence advocates blithely argue that when a new nation is formed, it would simply negotiate a new agreement with Washington, but given the Trump Administration’s xenophobia, this seems unlikely to happen. Today’s US, its own officials concede, is not the same country as the one that signed the original agreement. Chuuk would risk being cast adrift.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In that case, however, an independent Chuuk would be forced to turn to China for the benefits it would no longer receive from the US—and this would dramatically intensify the already tense competition between Beijing and Washington in the Pacific Ocean. The money Chuuk needs would be loose change for China, and would buy it a significant foothold in a US-dominated part of the world. A Chinese military presence in the archipelago would give Beijing control of Chuuk’s defence and foreign policies, and an extra vote at the UN. That is the crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Alarm bells have been ringing in Washington. Chuuk offers a special prize: the Truk Lagoon, a body of water more than 60km across created by a barrier reef. Better known as one of the world’s best diving spots, it is an ideal shelter for ships. The Chuuk independence referendum planned for next month, alongside Micronesian national elections on March 5, has been postponed for now, deferring the global superpower clash. This will allow Micronesians to look more closely at the constitutional implications, study the consequences for the public and let the legal experts complicate matters further with possible amendments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Watch this space!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Mar 30 16:20:32 IST 2019 enact-a-national-asylum-law <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>One of the saddest developments in recent Indian government policy has been the expulsion to Myanmar of two batches of Rohingya refugees in the face of a grave risk of persecution in the country they had fled. By conducting this act of “refoulement”—a violation of international law, of which India claims to be a custodian—the government has betrayed India’s millennial traditions of hospitality to strangers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jews came to India as refugees, facing persecution after the demolition of the Jerusalem Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and in a second wave after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They were accepted without cavil by the people of Kerala. The famous copper plates of King Bhaskara Ravi Varma specify the rights of the Jewish community. India was the only place in the world where the Jewish diaspora did not suffer a single incident of anti-Semitism. Oral legend has it that when St Thomas the Apostle landed in Kerala around 52 CE, he was welcomed on shore by a flute-playing Jewish girl.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, so famed was our reputation as a land of asylum, that a defeated Cleopatra sent her son to the safety of India’s west coast, before killing herself. Alas, her son made the fatal mistake of turning back midway to stake his claim to the throne, and met with a gory end.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Zoroastrians, who faced religious persecution in Persia at the hands of Muslim rulers in the eight century, fled to India and became part of our land as the “Parsi community”. There is a lovely story of a Gujarati king sending an envoy to the captain of the Parsi flotilla, to tell him that there was no room for them. It is said that since the two sides had no language in common, the envoy called for a tumbler of water and dropped a stone in it; the water promptly overflowed, showing what would happen if the refugees were admitted. The Parsi captain understood the message and replied eloquently: he called for a glass of milk and carefully stirred a spoonful of sugar into it, to show that the refugees would integrate and only sweeten Gujarat. Impressed, the king offered them sanctuary and land. Ever since, Gujarati has been the mother-tongue of the Zoroastrian community in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, sympathy for refugees is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Our great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both dwell upon the injustice of the protagonists being forced into exile, and extol the nobility of extending support and succour to those seeking refuge. One of our most popular festivals, Diwali, celebrates a homecoming of refugees after fourteen years of exile.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1959, India embraced a lakh Tibetan refugees who fled their homeland with the Dalai Lama. In 1971, we saw the single largest refugee crisis in human history, when 10 million refugees from East Pakistan fled to India, to escape genocide at the hands of Pakistani Army. We provided them refuge, till Bangladesh was born and most returned home. The civil wars in Sri Lanka and Nepal created similar refugee influxes, as more than a lakh Sri Lankan Tamils, and an estimated one-third of the Nepali population fled to India. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, saw a stream of Afghan refugees entering our country. We did not stop them, and many still remain in India because of the crisis in their homeland.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given this history, India ought to be a natural world leader on the question of refugee rights. However, our present actions and our lack of a legal framework do our heritage no credit, shame us in the eyes of the world, and fail to match up to our actual past track record.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We can, and must, do better. India must enact a national asylum law, such as the one I have been demanding for years in Parliament. We should be among the most admired nations in the world, not one that, on refugee issues, is increasingly in the global doghouse.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 08 10:10:20 IST 2019 regulate-online-gaming <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>One of the most open secrets in our country is that people gamble on sports, even though it is illegal. Gamblers and bookies in turn try to improve the odds in their favour by persuading players to “throw” games by under-performing. This is corroding, if not destroying, sports in our country. Is it not time we did something about it?</p> <p>In January, I brought in a private member’s bill in Parliament to protect the integrity of sports by dealing with the issue of sports fraud, while at the same time regulating the online market for sports betting. It penalises various forms of sports fraud, including sharing inside information, bribery, misrepresentation about an athlete’s qualifications or manipulation of a sports result.<br> </p> <p>My bill establishes a special procedure for law enforcement authorities to deal with such cases. It also covers foreign nationals committing these offences on Indian soil as well as Indian citizens engaging in these activities in foreign countries. Depending on the type of sports fraud, the punishment I propose can range from one to five years of imprisonment, along with a fine which can range from Rs5 lakh or three times the economic benefits derived by the person from sporting fraud, whichever is greater.</p> <p>Our present approach to sports gaming is flawed; the approach of banning such activities has only driven it into the black market and promoted criminality. We should allow online sports gaming, as long as there is an oversight mechanism through a regulatory body that can control the money flow and activities of those in the field. My proposed legislation establishes an online sports gaming commission as the regulator. The commission will have oversight of online gaming websites, track illegal online sports gaming, monitor suspicious betting patterns of persons, and provide periodic or special reports to the Union government on any matter pertaining to online sports gaming, including ways to encourage it.</p> <p>There is no statute in India which expressly criminalises sports fraud or the manipulation of sporting events. This was highlighted by the trial court judging the 2013 IPL matching-fixing allegations. Similarly, there is no consolidated approach to dealing with sports betting in our country.<br> </p> <p>Sports betting is a state subject, but online sports gaming comes under the jurisdiction of Parliament. Therefore, my bill deals with the twin issues of sports fraud and online sports gaming.</p> <p>Only few states have enacted a regulatory framework to enable online gaming. There is the Nagaland Prohibition of Gambling and Promotion and Regulation of Online Games of Skill Act, 2015, and the Sikkim Online Gaming (Regulation) Act, 2008, whereas other states prohibit it altogether. For instance, there are news reports that Maharashtra may enact legislation outlawing online gaming. There is no consistent approach at the national level.</p> <p>Online betting is a booming sector. The 276th Report of the Law Commission of India estimates the present online gambling market to be worth $360 million, and they expect it to rise to $1 billion by 2021. Regulating this sector can help increase revenue for the state. At the same time, it will help to limit the generation of black money.</p> <p>The case is clear—my bill would regulate gambling, squeeze out criminality, end match-fixing, increase revenues for the state and preserve the integrity of sports. What’s not to like? It will not pass in the limited time available in this Parliament’s life. But, I hope that putting it on the table will provoke a discussion that eventually will bring about change.</p> Thu Feb 14 11:17:59 IST 2019 toxic-twitter-needs-reform <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When I began tweeting actively in May 2009—providing a few hundred ‘followers’ quick updates on the counting of votes in my constituency during the general elections—I could scarcely have imagined where it would lead, the controversies it would envelop me in and (partly as a result) the way in which India would become one of the world’s leading countries in the use of Twitter. When Twitter chief Jack Dorsey was in Delhi recently, Nandan Nilekani introduced me as the man who had made Twitter popular in India. It is a label I am still (almost) proud of. But it comes with an altogether less joyous question: Has Twitter turned toxic?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Twitter is an extraordinary broadcast medium—an interactive Akashvani. But when I first went on Twitter, it was fashionable for Indian politicians to sneer at the use of social media. Former BJP president Venkaiah Naidu, now vice president of India, even presciently warned me that “too much tweeting can lead to quitting”. In September 2012, the Economic Times carried an article showing that most young Indian politicians were not active on any social networking site.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, the last few years have shown a dramatic acceleration in the pace at which the political world is embracing social media. There is, of course, the BJP’s wholesale adoption of Twitter under Narendra Modi, who overtook me in July 2013 to become the most-followed Indian politician on the social media site. As prime minister, he has instructed his entire cabinet to emulate him in opening Twitter accounts, and they have all done so, with varying degrees of success.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Aside from Modi’s personal account, which has an eye-popping 44.9 million followers, the prime minister’s official Twitter account has multiplied its following more than ten-fold since Modi’s election, to 27.5 million today. Of course, having ‘followers’ does not mean they are all supporters—many follow you just out of curiosity, some just to attack you. But, they are an audience.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi’s prominence on social media has not noticeably been marred by widespread accusations of the BJP creating ‘fake’ accounts en masse to boost his follower count. But, in the process, free rein has been given to assorted nasties, often cloaked in fictitious names or other concealed identities, who insult you periodically or badger you on issues that matter to them, usually pet hindutva causes. Sometimes I indulge them and even respond mildly; sometimes, when their language becomes too offensive, I ‘block’ them from reaching me. But there are many days when the daily volume of abuse and vilification, especially directed at me by the BJP’s vicious army of organised trolls, makes me wonder if it is even worthwhile to continue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a widespread problem. In an internal memo in 2015, the then Twitter CEO Dick Costolo notoriously admitted that Twitter “sucks” at dealing with abuse and trolls. The company’s own recent transparency report, covering January to June 2018, disclosed that around 6.2 million accounts were reported for possible violations of Twitter’s rules. Of these, 2.8 million were reported for abuse, nearly 2.7 million for hate speech, and some 1.3 million for violent threats. These are alarming figures, made even more troubling by Twitter’s revelation that it took action against fewer than 10 per cent of these accounts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Has Twitter turned irremediably toxic? It is too useful a medium to be abandoned without a fight. But it needs a serious effort at reform; an end to anonymous and fake handles, and more Artificial Intelligence tools to weed out abuse, would be good places to start.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 04 14:53:33 IST 2019 the-great-indian-paradox <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When I was at school in Mumbai in the late 1960s, a survey was conducted in selected schools around the world. My school was picked, and so we 11- and 12-year olds were presented with a number of riddles to solve. The purpose was to study attitudes to gender, but that was deliberately not explained.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I do not remember much about the test, but one question has stayed in my mind. Respondents were told a story that ended in a riddle: A man is driving an automobile with his father and has a serious accident. The father is critically injured and is rushed to the hospital. The man, who is uninjured, is waiting anxiously outside the operating theatre when a white-coated surgeon comes out, embraces him and weeps, “My son, my son.” The question was, how could this be?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many were nonplussed. Had the father made a miraculous recovery? Or, had he died on the operating table and was this now his ghost?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The answer, of course—and it may seem obvious today—was that the surgeon is his mother. Indian students, in a country where the first woman doctor graduated in the 1890s, had little problem with the riddle in the 1960s—over 90 per cent of us got it right. But, in other countries, the figures were very different. In Sweden some 30 per cent answered correctly, in the UK only 12 per cent of the students could figure out the response, and in the United States the number of right answers dropped to about 5 per cent. The students were not stupid; they simply could not conceive of a woman surgeon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was reminded of this episode when I came across a report of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots; India has one of the world’s highest percentages of women piloting commercial airliners. Across the world, as a whole, only one out of every 20 flights is likely to be flown by a woman. In India, it is double the world average.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are 1,092 fully-qualified women pilots in India—12.41 per cent of the total number of 8,797 desi pilots. What is even more striking is that this figure has doubled in four years since 2014, and it may well double again by 2022.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The global average stands at 5.47 per cent. Only 8,477 pilots of the world’s 1,54,957 are women. India alone accounts for 13 per cent of them. India has more female pilots than most western countries, and 50 per cent more than China, which has just 713 women holding a commercial pilot’s license.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One more interesting statistic: 385 Indian women pilots are captains, who command the flights they pilot. That is 4.38 per cent of all Indian pilots. Globally, only 1.5 per cent of all pilots are women captains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our individual airlines come out looking very good, too: 5.9 per cent of British Airways pilots, and 7.4 per cent of United Airlines, are women; the corresponding figure for IndiGo is 13.87 per cent. These three airlines each have the highest percentage of women pilots in their respective countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is remarkable about all this is not that India represents some global paragon of enlightened gender mainstreaming. We have to admit that we have several deficiencies: our women are often condemned to drudgery and exploitation, and are underpaid. But, we can call it the Indian paradox. We have had some of the first, best and most of the world’s women lawyers, CEOs, advertising agency heads, doctors, pilots and political leaders. The first woman to earn an Oxford lawyer’s degree was an Indian, Cornelia Sorabji. One of the first women heads of a democratic government in the world was Indira Gandhi.</p> <p>After all that, flying a plane should be a breeze.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 07 15:37:45 IST 2018 the-name-game <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The recent renaming of the historic town of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to an arguably older name, Prayagraj, has occasioned a fresh bout of disputation about the politics of name-changing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The self-appointed guardians of Indianness, convinced that the names of cities and landmarks reflect the colonisation of the national sensibility, had long set about nationalising nomenclature whenever they had the chance. When it was the Brits who were being corrected, no one objected terribly: it was right, after all, that the Anglicised Cawnpore should revert to Kanpur, or that Poona and Simla should adopt spellings that conformed more closely to their local pronunciations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came the next round of less-necessary changes, still of imperial-era names. So, in the mid-1990s, a chauvinist Maharashtra government renamed its capital Mumbai, proscribing the use of the word Bombay for any official purposes. Since Bombay was at that point arguably the best-known Indian place name internationally, attached to everything from Bombay gin to Bombay duck and the names of restaurants of varying elegance around the world, this struck me as the equivalent of a company jettisoning a well-known brand name in favour of an inelegant patronymic—as if McDonald’s had renamed itself Kroc’s in honour of its founder.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not to be outdone, the chauvinist government in Madras, capital of a state which had earlier been renamed as Tamil Nadu—homeland of the Tamils —decided that the city of Madras, too, would be re-baptised Chennai. As with Bombay, name recognition—Madras kerchiefs, Madras jackets—went by the board as Chennai was adopted without serious debate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So far, not so good. But, we all learned to adjust. What’s in a name, Shakespeare asked, and, of course, the weather will be just as sultry in Chennai as it used to be in Madras. But now the current ruling dispensation, with an enormous Hindu-chauvinist chip on its shoulder, has started replacing Muslim names with Hindu ones. Mughalsarai is now Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, Gorakhpur’s Urdu Bazar is Hindi Bazar, Ali Nagar is Arya Nagar and Allahabad, sorry Prayagraj, has become the latest victim of this hindutva zealotry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Are we Indians so insecure in our independence that we still need to prove to ourselves that we are free? The Brits and Mughals are long gone; it takes a terrible inferiority complex, in any case, to think that one can overturn the experiences of history by altering a few names. And, what signal does this send to our own Muslim citizens? That they do not really belong to India with the same entitlements as those who bear, and now impose, Hindu names?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mughalsarai had century-old associations for those who travelled that way; Allahabad has a hoary history, especially in the anti-colonial movement, and as the seat of the nation’s intellectual ferment at Allahabad University.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is something altogether pettier here: a demarcation of territory, the weak asserting their strength. In some parts of India, it is customary for a bride, upon marriage, to take on a new name—not just a surname, but a first name—chosen by her husband’s family. It is as if our new rulers, unaccustomed to wielding real authority and unsure what to do with it, wanted to show that they were now the lords and masters of these places, and to demonstrate the change by conferring a new name upon them. They are asserting their power, the power to decide what a thing will be, the power to name—for if one does not have the ability to create, one can at least claim the right to define.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Nov 10 11:12:46 IST 2018 parliament-must-rediscover-courage-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Three historic Supreme Court judgements in recent months, all expanding gender rights in our society, have challenged the primacy of Parliament as the nation’s pre-eminent law-making body.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In its early years, the Supreme Court adopted a formalist approach in interpreting laws conservatively, whereas our Parliament adopted progressive laws. These included the provision of social security and workers’ rights through passage of numerous labour laws, removing social evils by reforming Hindu personal laws and allowing inter-community marriages through the Special Marriage Act, 1954, among other path-breaking legislation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, over the years, Parliament lost its revolutionary zeal and the Supreme Court transformed itself into an activist court, re-asserting itself in the last quarter-century. Judicial activism flourished as the court expanded its jurisdiction through public interest litigation—PILs are an Indian juridical innovation—and citizens directly approached the court to pursue social causes and to remedy violations of fundamental rights.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Supreme Court essentially moved into the vacuum created by Parliament’s failure to take on bold legislation, principally because in India most laws are introduced by the government, and our governments were more focused on staying in power rather than in enacting social change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Women’s rights became an excellent example of this. In Mary Roy vs State of Kerala, the Supreme Court gave Christian women equal inheritance rights, and in Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to combat sexual harassment at the workplace. (In fact, Parliament only enacted a law against sexual harassment at the workplace in 2013, 16 years after Vishaka.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the course of just over a year, the Supreme Court has asserted the right to privacy, nullified Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising LGBTQ sex, decriminalised adultery, and boldly reformed religious practices—de-recognising instantaneous triple talaq as a form of divorce (notably on the grounds that the practice did not give equal rights to men and women), and allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple. In finding that the adultery law treated a woman as the property of her husband, the Court upheld the woman’s right to dignity and equality. By the same token it will not be long before it criminalises marital rape.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Such issues are often not addressed by Parliament for fear of antagonising voters, the majority of whom are assumed to be wedded to tradition. When I introduced a private member’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality, the Lok Sabha defeated it twice. Even a woman minister of the present government has had to back off from her campaign against marital rape, and now says somewhat sheepishly that criminalising it would be against the mores of society.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The irony is that in the past, Parliament has stood up to intense opposition from sections of orthodoxy when passing laws such as the Hindu Code Bills in 1956. Today, it is the court that argues that its duty is to apply constitutional morality, the ethos and principles of our constitution, and not societal morality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have argued in the Lok Sabha that legislators must also have the courage to enact laws through the lens of constitutional morality. Our Parliament must regain its position as an institution of social revolution, a role it performed from the 1950s to the 1980s.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The judges have shown the way. Now it is time for us parliamentarians to follow suit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Mon Oct 15 13:06:11 IST 2018 legacy-of-love <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When disasters finally recede, observers start analysing the lessons learned: mistakes that should not be repeated and successes that can be replicated. Though the victims of the devastating Kerala floods are still counting the costs of this cataclysm, it is heartening that we can discern many a silver lining among the cloudbursts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First, and most important, was the way Kerala itself responded. There was an extraordinary rallying around of every Keralite; the acts of solidarity, including by those who had lost much themselves, were remarkable and often heart-rending. They were reflective of a human spirit that rose magnificently to the occasion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Young people, so often seen as self-indulgent, brought energy and millennial savvy to the fore. They were everywhere, collecting and packing relief materials, volunteering in relief centres and, very often, taking the relief themselves to the needy. Thiruvananthapuram, as one of the least-affected districts, rapidly became a relief centre for flood victims, a central point where aid could be received and despatched. A Facebook group that specialises in restaurant reviews, EatAtTrivandrum, converted itself into a volunteer centre, collecting food from restaurants and sending it to the starving. Other informal networks sprung up on social media. The 20-somethings worked the virtual and on-ground networks brilliantly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When, in the early days of the rescue effort, even the official rescue squads did not have enough boats, Kerala’s brave fishermen rode in, saving countless lives. They belong to the poorest strata of our society. Yet, they refused all payment for their services, often declining food so that they could give it to the hungry. Their boats were scratched and damaged in the process, but several have turned down the compensation offered by the state government, saying the money needs to go to those who have lost everything.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kerala, it is said, is one part of the country where everything is political. But, the floods showed that Keralites could be non-partisan too, as they put aside their differences for the common cause. In my rounds of relief camps in my constituency, I was pleasantly surprised to see volunteers from the three principal political forces—the left, the United Democratic Front and the sangh parivar—working side-by-side without any sense of competition (though, of course, social media warriors sitting at their computers far away did their part to undermine that).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course, there were negatives: the egregious right-winger whose voice message urging people not to donate to Kerala went viral, the communal bigots who proclaimed that Keralites were being divinely punished for various sins, and the armchair moral police who attacked Keralites for everything from ingratitude to insulting national pride by asking for aid in their hour of distress. But, despite these flies in the ointment, the overwhelming kindness and humanity on display was balm for the soul. India poured its heart out to Kerala, giving its love, its help, its money and its concern.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The long and arduous task of rebuilding is just beginning, but as Kerala picks up the pieces and works toward a sustainable future for itself, it does so on the strongest possible foundations of unity, solidarity and, yes, humanity. As the floodwaters finally recede, they have left behind not just the sludge, grime and wreckage that volunteers are currently cleaning, but also an intangible residue of hope.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 14 15:08:51 IST 2018 a-battle-for-indias-soul <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the 71st anniversary of our Independence Day comes and goes, it is time to reflect on the “Idea of India”—or rather, on two duelling ideas of India that are now before us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They both date back to before independence, when our nationalist movement was divided between two sets of ideas—one held by those who saw religious identity as the determinant of their nationhood and the other by those who believed in an inclusive India for everyone, irrespective of faith. The former became the idea of Pakistan, the latter the idea of India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This nebulous “Idea of India”—the phrase is Tagore’s—is, in some form or another, arguably as old as antiquity itself. However, the idea of India as a modern nation based on a certain conception of human rights and citizenship, vigorously backed by due process of law and equality before law, is a relatively recent and strikingly modern idea.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the mystical influence of Tagore, and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhiji, it is a robustly secular and legal construct based upon the vision and intellect of our founding fathers, notably (in alphabetical order) B.R. Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. The Preamble of the Constitution, in its description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, in its conception of justice, of liberty, of equality and of fraternity, firmly proclaims that the law, and not religion or community, will be the bedrock of the idea of India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Indian idea, as I have long argued, is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, consonant, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And, that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you do not really need to agree—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My idea of India celebrates diversity: If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many of us complacently assumed that this idea of India was immutable and universally held. But, we were wrong; before Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League passed its notorious Pakistan Resolution in 1940 demanding the vivisection of the country, the Hindu Mahasabha had in 1937 advanced the theory that Hindus and Muslims were two nations. Today’s ruling BJP is the political arm of the RSS, which remains committed to the doctrine of hindutva and advocates a Hindu rashtra—a Hindu nation-state. Such an idea has nothing in common with the idea of India I have described. It is divisive rather than inclusive, embodied in a chauvinism intolerant of diversity and difference. The BJP/RSS idea of a Hindu rashtra is the mirror image of Pakistan—a state with a dominant majority religion that seeks to put its minorities in a subordinate place. That would be a hindutva Pakistan, and it is not what our freedom movement fought for, nor is it the idea of India enshrined in our Constitution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a battle for India’s soul. India’s founding fathers wrote a Constitution for their dreams; we have given passports to their ideals. Let us not, seven decades after their triumph, let them down by surrendering our India to the idea of Pakistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 18 20:16:00 IST 2018 please-do-the-needful <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Two columns ago, I rashly ventured the immodest thought that I had considered myself the inventor of the term ‘prepone’, which I had come up with at St Stephen’s in 1972. Boy, was I wrong. In keeping with the long-standing wisdom that there is nothing new under the sun, I am told by Catherine Henstridge of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), no less, that they have an example of the use of the word “prepone” from 1913, and it is not, alas, Indian.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1913, a J.J.D. Trenor wrote in The New York Times: “may I be permitted to coin the word ‘prepone’ as a needed rival of that much revered and oft-invoked standby, ‘postpone’?” It didn’t catch on much in the west, but the proceedings of the 1952 Indian Science Congress reveal that other Indians thought along the same lines: “in Indian villages,… demand for power can be preponed or postponed not only by hours but even by days in order to comply with meteorological conditions”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Clearly, the origin of “prepone” has been preponed from 1972 to 1913, and I duly withdraw my claim to its origination. Mind you, I can still make a case, through frequent usage, to being somewhat involved in its popularisation!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the themes of my piece about Indian English related to the Indian habit of using words that would be seen as archaisms by most Brits or Americans. The point remains valid. But not all my examples were. The distinguished OED lexicographer tells me that while I am right about “furlong”, the words “fortnight” and “do the needful” are still accepted as being in current use. Even “mugging” (for an exam) passes muster with the OED, though they tend to go for the usage “mugging up”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is not merely an extended mea culpa. It turns out I was right about several examples of Indian English. The OED accepts “airdash” and “history-sheeter” as purely Indian usages, and the only examples they can find of “wheatish complexion” are, as I suggested, from Indian matrimonial ads.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The same would probably apply—though I didn’t check with the OED—to “foreign-returned” and “convent-educated”, two staples of Indian matrimonial ads. You just wouldn’t find a Brit or a Yank using either of those expressions (though the latter might apply to a novitiate in a nunnery).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The exchange with Mrs Henstridge did, however, open up a delightful prospect for those of you who, like me, delight in the quirks of Indian English. When work started on the OED in 1857, she explained, there was a preponderance of British English in their illustrative quotations, but these days, the OED lexicographers try hard to include English as spoken in as many different countries as possible. Their problem, as Mrs Henstridge tells me, is that they sometimes have difficulty in finding evidence for Indian English usages. They are quite willing to incorporate desi expressions in the OED, provided we can offer them precise citations for the usage. Would we in India be willing to help them find them?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The obvious ones are those translated into English from Indian languages—people of Hindi mother tongue often lapse into phrases like “the teacher is sitting on my head (teacher mere sir par baitha hain)” or “stop eating my brain! (mera dimag mat khana, yaar!)”. But even seemingly routine expressions like “Kerala is my native place” or “I belong to Chennai” are in fact peculiar to Indian English, because such formulations are not used by native speakers of other forms of the language.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The OED recently launched an appeal for local words and usages (see and they tell me they have already had over 1,800 replies from various countries. “So if you ever think there is an Indian word or use of a word we should know about,” says Mrs Henstridge, “do let us know!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Any Indian reader willing to “do the needful”?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 21 16:09:37 IST 2018 a-tale-of-two-world-cups <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the football World Cup captures audiences and imaginations across the globe, some figures are instructive. Just four decades ago, football was a game traditionally played by countries from Europe and South America. In the 1978 World Cup, just three places were made available for countries from Asia, Africa, Australasia, North America and Central America. This year, in Russia, there are 13 nations from these regions in World Cup contention.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In other words, football is an expanding game. And this is by design. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has been beset in recent years by accusations of corruption, misgovernance and sleaze. But it has undoubtedly helped democratise the sport and spread its appeal across the globe. This year, 209 nations entered the qualification process, and 32 teams qualified to play in Russia. If 209 competitors seem a lot, it is; even the United Nations has only 193 members. And FIFA says it intends to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from the next edition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a cricket fan, I can’t help but applaud. Because, in next year’s cricket World Cup, the governing body of my favourite sport, the troglodyte International Cricket Council (ICC), has decided to reduce the number of teams playing to just 10. This is in a tournament which, in previous editions, has featured 16 countries—sometimes 12 or 14—and needs to have many more if it is to enhance its own prospects of survival. The scale of participation in the two World Cups reveals that FIFA has taken on, with messianic zeal, the mission of expanding the appeal and reach of the sport of which it is the custodian; the ICC seems determined to do the opposite.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is striking that the most populous countries in the world have been marginal in world football. China, with 1.4 billion people, has only featured in one World Cup (in 2002). India, with 1.33 billion souls, has never come close to qualifying. The fourth and fifth most populous nations, Indonesia and Pakistan, have never made it to the grand stage. FIFA sees this as a challenge, and an opportunity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now football is growing in popularity in China, where President Xi Jinping has announced his desire to host a future World Cup. In India, the politics of football administration has divided the sport into two rival fiefdoms, but the fan base has been growing, undeterred. Television ratings in India for European football leagues have been vaulting to record levels each year. This has spurred interest in the new Indian Super League, and even in the national team. India’s world ranking has improved from 173 just three years ago to 97 today. Making it to the world’s top 48 no longer looks like an impossible dream.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The contrast with cricket is glaring. Though this most beautiful, complex and aesthetically pleasing of sports has been enhancing its appeal in a number of nations not traditionally associated with the game—reflected in the recent acquisition of elite Test status by Ireland and Afghanistan—the ICC seems determined to take the “world” out of the World Cup. This, despite the pleas of some of the game’s greatest stars. Sachin Tendulkar has called for a 24-team World Cup; the late Martin Crowe wanted an expansion to 18.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Moreover, the ICC has slashed grants to associate members by some 75 per cent in the last four years, and abolished the 6 per cent allocation for funding the development of the game in non-cricketing countries. The short-term objective (more money-making matches on TV) has trumped the greater good (expanding the sport).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>FIFA understands that if a game is to grow, more countries need to be involved in a World Cup, to attract fans, win new acolytes, attract sponsors and government funding, and inspire new potential players. The ICC does not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, while one World Cup takes football to new heights as a global sport, another World Cup will confine cricket to an insular few, unable to outgrow the mentality of the exclusive clubs in which the sport was born.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jun 23 15:49:23 IST 2018 kindly-adjust-to-our-english <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I have long immodestly considered myself the inventor of the term 'prepone'. I came up with it at St Stephen’s in 1972, used it extensively in conversation and employed it in an article in JS magazine soon after. Prepone, as a back-construction from postpone, seemed so much simpler, to a teenage collegian, than saying, “could you move that appointment earlier?” or “I would like to advance that deadline”. Over the years, I was gratified to see how extensively its use had spread in India. Now, in an era where too many claim credit for other’s work, I feel it may be time to clarify the word’s origins. Is anyone aware of an earlier usage?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I ask because the persistence and survival of what is called 'Indian English' (often with a sneer, as if to differentiate it from the Queen’s “propah” English) deserves to be taken seriously. Our English is a vigorous language, which draws strength from local roots. If Americans can say 'fall' for autumn and 'gotten' for 'have got', though both are archaisms in England itself, why can’t Indians say 'furlong', 'fortnight' and 'do the needful', even if these have fallen out of use centuries ago in London? So many words in Indian English have stood up to the only test that matters—the test of time and usage. If enough people find a word or phrase useful, it is, to my mind, legitimate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indian English is a living, practical language, used by millions every day. Many phrases we take for granted in ordinary conversation are actually quite unusual abroad—calling elders 'auntie' or 'uncle', for instance, or using 'non-veg' to convey a willingness to eat meat. That doesn’t make them wrong, or even quaint. It just makes them Indian.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some Indian English was created by our media—'airdash' (the chief minister airdashed to Delhi) and 'history sheeter' (“the police explained that habitual criminal X was a history sheeter”, i.e. he had a long criminal record). Some, like my 'prepone', came from school and college campuses: 'mugging' (cramming hard for an exam, with much rote learning involved) means two very different things abroad (a criminal assault by a robber, or an elaborate and often comically exaggerated expression). When an Indian student tells a foreigner he was “mugging for an exam”, bewilderment is guaranteed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some Indian Englishisms are merely translated from an Indian language: “what is your good name?” is the classic, since all Bengalis have a daak naam that they are called by, and a bhalo naam (or good name) for the record. But “what is your good name?” is still the most polite form, in any version of the English language, for finding out the identity of your interlocutor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some Indianisms are creative uses of an ordinary English word or phrase to reflect a particularly Indian sensibility, such as “kindly adjust”, said apologetically by the seventh person squeezing onto a bench meant for four. Our matrimonial ads have created their own cultural tropes— 'wheatish complexion', of course, and better still, 'traditional with modern outlook'.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But acknowledging the legitimacy of Indian English and many of its formulations doesn’t mean that “anything goes”. Some things are simply wrong. The Indian habit of saying “I will return back” is an unnecessary redundancy: if you return, you are coming back. The desi practice of using 'till' to mean 'as long as' is incorrect English; it is wrong to say “I will miss you till you are away” when you really mean is “I will miss you till you come back”! The Indian official doesn’t “waive off” a fine, he just waives it, though he could wave you off if you thank him too profusely. And, 'back side' for 'rear' causes much unwitting hilarity, as in signs proclaiming, “entry through back side only”. These can’t be justified under the rubric of Indian English. They are just bad English.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for the rest, we have nothing to apologise about: we should defiantly celebrate their use as integral parts of our Indian English vocabulary. After all, “we are like that only”. And if you don’t like it, kindly adjust.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 25 19:02:24 IST 2018 saving-the-commonwealth-and-the-planet <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London would have struck many as easy to dismiss as a byproduct of an acute colonial hangover.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the contrary, however, I strongly believe that this year’s summit presented a historic opportunity for the Commonwealth to address its twin, and often complex legacies: empire and industrialisation. How? It can do this by using CHOGM as a launch pad for renewing, reaffirming and restructuring its global leadership on climate change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under the slogan of “Towards a common future,” the stated aim of the meeting was “to reaffirm our common values, address the shared global challenges we face and agree how to work to create a better future for all our citizens, particularly young people.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps, unwittingly, this provides the perfect, galvanising context for discussing climate change, the greatest of all our challenges, and what is at stake—the next generation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The threat we face is ultimately an existential one, and countries like India are on the front line. In 2016, India reported the highest number of deaths worldwide from extreme weather.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Global Risk Index 2018, released at Cop 23, identified India as the sixth most vulnerable nation on earth when it comes to climate change, and the International Monetary Fund has pointed to a similar level of exposure. Meanwhile, millions of people have had their health blighted and their lives cut short by India’s world-beating levels of air pollution, with the country home to half the earth’s worst-polluted cities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite this, we cannot escape the fact that 240 million Indians cannot take for granted what every Irishman or Icelander can—the simple joy of flicking a switch on a wall and being bathed with light. With 240 million of our 1.3 billion strong population still without electricity, India cannot forego the fruits of economic development enjoyed<br> by the west.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is equally clear that, not withstanding its current reliance on coal, it cannot achieve this in the same way that the UK has, without imperilling the wellbeing of millions, if not billions of people. With Indian energy consumption predicted to double by 2030, it is universally acknowledged that—whether or not the world succeeds—keeping warming under 2C may ultimately be determined by the path that India takes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, the fate of India—and perhaps the world—does not rest in its own hands. And, that is where the UK (and the Commonwealth at large) comes in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After leaving the European Union, Britain, to mint a phrase, has lost a continent and is looking for a role. Prime Minister Theresa May‘s government has identified a comprehensive free-trade deal with India as key to making a new global role for Britain a reality. The basis for seeking this is self-evident. India is already the world’s third-largest economy in purchasing power parity terms, and will become the world’s fifth largest economy in actual dollar terms this year (overtaking the UK). Trade between the two has stalled since the turn of the century, while trade with the EU has tripled. To reverse that trend, the UK must seek to strike a new kind of partnership with India to the mutual benefit of both. The shared opportunities and challenges in tackling climate change and pursuing clean growth offer a way forward. A misguided weakening of environmental standards, in order to strike a trade deal with the US, is not compatible with these aims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given US President Trump’s well-publicised denunciation of the Paris Agreement and his refusal to engage with the reality of climate change, there is a global leadership vacuum on climate change. Europe has sought to fill that, especially under Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but is handicapped by the fact that it belongs entirely to the global North.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Commonwealth is different. The UK began to show the way almost 10 years ago by passing the world’s first Climate Change Act and has since become a world leader in offshore wind power. The north and south both have a strong voice in the Commonwealth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A new, even bolder vision and set of commitments is now required to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. It has also become increasingly clear that growth, trade and climate mitigation can walk hand in hand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Just as important in tackling climate change will be scaling up investment to the levels required. The city of London, as a world financial centre, will continue to have a key role in developing green finance and moving it into the mainstream.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These are all reasons for cautious optimism. There can be no Empire 2.0; Empire 1.0 was too disastrous to be replicated. But, there can be a New Commonwealth. The UK must seize the moment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Tue May 01 08:49:30 IST 2018 why-link-mobiles-bank-accounts-to-aadhaar <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Why link mobiles, bank accounts to Aadhaar?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is the problem with Aadhaar? Why are so many liberals up in arms against what was once seen as a scheme to benefit the masses, and not threaten the public?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Aadhaar was initiated in 2009 as a project to link a biometric-based unique identity with eligible beneficiaries of government schemes. It was envisaged as a method to eliminate the number of ‘ghost beneficiaries’ and to reduce the pilferage of state funds. Ironically, the then chief minister of Gujarat, who vociferously opposed the project and pledged to scrap it if elected, has now, as prime minister, become the greatest proponent of the scheme. Worse, he has enlarged it to an extent never imagined by his predecessors, virtually linking every service, not just limited to subsidies, to Aadhaar—despite his government having assured the Supreme Court that the use of Aadhaar would not be made mandatory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This has raised serious concerns that the entire scheme is unconstitutional. The very statutory foundation of the project is flawed, as the government avoided the oversight of the Rajya Sabha by pushing through the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, as a money bill. It did so even though, as per most analyses, the act failed to meet the requirements for a money bill under Article 110 of the Constitution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Aadhaar Act states that every resident of India shall be entitled to obtain an Aadhaar number. Its language also indicates that obtaining an Aadhaar number is voluntary in nature, and not mandatory. Even the Supreme Court, while hearing the batch of petitions challenging the act, had noted that the “Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory”. However, in disregard of this order, the government has gone on a blitzkrieg by linking the Aadhaar with virtually everything under the sun, so much so that the absence of an Aadhaar number would lead to the denial of many basic services. In effect, the government has made Aadhaar mandatory, while assuring the courts that it is not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The act limited the purpose of authentication—to establish the identity of an individual in relation to the receipt of a subsidy, benefit, or service incurred from the Consolidated Fund of India. It begs the question as to how services provided by private banks and telephone operators fall within these categories. Why should we link our bank accounts and mobiles to Aadhaar then, in order to be able to use them? Yet phone companies and banks insist we must.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The linking of Aadhaar with various services also raises the question: what compelling interest does the state have to know whether an individual has travelled by flight or by train, whether an individual has opened a bank account or whether she has a mobile connection?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>By linking the biometric data and other sensitive information of an individual to a central database, without providing adequate security to such a database (judging by the data leaks reported in the media), one can argue that such actions in effect violate the right to privacy. The right to privacy can, of course, be limited by a compelling state interest. However, where the state has a compelling interest, it must choose the least restrictive method to achieve such goals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, the opposite has happened. There have been numerous incidents reported in the media where machines meant to authenticate Aadhaar number holders have failed to do so, due to lack of internet connectivity, or electricity, or other adequate facilities in rural areas. This has denied many people their ration supplies, in violation of their rights. A scheme meant to help the poor is depriving people of their entitlements.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The current implementation of Aadhaar is arguably a disaster: it conforms neither to the intent of the scheme, nor to the requirements of the law. As the Supreme Court considers these issues, one hopes it will require the government to implement Aadhaar in line with India’s constitutional ethos and the established principles of our democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Mar 31 12:34:32 IST 2018