Democracy, subcontinent-ishtyle


Rajeev Srinivasan on what passes for democracy in these parts


I hear that General Musharraf has won the post of Pakistan’s President in a landslide victory. I haven’t followed the Musharraf extravaganza closely, I must admit, because I am not obsessed with Pakistan. Despite its being a serious nuisance, I don’t think Pakistan matters. It is a failing State with no self-image, or reason for existence, other than being ‘not-India’. They exhibit this periodically by destroying yet another bit of Indian civilization, most recently by blowing up a three-meter-high 7th century CE Buddha in Swat


So it is immaterial if Musharraf remains in power or not, given the history of Pakistan’s civilian rulers (e.g. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who famously promised to even “eat grass” to get his country nuclear weapons). I am not enthused about Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto. I am reminded of Salman Rushdie’s cutting portrayal of Benazir Bhutto (he called her character “Virgin Ironpants”) in what may be his most insightful book, the under-appreciated “Shame”, about the absurdity of Pakistan.


Sharif was dour and the ISI kept him in the dark about what was really going on. Benazir, on the other hand, has always been colorful. Charming and shrill by turns, she ran circles around the pallid and stuffy old men in Delhi last time around, and they would be no match for her if she comes back to power again.


It is even possible that Musharraf is better from an Indian perspective than these mercurial civilian characters. Musharraf is a dependable, single-minded, and known, villain. Besides, Musharraf he has done a great deal for his country under trying circumstances. He has run with the hare (the Taliban) and hunted with the hound (the Americans) in a breath-taking display of sleight-of-hand. He has managed to turn a serious situation (Richard Armitage threatening to bomb Pakistan “into the Stone Age” after 9/11) into a cornucopia of American and Saudi largesse.


This is much more than can be said of India’s ruling politicians. None of them has done anything for India so far as I can see. Anything positive that happens in India is despite the so-called leaders: wherever they have ceased to interfere, Indians have done well. There is a clear ‘Leadership Penalty’ which is a continuing variant of what I once called the ‘Nehruvian Penalty’ . For the latest example of pork-barrel politics, see the BBC’s September 26 report “India job scheme ‘disappointing’” on how the much-ballyhooed rural employment scheme is a huge waste of money.


India suffers mightily from lousy leadership. A strutting Musharraf, short-sighted and tactical commando though he might be, is doing far more in his national interest than the politicians in India are in theirs. So maybe Musharraf deserved to win his election. After all, who are his biggest opponents? Lawyers! Surely Shakespeare had a point when he suggested, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. (Note to the humor-impaired: I am not suggesting any violence, merely quoting the bard.)


Or maybe Musharraf used some good old strong-arm tactics. Perhaps he pulled out more of that make-believe stuff that he has copyrighted (see my column “Musharraf’s Theater of the Absurd” ). Anyway, I guess we may be in for some more years of Musharraf. India’s journalists must be pleased, especially the guy who promised Musharraf a few years ago that he and his fellow journalists would deliver a government in India that would be to Musharraf’s liking.


Over in Dhaka, the military rulers are still rather popular, as they have put an end to the Two-Begum Circus. Both of them were extremely corrupt, and in the case of Begum Zia, a fundamentalist bigot. Being rid of two such characters is, not surprisingly, a relief to the person on the street.


In Nepal, the Communists are carrying on with their usual little charades: pretending to be interested in elections, just so they can buy time to build up their armed power to eventually take over, line up their opponents and shoot them, just as all Communists have done whenever they came to power anywhere.


Now let’s move to that other stronghold of democracy in the Indian subcontinent, Bangalore. If Musharraf is a Three-Ring Barnum and Bailey Circus, namma own Deve Gowde is a most innovative Cirque du Soleil. The man is brilliant at coming up with new and unusual excuses for not vacating the chair. I particularly admire his chutzpah and epidermal fortitude. Most rhinoceroses would be put to shame.


The fact, to not put too fine a point on it, is that the JD(S) simply reneged on its agreement with its coalition partner, which they had done previously too. There must have been a number of calculations behind this behavior – and I can only conjecture about them. One is that Deve Gowda expected to get into an alliance with the Congress and continue to rule Karnataka. Another is that he expects to do well in a mid-term poll.


The third is that Deve Gowda is merely thumbing his nose at the BJP, telling them in so many words that they are paper tigers who can be betrayed at will. This should be cause for concern for the BJP, for such a perception, if it is widespread, spells ruin for it in various elections to come, including a possible national general election.


The final, and most damaging, possibility is that Deve Gowda expects that there will be no negative consequences to his actions because the public is an ass. Such a person who cavalierly abandons any commitment expects to brazenly go to the hustings and make promises galore. This implies complete contempt for the intelligence, not to speak of the memory, of the masses. This level of derision is a very poor advertisement for the peculiar animal known as ‘democracy’ that prevails in India.


The UPA has been especially responsible for the perversion of democratic ideals in India. I am beginning to forget the list of elections they have messed with: Jharkhand, Goa, Bihar… There is a sense that the Congress’s definition of “democracy” is close to a dictatorship, just as its ally the Communists have defined “democracy” as “one man, one vote, one time”. Add to the volatile mix regional parties which often have a single-point agenda: of hijacking the national interest for their own, narrow, regional interests.


India, and its neighbors, are giving democracy a bad name. Or maybe not. In none of these nations has democracy been anything more than a charade and a hoax. The correct name for what goes on is “kleptocracy” – rule by thieves. Or perhaps it is even “kakistocracy” – rule by the very worst possible people.

Reflections on Gandhi’s relevance

Rajeev Srinivasan on the value of Gandhian ideals today

Every year, on October 2nd, a few images of Mahatma Gandhi are trotted out, pious homilies are delivered by the usual suspects, “raghupathi-raghava-rajaram” is chanted desultorily by bored schoolchildren, and that’s that. For the other 364 days, Gandhi quietly gathers dust in a closet. This must be the fate of prophets, except for the few lucky ones: they are turned into little tin gods, and they turn over in their graves, so to speak, as everything they held dear is perverted by scheming camp-followers.


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