My Wish list on India’s Independence Day

 

What do I wish for my country on its Independence day ( Aug 15th ?). Well, a few things come to mind – as I look at my country from the outside. Having lived outside the country for over 4 yrs now, I have firmly established myself as a Non-Resident Indian ( some would say Non-Reliable Indian), and  I am have become an outsider who has an insider’s perspective.

I believe it is a good position to be in, to analyse and look at a few problems which seem so entrenched and deep-rooted. We seem to have achieved much, since the British left the sub-continent in 1947, but we seem to have also squandered a lot too.

Here is my wish-list for my country and its people :

  1. End of poverty – It is only this year that I read a report on BBC website that there are more poor people in India than in the entire continent of Africa. Shocking, troubling and depressing indeed. But, there is also a great deal of resilience, dignity and courage in the Indian people.

I wish that there is enough for everyone to eat, basic healthcare for all and opportunities for advancement for those who want to progress socially and economically.

As a group of people, we Indians somehow carry on, plod through the problems and face life and what it offers us. This character seems to have evolved over thousands of years and generations of changes, both cultural as well as political. I firmly believe that gargantuan though this seems, the problem of income distribution is not just economic, but also cultural,  political and philosophical.With the right mix of politics and cultural reforms, we can achieve the end of poverty.  Amartya Sen, who has been infamously called the “Mother Teresa” of Economics has said rather philosophically “While I am interested both in economics and in philosophy, the union of my interests in the two fields far exceeds their intersection”. This perspective is also important to understand and de-construct India’s reality.

2. Equal rights and opportunities : When we speak of liberalisation, globalisation and growth, we are indulging in a very middle-class speak, which leaves out millions and millions of those who are not part of the “India”story. I think there has to be greater inclusion and also awareness that there is a huge segment of the population who are not able to participate in this story and who are denied equal rights, simply because of where they come from.

This should translate from just high moral principles in the Constitution to ground realities. We may use a combination of market economic as well as public sector initiatives to achieve this. Liberalisation since the 90s has achieved much progress, but I believe this must be tempered and integrated into the entire fabric of Indian society so the Indian economy doesn’t follow the trends of Wall street alone

3.End of bigoty and narrowmindedness : Regionalism, petty-politics of language, religion and caste is the bane of our society. While the multi-party system in some ways guarantees that there is diversity of opinion and participation by all strata of society and of all castes and creeds, I believe the amount of bigotry and narrow-mindedness that exists in Indian society is truly astonishing.

A dear friend told me recently that he thought the only way to get rid of this would have been to have Soviet style communism for a few decades. While that would seem rather strong remedy for the malady, perhaps some such drastic measure ( though democratic) would purge us of our narrow thinking.

4. Less corruption and greater civil society participation – With the brouhaha of Corruption and Lokpal having caught the imagination of our public and the media, which is ever-ready to pounce on any new issue that comes to the fore, there is also a need to look at practical measures to ensure there is less corruption. Passing a bill or law will not change much, unless there is a shift in consciousness of people.

Reform of the Administrative apparatus and also the civil services is a good idea. The Civil servants I have interacted with over the past few months ( who come to the Maxwell school of Citizenship) for training also point towards this fact. The pay-commission and its recommendations have apparently made life better for them, and the incentive to be “honest” is greater now. But, unless there is a more professional approach to public service, there is bound to be nepotism and red-tapism.

Platitudes and sloganeering may not really help much.

5. Regional peace – This is truly the Elephant in the room. With Pakistan at the brink of a social revolution, there is an opportunity for India to seal the deal with the neighbor that we have had trouble over the last few decades.

It is encouraging that we had talks with the Foreign minister of Pakistan a few weeks ago and there is at least a momentum to engage and discuss contentious issues. This should be kept up and both countries should ensure there is regional peace.

f there is something to be learnt from history, perhaps it is that when two neighbours fight, it is someone else who gains. Peace may not be the sexiest or cool thing to pursue, and it may even mean a few compromises; but diplomacy and politics is all about compromises and we should not forget this as we work towards becoming a regional super-power.

5 Lessons for Norway from India’s model of multi-culturalism

What can Norway learn from India ? Well, not much, some would argue. Norway is among the richest countries in the world while India is home to more poor people ( 421 million poor people)  than the entire continent of Africa put together[i] (400 million).

Despite the obvious and glaring differences, there are similar challenges  that both the countries face, and this was accentuated with the most recent terror attacks by a Norwegian, who claimed to be anti-immigration and anti-Muslim; and was acting to protect Norway from Marxism and Muslim takeover. In essence, both countries are dealing with issues of multiculturalism and co-existence of people of different religions, ethnicities and cultures.

The solution to managing this conflict lies at both the rhetorical as well as pragmatic level. To deny one and focus on the other would be foolish.

I will argue that India has done a remarkable job of managing this diversity  and Norway has lessons to learn from India.

Though examples of extreme violence exist in India – think back to Gujarat in 2002 when more than 2000 Muslims were killed by Hindu fanatics to avenge the attack on a train and more recently, the Mumbai terror attacks; the fact that such incidents are few and far in between and India has survived as a secular state, protecting the rights of the minorities speaks quite highly of the state itself. As a Muslim, who has lived in India for over 26 years I do think that India has done a good job, though it can do better.

Here are 5 lessons that I think Norway can learn from India, a secular, democratic republic and the world’s largest democracy today.

  1. Institutionalize multi-culturalism – Going back to its formation as a nation, in 1947, when India gained independence, we made it a constitutional duty to uphold and protect the various religious, ethnic and other diversities that existed. The myth of  “India”, a nation with so many multitudes required that this idea be protected.  In the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Akbar had brought back the notion of  India as a nation and the British had taken over this after him, but to bring together  those 500 plus princely states and hold them together required this framework of tolerance and embracing of complexity.
  2. Promote and celebrate diversity – in every way possible – The example of India’s currency note is often used to illustrate just how complex the country is and how many languages are used. If you turn around the note and read the number of languages, you will see about 15 languages. These are all “official” languages of the various states, not to mention the hundreds of dialects that exist. There is some wisdom in adopting this notion. One can see this in every aspect of daily life in India – from Bollywood, Cricket to even an office setting.
  3. Provide space for dissent, but crack-down on extreme ideologies – While the democratic framework allows for dissent and airing of opinions, there must be a crackdown on extreme ideologies. All said and done, there is a judicial process that is followed in most cases of violence in India. It may be  faulty, slow, inefficient, but cases of violence and right wing activity are monitored carefully in India by the CBI and other agencies. This can be emulated in Norway too.
  4. Have a vision and stick with it – Going back to the days of formation, the visionary leaders – Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar all visualized a nation that would be home to all people, not just of one race or religion. It was as much a choice as accepting the ground realities. The vision of India that emerged was a product of this reality and the leaders were wise enough to acknowledge it and embrace it – at great risk to their own selves. This notion seems to have prevailed several decades later.  Norway can come up with a vision which is bolder, stronger and more compelling than what it has today, which embraces minorities and immigrants more strongly and sends out a message to the right-wing groups on all sides of the political spectrum that their ideologies will not win.
  5. Don’t let the state become militarized – As a reaction to 9/11 the USA became more militarized. The Department of Homeland Security was established and civil liberties curtailed. India is also responding to terror attacks quite predictably with such draconian laws as POTA which until recently made life hell for minorities.  Thankfully, we are not an entirely militarized state and this is a great achievement. The pacifist nature of India society has kept the country from going to any extremes.

India’s model of secularism is also very interesting. It is not the sanitized “keep the religion out of public space” sort, that Europe seems so obsessed with. The secularism that India practices is one of embracing all religions equally – at least in the public sphere. Legally too, each religious group is allowed to practice its own low, for marriage, divorce and other civil issues. This seems to have worked largely well.

Though big debates like the uniform civil code and other issues which take this notion to one logical extreme are still being debated, at least on a day to day basis one sees that the state has kept secularism within limits and religion is accorded its special place, keeping in mind its special place in peoples’ lives.

I do believe that India has much to offer to the world, and Europe and its nations in particular, as the continent battles with the rise of the right-wing.

Though not perfect, India continues to uphold the secular ideal and to a large extent guarantees the right of minorities. It is this spirit that Europe should look towards for inspiration.

MENASA ?

The Acronym dictionary defines MENASA as – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When you google it, MENSA throws up. Not a very smart acronym, this one. But try harder, and you will find the definition for it.

A new acronym. A fad. A smart ( and pretentious) way to club together groups of countries ? Well, that depends on the way one looks at it. But to me, this makes sense.

According to a few important reports that came out recently, this region will define the future of the world – the key argument being one of demographics and also resources. The one that i read in some depth is the one by the management consulting firm Mc Kinsey. If one observes the ongoings in the MENA region, with the Arab Spring, this seems like a far-stretched argument.

But let’s take the long-term view. Social change takes decades, not months and weeks ( often the time-span that traditional media uses as a frame of reference).

The arguments for MENASA can be summed up as :

A recent report by Mc Kinsey pointed to the demographics as well as the wealth of human resources in the region – which are full of entrepreneurial zeal ( refer:http://www.menasaforum.ae/partners/official/files/Perspectives%20on%20MENASA.PDF).

The region is set to generate nine per cent of the world’s total growth in gross domestic product in the next 10 years, up from its current five per cent share. And during this period it is slated to achieve real growth rates of six to seven per cent. The western economies have stopped growing or are experiencing deceleration, while the economies of MENASA continue to grow.

McKinsey estimates cumulative financial inflows from hydrocarbon exports in these countries could exceed $9trn by 2020.

India, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey account for 92 per cent of the region’s population.

We also see that the widespread use of English in India, Pakistan and Egypt and French in Morocco, coupled with these countries’ significant pool of skilled people and the relatively low labour costs, make them attractive destinations for companies looking to outsource support functions and value-added services such as legal and accounting services. This is already happening in a big way and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But isn’t all of this fantastical thinking, in the absence of democratic institutions and also recourse to law and strong contractual systems ? This is a valid argument, especially when one reads of businesses suffering due to lack of transparency as well as red-tapism and corruption.

But with the growth in economies and greater demand for transparency and better systems, things are bound to change. In India, there is the Right to Information Act ( RTI), which is being implemented in several states, and has made the government more accountable.

Similarly, the Arab spring is bound to bring in better systems, which are more robust and responsive to the citizen’s needs.

I am inclined to believe that this region is where the action is. Despite the funny acronym, there is reason to believe that this is where the future lies.

Achieving world-peace through inner peace – Dalai Lama

On the western lawn of the US Capitol Hill, this Saturday,  people celebrated something very unique : Peace. With the spiritual leader Dalai Lama leading the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the most inspiring talks that I have heard in a long time. His key message was this : We can achieve world-peace through inner peace, and that compassion and love for one another is not only good; but also essential for our own personal success. The talk  was part of the Kalachakra celebrations in the nation’s capital.

Drawing on his own experiences in exile and early childhood, the Dalai Lama kept the  audience spell-bound with his insightful words of wisdom.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent in his recorded message saying : “ The Dalia Lama empowers you to celebrate peace. He also teaches us that each one of us can create peace, one person at a time. When this happens, there is a ripple effect. And when millions and millions of us take this step, no power in the world can ignore it”.

Re-affirming the fact that we are all human beings and that commonality should bind us together, he asked us to reflect  more on our actions;  and joking with the young ladies present in the audience, he said : “ Those of you who  wear cosmetics, please also focus on “inner beauty”, which is far more important than external beauty”.  He also pointed out that all religions focus on peace and harmony. Islam, Christianity and Buddhism and any other religion focuses on these values.

“When there is inner-beauty, there is happiness, and the relationship with a person lasts, if not; there may be companionship for some time, but eventually it will fall apart”, he said.

“My second commitment as a human being is to achieve harmony. I firmly believe that all humans have the same potential to achieve peace. We are all gifted equally”.

The Dalai Lama also praised the United States for its democratic values, freedom and individual liberty. “Your forefathers promoted freedom, democracy and rule of law. Now, we are bearing the fruit of that, and I am able to speak with you freely here”. He also urged people to talk “heart to heart” without any barriers.

“Concern for others is the key. Trust brings friendship. A genuine smile which conveys this love and affection can transform our relationships. Too much of a self-centred attitude does not help . We are social animals and we must remember that our success and happiness depends on others. I have been speaking with several  “mind scientists”, who point out that anger kills  a man and those who are compassionate end up not only living more fully, but also more happily”, he added.

He pointed out to the global issues facing us : Global warming, Conflicts and financial crisis and said that the 20th century was one of violence and it is time we make this 21st century one of dialogue. In the remainder of his speech, which kept the audience spell-bound, despite the sweltering heat, he shared tips on maintaining a calm mind, living objectively without fear and as one with everyone around us.

I must admit, I went in a skeptic, and came out a believer.

The challenge of writing about India

An impossibly hard task – how do people do it ?

I  will start with a confession : This blog post is one of the hardest that I have written so far. Not because I don’t know much about my country of origin, but precisely because of it. India is such a complex, vast, diverse and mixed up place, anything that anyone says can be simultaneously true and false. It is a land of ultimate contradictions and can befuddle  a casual observer.

 

Additionally, I am not one of the most patriotic person you will find. My heart doesn’t skip a beat when India wins a cricket match against some team.  I hardly watch the sport, and don’t have much care for people who cant stop talking about the latest Bollywood flick.

Each time I read an Op-ed in NY Times or the Post,  I re-read the article to see where the writer is coming from, and how thorough his/her understanding is. I must admit, that ever after many years of living in India, most journalists don’t “get it”; as one of my dear journalist friend, who writes for the WSJ confessed.  A Jew from NYC who has been in South East Asia for almost  a decade, she told me that “the more I learn about India and Indians, the less I seem to know it”. And knowing her, I don’t think she was joking. She meant it. Seriously.

Hyperbole, exaggerations, simple interpretations of complex structures which have evolved over centuries  all make the writing weak.

I believe that one of the unique qualifications that one needs to write about India seems to be that the person should have lived there for years. Decades is better, as the country shows itself in so many different ways – over a period of time.

This is one of the reasons I have resisted about writing about India, but I will try – and hopefully do a decent job of it henceforth.

As India comes into its own and starts donating money to the world (according to a news item I read recently on Al Jazeera English), India just committed to a development aid of about $ 5bn to African countries just last week. This is truly a remarkable event. Coming from zero growth rate to one where the country is registering ober 9 % annual growth in Gross Domestic Product is amazing. This, when the entire world is feeling the effects of the recession.

Coming back to my original thought of why it is so hard to write about India : my hypothesis is simple : The India that VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Khushwant Singgh and all the “oldies” wrote about is changing. The “new” India is different. It is being defined by some very savvy, smart, self-assured people who are the movers and shakers in the global marketplace.

The new India is not about an India that receives, but one which gives to the world. It is an India which is realizing that there is strength in being the largest democracy ( by some accounts dysfunctional).  These people are not your regular “Indians”. They are global citizens who have seen the world, traveled widely, experienced the world differently than what their parents did and hence, have a very different self-image.

The “New India” is also one in which its position and the way in which the world sees it is changing.

It is also an India in which massive poverty exists alongside abundance of wealth. I still remember the furore that was caused by the 27 storied building that Billionarie Ambani built in Mumbai as a residence, overlooking the biggest slum in the world. This is also the new India – where gratuitous display of wealth is becoming the norm.  But there is also a renewed sense of confidence and a unique place under the sun.

I felt this during my most recent visit to India in March 2011. I was going home after nearly two years of being in the USA and I could see the transformation of the country, not only in terms of the purchasing power of the growing middle class, but also the confidence with which my fellow Indians spoke of their own careers, lives and the direction in which the country was going.

Lest I be accused of focusing only on the middle class, I must also add that many of the people I spoke with included the poor, un-educated and illiterate, who saw increasing opportunities in bigger cities – Hyderabad and Bangalore for instance; where better opportunities and chances of earning  a livelihood compelled them to move.

More about this in the next post…

Is this really a social media revolution ?

Is this really a social media revolution ?

“Egypt is on the lower end of face book penetration in the Arab world at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent” says a recent report on social media usage by the Dubai School of Government ( DSG). Having managed their PR for over a year and having worked with the person in charge of the research, I can say with confidence that I trust those numbers.  So, is this hype about “social media revolution”, “twitter revolution” all just hype ? or is there truth to this argument ?

First things first: a few clarifications are in order.

Journalists like easy answers – and ones that satisfy their audience, without leaving much ambiguity. That is truly the rule of thumb operating here.  While most journalists writing about the Middle East and Foreign policy issues are not qualified to be writing about these issues , they want to give the impression that they truly are in control and know what is going on. I remember meeting a very senior diplomat from the State department recently, who in all modesty confirmed that he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. So, go figure.

I believe there is a tendency among the journalistic franternity to repeat the same theory over and over again, as long as someone credible says it, without questioning, analysing it. This is a trend, not to say it happens all the time.

This issue also reminds of  a panel discussion a few weeks ago at the National press club, Washington DC, where prominent journalists, bloggers and activists participated. The gist of the discussion, which represented both social media evangelists, as well as traditional media folks such as Riz Khan of Al Jazeera was that though social media played a key role in the uprisings, and continues to do so, there is a need to temper down the credit that we are giving it. Social media did not invent courage and the imagination to stand up to people.

The second edition of the DSG  report also mentions :” Egypt, the report found, constitutes about a quarter of total facebook users in the Arab region, and has added close to 2 million new users between January and April. Egypt is nonetheless on the lower end of facebook penetration in the Arab world, at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent “. So, what is really going on here ?

How come those societies which are most connected are not witnessing revolutions ? UAE, where the monarchy is very stable, did not even witness a whiff of protest, forget having a full-blown revolution.

In my mind, there are a few other possible explanations, rather than giving all the credit to Facebook and twitter. Some key factors which made the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions effective in terms of social media :

  1. There are huge masses of poor, affected people, who need to mobilize
  2. There is state censorship of media
  3. There is a critical mass of youth who want their voices to be heard

Since the demographics of the region are titled in favour of the youth ( by some estimates, about 50 % of the population in the MENA region are below 25 yrs), this creates a critical mass of users of social media and technologies.

In a study called Shababtek, done a few years ago by TNS, the market research firm, this was also brought out. I am surprised that no one is quoting this report. This was way back in the year 2008, when I was in Dubai and used to manage the TNS account. The study, which was an ethnographic study of youth across 6 countries brought out the essential truth  : Youth in the region want to express themselves, connect with others and feel part of the larger community. And the social media, internet allow for that to happen rather easily.

This can also explain partly why the revolutions in the region have succeeded, more so because youth have adopted these tools.

But to give all the credit to the tools would not only be naïve, but also foolish.

A heady week ahead for Middle East peace – time for the US to act ?

With President’s speeches  out of  the way, there seems to be much to look forward to this coming week in the realm of Middle East peace. The first speech on thursday, which failed to live up to the expectations of Cairo speech, is seen by most analysts as damp, weak and ineffectual.

The second speech at Aipac was a reiteration of his earlier speech and seem to have the intended effect – of riling up the pro-Israeli groups and Bibi himself.

The rhetoric going forward must,  lead to actions. Too many peace treaties have been proposed, and much blood has been shed to go back to just words again.

Hamas has called the speech “empty of concrete significance”, while  PM of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Obama’s call for return to 1967 borders.

In my research of this subject, my understanding of this informs me that unless the US takes a firm stand, gets the Israeli government to commit to sticking with the plans that have been outlined in several of the proposed peace plans.

The right to return as well as status of refuges are other burning issues which need to be addressed – with all the sincerity that it deserves.

The upcoming declaration of statehood by Palestine ( expected in September) is likely to be the high point in the process.  While most of the developing world and other sympathizers have recognized Palestine, Obama administration vetoed its recognition last fall in the U.N, saying any unilateral action to isolate Israel is not likely to result in any tangible results.

Some developments in the recent past have also added to the confusion with respect to the peace process. With the departure of George Mitchell, the Middle East special Envoy, things may be looking quite unclear at this moment.

The US administration has also been caught off-guard on most  issues related to Middle East in the last 6 months , and it remains to be seen if the State department gets its act together to formulate a clear vision and pushes all sides involved to do what is necessary – in its roles as the honest broker.

With  unity between Hamas and Fatah, it seems like this is the moment to be sized, and hammer out a lasting deal, while pushing Hamas to recognize Israel.

If both sides are able to compromise and come to the table, with a strong stance taken by the US on the issue of recognition of the Palestinian state, peace may be within our grasp. The bigger question in my mind is : Does the Obama administration have the gumption to back up its words with actions ?