Ten books you must read in 2013


A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and I rattled off a few titles,  and felt good about the recommendations I had just made. But on reflection, I realized that I hadn’t suggested the BEST books to read, given the paucity of time that we all have. So, if your interests are in the area of Political Science, Critical theory and (or) Civil Society, here are my favorite books.

I have read these and a few more related titled this year and highly recommend them. These are not ranked in any particular order and are clearly books you should consider buying. Collectors items indeed!

  1. Before European Hegemony by Janet Abu Lughod – A classic in its own right. Abu Lughod de-constructs how the current global market system is a by-product of 13th century European trade system. An eye-opening analysis, done with meticulous care.  She talks about how trade was impacted by demographic shifts, weather, wars among other things. You should read her work on Egypt, as well. She is brilliant.
  2. Shadows of War by Caroline Nordstrom – Another gem of a book by an Anthropologist. She analyzes “shadow economies” in war zones, how they are formed, perpetuated. Her work questions deep-rooted assumptions of what is legal and illegal. I kept asking myself, “so who is the criminal here?”, not knowing if it was the diamond smuggler or the corrupt NGO person who was at fault. A true page turner.
  3. Political Order in Changing Societies  by Samuel Huntington – Well, Samuel Huntingtion is not all evil. That is the conclusion I reached after reading his first book. This was written way back in the day (even before I was born), and it shows the power of his analysis (perhaps at his best). He looks at how political growth and economic growth don’t necessarily go hand in hand and how societies adapt to democracies.
  4. Leadership without easy answers by Ronald Heifetz – In case you want to read some leadership stuff. This is a fairly easy read, but his analysis of leadership is quite rich. He is a good writer, who brings in insights from cognitive psychology, his first profession.
  5. Marx- Engels reader –  I must admit, I read my fair share of Marxist theories this semester, and have started to appreciate the necessity of reading Marx, whether you like him or hate him – you just cant ignore him. Much of political economic analysis, globalization theories owe him a lot. My Libertarian friends may disagree.
  6. Rule of Experts by Timothy Mitchell – Another solid book on how the Western intervention in Egypt has played out over the past several decades. This takes a close look at the technologies of knowledge production and colonization in Egypt. A fascinating read.
  7. World Systems Analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein – If you think the whole world is one big mess, you would be agreeing with Wallerstein. It was his idea that one has to look at the world, as an organizing unit for analysis and not each nation state separately. Though the theory is over 30 yrs old, it is still useful today.
  8. The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills – Mills is to Sociology what Einstein is to Physics. So, I would encourage you to pick this book up. And he is a great writer too! Very readable book. Short and crisp, it will shake you up a bit.
  9. The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois – I just finished reading this classic yesterday and I must admit, it was almost poetic. The language is fluid, beautiful and extremely sensitive to the subject that he handles. Considered one of the most important books about African-Americans, this is a book you should not miss. Du Bois was the first Black man to get a PhD ( from Harvard University, no less) and is still considered one of the greatest Black leaders of all times. An intellectual giant.
  10.  The Nuclear Borderlands by Joseph Masco – Masco takes us on a journey to explain how the Manhattan project has shaped public consciousness of the Atomic bomb in the U.S. Using ethnographic studies of parts of the U.S which have housed the nuclear power plants, he looks at how native American lands have been taken over by the state, how the poor have been treated and how the fascination for the bomb continues, in its own strange way, even to this day.


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.

Discussion with Daniel Bar Tal, Middle East peace talks and the Israeli public

Dr Daneil Bar Tal, Branco Weiss Professor of Research in Child Development and Education at School of Education, Tel Aviv University visited Maxwell School of Syracuse university last week for a  two day lecture tour, during which he spoke with us, during a moderated panel discussion.I got to spend quality time with him, talking to him about the issue of Middle East peace and learnt from him, among other things, the latest in the field of conflict studies as well as his insights into what works and what doesnt.
Here are some key points from the discussion and also a few Q&As from the moderated session that took place later :
On spoilers in the Middle East peace process : We are all spoilers to some extent, in that there are no “sacred goals” that we adhere to in peace processes. Sometimes these are flexible, especially in intractable conflicts. When we analyse the rhetoric used by settlers ( Israeli) about moving settlements, there is no reference to economic losses, but usually only about symbolic issues. That the land belongs to the Jews alone, since the time of King David. The rhetoric is intentionally kept at this symbolic level, and not played out at the rational level. Jerusalem wasn’t really an issue in the Middle East peace talks until the 90s’, when it was used against Shimon Peres as an election issue.
On peace making : This may sound counter-intuitive, but moving towards peace usually means moving towards uncertainty, simply because no two parties can absolutely guarantee that the peace will last. Once both parties have signed on the dotted line, they commit themselves to living by it, but there are spoilers out there, who are going to try and scuttle the process. This places the onus of responsibility on the parties involved; and this is not an enviable position to be in.
So, given a choice between a peace treaty that does not guarantee peace ( and relies on trusting the perceived enemy) and having one’s peace by not agreeing to peace, the Israelis are choosing the former.
On Intifada : The real intifada really started in 1994, when an Israeli jewish settler opened fire at muslims praying at a mosque in Hebron. In this incident, several dozen people were killed, and this led to the uprising as we know it, later. The seeds of discord were sown then.
We also realise through our research that people are biased and have distorted views of how they want to remember events. The first intifada actually began with massive killings of Palestinians, and the first suicide attack took place as late as March 2001.
On leadership : We need a leader who is organised, has the determination, and is in a situation to deliver peace. Rabin seemed to be in that situation,but was assisinated. Security has always been an obsession with the Israeli government, despite the government in power. Though the labor party believes in Security through Peace, other parties believe in security through land. A new line of leadership or a new sociological framework will shift the dialogue.
On the 1967 war : Until then, the religious element in Israeli society was latent, but post the war, it became increasingly important, and war was seen as a way of redemption.
On the Israeli/ Jewish diaspora : They function as  a very well oiled machine, and the US house of representatives at times is more hawkish than the Israeli Knesset. There are many perceived similarities between Israel and the USA which have made the relationship so unique, and people have worked hard to maintain it that way.

On the younger Israelis : They are more hawkish than the older generation. We have seen the Green zone, and are aware of the suffering we went through, while the younger generation havent had any direct experience. In theory, most Israelis accept the notion of a two-state solution, but it is the specifics that create a problem. Opinion polls indicate that 65% of the Israelis believe that Jerusalem should not be divided.
On peace education : One of my biggest lessons learnt is that peace education is a long-term process. You sow to reap 10 years or more later. If you are looking for immediate returns, you will be disappointed. I was personally involved in re-looking at the way our history is taught in Israel, and through a very high chaired committee involving the ministry of education, oversaw this project. The irony of it all is that the person incharge of the theme for the year of education was a settler, and extremely hawkish; which made our task difficult.
Soloman Gabriel is  a researcher who has carried out evalution work on the effectiveness of peace education and he has reached the conclusion that peace education is not very effective in the short-run.
On societal change : It is not an easy process, nor is it quick. Imagine trying to change a southerner in the USA to be a secular person. Would that be an easy process ?
On the fundamental problem in achieving peace : I would say it is people who wear ideological glasses, they dont want to look at alternative information which challenges their world-view. They will interpret any information provided to them in a manner which suits them. This is our biggest challenge.