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Monday, May 28, 2012

WHAT SIMILARITY? (In Re: Manu Joseph, NYT, 23 Nov 2011)

Let me freely admit to a long-standing degree of impatience with, even animosity for, Manu Joseph. It isn't personal, in that I do not know the man. It comes only from whatever I've read of him, because in my experience his hallmark as a writer - and he can, in a technical sense, write well - is the tendency to present his ideas & impressions as some form of empirical reality. This makes him, of course, a very bad journalist - because good journalism relies rather a lot on empirical evidence!

The piece I'm responding to here - linked to me recently by a friend - is typical for him - unresearched pseudo-elitist drivel of the worst kind. You can read it at:

I want to do this point by point. SO MANY points of annoyance!
(My suggestion is that you open his link in a parallel tab, and compare points as we go along.)

First paragraph, straight off the bat, exactly what I've come to expect from him - pure assertion. So convenient to summarise the complex history of colonial occupation, integration & post-Independence organisation / reorganisation into one sweeping generalisation that just happens to chime with your particular mindset, and that of those inclined similarly to you!

(Frankly, Europe is far more concerned with a homogeneous destiny than India ever was. Diversity is always considered an asset here, even if only at a cultural level, right?)

(Disclaimer to next segment: I am a long time Mumbai resident, and probably prone to get defensive about my city. Permit me the impassioned defence so long as it remains empirically sound?)

The next two paragraphs are equally typical. Joseph knows, but chooses to ignore, a number of factors related to infrastructure: the political manoeuvres that have governed infrastructure development in Mumbai (more to do with loyalty to coalition allies than allotting funds to poorer states) ; the fundamental difference between Delhi (being a planned city built specifically & exclusively for government) & Mumbai (being an organic economics-oriented sprawl that agglomerated & calcified into the city we know today) ; the strain present on travel infrastructure in Delhi as well (which is very high) ; in turn, the consistent efforts to upgrade infrastructure as well as the efficiency of its usage in Mumbai (so Delhi, with such superior infrastructure, STILL faces jams & high travel times not unlike Mumbai, while transporting fewer people) ; geographical differences (Delhi is flat land on either banks of a river; Mumbai is a network of islands, swamps, straights, canals & reclamations) ; climatic differences (travellers do not die of heat strokes in Mumbai, so air conditioning remains a luxury) - this, from the top of my head. Even discounting ALL these, he somehow overlooks that (Delhi, for the above reasons, aside), Mumbai has THE BEST FUNCTIONAL PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM and public infrastructure of any Indian megapolis - while handling population pressures significantly higher than its nearest competitors - Bangalore, Chennai & Hyderabad.

Does Mumbai deserve better infrastructure? Hell, yes. Can this be done without bringing the city to a grinding halt? This is a technological question, but let's say it can. Can it be done faster & cheaper than it is? Corruption factors aside (since those are nationwide), that would be a technological question as well - but the odds are that surgical impact, rapid deployment technology is more expensive than current approaches, not less. Does infrastructure development in Mumbai, therefore, need MORE investment than similar moves in other cities? Of course, for reasons of both scale & technological complexity - & the high saturation of available space in the city will not help either. Does Joseph touch on ANY of these nuances? No. Just the tired old - we make more money, we deserve a greater slice of it. In percentage or absolute terms, name ONE other municipality that receives revenues like Mumbai does? Of course, it NEEDS even more. But while this gap can imply a deficit in intelligent governance, it is hard to see how it automatically means injustice or prejudice aforethought.

[ADDENDUM: A friend pointed out an even deeper flaw, while commenting on this piece in another forum: Mumbai probably has the highest ratio of commercial establishments to industrial ones. What this means is that a lot of this money Joseph speaks of is not 'made' in Mumbai in any real sense. It is simply paid here. So, for instance, Tata has no factories in Mumbai, or even Maharashtra that I know of. But they file their taxes through their corporate head office in Mumbai. Can the states where the factories are located complain about deprivation of revenue from 'their' production? Can Mumbai claim to be 'deprived' of it if, for whatever reason, Tata shifts HQ to Gandhinagar? The absurdity of the claim to 'making more money' could not be more evident.]

Jump to an equally non-nuanced cultural-political analysis of the migrants vs. sons-of-the-soil clashes. Is there even a hint of analysis of the mix of push / pull factors behind the migration? (None, but who expected any anyway?) Enforce labour laws, so that the same wage MUST be paid to both migrant & local labour, set up mixed-composition unions to bargain for above minimum wage for ALL workers - then see how many of those "thriving businesses" in Mumbai continue to thrive or even do business there. They will move to where the labour is cheaper still - perhaps, finally, redirecting that migration to multiple rural centres? And from a sociological perspective, see how many of the local workers are WILLING to work under these conditions. Because, you know, it's easy to resent someone who will work twice as hard as you for half the pay - but (assuming the hours & pay are legal) that just makes you a lazy thug, not an entitled dissident. I may be unfair to my own state / linguistic community in saying this, but "hard working" is not a trait widely associated with us - or, at any rate, more readily associated with some of those migrant communities.

The next paragraph - RIGHT AFTER talking about migration - links political power with population in the State. Do I need to point out the contradiction? Shouldn't we be eager for migrants, then - to vote in sympathetic elements from the cities to which they migrate (so that their lot can be improved) incidentally gaining political power for their new residences rather than their home states? Again, if the distribution of seats lags behind population migration trends, is that the fault of the migrants? Of their home states? Or are we suggesting these migrants all trek home every election to vote?

And so we come, at last, to his real bug-bear. The idea that an intellectual 'Germany' (and we're taking this comparison at face value because it's an easy reference to follow, which is pretty much the kind of association Joseph relies upon for any of his writing to resonate), consisting of a financial / managerial / technocrat elite, feels they are not "getting their money's worth" out of politics. That this is a naked argument for elitism ought to be apparent, but then Joseph seems to have the good fortune of writing to sympathetic audiences.

The "objection" is ridiculous on many levels. The business of business is business, yes, but the business of government is governance, not business, so you do NOT assess it as returns to investment on the level of the individual citizen. Its purpose is developing the nation, not YOUR little bit of it. AFTER a common minimum is achieved, THEN you can look for something like proportionate gains to your contribution - until then, your entitlement is just the minimum your condition requires. This assumes, too, that you ARE investing heavily in the government, and that's just not true. P. Sainath (most famously amongst a host of others) documents, year after year, the quantum of corporate taxes written off / unrealised by the government; the short version is, in any given year, we could meet all our payments, balance all deficits & perhaps even run a surplus budget if we refused to write off that amount. As I was reading in a different context, this attitude is less about a failure of government & more about a cultural disconnect where an Ayn-Rand-style atomistic capitalist hedonism is placed above an ethic of contribution to society & nation. Economically, anybody COULD be really rich even in the licence-permit era, but there were enough people who felt this was improper when large parts of the country did not even have food to eat. Today, that taboo seems to have vanished - in fact, the dominant narrative appears to be one of individual entitlement to wealth, which is to be protected from the government at all costs. (Ref. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976 - or this article by his student Block -

Of course, there is the question of corruption. Just because I am not entitled to a direct quid pro quo gain for what I contribute to society / nation, does not mean I cannot insist on being satisfied as to proper end-use of my contribution. In that sense I am an important stakeholder in national development, and there is certainly no call to tolerate some politician, government functionary or interloper enriching himself off my contribution while its intended recipients remain in abject or relative poverty. (This was me adding nuance. Notice the contrast, because - again - Joseph has none.)

The 'chief grouse' of this so-called German segment of India is not that the 'Greek' segment determines economic policy. It is that they are not permitted to enrich themselves to the extent they believe possible because the 'Greek' segment stakes a claim. And it is here that the comparison falls apart: the actual Greek government, through a series of measures charitably described as ill-advised, BY ITS OWN ACTIONS went from being a comfortable economy to being in a position of weakness & debt, from which it now clamours for rescue. The German government, amongst others, JUSTIFIABLY wishes to know why its people (to whom it owes prime allegiance) must undergo hardship to correct for the follies of the Greeks - especially when the Greek people themselves stubbornly refuse to take on such hardships themselves. (For their part, Greek voters ask why they, the vastly uninvolved & guiltless majority, must pay the price for mistakes made by a small finance-industry-government clique, exacerbated by opportunism from similar cliques in other countries.

What Joseph calls the "Greek" segment of India is different in that key aspect - they did not fall into that position by their own follies, but rather have been kept there through a significant history of economic repression - often with the complicity of some of those who form the "German" segment. (This is a simplistic summary of the Indian socio-economic scenario, & its history - but again, one I believe should hold.) Their contract with the State requires their upliftment, just as the contract of the "German" segment in turn implies that they bear not merely the brunt but the ENTIRETY of this burden at need. If you don't like having to bear that burden, leave. ONLY in this respect is there a similarity to the European Union, because the answer to the German question - why should we sacrifice? - is the same: for the benefit of a larger community than yourselves, and not least because elements from among you contributed to this problem as well. The perceived difference between these common answers lies only in the fact that the EU is a RECENT & purely consensual supra natural entity, whereas India is a relatively ancient supra-natural accommodation that's had a long time - & the benefit of coercion by military force - to adjust to being a single, integral entity.

Joseph then reduces politicians' behaviour (by recourse to Keynes) to purely a function of short-term profit, and that of the proletarian "Greek" segment (which votes en masse, while the elite "German" segment is hardly participatory) to wrangling for those gains, or else sheer communal clannishness. What sophistry! Could you perhaps articulate that "German" segment dream a little more clearly, sir? How can my vote & theirs be equal? I am the true citizen, it is mine that should carry weight. 

Naked elitism hidden by sophistry. Essentially an argument for oligarchy - or, ironically, the old Athenian democracy, where the franchise went only to the plutocracy. Merge this with that equally cherished middle class dream (one is not sure if this middle class is Greek or German. That enforced dichotomy has played its role, and can now be discarded) of political power without political involvement, by referencing the "second revolution" that Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement was occasionally built up to be. If fulfilled, of course, this is a dream that would give us more distinguished looking politicians, essentially supplanting the thugs of the current crop with suave scamsters & white collar confidence artists - because it would no more solve the problem of the preponderance of short-term gain over consideration of long-term sustainability that Joseph identifies as the source of opportunistic political behaviour. Less murderers, more employers of contract killers. To put in Joseph's terms, we don't want the "Greeks" deciding, so let's hand it over to La Familia! At least they wear nice suits... Why this is worse, of course, is that the mafiosi are not there to benefit "Greek" or "German", merely to milk both dry by all means available - it is not least the knowledge that this is the alternative that makes control of policy by the "Greek" segment preferable.

And so, to the homily to patriotism in ending. Are people bound by virtues & ideas, or simply time & habit? Could it be, just possibly, that they are bound by an actual belief in a collective benefit that more atomistic views do not offer - and that this comparison simply may not transpose to the European context, where the trade-off between benefits for individual members vs. the collective is a lot sharper? One is not sure that Mr. Joseph could answer, but he resorts to his sole skill - the soundbyte - to sign off instead. Some nonsense about arranged marriages growing stronger when divorce is not an option. Yes, in the ideal, that will happen. But we've seen every degree of dysfunctional & broken home result as well, which is precisely why it was seen as ultimately beneficial for family welfare to bring that option to the table. Or do you think the "Greek" segment should simply volunteer to be the docile, battered wife, and bear all the costs of the marriage while continuing in servile submission?

Thank you for your patience. Pray that I may have the same when I encounter Mr. Joseph's writing once more. As it is, I can only worry what reading such pulp fiction in the New York Times does for a non-Indian reader's view of my country.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Troll Slaying From An Ivory Tower

"All lies & jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest."

Lines from my favourite Simon & Garfunkel song; reading on the internet frequently  convinces me they are a one-point summary of human nature. Now, someone who wants to research current affairs, or even just keep up with the news, will tend to read a fair few articles on the internet these days - epapers, blogs, what have you. And while we all know that the internet has given new life to that remark about Monkeys, Typewriters & The Complete Works of Shakespeare, one begins to despair of finding a certain level of journalistic quality - or even intelligence - in many of these (to use the term loosely) writings. Even where the original piece is excellent, the ensuing (again, what may be loosely termed) debate ranges from banal to wildly off the point.

Hence this little piece. Think of it as "How to... / Propose a Controversial Position / ...For Dummies" sort of write-up. It's very simple, really. I welcome your opinions. I want to read them - & I particularly welcome the opportunity to debate them. Only, see, I want to engage in something we call "intelligent debate". If you're wondering what that is, I don't blame you. There isn't a lot of it on view, and often that's deliberate. Think of this article as a guide to recognising this increasingly endangered specie, if you should be lucky enough to encounter it.

First hint: the title itself - "intelligent debate" is (or at least endeavours to appear to be) a conversation between two or more "intelligent" people (i.e. people who are or at least endeavour to appear to be intelligent). It's a debate, because they disagree about something which is (or at least endeavours to appear to be) important. The quality of debate itself would tend to depend on the quality of the arguments of which it consists.

Because I'm a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan, I've condensed my idea of "good" arguments/debate into something we can call the "RADICAL" method. (I tried coming up with something to acronym to "Cowabunga!" but the W,G & ! gave me some trouble.) Radical - while it may be an apt description for the notion that debate is meant to be intelligent at all - happens to stand for: -
  • Rational
  • Articulate
  • Debatable
  • Informed
  • Contextually Appropriate
  • Lucid

We'll go through each of these in turn. (We could do alphabetical order, but then the acronym would be rather pointless, no?)So, here's

#1 - Rationality
A working definition of intelligence, as provided by David Wechsler (one of the pioneers of intelligence testing, and the man responsible for the current concept of I.Q.) is "Intelligence is the... capacity to think rationally, act purposefully & adapt effectively to one's environment.
Let's just focus on the first one here - "think rationally". Webster's defines "Rational" as "based on or in accordance with reason or logic". This is a very important first principle - good arguments are reasonable, logical arguments. Without getting into too many of the technicalities, the basic formula is: 

Premise('A') + Logic = Conclusion('X')

Logic is you explaining how you arrived from 'A' (where you started) to 'X' (where you finished). 'How you arrived at X', as in, the reasons you believe 'A' leads to 'X'. What seems to happen most of the time is that we jump straight to X. That is, we present our conclusion as a statement. Unfortunately, unless I think like you do (which is unlikely, if we're having a debate), I have very little idea how you came to that conclusion. In fact, to me, it's not even a conclusion - it's just an "assertion". It might be the truth. In all probability, it's so far from the truth that entire dynasties would die out before light from there was visible to you. I know you still believe it's true. I know I don't. Thing is, unless you care to explain why you're asserting it, we're at something of an impasse. Here's an example:

"A logical argument is a good argument." I assert. Hard to disprove, no?


Premise: An argument is meant to promote debate &/or illustrate one's reasoning/stream of thought.
Logic: It is possible to debate logic, difficult to debate assertions. Also, a clearly reasoned argument is easily followed.
Logic: Anything that fulfills its purpose well is good.
Conclusion: A logical argument - <which fulfills its purpose> - <which is to promote debate / illustrate reasoning> - is a good argument.

Easier to debate? Challenge my premise, or my logic, as you choose, yes?

All logical so far? Good. Now, rationality testifies to a clarity of thought, that you know why or how the things you're saying make sense. Or at least appear to make sense. To you. It's still necessary to convey this to your (hopefully willing, possibly hapless) audience. Which brings us to

#2 - Articulation
Articulation is the ability to express an idea fluently & coherently. This is important, because if you're thinking clearly but writing gibberish, as far as I can tell, you're thinking gibberish. Which means you have to make the effort to present something which does not look like gibberish to me. (Unless you're writing for your own consumption. That's fun too. No rules there.) So, it may be eminently clear to you what "Qaddafi died. French planes sell pretzels. Rebels eat bananas & Sarah Palin supports it." means. The rest of us will probably get an aneurysm trying to make sense of it. You (presumably) want us convinced, not paralysed/dead. So please, translate your thoughts into words better.

FOR ADVANCED USERS: Beware the sar-chasm. Annoying, but inevitable. Or, as they say on the metro - "Please Mind the Gap."

#3 - Debatability
 This is a tough one. You want your argument to win, right. So of course you should come up with something nobody can argue with, right? Wrong. See, if it's not debatable, most of us aren't crazy enough to want to try and argue it anyway. (I may be lying about that. Intellectuals are surprisingly masochistic surprisingly often.) Still, a few guidelines:

a) Assertions are rarely debatable: As explained in #1 above. You say it's right. I say it's wrong. Debate over. G'day, mate!

b) Premises SHOULD be debatable: You start at A. I start at Z. Even following the same logic, we probably won't both wind up at X. (If we're matching steps, I'll reach C instead.) If you're not willing to argue why we should start at A, Z or somewhere else altogether (ϕ, for instance), it's the same story as (a) above. "Is too." "Is not." G'day, mate! 

c) Articles of faith SHOULD NOT be used as premises. Or as logic. "God made the world, okay..." is a poor premise in a debate on evolution. ("...This has widely been regarded as a bad move, and caused much resentment." RIP, Douglas, my hero.) "God blessed America" is bad logic in a debate on American exceptionalism. (but, hey, Canada got Niagara. And Sasquatch. Who needs to be blessed when you have Sasquatch?)

(Mexico got tequila. Cuba really got a raw deal, which may be why USA tried to send them some democracy, but it landed on the wrong beach & had to be returned to sender... )

Generally speaking, appealing to an ineffable Divine Will (note, I capitalise the D/W. I'm quite a theist, I just don't see a role for religion in the realm of rational debate) is the very definition of a Deus ex machina - a get out of jail free card, as it were. "It is the will of God." "Okay, but why?" "We cannot question it. We can't even know it. It's ineffable." Okay, but you can take your ineffable will and <perform anatomical impossibility>.

d) FOR ADVANCED USERS: Reductio ad absurdem, much as we love it, is *NOT* debatable. The name itself proclaims it - you're stretching an argument to its logical extreme to make it look absurd. If you do, hey presto, it looks absurd. Congratulations. 10/10 for rhetoric, but it's pure gimmick. I enjoy reading it, and employing it, as much as the next man, but it can ruin ANY argument without adding anything of substance. Prenatal screening for congenital defects does not give us Hitler's eugenics programme. If you think so, show me the inevitability / overwhelming probability there. Me, I think you just wanted to say Hitler & Eugenics. Try again, and see #5. 

#4 - Informed
This is particularly important. You want to debate why buying rebel oil from Cote D'Ivoire is a bad idea? I'm ready - except the rebel oil is coming from Libya. Not that I mind debating every figment of your imagination, but most debates centre around real issues, not pure hypotheticals. You CANNOT debate a law without at least trying to read it. This is really of prime importance everywhere: when you are debating (based on) something someone else wrote, READ WHAT THEY WROTE FIRST. CAREFULLY. READ IT AGAIN FOR NUANCE. When someone challenges your interpretation of it, GO BACK AND READ IT AGAIN, to see if that interpretation is sustainable as well. Otherwise you risk getting shown up as an imbecile. Which, to be fair, you may well be, but you probably don't want to come out of the cuckoo clock so publicly. Also, as a matter of courtesy, when you're bringing in new stuff that somebody else wrote, do make the reference explicit. It's doing yourself a favour, really, because then you can blame the imbecility on Durkheim or Freud or whoever instead of owning up to it.

Here's what can happen.
a) Well-informed guy & uninformed guy engage in debate. Informed guy makes a nuanced statement drawn from the facts. Uninformed guy has no idea what he's saying. Pounces on one suspicious word in the statement and murders everything to do with it, its wife, parents, children, dog or goldfish. Well-informed guy explains why this is thoroughly irrelevant. Uninformed guy denounces this as a cover-up (or, better still, a conspiracy) & rapidly redirects attention to something he knows (or at least endeavours to appear to know) better. Well-informed guy dredges up every abuse reserved for hijackers & leaves in disgust. Uninformed guy proclaims victory of truth over conspiracy.
b) Well-informed persons debate amongst each other. Relevant points are raised and broken down based on each one's beliefs. People learn what serious critics of their viewpoints have to say. They address each other's concerns, and may even come to a compromise.
c) Uninformed persons debate amongst each other. General hilarity ensues. Well-informed persons who chance by the debate either have that aneursym or die in silent paroxysms of mirth - i.e. less well-informed people alive in the world.

Here, (a) is a zero sum game. You can only win what the other loses. (b) is a win-win situation. Everybody gains. (c) is net loss. Nobody wins anything, except maybe the ones who died happy. In case this is unclear, a win-win is the best outcome of those three. Moral of the story - do a little research before shooting your mouth off. And please, for the more serious issues, this means credible research. Wikipedia does *not* count - because, though this may be the lawyer in me talking, I don't think reading the Wikipedia page on the Goldstone Report is nearly the same thing as reading the Goldstone Report (all 575 pages of it), or even its Executive Summary (30 pages).

FOR ADVANCED USERS: Douglas Adams Reference #2: Just preface your assertion - like I did above - with "It turns out..." Just the right suggestion that this is based on real research or consensus - not just your wild imagination, without ever referencing what that research may be. Sheer genius!

#5 - Contextual Appropriate-ness (Appropriacy?)
Most debates take place in a certain context. Each argument contributes best if it stays true to that context. If we're discussing what to do about Communists, it tends to matter whether you mean in India or Cuba. Or China. ("Drop them in boiling oil" is not really an option. Unless you were at a meeting of HUAC in the McCarthy era. QED.)
You can deconstruct even the best of arguments by taking them out of context. (Ambrose Bierce did this famously to Descartes. He says the appropriate refined version of Descartes' famous dictum should be "cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum". For what it's worth, I tend to agree with Bierce - the brain is an apparatus with which we think we think.
Thing is, the debate was relevant to this context. You do nothing for it by dragging it beyond. What the Argentinian Constitution says - if there even is one - matters little or nothing to whether Pranab Mukherjee* is tackling Marxism properly. (I loved Evita, I really did. But we're not a Peronist government. Sorry.) So yes, that was a scholarly, thoroughly well constructed and irrefutable analysis of what Juan & Eva did. Pranabda doesn't care, and neither do I. Hunt around, and you ought to find the... gumption... to contest what I'm saying in THIS arena.

* He was Home Minister when I originally wrote this. But PC doesn't care much about Argentina either, so pouncing on that won't help you.

FOR ADVANCED USERS: This is sometimes seen as a special form of the reductio ad absurdem hijack, to make a policy appear misogynistic / bigoted / racist etc. Make my idea sound like a policy promoted by Nazi cannibal chauvinists, and you've got most (of at least the uninformed) public opinion on your side, while I have to defend those (pig-eating?) schwein. Plus you probably get to say "Hitler" & "Eugenics" quite a lot. Maybe even a "Sieg Heil!" or two. Again, love the theatrics, but you're not actually debating my point at all.

#6 - Lucidity
Closely related to #2, Articulation. (Yes, changing the order messes up the acronym. Do you have no poetry in your soul?) In fact, you may not - and you may have none in your pen either. So expressing your thoughts fluently may be a little difficult. That's okay. We're not language snobs. Really. We appreciate your ideas in their own right. Unfortunately, that is precisely why the latter bit - coherently - is a bit of a sine qua non. Otherwise, we just don't get it.
To approach it a little differently: brevity is the soul of humour. And efficiency is the soul of logic. So the best (& funniest) arguments aren't long, laboured works (like this one). They're short & to the point. (Like: you people type infuriating <stercus taurorum>. Go <perform an anatomical impossibility>) Consequently EVERY word has to serve a purpose, preferably many. (Besides, a good pun is its own reword.) It's not a coincidence that four-letter words are so popular - sometimes they're seductively eloquent.

Endeavour to be concise. Elegant. Apt. It's a talent, but it comes with practise too. Wodehouse reportedly used to start with pages of his manuscript on the floor, and then tack them to the wall as he refined them. He wasn't willing to publish a page until it had risen till eye level. Not that we aim that high, but surely we could at least try to avoid hitting below the belt?

Again, an older piece of writing. Since then, I've subscribed to paid syndication services, that also deliver some very insightful analyses & opinions to my mailbox. Nonetheless, the moment one steps into the wider blogosphere, these perils are as evident as when I first wrote this. The only difference is, I'm friends with more trolls now. This doesn't make them any less infuriating, it just means I can abuse them to my heart's content via private messages instead of in the comments feed, thus denying them sustenance. A winning strategy, if I do say so myself!

What remains interesting, though, is a point first made by Noam Chomsky (in Manufacturing Consent) - media that promote soundbyte-sized interactions, sans context or even opportunity to contextualise, consciously sacrifice opportunities for intelligent debate in the bargain. Oh, and they probably say "Hitler" a lot.

And yes, I know something about preaching to the choir. G'day, mate!

Saturday, May 05, 2012

What Farewell?

Context: I'm leaving home today, after spending pretty much all my life in Mumbai, for New Delhi. One too many people who know this asked if I would miss home. Sufficient provocation for one who resorts to poetry at the drop of a hat anyway.


De urbe prima in Indis
First city of my life, too
My gateway to the world
‘City of Dreams’ they name you,
Two dozen years you’ve nurtured me
And all my dreams within.

Now comes the time to chase them beyond your boundaries
Consoling myself with the delusion
That you might weep to see me go -
Though only two drops of your tears
And a crinkled, wet-eyed smile –
Delusion, I know.
The city that never sleeps
Will hardly miss one insomniac.

As for my part?
I would say I’ll miss you
If such a thing were possible.
We both know it isn’t though:
To live here is to leave your soul here,
To leave you is an illusion.

Your winds have nursed me to sleep,
Your bright sky has been my roof,
A boundless horizon
Birthing boundless dreams beneath,
For you have grown in me
As I have grown within.

Leave you?
What madness:
The rhythm of your rails is the cadence
My heart knows best
It beats in time,
My breath rises and falls with your waves,
The bright red that runs in your roads
Runs in my veins alike,
If I toil, and stand soaked in my sweat
It is to feel I am drenched in your rains,
The glorious hues of your sunsets
Are the palette to which my imagination aspires,
My dreams walk your lamplit colonnades
Tonight, and every night.
I couldn’t leave you behind if I tried.

This, where the road takes me now
This is just a detour,
Wait & watch
You’ll see, McArthur had it right,
Because I know you,
I know your nature
It is hope, and -
I shall return, my hope, my light, my love,
To you, I shall always return.
Mi yeto.

* Mi yeto is Marathi, literally, "I will come (back)".
The belief is that, when leaving someone's home, it is inauspicious to say that one is leaving ("mi nighto" / "mi jato"). Better the promise to return, sincere or otherwise!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

On the UNSC Seat (Written for MeLawnge 2011)


            As a cynic­­, one finds it highly amusing to see various arguments taken to support India's claim to a permanent seat on the Security Council. (Of course, as a cynic, one finds most things amusing). What is funny about these many, many propositions is their remarkably self-delusional nature, and consequently their tendency to miss the mark completely.

            The most common thread of reasoning speaks about the growing influence of India on world affairs; another popular angle to take is the non-representative nature of the UN SC as it stands today. This writer does not mean to suggest that neither of these propositions has substance - they do, if not to the extent that patriotism would dispose us to believe. What these - and most other arguments - lack, however, is an understanding of realpolitik.

            It is typical of the pious Indian mindset to suggest that our request is somehow intended to right a greater wrong, and that though we do not especially desire it we will take up this task if it is offered, in the greater interests of humanity, etc. The bare fact, though, is that our demand is one for power, and we ought to own up to it. For those who disagree, please consider: the UN SC could be expanded and made more representative by giving India and some other countries a permanent seat, but without the veto. Do we still want the seat?

            The crux of the debate is not ‘permanent representation’, but the power to block multilateral action against oneself or one's allies (which is really all that the veto ever was or will be). When one frames the question that forms the topic of this article - does India deserve a permanent seat, that is, a veto – it is hard to think of a reason why.

            The rationale behind the Veto, considering that it is a highly discriminatory and unequal power, must be understood in the backdrop of the formation of the UN itself. The year was 1945, the Second Great War had just come to an end, and even as FDR & Churchill (amongst others) struggled to create a structure that could guard against the recurrence of such global conflicts, the changed reality of the post-WWII world had to be acknowledged. To the victor go the spoils - and in 1945, a veto power on the UN SC was very much part of the spoils.

            That is, of course, the cynical interpretation. A more charitable statesman, say, for instance Woodrow Wilson – having experienced the collapse of the League of Nations, and the horrors of the Great War that followed that failure - would not think of it thus. To his mind, it would be essential to make the UN SC was both effective and credible. What the SC mandated must happen. What the SC forbade must not. This state of affairs could never be established if even one of the 'P-5' defied the council - so it was better to simply make no statement that they would not follow. Equally, it was true that a statement made with the backing of those 5 nations could not be resisted by any country. The veto thus ensured the credibility of the UN SC, by making sure its words were understood to carry the conjoint authority of every great power in the world.

            If we apply Wilson's logic today, the veto has lost much of its purpose. For starters, there are no Great Powers anymore - even USA & The People's Republic of China, with the best claim to that title - find themselves challenged and even held accountable in various situations and fora. Nonetheless, one could still say that - if only for financial reasons - it is immensely difficult for the UN to implement something when USA or PRC oppose it. They are, broadly, still entitled to the veto-to-ensure-credibility.

            The other 3 'P-5' nations have no such claim. The co-operation of the USSR meant the difference between success and failure in the Cold War era, but the co-operation of the Russian Federation means little to the world at large (just to Georgia & Ukraine). The Russian government is reduced to haggling over the price of obsolete equipment with India – a far cry from pre-1991 Soviet power. The United Kingdom's opinion is hardly respected even in Europe, perhaps because of their persistent cribbing over the Euro and economic integration. (Although given the fallout from the EuroZone debt crisis, who is to say theirs was not the wiser choice?) France - in any case historically the least likely to invoke the veto - is almost stereotypically moderate on practically every issue (excluding Algeria, and the consequences of having a large Algerian Muslim population). Their co-operation is practically taken for granted, and they rarely even bargain for benefits for extending it – perhaps because if they tried, other nations would simply move on without them, and their understanding of realpolitik has been almost thoroughly flawless (again, with the exception of Algeria). President Bush, for all his flaws, demonstrated conclusively the limits of the French ability to impact world affairs.

            Although this would seem to create 3 'slots' for new 'veto powers', it is rather difficult to see how any of the nations pitching for the place deserve it. Remember, the test is that their co-operation is indispensible for the UN SC to take effective action. Brazil, India, Germany, South Africa, Japan - the front runners for these new seats - do not, in isolation, command substantially more power than the UK, France or Russia today.

            What, then, is the solution? This writer would like to suggest that it is to remain true to the concept of the veto, and grant it only to nations whose involvement is indispensible. The third candidate after the US & PRC is the EU, and it is high time we saw a single EU seat on the UN SC. It could be held by rotation by UK, France & Germany, and each would have to consult the others prior to a vote. Differences would mean an abstention. Along the same lines, one would expect a pan-Asian seat held between India, Russia & Japan and a 'global South' seat held by Brazil & South Africa.

The reason this system remains true to the veto is that a concerted refusal by the leading nations of any continent - Europe, Asia or South America & Africa - will indeed make implementation of any measure very difficult, even if only on financial grounds. This is not unlike the 'group-veto' compromise solution that was suggested as a condition for permanent membership for India, Japan, Brazil & South Africa, but has the twin advantages of not creating an additional tier of power, and of maintaining the SC at its current size. (Both of these are important factors - an executive body cannot afford to be too large, or it loses efficiency. Three levels of member countries would be confusing, with much the same effect.) It is also the only proposed solution which reconfigures the Council to be truly representative of the realities of today's world.

            Needless to say, it is unpopular with every single stakeholder. If proposed, it will undoubtedly get vetoed.

Good thing we cynics can find our amusement anywhere.

Note: This article appeared in the 2011 edition of the Government Law College Annual Magazine, MeLawnge. Word limits prevented factoring in of military / strategic power - a suggestion from my father (an ex-Navy man) that I otherwise intended to incorporate.

Nonetheless, I believe that if one takes into account not merely military strength but also projection capacity (to say nothing of proclivity), the trend in the analysis above will still be supported. If India actually managed to mobilise a 'Blue Water' Navy, that could change, but in an environment where every defense acquisition - already prone to delay & cost overruns - is treated with extreme suspicion, prompting even more delay, this remains a remote (though by no means implausible) prospect.

It would, however, require a realignment of policy & finances to that end. Which in turn would need our government to remember Nehru's dictum to the Navy (in one of his rare moments of realism) - "To be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea."

One could as easily have said, to be secure in the world.