Monday, August 29, 2011

Direct Political Action in India

India is experiencing direct political action. And not everybody is celebrating.
Back when Independence came, India had a relatively honest bureaucracy, so some say. But with Independence came the socialist planned state, and every commercial action needed a multitude of licences and permission. In a socialist state, public salaries were stagnant. The opportunities offered by the Licence Raj, and the neediness engendered by the levellers, led to increasing corruption. But the last two decades have eclipsed all that. Indian tycoons built huge fortunes off such opportunities as the sale of cell-phone rights. They have done so dishonestly.
I don’t know if that story is completely accurate, but India now has a bureaucracy and political class that are very corrupt by any standards. The 2G cell-phone scandal is said to have cost the Treasury $40 billion; the Commonwealth Games fiasco modernized the Capital—but at a cost in corruption that can only be guessed at.
This is where direct action comes in. Anna Hazare is an Indian who has been in the news lately. He proposed anti-corruption legislation to create the office of Lokpal, or Guardian of the People, with very broad powers to root out corruption. He has been fasting to protest its non-adoption. Yesterday, India’s Parliament passed a non-binding resolution endorsing Hazare’s main demands, and he broke his fast. “Today the Parliament is discussing the issues you have raised,” Hazare said, “It is the people’s parliament that is supreme.” It should be clear: Hazare’s phrase “the people’s parliament” does not mean Parliament. He is referring to the protest movement he started.
Hazare is a decorated retired soldier and a dynamic social worker. He introduced dramatic and very successful agricultural reform in his own village, and the results made him famous and influential. Disturbingly, though, there are reports that these reforms were achieved tyrannically. In a forthcoming book, the well-known journalist Mukul Sharma reports (in Ramachandra Guha’s summary) that “Liquor, tobacco, even cable TV were forbidden. Dalit families were compelled to adopt a vegetarian diet. Those who violated these rules—or orders—were tied to a post and flogged.” Local elections were not held; national campaigns were disallowed.
The mode of the anti-corruption campaign, and Hazare’s own predelictions, have caused many Indian intellectuals considerable anxiety. A few days ago, I posted links to Arundhati Roy writing in the Hindu, a left-wing newspaper, and to that newspaper’s own editorial on the subject (which notes that many of the provisions of the Lokpal bill are unconstitutional). Roy, who is a left-wing activist herself (and a Booker Prize winner for her novel, The God of Small Things) writes:
While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji's ideas about the decentralisation of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official.
Roy is not disturbed just by the content of the Lokpal proposal. She deplores the movement itself: “the Maoists and the Jan Lokpal Bill have one thing in common — they both seek the overthrow of the Indian State.” Hazare does not care for India’s constitutional democracy: the last 64 years (since Independence) have been wasted, he has said.
Niraja Gopal Jayal, an eminent political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, strikes a note that is, at least to my ear, less authentic and less urgent than Roy’s:
If we allow civil society (or any segment of it, however well-intentioned) to dictate the law to Parliament today, on what grounds do we deny the same privilege to others tomorrow — corporate lobbies, for example?
Surely this cannot be the main concern: it is possible to regulate corporate lobbies. Still Jayal’s concern, like Roy’s, is with power being exercised outside the normal constitutional channels. “The supreme irony is that to give in to the demands of [Anna Hazare] would be tantamount to opening the doors to legalising the very forms of influence on which Hazare is so generously staking his life,” she writes in the Indian Express.
It’s a peculiarly Indian conversation. Gandhian principles of civil pressure struggling against pride in indigenous institutions and protectiveness of their legitimacy. Unlike China, India doesn’t enforce anti-corruption laws by shooting those found guilty. Like China before said executions, the new economy has reinforced and accelerated a long decline in public morality. The issue that engages many Indian intellectuals is how to break the culture of corruption within the Constitution. Hazare accepts no such restrictions.
Perhaps we should allow a politician the last word. Here is Rahul Gandhi, speaking in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament:
Democracy is central to fighting corruption. Individuals . . . have galvanized people in the cause of freedom and development. However, individual dictates, no matter how well intentioned, must not weaken the democratic process. This process is often lengthy and lumbering. But it is so in order to be inclusive and fair.

(Cross-posted at New APPS.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nationalist Scoundrels

I am viscerally opposed I am to Canadian nationalism--the protection of Canadian jobs against qualified non-Canadian applicants, and of Canadian culture on radio and TV. It is mostly a whiny way that Canadians claim entitlements that they don't deserve, and as such it reminds me of union featherbedding on a grand scale. But as a person of Indian origin, I am proud of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. This has led me to wonder when nationalism is morally permissible.

Nations are, I take it, groups of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant majority in a geographical area. The majority criterion is important: Jews have shared culture, but they are not a nation, except in Israel.

Nationalism is an exclusionary ideology adopted by such a group. It aims to reserve political participation, economic opportunities, and cultural liberty for members of the group. Minority rights movements may ask for some of these things, but they are not nationalisms because they are not conducted by nations.

Is nationalism ever morally justified? Is it ever right to adopt an ideology that encourages the exclusion of people? Is it ever right for a majority to do so?

Well, it can be right when either it reacts to the colonial subjugation of a nation, or when it attempts to preserve the shared culture against an imminent threat. For example, Indian nationalism was morally justified during British rule. It isn’t justified any more, and has fortunately ceased to exist (I think) having been replaced by provincial nationalisms that have very little justification (though occasionally a modicum). Quebec nationalism was justified when the French language was under threat in North America. It is putrefying now (and enjoying it). There are many other examples of this sort.

On the other hand, there are many cases where nationalism is clearly unjustified or even preposterous. There is an English nation, but it has never been subjugated or threatened. It is debatable whether there is an American nation, but even if there is, the same applies. And in fact, there is no significant American nationalist movement in the sense just defined. (There is American patriotism, to an uncomfortable degree, and American militarism, ditto—but this is a different matter.) Aggressive nationalism is preposterous and can never be justified. The German nation was under threat in the 1930s, but how many brain cells does it take to see that this didn’t even begin to justify the annexation of Czechoslovakia or Poland?

Canadians are not a nation. There is no group of people historically united by culture, political organization, and language, and who constitute a significant majority in Canada. This is one reason why multiculturalism has worked here. In the US, multiculturalism is a vibrant cultural force, but members of non English-speaking cultures have to face a degree of intolerance. (In Australia, the nation is so ineluctably sexy that Chinese and Indians simply surrender with soft moans and shudders. This is the coming form of nationalism, but I won’t discuss it further here.) Canadians are more like Europeans than Americans in the tolerance dimension. In Europe, however, minority cultures bump up against nations. In Canada, there is tolerance, but no nation. These are great conditions for multiculturalism. (In Quebec, by the way, there is a nation, and multiculturalism has a harder ride.)

I ask the question about Canada in particular, but having asked it I wonder whether Canada is the only democratic country in the world that still harbours mainstream nationalism. There is a bit of it in Australia and in many European countries, but in these countries it is mostly a fringe movement. Every country tries to protect itself against levels of immigration that (in its view) would unduly stress its economy. But in which independent democracy other than Canada do polite centrists lament the incursions of qualified non-nationals?

Everybody knows the term CanCon here: it stands for Canadian Content, and it’s a phrase because radio stations and cable channels must carry a quota of it. This is appalling, and in my view it has a bad effect on the Canadian entertainment industry. Is there OzCon or DutchCon? (Actually, as I discovered, there are analogues: but somehow it doesn't feel as damaging to me.)

It’s all very puzzling. Back in the early sixties, George Grant wrote a barnburner called Lament for a Nation. This elegantly written but myopic book—I’ll write more about it in a future post—set the agenda for the then rising Canadian nationalist movement. The title was characteristically brilliant. Would it have stoked as much fury if it had been more accurately titled Lament for a Nation Unborn?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why Not Here?

The rioting in Britain isn't following a pattern that is easily explained by protest or reaction to oppression. You could have said something like that about London late last week. But yesterday, Tuesday, there was looting in Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, etc. From BBC TV coverage in Birmingham (possibly taken from CCTV feeds) it appears that a few young people appear suddenly, attack shops, the word gets out, and then more people arrive, etc.

One explanation that has been offered is this: watching riots and looting in London, people in other cities decide that they too can have boxes full of merchandise. Some were apparently trying things on in H&M before running off with them. The riots "didn't seem to be politically motivated, nor did they have any sense of community or social solidarity," said an observer quoted by Zoe Williams in the Guardian; "We're not all gathering together for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker," said another. "Greed," "entitlement," and "consumerism" are the buzzwords today.

I don't know if this is what happened, but if it is, then why not here? I don't want to put ideas in anybody's head, but why can't people in Toronto (or any number of other cities) watch what's happening in England and decide that they too can have boxes of merchandise? If it's not about anything in particular, then why should it respect national boundaries? Should we worry about riots in Markham and North York (the banlieues of Toronto)?