Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Talking Politics

And here we are, all different nationalities, talking politics over pots of coffee. I jump at the opportunity to find out how they view their worlds. I start with the Indian. "I'm for capitalism" she says, "but I believe a developing country like India needs a degree of socialism. I'm very against anything- or anyone- who encourages communalism." The conversation moves to Kashmir. "I like Musharraf's four-point plan. But can he deliver? I'm sceptical. And I don't think I trust Pakistan enough to move troops away." About the civilian nuclear deal with the US, "I'm no expert, but international collaboration is needed if we want to meet our energy needs. But I thought Pakistan was very smart when it protested a regional imbalance would be created if the US did not make a similar deal with it."

The Pakistani smiles, "I'm not affiliated with any particular party either. I believe in free markets but also universal primary education. But most strongly, I am against the army rule. Even the good, like the women's bill, has not been done properly and makes it unstable once Musharraf leaves." She feels more optimistic about Kashmir. "Economic stability with India is in the army's interest, and people are sick of this bickering. I hope he garners support for it because I feel it will sideline the fundamentalists. Let's see." We hit upon Iran and she says, "It has a right to develop nuclear weapons, and I'm quite sure Pakistan won't back a war against Iran. And don't forget, the Iran-India-Pakistan pipeline is very important; we have growing energy needs and need this cheap supply!"

My Iranian friend begins with his political affiliations, a question I have put to all. "Anything that is anti-government and pro-democracy. Young people, seventy per cent of the population, have no opportunities. Unless you agree with the government, you can't climb the ladder", he explains passionately, "I believe in equality for the masses as socialism dictates." We speak about the turmoil in the Middle East. "Iran puts more money into Iraq than Syria because it desperately wants another fundamental Shiite state in the region as its ally. If you get rid of the Iranian regime, you will end most of the terrorism in Iraq," he tells me, "and even if the US pulls out soon, it's definitely going to get worse before it gets better."

My Lebanese friend offers another perspective. "I am a Lebanese liberal orthodox Christian- in that very order. We are yet to find two people that can agree about what it means to be Lebanese. Saying no to foreign influence, for example, does it include Syria and Iran? See?" as I nod along. Like others, he has accepted the fate of Iraq with a resigned sigh. "An all out civil war in Iraq will bring Syria and Iran even closer because Syria doesn't support the Sunnis at all." I ask about the Beirut Rally. "Well, last year Hassan Nasrallah said that Iran is no Ukraine, that rallies can't change governments. But at his Beirut Rally, the rhetoric was despicable and there were personal insults made to religious leaders. Nasrallah keeps saying that Hizbollah would never take up arms against its own people. Doesn't he realise this is just as dangerous?"

I shift my focus to the Palestinian. "Alright, if I had to be affiliated to a party it would be the Fateh party because they are secular and believe in negotiation. But I am adamant in backing the current government." I ask him what he thinks of Syria and Lebanon's relationship. "Many believe they should be one country, and Syrian presence in Lebanon is very high and they are suspected to be involved in many assassination plots. But till today there are no formal diplomatic channels between the two countries. And now opposition against Hizbollah in Lebanon is increasing after the unexpected war with Israel this summer that ended in the destruction of Beirut." And what about Syria's connection with Hizbollah, I ask. "Syria is socialist and does not agree with Hizbollah's ideology but supports it: Hizbollah is more enthusiastic about fighting Israel than Syria, and because it is not a state, Hizbollah can use guerilla tactics. Both oppose western backed systems. Basically, the enemy of my enemy is my friend." He shrugs it off US talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq. "They should have done this sooner because their earlier isolation by the US was not beneficial for the region."

I turn to the American. "I'm a moderate leaning liberal; no party affiliation." he clarifies, "And I really think we should stop messing in foreign affairs so much." I point to Bolton leaving the UN and Baker joining. "Yes, the return of the pragmatists is welcome. In any case, I think a quick withdrawal from Iraq is needed. Let's shift the responsibility to the Iraqi government." About the nuclear deal with India, he chuckles, "I'm not terribly concerned about that one. I think the US is doing it to counterweight China's growing importance! We should look at more options in Asia but our oil addiction keeps our focus on the Middle East."

We look at each other. Next time, more countries.


Also at: http://www.expressindia.com/blogs/showblogdetails.php?contentid=19490

Community in Space

Another one from the Indian Express: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/19421.html

A community in space

Bloggers in India may be turning into a self-conscious and coherent force. They are banding together for social causes. But the shadow of censorship still hovers


This year saw the baby bloggers growing up. After the Indian government’s ban of blogger.com in July, many bloggers who had till then been lost in a sea of websites, banded together to try to fix this problem. Within a week there was an online group created on google, and about 500 bloggers were active on the forum. Many made RTI applications to the government. Others posted helpful proxy server addresses so that people could access their blogs once again. And suddenly everyone seemed to be talking about them. The mainstream media noticed this frenzied activity on the Internet and censorship became the buzzword of the summer. The ban was lifted, but a movement had been created. Most bloggers now look back at the ban as a good thing — because it gave them a coherent voice. But they are still concerned about the government keeping tabs on them.

For the uninitiated, blogs are personal spaces on the Internet. They are small websites where an individual can write about any subject under the sun, post pictures or use as a platform to collect information. “It is a social medium” says Dina Mehta of Conversations with Dina, “And I think the mainstream media did not quite understand it. It is community based. You build relationships with other bloggers as you leave comments on each other’s blogs, and that helps you improve. It is a self-correcting medium and so the good ones become popular and the bad ones left behind.” In fact, many from the blogging community in India have banded together in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi to meet face-to-face. This October there was a Bloggers ‘Unconference’ in Chennai and Delhi Bloggers Meet (DBM) started in 2004. A team from the BBC that covered DBM this year was impressed with the diverse blogs in India. Apart from personal blogs, they found numerous social-minded blogs, and moreover, bloggers who were leaving the anonymity of cyberspace to spread this social consciousness.

Many Indian bloggers became involved with a group called Global Voices, which is based out of Harvard Law School. It is a non-profit global citizen’s media project, which explores how the Internet can be used to build a more democratic, participatory global discourse. It tracks blogs from around the world and highlights some of the more interesting conversations (or posts) for its readers. It also wants to bring more unheard, ignored, or disadvantaged voices into the global online conversation, and this subject was discussed in great detail at its Delhi summit in December. Mehta explained, “The idea is to go into rural areas and set up a pilot project. We want to get the villagers to keep an online diary where they can talk about their lives. But we are still planning it out.”

A similar idea struck Sanjukta Basu, an active blogger, and with her friend Swagat Singh she started the ‘Bloggers Outreach Programme’. The idea was simple. “Mainstream media is limited whereas blogging is limitless. It is not an elite concept — and if we could just introduce people to it, teach them how to blog and encourage them to write about social problems etc. we could spread more awareness about issues.” She invited students and social workers and is happy with her first attempt. She is planning a series now, but also needs funding. “Blogging is a more effective medium that is coming up as an answer to the mainstream media and it is breaking the journalist’s privilege. People use blogs as an alternative to news media. In India it is not a substitute at all; because of their editorial slants and distinct points of view, they appeal to people.” And she is right. Most people, after finding out the news, seek blogs to read an analysis.

However, at the close of 2006, blogging still remains largely in the hands of the tech-savvy. MSN surveyed a random sample of Indian bloggers — official numbers in India are not known — and found that 85 per cent of them were under thirty-five. The majority used blogs as a medium for self expression, while the others for entertainment. Personal blogs are the rage with the younger generation. And if you thought there was no money in blogging, consider this — a Delhi journalist who kept a blog about her life became so popular that its fame spread across India and Penguin offered her a book deal! However, the more serious bloggers have been putting their heads together to try and understand how the phenomenon is developing in India. Questions at DBM up for research ranged from ‘personality of the blogger vs personality of the blog’ to ‘translating blogs from regional languages to English’ and ‘comparing the Indian and Pakistani blogosphere’.

But one question, that of censorship, still hovers above everyone’s computer. Reporters Beyond Borders credits India with more media outlets than any other country in the world, but it also criticises the government for regulating online activity with disregard to individual liberties. While it attempts to tackle cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, the rights of the Internet user suffers. But as this year has shown, a blow to the blogger is a blow to not just self expression but a new form of social activism. And a free, democratic country like India cannot afford to hold back the not-so-baby bloggers again.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

test this

I’m like the kid in the room, with an alice band in my hair (apparently the cool kids call it a head band, but I insist) perched on a desk with my legs swinging, as my editor discusses the edits for the next day. Andra Pradesh just called for compulsory HIV testing before marriage and everyone seems to agree that this is a violation of individual rights. As does the Express.

Which is really ironic. Yesterday I was reading about it and started browsing through comments left in the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ section. One of them really struck a nerve. Most of the people who objected were from the US, Canada and other Western countries. And their objection was pretty much limited to the fact that they assumed the government was frowning on people’s sex lives. One poster from this side of the planet pointed out, rightly, that HIV was an enormous issue in India and since most weddings are arranged and women have no control over their husbands sex lives, this is one way of ensuring they won’t contract AIDS right off the bat.

But health issues aside there is another question. Now the state wants to make sure that in 2007 there are no babies born with HIV. Which begs a serious question -- If found to be positive, what happens? Does the state now have the right to stop you from getting married? This is even a larger violation of privacy than the HIV test, which I think is a good idea- [when you apply for your marriage license, hand in your blood test results] – but the question de jour then becomes: what can (and cannot) the government do with this information?

Biases, stigma, prejudice, discrimination; we’re all too familiar with these realities. If medical records were easily available things would be very different. Perhaps there would have been no partition if we all knew Jinnah wasn’t going to last long, but I digress. The objection being raised in some quarters is that the state should not order this mandatory test, ‘its too big brother’, but some health authorities should. And what about the fact that when tested positive (and if this is known publicly) this will lead to social isolation- one of the main obstacles this disease has faced since the beginning?

A very interesting argument, which supported what I think, offered this comparison: Making this test compulsory is the same as making vaccination compulsory for children. In the end, if this is a matter of personal choice, it means that the nation does not have a fundamental right to defend itself against plague (or what have you). So even if I know a disease is on the rampage, it is MY choice not to take any preventive measures and thereby risk not only contracting it, but also spreading it. What is your reaction?

I find it fairly interesting that while I am very open-minded about personal choices, I tend to be big on social responsibility. Maybe it is because I'm the kid in the room and haven't taken my blinders off. So let me try -- the real question is this: what is the real implication of such a test? The authority that has these results in its hand, in this case the state government, can one trust it enough to be sure this won’t be the beginning of a HIV-cleansing (if you will). But if we are being hypothetical, then why not consider that the mere existence of this test might encourage younger people- even married couples (if its made compulsory every couple of years) to behave responsibly. Because ultimately, for the most part this is a behavioral disease and with adequate pre caution, can be totally avoided.

So, if we look at the conduct of everyone else who performs a job, why not at the citizens? It’s in our countries best interest to remain as healthy as possible. Somehow the larger picture constantly eludes us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Catch them young, watch them grow ;)

Latest one printed by the Indian Express (if you want to access it directly, here you go: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/18418.html )

'These Questions of our Age'

Seventy per cent of India’s population is under 35 years of age. Only three per cent of the 14th Lok Sabha (constituted in May 2004) falls in that demographic. (Manvendra Singh and Rahul Gandhi have passed the 35-year mark.) Inevitable questions spring to mind. Who are they? How do they perform?

Five of the 16 MPs belong to the Congress, all from political families. They are all well-educated with substantial financial backing, and the public has high expectations of their performance as parliamentarians. Lok Sabha archives reveal that Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora lead with 237 and 159 questions respectively. The others lag behind. Jitin Prasad has six questions to his credit, Deepinder Singh Hooda has three and Sachin Pilot has none.

In contrast, the BJP has only one candidate who perpetuates political dynasty: Dushyant Singh, MP from Jhalawar, Rajasthan. He has tabled 407 questions in Parliament. Of the others, Adityanath Yogi of Gorakhpur, UP, is perhaps the most politically astute. His call for dwelling places for rickshaw drivers and employment for those evicted from government lands, which they had encroached on, has stood him in good stead with the common people. He openly seeks votes in the name of Hindutva, going so far as to publicly declare, “I want Muslim votes too, but wash them in Gangajal first.” Yogi has asked 90 questions in the Lok Sabha. The MP from Ganganagar, Nihal Chand Chauhan has asked 44 questions on various subjects, while Khiren Rijiju, who is worried about of a separatist movement starting in Tawang, which is part of his constituency, has 72 questions to his credit.

The Samajwadi Party has two political heirs: Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh, who has asked 15 questions, and nephew, Dharmendra, who has asked none.

The BSP’s Mohammad Tahir Khan, from Sultanpur, UP, had opposed the Delimitation Commission’s proposal to eliminate the Sultanpur Lok Sabha Constituency and suggested instead that Amethi be purged, earning the wrath of the Congress, in September 2006. Khan wants to concentrate on poverty elimination and has raised issues 256 times in Parliament. The BSP’s other young parliamentarian, Ashok Kumar Rawat from Misrikh, UP, seems to have his focus set on the welfare of SC/STs and has tabled 229 questions in the House.

Finally, there are only three women on the list. Susmita Bauri’s entry into the Lok Sabha (from Vishnupur, UP) represents for the first time the CPI(M) joining the dynastic bandwagon, as they needed a dalit woman to fill her mother’s seat. She has raised 11 questions so far. Ranjeet Ranjan of Sahasra, Bihar, of the LJSP, has 15 questions on record. Radhika Selvi of Tiruchendur, Tamil Nadu, was absorbed into politics by the DMK after her husband was shot dead. She banks on the sympathy vote, not on debate regarding core issues in the state. She has asked three questions.

These facts reveal much about the emerging face of our democracy. First, that not all our elected leaders are actually active in the Lok Sabha. Coming from a political family does not necessarily translate into being politically active, even if that gives an inherent comparative advantage. While parties are certainly free to groom dynasties, ideally this ought not to be done at the expense of other competent entrants. Second, that almost half the MPs in our list belong to the SC/ST/OBC categories indicating a healthy representation of those communities. Third, that expediency should not be the main reason for parties to put up women candidates. Fourth, that there is only one Muslim in the list.

Thus the composition of this list suggests that political parties do not do at the ground level what they fight for at the national level — consider, for instance, the low representation of women and Muslims.

In the final analysis, it is we, the people, who are responsible for choosing who will represent us in Parliament. As such, we must be mindful of our MPs’ performance both inside and out of Parliament. If it appears that they are non-performers or break the law, we should not grant them another term. Call it consumer consciousness, if you will. Our first time representatives must use these five years to learn and train themselves as parliamentarians and politicians. For us, the electorate, these years are the time to keep track of how the MPs develop. We get a chance only once in five years. Complacency will make us a captive audience in our own democracy.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Opinionated, Not So Anonymous

Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece two weeks ago which basically said that while the US has been busy with the Middle East, they have forgotten that Asia is THE place for economic business. And while they settle fights between the Sunnis and Shias in the backstreets of Baghdad there is opportunity lost. Basically his point was that things are happening all over the world but the US is way too pre-occupied with the Middle East. And just like the British lost their hold over the world because they got too caught up in colonial squabbles and didn’t see the larger picture, the US is at the same risk. Thomas Friedman makes the same point, but his argument is different. He says that America’s dependence on oil is the reason it is so inextricably linked to the Middle East, and unless it changes its energy needs- and develop alternate energy- it will go down with the region. Both valid points, and here’s what is of notice. Rhetoric concerning US involvement in Iraq has been gradually changing. Even the critics of the war could not go all out and cite all the reasons the US should not be there in the first place-- because they would be attacked by the Republicans as not supporting the troops. But slowly things are changing- the army itself is letting out information that Iraq is a total mess and the civil war is not going anywhere. And suddenly, views about why the US needs to get out of Iraq are getting smart. They are no longer about Bush and his incompetence- they are about what America is missing out on because it is there, be it economic opportunities with other countries or the need to focus on alternate energy fuels.

The thing about working for the editorial department of a newspaper is you start getting attuned to editorial positions. I don’t mean this in this insidious way, but most organizations (as we are well aware of) do have opinions about certain issues. That is reflected in the editorial of the paper- for example, Delhi sealing: IE thought it was a good idea. Oil prices going down (courtesy Murli Deora and Sonia Gandhi) IE thinks the market should set the price, not politicians. Because now if the price needs to go up, it will become a political problem. Yadayadayada.

All these positions make me question mine- I’m getting very impressed with Yechury and some of the ideas from the Left. But I’m not a Lefty yet (Boss- don’t worry, you know I’m a capitalist with socialist ideals). But I think taking a stand on issues is fantastic- and I’m able to make my own analysis now because I am actually in the political hub of the country [which makes this shift to India very successful so far].

But I think its good to remember what Keynes said--- I change my opinion when the facts change. What do you do sir?