Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blood and Irony

Yesterday, on Gandhiji's death anniversary, the Indian National Congress hosted a two-day conference on satyagraha. Those who attended included Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Mohammed Yunus, Kenneth Kaunda and Lech Walesa. Maldivian President Gayoom was also there.

Yes, Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was also there.

President Gayoom has been in power for close to three decades, seeking re-endorsement through referenda where he receives an unbelievable percentage of votes. The first time one encounters this fact, one is impressed. But learning more and more about the Maldives, another picture emerges.

The Maldivian constitution is set up so that the President appoints the people who nominate the candidate that the people may endorse for President. For years, the political process did not admit dissent or dissenters. In the last four years, beginning with political exiles and other Maldivian expatriates, a democratization movement has acquired enough momentum that Gayoom's regime has reluctantly introduced some changes: there are now opposition political parties, there is a human rights commission and there is enough space in the public domain for dissident media to speak, although the risk of censorship, arrest and deportation remain. Some long-standing political prisoners were released. Still, life in Gayoom's Maldives is not easy.

Many of these good works followed the 2004 tsunami after which some rehabilitation assistance was tied to political reform. European governments have on the whole shown more concern about events in the Maldives than any of the atoll-state's neighbours, whose absence of concern must be attributed either to a realist view of the world or a realistic view of their own shortcomings.

Last November, the most prominent of the opposition parties, the Maldivian Democratic Party, tried to organize a peaceful rally in Male and invited Maldivians from all the atolls to come to the capital. Pre-emptive arrests followed.

A boat that left Addu with participants for the rally was harrassed and then intercepted. Its passengers were placed under arrest in the island prison that Maldivians refer to as the 'Dhoonidhoo Hilton,' which is infamous for the use of torture and intimidation. Medical facilities and legal counsel were denied them. Some were placed in solitary confinement. The rally was called off. (Incidentally, the Coast Guard boat used in this operation was a decommissioned Indian Navy vessel gifted by the government of India to the Maldives.)

Gayoom's regime is associated with many things, but probity, non-violence and tolerance are not on that list. Opposition leader Mohammed Nasheed compares it to “Count Dracula being in charge of the blood bank.”

So who invited him? This is not a state occasion but a private one, and so there was always a choice. To answer "someone who is either clueless or uncaring" is too uncharitable for the occasion. A more optimistic guess is that it is intended to be an act of 'Gandhigiri.' We can only hope that Maldivians who live with this regime's actions everyday will find it in themselves to forgive and forget the Indian elite's willingness to disregard Gayoom's track record.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Women in Politics

Sujata Dutta Sachdeva of the Times of India asked me two questions this week in connection with an article she wrote on women in South Asian politics. First, why is it that women in politics do not devote as much attention to development issues as we expect? Second, why are they judged so harshly for their corruption?

The answer to both questions lies in the expectations we impose on women who enter politics. These expectations are not merely unjustified but also unfair.

The general expectation is that women, as mothers, will have a natural inclination for policy fields relating to nurture (development, health, child welfare and animal welfare) and as homemakers, will excel in hospitality-oriented ministries like tourism. There is nothing wrong with being interested in these spheres and they are undeniably important. But if everyone thinks they are so important, why don't the Arjun Singhs, Laloo Prasads, Dayanidhi Marans and Arun Jaitleys lobby for these appointments?

The gendered division of labour in most homes finds its way to policy-making circles, and the men do the issues that are valorised as serious (defence, foreign affairs, finance, internal security) while women keep the home clean, healthy and hospitable (just women's work, you know!). Just as all women do not have an abiding passion for housework, and there are women who do not feel they must be mothers, so there must be female politicians for whom these ministries are just a place to serve time before they can get a really important government or party post.

And why not?

This is the perfect segue to my answer to Sachdeva's second question. Why should we expect women who enter politics to live and act by a higher morality when the game is by and large dominated and won by those who are conniving and corrupt? Is it because we think women are somehow morally superior? Or is it that we do not expect women to be ambitious and able and willing to take action to further their ambitions?

I think both sets of expectations are traps--and women see variations of them in every professional field. Pedestals are prisons and being idolized is being frozen in stone. Place a woman on a pedestal, telling her she is delicate and angelic, and somewhere you are also telling her: you are too weak, possibly too slow-witted and certainly, I don't expect that you will seriously challenge my right (as a man) to play and win the game. Tell us that women are worshipped as mothers in this civilization, but don't tell us that what that means is that we could not possibly be interested in the intricate detail of defence budgets and tax reform.

If this topic seems like old hat to you, you haven't been paying attention to the tone in which news about Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa gets reported and discussed. Sonia Gandhi is now too powerful to get the same treatment but there are shades of it in the way people respond to Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy.

As the US prepares for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign and South Asians gleefully point out, "Been there, done that!" it is a good time to reflect on the degree to which South Asia's women leaders represent a genuine empowerment of South Asia's women and a good time to pay attention to how we handicap these politicians by telling them how much we expect of them.

Postscript: Am I advocating or condoning corruption and poor governance? No, not at all. I am advocating the woman politician's right to ambition and to an interest in all spheres of policy-making. And I am saying, if you don't like the level of corruption you get, change the game so that bad behaviour is penalized across the board.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Politics-as-usual is boring!

This morning's Hindustan Times carries an article by Vir Sanghvi in which he says something I have guiltily felt for a long time. Indian politics is boring, he writes. I want to start this blog off by saying something sacrilegious for political scientists: politics is boring. Mr. Sanghvi speculates that this may be due to the fact that the present cabinet is largely made up of non-descript MPs and hopes that it is due to the pre-occupation of Indians with their own lives.

I am trying hard to remember when it is that I lost interest in Delhi (or any state capital) politics. Political courtships and conspiracies are only of interest, I have long suspected, to those who gain by being seen as having the inside scoop. A snobbish, but still 'Page 3,' variety of interest in politics. Of course, it is always possible to list many reasons for why we should care about some of these things--accountability being an important one. Personally, however, I am mostly really bored.

What keeps me excited about the field I have chosen to be in and what keeps me reading the newspaper--its most constant supplier of questions and perspectives? Stories like this one in today's Times of India:

Sharmila Ganesan, Mumbai's hidden panchayats, Times of India, January 14, 2007.

Initiatives like this immediately pique my interest. Are there others like this? Do they really work as well as the reporter says? What are the phone conversations between the 'Slum Police Panchayat' officers and the Police Commissioner like? It is challenging to imagine all the changing power equations in this setting. The Panchayat members vis-a-vis their families and their community. Even the local police station. The Police Commissioner--what happens when another officer comes along who is less comfortable with this democratic arrangement. When Panchayat members can call the Commissioner directly, what happens to the authority of the local police station? Does the work of the Commissioner increase in the interest of decreasing the work of the police stations?

On the front page, the Foreign Minister has gone to Pakistan and some things have been said and done. This is supposed to be my area of interest and expertise. But what is exciting to me is tucked away elsewhere, one small story about one small experiment, raising dozens of questions.

To start with...

I have been reading blogs for a little over a year now, fascinated by the medium and the writers it draws. I too write. And when I see books or blogs, there is a part of me that thinks: I should be writing, just like this.

There is another imperative at work. I am a political scientist by training and writing for the press is as much a sign of professional arrival in South Asia as writing for peer-reviewed journals is elsewhere. Or so it seems to me, when people prod me and say, why aren't you writing for the editorial pages of national newspapers? Now, there are lots of reasons why; many have to do with me and some have to do with the national newspapers! Those can wait to be aired in another space!

There is a via media in tone, style and approach between academic (or even consultancy) writing and creative (for want of a better term) writing that I do, and somewhere in that middle-space is the category comprising opinion-pieces and commentary. As I read newspapers, I lament the fact that good writing and thoughtful analysis rarely coexist (of course, there are exceptions!). My own risk-averse streak has kept me from negotiating this middle-ground. What if I am as bad? What if I can't write? What if I have nothing to say? What if I can't sound authoritative? What if, what if, what if?

Hence, this blog.

As a platform to attempt this negotiation.
As a way around the isolation of independent scholarship.
As a discipline.

It's just me. Seeking my voice.