Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Elections in Pakistan - The Day After

Congratulations to the people of Pakistan for the successful exercise of their right to vote, defeating cynicism and affirming their desire to induce a positive and peaceful change in their society despite all the sordid history of manipulations of the perpetually corrupt establishment. The people have now given their verdict and displayed the kind of political maturity that the elites in Pakistan never even acknowledge let alone praise.

But these elections are only a beginning. It is now up to the elected representatives of the people and their leadership to forge a path that strengthens democratic institutions (parliament, judiciary, election commission, media) while eschewing political vendettas and protracted wrangling. Musharraf has a clear role to play in this by gracefully stepping aside and honoring the wishes of the people who voted "no-confidence" in him with an overwhelming majority. He now needs to let Pakistan's healing begin from the nightmare of the last 12 months. The country may then still manage to look back at the positives of the tumultuous last year which did , at least, produce a clear and more organized grassroots yearning for democracy and the rule of law.

There is indeed a brighter ray of hope after these elections. Let the leaders who have gained power learn from their worst mistakes of the past and start the process of re-building Pakistani institutions afresh. The problems are vast but at least today there is a palpable sense of hope. Let the newly elected leaders and Musharraf ensure that this moment does not slip away.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Election Day in Pakistan

Today Pakistanis will go to the polls in perhaps one of the most important and fraught elections in the benighted nation's history (with the possible exception of the 1970 elections which eventually resulted in the creation of Bangladesh). The atmosphere is filled with uncertainty about the fairness of the election process. Benazir Bhutto's assasination has cast a pall over these elections. The threat of violence is omnipresent and large numbers of people are suffering unprecedented economic difficulties driven by wheat and energy shortages. If the elections are crudely rigged, then these elections could very well be the harbinger of significant violence and worsening political instability.

As apprehensive as I am about the outcome of the elections, there is also a small chance that this could be a first step toward stability. If the elections are broadly free and fair and the two large opposition parties accept the poll results, then chances are that it could lead to Musharraf's exit from the scene and the formation of a national government that will have the chance to start putting the pieces back together. Even with a national government, however, there are a lot of difficulties ahead and the cleaning up of the Musharrafian mess will take feats of statesmanship that the opposition leaders have not previously demonstrated. Tackling the immediate issues of judicial independence, media freedom, provincial harmony and economic relief while evolving an equitable sharing of power without vengeful targeting of opponents is a tall order. All this does not even mention the control of the rapidly speading menace of terrorism that will require political compromise, public mobilization and some deft distancing from Washington.

Here is to hoping that February 18th, 2008 brings some positive change for the suffering and burdened citizens of the Pakistani state.

Monday, February 04, 2008

"A Few Words on the Soul" by Wislawa Szymborska

Taking the cue from one of my favorite destinations on the web, 3QD, I too have resolved to post more of my favorite poems this year. However, on this blog expect to see Urdu poetry as well as Western verse. Unlike my friend Raza Rumi I have no talent for poetry translation so, with regrets, Urdu poetry will be in the original (in Roman letters).

This poem is by the 1996 Polish Nobel Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska (b. 1923) and I just love the playful image of the soul, capable of being summoned only in moments when we are fully attuned to receiving its charms.

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood's fears and raptures
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It's picky,
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds.
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

(Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Campaigning for Obama

February 5th is Super Tuesday when 24 states, including California, will vote or caucus in the Democratic primary. I am supporting Barack Obama in this primary and would like to see him as the party's nominee against the Republicans in November. My reasons are simple: he is an inspirational figure with a preternatural ability to motivate people, has demonstrated independence and excellent judgment in opposing the Iraq war from the very beginning and possesses a healthy intelligence, policy acumen and intellectual curiosity necessary for the job. The historic prospect of an African-American President of the United States of America is also an important contributing factor. He does not have many years of experience in Washington but Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times has laid out the best argument on why this is not as important as is commonly believed(his lack of executive experience would be a more valid criticism). He made a blunder by sounding naively hawkish on Pakistan several months ago but demonstrated sound temperament by learning from the criticism that inevitably followed and fine tuned his views.

Julie is a mother of one of my daughter's schoolfriends and is a Palo Alto neighborhood precinct captain for Obama. Knowing that I had already cast my absentee ballot for Obama she called me last night to ask if I would be interested in volunteering for the campaign and doing some door to door canvassing. I agreed and this morning, along with another volunteer, walked the streets of Palo Alto. In our hands we had a printed list of targeted registered Democratic and Independent voters. Our job was to try to get people to vote on Tuesday but also to understand their leaning and indicate them on our list. This would help identify probable Obama voters for volunteers managing the phone banks on election day. They could then call these people on Tuesday to get them to vote or even drive them to the polling stations if required. It was an interesting experience as knocking on the doors of strangers is never pleasant but it was made easier by the camaraderie of the volunteers and because many of the people we talked to had either already voted for Obama or were strongly leaning toward him. It will be interesting to see where the race stands after "Tsunami Tuesday" but it already seems clear that unless there is a highly unexpected result, the Democratic race will continue for several more weeks.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Arundhati Roy & Tony Judt on Genocide

On January 18th, Arundhati Roy spoke in Istanbul at the first death anniversary of Hrant Dink, the courageous Turkish-Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos, who was assasinated by a 17 year old Turkish nationalist. With more than 100,000 people marching silently through the streets of Istanbul at Dink's funeral last year, the assasination brought into focus, yet again, the deplorable official Turkish position of continued denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915. In this speech titled "Listening to Grasshoppers", (reprinted in abridged version by Outlook India) Roy does not have much to say about the Armenian tragedy specifically but reflects more generally on the nature of genocides ("Its an old human habit, genocide is").

To her, "Union" and "Progress" are code words that are the "twin coordinates of genocide". Notions of "Union" pitch their populist but exclusionary appeal on platforms of shared race, religion, ethnicity and nationality and "Progress" on the ideals of individual and national attainment of wealth. Both these ideas inevitably lead to the dehumanization of those who are a threat to the "union" project or are obstacles to "progress". In Roy's Indian examples these "twin coordinates" inevitably lead to the genocidal mindset of Narendra Modi's Gujarat ("Union") or to the brutalities of Nandigram in West Bengal ("Progress"). Into this argument she weaves the idea of the expansionist need for "Lebensraum" ("living space"); a notion that necessitates the displacement or even 'extermination' of those who occupy land and resources thwarting the "noble" goals of union and progress. This is a powerfully engaging piece and reminiscent of Hannah Arendt's work ("Eichmann in Jerusalem", "The Origins of Totalitarianism") to make sense of man's murderous instincts.

In the past, Roy's non-fiction has sometimes struck me as emotionally overwrought. Her relentless attacks on India's (unequal) growth, even when fair, have never even cursorily acknowledged that growth (even with all its terrible inequalities) has been effective in bringing millions out of poverty in places like East Asia where the process has gone on longer. In 1997, the American economist and now the famously liberal New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman wrote a classic piece called "In praise of cheap labor" that articulates a different point of view that, at the very least, requires honest intellectual acknowledgment. However, despite these reservations about Arundhati Roy, I have come to admire her fierce and passionate intellect. There is no shortage of people who will always be willing to promote the economic miracles of China or fuel the hype of a "Shining India" with pride. But it takes a peculiar combination of intellectual acumen, relentless courage and a deep commitment to the plight of the powerless to keep an uncompromising focus on "Narmada Bachao", farmer suicides, Nandigram and Gujarat in the shadow of a frequently unreflective triumphalism of the "New India". Even if one quarrels with some of her intellectual foibles the world needs more Arundhati Roys.

Co-incidentally, Tony Judt , the British historian, also has an interesting piece on the issue of genocide in the February 14th, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books. The essay is titled "The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe". This piece too starts with a reference to Hannah Arendt's influential work. It goes on to state that Europe may be in danger of trivializing the lessons of its own genocidal past. The repetitive invocations of the Holocaust and its sometime political use as a defensive shield for Israel is desensitizing modern Europeans to the scale of these crimes.

"Meanwhile, we should all of us perhaps take care when we speak of the problem of evil. For there is more than one sort of banality. There is the notorious banality of which Arendt spoke —the unsettling, normal, neighborly, everyday evil in humans. But there is another banality: the banality of overuse—the flattening, desensitizing effect of seeing or saying or thinking the same thing too many times until we have numbed our audience and rendered them immune to the evil we are describing. And that is the banality— or "banalization"—that we face today."