Government Contractors as Civil Society? By Nives Dolsak & Aseem Prakash

This piece was recently published in Stanford Social Innovation Review. Though it addresses an important debate in contemporary US politics, its key message is very much relevant for the Indian context as well

Stanford Social Innovation Review
November 9, 2015

The recent Congressional hearings on Planned Parenthood attracted a lot of attention. The issue became highly politicized as both parties engaged in frenzied accusations and counter accusations,while the inherent problem of civil society organizations like Planned Parenthood serving as government contractors went relatively ignored.

Civil society is a crucial pillar of democracy. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the important role of self-organized civic associations in the American polity, writing: “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.” And in recent decades, scholars have written extensively about how civil society supports economic development and democratic consolidation. From this perspective, civil society offers the “third way” for development and democracy, because it is corrupted neither by profits nor governmental politics. It represents the power of communities to self-organize so that they can provide for local public goods.

Indeed, civil society is the buffer between the individual and the state. If state tyranny is rooted in citizens’ dependence on the state, civic associations allow individuals—especially underprivileged people—to take care of their own needs via communitarian actions. And because civic associations mobilize resources locally, they are accountable to local communities.

To remain legitimate and effective, the civil sector must zealously safeguard its nongovernmental character. Yet today, the trajectory of the civil society seems to differ significantly from the Tocquevillian vision of a self-organized community independent of the state. One problem is that civil society is not mobilizing resources locally (via donations or user fees) and is increasingly dependent on governments (or donors) for funds. This unfortunate development is evident in the context of domestic groups like Planned Parenthood, as well as groups working overseas. Over the years, western donors have begun funneling an increasing share of aid through NGOs, instead of through developing country governments. This is creating global charity chains in which NGOs in the developing world have turned into sub-contractors for overseas donors, dependent on foreign resources instead of raising funds locally. This has led to accusations that that NGOs serve as agents of overseas interests, and not as voices of local people. This “contractorization” of NGOs has created a backlash: About 39 developing countries have enacted laws restricting the flows of foreign funds to locally operating NGOs.

How did this happen? What has transformed so many civil society groups into governmental contractors? During the 1980s, governments began relying on civic groups to deliver public services, partly due to the Reagan-Thatcher approach that sought to reduce the governmental imprint on social policy, including welfare policy (such as unemployment, poverty, old age, and disability) and the provision of social services (such health care, job training, food and nutritional support and housing). In the 1990s, the “reinventing government” philosophy’s emphasis on cutting costs encouraged governments to outsource service provision to civil society groups. During the Clinton-Gore Administration (1992-2000) in particular, this initiative targeted certain branches of the federal government—specifically the Department of the Interior, Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and Housing and Urban Development. With the emphasis on cutting down the size of the federal workforce and yet continuing to serve citizens, the government brought in non-profits as contractors to deliver the services that the federal government was previously delivering. Some nonprofits flourished in this dispensation, and for perspective, during 2012-2013, health services grants provided by the federal government accounted for 45 percent of Planned Parenthood’s net revenue of $1.21 billion.

While this reliance on civil society subcontractors may have served the budgetary or ideological objectives of the state, it also undermined the essence of this sector, sucked it into partisan political battles, and turned it into a tool of political patronage. Furthermore, the desire for cornering governmental appropriations has created perverse incentives for civil society groups. Instead of raising resources locally to provide goods and services that people in local communities want, civil society organizations focus on securing governmental contracts. Not surprisingly, many are more responsive to the preferences of governmental funders than the communities they aim to serve.

To be clear: This isn’t a call for abolishing services provided by Planned Parenthood or organizations like it. Not all communities and or individuals can or will mobilize funds for the provision of public goods, and government should pay attention to the availability of services. What prevents governments, then, from providing needed services civil society organizations can’t provide—or contracting for-profit firms to do so? After all, the federal government runs a massive hospital system for veterans; why can’t it do so for women’s health? It also relies on the for-profit sector for a variety of goods and services—why can’t it do so in this area?

The Planned Parenthood Congressional hearings suggest that “civil society contractors” are not a “third-way” to solve societal problems; instead, they reflect an old-fashioned approach that has led to government failures. The hearings vividly illustrate how some civic organizations have lost their “non-governmental” character and are now deeply implicated in partisan politics. Many are now political pawns, not beacons of individual liberty and communitarian action. Budgetary appropriation is a political process. If you depend on government funding, you must recognize the danger of getting dragged into factional fights.

Instead of making local communities independent of government and safeguarding individual liberties, the contracting model is corrupting the civic sector; it is weakening the abilities and incentives of communities to self-organize, and destroying an important buffer between the individual and state. Civil society must go back to its roots. It must minimize its dependence on governmental funds for its operations and raise resources from the communities it seeks to serve. In the end, if we want a healthy civil society, then we must pay for it.


Nives Dolsak is professor at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University
of Washington, Seattle. Her recent work focuses on the role of civil society, and social
capital in influencing public policy in Eastern and Central Europe.

Aseem Prakash is professor of Political Science, and the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle. He also directs the Center for Environmental Politics.

When investors are happier than businessmen, we are in a fragile environment by Gaurav Dalmia

There seems to be more uncertainty today than we have been used to. The economy is growing well, but corporate earnings are weak.

We voted in a new government at the Centre with a historic mandate, yet the thought, ‘But what is happening on the ground?’ haunts us, especially after the Bihar verdict. India has weathered the global storm led by the China slowdown and US interest-rate uncertainty better than its peers. But Indians still feel vulnerable.Businessmen are navel gazing while stock market punters are celebrating. Such paradoxes are overwhelmingly many. It need not be the case.

Short-term thinking is one reason for such simultaneous despair and elation. The stock market is an example. When the US reported worse than-expected job-growth data a few months ago, the international investor community concluded that since the US economy wasn’t doing as well as earlier expected, US interest rates may not go up in the near term. Capital flowed to emerging markets and this led to their stock markets making significant gains. This convoluted logic makes sense if one lives on a day-by-day basis. In such a myopic world, US interest rates affect markets more than anything else.

In the meantime, the long-term driver of stock indices, economic growth, may as well take a back seat. Businessmen can fret about the state of the world as investors make hay while the sun shines. But when the investment community is happier than the business community, as seems to be the case in India, we are indeed in a fragile environment.

Another such disconnect is between the equity and debt markets. While the stock markets have made significant gains in the last 12 months betting on good future prospects, the debt markets are telling a contrary, and perhaps a more accurate, story. June 2015 figures show 8.4% bank credit growth in the trailing 12 months, which is a 20-year low for India. When the equity markets and the bond markets disagree, the bond markets are normally right. The stock markets are trying to predict the future. They, therefore, have a layer of emotion overlaid on any analysis. Credit markets do not face the same upside and, so, are less emotional. So, the good news that equity markets expect will be farther away than the enthusiasts believe.

India has done much better than its emerging markets peers, partly due to lower dependence on commodities and partly because of better management of reserves and foreign inflows by the RBI. India’s growth will be double that of world economic growth, estimated at 3.1%. Yet, when Indian businesses feel vulnerable, it is leverage talking. The high debt of many large companies has made them, their supply chains and their financiers extremely nervous. Such businesses are looking for quick-fixes that aren’t forthcoming. They do not have the luxury to think beyond the next payday. Their clean-up will take a new level of aggression from banks. It will be painful, with courts and, perhaps, even the legislature having to play a role. In the meantime, this leverage will amplify the bad news.

I am sceptical of the so-called Washington Consensus and their 10-step guide for economic development. Though intellectually appealing, it does not pass the test of empirical evidence. Cambridge economist Joe Studwell and others before him have offered alternative recipes. The extraordinary success of countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan has lessons for all: an activist government bringing market forces through export discipline, yet forcing a development agenda on businesses; wide-scale rural land reform and focus on the agriculture sector with massive investments in rural infrastructure, which pre-empts the need for everyday populism; and controls over the banking sector to channelise capital with a broader economic agenda and not just a narrow business mandate. Like all ideas, implementation is key, and will determine whether India will become a powerhouse such as South Korea or a cronyism-led less successful Indonesia.

In India, people started out 18 months ago with very high expectations. As these are not being met, it is manifesting itself in cynicism. Which brings me to ‘Dr Copper’, long regarded by economists as a reliable indicator of economic health because of the metal’s widespread application in most sectors of the economy. Dr Copper is not predicting any major upturn. He cautions a benign economic environment, with attendant uncertainties and paradoxes arising from the world we have created: a world of cheap money, extraordinary global inter-linkages and unprecedented innovation. There will be pockets of prosperity, bouts of irrationality and seeds of doubt. Those who keep their head down, avoid group-think and focus on old-fashioned management will win. Perhaps author Marty Rubin was referring to this era when he said, “Change is always trivial compared to what doesn’t change.”

Published in The Economic Times, November 14, 2015

Bihar Elections: What Next? by Aseem Prakash

It was a rout, although the decline in the NDA’s vote share in relation to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was not drastic (from 39% to 34%). Interestingly, the vote share of the Mahagathbandhan (JD-U + RJD + Congress) also declined from 45% to 42%. An important factor contributing to the BJP’s rout was the alliance between JD-U and RJD+Congress, who fought the Lok Sabha elections separately.

What made Nitish and Lalu join hands? For International Relations scholars, this alliance between adversaries coheres with the prediction of the balance of power theory. When Lalu was strong, Nitish and BJP came together. Now that the BJP seemed strong, Nitish and Lalu constructed an alliance. Interestingly, Nitish appears in both combinations; he has emerged as the pivot in Bihar’s balance of power politics.

But balance of power is a tactical response to the rise of a new threat that disrupts the existing order. With Modi in retreat, how long will Lalu and Nitish continue to stick together? After all, the structural compulsions that allowed for this alliance to emerge have abated. Moreover, the division of spoils is anomalous: Nitish is the CM, but RJD has more seats. How quickly will the daggers come out? The Bihar Assembly elections are just the beginning of an interesting political drama.

Will Modi “learn” from the drubbing? I doubt it. To learn, one must admit mistakes. I don’t think he is the type who will do so. Yes, there will be cosmetic changes; some loud mouths may be reined it, the cabinet will be reshuffled; a whisper campaign is being launched against Bhagwat for raising the reservation issue.

Interestingly, a week before the elections there were press stories (deliberate leaks, I suspect) about how Senapati Shah is micro-managing the BJP’s campaign. They talked about the tactical and strategic genius of Mr. Jumla. Clearly, something went wrong. Where does the buck stop?

The response? Modi/Shah cannot be blamed. The BJP is now in the Congress mode: party victories are attributed to Modi/Shah (Rahul/Sonia) but losses — hmmm…. they are a collective responsibility.

But beyond assigning the blame for the Bihar rout, the basic personality problems of Modi – narcissism coupled with insecurity, will be difficult to correct. He will probably focus even more attention on foreign travel. This is where he can still receive some validation by rubbing shoulders with important folks and addressing the hysterical gatherings of NRIs.

Bihar is not the only fiasco. Consider the deteriorating relations with Nepal. Recall that Nepal was among the first countries Modi visited. Inspired media reports suggested that he was crowned as the unofficial King of Nepal. When they had the earthquake, he got to know of it even before their PM — as he bragged over twitter, in fact it was Modi’s tweet that alerted the Nepalese PM about the earthquake. India’s military played an important role in the earthquake rescue efforts. But now Nepal has turned hostile towards India. Clearly, the charm of the great communicator is not working here – and foreign policy was supposed to be the high point of his rein.

The 2017 UP assembly elections still offer some hope to salvage the image of the great victor. After all, the grand alliance might be difficult to organize in UP. But if recent panchayat elections are any indication, the UP elections will be a BSP versus SP show.

So what’s next?

I doubt if this government will be able to pass any significant legislation. The opposition will simply not allow it. In any case, the BJP does not have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha.

Allies will turn into new enemies. Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, TDP will become more militant and demanding. Shiv Sena might become even more difficult to manage; though a lot depends on the 2017 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (Shiv Sena’s cash cow) elections.

Notwithstanding the letter released today, I don’t think there will be a significant challenge to Modi-Shah from within the BJP. Old guard such as Shanta Kumar, MM Joshi, Shotgun Sinha and others are openly speaking against them because they do not have any hope to get the goodies. And, in any case, what is the alternative? Rajnath Singh? Gadkari? Advaniji is too old. Jailtey has no mass base: he could not even win from Amritsar during the 2014 Modi wave. Sushmaji has been neutralized by the other Modi. Shivraj Singh might have had a shot but he is now “vyapamed.” So, at least in the short–run, Modi/Shah are safe.

What a tragedy! There was so much of hope after the 2014 elections that India would proposer, that there would be peace and harmony, and that India would experience good governance after years of Congress misrule. The international situation was (and remains) favorable: China’s growth is slowing down and oil prices are low. The situation was ripe for India to make solid progress. But alas, we might have to wait for another generation.

Why Should the Bihar Elections Matter by Aseem Prakash

Bihar’s population is about 99 million. For perspective, this is greater than the population of the United Kingdom (64 million), France (66 million), and Germany (80 million). If Bihar were to be an independent country, it would be 12th most populous country of the world.

However, the elections in Bihar matter more than the obvious scale issue. They constitute a referendum on Modi and his style of governance. Yes, assembly elections in Haryana, Maharashtra and Delhi took place after the Lok Sabha elections, and the BJP did well in Haryana and Maharashtra. The rout in Delhi, however, was a different story and revealed chinks in the BJP’s armor (recall, the BJP won all 7 Delhi seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections). However, Delhi can be probably be explained away by highlighting the Kejriwal factor, the hasty decision about projecting Kiran Bedi as the next CM, and the infighting in the BJP. But a loss in Bihar will be difficult to explain away.

Further, the Bihar election outcomes will undoubtedly influence the UP’s assembly elections that are due in 2017. The BJP won 22 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar (with alliance partner LJP bagging another 6) and 71 of the 80 seats in UP (with its alliance partner Apna Dal winning another 2). Thus, for the 282 seats the BJP has in the 2014 Lok Sabha, Bihar and UP contribute to about one third.

Bihar elections will reveal the following:

1. Is the Modi style of governance delivering electoral victories to the BJP? On the positive side, nobody has accused Modi or his cabinet ministers of corruption; compare this with the Congress “cash and carry” style. Also, Modi for all of his arrogance, projects his personal authority and India’s image very well, some might say, perhaps too well! Would you rather have Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi as the PM? Yet, there are obvious problems with the Modi style that is too focused on seeking validation from foreign countries, and showbazi (Make in India, Digital India, Yoga Day, etc. etc.). Perhaps, the Indian electorate is a bit tired of this and will punish the BJP for it.

2. Can (and would) Modi check the rising levels of communal tensions? The murders in Dadri, Himachal, J&K triggered by rumors of cow slaughter are shocking. On the other hand, the murder of Prashant Pujari, an anti-cow slaughter activist in Karnataka, is shocking as well. What is our vision of India? Do we want an intolerant India with a bunch of goondas imposing their vision of religion?

This is where the strong hand of “the State” (with its 56 inch chest) should come in. If Modi has charisma – which most would agree that he does – and if he believes in bringing people together, then this is the ideal opportunity to do so. He should sack Manohar Lal Khattar, Haryan’s CM, along with Mahesh Sharma who serves in the Modi cabinet as a Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Culture and Tourism and Civil Aviation. His response (both belated and inadequate), however, begs the question: is the BJP is deliberately encouraging communalism, or is it helpless in controlling these fringe elements? Both are unacceptable.

As if Dadri were not enough, VK Singh has made shocking remarks on the Faridabad episode. He needs to be sacked from the Union cabinet.

3. Can Modi rein in the Shiv Sena? Holding on to power with Shiv Sena’s support severely undermines the BJP’s appeal. It seems that Maharashtra has become a failed state. Shiv Sena dictates how cricket will be played and which foreign artists will be allowed to perform. India’s relations with Pakistan seem to depend on what the Shiv Sena decides. The decision on what to do with the Shiv Sena will reveal if the BJP is willing to bear the political cost of taking on political goons.

The above is a partial list of issues. If the Modi government feels that “Make in India” and the road shows in foreign countries will lead to the flood of FDI, then it is living in a fool’s paradise. Foreign investors want stability and good governance; this is something that Modi’s India is not able to provide.

What is needed now is shock therapy. Although I don’t have any admiration for Lalu Yadav, I think it might be better for the country if the BJP/NDA were to lose the Bihar elections. Only then will the PM be forced to reconsider his style of governance and make tough calls to prevent India’s slow slide into chaos.

How do we reshape electoral discourse: Can we go beyond caste and communal agenda by Anil K. Gupta

The election commission had to first time issue an advisory to all political parties to shun use of basal identities for invoking participation of people in the festival of democracy that is election. Why has discourse in the biggest democracy of the world descended to this level?

Identities are important driver for shaping our proclivities for forming social association. When we want to be recognised for what we stand for, we use these identities. More basal the identity, lesser seems to be the stock of social or individual achievements that I can be proud of. Larger the aggregation level of identity, say caste, weaker are my claims to be distinctive in other social, professional, disciplinary or occupational identities.

Why are we clinging to primordial identities even today? Why has mobilization of masses on caste or communal identity been a preferred mode of engagement in our society? It is not that only we are bothered about it. Yugoslavia broke up into smaller identities by recalling few hundred year old identity conflicts. Jews have used the identity of persecution/discrimination to unite and forge social solidarity. But then by achieving their excellence in numerous social, scientific, business, investment and other occupations, their influence is far higher than their numbers. Why have many communities failed to create similar pursuit of excellence as a binding principle, a point of reference for larger social discourse. Let me take example of Sikhism. It is one community which has not produced practically any beggar. No other community can claim similar distinctiveness. Yet, the same community falls for free water and electricity and hurts its growth and sustainability prospects.

Bihar has been one of the biggest provider of out-migration though some slow down took place in the recent years. In Surat, industrialists made the terms of employment so much more attractive to lure them back. But we are not changing the terms of developmental discourse. Every party is pigeonholing local leadership in primordial identities and not elevating them to more optimistic, more achievement oriented identities. Manjhi caste becomes a point of reference but Manjhi the achiever does not. Where have we gone wrong? why has persistence of poverty and social discrimination become tolerable?

Let me identify four pillars of transformation from narrow to wider, futuristic identities:

a) political discourse must identify achievers across local regional, ethnic and social identities whose aspiration could not be fulfilled because of institutional constraints,

b) articulate the policy and programmatic changes by which innate talent of people could be unfolded and unleashed,

c) create new identities around new categories of thoughts in different domains, say outstanding archery experts were found among tribals in central idea, outstanding sports person from north east (why Bihar and UP have highest share in civil service!) Bihar has high productivity of several fruits corps, winter maize and so on, why not build upon those successes and replicate those in other sectors, and

d) build cross cultural alliances for societal transformation.

Reinforcing the tendency to vote for a person on ethnic, religious or cultural identity is to undermine human potential on other more manipulable grounds. I cannot change my caste, or ethnicity but I can change my destiny through education, hard work and entrepreneurial initiatives. I can be innovative in art, culture, craft or farming or industrial activities. I can bring about social change through natural resource management or by creating public goods. Do we identify communities through their contributions for self-reliance, or through competitive politics of claiming to be more backward than others.

A community which otherwise is very prosperous craves for reservation in government jobs, but does not create reservations/ freeships/scholarships for poor students in the community managed private colleges. Social identities are used to create dependencies but not for raising self-esteem, autonomy and agency.

Indian development hinges closely on the new identities we forge and reinforce. Archaic categories of social classification will keep us arrested in worn-out mind-sets. Social progress requires electoral politics to be pursued with a new language, new metaphors and new means of mass mobilization. The voters must also reflect on their responsibility to demand positive politics of performance and not just promise. Unless voters demand more, and stop pandering to older identities, new social coalitions and collaboration will not be forged for taking our society forward. Manthan is on, both nectar and poison will come out. We need Shiva of future leadership to swallow the poison and share the nectar, will our leaders prove worthy of this aspiration of real India?

Towards a Madhyam Marg: can we eschew extremism of all kinds? by Anil K. Gupta

Recent incidents in different parts of the country are causing a lot of anxiety to all the right thinking people whose concept of inclusive and tolerant India needs reinforcement. As a matter of fact, majority of the people in our country are very tolerant and appreciative of the cultural and social diversity. And yet, a small fringe of extremists gets far more attention than may be due, because of their extreme unacceptable intolerance. In every society there are only a few people who have the temerity to take the law in their hand and when they start defining the boundaries of civil discourse, the society is in trouble.

Recent shooting incident in the USA, furor on the publishing of a cartoon in France and Denmark, the murder in UP, shaming boys and girls going together in Karnataka, murder of Independent Thinkers/rationalist in Karnataka and Maharashtra, extremely provocative statements in Hyderabad, enthusiasm of a few young people for middle-east extremist terrorists, etc., are a few examples of the limits being put on the democratic dialogue. Are we saying that Indian tradition of immense tolerance for the charvaks in the Buddhist period has run its course? In the contemporary history we have an example of leaders writing a critical article about themselves in a magazine. Why cannot we expand the space for dissent and democracy by ensuring that disagreement, no matter how intense it is, does not become a reason for disrespect and in extreme cases, violence.

The Hindu society is one of the most diverse society. In north India, marriage of a boy and a girl from the same village is abhorred. In parts of South India, a girl is married to her maternal uncle as an auspicious relationship. Likewise, in food, the Brahmins in Bengal and Kashmir eat meat without any compunction. In fact the meat is offered to the deity. Which model of Hinduism is to be adopted as a national and cultural point of reference? The caste system has imprinted itself on Christianity and Islam in India. Mazhabi Sikhs find it difficult to marry higher caste Sikhs. There is no religion which does not have scope for reforms. In Indonesia, Muslim craftsmen make some of the most beautiful puppets for enacting Ramayana. Many Muslim entrepreneurs of Malaysia keep Idol of Ganesha on their table for good luck. In India, we fly kites on Uttarayan made by Muslims as well as Hindus. Where will we draw the line?

Let every college and school have an honest dialogue on these questions. I am not saying that extremism is more or less among the followers of any particular religion. But a religion which has permitted hundreds of different versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata, which does not insist on any one way of believing in God either as superior or the only way, cannot be cast in new monothetic mould.

Indian march towards progress and development, as several leaders have rightly pointed out, cannot be distracted by such extremely condemnable acts of extremism. Our education system must encourage open dialogue and debate about the notion of inclusive India. The amount of energy that gets dissipated in such a divisive discourse will not take us far. Indian democracy has survived all such attempts to impose extremist ideologies. The electoral results show that extremist and exclusionary viewpoints do not get much popular support. It is neither in any body’s political interest nor in the socio-economic interest of any right thinking group to divide society on various caste, communal, regional or other grounds. The debate has to be on different models of socioeconomic development. I hope that we will start a discussion in our homes on this highly contentious issue and grant people a right to disagree without being disagreeable.

Failed State, Failed Intellectuals by Aseem Prakash

A failed state is one that does not have ability and/or the willingness to enforce its writ within its territory. It is particularly tragic when the state fails because it lacks the willingess but not the capacity.

Consider the case of Israel. The state of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948 following the UN General Assembly vote in November 1947 recommending the partition of Palestine. The new state (indeed even before it was proclaimed) was involved in a bitter, existentialist struggle with its Arab Neighbors who opposed its creation. The new state faced many problems including securing weapons by circumventing the embargo Western powers had placed on it, and integrating various paramilitary Jewish groups into the national army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Irgun was one of the prominent paramilitary groups led by Menachem Begin . In June 1948 Irgun sought to bring in weapons (and some refugees) into Israel via the Altalena ship. The problem was that Irgun had not integrated into the IDF. While these weapons were critically needed to defend the new state, Irgun decided to contest the IDF’s chain of command. As the Altalena ship sought to land its cargo near Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minster of Israel, ordered Israeli forces to shell and sink the ship. His orders were met with resistance from some military personnel who did not want to fight their co-religionists. Inspite of the danger of a civil war, Ben Gurion was adamant. For him, there was only one state, Israel, and he would not tolerate a state (Irgun) within a state. (If you have time, watch this documentary:

Where is India’s Ben Gurion? How can the Indian state tolerate a bunch of goons terrorizing everybody in India’s commercial capital? What is the point of India having nuclear weapons, satellite launching capabilities, sending space crafts to god knows where, and the desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, when the government cannot enforce its writ in Mumbai?

Goondagiri is a national problem and all parties are guilty of selectively encouraging it. During Congress-NCP rule (or misrule) in Maharashtra, the government provided “protection” to Raj Thackeray’s party, MNS, to weaken his cousin Uddhav Thackrey’s Shiv Sena. Because Shiva Sena’s core appeal is based on son-of-the-soil idea, MNS sought to steal this platform. How? Raj Thackeray’s goons attacked migrants, especially from Bihar, and in some cases this lead to deaths. The Congress-NCP government did nothing concrete although Raj Thackeray openly advocated violence. Interestingly, no Sahitya Academy winner returned his/her award although intolerance and violence were being openly advocated. For the Congress/NCP, MNS did the job it was expected to do: weaken the Shiv Sena. MNS performed well in the 2009 Assembly elections by winning 13 seats and securing the second spot in 24 seats. Arguably, it played the role of the spoiler party and allowed the Congress/NCP government to continue for another term.

Fast forward to 2015. Khurshid Kasuri, the former Foreign Minister of Pakistan’s book is being released in Mumbai. A bunch of Shiv Sena goons want to disrupt this allegedly pro-Pakistan event. Instead of peacefully protesting, they blacken the face of the former BJP leader Sudheendra Kulkarni, the head of the entity (Observer Research Foundation) that had organized this book launch. The goons are facilitated by Uddhav Thackeray.

What is the response of the BJP government? Nothing, really. It does not end here. Shiv Sena taunts the BJP government and threatens to withdraw support in the legislative assembly. Instead of taking this threat head-on, BJP government resorts to asinine statements (nobody can teach us patriotism, etc. etc.).

This was the Ben Gurion moment and the BJP lost it. Suppose, the BJP drew the line, promptly arrested the goons, and took action against those inciting violence. Suppose, Shiv Sena walked out and government fell. My sense is that this would have enhanced the credibility of the BJP and demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law. Now suppose this policy os “zero tolerance” were to be extended to every situation – whether it is the VHP, Mohd. Azam Khan, Owaisi brothers, or the SFI goons in Kerela. Imagine what the country would be like.

The pseudo-secular intellectuals have failed as well. Sahitya Academy winners have suddenly woken up to the perils of religious intolerance. Yes, we all should condemn Dadri in the strongest possible terms. Yes, Modi should have spoken earlier and more forcefully. But by indulging in “selective outrage” (to use Rajdeep Sardesai’ phrase) the pseudos have trivialized Dadri. They have turned Dadri into a partisan affair. Why were they quiet when the Congress government took virtually no action against the anti-Sikh rioters and their patrons? Why no protests when the Congress government kept quite in the wake of the expulsion of 200,000-400,000 Hindus from the Kashmir Valley? The chopping of the hands of Professor T.J. Joseph by extremists? The list goes on.

If India seeks to evolve into a tolerant country, all sort of goonda raj will need to be condemned. We cannot have categories of “our” goons and “their” goons — wink at the former and express outrage at the latter.

Without the rule of law, we will remain a third world country, not worthy of respect from ourselves and certainly not from others.

Dadri and the Poison of Communalism by Aseem Prakash

In December 2002, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, while honoring outgoing Senator Strom Thurmond (who had turned 100 years old) made remarks that caused a political strom. Senator Lott noted that the United States would have been a better place if Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948 – this is when Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform. He said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”1

While Americans celebrate freedom of speech, they are less likely to tolerate racist speech from those in authority. Not surprisingly, Trent Lott’s remarks caused a firestorm. He profusely apologized on the television. However, America did not relent. Even President Bush condemned his remarks. Eventually, with no place to hide, he had to resign.

In this context, the remarks of both Mahesh Sharma and Lalu Yadav need to be condemned. Both are rabble rousers and have indulged in the worst kind of communal politics. I hoped to see Mahesh Sharma sacked from the cabinet. Similarly, I would like to see Congress and Nitish Kumar condemn Lalu’s remark on Hindus eating beef. Let us not forget that the rumor of greased cartridges sparked off the 1857 war of independence in Meerut which is about 64 kilometers from Dadri. Beef is an extremely sensitive issue and should be not be trifled with.

But the madness does not end there. CPM’s student wing SFI in organizing beef parties in Kerala.2 Is this really necessary?

Would Karunanidhi, who said that Ram is a figment of imagination, dare say this about other religions?3

Every civilized Indian should be shocked by the Dadri episode. It has always seemed to me that these sorts of episodes take place in intolerant countries such as Pakistan, where there are laws against blasphemy. Indeed, there have been several incidents of crowds lynching somebody accused of making a derogatory remark against the prophet. Or, in Bangladesh where Islamic militants are killing secular bloggers.

In this episode, only two individuals seemed to have shown maturity and sensitivity: Air Chief Arup Ruha and Corporal Mohamamd Sartaj. Raha promptly saw to it that the Sartaj’s family is moved to a safe place. Importantly, he did not hesitate to publicly condemn the barbaric incident.

I am impressed by Mohammad Sartaj, son of deceased Mohammad Ikhlaq. Sartaj is a corporal-rank technician in the IAF. He said: “Beef is not the real reason… This is big planning… My father taught me to respect elders. I would say ‘Ram Ram’, ‘namaste’ to all the elders in the village… We celebrated festivals together. Why would anyone want to attack our family? People are now afraid. I am afraid to return. There are about 25-30 Muslim families in the village, half of them have vacated their houses and left. Those who cannot afford to flee are staying there under fear.”4

Where is Modi in the picture? The secular left is quick to blame Modi for the Dadri incident. I am baffled: in a federal system, law and order is controlled by the state government. How can Modi be blamed for UP’s law and order issues? And if the Central government is to be blamed for what takes place in the states, then arguably Congress should be blamed for the all the riots that took place when they ruled the Center. The left-secular reaction is ill-informed, misguided, and eventually counter-productive.

My problem with Modi is on a different topic. I wanted to see the PM make a categorical statement condemning Dadri – did he not promise that he will be PM for all Indians, whether or not they voted for him? Why is he keeping quiet?

Whenever such heinous acts happen in the United States, the President is never shy about condemning them, although law and order is a state subject. Our PM is quite fond of the US — could he perhaps learn from this?

The PM is busy being a world leader. After the rock show in the US, he is now hosting Merkel and acting as if Dadri lynching never happened. I find this disturbing. I do not buy into the argument that the PM cannot comment on every incident. Dadri is not “any incident.” This is something very serious and must be addressed. Air Marshal Ruha and Corporal Sartaj have shown leadership and maturity to speak out – is it too much to expect that the PM will speak out as well?


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Thus Spake Rahul Baba: You da “Feku” by Aseem Prakash

I have a confession to make. There are times when I want to laugh and cry at the same time. When Donald Trump opens his mouth, I confront these conflicting emotions. The same happens when Rahul baba speaks.

Yet, Rahul Baba has a valid point about the “feku” barb. During his recent visit to Bihar, he said, “A suit-boot barrister Mahatama Gandhi shed it for the sake of the poor, but Narendra Modi, who claims to be a tea-seller, went for Rs 15 lakh suit after becoming Prime Minister”… “Prime Minister Modi promised two lakh jobs, promised Rs 15 lakh to each account and to reduce high prices. Did it happen?” Rahul Gandhi asked. “Modi was and continues to be a ‘feku’.”

In any well-functioning democracy, the opposition must hold the ruling party accountable to its election promises. In the US, this often takes place via negative advertising. An excellent example is how the pledge not to raise taxes that President Bush (the father, not the son) made during his acceptance address at the Republican Party’s 1988 National Convention haunted him during the 1992 campaign. Because President Bush agreed to a tax increase during his Presidency, during the 1992 Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton skewered him on this subject. Here is the negative 30-second television ad that Clinton ran:

India needs hold its politicians accountable to their election promises as well. I am, therefore, glad that Rahul Gandhi is harping on this issue. The BJP and Modi repeatedly promised to bring black money back to India within 100 days of coming to power (and deposit 15 Lakh in every personal account). Now all sorts of excuses are being made as to why this is not possible. Amit Shah even had the cheek to say that “Modiji’s statement was an idiomatic expression (jumla) that was given during the Lok Sabha polls. Everybody knows that this black money doesn’t go to the accounts of people.”

The dishonesty does not end here. What about Netaji’s files? BJP made hangama about declassifying these files during the 2014 election. Now, excuses are being offered as to why this is not possible. Similarly, statehood for Delhi. The list goes on.

But the problem is more serious than not honoring election promises – which, in any case is endemic in Indian politics. It is the “soot-boot sarkar” mentality. Specifically, the narcissism that seems to drive the government’s domestic and international agenda. Apparently, when the TIME magazine carried a cover story on the PM, Why Modi Matters (May 7, 2015), and wanted to click his pictures, he spent disproportionate time in the photo session: “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rarely grants interviews as extensive as the two-hour exclusive TIME secured last week. For portrait photographer Peter Hapak, who shot the cover of this week’s magazine, getting a lengthy photo session is just as unusual.” “I had a very fortunate session with him,” Hapak tells TIME. “I had a full hour with him, which is very unusual because most of the time I only have 10 minutes for a portrait session.”

Two issues annoy me. First, it is the showbazi, including the tamasha in San Jose today with the PM trying to be a bollywood star in his appearance and body language. Will this solve India’s problems? Are companies so stupid to invest in India after a rock show? Companies will invest if India can cut its red tape, improve its infrastructure, and reduce corruption. The rock shows in San Jose or in New York do very little in this regard.

Second, the obsession with designer clothes. The Chinese President who was also visiting the US last week did not feel the need to wear designer clothes. Obama does not wear designer clothes, neither does David Cameroon. We have to get over “salla main to sahib ban gaya” mentality. I am not seeking the return of Manmohan Singh whose servility was embarrassing. Yes, India needs to project confidence. But it needs to be confidence backed by substance, not showbazi.

I thought that after the monogrammed suit episode Modi would become careful about his showbazi. But apparently not. Not surprisingly, politicians such as Rahul Gandhi, who seldom make thoughtful statements, are beginning to make sense

“Modiji Welcome” versus “Modi Go Away”: Split in US Academia by Aseem Prakash

PM Modi’s visit to the Silicon Valley has generated considerable excitement in the US academic community. Statements/declarations have been published both supporting and opposing this visit. I was curious to see who has signed these statements and might we discern some trends here.

Here are the sources of my information:
Against the visit:

Welcoming the visit:

While recognizing that these are not representative samples of US academia, I did a rough analysis. I have probably made errors in my quick coding. Nevertheless, some trends are quite evident:

Of the 135 professors who signed the petition opposing Modi’s visit, I counted:
– 116 from the Humanities,
– 18 from Social Sciences (including business schools),
– 1 from STEM sciences (including engineering), and
– none from the Medical Sciences.

In contrast, of the 150 academics who signed the petition welcoming Modi, I counted:
– 9 from Humanities,
– 28 from Social Sciences,
– 71 from STEM Sciences (including engineering), and
– 42 from the Medical Sciences.

Clearly, Humanities tend to dominate the anti-Modi group while the “technical” disciplines tend to support Modi.

What conclusions might one draw?

Why do the techie types love Modi but the Humanities types dislike (perhaps even hate) him? Does disciplinary training lead to this divergence? Or do scholars with specific ideological dispositions are attracted to humanities and technical disciplines respectively (selection problems)?

Is it that those favoring economic growth and technical initiatives favor Modi while those focused on religion and social issues oppose him?

One cannot argue that technical disciplines are apolitical — after all they took the trouble of circulating the petition welcoming Modi. There is more to this.

I think it is worth thinking about this disciplinary divide given the increased emphasis on STEM disciplines.