Is fantasy fiction actually any good?

Some friends are responsible for a beautiful new magazine called Holdfast about a subject that I find very difficult to like – fantasy and sci-fi novels - which they call ‘speculative fiction’.

Since most of my experience in this field stems from viewing a few episodes of Game of Thrones (which strikes me primarily as a masturbation-aid for the type of people who have to hand over their lunch money when asked) and what felt like 45 hours of watching Lord of the Rings in the cinema, I am clearly not the natural audience for this stuff. But they gave me a column called The Unbeliever in which they tried to win me over by having me review a trio of their favourite books.

In the end, the competition was a tie. I thought the first book was gibberish and disturbingly rape-obsessed. The second – by Neil Gaiman no less – was pleasant in a trite, Richard Curtis kind of way. The last one – a classic of sci-fi – was actually good.

Here are some links and snippets:

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

… I was more surprised with how obsessed Tender Morsels is with rape. Is this common to a lot of fantasy? If so, I’m not sure I could handle much of it. The book opens with a pretty repulsive account of a midget having sex in a field, which turns out to be the most pleasant sex in the book. It’s followed by an extended discussion of a father’s violent sexual abuse of his daughter. A  couple of aborted fetuses later, and the reader is treated to the same girl being dragged out of a chimney and brutally gang-raped by five adolescents… read more (if, for some reason, you want to)

 

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

…What surprised me, then, was that I was not annoyed with the fantasy elements of Anansi Boys – indeed, they tended to be more satisfyingly rough around the edges (e.g. Fat Charlie’s brother gets his tongue ripped out at one stage). What bothered me instead were the overly neat plotlines and tidy conclusions that are a common feature of farce. So this book has warmed me a little to fantasy, but perhaps only because I’ve discovered an even deeper hatred for a whole other genre of fiction… read more

 

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

…Gateway seems to capture the fading of the hopes and dreams that characterised earlier science fiction. Its protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, is very much a mid-twentieth century kind of hero – practically Woody-Allen-neurotic. No longer excited about man’s quest into space, which had done nothing to alleviate the feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and sexual confusion within… read more

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Lest we remember: the hypocrisy of D-Day celebrations

To criticise the D-Day commemorations is, I discovered the other day, to attract the sort of looks one would reserve for people who kick puppies off tall buildings. Any criticism of D-Day faces an impenetrable line of defence in the form of the veterans, who are unwittingly deployed by world leaders to discourage anyone who may wish to stick a pin in the pompous hypocrisy and self-serving grandiosity in which they indulge at such events.

Let us not pretend all the fuss is just about veterans when the TV coverage spends the majority of its time ruminating about royal costume changes and watching various dignitaries drag children along red carpets.

Politicians have hijacked D-Day, and no wonder. The Second World War is our favourite war in the West. It fits a neat historical narrative of good versus bad, complete with a villain of such exquisitely evil proportions that he seems almost mythical.

But let’s be clear – this was a war to defeat an imperial opponent. It was not a war to overcome the evil in humanity and bring an end to war for all time.

It has become impossible to separate our modern conceptions of evil from Hitler and the Nazis, to the point that the words often lose any real meaning. Nazi analogies get tossed around like confetti. American right-wing commentators are particularly offensive on this point, playing the Nazi card on everything from Obama’s healthcare policies to the closure of car dealerships.

Just as the term ‘Hitler’ has become an abstract concept, so has the Western victory. Particularly in Britain and America, it now stands as proof of our inherent righteousness. For all our faults, for all our many dubious foreign adventures, there is this shining example that shows we are capable of being on the right side of history – plucky underdogs winning the day.

So world leaders love the opportunity to address the D-Day ceremony, wrapping themselves in past glory. Clinton used his speech in 2004 to re-energise his flagging presidency. Obama will be hoping for the same. “Whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men,” he rather wishfully demanded in Normandy, just as a tsunami of cynicism was building back home over the desultory foreign policy speech he had given a few days earlier and his awkward handling of the Taliban prisoner-swap.

But remembering the good war requires an awful lot of forgetting, not least the fact that the battle against German imperialism was carried out alongside Britain’s battle to protect its own imperialism – then brutally enforced over a fifth of the world’s population.

Hitler’s greatest crime, in the long run, was that he was so evil that he diminished all the other heinous crimes being carried out by the rest of the world’s powers at the same time. Like some sort of monstrous anti-Jesus, he died for our sins (though only so that they may be conveniently forgotten).

Since nothing the British did was as bad as the Holocaust, we are able to dismiss awkward details like the fact that Churchill purposely diverted relief supplies away from India during the Bengal famine that killed between 1.5 million and four million people. Churchill’s racism (“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”) does not quite match up to Hitler’s, so it is white-washed from the pages of history.

“These men waged war so that we might know peace,” Obama said of the veterans last week. How disappointed they must have been, then, to find that Britain’s military was back to work just weeks after the end of the war, this time to help recover the imperial possessions of our Allies. There are few commemorations for the tens of thousands of British forces who invaded Vietnam in September 1945 to crush local resistance and put France back in control, triggering decades of devastating Vietnam wars in the process.

World leaders don’t gather in Indonesia to pay homage to the brave British fighting men who stormed the beaches of Indonesia in December 1945 to restore Dutch colonial power, bombing the hell out of the city of Surabaya and evicting 100,000 people from Bandung before burning between a third and half the city to the ground. (See John Newsinger’s excellent The Blood Never Dried for more on this).

Then there was Britain’s 12-year war starting in 1948 against rebels in Malaya who threatened its lucrative rubber trade. It was during this war that Britain came up with the neat idea of herding tens of thousands of people into internment camps (euphemistically known as ‘model villages’) so that they were unable to fraternise with the enemy.

And then there was the brutal crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. And the plot to seize control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. And on and on and on. Oh, how proud we can be of the lessons learned from D-Day.

But since none of this quite matches up to the total evil of the Nazis, we are still able to construct a historical vision of ourselves as the good guys. It creates a dangerous sense of righteousness that when we go to war – even imperialistic wars for conquest or control – we are doing them somehow for the right reasons.

It is not only the West, of course, that abuses the memory of the Second World War for contemporary advantage. Also on the podium last week was Vladimir Putin, who has emerged as the grand master of exploiting its legacy, constructing a world in which all competitors are Nazis and Russia is forever on the verge of returning to the glorious victories of the 1940s (victories that allowed it to conquer and brutally control half the European continent for half a century, of course).

So it is with the utmost respect to the poor men forced to run at Nazi machine guns on that fateful day in 1944 that the D-Day commemorations leave a sour taste. There is something unpleasant about picking out the one morally sacrosanct victory from a long list of imperial aggressions for special attention, and a sadness that this festival of remembrance demands that so much be forgotten.

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When Muslim radicals DON’T become terrorists (!)

A couple of recent stories have demonstrated the confusion that reigns over the question of Muslim radicalisation in the West.

In the UK, there has been an unseemly scandal about supposed extremism being promoted across a few schools in a heavily Asian area of Birmingham. It has received plenty of high-pitched coverage and political reaction that has brought us nowhere nearer to finding out if there actually is a problem at any of the schools, or whether the schooling just reflected some of the more socially conservative attitudes of its parents, or whether the whole thing was just stirred up by some crackpot with an axe to grind.

In a stupefyingly ill-considered move, the government appointed the former head of counter-terrorism Peter Clarke to look into the matter. As a governor at one of the schools pointed out: ““You cannot blame parents for being upset. The Department for Education ­suspects their children of being ­terrorists.”

Here is the classic case of confusing Muslim social conservatism with potential terrorism. A belief has become deeply implanted in Western policy that thinking radical or even conservative thoughts makes you a possible suicide bomber down the line. The problem with this theory, of course, is that it fails to explain how there can be so many millions of socially conservative or radical Muslims in the world and only a handful of terrorists.

There were more positive developments in New York last week when the police announced they were shutting down one of the products of that belief - a controversial unit that operated a huge spying ring targeting mosques and community groups and bookshops in a desperate bid to find anyone who might say something radical-sounding, who could then be locked up in a Minority Report-style thought crime scenario. In six years, the unit generated precisely zero leads or terrorist investigations: an indication of just how efficient it is to have police investigate people who have yet to commit a crime.

An excellent new book – The Muslims Are Coming! by Arun Kundnani – explores this problem. I reviewed it for the latest issue of The National’s Review magazine. It highlights some of the absurd and worrying reactions of US and UK law enforcement to the belief that conservative Muslims are on a conveyor belt to blowing themselves up.

As I argue in my review, Kundnani’s tone goes a little far. These policies that conflated radical thought with a potential for terrorism were not a conspiracy to demonise Muslims. Rather, they were part of that post-9/11 panic in which few people really understood how the many complex strands of globalised Islam might be linked to this new and poorly understood threat. Many academics and activists were drawn into looking for tell-tale signs of a would-be terrorist – it seemed better than blaming all Muslims. But in the end, it was a fruitless task that tried to fashion an artificial, ‘acceptable’ Islam out of thin air and demonised those who held the ‘wrong’ beliefs.

People are drawn to violence for all sorts of reasons. Religion can be a powerful factor. But Muslims – even the most radical – are far from exceptional in this. There’s a reason the government doesn’t go around interviewing or spying on everyone in the country to find out if they will become murderers at some point in the future. It doesn’t work.

Read my review of Kundnani’s The Muslims Are Coming! in The National here.

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Unfounded hopes and fears in the Indian election

 

thesigers logo

Here’s a briefing on the Indian election which I prepared for Thesigers

KEY POINTS:

  • Structural reforms to address corruption and unemployment are unlikely regardless of the winner. Frontrunner Narendra Modi promises more effective administration rather than reform.
  • The Congress party’s ambitious legislative agenda has been undermined at the implementation stage, and by the stranglehold of the Gandhi family.
  • Although sectarian groups may be bolstered by his victory, Modi’s Hindu nationalism will be tempered by the need to appeal to a diverse audience.
  • Identity politics remains a major factor, acting as a further brake on reform prospects.

A common discourse around the Indian elections sees the opposition BJP as a right-wing, pro-business party that will return the country to growth, contrasted against the welfare-focused, anti-reform Congress party whose decade in power has allowed the country’s rapid growth rates to wane and steered the country towards economic crisis.

But questions of economic policy are not relevant to the Indian election. Right/left definitions do not apply to India’s political parties, which lack distinctive economic ideologies. Rather, the election has been fought over which party can govern effectively – as measured by the ability to allocate resources for tangible projects with minimal waste and delay. As a result, much-needed structural reforms currently appear unlikely regardless of the victor.

Although the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has generated huge support by speaking the language of empowerment rather than patronage, his party is committed to continuing and even expanding on the Congress party’s welfare programmes, including huge subsidies for food, housing and fuel. Modi has only sought to differentiate himself in terms of his ability to effectively administer these programmes, contrasting himself with the often inept and corrupt handling of welfare schemes – as well as natural resource projects – under the Congress government.

Markets have already factored in a Modi victory, which may lead to disappointing post-election economic results unless his administration takes surprise decisions not included in the manifesto or campaign.

Modi has been helped by the continued stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty over the Congress party, which has become a symbol of Delhi’s venal politics, has prevented the ascent of more able young leaders, and has saddled the party with a deeply reluctant and uncharismatic leader in Rahul Gandhi.

The decade of Congress rule has nonetheless left an impressive legislative record, with landmark laws passed on the right to information, land acquisition, forest land rights and much else. Belatedly, it has taken steps to rein in spending and encourage foreign investment – at times in the face of stiff opposition from the BJP. However, implementation has often been a problem.

Modi has not presented any major reform proposals, preferring to concentrate on uncontroversial areas, particularly plans for new infrastructure such as high-speed rail links, increased internet access, and the development of ports and rivers.

It is unclear whether he can address the root cause of delays and corruption, which lies in the continued discretionary power of officials, and the lack of clear and transparent regulatory frameworks. Of late, these have increasingly left honest officials afraid to take decisions for fear they will be accused of graft. Modi has argued he will be able to cut through these delays through sheer will, but he will face a far more complex regulatory mess at the national level than he did in Gujarat.

Neither party has discussed perhaps the most fundamental challenge facing the country – the lack of employment. Highly stringent labour laws have prevented the creation of a large-scale manufacturing sector – vital to absorbing the one million Indians that reach working age every month. Employment remained stagnant during the five years to 2010 when the economy was booming, yet no political party has offered structural reforms to address this central concern. Privatisation, which helped unleash growth in other areas, does not feature in the manifestos of either the BJP or Congress.

Foreign coverage of the election has often focused on Modi’s history of sectarianism, particularly in relation to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat shortly after he became chief minister. Although his accession to the premiership might empower Hindu nationalists, Modi’s desire to appeal across India’s hugely diverse population and build trade ties abroad, will act as a brake on sectarian impulses.

Despite the rhetorical focus on development and governance, the primary consideration in many areas will remain identity – in terms of ethnicity, religion, caste and regional affiliation. At the local level, parties have largely selected candidates that can deliver blocks of voters along these lines. This explains the continued strength of regional parties, who display little interest in structural reform and may act as an obstacle to legislative change or efforts to curb corruption.

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Kurt Cobain and the fatal shock of accidental success

To mark 20 years since the suicide of Kurt Cobain on April 5, 1994:

When In Utero, Nirvana’s last studio album, was released in 1993, it caused an immediate uproar among the easily offended. Walmart sold the album in a plain cover, so appalled were they by the angel on the cover with her intestines exposed. The company also took ignorant offence to the song Rape Me, which they retitled Waif Me.

At the time, Kurt Cobain defended Rape Me by explaining it was an anti-rape song. In his description, it was something like a (much) edgier alternative to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive: “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it,’” he told Spin magazine.

But at other times, he described the motivation in a way that fits more closely with the enduring image of Cobain as the quintessential reluctant rock star. “I get tired of people putting too much meaning into my lyrics,” he told MTV. “They make no sense, so I decided to be really blunt and bold.”

Of the two explanations, the second has always sounded more convincing. Cobain may have wanted to write about people and problems out in the world, but by this stage in his career, he was increasingly drawn inward towards his own personal anger and frustration. What tortured him had little to do with the concerns of real people – he was dealing with the extremely rare problem of being labeled ‘the voice of his generation’.

The album that earned him that unwanted moniker, 1991′s Nevermind, remains an enigma precisely because it’s not clear what exactly made it such a global phenomenon, how it could ever have sold 30 million copies worldwide.

In the end, that question killed Cobain. In his suicide note from 1994, he wrote: “The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me.” He never understood his popularity, or why Nevermind should have been so much better than all the other underground bands from which Nirvana emerged.

In many ways, In Utero was a better representation of the singer’s vision – its serrated production style, its visual imagery of disease and death, and Cobain’s direct lyrical attacks on the music industry, the critics and his own anxieties. But its self-consciousness gives it away, often sounding like a band desperate to stay outside the mainstream, while knowing that this is no longer possible in a world where Nevermind had redefined the mainstream in its own image.

As great an album as it is, In Utero is shot through with the bitterness of this realisation. It’s there in the opening line of the album: “Teenage angst has paid off well, Now I’m bored and old” and it reaches its peak at the midway point, Dumb, with its disingenuous claim – “I think I’m dumb, maybe just happy”. Cobain was neither dumb nor particularly happy – this was him sneering back at all those who had placed him on a pedestal as a prophet of adolescent turmoil.

Step back to Nevermind, and for all the screaming, wild abandon, it is notable how little bitterness or genuine anger is present in the song-writing. In fact, there is remarkably little to read into any of the lyrics at all. Of all the great leftfield anthems in rock history, few can match Smells Like Teen Spirit for sheer meaninglessness. For almost the entire record, the words emerge as little more than doodles, fragments of teenage rambling – half-baked ideas and contrasts that go nowhere and mean nothing: “I’m worse at what I do best”, “We can plant a house, we can build a tree”, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you”, and finally, towards the end of the album, Cobain just gives up and admits: “What the hell am I trying to say?”

If Nevermind is about anything, it is about the raw, unbridled energy of youth – an energy that is inchoate and confused and looking for somewhere to unleash itself, but has no idea where or how. It coincided with a time when youthful rebellion had few avenues left to explore – Communism had failed, the rampant capitalism of the 1980s appeared unstoppable, people were living far more comfortable lives. Unlike the hippie movement of the 1960s or punk in the 1970s, Nirvana’s music contained no hint of politics – it spoke to a generation that had no plans to change the world. Instead, it turned rebellion inwards, stripping it down to its core components of emotion and group belonging.

Because it was about energy, and not lyrics, Cobain created a very different persona to other ‘voices of their generation’ such as Dylan or Bowie or Morrisey. Cobain was more a conduit for the feelings of his generation than their poet laureate. The result is that Nirvana’s rise appears like a historical fluke – a brief flash in which a number of ingredients came together suddenly and spectacularly, and ignited something much greater than could have been predicted.

Some of those ingredients are easily recognised – Dave Grohl’s thunderous drumming, or the immediately catchy chord sequences and melodies (“like nursery rhymes”, Cobain once said). But what actually turned Nevermind into a global phenomenon – and what made it impossible to reproduce despite millions of attempts over the next decade – was something which was basically pure luck: the voice.

Somehow, Kurt Cobain’s voice mainlined directly into the restless, desperate energy of the young in a way that made every other band seem artificial in comparison. Quite by accident, he had just the right amount of scratchiness and breathiness, just the right touch of girly squeal and gravelly roar. His voice caught on just the right notes. It could sound sad and excited and sarcastic and honest all at the same time, and when he screamed, it went straight into your stomach and twisted your intestines in a way that released every bit of tension your adolescent insecurities had built up.

That caught Cobain unawares, and it eventually led to his demise. His voice was not manufactured – it just came out that way. And when the world reacts to something as arbitrary as the timbre and cadence of your vocal chords by turning you into a global icon, and that in turn creates a marketing phenomenon that goes against every principle of rebellious, underground music you believe in, it is no surprise that he felt so undeserving, and ultimately, a fake and a charlatan that could not live with himself. The irony is that his death only added to the myth that surrounds that voice, so that, all these years later, for those of us who heard it for the first time in the right time and place, it can still twist our stomachs into a knot and release that youthful excitement that comes from feeling totally uncertain about the future but absolutely free as a result.

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Refugees in Nepal condemned to ‘hilly prison’ by visa fines

Pakistani refugee Nawid Ahmad (2nd L) and his family …

Kathmandu – Amir Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim, lost a dozen members of his family to sectarian violence in Myanmar last year. He fled to Nepal where the country’s policy on refugees has left him among hundreds trapped, jobless and mired in debt.

He lives with his family in a tiny room in a house where walls have collapsed, water drips through holes in the roof and an open concrete stairwell is a potential deathtrap for his two young children.

“If I go back to Burma (Myanmar), I will be killed,” he said. “When I came to Nepal, I felt safe but we found many problems.”

Hundreds of desperate refugees are trapped in Nepal, told they must pay fines as high as $100,000 before they can be resettled to the West. Barred from working, many have spent years waiting for the government to let them leave.

The biggest problem: that despite being offered new lives in the West by the UN’s refugee agency, most refugees — who number around 400 in the capital Kathmandu — have been trapped here for years by Nepal’s rules, which are decried by rights groups.

Nepal is neither a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor has it established a clear legal framework to deal with asylum-seekers or refugees.

The refugees are fined $5 for every day they overstay their 30-day tourist visa and the debt must be cleared before they leave. Many families have amassed tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The government does not waive the visa overstay fee even after the UNHCR has organised resettlement, which is usually to the United States or Canada.

And since the government does not recognise their refugee status, they must find the money while being barred from working, leaving them in a perpetual limbo.

- ‘A hilly prison’ -

Nawid Ahmad, 42, from Lahore in Pakistan, has a fine of over $100,000 hanging over him and his family.

He is a member of the Ahmadi sect of Islam, which is officially heretical in Pakistan. Ahmadis can face three years in jail just for saying the traditional Islamic greeting of “As-Salaam-Alaikum”.

Their mosque in Lahore was bombed in 2010, killing around 80 people.

Pakistani refugee Nawid Ahmad, pictured at a construction …
Pakistani refugee Nawid Ahmad, pictured at a construction site in Kathmandu, on March 12, 2014 (AFP  …

Ahmad decided to leave in 2004 after he was shot four times –- in the leg, chest and hip -– in an unprovoked attack while out shopping.

“I miss everything. My heart and soul is in Pakistan, but we could not stay,” he told AFP at his home in Kathmandu.

He came with five younger brothers and they added wives and children. Most have already been granted asylum in the United States, but to leave they must find the enormous visa fee which is an impossible task.

“This place is beautiful,” he added, gesturing towards the snow-capped Himalayas that lined the horizon. “But for us, it has become a hilly prison. We just wait and wait and wait.”

Even more tragic is the case of the Somali community. Many came in 2007 when smugglers promised them a new life in the Italian city of “Naples”.

“When we arrived here, the smuggler said it was just a stop-over. In the morning, he had disappeared,” said “Khalid”, who fled Mogadishu after his father, brother and sister were all killed by a rival clan. He requested that his real name not be used.

Pakistani refugees Nawid Ahmad (C), Waheed Ahmad (R) …

Pakistani refugees Nawid Ahmad (C), Waheed Ahmad (R) and Nadeem Ahmad are seen at a construction sit …

He has been offered relocation to the US, and is looking for a loan shark to pay the $19,000 in visa fines he owes for his family, a tactic employed by many refugees desperate to leave.

The loan could mean a long period of indentured servitude for Khalid, but he says: “I won’t hesitate. My children will get a better education and better life.”

- ‘Life is like a pendulum’ -

All are grateful for the peace and religious tolerance of Nepal. Although there is occasional discrimination –- particularly against dark-skinned Somalis -– it is nothing compared to the brutal violence they faced at home.

But the threat to life and limb has been replaced by a new, psychological torment that results from the long, idle days.

“I have lost my golden years to this place,” said Asif Muneer, 42, who ran a furniture business in Lahore before coming here in 2004.

Friday prayers have just finished and he sits with a group of Ahmadis in the rented home they have turned into a mosque.

“Sometimes I lose my mind -– I can’t sleep, can’t eat. Our life is like a pendulum, just swinging back and forth and never going anywhere,” he said. His fine has climbed to $39,000.

The refugees survive on a meagre allowance from the UNHCR, which has lobbied the government for years over the visa fee issue.

The government says it has twice waived overstay fees for “some four dozen” urban refugees.

“However, we consider these people to be illegal immigrants, not refugees. Not waiving the visa fee is in line with our laws,” Shankar Prasad Koirala, head of the government’s co-ordination unit for refugee affairs, told AFP.

Nepal has waived the fees for thousands of Bhutanese refugees, all of ethnic Nepalese origin – their resettlement to the West has been one of UNHCR’s greatest success stories.

Back at the tea shop, Khalid, the Somali, admits he’s tired of talking about his problem.

“Sometimes I picture myself out of this situation. It will be such a happy day when the plane takes off,” he said. “But instead, we are here, with nowhere to go, and we feel totally alone.”

Source: http://news.yahoo.com/refugees-nepal-condemned-hilly-prison-visa-fines-052843241.html

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Pepper spray & censorship: A big week for idiots in India

 

It’s been a terrible, ignominious week for India. First came news that Penguin India had given in to pressure from right-wing religious nuts and pulled a harmless academic work on Hinduism off the shelves. Then today brought unprecedented scenes in parliament as MPs opposed to the creation of a new state went on the rampage, with one pepper-spraying his colleagues and reports that another may have brandished a knife.

There is a connection since both events expose India’s devastating lack of leadership. People often say that India has too much democracy, leading to chaos. The real problem is that India’s leaders all too often seem incapable of striking the difficult balance between representing and leading their constituents. Rather than empowering the nation’s politicians, democracy often seems to terrify them.

Take censorship – a constant source of worry for India’s vocal elite, particularly when it spoils one of their literary outings. There are legitimate concerns about freedom of expression: look no further than the latest Press Freedom Index, which ranks India all the way down at 140th, below even Zimbabwe and Tajikistan. Yet, few would argue that Indians face anything like the level of political repression in those countries or many others. Censorship in India is not the function of a repressive apparatus. It is closer to the opposite – an absence of governance – the result of an ignorant political class that responds with fear and confusion at the first hint of controversy.

Case in point: When development minister Kapil Sibal called in executives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook in 2011 to complain about unflattering pictures of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and demand that they pre-screen content on their websites, he did not sound like a desi-Mugabe, he just sounded like a sycophant and an idiot who didn’t understand the internet.

The same goes for the cops in Mumbai who arrested a girl for complaining on Facebook about the city-wide shutdown for the funeral of bigoted nutjob Bal Thackeray in 2012, and then arrested her friend for ‘Liking’ it. Again, this was not the work of evil men. It was the work of morons.

Knee-jerk decision-making

These are not, I hope, just flippant observations. In the absence of leadership, the space for stupidity expands to enormous dimensions. Precious few politicians have stepped in to point out the irony of banning books and suppressing free speech in a country so steeped in diversity and intellectual curiosity. The legacy of men such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi seems good today only for naming new stadiums and bridges.

The embarrassing pepper spray incident in parliament stems from the same absence of statesmanship. The protesting MPs are angry at government plans to carve a new state out of Andhra Pradesh. They are not happy that the new state – Telangana – will share control of their capital, Hyderabad, an IT hub that generates lots of money. But pro-Telangana activists have been fighting for a separate state for decades, arguing that their region is denied resources by the rest of the state.

The issue was always going to be a difficult one to resolve. But rather than provide inspiring leadership, the Congress-led government just indulged in a drawn-out display of capitulation, prevarication and confusion. It only promised to create the new state in a fearful, knee-jerk response to a hunger strike in 2009, then did little to appease either side for four years before resurrecting the promise late last year in the (misguided) hope it might be a vote-winner in the upcoming general election.

Absent leaders

It’s easy to be dismissive of the nincompoop with the pepper spray. But one might reasonably ask how the country’s leaders allowed the situation to get so far out of hand. Where are the national politicians who should be making the case for such a fundamental change in the country’s structure? Has Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said anything of interest on the matter? Has his supposed successor Rahul Gandhi? Of course not.

It should also be made clear that the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, who are tipped to win this year’s election, are no better. They are often touted as more business-friendly and more decisive, particularly their prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.

Yet, the BJP has shown few signs that it will grapple with difficult decisions if it takes office. It has spent so long in opposition childishly blocking any attempts at reform that it appears entirely devoid of any policy prescriptions. It is considered the business community’s darling, yet it opposes liberalisation (particularly of the retail sector), opposes cuts to the country’s ruinous subsidy system, and has no plan to force through desperately-needed labour law reforms. For all his bluster, Modi has failed to outline any economic policy at all.

At least the jerk with the pepper spray had a clearly defined opinion.

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