Unfounded hopes and fears in the Indian election

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


  • 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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The Great Gatsby of Thailand



In my younger and more vulnerable years (about a week ago), a Western diplomat gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“If you want to understand the protests in Thailand,” he said. “Don’t think about it as urban versus rural, or rich versus poor. Think about it as a battle between old money and new money.”

This man, who spent years as a diplomat in Bangkok and has a very interesting web of contacts around the country, was unimpressed with the view I expressed on my blog last week that Thaksin Shinawatra (the former prime minister who was ousted in a coup in 2006 but still controls the country from Dubai) has earned at least some level of genuine support among Thailand’s rural poor by empowering them, and providing them with virtually free healthcare and pensions.

Instead, the diplomat leaned more towards the view espoused by the protesters currently marching through Bangkok’s streets that Thaksin has simply bought his way into power with a massive system of voter bribery. The diplomat’s sources from towns and villages in the north told him that Thaksin’s bribes tended to be around 2,000 baht ($70) per voter, but that this went up as high as 20,000 baht ($700) for important members of the community, such as teachers, who could influence other voters.

Of course, voter bribery is not exclusive to Thaksin and his allies. Reports suggest that his opponents in the south get up to exactly the same sort of crimes at every election.

What differentiates them is partly just a question of scale, the diplomat said. Thaksin has reportedly turned voter bribery into an industrial-scale machine, and the current protests are a product of his opponents’ frustration that they can’t match the depth of his pockets nor the breadth of his cash distribution system.

But, for his enemies, Thaksin represents something more deeply unsavoury than mere corruption. His real crime, said the diplomat, is to be an outsider who has refused to play by the established rules of the elite. He is Thailand’s Jay Gatsby – the brash upstart with the seedy backstory who has so much money that he can purchase his place among the privileged, but can never really wash away his roots or gain the acceptance of the traditional aristocracy.

In the past, the diplomat explained, elites earned their status by virtue of their proximity to the monarchy and other well-established families. Invariably they were based in Bangkok. To the extent that they dealt with Thailand’s multitudinous poor it was through semi-feudal, paternalistic structures such as foundations that handed out cash to chosen communities while ensuring that they had little or no political power. This system was entrenched and accepted.

Then the 1980s and 1990s happened and there was explosive change. Thaksin was the archetype of the era – a man of relatively humble and provincial origins, of Chinese descent no less, who began life in the police force and appeared to have little chance of breaking into the top echelons of Thai society.

But with a keen eye for where the country was heading, and by turning a few well-timed favours, he became one of the wealthiest men in the country. For Gatsby, it was liquor during Prohibition; for Thaksin it was mobile phones – both equally vulgar to the old elites of their day. Both became symbols of a new and distastefully brash class of upstarts who in a few short years succeeded in upending centuries of tradition through an unprecedented accumulation of cash.

Thaksin ignored the old rules of patronage. He didn’t set up patriarchal charities. He went straight to the poor and gave them political power and populist handouts. In the eys of conservatives, this was dangerously destabilising.

The irony is that those who are currently protesting against the Thaksin “regime” are those who benefited most from the boom of the past 30 years – the urban middle and upper classes. They don’t complain that Thaksin is corrupt – that is par for the course for Thai politicians. They complain that he is too corrupt, that he has taken things too far. He has brought a brazenness – a capitalist’s unscrupulous lust for total victory – to the rarified air of Thai politics. At some level, they are probably right: Thailand’s elitist, ossified politics needed shaking up, but probably not by someone so shamelessly corrupt and power-hungry.

Had he remained only in business, Thaksin could have been a hero – a symbol of Thailand’s emerging global status and prosperity. But like Gatsby, he wanted more. Gatsby wanted his wealth to buy him the woman he loved; Thaksin wanted it to buy him total power. The difference is that Gatsby was a dreamer – an essentially good man trying to break through the glass ceiling. Thaksin seems (far) less noble. Both went too far, and threatened the establishment.

It was inevitable that the dramatic societal changes wrought by globalisation on Thai society would lead to the sort of convulsions we are currently witnessing on Bangkok’s streets. With the government announcing a state of emergency yesterday, it is sadly far from clear how it will resolve itself.

And so we beat on … no, no, I’m not going to do that.

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Democracy takes a beating


My article for The National’s weekend magazine, The Review:

Very few people are allowed to drive on election day in Nepal – even pedaling a bicycle is against the law. The authorities worry that some people might travel around voting more than once. So, on a crisp November morning, I was presented with the rare and glorious sight of Kathmandu’s roads suddenly free of their usual honking cacophony and nerve-rattling near-misses.

I had managed to hitch a lift on the motorbike of an election monitor – the only people with a pass – and we hurtled through the congestion-free streets of the capital. There were no vehicles, but the streets were far from empty. At every polling station, hundreds milled around enjoying the day off work and the festive atmosphere that attends Nepal’s still-nascent democracy. We left the city behind and headed into the countryside, an awe-inspiring landscape of stepped gardens on steep mountain sides, the snow-capped Himalayas on the horizon.

What seemed like the entire hamlet of Bhotechaur had gathered around the polling station. At a coffee shack next door, old gentlemen sipped coffee, smoked cheap Indian cigarettes and spoke excitedly of politics. They scoffed at the antics of a hardline communist group that had tried to derail the poll with a spate of low-level bombings in recent weeks. A local college teacher quoted Abraham Lincoln at me: “We believe in government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Democracy felt special on that day in late November. It was not just the lack of cars that lent an air of the surreal. There was a wonderful sense of something exciting and out of the ordinary taking place. In the run-up, everyone had been saying that voters were disillusioned, that they were fed up with politicians of all stripes and wouldn’t bother voting. Instead, there was a record turnout. Over 70 per cent voted.

It should not have come as a surprise. Barring a few half-hearted and quickly undermined shots at democracy over the last few decades, this was only the second free election in Nepal’s entire history. Consider that for hundreds of years – forever, in fact – there was nothing like this level of political freedom. Nepal has been a feudal society for centuries and many of its 27 million people are still strapped down by caste and debt bondage. But for once, even if just for a day, they were truly empowered and people weren’t taking it for granted.

It’s worth remembering that – in the scheme of human history – democratic freedom is a recent, rare and fragile phenomenon. The US think tank Freedom House ranked 90 out of 195 countries as “free” in its 2013 report. A hundred years ago, given the limited franchises and weakness of institutions, it’s likely that the number would have been zero.

Nor is the trend moving in one, positive direction. In many parts of the world, democracy is failing to maintain that magical allure that I saw in Nepal. Freedom House recorded a “significant decline” in democratic freedoms in 27 countries last year alone. For many emerging democracies around the world, democracy has failed to live up to the huge expectations placed upon it. From Turkey and Brazil to Russia, Egypt and Thailand, millions have come out in the past year to protest not against autocrats, but fairly elected governments.

In a timely book, Democracy in Retreat, released midway through the year, the analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations and contributor to The Review, put the blame squarely on the middle class. In many parts of the world, he wrote, they were turning against representative government, fed up with the “chaos, corruption, and weak growth” that plagues democracy; angry “at the rise of elected populists who disdain the rule of law”; and worried “that their own power will be ­diminished”.

Having traditionally been seen as the main advocates and defenders of democracy, the middle classes can no longer be counted on to support it. Their protests helped bring down the elected governments of Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in 2001, Hugo Chavez (temporarily) in Venezuela in 2002 and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand in 2006. Even more worrying has been their willingness to turn to the army for help – Kurlantzick found that nearly half the military coups in developing nations over the past 20 years had significant support from the middle class.

The root of the problem in each of these examples was quite simple: democracy arrived in a country where the traditional elite was vastly outnumbered by the poor. That gave rise to populist leaders with reckless economic policies and a willingness to exploit nationalistic and religious chauvinism to win the support of the poor majority.

For the educated middle classes, the results of this equation can be horrifying, spawning opposition-crushing autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Islamist incompetents like the Muslim Brotherhood or corrupt demagogues like Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan. Suddenly, a military regime can seem like a pleasant alternative.

It is indeed tempting to see this as a contest between the pro-democracy poor and the anti-democracy elite. But it’s not so simple. Take Thailand as an example. In recent days and weeks, the Bangkok-based middle classes have taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to demand the resignation of the prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and its replacement by an unelected “People’s Council” of elders. The protest leaders demand this because they know they have no hope of winning an election. Yingluck is really a proxy for her brother, Thaksin, who still runs the country by video conference from Dubai, where he is in self-imposed exile since being ousted in a coup and convicted of corruption. Thaksin remains enormously popular with rural voters for bringing them virtually free health care, low-cost education loans and old-age pensions for the first time. “Ten years ago, the road you drove on to get here was dirt. There was no electricity, there was no irrigation,” Pichai Poltaklang, a retired primary-school teacher in rural north-east Thailand told AP last month. “Before Thaksin came to power, we were left out.”

Unable to match Thaksin’s near-god-like popularity in rural areas, the parties of the middle class in Bangkok have taken a stand against democracy. In many respects they are sore losers, but they are also acutely aware that democracy is about more than holding the occasional election and handing out goodies to the biggest constituency. Democracy requires vibrant institutions – an independent judiciary and civil service, freedom for the press and NGOs, a lively democratic culture. Thaksin might have empowered the poor, but he also undermined these institutions through massive corruption, politicisation of officials and the heavy-handed use of security forces to silence ­opponents.

Rather than opposing democracy, the middle classes in Thailand could be seen as demanding a deeper and more meaningful form of democracy. The trouble is that they think the best response is to violently force the government from power.

“Putting pressure on elected governments outside of the ballot box might be quite important,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the co-author of Why Nations Fail. “The key, however, is that these protests should not be seen as a power grab by the old elite and their parties. In Thailand, they are clearly that.”

Many emerging democracies are already starkly polarised between a traditional elite and the rest of society. In these circumstances, any attempt to subvert elections and grab power can drive a further wedge between communities – one that becomes very hard to remove.

In Egypt this past summer, the military takeover that brought down the elected Muslim Brotherhood government was welcomed by many in the middle class. But it has created a lasting source of grievance among Brotherhood supporters that will last a generation. It also turned the legitimate concerns of the middle class about the erosion of democratic rights into a violent battle for control.

It would have been far better to let democracy run its course, says Acemoglu: “The events since [the takeover] show very clearly that the only path to consensual democracy is to keep the army out. The Muslim Brotherhood would have certainly lost the next election, and there was really no danger of them taking over all the institutions of state within a few years, especially given the army’s hostility to them.

“This is not to absolve [the Muslim Brotherhood] of the many sins they committed. But an intervention makes the whole dynamics worse and the polarisation more pernicious.”

Polarisation provides an excuse for all sorts of bad behaviour. Even when protesters are not really seeking to grab power, autocratic leaders can claim that they are. The Turkish protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last summer were only asking for better and more responsive institutions, but the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan depicted them as dangerous insurgents trying to seize control of the state. That rallied his own – largely rural and religious – supporter base and legitimised the brutal crackdown that he unleashed in Gezi Park.

Few places are as dangerously polarised as Bangladesh, which held a farcical and horrifically violent election this month after the main opposition party boycotted the race. The two main parties are led by the “Battling Begums” – Sheikh Hasina for the Awami League and Khaleda Zia for the Bangladesh National Party. Their bitter personal rivalry has all but destroyed democratic debate in the country. A leaked transcript of a phone call between the pair in October – their first conversation in over a decade – is replete with childish insults and outrageous accusations, leaving little doubt about why so many were happy when the military seized control in 2007 and threw both of them in jail.

The army backed down after a couple of years and let the begums get back to what they describe as work. But the death toll from this month’s election – 19 on the day, dozens more before and since – has many wondering whether democracy is worth the effort.

And for many in Asia and beyond, there is a model that looks far more stable and effective: China.

Indeed, argues Alina Rocha Menocal, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, if developing countries are most interested in development, there’s no particular reason to opt for democracy.

“Democracy doesn’t inherently or automatically lead to development,” she says. “There’s a tendency in the West to see democracy as the answer to everything, but it’s just one way of making decisions.”

She points to the bitter partisanship in American politics as evidence of how democracy can struggle to introduce progressive reforms. “The US system, with all its checks and balances, actually makes it very difficult to promote change because power is so fragmented.”

But, she adds, opting for an authoritarian regime like China’s is “a dangerous wager”. There is no guarantee that it will care about its citizens in the long run and it’s much harder to kick it out if it fails.

Acemoglu adds that authoritarian regimes are much less capable of the “creative destruction” needed to innovate and expand economically. Democracies are more responsive to pressure from their citizens, and the constant churn of ideas and interest groups tends to make them more dynamic. China has made a lot of money by copying western goods and selling them back cheaper to the West. But it has so far struggled to demonstrate the innovation needed to transition to a fully developed economy.

In the long run, established democracies are more stable and productive and less likely to fight each other. But getting there can be a long and bloody affair, full of setbacks and disasters, with no guarantee of success. It took five republics and three centuries to get to modern-day France, with many a guillotined head along the way. Elites are liable to question whether the rule of law is really beneficial to their business interests, while poorer citizens grow tired of empty promises from politicians and all of the corruption scandals being exposed by their free press.

In the meantime, democracies can produce some pretty unsavoury results and it takes a great deal of faith and forbearance to stay the course.

A new president in the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, was elected in November. He is the half-brother of the dictator that ruled the country for 30 years. He defeated Mohamed Nasheed, the man credited with bringing democracy to the country in 2008, sharing the country’s tourism wealth with the poor and becoming an international advocate against climate change. Yameen didn’t win by being a better democratic candidate. He won by spreading malicious rumours that Nasheed was anti-Islamic and by using a rigged supreme court to cancel an unfavourable first-round election result. It was only Nasheed’s magnanimous acceptance of defeat – something that his opponent would certainly not have done – that prevented a slide into serious conflict.

In India, many will be disgusted to see the election in May of Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is accused of – but denies – complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that killed over 1,000 people while he was the chief minister. Modi stands a good chance of becoming prime minister as the head of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, thanks to the country’s impatience with the endless corruption scandals and ineptitudes of the stultifying, dynastic Congress party that has ruled for the past decade.

But India is also a country that can weather the crises that beset its democracy and keep its worst excesses just about under control. Its 60-year experiment with democracy has been a chaotic affair, faced with the persistent ignominy of its failure to feed and care for its citizens and an endless array of challenges from insurgents, regional upstarts and external enemies. It survives – barely – on the strength of the institutions and the faith in democratic culture that were forged in the high-achieving early days of independence, nurtured by the great minds of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

“India as a democracy is very argumentative about problems but not argumentative enough about solutions. Sustained periods of indecision can make even autocracy seductive,” says Shankkar Aiyar, a columnist and the author of Accidental India. “But democracy has survived in India because it has found root in India’s diversity. It’s in everybody’s interest that no one group’s interest is allowed to reign.”

Modi might win, in other words, but in the fierce competition of Indian democracy, with its blood-fanged press and energetic judiciary, he must placate his critics or face becoming irrelevant.

Back in Nepal in November, the positivity of election day turned to despair within just a couple of days. The Maoists, previously the biggest party in parliament, were headed for a dramatic defeat. In a panic, and despite a distinct lack of evidence, their leaders claimed that the election must have been rigged. For several days, Nepal’s young democracy hung in the balance. Would the Maoists, who only gave up their guerrilla war in 2006, throw the country back into chaos and war by refusing to fulfil that hardest and most necessary of democratic tasks – the acceptance of defeat?

At stake in the crisis was all that euphoria that I had sensed on election day – the joy that comes from that moment, however brief, of empowerment and hope. Much of it is an illusion, but for millions in the developing world, casting a vote carries at least the possibility of something new and better around the corner.

After days on the brink, the Maoists in Nepal stepped back from the edge and accepted the results. They gave democracy another chance and averted one more crisis – one of a litany in Nepal’s budding experiment with people’s power and certainly not its last. I was struck then by how fragile democracy can be.

The Cambridge University theorist David Runciman, in his recent and wonderfully rococo meditation on democracy, The Confidence Trap, argues that democracy is only ever capable of a constant cycle of success and failure, overconfidence and humble correction. But we should content ourselves with that because it is, surely, the best reflection of human experience. “The spread and growth of democracy has generated the possibility of collective failure,” he writes. “But the spread and growth of democracy remains our best bet against the possibility of collective failure, because democracies are always trying something new. The advantages are inseparable from the risks.”


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Uncomfortable truths in Bangkok

They say it’s a festive atmosphere down among the protesters on the streets of Bangkok, but it’s astonishing that anyone feels festive after a thousand high-pitched whistles have been blasted into your ears for hours on end, and the only reprieve comes when Europe’s “The Final Countdown” is played at maximum volume for the 48th time that day.

Perhaps all that shrill noise is to distract from the fact that no one is saying anything of any actual use for the country. Quite clearly, there are serious problems with the current government – its economic policies are disastrous, its previous tenures have been marked by horrifically brutal military crackdowns and wanton corruption, and the man who controls the country (Thaksin Shinawatra) is a convicted criminal who doesn’t even live in Thailand. God knows those are some pretty good reasons to come out to demand reform and, if you really find it necessary, to blow those bloody whistles.

But so long as that convicted criminal remains (by far) the most popular politician in the country – thanks to all the nice things he has given to the poor – then there is a question that cannot be answered by the protesters:

What kind of reform can you possibly envisage that does not undermine or totally remove the democratic right of citizens to vote for their government?

There is no scenario in which Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies will lose a free and fair election. They’ve been winning for the past 20 years. His parties have been banned, he’s been convicted of corruption and fled into exile, and he’s been forced to put his completely inexperienced sister in charge of the country. And yet he will win every time because he gave free healthcare and pensions to the poor, and they love him for it.

The protesters – and the powerful elites that stand behind them – have tried a number of tactics to get rid of Thaksin and his family. They’ve threatened to derail the snap election called for February 2nd that they know Thaksin will win. They’ve threatened to convict over 300 members of Thaksin’s party for breaching constitutional rules (thus barring them all from parliament).

But you can’t get round the simple fact that Thaksin has more supporters than any other party. He can always anoint more politicians to represent him and sweep up those votes. The only way to stop him winning would be to say (as they effectively have already) that only Bangkok elites should have the right to vote.

Of course, that would lead to carnage. The more the opposition tries to suppress Thaksin supporters, the more righteous and indignant they become and the more adamantly they support him. Such is the age-old dynamic of deepening divisions and deepening radicalisation that we see in all crisis-bound countries.

Here’s another uncomfortable truth: The opposition is right to give up on democracy – it’s too late for that.

Liberals would like to see the opposition and the protesters use legitimate means to gain power – not tearing down the government, but trying to win over Thaksin’s supporters with their own progressive policies and convincing arguments.

Fat chance! When you are poor and you’ve been ignored since time immemorial by the political elite, and someone comes along who empowers you and gives you social services for the first time in history, you will follow that man till the day you die. It takes a generation – at least – to undo the sort of loyalty Thaksin has won. People are still voting Congress in India to say thanks for independence. They are still voting ANC in South Africa for ending apartheid. Thaksin’s enemies like to pretend he has “bought” all his voters with grubby handouts, but if that were the whole story, they would not be so desperate (they could just out-bid him). No, what really terrifies Thaksin’s opponents is the unbreakable loyalty he has earned.

It takes a superhuman show of magnanimous leadership to break out of a cycle as vicious as the one that Thailand is heading down. Indeed, it takes a Mandela or a Gandhi – someone who realises that the only way to a lasting victory is to side with your opponents, breaking the endless cycle of cause and effect, attack and counter-attack.

Most Thais want reconciliation. I’ve met plenty of people this week who shake their head in despair at the awful people on both sides of the divide. One of the most comprehensive surveys found that 76% of Thais associated with neither Red nor Yellow shirts. But, sadly, neither Thaksin nor protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, nor anyone else in Thailand, seems capable of the sort of sacrifice that would reunite the divided country.

As things stand, Thailand faces an impossible conundrum: a ruling party that will never be accepted by the elite; and an opposition that must embrace dictatorship or face a generation out of power.

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