December 30, 2006

Former President Ford Dead

I became aware of the US politics upon arriving here during the last years of the Regan presidency, in the wake of the brazen testimony of Oliver North in uniform before the Congress. Coincidentally, I lived as a student not far away from the "White House on the West Coast", President Regan's Santa Barbara ranch.

My earliest political recollections, snippets from the mid-seventies as a middle-schooler in a nondescript village in central India. It was modern India's darkest hour. In 1975, Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi became a civilian dictator in order to overturn the High Court verdict that invalidated her election to the parliament. From the same period, I also vaguely recall a bold headline in an Indian tabloid named "Blitz" with the words "Watergate" and "Nixon". Only thing I understood from my father then was that the United States President named Nixon resigned in shame.

To this day, those memories define my view of the Indian and American politics. The following article echoes that sentiment eloquently.

The Blog | Taylor Marsh: NIXON PARDON: For Friendship, Not Country | The Huffington Post

When I wrote the post I Can't Forgive Ford, all hell broke loose in some quarters. Some wouldn't talk about it, ignored it completely, with some comments unprintable. Being proved correct in my assessment is not really important, because my feelings ran deep on this issue. But today's article by Bob Woodward does illuminate why I felt the way I have for all of these years.

The emergency lasted two years when Mrs Gandhi grudgingly allowed a fresh round of elections that thoroughly trounced her. The following government jailed her throwing the whole country into turmoil and violence. Nonetheless, Mrs Gandhi was chastened for good. India has not had dictatorial flirtations ever since.

President Nixon was pardoned by his buddy and successor President Ford. The above quote mirrors my feelings about the pardon. I wonder if it is morally dishonest to eulogize Ford's "healing touch" pardon while hailing the US-influenced court decision in Iraq to hang the deposed president. For sure, I'm not at all comparing the butcher of Iraq with a politically-deviant Nixon but couldn't help but wonder whether the action suggests any political wisdom when the first priority is containing the civil war with "healing" touches.

May President Ford rest in peace.

December 08, 2006

Iraq, Afghanistan setbacks and occupiers of other people's lands

The following article mentions in passing that the Iraqi quagmire sends a warning to occupiers of other peoples' lands: Iraqi Quagmire Haunts NATO Riga Summit By K Gajendra Singh
Russia is the only power which even now can thwart US moves and military power. But it was the Iraqi resistance in Iraq which exposed the limits of US military power sending a resounding warning to aggressors and occupiers of other people's lands .A resurgent Talebans with Pakistani acquiescence are doing the same to embattled Nato forces in Afghanistan. While other subjects were discussed at Riga , Afghanistan has now became Nato's major preoccupation and a veritable hot potato.

While I can't agree with everything in the article, I'm wholeheartedly behind the idea that "aggressors and occupiers of other people's lands" must continuously be demoralized.

So it was good the Soviet Union crumbled under its own weight of far flung occupations in Central Asia, Baltics and Eastern Europe. It is good the US exits out of the middle east soon. It is good India had the sense to leave Bangladesh pronto and did so involuntarily in Sri Lanka.

On balance, no spy agencies, regional or global super powers are ever short on dirty tricks and degenerate morals arising out of short-sighted self interest. Their evil doings are usually limited by competence, resources or oversight by civilians that ultimately answer to the electorate.

India has fortunately opted for the western model so dictatorial elements are kicked out sooner or later. Indians don't need the iron fist of the Soviet Politburo that used the gulags to kill millions of its own people or Putin's capitalist dictatorship that gobbles billionaires and kills reporters with impunity.

As much as the US interventions in Iraq are a great lesson for India what not to do, the Russian mafia rule certainly does not offer anything to look up to.

November 10, 2006

US Democracy Shows Signs of Revival

Much has been written about the recent elections that voted the Democrats back in control of both houses of the U.S. congress. So I'll spare election analysis here. This news item just caught my eye:
U.S. rep to the UN may not get Senate approval
Here is a tribute to the defeated Republican Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee for upholding a high principle of democracy: honoring electoral wishes when he wasn't legally required to do so. For those not fully familiar with the US system, Chafee continues to be a Senator and a member of the Senate foreign relations committee until the new slate swears in early 2007.

Recognizing the electoral mandate for changing the world-alienating course of Bush administration's disastrous foreign policy, in the lame duck session Chafee will not vote to confirm the nomination of the much-despised and out-of-touch US appointee to the UN.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican who represents Rhode Island, said he will continue to oppose Bolton's nomination. Chafee lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse on Tuesday, but his continued opposition while a member of the Senate foreign relations committee means that the Republicans will not have the votes they need to push his nomination from the committee to the full Senate.

"The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," Chafee said. "And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoken out against."

A fine sentiment indeed!

September 01, 2006

Notes for India's Proposed Whistleblower Protection and Public Disclosure Act

Encouraging public disclosures and protecting the whistleblowers--those who take the courageous and sometimes self-harming step of disclosing wrongdoings--are important for a healthy and well-functioning democracy. India lacks any such law that would mandate an investigation when a qualifying disclosure is made and give protection to the whistleblower.

One hears that an internal "whistleblower draft" is circulating in the Indian Law Ministry. It is quite possible the ministry has done its homework. One hopes it isn't just a copy-paste of the four-year old Law Commission report** or of other countries' acts++. A bill was also introduced in the Rajya Sabha in March 2006 that is apparently modeled after the Law Commission report. It has not received any presss coverage since so its present fate is unknown.

If recent history of legislation-making in India is any indicator, extensive public discussions do not usually precede passing an act in the parliament. The 2004 Right to Information Act was an exception, an exception that succeeded so well that the government has now woken up to the need to defang the key provisions that put a little too much sunshine on the doings of the vested interests.

This article summarizes year-old notes from reading the law commission report, from an attempt to coordinate whistleblowers and their wellwishers in India towards a draft proposal and from meetings with motivated government officials in the trenches. It is posted here in the larger public interest of sharing the observations. The hope is that someday motivated people may find these points useful, especially when faced with a surprise draft that is about to be rushed through a parliament session without much discussion.

First, some comments on the Law Commission's report:

  1. Change the title to convey that disclosure and protection are both equally important aspects of the law++.
  2. Under the competent authority, start listing relevant autorities for the center and state public servants. Similarly, list them for the lower judiciary, various tribunals and separately for the higher judiciary, perhaps the Chief Justice of the respective High Court or of the Supreme Court or a proposed National Judicial Commission, and for the central and union ministers in the cabinets.
  3. Introduce and cover the private sector when relevant for either taxpayer contracts or the safety of life and environment. The UK model might be worth looking into here.
  4. Use the term whistleblower under the definition of disclosure.
  5. As malicious complaints (against a public servant who did not commit the alleged wrong) do not harm the public servant beyond the allegations, the punishment should be a fine to recover costs and not imprisonment. That is to say, reporting something a whistleblower reasonably believed is disclosable can't be made a criminal offence, especially considering the prosecution and investigating agencies are political appointees for specific postings.
  6. In the process of enquiring the disclosures, direct the investigating agencies to identify the savings to the public exchequer (as a result of the act of disclosure) and legislate that the first X% of the recovery be granted to the whistleblower within 30 days of such recovery.
  7. It must be recognized that occasionally there is a need for the whistleblower, in his or her opinion, to step out of the shadow and go public. The law ought to recognize an external competent authority to handle such requests.
Now, notes from a meeting in Chennai with a senior IAS officer Mr. K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty:
  1. The Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) should delegate investigative powers on whistleblower complaint to the administrative tribunals CAT and SAT.
  2. The competent authority should be split for two different functions. a) for investigative purposes leading all the way to a panel of members of parliament + (NGOs == we are looking to define citizen experts or some such well-defined external body), and b) for protecting function to the law enforcement authorities.
  3. The statute of limitation on disclosure might be limited however that on protection to the whistleblower ought to be without limits.
  4. Public Disclosures may be made in steps and the whistleblower be given the right to appeal to the next authority. Start with a department-level internal authority who would also be the competent authority for both investigative and protective (mainly covering job security) purposes. The internal step may be skipped in certain well defined disclosures of graver (TBD) consequences. The next appellate authority is the CVC or the state VC. (see #1 for more). The whistleblower shall be protected from violations of the Official Secrets Act or any such in cases (s)he appeals, as a last resort, to a panel of Members of Parliament (or, on a murkier grounds here, an external designated NGO such as amnesty international?).
  5. Whistleblower shall be allowed an anticipatory registration (suspecting retaliation) with a competent protective authority.
  6. The type of harms caused by the act disclosed by the whistleblower ought to be well defined such as breach of regulations and harm to environment, particularly when invoked against regulatory bodies.
  7. AI: Write a position paper for members of parliament increasing disclosure and empowering them to regulate the private sector and consumers and shareholders.
  8. For a protecting competent authority, define a new tribunal for private sector management
Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list or a complete position paper on the topic.
++ As the names of the corresponding US and UK/Australian acts suggest, the US model is focused on affording a whistleblower protection from retaliation for exposing wrongdoing whereas the UK and Australian acts are more concerned about the act of public disclosure itself, in the interest of saving public lives or waste of the public exchequer.

** The 179th Report of the Law Commission of India, aka the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Bill 2002.

June 19, 2006

Is democracy incongruent with good governance?

The populist choice |
SPECTACULAR success followed by tragic failure. That might seem the verdict of the weekend’s general election in Slovakia, where one of the best-regarded reforming governments in the post-communist world was booted out of office amid big votes for left-wing and populist parties.

Yesterday evening I had an interesting discussion whether democracy inevitably leads to vote-block populism at the expense of good governance, common sense and helping the very weaker sections the populists pretend to protect. Turns out dividing society is a favorite tool of not just democratically elected rulers but also dictators and colonial rulers.

The populists under discussion are the ascending leftists in Indian politics and the secularists (more commonly known as baiters of the mainstream hindu religion) of India's ruling congress party. They start with the widely accepted premise India's age-old caste system has oppressed lower castes and the untouchables -- defined as the scheduled castes and tribes (the SC & ST), comprising about 20% of the population. The SC & ST are fairly well-protected under the Indian constitution and continue to be given preferential treatment in everything under the government's control.

The contemporary divide-and-rule geniuses of India don't stop here. They are now saying the caste system was equally, if not more, oppressive towards Other Backward Classes, the OBCs. The last time OBCs were counted was the 1931 decennial census under the British raj. The proposed revision comes with the lure that roughly two-thirds of India's Hindu population might qualify as OBC! Predictably, the race to be classified as an inferior caste is already in motion, reminiscent of the jockeying a century ago when every caste raced, no pun intended, to be counted as a superior one:

Ghurye, G.S. 1979:278 (first published 1932) "Caste and Race in India. Bombay: Popular Prakashan" observed: Various ambitious castes quickly perceived the chances of raising their status. They invited conferences of their members, and formed councils to take steps to see that their status was recorded in the way they thought was honourable to them. Other castes that could not but resent this "stealthy" procedure to advance, equally eagerly began to controvert their claims. Thus a campaign of mutual recrimination was set afoot.

At stake today is not just preferred access to schools, universities and public sector jobs, but also hiring decisions to be made by every private company operating on the Indian soil.

The electoral calculus is self evident. The historical evidence being cited to justify the divisive policies is highly suspicious but hardly unprecedented.

It takes off on the revisionist history the British undertook in order to convince higher caste Hindus of their superiority by virtue of an alleged racial heritage with invading europeans. The challenge before the communists and the congress party today is to convince two out of every three Hindus of their inferiority by virtue of being oppressed in the past and thus deserving preferential treatment against the remaining 20% Indian population. The tools employed by both dividers are the same: mid-nineteenth century euro-centric history that led to the Aryan Invasion Theory and the scientifically questionable basis in the 1931 census of shades of skin, nasal index, and such wonderful techniques that were in vogue then just as eugenics was in Europe.

The British were desperate to assert their racial superiority over the natives. They did so out of the exigencies of ruling a distant subcontinent by co-opting certain classes, the superior Aryans, as native ruling agents. They played linguistic commonalities of Indo-European languages to the hilt.

The communists and the secularists are desperate to be seen as agents of social equality in order to strenghten democratic control on emerging India. The caste divisions in the 75-year old colonial census come very handy in the quest for new voting blocks. As usual, a vast majority of meek Indian academics is ready to rewrite history.

Together, they will milk the shameful past of caste discriminations while ignoring the more important issues of development of human capital regardless of the family one is born into.

June 08, 2006

Saudi Arabia Upholds Secularism!!

It doesn't get better than this. Just as we have Syria, China, Saudi Arabia and a host others carrying out the vaunted international responsibilities of running UN's Human Rights Panels, just as we have dictators in Pakistan, Cuba and elsewhere singing praises of the values of Democracy, now we have Saudi Arabia, home of the world's most theocratic system, lauding the values of Secularism. Sweet!!

In case you were thinking Saudi Arabia is into religious freedom for its own non-Muslims, I've an instant Doctorate in Naivete to sell you.

Saudi Arabia is praising a visiting Indian Human Resources Development Minister, a much reviled figure back home for his polarization of the Indian society along caste lines, for keeping India Secular.

Why is it so important for the Saudis? Well, they love it when a predominantly Hindu culture treats its minorities -- the biggest of all Muslims -- infinitely better than Saudis treat their own infidels:

Arjun Singh's 'secular character' praised

Riyadh, June 1: The Saudi media has heaped praise on the visiting Union Minister for Human Resource and Development Arjun Singh, describing him as a very ‘seasoned politician’ and an ‘icon of Indian secularism’.

June 02, 2006

India to Let Dictators Thrive in Her Neighborhood

India to Let Dictators Thrive in Her Neighborhood
Singapore, June 3 (AP): India, hailed as the world's biggest democracy, will not export its free society ideology to neighbouring military-ruled Myanmar, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said today.

"Our basic principle is to live in peaceful coexistence and we do not believe in exporting ideologies," Mukherjee said.

"It is for the people of the countries to decide what type of government they would like," he said.

Well, people under a dictator's thumb would love to decide what type of government they would like only if they had the chance without the fear of being jailed for decades or, worse, killed. In other words, people in those countries can decide only if they had democracy in the first place, Mr. Defence minister!

One can only marvel at the oxymoronic platitudes and concomitant insult to the Burmese (Myanmarese) people who by every account would love to be released from under the military jackboots. Who wouldn't?

The minister talks of democracy as an ideology as if the military rule on its both flanks -- Pakistan and Myanmar -- is a benevolent alternative. In the same breath he pays lip service to "letting people decide". Not too long ago, a similar attitude had India caught on the wrong foot as the anti-king demonstrations in Nepal evolved rapidly. The Nepalese people naturally perceived the Indian government was more interested in sucking up to the King even after it became obvious the Gyanendra was losing control. The US ambassador called it before India dared to.

India's NAM-era habit of non-interference, i.e. letting the world's worst despots butcher their people without uttering a single word, seems to have become a sickening addiction. The Indian government sure tries hard to slap a lofty principle on its skulduggery, like the letting people decide comment, but it is hard not to overlook this one was about a potential oil pipeline through Myanmar, about abkeeping the Myanmarese army as a happy arms buyer and of course exploiting its potential as the gateway for India's oft-sited look east policy. Let Daw Aung San Suu Kyi perish in prison and whole generations of her countrymen go through without tasting freedom.

May 19, 2006

Mr Criminal, You Are Abusing My Democracy

If one delves into the psyche of ordinary people enraged by criminal acts -- whether by petty thieves, rapists, murderers or organized crimes against communities or the humanity -- one often notices the familiar refrain:

Mr Criminal, you are abusing the fair and democratic laws of my country; in another less civilized and autocratic place, you would be long dead.

One wonders if the audience grasp how autocratic regimes operate beyond the media portrayal of unflinching prosecution in the backdrop of severe, even corporal, punishment. By definition, a system of summary justice can not afford fair trial to all accused. Self preservation dictates they target a criminal type or two. It helps massage the ego of a society it is law-abiding. With that fig leaf of credibility, the regimes go on to commit and shield all sorts of crimes with impunity.

You hate rapists and thieves? We've got the Taliban, the Iranian mullahdom and Saudi Wahabism ready to chop their (in)appropriate body parts. You hate capitalists or money lenders or enterprising people? We've got the Pol Plots to kill and bury anyone who can even afford a pair of reading glasses and the Hitlers riding on nationalism to solve the problem of moneylending Jews for good. You want real lessons taught to the tardy bureaucrats that run trains late or help adulterate your favorite grocery item? We've got a Mussolini and an Indira Gandhi of her brief (thankfully!) flirtation with the Emergency.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying the most egregious crimes against humanity or mixing them with the less brutal ones. Invariably they all seem to capitalize on the outrage of well-meaning admirers with the above refrain.

Consider this quote from the recently retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a speech at Georgetown University:

"We must be ever vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."

I am not suggesting we muzzle common outrage against criminals, corrupt, terrorists, rapists or the greedy that thrive on exploitation. If anything, common people ought to have the freedom of speech to express their outrage fully without paying heed to political correctness, especially when the perpetrators belong to a particular community, gender or anything else the MSM deems above reproach. However, we ought to avoid the beginnings of degeneration by unwittingly accepting the democratic norms of a fair trial has let us down.

It might be more appropriate to say:

Mr or Ms criminal, I'm glad you did not commit this crime in that autocratic country. Over there, so many criminals get away with murder and worse. In this civilized country, we are proud our laws will bring justice to every criminal like you. If not, our constitution will facilitate new laws without compromising our core values and bring you justice. If found guilty, you will pay.

March 14, 2006

Leading by Example

Rajinder Puri urges India to take the lead in spreading democracy around the world. But only after putting its own house in order.

After 9/11 the quality of American democracy plummeted. ... Many of [the Bush administration]'s actions destroyed American values and even attracted threats of impeachment. The administration deliberately falsified intelligence inputs and lied to the nation for justifying its invasion of Iraq. During the war, it initiated systematic torture of prisoners which violated American law and human rights. The President authorized illegal wiretapping of private conversations of citizens without following due process. ... The President got away with his excesses because mainstream US media failed to fulfill its responsibility.

India's condition is no better. The failure of the system and the need to reform it is a recurring theme in these columns. ... [There is] an alarming breakdown in the rule of law. Liberty therefore has degenerated into license. The rich and the powerful can and do get away with murder. Hopefully, the public will bestir itself before the system disintegrates.

These facts must be kept in mind if a serious effort to spread democracy across the world is undertaken.

The author makes excellent points. However, he is no exception to the general tendency in America and India to play up increasing prosperity and depth of democratic values and to remind readers how lucky they are compared with assorted autocratic regimes before addressing the serious deviations from democracy.

The US President clearly violated the FISA by wiretapping citizen without a prior judicial warrant. India has no laws, whatsoever, to protect its people from violation of privacy by the State. All that any Indian government needs is a confidential executive order signed by a bureaucrat so it can spy on citizen and political rivals with plausible deniability. Invariably, it's one of the first privileges every government exercises upon swearing in.

At first blush, the Indian press might appear cantankerous, and therefore free, but it lacks full freedom of press. Nor does it particularly push the limits of the considerable freedom it enjoys. Its hands are tied by draconian libel laws without the recourse to a First Amendment protection or truth as defense. It operates in an environment journalists are regularly roughed up. The end result is a free press that stays away from anything that may remotely violate the colonial Official Secrets Act or breaching the privilege of any elected house or inviting contempt of court from the prickly judges that don't take kindly to criticism, especially to accusations of quid pro quo in letting the powerful get away with murder.

Many of India's laws are more fit for the religious courts of Shariat-following countries, for countries that elect leaders with 100% polled votes, and in medieval societies than for a vibrant democracy that includes 600 million globally-aware, pulsating youth. Combined with unbelievable corruption in every sphere of the justice system, they are a lethal deterrence for the most fearless journalist. That results in a free press that won't needle the executive, the legislative or the judiciary where it really matters.

The Indian audience, like most patriotic people, does not like to read much about its soldiers running their own Abu Ghraibs in Kashmir or the North East or for that matter in the heart of Mumbai for accused terrorists.

At present, these serious flaws in the democratic norms do not seem to bother the administrations of India or the US. Perhaps they are flirting with a system that gives the citizen just enough freedom to prosper but keeps them from extreme frustration of repressive regimes. As a result, the ruling mob prefers to hold the reigns of power very close in the name of security.

The only difference might be the federal writ doesn't extend much into the states and cities that run their own law enforcement and judicial systems in the US. Whereas in India, those functions have a strict reporting hierarchy to the central government. The silver lining is all it takes in India is the will of the ruling government to reform.

March 03, 2006

Can they transform the world?

President Bush thinks so.

"The United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world," Mr. Bush declared in the cool March air of New Delhi on the grounds of a 16th century fort.

Their ability to lead largely depends on how the world sees their practice of democratic values, i.e. whether they walk the talk.

The US has an image problem in its treatment of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. Sure, of late there is positive action from the highest court. The US is also addicted to siding with autocratic regimes from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan under one pretext or the other. And, the only silver lining to the hard-to-forget Abu Ghraib black-eye was the whistle blew from within and some of the wrongdoers were sentenced.

India, with the non-aligned past and a penchant for the high moral perch, has its share of cozying up to the worst dictators in the southern hemisphere. Neither is it known to bring up democracy with the Sauds, Pakistani generals or the Irani mullahs. Worse still is India's track record of treating its own people in Kashmir and the North East undemocratically. That is changing for better. However, widespread corruption continues to deprive most ordinary Indians of justice and real democracy.