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Democracy’s demons

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By Janmejaya Sinha

The extent of polarisation under democratic governments across the world seems extreme. Look at the US, Brazil, many parts of Europe and Asia and the same holds true. In fact, authoritarian regimes can justifiably claim to house less internal polarisation than democracies. Why is this so? Is there something in the nature of democracies that leads to a polarisation of the populace? Have the recent developments in technology and social media accentuated such tendencies?

If we go back in time, thinkers and politicians alike asserted the complexities in making a democracy work. Winston Churchill had famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all others tried from time to time”. He went on to add, though, “that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Much before him, Aristotle, had averred that “democracies degenerate into despotism”. Many politicians and thinkers, including John Kennedy, said that a well-functioning democracy puts high expectations on the average voter to engage and participate.

 

Plato had his own concerns with democracy. He believed “good decisions were based on knowledge and not numbers” and perceptively opined that “rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men”. If one were to add another allied term, “narrative”, then what Plato said becomes even more powerful. “Rhetoric” is best defined as the art of using speech to persuade, influence or please, but also as speech or discourse that pretends to have significance but lacks true meaning, as when we assert that all the politician says is mere rhetoric.

“Narrative” is best understood as a story or a description of a series of events or, more pertinently, a particular way of explaining or understanding events. The rhetoric that best positions a political narrative is at the core of most current political debates. But how does this lead to such bitter polarisation in a democracy?

Political leaders have a short period of time during an election to provide an uplifting narrative to the voters. Voters engage at a superficial level. So, the rhetoric on offer has to be both simple and instantly appealing — like Trump’s “jobs vs mobs”. Given the diversity of the electorate, the politician has no choice but to appeal to as many segments as he or she can. Typically, they do this by over-promising what they can deliver in a term in office. There is no credible non-partisan manner for the general population to monitor and evaluate the performance of the politician once elected. When time comes for the next election, opposition parties highlight all the areas that the incumbent failed to deliver and the incumbent tries to highlight, with hyperbole, all the things that have been achieved. The voter is not in a position to really get to the bottom of this. As a result, the rhetoric becomes all important. “Hope” as a theme is easily appropriated by the challenger. The incumbent is typically on the defensive and has to fall back on a strident narrative around primordial themes — demonising opponents, social groups or exaggerating external threats to create an appeal that can overcome the scrutiny of undelivered promises.

Social media today allows individual customisation of news and much greater amplification as it gets delivered to the mailbox or hand-held device of the individual.

People consume what they agree with, all opposing views are filtered out, and so there no access to any objective reality. The uncivil rhetoric on social media was not possible in the heyday of print media. The electronic media has adjusted to this and finds strident shows get higher viewership. Channels get identified with a particular partisan perspective and obtain a loyal viewership from those that agree with that narrative. (In the US, Fox news, Republican leaning, has roughly equal viewership to MSNBC and CNN combined, which are Democrat leaning). Thus, channels get type cast and can only present their side with partiality. There is no reasoned debate and people do not listen to alternative viewpoints. This, over time, polarises the society and beliefs are stoked in an era of alternative facts and fake news.

Compromise and bipartisanship on national causes becomes much harder. At its extreme, the partisanship can lead, as Aristotle worried, towards despotism, as is evident in Philippines with Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey with Recep Erdogan and now in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro.

Authoritarian regimes led by strong men appear less polarised. Such regimes tightly control the press, courts and political opposition. They brutally suppress critics and dissidents. But the mass of people seem unaffected if their lot improves. The rhetoric on offer is consistent with the leader’s narrative (often of jingoism, global prestige and economic progress). It is true that in the long run, the absence of internal challenge and leadership change prevents self-correcting mechanisms and can lead to the economic collapse of many such regimes. But in the short-run, they can move faster. And so, if we view Russia, China and even the brutal Saudi Arabia, one has to admit that they are much less polarised than the US, Brazil, Western Europe and Asia.

Periodic peaceful transfer of power by popular vote, by uninformed voters accompanied with growing inequality, a strident partisan rhetoric combined with under delivery (on impossible but required to win promises), a sensationalist media, all lead to polarisation. Democracies expect great sagacity from their leaders; to rise above and lead. Across the world, leaders are increasingly failing to do so. Democracies are built on the premise of serious voter engagement and objective news. Their absence is leading to a great challenge in governance and global stability. Great introspection is required to revitalise the democratic experiment.


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Opinion

Chekhovian Tragedy

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Amir Sultan

In his book In the Land of Israel novelist and writer Amos Oz classifies a tragedy into two types; one being the Shakespearean and the other Chekhovian. He writes,


“…there is a Shakespearean resolution and there is the Chekhovian one. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there is some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered but still alive.”

 

William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov (read as Chie-Kof) were both playwrights and dramatists. Both of them in their works have tried to shed light on various aspects of human nature. However, Anton Chekhov as seen by the renowned novelist Amos Oz gives us a better understanding of the tragedies happening with us. His portrayal of tragedy is what most of us go through. As the quote states that the Shakespearean tragedy ends with death as a solution to all problems and issues that a man faces. Demise of a person(s) like in Romeo and Juliet is what defines a tragedy. In comparison to it, Chekhovian tragedy is epitomized with life, life worth not living.

One of the aspects of modern life that typifies a Chekhovian tragedy in our time is substance abuse. Substance abuse is one of the huge problems that our generation is facing. Globally, according to World Drug Report (2017) there are 29.5 million people who are substance abusers. The number that is almost equal to the population of states like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates and many other countries.

It’s self-evident that all people are sober. Living life in light, joy and to its full, but suddenly some of them get introduced to a kind of psychoactive substance say marijuana, heroin or LSD that starts to bring a perpetual change in their life. First the body resists it by producing aversive reactions and this is the time when a person can refrain. But if s/he persists to take the substance the body of a person starts to crave for it. Moreover, the withdrawals and the incentive of pleasure produced by it hinder the process of contemplating and positive thinking resulting in sustaining of act willingly or unwillingly.

All this time the physiological, psychological and social aspects of human life are in a continuous shattering flux. Physiologically, the body weight gets reduced, sleep cycle is disturbed, changes in appetite patterns appear, functioning of vital organs like heart, liver and kidneys gets disturbed, and at times patient gets infected with viruses like HCV and HIV. Anxiety, restlessness, irritability, mood disorders, hallucinations and delusions and last but not the least a chronic psychosis is the harm caused to our psychological aspect by drug abuse.

There are innumerable changes seen in the social life of a substance abuser. From disturbed family relations, abuse with children, mistreatment with parents or a spouse, to disturbed financial status marked with a reckless spending and gambling. Besides, continuous drug seeking behaviour which leads to inefficacy in terms of occupation, school, vocation or sometimes complete sacking from a job, making the person’s life and the life of people around him wrenchingly miserable.

During this saga of self-deterioration, the person tries to look at his lived life through the glasses of past, present and future and founds himself disillusioned as he learns that substance abuse is not fun, embittered as he feels the bitterness of the act, heartbroken at the thoughts of mistreatment to himself and to the near ones and dear ones, disappointed because of not fulfilling the dreams he had seen and absolutely shattered but still alive, in other words, going through a Chekhovian tragedy.

(The writer is a Psychology Postgraduate from University of Kashmir and presently working as a Mental Health Counsellor at Drug De-addiction and Rehabilitation Center PCR Batamaloo. He ca be reached at: [email protected])

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Opinion

ICJ ruling and Into-Pak relations

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By Marvi Sirmed

Just as Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, president of International Court of Justice (ICJ), started reading out the much-awaited verdict in the Kalbhushan Jadhav case, both Indian and Pakistani media, quite predictably, started pronouncing high-pitched victory of their respective countries.

Pakistan had claimed that its security forces had arrested Kulbhushan Jadhav, the 49-year-old retired Navy officer, from Pakistan’s Balochistan province on March 3, 2016 after he entered Pakistan via its border with Iran. Jadhav was subsequently sentenced to death by the Pakistani military court on charges of “espionage and terrorism” after a closed trial in April 2017, just over a year after his arrest. India, however, claimed that Jadhav was kidnapped from Iran where he had business interests after his retirement from the Indian Navy.

 

India followed this by moving the ICJ on May 8, 2017 for the “egregious violation” of the provisions of the Vienna Convention by Pakistan. Islamabad repeatedly rejected New Delhi’s plea for consular access to Jadhav, claiming that India was merely interested in getting at the information gathered by its “spy”. India also sought to suspend the death sentence of Jadhav and ordered his release from Pakistan’s custody. Pakistan had challenged the admissibility of India’s petition on three grounds: alleged abuse of process; alleged abuse of rights; and India’s alleged unlawful conduct. All three grounds were rejected by the court.

India’s plea to suspend the death sentence and order the release was also rejected. But Pakistan was asked to give immediate consular access to Jadhav as well as ensure his right to free trial under the domestic judicial mechanism of Pakistan. This gives both the countries enough ground to celebrate their respective victories.

The question now is how the verdict will impact the already strained relations of the two countries? While the verdict gives the opportunity to both the governments to maintain aggressive posturing, it has no practical bearing which way Pakistan may eventually choose to decide.

While the verdict of ICJ is not binding upon either party in the strictest of legal sense, it certainly sets a favourable stage for India to continue to portray Pakistan in a negative light internationally, in case the latter does not comply with the verdict. Pakistan, on the other hand, might comply in the end, but not before getting something in return.

The retired army officers in Pakistan, who are usually referred to as ’defence analysts’ when they come to TV studios and spell out what is considered to be the “thinking” of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, continue their usual antics while aggressively emphasising that Pakistan is not bound to comply with the ICJ verdict. But if recent history is to be at all taken into account, to take their word is akin to falling right into their trap.

In the backdrop of recent economic troubles and political instability Pakistan has been facing for the last one year, it is beyond any basic sense of logical play to expect the nation to allow the aggression to linger, by not granting India’s most basic ask in this case – the proverbial lowest hanging fruit, ie, consular access to Jadhav.

It might not come, however, without a price. At the exact moment when Yousaf was reading out the verdict, American President Donald Trump celebrated the “finding” and the arrest of Hafiz Saeed on Twitter, who he describes as “mastermind” of Mumbai terror attacks. Saeed, however, has been living in plain sight all this while. He was never absconding in the first place. In fact, shortly before his (re)arrest, he was released on bail from his previous arrest. By playing this up, it betrays the mutual advantage it serves to USA and Pakistan.

When Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan meets Trump next week, he would arrive having already earned some brownie points. The so-called arrest of Hafiz Saeed might ease some tensions at FATF. USA will be in a position to claim winning yet another milestone in its war on terror. If Pakistan offers to graciously comply with the ICJ verdict, it might raise its ask too. The stick raising mood in White House has already changed to a carrot granting one. Bringing India to the table of comprehensive dialogue, after managing to elbow it out from Afghan peace process, doesn’t look like abad bargain.

But if Jadhav gets consular access, India would have the golden opportunity to demolish Pakistan’s claims of the “terror confession” by Jadhav. He would now most definitely claim confession under duress.

At the moment, the key decision makers in Pakistan do not want to disobey the court verdict. Their compliance of earlier Indian plea to delay the sentence bears witness to it. In any case, a dead Jadhav doesn’t benefit anyone. Except may be, Jadhav’s handlers, if he is indeed a spy.

(The author is a journalist with Daily Times and member of the executive council of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan)

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Opinion

America & Pakistan: Back to a cosy future

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Indranil Banerjie

Geopolitical gears appear to be shifting once again in South Asia with Washington being the primary driver. The question is whether this portends a return to the cosy relationship between the United States and Pakistan as in the past?

For, if Washington is once again planning to use Islamabad as a pivot for its South and West Asia policy, then New Delhi has reason to be concerned even though the imperative for such a development is neither hostile nor anti-India.

 

The hard fact of the matter is that a re-engagement or revival of the strategic inter-dependencies between those two countries has a direct bearing on India. While Washington’s view is global and multi-dimensional, Islamabad’s is not — it has always been India-centric and continues to be so.

New Delhi’s greatest concern traditionally has been the transfer of military systems and technology to Islamabad. It is difficult to forget that the Pakistan Air Force dared to attack Indian targets after Balakot simply because it had American-made F-16 fighter aircraft fitted with AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM).

This missile was supplied to the Pakistanis by the US as recently as 2011. India protested against the sales and for good reason too. It was well known that the missiles supplied would be a game changer in the South Asian context given that this particular variant, the 120C, with its range of over 100km, would out-distance any missile currently in the IAF’s arsenal.

Right enough, when it came to the crunch in the post-Balakot skirmish, there was nothing the IAF could do but throw an aircraft at the intruding enemy and get close enough for a shot. The downing of the MiG-21 piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman proved how much of a disadvantage India was at because of US military transfers to Pakistan.

In recent years, arms transfers by Washington to Pakistan have virtually ceased due to the deteriorating strategic ties since 2016. US President Donald Trump had suspended security and other assistance to Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of repaying US generosity with only “lies and deceit”. The main problem between the two arose from differences over Afghanistan. But now with Islamabad and Washington drawing close to a deal on Afghanistan which would allow an orderly US military withdrawal, the equations once again have changed.

The Taliban, which is controlled by Pakistan’s Army headquarters, seem to have agreed to hold intra-Afghan talks and could be amenable to some sort of power sharing. Perhaps, they might even allow a small US military presence to remain in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that Washington, in its quest to quit the unending Afghan war, is prepared to cede effective control in that country to Islamabad. China could also play a role as guarantor.

President Trump has, however, made it a point to reassure New Delhi that he intends to look after its interests. This is perhaps why he took personal credit for the arrest of arch-terrorist Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, in Pakistan on Wednesday. This might suggest that New Delhi may not be left out completely in the cold in these shifting times.

But the story of change doesn’t end here. The Trump administration could be preparing to cosy up to Pakistan not because it hates or dislikes India but because it feels it might need the help of Pakistan’s jihadist generals to further its many and often complex aims in West Asia, where things are in a ferment today.

A hint of what might be in the offing was offered by the US Gen. Mark A. Milley, who was nominated by President Trump as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his response to questions for his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general stated: “From East Asia to the Middle East to Eastern Europe, authoritarian actors are testing the limits of the international system and seeking regional dominance while challenging international norms and undermining US interests… Our goal should be to sustain great power peace that has existed since World War II, and deal firmly with all those who might challenge us.”

He pointedly mentioned Pakistan as “a key partner in achieving US interests in South Asia, including developing a political settlement in Afghanistan; defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan; providing logistical access for US forces; and enhancing regional stability”.

Significantly, he called for a strengthening of military-to-military ties with Pakistan, adding: “While we have suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues, we need to maintain strong military-to- military ties based on our shared interests.” So now it’s back to the good old days of shared interests!

The first-ever summit-level meeting between Pakistan PM Imran Khan and President Trump is due next week (July 22) at the White House. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who will be there, declared that this invitation constituted an “acknowledgement of the inherent importance” of bilateral ties. He was also quick to add that Pakistan was “mindful” of US priorities in war-torn Afghanistan. The times are indeed changing once again!

Perhaps Islamabad’s strategic importance, as an ultimate guarantor of “peace” in West Asia, has assumed more relevance given the rapid breakdown of Washington’s relations with Turkey, a Nato ally, over the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems and other major disagreements. President Trump had warned Turkey not to go ahead with the S-400 deal, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by declaring the S-400 deal to be “the most important agreement in [Turkish] modern history.” Deliveries of the missile system commenced from July 12.

This constitutes a huge snub to the United States. But things could get worse as some reports suggest that Turkey may be planning to assault parts of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces supported by the United States.

Things are also not going well for the Saudis in their war against the tenacious Houthis of Yemen, who are Shias supported by the ayatollahs in Tehran. Other Arab nations are quietly leaving the Saudi war. The regime change effort in Syria too has failed.

All this is reason for Washington to be worried. Hence the move to mend fences with estranged allies. New Delhi, on the other hand, which has big plans for boosting its relations with Washington, must heed the changes that could threaten to prick its ballooning ambitions.

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