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Why development can’t be above politics – The Tribune India

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Neera Chandhoke

Political Scientist

WHILE flagging off the first train run on the 351-km New Delhi-New Khurja section of the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor, PM Narendra Modi demanded that political parties should put development above politics. The turn of phrase — development above politics — is significant. In 1994, development had been typed as the quintessential ‘anti-politics machine’ by noted anthropologist James Ferguson. Leaders across the postcolonial world continue to flag the political vocabulary of development as value-free and apolitical, as a binary opposite to politics as contestation over power.

Politics is not only about the accumulation of power by elites. Politics is about the way people, inexorably stripped of the capacity to make their own lives, speak back to power. What we call the political is contested, challenged, mediated, modified, curtailed and expanded. It is a battlefield of disputed ideas, beliefs, worldviews, perspectives, ideologies and even mere opinions. Some ideologies win, but for the moment. Others loom on the margins sometimes as alternatives, sometimes as affirmation, and sometimes as critique.

The idea of the political as contestation allows political theorists to dream of a democratic state as one that intends to better the lives of people. If philosophy tells us how to lead a good life, political theory tells us that a good life cannot be lived unless we live in a good society. But a good society can only be institutionalised if the holders of power set out to create the preconditions of such a life by respecting rights to freedom, equality, justice, citizenship, dignity and social goods. Importantly, the democratic state must do so under the watchful and critical eye of the political public. Politics is by its very nature contested, even if the state of politics in the country is heavily dependent upon the politics of the state.

What then of development that is positioned against the notion of politics as contestation? Is development apolitical? Since Independence, thousands of Indians have been displaced from their habitats, their workplaces and their hearths by so-called development projects. These may be railroads, pollution-spewing power plants, toxic nuclear installations, environmentally unsound big dams, luxury hotels, malls and farm houses. The belief of the political elite that nothing should stop the juggernaut of development has led to the suspension of civil liberties and the right to hold the holders of state power responsible and accountable. How can we then abstract development from politics as contestation?

The depoliticisation of development accomplishes a major political objective: that of de-legitimising protest against big projects. This diminishes the political status of citizens. From agents who have the political competence to hold elected governments accountable, the people of India are reduced to consumers of opaque decisions arrived at in insulated corridors of power. But development is not above politics, it cannot be. For the living, breathing, pulsating right of citizens to a life worth living is neutralised by the anti-politics machine of development.

Consider the political tragedies wrought by this machine. Two to three generations of farmers in Punjab and Haryana have worked overtime to develop agricultural productivity and transform these two states into the celebrated grain bowl of India. Today, when farmers agitate against discriminatory laws, they are dismissed and denigrated in peculiarly uncivil terms. In August 2019, the Home Minister of India piloted two special resolutions and a Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Together, these hollowed out the constitutional status of Article 370, and carved up the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. Terrorism, said Shah, cannot end in the state as long as Articles 370 and 35A endure. These two articles, he further stated, are an obstacle to development. In the aftermath of the terrible Hathras tragedy earlier this year, when a young woman was brutally raped and murdered, the Uttar Pradesh government hardly spoke of arresting rapists and bringing them to justice. It preferred to set up a probe into a mythical international conspiracy hatched in foreign climes to defame the government and instigate caste violence. The chief minister alleged that those who do not ‘like’ development want to incite caste and communal riots in the state.

Discourses of development in independent India bear an uncanny resemblance to offensive slogans adopted by the colonial government. The legitimising refrain of colonialism was the ‘civilising mission’, the legitimising mantra of post-independence governments is development. The first slogan assumed that the colonised were savages and needed to be civilised. The second presumes that citizens are passive and inert subjects of a merciless process called development. Both slogans embody absolute power. Both are contemptuous of human beings.

The postcolonial discourse on development is a little more sophisticated. It narrates wishful stories of how societies can move in a linear fashion towards progress only if governments harness natural resources, build infrastructure, and ensure economic growth. People are told that they will find development instead of un-development or under-development only vide reductionist beliefs in simple-minded economic theories. The naïve belief in development persists despite the truths of history, and the lesson of mythology that societies regress. By now, we know that societies follow the path set by the figure in Greek mythology, Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, the cunning and deceitful ruler of Corinth, was sentenced by the Greek god Zeus to roll a boulder up the hill in the underworld. Each time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder would roll down, forcing Sisyphus to begin his labour all over again. Similarly, societies progress and regress, become independent and are colonised once again, institutionalise democracy but democracy continues to elude them.

In the 2020 Global Democracy Index Report compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, India slipped 10 places from the 2019 ranking to 51st place. The report attributed the primary cause of democratic regression to the erosion of civil liberties in the country, downgrading of Article 370, deployment of massive troops in Jammu and Kashmir, arrest of Kashmiri leaders, ban on the internet, and security related measures. The National Register of Citizens exercise in Assam led to the identification of 1.9 million citizens as aliens. Above all, the decline in India’s democratic status is attributed to the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act. Admittedly, the government focuses on building infrastructure. This is necessary, but is it enough? Does it make people’s lives better? Hardly! India has slipped one position to 131 out of 189 countries in the 2020 Human Development Index of the UN Human Development Report.

The political paradox: Development but unsteady democracy gives us the right to ask disruptive questions. What exactly is it that development achieves? Who benefits? Who loses out? Splitting development from politics obfuscates its profoundly political role, of garnering power for elites at the expense of the people. Very few processes that affect the lives of Indians, often adversely, at rare times beneficially, are apolitical. They cannot be. Every practice, every institution, every word in the vocabulary of development, has to be contested. We have to bring back development into our understanding of politics as contestation every time a tribal community is alienated from its habitat, and every time a poor person’s hut or shanty town is demolished in the name of development.

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Donald Trump may not be done disrupting American politics, only this time it could actually end up being an improvement – Salt Lake Tribune

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President Joe Biden set the tone for his new administration last week seeking to reunite a divided country.
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” he said, “and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”
It was a noble, aspirational inauguration speech and a message this divided country needed to hear. But it won’t be easy, not in a political environment where for years Americans have been pushed into clans and fed resentment and mistrust.
Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska wrote a piece in The Atlantic last week about the reckoning the Republican Party is facing and the soul-searching and house-cleaning that needs to take place to set it in the right direction.
This assumes the Republican Party can be salvaged. It may be too late for that, and there’s another guy who shares that view: Recently unemployed Florida man Donald Trump.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump had discussed creating a new political party — the Patriot Party — as a refuge for his true believers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as he’s out of office he comes up with an idea that makes sense. I say that not because it might blow up the Republican Party. I say it because the two-party system is the worst feature of modern American politics.
Our government is so hopelessly dysfunctional that facing a crisis of historic proportions, it took months to pass a COVID relief bill — and that’s just one example. But the larger problem is that the current party structure isn’t about governing at all. It’s about power and holding onto that power by creating a big enough tent.
It has reached a point, however, that in this push to be everything to everybody, the parties have lost any philosophical cohesion.
In what world can you have a Republican Party going forward that includes both Mitt Romney and the people who rampaged through the Capitol looking to take members of Congress hostage? And how does the average Republican feel represented by that party?
The Democrats have an identity crisis of their own, trying to hold together people like Ben McAdams and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
Trying to find a way for everyone to fit means nobody fits well, like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to cram their feet into ill-fitting slippers. It makes sense that nearly a third of Utah voters choose to not affiliate with either party. That number will continue to grow.
That’s because, as humans, we all have different experiences that inform different world views and beliefs. Things aren’t black-and-white, purely Democratic or Republican.
Maybe you are pro-life but believe in a liberal immigration policy and are a dyed-in-the-wool union member. Or you are devoutly religious, love your guns and think the threat of climate change is dire and everyone deserves a guaranteed income. Or you’re a Black entrepreneur who opposes government regulation but believes Black Lives Matter and police should stop shooting people.
None of that matters in our current system. Donkey or elephant, blue or red — those are your choices. Don’t like it? Feel free to throw away your vote.
If your grocery store gave you two choices of toilet paper — both of them bad, like mesh vs. extra coarse — you’d probably find another store, but this is the only store we have.
Hillary Stirling, the newly minted chairwoman of the United Utah Party would like to give people more choices. Both nationally and in Utah, she said, the two major party agendas are driven by the fringes.
“The people on the extremes are the people who are most active, most interested in politics, so they’re the ones who show up and are most vocal,” she said. That leaves those in the middle dissatisfied with their voices, but the United Utah Party has struggled, like all third-parties, to make much headway.
The inevitable result of these two combatant parties trying to remain in power is we end up with pure bloodsport. The incentives are on obstruction and demonization, not collaboration and compromise. It partly explains why we’ve seen the fierce polarization — fueled by media and online outlets that drive the wedge deeper, which in turn are exploited by opportunistic, ambitious politicians.
We’ve seen other parties rise and fade and we have a handful of third parties in place now, but they aren’t viable because the two parties that make the rules have created a system that perpetuates their power. And because they’re the only viable options, they get all the money.
Without money, minor parties can’t put their candidates in front of people, they can’t get on the ballot, they can’t get into the debates, they can’t win — and when they can’t win donors won’t give money.
“Especially the way our current system is set up, it’s either/or. The question that is currently asked is: Who do you want out of these two people?” Stirling said. “There are better ways to do it, so let’s try those better ways.”
Those better ways, though, will take serious structural changes like public campaign financing, ranked-choice voting or electing members of Congress proportionately, rather than from districts gerrymandered to benefit one party or the other.
The other possibility is the rise of a viable third, and maybe fourth, parties, something Theodore Roosevelt’s popularity couldn’t do and that Ross Perot’s money couldn’t do. It’s possible Trump could use both money and a cult-like following to disrupt the two-party system.
Or, perhaps, Biden is right and, despite a track record to the contrary, Democrats and Republicans can come together and chart a new course and we don’t need major reforms to our system. I hope he is right.
Given our recent history, however, it seems more likely that we’ll see more of the same, with the two parties, left to their own self-serving devices, continuing to pull Americans further and further apart until there is a rift that can’t be healed.

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Politics Chat: Biden To Sign More Executive Orders In First Full Week As President – NPR

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President Biden will begin his first full week in the White House. Many of the executive orders he’s been signing and will sign this week are part of a plan he laid out for his first 10 days.

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Why Biden's vaccine goals are likely too modest and good politics – CNN

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That’s generally in line with other polling (such as last week’s CNN/SSRS survey) that showed that most Americans were displeased with how Donald Trump’s administration handled the coronavirus pandemic.
What’s the point: President Joe Biden’s administration has come under some criticism for its goal to deliver 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine in its first 100 days. Some people believe it is too modest a goal. The Biden administration has pushed back on that claim.
A look at the statistics reveal that it may very well be too modest, but it’s likely good politics.
Let’s start with the basic fact that humans developing multiple Covid-19 vaccines in less than a year was a scientific achievement for the ages.
The Trump administration then completely botched the expectations game on the vaccine rollout. They set an initial goal of getting 20 million vaccine doses into the arms of Americans by the end of 2020.
As I noted last week, we simply didn’t come close to reaching that milestone in December.
We’re very likely to hit 20 million total doses administered? in the next few days, however, as more than 19 million doses have been administered as of early Friday.
Overall, as Biden White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed out, “less than 500,000 shots a day” were administered during Trump’s time in office once the first shots were given on December 14.
It’s a true statement, but I must admit that it feels like it doesn’t encapsulate all the facts. You can’t just look at the entirety of the Trump run to determine whether Biden’s setting a low goal.
After all, it takes time for the states and the federal government to figure out how to coordinate with each other and themselves to distribute the vaccines.
Moreover, a number of states were very strict with who could get the vaccines at first. There were reports of doses getting thrown out.
States have since opened up the eligibility. Combined with more practice in actually delivering the vaccine, the number of people getting doses each state has gone up dramatically.
Since January 13, we have averaged greater than 800,000 doses administered every day. On three days since that date, we’ve had more than a million people get the vaccine. This includes on Friday, when the CDC reported an increase of more than 1.5 million doses administered from the day before.
We’ve done a better job of administering the doses we have than we used to. We used to only administer less than a third of the doses distributed. Only once before January 12 had we administered more than 33%. It’s been above that every day since. In fact, it’s been greater than 45% each of the last four days reported.
This is before the Biden administration has had any real opportunity to change anything from the Trump administration.
Of course, the past isn’t always prologue. We could run out of vaccines, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.
We know that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have pledged to deliver 200 million doses of their vaccine combined in the first quarter of this year (i.e. through March). This doesn’t even count the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which, if approved, could deliver tens of millions more doses by the beginning of April.
The bottom line is that it’s very easy to see how the Biden administration hits 100 million doses in 100 days. We’re basically already doing it, and we should have the doses available to keep doing it.
Indeed, America may end up doing considerably better than 100 million doses in 100 days.
Now, it’s possible that things go awry in vaccine production or distribution. That’s why it’s usually best to keep expectations low.
Biden’s team, if anything, wants to do the exact opposite of what Trump did. They don’t want to set a bar that can easily prove impossible to beat. They want a bar that can be met and can potentially be exceeded.
In other words, they may end up under-promising and over-delivering.
Usually, voters reward politicians who do what Biden’s team could do. They clearly punished Trump for the opposite.
To be clear, Americans expect Biden to fulfill his promise. The vast majority (70%) of Americans told CNN pollsters that the Biden administration is at least somewhat likely to reach its goal of 100 million does in 100 days.
If we don’t, there could be a heavy political price to pay.
Before we bid adieu: The theme song of the week is Scrubs.

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