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An Interview With Indian Political Commentator Mohamed Zeeshan

Mohamed Zeeshan is a gifted writer based out of India. I have known him for a few years and I thought he would be a great subject for the series of interviews here that has ranged from neo-Nazi senate candidates to audio drama producers. You can find his work on his website.

You have written a great deal about the political situation in India. I noticed that the talk of ethnic fracturing, resurgent nationalism and attacks on minorities all sounded a lot like what has been happening in the United States. Can you explain the situation in India and what you think my readers can learn from it?
 

Well, it's true that we in India are seeing a lot of identity politics. The electorate has been divided along the lines of religious, caste and linguistic identity, and politicians now try to win votes from communities rather than individuals. But this isn't really a new phenomenon. It has been happening for at least the last 2-3 decades, but people are starting to talk about it a lot more now, because India is becoming more urban and middle class.

We have a first-past-the-post system of voting, which means that essentially, if there are multiple candidates standing for elections from a certain constituency, the winning candidate merely needs to get more votes than everyone else and not necessarily more than 50% of the votes. Our current government, for example, is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has more than 50% of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, but it only won about 30-35% of the votes polled.

So essentially, if a certain caste or religious community makes up more than 30% of a particular constituency, and a candidate is able to corner all the votes of that community, his victory is assured. Our system therefore, in a way, makes identity politics rewarding. The scourge of identity politics is a lot worse in North India, as compared to the south, because of the wounds of the partition of 1947 and the Hindu-Muslim rift that accompanied it. I would say that politics down south is by and large more mature, and the further down south you go in India, the better democracy works!

It seems like authoritarianism is succeeding across the board in the world. ISIS, Turkey, Russia and finally the rise of nationalism in Israel, the US and India. What went wrong? What happened to democratic movements?

Well, I think some of these countries are growing tired of the slowness and indecisiveness of democracy. India was struggling under a coalition government, which was unable to take decisions, for a decade. So the Indians in 2014 voted in a single-party government for the first time since the 1980s.
But I wouldn't really say that India is seeing authoritarianism. The Indian system and the sheer diversity of the Indian electorate makes it difficult for authoritarianism to take root and succeed. The BJP, for example, still doesn't have a majority in the upper house of Parliament and is therefore, in fact, struggling to pass some important economic reforms. India saw authoritarianism in the 1970s, however, because the Congress was the preeminent superpower of Indian politics back then and opposition parties hadn't really quite matured. But today, India's democracy has a very colorful bouquet of parties, able to challenge other parties in coalition or alone.
The US is interesting because I think that the US is currently in the same stage in which India was in 2014. We were tired of the logjams of democracy back then and you are tired of the logjams of democracy today. People think that Washington is dysfunctional, parties are unable to reconcile with each other and work together - much like in India. Parties on both the left and right have gone extreme left and extreme right, thereby making reconciliation all the more difficult. But I think that in countries like ours, democracy is still fairly safe because institutions are strong and stable, which means that there are checks and balances in place.
The same can't be said about Russia, where democratic institutions are weak or non-existent. In the case of Turkey, while democratic institutions are better than they are in Russia, the turmoil in Syria next door and recurring bouts of violence and terrorism are likely to make people crowd around a strong leader, as much as they may hate him for being autocratic.

The issue with democratic movements is that they need a purposeful and dedicated leadership. Think of the Indian freedom movement or the US independence movement, which were led by leaders who gave people direction and sat down together to write a constitution for governance. The Arabs weren't able to do that in the aftermath of the fall of the dictators, and that created a power vacuum for ISIS to fill.

 
What optimism and hope do you see for curbing extremism? What can people do to push back against it?

Well there are essentially two wars here - one is against extremist ideology and the other against extremist groups. The first is essentially a propaganda war. In the case of Islamism, Muslims around the world need to push back against strains such as Wahhabism and Salafism that are being preached in mosques and madrassas. It all starts at home, so young Muslims need to be brought up well by their families and they have to be taught the peaceful form of Islam that is practiced by millions of Muslims the world over. They need to be acquainted with the political circumstances that have led to the growth of Islamist extremism, in order for them to understand that this is essentially a political ideology rather than a religious one.
 
The fight against extremist groups is complicated, because it depends on the circumstances that led to the growth of the extremist groups. In the Middle East and Africa, extremists have simply filled into a power vacuum, and because governmental institutions and security forces are so weak, they haven't been able to push back against them at all. The key is to promote the growth of stable states. Africans typically lack national fabric. People are more loyal to the tribes that they were born into rather than to the nation-states that were imposed upon them by colonial powers. The same phenomenon is being seen in the Middle East as well. 
This is a huge hindrance to the building of stable states, because states can't be stable if the people that make them have no feeling of allegiance towards them. It generally takes a common enemy - such as the British Empire in India, for example - to unite people of different tribes and ethnicities. If people are able to look at extremist groups as a common enemy, and a common leadership is born, we could be able to build the kind of bonding that is necessary for the construction of stable states.
 
Finally, one thing that stuck with me that you said was "for the sake of those who gave their lives for Indian nationalism." A lot of people in the US died fighting men like Donald Trump. I wonder if people were better educated, they would be aware of this and be able to see what they are being sold better. Do you think this is a factor in the rise of authoritarianism globally?

Yes, absolutely! Education is a huge part of building a better citizenry. People who are better educated in the history of India and America would be able to see what India and America truly stand for, and what kind of principles inspired our struggles for freedom.
 
Presently, people think of folks like Donald Trump as 'nationalists' because they don't really see what Indian or American nationalism is about. Chest-thumping often passes off for nationalism, when it really isn't. Nationalism in our countries isn't an exclusive concept; it is an inclusive concept. It was defined on universal ideas such as liberty and equality - values that transcend the bounds of race, color, religion or caste.
 
But people are also frustrated because of slow economic growth and because they think that their countries are not really doing as well as they would like them to do. This is spawning the growth of an anti-establishment industry in politics. Anybody who rebels against the old order is seen as a good leader. But in our quest to change and reform, we must be conscious of holding on to the principles that have defined our nations, the values upon which our nations are founded. In the absence of these values and principles, our nations are naught. I think we owe great debts to those great men who died fighting for us.

 
Tell us about the writing you are doing these days and where to find it.

I'm currently on the editorial board of Swarajya, a magazine of repute in India. I have been writing for them for over a year on Indian foreign policy and international affairs in general. You can find my page on http://swarajyamag.com/author/17614/mohamed-zeeshan
I'm also a blogger for HuffPost India, for whom I write on Indian public policy and foreign policy. My page on HuffPost is here: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/mohamed-zeeshan/
Then, I write fairly regularly for The Diplomat on South Asian affairs and the Indian political economy.
You can find most of my articles from across different platforms on my personal blog: http://www.mohamedzeeshan.com/

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Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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