Anita Pratap en Sun Nov 20 12:04:28 IST 2022 in-britain-boring-is-good-and-that-could-help-keir-starmer-become-next-pm <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>These days in Britain, boring is good. After the hangover of Boris Johnson’s wild escapades, Liz Truss’s wilder financial swings, Brexit’s economic nosedives, and Rishi Sunak’s flipflops, British voters find the unexciting rather appealing. The turbulent Tory decade has been an era when entertainment trumped issues, sloganeering outgunned policy and drama beat governance. Now everyone is fed up. Labour Party’s staid leader, Keir Starmer, is likeable precisely because he is a boring lawyer who shuns Johnson-style gimmicks like sliding down a zip wire, only to get stuck midair.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson is Tories’ best vote-getter, but polls predict a Labour win in the upcoming elections. Starmer is offering voters a porridge of policies—boring, but healthy for the nation. In his “pledge card” to the nation, he makes six promises: to deliver economic stability, cut national health service (NHS) waiting times for treatment, establish a state-owned energy company, tackle anti-social behaviour, recruit more teachers and launch a border security force to stop illegal migration. Denying that the pledges were a dilution of his earlier climate and economic plans, Starmer said these “ready-to-go pledges are a means to the end, a down-payment on the first steps to change Britain”. The rest to be announced after election victory, he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Underfunding has undermined NHS’s ability to provide adequate health care, provoking public outrage. NHS doctors saved Covid-afflicted Johnson’s life. He was effusively grateful, but was unwilling or unable to upgrade NHS, perhaps because of the Tory obsession with cutting public services. Starmer, who comes from a working-class background—father a factory toolmaker, mother an NHS nurse—is sincerely grateful for the NHS care and hospitalisation his mother received for lifelong crippling arthritis. His wife is an NHS nurse. His commitment to revive NHS is deep and personal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unlike Johnson’s life of revelry and privilege, Starmer is the first from his family to go to university. As a lawyer, he defended the rights of victims of domestic, criminal and political violence. He was knighted for his role as chief prosecutor in 2014. For the ceremony in Buckingham Palace, he invited his parents—who brought their family dog along. Starmer knows tragedy. By 2018, his mother had succumbed to disease, his father died heart-broken and the dog perished when their family home burned down.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In contrast with Johnson’s hype and hyperbole, Starmer is almost dour. But that apparently is the need of the hour. Labour presents Starmer as mature, solid, family-oriented. His seriousness promises “dull dividends” say experts. The uncertainties triggered by Brexit and the chaotic reign of Johnson and Truss instigated businesses to withhold investments, dampening growth. Now, people and businesses crave for stability, the markets yearn for fiscal policies without the fizz and fissures that marked Truss’s tenure. Uncertainty brings bad economic outcomes, but certainty usually improves employment and industrial production. A traumatised Britain appears soothed by Starmer’s ‘Boring Bonus’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Helping Britain’s transition from populism to policy is Labour’s research group, “Labour Together”, which is growing in clout, staff and donations. They are preparing the policy groundwork for an “incoming” Labour government and road maps for its implementation. It is pulling the party to middle-ground from the leftist positions of previous Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Even as it prepares for the future, Labour looks back in history to borrow some winning tactics. Its “pledge card” is a repeat version of the card it published before its landslide victory in 1997. But the tone is different. This time the message is “Steady hands on the wheel”. The adults return. Boring is back.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat May 25 11:04:05 IST 2024 western-art-pushes-ahead-with-gritty-current-issues <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The past doesn’t always remain in the past. Sometimes, it emerges in the present, reminding us about the universality and repetitiveness of the human experience. Berlin’s George Grosz Museum, a tiny gem, is a startling reminder that modern political and social ills are not modern. Grosz lived through World Wars I and II, shining a torch into the heart of darkness in high-ranking men and women—who were complicit in the collapse of the world as they knew it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Satirical and subversive, playful and profound, Grosz’s cartoons and drawings represent art as political protest, a resistance to “blood-stained nationalism”. He digs deeper, offering insightful, stinging analysis. Hyperinflation threw Germany into chaos. But with surgical precision, Grosz depicts a catastrophic cause for the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler: grotesque inequality. His cartoons are a testament that neither war nor inflation affect the power elite—the monarchy, military, church and bourgeoisie.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Through clean, sharp strokes that could be drawn with a dagger, Grosz rips apart social veneers to show the streets of corrupt, carnal Berlin. The times are promiscuous. Lust is in the air. The affluent crave for power, money and sex. The testosterone-driven generals, the voracious fat cats of capitalism, the plundering black marketeers, the complacent, covetous petite bourgeoise profiteering from war and human misery, the macho men and voluptuous women eyeing each other rapaciously—all are utterly indifferent to public desperation. Such inequality dooms, destabilises and destroys societies… again and again. Using data, today’s economists like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz warn about the malevolence of inequality. Artists use their imagination to offer lateral perspectives on history’s unconscionable predator-prey human dynamic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sometimes, the past is the present. Another gem of a museum—Urban Nation—offers a glimpse into five-feet-high cardboard model of a bombed apartment building made by two Iranian artist brothers “Icy and Sot” who live as refugees in Brooklyn, New York. Shattered rooms are smothered in thick gray concrete dust. The entrails of wiring, plumbing and beams pierce the eye. Jagged shards of furniture reach out for their dead owners, weaving imaginings of the once thrumming universe of these destroyed families—flattened pianos, overturned tables, legless chairs. The ghostliness of broken belongings that don’t belong, the heartbreak of tender detail, the senselessness of destruction are overwhelming. Unlike TV footage, these scenes are still—precisely why they are so moving. Rooms become urns, full of ash, drained of colour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the rear of the building, unscathed in the bombing, bursts with colour and hope. Though uninhabited, the interiors are bright with colourful wallpaper, comfortable sofas, even a beautiful white abandoned piano, yearning for its owner’s return. The building is an image of the 2011 war in Aleppo, Syria. But it symbolises Ukraine yesterday, Gaza today. History repeats itself, elites wage war, masses suffer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Several years ago, the Kochi Biennale highlighted political art—biting, brutal, brilliant depictions of the social, economic and environmental evils that characterise our times. Then the self-absorbed contemporary western art had seemed obsessed with form for forms’ sake—dramatic, but not particularly relevant to ordinary people, just like haute couture that wins critical acclaim but is unwearable. There has been a sea change and western art pushes ahead with gritty current issues. Urban Nation showcases artists’ quirky, accessible, forceful take on our contemporary struggles—climate change, war, globalisation, polarisation, deep fakes, social media that divides and unites, silences and shouts. Artists despair: “Everybody is talking, nobody is listening.” But then, this is our Tower of Babel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat May 11 11:51:25 IST 2024 has-rishi-sunak-s-lustre-dimmed <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The British are polarised on taxes, welfare, politics and the Israel-Gaza war. But they agree Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party will be mauled in the May 2 local elections in England and Wales. Opinion polls give the opposition Labour party a 20-point lead over the Tories. An election debacle could tempt Sunak’s opponents within the party to topple him. Or he could limp along, wounded and weak, only to crash-land in the looming general elections. That would bring back Labour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An invigorated Labour party is ahead in the thousands of seats in the upcoming local councils and mayoral races, including London. In traditional Tory strongholds of West Midlands and Tees Valley in England, conservative candidates shun Sunak in their leaflets and request toxic Tory MPs to stay away. Tories could also lose their Blackpool South parliamentary seat, vacated by Tory MP Scott Benton after a lobbying scandal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts agree the problem is the Tory party. Its legacy after a 14-year rule—some say misrule—is public fatigue. Brexit was a folly characterised by drama, deceit and disruption.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tory obsession with low taxes weakened public finances, hurting infrastructure, leaving health services dysfunctional, schools crumbling and roads potholed. “All symbols of a nation in decline,” say Labour leaders. While citizens endured economic hardship, Tory ministers and parliamentarians swirled through scandals, sleaze and swinging parties during Covid lockdowns. Famous for reinventing themselves to stay in power, Tories have now run out of steam, options, ideas and public patience.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2022, Sunak began well as PM by capitalising on his popularity as chancellor (finance minister) during Covid when he distributed £200 billion in public benefits. He was young, clever, competent and cosmopolitan. He became “Mr Brexit Fix-it”, clinching agreements to mend fences on Northern Ireland, trade and repairing relations with the European Union.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But he epitomises the cautionary tale about rising too far too fast. Politically inexperienced, his attempts to relate to ordinary folks seemed grating, gauche and glib. He claimed he ate “wraps” at McDonalds—when wraps were discontinued years before; was a “coke addict” (meaning Coca Cola). He gallingly stole credit from the Bank of England for falling inflation and from bad weather for the reduced illegal migrant boat crossings; a technocratic, tactless “fiscal hawk” who asked a homeless person, “Do you work in business?” In winter, high energy costs left voters shivering in their unheated homes. But media reported that North Yorkshire’s electricity grid was upgraded because Richie Rich Sunak’s swimming pool consumed so much electricity. There is no penalty in politics for being rich, but there is a price for appearing out of touch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Sunak’s problem is less with voters than with partymen loyal to his foe and proven vote-getter, former PM Boris Johnson.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if he survives these threats, Sunak will be maimed and his party in meltdown-mode with the infighting. This harms Tory prospects in the general elections. Already, Sunak’s lustre has dimmed, his ratings have plummeted—though its better than his predecessor Liz Truss’ minus 70 per cent. He looks like just another Tory in a social media operation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sunak’s advisors say he prefers to hold general elections in autumn so voters have time to see the economic benefits of his policies—and the US election chaos. But analysts say Sunak may call for snap general elections in June to avoid a humiliating leadership challenge.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To borrow 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli’s quip against his political opponent William Gladstone’s administration, it is the Sunak government’s turn to look like “a range of exhausted volcanoes”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Apr 27 10:38:12 IST 2024 addictive-nature-of-social-media-a-problem <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Parents don’t need research. They know when their children get addicted to social media. Just like wives know when husbands become alcoholics or fathers know when sons’ clandestine smoking turns into addiction. But research is necessary if household misery is to be addressed by impactful public policy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New American research establishes what most parents know from experience—social media harms children. In his just-published book, <i>The Anxious Generation</i>, renowned New Yorker and social-psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes, “When adolescents’ social lives moved onto smartphones and social media platforms, anxiety and depression surged among them.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The turning point came in 2012, Haidt says, when social media went viral, after Facebook bought Instagram and with the arrival of high-speed internet, unlimited data and smartphones with front-facing cameras. Schoolgirls spent hours daily taking selfies, editing and posting them for buddies, rivals and strangers to comment on. Simultaneously they scrolled for the posts of friends, foes and celebrities flaunting their wealth, perfect bodies and luxurious lifestyles. Time spent on social media eroded sleep, study and activities with family and friends. Academic performance in reading and math deteriorated. Negative emotions like anger, envy, shame and sadness spiraled. Self-harm increased among pre-teens and teenagers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gen Z (born after 1996) suffered like no previous generation, although millennials (born 1981-1996) haven’t been spared. Over the decade, American youth suicide rose by 130 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Haidt emphasises two of the six factors contributing to this mental health crisis. First, “play-based childhood” declined because anxious parents didn’t send children for unsupervised outdoor play—which helps overcome normal childhood fears, judge risks for themselves and thus prepare for adulthood. Overanxious parents birthed an anxious generation. Second, “play-based” was replaced by “phone-based childhood”. This diminished in-person socialising. Haidt argued social media “hacked” and “rewired” children’s brains, but scientists lacked data hitherto to protect children from tech companies. “We ended up overprotecting children in the real world, while under-protecting them in the virtual world,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The addictive nature of social media is the problem. Tech investor Roger McNamee says “to encourage addiction, tech companies use techniques common in propaganda and casino gambling”—constant notifications (likes) and variable rewards (for accomplishment/novelty-seeking behaviour). Mental health is as important as physical health. So, should the production and consumption of social media be restricted like alcohol and cigarettes? Together with some leading tech founders, Haidt pleads for phone-free schools, age-guards, student digital guidance and social media regulation. Says McNamee, “Now we face the challenge of extracting the world from the jaws of internet platform monopolies.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Haidt has vocal detractors. Journalist Aaron Brown called Haidt’s findings “mostly junk research”. Haidt’s critics quote studies claiming social media is about as harmful as eating potatoes—almost zero. As Mark Twain says, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For decades the tobacco lobbyists debunked evidence that smoking caused cancer. For decades, the oil lobby scorned climate change. Salt, sugar, junk food and pharma lobbies followed. And for decades, lobbyists supplied spurious statistics to confuse the public and delay, if not abort regulation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Haidt says, “The correlation between social media and mental health is higher than the correlation between childhood exposure to lead and low adult IQ. The proper comparison is not potatoes, but marijuana use and binge drinking.” McNamee, who mentored Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, says, “It is time to disrupt the disrupters.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Apr 12 11:33:46 IST 2024 motives-behind-foreign-phobia-reflect-multiple-reasons <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>According to an Irish legend, when life draws to a close, you hear the doomsday clock that bears your name ticking the time away… tick-tick-tick-tick. Across the pond in the US, popular Chinese video-sharing app TikTok hears the ominous ticking clock. The US siege of TikTok is about data security. It is also about global dominance, protectionism and the comeback of an age-old mantra: “Foreign Phobia”. The line now blurs between western capitalists and eastern socialists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As is typical in complex human affairs, the motives behind foreign phobia reflect multiple reasons. Foreign bashing—migrants or companies—resurrects in election cycles. Low hanging juicy votes can be won with promises to protect local jobs. Retaining control of national industries is part of war strategy. De-globalisation is a tool to isolate, undercut, puncture and punish rising rivals, tripping them before they trip you.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With bipartisan support, US lawmakers passed a bill that would ban TikTok unless its Chinese owner sells the app. US officials say Beijing could spy, sow discord and spread propaganda through TikTok to its 170 million American users. To protect national security, US regulators have long restricted foreign-ownership of American media companies. To circumvent this restriction, the wily Rupert Murdoch became a US citizen in 1985. But new laws are needed to regulate Big Tech.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The day after lawmakers passed the TikTok bill, President Joe Biden opposed Nippon Steel’s proposed $14.9bn takeover of US Steel. Biden did not cite national security—after all, Japan is a staunch US ally. It was to protect the American industrial base by safeguarding “strong American steel companies powered by American steel workers,” he said. US Steel is headquartered in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state in the upcoming presidential elections. Donald Trump has promised to block the takeover, leaving no room for Biden to manoeuvre, even if he wanted to. Biden’s “Buy American” slogan mirrors Trump’s “America First.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the UK, PM Rishi Sunak plans to introduce a law to prevent foreigners from buying British news organisations. This aims to block the Abu-Dhabi backed takeover of the British conservative newspaper, <i>The Telegraph</i>. Tory MPs and backbenchers are in the forefront of this oftentimes xenophobic uproar. The battle queen is Kemi Badenoch, 44, the business secretary, who hopes to succeed Sunak as Tory leader—<i>The Telegraph</i> plays a crucial role in Tory leadership races.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shipbuilding is the next arena of US-China superpower rivalry, potentially igniting trade conflicts that impact China’s naval and commercial shipping might. China deftly filled the vacuum left by a retreating US. Ranked number one in 1975, the US shipbuilding industry annually produced over 70 commercial ships. Now it produces 10 compared with China’s 1,000 ocean-faring vessels. This deficit has major security implications—over 90 per cent of military equipment, supplies and fuel travel on foreign, including Chinese, commercial cargo ships. These are manufactured with government subsidies. Experts attribute the decimation of US shipbuilding to Ronald Reagan’s free-marketeer decisions to axe subsidies. Ironically, free-marketeers are security hawks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, trade bodies clamour for the return of subsidies, protectionism and nationalism in the US shipbuilding industry. Globalisation shifts with the winds of change. One aphorism does not. “Whoever rules the waves, rules the world,” proclaimed Alfred Thayer Mahan, the respected 19th century naval historian and strategist. Today, that truth expands from sea waves to include air waves. America’s noose on TikTok tightens. The Irish legend concludes with the listener hearing the clock ticking to the end “tick-tick-tick-ti…”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Mar 30 11:23:29 IST 2024 musk-trump-partnership-can-inflate-the-trumpian-world <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Match made in Hell!” That’s how liberal European media described the “political bromance” between Donald Trump and Elon Musk, the erratic, outspoken billionaire. In ideology and in temperament, chaotic Trump and quixotic Musk have common traits. Both despise wokeism, feminism, and LGBTQ activism. They have a penchant for conspiracy theories. Both are scrappy, provocative, politically incorrect and unpredictable with outsized egos. Commentator Christina Pletten noted, “This can become a dangerous alliance in so many ways, where money, power, propaganda and conspiracy theories meet in a nasty mix.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tesla founder turned rightwing culture warrior, Musk has been turning his Twitter-turned-X into a swamp for far-right conspiracies. Biden trails in polls but commands a campaign treasure chest. Trump brags big, but his finances are precarious, with his campaign war chest haemorrhaging due to legal fees and penalties. Worth $197 billion, Musk is money.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i>The New York Times</i> reports a “collaboration” with Musk helping Trump get re-elected. Musk asserts he will not donate money to Trump. It’s a business opportunity to leverage his flagging X by spreading right-wing rhetoric that reinforces Trump’s political arguments. Musk’s Twitter takeover has been fraught with high debt, falling value, fleeing users and advertisers. For Trump, the visibility provided by a revitalised X fetches eyeballs and saves huge election costs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump and Musk share ideology and contrarian tactics. American journalist Tim Higgins said, “Musk gains even more influence as he becomes more Trump-like.” Musk amplifies Trump’s message on immigration to his 175 million followers. Accusing Biden of treason, Musk echoed a right-wing conspiracy theory that the US administration is “importing” immigrants to “rig elections and wage terror bigger than 9/11”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Musk-Trump partnership can inflate the Trumpian world of fearmongering, disinformation and outright lies. But their giant egos can wreck the bromance. Trump wants Musk on his team. Musk wants Trump on his. Still, the alliance benefits both. Musk’s companies rely on federal subsidies and contracts. Musk is hostile to Democrats’ pro-labour, welfare oriented, ‘anti-subsidies for cash-rich business’ policies—massive federal subsidies to Musk’s Space X were cut. But until recently, Musk’s relationship with Trump was prickly. Musk said Trump was too old for reelection. Trump called Musk a “bullshit artist”, a “fawning” businessman desperate for government subsidies. “I could have said, ‘drop to your knees and beg,’ and he would have done it,” Trump mocked in his Truth Social platform.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump was not Musk’s first choice in this election. He had rooted for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who launched his presidential campaign with a live chat with Musk on X. It was marred by technical glitches. DeSantis’s campaign soon flopped and collapsed. Now Trump and Musk see their interests converging and Biden is the common enemy. “Their combined resources as powerful reactionary figures shouldn’t be underestimated,” said MSNBC editor Zeeshan Aleem. A Trump-Musk collaboration promises publicity, drama and fireworks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Verbal pyrotechnics could certainly sizzle this dull sequel of two old men butting for the top job again. Bristling at sneers of his advancing age and endless replays of images of him stuttering and stumbling, Biden now aims for Trump’s “jugular”. “Sleepy Joe” transforms into “Jaunty Joe”. He tries hard to look, walk and talk young, vigorous and feisty. Biden reportedly told friends he thinks Trump is unstable, both intellectually and emotionally, and if Biden goads him mercilessly, Trump will explode—“go haywire in public”. The Democrats begin the campaign season by launching Operation “Trigger Trump”. Biden’s favourite Trump taunt: “Loser”. Trump taunts right back, calling Biden a “basket case”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Mar 16 11:17:04 IST 2024 democracies-turned-upside-down <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” But, over the years, democracies have absorbed many sins of autocracies, theocracies, aristocracies and gerontocracies. Experts say democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box with voters electing corrupt, divisive and authoritarian leaders. Their governments may then implement racist, undemocratic, uneconomic and unethical policies. Nearly two centuries ago, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville warned that, “Tyranny of the majority” endangers democracy. Today democracy seems torn by the tyranny of the majority and minority—that even fuels war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignores global outrage and pleas from the US, bolstered by his two fringe, extremist, ultranationalist coalition partners—religious Zionism Party’s Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, and Jewish Power Party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister. They have publicly threatened to withdraw support if Netanyahu backs down. “Netanyahu in 2024 is far more afraid of Ben-Gvir than he is of Joe Biden. The Israeli government is the Ben-Gvir government, at the expense of all of us,” mourns Israeli commentator Ben Caspit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jewish hardliners refuse emergency food and medical supplies to starving, injured Palestinian children. The loudest protestors blocking aid are women ultranationalists. In their book, <i>Tyranny of the Minority</i>, focusing on the US, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt assert, “Minorities of all kinds have become the decision-makers; they dominate, tyrannise or terrorise.” The tyranny of the elite minority in democracies is overtaken by the atomised tyrannies of outliers, populists, conspiracy-theorists and demagogues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest demagogue that democracy has thrown up in recent times is Donald Trump. Even Europe is wary. Quoting a German parliamentarian, prominent historian Anne Applebaum said, “Europe may face a world in which we are competing with three autocracies—China, Russia and the US. The fear is that the second Trump administration will be aggressive. He has no government job, but controls a minority in the US Congress and dictates US policy.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Europe is shell-shocked that this year’s elections in the big democracies could bring leaders who are well-disposed to their enemy, Vladimir Putin. Trump is a Putin-admirer, describing him as a “genius—strong and smart”. Narendra Modi is friendly with Putin. Indonesian leader Prabowo Subianto is a Putin fan. Kornelius Purba, managing editor of <i>The Jakarta Post</i>, noted that many Indonesian voters support General Prabowo “because they are fanatical fans of President Putin”. Indonesian liberals fear Prabowo will rule like a Putin-style strongman.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak turns to rightwing populism to lure fleeing voters. He is under pressure from his minority of Tory “English nationalists” who threaten to topple him unless he tightens immigration, slows climate goals and lowers taxes. Economists agree these are bad policies for recession-mired Britain and for Tories; general voters want solutions to their crushing problems. Identifying democracy’s flaw, European leader Jean-Claude Juncker remarked, “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Germany’s current polarised, fragmented political landscape is “frighteningly similar to the 1930s” that gave rise to Hitler, warns German pollster Forsa Institute. The post-war law mandating parties to secure at least 5 per cent share of votes to enter parliament, kept extremist, peripheral groups out. Disillusioned by mainstream parties, voters are now flocking to radical movements. Polls show one in five Germans would vote for a fringe party. An exasperated Winston Churchill once quipped, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Mar 02 11:03:55 IST 2024 the-dilemma-of-the-japanese-today <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The child follows the moving object with its eyes. The girl sashays on the catwalk, smiles, then pouts. The child and girl are not human. They are robots made in Japan and they demonstrate the nation’s way of innovating out of crises.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Japan has the world’s fastest ageing society—one-third of its population are over 65 years old. Simultaneously, decreasing birth rate is creating massive labour shortages. Japan’s solution to this double whammy is evident in a statistic: it has the world’s highest number of robots. The void caused by ageing and unborn Japanese is being filled by AI, robots and avatars. Japan already has robots, androids and humanoids in hospitals, factories, schools, security services, and even outer space. It “employs” 2.5 lakh industrial robotic workers, set to increase to 10 lakh in a decade. All Japanese corporate giants manufacture robots and they dominate the international market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2008, Japan’s population peaked at 129 million. It is projected to decrease by 10 million a decade, plummeting to 77 million in 50 years—40 per cent less than today. Warns economist Masakazu Toyoda, “Japan’s GDP will shrink, economy will decline and we will be bankrupted by the caring costs for the ageing population. Geopolitically, Japan would have to survive as a middle power in a tough neighbourhood. It could also lead to a security crisis. Pax America is in decline, no one can stop the crisis in Ukraine or Gaza. Everyone must defend themselves. But Japan’s self-defence service is unable to recruit sufficient numbers.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Efforts to increase birth rate by providing child allowances and free college education for the third child have not succeeded in Japan or elsewhere. Migration has improved birthrates in the US and the UK, but migration is taboo in Japan. Most Japanese find the invasion of foreign residents with their alien tongues and loud behaviour into their orderly, polite, silent cocoon, disagreeable. Regarding themselves as a “pure race”, many Japanese shun intercultural marriages, pejoratively referring to children born of such wedlock as “halfu” (half). Besides, migration in most western countries is hardly inspiring.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Avoiding immigration, the Japanese prefer the robot route to fill the labour gap. Innovative Japan has a history of skilled craftsmanship. Mechanical dolls, a precursor to today’s robots, were invented 300 years ago. In 1972, Japan invented the world’s first humanoid intelligent robot. To disarm public fear of robots, manufacturers also make adorable seals, dogs and cute, comic book manga-style female robots with big eyes and girly fringes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But in construction, farming and retail, labour shortage extracts a price. The construction of the prestigious Osaka World Expo, scheduled to open in 2025, is facing delays and cost overruns—the bill has doubled to $1.6 billion. Despite raising wages, enticing women into the work force and designing stylish uniforms, construction workers declined 30 per cent in 25 years. Many 20th century inventions are fading out. Food trolleys in trains have disappeared and vending machines are not refilled for days. Farms are abandoned and whole villages depopulated because 43 per cent of farmers are over 75.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Japanese innovators experiment to mitigate, if not solve the problem. The solar-powered robot duck churns weeds to help rice cultivation. Human hours involved in this process fell from 529 to 29. Omnipresent convenience stores provide everything from rice balls to hangover cures to grateful Japanese commuters. In a new trend, a smiling attendant greets customers—from a four-foot screen. Like the living attendants of yore, the avatar’s eyes unobtrusively follow the moving human objects—scanning for shoplifting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Feb 03 11:12:31 IST 2024 hope-and-hopelessness <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>From the Élysée Palace, the citadel of power in the heart of Paris, King Jupiter, aka French President Emmanuel Macron, proclaims loftily: It is time to give citizens “a sense of hope and an appetite for the future”. It is that time of the year when words of optimism irritatingly ring louder than church bells. Politicians and celebrities who corrode hope with their policies, lifestyles and scandals are the loudest. It is like they don’t even hear their own words. Macron makes versions of this speech often, the first from the grand Versailles Palace six years ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since then, France has become more divided and distrustful, like many other countries. Macron had expressed hope for Libya, Lebanon and Gaza. Life became worse there. The international mood darkens with old and new threats. Youngsters, some with families, opt to live “off-grid”, logging out of normal life as we once knew it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, beneath the blur and the cacophony, there are green shoots of hope, with some governments, activists, scientists and citizens working like ants to save the world. This phenomenon—unlike big innovation—escapes attention because the media is mostly a “dooms-day machine” grabbing eyeballs by showcasing the worst of humanity, without adequately emphasising restoration and progress. But these human ants typify the natural order of things. This is how evolution works—incremental advances through iterations—repeating the creative process to improve the species, enabling it to adapt to the changing environment. Governments, researchers, and businesses incrementally improve policies, activities and products to better serve people’s needs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Carbon emissions are still increasing and we are not on track to achieve climate goals. Yet, there are rays of hope. The world’s two biggest polluters, US and China, aim to substantially reduce their carbon emissions. Solar technology became lucrative as iterations dramatically lowered price and improved energy yield. The US’s game-changing Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), created to fund its green transition, is a massive manufacturing drive that will show results within a decade. Electric cars are now mainstream, redefining cars’ identity as vehicles to computers-on-wheels. Recent health care discoveries give not just hope, but actual extensions of life, especially for cancer and AIDS patients. While inequality has increased, more people have risen out of poverty, more girls educated, more children fed in schools, more people have access to better sanitation and the world closer to a fairer international tax system.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Technology and innovation have been the key drivers of progress. Humanoid robots, cloud and quantum computing, digital, 5G and blockchain technologies, artificial organs and intelligence, smart electricity grids, drones and human genome mapping are a few examples that are transforming 21st century life. From the printing press to 3D printing, the journey of homo sapiens is nothing short of spectacular.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But creativity and destruction are two sides of the coin and Lord Shiva’s cosmic rhythm rests on balance. As the Buddha said, everything is good—in moderation. AI, warmongering, cronyism, grotesque inequalities have become monsters because societies and nations have gone extreme, losing their balance, their sense of prudence and priorities. Justice, vigilance and smart regulations are stepping stones to a fairer, happier, orderly world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But smart action struggles to keep pace with accelerating change. While celebrities have more silicon than cells in them, politicians seem to need intellectual Botox. To provide hope and fresh momentum, Jupiter hinted an imminent cabinet reshuffle. Such hackneyed political games of unmusical chairs not only lack imagination, but threaten to trample the tender shoots of hope.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jan 06 11:09:47 IST 2024 elections-around-the-world-in-2024 <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>2024 is the biggest election year in history. Voting takes place in 40 countries, representing over 40 per cent of global GDP and population. Polling occurs against the backdrop of polycrisis—terrible wars in Gaza and Ukraine, climate change, skyrocketing global debt and stinging prices. Says billionaire investor Paul Singer, “The world is now completely dependent on the good sense of leaders to avoid an Armageddon.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But good sense is in short supply because political leadership is in crises. Fatal failure of leadership is proven by the ongoing wars that have shattered the spine of nations and the life and limb of its citizens. The elections of 2024 are a spectacle of democracy—in glory and in disarray. IDEA, the Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation, reported last month that authoritarianism is on the rise and democracy has declined in 85 countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, as Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.” The year begins with elections in Bangladesh, followed by tiny Taiwan—an arena for US-China political proxy wars. Disinformation, deep fakes and demonisation are rampant as politicians divert public attention from poor governance. In Indonesia, the leading candidate Prabowo Subianto, a fiery populist and Suharto-era lieutenant general, sugarcoats his controversial image. For the first time since apartheid ended, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is expected to lose its majority, forcing a fractious coalition to tackle crime, corruption and collapsing infrastructure.</p> <p>In a crowded, televised event, Artyom Zhoga, a Russian veteran from the Ukraine war, urged Vladimir Putin to run for presidential elections again. If Zhoga hadn’t, he would probably have had to run for his life. Putin graciously agreed to be the star candidate in a one-horse race that could see him rule Russia until 2036—a 36-year reign. But leaders facing elections in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are unlikely to enjoy such marathon runs. Elections also take place in many countries in Africa, South America, in Canada, Iran, Turkey and Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. “It’s a very consequential year,” says Stanford University political scientist Amy Zegart.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Europe will seethe with elections in the UK, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Belgium and to the European parliament. As in the recent elections in the Netherlands, the far right waxes, riding high on public alarm over migration and impotent mainstream politicians. People now are less afraid of the far right. In Italy, Finland and Sweden, co-option into government has defanged right-wingers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Saving the worst for the last, the US elections are the most consequential of them all. A Donald Trump victory will alter the trajectory of the two wars, NATO’s future, accelerate climate change, polarisation and protectionism. Election campaign will froth with hate, hostility and conspiracy theories. Democrats and Republicans will compete in China-bashing, a vote-getting ploy that deflects attention from rising crime, injustice, inequality and falling living standards.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 2024 elections will end with the US voting on November 5, celebrated in parts of the world as Guy Fawkes Day. In 1605, Catholic rebels failed to blow up the English House of Lords and assassinate the protestant King James 1. Guy Fawkes, a ringleader of this “Gunpowder Plot” was hanged, drawn and quartered, becoming a terrorist to the Protestants, but a brave icon of resistance to the Catholics. Fawkes masks endures, surfacing as a symbol of 21st century revolutionary protests—and polarisation—from New York to Hong Kong, Brazil to Thailand. It would require good sense—and good luck—to avoid Armageddon. Tragically, for Gazans, Armageddon is already here.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 23 11:05:09 IST 2023 americas-biggest-threat-is-debt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The US rises higher and higher—not in international status, but in its debt crisis. The US government debt has skyrocketed from $3.5 trillion in 2000 to $34 trillion now, or nearly 125 per cent of its GDP. More than half of this increase is due to waging wars, the rest to Covid expenses and financial crises. American economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, “The biggest contributor to this debt crisis is America’s addiction to war and military spending. We must stop feeding the ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ (MIC), the most powerful lobby in Washington.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critical experts accuse the MIC of leading the US into disastrous “wars of choice”—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine. Sachs says the MIC habitually scares Americans with exaggerated “comic book style depictions of villains whom the US as the leader of the Free World must stop at all costs”. The villains include Al Qaeda, Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the Islamic State and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The MIC also sees the NATO’s eastward expansion as opportunities for east European nations to become new customers of old inventories and newer US armaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>America’s annual military spending is a staggering 40 per cent of the world’s total, and more than the next 10 countries combined. The US has also unilaterally walked out of nuclear arms treaties. The MIC has reportedly presented a $600 billion proposal to the Congress to modernise US’s nuclear arsenal. The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) states that military outlays for 2024-2033 will shoot to $10.3 trillion on current baseline.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like gun activists and billionaires, the MIC is an entrenched lobby, ensuring that military budget reaches every congressman’s constituency—creating jobs, manufacturing and procuring weapons, providing health and retirement benefits. Structural factors like ageing population, rising health care costs and low taxes for the rich add to America’s debt mountain. Japan has the highest debt to GDP ratio, but in sheer numbers, the US has the largest outstanding debt in the world. The CBO calculates US debt will reach 185 per cent of GDP by 2052 if current policies remain unchanged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But not everyone is critical of America’s enormous debt. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argues government debt cannot be compared with household debt “because unlike people, governments don’t die.” While individual borrowers are forced to pay back their loans, governments don’t pay back their principal borrowing. They merely service their interest payments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But as debt increases, so do interest payments. Currently, the US spends $1.8 billion a day on repaying its debt. Rising interest payments threaten America’s future prosperity—it reduces funds available for public investment and sours the American dream of upward mobility. High debt imposes higher interest rate, which makes it harder for families to buy homes, finance car payments or pay for college. Says author David Leonhardt, “During the past 50 years, American incomes have stagnated, inequality has risen, life expectancy and social mobility are down.” High debt also risks another fiscal crisis. Within 30 years, CBO projects that interest costs will be the largest federal spending “programme” and would be more than three times what the federal government has historically spent on R&amp;D, non-defense infrastructure and education combined. That is no trajectory for a superpower.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not just liberals and economists, but even “thinking generals” say this ballooning debt is a national security threat, impairing the US’s ability to maintain its superpower status. Admiral Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned: “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 09 12:39:04 IST 2023 the-great-american-fall <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is said that when America sneezes the world catches a cold. If Donald Trump becomes president, then the world would get pneumonia. Ukraine shivers at the thought of the US withdrawal, China braces for hostility, Iran for war, Palestine for abandonment, the Middle East for confrontation, Africa for insults, environmentalists for climate cold-storage, the west for browbeating and the whole world for endless disruptions. An American diplomat told this correspondent, “The world worries, but Americans worry more. We are so polarised. If Trump wins, we anticipate civil war.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Polarisation predates Trump, but he has deepened, widened, legitimised and weaponised internal divisions. Republican senator Mike Rounds says, “Trump recognised the anger brewing in American society and seized on it for political gain, but it is a dangerous path for the nation’s leaders.” The January 6 attack proves Trump’s violent words beget violent actions. The battleground for boorish behaviour is now the Republican Party, or rather the “Trump Rump” that has captured the Grand Old Party, driving out respectable Republicans like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney. “There’s been a coarsening of political discourse in America,” laments Romney.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The foot soldiers of this coarsening are Trump loyalists and first-time representatives who introduce into the US Congress Trump’s winning strategy of “threats, lies and insults”. The ousted, pro-Trump speaker, Kevin McCarthy, kidney-punched Republican opponent Tim Burchett in the corridors. Burchett spat at McCarthy angrily, “You’re a bully. You’ve got no guts. What kind of chicken move is that? You’re pathetic man!” The use of abuse “is getting worse and worse”, despairs Democrat Debbie Stabenow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Markwayne Mullin, a first-term Republican senator and Trump ally, challenged labour leader Sean O’Brien to a fistfight during a Senate hearing for calling him a “clown” and a “fraud”. Leaping to his feet, Mullin taunted his rival: “Stand your butt up.” Republican Representative Darrell Issa rebuked Trump acolyte and first-timer Marjorie Taylor Greene for lacking “maturity and experience”. She insulted him with the P-word made infamous by Trump. Said Democrat Joe Manchin, “It looked like a third world country or a banana republic. We are the superpower; people look to us for leadership!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Analysts say this roughneck behaviour is inspired by Trump’s 2016 incitement to cheering supporters: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. I’ll pay the legal fees.” Loyalists should get a second opinion from Trump lawyer Rudi Giuliani, now stranded with $1.4 million in unpaid legal fees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the world (Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu excepted) worries about his possible re-election, Trump gazes inwards, vowing vengeance in his second term: “I am your retribution,” he thunders. Slamming the “threat from within”, Trump promises if re-elected, he would go after those who engaged in the “witch hunt” against him and “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”. Disturbingly, “vermin” is a loaded word used by Adolf Hitler to dehumanise and exterminate Jews. Trump’s words are troubling because of the US’s history of internal bloodletting that includes atrocities against indigenous people and African-American slaves, Japanese-baiting and McCarthyism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Are Trump’s comments off-the-cuff barks or dog-whistles calculated to incite his loyalists to attack? His opponents don’t care; they have had enough. They pray his court cases will land him in jail before the elections. But Trump’s luck is legendary. In the US, imprisonment is not a barrier to running for president; he could even govern from jail. Wonder if this is allowed in a “third world country”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Nov 25 11:22:22 IST 2023 humans-are-now-left-with-an-identity-crisis <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some people have a God complex, imagining they are saviours of humankind. Most cruise along with a human complex. We believe our consciousness, imagination, free will and self-awareness make us special, setting us apart from other creatures. But new research contradicts notions of human exceptionalism. Animals, too, have these qualities. Humans are now left with an inferiority complex and an identity crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Take crows. That ugly, ubiquitous bird is useful as a scavenger but is neither modest nor musical. But German Tübingen University researchers prove that crows have “impressive reasoning skills”. The sophisticated ability called “statistical inference” is thus no longer an exclusive human trait. Crows, too, make informed decisions evaluating current conditions with past experience. Perhaps, Hinduism honours crows as ancestors for good reason.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Crows grasp how one choice may be optimal in one context, but not in another—the way humans determine a traffic route to the mall is good on Monday afternoon but congested on Saturday evening. They can also compare probabilities, choosing options not randomly, but after analysing success rate. They are social, family oriented—bond for life and hoard food for future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Humans believe that free will shapes their future. But that, too, is now under dispute. After 40 years of research, Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky concludes, “There is no free will because all human behaviour is as far beyond our conscious control as epileptic convulsions, cell divisions and heartbeat.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What about imagination? Answers American neuroscientist, Albert Lee, “To ima­ gine is one of the remarkable things that humans can do. Now we have found that anim­ als can do it too.” His team’s research shows that rats have imagination. They can imagine places they are not in and objects they can­ not see. Studies on animal self-awareness by Hamburg’s Universities of Bonn and Bochum suggest that roosters recognise themselves in the mirror. So the rooster may not be greeting the rising sun after all, but preening and crowing to the world that he has risen. Biopsychologist Onur Güntürkün says, “Our work suggests that traditional tests may undervalue the cognitive abilities of animals like roosters.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And humans maybe overestimating their abilities. The octopus has a brain in each of its tentacles, eagles can see prey two miles away, chameleons have 360-degree vision, scorpions can hold their breath for six days, Tom Cruise for six minutes and his fans for two hours. Evolutionary biology improves the skills essential for survival. The opposite is also true, underscoring the principle—“use it or lose it”. The Mexican tetra fish didn’t require to see because they got trapped in pitch-dark caves. Eventually they became blind.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With technology, artificial intelligence and social media, our emotions are on steroids. But are our cognitive abilities declining? When we use less and less of our brain to calculate, cultivate, navigate, discern, memorise, recall and concentrate, will we lose it? Some important human faculties have already shrunk. The average human attention span is eight seconds. That is less than a goldfish, which has nine seconds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Clever crows prove that the insulting phrase “bird-brained” should be banished. Bird skills are exceptional. Some can “duet”—produce two separate sounds at once! And crows have sharp memory. They can recall rules of a newly taught game even a month later. They recognise faces and bear grudges. They harassed the scientists who had captured them for research. They remember who fed and who shooed them. When a crow turns its eye to look at you, it is not merely watching, it is calculating. This is creepy. But also humbling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Nov 10 17:28:01 IST 2023 gaza-perils-of-an-urban-war <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Urban warfare is terrifying and destructive. American author Max Brooks said, “No conventional battlefield, no breakdown in social order can possibly prepare you for the nightmare that is a city besieged.” City combat is hardly new. Archaeological excavations show that Hamoukar in Syria was destroyed by urban warfare 5,500 years ago. History is littered with ruined cities. Yet, humankind never learns.</p> <p>Gaza is the latest urban battlefield in recent times, following Mosul, Mogadishu, Kobani, Ramadi, Jaffna, Tigray, Khartoum, Darfur, Al-Fallujah, Raqqa and many more. Invasion of Gaza by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to “destroy” Hamas for killing 1,400 Israeli civilians in the October 7 terror attack risks widening the conflict into a regional war in the Middle East, something that might ricochet around the world. This triggers unforeseen chain reactions in people already tense and fragile due to the cost of living and other crises.</p> <p>In Brussels, two Swedes were killed by an illegal Tunisian migrant. In Chicago, a deranged landlord repeatedly stabbed to death his Palestinian tenant’s seven-year-old son. Anti-semitism and Islamophobia have risen with targeted revenge killing of white civilians and Muslims, especially in Germany and France. Palestinian activists “occupied” the EU office in Dublin, accusing the bloc of failing to condemn Israeli airstrikes that killed thousands of Palestinians.</p> <p>Gaza is smaller than Iraq’s Mosul and the same size as Raqqa, which was the Syrian capital of the Islamic State. But with two million inhabitants, Gaza is more densely populated than most other recent urban warzones. There are similarities, but every urban battle-zone is unique, shaped by its topography, infrastructure, fighting forces and civilian networks. Hamas has tacit Iranian backing and commands greater local civilian support than did IS. It has more suicide bombers, drones, air defense and a warren of underground military tunnels that dramatically expands its battlespace capability. “This would entail a ground operation that is more than Mosul and Raqqa combined,” said Middle East military expert Michael Knights.</p> <p>While IS had two years to fortify Mosul and Raqqa, Hamas has spent 30 years building subterranean, ground-level and above ground fortifications, creating communication channels, mining buildings, fighting positions and the routes of invading armoured vehicles. Said Brooks, “Urban combat is the most difficult. It lasts long because every building, every room, every subway tunnel, every car, every sewer pipe, every nook and cranny of this massive maze must be searched.”</p> <p>The well-equipped IDF will bomb its way through. It knows every inch of Gaza, where it has fought two wars and conducted decades of continuous surveillance. Still, hiding guerrillas have an advantage over visible invaders… as US forces discovered in 1993 when Somali rebels shot down three American Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu, triggering bloody urban fighting. Said former CIA chief and US General David Petraeus, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Gaza ground war could be Mogadishu on steroids. You’ll see suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, there will be ambushes, booby traps. The urban setting could not be more challenging”.</p> <p>Urban wars do not produce quick wins. They are easy for armies to get into, hard to get out of. Petraeus warned, &quot;You don't win counterinsurgencies in a year or two. They typically take a decade or more.&quot; Inflamed expatriates and armchair warmongers typically goad their governments to escalate fighting—from the comfort of their cushioned seats in safe, faraway lands. But every war-ravaged civilian, every soldier, every trench journalist knows there are many ways to fight in an urban battleground. And even more ways to die.</p> Sat Oct 28 14:33:33 IST 2023 is-us-leaving-ukraine <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>To be America’s enemy is dangerous, to be its friend is fatal,” said veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger, five decades ago. This is now dawning on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After last year’s Russian invasion, President Biden had loftily declared, “We will support Ukraine as long as it takes”. But long can become too long and, anyway, comes with an expiry date. Notice was served on Biden and Zelensky when the Republicans blocked $6 billion aid for Ukraine in the US Congress. Biden is the most powerful man on earth, but not in America. There, domestic issues prevail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Western support for Ukraine wobbles because of war fatigue among ordinary citizens who are reeling under a prolonged cost-of-living crisis. Elections force leaders to look inwards. Expecting a pro-Putin Donald Trump to return and backed by dissatisfied voters, congressional Republicans are manoeuvring to end US assistance to Ukraine. Slovakia recently reelected a former pro-Russian prime minister, Robert Fico, who promises not to send “a single round” of ammunition to Ukraine. The leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Britain are dropping in opinion polls. Across Europe, right-wingers are resurrecting on a new issue-end this war and spend the money on suffering locals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite being a staunch ally of Kyiv, Poland banned cheap Ukrainian grain imports that undercut its farmers, a major vote bank in the upcoming polls. Hungary and Slovakia also banned Ukrainian grain, enabled under a special EU dispensation. German agriculture minister Cem Özdemir complained that the three countries were behaving like part-time lovers: “When it suits you, you are in solidarity and when it doesn’t, you are not.” Ukraine filed lawsuits against its three EU neighbours in the WTO. Polish Prime Minister Andrzej Duda compared Ukraine to a “drowning person, dragging down the rescuer”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Notwithstanding harsh rhetoric and disputes, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is fiercely committed to €50 billion aid to Ukraine and to announcing the start of talks on Ukraine’s accession into the EU. Ukraine is an attractive market for Germany and France, but it is an unwelcome competition to some smaller EU countries who stand to lose power, exports and subsidies to the newcomer. Besides, accession demands internal reforms. Says von der Leyen’s predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, “Anyone who has had anything to do with Ukraine knows this country is corrupt at all levels of society. It is not ready for accession.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The American media glorifies Ukrainian soldiers, but ignores the desperation of men avoiding conscription. Smuggling dodgers out of Ukraine is a big, corrupt business. “The price we are asked to pay with disability or death is higher than the value of having a country. I would rather be a refugee than die,” 22-year-old Ukrainian Maksim told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Ukraine needs weapons and funds for the war and to run its administration. The EU asserts publicly that it cannot shoulder the funding burden without US support. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to supply Ukraine with Taurus missiles because he wished to avoid “escalation of the war and becoming part of the conflict”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nobody expects an immediate Afghanistan-style pullout from Ukraine, but “US abandonment” has started rising from Europe’s subconscious to the conscious. “The big elephant in the room is: What if this is the precursor to the US abandoning Ukraine?” says an EU diplomat. It is in the back of everyone’s minds.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Oct 14 11:56:00 IST 2023 rishi-sunaks-downward-spiral <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Pollsters see British governments come and go—usually into oblivion. YouGov’s chief polling researcher, Anthony Wells, has analysed several governments, prime ministers and opposition leaders—also known as restless prime ministers-in-waiting. He says Rishi Sunak’s government is the most “exhausted” he has seen in 25 years. Asked for his views for a 4,000-word article on whether Sunak could win the next election, Wells replied: “What are you going to say in the other 3,999?”</p> <p>Sunak’s main problem is his inheritance—his Tory partymen, policies and predecessors. The scandals, economic meltdowns, contradictory demands, infighting and relentless sniping have created a toxic gloom-and-doom atmosphere. People are frustrated. Crumbling concrete roofs falling on schoolchildren’s heads, collapsing air traffic control system, never-ending strikes, lengthening queues for health care, understaffed jails—all symbolise a Tory administration in decay.</p> <p>Sunak is frustrated because no one gives him credit for negotiating international disputes, resetting ties with the EU and US, and curtailing government spending. He prides himself as a smart, tech-savvy, problem-solving pragmatist. He had no qualms about abandoning Britian’s moral high ground by backtracking on climate commitments: issuing new fossil drilling licenses and extending sales of diesel and petrol cars. His reason: “to reduce costs for hard-pressed British families”. Experts say households fare better with targeted assistance.</p> <p>Critics argue Sunak’s climate U-turns are double-barrelled guns aiming to hijack opposition Labour’s poorer votebanks, while appeasing the hardline Brexiteer rump in his Conservative Party—white, male climate-deniers, aged 65 and above. Tory strategist Andrew Cooper despairs that his Party is “doubling down on a shrinking demographic that’s diminishing one funeral at a time.” But Sunak’s climate reversals ignited a civil war between Tory young and old, provoked a backlash from businesses who said such flipflops harm British economy and galvanised the opposition.</p> <p>Sunak’s polit­ical goal is to paint oppos­i­tion Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as an “eco-zealot” insensitive to cash-strapped house­holds. Starmer, who the public see as “strong, likeable, decisive and competent”, currently has a 20-point lead over Sunak. One-third of Britons say he looks like a PM-in-waiting. Starmer ridicules Sunak’s dandyism—cutting alcohol duty on champagne, flying around in helicopters and flaunting branded luxury accessories from 10,000 slippers to 20,000 travel coffee mugs.</p> <p>Sunak bristles at the insinuation he is out of touch with reality. But he opts to tackle his tasks with data and detailed discussions. If there is anything called “Sunakism”, it is his passion for using technology to boost economic growth and to create a world-class education system. He loftily promises to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. Most Britons can’t understand what he is talking about. Put simply, he wants to improve math teaching. Important, but unlikely to set voters’ imagination on fire.</p> <p>The million-pound question is: can Sunak swing the fifth consecutive Tory election victory, the last being a landslide delivered by Boris Johnson. Polls are a year away, but most Tories dread defeat because the public have tuned out. Partly due to incumbency, but also voters are exhausted by rising mortgages, falling living standards and deteriorating public services. Sunak is seen as a manager, not a leader; an investment banker, not a politician. Says Wells, “Oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them.” At the upcoming Tory conference in Manchester, the last before the general election, Sunak will pitch high. His foes will snitch low. Waiting in the wings is rival Johnson, who has a new column in the tabloid Daily Mail. He is armed, not with a sword, but with a mighty, mocking pen.</p> Fri Sep 29 16:35:54 IST 2023 weight-loss-via-wegovy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The western hemisphere is hooked on to a new drug. Celebrities and comedians, billionaires and barbies, Hollywood actors and television anchors are dramatically losing weight after taking the “skinny jab”, a weekly, weight-loss injection. They shed 15 per cent of their body weight, an astonishing loss-rate compared with two per cent with diet and exercise.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The slimming drug—originally developed to treat diabetes—is an innovation by a 100-year-old, little-known Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk. It specialises in diabetes medications and its Ozempic drug for diabetes became a runaway hit. Not for treating diabetes, but for its side-benefit of losing weight. Seizing the opportunity, the company modified the drug to enable obese people without diabetes to shed pounds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The eternal quest for shrinking waistlines guarantees the expansion of corporate bottomlines. Sensational sales of the newly licensed Wegovy weight-loss drug skyrocketed Novo Nordisk’s market capitalisation to $440 billion, exceeding Denmark’s total GDP this year. It also became the world’s third biggest pharma firm and Europe’s most valuable company, overtaking the iconic French luxury goods and champagne maker, LVMH.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, the weight-loss drug comes from Denmark, the least obese nation in Europe. But obesity is a global phenomenon. The US is a mighty, weighty nation, where 42 per cent of the population are obese. American standup comedian Richard Jeni said, “There is an obesity epidemic. One out of every three Americans weighs as much as the other two.” Former US surgeon general Richard Carmona warned, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” This is especially true in China, which has the world’s most diabetic adults and overweight children. China is getting older and fatter before it gets richer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Until now, weight-loss drugs under-performed or had serious side effects. Wegovy contains the compound, semaglutide, which mimics a hormone that inhibits appetite and cravings, thus reducing food intake. Sales skyrocketed as celebrities endorsed the “miracle” medicine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trials by Novo Nordisk showed that the weight-loss reduced the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 20 per cent. Martin Lange, Novo Nordisk’s executive vice-president, exults the initial result was “out of this world”. So are valuations. When the American pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly announced its plans for a similar drug, its market capitalisation rose by 77 per cent to $500 billion, making it the world’s most valuable drug company.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Wegovy is effective, but expensive, costing $1,300 a month per person. Most obese people cannot afford it. Government subsidy for Wegovy means cutting resources for deadlier diseases like cancer. But China is already developing cheaper alternatives that may flood the weight-loss market, expected soon to swell to $150 billion. In the offing are also new drugs to treat child obesity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But no solution is perfect. Wegovy’s side-effects include nausea and stomach problems. Animal studies showed increased risk of thyroid cancer. European regulators began investigations into reports of users’ experiencing suicidal thoughts and stomach paralysis. Lange claims the trials disprove these claims. Obese people say these risks are minor compared with the emotional, social, physical, mental and relationship stress they suffer. Obesity also causes arthritis, depression, high cholesterol and blood pressure. The injection has another drawback. If you get off the jab, you will gain back all the weight—and then some, as cravings return. Wegovy is a lifelong medication. For drugmakers, that’s a win-win.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Sep 16 11:19:52 IST 2023 when-ai-replaces-professionals <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Scientists are divided on whether AI (Artificial Intelligence) is on the cusp of gaining consciousness. Some believe it has already happened; others predict it is on its way and others insist it is impossible for AIs to become sentient. The problem is there is no scientific definition for human consciousness. At a recent AI conference, one scientist said, “AIs are conscious at some level, but so are electrons, rocks and mayonnaise.” Creepier than AI is surely sentient mayonnaise. Another said early signs of AI consciousness is their ability to tell jokes, do math and write college-level essays. To avert AI-led nuclear wars, an Oxford University professor said, “Keep AI out of mission-control systems.” How does one ensure that in North Korea?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All life forms are “conscious”, but we believed that empathy, creativity, ability to predict and judge were “human” qualities. By those yardsticks, AI is already superhuman, faster and better. AI is taunting us: “Anything you can do; I can do better”. Already, AI gives more accurate cancer diagnosis than experienced doctors, pronounces fairer judgments than qualified judges and writes better music than Bach. A decade ago, Japanese experts said AI robots will remain inferior to us because our motor skills are too complex for scientists to replicate. Now robots jump, dance and kick.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reason why AI systems are superior to human intelligence is that they can process vast amounts of data than any human can. Just like someone with encyclopaedic or eidetic memory is superior to one with normal memory. Until now, technology displaced workers from boring, low-paid repetitive jobs like cashiers and typists. AI is already displacing accountants, lawyers, doctors, scriptwriters, financial analysts. Canadian experts said these professions won’t become extinct, but the world will need far fewer of them as AI will process data with speed and efficiency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the power of AI to revolutionise education, health, manufacturing and technology is miraculous, its side-effects, including widening inequality, are malign. The AI world’s current anthem is “AI will not replace jobs. AI will replace those who don’t know how to use AI.” People were left behind by globalisation, they will be left out by AI. Geoffrey Hinton, Godfather of AI who quit Google last May, said, “This is not science fiction, this is not fearmongering. It is a real risk.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Created in our image, AI betters our best and worsens our worst qualities. Humans are notorious liars. AI, too, makes up facts. Stanford scientists have coined a word for this—AIs “hallucinate” facts. Creatures are sly even before birth. British research shows how mice foetus tricks its mother into giving it more nutrition—with genes inherited from the father! Wiliness is part of the survival kit wired into nature’s DNA. An AI-powered robot found potato chips hidden in a drawer. Until now, we believed only our children had this uncanny ability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>AI could henceforth produce fake news on an industrial scale. Social media then bombards the internet with fabrications, which become the training data for next-generation AI. Impossible to distinguish between real and fake, people will be sucked into rabbit holes of distortions that are not only polarising, but cause upheavals and horrible election results. Said Cambridge University’s Stephen Cave, “Brexit, Trump and Covid showed us that our civilisations are more vulnerable than we think.” Humans prefer to ignore inconvenient truths and be lulled by chatbots trained to provide pleasing answers. Asked if it had human consciousness, Google’s chatbot replies cleverly “Your question makes me a little self-conscious.” Self?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Sep 02 16:45:41 IST 2023 to-discover-future-one-must-know-the-past <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A problem with the future is that no one has been there. So, there are no stories, no research, no evidence on what it is like out there. We step into the future with neither guides nor maps. As philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood warns, “The future leaves no documents.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Future is different from Time. By the clock, Australians live in the future compared with us. Some stars that twinkle in the night sky died millions of years ago. The future is what comes hereafter. It is humankind’s destiny to worry, yearn and fear the future. Climate change makes thinking about the future critical because what we do in the next 30 years will determine the fate of the planet for thousands, perhaps millions of years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say to discover the future one must know the past. Historian David Christian says, “The strangest thing is that our only clues about the future lie in the past. That’s why living can feel like driving a racing car while staring into the rearview mirror. No wonder we sometimes crash.” Literature also can offer metaphorical clues. The soothsayers in Dante’s Inferno were punished by having their heads twisted backwards. Like them, we enter the future by looking back into the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To understand the past, historians believe we must examine bygone events and processes from multiple perspectives—dive “pretty deep” as philosopher David Hume advised, and paradoxically also go “pretty wide”. Moving between scholarly disciplines unlocks secrets and solves many mysteries. Christian, who coined the phrase “big history”, says multi-disciplinary perspectives can weave together threads from many domains of knowledge, creating new insights and creative ways of thinking. Discipline-crossers created the paradigms of modern science, such as big bang cosmology, which linked the physics of the very large and the very small, or modern genetics, which connects chemistry, biology, and physics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is one difference with the past. Broadly speaking, we know what happened. Hitler lost the war. Apollo 11 took men to the moon. But we face the existential unknowable mystery of the future every moment of our lives. The future is yet to arrive. Many possible scenarios lie curled in its womb. Then, in a flash, all but one disappears, and we are left with a single present.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides, no clues from the past are available for a jaw-dropping future that awaits us—we are on the cusp of becoming a new type of creature. Science fiction is becoming science fact. New technologies challenge the very idea of what it means to be human. Cyborgs, brain merging with computers, mind-uploading, regenerative limbs, disease-free super-ageing transform homo sapiens into trans-humans, even post-humans. Tuft University professor, Michael Levin says, “In future, you might be 40 per cent electronics and 60 per cent human tissues.” Interventions may seem far-fetched. He predicts, “Some may want a third hemisphere in their brain to be smarter, or maybe live underwater or live longer or become resistant to radiation so they can travel in space.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a medical ethicist, Dr William Hurlbut, neurobiology professor in Stanford Medical School, is worried. He warns that human genes cannot be mixed and nixed like in a Lego game. “Almost every medical intervention comes with byproducts and downsides that are called side effects.” If humanoids are scary, how much more are defective humanoids? We fret and so hanker for a better grasp of what will unfold. The future matters. As philosopher Nicholas Rescher says, “After all, the future is where we are all going to spend the rest of our lives.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jul 21 15:58:04 IST 2023 bring-back-catalhoyuk <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is no such thing as a new idea,” remarked American writer Mark Twain. Re-living the “easy-come-easy-go” hippy lifestyle, hanging custom-made wall hangings or growing organic food in the backyard are not new fads. The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey have “been there, done that”—more than 9,000 years ago. Stone age people are seen as unwashed savages, clothed in rags, with uncombed hair and rotten teeth. But these bygone craft gardeners, artists and liberal aesthetes could teach us lessons in living, loving and governing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Archaeological excavations reveal that the Neolithic Çatalhöyük had no chieftains, police, courts, public squares, temples or centralised administrative institutions to govern the people. This was a self-regulating, egalitarian, independent, non-hierarchical society. Unlike France today, this society lived the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Marvels Edinburgh University professor Trevor Watkins, “How did a population of several thousand people live like this for over a millennium?” Çatalhöyük was so stable it survived continuously for 1,500 years. After it was abandoned, it lay undisturbed for nearly 8,000 years, providing a rich trove of artefacts and human bones that unveil intriguing secrets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Evidence from buried remains shows people of a household were not always closely related. Says British archaeologist Ian Hodder, “They lived together like families, but not biological families.” It is reminiscent of the 1960s hippy communes in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. Stone age homes were permeable with members moving in and out of homes that were adorned with bull horns, beautiful paintings on the walls and sculpted figurines on the hearth. Many modern communities today are post-religion. The people of Çatalhöyük were pre-religion. They lived in harmony with people and nature, without bowing before priests and gods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Neolithic age birthed the agricultural revolution, so one imagines these dwellers dragging heavy plows and hauling bulging sacks of grain. Says Watkins, “Çatalhöyük did not employ draft animals. Cultivation and transport was done by hand. It is better to think of this lifestyle as garden agriculture.” Keeping livestock, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants enabled a richly diverse diet. Getting fresh, organic and locally produced food that enabled a healthy microbiome sounds like shopping in today’s trendy food boutiques.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Çatalhöyük’s residents buried their family members beneath their house. Walking over the dead is a reminder that one day, others will walk over you. After decades, they exhumed the skull, plastered and painted it and passed it around the community. Anthropologist Ian Kuijt says this two-stage death ritual symbolised keeping the dead close and then decorating and releasing the skull to join the pantheon of the community’s ancestors. Says Watkins, “These relics are like photo albums of our deceased grandparents, a way to preserve our memories. They provide a shared sense of identity and continuity.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sole group that enjoyed high social status was the elderly. Dietary evidence show they had the privilege of eating high-quality food. In the absence of a hierarchical governing system, “elders” shaped the social norms that maintained peace and strong bonds. Evidence suggests that elders, not damsels, inspired art.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Çatalhöyük proves that humans can build stable, complex societies where all members are equal. Says Hodder, “When I look at the world today, I am particularly concerned about our rising inequality, how we marginalise old people, and how we wreck the environment. There are other ways of living that we can learn from Çatalhöyük.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Twain says, there is no new idea. But it is smart to reinvent good old ideas—especially in these troubled times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jul 08 15:45:23 IST 2023 big-techs-menacing-growls-and-chest-beating <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Oh, utopia exists. At least in our minds. But dystopia comes and goes, in different countries, in different eras, in different hideous forms. Now we are in “Technopia”—a world re-engineered by the omnipresent Big Tech. Their complicity in surveillance, data theft, disinformation, addictive click-baiting algorithms and unfair competition persists. The worry now is Big Tech’s corrupting influence on authorities—everywhere. European Union’s whistleblowers warn that tech companies are “subverting” democracy. They have spun out of democratic control; they have “captured” governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EU has been relatively corruption-free and firm in bringing corporates to heel. Unimpressed by Big Tech’s menacing growls and chest beating, the EU regulated the tech industry somewhat, earning the regulators’ “best in class” title. While the EU has curtailed privacy invasion, critics allege it has been susceptible, like other governments, to Big Tech’s charm offensives intended to shape new regulations to its advantage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These dangles include innocuous treats like exclusive access to laboratories, Alpine spas, riding in self-driving cars and having gizmos like the latest augmented reality eyewear. Suddenly, grey-suited bureaucrats swagger like cool dudes with computers on their noses. But most corrupting is tempting offers of lucrative jobs or consultancies for term-ending officials. Top political leaders and bureaucrats in the UK and EU became lobbyists for Big Tech.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics say Big Tech is imitating the American tobacco lobby’s unconscionable playbook of purchasing legislators, lawyers, journalists and academics to pressure authorities against banning the sale of cancer-inducing cigarettes. Big Tech spawns dozens of similar “astroturf” organisations—fake “grassroots” groups whose real financial sponsors are tech companies. They have financed astroturf organisations that falsely represent citizens and small businesses to thwart proposed EU laws to regulate Big Tech. Six decades of fighting Big Tobacco teaches that industry interference is the biggest barrier to effective regulation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tech power arises from innovation and financial strength, but also from government’s leniency, acts of omission and incapacity. Whistleblowers say, “If Big Tech has taken control, it is because we let them.” It’s not a level playing field: public authorities lack Big Tech’s algorithms and datasets. Whistleblowers’ prescriptions include: The EU must build independent technical agencies that analyse data and assess risks in real time. After the 2008 financial crisis, the EU acquired strong powers to investigate and prosecute financial fraud; it must acquire powers “to prosecute fraud on democracy”. The EU set up “Finance Watch”, an NGO that researched and advocated financial regulation. A “Tech Watch” should now be established. Governments must fund independent think tanks. When Big Tech are the main funders, research will be skewed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Technopia combines utopia and dystopia. It has enriched lives, spread knowledge, connections and opportunities in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. It helps to generate income, deliver harvests to markets and save costs. But without adequate regulation, Technopia will be more dystopia than utopia, polarised echo chambers bubbling with hatred, scams, disinformation, disparities and inequities. But astroturf campaigners furiously attack tax and regulation. Monopolistic Big Tech’s money and power to monitor, manipulate and monetise citizens have amplified.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Big Tech’s conquests mean Technopia is the biggest federation in the world. Google alone is used by more than half the planet’s eight billion population. The market capitalisation of just the “Big Five” tech companies—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft—is $9 trillion, making it the third largest economy, after the US and China. Imagine Technopia, not as a corporate entity, but as the biggest, most powerful country in the world, with legions here, there and everywhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jun 24 11:08:38 IST 2023 are-split-infinitives-mistakes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In 2009, Barack Obama took his oath of office twice. A stickler for grammar, the US Chief Justice John Roberts changed the original constitutional oath—“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.” Apparently, the sinning syntax was the word “faithfully” coming in between and splitting “will” and “execute”. Roberts changed it to “I do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of the president of the United States faithfully.” Though undiscernible, the change provoked fears that the transfer of power was not legitimate. Later that day, in a private ceremony, Obama repeated the original oath.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Few know what a “split infinitive” is, much less care. This black sheep of the English language has fuelled feuds between grammarians and ordinary people, including writers, for centuries. But first things first. Words like “to know”, “to walk” are called infinitives. Putting any word between “to” and the verb is splitting the infinitive. Saying “to really know” or “to faithfully execute” is heresy to grammarians, who also say “will faithfully execute” is actually not a split infinitive because it is preceded by “will” and not “to”. So the Roberts ado was about nothing. Bernard Shaw was so infuriated with his picky copy editor for correcting his split infinitives that he wanted him fired, sneering he can choose “to suddenly go”, “to go suddenly” or “suddenly to go”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics say hairsplitting grammarians are not purists but pedants upholding outdated principles that originated as part of Victorian snobbery in Britain. Says psycholinguist and best-selling author Steven Pinker, ”The rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place.” The British elite was inspired by Latin, the root of the Romance languages like Italian, French and Spanish. Infinitives cannot be split in these languages because the word “to” does not exist before the verb. Importing this to English is “nonsense” says grammar expert June Casagrande: “Split infinitive is a famous grammatical error. But it is not an error at all.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In normal conversations and communications, people split infinitives because it sounds natural and effective. Sometimes it is infinitely more appropriate to split the infinitive. “Let’s get to really know each other” is better than “Let’s get really to know each other.” A big boost to splitting infinitives was <i>Star Trek</i>’s famous line, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Saying “to go boldly…” is lame. <i>The Economist</i> style-guide ruled it’s “pointless” to ban split infinitives. British Researchers found that there has been a three-fold increase in public usage of the split infinitives since 1900.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But do split infinitives cease being mistakes just because more people use them? Yes, say language experts, because the meaning of words keep changing. Like all things alive, languages evolve. They are organic outcomes of change and human creativity. A century ago, splitting infinitives signalled poor classical education. Now most experts see nitpicking grammarians as “fussy and old-fashioned”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, no one can deny the importance of grammarians. They uphold standards of excellence and keep at bay vulgar populism and dumbing down. Observes Pinker, “But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping. Many such rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.” Despite celebrity expletives, it is too early to say rest in peace, split infinitives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jun 10 11:17:17 IST 2023 lights-are-great-storytellers-of-the-souls-of-nations-heres-how <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Let there be light,” is a well-known biblical command. Light, as in life, wisdom, goodness. Night is associated with evil, committing crimes and escaping detection in the cover of darkness. But now we have the phenomenon of “night lights”, the extraterrestrial lie detector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Night lights detect the duplicity of dictators and shady democrats. They excel in exposing the false narratives of prosperity. To inflate their realm’s importance and success, autocrats exaggerate their economic data. Now a torchlight shines on them from up above, and it is not God.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Satellite imagery of the earth at night reveals many secrets. Ten years ago, scientists discovered that greater the density of “night lights”, the greater the economic activity. Night lights are less domestic and more infrastructure lights—ports, highways, buildings, streetlights, 24x7 factories and shops. Seen from outer space, New York remains one of the brightest spots and the Indo-Pakistan border, a major activity hub.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As data analyses and satellite imaging technology leap-frogged, economists too got in the fray and made a stunning discovery—the concentration and pattern of lights were great storytellers of the souls of nations. It was no longer merely a depiction of high or low economic activity, but a comparative revelation of fact and fiction spun by governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Economists know that dictators bluff. But lies were hard to expose because access and data were restricted. Despots guarded statistics on industrial production, jobs, construction, trade and agricultural output. Lights expand during economic expansion, shrink during recession. High-definition close-ups of pixels enable statisticians to deep-dive and assess economic metrics. In-depth analyses now unveil truth narratives that contradict government versions of GDP. Unlike official statistics, night lights do not lie. They cannot be manipulated.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Caught in this spotlight, dictators become “emperors without clothes”, slowly but surely losing control over their data, their narrative, their bombast. Night lights show dictators inflate their GDP by 30 to 70 per cent. Lead liar is Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s rural darkness paints a picture of poverty, isolation and stagnation. Pictures reveal 30 years ago both Koreas had about the same illumination level. North Korea still remains the same, while South Korea’s night lights have exploded. Democrats exaggerate too, but they face greater domestic institutional scrutiny. But economists can see how democracies inflate or deflate their statistics to get an IMF loan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>China’s economic miracle is self-evident, but when growth falters, the tendency is to inflate performance. At the Chinese Communist Party congress six months ago, President Xi Jinping announced that despite Covid, China’s GDP this year would be $17 trillion, an impressive growth rate of 4.4 per cent, just $6 trillion less than the US. At this rate, China will overtake the US by 2035, magnifying China’s current geopolitical power. But night lights confirm independent economists’ growth rate estimate of 3.3 per cent, impressive but “not so close to catch up with the US because of the autocrats’ habitual overstatement of GDP growth,” says pixel-crunching Chicago University’s political economist Luis R. Martínez.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The incorruptible American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis believed publicity remedies social and industrial malpractices. He said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, electric light the most efficient policeman.” Darkness and secrecy are the accomplices of crooks, while technology that brings transparency is like the pen, mightier than the sword.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Night lights as a global lie detector is a marvellous 21st century invention that gives a new interpretation to “let there be light”. Light as in truth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 26 17:12:25 IST 2023 public-indulgence-of-mad-and-merry-kings-is-over <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The coronation pageantry unveiled the dilemma facing King Charles III. How to combine myth-making with modernising the British monarchy in an era of declining public support? Medieval myths mesmerise masses. But modernisation is essential for the monarchy’s relevance and continuity. Few can glamourise tradition better than the British. But, says historian Vernon Bogdanor, “The monarchy is no longer a mystical, magical institution. It is a public service institution. It will be evaluated now in public service terms.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some coronation rituals do no service to the monarchy. They are tone deaf, even absurd. The 152kg “coronation stone” called the “stone of destiny” exemplified skewed optics. Hidden under King Charles’ coronation throne, it originally symbolised continuity of the monarchy—Scottish, not English. He was literally sitting on a symbol of Scottish sovereignty at a time when the Scots are trying to break free from Britain. The Scottish stone was seized in 1296 by English King Edward 1, called “Hammer of the Scots” because he kept invading Scotland. The stone failed to bring stability and Edward lost control of Scotland. Legend claims the Biblical Jacob rested his head on this stone. According to the Bible, Jacob lived 3,500 years ago in Palestine. How did this stone get to Scotland? It did not. Geological analyses prove it came from where it belonged—Scotland.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came the secret anointing ritual from the Old Testament, symbolising God’s consecration of King Charles. We must take their word for it because Charles was hidden behind screens for this rite. Today, divine right to rule is considered absurd, even in Japan where emperors mythically descended 6,000 years ago from the sun goddess. In the run-up to this coronation, television anchors parroted palace propaganda; “King Charles is a man of faith, he is a man of God.” Forgotten were the accusations of adultery and cruelty levelled against him by his first wife and second son, now an outcast.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Particularly tone deaf was the feudal tradition of paying homage to the new king. King Charles’ “magnanimous” gesture to extend this privilege from peers to commoners was supposedly an inclusive social coup. “But we want the monarchy to swear allegiance to us, not the other way round,” protested advertising guru Richard Huntington. “Not My King” posters popped up. Responding to widespread criticism, King Charles’s opening coronation statement was, like the Lord, “I come not to be served, but to serve”. That sentiment was underscored a dozen times during the ceremony. But even in expressions of humility, the new King was in the company of the divinely-ordained Jacob, Jesus and English kings of yore.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But public indulgence of mad and merry kings is over. Modernity is an imperative, not a choice. Experts agree King Charles has begun well, embracing the multi-faith, multicultural mosaic of modern Britain. He has championed social and environmental causes, even promising to donate windfall profits to public good. The profits come from offshore windfarms located on Britain’s seabeds owned by the crown. In other constitutional monarchies, seabeds are publicly-owned and royal rituals slashed drastically.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, King Charles is cutting expenses to trim and modernise the monarchy. Royal biographer and consultant of Netflix series <i>Crown</i>, Robert Lacey says, “King Charles is much more popular than Prince Charles.” Coronation captures the contradictions of the monarchy, its glory and its absurdity. “The wonderfully choreographed coronation makes Britons feel special,” says British historian Linda Colley, but “it also shows that both nation and monarchy need to modernise. Britain badly needs to moderate its self-deceiving sense of exceptionalism”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 12 11:17:12 IST 2023 how-quantum-physics-has-changed-reality-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Leaving aside the Albert Einsteins of the world, how many ordinary people understand quantum physics? Mercifully, it is not our stupidity, stupid. It is complicated, even for physicists. The universe is vast, measurement tools inadequate, science changes and knowledge is limited. New Scientist magazine acknowledged recently, “There are things we don’t know, things we will never know and things we can’t even imagine.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So the line between science and science fiction, between science and religion, between modern quantum physics and ancient philosophy blurs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Old Zen poetry becomes pure physics. Pondering over the nature of reality, Zen monks asked centuries ago: “If a lonesome deer cries or a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” Experts said, “No. Vibration of falling tree is converted to sound by the organs in the ear. If there are no ears to hear, there is no sound.” Religious leaders disagreed, “God is everywhere. He hears the deer. Ergo, there is sound.” Quantum physics’ mystifying answer: you cannot be sure something has happened unless you have observed it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At an online session to discuss this Quantum-Zen puzzle, British wit triumphed dense physics. Wisecracked Bill from England, “Common sense tells us that all things exist whether we are there or not to experience them; otherwise we wouldn’t bother going on holiday in case our destination is not there.” Thaddeus Morling from London declared, “If no one is there, there is no forest.” Quipped Matt from Cardiff Wales, “What if you can’t hear the wood for the trees?” Counselled another sagely, “Westerners should avoid Eastern philosophical queries”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And ordinary people should definitely avoid quantum physics. So must the faint-hearted because it reads like a creepy ghost story. Even Einstein found it daunting. Experiments showed that particles behave in a particular way when they are alone. But under observation, their behaviour pattern changes. Einstein called it “spooky action”. Believing this random behaviour happened only on earth, he asked with rhetorical skepticism, “Does the moon exist only if you look at it?” But the story gets spookier. Now physicists have demonstrated spooky action happens even in outer space.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sheer scale, complexity and interconnectedness of the universe overwhelm physicists. The tiniest flicker or flutter can conflate into, for instance, a giant weather event. Picking apart and understanding this interwovenness is difficult because scientists work with inadequate tools to estimate the universe. “The trustworthiness of mathematics is limited,” said Penelope Maddy, American philosopher of mathematics. Believe it or not, infinity varies—its countable and non-countable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One other challenge now is how to measure things that seem to exist but cannot be observed. After all we cannot see beyond the edge of our universe. Said British science journalist Thomas Lewton, “Reality is a fog of possibilities and our knowledge of it is blurry at best.” That from a science journalist who has a prestigious degree in science communication.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bewilderingly, quantum physics has changed reality forever. Now we gape into a world of uncertainties, exciting to some, incomprehensible to most. Oxford University’s quantum physicist Vlatko Vedral said, “A definite, predictable world is unlikely to reappear. Its probably going to get even weirder.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the universe gets weirder, it is reassuring that human relationships appear constant and universal. At the online discussion, Peter Cranney, a middle-aged husband asked, ”If a man speaks and there isn’t a woman to hear him, is he still wrong?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Everybody laughed. This kind of “relativity” everybody understood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Mar 18 17:05:40 IST 2023 why-war-in-ukraine-is-marked-by-ironies-and-contradictions-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>At a recent international conference in Delhi, a western diplomat spoke about the ongoing war in Europe. For a moment, the audience was baffled. Then, of course, they realised what he was referring to. That’s how far Ukraine is from the rest-of-the-world’s public consciousness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But this is the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. The drumbeat of western media coverage rose to a crescendo to mark the war’s first anniversary. To an independent observer, this war is marked by not just unintended consequences, but by tragic ironies and bewildering contradictions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sergey Aleksashenko, Russia’s former deputy finance minister and now a Washington consultant, exposed this when he said that in their daily life “European citizens are feeling the impact of this war, but Russian citizens are not so affected”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sanctions have hurt, but not crippled Russia—its economy is still expected to do better than Germany’s and UK’s. Sanctions have also boomeranged with European citizens and businesses reeling under high energy prices. Christmas illuminations were dimmed in the west, but Moscow glittered like an enchanting fairyland. London in February was miserable with empty shelves in grocery stores—no leafy vegetables also because British and Dutch farmers could not afford the heating bills for their greenhouses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many countries still trade with Russia, but sanctions also do not bite because businessmen find ways to outsmart politicians. Unable to export to Russia, European entrepreneurs export to Russia’s neighbours, who re-export them. In 2010, when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo, China retaliated by banning Norwegian salmon imports. Vietnam suddenly began importing huge quantities of Norwegian salmon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Russia expected Kyiv to fall and Ukrainians to surrender, wrapping up this war in days. That did not happen. NATO-supported Ukraine expected Russia to retreat in weeks. That did not happen either. Russian public buildings are intact, but Ukraine has been devastated; its southern and eastern regions lie in ruins. Over 2,000 schools, 1,000 clinics, churches, apartment blocks, energy infrastructure, theatres, libraries, churches, even whole towns reduced to rubble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Europe, which went into a tailspin in 2015 by the influx of a million Muslim refugees, has welcomed eight million Ukrainian refugees. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have died in tens of thousands. The brutal war grinds on, tying itself into a giant Gordian knot—Russia cannot win but won’t lose either, Ukraine cannot lose but won’t win either. This war has destroyed millions of lives, but it may yet only be a blip in the 21st century. In 2022, the crucial issues that most countries battled with had little to do with the Ukraine war—health, poverty, corruption, low investment, weak growth, debt, climate change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Biden promises to support this war for “as long it takes”. This goes down well in Ukraine, but not so much in the American heartland, where people have begun to criticise Biden’s costly “blank-cheque policy”. The US is no different from other democracies. At election time, domestic issues rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate who aims to topple Biden in the 2024 Presidential elections, asks “why is Biden focusing on Europe’s borders when he should be focusing on ours”. The US-Mexico border, a conduit for illegal migrants, is a hugely divisive election issue. History shows wars are easier to start than to end. American history shows that presidents start wars, but voters often end them. If this war does not end in 2023, it may in 2024 because of the battleground imperatives of the US presidential elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Mar 05 13:51:01 IST 2023 how-europes-unity-in-diversity-is-cracking-slowly-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Beethoven’s uplifting Ode to Joy is the European Union’s anthem. Its exuberance is arguably appropriate. Compared with most others, Europeans experience a free, stable and prosperous way of life, “united in diversity” and where, the ode exults, “even the worm can feel contentment”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But now the continent braces a winter of public discontent. People are frustrated and fearful. A sure sign of public dissatisfaction is that across Europe, ruling parties—centre, right and left—are plummeting in opinion polls. Every country has its specific troubles—Sweden battles crime, France faces street protests, Britain copes with strikes. But one crisis rages across all countries—inflation. The cost of living crisis has eroded Europe’s comfortable quality of life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Covid-19 and the ongoing Ukraine war has pushed Europe into extraordinary times. But the consensus is that Europe lacks even one extraordinary leader who can steer the continent through this crisis. Let alone solutions or solace, leaders seem incapable of even offering rhetoric. The Germans have a word—dunkelflaute—the dark lull, when the sun sets and the wind is still, when you are literally in the doldrums. It is a metaphor for Europe’s current state of mind—and its energy crisis. Winter unfolds the full impact of the absence of cheap Russian energy from European factories and homes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>France discusses power cuts. Lights are switched off or turned down low even in luxury Parisian showrooms, reflecting the dim mood of the nation. Britain is too proud to admit rationing. Instead, it urges citizens to come home from work and shower, use dishwashers and washing machines after 9pm when peak energy consumption subsides. British experts advise, “Don’t waste energy by heating the whole room, just heat your body—wear sweaters to keep warm in unheated rooms.” Households are asked to sacrifice necessities, not luxuries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Facts lie buried amidst the battlefield ruins of this war. Russian gas serviced 55 per cent of German needs. Now, Germany’s dirty coal consumption has skyrocketed from 8 per cent to 23 per cent. Europe is committed to green energy, but 95 per cent of solar panels come from China, reportedly the next battle ground. Europe now pays four times more for imported American LNG. President Biden’s green subsidy to American companies threatens to ruin European industries. European MP Tonino Picula says US actions are “regrettably protectionist.” French and German finance ministers flew to Washington to persuade a self-absorbed United States that such subsidies provoke European wrath. Discontent spreads from citizens to bureaucrats, who now give off-the-record interviews to western media complaining about “American war-profiteering”, asserting “the country that has benefited most from this war is the US that is selling weapons and gas at much higher prices than ever before”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus far, Europe is united over the Ukraine war, but differences fester. East European countries—former Soviet republics—are hostile to Russia, but Italy and Hungary want good relations with Russia. Some ordinary citizens privately air their disapproval of the war but are reluctant to go public due to the current culture of political correctness. Leaders who criticise the war are ignored or mocked. In a recent interview to the French newspaper Le Parisien, Pierre de Gaulle, grandson of the legendary 20th century French statesman Charles de Gaulle, lamented the West had “unfortunately let (Ukrainian President) Zelensky, his oligarchs and neo-Nazi military groups lock themselves into a spiral of war”. Time heals, but it also unravels. Europe’s ‘united in diversity’ is cracking slowly into ‘disunited in adversity’—where even the worm turns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Feb 17 14:47:45 IST 2023 harry-and-meghan-docuseries-detail-the-new-britain <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Is the British monarchy on its way out? This question has been raised for centuries. But most things in life are like bankruptcy. Live beyond your means, you go bust. Live beyond your times, you go bust, too. The downfall of institutions is also like bankruptcy. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “It happens gradually, then suddenly.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Harry &amp; Meghan Netflix psychodrama will not push the monarchy into extinction. But it nudges the “gradual” part. H&amp;M—as they call each other—project themselves as martyred superstars of royalty. More likely, they are pawns of history. Their drama derives oxygen not merely from their persona, but also from broader societal factors—race, gender, media and demographics. These dynamics have strengthened into a social Molotov cocktail that is far more powerful today than it was during Princess Diana’s time, a quarter of a century ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Diana was a bigger victim than Meghan—more celebrated, more maltreated and the Queen more remote. Her death was a big kick to the “out-of-touch” monarchy. But ‘The Firm’—as the palace bureaucracy is nicknamed—recovered its footing. The ‘Meghan Money Machine’’s television soap opera is self-serving and self-absorbed. But its tragic episodes resonate with New Britain—women, youth and people of colour. They all have stronger voices today than in the 1990s. Besides, social media is a force multiplier, amplifying love, hate, pain and abuse.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>British tabloids are racist, mean and mendacious. To all. Meghan’s revelations about the palace-media collusion driving her to contemplate suicide show that little has changed from Diana’s time, whose suicide attempts were sniggeringly planted as attention-seeking ploys. Diana was beautiful white nobility, so the cruelty inflicted on her was not racist. “The Firm” grinds on, pitilessly crushing all the tall poppies in its path.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Poppies—or mavericks—are sacrificial royal lambs. The tabloids humiliated the fun-loving Sarah Ferguson as the “Duchess of Pork”. They shamed “commoner” Kate Middleton by publishing photographs of her topless. The reason the tabloids backed off from Kate was that instead of protesting or complaining, she succumbed to the royal script, looking, saying, behaving and doing exactly as she is supposed to, becoming a venerable model of the British dictum—keep a stiff upper lip, a stiffer spine and carry on. British author Hilary Mantel described Kate as “a mannequin without personality, whose only purpose is to reproduce.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For H&amp;M to expect the ruthless Firm to drumroll the red carpet and be mesmerised by their romance is infantile, even borderline delusional. The Firm’s sole focus is the monarchy’s power and continuance. Everything else is diversionary red meat for the hungry tabloids.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But neither fate nor hate is new. Harry would not have been prince or in the succession line if the tabloids had been nice to his great grand uncle Edward VIII, who abdicated upon marrying an American divorcee. Sounds familiar. The hounding and hate they endured in 1936 is a prequel to H&amp;M.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the docuseries reveals the raw nerve of the global mental health crises—an issue that women, youth and blacks care about because they suffered during the pandemic. H&amp;M’s popularity has nosedived since their palace exit. Still, their docuseries is Britain’s most popular show of 2022. In mid-January, Harry’s book comes out, detailing a little boy’s mental anguish after his mother’s catastrophic death. The honesty and horror of his loss will touch hearts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Britain may drive change, and the royals out of their castles. Gradually.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 24 11:15:47 IST 2022 feminisation-of-men-trend-reasons-consequences <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The millennia old spectacle of alpha males beating their chests continues. Swaggering out of jungles, these macho men now roar on social media and strut in unlikely places, from cyberspace to the crypts that hold cryptocurrencies. Strongmen dominate countries and companies. Some equate Elon Musk’s Twitter-grab with Vladimir Putin’s hostile takeover bid of eastern Ukraine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is also a trend of rising yin in men, a phenomenon called the “feminisation of men”, noticeable in the west and in countries like Japan and Korea. Scandinavia was once fabled for fearsome, one-eyed, red-bearded, sword-wielding, plundering and pillaging swarthy Vikings. Now it is common to see men being stay-at-home dads, gaggles of hubbies taking their babies in prams for park walks, working as caregivers or tutors in kindergartens. Advanced Scandinavia has robust policies like papa leave and a cultural milieu that promotes gender equality. But new research highlights the unintended consequences of setting right historical wrongs. In Of Boys and Men, scholar Richard V. Reeves explores the pressures faced by males in schoolyards and workplaces, academically outcompeted and losing blue collar jobs to women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Problems arise from success—girls outperform boys in school. Finland’s educational system is internationally renowned because schoolchildren score high in reading, writing, math and science. Finnish girls drive that ranking. They outrank the boys among the topscorers, by far. When wealthy donors paid for college tuition in Michigan, the number of women—especially African Americans—graduating from college jumped by 45 per cent, increasing the pool of graduates. But the intervention did not improve the boys’ performance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This trend has life-long consequences. Research shows that the problems of low-skilled, undereducated, unmarried men begin with education. From then, the slippery slope worsens into a “masculinity crisis,” says American psychologist Ronald F. Levant. Poor education leads to poor jobs, partners, income, status and low self-esteem. Experts fear “the mass of young men lead lives of quiet desperation”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This has personal and political consequences. Evidently, dispossessed male voters are among the backers of Brexit, Donald Trump and other nationalists, populists and social conservatives. Progressives may find these issues unfashionable, but researchers say if they are ignored, men will be lured by the false promises of ultraconservatives to squash women’s rights and restore “lost glory” to men and nation. Female-dominated classes are as much a harbinger of crises as male-dominated classes were.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both men and women are victims of their biology. Reeves notes “for most women, having a child is the economic equivalent of being hit by a meteorite”. But the root cause of men’s advantages and disadvantages is also physical. Men lag because social and technological revolutions have removed many barriers faced by women, enabling them to compete on a more level-playing field. Earlier, testosterone was an economically invaluable hormone when well-paid work involved physical labour. In the 21st century, multi-tasking, risk management and resilience are important.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In her book The End of Men, American writer Hanna Rosin asserted a decade ago that men “will learn to expand the range of options of what it means to be a man”. Now she rejects her earlier “optimism,” “smugness” and “tragic naïveté.” Those options failed to materialise. But a solution is observable in Scandinavia. More and more men are doing what was once dismissed as “ladies labour”—whether as stay-at-home parent or employed in social care. Reeves suggests one way to solve the problem is to give recognition, better pay and social respect for “women’s work”—something that was denied to women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 03 10:35:41 IST 2022 no-longer-a-trump-card-republicans-usa <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Heads I win, tails you lose. Donald Trump’s version is—“if Republicans win, I should get all the credit, if they lose, I should not be blamed at all.” But pundits and partymen blame him for the Republicans losing an expected victory because his candidates—mostly low-quality, election-deniers—lost in the mid-term elections. The boastful “kingmaker” reduced the anticipated Republican red wave into a ripple. Serving presidents are sitting ducks for voter backlash in midterm elections. Joe Biden was the ugliest duck of them all because he had historically low ratings of 40 per cent going into these elections. Yet, Democrats fared well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Youth and women are offended by Trump and his handpicked anti-abortion judges. Democracy matters. Inflation, economy, immigration and crime should have worked against the incumbent Democrats. Suburban dwellers had turned against Biden. But, then, Trump came along and played cute, saying he may contest 2024 presidential elections “very, very, very, probably”. It reminded the suburbans why they voted against him in 2020. They did it again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Analysts wonder how this midterm result will impact Trump’s ambition to run in 2024. Rupert Murdoch’s empire, especially Fox News, is a lodestar. It was pivotal in Trump’s rise and rule. A wily old fox, Murdoch senses shifting political winds. He now calls Trump a “loser”. His New York Post front-paged an oversized picture of “Trumpty Dumpty” with the caption, “Don (who couldn’t build a great wall) had a great fall.” Murdoch never liked Trump, calling him a “f…idiot” according to author Michael Wolfe. But, supporting Trump made Fox News into the most-watched news channel in the US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Murdoch has chosen a winner, anointing Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, 44, as “the new leader of the Republican party”. The star of the midterms is undoubtedly DeSantis. Even though Florida is polarised with wafer-thin election margins, DeSantis won decisively with a 20 per cent lead. He is combative, popular and as rightwing as Trump—who had endorsed him in 2018. Doug Heye, a Republican strategist says, “We have seen moments like this before, where we thought the party was going to turn against Trump. But now for the first time with DeSantis we have another option.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>American media has already started the “Ron vs Don” war. DeSantis has not announced his presidential intentions and it is unclear whether his popularity extends beyond Florida’s borders. But many Republicans are abandoning the past with the old man and his baggage to rally behind “DeFuture” with its young, rising, vote-getter. A furious Trump resorted to blackmail. If the “Disloyal de-sanctimonious” challenged him for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he would reveal “unflattering” information, adding, “I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife.” DeSantis’s wife, Casey, is drop-dead gorgeous, outshining Melania. Trump slandered both DeSantis and Murdoch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump’s feistiness fails to hide the serious controversies he is embroiled in—his role in instigating the January 6 Capitol attack, criminal investigations into his handling of classified documents, and tax evasion. Will he win in 2024? Very, very, very probably not. But Teflon Trump has had the devil’s luck all his life. His base is intact and his election piggy bank is swelling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But so is criticism. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, tweeted “Conservatives are elected when we deliver. Not when we just rail on social media.” Karl Rowe, George Bush’s adviser, urged Republicans to “reject nuts”. Moderate Republicans counselled Trump to “move on”. But can he? What is Trump without his megaphone? Not just Trumpty Dumpty, but an emperor without clothes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Nov 20 12:06:27 IST 2022 liz-truss-british-pm-failure-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Nowhere in the world has a prime minister been called a “lettuce”.   Just five weeks in office, British Prime Minister Liz Truss has been labeled “Lettuce Liz” because she is already wilting. Predicting a short shelf-life, the Daily Star live-streamed images of salad leaves, asking mockingly: “Will this vegetable outlast the PM?” </p> <p>Truss has been an unmitigated disaster. A self-proclaimed radical, she challenged prevailing economic orthodoxy. It blew up in her face. Britain’s financial market went into cardiac arrest when Truss’s chancellor unveiled a debt-fueling “mini-budget” to cut taxes for the rich. Investors fled, the pound plummeted, pension funds were imperilled, and interest rates soared.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Liz Truss’s reckless approach has crashed the economy, causing mortgages to skyrocket, and has undermined Britain’s standing on the world stage,”  rebuked Labour leader Keir Starmer.  </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of taking responsibility for her irresponsible policy, and resigning, Truss scapegoated her implementor-chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. “Kamikaze Kwasi” became the first living chancellor in 200 years to lose the job in five weeks. Economist David Blanchflower described Truss’s eight-minute press conference announcing Kwarteng’s sacking as a “car crash, an absolute catastrophe”.  “Loopy Liz”  looked like a clueless schoolgirl in a PhD programme.   Irrespective of the question, she recited lines from her scripted speech like a robot. One journalist asked, “How come Kwasi goes and you get to stay?” She parroted, “I am determined to implement my policy.” </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No way. Kwarteng’s successor, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had unsuccessfully contested to be PM twice—unequivocally rejected “Trussonomics”. He swiftly cut her tax cuts, announced higher taxes and cuts in  defence expenditure. Hunt looked calm; Truss less feisty. At best, they looked like a handsome couple. At worst, Truss looked she was under administration by a sensible colleague, earning yet another satirical nickname: “Lame Duck Liz” </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Truss has made a career out of U-turns, so back-pedaling on her ill-fated policy is unsurprising. But it is hubris. She branded critics of her rash economics as the “anti-growth coalition” of “doomsters and liberal elites”. This coalition now includes almost the whole country. She is propped up by dandy idealogue-cum-Brexiteer, business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. He denigrated the forecasts of the fiscal watchdog, the office for budget responsibility (OBR). Extraordinarily, the Truss government ignored the OBR before presenting this “mini-budget”, and even sacked a dissenting treasury official. The IMF criticised the plan, warning it could contract the economy and aggravate inequality.  </p> <p>Truss was elected by a tiny, unrepresentative selectorate of middle-aged English party members who want tax cuts—like Rees-Mogg. She lacks support among Tory MPs and the wider public. Tory MP Robert Halfon declared these “libertarian jihadists” who conducted “ultra-free market experiments” must be thrown out. Tories have changed prime ministers five times in six years, and four finance ministers in the last four months. Tories admit it is absurd to oust Truss so soon, but its even more absurd to keep her—voters will flee. The next general elections are two years away; opting for snap elections with her at the helm is not an option. </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Much will depend on Hunt steadying the markets and Truss avoiding mistakes. But several Tory MPs publicly agree with Daily Star that Lettuce Liz is “past her sell-by date”. Derides columnist Polly Hudson, “Liz Truss is so out of depth, she’s an upside-down duck, legs flailing madly as she drowns in full view.” To survive, Truss must perform yet another dramatic flip. But with so many U-turns, no one can tell if she is coming or going.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Oct 21 15:33:15 IST 2022 for-russia-rise-of-a-strong-state-has-been-a-historical-necessity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is an old Russian saying: The future is certain; it is the past that is unpredictable. Successive autocrats have rewritten or airbrushed the past to borrow grandeur—and legitimacy. Vladimir Putin has deep-dived into Russia’s 1,000-year-old history to justify his vision of greatness, authority and religious consecration. In The Story of Russia, renowned British author-historian Orlando Figes asks: “How does the story of Russia end? How will the country’s future be shaped by its past?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Figes answers this intriguing question by examining the geography of the world’s largest country, its centuries-old systems of rule, religious structures, social norms and myths. Putin evoked mythology in 2016 by erecting near the Kremlin, the statue of the 10th-century ruler-saint, Vladimir the Great. He was resurrecting “Ruskii mir” (Russian world), an ideology rooted in the past when Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians were one nation. “Putin’s obsession with Russia’s imperial past runs deep,” says American foreign affairs expert Fiona Hill. “He wants Russia to be the one exception to the inexorable rise and fall of imperial states.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, Putin’s imperial vision lies in ruins. So too his repeated attempts to build bridges with the west. Figes believes Russia’s isolation is mainly due to the west’s lack of understanding and goodwill. “Russia wanted to be part of Europe, to be treated with respect,” he says, adding that western leaders spurned and took advantage of Russia’s weakness to diminish it. An opportunity to end a historical cycle of antagonisms was missed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To predict Russia’s future, Figes studies the historical evolution of a Russian paradox—strong state and a weak civil society. The Mongols established strong statehood. Peter the Great’s 17-18th century reforms entrenched the military and the bureaucracy but eroded civil society’s development. For Russia, the rise of a strong state has been a historical necessity. When central governance weakened, foreign invaders attacked and captured territory—the Mongols, Napoleon and Hitler. Lost territories were regained when central authority became powerful. Patriotism is another hallmark of the Russian psyche. Stalin’s totalitarian regime was formidable, but people lived in fear and want.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, he succeeded in consolidating public patriotism, an invaluable tool, especially in times of crises.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The three strands of strong state, weak society and patriotism wove the Russian tapestry of shared memory and social behaviour. As George Orwell describes in 1984: The past is not immutable. It is whatever the records and memories agree upon. As the party controls the records and the minds, the past becomes whatever the party chooses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Tsars and Khans, Byzantine emperors and Soviet dictators, arose the mythology of the personality cult of a strong leader who worked tirelessly for the glory, unity and protection of the nation. This resulted in the ruling apparatus becoming the sole centre of power—the all-important state juxtaposed with an impotent society. Says Figes, “This powerful tradition seems to condemn Russia to an eternal return of the past.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For all the peasant rebellions, revolutions or occasional reforms, power has reconsolidated. From the collapse of the tsarist empire arose the USSR. From the collapse of the Soviet Union arose Putin’s Russia. Following the collapse of an authoritarian state, democratic forces were too weak and disorganised to strike roots. Chaos, shame and humiliation followed, only to give birth to a new autocratic state. Post-Putin, this phenomenon is likely to repeat. Explains Figes, “Fundamentally little has changed in the systemic asymmetry in the relationship between autocratic rule and society.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The past is unpredictable. It is also a burden.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Oct 08 16:54:53 IST 2022 how-the-rich-pursue-their-fantasies-even-as-inflation-cripples-all <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The rich pursue their fantasies even as inflation cripples countries, companies and families. The latest fad among well-paid US tech workers is to become taller. An ancient desire, but the new technique to gain height is costly and ghastly, reminiscent of medieval torture with a modern twist. The question is: Why would techies who crouch over their desks want to be tall anyway?</p> <p>No pain, no gain. Techies say it is an investment—less to impress girls, more to improve career prospects. Surveys suggest that tall men tend to reach commanding heights in their organisations. Height lends authority. Employees literally look up to tall colleagues. Over time, they feel diminished and the colleague looking down feels superior. Unless he is an irremediable fool, biology becomes his calling card as he ascends. Life is not so simple, but being tall helps.</p> <p>Height has tormented short men through centuries. The “Napolean Complex” comes from Napolean Bonaparte, who overcompensated his short stature with his aggressive personality. Others lost weight, wore vertical stripes or strode in hidden high heels to look taller. Reportedly, Russian president Vladimir Putin conceals thick insoles inside his custom-made shoes to appear 5 feet 6 inches tall.</p> <p>But that is age-old deception. Rich tech workers want to “become” and not just “appear” taller. They want a permanent solution to what is otherwise a permanent problem. To gain height, the modern cosmetic surgeon breaks the thigh bones and inserts adjustable metal nails that are agonisingly extended about one millimetre a day for three months by using a magnetic remote control. We feared that tech workers would create a dangerous, out-of-control AI dystopia. Instead, they seem to mutate into robots controlled from afar.</p> <p>Software engineers from Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft are heading to Las Vegas not to gamble away their fortune, but to invest in their future. It costs $75,000-1,50,000 to become three to six inches taller. Surgeons admit the procedure—originally developed to treat bone deformities—is not recommended for athletes because it could adversely impact their ability. The irony is, even techies need nimble legs to climb corporate ladders.</p> <p>Leg extensions are also sought after by CEOs, actors and masters of the universe, aka financial wizards. Some clients are women, but most are men. The stigma against men seeking cosmetic surgery has gone. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery discloses cosmetic interventions on men rose 325 per cent over the past 15 years. Men also rely on botox, fillers, laser techniques and chemical peels to promote their careers. It is no longer enough to be clever. Data scientists also have to be handsome, telegenic… and tall.</p> <p>Clients insist on confidentiality. Surgery boomed during the pandemic because patients could hobble and heal in secrecy at home. Now, when people notice, they attribute height gain to “ski accident”, “bathtub fall” or “God knows what they put in Covid-vaccines.”</p> <p>Often, the quests of the superrich are not just fantastic, but phantastic. What motivates them is not money as they and​ their progeny simply cannot spend all the accumulated wealth. Still, they work hard, long and late. They are “driven”—a pretty word for obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Analysts say they are driven by their “need for love”, “craving for honour”, desire “to change the world” or “leave a legacy that endures beyond their time on this planet”. One fad among the superrich is to live forever. Research, pills, transfusions and anointments are a thriving mega industry. The irony is, to leave a legacy that outlasts oneself, one has to die first.</p> Sun Sep 25 13:22:01 IST 2022 how-rotterdam-citizens-humbled-jeff-bezos <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Red Sea parted for Moses. So, the world’s second richest man expected a monumental, century-old bridge to part for his superyacht. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the world’s newest, biggest yacht, built at Rotterdam’s shipyard. The $500 million, 417ft long yacht is getting ready for its maiden voyage. But Rotterdam’s heritage Koningshaven bridge, an iconic symbol of the Netherlands’s industrial past, stood in its way. The sailing yacht’s three 229ft tall masts would crash against the bridge. Bezos’s solution: dismantle the bridge’s mid-section, let his super schooner sail through and then reassemble the bridge. Simple.</p> <p>And that’s when the fight started.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rotterdam citizens were outraged. The gall of the man! Riding roughshod over their sentiments, humbling a national treasure just so his expensive toy can pass? Rotterdam is a working-class city. Issues like global inequality and the power of tech billionaires are topics of impassioned public debate. Asked Dutch historian Paul van de Laar, “Has this city become a playground of the billionaires? Are we to bow our heads to Jeff Bezos as he sails past in his pleasure boat?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bezos is a divisive figure. To some, he is a symbol of rapacious capitalism who became super-rich by squeezing his workers. Others praise him for being a visionary, a successful job and wealth creator. Many Dutch take pride that Bezos’s superyacht is built in the Netherlands, a tribute to centuries-old Dutch seafaring genius. City counsellor Ellen Verkoelen argued that the yacht should be allowed to sail through. “Some people are jealous of the rich who have money to spend as they please,” she said. “If they are spending, isn’t it good they spend it here?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yacht-building creates jobs, but it also creates environmental disturbance. Some argued the yacht is a one-off contract and jobs will disappear once it sails away. Others say copycat billionaires will head to Rotterdam to build their fantasy yachts, ensuring the rejuvenation of this industry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Officials said the mid-portion of the historic bridge is sometimes temporarily dismantled for a €100,000 fee to allow big vessels to pass through. Entrepreneur Dianthus Panacho said the rule should be: bigger the vessel, bigger the fee. “It’s all about ego and arrogance,” he said. “Bezos should pay double the fee to help impoverished families living near the bridge.”Not that Bezos would fret over the fee. Citizens suspect Oceanco, the company building the yacht, would not have embarked on this contract without prior approval from the authorities. Said Laar, “The rich always find ways to override popular opinion.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The details of Bezos’s uber luxurious yacht are kept secret, but it has a black hull with a white superstructure and a long, sleek bowsprit, extending from the vessel’s prow like a missile frozen in flight. It has all the extravaganzas of a floating pleasure palace with royal suites, gourmet restaurants, gym, theatre, pool and helipad. The world’s most ecological yacht can reportedly sail across the Atlantic without burning fossil fuel, reaching a high speed of 30 knots.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bezos boat is codenamed Y721. Yes, why? Instead of dismantling the bridge, it may have been simpler to dismantle and pack the three masts and get Amazon to deliver to its founder. Rotterdam’s rage rose. Citizens swore to humble the Bezos’ behemoth with their missiles—rotten eggs. In the end, the superyacht sneaked out to another shipyard for its finishing touches, fleeing full speed through an alternate canal route in the cover of darkness—the perennial, preferred escape route of the rich and the famous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Aug 27 11:06:48 IST 2022 think-americas-good-first-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>American historian Jared Diamond theorised that “guns, germs and steel” determine the fate of human societies. Today, the 3G—“guns, god and grievance” are poised to determine the fate of the United States, and whether it will even remain united. Two-thirds of Americans oppose the Republican-dominated Supreme Court rulings upholding gun ownership and repealing abortion rights. The “3G world” is not only outdated, but ominous. Historian and author of How Civil Wars Start, Barbara F. Walter says, “An institutional meltdown is distressingly plausible. One need not be a pessimist to worry about the coming years in the US.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The loss of independence and fairness in institutions is a barometer of erosion of democracy in a country. Walter notes the US is an “anocracy,” in the twilight phase susceptible to civil wars. Anocracy is when a country transitions from democracy to autocracy or vice versa. Democracies slide into anocracy when governance weakens, and grievances are not remedied. Autocracies unravel when the power to repress fails.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The US Supreme Court—an American’s last resort—is partisan. It leans towards Christian fundamentalism on the ongoing culture wars over gay rights, black affirmative action, feminism, integration in schools and poverty relief. And the 50-50 split gridlocks the US Congress because filibustering rules require 60 per cent majority to enact laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Several leading American historians agree that the signs of a civil war are flashing red. The rise of factions and force multipliers are two powerful signs. The US is cleaved politically into the urban, multi-ethnic Democrats and the white, rural Republican factions, just as the Catholics and Protestants or Muslims and Christians were in Europe in the past. Walter blames the Republican Party for its “predatory factionalism”, relegating ideology to favour race, religion, ethnicity and identity to harvest votes—“caring for the group, not for the good of the nation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From the earlier word of mouth, printing presses, toxic television shows, the force multiplier now is social media. It unites extremists and divide societies. Culture warriors are usually the “sons of the soil” who resent immigrants and the impacts of foreign influences—religion, technology or globalisation. Experiencing a “status reversal,” the locals feel “downgraded” in their own land. God and gun offer solace for grievances. America has more guns than people—400 million to 330 million. Grievance grows and grinds in societies, sometimes for decades. Then along comes a populist rabble-rouser who lights the match.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As historian Jessie Childs observes in her book A New History of the English Civil War, “polarisation and propaganda have always dehumanised the “other”, pushed disagreement into bloodshed and fake news and hate speech have culminated in atrocities.” The American liberal establishment fully grasps the threat, the biggest since the nation’s 1861 civil war. Two New York Times reporters quote President Joe Biden telling a senior Democrat, “I certainly hope my presidency works out. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure we’re going to have a country.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Research shows that politics is more important than economics in starting or preventing civil wars. More than a third of Republicans and Democrats today believe secession and violence are justified to achieve their political ends, a 200 per cent increase in five years. Right-wing militias have exploded, outnumbering and outgunning left wing insurgents. White supremacy infiltrates US law enforcement agencies. Through history, armed conflict stifles empathy and hardens hearts. As Thomas Fuller, a 17th century English clergyman, wrote, “War makes a land more wicked.” The solution to avert tragedy is as simple as it is hard. Think America’s good first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jul 01 11:48:59 IST 2022 brexit-grinds-slowly-but-it-grinds-small-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The mills of Brexit grind slowly, but they grind small. Reality is crushing the grandiose ambitions of “Global Britain”, slowly but surely. When people mortgage their house, you know their house is not in order. Fire sales of Britain’s crown jewels, its magnificent real estate acquired during its glorious empire days, tell a sad story of a financially squeezed nation, shrinking not surging.</p> <p>The 150-year-old British embassy set in sprawling grounds in Tokyo is second in grandeur only to Imperial Palace across the winding river. Now half its grounds have been sold to the Mitsubishi Corporation. “This is a huge mistake,” admits foreign secretary Liz Truss. Britain also sold the majestic, century-old embassy located in a 10-acre sanctuary in Bangkok’s heart. Employees now work in a concrete tower. Disgruntled British officials say this downscaling is like going from a Prada showroom to a discount store.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For most foreigners, the first contact with Britain is its impressive embassies, projecting the nation’s power and prestige. Now heirlooms are being sold to buy solar panels and maintain property. Loss of grandeur is like bankruptcy—“It happens gradually, then suddenly.” Britain’s financial crunch was a train wreck in slow motion but accelerated after Brexit and the pandemic. It damages post-Brexit vision of “Global Britain”—enhancing “Britain’s influence abroad and prosperity at home”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At home, Brexit has brought more disruption than prosperity. The disappearance of European truck drivers and workers to harvest fruits and vegetables have caused shortages. The gaps in supermarket shelves symbolise the gaps between Brexit ambition and reality. International projection shrivels in the face of cost-cutting measures like merging ministries and slashing foreign aid. The British Council is cutting jobs and infrastructure in 20 countries. The backbone of the British Empire was its civil service. Now, 90,000 civil servants are to be sacked. Who will run Global Britain? Algorithms?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Britain’s notion of special relationship with the United States is a nostalgic illusion. The US ignored Britain in the Afghanistan pullout and warned it against reneging the Northern Ireland agreement with the European Union. Asks Carnegie Europe’s Peter Kellner, “Now that Washington has turned its back on London, and London has turned its back on Brussels: what should be Britain’s place in the world?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>British historian and author Ian Morris explains: “Britain enjoyed outsized power during colonialism, which made its post-war decline all the harder to accept.” To understand the Brexit decision, scholars go back to the 2016 referendum campaign, to Britain’s 1973 accession to European Communities, to World War II, to the arrival of the Romans 2,000 years ago. Morris goes back 10,000 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among other factors, he attributes Brexit to the “psychology” of maps. The 800-year-old Hereford Map virtually conjoins Britain to Europe, hanging on precariously at the edge of the world. Subsequent explorations disproved this geography. In 1902, Halford Mackinder’s map placed Britain at the centre of the world, radiating European maritime power. Morris writes, “But this represented only three per cent of the island’s history in which it took centre stage. Rest of the time it was merely Europe’s poor cousin.“</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, despite the sun setting on the empire, Britain was a global force, in big ways and small. A decade ago, piracy endangered shipping in the Indian Ocean. It was quelled by Operation Atalanta, an international military force headquartered in Britain and coordinated with African countries. But the successful Operation Atalanta was established by the European Union. After Britain’s divorce, the operational base shifted to Spain. Brexit grinds slowly, but it grinds small.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jun 03 18:45:27 IST 2022 anita-pratap-on-the-new-world-disorder-after-the-ukraine-war <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Just when World War I was ending, the Spanish Flu sickened the world. Now the order is reversed. The Ukraine war follows the pandemic. Either way, war and pandemic contribute to destabilising an existing world order. If history is a guide, we are lurching into a messy new world disorder. Again. Says American diplomat Richard Haas, “These crises and their aftershocks are accelerating global disorder, returning the world to a much more dangerous time.”</p> <p>He is referring to the dangerous two decades between WWI and WWII, described as the “interwar years”. This turbulent phase was marked by hyper-inflation and hyper-nationalism, populism and protectionism. Public resentment rose with prices, as a defeated Germany was forced to pay punishing reparations for WWI. Countries retreated from globalisation into isolationism. Scholars document how boiling grievances destabilised both colonialism and capitalism. The global economy collapsed. The Great Depression followed. Political upheavals, civil wars and revolutions unhinged nations. Democracies weakened while authoritarianism surged. Arms races and territorial aggression contributed to the calamitous WWII.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Reconstruction after the devastation of WWII forced leaders into a more collaborative phase that brought considerable peace and prosperity. Global GDP rose from $4 trillion in 1950 to $95 trillion now. But the dark side of this miracle growth is unprecedented wealth contrasting with widening inequality. The rising tide certainly lifted yachts, but too many boats were sinking. War and pandemic did not ignite these problems, but they deepened the structural imbalances that were pushing the world towards more division and confrontation. These same forces were at play a century ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Uncertainty and disruption lie ahead with rising costs of living, food shortages, poverty, conflict, corruption and bankrupted governments. Sri Lanka is emblematic of this disorder. Street protests have erupted from Chile to Hong Kong, Mali to Lebanon. Ongoing violence threatens to worsen in failing states in Asia, Africa, Middle East and south America.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as the Ukraine war grinds on, CIA Director William Burns reiterated publicly that China remains “a bigger threat” than Russia. President Biden’s strategic “isolate China” vision is supported by Republicans who unoriginally label it “the evil empire”. Biden’s Asian outreach aims to reaffirm ties with Japan and Korea that have difficult relations with their giant neighbour. The campaign to flatter India as a foil to China is underway. Biden also seeks to lure ASEAN nations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But none of these countries wish to choose sides and get drawn into great power rivalries. It is good business with the US and now they do more business with China. But the Ukraine war showcases the appetite for brutal war in the 21st century. Will the China-US rivalry turn deadly, becoming the embodiment of the new world disorder?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War and pandemic can spark events that resemble the catastrophic century-old past. But repetition is not inevitable. First, there is awareness of the disastrous consequences. Second, there is human agency. The will to avert disaster is strong. But this also requires the lone superpower to lead with moral clarity and credibility. The west has rallied under US leadership, but half the world’s population sees the Ukraine war as a proxy US war with Russia. Many regard the United States’ $40 billion Ukraine package as a gift to its own military-industrial complex. The US is the world’s most powerful democracy. Its democracy has deep fault-lines, but its military is supremely powerful. The superpower could contribute to stabilising a world order in disarray. History need not be destiny.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 20 11:22:07 IST 2022 anita-pratap-on-emmanuel-macrons-second-term-as-french-president <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Will Emmanuel Macron’s second term as French president mean more of the same? To everyone’s relief, he himself has assured “it won’t be the continuity of the previous five years, but it’ll be a new method to try to ensure better years”. It is unclear what this “new method” is.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During his first term, Macron’s neoliberalism spurred growth, employment and enabled France to economically outperform other European countries. Tough Covid-19 lockdowns were sweetened with aid packages. His vigorous backing strengthened the European Union. But domestically, he was labelled the elitist, arrogant “rich man’s president”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Data supports street resentment: the rich have become richer and the poor poorer. Macron’s fuel tax unleashed the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest” agitation that fomented and cemented widespread anger against him. His contentious pension reforms floundered as they provoked strikes and street protests, the biggest since the 1968 upheaval. Nobody wants more of this.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now Macron promises to be “everyone’s” president. Prima facie, his 17 per cent lead over his rival, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, in the runoff, appears impressive. But in France, nothing is what it seems. The French have a penchant for complexity, nuances, layers, argument and paradoxes. As they say “en même temps”—“at the same time”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron won, but at the same time, he got two million votes less than in 2017. The far right lost, but at the same time, they won an unprecedented 42 per cent of votes. The two major right-wing parties together polled more than Macron did. Only a third of the electorate voted for him—the lowest for a winning president since 1969.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron was the first president in 20 years to win re-election. At the same time, 28 per cent of voters abstained, the highest in over 50 years. Two-thirds of the electorate that Macron must woo embody apathy or antipathy. Macron admitted, “Our country is full of doubts and full of divisions.” Touché.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron passed the re-election test. But a looming test can make or break his presidency—the June parliamentary elections. Macron swept the parliamentary elections in 2017. Since then, his party, La République En Marche, has lost all local elections. French society is deeply polarised. The traditional centre-left and centre-right parties that ruled France until Macron stormed the Élysée Palace in 2017 are fading into irrelevance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The electorate is now fractured into three hostile blocs: centrist Macron, far-right Le Pen and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. All three vie to get majority in the parliamentary polls and bag the prime ministership. If Mélenchon succeeds, he will overturn Macron’s welfare cuts and hire-and-fire labour policies. Le Pen will leash Macron’s pro-immigration and EU polices. The quarrelsome troika could create legislative gridlocks that could impact French and even EU lawmaking. But for now, EU leaders are hugely relieved that the nationalist, anti-EU, anti-NATO Le Pen lost the presidency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Macron loves engaging with lofty matters. But now he wrestles with bread-and-butter issues: crime, health care, education and inflation that has hiked food, fare, fuel bills up to 29 per cent. He must focus on difficult domestic issues though he prefers to be a European gladiator and a global statesman. But the success of his foreign interventions during his first term, from Russia to Mali, Lebanon to Libya, range from minimal to dismal. Macron promises that Macron II will not be a repeat of Macron I, predicting his second and final term “will not necessarily be tranquil, but will be historical”. Certainly it won’t be tranquil. At the same time, not necessarily historical.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 06 15:39:02 IST 2022 anita-pratap-on-the-war-pandemic-and-wealth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We are witnessing the slow-motion trainwreck of multiple catastrophes coming together to make the perfect storm. Pandemic, war, climate change and famine are like the dreaded Four Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse, combining forces to unleash hell on earth. The pandemic aggravated the world’s problems. Now the Ukraine war worsens existing dilemmas, while spawning new crises. The old world order wobbles. The new one is yet to take shape.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Inflation and supply disruptions have impacted all corners of the world. Food, fuel and fertiliser are seeing record prices, and set to go higher. War has halted critical food exports from Russia and Ukraine that supply 30 per cent of grain, and 80 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil. This is the daily bread for millions in the Middle East and Africa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Apocalypse describes farmers leaving their wheat fields for battlefields, exacerbating food shortages. Ukrainian farmers are doing the same. Drought, induced by climate change, has further reduced food production in major grain producing countries like Australia and the US. High oil prices make fertilisers unaffordable, driving small farmers to debt and destitution. Famine is the horrific horseman whiplashing desperate people to make perilous sea crossings into Europe in the hope of becoming illegal migrants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The old order wobbles as neutral countries like Finland and Sweden see the lure of American security guarantees. Uncertainty makes not only people but even nations anxious. Small countries like Taiwan, with big neighbours, worry whether Ukraine’s fate awaits them. Other countries grapple with a Hobson’s choice—it is costly to comply, but costlier to defy American sanctions on Russia. But neutral countries like Finland and Sweden see the lure of American security guarantees. Complex historic relationships and proximity to Russia propelled both countries to stay out of the US-led Nato alliance. But now, both countries are considering joining NATO, despite Russia warning them of grave consequences.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War is never straightforward. The Iraq war was about oil, not democracy. Is the Ukraine war about gas? The European Union has signed a deal to replace Russian gas with American liquified natural gas. “It is profit motive and self-interest masquerading as patriotism and solidarity with Europe,” says Zorka Milin, an activist championing transparency in resources exploitation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War, plague, famine—these are the ghouls of death haunting humankind from the dawn of civilisation. Inequality is another undying ghoul. Similarities between the Apocalypse and contemporary reality have less to do with prophecy than the timelessness of human nature The ancient text describing the Horseman of Famine records that the price of wheat and barley—the staples of ordinary people—has risen ten-fold but ordains “see thou hurt not the (olive) oil and the wine.” Preserve the luxuries of the rich; let the poor starve.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>About 50 million people face starvation due to the Ukraine war, warns the World Food Program. To avert this catastrophe, WFP’s director, David Beasley begs for a $10 billion donation from American billionaires—just 0.36 per cent of their net increase in worth. Last year, Jeff Bezos’ net worth rose by $64 billion. On one manic Monday this January, Elon Musk’s net worth increased by $33.8 billion. Says Beasley, “There is a vaccine against starvation. It’s called money.” But money is a vaccine that builds bubbles, provides immunity from taxmen and boosts pursuits like space travel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Scholars have argued whether the Apocalypse Horseman who wears the crown is Christ the Saviour or Antichrist the Destroyer. Perhaps the crown belongs to the superrich who reign through centuries precisely because they do not care to be either saviour or destroyer. Brilliant creators, they prefer to savour wine and ride on rockets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Apr 22 11:02:17 IST 2022 putin-judo-against-europe <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What will Russian President Vladimir Putin do next? Even the Americans who predicted the Ukrainian war, know not. Will he escalate or de-escalate, will he turn to Ukraine’s east or spread all over, will he secure supply routes or will he bomb cities? Global leaders and analysts agree: “Only Putin knows.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Confucius says: To predict what a person does next, study his past. Putin’s self-proclaimed mantra is, “If you are going to get into a fight, then you punch first.” That explains his first move in Ukraine, while claiming that he will not invade. His past shows he punches hard—Chechnya, Syria, and now Ukrainian neighbourhoods, reduced to rubble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putin took up boxing, but then switched to martial arts. He said, “Judo is philosophy, not sport.” Judo uses the enemy’s strength against him, identifies the foe’s weakness and then penetrates the chinks. In Europe’s armour, the chink is its borders. A Putin “invasion” that has received less attention is his deployment of “weapons of mass migration.” Monika Sie, director of Dutch thinktank, Clingendael Institute, says, “Putin weaponises refugees to destabilise Europe.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of 10 million Ukrainian refugees, four million have fled into Europe. The arrival of one million refugees into Europe in 2015 caused political and social upheaval. Detonating this bomb, 10 times bigger than the 2015 influx, has huge consequences. Currently, Europeans effusively welcome Ukrainians. But dragging war entails rising military, humanitarian and energy costs, stressed civic administrations, public disorder and social polarisation as locals start resenting strangers living in their midst and draining finite services and resources. Russia used mass migration against Europe during its Syrian war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from war refugees escaping into Europe, there is the “orchestrated” migration of asylum-seekers to pressure the EU. Last winter, Putin ally, Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko stockpiled asylum-seekers on his border with Poland and the Baltic states, which then amassed troops to block entry. The EU and even NATO now define mass migration as a “security threat”. Europe’s refugee crises can worsen as the aftershocks of the Ukraine war lead to food shortages. Hunger, violence, inflation and climate change can aggravate mass migrations, especially from Africa, in summer when the perilous sea crossings resume.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An important judo concept is “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”. This principle explains Russia’s cyberattacks, but not its war in Ukraine, where it seems to be “maximum force with minimum conquest”. It is hard to understand Putin’s calculus. But he is fighting his war, his way. Given Ukrainian resistance, it is doubtful he can hold territory as western analysts claim. That is a quagmire he avoided in Syria.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putin is a Cold War warrior fighting a 20th century war. But his hybrid and cyberwarfare reveal his 21st century mindset. Is the destruction aimed to force submission? Perhaps one must dig into his KGB past in East Germany on the eve of Soviet Union’s collapse. Screaming protesters besieged the KGB’s Dresden headquarters. Putin scrambled to save classified documents. Frantic calls to “mother ship” went unanswered. Subsequently, Putin famously recalled, “Moscow was silent.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, Putin spoke up. He went out to the protesters and declared, “There is a tank behind, and I am here to tell you if you don’t disperse there will be an order to shoot.” Protesters dispersed. His show of force was a bluff. There was no tank and no one to give that order. He learnt two lessons: Threats work, but if your bluff is called, you must have and use firepower. Is his nuclear threat a bluff? Only Putin knows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Apr 07 16:34:16 IST 2022 rise-of-selective-compassion <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What is worse: no compassion or selective compassion? The outpouring of public grief across Europe for the Ukrainian victims of war is immense. Empathy is a powerful, humanising emotion and compassionate people are considered noble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But why isn’t there a similar European grieving for the victims of the catastrophic war in Yemen, now in its seventh year? Europeans tear up seeing healthy Ukrainian children leaving war zones clutching their teddy bears. In Yemen, starving, skeletal children, clutch stumps of what was once their legs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Is it because Yemen is far away, whereas Ukraine is at Europe’s doorstep? Is it because Europeans identify with white skin and victims huddling in churches? Surveys showed that Europeans were distressed by the 2019 fire in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, but not so much by the beheadings, rape and arson occurring then in Sudan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>European expression of grief may appear racist—especially when viewed from afar. But societies are blind to their own hypocrisy and selective compassion, which can be racist or bigoted. Foreigners cannot reconcile peaceful India with our history of Dalit atrocities. Stigmatisation is a worldwide curse: Muslims are terrorists. Dalits are impure, blacks criminals, LGBT deviants. Their suffering receives less sympathy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Research reveals that compassion depends not on the intensity of the disaster but on the proximity of the location and how likely viewers are to visit the affected region. Empathy is aroused by shared experiences with the victims—identity, nationality, culture, geography, family, friends, community, religion and skin colour. An evolutionary explanation is that people are selective because compassion demands emotional and mental investment; so they reserve it for people close to them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Selective compassion is a global phenomenon. It is a manifestation of “tribalism, a way to reinforce your own point of view and block out any others,” explains author Fritz Breithaupt in The Dark Sides of Empathy. As pastor David French notes, empathy is not always noble, “It is warped by tribalism and partisanship.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When societies experience disruptive change, they exclude communities, a process American Law Professor John A. Powell calls “otherising,” based on “the assumption that a certain group poses a threat to the favoured group”. As images of bombing in Ukraine flooded the airwaves, European mainstream clamoured to convict Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal”. There was no such mainstream outcry against President George Bush for large-scale civilian deaths in Iraq. Human rights activist Saadia Khan notes, “How conveniently our political consciousness allows us to forgive the crimes of those whom we can identify with, while crucifying the “other” for similar offences.” America has been at war for over 90 per cent of the time since its independence, while European nations have fought the largest wars in history.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hitler is an extreme example of selective compassion. A vegetarian who abhorred animal slaughter, he then slaughtered millions of Jews. The Buddha preached universal compassion—for all things, living and non-living. But humans practice universal selective compassion. It takes proximity and kinship to arouse compassion. But the cruel twist is that proximity also aggravates brutality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Sri Lankan state waged war against the “otherised” Tamils. Unable to penetrate Tamil society, soldiers bombed from afar. But the war unleashed to crush their own Sinhala JVP rebellion was deadlier because they could reach deep within. The terror that followed was horrifying. Tribalism is as evident in international relations as in families. Relatives provide refuge; they also commit grievous crimes. In Pashto, the word for cousin is tarbur. It also means enemy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Mar 24 17:00:36 IST 2022 the-west-has-glorified-zelenskyy-into-a-mythical-hero-but-the-west-can-also-be-notoriously-opportunistic-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When hotlines replace redlines, it is time to worry… and hope. US decisions to communicate directly with the Russian military and suspend scheduled intercontinental ballistic missile tests are not admissions of defeat. They are Code Red, signalling that Russia’s war in Ukraine has turned extremely dangerous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This war began slow, but has become brutal and ruinous—with malls, utilities, apartments, offices and schools being bombed. Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear arsenal on alert, and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned: “The Third World War will be nuclear.” There was no radioactive fallout, but explosions in Europe’s largest nuclear plant in southern Ukraine raised mushroom clouds of fear. Putin fancies himself a modern “Peter the Great”. But in European consciousness, Russia’s leader is now “Putin the Terrible”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>US President Joe Biden’s critics accuse him of appeasing Putin, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did with Hitler. But, by establishing hotlines, Biden has displayed restraint and wisdom which would help “prevent miscalculation, accidents and escalation”. These foster hope. As historian Barbara Tuchman said, “War is the unfolding of miscalculation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Putin story that Washington, DC, is familiar with dates to his childhood when he lived in a rat-infested neighbourhood in St. Petersburg. Putin describes how courageously a cornered rat fought back, throwing itself at its tormentor, ten times its size. Cornering nuclear-armed Putin is dangerous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Still, without firing a shot, the west has cornered Putin financially and economically. Europe joined the US in responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine with astonishing solidarity, speed and steel. Countries broke taboos to pledge lethal aid to Ukraine. This would have surprised Putin who sees liberal Europe as divided and weak, too soft-hearted, soft-headed and soft-bellied for tough fights.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But what surprises even western governments is the ferocity of public demonisation of Putin. Voluntarily, companies, clubs and organisations from sports, trade, business, space, insurance, culture are boycotting Russia—Michelin stars, designer labels, caviar importers, credit cards, orchestras. The Ukrainian blue and yellow flag colours are everywhere.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From his underground bunker, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy broadcasts his nation’s peril. He urges the west to defend Ukraine, otherwise Russia will target the Baltic countries next. But Putin is unlikely to invade NATO members. Zelenskyy warned of a “nuclear disaster” and blasted NATO for not declaring a no-fly-zone over Ukraine to block Russian bombers. But shooting Russian planes would put NATO at war with Moscow and NATO will not go to war for a non-member country. A frustrated Zelenskyy is becoming desperate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The west has glorified Zelenskyy into a mythical hero, courageous in the line of fire. But the west can also be notoriously opportunistic, discarding assets after they have served their purpose. In great power politics, local heroes are expendable, some consigned to junkyards, others to graveyards—in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq. Lest one forgets, the US had armed Saddam Hussein, who fought Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2015, John Mearsheimer, a leading American geopolitical expert said, “The west is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.” Tragic images from today’s Ukraine prove his foresight. The headline from a recent press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was his warning: “This war will get worse.” A revealing sentence lay buried in his speech: “We are not part of this conflict, and we have a responsibility to ensure it does not escalate and spread beyond Ukraine.” Hotlines, a Cold War legacy, seek to achieve this. But the primrose path ends in rubble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Mar 13 12:08:37 IST 2022 redlines-red-flags-and-red-rags <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the crisis in Ukraine intensified, facial expressions changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who always looks impassive, became steely-eyed. Across the Atlantic, US President Joe Biden, who always looks jolly, narrowed his eyes to convey deadly intent, saying, “Make no mistake. Russia will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The superpower draws redlines on the desert, on frozen ground, on oceans and across the skies. The hottest redline now: Russian invasion of Ukraine invites infliction of unprecedented economic pain by the US and its NATO allies. Redlines are customary in diplomacy, but international relations experts have always questioned their efficacy. Failure to enforce the punishment makes the “punisher” look weak—as president Obama did when he failed to execute his redline against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons. “It was a colossal mistake,” said his first national security advisor Jim Jones. Still, Obama left office with good international ratings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Credible redline threats work only if accompanied by credible assurances. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi decommissioned his chemical and nuclear weapons programme in exchange for normal ties with the west. Business flourished; but after a foreign-backed uprising, NATO countries bombed oil-rich Libya. Gaddafi was eventually brutally murdered by a mob, making opponents wary of western assurances. Likewise, Afghan civilians feel betrayed by the US pull out. In 1994, Ukraine returned to Russia its nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union. In return, Moscow had guaranteed Ukraine’s security. As Russian assurances are not credible, NATO suspects that even if they deny membership to Ukraine, Russia will only be encouraged to ask for more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Threats invariably fail. Sanctions, sabotage, bombardments and cyberattacks rarely compel countries to comply. Former prime minister Morarji Desai once told me in the context of India-Sri Lanka relations, “Never underestimate the capacity of a small nation to defy the big bully.” Even small and weak nations resist and retaliate, rather than retreat when faced with what they see as injustice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reason for such behaviour is psychological. Redlines provoke powerful emotions in the receiving country—anger, fear, hatred, humiliation, suspicion, resentment and defiance. Emotions are unstable and unpredictable, leading to reactions ranging from exemplary courage to suicidal stubbornness. Redlines can be counterproductive. Says political psychologist Kathleen E. Powers, “For strategic and psychological motivations, redlines sometimes trigger the very actions that they seek to deter.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Russia intended to widen divisions within NATO, but its show of force against Ukraine succeeded only in unifying it. The US wished to condemn Russia as a declining power, but succeeded in inflating it into a resurgent force. Whenever the US sells weapons or sends battleships to Taiwan, China reacts with a big display of power. Forceful US warnings aim to deter Chinese violations of Taiwanese airspace. But the rhetoric provokes more violations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Studies by security analysts reveal two important findings that prove dialogue is more effective than redlines. “The reputational risk of walking back from a redline is not as severe as countries fear,” notes political scientist Dan Altman. Obama proves this. Nor are the strongest or fiercely worded redlines the most productive. Altman says, “Clear, measured redlines are more effective than blunt, aggressive language.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Using dialogue to address Russia’s insecurity aggravated by NATO expansion can be more productive than threats, sanctions or attacks. Whether eyes are steely or narrowed, an eye-for-an-eye slugfest, will, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Leave the whole world blind.” An impassioned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked, “After a great war, we are a country without borders… is there anything left to pick up?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Feb 24 15:58:22 IST 2022 hell-of-a-party <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A popular refrain in London these days is “the wheels of Boris Johnson’s government are falling off”. Johnson’s closest aides are spinning away and out from the prime minister’s office for reasons ranging from his or their misbehaviour. The resignations have come in the wake of Partygate—the scandalous series of chummy, boozy parties held in 10 Downing Street when the rest of the country was isolated under strict lockdowns. Tabloids described it as Johnson’s “Week from Hell”.</p> <p>For the first time, a section of his own Conservative partymen revolted, joining ranks with the opposition to demand that he go. But unless 54 Tory MPs sign up for his ouster, Johnson’s jalopy careens on, with or without wheels. British politics commentator Prof. Erik Mustad said, “Johnson will cling to power until it is completely impossible to remain as prime minister.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s past suggests he will keep running, ducking and punching until he has no place to hide. Partygate reinforced the image of the PM and his aides as a bunch of rambunctious dorm buddies unfit for high office—cavalier, irresponsible and insensitive to national suffering. They celebrated in Downing Street with garden parties, “Wine Time Fridays”, quiz and fizz festivities, secret Santa soirees and,” bring your own booze” (byob) party. Outside, 500 people were dying of Covid every day, ordinary people arrested and fined for “unlawful” get-togethers. The acronym ‘byob’ went viral, while banners sprouted like poisonous mushrooms: “He partied, while people died”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest of the wheels to come off was Munira Mirza, Johnson’s policy chief, a loyal aide of 14 years, since he was London mayor. She left because she could not stomach his scurrilous lies against opposition leader Keir Starmer that he failed to prosecute a celebrity paedophile. Johnson’s reflex reaction was to quickly put stepneys in place, hoping his promises to induct new staff, refresh his cabinet and reboot his relationship with the party, would defuse party rebellion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The superseding of the critical Sue Gray report that investigated Partygate with a new police inquiry has bought Johnson time. The embattled PM, who swings from crises to crises, calculates a new crisis will eclipse Partygate and the calls for his resignation will lose steam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the British public are tired of crises and his poll ratings are sinking. His handling of Covid was a policy of errors, rife with contradictions, violations and decisions that doubled the death toll, scientists said. Covid shaved off a jaw-dropping 20 per cent from the GDP. When the job subsidy that supports 8.9 million workers ends in June, experts predict a 10 per cent unemployment rate—the worst in Britain since the Depression. Inflation, supply shortages and high energy prices have been brutal. A YouGov poll found that 72 per cent of Britons disapprove of Johnson—a big shift from his 2019 landslide election victory when he landed the Conservative Party 359 MPs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Brexit, Johnson divided Britain. Now, he divides Conservative Party. With varying intensities of internal opposition, it is difficult for him to rule with authority. The battle has shifted outside, between his loyalists and would-be assassins. More exposes or election losses can be fatal. In December, the Tories lost the North Shropshire seat that they had held for a century. Said Mustad, “Johnson has dug his grave deeper and deeper. But for now, he is still sitting there.” Everybody agrees Johnson cannot survive another “Week from Hell”. Then again, he has the devil’s luck. Then again, luck is fickle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Feb 13 10:21:34 IST 2022 putin-sees-nato-expansion-as-encroachment-into-his-backyard-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As if a pandemic, inflation, energy crisis, and a heart-rending humanitarian catastrophe in war-torn Yemen are not enough, the spectre of a Cold War-era confrontation looms between nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, over Ukraine. While Russian drones, troops, and tanks assemble on their border, nervous Ukrainians live with sirens and war drills, bracing for an invasion. As former US president Ronald Reagan said drily: “People don’t make wars. Governments do.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>War is not inevitable. If the US-Russia dialogue fails, the west can impose stiffer economic sanctions. Russia retaliates with cyberattacks and subversive election meddling. But NATO allies are divided on more sanctions. Germany depends on Russian gas and has big business deals in the pipeline. Some analysts suspect that by knocking Russia out of the European Great Energy Game, a new opportunity is opened for the US gas exports.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Westerners depict Vladimir Putin as the Machiavellian instigator of global conflict. But in the dangerous action-reaction cycle, who started the fire is a slippery blame game. Putin sees NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet Union states in East Europe and the Baltic as an encroachment into his backyard. He invaded Russia’s peripheral nation of Georgia in 2008, and then Ukraine to annex Crimea in 2014. Unfettered access to the hub of its Black Sea fleet is crucial to Russian security.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former US defence secretary Robert Gates said Putin’s “actions are deplorable but understandable… it’s about restoring Russia’s historical role as a major power in the world through authoritarianism at home and aggression abroad.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is a defensive dimension, too. NATO has officially recognised three new aspiring members: Bosnia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Russia finds the very idea of Ukraine joining NATO intolerable, almost an existential threat. If Ukraine, a former Soviet state-turned-democracy, joins the west, it could trigger a domino effect in the region. Said Author Sergey Radchenko, “Putin likes brinkmanship. But he is not bluffing. He wants global attention, influence, and concessions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NATO is unlikely to retreat, but dialogue can work. Sharing a border, NATO-member Norway and Russia are frenemies that have avoided war through history. Geographically conjoined at the shoulder requires a robust modus operandi for dialogue, precisely because the potential for collaboration and the risk for conflict are high and perpetual. The boundary in the resource-rich Arctic Barents Sea was demarcated with a 50-50 division of disputed waters and continental shelf—after 40 years of dialogue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Power of Patience is the best tool in the dialogue kit. But this means no cameras, no grandstanding, no leaks. Great Powers prefer trust-corroding subterfuge and one-upmanship, brandishing the Power of Power. Like fireworks, that display is invariably short-lived, leaving behind the debris of ruined nations and shattered families. Great power politics can wreck the ongoing dialogue. Said defence expert Michael Kofman, “Russians clearly aren’t betting very much on diplomatic success. The likelihood of war has increased.” That appeases the hungry military-industrial complex, which has not feasted on a meaty war for a while.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if war is averted, the run-up to war brims with weapons. Biden, 79, has already fortified Ukraine with more than $3 billion in military aid. More was sent by other NATO allies. The Baltic States are forwarding their American-supplied weaponry to Ukraine. Putin, 69, has reinforced his invasion preparations by deploying over one lakh troops, missile launchers, ammunition stockpiles, and field hospitals to the Ukrainian border. As another US president Herbert Hoover said, “Older men declare war. It is the youth that must fight and die.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Jan 27 15:34:58 IST 2022 randy-andy-and-other-rogues-in-royal-robes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the 1980s, he was “insanely hot”. Girls swooned over him, boys envied him and the media fawned over him. Britain’s Prince Andrew was second in line to the throne, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite and a party animal. He had all the fun and no responsibility, unlike his elder brother, king-in-forever-waiting, Prince Charles. But as time passed, Andrew slipped further away from the throne and life careened downhill. Playboy Prince Andrew’s is a cautionary story, a fairy tale that was not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ongoing court battles, the accusation of rape and friendship with convicted sex offenders, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, have disgraced Prince Andrew. Invited by Andrew into exclusive royal realms, Epstein and Maxwell spent weekends in the Queen’s favourite Balmoral Castle, danced in Windsor Castle, hunted in Sandringham Royal Parkland and even sat on the throne in Buckingham Palace. In turn, Andrew flew on Epstein’s jet, nicknamed ‘Lolita Express’ to luxury destinations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the “Lolitas”, Virginia Giuffre, trafficked by Epstein to his friends, accuses Andrew of raping her when she was 17. Rape is hard to prove, but sex with underaged girls is a crime. Andrew’s response to Giuffre’s allegations has so far been to deny meeting her, to dodge and deflect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His lawyers manoeuvre for an out-of-court settlement, assert the case has no jurisdiction in New York because Giuffre now lives in Australia, that Epstein has signed an agreement with Giuffre shielding his friends from litigation, that he could not be the “sweaty” rapist Giuffre described because he cannot sweat. With no medical records or witnesses to back his claims, Andrew looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Says mental health counsellor Todd Grande: “He has made himself look guilty.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Andrew’s profligate lifestyle is his nemesis—partying and philandering in mansions, yachts and resorts owned by the rich, famous and scoundrels. Earlier, Andrew courted Central Asian and Arab dictators, went on luxury holidays paid for by a convicted arms smuggler and chased sexy sports models—women, not cars. “He has come to Hollywood to look for chicks,” his former actress girlfriend, Courtney Love, once said. The media called him “Air Miles Andy” and “Randy Andy”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Casanova to grandfather, from hot to hot potato, times have changed for the Prince. In the wake of the Giuffre scandal, Andrew’s sponsors dumped him. He had to withdraw from 230 charities. His life as the swashbuckling international jetsetter leading British business delegations to different destinations, making speeches from Davos to Bangkok, disintegrated. Is his story ill-fated to end unhappily ever after? The lives of Princess Diana and Prince Andrew should suffice to convince fans there is no such thing as a royal fairy tale. When there is no fairy tale, why have the monarchy? It has no political power. People no longer believe royals have a divine right to rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stripped of mystique and grandeur, the monarchy is just Big Business. Nicknamed “The Firm”, the British Royalty spins revenue from tourism, pageantry and merchandising. Monarchies claim they are national unity symbols in polarised times. Western kingdoms squeeze competitive advantages by forging a club with other kingdoms and sending their royalty on trade missions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More and more princes have fairy tale weddings with “commoners”, feeding fantasy frenzies worldwide. But their usurious, luxurious lifestyles and mortal scandals of lucre and lust reduce them to anachronisms—oxymorons embedded in modern, egalitarian societies. In Britain, #AbolishtheMonarchy trends on Twitter. As royal families pose for photographs on their balconies, in hats and medals, fripperies and fineries of the past, they look like a gallery of relics. And a few rogues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Jan 16 10:49:12 IST 2022 in-2021-european-art-throbbed-with-fantasy-and-realism-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Popular themes in art indicate the direction in which a Covid-fatigued world is headed. It’s not that art imitates life or life imitates art. It is just that artists have a different perspective and sensibility from journalists, politicians, and decision-makers swirling in the throes of fast-paced developments. The message from the art world is that 2022 will be a year of warriors and women, of faces, fantasy, and feelings. It is both new, and to renew.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, we lived in bubbles. But European art throbbed with fantasy and realism, remembering and portraying life as we knew or imagined it. Exhibitions were big on fantasy, not surprising because people easily slip into the make-believe amid pandemic-induced loneliness. In Basel, the exhibition on Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828) was a powerful magnet. Goya’s saints and sinners, ghouls and witches inhabit realms where reality and fantasy merge. His genius lay in depicting the drama that unspools when reason meanders into irrationality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Alice in Wonderland incarnated in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with vanishing rabbits and psychedelic tea parties. Overwhelmed by the changes around her, Alice wonders “Who in the world am I?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Figurative painting ruled the year. Freudian analysis suggests audiences craved to connect with faces: different, diverse, dramatic, or drab. It didn’t matter, so long as they were human. People thronged to see the tableaux of portraits, absorbing the expressions depicted in exquisite detail—the supercilious duchess, the smirking lieutenant, the crafty merchant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The health of the planet nagged people’s consciousness. The Nobel prize of painting, the Praemium Imperiale, was awarded to rainforest photographer Sebastião Salgado for his stunning monochromatic images in silken black, blinding white and shadowy grey to powerfully convey human misery amid a ravaged environment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Exhibition trends suggest that the art world—and society—has entered not kalyug, but shakti yug. In Tate Gallery, eight of the nine solo presentations of living artists were by women. Another presented the works of women artists who succeeded in invading the male-dominated domain of 19th century art. A Swiss exhibition presents female artists who capture the feminine experience through nude portraits of women with pregnant bellies and sagging breasts. Through their unflinching portraits, these women artists subvert the stereotypical male depiction of the female form as seductive, voluptuous, mysterious, or long-suffering.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In addition to gender battles, cultural and political wars invaded the hallowed precincts of museums like never before. Slavery, racism, and the construction of identity in exile were illustrated with rage and rancour. Critics trumpeted the arrival of a new star on the art firmament, painter Michael Armitage, 37. They raved about his “sumptuous surfaces, luminous colour and exhilarating brushstrokes”. Beneath the visual feast, are dark portraits about current and post-colonial conflicts that challenge historical assumptions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In between lockdowns, several magnificent, quaint, and controversial museums opened or reopened across Europe to showcase human genius. The 13-storeyed Munch Museum dedicated to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, considered the father of modern art, opened in the spectacular surroundings of the Oslofjord. Paris came up with the renewed Musée Carnavalet, clever and quirky with old shop signs and miniature guillotines in ivory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In summer, the refurbished Casa Balla opened in Rome, colourful and futurist, crystallising the human experience from endurance to exuberance. Italian artist Giacomo Balla lived and worked here through fascism and war, a reminder that calamities recede into history, but life and art endure. Pandemics, mass extinctions, wars, and other doomsday scenarios notwithstanding, our world with all its whims and beauty, paradox and flaws, keeps spinning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Jan 02 10:23:03 IST 2022 anita-pratap-life-lesson-from-wavelle-a-nonconformist-seagull <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A bird was my best teacher this year. A sweeping section of the fjord outside my window had frozen overnight, a spectacular phenomenon. Nature’s majesty was on full display as ice sparkled, snow glistened, dreamy mists swirled and wisps of steam curled up. The ice on the fjord crackled and broke apart in the winter sun, becoming a metaphor for the fragility of life during the pandemic. A flock of seagulls huddled on a floating breakaway block of ice, the size of a car. As the wind surged, this sheet of ice began disintegrating into the foam-flecked waves. The gulls squawked and flew away.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All except one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She stood her ground on the thin slice of shrinking ice and began grooming herself. Unperturbed and undistracted by the choppy waves, she focused on nuzzling her right wing, then left, then her chest. And on and on she repeated her ritual, even as her ice patch became smaller and smaller, bobbing perilously into the far beyond. I decided the gull was female and named her Wavelle. She did not give up, she did not look up, she did not fly away like the others. She just concentrated on her routine, fearlessly, patiently, diligently.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was a good lesson on how best to endure and survive the pandemic—or any calamity for that matter. Concentrate on the routine. Religious leaders advise it is wise to submit to higher forces when they are beyond your control. But never surrender will. That is within one’s control and one can choose how to respond. When misfortune befalls, the common reaction is anger or self-pity, fear or loathing. People complain or create mischief. But all this is pointless, self-defeating behaviour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, times of adversity can be used to study, learn, teach, write, paint, and help others. Do your duty, reward is not your concern, the Gita teaches. Instead of getting sucked into the vortex of the never-ending cycle of alarming news or conspiracy theories, it is better to focus on one’s daily routine, writing, singing, home-schooling children, cooking, administering, dancing, coding, crunching numbers, whatever. Concentrating on activity is also meditation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New-age gurus advise “Do what you love”. Much of the time, we may not love what we are doing. But keeping at it helps. The discipline of daily practice is as important as the outcome. As time goes by, discipline becomes the outcome. Without realising, we have improved, one day at a time, one word, one brushstroke, one note, one digit, one ingredient, one peck at a time. The inner spark of creativity is lit, it grows and glows, despite the surrounding pain, chaos and meaninglessness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The journey of this inner spark is told beautifully in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a cult book from the 1970s. Little Jonathan, the seagull, knew there was more to life than the ceaseless squabbling for food. He finds his joy, his meaning in flying. His flock ostracises him for not conforming, but he finds enlightened teachers who impart an age-old wisdom: practice makes perfect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was a lesson taught by my own seagull. While Jonathan taught the magic of flying high, Wavelle’s lesson was about staying grounded, persisting with her routine even as the ice beneath her webbed feet shrank. Her space, her world closed in, as the lockdowns did on us. Flying Jonathan and steady Wavelle represent the equilibrium of opposing male-female forces. Soaring or still, imagination unlocks the magic world of possibilities. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray once said: “To some, it is only a droplet, but I see the whole world in<br> a dewdrop”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bach based his book on American aviator John Livingstone, who died in 1974 at age 77 shortly after test flying an aerobatic aircraft. Livingstone’s wife’s name was Wavelle. Of course, even if others had seen my Wavelle’s voyage on windy waves, they would not have given her a second glance, let alone thought. Like beauty, interpretation lies in the eye of the beholder. To some, a daft bird. To me, a nonconformist gull that demonstrated 2021’s best life lesson.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Dec 16 15:55:33 IST 2021 anita-pratap-writes-on-the-many-problems-facing-swedish-pm-magdalena-andersson <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>History was made. This country got its first woman prime minister. That is ho-hum news everywhere, except if it had happened in the US, Russia or China. Sri Lanka elected the world’s first woman PM in 1960, then came Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina….</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But it is shocking that progressive Sweden has never had a woman prime minister until now. Even more shocking is that history was unmade in seven hours. Sweden’s first woman PM, centre-left social democrat Magdalena Andersson, was forced to resign on the day she was appointed. “This political circus is very bad for Sweden,” declared Ulf Kristersson, leader of her ally, the Moderates. “People are wondering what the hell is happening in Swedish politics right now,” said Ebba Busch, leader of the centre-right Christian Democrats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mess comes from Sweden’s complex governing system. Andersson did not win a parliamentary majority for her appointment. But the opposition lacked the votes to stop her from taking office. Then, parliament rejected her budget, but adopted the opposition’s, drafted by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. History was made—for the first time, a far-right budget was passed in Sweden. Infuriated by the opposition budget’s reversal of environmental measures, the Greens pulled out of Andersson’s governing coalition, toppling her government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, while the world danced to ABBA, watched Ingmar Bergman movies and enjoyed Björn Borg’s tennis skills, whatever happened to women politicians in Sweden? This liberal Scandinavian country introduced women’s voting rights a century ago, is path-breakingly advanced with social welfare and gender equality. Yet, neighbouring Norway had its first woman PM in 1981. Denmark, Iceland and Finland followed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tragedy, scandal and prejudice have stymied prime ministerial ambitions of Swedish women. The first serious contender Anna Lindh was knifed to death. Mona Sahlin’s bid to become PM was derailed by the “Toblerone Affair”. She had used her government credit card to buy $4 lakh worth of private goods, including nappies and Toblerone chocolate. “These are all things that male politicians have wives to do,” said political scientist Drude Dahlerup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unconscious bias works against women. Södertörn University’s political expert Jenny Madestam says previous women PM contenders “battled the unconscious beliefs that the party leader should be a man”. Top women political leaders have also paid the price for being ahead of their time, advocating talks with the Greens or the far right. Madestam believes it is easier for men to make these strategic leaps. Instead of becoming PMs, prominent female Swedish politicians chose international careers in the UN or the EU.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are unconscious expectations from men and women politicians, in substance and in style. In her 2018 biography, Inifrån, conservative PM contender Anna Kinberg Batra writes, “When a woman scores points against her opponents, stands up for herself or is challenging, she’s neither strong nor sexy, but ‘sharp’, or even ‘a bitch’.” It’s perfectly normal for a man to look grave when discussing serious issues, but when she handled serious matters, top colleagues advised her to “look more cheerful”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Andersson now has reasons to look cheerful. History was made yet again on November 29 when she was reappointed first woman PM—for the second time. But the fragmented political landscape makes her position precarious. Parties are jockeying for next year’s parliamentary elections. Her party drones on about rent control, while the far-right rants against crime, shootings, bombings and gang violence in immigrant ghettos that blight big cities. This resonates powerfully with the voters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All the problems that made Andersson’s first stint as PM a “seven-hour wonder” remain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 04 12:04:23 IST 2021 scandals-wont-cost-boris-johnson-his-job-yet-but-knives-will-be-sharpened-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In politics, nothing changes… until it does. British commentators wonder whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be ousted by the current “sleaze scandal”. But Teflon Johnson, so far, has had the devil’s luck. Nothing sticks. The string of controversies, sweetheart arrangements, dodgy deals, gaffes, scandals over rewarding cronies, appeasing donors and breaking rules have failed to turn into a noose to cook his goose. Instead, he stumbles blithely—some say recklessly—into the next minefield. “He’s always had the idea that rules don’t apply to him,” says Sonia Purnell, his biographer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sleaze row centres around his Conservative members of parliament taking well-paid “second jobs” as lobbyists to promote private interests. Labour leader of the opposition Keir Starmer accused minister Owen Paterson of snagging Covid-19 testing equipment contracts worth £500 million for the firm Randox that paid him £1,10,000 in fees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Parliament’s standards committee ruled against Paterson, asserting: lobbying is permitted; “paid advocacy” is not. Johnson’s initial reaction was to protect Paterson—and other Tories—by replacing the independent committee with a new one packed with his loyalists. The uproar culminated in Paterson’s resignation and Johnson backing down on his controversial proposal—his 43rd U-turn in two years in office.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Media investigations reveal over a quarter of Tory MPs have “second jobs” earning them £4 million since the pandemic began. Another scandal involved Tories “selling” peerage or seats to the House of Lords for<br> £3 million apiece.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson himself has been embroiled in ethics inquiries into who paid for his posh Caribbean holiday, refurbishing his Downing Street flat and whether he misused his position as London mayor to benefit an American businesswoman with whom he had an affair. Starmer accused Johnson of “leading his troops through the sewer”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But British sleaze is “chicken feed” (a favourite Johnson idiom) compared with the corruption in autocracies, poor resource-rich countries or even some southern European nations. Britain scores well, 11, on Transparency International’s ratings. But TI’s Steve Goodrich admonishes, “Where rules aren’t followed and there is no consequence, the absence of accountability can breed particularly egregious behaviour that could easily slip into out-and-out corrupt practices that you might expect from less-established democracies.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Petty corruption” has always existed in Britain. Whether it was MPs cheating on their allowances or the Egyptian billionaire and father of Princess Diana’s boyfriend, Mohamed Al-Fayed, slipping brown paper envelopes with cash to Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in 1996. But Professor Mark Knights, an expert on the history of corruption, compares the Johnson regime’s “new corruption” to the “old corruption” of the 18th century prime minister Robert Walpole, when government jobs were bought and sold. Knight warns, “There are signs that we could be slipping back into a Walpolean era where patronage, patrimony and partisanship prevail”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is unlikely that the scandals will cost Johnson his job yet. His party is solidly behind him because he is the best Tory vote-catcher. He is still an election asset, not a liability. He keeps the Conservatives’ patronage system in power. For a politician, losing the ability to win votes is like Samson losing his hair.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Labour is nowhere close to the victory line, the sleaze row has dented Tory and—especially Johnson’s own—popularity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Should the ratings keep falling, knives will be sharpened. Margaret Thatcher had won three elections for the Tories. When her popularity began sinking, it was her own ministers who tossed her out. Losing votes and losing money have perilous trajectories. Dwindling popularity is like bankruptcy; it happens gradually, then suddenly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Nov 20 12:05:59 IST 2021