Anita Pratap en Thu Apr 08 19:17:30 IST 2021 zeb2-is-the-mastermind-determining-the-size-of-the-brain-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A two-day delay, a giant leap for humankind. Cambridge researchers have discovered that a 48-hour lag in the activation of a gene resulted in a bigger human brain.</p> <p>The development of a big brain was the Big Bang moment in human evolution, the moment when we diverged from the apes, about five million years ago. The rest, as they say, is history.</p> <p>Thanks to our big brain, here we are today, enjoying the best that life can offer, living in packs safely in skyscrapers, hunting for food even more safely in supermarkets, averting life-threatening situations by looking at both sides of the street when crossing, composing symphonies, doing math and spinning new technologies that take us into deep oceans and outer space. Were it not for that two-day fateful delay, we would still be foraging in faraway forests and swinging from trees like chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.</p> <p>Our magnificent yet mysterious brain is three times bigger than that of the apes’. But size is not idiot-proof. Charles Darwin observed, “An American monkey, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus is much wiser than most men.”</p> <p>Still, a larger brain is more intelligent and processes information more efficiently. But the mechanics of the momentous expansion of our brain has largely been unknown.</p> <p>To understand this least understood organ, scientists used stem cells from humans, gorillas and chimpanzees to create pea-sized versions of their real brains in the laboratory. These “mini-brains” called “cerebral organoids” are rudimentary cell fragments of the brain that imitate its characteristics. Of course, mini-brains are not perfect representations, underscoring the complexity of the real brain.</p> <p>Four weeks after conception, an embryo’s general-purpose, cylindrical stem cells change shape. They become conical as they convert into specialised brain cells or neurons. The window for this conversion is five days in apes, but in humans it is seven days. The extra two days gives time for more stems cells to convert into neurons, resulting in a larger brain. Says Madeline Lancaster, who led this research team at Cambridge MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, “It is remarkable that a relatively simple evolutionary change in cell shape could have major consequences in brain evolution.” Her findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal <i>Cell</i>. Lancaster created the world’s first mini-brain in 2013.</p> <p>The Cambridge researchers solved a key puzzle: the seven-day window was caused by the delayed activation of a gene called ZEB2. When they delayed this gene’s activity with chemicals, gorilla mini-brains grew larger, like human ones. When they switched on ZEB2 earlier in human mini-brains, they became smaller, like the apes’. Evidently, zany ZEB2 is the mastermind, determining the size of the brain—and thus the creature’s fate. Case solved.</p> <p>Not so fast, say scientists. Humans are yet to crack the brain code. ZEB2 is the master regulator, switching on and off other genes. But what switches on ZEB2? A super mastermind, a genetic mutation or an evolutionary accident? That is probably a mystery for the next generation of scientists to solve. For now, Lancaster is thrilled with the outcome of this pioneering research. She says her findings take us closer to understanding “What makes us human?” For non-scientific mortals, it is hard to fathom what is human about organoids and ZEB2, though delays are utterly and understandably human. The giant leap in her understanding, is alas, one more step in our incomprehension. The mother of mini-brain clearly has a bigger brain.</p> Thu Apr 08 19:17:53 IST 2021 experts-predict-baby-boom-post-the-pandemic-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Experts said the pandemic would produce a baby boom because people were stuck indoors. Nine months later, the outcome is a baby bust. Many developed countries are experiencing significant drops in the number of births, proving that simplistic correlations can be dead wrong. Like the ecosystems that surround us, human life is determined by a complex web of factors. As Australian demographer Liz Allen says, “More sex is insufficient for a baby boom to occur.”</p> <p>Following the pandemic, Hawaii has recorded a 30 per cent drop in births, Spain 23 per cent, and Italy 22 per cent. Canada, Japan, Korea, the UK and France have seen 5 to 15 per cent fall in birth rates. In the US, three lakh fewer babies were born by 2020 end. The reasons for this dramatic drop are many: pandemic-induced health and economic crises are not conducive to having a baby. The thought of accessing Covid-burdened medical facilities or thinking of the number of hands that could touch a newborn is sufficient to delay parenthood until the pandemic is over. Precarious job markets create anxieties about the future. Singles lived isolated while couples endured erosion of privacy and energy.</p> <p>Explains Canadian economist Elisabeth Gugl, “After balancing work with the sudden loss of school or day care, parents simply didn’t have the bandwidth.” Abortions and miscarriages increased due to financial and emotional stress. Singles delayed weddings. Couples deferred fertility treatments.</p> <p>The pandemic-induced worries appear temporary, but they accelerated the global downward trend: birth rates have fallen 50 per cent in the past 50 years, from 5.1 births per woman in 1964 to 2.4 in 2018. To offset death rates, a country should have a replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Korea’s birth rate is now 0.84, the lowest rate recorded for a major economy. Populations in many countries, including Italy, Korea and Japan, are predicted to drop by more than half by the end of this century.</p> <p>The long-term reasons for declining global birth rates are well documented: urbanisation, modernisation, emancipation, working mothers, expenses in raising children, nuclear families and welfare states that provide elderly care, among others. The increasing age at which women in developed countries are having children contributes to difficulty in conceiving. But there is another alarming reason for rising infertility.</p> <p>In a paper, legendary British investor and philanthropist Jeremy Grantham says, “there is a shocking 50 per cent decline in sperm count since 1970s and an equally rapid increase in age-adjusted miscarriage rates.” He blames “endocrine disruption”, or the toxicity in the body’s hormonal system caused by the chemicals in the products we use daily—plastics, toys and food. Europeans are aghast by the American “Kehoe” rule, whereby suspicious chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Thus, the lead in petrol, pipes and paint continued to be used for 50 years after its danger was first raised. While the US has banned only 11 substances in cosmetics, the EU prohibits over 1,000.</p> <p>Low fertility has high costs. Experts say low birth rates depress economic growth. Less children mean more elderly people, relative to the population, as in China, which is getting old before it gets rich. Ageing population means higher health care and pension costs. Optimists claim low birth rates are reversible. Birth spikes do happen nine months after power outages or Christmas holidays. When the pandemic ends, experts predict celebrations will result in a rise in births. Not a boom to compensate the bust, but an increase nevertheless from the current lows. We will know if the experts are right, nine months after the worst is behind us.</p> Thu Mar 25 16:16:06 IST 2021 from-grace-to-grass <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He was the man who could be the president of the United States. Now he is disgraced, contrite and cringing, a diminished version of the Colossus that strode the planet’s most exciting city. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, 63, is accused of sexually harassing five young women. Four of them had worked for him. He apologised for causing “unintended offence” and insisted: “I never touched anyone inappropriately”. That only reminded everyone of Bill Clinton’s infamous claim, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton was impeached, not for sexual relations, but for lying.</p> <p>Cuomo swears he was not making advances, merely greeting in his customary, “playful” manner. He is of Italian descent and Italians are customarily effusive in their greetings. Long ago, he had wisecracked, “As my Sicilian grandfather used to say, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The tough-guy governor is known both for his harm and charm offensives, using his power to punish foes and promote friends. An ageing alpha male touching 25-year-olds in any manner is controversial, not customary; prurient, not playful. The same age as his daughters, the complainants accuse Cuomo of kissing, stroking bare backs and making lewd comments.</p> <p>Cuomo’s marriage to Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter Kerry ended in divorce in 2005. His relationship with celebrity TV chef Sandra Lee ended in 2019. Aide-turned-accuser Charlotte Bennett alleges Cuomo propositioned her in his office, prattling about “looking for a girlfriend” because he was “tired” and “lonely”, moth-eaten ploys used by powerful men to prey on pretty women. Cuomo is now under investigation.</p> <p>Like his father, Cuomo is a three-term New York governor and has implemented popular progressive policies: fighting climate change, passing the strictest gun control laws in the US, raising taxes for the wealthy, reducing it for the middle class, equalising wages and providing free tuition for the underprivileged, among others. During the early months of the pandemic, Cuomo was the polar opposite of President Donald Trump: in-command, coherent, visible and taking tough, data-driven decisions. That is when his supporters began to extol him as the most effective Democratic presidential candidate to take on Trump.</p> <p>But that is also when Cuomo’s enemies got activated. He himself has said: “I am sort of the Antichrist to the Conservative Party.” Republicans first pounced upon the scandal over his aides hiding Covid-19 deaths of the elderly in nursing homes. The sexual harassment charges came as a bonus. But Cuomo also has rivals within, most notably, the Democratic Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. Sprawling New York is not big enough for the oversized egos of these two feuding men. After the sex scandal erupted, de Blasio called Cuomo’s alleged behaviour “grotesque,” “perverse” and “terrifying”.</p> <p>As if enemies in the Republican and Democratic parties are not enough, Cuomo can be his own worst enemy. Detractors accuse him of abrasive, aggressive, arrogant behaviour. “I am the government,” he has pronounced to his critics’ annoyance. His younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, once said on-air while interviewing him, “No matter how hard you are working, there is always time to call mom.” The national fame garnered by his riveting televised pandemic press conferences has made him feel “he is untouchable”, says Bennett. Hubris probably contributed to Cuomo’s travails.</p> <p>Cuomo is now a wounded lion. He may wind up as the man who would, not could, be president. The investigation’s outcome will determine whether he can even cling on as governor.&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 11 10:44:22 IST 2021 anti-vaxxers-history-and-hysteria <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The race is on. Across the world, countries rush to vaccinate their citizens against Covid-19. But some nations, especially the US, face a stumbling block: public mistrust of vaccines. The “anti-vaxxers” are motivated by deep-rooted suspicions, ranging from historical experiences to religious beliefs to conspiracy theories. Worries popular US epidemiologist Anthony Fauci: “There is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country.” Herd immunity cannot be achieved when so many millions are hostile to vaccines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“American health care’s racist history has helped fuel a fear of vaccines,” notes investigative reporter Olivia Goldhill. The US Public Health Service conducted a 40-year experiment, which ended in 1972 in Tuskegee in rural Alabama, denying antibiotics to 399 black men. The purpose was to study the progression of untreated syphilis―condemning the men to slow, painful deaths from infected sores, dementia, paralysis and organ damage. Author of Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington observes: “Tuskegee is the most famous, but there are many other less-known medical atrocities conducted by the government.” These include invasive gynaecological procedures without anaesthesia and sawing a black baby’s skull to study epilepsy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Other western nations, too, conducted unforgivable experiments in their colonies. During the 1930s in Rawalpindi, British army scientists tested the effect of mustard gas on the brown skins of 20,000 local men and women. In the mid-20th century, thousands of poor black women were secretly sterilised in procedures labelled “Mississippi appendectomies”. Suspecting the authorities’ intentions, many black families rejected polio vaccines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The African Americans’ historical fear of the vaccine is completely different from the contemporary fear-mongering by white supremacists and other anti-vaxxers who ceaselessly spin contradictory conspiracy theories: the vaccine causes disease; it will alter your DNA; China unleashed this “bioweapon” to conquer the world; Covid-19 is a hoax; Bill Gates has embedded a microchip in the vaccine that connects through 5G technology to mobile phone towers, enabling the government to watch you.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perverse imaginations know no limits. But they instigate real reactions with believers damaging vaccine vials and cell phone towers. Religious fundamentalists spin their own yarns, condemning vaccines as “unnatural” and “devil’s spawn”. The changing findings of science do not help. Quips sociologist John Gagnon: “The difference between a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory is that a scientific theory has holes in it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Racism is neither a conspiracy nor a scientific theory. It is a political fact. Even today, death rates from breast cancer are 40 per cent higher among black than white women; four times more black women die in childbirth. Says genetics professor Terence Keel: “African Americans have been systemically disenfranchised from the health care system in this nation. This is not lost on them.” Communication experts suggest winning the trust of the African-American community with pro-vaccine campaigns featuring black celebrities. But activists say watching a needle jab into the arms of sports or entertainment stars is not going to cut it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both black and white doctors perpetrated the syphilis experiment involving a historically black university and conducted it with the help of 120 black medical students. These horror stories are as deeply embedded in the African-American psyche as the chronicles of slaves and torture. Writes journalist Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune: “Tuskegee has long haunted African-Americans. Now it has circled back to haunt America. Do not blame African-Americans for fearing the Covid-19 vaccine. Blame America.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Wed Feb 24 18:50:30 IST 2021 ghosts-with-vile-goals <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Active measures” sound like dull, do-gooder proposals from a self-help pamphlet. Actually, they are devilish deceptions used in waging clandestine political warfare. Devised a century ago, they are still the “heart and soul of Russian intelligence”, says KGB defector Oleg Kalugin.</p> <p>The United States is still the main stage for this subterfuge. Recent events prove that “active measures” to weaken America are very active and not at all measured. That is because “the world has moved from analogue to digital espionage and the impact is extreme and unquantifiable,” says German security studies expert Thomas Rid.</p> <p>Soviet supremo Joseph Stalin created the secretive Special Disinformation Office in 1923, allegedly using the French word <i>désinformation</i> to deceive other nations into believing it was a French doctrine, like <i>diplomatique. </i>In reality, it systemised Russia’s stratagems to destroy enemies.</p> <p>Western experts found the KGB’s <i>aktivnye meropriyatiya</i> hard to translate because the “active measures” included propaganda, disinformation, kidnapping, honey-traps, duping journalists, sabotage, assassination, media manipulation, bribery, forgeries and strategic deception. The purpose was to advance Soviet interests by secretly sowing political and social discord among enemies―engineering fake incidents in West Germany in the 1950s to instigate real anti-Semitic violence or planting “evidence” to show Nazism still flourished; or spinning conspiracies about Ku Klux Klan bombing black neighbourhoods or the CIA murdering John F. Kennedy, a suspicion that still agitates America.</p> <p>The past is prologue. As president, Vladimir Putin uses all available tools to restore Russia’s greatness. A KGB agent for 16 years, Putin said in 2006: “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.” Security analyst Steve Abrams says, “Modern incarnations of ‘active measures’ in Putin’s Russia are much more sinister with greater range and speed through the internet.” The Federal Security Service (KGB’s successor) has dustbinned or dusted the dirty old tricks, adapted good ones and designed new cyber warcraft for an interconnected world. Explains Abrams: “Plant, incubate, propagate have been replaced by tweet, retweet, repeat.” Agent provocateurs incarnate as “Guccifer 2.0”, the Russian hacker who stole Democrats’ emails. “These guys move like ghosts,” says Chris Krebs, former US cybersecurity chief.</p> <p>Author Craig Unger’s new book, <i>American Kompromat</i>, alleges that the KGB cultivated Donald Trump as a “Russian asset” for 40 years. Decades ago, Vladimir Lenin advocated exploiting rifts in the enemy ranks “by taking advantage of any, even the smallest opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional”. Lenin seems more prophetic than Nostradamus.</p> <p>But Russia’s “malign machinations” should not be overstated. All nations resort to spying and subterfuge, some more skilled than others. “Success” in the United States is as much a testament to Russia’s dogged duplicity as to America’s deep domestic divisions that enemies can easily exploit. Active measures flounder in harmonious, homogenous societies.</p> <p>Western analysts now recognise a strategic feature of active measures. “They must ‘activate’ an emotional response,” explains Rid. “It is not important whether the original provocation is real or fake. It must incite a real reaction.” Emotions are activated when people are already fearful, angry or suspicious. When emotions erupt, lines blur between truth and lies, memory and imagination, origin and outcome, visible storm troopers and invisible Guccifers. As French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, “the neatest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist”. &nbsp;</p> Thu Feb 11 15:45:35 IST 2021 from-angela-to-armin <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>By year’s end, Armin Laschet could well be Europe’s most powerful man. He is a seasoned politician—prudent, pliable, patient and persistent. These qualities helped him become the head of Germany’s ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a position formerly held by Angela Merkel. She steps down in September after 16 years as German chancellor. A Merkel-loyalist, Laschet promises to continue her legacy: a robust Germany, a strong European Union and inclusive centrism. Merkel goes; long live Merkelism.</p> <p>Affable and jovial, Laschet, 59, was prudent when party heavyweights criticised each other and especially Merkel’s welcoming refugee policy in 2015. He patiently overcame political defeats to eventually become prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, whose capital is Düsseldorf. In the party leadership race, he narrowly defeated his sharp-tongued rival, Friedrich Merz. A multi-millionaire lawyer, Merz is polarising because he is associated with big business and high finance. Academics and socialist politicians have exposed his lobbying activities and conflicts of interest. Despite his defeat, Merz lobbied Merkel to make him economy minister. Merkel snubbed him, saying she was not planning a reshuffle.</p> <p>If the CDU wins the national elections in September, Laschet would succeed Merkel as German chancellor. But the pandemic disrupts political dynamics. Merz may not be Laschet’s sole challenger. Laschet’s ally, Jens Spahn, 41, may emerge a contender. As health minister, the openly gay Spahn gained high visibility during the pandemic.</p> <p>External opponents also lurk. Recognising this, Laschet said in his victory speech at the digital conference of 1,001 party delegates that elected him: “We want to make sure the next chancellor is from this party.”</p> <p>A potential external challenger is Markus Söder, a former journalist and serving state prime minister like Laschet. The Bavarian premier heads the CDU’s sister party and coalition ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Opinion polls show that 43 per cent of Germans want Söder as the next chancellor, while only 12 per cent prefer Laschet. Again, the pandemic accounts for this polarity in popularity. Söder won praise for his tough handling of the pandemic in Bavaria, while Laschet’s popularity sank because he flip-flopped between lax and tight restrictions, culminating in outbreaks in his state. Laschet is also labelled Russlandversteher, a derogatory term for people who are soft on Vladimir Putin’s Russia.</p> <p>Who becomes the next chancellor depends on the September election results. Laschet’s CDU is still Germany’s largest party, commanding 36 per cent of votes. The party has ruled for 52 of the last 72 years. Still, it needs partners to form a majority government. The CDU’s main ally, the Socialist Democratic Party, will not continue the partnership because it has damaged it politically. The party is down to 15 per cent in opinion polls, with both the far right and the Greens overtaking it. To Laschet’s advantage, the Greens, who now poll 20 per cent of votes, have an uneasy if not hostile relationship with Söder’s pro-business CSU. Experts predict a CDU-Greens coalition. Tortuous negotiations can take six months to culminate in an agreement.</p> <p>Laschet is cannily wooing the Greens. On winning the party elections, he said, “After Covid, the country needs to modernise and press ahead with green transformation.” Critics cattily noted that in his 10-point “vision for the future”, Laschet mentions climate only once. It appears in the heading ‘A good climate for entrepreneurial spirit and innovation’.</p> <p>Pliability, euphemistically called pragmatism, is also the trait of a seasoned politician.</p> Thu Jan 28 14:50:46 IST 2021 words-become-deeds <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Words matter. At his inauguration four years ago, President Donald Trump spoke about “carnage on the streets of America”. That was crazy talk because there was no carnage on the streets. The power of words is that they may not reflect reality. But they can change it. And that is what happened in the waning days of Trump’s presidency.</p> <p>In the waxing days of Trump’s reign in 2017, latent concern about the president soon became patent among non-partisan commentators. To assuage this, the stock answer of Trump’s apologists was: “Judge Trump by his actions, not by his words.” Trump’s words did not always metastasise into action, but it was not for the lack of trying.</p> <p>Analysts who worried about Trump’s disdain for ethics and rule of law consoled themselves that he would be stopped by America’s fabled checks and balances. This expectation was proven both right and wrong. The system buckled under Trump’s assault mainly because his loyal appointees implemented his questionable orders. But the system also bucked. Several government officials refused to do his bidding. Trump publicly branded them “enemies of the people.” These officers lived under police protection because pro-Trump-trolls threatened to kill and rape, and vandalise their homes. Republican state officials and even Trump-appointed judges quashed his election fraud allegations, undaunted by the president’s inducements, threats and coercion. Men and women of honour who became heroes for simply doing their job.</p> <p>It is appropriate―or perhaps ironical―that character assassination is waged through “characters”. After Twitter doubled text length from 140 to 280 characters early in the Trump presidency, only 12 per cent of its users exceeded the original limit. One of them was tweet-addict Trump, Twitter’s best brand ambassador with 88 million followers. Now he had 55 words to weaponise. And he did, tweeting praise and poison, punishment and policy. He tweeted constantly, conceitedly and compulsively, to spread lies, polarise society, build his fanbase, shame his opponents, bamboozle his critics, argue his case and even fire his defence secretary.</p> <p>Finally, Twitter fired Trump for his inflammatory words, banning him forever. It is easier to take tough action during the last gasps of a presidency. Still, corporate America realised that words matter. As do historians who have studied leaders through centuries. American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reiterated the obvious: “Rhetoric leads to violence.”</p> <p>This is recognised by all cultures, the power of words to destroy and inspire, debase and uplift, hurt and heal. Words are impactful because they spring from the speaker’s mind and strike the listener’s heart, stirring lasting feelings, ranging from joy to hatred. For all his faults, Donald Trump has always been transparent with his words. His tweets consistently reflected his thoughts, feelings and intentions. American Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel warned: “What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” The problem was that the “guard rails” of democracy in the US government and the Republican Party did not, or could not, take this danger seriously. And, America paid the price.</p> <p>About an hour before the storming of the Capitol, Trump’s cue words at a rally―“stolen election”, “take our country back”, “walk to the Capitol”, “fight like hell”―goaded his assembled legion. His surreal Sancho Panza lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, instigated them to wage “trial by combat”, a medieval practice popularised by <i>Game of Thrones</i>, to settle disputes with a single attack. They did. And undid Trump’s presidency.</p> <p>The word-deed correlation could not be starker. It all began with words of carnage. It ended with deeds of carnage.</p> Thu Jan 14 14:15:40 IST 2021 brexit-and-english-covid <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was not meant to be this way. But then, such are the ironies of fate, its twists and turns that mock. On New Year’s Day, the United Kingdom embarked on a historic journey as an “independent” nation, breaking free from the European Union. It was “Onward Ho”, travelling far and wide, under a brand-new identity—“Global Britain”—restoring imperial grandeur, spreading opportunities, championing international causes, cutting lucrative trade deals with nations near and distant.</p> <p>But on the eve of this new journey, Britain was isolated as never before. Following the detection of the “English virus”, an extremely contagious variant of the novel coronavirus, nearly 50 countries pulled up their drawbridges to deny entry to British citizens, goods and flights. Perversely, it was as if the UK leaves the EU, but the world leaves Britain.</p> <p>Even the nations within the kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—shunned the English. The irony was biting—the mutant virus was discovered in England, the “imperial-nostalgic” birthplace of Brexit. And Britons were banned just when they were readying to go forth into the world. Throughout 2020, Brexit and Covid-19 unfolded as parallel stories in Britain, neither impacting the other.</p> <p>David Gauke, a former Tory lord chancellor, observed, “as in a TV series finale, the two plots are finally brought together.”</p> <p>In England, Brexit-induced bottlenecks were expected at the borders, especially in the English port of Dover, the main hub for trade with the EU, through France’s Calais port. But a few days before Brexit, the variant virus created havoc in Dover. As France blockaded Britain, some 10,000 trucks, laden with vegetables and fish, were stranded for days. With no money, food, water and toilet facilities, angry drivers scuffled with police. Some 8,000 military personnel were brought in.</p> <p>Supermarket shelves emptied and tempers frayed. Lufthansa sent planeloads of fresh food to Britain—humanitarian gestures that contradicted the Brexiteer demonisation of the EU. The English love to blame the French for their misfortunes. But PM Boris Johnson had to plead with French President Emmanuel Macron to allow the flow of goods. Macron did, and his decision demonstrated how interconnected, mutually dependent and globalised the world is. Macron was appeasing his French supermarket owners and connoisseurs. Lockdown or no lockdown, langoustines—those delicious lobsters fresh from Britain—are to be savoured, not sacrificed at border crossings.</p> <p>Every crisis has silver linings. The Dover disruption, a preview of the catastrophic consequences of a no-deal Brexit, finally nudged the UK and EU to sign a trade deal. Global Britain’s first export seemed to be this mutant virus, which sneaked into Europe, Canada, Japan and even Australia.</p> <p>The virus variant probably exists elsewhere, but it was detected first in England because British scientists have excelled in sequencing the coronavirus genome. Regular Covid-19 tests cannot detect viral mutations. They can only be identified by analysing the vast genetic data in each sample, using specialised machines.</p> <p>The silver lining for Britain is that these discoveries form the launchpad for a profitable new life sciences industry. The UK’s regulatory system is now independent of the EU, so the government plans to offer fast-tracked approvals to drug manufacturers for innovative medicine. The game plan is for the UK to emerge as a post-Brexit creativity hub. Johnson’s clarion call: “unleash the animal spirits”.</p> <p>Rousing rhetoric hides not Global Britain’s shaky start. But that’s no reason to believe it cannot steady its course. Fate is fickle; it tricks and tempts. But the Brits, they are tenacious and tough.</p> Thu Dec 31 16:14:11 IST 2020 ducks-and-drakes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A few Europeans to look out for in 2021.</p> <p>Lame duck conjures visions of The Donald. But there is another lame duck in Europe, Angela Merkel. Her 16-year German chancellorship comes to an end next autumn, but she remains powerful and popular. In her final budget presentation to the parliament, Merkel did something extraordinary. She spoke with passion. Instead of addressing parliamentarians, Merkel earnestly appealed to booze-guzzling youth to shun Christmas revelries this year.</p> <p>Merkel is fabled for her dowdy pant-suits, sedate manner and boring speeches. Equally famous are her annual Black Zero balanced budgets. This time, hunching and leaning her shoulders forward, narrowing her eyes and gesticulating with her hands, Merkel made a stirring corona speech, urging the youth to responsibly protect society, especially their grandparents, from Black Death. Rich in EQ, delivered with sincerity, concern and empathy, Merkel’s speech drew huge applause.</p> <p>Merkel, 66, ends her tenure as she began―<i>mutti</i>, or mother, who in her lame-duck phase, is still the protective mother hen, keeping not only Germany’s, but also Europe’s fractious flock together. The last custodian of post-war liberal European values, Merkel held a steady course through the financial meltdown, eurozone crises, Brexit, Donald Trump and coronavirus. Compromise, consensus and moderation are her mantras, patience her virtue. In all year-end surveys, she tops the list of Europeans who matter in 2021.</p> <p><b>RUSSIA</b> is part of the Eurasian landmass and telegram seems hopelessly outdated. But it is a cutting edge Russian social networking app promoting anonymous digital resistance. Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, 36, is called the Russian Mark Zuckerberg. He is a libertarian who encourages revolutionaries and shows his middle finger to the authorities. His response to Kremlin-backed demands for dissidents’ personal information was to knavishly post a picture of a dog with a hoodie, sticking its tongue out. Fury flared, Durov fled. The billionaire entrepreneur now holds a Saint Kitts passport. European governments welcome his digital resistance platform, but not in their backyard. Mask opponents and conspiracy theorists nimbly use the Telegram across Europe to stage spontaneous protests. Surveys say watch out for this disruptor.</p> <p><b>2021</b> can be a make-or-break year for British unity with the Scottish elections in May. If First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party triumphs, the next step could well be Scotland initiating steps for independence from its 300-year union with the United Kingdom. The Scots traditionally dislike British prime ministers, but pollsters say, they loathe Boris Johnson, especially his Brexit, which drags Scotland kicking and screaming out of the European Union. All eyes on Nicola, “the new queen of Scots”.</p> <p><b>ROKHAYA</b> Diallo, 42, is a culture war heroine with a vocal machine gun. Her ricocheting words puncture wide-ranging and deep-rooted French exceptionalism. Diallo is French, black, feminist and secular Muslim. But she condemns French feminists for opposing veil restrictions and the <i>Charlie Hebdo</i> magazine for caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad. She attacks systemic racism and the self-righteous elites for proclaiming Black Lives Matter does not matter in colour-blind France. But recent police racism and long-tolerated paedophilia shatter national myths, vindicating Diallo. The French Dragon Lady now has a column in <i>The Washington Post</i>, much to the dismay of image-conscious President Emmanuel Macron.</p> <p>Most Europeans featured in the surveys are glad that in 2021 they will not have to deal with the American lame duck, who is still striving to conjure victory out of defeat.</p> Thu Dec 17 22:27:24 IST 2020 opium-of-the-bigots <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>American analysts compare Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to a child’s tantrum. This insults children and trivialises dangerous behaviour. This is not a fit of temper. It should be called out for what it is: a wannabe autocrat’s power grab. Some day we will discover Operation Cling—alleging voter fraud, bombarding courts, pressuring election officials, legitimising conspiracies—came from some tyrant’s playbook ferreted to Trump, probably by Rudy Giuliani, his fixer side-kick of many scandalous escapades.</p> <p>Trump’s flaws are widely publicised. Books, documentaries and investigative reports reveal he is venal, vain, vulgar and vindictive, a liar on steroids, cruel and incompetent. He mauled America’s moral authority. He replaced ethical experts with fawning flunkies. He preyed on social divisions. His handling of Covid-19 brought America to its knees.</p> <p>Despite these wrongdoings, 72 million Americans voted for Trump, higher than any presidential candidate thus far—except for President-elect Joe Biden. This massive vote bank is why the Republican Party is in Trump’s thrall, appeasing him instead of nipping his immoral power grab. Ignoring Trump’s misdeeds, the rich, who gained enormously from his tax cuts, the farmers and others who benefitted from some of his policies, voted for Trump. They can be fickle. But not his estimated 35-million strong “base”, many of whom are white, gun-owning rural residents without a college education, the so-called “left-behinds of globalisation”. No matter what Trump does, that base stays loyal.</p> <p>This defies understanding until one delves into the political psychology of autocrats and their supporters. In <i>Escape from Freedom</i> (written 1941), German psychoanalyst-philosopher Erich Fromm explores how the masses—not just willingly, but enthusiastically—allowed Hitler to grab power. The German lower middle classes, he observed, “had become especially isolated from their work and their society, owing to the rise of capitalism. One way of coping was becoming dependent on a ‘great’ leader.”</p> <p>The autocrat and his followers are symbiotically bound together because they need each other, writes Fromm. The autocrat needs the adoring masses “because he cannot endure his aloneness and fear”. So the Covid-afflicted Trump bolts from the empty White House to address his cheering crowds.</p> <p>Likewise, supporters ignore the pandemic to attend rallies because they reinforce their importance by being part of a “great” person or idea. Fromm says the supporter is “frightened—often only subconsciously—[and] has a feeling of inferiority, powerlessness and aloneness. Because of this, he depends on the leader, the great power, to feel safe. He escapes into idolatry.”</p> <p>Alienation and powerlessness are aggravated during times of economic stress and upheaval, during war, pandemic, uprooting from villages, mass unemployment, cultural dislocation, loss of life and livelihoods, and a familiar way of life. White supremacism and scapegoating—Muslims, Mexicans, Jews—make supporters feel powerful.</p> <p>Many wonder how Trump’s base can ignore science, evidence, visual proof, and shared experiences of their leader’s incompetence and callous disregard in handling the pandemic. Rational arguments do not work, Fromm says, because the supporters’ relationship “is based on emotional submission” to the leader. This is a political religion. Trump often calls himself “the chosen one”.</p> <p>How does all this end? Fromm noted prophetically: “As long as he holds power, the leader appears—to himself and others—strong and powerful. His powerlessness becomes only apparent when he has lost this power, when he is on his own.” This insight is one reason why Trump does not want to concede and why the next phase will not be pretty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Nov 19 18:21:28 IST 2020 gunning-for-votes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” says Wayne LaPierre, the head of America’s formidable gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA). Diehard Donald Trump fans, the NRA is mobilising to get him re-elected—buying ads, organising events and pushing their five million members to vote. In 2016, they spent $30 million for Trump’s election.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Surveys show 60 per cent of Americans want stricter gun laws—including banning automatic weapons and proper background checks on gun buyers (mostly rural white men). But the NRA has successfully resisted restrictions by invoking the US Constitution’s Second Amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms. They tenaciously lobby Congressmen and cleverly equate gun ownership with freedom. Americans fancy they are the freest in the world, ironic given that they are enslaved by debt, materialism, corporate tyranny and notions of exceptionalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Long before Trump’s “fake news” and “alternative facts” went viral, the NRA shamelessly propagated fake analysis and alternative history. NRA leaders claim the association was established to train black Americans to defend themselves against the Ku Klux Klan. There is “zero” evidence of this, reveals award-winning author Frank Smyth. But that does not stop the NRA from proclaiming it is America’s “longest standing civil rights organisation”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Foundational myths proliferate. LaPierre, 71, asserts “Shooting is in America’s blood. It’s what Americans have always done.” The NRA’s real history is that a group of US army veterans were ashamed that Americans “could not shoot straight”, especially compared with the Europeans. So, they went to London in the 1870s and modelled their organisation on the British Rifle Association that promotes marksmanship.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NRA mythology spins that history would be different if only there were enough good guys with guns: no holocaust, because armed Jews would have fought the Nazis. More guns, less genocide: had they been armed, victims could have counterattacked Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot. Martin Luther King Jr could not defend himself because he was denied a gun permit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if these arguments lack common sense, they are backed by sound financial sense. Threat perceptions drive membership and gun sales. Gun manufacturers contribute 60 per cent of the NRA’s income. Gun sales are now skyrocketing to two lakh a day due to high threat perceptions triggered by the pandemic and racial violence. There are already at least 400 million civilian firearms in the US (population: 330 million). In most states, gun shops are open because it is an “essential service”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After the 2012 Sandy Hook school carnage in which 27 people, including 20 six- and seven-year-olds, were gunned down, LaPierre blamed mental illness and video games for the rise in gun violence. His solution: put armed guards in every school. Even Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers called him a “Gun Nut.” After the 2018 Florida school shootout that killed 17, La Pierre’s solution: arm schoolteachers. He blamed the FBI, media and gun control “elites”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Multi-millionaire LaPierre, who has headed the NRA for three decades, epitomises the elite—private jets, luxury cruises and African safaris; his wife, Susan LaPierre, ran up a $16,000 tab with her hairstylists. But now New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a case, accusing LaPierre of corruption and using the NRA as his personal piggy bank.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sometimes, the only thing that stops a bad guy is a good girl.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Oct 22 16:36:24 IST 2020 qanons-factory-for-alternative-facts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>They are becoming the western world’s most dangerous cult. With coded acronyms like WWG1WGA, 8kun and X22, QAnon is a platform of racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. Born in the US in the Trumpian era of 2017, QAnon is now spreading across Europe, especially in Germany’s neo-Nazi strongholds. German sociologist Matthias Quent describes them as “people who are quitting the mainstream, who are raging against the establishment”.</p> <p>The pandemic accelerated QAnon’s growth in Germany with neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers (vaccination) and others joining the protest against Covid-19 measures, especially masks. They stormed the parliament, a chilling reminder of the 1933 Reichstag (parliament) burning—part of Adolf Hitler’s violent campaign to incite voters ahead of German elections. Warns extremism researcher Julia Ebner, “QAnon is a potential threat to national security.”</p> <p>German intelligence agencies and the FBI agree. Earlier this month, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly condemned QAnon as a “sick cult”. QAnon’s conspiracy theories range from the ghoulish to the absurd. Devil-worshipping, mind-controlling elites brew anti-ageing elixirs from children’s blood. The coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab with Barack Obama’s help. The Covid-19 vaccine will turn humans into cyborgs. Colluding to enslave the masses are George Soros, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers.</p> <p>But there is a hero in QAnon’s worldview. “Trump is a saviour, a great redeemer for the German far right,” says extremism expert Miro Dittrich. QAnon believes Trump will save the world from the liberal cabal and is faking Covid-19 to deceive and destroy them in the coming Armageddon. They cheer Trump’s pandemic scepticism, nationalism and tolerance of white supremacists. They feel vindicated because his language and ideology legitimise theirs.&nbsp;</p> <p>QAnon members comprise Trump fans, right-wing trolls, provocateurs, hate-mongers, gun-lovers, weirdos, misogynists and prophets of doom. They include electricians and naturopaths, and German social media celebrities like news anchors and rappers who are conspiracy super-spreaders.</p> <p>Before he massacred nine persons of immigrant background in Hanau, 25km east of Frankfurt, 43-year-old xenophobic German gunman Tobias Rathjen uploaded a video amplifying QAnon’s conspiracy theories. Immigrants, liberal politicians and synagogues are targets. The killers of the mass shootings in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, circulated their hate pamphlets on 8chan (later renamed 8kun), a QAnon-favoured internet channel. QAnon’s German YouTube channel, Qlobal-Change, has over 17 million views.</p> <p>For QAnon disciples with impressive online viewership, this is lucrative business: bagging ad revenue, selling books and shady cures—quack creams, oils, pills and vitamins. Perhaps, it is good they make money. With their maniacal eyes and crazy ideas, their patterned shorts and cross medallions, rough beards and rougher mannerisms, they are unlikely to clear most job interviews.</p> <p>But QAnon is crystallising into a political force. Thanks to Trump, who recognises QAnon supporters as a significant segment of his base, the movement appears to be on the cusp of going mainstream. For the November Congressional elections, 22 Republican candidates are QAnon fans, with Trump-backed Marjorie Greene expected to win in Georgia.</p> <p>We know that WWG1WGA stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All”. Day X is the day Neo Nazis take over Germany. 8kun is an internet channel where violent anonymous posts vanish without a trace. But we still do not know who founded QAnon. Devotees believe QAnon‘s creator is either God or Trump.</p> Fri Oct 09 18:44:07 IST 2020 suga-the-self-effacing-samurai <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Dark-suited and silent, he is the typical, faceless bureaucrat. Now he is the face of Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appears to fit Winston Churchill’s description of his political opponent Clement Attlee—a modest man with much to be modest about.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suga is modest because his origins are modest. Son of a strawberry farmer from northern Japan, Suga fled his village at 18 and laboured in a cardboard factory to pay his Tokyo college fees. In the parallel universe of Japan’s elitist dynastic political families, whose scions become PMs, humble origins are insurmountable barriers to political crowning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But destiny favoured Suga. Greatness was thrust upon him by former PM Shinzo Abe, who resigned suddenly citing ill health. Abe knew his devoted lieutenant Suga would safeguard his legacy and complete his unfinished reforms. They had been a good team—Abe grandstanding in the limelight, Suga toiling in the shadows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With almost eight years at the helm, Abe is Japan’s longest-serving PM, and his appointee—the unsmiling, weary-eyed Suga—the nation’s longest-serving chief cabinet secretary. Self-effacing Suga secured that top job through loyalty and merit. But he also had an underrated asset and strategy—a drab personality that helped him fly under the radar. “The nail that stands out gets hammered,” is a popular saying in Japan, where society swiftly squashes any deviation from conformity, modesty and humility. Abe and Taro Kano, another blue-blooded minister who could eventually become PM, are mavericks. But Japanese carpentry rules do not apply to princelings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For now, the princelings who head the fratricidal factions in Japan’s ruling LDP party support Suga’s elevation because he is uncontroversial and a political lightweight. Anyway, this is a stop-gap arrangement until the September 2021 elections. For similar reasons, Congress factions had agreed upon the mild-mannered, scholarly P.V. Narasimha Rao becoming prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination three decades ago. Rao went on to serve a full term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like Rao, Suga, 71, is not a vote-getter. He is disciplined and hard-working, but lacks people skills, charisma and eloquence. In his victory speech, he prioritised tackling Covid-19 and then droned: “I want to break down bureaucratic sectionalism, vested interests and the blind adherence to precedent.” Not exactly crackling words that inspire voters to spark revolutions.</p> <p>But like Rao, Suga has a trump card, acquired through a long innings in politics. He is a skilful, behind-the-curtain operator who can manoeuvre Japan’s opaque bureaucracy. It is tempting to describe Suga as a humourless Sir Humphrey, the crafty bureaucrat in the BBC sitcom Yes Minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some experts predict that Suga is doomed to be merely a stand-in PM because the sectarian samurais will swoop in for the kill before next year’s elections. Internecine warfare could propel Japan back to the “revolving door” era—short-term PMs packed off prematurely by rivals. Since World War II, Japan has had 63 PMs. But others say Suga’s factional neutrality may help him become the least troublesome choice that all can agree upon... again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Much depends on how Suga tackles his basket of inherited problems—the pandemic, a shrinking population, an ageing society, the slumping economy, the massive public debt and a rising China. His past suggests he is reform-minded. He counts the privatisation of Japan railways as one of his triumphs. He may even call snap elections to secure himself. Suga has already travelled far from his humble origins. If he plods on as a boring bureaucrat who delivers results, he may yet pioneer a ‘velvet revolution’ in Japanese politics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Sep 25 17:26:34 IST 2020 the-royal-vanishing-act <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Ex-King flees to unknown land”. This time-warp headline takes us to medieval eras when monarchs fled their kingdoms, pursued by rebels, coup leaders, murderous kin or invading conquerors. But, this happens in 2020, involving the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos, 82. The unknown land he fled to is Abu Dhabi, where he is reportedly luxuriating in a $13,000 a night “paparazzi-free” hotel, with his loyal lover of 40 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One palace writer claims Queen Sofia has not shared her bedroom with Carlos since 1976, when she caught him cheating. Another claimed this King Don Juan had 5,000 mistresses—another time-warp reminding us of Emperor Akbar and his harem of 5,000 concubines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not companionship or carnal liaisons but a corruption scandal that drove Carlos out of his homeland. He is accused of siphoning tens of millions of dollars from a secret offshore fund linked to Saudi Arabia. Spain’s supreme court prosecutor is investigating whether the former king received bribes for a $11 billion contract awarded to a Spanish consortium for constructing a high-speed rail linking Saudi holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Spanish and Swiss authorities are investigating whether the rail contract is connected to a reported $100 million “gift” that the late Saudi King Abdullah gave to a foundation associated with Carlos.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2014, public dissatisfaction spurred Carlos to abdicate in favour of his son Felipe—after a 38-year reign. Serving Spanish monarchs are immune to prosecution, but not necessarily ex-kings. Critics wonder whether Carlos fled to avoid conviction, a fate that befell his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin. A retired handball player, Urdangarin is currently serving a six-year jail term for embezzling $7 billion in public funds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Scandal has pursued the former king from the time he was a young prince. As a teenager, he killed his brother in a shooting accident. In 2006, there was a furore over allegations that he had shot dead a drunken bear after enticing it with vodka-infused honey. Most devastating was his secret, “tone deaf” extravagant hunting holiday in 2012. While Spain reeled under unemployment and austerity induced by the financial crisis, Carlos spent tens of thousands of dollars killing elephants and African buffalos in Botswana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One former lover said Carlos financed his lavish lifestyle with “suitcases of cash” brought back from trips to Arab nations. The holiday became public only when he fractured his hip in a fall and had to be evacuated back to Madrid in a special aircraft. His 13-year-old grandson had to be hospitalised after he shot himself in the foot. People were aghast that the boy was allowed to use such lethal weapons, given the family’s deadly history with firearms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite his flaws and foibles, the former king has a place in people’s hearts and in Spain’s history. After dictator General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, King Carlos’s support enabled Spain’s bloodless transition from fascism to democracy. For Spain, stability is paramount then as now with regions like Catalonia demanding to break free. But Carlos is now a polarising figure. Younger generations see less justification for a luxury-loving monarchy, kept afloat with taxpayers’ money. In pandemic-ravaged Spain, people are losing patience with royal misconduct. King Felipe has renounced his inheritance from his tainted father. He has also stripped his father of his annual $2.3 lakh allowance. But that is easily shrugged away when several million dollars lie waiting in Swiss banks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Sep 11 18:13:00 IST 2020 assets-imagined-and-real <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The dystopian world of artificial intelligence that we imagined would unfold in the future is already here. Or, at least a hybrid version with humans and AI working together, but where humans are not always in control.One “enemy”spawning and spinning this dystopian world is the global financial market, says San Francisco-based internet guru Tim O’Reilly. “The market is on its way to becoming that long-feared rogue AI, enemy to humanity, a machine that its creators no longer fully understand,”he said. Problematically, the financial market is disconnected from the real economy of goods and services that it was originally created to support. An example of this disconnection is the stock market rally and Apple’s astronomical $2 trillion valuation in the midst of an economically devastating global pandemic.</p> <p>The “market”, nicknamed “Wall Street”, does not factor in livelihoods, indebtedness, inequalities, pollution or resource depletion. Predator Wall Street preys on High Street for profit and productivity. Says O’Reilly, “We are engaged in a battle for the soul of this machine, and we are losing.” How the global financial market evolved into an AI-accelerated web is testimony to humans imitating nature. We, instinctively, associate AI with robots. But, an AI ecosystem is similar to a forest’s biosphere, our brain’s neural networks or our gut’s microbiome comprising the vast ecology of interconnected microorganisms. Billions of humans store and share information every second on the internet, creating a technology-assisted global human-machine hybrid brain. We now live in the womb of this AI ecosystem. This collective super intelligence is designed, directed and amplified by algorithms. More than 50 per cent of the stocks are now traded by algorithms because humans cannot compete with its speed. The time advantage of a high-speed trader is one millisecond. Says best-selling author Michael Lewis, “It takes 100 milliseconds to blink. So, this is a fraction of a blink of a human eye. But for a computer that’s plenty of time.” High-speed trading and complex investment instruments such as derivatives (that caused the 2008 global meltdown) pull financial markets beyond human grasp and control.</p> <p>Says O’Reilly, “Financial capitalism became a market in imaginary assets, made plausible only by the Wall Street equivalent of fake news.” The market’s destructive power is also demonstrated by the prioritisation of shareholders over workers, consumers and communities. Experts say the compulsion to increase share price above all else has hollowed out the mainstream economy.</p> <p>Economics professor William Lazonick notes that over a decade, Fortune 500 companies spent 86 per cent of their $3.4 trillion profits to buy back shares and give dividends to shareholders, leaving only 14 per cent for reinvestment in the company. Workers are now a cost to be eliminated. Over the past 50 years, the share of wages to GDP fell from 54 to 44 per cent, while corporate profits rose from 4 to 11 per cent. But the algorithm is servant, not master. It fast-tracks its creators’intentions, which are driven by altruism or greed. AI accelerates benefits and inequalities, profits and losses. The legendary GE boss Jack Welch was an ardent advocate of this shareholder capitalism. By 2009, he had changed his mind, calling it “a dumb idea”. By then he had retired with a fortune of $900 million. It was “dumb” because growth slowed. Companies had to buy back stocks to increase share price and create the illusion of growth to conceal the stagnation. Real growth improves people’s lives. So now, fake news in politics complements fake growth in economics. Perhaps, it was farsighted to call this tool artificial intelligence.&nbsp;</p> Thu Aug 27 14:59:30 IST 2020 the-showdown-is-on <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>T he “Thucydides Trap” states that a rising power is doomed to conflict with the established hegemon. This theory has stood the test of time for 2,500 years. Experts now fear a doomed conflict between the United States and China, in a new version of the Cold War.</p> <p>Closing each other’s consulates is vintage Cold War. But the new twist is that China cannot be “contained” because it is deeply integrated into the global economy. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted: “The USSR was closed off from the free world. Communist China is already within our borders.”</p> <p>And making full use of it—snooping, spying, selling and stealing. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray says China’s intellectual property theft is “so massive that it represents one of the largest wealth transfers in human history”. China’s thieving costs an estimated $250-$600 billion a year and robs millions of American jobs. The new US war chant: China is “raiding, not trading”.</p> <p>Two-thirds of Americans view China as a “major threat”, which explains the bipartisan consensus to get tough on China. Reducing American dependence by helping companies to shift out supply chains and isolating China commands public support. In the run up to the November presidential elections, China-bashing by both Donald Trump and Joe Biden will intensify, but the accelerating shift heralds worsening US-China relations thereafter.</p> <p>A shift has also taken place in China, away from former premier Deng Xiaoping’s mantra—“Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” Under Xi Jinping, China is done biding its time, rising peacefully. It has risen.</p> <p>It is flexing its muscle—military, economic and rhetorical—and cracking its whip within, in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, in its neighbourhood and beyond, and as far as Australia and Britain.</p> <p>In what will probably be called the “Pompeo Doctrine”, America’s top diplomat, who harbours presidential ambitions, proclaimed the new battle cry against China. Until now, US-China relations have been defined by a complex coupling of financial and economic mutual interdependence. In a seminal speech at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, Pompeo outlined his decoupling doctrine by announcing an ideological war between “freedom and tyranny. The Chinese Communist Party is the enemy, the Chinese people the friend”.</p> <p>The Trump administration that has spurned, insulted and sanctioned its allies now beckons them to join an alliance of democratic nations to take on China. America still has friends across the world. So does China, which has drawn many countries into its Belt and Road Initiative. It also has allies in the corrupt, authoritarian world. The China bloc is not equal, but it cannot be dismissed.</p> <p>Experts say the emerging bipolar world is divided not so much by ideology as by the great firewall of technology. The west’s rejection of Huawei is the opening shot of the decoupling. 5G is the battle terrain for the two blocs. China has developed cutting-edge hard, soft and internet-related technologies involving social media, deliveries, payments, infrastructure and entertainment.</p> <p>The assumption that innovation thrives only in the petri dish of freedom, or that a Facebook can emerge only in America, is questionable. Chinese drones were deployed to take close-up videos of the burning Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The footage helped firemen pinpoint their water hoses and thus save the structure. The drones were made by Chinese student entrepreneurs in their university dorms. As Thucydides wrote, people being people, similar sort of things—from creativity to conflict—happen, again and again.</p> Thu Jul 30 15:47:13 IST 2020 when-pax-americana-wanes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>An image sometimes captures an empire’s decline. The iconic photograph of nurses wearing garbage bags as protection against Covid-19 illustrates America’s waning. Decay is invisible in real time. Yet, the world watched as an unprepared and ill-equipped superpower was humbled by a tiny, invisible virus.</p> <p>But the virus, like Donald Trump, is not the cause but the catalyst that accelerates existing problems. Trump shredded the US-led international order single-handedly, resulting in a disgraceful free-for-all. Instead of championing global efforts, the US became a Covid-19 medicine-grabbing buccaneer. When an imperium is no longer admired, respected or feared, it begins to unravel. Like a supernova, a superpower collapses when it runs out of fuel, when contradictory forces within collide.</p> <p>To understand how empires end, one can study the last one that did—the Soviet Union. Empires implode because of “self-delusion”, observed Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik. Magnificent visions collide with contradictory, grim ground realities. Soviet grandeur fuelled spacecrafts to Venus, but ordinary people struggled for toilet paper.</p> <p>Delusions of American exceptionalism is pervasive. Polls show 90 per cent of Americans believe egalitarianism is the top national ideal. Yet, studies confirm that the US is one of the most unequal societies in the world—stratified by racial injustice, rising poverty, declining mortality rate, plummeting industrial employment spanning five decades, collapsing infrastructure, failing schools, soaring deficits, staggering debt, unsafe cities, deteriorating health systems, outdated gun laws and popular pandemic beliefs that facemasks violate civil liberties and “Jesus is my vaccine”. &nbsp;America still has the world’s richest people, best universities, companies, entertainment and is the hub of excellence and innovation. But the cracks caused by these contradictory forces have widened to chasms, deep and structural. Is this damage repairable? Is there a moral or economic glue to fix this polarised nation?</p> <p>It is difficult because ideology fails the US exactly as it did the Soviet Union. Once “sacred”, capitalism has evidently gone rogue. It has spawned plutocrats who get richer by stymying scrutiny, blocking regulation and rigging democracy by engineering favourable laws. Communism had its proletariat, capitalism has its “precariat”—an underclass of the exploited—as described by author Martin Sandbu. Inhabiting this parallel universe are essential workers like drivers, cleaners and care workers who live precariously on temporary jobs, low wages and erratic shifts. The poor live on prayer. As Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev says, “The poor do not fear the end of time, they fear the end of the month.” Even US allies agree that the “idea” of America as prosperous, powerful, free and fair has run out of fuel. Disillusioned with toxic American capitalism, they turn to Scandinavian socialism or as economist Thomas Piketty labels “participatory socialism”.</p> <p>Like massive stars, empires self-destruct, with peripheries breaking away, leaving behind a contracting core, what astronomers call “the white dwarf”. The earlier empires have left behind their geographical dwarfs—Britain, Russia, Turkey, Italy and Austria. Pax Americana will end, but the United States will survive. But will it remain united or will it fragment like all previous empires? Liberal California on the periphery is the world’s fifth biggest economy; already there is talk of “Calexit”.</p> <p>A supernova is a dying star’s “last hurrah”. But an empire’s collapse is rarely marked by a thunderous explosion. The end meanders in drips and drabs, in everyday failures, in sad whimpers and pathetic sights, unheard, unnoticed, unremembered. Like bankruptcy, the decline of an empire happens gradually, then suddenly.</p> Thu Jul 16 17:17:21 IST 2020 this-is-america <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>During the pandemic, the rich got richer. Not only billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Microsoft’s Bill Gates, whose goods and services enjoyed unprecedented demand. The rich got richer because they could not spend. New research shows that spending by the top 25 per cent of American earners’ dropped by 17 per cent; in low income groups it fell only by 4 per cent.</p> <p>The rich saved money as they worked and played at home. But the livelihood of many low-wage workers depends on the lifestyle and whims of the rich. While landscaping and swimming pool services thrived, small businesses in the posh neighbourhoods—wine bars, sushi restaurants, Pilates studios, and gourmet boutiques—suffered a 70 per cent revenue drop and a 65 per cent job loss.</p> <p>Research by Opportunity Insights headed by Harvard’s Raj Chetty assessed the economic impact of Covid-19 and the US government’s response. They analysed digital data obtained from credit card processors, payroll firms, government agencies and private companies using Big Data. Dissected data generates interactive maps, charts and infographics that are used to examine details and understand patterns. Chetty, 40, whose parents emigrated three decades ago, is described as a “star economist” destined to win a Nobel Prize.</p> <p>Studying consumption patterns is kosher—it is economics, capitalism and utterly American. Two-thirds of the United States economy is fuelled by consumption. But Chetty establishes the moral significance of Big Data, using it to expose the underbelly of injustice, inequality and income-segregation. His “Opportunity Atlas” map colour-codes rich and poor neighbourhoods across the US, revealing that poverty is concentrated in the former slave-owning regions. There is an oasis of white affluence in towns like Charlotte, fringed by ghettos of black misery. His research proves that moving children to better neighbourhoods improves their future income. The younger the child, the greater the benefit. The children of one per-centers are 10 times more likely to become inventors even when their childhood math scores were the same as the poor children’s. Chetty calls these underprivileged children “Lost Einsteins”, cursed by their poor neighbourhoods. Today’s street protests underline Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year old observation: “Inequality is the cause of all local movements.”</p> <p>Chetty’s data show that the government response to Covid-19 was largely ineffective. The $500 billion support to big companies did not save jobs. It should have been given to small businesses. The $1,200 stimulus cheques bearing Donald Trump’s name went to millions of affluent housewives, expatriates and even dead Americans. Chetty warns against forcibly restarting the economy. As long as the rich are afraid of the virus, they will not go out and spend money. So the government must bring the virus under control.</p> <p>The economy will eventually return, but millions of low-paid American jobs may not. Previous shocks—globalisation, offshoring, deindustrialisation—reveal that workers find relocation and retraining difficult. In the 2000s, a million manufacturing jobs were lost in the American Rust Belt to cheap Chinese imports. Unable to find new jobs, non-college-educated, middle-aged white men became addicted to alcohol and opioids, resulting in “Deaths of Despair”.</p> <p>Researchers despair over the ruins of the American Dream. The dream extols the ideal that regardless of where they are born, capable children can succeed and earn more than their parents. Chetty busts this myth. He has shown that children born in 1940 had a 90 per cent chance of earning more than their parents. In 1990, only 50 per cent stood that chance. How then does one achieve the American Dream? Chetty says: Move to Canada.</p> Thu Jul 02 18:05:00 IST 2020 racism-touch-up-and-rip-up <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The brutal police killing of George Floyd blew the lid off a global problem. Racism exists in every country and it has nothing to do with race. Science disproves that blacks or any other ethnic groups are inferior, because all humans carry the same genes. Racism is man-made, which explains why it thrives even in Africa that is full of blacks and in India where there are no blacks. This “ism” is a socio-cultural ideology designed to devalue, dominate and discriminate against the vulnerable underclass—blacks, dalits, Muslims, Jews, minorities, migrants or women.</p> <p>Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, all sprout from the same cursed root: “the will to exercise power, the need to control”, as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison explains. The tendency that makes some men want to control their wives is not very different from the pathology of a majority community wishing to dominate a minority group.</p> <p>Humans are not naturally racist, but are evolutionarily programmed to be groupists. In certain situations, the narratives about the “stranger” as a “threat” escalate to demonising the “other” as contemptible, unclean and ignorant. This becomes an existential necessity in order to lionise the dominant group. One needs the “other” to feel privileged, blessed and superior—individually, institutionally and ideologically. From the clay of subjugation, the identity of the oppressor is moulded.</p> <p>Oppressors subjugated black communities through the centuries. In mid-19th century Ohio, 25-year-old black slave woman Margaret Garner killed her children when they were sold and about to be taken to another plantation. She wanted to spare them the agonies she herself endured. Her case went to trial, but she was not given the death penalty as she was not considered human with human responsibilities such as motherhood. Blacks were useful, not quite like cattle, yet not sufficiently human.</p> <p>Racists misused both science and religion to justify enslaving the blacks. In 1851, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal published a report on the “Diseases and physical peculiarities of the Negro race”. It claimed blacks were prone to drapetomania (a disease that made them run away) and dysaesthesia aethiopica (laziness, due to which their shrunken lungs were chronically oxygen-deficient). Never mind that the first disease contradicts the second.</p> <p>Such prejudices still fester with popular assumptions that laziness makes blacks obese. Working multiple shifts to make ends meet, impoverished blacks have neither the money nor the energy to go to gyms. They live on cheap and fattening junk food. Job insecurity and stress contribute to ailments ranging from hypertension to diabetes. Not surprisingly, blacks and migrants who suffer these underlying conditions were hardest hit by Covid-19. As a Harvard study reveals, ZIP code is a better predictor of health than genetic code. Where you live matters, and not for snobbish reasons. A poor neighbourhood dooms its inhabitants to shoddy education, scant job opportunities, bad housing, drugs and crime—all of which undermine health.</p> <p>For decades, books and Hollywood films romanticised or “white-washed” American slavery—the jolly matronly housekeeper, the happy handyman, the joyous children singing in cotton fields. That’s all gone now. The solution to the current protests to exorcise racism includes essential police reforms. Equally important is ending the culture of white impunity by enforcing the law and securing convictions. Racism is systemic and can be uprooted only by upgrading the ZIP codes of poor black neighbourhoods by investing in education, health care, job opportunities, safety, sport and leisure activities. Otherwise, as before, blacks will remain banished in the place where they belong, homeless in their home.</p> Mon Jun 22 08:32:05 IST 2020 a-trump-of-lies <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Why are we still shocked by President Donald Trump, his falsehoods, distortions and exaggerations? Through the ages, in mythology and in history, Gods and men have lied. One of humankind’s oldest tendencies, lying ranges from the harmless, arousing fun and laughter, to the vicious, resulting in grief and death. Literature captures the rainbow spectrum of lies, from dark to light, from hilarity to the terrors of its consequences. An enduring dramatisation is Iago’s cruel lies that draw Shakespeare’s Othello to suicide.</p> <p>Research typically focuses on the liar—the motivations, the character flaws and the after-effects. But it does not equally analyse the “lied-to” or the victim. There is an almost predatory relationship here, with the liar exploiting the vulnerabilities of the lied-to, not necessarily abusively, but in a psychologically manipulative manner. The liar becomes the “re-affirmer”, telling what the lied-to wants to hear or already suspects. Only if it hits a fertile, receptive mind can the lie strike root and germinate into a monster of belief in the victim’s head. As Othello shows, lies unleash devastating consequences when they awaken the victim’s dormant demons of jealousy. Absolving himself, Iago says of Othello, “I told him what I thought, and told no more/ Than what he found himself was apt and true.”</p> <p>Trump’s lies, perhaps, should be seen in this context. He is talking only to his base, not to CNN, educated Americans or the world. He is not lying, he is telling what his base wants to hear, what they believe to be “apt and true”. Left behind by globalisation, digitalisation and offshoring, alienated and stressed, Trump’s base clings to conspiracy theories to explain the downturn in their lives. They fully endorse Trump’s attacks on the liberal establishment, the intelligentsia, Hollywood, mainstream media and social media giants. In daring to filter his misleading messages to his base, Twitter earned Trump’s blistering wrath.</p> <p>Rising like the coronavirus death toll, Trump’s falsehoods are nearing 20,000. “There has never been such a serial liar in the Oval Office,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “Trump lies as a policy.” Trump appals truth-seekers, but every one of his lies cements the bond between him and his base. This explains why despite his follies, Trump’s ratings never dropped below 35 per cent.</p> <p>Reading between Trump’s lies, his motivation appears to be to win admiration or deny failure. He is not the first or the last to lie for those reasons. “Lying politician” is a 200-year-old British phrase that still survives, though many now see it as a tautology—a repetition in terms. Lies resonate because they arouse emotions. Both literature and history unveil the drama of unpredictable outcomes when emotions run high. “Even the buses lied” is a popular British mantra to describe the Brexiteer’s campaign to leave the European Union. Boris Johnson even faced a lawsuit for his falsehoods that were plastered on London buses. The public knew these claims were false. Yet, not only did Brexiteers win the referendum, Johnson secured a landslide victory in last year’s elections.</p> <p>Analysts’ explanation is that we have entered the post-truth age. But, could it be that voters are battling a bigger, bitter truth—a rigged system entrenched by a corrupt elite of dishonest politicians, tycoons and journalists that perpetuates disparity and discrimination? The web of inequality, injustice and deceit has spun through the centuries. Lies are the silken threads that weave the gossamer snares of deception and defeat, vanity and victory.</p> <p>The age of lies is without beginning and it is without end. &nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 04 16:04:17 IST 2020 an-unusual-cult-figure <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Tall and handsome in a craggy sort of way, Dr Anders Tegnell commands the highest popularity ratings in Sweden. Youngsters tattoo his face on their bodies. But he is no rock star. He is a bespectacled, boring bureaucrat. Tegnell, 64, is Sweden’s chief epidemiologist—the architect of Covid-19 ‘Lockdown Lite’, which made his nation the world’s most fascinating outlier. Says prominent scientist Johan Giesecke: “Sweden is doing it right. Everyone else is wrong.”</p> <p>While most countries imprisoned citizens in their homes for two months, Sweden targeted shutting down only places acutely vulnerable to Covid-19. Care homes and universities were closed, but schools, offices, factories, shops and cafes remained open throughout. People were instructed to work from home if possible, restrict travel and maintain two-metre distance in all public places, including restaurants. Sweden’s economy never froze.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tegnell’s strategy counted firstly on Swedish citizens’ fabled sense of duty and compliance. It also helps that the Swedes are not touchy-feely, hugging and kissing, like the Italians and the Spaniards. Secondly, the authorities aimed to protect the public health system from becoming overburdened.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tegnell, whose 30-year career in public health includes field experience from the 1995 Ebola epidemic, says health policies should be “sustainable and holistic”. “Confining schoolchildren for weeks harms them mentally and psychologically”. Likewise, shutting the economy “is a terrible option because losing jobs is extremely dangerous to health,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is too early to determine if Tegnell’s way is the better global role model. Sweden’s Covid-19 death rate is way above Norway’s and Denmark’s, but far below that of other European countries like Britain, France, Spain, Italy or Belgium. The elderly account for 50 per cent of the death toll. Still, the public health system was not overwhelmed, having 20 per cent spare capacity in ICU beds even at the pandemic’s peak. Sweden’s economy did not suffer a cardiac arrest, but shrank six per cent mainly due to supply disruptions as other countries imposed severe lockdowns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Donald Trump would happily import Tegnell and his ‘Lockdown Lite’ strategy to replace his own expert, Anthony Fauci, who advocates total shutdowns. But Tegnell’s model cannot be replicated in the United States. Science-trusting, law-abiding Swedes respect authority, unlike the gun-slinging American protesters. The pandemic also exposes how inadequate the American public health system is.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts will surely examine if the world did the right thing in imitating China’s sledgehammer lockdown. Scientists say we must learn to live with this virus. Having achieved a higher immunity rate, Sweden can probably cope better with future Covid-19 outbreaks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Tegnell has strong critics. Accusing him of “gambling”, Dr Stefan Hanson, a Swedish infectious disease expert, said: “You cannot take risks with people’s lives if you do not know what risks you are taking.” Tegnell’s strategy was attacked by 2,000 Swedish scientists, but over one lakh Swedes joined Anders Tegnell fan clubs, which are sprouting like dandelions in spring. Fans see him as a hero who had the courage to be the lone voice, steadfastly safeguarding health and economy. Praised WHO’s Michael Ryan: “I think there may be lessons to be learned from our colleagues in Sweden.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tegnell finds his cult status “absurd”. His three daughters think the media hoopla is hilarious, especially a fashion magazine’s analysis of his dress sense—or lack thereof. With his maroon pullovers and brown jackets, his matter-of-fact comments and contrarian views, his fan clubs and daring strategy, Anders Tegnell is no boring bureaucrat after all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 22 16:57:23 IST 2020 credibility-at-stake <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I really screwed up.” It is a startling confession from any official, but astonishing when it comes from the CEO of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, popularly known as Norway’s Oil Fund. Abjectly apologising to his staff for returning from a $3 million luxury seminar in Philadelphia in a private jet, the fund’s contrite CEO Yngve Slyngstad messaged: “This was not in line with the modest profile of our brand. It was a lack of good judgment. I am truly sorry for letting our organisational culture down.” That culture forbids accepting even a free cup of coffee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bigger problem is that the “dream” seminar and jet were arranged by Slyngstad’s selected successor, Nicolai Tangen, a London-based hedge fund billionaire, who takes over as the fund’s CEO in September. The Oil Fund is a global gold standard for its prudent and ethical investments. It invests revenues from Norway’s huge oil and gas resources to benefit current and future generations of Norwegians. The $1 trillion fund owns 1.3 per cent of all listed shares in the world. It takes moderate risks—serving its higher purpose is more important than maximising returns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say Tangen, 54, is unsuitable for the job. He is accused of seducing officials, ministers, diplomats and cultural czars with his wealth. Comments Norwegian parliamentarian Kari Elisabeth Kaski: “This is how economic elites try to buy power.” Famous anti-corruption campaigner Eva Joly warns: “The whole recruitment process is corrupted.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tangen was not on the published list of candidates, but he sprung upon the public at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown. Analysts say the fund should not be headed by a successful, risk-taking hedge fund manager, that too one with assets in tax havens—in Jersey, British Virgin and Cayman Islands. They say Tangen’s use of tax havens and trusts to avoid taxes has “an unfortunate signal effect”. Criticises Joly: “His appointment is catastrophic for the fund’s credibility in the international fight against tax havens.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anti-corruption activists have been crusading for years to shut down tax havens—those “sunny places for shady people” as author Nicholas Shaxson describes. They are primary conduits for money laundering, smuggling, parking ill-gotten wealth and tax evasion. If tax havens are eradicated, governments could invest the recovered tax revenue to create jobs and infrastructure. But the global elite ensures lawmakers keep tax havens legal to draw distinctions between tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (illegal). Says Kaski: “Tax havens are legal. But that does not make them moral. They are a problem for the global economy. The Oil Fund is needed to lead the fight against tax havens.” Laws and loopholes enrich the wealthy. As a foreign resident in London, Tangen does not pay taxes either to Norway or Britain, proving US President Donald Trump’s dictum: Only idiots pay taxes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But when he moves to Oslo, Tangen will have to pay a yearly property tax of about $7 million. His annual salary is $1 million, meaning he would pay more in taxes in a year than he would earn during a six-year tenure. “I am not doing it for the money,” he says, stating the obvious. The prestige of having been the boss of the world’s biggest fund will be major capital for his post-CEO investments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After 12 years of faultless stewardship, outgoing CEO Slyngstad muses: “This is like mountain climbing. It is while climbing down, when you are tired and think that you have made it, that you fall.” Tangen falls even before he begins his climb, as the Oil Fund, Norway’s pride and glory, faces the biggest test in its 22-year history.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 08 17:52:15 IST 2020 european-union-divided-by-a-virus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We have witnessed the coronavirus’s capacity to ravage lives and livelihood. Experts wonder if it can ravage and unravel the European Union, the world’s biggest and mightiest bloc. The person thinking this unthinkable thought is none other than French President Emmanuel Macron, EU’s doughtiest defender. In a Financial Times interview, he warns that the EU “as a political project will collapse” if the EU’s richer northern countries fail to bail out the pandemic-stricken southern members of Italy and Spain.</p> <p>When Covid-19 erupted, instead of showing solidarity, EU countries distanced themselves from each other, closed borders and struggled to control the pandemic in their own countries. Italy did not even get masks from the EU, making anti-EU sentiments as lethally contagious as the virus. A poll revealed 88 per cent of Italians feel the EU failed them, prompting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to publicly apologise for “not offering a helping hand”. With an eye on his own nation’s right-wingers, Macron predicts the virus will fuel populist anger against the EU in Italy and Spain, unless the bloc shows solidarity.</p> <p>But solidarity is just another word for money. Rich, financially disciplined northern countries like Germany and the Netherlands support giving emergency relief to the southern states—€100 billion to protect jobs. But they say the pandemic cannot be an excuse to waive loan repayments. Long before Covid-19 struck, Italy’s debt was unsustainable. Observes Italian investment banker Alessandro Ciravegna, “The Italian economy has underperformed on almost every metric for decades, due in large part to structural inefficiencies that Italians acknowledge but simply refuse to address.” For example, about 60 million tourists travel to Italy every year and Italy has a large global diaspora. Yet Alitalia has never been solvent. A thriving black economy means low tax revenues. Adds Ciravegna, “Foreigners who have ever had to deal with any part of the judicial system run and never return.”</p> <p>The protestant northerners are seen as frugal, hardworking and law-abiding. The southerners, lazy and wasteful. Former Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem famously told southern Europeans, “I attribute exceptional importance to solidarity. But you also have obligations. You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Southerners say the “conditionalities” attached to the funding are unacceptable, while northerners retort that even when parents pay for children’s education, it is on the condition that they attend classes and study hard. Pleads Ana Botin, executive chairman of the Spanish Santander Bank, “We are in this together. Countries with the broadest shoulders should carry more of the burden.”</p> <p>Stoking the north-south stereotypes, Italy’s nationalist leader Mateo Salvini warned that if Germans do not give money, Italians would not buy BMWs. Germans blew a fuse at the notion that they must work full shifts in their factories, pay taxes and then donate their tax revenue so that Italians can cruise in BMWs. They asked where Italian solidarity was when German workers sacrificed pay hikes to make their economy healthy again.</p> <p>This infectious virus, like a secret agent, enters through chinks in the armour. It cannot create cracks in the EU, but it can certainly widen existing ones, especially when the bloc lacks the immunity of social cohesion. Even today, there is no European national hero or monument that member states can agree on to adorn the Euro banknotes. Currently, they feature non-existent classical buildings. Two-thirds of Italians now feel EU membership is a hindrance. “This crisis is the EU’s biggest test yet,” warns Botin. One of EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monnet had said, “Europe will be forged in crisis.” It can also fall apart.</p> Thu Apr 23 16:05:35 IST 2020 realities-of-a-post-pandemic-world <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though 2,000 times smaller than a grain of salt, the coronavirus flies straight into the heart of darkness, and greatness, exposing the true character of peoples and nations. Among world leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel scored high, staying true to her character—wise and restrained—speaking little and doing much to prepare her country. Thus, Germany had spare ICU capacity to treat Italian and French patients.</p> <p>At the other end was Donald Trump staying true to his character—denying Covid-19, blaming opponents, sowing confusion, contradicting himself and stealing credit, face masks and vaccine-development research. The continent’s populist leaders took cues from Trump. Rather than heed medical experts, they spun conspiracy theories, blamed media and vaunted their exceptionalism. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador mingled with crowds, shook hands, hugged, kissed and playfully bit a child’s cheek, claiming, “We should hug. Nothing will happen.”</p> <p>Forget social distancing, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega spearheaded a public rally proclaiming victory over the virus. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, first dismissed Covid-19 as a “fantasy”. When it began disrupting the economy, he got furious. Urging people to return to their jobs, he said, “The virus is there. We need to face it like a man, dammit. We will all die someday.” That is not comforting to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, felled and hospitalised by the virus. In contrast, New York’s Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo became the much-admired ‘Man of Action’ with his empathy and toughness. He could even unseat Trump.</p> <p>In some countries, people sing, applaud and blare horns to express their gratitude to medics. But in Brazil and Spain, people bang pots and pans to express anti-government discontent. For months, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in France have been protesting to get financial support for the underclass. The pandemic disproportionately hurts this segment that is not privileged to work from home: shop assistants, delivery drivers, garbage collectors, medics, food factory workers—the frontline warriors preventing societal collapse.</p> <p>Elites salute them, but the hypocrisy is blinding. These “heroes” are among the lowest paid, often on contract, with no job security, no health insurance, no holidays, no pension and no future. “It is an eye-opener,” says Chloé Morin, analyst with the Jean-Jaurès Foundation. “The existence of social inequalities is not new, but it is amplified by the current crisis. The people who make the economy work are poorly paid and poorly regarded.” France’s Libération newspaper asked, “Does the prestige and income of the wealthy correspond to their social utility?” The virus exposed human parasites and corporate shamelessness. BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen planned to give €7.5 billion in dividends to investors while taking government subsidy to pay two lakh workers. German socialist leader Carsten Schneider exploded: “This is the ugly face of capitalism.”</p> <p>Covid-19 snapped supply chains, making western countries regret their excessive reliance on low-cost China in pursuit of corporate efficiency and profits. European economist Beata Javorcik predicts, “Coronavirus will not end globalisation. But it will change it.” Countries now equate self-sufficiency with national security. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire argues, “This is protection, not protectionism.” Outsource to EU countries, not Asia, is his corona-exit strategy. He claims, “With this crisis, EU has a historic opportunity to become an economic and political superpower between the US and China.” Actually, the virus severely tests EU solidarity. Italy got no protective gear from EU members. Supplies arrived from Russia and China. True to character, China tried to extract propaganda mileage, but much of the equipment was defective.</p> Thu Apr 09 15:46:56 IST 2020 goops-oomph-factor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Who would buy an expensive bottle of “vampire repellant spray”? If you believe in vampires, cheap garlic should do the trick. Oscar-winning actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury lifestyle company Goop peddles a vampire “psychic mist” that uses “gem healing and aromatic therapeutic oils” to banish evil spirits, expel negative energy and shield buyers from the bad vibes of people near them. If the boss is the vampire, they do not need the spray now, when working from home. If it is their husband, then no repellant can help when they are quarantined together.</p> <p>Goop’s other outlandish offerings include coffee enemas (presumably to awaken the inner you), chill child (to mollify your frisky kid into a furry lamb), a hyped “90-second breath-workout” that takes six minutes, $1,20,000 (Rs91 lakh) gold dumbbells (guaranteed to reduce your bank balance if not your weight), $2,300 (Rs1.75 lakh) gilded playing cards (to kill time when you have arrived but are going nowhere), $43,200 (Rs32.86 lakh) chandelier earrings (to show you have pierced glass ceilings), Devi steamer seat (to send vapours to body parts that have never seen sunshine) and more. Several other products cannot be mentioned in a family magazine.</p> <p>Like its silly sprays, exotic elixirs, pampering potions and gobsmacking gizmos, the company’s very name is idiotic. Goop. It means nothing, it stands for nothing. Paltrow claims someone told her that successful internet companies have two ‘O’s in their names. Like, Facebook and Google. Never mind Netflix, Amazon, Uber—that is an irrelevant detail in her saga. For customers yearning for the elusive, the unknown, the instant fix, the manic mantra, the luxury purr, the magic cure, Goop it is. This is the La La Land of the loopy one percenters. Escape in a bottle. Dreams in a jar. Hope in a tube. The sorcery ends with the last squeeze. Some customers go away, others come back for more.</p> <p>Paltrow launched Goop from her kitchen. Scientists wish it had stayed there. She began with a “homespun” newsletter that swelled into a major enterprise, hawking health, beauty, fashion, accessories, décor, gadgets, books, alternative therapies and celebrity cruises. At Goop’s “health summits”, patients give testimonies about how love in the brain brought back dead people or positive emotions cured cancer (neglecting to mention their chemotherapy).</p> <p>Goop is the scientific community’s four-letter word. Experts groaned when Netflix recently launched a docuseries on Goop’s psychedelic and energy exorcism cures for physical and mental illnesses. An aghast Simon Stevens, head of Britain’s National Health Service, said Goop’s “dubious wellness products and dodgy procedures” posed “considerable health risk”to the public, adding “people’s natural concern for their health, and particularly about that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans and cranks”.</p> <p>To banish scientists’bad vibes, Goop sprays disclaimers on merchandise that customers should take medical advice. But then it uses scientific jargon to beguile customers into thinking these snake oils are cutting-edge medical innovations. Canadian health-policy maker Tim Caulfield observes, “As people become more science-literate, pseudoscience has adopted scientific language to justify itself.” Paltrow praises an alternative treatment to Lyme disease that uses “quantum science”. Impressive, but doubtful that physicists believe subatomic particles can cure bacterial infection.</p> <p>Susceptibility of the gullible is Paltrow’s currency, controversy her best salesman. “I get more eyeballs,” she says. More eyeballs, more sales. Experts attack her goofy, loony products. But items like vampire mist have helped Goop become a $250 million (Rs1,900 crore) wellness empire, proof that the double ‘O’ voodoo works for her.</p> Thu Mar 26 16:18:08 IST 2020 priti-patel-poster-girl-or-piranha <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Small, scrappy and spunky, Priti Patel is a few short steps away from 10 Downing Street. As Britain’s home minister, Patel could conceivably become the prime minister. But now her prospects are fading and she has only herself to blame.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Born in London to Gujarati parents who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1960s, Priti Patel, 47, grew up into a headstrong Tory who likes strong-arm tactics. As home minister, she is hardline on immigration, counter-terrorism and policing, wanting criminals “to literally feel terror” at the thought of breaking the law. She favours using force to disperse peaceful protestors. She enthusiastically enforces immigration laws that would have denied entry to her parents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Inevitably, Patel’s drive to push through draconian policies face British bureaucratic push back, reminiscent of the brilliant BBC comedy Yes Minister. Her home secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, regularly stymied her proposals citing legal hurdles. Nicknaming him ‘Mr. No’, and ‘Eeyore’, the ponderous, stubborn donkey in Winnie the Pooh, Patel’s aides allegedly told the media that Rutnam should be fired for incompetence and relieved of his pension.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Accusing Patel of lying, bullying, and running a “vicious, orchestrated campaign” against him, Rutnam resigned and is suing the government. He said employees accuse Patel of “swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”. Patel heads one of the busiest Brexit delivery departments, having to implement new immigration, border inspection and IT rules, while fighting crime and cyberwar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Patel, it is “my way or the highway”, and Rutnam is not her first victim. She ordered that the home ministry’s communications officer, Andy Tighe, be sacked on Christmas Eve. Rutnam refused and eventually both officials resigned. So did Mark Thomson, who, as head of UK Visas and Immigration, found Patel’s demands “uncomfortable” and her policies “mad”. He believed her punitive plan to tackle radicalised youth was “outdated, flawed, based on past failed policies and not on research”, which clearly shows that adopting “positive psychology” is better at diverting youths from terrorism to productive activities. One government employee “collapsed” following a meeting with Patel, while another “overdosed” after Patel told her to “get lost”. The fired official sued and got a £25,000 settlement. “Sack, sue, settle” follows in Patel’s wake. She is known to storm out of her office, shouting “Why is everyone so f**king useless?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But she certainly is very useful to her political bosses, a poster girl with her Euro-scepticism and ruthless pursuit of hardline Brexit policies. Supporters say she is hardworking and charming; critics say she is rude and divisive. An inquiry will examine Patel’s bullying behaviour, but the government backs her and not the complaining officials. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called her a “superb minister doing an outstanding job”, while cabinet minister Michael Gove said, “We make no apology for having strong ministers in place.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A bit too strong, sometimes. When she was international development minister in Theresa May’s cabinet, Patel appointed her marketing consultant husband, Alex Sawyer, to run her office part-time on £25,000 a year salary. He did not last long. Eventually, Patel had to resign for holding secret meetings with Israeli politicians without informing the Foreign Office. According to urban legend, when she left, officials sang “Ding-dong! The witch is gone”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pop psychologists would suggest Patel suffers from Napoleon complex—short people who are overly aggressive or domineering. So how does her extremely tall husband analyse his controversial wife? Says Sawyer, “She is quite small and combative. She is my personal piranha.” As long as she is described as a witch or a violent fish, Patel will find it hard to occupy 10 Downing Street.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Mar 13 15:01:44 IST 2020 cold-blooded-or-just-nuts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Right-wing massacres follow a pattern in the west. The killers are young, male, white, xenophobic lone wolves. Socially isolated but active online, their radicalisation incubates in cyberspace. Muslims, Jews, immigrants, liberals and asylum-seekers are their victims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In his 24-page manifesto, racist killer Tobias R. (German law proscribes using their surname) claimed the world’s population could be halved by first “rough” and then “fine cleansing the inferior and destructive” races from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including India and Pakistan. He shot dead nine Kurds, Turks and Africans in Hanau, near Frankfurt, before killing his mother and himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>White supremacists have always existed in Germany, but since the far right Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD) dramatic victories in national and state elections over the past two years, right-wing violence has increased substantially. Targets are legitimised, taboos broken and racist slurs normalised in some circles. To eradicate migrants, AfD leader Björn Höcke suggests “well-tempered cruelty” and “a strong broom to clear the pigsty”. Hitler’s extermination of Jews, his belief in an Aryan super race continue to inspire neo Nazis across the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Norway to New Zealand, there is another common trait shared by these xenophobic terrorists: an obsession with conspiracy theories. Tobias believed he was under government surveillance since childhood, blaming this for his inability to have relationships with women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conspiracy theory researcher Travis View said the gunman’s rants suggest he was influenced by a hash of paranoid conspiracies, including QAnon, the bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory, which disdains mainstream media, attributes vaccines and viruses to fiendish plots and believes Donald Trump is heroically fighting a satanic “Deep State” that includes Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks. For its disciples who believe they are custodians of secret knowledge, QAnon is a political cult, imbuing their life with meaning, purpose, entertainment and superiority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Tobias also deviated. He believed he masterminded Trump’s policies and slogans. Said View: “That’s not ‘Q’. They think that Trump is a super-genius. They would not be so arrogant to suppose that they could give Trump—God emperor—ideas.” Trump has invited several conspiracy mongers to the White House and retweeted many QAnon posts, giving them lift and legitimacy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump has now appointed his “attack dog”, loyalist Richard Grenell, who was US Ambassador to Germany, as the acting director of National Intelligence. Ambassador Grenell aspired to “empower right-wing forces across Europe.” Meanwhile, German authorities struggle to tackle right-wing extremists—60 of whom threaten public safety and 12,700 oriented toward violence. By belonging to gun clubs, they have legal access to firearms. Most of them do not have a criminal record. Law is lenient. Neo Nazi Franco A. of the German military was arrested for stockpiling weapons and preparing “violent subversion.” But a court released him because there was “insufficient evidence that he had taken a firm decision to attack”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The authorities have banned the neo Nazi organisation Combat 18 and approved a tougher anti-hate speech bill that increases punishment to three years for online rape and death threats. They seek to compel Facebook to report hate speech on their platform. A basic problem is that experts are unsure whether these xenophobes are terrorists or mentally ill. Seizing upon this dilemma, the AfD claims such killers are psychologically disturbed and not motivated by right-wing ideology. But surveys show that most Germans hold AfD partly responsible for rightwing extremism, which they see as a bigger threat than Muslim fundamentalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Feb 28 14:37:44 IST 2020 hitler-in-waiting <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was a “political earthquake”, no less. The incident in the east German state of Thuringia created shockwaves. People, politicians and pundits denounced it as “unforgivable”, “inexcusable” and a “lust for power that trumps moral responsibility”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So what happened? Thomas Kemmerich was elected premier of Thuringia with the support of the far right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD)—a first in post-war Germany. Inclusion of far right parties in coalition governments is increasingly common in Europe, but because of Germany’s Nazi past, mainstream political parties shun the far right. Said leftist parliamentarian Martin Schirdewan, “This breach of taboo shows how weak resistance to the rise of the right in Germany is.” Kemmerich belongs to the pro-business Free Democratic Party, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Censured Merkel: “This broke with a core conviction, that no majorities should be won with the help of AfD.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AfD’s kingmaker role in Thuringia sent shivers down Germany’s spine because it was an eerie repetition of history. Exactly 90 years ago, Adolf Hitler triumphantly proclaimed: “We achieved the greatest success in Thuringia. Today we really are the crucial party there. The parties in Thuringia cannot get a majority without our assistance.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is the same situation now. Kemmerich rationalised: “There is no choice but to get AfD help to govern.” Thuringia, in former East Germany, is a far right stronghold. In the recent election, the left party won 31 per cent of the votes and the AfD 23 per cent. Kemmerich’s party won only 5 per cent, so its ally CDU’s 21 per cent vote was insufficient for premiership. Thus, the pariah AfD became the kingmaker. In 1930, the Nazi debut in the Thuringia government was its first major breakthrough in the Weimar Republic, culminating with Hitler’s ascension as chancellor in 1933.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AfD leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, apparently aims to follow Hitler’s rise. Last September, a court ruled that the anti-semitic and racist Höcke could be legally termed a “fascist” as the description “rests on verifiable fact”. German media accuses Höcke of using Kemmerich as his “tool”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Post-war Germany vows never to forget the past, including the Nazi persecution of Jews. Höcke trashes this resolve, claiming that Germany is “crippled” by its “stupid” politics of atonement and describes the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital”. He leads an extremist faction in the AfD, ominously called “The Wing”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many neo-Nazis seek refuge in the AfD, which began as a Eurosceptic party and floundered until 2015 when Merkel’s welcome of over a million, mostly Muslim, migrants provoked a fierce public backlash. The AfD transformed into an anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-mainstream media, xenophobic party. It scored spectacular successes. For the first time, the AfD entered the German parliament, becoming the main opposition party with 89 members. It won seats in all 16 state parliaments and in the European Parliament. The party’s moderate faction is led by Alice Weidel, 38, a lesbian economist who lives in Switzerland with a Sri Lankan partner and its extremist faction is led by lawyer Alexander Gauland, 76. Like Höcke, Siegbert Droese, head of the AfD in Leipzig, is a Hitler fan. One of the cars in his convoy had the licence plate AH1818, a neo-Nazi code for Hitler.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AfD-backed Kemmerich faced a firing squad of abuse: “hypocrite”, “traitor” “charlatan”. He resigned and Merkel’s party leader and potential successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped down for failing to control her regional partymen. Having caused a seismic episode, kingmaker Höcke retreated. In 24 hours, public outrage clipped the wings of the wannabe Hitler. But he lies in wait.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Feb 14 11:21:07 IST 2020 putin-game-for-greatness <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Western pundits invariably reduce Russian President Vladimir Putin into a caricature. He is the brooding, power-obsessed, money-crazed, luxury-loving, paranoid megalomaniac. Putin’s recent constitutional changes reaffirm his domestic puppeteering prowess. In foreign affairs, he is the sinister strategist, the inscrutable grandmaster of global geopolitics, conniving, subverting, and plotting the downfall of the west.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even American officials foster this image. Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman during Barack Obama presidency, famously said, “Putin is playing chess and we are playing marbles.” Westerners like to paint Putin as a Machiavellian manipulator who masterminds all the crises they face—Brexit, migrants, fake news, Donald Trump’s election and social polarisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a just-released book, Russia expert Mark Galeotti argues “the west gets him all wrong”. Putin, he says, is not a chess player. He is a judo expert, a nimble ninja who seizes the opportune moment to use his opponents’ strength against them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chess or judo, these are tactics. Putin’s success is his strategy, his vision of a strong, resurgent and respected Russia, risen from the Soviet Union’s ashes. His own name germinates this vision. “What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare dismissively. For Putin, name is destiny. He sees himself as successor, not so much to Vladimir Lenin, but to Vladimir the Great, the expansionist prince-turned-saint who created the Russian proto-state 1,000 years ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sword and stratagem, marriage and might, prince Vladimir used them all to conquer and annex neighbouring territories. A pagan, he shopped for the right organised religion for his people. To him, the loss of Jerusalem proved God had abandoned the Jews. Roman Catholicism permitted wine but prohibited polygamy. Islam, vice versa. He reportedly proclaimed—“No alcohol? Drinking is the joy of all Rus! We cannot exist without that pleasure.” In Constantinople, he found his answer. The Byzantine Church exuded the pomp and pageantry, rituals and riches that created “heaven on earth”. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church was born and prince Vladimir was anointed saint.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Veteran Russia-watcher Odd Gunnar Skagestad says Putin carefully and consistently crafts a persona that is in complete alignment with Vladimir the Great, both in terms of political power and in religious legitimacy. Putin believes the Russian Orthodox Church reflects Russia’s soul. Notwithstanding the communist purges of Christianity, church and clergymen, most Russians, especially women, are devout. Putin harnesses Russian pride and nationalism, faith and grandeur by invoking religious symbols and dignitaries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putin cannily cultivates his image. Strengthening the ex-KGB, Russian James Bond aura are pictures of the macho shirtless Putin, on horseback or hunting. Another video shows him emerging from freezing waters. More than fitness and endurance, it symbolises baptism. Exactly as in a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov depicting the baptism of Vladimir the Great, Putin rises from the wintry waters, golden cross gleaming on his torso.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Resurrection. James Bond’s favourite hobby. By deftly reincarnating himself as prime minister, Putin overcame constitutionally-mandated presidential two-term limitation and controlled Russia for two decades. Now, with his new constitutional amendments, Putin plots his post-2024 resurrection to perpetuate direct or indirect control for another decade. Putin often asks independent experts how history will view him. With the Russian economy sinking and social discontent rising, it is doubtful that he will be remembered as Putin the Great a thousand years from now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jan 31 11:05:16 IST 2020 a-royal-drama-worth-the-big-screen <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This could be a 21st century Disney version of the British royal romance. The commoner rescues the prince from his castle. Traumatised by childhood memories, the prince is vulnerable. His street-smart commoner wife is no virginal violet. She is from American showbiz, older, divorced, has a black mother, is opinionated and independent, with millions in the bank. Tormented by goblins and monsters, palace intrigues and stifling rules, the couple run away from their kingdom, seeking more fame and fortune in distant Canada.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Driving them mad and away is the modern wicked stepmother—the British tabloid press. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have declared war against the “false, derogatory and malicious”British tabloids, which they accuse are “destroying”their lives. Tabloids skewer all royals, but Meghan was roasted relentlessly as a “fame-hungry social climber”. Many say the vitriol is racist.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Meghan, often described as “difficult”, also became tabloid prey owing to her dysfunctional family, private jet trips and £2.4 million taxpayer-funded home improvement. Anti-Meghan journalist Piers Morgan tweeted: “People say I am too critical of Meghan Markle. But she ditched her family, ditched her dad, ditched most of her old friends, split Harry from William &amp; has now split him from the royal family. I rest my case.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Harry and Meghan fought back valiantly—he rebuked, she sued the tabloids. But the evil tabloid stepmother continued to lie, distort and mock. Harry remembers that the tabloid demonisation of Princess Diana turned to lionisation only with her death in a paparazzi chase. Said Harry, who has openly discussed his mental health issues, “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces. I cannot be a silent witness to her private suffering. I will not be bullied into playing a game that killed my mum.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To save their fairy tale wedding from turning into a nightmare marriage, the couple will “step back”from royal duties, live part-time in North America and implement a new media policy. Traditionally, the tabloids enjoy privileged access to the royals. But off with their heads, say Harry and Meghan, banishing the “misreporting”tabloids from their Camelot circle. Instead, they will include grassroots journalists, “credible”media and social media. The couple can run, but can they hide from the tabloids’ long claws and fangs?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Spurning an outdated media system is one thing, but no royal couple has attempted a part-time, half-in, half-out relationship. Harry and Meghan wish to remain within the royal family, but seek financial independence. This involves lucrative commercial deals, including personal branding and monetising celebrity, which Meghan excels in. But disentangling philanthropic royal identity from profitable private business is treacherously tricky. Which is why Queen Elizabeth’s reaction to the couple’s decision was identical to Meryl Streep’s celluloid comment on human entanglements: “It’s complicated”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Did the Queen anticipate this separation? In her Christmas message, there were no photographs of Harry’s family on her desk. Royal courtiers say she was merely signalling the line of succession, from her to her son Prince Charles, grandson William and great-grandson George. Sixth in line, Harry’s succession prospects are dim. Now it is airbrushed out. Perhaps Harry and Meghan fled the castle on their terms, pre-empting exile on the royal institution’s conditions. The couple’s parting jab is that they shall carve a “progressive role”for themselves. That role may be easier in reel than real life. Given his lineage and her acting background, Harry and Meghan are ideally suited to play themselves in a sassy new Disney romance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jan 18 17:23:25 IST 2020 brexit-horror-show-continues <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Halloween came and went. So did Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to leave the European Union on October 31, leaving the monster of Brexit uncertainty to continue haunting Britain. The next chapter is elections, the third in three years, the first to be held in December in a century. The month is avoided because voters are busy with festivities or ill with flu. The cold, dark, wet and windy weather excludes outdoor campaigns, while indoor spaces are booked with events. Worse, the December 12 poll outcome may fail to clarify the murky mess called Brexit. Political commentator Nick Cohen predicts Britain’s “economy, constitution, place in the international order and sense of who it is and what it can become will be battlefields in the next election”.</p> <p>Opinion polls give Tory leader Johnson a strong lead over Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, regarded as the most unpopular opposition leader in 45 years. If Johnson gets a clear majority, then Britain will leave the EU by January 31. But before Tories uncork the champagne, they should remember that opinion polls predicted an even bigger lead for Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May when she called elections in 2017. She lost her majority, returning with a weak government that failed to deliver Brexit.</p> <p>Britain’s politics has traditionally been binary—Tories vs Labour. But now, there are two strong spoilers in the fray, the Brexit Party that wants a clear-cut Brexit and the Liberal Democrats that aim to cancel Brexit. Labour and Tory supporters are further splintered into pro- and anti-Brexit camps. Tories could wrest some Labour seats, but lose their traditional strongholds like London, university towns and southeast England that wish to remain in the EU. Johnson is popular, but critics see him as divisive and untrustworthy because of his flip-flops.</p> <p>“Get Brexit Done” is Johnson’s election mantra. Counting on voters’ Brexhaustion, Labour hopes to win by focusing on the austerity era under Tories’ 10-year rule that devastated ordinary people. It promises to tax the rich and improve health care, schools, housing, environment, infrastructure and recruit more policemen to end knife crime.</p> <p>Experts worry that even democracy is now “unsafe” in Britain. Of the 650 MPs, 50 are not contesting primarily due to online and physical threats. Most are women. Voter manipulation is another worrying issue. Full Fact, a pro-democracy charity, warns “any election held today would be open to abuse”. Referring to people’s indifference to the lies shrouding Brexit, Oxford University professor Patrick McGuinness says, “That is why I am really pessimistic, as well as sad and angry.”</p> <p>Activists say the Tory government has failed to control bots, social media corporations, Russian meddling, computer-generated fake propaganda and micro targeting of voters with devious political advertising. Seeing the misuse, Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on information warfare, says satirically, “Britain is turning into a failing African state, but without the sunshine.”</p> <p>Should elections produce a hung parliament resulting in a coalition government, more uncertainty will prevail. Potential future scenarios include: January Brexit, soft spring Brexit, Brexit cancellation or a new referendum in mid-2020. To dodge being blamed for a no-deal Brexit, an exasperated EU will grant Brextensions. Giving a futuristic spin, writer Julian Popov mocked: “The year is 2192. The British prime minister visits Brussels to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline. No one remembers where this tradition originated, but every year it attracts many tourists from all over the world.” It is equally bad if Brexit happens. A new book, examining the 15-20 years of tortured trade negotiations that then lie ahead, is titled Brexiternity.</p> Sat Nov 09 12:28:10 IST 2019 deal-dilemma-delay <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My deal or no deal. Sounds familiar? Yes, we are back in Britain. The Shakespearean dilemma to leave or not to leave the European Union raises new proposals and threats that fizzle before they fly. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his alternative proposal to continue the open border between Britain’s Northern Ireland and the EU member country of Ireland post Brexit, he challenged the EU: Take it or we leave without a deal. The ultimatum failed. The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said, “This is repackaging old bad ideas.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Everyone agrees that border checks on the Irish frontier must be avoided lest it reignite the Protestant-Catholic sectarian violence. Johnson’s “flexible and creative” proposal conceptualises two borders, one on land, the other at sea. Electronic monitoring would make the Irish border checks invisible. Critics say it is not the checks, but the technology that is invisible—because it is not yet developed. Johnson’s proposal controversially mandates Northern Ireland’s legislature to periodically review and veto this agreement. The EU worships predictability. This clause convinced it that Johnson is playing to his domestic gallery, instead of crafting a stable, operational deal with the EU.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Johnson’s proposal has more support than former prime minister Theresa May’s doomed deal, rejected thrice by parliament. It is liked by Northern Ireland’s Unionist Party and large sections within Johnson’s Conservative Party. At the annual Tory conference, his popularity was in full display. No one seemed to care about his alleged sex and sugar daddy scandals. Because of this Brexit crisis, “we are like a world class athlete with a pebble in our shoe,” Johnson said, entertaining party members with his jokes, punchlines and vivid metaphors. “Get Brexit done,” he asserted, to roaring approval. The fun and festive atmosphere, with much champagne and gin tonic flowing, was in contrast with the anger and infighting in the Labour Party’s conference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A significant transformation is the consecration of the Conservative Party as a Brexit party. Much like how the Tea Party movement changed the Republican Party in the United States, the Leave.EU campaign infiltrated the Conservative Party to catalyse this change. This group has used the discredited data mining Cambridge Analytica’s techniques to target pro-Brexit individuals and create the biggest, most powerful online political engagement compared with any other party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Leave.EU’s network fosters a culture of intimidation to ambush and silence prominent Tory ‘Remainers’—those who wish to remain in the EU. Conservative MP Philip Lee, one of those hounded out, has revealed the “destructive campaign” against him. Johnson’s trusted aide, Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign credited for winning the Brexit Referendum, is another prominent Brexiteer shaping the current government’s policies. The third leg of the Conservative Party’s hard right Brexiteerism is the European Research Group, whose celebrity member is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the lanky, languid aristocrat, who, like the other Brexiteers, blames the elites for betraying Britain’s glory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the glory’s gone and Britain is tired. Brexit is still undone and the current parliament exhausted. Fresh elections could lead to a Johnson victory. But unless he has a clear majority, the Brexit saga of confusion and uncertainty will drag on. But what happens on October 31, Britain’s deadline for a Halloween Brexit? The Brexit talks continue, but concluding a legally watertight deal requires more flexibility and time. The parliament has outlawed no-deal Brexit. But Johnson insists Britain will leave, come what may. Experts say another delay seems likely. Sounds familiar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Oct 12 11:10:36 IST 2019 young-and-determined <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>She is being compared with history’s enduring icons, from Mother Teresa to Martin Luther King. The transformation of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from a lone Swedish schoolgirl to the world’s biggest climate leader is remarkable. Inspired by her, schoolchildren and adults have spilled into the streets in 185 countries, demanding their politicians save the planet. Greta proclaimed: “I have a dream that the powerful take the climate crisis seriously. The time for their fairy tales is over.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Greta’s activism began with skipping class and holding a placard stating: “school strike for climate”. Within a year, schoolchildren around the world left their classrooms to hold protest posters, screaming together outside parliaments to force politicians to “listen” to climate science. Greta is now a global celebrity, featuring in Time’s 100 influential people, met the Pope who told her “keep doing what you are doing” and has addressed parliaments, congresses and the World Economic Forum where she told global leaders: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is her inner demons that make Greta’s meteoric rise especially remarkable. When she was 11 years old, she stopped talking and eating for two months. After battling depression, eating disorders and anxiety attacks, she was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which falls in the autism spectrum. She has difficulties with social interaction, displays repetitive patterns of behaviour and obsessive compulsive behaviour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In her Swedish book, Scenes from the Heart, Greta’s mother Malena Ernman presents her family’s crisis as a metaphor for a planet in crisis. When she finally starts eating again, Greta chews only pancakes filled with rice. Her lunch box must be kept in the school refrigerator, but it cannot have a sticker with her name on it. Stickers and newspapers trigger Greta’s OCD against eating.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A well known opera singer in Europe, Malena struggles with both her daughters. Greta’s younger sister Beata suffers from Asperger’s, OCD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Malena’s heart-wrenching anecdotes include Beata’s sudden outbursts of anger, during which she screams obscenities at her mother. What is normally a 10-minute walk to dance class takes an hour because Beata insists on walking only with her left foot forward and demands that her mother walk the same way. She insists Malena wait outside during class, forbidding her to move or even go to the bathroom. Malena obeys, but the child invariably collapses weeping in her mother’s arms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>People with Asperger’s “view the word in stark terms”, says Tony Attwood, British psychologist and leading expert on Asperger’s syndrome. “They are known for speaking their mind, being honest, determined and have a strong sense of social justice.” Greta’s achievement is also a tragic reminder of the unfulfilled potential of millions of autistic children.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Greta is trolled. Climate sceptics tell her to attend school instead of lecturing adults. Parents worry about the consequences of Greta’s fears that touch a chord in youngsters everywhere. A child protestor in New York said, “Our teachers say we must study for a good future. But if we do not protect the planet, we will not have a future.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some are uncomfortable about a teenager at the helm, wondering who is pulling the strings. For instance, a US-based foundation manages Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Greta, the freckled, awkward girl with her two plaits, simple dress and plain speak is an international sensation—because she is authentic. But now she also uses adult jargon like “scaleable action” and “social tipping points”. Still, her fans expect her to fulfil an icon’s destiny and win this year’s Nobel peace prize.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Sep 26 16:43:56 IST 2019 greed-for-greenland <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Terrific location. Spectacular views. Pristine air. Wealthy area. What’s not to like?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, the real estate tycoon-turned-United States President, Donald Trump, offers to buy remote Greenland, the world’s biggest and most sparsely populated island. That Greenland is not for sale and is an autonomous region of a close American ally, Denmark, is a minor detail, not a deterrent, on Trump’s radar. He declared: “Essentially, it is a large real estate deal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s dismissal of Trump’s offer as “absurd” so infuriated him that he shockingly cancelled his early September state visit to Denmark. German political scientist Josef Braml analysed Trump’s behaviour: “He sees himself as a boss, articulates clear goals and demands and rewards or punishes subordinates with advantages or disadvantages if they fail to meet his requirements.” Soren Espersen of the Danish People’s Party said bluntly: “Here stands final proof that Trump has gone mad.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump’s behaviour is often erratic, unpredictable, insulting and unreasonable, but grabbing Greenland is neither absurd nor unprecedented. Records show that American attempts to acquire Greenland go back 150 years. Resource-rich buffer zones are honeypots. In 1867, the US bought Alaska from Russia for $7 million. A year later, American officials coveted Greenland—a quarter of America and half of Europe in size, with a longer coastline. They believed summer navigation through the shorter northern polar route would connect east and west, shrinking shipping time between the US and Japan-China. Besides, fish and minerals were “inexhaustible”. Though the Congress vetoed the purchase of Greenland then, American commerce exhausted Greenland’s aluminium ore deposits by 1987.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, the US established a military base in Greenland. After World War II ended, the US offered in vain $100 million in gold bars to buy Greenland. During the Cold War, the United States launched a secret project to build nuclear missile launch sites under Greenland’s icecap to strike targets in the Soviet Union. The camp was abandoned in 1966 due to the ice sheet moving. A complete icecap melt—perhaps within a century—would release tons of buried radioactive waste into the ocean.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Strategic and commercial reasons to gobble Greenland are even more compelling today. It is a bulwark against Russian military ambitions. China is now prowling for minerals and strategic footholds in the Arctic. Greenland is a goldmine for rare-earth metals required to manufacture mobile phones, computers and electric cars. Buckling under American pressure, Denmark finally blocked Chinese projects in Greenland.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under the Arctic lies 13 per cent of the world’s potential remaining oil and 30 per cent of gas reserves. The Arctic is the new “Great Game” hunting grounds for the “Big Five” North Pole powers—the US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark—thanks to Greenland. Compared with 67 million people who live in Britain, Greenland, which is nine times bigger, is home to 56,500 Inuits—fiercely independent, but few.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump, the Artful Dealer, targets the opponent’s weak flank, claiming his offer is a favour to Denmark, because they can save their annual $650 million subsidy to Greenland. Says Morten Ostergaard, Danish Social Liberal Party leader: “The man is unpredictable. It shows why we, now more than ever, should consider European Union countries as our closest allies.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But this is not the end of the Greenland saga, especially if Trump continues in office after the 2020 elections. After all, Greenland is almost as close to Washington as to Copenhagen. In real estate as in geopolitics, it is location, location, location.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Aug 30 11:32:21 IST 2019 right-churn-ahead <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>They live in a time warp, in an era of German supremacy, with Heil Hitler salutes and gun-slinging swagger. They print their own driver’s licence, ID and passport. They paint borders around their property to demarcate their sovereign territory titled the “Second German Empire,” the “Free State of Prussia” or the “Principality of Germania”. They bear arms to “carry on the fight” against modern “illegitimate” Germany, still “occupied by the Allied Forces”. They call themselves the Reichsbürger—citizens of “the Reich (the greater German empire)”. The German domestic intelligence agency, BfV, estimates there are 16,500 of them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most Germans see the Reichsbürger as a motley bunch of zealots and crackpots. They comprise neo-Nazis, white supremacists, bigots, xenophobes, ultra-religionists, anti-semites and cranky oddballs who swamp local state apparatus with lawsuits or instigate gun battles with police. Mostly hailing from the former East Germany, they are the least integrated into the German economy. A district court judge in the Saxony-Anhalt state described them as “conspiracy theorists” and “malcontents”. Apart from the Reichsbürger, there are another 8,000 right-wing radicals with differing motives and ideologies. The demographic profile of this far-right fringe is similar to President Donald Trump’s base: white, socially-disadvantaged, middle-aged men.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The growing radicalisation of the far-right is alarming. The influx of refugees in 2015 unleashed a torrent of xenophobia. There were several instances of migrant harassment, but Germany was shaken in June when a neo-Nazi murdered Walter Lübcke, a conservative politician who faced death threats from right-wingers for supporting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy. The killer has a long history of violent crimes against immigrants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The involvement of soldiers and policemen in far-right violence is also disturbing. A neo-Nazi terrorist cell was discovered in the military, plotting to assassinate senior government leaders and lay the blame on asylum seekers. A soldier who was arrested had posed as a Syrian refugee and had, in fact, been given asylum. A former soldier and neo-Nazi, Christian Weissgerber, told German broadcaster ARD, “For me the Bundeswehr (military) is so riddled with nationalist-conservative, racist people that it seems a little ridiculous that everyone is suddenly pretending this is something new.” Defence analyst Sebastian Schulte disagreed. “There has always been the issue of far-right people being drawn to the Bundeswehr, that is a problem that needs to be rooted out, no question,” he said. “But I fail to see a systematic, deeply-rooted, anti-democratic, right-wing network within the Bundeswehr.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Attracted to weapons like moth to flame, far-right radicals find ways to acquire them illegally or legally. In the former Nazi stronghold of Thuringia, the state intelligence agency discovered that neo-Nazis are legally accessing firearms at shooting clubs. The “weaponisation” of right-wing extremists is a dangerous phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic, as the recent mass shootings in the United States reveal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recently in Italy, police raids on far-right groups led to unprecedented seizures, including an air-to-air missile used by the Qatari army, latest machine guns, bayonets, firearms, rocket launchers, ammunition and neo-Nazi propaganda. The arrested include a former candidate of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party. The arms were smuggled from Austria, Germany and the US. Police suspect the arrested men were involved in arms smuggling. “The far-right in this country traffics weapons of war, and even missiles. It’s an incredible, very serious event,” said Maurizio Martina, former head of the opposition centre-left Democratic Party. Many mainstream European politicians describe gun-toting neo-Nazis as ticking time bombs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Aug 17 12:15:09 IST 2019 boris-brexit-battle <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Do or die is the battle cry of Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson. He refers to Brexit, the nation’s biggest crisis since World War II. “We will come out on October the 31st. No ifs, no buts,” he asserts, declaring his war of independence from the European Union.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexit has devoured two Tory prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May. Will Brexit claim its third victim in a row? Or, will Johnson devour Brexit by delivering it? Or, could there be a third election in three years? It is Britain. No one knows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson emblazons his resolve to leave the EU by cramming his cabinet with pro-Brexiteers. He pledges that if he cannot squeeze a better deal from the EU, Britain will crash out without a deal, harming both Britain and the EU. He has created a war ministry to supervise all engines of his government to function, not as an “anchor”, but as a “motor” to deliver Brexit by Halloween. Preparations are to be monitored daily. Experts are unsure if Johnson is dead serious or intends to spook the EU into giving concessions. Unimpressed by Johnson’s “combative” negotiating ploys, the EU is preparing for a painful no-deal Brexit. Says philosopher A.C. Grayling, “Prime Minister Boris Johnson is already in conflict with the EU, his own party back-benchers, the opposition Labour Party. He is in conflict with reality.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite Johnson’s upbeat spin, celebrity and charisma, the ground realities that throttled Theresa May remain. Britain is fractured between pro- and anti-Brexiteers; a no-deal Brexit is costly and chaotic; parliament opposes no-deal Brexit; the ruling, faction-ridden Conservative Party has a wafer-thin majority; and the EU will not renegotiate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EU leaders welcome Johnson, as they must the new prime minister of Britain. But he is seen as more gags than gravitas. Johnson described French President Emmanuel Macron as a “jumped-up Napoleon” and said of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, “Why can’t he be called Murphy like the rest of them?” Comic, but not diplomatic. Johnson says, “Telling jokes is a very effective way of getting a diplomatic message across.” He insists the public “want to hear what we genuinely think”. Many Europeans genuinely think he is a reckless buffoon. When May appointed Johnson as foreign minister, the German Social Democrat Rolf Mützenich retorted, “What next? Dracula as health minister?” Experts wonder how Johnson will govern because he is a bundle of contradictions. As London mayor, Johnson was popular but chaotic, amateurish and idiosyncratic. In a BBC documentary, Johnson, as foreign minister, comes across as unserious, clowning and chattering trivialities. Is it charming or careless when a man tumbles in rivers, forgets his lines, loses his wedding ring at the reception, wears different coloured socks to an official meeting? Johnson is also very clever, and his friends say “a vessel of focused ambition”. His wit, absurd caricatures, self-mockery and carefully cultivated clumsy image is calculated to disarm the opposition. Biographer Harry Mount says Johnson believes it is his “manifest destiny to become prime minister”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As PM, Johnson strives to please the English countryside and the regions— Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—with extra funding. But many who support Brexit oppose his come-what-may, no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s “do or die” is a war cry against the EU, but this celebrated phrase in a poem by Robert Burns actually honours the Scottish war of independence from Britain. The irony is that if a no-deal Brexit happens, history can repeat. The Scots, who prefer to remain in the EU, could wage a “do or die” against Britain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Aug 03 15:10:10 IST 2019 jair-messias-bolsonaro-more-mess-than-messiah <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>His middle name is ‘Messias’. But within six months of his rule, citizens wonder if he is more mess than messiah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jair Messias Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right populist president, promised “Nova Politica”. But citizens see the same old politics of corruption, incompetence and nepotism. He appoints his youngest, 35-year-old, “far-right hunk” son as Brazil’s next ambassador to the United States. “It would be obvious how idiotic this is if we did not have our own nepotism problem. Nepotism is corrupt and dumb,” tweeted Walter Shaub, who resigned as director of the US government’s ethics office in 2017 after clashes with the Trump administration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro is called the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ for his aggressive use of social media, outrageous remarks, anti-establishment vitriol, expectation of personal loyalty and promotion of family. Public power is private business. Elect one, get four for free. The eldest Bolsonaro son is involved in financial scandals and death squads; the middle one is called “pitbull” for ferociously furthering his father’s causes. All three sons have amassed fortunes on modest lawmakers’ salaries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Failure to tackle corruption, induction of scandal-tainted characters into his cabinet, political infighting and crude state meddling erode Bolsonaro’s popularity. To deliver on promises, he needs allies. But Bolsonaro faces a firing squad of lawmakers whom he had demonised during the election campaign. They now pay back his insults and profanities by blocking him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro liberalised gun ownership to deter violence. Experts use global statistics to show homicide in Brazil will now only increase from the current high of 64,000 murders a year. Bolsonaro supports industrial farming in the Amazon. Satellite data show that already deforestation in the world’s biggest rainforest is as much as one football field a minute.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both Trump and Bolsonaro pander to their base, which in Brazil is called “BBB”—Bulls (agrobusiness), Bullets (gun lobby) and Bible (religious fundamentalists). Both deny climate change and despise socialists, migrants and mainstream media. His critics say Bolsonaro learned what he needed to know from comic books. Rest from Trump. The champion of family values is on his third marriage. He used their pitbull son to wreak vengeance on his first wife.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In other countries, Bolsonaro’s racist, misogynist and homophobic abuses would earn expulsion. Pushing and snarling, he told a congresswoman from the erstwhile ruling Workers’ Party: “I would never rape you because you are not worth it.” He claims it is a “weakness” to beget daughters and that “a dead son is better than a gay son”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During his campaign, he hardly offered solutions for his nation’s problems, but Brazilians were so disgusted with street violence and corruption that they elected him. Says public policy expert Rafael Alcadipani: “Everyone wanted change in society, but the commander-in-chief has not shown himself to be capable of delivering any type of change.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The difference between the North and South American Trumps is that while the economy is booming in the United States, it is shrinking in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s free market views excited business lobbies and his social media prowess enthralled the youth, but economic performance is dismal. Debt and unemployment soars; GDP growth cut from 2 to 0.8 per cent. The nation risks slipping into recession again, making economists wonder whether Brazil qualifies to be a member of the BRICS. Expecting growth on steroids, his adoring fans had hailed the “Bullsonaro wave”. Disenchanted people see a lot of bull, little else. Bolsonaro’s ratings sunk to 32 per cent, the steepest fall for a newly-elected president. The revolution is over. The saviour needs saving.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jul 20 12:48:12 IST 2019 donald-trump-and-boris-johnson-the-blonde-bombshells <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The similarities between the two “blond bombshells” are uncanny. In appearance and temperament, US President Donald Trump and Britain’s prime minister aspirant Boris Johnson could be... related. In Manhattan, the public mistook Johnson for Trump on three occasions. The Independent columnist Matthew Norman satirises, “There is the same penchant for comically deranged hair, along with the outlandish narcissism, vulgar populist grandstanding, bone idle refusal to read a brief and limitless capacity for blurting out the crazily offensive.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson’s tactics are Trumpian, too. Leading the Tory pack to replace the outgoing prime minister, Theresa May, Johnson threatens to withhold the €44 billion Brexit divorce bill that Britain must pay the European Union for leaving. Johnson abhors alimony. Like Trump, he has a history of multiple marriages, philandering and adultery. Seeking to use the payment as a bargaining chip to extract a “better deal” from the EU, Johnson proclaimed, “In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant.” Such populist claims may grease his way to 10 Downing Street, but are unlikely to soften the EU to renegotiate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both Trump and Johnson are anti-establishment disrupters, politically incorrect, self-promoting, publicity-loving provocateurs, uninterested in detail and policy. Both use politics as theatre. Both have a history of lying. Johnson was sacked twice—by The Times newspaper for inventing a quote as a journalist and by Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about an adulterous affair.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But none of this matters as Johnson emerges the clear front runner in the peculiar Tory leadership race. Several candidates fended off scandals involving drug abuse. Johnson admitted to having snorted cocaine (but it did not go up his nostrils, he claims); foreign minister Jeremy Hunt admitted to drinking cannabis lassi in India. Another admitted to using opium, and several others to smoking cannabis. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon observed: “What a horror show the Tory leadership election is. Tax cuts for the richest, attacks on abortion rights, hypocrisy on drugs, continued Brexit delusion.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson would like to handle Brexit, Trump style. Said he: “Imagine Trump doing Brexit.... He would go in bloody hard. There would be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he had gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere... there is method in his madness.” Perhaps. But there is one big difference. Britain is not America.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Biographers say there is method in Johnson’s madness, too. He has spent years carefully crafting his public persona as a bumbling bloke prone to rambling speeches, risqué jokes and racy rhetoric. Noted biographer Sonia Purnell: “He is a great actor, he is a showman. The whole ruffling-the-hair thing was about making sure he did not seem too ambitious. The ‘gaffes’ were not really gaffes, they were scripted.” His biographers say Johnson is “ferociously ambitious and competitive”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are significant differences between Trump and Johnson, notably Johnson’s intellect. Educated in Eton and Oxford, Johnson can sing in German, joke in French and debate with scholars on Greek vs Latin literature. A gifted writer, he has authored a biography of Winston Churchill. Said American political scientist Geoffrey Vaughan, “Trump is ostentatiously rich and Johnson ostentatiously educated.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for all his erudition, critics say Johnson lacks focus and preparation. “It scares the living daylights out of me to think of him forming a cabinet, because he is not good at selecting people,” said Purnell. Here, too, Johnson could borrow from Trump’s playbook—the blond leading the blond.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jun 22 12:10:45 IST 2019 the-rage-of-conspiracy-theories <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Populists tend to believe in conspiracy theories. A global survey shows that populists—leaders and supporters—are more inclined to believe that climate change is a hoax, the US staged 9/11, Muslims are invading Europe, Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler’s secret love child, aliens are in contact with humans and fact-based journalism is fake news. Says Karen Douglas, British social psychologist, “Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases trust in governmental institutions, politicians and scientists.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even some educated American parents refute medical evidence to refuse vaccination because they believe it causes autism. The result: the recent measles epidemic, two decades after its eradication. The rejection of vaccines is fuelled by anger against and suspicion of profiteering corporates and elites.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Populism characterises the narrative that the corrupt ruling elite is exploiting ordinary people. The survey, conducted by YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project and shared exclusively with The Guardian, shows that conspiracy theories fester where corruption thrives—high in Brazil, low in Japan, Canada and Scandinavia, with the US and India in the middle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conspiracy-spinning populists account for 15 per cent of the population, rising to almost a third during crises. A 2017 European research reveals this pattern from the time Rome burned down 2,000 years ago. Emperor Nero blamed the Christians; citizens suspected that Nero had masterminded the fires so he could rebuild a new city. In the US, conspiracy theories spiked in the 1890s when people feared Big Business, and in the 1950s when they were afraid of the new enemy: communism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With populism now surging across the world, conspiracy theories are spiking again. Conspiracies go viral because Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp are the breeding grounds—germinating, spreading and amplifying the conspiracy virus globally.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another reason for the surge is that political leaders are embracing conspiracy theories. Men like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have fuelled such theories to achieve their political agendas. Says Joseph Uscinski, political scientist, University of Miami, “What is unique about this time is that you have President Trump who is a conspiracy theorist.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Everyone is susceptible to conspiracy theories. Dutch social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen says the instinct for survival wired all humans to be paranoid. You could be killed if you were not suspicious of movement or strangers. But, conspiracy theorists are more likely to see patterns in random stimuli or infer relationships between unrelated events, says Prooijen. Looking for patterns is normal, even creative, but detecting patterns that do not exist is not. One YouTuber connected California fires with hurricanes, hepatitis A outbreak and the release of the movie Geostorm. His video drew 1.95 lakh viewers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>People who suffer from anxiety, uncertainty, alienation or powerlessness are drawn to conspiracies. It is a coping mechanism, say psychologists, to stresses relating to job, identity, inadequacies, relationships or uprooting. For them, says Douglas, “conspiracy belief may offer an important source of belonging and shared reality”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conspiracy theories can have positive outcomes, motivating whistleblowers and investigative journalists. As Douglas says, “History has repeatedly shown that corporate and political elites do conspire against public interests. Conspiracy theories play an important role in bringing their deeds into the light.” The downside is that conspiracy theorists often disregard science, facts, experts and democracy. Through history, the diabolic use of conspiracy theories to manipulate public opinion has led to wars, genocide and societal collapse. There is no vaccine to prevent that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jun 07 11:49:44 IST 2019 the-princess-of-norway-and-her-shaman-lover <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The daughter of the current King of Norway, Princess Märtha Louise, had to renounce ‘Her Royal Highness’ title a decade ago after she started her ‘Angels’ school to train people “to get in touch with their angels”. Now the 47-year-old divorced mother of three girls risks losing her ‘Princess’ title, too. People gasped at the identity of her new lover, Durek Verrett. He is a shaman, a self-proclaimed third generation “psychic, clairvoyant, risen-from-the-dead spiritual guide and gifted healer”. Durek, 44, is American, black and bisexual. About a former male lover, Durek explained: “It is not about gender, boxes and labels. It is about love. I am an interesting person.” With such details surfacing, people are yet to exhale.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The California-born shaman claims he foresaw 9/11, can locate missing persons and connect people to their dead loved ones. He can “access” a person’s atoms and “rotate” the electrons to “deplete” ageing, exorcise evil spirits, body toxins, negative energies and help heal cancer. “Nonsense. 100 per cent bullshit,” said two prominent physics professors on national television. Norway’s autonomous consumer authority will track Durek’s claims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Social media is a parallel universe, but mainstream media and the general public studiously shun disparaging comments about Durek’s race and nationality to avoid sounding racist and xenophobic. But they satirise his voodoo witchcraft. Durek claims he was drawn into shamanism by his grandmother and Croatian princess Suzanna von Radic. In an article titled The shaman’s scam, the Icelandic website Vantrú revealed Durek’s grandmother died two years before he was born and she was not a princess, but a fraud. Polls show 92 per cent of Norwegians believe the princess brought home a charlatan. Durek was miffed by the negative barrage. Mocked journalist Gunnar Stavrun: “As a clairvoyant, didn’t he see it coming?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Durek seems a marketing genius, boasting of celebrity clients like “soul sister” Gwyneth Paltrow. The Hollywood star’s company Goop was fined $145,000 for falsely claiming fertility benefits for its jade “vaginal eggs”. But Princess Märtha Louise is besotted, declaring on Instagram: “He has made me realise that unconditional love actually exists here on this planet.” Apparently Durek was conditioned. He claims his mother predicted when he was a teenager that he would marry a Norwegian princess. Märtha Louise gushed, “I love you from this eternity to the next.” Leading daily Aftenposten wisecracked: “Last time, her eternal love lasted 15 years.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not goofy romance but crass commerce that experts object to. Märtha Louise announced her relationship on the eve of their Scandinavian ‘The Princess and the Shaman’ tour that promised to take attendees “on a magical journey that opens up your unique truth”. Ticket sales from the five events can rake in Rs 12 crore.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Public outrage exploded. Said social commentator Vebjørn Selbekk, “She can fall in love with whomever she pleases. But milking her ‘Princess’ title for commercial purposes is wrong. It drags down the monarchy.” Historians say there is no such precedent in any European royal family. The church withdrew permission to host an event. As pressure mounted, the Royal Palace announced it is in “dialogue” with Märtha Louise about using her Princess title.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In egalitarian Norway, media scrutiny is intense on questionable behaviour by people in high places. Forget golden carriage, there was not even a chauffeured limousine to fetch Durek from the airport. The princess chauffeured the shaman. The marketing genie cannot fly on a magic carpet with his Viking princess in her Arctic homeland. But America worships movie stars and royalty. This shaman is onto a good thing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat May 25 12:40:17 IST 2019 bannon-falls-flat <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Populists of Europe, unite!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus spake Steve Bannon, former strategist of US President Donald Trump who failed to foresee his own ouster from the White House. With much fanfare, he launched his campaign to fan the flames of right-wing populism across Europe and ensure its triumph in the European Union’s approaching parliamentary elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bannon got off to a splendid start. He sought to unite prominent populist-nationalists so they can together destroy the European Union from within. He met with many of them; was even the surprise guest at the party renaming event of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bannon’s arsenal includes founding the Brussels-headquartered The Movement that champions national sovereignty by fighting immigration and European integration. For €100,000 a year, Bannon also leased for 19 years a secluded 800-year old Catholic monastery nestling in the Italian mountains. The monastery will become the “gladiator school for cultural warriors”, training the next generation of populist and nationalist politicians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Heading this school is Benjamin Harnwell, a devout Catholic-convert who believes Bannon is “one of the greatest men” alive, and an inspiring “defender” of the Judeo-Christian foundations of western civilisation. What about Bannon’s three divorces? Nobody is perfect, he ripostes. Harnwell favours fake news, fear-mongering and Islamophobia, claiming 800 million African migrants will swamp Europe and America. Fact: Less than 1.5 million arrived over a seven-year period.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bannon hatched the perfect plan to propagate populism in Europe—replicate Trump’s stunning election. He could advise, assist and share with the Europeans his bag of tricks that masterminded Trump’s victory—polling, messaging, social media targeting and voter profiling with skimmed data.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, Bannon’s plan has failed to take off so far. First, this is Europe, not the United States, where complex issues curdle instantly into black and white. Alexander Gauland, co-leader of far right Alternative for Germany, who rebuffed Bannon said, “We are not in America. The interests of the anti-establishment parties in Europe are quite divergent.” Second, The Movement evokes strong negative reactions in Europe because that is what Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini called their fascist organisations. Third, Bannon’s tricks, like snake oil, is illegal in Europe. Fourth, most top-notch European populists who have taken Bannon’s sovereignty message to heart would rather be national warriors than American lackeys. Some have formed loose alliances among themselves.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pointing out that Bannon is American, not European, Le Pen said, “It is up to us, and us alone, to structure the political force that will emerge from the election because we are attached to our freedom, our sovereignty.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even the neighbouring villagers are clamouring to wrest the monastery’s sovereignty. They want Bannon evicted so that the medieval monastery does not become a far-right boot camp.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, has “Sloppy Steve”, to use Trump’ words, “lost his mind?” No way. Bannon believes he is about to set Europe ablaze. Without the faintest trace of irony, his ally, Mischaël Modrikamen who administers The Movement, says it will become the “Davos of populists”. Nothing national about the Swiss forum, which European populists loathe as a cabal of their enemy number one— “the globalised elite”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Public anger against the elites, the establishment, against income inequality and immigration will enable the populists to win an estimated one-third of the seats in the European parliament. A significant achievement, but no thanks to Bannon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 10 12:21:57 IST 2019 brexit-the-comedy-of-errors <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Brexit unfolds like a Shakespearean drama. It also mirrors what Karl Marx said about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Brexit is delayed yet again because Britain cannot find the exit from the European Union.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As before, all exits turn into dead-ends because the British continue to brawl among themselves. Still, it wouldn’t be Shakespearean if there weren’t new twists to the tale. The delay necessitates Britain’s participation in the May elections to the European Parliament, a body they do not want to belong to, an idea Brexiters loathe. Opinion polls show that the faction-ridden, imploding, ruling Tory party will be mauled in the elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Brexit stalls, some Tories vow to wreck the EU from within. Member of Parliament Mark Francois threatened the bloc, “You will be facing Perfidious Albion on speed.” Another Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg specified, “We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr. Macron’s integrationist schemes.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>French President Emmanuel Macron anticipates exactly such perfidious behaviour. He belongs to a proud tradition of French presidents, who prefer to keep “troublesome” Britain at bay. In the 1960s, president Charles de Gaulle blocked ‘Brexin’–Britain joining the European bloc. He believed the “nation of shopkeepers” did not share European continental values of strong states and social inclusion and would be America’s Trojan Horse. Reportedly, he said he would like to see Britain enter the bloc “stripped naked”. His denial was more devastating, “For a beautiful creature, nakedness was natural enough; for those around her, it was satisfying enough. But I have never said that about England.” In her 2002 book Statecraft, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher—incidentally, the daughter of a shopkeeper—said de Gaulle “did not particularly like Britain, but he understood us quite well”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So does Macron. To preempt potential sabotage, he insisted Britain leave by October 31, a day before the new European Commission takes charge. He emphasised, “We cannot weaken our institutions by having a member who is permanently there, but leaving.” He also succeeded in imposing a humiliating June review to check how wrangling Britain was progressing toward the Halloween Brexit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Preferring to leave earlier to avoid the European elections, May tries desperately to forge a Brexit deal with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. But messy Brexit gets messier. May had offered her head on a platter if her rebellious MPs ratified her Brexit deal. They disdained the offer, wanting her head, but not her deal. Now they plot to topple her. Experts predict by year-end, Britain could be led either by the pro-Donald Trump, Tory Brexiter Boris Johnson or the pro-Vladimir Putin “Lefty” Labour leader, Corbyn.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For now, May remains prime minister, diminished in power, authority and support from her cabinet, parliament and her party. Satirist John Crace mocked that for Halloween, Theresa May would dress up as herself. “The living dead. If that did not terrify the EU into giving us another extension, nothing would,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In keeping with the history of repeats, yet another extension is possible, along with a second referendum, fresh elections, a soft, hard, Midsummer Night or Halloween Brexit. Or no Brexit at all. For Brexiters, that would be Love’s Labour’s Lost, for anti-Brexiters it is All’s Well That Ends Well. Britain’s fate is like the hit song Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” May cautioned, “The longer this takes, the greater the risk of the UK never leaving at all.” In which case, this three-year Brexit brouhaha would have been Much Ado About Nothing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Apr 27 17:14:29 IST 2019 brexit-in-uk-mayhem-in-theresa-mays-land <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My Deal. No Deal. Delay. British Parliament sounds like a casino where all bets have gone wrong. Worse, uncertainty still rages—three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexit is delayed by two weeks… but maybe not. No one knows what will happen, even at this eleventh hour. Is Britain leaving the EU or not? Will Britain leave with a deal or no deal? Will Britain exit on April 12, May 22, a year, two years from now, never?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This confusion, this constant “maybe, maybe not” refrain is British Prime Minister Theresa May’s mayhem. Officials describe her last meeting with the EU leaders as “90 minutes of nothing”. Britain teeters on the edge of a historic gamble, but May has no strategies, no answers. Her Plan B is to repeat Plan A. That is not consistency, that is reckless stubbornness. Accusing May of “unicorn hunting”, Labour MP Stella Creasy proclaims, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For a politician, May is awkward, lacking in judgment, people’s skills and emotional intelligence. She antagonises MPs when she needs them most. Her string of mistakes has turned into a noose: holding snap elections to improve Tory majority only to lose it, triggering EU divorce proceedings without a plan, imposing red lines that boxed her in and prioritising party unity over national consensus. Editorialised The Guardian, “The Prime Minister’s inflexibility and tactical ineptitude have just hit a new low, at the very time Britain faces a grave national emergency.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>May lobbed a grenade when she accused parliamentarians of “contemplating their navel”, playing “political games” and triggering a national crisis by rejecting her Brexit deal. Outraged MPs say May’s attack inflames public hatred against parliamentarians. Pro-Brexit hate-mongers call anti-Brexit MPs “traitors” who should be “beheaded”. Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood tweeted a menacing letter he received, vowing to “bring London to its f***ing knees”. Threats of intimidation, abuse and assault are so serious that Parliament’s Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle urged MPs to go home together in groups or take taxis as “tensions and emotions are running at an all-time high”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>May’s emotions are also running high. She admitted she rebuked MPs out of frustration. Admirers who praised her steadfastness now say Britain “faces the most calamitous failure of government in modern times”. She is as unloved as her Brexit deal. Industry Minister Richard Harrington resigned, accusing May of losing control and “playing roulette with the lives and livelihoods” of Britons. Tweeted Tory MP George Freeman, “I am afraid it is all over for the PM. Across the country you can see the anger.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Britain’s political class flounders like a leaky barge battered by the Brexit storm, the EU runs a tight ship. Comprising 27 disparate countries and widely criticised for being big, blundering and bureaucratic, the EU has been remarkably united, nimble and patient, methodically plodding with negotiations despite “brexasperation” at British bickering. With its “flextension”, the EU aims to end this sorry saga of suspense. Great Britain’s ‘Great Gamble’ has left everyone “brexhausted”. Says Conservative MP Oliver Letwin, “I am past caring what the deal is.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brexit has taken a huge toll on Britain. Tory MP Dominic Grieve fears his nation could “spiral into oblivion”. The leadership collapse, the political breakdown, party infighting, parliamentary chaos, public polarisation, cabinet revolts, dysfunction and uncertainties have left the UK weak, divided, confused, tired and humiliated. Through history, Britain has been envied, admired, respected, resented or reviled. But never pitied. This, too, has come to pass.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Mar 30 16:33:53 IST 2019 eyes-dont-lie-nor-do-guts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Tina Turner sings, “What’s love got to do with it?” But I wonder, “What’s eyes got to do with it?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, a lot. It turns out eye colour can determine if you are likely to get depressed in winter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is still cold in northern Europe, the landscape white with snow, trees sparkling with ice-crusted leaves. Breathtakingly beautiful when looking out from a heated room. Step outside and breath freezes. Even before their breath, the brains of Asians and Arabs congeal when winter descends. Anecdotally, they seem more blue than the blue-eyed locals. Now there is science to back this empirical observation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New research suggests that people with dark eyes are more prone to the appropriately named Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression triggered by diminished sunlight during the short winter days. A study by the United Kingdom’s University of Wales found that black eyes absorb more sunlight, just like black clothes do. As dark eyes are used to absorbing more light, they become more sunlight-deprived in winter, causing mood disorders. Blue eyes absorb less light anyway, so they are less affected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Colour is determined by the pigment called melanin. The more melanin, the darker the iris and skin, and greater the sunlight absorption. More melanin means slower metabolism of vitamin D obtained from sunlight. This is evolution’s shield—in the tropics, people are dark-skinned to ensure they don’t get excess vitamin D, while people in the cold north are fair-skinned so they absorb sufficient amounts. Melanin also produces melatonin, a hormone released in the brain that balances the circadian sleep-wake cycles. Produced in right quantities, melatonin helps people fall asleep, but in surplus, can make them lethargic or depressed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not surprisingly, SAD victims suffer disturbed sleep, weight gain, energy loss and a desire to withdraw socially. As with all research, there are caveats—not all people with dark eyes develop SAD while many blue-eyed people do. Eye colour is inherited, but SAD is not necessarily a genetic curse even though it predisposes some to depression symptoms. These can be countered by lifestyle choices—walking during lunch hour on sunny days help. Unfortunately, cold and listlessness induce SAD victims to huddle indoors, making matters worse.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stomach microbes can also make matters worse. What’s bacteria got to do with it? Apparently, a lot. Researchers link depression, anxiety and autism to bacteria in the gut. Politicians obsess about the Axis of Evil, but scientists scrutinise the ‘gut-brain axis’. A recent study by Belgian scientists found that people suffering from depression lack certain species of gut bacteria.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trillions of microorganisms swarm our stomach. The universe of microbiome or the community of beneficial and harmful gut microbes unique to every person is partly inherited from our mothers. Again, this is a genetic blessing or curse, but those deficient in good bacteria can compensate by eating fruits and vegetables. It is perhaps to generate healthy bacteria that traditional societies across the world include fermented food in their diets—sauerkraut, kimchi, curds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stomach bacteria affects both mind and body. Scientists draw correlations between unhealthy gut and type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, colon cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease. Eye, brain, body, stomach, they are all interconnected, exactly like the cosmos. New Age gurus say, “Don’t look up, look within.” Of course, they don’t mean look into your gut, even though we now know it is an abode of good health and fine qualities, ranging from intuition (gut instincts) to courage (guts).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Maybe there is more to navel gazing than we imagined.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Mar 15 11:31:55 IST 2019 coarse-cacophonies <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In his essay Politics and the English Language, author George Orwell wrote: “Politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Political discourse has coarsened since the twin shocks of 2016—the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Language reflects this. It is not just rebels and terrorists, but even mainstream politicians and institutional leaders curse, insult, damn and doom their opponents. European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted: “I have been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.” Retaliation was swift. Northern Ireland’s DUP party that props up British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, called Tusk “a devilish, trident-wielding Euro-maniac”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Insults have been hurled through history, but the best ones are those that fly on the wings of wit and sarcasm. Winston Churchill was in a league of his own. About his rival and former British prime minister Clement Attlee, he said: “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street, and Clement Attlee got out.” Churchill was equally devastating about foreigners. He said of French president Charles de Gaulle: “What can you do with a man who looks like a female llama surprised when bathing?” Churchill was funny, profound, stinging and clever with words, evoking powerful imagery to immortalise his barbs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Across the Atlantic, a favourite butt of barbs is former US president George W. Bush—mainly because of his corny declarations. “The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country,” he announced. “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” Bush had both wealth and an excellent education. But, Barney Frank, former United States senator, observed, ”People might cite George Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of Harvard and Yale education.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senator Adlai Stevenson II’s wit was legendary, but many other American congressmen also endeared themselves with their quips. Bob Dole said: “History buffs probably noted the reunion at a Washington party... of three ex-presidents: Carter, Ford and Nixon—See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Evil.” An excellent communicator, Bill Clinton was admired for his grand, uplifting statements. But, off-colour jokes came just as easily to him—“Behind every great man is a woman. Behind every woman is a great behind.” Like Churchill, Clinton came up with evocative imagery: “Being president is a little like being the grounds-keeper at a cemetery; there are plenty of people below you, but no one is listening.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The world is listening to Donald Trump, but they do not hear wit, metaphors or deft play of words. Much of what Trump says is unfit for children. The rest are slurs, pitting one against another. Bad grammar, spelling mistakes and name-calling pockmark his language.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His insults are crude abuse, repeated ad nauseam so they stick in our heads, congealing thought and language. Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Crazy Joe Biden, Lyin’ Ted; the bar is lowered, so his Republican opponent Ted Cruz called him a “pathological liar”, “utterly amoral” and a “serial philanderer”. Presidency has not softened Trump’s insulting rhetoric and incendiary language. Orwell wrote in 1946, the year Trump was born: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Feb 16 12:35:58 IST 2019 the-warrior-gene-conundrum <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Five generations of men in an extended Dutch family were violent. One attacked his mother, a brother raped his sister and another forced his two sisters to undress at gunpoint. One tried to run his boss down with his car for criticising his work as sub-standard. Two attempted arson when their parents died in a car crash. Research by geneticist Han Brunner revealed the men had a genetic defect. They lacked an enzyme that regulated mood, resulting in heightened emotions and reduced impulse control.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, are criminals born and not made? Brunner published his findings a quarter of a century ago, but even today experts resist bringing biology into courtrooms to influence judicial outcomes. After all, genetics is still a work in progress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anthony Blas Yepez hopes a retrial will reduce the 22-year jail term he received three years ago. He bludgeoned to death his girlfriend’s 75-year-old step-grandfather, George Ortiz. When Ortiz hit his girlfriend, Yepez, blinded by rage, pounced on him. On recovering his senses, Yepez claims he was sitting atop a bloody and dead Ortiz. The couple doused Ortiz with cooking oil, set fire to him and fled in his car.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yepez now argues his sentence should be lessened because his ‘warrior gene’ predisposes him to act violently. As Brunner documented, the defective monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene causes impulsive aggression. Science must aid law, Yepez pleads. But, others say efforts to “medicalise crime” should be nipped. Opponents argue that instead of decreasing sentences, jail terms of convicts with MAOA should be increased to protect society as they are likely to be repeat offenders. New Mexico’s Supreme Court in the United States will review Yepez’s appeal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The issue highlights not just the symbiosis of science and law, it also raises philosophical, even religious dilemmas about the concept of free will that underpins the inviolable American principle of freedom. Legal scholars mock headlines like ‘Pity the murderer, his genes made him do it’ as negating notions of free will and human agency-defining doctrines that make us human.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many Indians have no problem embracing the contradictory ideology of free will and astrology. Devil’s advocates cheekily argue that molecular biology reaffirms astrology—genes, like the stars, reveal a person’s constitution, events, behaviour and predisposition to ailments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For decades, blaming biology for aggression was unacceptable. The current thaw is slowed by caution. Genes and environmental factors contribute to criminal behaviour, but as Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Florida’s Stetson University, says: “They obviously put pressure on us to behave in certain ways, but we still can tell right from wrong.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides, complex human behaviour cannot be explained by one gene or incident. MAOA is a piece of the puzzle, but multiple genes and a web of environmental factors—such as trauma, indoctrination, learned behaviour and childhood abuse—play their role. Says Brunner, “The environment can aggravate or alleviate the effects of this gene defect.” The effects can be alleviated through diet, drugs, exercise, counselling, meaningful relationships and social activities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Women are the carriers of the faulty gene, but it manifests in sons. Men commit 90 per cent of all murders. Not surprising when 30 per cent of men have MAOA. So, is that why men are more violent than women? Maybe. Maybe not. Swedish Vikings were notoriously ferocious. DNA tests on what was assumed to be a 1,000-year-old Swedish warlord in battle dress revealed a woman warrior. So, you do not need MAOA to punch and plunder, just as there are men with the warrior gene who do not maim and massacre.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Feb 02 15:05:32 IST 2019 yellow-fever-hits-europe <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Revolution ravages reform. Angry demonstrators hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails, burning down a government office in the pilgrim town of Le Puy-en-Velay, 500km south of Paris. The tranquil Catholic hub is now one among hundreds of battlegrounds across France. For two months, police have been battling protestors with water cannons, tear gas, dogs and armoured vehicles. “It was bizarre, like being in a civil war,” says Japanese tourist Itsuki Takahashi, who got caught in a Paris demonstration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement erupted spontaneously when President Emmanuel Macron raised fuel taxes as an environment protection measure. The hike backfired spectacularly. Truck driver Eric Drouet called for protests and mechanic Ghislain Coutard urged demonstrators to wear the neon safety vests—required by law to be in every car—as a symbol of solidarity. It went viral across France and beyond, into Belgium, Italy and Germany.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Protests are mostly peaceful, with a large number of women and youth “revolutionaries”. Housewives, students, pensioners and workers are blockading tollbooths, roads, fuel depots, town squares and schools. The intensity of the spreading insurrection forced Macron to scrap the tax. But now, protestors demand his resignation. Says Coutard, nicknamed “Giletman” or “Vestman”: “The president must come out of his hole and face the French people. Not with a press release, but on the ground.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fuel tax became a trigger for ordinary people to revolt against the “pro-rich” Macron. Thomas Desmaret, a young former soldier-turned-demonstrator says: “I cannot get work. I rely on food banks for my daily bread. It is wrong.” While the masses suffer dwindling incomes, rising costs, unemployment and higher taxes, Macron abolished wealth tax, benefiting the rich. Public fury exploded. People felt the “elitist, aloof and arrogant” Macron violated the French Revolution ideals of fraternity and equality. So, they used the last ideal of liberty to vent their anger. Egging them, deputy prime minister of Italy’s populist government Luigi Di Maio, who also heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, blogged, “Yellow Vests, do not weaken!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No signs of that, yet. Affiliated to neither trade unions nor political parties, the movement is leaderless, decentralised, flexible and uncoordinated. Activists congregate suddenly at locations, melt when faced with police force, only to regroup elsewhere. Coutard predicts: “The anger is too intense. Macron responded too late. In future it is going to get rough.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the going gets rough, the rough get going. The movement’s looseness is a strength, making it hard for the authorities to track, control and crush. But, it is also a weakness, creating possibilities for it to spin out of control or get hijacked by extremist groups, as evident in some violent demonstrations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Discontent is seething not only in France but also across Europe, in countries ranging from Serbia to Hungary. Battling economic and social distress, ordinary people are rising in protest against callous governments and the entitled elite. They resent their tax burdens at a time of job uncertainties, especially when jet-setting elites flaunt their wealth. Inequality and imposition of taxes on impoverished farmers, while the tax-exempt aristocracy lived in splendour, are among the causes that led to the French Revolution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To placate the protestors, a besieged Macron urges a two-month break to conduct town hall meetings and engage in a “great national debate”. He is borrowing an idea from an earlier time. It did not stop the French Revolution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jan 18 12:49:57 IST 2019 in-the-nick-of-time <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I wondered why the girl was running naked on the highway” says Nick Ut, recalling the instant before he photographed the screaming nine-year old. It was 1972. Even then, decades before the advent of social media, photographs and protests had a way of going viral. The girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, became renowned as the “Napalm Girl” immortalising the terror and cruelty of the Vietnam War. This fabled photograph of the My Lai massacre triggered a hurricane of public outrage, contributing to the American pullout from the disastrous war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Worth more than a million words, the picture transformed Nick into an international celebrity. He is in Kochi for his photo exhibition “From Hell to Hollywood”, marking the first edition of the Watertown Festival, held in conjunction with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. A must-experience event for art lovers and indeed all thinking public, the biennale is impactful because of the creative and compelling manner in which Indian and international artists depict the critical issues of our times. Nick’s exhibition is held in the charming Mocha Art Café in Kochi’s Jew Town.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was Nick’s iconic picture that nailed the lie that Napalm was not being used on civilians. Then US president Richard Nixon tried to discredit the picture as “fake”. Somethings never change! Says Nick, “They said Kim was burnt by cooking oil. Napalm tears the skin off the body. It blasted away Kim’s skin and clothes. I could see smoke coming out of her skinless body.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As an Associated Press (AP) photographer, Nick should have taken more pictures. But he could not. He hurried to his vehicle to grab a raincoat to cover the tormented child. She had 80 per cent burns and zero chances of survival. Nick rushed her to hospitals nearby, but was turned away as the staff did not wish to waste their energy or precious medicines on a “hopeless case”. Eventually, he succeeded in taking her to the American base hospital. Much later, after Kim became world-famous, she went to John Hopkins hospital in the US for treatment. A grandmother, Kim now lives in Canada.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Inevitably, none of Nick’s rich trove of subsequent photographs attained the stardom of his legendary picture taken almost half a century ago. But his talent has not dimmed. His subsequent photographs continue to have that arresting quality. With unerring instinct, he captures in a split second the foible or flaw in his subjects—O.J. Simpson getting out of the car both feet planted on the ground, court documents in hand and a crafty smirk on his face; Michael Jackson dandily flipping his long hair as he enters the courtroom; a beaming Obama escorting his daughter Malia; a jet taking off, marvelously silhouetted in black inside a huge, incandescent full moon; the divine bliss on the face of a snow monkey soaking in Japan’s hot springs. The exhibition also features lesser-known photographs chronicling Vietnam War atrocities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At 67, Vietnam-born Nick bustles with energy, engaging with issues and strangers with child-like curiosity and enthusiasm. With striking bushy, black eyebrows contrasting his white hair, he looks like a quirky film negative. He delights in showing me pictures of him with celebrities that he stores on his mobile phone. They are all there—the Clintons, the Obamas and a parade of Hollywood stars, singers, sportsmen and models. He chuckles as he shows pictures of him cuddling gorgeous blondes who tower over him. Nick lives in California and retired from AP last year. So what’s he going to do next? He smiles: “Keep taking pictures until I die.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Dec 21 15:57:49 IST 2018 theresa-may-soldiers-on <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I am going nowhere,” asserts British Prime Minister Theresa May with her trademark firmness. That is precisely the problem. She is not going anywhere in Britain with her Brexit deal. She meant she was not quitting over the uproar regarding her unpopular Brexit withdrawal arrangement from the European Union (EU). Struggling to please everyone, May winds up displeasing all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The opposition Labour Party and the far-right Brexiteers rejected outright her 585-page exit deal. So did a significant faction of her Conservative Party and her own cabinet. Several ministers resigned. Most embarrassingly, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab quit, alleging May’s deal “presents a real threat to the integrity of the UK” and because “the EU holds a veto power on our ability to exit.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Raab is the second British Brexit secretary to resign in as many years. State Secretary for Work and Pensions Esther McVey, who also resigned, claimed the deal means giving away 39 billion pounds to the EU “without getting anything in return. We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal to any deal is better than no deal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics say May’s deal is “rotten” because Britain must comply with EU rules until December 2020—probably longer. The fact is Brexiteers had sold a pipedream to the public, promising that Brexit would extract the advantages of being in the EU, while slamming the door on irritating responsibilities. May had loyally tried to extract such a deal from the EU. They slammed the door on her.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>May declares there are only three choices now: “This deal… leave with no deal… or no Brexit at all”. Dieter Kempf, head of the German Federation of Industry, warns, “A no deal, hard Brexit is disastrous for Britain and Europe.” European Council’s President Donald Tusk says, “We are also prepared for Britain to cancel Brexit.” May’s underlying message: Take my Brexit deal or reap chaos.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No one is buying that… yet. Opponents claim no deal is better than abject surrender to the EU. A clique within the Conservative Party manoeuvres to topple May. The opposition parties drool over prospects of early elections. As different groups thrust and parry, wordsmiths delight in conjuring phrases like Brexit Wreckit, Brexit exit, Conservatives disMay and so on. But Brexit is no word play. It is a serious process that profoundly impacts Britain’s future for generations to come. EU’s Tusk tweeted, “I will do everything to make this farewell the least painful possible, both for you and for us.” After EU endorsement, the deal must secure approval from the fractious British Parliament in December. Given the opposition to May’s deal, it could be May Day for Britain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Britain once ruled the waves, now uncertainty rules Britain. May is no Brexiteer, but gamely shoulders the responsibility of delivering the referendum’s verdict. Despite being mocked and attacked, she tenaciously soldiers on, rising each morning “to fresh hell” as the British media describes. Architect Gary Debeer dislikes her deal, but admires May’s doggedness. Says he, “May is the only cook able to endure the heat in the kitchen.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Politicians bombard the public with barbs comparing Brexit with World War II, inflaming emotions from fear to courage. Voters are now weary. Political consensus is destroyed, society is polarised and all are fatigued by the ceaseless fusillade of arguments. Fanning nostalgic memories of Pax Britannica and the era of the glorious empire, Brexiteers had trumpeted that freed from the EU’s shackles, Britain would find her rightful place in the world. That is happening. But Britons are discovering: It is not a good place.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Nov 22 16:08:26 IST 2018 the-final-gamble <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>She was the right person, at the right time, in the right place. After the Berlin Wall fell, chancellor Helmut Kohl, the father of German reunification, wanted to induct a suitable candidate from the former East Germany into his cabinet. Angela Merkel was just right: intelligent, hardworking, unobtrusive and a woman. He picked her. She never looked back. The evolution of “Kohl’s Girl” into “Germany’s Mummy” is a fascinating saga. But now the final chapter begins.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After electoral losses in two states, Merkel announced that she will quit as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader next month and bow out when her fourth term as chancellor ends in 2021. She could henceforth be a lame duck or even be ousted prematurely by an ambitious successor, the collapse of her ruling coalition or early elections. Merkel says her decision is “part of the plan”, but acknowledges that it is a risk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though cautious, she has gambled before, and won. Merkel bravely demanded Kohl’s removal when he got embroiled in a slush fund scandal, and eventually succeeded him. She toppled powerful rivals. One such frustrated rival is Friedrich Merz, now a front runner to succeed her as party leader. After losing protracted battles with Merkel, he quit politics in 2009. Unlike Merkel, Merz is provocative and entertaining. Another contender is Merkel’s 38-year-old health minister and feisty critic, Jens Spahn, who proclaims, “Burqa is the opposite of an open society.” Both men will drag the CDU back to the right with stricter immigration policies, ending Merkel’s centrist, even leftist, drift.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Merkel’s preferred choice is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, popularly called AKK, also nicknamed ‘Mini Merkel’. That is a disadvantage. Merkel’s stature has eroded since the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. As European Union leader, she refused to waive debts. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland reeled under austerity and recession. Enraged demonstrators burned effigies of Merkel with a Hitler-moustache. Within Germany, she was dubbed “car chancellor” for her proximity to the cheating, polluting auto lobby. Voters fled to the Green Party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Merkel’s Achilles heel was her 2015 refugee policy that allowed a million asylum-seekers to flood Europe,” says political analyst Kate Hansen Bundt. Citizens were outraged. Defying Merkel, several small European countries refused entry to asylum-seekers. Floundering far right parties in Europe found a cause célèbre. Anti-immigration populism roused voters. Last year, the xenophobic Alternative for Germany entered parliament for the first time and is now represented in all 16 state parliaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Merkel’s exit raises questions regarding the fate of the Eurozone’s monetary and institutional reforms. Merz warns, “Europe’s biggest challenge in the next few years will be holding the Eurozone together.” Though pro-reform, Merkel has been entangled in fractious local politics for the past year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For two decades, she towered. But now Merkel-fatigue saps. Janis Emmanouilidis, head of the European Policy Centre, says, “She is the longest-serving head of government in Europe. People appreciate stability in Berlin. In times of uncertainty, stability is a great asset. But Europe without Angela Merkel is possible.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is also inevitable. Later than sooner, hopes Merkel, as she plays her last political gamble. But she also knows that change can unravel even the most carefully laid plans. Change accelerates. And an old mantra gives way to the new: she is the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Nov 10 15:28:22 IST 2018