Shashi Tharoor en Wed Nov 02 11:30:14 IST 2022 why-higher-level-reading-is-important <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Whenever one stands up to decry the evident decline in reading, the defence comes back: “Oh, the younger generation are reading all the time—it is just that they’re reading on their mobile phones and not in books.” But that’s precisely the problem: many in the younger generation seem to believe that books are only for schoolrooms and homework, and that when you’re not studying them in order to pass examinations, they have no appeal or value in their lives. It is true that they are reading: text messages, WhatsApp forwards and the like, and in that sense, the reading they do digitally may cover as many words and as much text as my generation read in our analogue era. But even if the young are, in that sense, reading more than ever, they are also reading rapidly, carelessly and superficially—and that’s dangerous.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The alarm bells have been sounded in a new scholarly article in a journal called First Monday, titled ‘Why higher-level reading is important’, which laments the global decline in serious reading and of readers interested in and capable of complex interpretative interactions with texts. The short attention span required and perpetuated by the digital era has led, the scholar-authors say, to a significant decline of critical and conscious reading, immersive and slow reading, literary reading, non-strategic or non-goal-oriented reading and long-form reading. Even audio books, the authors point out, are not the equivalent of reading but a poor substitute for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The scholars identify many psychological processes involved in reading, including motivation and frustration, pleasure and leisure, emotional responses, therapeutic and meditative effects, imagination and mental imagery, creativity and inspiration. In my own asthmatic childhood, reading was my escape, my education and my entertainment. I read essentially for pleasure but grew in the process, widened my mental horizons and enhanced my vocabulary. That sense, of reading being an enjoyable activity which you can still benefit from, is sadly missing among many of today’s young.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, the higher-level reading skills that are now out of fashion are all the more essential to negotiate the complexities of the 21st century information society. We live in an era of fake news, conspiracy theories, distortions and disinformation, simplifications and outright lies, assiduously spread by our rulers to compromise society’s capacity for informed democratic decision-making. We need all the more to be able to critically interrogate what’s around us, and that comes with experience in engaging with the content and language of texts we read. Those who read very little are the ones vulnerable to manipulation by false and motivated WhatsApp forwards.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The scholar-authors conclude that reading skills and practices are “the foundation for full participation in the economic, political, communal and cultural life of contemporary society”, including “social, cultural and political engagement” as much as “personal liberation, emancipation and empowerment”. A healthy democratic society that requires “the informed consensus of a multi-stakeholder and multi-cultural society” also needs resilient readers, they argue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They call for “concerted policies” to ensure that future reading education will promote reading habits and “practices to match the pivotal role of reading”. They want policymakers to invest in further reading research. Poetically and rather dramatically, they quote the line: “War is what happens when language fails.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This scholarly “white paper” has prompted something called the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto, signed by a variety of writers, publishers and readers (including myself). The manifesto is a global appeal to promote reading—something I’ve been doing anyway, by responding to the perennial request to teach audiences a “new word” by replying with an old word: “read!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It really does matter. I end the same way the manifesto does, with Margaret Atwood’s much quoted warning, “If there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy will be dead as well.” If you want to save democracy, encourage the next generation to read!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 10 17:40:59 IST 2023 can-an-indian-succeed-pope-francis <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Pope Francis celebrates the 10th anniversary of his ascent as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican over which he presides appears poised at a crucial juncture of its long and momentous history. In the course of his decade in office, Francis has anointed over a hundred new cardinals. What makes this particularly interesting is that it is the powerful College of Cardinals that constitutes the electorate that chooses the next pope. While there are 241 cardinals, only 136 are cardinal electors, since they have to be under 80 to be eligible to vote. These 136 will decide one day on Pope Francis’s successor, and thereby determine the future direction of the church. Strikingly, it is Francis who has appointed as many as 99 of the future voters. If any more are appointed before the next pope is elected, they will also be chosen by Francis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the process, he has dramatically reshaped the College of Cardinals. Traditionally, the red-hatted eminences were white European males, with a customary preponderance of Italians. (There have been 266 popes—217 of them from Italy). When Francis himself, an Argentinian named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected in 2013, Europeans and North Americans together accounted for 64 per cent of the electors, and an even larger percentages of whites chose each of his predecessors. The last time someone from outside Europe led the Roman Catholic Church was 1,282 years ago, in the year 741. That’s when Pope Gregory III, born in Syria, ended his 10-year reign.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since Francis’s election, and over the last 10 years, European cardinals have dropped to 39 per cent and North Americans to 10 per cent, while Asian cardinals account for 18 per cent of the electoral college, Latin Americans for another 18 per cent and Africans for 13 per cent. The North and the South, to use contemporary terminology, now have about half of the College of Cardinals each. This has created a balance between the traditional strength of the white western cardinals, who for millennia have dominated the church, and cardinals from the developing world, where the church has been growing more impressively and substantially. The regions that were largely non-white and non-western are increasingly regarded as the future of the Catholic Church, while church attendance, and even the recruitment of fresh priests, dwindles in the white western world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is quite remarkable, and almost unprecedented. The image of the church as a white-dominated institution is largely justified. Church records tell us there were potentially three black popes in Catholic history: Pope Victor I, who headed the church from 189 to 199 CE, Pope Miltiades (311-314), and Pope Gelasius I, who was pope from 492 to 496. That was 1,527 years ago. Since then, however, the papacy has been an all-white preserve. Laurean Rugambwa (1912-1997) was the first modern native-African cardinal of the Catholic Church, a position to which he was appointed in 1960. It took till 2020 for the first black American, Wilton Gregory, to be appointed a cardinal in the Catholic Church. Asians got there a few years earlier when Peking archbishop Thomas Tien Ken-sin (1890-1967) was elevated to the rank of cardinal in 1946 and an Indian, Valerian Gracias (1900-1978), followed suit in 1953.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This situation opens extraordinary new possibilities, including that of a non-white pope succeeding Francis. Could that be an Indian? Today, of the 241 cardinals, five are from India—Baselios Cleemis, major archbishop-catholicos of Trivandrum; Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay; George Alencherry, major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly; Anthony Poola, archbishop of Hyderabad; and Filipe Neri Ferrao, archbishop of Goa and Daman. The sixth and the oldest cardinal, Ranchi archbishop Telesphore P. Toppo, 83, died on October 4.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gracias and Alencherry are 78, and will only be eligible to vote for another two years; Ferrao is 70, but has only been a cardinal since August 2022; and Poola, though just 61, has also been cardinal for just a year. But Cleemis, aged 64 and already a cardinal for 11 years, is young and vigorous and has emerged as a formidable figure with a future. He is already a cardinal to reckon with and will be even more powerful in the years to come—and who knows, might emerge, as they say in Italian, as <i>“papabile”</i>: electable to the papacy himself. A man for Indians to keep an eye on!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Oct 14 15:03:54 IST 2023 china-is-in-distress-many-things-have-gone-wrong <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping from the G20 summit in India occasioned much speculation, but one simple reason might well be the current dismal state of the Chinese economy. So many things have gone wrong, and so much of it is blamed on the government’s mismanagement, that the country’s currency, the renminbi, has fallen to its lowest levels since before the pandemic. Experts no longer consider it inevitable that China will become, as long predicted, the largest economy in the world, overtaking the US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What went wrong? The list is dismaying: a slowdown in property investment, a major driver of growth in the past, following the collapse of two major real estate firms with billions of dollars in debt; rising debt levels (China’s debt-to-GDP ratio is now over 250 per cent, among the highest in the world), limiting the scope for stimulus measures; the ongoing trade war with the US, which has hurt exports; a demographic slowdown, as the working-age population shrinks, putting a strain on economic growth; environmental challenges; and the government’s failure to drastically overhaul its growth strategy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The result of all this is widespread gloom about China. The much-touted post-Covid recovery proved lacklustre, and the performance of state-owned enterprises, still occupying the commanding heights of the economy, has been hobbled by inefficiency. Xi’s government has contributed to the problems by its autocratic actions, which have seen major capitalists like Alibaba’s Jack Ma cut down to size, others arrested or going into exile, and increased geopolitical tensions as a result of Xi’s international belligerence. The macroeconomic forecasting consultancy TS Lombard predicts that China’s inbound foreign direct investment will slow down in 2023. The <i>Financial Times</i> says foreign investors are openly asking whether “China is investible” any longer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ordinary Chinese householders have become cautious about spending, in turn slowing growth. An extraordinary 70 per cent of Chinese household wealth is held in real estate (more than double that of the US), and much of it is imperilled. According to the World Bank, home price-to-income ratios in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen exceed “a multiple of 40”. Youth unemployment is said to be rising even as the population shrinks, though the government refuses to release data. And there is no real answer to the question: how can China manage the predicted (and necessary) transition to a consumer-based economy when consumers in general have placed so much of their wealth into properties that, thanks to the government’s refusal to bail out property companies, are ending up being worthless? What few measures the government has taken to stimulate the economy have been derided as too little, too piecemeal and devoid of any overarching strategic context. All China knows is to endlessly increase investment, which (since so much of it is unproductive and inefficient) has simply sunk it further into debt.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Xi’s heavy hand on all government policies, particularly after he won himself an indefinite extension of tenure as president, has not helped. An over-centralised government that micro-manages every major initiative cannot be expected to create or even encourage growth engines in the private sector. It is widely believed that Xi does not know what he is doing economically and has failed to empower those who do. Putting political pressure on the economy to hit government GDP targets does not work. Xi’s government is less adept than its predecessors at communicating its plans, doing little to inspire confidence in its prospects. And Xi’s failure to manage the relationship with the US has increased global “decoupling” from the Chinese economy and severely undermined the confidence of foreign portfolio investors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Overall, the Chinese economy is still expected to continue to grow in 2023, but at a significantly slower pace than in previous years. The key to sustained growth will be for the government to implement reforms that address the underlying challenges facing the economy, but there are few signs of this happening. With experts declaring that China isn’t going to be a powerful driver of global economic growth in the near future, Xi has plenty to do at home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Sep 16 11:39:37 IST 2023 chandrayaan-3-new-horizons-beckon-beyond-the-stars <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As I write these words, Chandrayaan-3 is just 1,400km away from the moon. As you receive this issue of THE WEEK, all systems should be ready for the expected safe landing on the moon on August 23. A major space triumph, accomplished by very few countries, should be ours.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s space programme is among the oldest and most ambitious on the planet. We have undertaken missions to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1 and Chandrayaan-2) and Mars (Mars Orbiter Mission), created our own launch vehicles and satellites, and now plan to send an Indian citizen into low earth orbit by 2023.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But what does all this mean for India’s standing on the world stage? There is no doubt that India’s space programme bolsters our national development and global influence and showcases our technological prowess. India has been conducting space activities on a shoestring budget: not only was the successful Mars orbit a rare triumph (no other country had succeeded in a Mars orbit on its first attempt), but it was conducted at 11 per cent the cost of NASA’s programme, and slightly under the budget of the Hollywood space movie <i>Gravity</i>.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As a result India can afford to provide low-cost launch services to other nations, demonstrating our innovativeness and capacity. We have entered a new era of participation and influence in international space cooperation and governance, engaging actively with multilateral forums and bilateral partners. India also nurtures a vibrant private space sector, contributing to the global space economy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A bright future awaits. India’s space programme is set to skyrocket. Experts predict it could make up at least 10 per cent of the global space economy in the next decade, a significant leap from the current two per cent. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation, India has pursued bilateral and multilateral relations with space agencies and space-related bodies with the aim of strengthening existing ties between countries; taking up new scientific and technological challenges; refining space policies and defining international frameworks for exploitation and utilisation of outer space for peaceful purposes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the foreign countries that have used India’s space programme to launch their own satellites and benefit from space co-operation with India are France, a space partner since 1964, which has supported India’s development of launch vehicles, satellites, applications and human spaceflight, and has also launched several satellites using India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV); Russia, another long-time collaborator on various aspects of space exploration, including launch vehicles, satellites, planetary missions and training four Indian astronauts plus supplying key components for the crew module of Gaganyaan; and the US, with which India has a strategic partnership in space, covering areas such as earth observation, satellite navigation, space science, planetary exploration, launch services and human spaceflight. The US, Israel, Singapore, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, South Korea, the UK and many more have also launched several of their satellites using India’s PSLV and GSLV.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India has cooperated with many of these countries on various aspects of space technology, such as remote sensing, communication, navigation, telemetry, tracking and command, and propulsion. ISRO is planning to launch missions to study the Sun (Aditya-L1) and Venus (Shukrayaan-1) in the near future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Driven by the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, and sustained by brilliant home-ßgrown talents like Dr Vikram Sarabhai, India’s space programme is consumed by various factors such as national development, scientific curiosity, strategic interests and international prestige. Those who once scoffed at a poor country aspiring to send rockets into space now concede that India’s space programme has contributed to various socio-economic benefits such as disaster management, education, health care, agriculture, fisheries, urban planning and more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A classic photograph from the early 1960s shows Indian rocket parts being transported on a cycle. We have come a long way since then. When Chandrayaan lands on the moon—and though things could still go wrong, as they did with Chandrayaan-2, ISRO chief S. Somanath is confident it will get there—the news will confirm India’s global status as a leader in space exploration. As we look up at the skies, we can contemplate an even more glorious future. New horizons beckon beyond the stars.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 19 11:16:30 IST 2023 four-observations-i-made-at-a-convocation-in-kerala <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Early this month I was chief guest at the convocation of an impressive new college of engineering in rural Kerala. As I handed out the certificates and awards, I was struck by four observations, which had been building up in my mind over the more than 50 such occasions at which I have officiated over the last decade, and which were reconfirmed for me yet again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First, it is striking how many young people in our country are burdened with names that begin with the letter “A”. They are the offspring of a hyper-competitive generation of parents who wanted to equip their children with a name that would give them a seat in the first row, be called first on school occasions, and be served first whenever children were lined up alphabetically. Indian educational institutions, unlike western ones, usually go by first names and not surnames (unavoidably, since naming traditions vary so much within our country and even within communities). So a first name beginning with A is assumed to confer a great advantage. The problem is that too many parents had the same idea, so that often 25 per cent of a class consists of children whose names begin with A, thus nullifying some of the advantage. To restore the balance, parents have now started giving their kids names that start with “Aa”, like Aaron, Aashish or Aashiq! The last two, strictly speaking, don’t even need the second “a” and never used to be spelled that way a generation ago. (“Aasha” is no doubt round the corner!) Other parents go further and change names that used to be spelled differently, as names starting with other letters. Thus the Kerala name Ebin is now spelled Abin by many. One day we will probably see Urmila being spelled Armila. Where will this end, and when will parents learn to stop saddling their children with such oddities?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My second observation is that education is increasingly becoming a female preserve. In this college and in many other co-educational institutions where I have conferred degrees, girls were a minority—perhaps 30 per cent. Yet they were, as usual, a distinct majority of the high achievers. This seems to cut across disciplines—science and humanities, engineering and medicine, dental courses and ayurvedic studies, all have a preponderance of women excelling over men. (The one exception seems to be mechanical engineering, which is still largely, if not exclusively, a male field.) The bulk of the students may be men, but the toppers are almost always women. The 21st century is clearly going to belong to women, and we’ll all be much the better for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Third, the hunger for education is widespread and is driven mainly by parents who see in a good college degree the best hope for social advancement. It was striking for me to see parents in simple rural attire proudly watching their children, in graduation gowns and mortar-board caps, collecting engineering degrees earned in the English medium. But we are releasing our graduates into an employment ecosystem that may not be able to accommodate them. I was aware, though I did not mention it, that a study by the All-India Professionals Congress had established in Kerala that 66 per cent of engineering graduates ended up in jobs that did not require an engineering degree. It’s all the more essential to ensure that there is a connect between what students are taught and what the market-place needs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fourth, those black graduation gowns have to go. They are completely unsuitable for our climate and totally at odds with our colourful culture.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of kids sweating in their gowns in sweltering weather, why not create an India-specific robe that consists of a <i>kurta</i> or <i>jubba</i> and a university-specific <i>angavastram</i>, both in appropriate university colours? As for the mortar-board tasseled caps, surely an Indian cap or turban would fit the bill better? My own preference would be for a gold-bordered Mysuru peta; and as for the tassels, you could replace them with metal pendants of the same provenance. We talk all the time of decolonising our education; why not decolonise our convocations, too?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jul 21 16:22:02 IST 2023 how-technology-enabled-and-destroyed-a-sunrise-industry <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the world contemplates the dizzying ascent of Artificial Intelligence and what it will mean for workers everywhere, here’s a cautionary tale of how technology enabled and destroyed a sunrise industry in the 21st century. Medical transcription, the process of converting dictated medical reports into written format, witnessed significant growth in India at the cusp of the millennium. With the fibre-optic cables laid across the globe in the 1990s, a new business became possible. American doctors had to dictate their notes to a secretary, pay her overtime, put up with mistakes, and cope with absences for leave and illness. Dictating to transcribers overseas over the internet was both cheaper and more efficient in generating timely medical documentation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India boasted a vast pool of educated individuals proficient in English and possessing strong typing skills, as well as a willingness to adapt to technology. Indian transcription companies offered competitive pricing without compromising on quality, making India an attractive option for offshore outsourcing. The cost advantage was linked to Indians’ command of the English language, including medical terminologies, ensuring largely error-free transcription. The time zone difference meant notes could be typed up in India while Americans were asleep. Overnight turnaround times ensured US health care providers received transcribed reports promptly, improving their efficiency and patient care.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indian transcriptionists possessed more skills than American secretaries, did not disappear on holidays, and did not charge overtime. Seamless IT connectivity facilitated real-time communication between health care providers and transcription companies, ensuring quick feedback and prompt resolution of any clarifications. Indian transcription companies invested in rigorous training programmes to educate their workforce on medical terminologies, American regulations, and data security protocols. All this made India an ideal destination for medical transcription services. Indian companies’ commitment to quality and compliance, and the growth of a skilled workforce to meet the industry’s demands, earned the trust of international clients, further boosting the industry. Both sides thought they had a long-term winner on their hands.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They were wrong. They had not anticipated the advent of AI and voice recognition software, which led to the collapse of the medical transcription business. AI technology, particularly in natural language processing and speech recognition, rapidly advanced, leading to the development of sophisticated voice recognition software. These systems were capable of accurately transcribing spoken words into written text. For the price of one-time purchase of AI-driven voice recognition software, health care providers could reduce expenses by adopting automated transcription systems. The software enabled doctors to speak into their computers and see their words appear on the screen in real-time, eliminating the need for outsourcing to human transcriptionists. Why pay Indian companies for documentation that could be generated almost free in the doctor’s office?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While early iterations of voice recognition software had limitations, subsequent advancements in AI technology led to improved accuracy. Machine-learning algorithms trained themselves on the voice of the doctor, continuously analysing and learning from vast amounts of medical data, reducing errors and enhancing transcription quality. The integration of AI transcription software with electronic health records systems further streamlined operations. Automated transfer of transcribed reports into patient records improved data accessibility and efficiency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is a sobering lesson in all this. Those who thought the medical transcription business would play a vital role in the health care industry for several decades underestimated how rapidly technology would render their business model obsolete. The evolution of AI will continue to shape the health care industry. Indian radiologists who used to read MRIs for American hospitals (another seemingly sunrise industry, given the shortage of radiologists in the USA and their high wages) have already been displaced by AI systems.The Oxford Martin School estimates that 30 per cent of the jobs in the world in 2030 will be jobs that don’t exist today. Equally, at least 30 per cent of the jobs today will cease to be necessary or viable by then. We have entered a world in which our businesses will have to constantly focus on adaptation and upskilling if they hope to survive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jun 24 11:32:06 IST 2023 biden-vs-trump-again <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>US President Joe Biden’s announcement in April that he would be a candidate for re-election in 2024, and the continuing popularity of former president Donald Trump among hardcore Republicans, make it increasingly likely that the US is heading for a Trump-Biden rematch in the presidential elections next year. The irony is that a number of polls over the past six months have consistently shown that this is just what a majority of Americans do not want to see.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A discredited ex-president who orchestrated an attack on his own legislature in an attempt to steal an election he had lost, versus an octogenarian serving president whose decency is beyond question but whose mental acuity is not? Most Americans want another choice. Trump and Biden each lead in their party’s standings for very different reasons. Biden, as the incumbent, is almost impossible to dislodge and, in all fairness, has been a reasonably successful president in challenging circumstances. Though many Democrats are not happy to be led by someone so old and forgetful—he struggled, when asked by a child, to remember the name of the last country he had visited, just two weeks earlier (it was Ireland)—it is extremely unusual for any party in America to defenestrate its own incumbent president, as senator Ted Kennedy found out when he tried to unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980. In fact only once has a president who was elected in his own right been denied renomination for another term, and that was in 1856. (Four presidents who had been appointed upon the death of the previous incumbent did not win renomination.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If it were not for his age, forgetfulness, and occasional rambling, Biden’s record is good enough to sustain the argument that, like all but one of his predecessors, he deserves another term.Meanwhile, roughly four in 10 Republicans do not want Trump (“a sociopath who has incited violent sedition against the government of the US”, as one critic dubbed him) as their party’s nominee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Grand Old Party (GOP), as it is known, has descended in recent years into a right-wing rabble sustained by a Trumpist personality cult as rabid as Bolsonaro’s in Brazil was. The party’s institutions, and therefore its presidential nomination process, are controlled by diehard Trumpians, whose zeal, bordering on irrational, gives Trump the votes he needs in the party to prevail. Defeating Trump for the nomination would not be easy for any other candidate, because he would face the fanatic opposition of the Trump devotees, who constitute the GOP’s base voters today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Barring the risk of the various court cases against Trump making it legally and politically impossible to renominate him—something that at the moment seems unlikely, since the cases have only increased Trump’s popularity among the faithful—the nomination is safely his.Indians should not care unduly, because both Biden and Trump have been pro-Indian in orientation, and hostile to our principal adversary, China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But what should interest us is the muted reaction Biden received to his announcement that he would continue with Kamala Harris as his running-mate. Harris is faring even more poorly in the polls than Biden, which is hard to imagine since his approval ratings are near record lows for an incumbent. But the vice president’s numbers are among the worst of any incumbent vice-president since such polls began to be done. Harris is widely considered to be a fairly lacklustre vice president, prone to making gaffes when unscripted, and with a history of staffing problems that suggest poor management ability. All this matters because of the fear that as understudy to America’s oldest president, she would have to step into his shoes were anything to happen, and there are widespread doubts of her ability to handle the job.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many Americans (most prominently former New Jersey governor Chris Christie) have been saying openly that they will not vote if the election is Biden versus Trump again. But abstention is no solution in any democracy: staying away from one’s democratic responsibilities is not a responsible choice. But that it is even being considered is a measure of how unappealing are the alternatives confronting America’s voters next year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 26 17:31:17 IST 2023 china-complicates-indo-russia-bonds <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It has become increasingly clear that we are facing a formidable adversary on our northern borders. China’s huge economy, brutally effective and well-equipped armed forces and recent advantages in technology make it a colossus in any case, but its aggression on the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) between our countries, its killing of 20 jawans in 2020 and its refusal since then to vacate areas occupied by its army that previously used to be patrolled by both sides, constitute a challenge we simply cannot afford to ignore. An added complication for us is that China’s diplomacy is making impressive headway around the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If China were merely a belligerent power, throwing its weight around, pushing its maritime neighbours to the limits of their territorial waters, embarking on a trade war with Australia, cracking down ruthlessly on Hong Kong and Sinkiang and threatening Taiwan, it would be easier to confront. But, instead, it has begun exercising a more subtle influence around the world, recently mediating the Saudi-Iranian agreement for normalisation of relations (which was widely seen as a diplomatic triumph for Beijing).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Together with the billions of dollars spent on worldwide infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative, this is promoting talk of a newly influential “global China”. Col Zhou Bo, now a strategist at the influential Tsinghua University, was recently quoted as saying: “Global China is definitely real. China is ubiquitous. China’s influence is everywhere.” That “everywhere” notably includes India’s close friend, defence equipment supplier and indispensable source of discounted fuel and fertiliser, Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Russia made headline news around the world, but the media focused on the extremely unlikely outcome of Moscow agreeing to a peace deal to end the Ukraine war. That was always a red herring: it’s clear to everyone, including Beijing, that neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready for peace or even for negotiations at this time, as both believe they can “win” on the battlefield.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>China was always unlikely to attempt to pull off peace during Xi’s Moscow visit. The trip was instead intended to burnish China’s international image and to shore up the two countries’ increasingly close relationship. China has long spoken of a “no-limits” friendship with Russia, and it is clear that the relationship continues to expand, with the two leaders agreeing to an important set of economic proposals, including a significant expansion of their natural gas trade. A new planned pipeline, named ‘Power of Siberia 2’, is to supply China with some 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas annually, reaching at least 98 billion cubic meters of natural gas, in addition to 100 million tons of liquefied natural gas, by 2030. For a Russia unable to exploit its “natural” market in western Europe because of the sanctions imposed on it after the Ukraine invasion, the opportunity to supply China with its vast supplies of gas is of inestimable value. In addition, as Putin himself announced in Moscow, “Russian business is in a position to meet the growing demand from the Chinese economy both within the framework of current projects and those that are now in the process of negotiation.” Put less obliquely, Russia’s dependence on China for its own prosperity is increasing by the day. It’s a classic colonial relationship: Russia will supply resources to the new metropolitan power to the east, while importing more sophisticated Chinese technology than Russia possesses, such as computer super-servers from Huawei, in addition to all the daily consumer items no longer available from the west. There is increasing talk that the yuan [China’s renminbi] will be Russia’s main trade currency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Where does this leave India? China is unremittingly hostile, refusing to budge an inch from its territorial gains in 2020 and continually thrusting itself into new areas along the LAC, most recently near Tawang. We have looked to Russia as a balancing power, but how useful can a Russia reduced to being a junior partner of China be to us? If our principal friend is helplessly dependent on our principal adversary, what’s the friendship worth? These are major questions to ponder as New Delhi recalibrates its geopolitical options while casting a wary eye on the irresistible rise of global China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Apr 28 15:07:26 IST 2023 how-centre-is-using-money-as-a-weapon-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The finance bill 2023 was passed amid a din in the Lok Sabha, without discussion, giving the government some 45 lakh crore rupees of our taxpayers’ money without a single question being raised or addressed. This was a crying shame for our parliamentary democracy and an indictment of the state to which our institutions have been reduced.The bill comes at an uncertain time for the economic revival of our country. The economy had been laid low by demonetisation, and then shattered by the pandemic and the resultant lockdown; it is now in turbulent waters thanks to global developments following the invasion of Ukraine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The former star performers like tourism and service industries are devastated; the backbone of the economy—agriculture and MSMEs—are both in crisis. Inflation and price rise are hurting the aam aadmi severely, with even basic commodities needed for daily sustenance becoming prohibitively expensive for the economically vulnerable. And there is an alarming lack of jobs in our economy, particularly for our unemployed youth, whose futures are at the risk of being derailed. If despite all this, we are growing faster than other major economies, it offers scant consolation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both the Union budget and the finance bill reflect a government lacking the necessary vision to find solutions to these grave challenges. Three principal failures were evident in the tepid Union budget. The first is its disastrous assault on the rights-based approach to social justice and economic empowerment, which have been fatally undermined by cutting the budget for social welfare by nearly 20 per cent. The second failure is the complete lack of acknowledgement of the elephant in the room—the need to generate employment. At a time of record levels of joblessness and widespread distress, particularly in the rural economy, the government has slashed several schemes (including MGNREGA by 33 per cent) that have served as ventilators for distressed citizens after disasters like demonetisation, the botched implementation of GST and the mismanagement of the pandemic. And third is the glaring failure to offer concrete support or relief measures for the segments of the Indian economy that are hurting the most—our MSMEs, the tourism and services sector, the middle class, salaried professionals and the economically impoverished.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This trend of underperformance continues. The finance bill reflects three broad narratives: a falsification of reality through misleading announcements that substitute PR for substance, a concerted attempt to centralise power and ride roughshod over the careful balance of federalism at the expense of our states, and a series of misguided financial policy measures that will only hinder the Indian economy. The bill has also raised concerns among philanthropic organisations, whose good work could be actively restrained by new restrictive proposals to limit donations and sharing of grants between charities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is a larger and more worrying trend that the nation is witnessing under this government—the use of financial policy-making and weaponisation of fiduciary institutions as tools for coercion and control. The Union government has deliberately used these instruments to handicap our states financially, but also to clamp down on political opponents of the government—practically anyone who is even remotely critical, whether think tanks, the media or even vocal citizens.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have seen this take place at a dizzying frequency in a number of ways—the use of the income tax department to go after media houses that have not toed the line of the ruling dispensation; the cancellation or withholding of FCRA licenses of prominent think tanks (like Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research) or even philanthropic bodies (Missionaries of Charity) that have left many with an existential crisis; and the use of the Enforcement Directorate to stifle the voice of the opposition. Of the 121 political leaders probed by the ED since 2014, 115 (95 per cent) as of November 2022 belong to the opposition. Such tendencies not only shame India in the global community but are an affront to our democratic constitutional principles. Sadly, as with legislation, policy making and the appropriation of autonomous institutions, the finance bill, too, only confirms that India is now led by a government that is inclined towards coercion, control and an unprecedented centralisation of power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Apr 01 15:05:21 IST 2023 debunking-deepak-baglas-hype-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A recent speech by the head of Invest India, Deepak Bagla, has gone viral on social media. It is a wonderful exercise in boosterism, telling the world—especially potential investors—about the wonderful opportunities in India, our demographic advantage, rate of growth, burgeoning FDI and more. As an Indian, I felt a warm glow listening to it, and pride that we had achieved so much and had so much to offer the world. (For the very few who may somehow have missed the WhatsApp forwards, just google Mr Bagla’s name and the words “Treasury” and “2023”.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All of us want to believe the best about our country. It is a welcome change not to be hearing the relentless negativism of our politics, hate-speech emanating from ruling circles and the deafening silence of the government when minorities are attacked, women are raped, innocent people are lynched and so on. But can we afford to delude ourselves that the rosy picture Mr Bagla paints is the full story of our India, even overlooking political and social issues and just focusing on economics?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A number of simple, uncontested facts and figures Mr Bagla does not mention come to mind: How much of our heady GDP growth can simply be attributed to population increase? In 1960, our population was 445 million, and we had a GDP of $37 billion; in 2020, it was about 1.4 billion, and our GDP was almost $3 trillion. So over 60 years, our population multiplied by three and our GDP by eight. This is no different from the way global GDP grew; exponential growth of this kind is not only not unusual, but typical. Much of our growth, in other words, was due to an expanding population, including a growing labour force.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government tells us proudly that it distributed free food grain to 80 crore, or 800 million, Indians. If so many Indians required free food grain, does that speak of a glowing economic success story or a painful increase in poverty? Reports suggest that as many as 40 million, or 4 crore, Indians have sunk below the poverty line in the last four years, adding to the numbers of absolute poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The claims about FDI flowing into India at a record high rate have been contested—the $532 billion coming into our country in seven-and-a-half years is not borne out by the figures issued by reputable international bodies. But beyond the claims of high FDI, why is it that over the same period, private sector investment in India, as a proportion of GDP, has stagnated? Why are our own businessmen so afraid to invest in India, as Mr Bagla wants the world to do?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some 8,000 high net worth individuals (that is, people with assets exceeding a million US dollars) have emigrated out of India last year (the third highest such exodus in the whole world). Does this suggest India is a good place to invest and flourish, or rather that many of the rich feel they cannot thrive in the business conditions here?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We can boast about our demographic dividend of a youthful working-age population ready to be the work-engine of the world, but what have we done to train and skill them to seize the opportunities offered by the 21st century? Most of the unemployed are unemployable because they have dropped out of school by the ninth grade, learned very little before then and failed to acquire usable skills thereafter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Worse still, the numbers of educated unemployed testify to the irrelevance of much Indian college learning. Kerala’s Employment Exchange lists about two lakh professional and technical job seekers as of 2022, including 6,000 medical doctors and 44,000 engineering graduates. Of the rest, some 71 per cent of them are ITI certificate or diploma holders. Highly literate and educated Kerala’s youth unemployment stands at 42 per cent. What hope can we offer them?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, finally, and perhaps, most damningly, a total of 1,83,741 Indians have renounced their citizenship this past year, as the government officially informed the Lok Sabha. Why would so many do that, if India was shining for them?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It’s wonderful to hear Mr Bagla, and always pleasant to feel good about ourselves. But if it becomes a substitute for thinking seriously about our nation’s challenges, it can only hurt us. India needs hope, not hype.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sun Mar 05 13:57:29 IST 2023 pride-not-prejudice-is-the-way-forward <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On the eve of the budget session of Parliament, the talk about India’s economy is all bullish. At a time when fears of a global recession are mounting, India seems likely to prove an exception to the worldwide tale of woe. Our country is expected to log the best performance in 2023 of any major economy. Estimates vary, but if one examines the World Bank’s numbers, India is estimated to grow at 6.6 per cent, compared with just 0.5 per cent for the US and 4.3 per cent for China (though from a much higher base).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The good news may continue. The prestigious global think-tank, the Centre for Economics and Business Research, issues an annual “world economic league” table.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In its most recent report, the Centre writes: “India is now clearly on its way to becoming the world’s third economic superpower. Revised figures now show that India overtook the UK to become the world’s fifth largest economy in 2021. It has consolidated this position and is forecast to overtake Germany to become the world’s fourth largest economy in 2026 and to overtake Japan to become the world’s third largest economy in 2032. By 2035, India is forecast to become the world’s third $10 trillion dollar economy.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is no small matter. India’s economy is nearly $3.5 trillion—short of the $5 trillion that Narendra Modi had confidently predicted a couple of years ago, but a vast improvement on the lowly status we occupied in the first four decades after independence, when India served as a poster-child for third world poverty and destitution. Ever since the historic liberalisation of 1991, when Dr Manmohan Singh had declared in Parliament that “no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”, the Indian economic story has been on an upswing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There have been setbacks and slumps—demonetisation (the single worst disaster to hit India’s economy since the Great Bengal Famine); “Make in India” never really caught on; and the expected outflow from China did not benefit us, with companies preferring to move instead to Vietnam and Malaysia. But, the story is changing for the better, as foreign governments and investors see that the arguments for investing in India are reinforced by geopolitical considerations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Two new terms of art have come into vogue in the west. The first, “nearshoring”, refers to the need to shorten supply chains to reduce risks, by moving production lines from countries that are vulnerable to disruption. The second is “friendshoring”, the case for boosting economic cooperation with countries that have similar values to the west. In both cases, India’s stability and openness to the west as the world’s biggest democracy makes us a clear alternative to China. But there is work to do yet to make India a totally attractive investment destination—facilitating clearances, speeding up access to land, shaking up our clogged factory-to-port logistics, reducing input costs and providing tax incentives. The reform of the bureaucracy is another urgent task. For all the Modi government’s repeated talk about the ease of doing business, it takes an average of 112 days in India to obtain all the required clearances to start a business. In the US, it takes three days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If there is one fly in the proverbial ointment, it is the risk posed by our dysfunctional politics to the social harmony that is so indispensable to economic progress. The readiness of our ruling party to stoke communal divisions in the country, fanning flames it first ignited by injecting the toxin of hatred of minorities into political discourse, is dismaying—all the more so since the same party rejoices in any economic good news and seeks credit for it. The government must realise it can either focus single-mindedly on creating the conditions for economic growth or try to reap violence by inciting hatred, but it cannot do both, because the latter undermines the former.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A country riven by resentment, rioting and violence is not likely to attract investors, because investors flee such places. For the India story to continue to glow, the BJP must abandon the politics of minority-bashing and preach the virtues of co-existence. It is time to put economic pride ahead of hindutva prejudice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 03 13:25:17 IST 2023 success-of-indians-in-the-west <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This past year, the ascent of Rishi Sunak—a brown-skinned, cow-worshipping Indian—as prime minister of the UK has been enthusiastically celebrated. More strikingly, it serves as another reminder of the prominence of the Indian diaspora in the western world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This has been evident in the private sector, where executives born and raised in India have been selected to head major multinational corporations. Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) are perhaps the three best-known examples of Indian talent at the top of globe-straddling American companies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet they represent a very partial set of names. According to Standard and Poor’s 500 index, no fewer than 58 companies are headed by CEOs of Indian origin. This is despite the retirement of Nooyi and former Vodafone head Arun Sarin, the sacking of Twitter chief Parag Agrawal and the death of Anshu Jain, formerly of Deutsche Bank and Cantor Fitzgerald. The list of current Indian CEOs ranges from technology powerhouses like Adobe (Shantanu Narayen) and IBM (Arvind Krishna) to coffee giant Starbucks (Laxman Narasimhan), courier service FedEx (Raj Subramaniam) and even French fashion house Chanel (Leena Nair).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The phenomenon has crossed over into politics, too. In recent years, politicians of Indian descent have risen to head governments in Portugal (Antonio Luís Santos da Costa&nbsp; has been prime minister since 2015) and Ireland (Leo Varadkar, prime minister from 2017 to 2020 and again from December 2022). In the US, Vice President Kamala Harris had an Indian mother; a potential Republican contender in 2024, Nikki Haley, has wholly Indian parentage. With Sunak and Varadkar, Europe faces the piquant situation of the thorny post-Brexit issues between England and Ireland being negotiated between two leaders of Indian origin!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What makes Indians succeed when the companies and institutions they head were created in the west, the systems they rose in were devised in the west, and there is no shortage of local talent honed in the west?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some explain it in terms of Indians’ familiarity with, and education in, English, giving credit to two centuries of British colonial rule. But language alone is hardly a guarantee of success. And in any case, it does not explain Indians’ success in non-Anglophone European countries like Portugal. Others speak of the extra energy and drive that emigrants bring to their new countries. True enough, and Indians seem to outstrip other immigrant populations. In the US, for instance, Indians have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First-generation emigrants from India have grown up without taking affluence for granted; they have experienced or seen enough deprivation to strive to escape it. They have the “fire in the belly” that many in the west may lack, and out-compete others in their aspiration to succeed. They have also overcome adversities in India that their western counterparts have not, including scarce resources, shortages, limited facilities, government over-regulation and bureaucratic inertia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indians are also used to living with diversity; our history and India’s pluralist social environment exposes them to working with people of different languages, religions and cultures. Managing working relationships in a multinational corporation comes easily to them. Growing up in India, these young men and women have imbibed the habits and values of individual initiative and original thinking within a framework of polite behaviour, respect for elders and adherence to hierarchy. This Indian combination of attributes makes it easier for them to fit in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The irony is that in today’s India, diversity is under threat from chauvinist hindutva hyper-nationalism; uniformity and obedience to the new national narrative trump individual freedom of thought and action. It is sobering that the virtues today being hailed as triumphantly Indian around the world may soon be present more in the diaspora than at home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jan 07 11:21:35 IST 2023 a-new-world-order-is-in-the-making <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As we near the end of the year, some geopolitical trends are becoming apparent. One is the growing tension between the US and an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping. Interestingly, the highly polarised US electorate seems largely to concur with the tough policy towards Beijing, promoted by both former president Donald Trump during his time in office and now by President Joe Biden. In 2011, only 36 per cent of Americans viewed China unfavourably; this year, it is a remarkable 82 per cent. This means that the onset of visible and bristling hostility towards the other rising superpower has been welcomed and endorsed by the American public.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A second geopolitical trend that cannot be escaped, and which I had drawn attention to in this space last year, is the accelerating pace of deglobalisation. There is no doubt that the perception of growing economic inequality in western countries has intensified, seriously adding to the unpopularity of what until recently had been the conventional wisdom, that globalisation was both unavoidable and welcome. The world economy had thrived since globalisation began in 1980 on an open system of free trade. That had already been shaken by the financial crash of 2008-09 and the American trade war with China. The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, with estimates suggesting that nearly a third of global trade fell in 2020, though a gradual recovery trajectory was starting to emerge before the setbacks caused by the Ukraine war. Meanwhile, the pressure to “decouple”from China was increasing in the last two years, even as the sanctions on Russia have severely restricted trade, investment and financial flows into and out of that country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a recent survey conducted by research firm Edelman, a majority of respondents across 28 leading economies agreed that “globalisation is taking us in the wrong direction”. In its 2019 survey, only 18 per cent of respondents affirmed that “the system is working for me”, with 34 per cent being unsure and 48 per cent declaring that the globalised system is failing them. As sovereignties are reasserted across the world, and treaties and trade agreements increasingly questioned, multilateralism, the once taken-for-granted mantra of international co-operation, could be the next casualty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In parallel, support for democracy has weakened, even in America and especially among the young. Political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa reported in 2017 that while 75 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s agreed it is “essential to live in a democracy”, the figure was just 28 per cent among millennials. Similar trends can be seen in many other countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Populist leaders like Trump, who rose to the presidency of the United States on slogans of “America First”and “Make America Great Again”, and a host of others—from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to Viktor Orban of Hungary and Narendra Modi of India—successfully persuaded their voters that they were more authentic embodiments of their nations than the allegedly rootless secular cosmopolitans they sought to displace. Others have been rising, from the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Freedom Party of Austria to the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour in France, none of whom have won national elections but who came close enough to shift the national discourse. Of course, it is true that Trump and Bolsonaro have since suffered electoral setbacks, but most recently, Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s most right-wing leader since Mussolini, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu have come to power heading extremely right-wing governments. It is useful to realise that, in a survey last year, Italy had the world’s second-highest dissatisfaction rates with democracy (after Greece). But together such parties and leaders, combining nationalist fervour with a determined articulation of popular prejudices, have restored nationalism to its place as the default model of national self-definition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The auguries are not promising as the world contemplates the New Year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 17 17:19:22 IST 2022 shashi-tharoor-on-the-rise-of-electoral-autocracies <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For some time now pundits and commentators, including myself, have tended to argue that the defining feature of our era was the rise of the strongman—the figure who, by embodying populist nationalism in his country, had risen above the limitations and constraints of his political system to assert one-man rule, or at least dominance, of the land. This phenomenon had affected democracies as well as less democratic countries. While, in the latter case, autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping represented a familiar type of leader in their nations’ recent histories, democracies had simply never been headed by figures like the US’s Donald Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban or even India’s Narendra Modi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The power of these democratically elected strongmen rested on an ability to argue that they were more authentic representatives of their people than the rootless cosmopolitans they had displaced; and by articulating nationalism and cultural values, they dispensed, often ruthlessly, with traditional respect for minority rights, liberalism, dissent and the checks and balances on their power wielded by autonomous institutions in their nations. Their personalised style of governance gave rise to what has been dubbed the “cult of the strongman”—the tough, larger-than-life leader who brought liberal democracy to heel, and saw himself (and it was always a “he”) literally above the law, if not the incarnation of the law himself. Observing such leaders, Freedom House was moved to speak of a deepening “democratic recession”; Sweden’s famous V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute started describing such countries under strongmen rule as “electoral autocracies” rather than the democracies they had previously been classified as being.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The new strongmen were skilled at manipulating modern technology to wield outsize influence through social media (as well as the conventional press, radio and television) and also to wield the power of surveillance over the actions and beliefs of their citizens. Today’s strongmen are very much a 21st century phenomenon, a marriage of nationalist sentiment born of the insecurities generated by the current backlash against globalisation, with the technological progress made in recent years that can both make life easier for the many and make manipulation and control more feasible for the few.But recent developments in world politics make me wonder whether the fears expressed by the likes of me (and many others), that liberal democracy was now increasingly in peril around the world, wasn’t, after all, overblown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The defeat this week in Brazil of strongman president Bolsonaro by the familiar leftist labour leader, former president “Lula” da Silva, is the latest manifestation of a seeming turnaround of the earlier trend favouring such autocrats. Just as American voters sent Trump packing in 2020, and the French electorate earlier this year gave Macron resounding support in his efforts to ward off his challengers on the populist-nationalist right, so also the Brazilians seem to be saying that the era of the strongman is, in fact, reversible. Yet—is it too early to breathe comfortably? Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey still look impregnable, and the less said about Modi in India, perhaps the better. The recent Communist Party Congress in China has consolidated Xi’s power as de-facto president for life, while the military setbacks of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine have barely dented Putin’s absolute invulnerability in Russia. And in the US, Trumpists in the Republican party seem poised to make sweeping gains in the mid-term elections due this coming Tuesday (November 8).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some strongmen have fallen at their most recent hurdles, but it is possible to argue that there are still enough around the world for optimism to seem unwarranted. In his recent book on the phenomenon, Gideon Rachman identifies four characteristics common to the style of all strongmen rulers: the creation of a cult of personality, contempt for the rule of law, populist claims to represent the “real people” of their countries as opposed to the elites, and a politics driven by fear and nationalism. These are all, sadly, familiar elements in our own country’s recent politics. As long as they exist, alas, any complacency about our democracy, and the eclipse of strongman rule, cannot be justified.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sun Nov 06 13:11:53 IST 2022 congress-must-truly-become-the-party-of-young-india-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When I entered the race to become president of the Indian National Congress, one of my key campaign themes was to increase our party’s emphasis on youth. As the immortal Rajiv Gandhi once memorably said in his famous address to a joint meeting of the US Congress, “India is an old country but a young nation… I am young and I, too, have a dream, I dream of India strong, independent, self-reliant, and in the front rank of the nations of the world, in the service of mankind”. In the three decades that have passed since his tragic passing, that characterisation of India and our youthful demographic remains truer than ever and must be a core focus area for the Congress party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today’s ruling dispensation often speaks about building a new India but any conversation on this topic must begin by looking at the interests of India’s future, our youth. After all, who else are we building this ‘New India’ for if not the young? We have trained world-class scientists and engineers, but 431 million of our compatriots are illiterate, and we have more children who have not seen the inside of a school than any other country in the world does. We have a great demographic advantage with the majority of the population under 25 and a startling 65 per cent under 35. This is potentially a young, dynamic labour force and could deliver to us that demographic ‘dividend’ so often proclaimed across global platforms. China, Japan, and even South Korea (our major East Asian competitors) are facing a serious demographic squeeze, and the rest of the world is ageing. India’s youth should not only be part of India’s development, but drive it.This requires us to provide our young people with both education and employment opportunities on an unprecedented scale. This is not happening.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Young people may be celebrated as bhagyavidhatas by our prime minister, but their current reality is one of shrinking opportunities. Record lows in job creation are compounded by a depressed economy still recovering from the devastation of the pandemic, the negative effect of demonetisation and the rushed implementation of GST, and now the inflationary consequences of the Ukraine war. And recent policy measures, including government promises to create just 12 lakh jobs a year in a country where 5.30 crore are currently unemployed and 47.5 lakh job seekers enter the market each year—suggests that the government is unlikely to turn things around.This grim scenario represents both a cause and an opportunity for the Congress. For the INC to start winning again, we can and should appeal to the large untapped political potential of unemployed youth, youth-heavy workplaces (notably the IT sector) and migrant hotspots. To take back the technocratic leadership of the nation, Congress has a large role to play via job fairs, skilling expos, and developing industry collaborations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our youth focused party bodies like the National Student’s Union of India (NSUI) and the Youth Congress must lead the way in these efforts and play a critical role beyond the good work being done by these frontals in organising large nationwide movements and mass protests. To strengthen their capacity, we need to embark on a meaningful revamp to make these and other Congress frontal organisations like Seva Dal our focus of attention for youth issues. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government.It has been painful to see the struggles of young India being reduced to rhetoric with little thought for their realisation. When the dust settles, the youth are left on the margins, mere observers to economic growth. Ad hoc policies to improve the opportunities available for India’s youth are clearly insufficient for the size of the problem that we are facing, let alone what it can grow to in the future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We in the Congress must work to include young people in India’s development by ensuring that their skills are developed, their aspirations understood and their voices protected. We need grown-up economic management, not slogans and sound-bites. The Congress must truly become the party of young India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b><a href=""></a></b></p> Sat Oct 08 16:52:49 IST 2022 latin-catholics-not-anti-development-they-fear-for-fishing-communitys-existence-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This is a story with a difference. At a time when the Latin Catholic archdiocese of Trivandrum has entered the news for leading an agitation of the fishing community against the development of Vizhinjam port, and thereby incurred the tag of ‘anti-development’, I want to challenge that narrative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Church agrees with those who believe that the rampant problem of coastal erosion has been worsened by the port construction. That is grounds for a separate discussion, since many argue that the vexed problem of sea inundation precedes the development of the port. But one thing that I, as MP for Thiruvananthapuram, can vouch for is that the Church is not anti-development.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To explain why, let me go back six decades. When our nation’s scientists, led by the legendary Dr Vikram Sarabhai, began to develop the contours of India’s nascent space programme in the early 1960s, the coastal village of Thumba was identified as an ideal location, given its latitude and natural features, to allow for rocket launches and allied research.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The catch, however, was that the land the community of scientists had identified in Thumba housed the St Mary Magdalene church and bishop Peter Bernard Pereira’s official residence. In any other community or for that matter in any other part of the world, the matter might have been put to rest then and there. After all, the idea of displacing an active spiritual establishment would certainly have evoked outrage and fury, especially in today’s India. But in this then relatively obscure part of Thiruvananthapuram district, when a decision of national importance and scientific progress presented itself, the community chose to make a remarkably patriotic choice—a choice for development and progress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When initial conversations with local politicians and bureaucrats made little headway, Dr Sarabhai turned to bishop Pereira for his guidance. The bishop, after understanding the proposed mission of the scientists, asked Dr Sarabhai to come to the church on the following Sunday. During the service, bishop Pereira presented the proposition before the congregation. “My children, I have a famous scientist with me who wants our church and the place I live in for the work of space science research,” he explained. “Dear children, science seeks truth by reasoning. In one way, science and spiritualism seek the same divine blessings for doing good for the people. My children, can we give God’s abode for a scientific mission?” The answer—quite literally—was a resounding “Amen”. The church and the bishop’s house as well as other neighbouring inhabited areas were handed over to Dr Sarabhai and his team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus was established, in 1962, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS, which would be renamed Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, or VSSC, after the death of the legendary scientist nine years later). A year later India launched its first two-stage rocket from TERLS, marking our first foray into space. As the late president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was part of the original launch team, and who went on to work from the church building himself, wrote later, looking back at this memorable episode:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Today, among us, Prof Vikram Sarabhai is not there, Rev Dr Peter Bernard Pereira is not there, but those who are responsible for the creation and make the flower and blossom will themselves be a different kind of a flower as described in the Bhagwad Gita: ‘See the flower, how generously it distributes perfume and honey. It gives to all, gives freely of its love. When its work is done, it falls away quietly. Try to be like the flower, unassuming despite all its qualities’.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those qualities have been typified by the members of the Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Trivandrum. They are not anti-development. But they fear for the very existence of the Catholic fishing community when they see their homes topple into the sea from fierce inundations. That is a problem that needs attention and resources, to build sea-walls and groynes to save the coast, and to provide compensation and rehabilitation for the devastated fisherfolk. It is not going to be solved by unjustly abusing those who have proved their patriotism time and time again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b><a href=""></a></b></p> Sun Sep 11 11:19:00 IST 2022 britain-not-ready-for-brown-pm-says-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Rarely has the Indian public been as interested in a British prime ministerial election as this year. The reason is not hard to find: among the two finalists whose names are being put to a ballot of all the nearly 1.8 lakh members of the Conservative Party is Rishi Sunak, the Indian-origin former chancellor of the exchequer. Sunak, a bright, articulate, England-born and expensively educated multi-millionaire who also happens to be married to Infosys’s Narayana Murthy’s daughter, Akshata, has conducted an impressive, slick campaign that saw him consistently lead the pack throughout many rounds of balloting among Conservative MPs to determine the final shortlist of two. And, yet, he is trailing his rival, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, in every poll of Conservative members, even though Truss is much less bright and well-spoken and barely squeezed through to the final round (after trailing in third place throughout the balloting).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many reasons are advanced for why Sunak seems about to lose the race among the Tory members (who are generally more conservative than the MPs): Sunak’s unpopular tax increases, the revelation that his wife was not paying UK taxes on her considerable Indian income by claiming “non-domiciled” status, and the fact that even as a British cabinet minister he retained a US green card, acquired during his years working in that country. (None of these breaches any law, though in politics appearances are often more important than legalities.) All this adds up to a perception of him as the embodiment of cosmopolitanism, competence, and technocracy, qualities reviled by Brexit-loving Tory culture-warriors. Some have even claimed he comes across as arrogant and overbearing, but “Dishy Rishi” is genuinely modest in speech and manner, even though he has much to be immodest about. So why, then, is he trailing in the polls, when his own peers in parliament consider him the most qualified MP?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Very simple. Sunak’s main problem is something that no British commentator is prepared to concede. He is not white. No one likes to admit that such considerations exist, because saying so is seen as politically incorrect in these supposedly enlightened times. But they are fundamental. No one should underestimate the lingering racism of the general British public. As the brown-skinned son of immigrants who is openly and unapologetically Hindu, Sunak, despite his upper-class British accent, cannot hide his foreignness. To many white Britons, he just isn’t one of them—and never will be.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So when results are announced on September 5, Truss will probably be prime minister, and Sunak fobbed off with the consolation prize of a key ministry—perhaps foreign affairs, maybe home (the exchequer, which he relinquished during the political crisis that brought down Boris Johnson, is now with another brown man, the Iraqi-Kurd-origin Nadhim Zahawi). No one will say it, but the unspoken realisation across the country will be that Britain still is not ready for an Indian prime minister. Still, Sunak has brought the Indian community in Britain a long way towards the highest office in the land. It is a journey that began in 1892, when Dadabhai Naoroji, the Indian nationalist who authored the “drain theory” about British colonial exploitation of India, stood as Liberal Party candidate for Central Finsbury and won. Two other Indian Parsis, one the pro-empire Mancherjee Bhownaggree, the other the communist Shapurji Saklatvala, were also elected in the early 20th century. But they remained curiosities, and none of them had a particularly long or illustrious parliamentary career. None ascended to any prestigious positions in government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, the picture is very different: people of Indian origin have, astonishingly enough, held two of the four “great offices of state” (home, finance, foreign affairs and prime minister). The other two posts no longer look out of reach.That is remarkably impressive, as evidence of how far Britain has come from the unabashed racism of its colonial past. Let us not forget the xenophobia with which some Indians reacted to the prospect of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi becoming our prime minister in 2004. We, too, have prejudices to overcome, so even if he loses on September 5, let us applaud Britain for Sunak even having come so close.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 13 12:10:07 IST 2022 shashi-tharoor-on-why-india-will-never-have-its-own-boJo-moment <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Amid all the drama and sensation of Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister of Great Britain, and the catalogue of misjudgments and follies that precipitated it, one aspect no one seems to have raised is staring us in the face—the absolute unlikelihood of anything like this ever happening in our country.</p> <p>Think of it: just two and half years after leading his Conservative Party to a resounding victory in the general elections, and less than two months after surviving a vote of confidence held among his own party MPs, Johnson’s position became untenable when one by one, and then in droves, 60 of his own colleagues, senior and junior, abandoned him by resigning from his council of ministers. When he replaced one of the first to go, his chancellor of the exchequer (or finance minister), Rishi Sunak, with a rising star of Iraqi Kurdish origin named Nadim Zahawi, the latter’s first act was to advise his own boss to resign. A delegation of cabinet ministers and party grandees then called on Johnson, telling him his position was unviable. The prime minister saw the writing on the wall, and quit.</p> <p>Johnson, understandably, blamed the “herd instinct of Westminster” for his exit. Once a herd gathers momentum, he reflected ruefully, it becomes unstoppable. At a time when, as he pointed out, he was working to fulfil the promises that had got him elected in 2019, his party was just marginally behind Labour in the polls and the challenges facing the nation warranted a steady hand at the helm, the herd had voted with its feet.</p> <p>In India, all this would be unthinkable. Every political party in our country is constructed around fealty to its leader—whether an individual, a family, or a cabal. For any Indian MP, let alone a cabinet minister, to resign on grounds of lack of faith in the leader’s integrity, is impossible to imagine. It has never happened, partly because people in positions of power (or even just in office) prefer to cling on to it, and partly because such an act will merely seal the resignee’s political irrelevance, not his boss’s. The leader will always prevail.</p> <p>The Johnson episode is all the more difficult for observers of Indian politics to imagine because he is actually the prime minister of the country. In India it is equally improbable within an opposition party. The preferred Indian way of handling discontent with a party leader is to grumble and complain, and to do so privately, behind closed doors. The grumbling is infused with the awareness that action on the complaints is impossible. The leader just “is”. He cannot be unseated, not least since no party has a mechanism for doing so, and no politician is willing to take the risk of trying. If he is upset enough, he quits and joins another party. He doesn’t challenge the existing one.</p> <p>In Britain and most parliamentary systems derived from it, party leaders are subject to period renewals of their mandate, often at fixed intervals or whenever the party’s processes call for it. In most of them a specified number of members can call for an out-of-turn confidence vote, something Johnson had to undergo recently (ironically, he prevailed). After an election defeat, by convention, the leader resigns, and unless the party unanimously clamours for him or her to stay—which has happened very rarely in western parliamentary democracies—he or she steps aside gracefully and lets someone else try.</p> <p>None of these things happen in India. Indeed, no party other than the two communist parties even has a fixed period for its designated leader to serve. No party has a mechanism to recall a leader, and even if a theoretical exercise were conducted to elect or re-elect one, the electors are handpicked by the existing leadership and are extremely unlikely to vote against its wishes. The famous example in the Congress, in which the charisma-<i>mukt</i> Sitaram Kesri trounced two popular leaders like Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot who challenged him for the presidency of the party, only proves the point.</p> <p>Perhaps, for once, it is time for us to ask ourselves whether there isn’t a lesson or two we can learn from what just happened to Johnson?</p> Sun Jul 17 14:22:50 IST 2022 the-lessons-we-can-learn-from-history <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The question raised by an American journalist on Twitter—“Why is the Indian Prime Minister spending so much time attacking a Mughal monarch who died more than 300 years ago?”—is a reminder of how the past retains a capacity to inflame political sentiments in the present. The role of history in our contemporary politics may seem inexplicable, but it is not without precedent in many other countries where divisive politics is encouraged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In my years at the UN dealing with the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, I was struck by how often my interlocutors on all sides referred to events from the distant past: there were two battles of Kosovo, in 1389 and 1448, but Serbs spoke of them as if they had happened yesterday, and these justified their resentments today, and their belligerence tomorrow. To take an Indian example, when Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (later the father of ‘Hindutva’) was, in his youthful phase, an advocate for Hindu–Muslim unity, he declared the rebellion of 1857 to have been ‘India’s first war of Independence’, featuring as it did Indians across divides of religion, region, caste, and language, fighting under the flag of the Mughal sovereign. The appeal to a positive historical memory can also play a significant role in constructing the nationalism of the present.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, of course, can appealing to a negative historical memory—invasions, the destruction of temples, and their replacement by mosques. It is usually accompanied by an evocation of ancient civilisational memories that provides nationals with a sense of rootedness—the sense of belonging to a venerable and even timeless community. This in turn evokes both a sense of belonging to a common endeavour for the majority, and a sense of exclusion and alienness for a disfavoured minority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Scholars like Benedict Anderson have told us that a nation is an imagined political community that reflects a single national identity, built upon shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, ethnicity, and a common history. This constructed national community is linked to a specific territory, resulting in a certain sanctification of geography, in the worship of the ‘motherland’ as the natural home of the nation. And next, this sanctified geography is married to a holy history. The history of a nation is marked by a shared recollection of the nation’s victories and defeats—as well as, quite often, resentment and rejection of other “nations” or communities, especially foreign forces that have conquered or dominated them. In the process nationalism involves an act of purification: purifying the people of religious, social and cultural contaminations that have come in from outside, leaving, in the case of our country, only the “new Indian” as heir to this precious ancient legacy. That new Indian, in today’s politics, must be Hindu, preferably Hindi-speaking, and resent the same past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The past is the essential element in [nationalistic] ideologies,” the historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued, “If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented…. The past legitimises. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that does not have much to show for itself.” Hobsbawm compares the role of history in nationalism with that of the poppy to the heroin addict. It is the source of the drug that both poisons and empowers the nationalist. Since the project of national unity, which is indispensable to the expression of this kind of nationalism, requires both a shared sense of cohesion and an identifiable territory, all nationalisms seek to create such fraternity. At the same time, to justify nationalistic zeal, both must be constructed on a long history—real or imagined. This is what makes history so important to the very idea of nationalism and so crucial to nation-building. And this is what the BJP has brought into our politics today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not history, but the ways in which historical memories are used by nationalist ideologues, that have led to atrocities. Serbs and Croats lived together, in fact married each other, for decades, until the rise of the likes of Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic accentuated their sense of historical difference and drove them apart. The same occurred to India in 1947 with the creation of Pakistan. Can we not learn from history? Or are we, in the famous phrase, doomed to repeat it?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jun 18 12:12:06 IST 2022 this-time-muslims-of-india-will-resist-shashi-tharoor-on-varanasi <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The controversy over a court order authorising a video inspection of the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi is one more reminder that in India debates over history are not confined to the distant past alone. The assumption behind the request is that the mosque was built on a demolished temple; if this is confirmed, demands will inevitably arise for that temple to be restored, as with the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. Whereas conservatives, in the famous phrase, are ‘standing athwart history, yelling stop’, our hindutva nationalists are yelling ‘turn back! Reverse!’ Their reinvention of history is not anchored in a reverence for the past, but in their desire to shape the present by resurrecting the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>History has often been contested terrain in India, but its revival in the context of 21st century politics is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the hindutva movement in the present. While the Mughals are being demonised as a way of delegitimising Indian Muslims (who are stigmatised as the sons of the invader Babur rather than of the Indian soil), hindutva fanatics want to rebuild the most prominent of the Hindu temples the Mughals allegedly destroyed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those who thought that victory in Ayodhya would be enough for the Hindu zealots are realising that they are like the sharks who have drawn first blood, like the taste, and thirst for more. As with the temple that is now being erected on the site of the old Babri Masjid, those who are raking up the Gyanvapi issue want to avenge history by undoing the alleged shame of nearly half a millennium ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When will it stop?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is a land where history, myth, religion and legend often overlap; sometimes we, as a people, cannot tell the difference. The Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya ruled that a Ram Mandir should be built, and that the religious sentiments of the Hindus had to be respected—implying both that such sentiments were of greater weight than legal provisions, and that the religious sentiments of the minorities were of less consequence than that of the majority, even though the demolition of the Babri Masjid was illegal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To most Indian Muslims, the Ayodhya dispute was not about a specific mosque. Rather, it was about their place in Indian society. The destruction of the mosque felt like an utter betrayal of the compact that had sustained the Muslim community as a vital part of India’s pluralist democracy. Others, however, felt that the court’s decision restored constitutional processes after the vandalism and violence that had marked the dispute for a generation. Most concurred that it would buy peace for the community. Gyanvapi, now, suggests that hope was misplaced.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, the zealots have been emboldened by the projection of Ayodhya as a triumph for a hindutva reinterpretation of the Indian national idea, and as a building block in the construction of a new hindutva version of India. The ideal of inter-faith co-existence in harmony has been jettisoned; the marginalisation of Muslims from the national narrative marches on. The prime minister conducted the puja at the site; the celebrations at Ayodhya, openly involving state machinery, were a significant step towards declaring an official state religion. “Hindu Rashtra” is being built before our eyes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the process that ominously seems to have begun anew at Gyanvapi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Let us assume that indeed the mosque was built on the site of a destroyed temple; does that mean we should open a gaping wound now, provoking civil strife today in order to avenge the past? Is there no case for letting old wounds that have long healed stay undisturbed? To destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple would not right an old wrong but perpetrate a new one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The alarm bells are ringing again in Varanasi. This time the Muslims of India will resist. Once again the violence will resume, spawning new hostages to history, ensuring that future generations would be taught new wrongs to set right. The BJP is happy to use history as cannon fodder; but in their obsession with undoing the past, it is our future they are placing in peril.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 20 12:00:31 IST 2022 our-globalised-world-is-less-able-to-cope-with-war-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Whatever you may think about India’s policy stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and I have dissented publicly about some aspects of it—one thing is clear: this is not just a conflict far away to which we can afford to remain indifferent. The war in Ukraine has affected us in India already, and most of the rest of the world besides.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As I pointed out in the Lok Sabha, the rise in oil prices has already hurt us gravely. Whereas the government’s budget had been based on the assumption that global oil prices would average about $75 a barrel, they shot well above $100, touching $130-140 on occasion, and have thrown the finance minister’s numbers completely out of kilter, with immediate and medium-term repercussions for our economy and growth prospects. The war has also brought about a serious rise in commodity prices, since Ukraine and Russia were responsible, in good times, for some 30-40 per cent of global wheat exports. While India is not a wheat importer—and our farmers may even profit in the short term from being able to export some Indian wheat at prices higher than the guaranteed MSP announced by the government—other agricultural commodities have also risen in price. For instance, 70 per cent of the sunflower oil and seeds that India consumes used to come from Ukraine and we now need to look for substitute sources, which will be more expensive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s is perhaps a modest example: we have been weathering the storm so far, including through increasing our imports of Russian oil and fertilisers. But other countries have not been so lucky. Muslim countries observing Ramadan have found the daily iftar becoming more expensive, with items scarce in many countries. Countries like Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran buy more than 60 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia; the former was known as a breadbasket to the world, and bread itself has become unaffordable. Nor will Ukraine be able to plant its usual wheat crop as long as the war endures, prolonging global wheat shortages. The World Food Program estimates that 41 million people in west and central Africa face a food and nutrition crisis, as people are reeling from the highest-ever prices for essential commodities like grain, oil and fertiliser. Yet ironically, the wheat already in Ukraine’s granaries risks rotting uneaten because the war has made it impossible to ship it out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ukraine’s European neighbours are the most directly affected, with some five million refugees crossing into neighbouring countries and the tough economic sanctions on Russia biting into their economies too. Rising oil and gas prices have affected every European country severely, as well as many farther afield.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the Bank for International Settlements, 60 per cent of the world’s advanced economies are suffering annual inflation rates above 5 per cent; in Britain, consumer price inflation reached its highest levels in three decades. Inflation has hit India, too; our inflation, like most emerging economies, is higher than anytime this century, with most of the developing world seeing inflation rates above 7 per cent. Countries that had just begun to recover from the devastating consequences of the pandemic and associated lockdowns have now been hit with a “double whammy”. In our own neighbourhood, Sri Lanka has been the worst affected, with its economy near collapse, forcing it to default on its debts. The crisis in Pakistan’s economy in turn played a part in the ouster of Imran Khan, by diluting the support he might have enjoyed had he been the steward of good times rather than presiding haplessly over economic failure. Now his successors have to look for means to service Islamabad’s huge external debt. Countries as far apart as Nepal, Tunisia, Sierra Leone and Bolivia are facing a debt crisis attributable directly to the war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our globalised world is simply less able to cope with war and the resultant sanctions, supply-chain disruptions and restrictions of currency flows. For a few heady years we enjoyed the fruits of inter-dependence, as trade and currency flowed freely and prosperity transcended borders. Today, we are realising that even a local war in the 21st century can have a global impact. The bombs and bullets recognise no frontiers. The need for peace has never been greater.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Apr 22 11:17:35 IST 2022 how-about-virtual-museums-asks-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Covid seems to be ebbing and large parts of the nation have begun to return to normal life, the question arises: will this mean more visitors to our museums? I have my doubts. It is striking that despite our immeasurably rich heritage, our museums have not been able to attract the levels of engagement of any of their western counterparts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For instance, it is a travesty that in the two years between 2016 and 2018, our National Museum had roughly 5.5 lakh visitors in total, whereas the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted 70 lakh visitors in 2017 alone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are a number of factors responsible for the decline in our country’s museums and their ability to engage audiences, that have nothing to do with Covid. Official apathy is a key reason. Step into an Indian museum today and one is invariably taken aback by the state of affairs—be it exhibits falling apart, or anodyne captions that seldom convey the richness of the artefact one is observing, or even the availability of resources to guide visitors through what the museum has to offer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides lines of restless schoolchildren who are essentially compelled to tour dusty museums and look interested, for most Indians, a visit to the museum is a decidedly dreary proposition: there are artefacts, but do they speak to you? Do they tell you, beyond tedious plaques and cards, of what they represent or what their age witnessed?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Museums are homes to objects—but they must also serve as repositories of legacies, of tales of people and societies, manifesting also ideas and thought. We in India have failed at this. Indians will line up in Rome or London or Paris (or for that matter Abu Dhabi) outside iconic galleries, seeking to glimpse the Mona Lisa or unravel an Egyptian mummy, hoping to educate themselves in the history of distant lands. But they will not bother to queue outside the Indian Museum, Kolkata.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course there is much to appreciate around the world. When I launched the British edition of my book on British colonialism, under the blunt title Inglorious Empire, one of my events was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in dialogue with its director—while on the floor beneath us stood the famous animated tiger of Tipu Sultan, mauling a British redcoat. That is one museum artefact that, even more than the Kohinoor, I would love to see back in India! But even without the treasures the British have looted, there is much in India itself. Yet the challenges facing museums are growing, and have not been helped by significant delays in appointments to key posts or successive budget cuts to the ministry of culture. But there are reasons beyond the government as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Access has always been an important barrier in our ability to enjoy the richness of our museums—not just physical access but also access in terms of language and comprehension, although efforts have been made to address this to some extent through audio guides in various Indian languages. This is where online museums come in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Museums, after all, cannot just be buildings full of attractive things—they must also offer an education, and a live, dynamic space where new art is constantly created, even as the old is respectfully enshrined.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putting museums online provides the answer. The marriage of art and technology may well hold the key not just for the future survivability of our nation’s museums, but could define the manner in which subsequent generations engage with and explore the cultural heritage that they have inherited. Interactivity, easy access, cultural education, all become easier as the ‘virtual museum’ brings the collections to your home. Art history comes alive with the integration of digital technology.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conservators are using new age methods like laser technologies and 3D-imaging technologies for improved and accurate conservation and restoration techniques.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Technology like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) makes exhibitions come alive. An NRI family based in the Gulf or the US can raise their children with access to meaningful resources on India’s rich traditions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Save our museums—take them online!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sun Mar 27 11:14:54 IST 2022 shashi-tharoor-on-the-rise-of-mandatory-hyper-nationalism <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global rise of officially mandated nationalism is a surprising phenomenon of our times. The century began with globalisation seeming unstoppable, national boundaries appearing ever-more permeable and states surrendering more and more of their sovereignty to supra-national organisations like the European Union, to regional and global trade pacts refereed by the World Trade Organization and to international legal institutions like the International Criminal Court. Few could have foreseen such an abrupt reversal of this trend in the second decade of the century, spurred by a worldwide backlash against globalisation. An ugly byproduct of this is the rise of mandatory hyper-nationalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The backlash has taken on a nativist hue everywhere. In Europe and America, this has involved racist hostility to immigrants and minorities (whether ethnically or religiously defined). Since such negative messaging requires a positive counterpart, nationalism—from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to Erdogan’s reviving Imperial Turkish glories—has filled the breach. A majoritarian narrative has sought to subsume each country’s diverse political tendencies into an artificial unity masquerading as patriotism. Globalisation had promised a world of dissolving differences and ever-expanding freedoms that would embrace everyone. Instead, today’s reactive nationalism heightens differences, emphasises singular virtues associated with a politically defined “people” and seeks to instil loyalty to the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the level of emblems like the flag, the national anthem, the lapel pin and reverence for the military’s sacrifices, I have no problem with this. But when symbols are used to promote a sense of duty rather than affection for the idea of the nation, and compliance with the prevailing governmental narrative, then I have a problem.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Here “respect” for the anthem and the flag becomes a code for obedience to the state and the ruling party. Today, conformity has become the new badge of allegiance. The wave of rising right-wing populism that is engulfing Europe is illustrative of this trend. Support for anti-system populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-Star Movement in Italy are only the more extreme examples. The rise of such illiberal nationalisms is occurring when there seems to be the real risk of a power vacuum in Europe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, as President Emmanuel Macron seeks re-election, France offers two principal alternatives to him, each more ultra-nationalist than the other: Marine LePen of the National Front outflanked by the acerbic provocateur Eric Zemmour. The recent performances of Austria’s far-right groups and Germany’s AfD suggest that the trend they exemplify is spreading. These are troubling and potentially dangerous developments. The idea of the nation as an inclusive community of all citizens, one that allows each individual to shelter under the constitutional carapace and to pursue his or her own ideas of happiness and national loyalty, free from the stipulations of rulers, is being tossed aside in the name of a higher patriotic duty to an officially sanctioned version of nationalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is reminiscent of the same slippery slope down which Italy and Germany slid into fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s. Such fears may be exaggerated in today’s democracies, with modern means of communication and thriving free media. But, as a glance at the toxic vituperation spread on social media confirms, complacency is no longer an option.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is a country that has gained greatly since 1991 from abandoning its post-colonial autarky and lowering protectionist barriers that restricted foreign investment and reduced trade. Along with this greater openness to the world had come a broader receptivity to prevailing international norms in everything from business culture to permissive sexual behaviour—and to subsuming patriotism within a broader liberal and cosmopolitan internationalism. That is now grinding to a halt under our current dispensation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our prime minister tosses constitutional norms aside and performs puja at Ayodhya; his party openly asserts defiant Hindutva and condones the marginalisation of minorities, especially Muslims. Young girls in traditional dress are prevented from pursuing their education by fanatics and political opportunists. India has become illiberal, and in the process, allegedly more truly Indian. In the name of authenticity, we risk losing our decency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sun Feb 27 09:52:00 IST 2022 we-are-seeing-dramatic-technological-progress-in-five-areas-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It may be a cliche, but the speed of change has accelerated remarkably in the lifetimes of most people reading this column.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was not always this way. The India in which I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s was a largely unchanging place. Change was incremental and evolutionary, which is to say that it took its time to happen and one could barely notice it. People’s homes, means of transportation, the products they consumed, what they read, how they communicated, the equipment and instruments they used at home and at work, what they heard from public service broadcasters, and their social relations and business practices in, say, 1975 were not very different from those of 1950.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But between 1975 and 2000 there was a revolutionary change—and it did not stop. Change came to our country like a bullet train and kept on roaring past, taking us along with it. Though 1991 was the watershed in India, the preceding decade-and-a-half had already seen the expansion of TV and the advent of colour, the introduction of computers in the face of leftist resistance, and the advent of new technologies in the workplace, including word processors and fax machines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then, along with liberalisation, came foreign cars and consumer products, PCs and mobile phones, the Internet and email, business process outsourcing and international call centres. Companies were born in fields that most people did not know existed. Young graduates had opportunities unavailable to my generation, of new subjects to master and new professions to pursue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then change picked up more speed. New businesses started and collapsed. What was a sunrise industry in 2005—say medical transcription, for instance—became obsolete by 2015 (in the case of medical transcription, it was thanks to the development of cheap and accurate voice-recognition software). Literacy is soaring, but people no longer write letters; they call their loved ones on the phone, or text and email them. Entertainment no longer comes from a government TV channel or a disc, but is delivered to your phone. Books can be read from hand-held screens; libraries are installing computer work-stations in order to stay relevant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Work from home” has become not just possible but preferred, thanks to two years in the grip of the pandemic. Work itself has been transformed by video-conferencing, offices are turning increasingly paperless, innovations in telemedicine are soaring, and every week brings rumours of dramatic new breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence, robotics and other fields that will make our daily lives unrecognisable. It is no longer safe to assume that tomorrow will look like yesterday; indeed, you cannot even be sure that tomorrow will look like today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The era we are living in is as exciting as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the telephone was invented, electricity was tapped and the automobile came of age, all at roughly the same time. Experts tell us that the period of disruption, reinvention and transformation that the world underwent because of the onset of these three technologies may well be mirrored in our own era.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As we gaze towards tomorrow, we are witnessing dramatic technological progress in five areas: robotics and the use of remote-controlled machines, energy (including new and more affordable forms of “green” energy and its storage), artificial intelligence and machine learning, blockchain technology, including the emergence of cryptocurrencies, and genomics and DNA sequencing. Each of these, evolving in parallel, holds the promise of bringing about dramatic transformations in our lives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil observed, we will not experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century, but 20,000 years of progress. Every company and industry, every business and enterprise, can be certain of one thing: that it will either have to be a disrupter or be disrupted, or both, in the foreseeable future. Adjusting to change must be everyone’s mantra. Standing still will prove the best way of moving backward—and being left behind, as change whirls on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 27 15:42:53 IST 2022 high-time-for-a-global-pandemic-treaty-writes-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has everyone reacting with varying degrees of alarm. Is it, as a hopeful study from South Africa suggests, more transmissible but less lethal? Might it even mark the beginning of the end of the Covid pandemic, a sign that the dreaded virus is mutating into something no more harmful than the regular flu?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No one really knows—at least not yet. But the rise of Omicron has added renewed urgency to worldwide concerns about vaccine inequality and the global pandemic response. Soon after the new variant was reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa, leaders began discussing what to do if renewed pandemic outbreaks become a recurrent feature of human life. Is it not time, some asked, to prepare a new international agreement to better deal with these, in what one might call a “pandemic treaty”? In November, the issue has been debated at a special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s governing body, where 32 health ministers supported a treaty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fact that Omicron was first discovered in South Africa itself confirms why such a treaty is required. The arrival of a fast-spreading virus variant from an under-vaccinated country underscores the slogan we have heard ever since the pandemic first emerged: “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. We need an international legal instrument to establish a global structure that would identify threats of pandemics early on and help ensure the production of vaccines or other drugs at adequate levels and in a timely manner. That is what poorer countries want.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reaction of rich and powerful governments to the idea, though, does not augur well for such a treaty. All governments prefer to look after their own people first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A year ago, I argued in this space that Covid may well have heralded the dawn of a new age of de-globalisation. Even the outbreak of Omicron has confirmed the absence of any global spirit among nations. Immediately, governments responded with restrictions and even outright bans on entry into their countries of travellers coming from lands with confirmed cases.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All this raises the obvious question: will the world once again descend into “every government for itself”? We have already seen countries hoarding vaccines, protecting manufacturing technology and reneging on contracts and commitments to supply vaccines to others. The rich nations have prioritised their own people, imposed the most severe travel restrictions and ignored the desperate calls of poor nations (and the WHO itself) for global cooperation to stem the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, one of the casualties was the cancellation of a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council which was supposed to discuss a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines. A waiver could have allowed manufacturers to make cheaper, generic versions of highly efficient coronavirus vaccines and medicines. Rich countries, notably in Europe, have opposed the proposal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If a mere waiver could not get off the ground, is there any hope for a pandemic treaty? Its champions seek an international agreement that could commit governments to produce a certain number of vaccines, maintain a level of manufacturing infrastructure that would serve the world and not just their own people, and participate in global surveillance efforts to help identify new viruses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These all seem obvious priorities for a world reeling from the onslaught of Covid, but the response of governments has been disappointingly tepid. If we do not achieve a treaty, the next virus outbreak could see the world making the same mistakes all over again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jan 01 11:38:47 IST 2022 assault-on-our-institutions-will-weaken-the-very-pillars-of-democracy-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Constitution Day on November 26 was marked by a boycott of Parliament by opposition parties, it is worth asking what has become of the free institutions whose existence underpins our constitutional democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They have atrophied. Financial regulators like the RBI; the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court; the investigative agencies (notably the Central Bureau of Investigation); the Election Commission, which organises, conducts the country’s general and state elections; the armed forces; institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; the elected legislatures; and the free press have all come under a shadow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Part of the reason behind this systemic onslaught stems from the Moditva doctrine of the ruling party and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva, on top of which it builds the idea of a strong leader, a man with a 56-inch chest, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation and will lead it to triumph.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>‘Moditva’ depicts a fiery and articulate ideologue, projected as all-knowing and infallible, the hero on a white stallion who will gallop at the head of the nation’s massed forces with sword upraised, knowing all the answers, ready to cut the Gordian knots of the nation’s problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Autonomous public institutions threaten the dominance of the Moditva doctrine because they are independent institutions with specialised mandates that consequently challenge this oversized cult of personality. Naturally, the government has systematically sought to interfere with the independence that is a defining feature of these bodies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s Election Commission has enjoyed a proud record of independence and boasts decades-long experience of conducting free and fair elections, despite its members usually being retired civil servants appointed by the government of the day for fixed tenures. While in the past, election commissioners have largely enjoyed a reputation for integrity, this has taken a severe blow as the result of a number of decisions in recent years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The judicial system, traditionally above the cut-and-thrust of the political fray, has come under withering scrutiny, as has the repeated politicisation of the armed forces under the present government. The list goes on, from the Central Information Commission (which suffers a record number of unfilled vacancies, remains intentionally understaffed and whose salaries and terms of service can be altered by the government—a blow to the independence of the body), to the Central Statistical Organisation (which has been accused of manipulating data to make the government’s economic management appear less disastrous). A slew of governors have cast aside their constitutional mandate to sing to the tune of the ruling dispensation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for the ‘temple of democracy’, our Parliament, it has declined considerably from the deliberative forum it is supposed to be, to a combination of rubber-stamp for government bills, notice-board for official pronouncements, and theatrical stage for dramatic disruptions. Serious work still goes on in the committees, but these have also been undermined by the government’s disinclination to refer most bills to committee scrutiny.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A process combining intimidation and co-optation has weakened the press, ensuring that very few critical voices in the so-called ‘mainstream’ media are raised against such behaviour. Instead, the press largely serves as a weapon of mass distraction, purveying sensationalist and voyeuristic stories to take attention away from the government’s failures.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This does not bode well for the future of our Indian democracy. Political parties and ruling powers will come and go, but these institutions are the enduring pillars of democracy, whose independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from political pressures. If the assault on our institutions persists, the confidence that people have in these bodies will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 04 15:53:33 IST 2021 why-a-new-parliament-when-modi-does-not-respect-the-house-asks-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched a full-frontal assault on critics of his Central Vista scheme, accusing them of spreading “lies” and “misinformation” and being opposed to India’s progress. The Vista’s redevelopment, he argues, will represent New India after 75 years of independence, and cast off the colonial Lutyens “face” of New Delhi. “India is the mother of democracy. Therefore, the capital of India should be such that its central focus should be people,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a curious argument since the imperial legacy of Lutyens Delhi was transformed decades ago by a new, democratic India. The area between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan, which the government seeks to remake, has indeed been focused on the people. It is at present a grassy, pleasant place where, on any given day, families can be seen enjoying the lawns, eating ice cream, and strolling. It is a truly democratic space, freely accessible to the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That will all change: a leading architectural magazine called the prime minister’s dream project “a retrograde and anti-ecological urban plan” which could “turn an entire stretch of the Rajpath, once so free and easy, into a surveyed security zone”. The government’s decision to push ahead with the construction of this project during the mismanaged Covid pandemic is an act of staggering arrogance, exposing its indifference to the interests of ordinary Indians. The project costs 020 lakh crore at a time when adequate oxygen supplies were unavailable during the nightmarish Covid “second wave” earlier this year, migrant labourers walked hundreds of kilometres after a disastrously implemented lockdown last year, and the people of India, reeling from the economic crisis, received the most meagre fiscal stimulus of any major economy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Changing the physical face of Lutyens’s Delhi is essentially a show of power, a desire to stamp the national capital with the seal of Moditva. The “edifice complex” of this government’s fantasies reeks of a Mussolinian air, a taste for the grandiose that has nothing to do with democracy in either substance or process. The BJP’s governance style is one of unilateral top-down decision-making, with not even the pretence of consulting the public, the opposition, or indeed even architects, environmentalists, or parliamentarians. The wholesale destruction of many much-admired buildings, including the National Museum and the recently completed Jawahar Bhawan, in favour of banal and repetitive cookie-cutter government offices, is deplorably wasteful. It is one more shameful attempt to dismantle the idea of democratic India itself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government also contends that a new Parliament building is needed as the old one is no longer fit for purpose. I myself had argued that the Parliament building was in desperate need of upgradation, but I had called for a renovation of the present structure, not its replacement. Replacing an iconic Parliament building is bad enough. But the irony of conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for the new Parliament while suspending the work that should have been taking place in the old—two of the regular parliamentary sessions were abandoned or truncated—was lost on the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of focusing its energies on building a new Parliament, perhaps the government should take stock of its shameful behaviour in the one we already have. When you have reduced Parliament to a notice-board for your unilateral decisions, disembowelled the standing committees by refusing to discuss legislation in them, and got your pliant majority to rubber-stamp all the bills you want to shovel through without debate, what difference will a new building make?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Nov 06 11:17:49 IST 2021 pluralism-is-in-very-nature-of-india-bjp-is-challenging-it-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The mounting unpleasantness of communal bigotry in our country prompts me to look back at the founding of the Indian Republic. Our nationalist movement did not divide over ideology or geography; it divided on the simple issue of whether religion should be the determinant of nationhood. Those who argued that their religion made them a nation left India and established Pakistan; the rest created a nation which, like the freedom struggle itself, sought to embrace all Indians.</p> <p>There was also a practical consideration here. In dealing with the vast and complex realities of a subcontinent of 330 million people, and in devising systems and rules to embrace all of them, the founders had to acknowledge the need to produce political unity out of ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, and communal diversity.</p> <p>They realised that in the India they would rule, there was no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way” of doing things. In an era when most developing countries chose authoritarian models of government, claiming these were needed to promote nation-building and steer economic development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy—flawed, but flourishing. India’s pluralism was acknowledged in its constitutional and political arrangements, which encouraged a bewildering variety of social groups, religious communities, sectional interests and far-fetched ideologies to flourish and contend. This approach—called, with some inexactitude, “secularism”—is now bitterly challenged by the ruling party.</p> <p>Many observers abroad have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralist state. But pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history. India’s is a civilisation that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several denominations of Christians, and, of course, Muslims. Jews came to Kerala centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century to inflict it. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St Thomas the Apostle, who came to the Kerala coast sometime before 52 CE and was welcomed on shore, if the legend is to be believed, by a flute-playing Jewish girl.</p> <p>Islam is portrayed by some in the north as a religion of invaders who pillaged and conquered, but in Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travellers and missionaries rather than by the sword, a south Indian king was so impressed by the message of the prophet that he travelled to Arabia to meet the great teacher himself. The king, Cheraman Perumal, perished in the attempt, but the coconuts he took with him have sprouted trees that flourish to this day on the southern coast of Oman.</p> <p>India’s heritage of diversity means that in the Kolkata neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer routinely blended with the chant of mantras and the tinkling of bells at the local Shiva temple, accompanied by the Sikh gurdwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, with St Paul’s Cathedral just around the corner. Today, in my constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, the gleaming white dome of the Palayam Juma Masjid stands diagonally across from the lofty spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral, and just around the corner from both, abutting the mosque, is one of the city’s oldest temples, consecrated to Lord Ganesh. My experiences in Thiruvananthapuram remind me daily that India is home to more Christians than Australia and nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan.</p> <p>That is the India I lay claim to.</p> <p><b></b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Oct 07 14:36:35 IST 2021 education-policy-makers-should-not-forget-digital-divide-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some readers may recall a story from last year’s lockdown that is seared into my consciousness. A Class 10 student in Kerala, hailing from a dalit family, a young girl who was a class topper and under any other circumstances would have been set for a bright future, instead committed suicide. Why? Because as classes leapt online, her family, where the sole breadwinner was her father, a daily-wage worker now unemployed thanks to the lockdown, was unable to afford a smartphone or a data package which would have allowed this girl to follow the classes necessary to continue her education. Then the state government, in a great show of solidarity with the poor, announced that classes would also be telecast on Victers TV—a public broadcasting channel for those children who could not afford online facilities. But the family’s sole television set was broken and her father, barely able to feed his family, could not afford to repair it. Excluded and marginalised from the very field in which she had excelled, this bright student preferred not to live. She killed herself.</p> <p>This sobering and tragic event calls for a serious commitment on the part of education policy-makers to take stock of the barriers to access and inclusion that permeate all levels of our society. As classes rapidly go online in the Covid-19 era, we as a country have not sufficiently addressed a deep and pervasive digital divide that many families have to contend with. According to UNESCO, globally, only just over half of households (55 per cent) have an internet connection. In the developed world, 87 per cent are connected compared with 47 per cent in developing nations, and just 19 per cent in the least developed countries. These stark realities, along with other basic barriers like infrastructure deficiencies, have resulted in insuperable barriers for our weak and marginalised sections. This is the reality of the India we live in, reality that educationists cannot afford to forget while they sit protected by privilege and discuss the future of the New Education Policy. That is why I (and other MPs) have been organising digital-divide bridging donations of smartphones to poor students.</p> <p>And what about universities? Some have argued that, after the initial arduous period of adaptation, online education will become the new norm, and the university campus as we know it has become obsolete. I do not agree. Yes, poverty-stricken students can be equipped for online education. But that is not enough. Our current resort to online education overlooks the great value of campus interactions for students across social classes and regional or religious divides, and the comradeship that arises from shared experience and mutual learning.</p> <p>Above all, the university campus can be a place where people can be brought together, where the social barriers of class, religion and caste are left behind and young Indians are given the tools to lead an empowered life; a space that is confident enough to look at its wealth of differences as a strength and not so insecure as to look at diversity as a weakness that must be rooted out; a space where the administration is attuned to the aspirations of the students, the next generation of India’s leaders, and where these young minds, the engines of our democratic and pluralist society, are not subsumed only by personal ambition or the commercial rat-race, but are invested in the success of those around them. If we manage to create such spaces on our campuses, we can develop a new Indian university that remains open, inclusive and representative offline—an old idea reimagined for a new India.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 09 16:13:36 IST 2021 everyone-must-follow-international-rules-even-the-us-says-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On June 24, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 29th time in a row to censure US sanctions on Cuba. A staggering 184 countries supported the resolution condemning the US economic embargo on the Communist-run Caribbean island-state, three abstained, and four did not vote at all; just two states voted against the resolution—the US and Israel. The US promptly made it clear that it will, yet again, disregard the overwhelming opinion of the “international community”. The sanctions will continue. So what makes the US the self-proclaimed defender of a “rules-based international order”?</p> <p>The question is increasingly relevant as the world seems to be dividing along a new binary—between an ominously resurgent China, bent on asserting itself through “wolf warrior diplomacy” as the new gorilla on the global beach, and a group of beleaguered democracies, led by the US, who seek, they claim, to uphold the rules-based liberal international order established since 1945.</p> <p>The idea of a rules-based system goes back to the founding of the UN 76 years ago. In 1945, the UN’s far-sighted founders—determined to make the second half of the twentieth century different from the much-troubled first—drew up rules to govern international behaviour, and founded institutions in which different nations could cooperate for the common good.</p> <p>Their idea—now called “global governance”—was to create an architecture that could foster international cooperation, elaborate consensual global norms and establish predictable, universally applicable rules, to the benefit of all. After 50 years in which the world had suffered two world wars, countless civil wars, brutal dictatorships, mass expulsions of populations, and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the world would be governed by international law. Everyone would follow the same rules.</p> <p>The new UN would stand for a world in which people of different nations and cultures would look on each other, not as subjects of fear and suspicion, but as potential partners, able to exchange goods and ideas to their mutual benefit. A place where small states and big would be able to work as sovereign equals, pursuing common objectives in a universal forum, observing common rules of engagement.</p> <p>As US President Harry Truman, addressing the San Francisco Conference that founded the UN, observed: “We all have to recognise, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation... can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation.... Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organisation for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is!”</p> <p>But in the decades since, the biggest defenders of the established world order have let it down the most. USA’s behaviour in sanctioning Cuba, despite the disapproval of the rest of the world, is often seen as a typical example of its attitude. If the rest of the world disagrees, the US, instead of abiding by the rules and heeding the majority, does its own thing anyway.</p> <p>Examples like these abound. The US condemns China for its expansionist behaviour in the South China Sea, and asserts the principle of freedom of navigation—but it refuses to sign or ratify the very Law of the Sea that it excoriates the Chinese for violating. Washington waxes indignant, often selectively, about human rights violations in an assortment of countries—but it not only has not ratified the establishment of the International Criminal Court, but also passed a law authorising its armed forces to use violence to extricate any American citizens who might one day be arraigned by the Court.</p> <p>In other words, critics of the US assert, its advocacy of a “rules-based international order” is not about the rules, or the order, that the rest of the world wants, supports and votes for. It only stands up for the rules that suit it.</p> <p>When Truman waxed eloquent about the importance of international law that would bind big and small, strong and weak, equally, he was making a simple point that is essential to any democracy. If you want to uphold a rules-based system, everyone must follow the same rules. Even the world’s biggest superpower.</p> Thu Aug 12 15:23:51 IST 2021 free-our-universities-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The recent suspension of a professor at the Central University of Kerala for mentioning the RSS while talking about proto-fascism in his classes, highlights the ongoing persecution of India’s more liberal universities and academicians. The government seems entirely unconscious of the classic prescription that the supreme purpose of a university in any democracy is to create well-formed minds who can participate in our system, whose future depends on citizens’ capacity to scrutinise their elected officials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One purpose of the university is to help us expand our minds in service of our democracy. In a deliberative democracy, universities are meant to be hotbeds of argument, debate and dissent rather than centres of conformity. Universities are where young people find themselves in causes larger than their own academic careers. Many—perhaps most—students grow up in the process and outgrow the more extreme views they adopted out of youthful zeal. Two of my extreme-leftist classmates at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, for instance, are now conservative pundits associated (in one case, till recently) with the BJP. They would undoubtedly be embarrassed to be reminded of the fervour with which they espoused positions that they dismiss with scorn today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps more important, the Indian state is not so feeble that a few irresponsible slogans shouted by misguided students can destroy it. By branding dissent as “anti-national”, our BJP rulers are betraying the founding idea of an India “where the mind”, in Tagore’s immortal phrase, “is without fear”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP’s attack on universities is planned, deliberate, and dangerous to India’s democracy. The slapping of sedition charges on Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the suicide in January 2016, as a result of harassment, by a dalit student in Hyderabad, Rohit Vemula, are evidence that we have failed to protect our students and scholars from political interference by individuals and organisations that used arbitrary processes to uproot academic freedom. From Dinanath Batra’s RSS-supported curriculum in Haryana and Gujarat on “moral science” to the politically driven harassment of Vemula and the sacking of social activist and Magsaysay awardee professor Sandeep Pandey for his dissenting views at Banaras Hindu University, a deeply disturbing pattern emerges that points to an ominous political project, to exact conformity by striking at the intellectual fount of challenges to it, the universities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The filing of an FIR in October 2019 under Section 124A (the sedition law) against 49 intellectuals who wrote a letter to the prime minister deploring mob-lynching, though since dropped, remains an egregious example of the misuse of this law against freedom of speech. It is essential to clarify and restrict its application to instances in which there is a direct and immediate incitement to violence, as has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of India. This will free students as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It should not need saying, but in today’s India, it does: One can criticise the government of the day and be loyal to the nation. We must celebrate a robust and pluralistic Indian democracy, not the fearful brand of governance espoused by the current government, which sees treason in every tweet and a traitor under every desk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP seems to believe that India’s freedom is so frail that it will collapse in the face of dissent—which characterises the spirit of the nation in the first place. They have parked a tank on the JNU campus. But the flag that our soldiers have died for, even as the JNU disturbances were going on, stands for a larger idea of freedom than the intolerance of our present authorities. It is time for the government to live up to the ideals embodied in our flag.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 17 21:00:28 IST 2021 indo-pacific-will-remain-hub-for-maritime-economic-cooperation-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is fascinating for old hands of global diplomacy when new terms of art emerge and find widespread acceptance. This has happened to the “Indo-Pacific”, an expression that comes up often in my conversations with foreigners—sometimes self-consciously, sometimes automatically, and sometimes with the slight tone of deference that is used by those who are striving to be politically correct.</p> <p>Whatever the case may be, the idea of the Indo-Pacific breaks down the separation of East Asia conceptually from South Asia and links the two geopolitically. At the same time, the term reflects three interrelated developments. The first is China’s declared intention of developing a blue water navy and becoming a transcontinental economic giant. The second is India’s emergence as a regional power and a possible counterbalance to China. And the third is the role which the US will play in shaping the contours of the seemingly irresistible shift in power from west to east, and from the Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Taken together, the ideation of the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ captures the growing might, geopolitical interests, and normative visions of these powers in a dynamic region.</p> <p>Within the confluence of these complex developments, India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is one that strives to ensure a free, open and rules-based maritime space that respects each nation’s strategic autonomy and where no individual player or alliance seeks to undermine this in the quest for greater influence in this region.</p> <p>But Beijing and Moscow object to the conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific as a strategy to contain China, which remains Russia’s largest trading partner, and with whose geo-strategic interests Moscow is increasingly aligned. India cannot afford to completely disregard consistent criticism from Russia, which continues to provide the majority of our defence imports.</p> <p>And, yet, Russia’s objections point to how far Russia and India have travelled from each other in recent years. So far, India has been equidistant from the US and China, a position Russia prefers us to maintain. But it is difficult to be equidistant between a country that has killed 20 of your soldiers and transgressed your border, and another that you have no quarrel with and that tries to be supportive.</p> <p>Our foreign policy is not determined by one violent standoff and the violation of our territorial sovereignty alone, but such incidents cannot be lightly brushed aside. Beyond its belligerence on the LAC, China has increased its support for Pakistan, spending more than $90 billion on a highway to the Chinese-run port of Gwadar. The importance of Pakistan to China’s Belt and Road Initiative binds the two countries closer together than before.</p> <p>So India has deliberately embraced the US concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and is gradually abandoning its reluctance to participate in the US-led “Quad”, focused on countering China’s regional ambitions. The last Quad summit called for the Indo-Pacific to remain ‘free and open … anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion’.&nbsp;</p> <p>But whether these lofty ideals will translate to mutually agreeable outcomes remains to be seen. For instance, the recent military exercise by the US navy in India’s backyard, without prior notification too, let alone an official nod, has not gone down well in New Delhi. Similarly, while the joint statement talked about greater cooperation on vaccine production and distribution, in recent weeks Indian media has placed a growing spotlight on the US embargo on certain vital raw material that is required for vaccine manufacturing by Indian producers.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Quad is therefore not an incipient Indo-Pacific NATO. The Indo-Pacific will remain a centre for maritime and economic cooperation and a facilitator of the huge volume of global trade that flows through this region. Our ultimate objective in the region has to remain the peace, security and development of all. At a time when all of us are threatened by a deadly virus, climate change and rising levels of poverty and income inequality, that is all that geopolitics ought to be about. Even in the Indo-Pacific.</p> Thu Jun 17 15:33:47 IST 2021 moditva-doctrine-is-all-about-autocratic-concentration-of-power-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Is democracy under threat in India? Indeed, has India already ceased to be democratic?</p> <p>This may seem an odd question to ask in the aftermath of five successful state elections, conducted largely freely and fairly and only one of which the BJP won. Yet, if one were to read the annual reports of Freedom House, the American think-tank, which downgraded India this year from “free” to only “partly free”, or the prestigious V-Dem Institute in Sweden, which described India as an “electoral autocracy”, then we have indeed slipped out of the ranks of the world’s democracies. Elections can be democratic, but true democracy is about what happens between elections.</p> <p>It has not helped that since this government came to office in 2014, we have witnessed a striking dilution of independence at the highest levels of our autonomous institutions, from financial regulators like the Reserve Bank to institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; that questions have been raised about even hitherto sacrosanct bodies like the Election Commission and the upper echelons of the armed forces; and that Parliament, the judiciary and even the free press are widely perceived as insufficiently free of the government’s influence.</p> <p>Part of the reason behind this systemic crumbling stems from the Moditva doctrine and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of hindutva, but building upon it the idea of a strong leader, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation. Autonomous public institutions threaten the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent. This is why their authority must be undermined, and the “nationalist” argument advanced that opposition and dissent are by definition anti-national. The fear is that ethno-nationalism is taking India towards a peculiar hybrid, a ‘dictatocracy’ which preserves the forms of democracy while brooking no dissent against its dictates.</p> <p>If the de-institutionalisation of Indian governance proceeds like this, the greatest danger facing India will be that of the public losing faith in the system altogether. This is already taking place in many other parts of the world. In a widely discussed paper, Harvard scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is degenerating (the term of art being ‘democratic deconsolidation’). Drawing on global data, they show that there has been a considerable dilution of support for democracy and a growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generations (those born after the 1980s), and that we can no longer assume that the future of democracy is secure.</p> <p>Indeed, support for non-democratic or authoritarian models of governance is rising in many democracies. India is among the worst in the Mounk–Foa data. More than 70 per cent of Indian respondents felt that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections is a ‘good’ way to run this country”, higher than even Pakistan, with 62 per cent. In a recent CSDS–Azim Premji University survey, over 50 per cent of respondents in four large states expressed a preference for an authoritarian alternative to our existing democracy.</p> <p>While for many apologists of India’s government, the mere conduct of reasonably free and fair elections is defence enough, democracy can only flourish if the system maintains checks and balances, promotes consensus, and ensures institutional autonomy. Otherwise we become another “illiberal democracy”.</p> <p>The immortal JP argued that democracy should not be reduced to a crowd of sheep electing their shepherd every five years. The confidence that the people of India have in our system rests in the belief that it will work fairly. If their faith erodes, it will weaken the very foundations of the democracy that we take for granted. Political parties and the ruling powers of the day will come and go, but free institutions are the enduring pillars of any democracy. Their independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from the political pressures of the day. We must not let Moditva destroy them.</p> Thu May 20 16:19:49 IST 2021 shashi-tharoor-on-the-need-to-avoid-a-cold-war-between-us-and-china <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as the world continues to grapple with the ravages of the Covid pandemic, strategists with an eye on the long term are contemplating a potentially equally crippling prospect: the onset of a “new Cold War”, this time between the US and China.</p> <p>US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dubbed Beijing a “threat to global stability” and denounced its record on human rights and trade. China has been equally harsh in its condemnation of US “imperialism” and domestic problems, including racism. Beijing has made no secret of its disdainful view that the US is a country in terminal decline.</p> <p>The Biden administration appears to be embarking on establishing a network of alliances against China. Likely areas of competition with China go beyond the conventional geopolitical issues to challenges in cyberspace and the risks of technological conflict. American thinkers have called for policymakers to evolve a comprehensive strategy to counter China, much as George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 led to the birth of the “containment strategy” that hemmed in the Soviet Union.</p> <p>Ideology is seen as key to the division of the world into duelling camps. President Biden wants to forge an “alliance of democracies” against the world’s “autocracies”. The Quad is seen by some as the nucleus of a future such alliance. Democracy and liberal values are essential to keeping such an alliance together and to demonstrate that this is not just another amoral contest for military or geopolitical supremacy. This is why Washington prefers to couch its vision as being about principles, democratic governance and the maintenance of international order.</p> <p>But “Cold War 2.0” is not inevitable. The Biden administration does seem to be more nuanced than its predecessor in its approach to China. Blinken has acknowledged that the relationship with China has adversarial, competitive and cooperative aspects. This was not true of the US-Soviet Cold War, where there was simply no economic interpenetration between the two blocs and almost no examples of cooperation, let alone investment or significant trade.</p> <p>The countries that the US might hope to rope into its project also have complex concerns. Countries in southeast Asia would welcome the US or the Quad offering a counterweight to Chinese hegemony, but they are too conscious of their economic dependence on Beijing to espouse any overt hostility.</p> <p>Even the Quad countries have too much at stake in their economic relations with China to simply write off the relationship. China is not known for its ideological zeal to convert the world to communism; it is far more interested in finding itself a dominant place in the current world order than to overthrow the international system.</p> <p>Nor are there any proxy wars littering the landscape as in the original Cold War, nor much of an appetite for any in either Beijing or Washington. Positing another Cold War, therefore, overstates both the current situation and the risk of any threat from China to the global order.</p> <p>It is also inescapable today that current global crises like the coronavirus pandemic and environmental disasters oblige the US and China to confront the same problems, face the same threats and seize the same opportunities. What we used to call, in my UN days, “problems without passports”, require blueprints beyond borders to resolve. Global cooperation would serve the world better than intensified rivalry.</p> <p>As the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra put it recently in a piece for Bloomberg: “The urgent question today is not whether there will be a new cold war. It is whether modes of thought developed during the previous one… will again dominate political and intellectual life…. The crude division between democracy and autocracy won’t help us grasp such a topsy-turvy world. Though comfortingly simple, such cold war ideologies can never truly replace our messy reality.”</p> <p>The ideological battle lines are not yet joined. Perhaps, with enough imagination, they will not need to be.</p> Thu Apr 22 15:11:07 IST 2021 kerala-should-end-over-dependence-on-remittances-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As I write these words, my state is riven in a bitter election campaign, with harsh words being flung at and by the ruling party. And yet, though much criticism of the government is justified, the ‘Kerala Model’ itself cannot be disputed.</p> <p>The phrase was revived last year to praise the state’s success in initially suppressing the spread of Covid-19 and ‘flattening the curve’ till October, when cases re-escalated. But the government’s failures to maintain its performance do not discredit the Kerala model itself. For its Covid-19 response has emerged from a template that long preceded the current crisis. Among Indian states, it is unique for having allocated significant resources to public health, devolved power and funding to village-level bodies, and established a system that promotes community participation and public cooperation.</p> <p>In addition to having the highest literacy rate in India (94 per cent), Kerala also boasts a declining birth rate, higher life expectancy, more empowered women, and stronger welfare support for the marginalised. People do not beg or starve in Kerala.</p> <p>The state offers universal access to health care, and respects all residents as rights-bearing citizens. Throughout the current crisis, Kerala’s educated populace has behaved responsibly, limiting community transmission, cooperating with authorities, and seeking prompt treatment. This institutional and political culture is not the result of some one-off policy. Kerala has spent generations creating the infrastructure to support social development, placing it far ahead of the rest of India on many key indicators.</p> <p>Kerala has a vibrant civil society, free media, and a competitive political system. Its robust form of social democracy reflects the contributions of alternating coalitions of communist and Congress-led governments over time.</p> <p>Kerala has built on its tradition of decentralised governance, transparency, public trust and governmental accountability. While these must not be seen as a reason to underplay the current challenges the state faces, it offers a timely reminder that with greater sensitivity to the crisis at hand, more public willingness to continue to adopt counter measures like social distancing, wearing of masks and sanitisation measures, we can bounce back.</p> <p>Malayalis are a people of incredible resilience and fortitude. Whether it was during Cyclone Ockhi, the devastating floods in 2018 and 2019 or even in the face of similar virus outbreaks like Nipah, the people of the state have found a way to face these serious challenges head on.</p> <p>When sources for conflict have arisen, the people have found a way to remind the rest of the country that we are proud flagbearers of a phenomenon I call the ‘Malayali miracle’. No politician can claim credit for this, the “real Kerala model”—a community that has practised openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reforms, and political democracy; which has given its working men and women greater rights and a higher minimum wage than anywhere else in India; and which has honoured its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling and empowered lives.</p> <p>And, yet, this election has again confirmed the need to update the Kerala model while preserving it. We must sustain our human development not by borrowings but by attracting investment. Instead of exporting our unemployment, we must generate jobs and support entrepreneurs. Instead of relying on remittances we must develop our home-grown strengths. The red-flag culture of repeated hartals must end with an acceptance of social responsibility for the common good.</p> <p>As a Malayali and an Indian, I look forward to the day when Kerala will no longer be the exception in tales of Indian development, but again the trailblazer.</p> Thu Mar 25 13:57:08 IST 2021 hate-machinerys-new-target <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>During the unpleasantness surrounding the arrest of 22-year-old activist Disha Ravi, the most unsavoury of the many disagreeable elements in the controversy was the attempt of hindutva social media warriors to disparage her by claiming she is Christian. She is not, but what if she were? In the BJP’s “New India”, is merely being Christian enough to qualify for the epithet “anti-national”?</p> <p>The irony is that Christians have long been among the builders of modern India, and many are the BJP leaders who, like L.K. Advani, had their intellect first shaped by Christian education. My first substantial interaction with Christian teachers took place when, as a rather nervous young boy, not yet six years old, I was admitted to the Montfort Boys’ Boarding School in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. A year later I joined the prestigious Campion School, Bombay, where a majority of the teaching staff was Christian, and finished high school at the St Xavier’s Collegiate School in Calcutta, where I encountered a few more teachers of that persuasion.</p> <p>I should mention that the three schools I went to from ages six to 16 had an interesting detail in common: they were all Catholic schools, two of them Jesuit. It is remarkable how much this one order has done to educate and train millions of Indian children to make successes in their lives.</p> <p>A number of the priests at these schools were remarkably well-trained. At St Xavier’s I remember several brilliant young Jesuit fathers. The late Father Remedios, a superb guide to Shakespeare as well as “Values of Life” (Biblical ethics without the Bible!), was an excellent class teacher who, after instilling in us his profound knowledge of Julius Caesar, cycled regularly to jail, visiting prisoners to minister to their moral and spiritual needs.</p> <p>The now-eminent theologian Cyril Desbruslais, then in his 20s, took my class through an epistemological argument for the existence of God, which certainly impressed my fourteen-year-old imagination at a time when I was beginning to flirt with the idea of atheism. When you discover rationality, the idea of religion does not seem so appealing, until you discover the limits of rationalism in a world whose wonders surpass the explanations of reason. But in between I benefited from a very rational, structured philosophical argument from this Jesuit priest who lectured teenagers on why God existed, citing Kant and Thomas Aquinas in the process.</p> <p>I remember playing during the recess in our wonderful ‘big field’ with some of the outstanding Anglo-Indian students of the school, who consistently excelled at hockey in particular, and won every possible song and music competition. My debate and speech teacher at St Xavier’s, who also directed the high school’s annual play, was another sparklingly gifted exemplar of the cultural strengths of the Christian community.</p> <p>It was particularly striking to me that in our interactions with these teachers, we were absolutely free to express our beliefs and views. Elsewhere, you learn to answer the questions. The teachers I was privileged to have taught me to question the answers—and later I went on to question the questions, too.</p> <p>Thanks to them, at an impressionable age, I was given an education that combined a well-rounded tutelage with a pan-Indian outlook that made me deeply appreciative of eclectic social interests, the importance of a questioning spirit, and, above all, humanitarian regard for the well-being of others.</p> <p>The next time a hindutvavadi tries to turn “Christian” into a term of abuse, I urge my fellow citizens of that faith to wear the badge with pride. There is much that millions of Indians should remain grateful to Christians for.</p> Thu Feb 25 13:52:48 IST 2021 the-battle-to-belong <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When these words appear, our 71st Republic Day will just be behind us. Our national celebrations of this anniversary of the entry into force of our Constitution have been tempered by the raging coronavirus pandemic, which already claimed the event’s chief guest, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who cancelled his visit because of the emergence of a new mutant strain of Covid-19 in his country. But for many of us, the mood of celebration was also dampened by the realisation that never before has the Constitution we are celebrating seemed under such threat, with some scholars even writing of the dawn of a second republic that may have already supplanted the one established on January 26, 1950.</p> <p>I have tried to deal with this challenge in my new non-fiction magnum opus, <i>The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism and What It Means to Be Indian</i>, which seeks to expand our current political mudslinging into a serious debate on the concept of nationalism and Indian nationhood. These are themes that have increasingly become relevant around the world and are contested in contemporary India today, since some have been promoting a version of nationalism that foments division and fragmentation within our society.</p> <p>My book seeks, first, to outline the evolution of nationalism across the world, its manifestations globally and the various kinds of nationalism that have shaped the concept. This serves as a framework through which I introduce the contemporary challenges of nationalism and nationhood across the world and in India, particularly the clash we are witnessing today between ethno-religious nationalism (based on immutable identities) and civic nationalism (based on constitutions and institutions).</p> <p>The second theme is the evolution of Indian nationalism from the anti-colonial days to the civic nationalism enshrined in the Constitution. The nationalism that inspired the long struggle for independence was rooted in India’s time-honoured civilisational traditions of inclusivity, social justice, religious tolerance, and the desire to forge a society that allowed individuals to flourish, irrespective of their religion, caste, language or place of birth. This constitutional idea of India is being challenged by a new dominant narrative that thrives on an exclusionary, aggressive, communal nationalism based on cultural identity and the notion that India is a Hindu Rashtra.</p> <p>In the process, as I explain in the final third of the book, the idea of “patriotism” has been redefined by the majoritarians. In my view, “patriotism” is about loving your country because it is yours, because you belong to it and it belongs to you. It excludes no Indian. Whereas the nationalism being promoted in India today is a totalising vision that omits those who do not subscribe to it.</p> <p>In today’s India, the question of what it means to be Indian has attained paramount importance. Our liberal constitutionalism and democratic traditions are fundamentally questioned by rising intolerance, in which the forces unleashed by our rulers tell Indians what they cannot eat, who they cannot love, what thoughts they cannot hold, what words they must not say (and jokes they must not crack). Their political attack on opponents as “anti-national” conceals authoritarian instincts.</p> <p>In the concluding section of the book, I share my vision for India’s future, of reclaiming a nationalism that reaffirms the Constitution’s liberal and inclusive idea of India and proudly proclaims that our patriotism celebrates pluralism.</p> <p>Though I have written a lot in the past on the havoc wreaked on the social, cultural, and political values of India by intolerant and nativist forces, this Republic Day is the time to re-examine the issues revolving around the idea of India, nationalism, patriotism, and the struggle between those who believe in the ideals bequeathed to the nation by the founding fathers and those who would destroy everything valuable about our country. My book is my contribution to this vital national conversation.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 28 14:11:25 IST 2021 the-karunakaran-guide <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The 10th death anniversary of eminent Kerala politician K. Karunakaran offered a sobering reminder of a different kind of politics. We live in an era where politics is at its lowest ebb; where identity trumps performance; and where temples, pilgrimage sites, mosques and love marriages are the battlegrounds for political contestation. What we need is a refocus on what matters to people, and this is why it is essential to recall Karunakaran. At a time when development is Kerala’s crying need―when its young and unemployed are clamouring for political leadership to fulfil their aspirations―his life reminds us of an era of innovative change.</p> <p>Karunakaran was instrumental in conceiving, initiating and implementing several infrastructure projects in Kerala―notably the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and the Cochin International Airport, the latter being India’s first public-private partnership airport―that most conventional politicians had considered unfeasible. He overcame political resistance and got them done.</p> <p>The much-touted ‘Kerala Model’ of advanced human development has led to a certain degree of political complacency. Disillusionment is growing among the public with conventional politics. Kerala has to move beyond the basic issues, boldly tackle ‘second generation’ problems such as creation of infrastructure, move to a manufacturing, if not heavily industrial, economy, develop itself as a knowledge economy, improve the quality of higher education and vocational training to meet the requirements of a modern workforce, and build on its existing successes in tourism and hospitality services. All this will create meaningful employment opportunities and an increase in income levels.</p> <p>The story of the Titanic from the early years of the last century is instructive. For almost a hundred years, it was believed that its sinking on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York was caused by the ship moving too fast and the crew failing to see the iceberg before it was too late. But a book by a descendant of one of the officers of the ship revealed that the accident was caused not by speed, but by a steering blunder. It seems that the ship had plenty of time to miss the iceberg but the helmsman actually panicked and turned the ship the wrong way, and by the time the error was corrected, it was too late and the ship’s side was fatally holed by the iceberg. The error occurred because at the time, seafaring was undergoing an enormous upheaval as a result of the conversion from sail to steam ships. The change meant there were two different steering systems and different commands attached to them. When the first officer spotted the iceberg two miles away, his order was misinterpreted by the quartermaster, who turned the ship left instead of right.</p> <p>In a sense, Kerala’s development failure has been like the story of the Titanic. Today, the ruling left appears unsettled by the global changes which have moved the economic system far beyond their old paradigms and theories.</p> <p>As with the Titanic, there is nothing wrong with the ship―Kerala, its people, its resources or its potential. But the state has to move with the times and not be left behind. Reliance on NRI remittances will not solve the basic problem, since these are essentially personal savings and spent on conspicuous consumption, including purchasing land and constructing dwellings. Kerala has to attract productive investment funds, which can produce goods and services. This will only happen if Kerala is hospitable to investors, who are terrified that if they set foot in Kerala they will be greeted by red flags.</p> <p>This does not mean betraying our workers, but finding them work. It does not mean giving up our values, but adding value to our economy. It does not mean placing profit above people, but rather, using profits to benefit the people.</p> <p>“Leader” Karunakaran won public trust for his vision of development and made a remarkable success of it. He left us 10 years ago, but there is no excuse for forgetting the lessons he taught us. We must rededicate ourselves to creating once again a developed Kerala that he always believed was possible.&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 31 11:15:01 IST 2020 time-to-approve-dual-citizenship <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When my son Ishaan―a part-Malayali, part-Bengali, part-Kashmiri, who was born in Singapore and had grown up since the age of six in the US, married an American-born woman and spent his adult life working for a pair of prominent American media houses―announced in 2020 that he had obtained American citizenship, it was America’s “civic nationalism” that he celebrated, taking pains to distinguish it from the “blood and soil nationalism” of other countries.</p> <p>As a father, who had made the opposite choice in returning to the land of my forebears, I was deeply conflicted about his decision: relinquishing his Indian passport seemed almost a betrayal. And, yet even as that thought occurred to me, I realised how laughable it would seem to those of Ishaan’s generation, who, even as they are connected atavistically from the heart to the land of their ancestors, are far more concerned about identifying the right environment in which they can thrive, than on mystical notions of nationalism within old-fashioned territorial boundaries.</p> <p>Ishaan reacted to my angst by saying pointedly that he would have been happy to retain his Indian passport too, if only India permitted dual nationality. But India does not, insisting, unlike the US, that national allegiance is indivisible.</p> <p>NRIs have long argued that this is iniquitous, because while adopting a foreign country’s citizenship may be a matter of convenience (and sometimes of necessity), giving up Indian citizenship is an assault on their faith and pride. But India only grants its non-citizen diaspora a certificate fraudulently called an Overseas Citizenship of India, which it is not: it is merely a lifetime visa, which can (as happened during the 2020 pandemic) be suspended or revoked in exactly the same way as other visas.</p> <p>Many in the diaspora argue that in today’s world of large-scale and rapid migrations, the passport one holds is no proof of one’s fundamental<br> affinities and loyalties. Though not everyone’s motives are entirely idealistic, most NRIs who clamour for dual citizenship do so for reasons that have more to do with emotional identification than practical advantage.</p> <p>In fact, the Indian policy towards its diaspora reeks of bad faith, placing its expatriates in the invidious position of either retaining their Indian passport, and so seeming to exploit their host countries, or depriving themselves of their motherland if they choose a different passport. But as I know from my efforts to raise the issue, there is no traction in the Indian establishment for the idea of offering dual citizenship to diaspora Indians. And so many who would have loved to remain Indian, too, while affirming their commitment to new lives elsewhere by claiming those nationalities, have no choice but to forgo their instinctively patriotic first option.</p> <p>I have discussed this dilemma in my new book, <i>The Battle of Belonging.</i></p> <p>Those in the diaspora who have not given up their Indian passports want more. One increasingly vocal demand has been for the right to vote. NRIs, who are full-fledged Indian citizens working abroad, have made the point that while they are invited, indeed expected, to make a contribution to the country’s development and its balance of payments through their remittances, bank deposits and investments in Indian industry, they are allowed no role in influencing the policies of the country as voters. India is one of the few democracies in the modern world that have developed no tradition of absentee balloting for national elections, with the result that citizens living abroad are, in effect, disenfranchised. In 1991, the Kerala High Court even admitted a petition challenging India’s electoral laws, but the case went nowhere. Today only those NRIs can vote who are willing to travel to their home constituencies to do so, an unaffordable privilege for the vast majority.</p> <p>If NRI citizens are indeed given the right to vote from abroad, the politics at least of Kerala―a state with millions of Malayalis working abroad, and whose election results are often decided by margins of a few thousand votes or less―would be dramatically affected. But that is no reason to deny Indian citizens the right to exercise their democratic franchise. Dual citizenship could then be the next step.</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> Thu Dec 03 14:25:47 IST 2020 the-war-against-the-majority <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I received an interesting email the other day from a friend, Prabhu Guptara, urging me and other liberal politicians to stop harping on the denial of civil liberties and human rights to “minorities”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now Prabhu happens to be Christian, and he was not espousing the classic Hindutva line of argument. On the contrary, he said, the assault by large sections of our current ruling establishment “is against minorities, true, but his mobs are warring also against our majority”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Is it only minorities that are the principal beneficiaries of independent India’s progress,” he asks, “or is it in fact the majority? The benefits of our Constitution, of our Supreme Court, of our education system, of our economy, all flow naturally to the majority and not only to the minorities.” When rights are denied, dissent disparaged, activists jailed or freedoms restricted, in other words, the majority suffers much more than minorities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If minorities are victims of the communal bigotry sweeping through our land, so too are members of the majority. As Prabhu went on to ask: “Was Gauri Lankesh a minority? Narendra Dabholkar? S.R. Darapuri? Judge Loya? Swami Agnivesh?” When Bollywood comes under attack, are not its cinematic products loved by the majority? If JNU is scorned or clamped down upon, is it not an institution patronised mainly by the majority?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prabhu’s point is that critics of today’s regressive and divisive policies should stop using the word “minorities” when “the war is in the name of our majority but against our majority”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I accept his argument, but have long questioned the very notion of majority and minority anyway. In my new book, The Battle of Belonging, my just-released magnum opus on nationalism, patriotism and what it means to be Indian, I return to my proposition that we are all minorities in India. In the book, I speak of the fact that some enjoy bandying about the phrase “majority community”, but so often this is misleading in the extreme: gender, caste, language, and much else besides often puts any self-proclaimed member of a “majority” in a minority quite quickly. To reverse Michael Ignatieff’s famous phrase, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our notions of majority and minority are an emanation of electoral politics, because the quest for an electoral majority has driven much of today’s political majoritarianism. The old formula was that you constructed a majority out of a coalition of minorities. Now the ruling party, by harping on a Hindu identity that subsumes differences of caste, region, language and gender, has essentially marginalised the minorities in their quest for a majority base.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hindutva politicians have tried to make it more important to be a ‘proud Hindu’ than to be an Indian. Yet, as I have argued, Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite, and a good Indian all at once. That is the strength of our pluralism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pluralism is essentially about the co-existence of different communities, which is not just a romantic idea but the way we have lived for millennia and arguably this country’s greatest strength. Majoritarianism, despite the illusion of speaking for the majority, actually divides us. It seeks uniformity and so undermines unity. Unity is easier to maintain with an acceptance of differences than through the suppression of them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, I agree with Prabhu that we must move away from talk of minority and majority to promoting inclusive nationhood. We must reassert that such petty politicisation of identity actually divides the majority rather than unites it. And politicians like myself must remind voters that there are more important issues that affect their daily lives than asserting their communal identity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To give Prabhu the last word: let us not go on talking about “a war against minorities”, because all such talk only takes the attention away from the far more serious war being waged against our majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 06 16:38:04 IST 2020 the-leveller-of-cities <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is becoming increasingly clear that, whether we like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic is here to stay. The optimistic spirit in which we greeted the first lockdown—with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling the nation that the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata was won in 18 days, but defeating the coronavirus would take 21—seems absurd today.</p> <p>More than six months have passed since his speech, India has today the highest number of daily cases and daily deaths from Covid-19 in the world, and neither Mr Modi nor his government is making any confident assertions about the end of the pandemic. A vaccine may or may not come by March 2021, and it may or may not work, but even in the most upbeat of scenarios, it will take several months more for everyone vulnerable to be vaccinated, and even then, we will not know how long the vaccination will remain effective.</p> <p>But if we have to continue to live with Covid-19 for an indeterminate period, while somehow safeguarding both our lives and our livelihoods, it is also clear that many things will have to change. The obvious area of change will be in the world economy; in an earlier column here, I have already written of the visible risk of “deglobalisation”. There is a worldwide rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers. The demand for more protectionism and “self-reliance” (echoed in Prime Minister Modi’s call for “<i>atma nirbharta</i>”), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting. But today I am thinking more about the impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.</p> <p>Much of what we took for granted till recently—and which seemed to be knitting the world ever closer together—seems vulnerable in the post-Covid-19 era. The pandemic and the resultant lockdowns have already ended regular international travel across free and open borders. Restrictions, mandatory Covid-19 tests before departure and upon arrival and inescapable quarantine rules in each country have all hemmed in the allure of international travel.</p> <p>Professional life is another major casualty. Already, new patterns of work, following strict social distancing norms (and often with working from home a few days a week), have become the new normal. Many companies—most famously Twitter Inc—have decreed that their employees may work from home indefinitely. Teeming office buildings and crowded workspaces may soon be a thing of the past. Managers are beginning to grapple with questions they never needed to ask themselves before: do we need the expense of physical offices if people are mainly working from home? But what happens to camaraderie and team-building if co-workers are not exchanging gossip at the water cooler, arguing in the conference room or flirting in the canteen?</p> <p>Our cities will change, too. Urban planners have given us cities with a high population density within small radii. But if we are working from home anyway, do we need classic “urbanisation” anymore? Given 24/7 electricity and high-speed broadband, we could just as easily live in villages and work. Once proximity to your job is no longer indispensable, and free mingling is discouraged, the appeal of the city wanes.</p> <p>Working life is going to be very different for Generation Z (which may as well stand for zoonotic, the adjective that describes viruses that leap the divide from animal to human). Student life already is. Classes at both high school and college have largely migrated online. There seems little prospect that normal student life, with easy mingling on crowded campuses, will simply resume.</p> <p>Fear of a virus, a deadly unseen enemy, may mark our lives for a long time to come, even after this particular pandemic ends. We have already learned to fear danger in the stranger we meet, the friend we hug. The post-Covid-19 world, whenever that comes into being, is likely to bear the imprint of this disaster in far-reaching changes to our lives. To update a cliché: we may need to start dating our times as BC (Before Covid) and AD (After Disaster).</p> Fri Oct 09 14:42:39 IST 2020 word-worth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I have been a bit bemused by the reputation I have acquired in our country for wielding difficult words, especially because most of the time I was not doing so deliberately or for effect. I happened to know the words in question and thought they were the most apposite for the thought I was seeking to convey. But after my usage of ‘farrago’ spiked a huge surge in searches on the Oxford English Dictionary website, the label stuck. And one enterprising publisher suggested I make a book out of it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The title—Tharoorosaurus—was coined by Meru Gokhale of Penguin India, who proposed the idea for this book in the rear seat of a taxicab in Jaipur as we were heading to an event of the famed literary festival there. It was her idea of pitching me a book whose title would combine my name with the words ‘tyrannosaurus’ (since so many are terrified of difficult words) and ‘thesaurus’ (since people want to be able to look them up). I laughed it off then, but she persisted. I began to think it might be fun to do after all, and the result is my latest book.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not a scholarly work; I am neither a trained linguist nor philologist, and I have no pretensions to being a qualified English teacher either. It is rather the work of someone who loves words, has loved them all his life, and whose cherished childhood memories revolve around word-games with a father who was even more obsessed with them than&nbsp;I am. My father, Chandran Tharoor, was everything to me—teacher, guide, research adviser, imparter of values, my source of faith, energy and self-belief. My enthusiasm for life and appetite for learning are inherited from him; so is my workaholism, and my love for words.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>My father was a Scrabble addict and played every word game that had been invented, including Boggle and the acrostics in newspapers. He would play games with my sisters and me where we would try to see how many words of four letters or more we could make from the letters in a nine- or ten-letter word. He invented word games for family car journeys, where one passenger had to imagine a five-letter word and the others had to guess it within 20 attempts by trying out five-letter words and being told how many letters matched with the secret word. His fascination for words had to rub off on his eldest child—me!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But it was not just words for their own sake. My father instilled in me the conviction that words are what shape ideas and reflect thought, and the more words you know, the more precisely and effectively are you able to express your thoughts and ideas. In addition, he delighted in the way words could be put together, their origins and shape and letters of which they were made, and how they could be used. I collected words the way another kid might collect stamps, but not by looking up a dictionary—quite simply, by reading. My whole life I have read as widely as possible, and when you see the same word being used in multiple contexts, you start to get an idea of its meaning through the way it is situated in the text.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are 53 short essays in my book that delve into the etymology of each word and narrate anecdotes about its usage, literary citations and nuggets of history. There was no particular reason for the final choice of 53 words—they were either words I had recently used in a tweet (like ‘farrago’ and ‘kakistocracy’), or words that the country was suddenly hearing a lot more often than usual (like ‘pandemic’ and ‘quarantine’), or words in the news (like ‘impeachment’ and ‘apostrophe’), or just words that I could tell interesting stories about (like ‘curfew’ and ‘defenestrate’). I have tried to make each word interesting in its own right.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Tharoorosaurus imparts to its readers some of the pleasure and delight that words have long afforded me, its purpose will have been amply served.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 11 18:26:27 IST 2020 congress-accommodates-all <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the wake of the consecration of the Ram Mandir on August 5, critics have been suggesting that the Congress has caved in to the forces of hindutva, and that the minorities no longer have the Congress to speak for them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.</p> <p>The Congress has traditionally furthered a brand of secularism that recognises India’s pluralism. It acknowledges a profusion of religions and beliefs, where all are equally respected and can peacefully co-exist. This is compatible with people being practising Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, whatever. But this does not mean we will accept a weaponised political version of any religion, as the BJP has done by reducing the complex diversities of Hindu beliefs to the narrow-minded and exclusionary tenets of hindutva. As a party we will continue to resist any attempts by the ruling dispensation to promote such chauvinistic and divisive beliefs in the country, and we will stand by anyone who becomes a victim of their narrow-minded philosophy.</p> <p>I believe that those who look at the Congress as a ‘BJP-lite’or ‘hindutva-lite’ do not take the Congress’s own assurances at face value—that it remains a party for all, the safest refuge for the minorities, the weak and the marginalised, and fundamentally committed to secularism. The BJP does not even bother to pretend that it has the interests of any of these sections at heart.</p> <p>Our critics see the Congress’s distinction between Hinduism and hindutva as specious. They reject its leaders’ arguments that the Hinduism, respected by Congress leaders, is inclusive and non-judgmental, whereas hindutva is a political doctrine based on exclusion. They are quick to conclude that what the Congress offers is merely a watered-down version of the BJP’s political messaging.</p> <p>That is both inaccurate and unjust. Rahul Gandhi has made it explicitly clear that, for all his willingness to avow his personal Hinduism, he does not support any form of hindutva, neither soft nor hard. The Congress understands that whereas Hinduism is a religion, hindutva is a political doctrine that departs fundamentally from the principal tenets of the Hindu faith. While Hinduism is inclusive of all ways of worship, hindutva is indifferent to devotion and cares only about identity. Hinduism is open to reform and progress, which is why it has flourished for 4,000 years; hindutva is regressive, with its roots in the ‘racial pride’ ethos that spawned fascism in the 1920s, which is why it is unlikely to outlast its current peak.</p> <p>There are more fundamental differences. Congress leaders profess a Hinduism that accommodates a vast amount of diversity and respects the individual and his/her relationship with the divine; the BJP’s hindutva prefers communal identity politics and seeks to Semitise the faith into something it is not—a uniform monolithic religion. Congress leaders’ Hinduism rests on Gandhiji’s and Swami Vivekananda’s ideas of the acceptance of difference; the BJP’s hindutva seeks to erase differences by assaulting, intimidating and subjugating those with other views.</p> <p>I am not saying this as a party spokesman; I am not one. I am in politics because of my convictions. I genuinely and passionately believe that what the Congress stands for and offers the nation is fundamentally indispensable to the future of the country. We represent an alternate vision of the idea of India, an inclusive and pluralist vision that reflects truly the heart and soul of the country. The ideology of an inclusive and progressive party, liberal and centrist in its orientation, committed to social justice and individual freedoms, patriotic in its determination to protect national security and promote human security, still has great appeal if it is projected properly. We must not leave the national field uncontested for the BJP’s distorted, bigoted and narrow-minded version of what India stands for.</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> Thu Aug 13 13:54:32 IST 2020 constrain-not-contain-china <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the wake of the brutal clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Galwan valley, some strategists have begun to ponder the previously unthinkable. Should India shed its habitual reserve about alliances and join those who, led by the US, are speaking openly about “containing China”?</p> <p>Hitherto, the obvious answer has been “no”. India, a founder of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, has been allergic to alliances and feels no desire to put all its strategic eggs in one basket. India is still heavily dependent on Russian military equipment, though it has diversified its purchases to include American, French and Israeli armaments. And Donald Trump’s United States has never struck India as a particularly reliable partner.</p> <p>Also, trade with China had climbed up to $92.5 billion, and if not for Covid-19, was expected to touch $100 billion this year. Modi, who has visited China five times as prime minister, has met President Xi Jinping more often than any other world leader and just eight months ago hailed “a new era of cooperation between our two countries”.</p> <p>That cooperation has been jolted by the developments on the disputed 3,500km border, the Line of Actual Control. Shrill voices argue that India should embrace the US concept of Indo-Pacific region and upgrade the US-led Quad, deepening its strategic ties with Australia and Japan. China, the argument runs, must be curbed, and we cannot do it alone. No one wants war: containment should be the name of the game.</p> <p>I am not sure. I am no fan of Xi’s more assertive and coercive China, which seems to have abandoned its old reassuring talk of a “peaceful rise” to belligerently flex its muscles with its neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and now India. But I see merit in us continuing to engage China bilaterally and multilaterally, while trying to constrain, rather than contain, its assertiveness.</p> <p>The difference between containing and constraining is not just two letters of the alphabet. A containment strategy refuses engagement and persuasion; it is a hostile policy. Constraining, on the other hand, engages with the adversary to restrict or limit the destabilising aspects of its behaviour. Australia’s former foreign secretary Peter Varghese puts it well: “Containment seeks to thwart and weaken the PRC. Constraining seeks to manage a powerful PRC.”</p> <p>Constraining China would not involve turning the Quad into a military alliance. India is right to preserve its strategic autonomy by refusing to entangle itself in alliances. Rather, it is a means of China’s neighbours using their diplomatic, geopolitical and military leverage to manage Beijing’s ambitions in a manner that limits how much it can get away with.</p> <p>Coordinating with the Quad countries—the US, Japan, India and Australia—is a way of maximising that leverage. I would go farther and expand the group to include countries like Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea, who have similar concerns about China’s newfound assertiveness. Together we can, in Varghese’s words, “collectively constrain coercive behaviour by the PRC and impose costs for such behaviour”.</p> <p>New Delhi should continue to keep all its lines of communication open to Beijing while working on a constraining strategy. We should continue to increase our trade (while diversifying our supply chains so that we are not overly dependent on a flow that can be turned off). We must continue to cooperate in regional and multilateral organisations like the UN. We must also engage with China in multiple forums like RIC, BRICS and the G20.</p> <p>China should not feel that we are treating it as an enemy, despite its support for Pakistan. But we should recognise the divergence of strategic fundamentals. It is in our interest to “constrain” China, not to “contain” it.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 16 14:07:38 IST 2020 an-era-of-deglobalisation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though it is too early to assert this with any certitude, it seems increasingly likely that Covid-19 will inaugurate an era of deglobalisation. The signs are mounting that the world may embrace isolationism and protectionism in a far more enthusiastic way than prior to the outbreak, including in India.</p> <p>The indications are evident. The pandemic has confirmed, for many, that in times of crisis, people rely on their governments to shield them; that global supply chains are vulnerable to disruption and are therefore unsustainable; and that dependence on foreign countries for essential goods (such as pharmaceuticals) could be fatal.</p> <p>There is a rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers. The demand for more protectionism and “self-reliance” (echoed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for “aatmanirbharta”), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting. Along with the global flow of capital and investments, multi-border pipelines and energy grids, as well as international travel across free and open borders, all seem vulnerable in the post-Covid-19 era.</p> <p>The world economy had thrived since globalisation began in 1980 on an open system of free trade. That had already been shaken by the financial crash of 2008-2009 and the American trade war with China. With Covid-19, exports are falling everywhere, and indications are that world goods trade may shrink by 10 to 30 per cent this year, if not more. Meanwhile, the increasing pressure to “decouple” from China means that without inexpensive Chinese labour and subsidised inputs, the era of cheap, globalised goods may be over.</p> <p>Covid-19 has also convinced many that strict border and immigration controls are essential, and that national interests should trump international cooperation. To many, including those around Modi, the answer lies in strong government, in putting the nation’s needs over individual citizens’ freedoms, and in dispensing with democratic niceties, from federalism to parliamentary oversight, in what the government deems to be the national interest.</p> <p>Those of us who had begun to imagine the globe as “one world” will have to revise our thinking. Support for nationalist strongmen may increase exponentially. Unfounded rumours and accusations against people blamed on the basis of their national, religious, ethnic or regional identity have had a field day in many countries. In India, citizens from northeast have suffered racial discrimination because of their supposedly “Chinese” features. Social media and nativist populism have amplified prejudices; the fact that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering just before the lockdown—whose attendees spread the infection to many states when they returned home—was used to justify open bigotry and discrimination against Muslims. The current atmosphere has empowered those who seek to spread communal hatred and bigotry. Similar things have happened elsewhere in the world.</p> <p>There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic was a “mega-shock” to the global system—one that is likely to disrupt the existing world order. As sovereignties are reasserted across the world, and treaties and trade agreements increasingly questioned, multilateralism could be the next casualty. President Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organisation may be a harbinger of a greater unravelling to follow—of the international system so painstakingly constructed after World War II. Instead of strengthening the capacity of our global institutions to cope with a future crisis, the world’s reaction to Covid-19 may well end up destroying the most fundamental feature it has exposed—the idea of our common humanity.</p> Mon Jun 22 08:34:58 IST 2020 a-community-at-sea <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Amid all the headline stories about the impact of Covid-19—the tragedy of migrant workers, challenges faced by health care providers, the collapse of industry and so sadly on—there is one community that has been universally ignored and neglected: the fisherfolk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our fishing communities represent one of the most economically challenged and marginalised sections of our society. Most live below the poverty line and work incredibly hard just to stay afloat. The conditions endured by fishermen in my constituency of Thiruvananthapuram—who are yet to fully recover from the devastating losses they suffered when Cyclone Ockhi struck over two years ago—are pitiable, but they are not the only ones. The impoverishment faced by the community is a reality across the nation, and little by way of comprehensive redressal has been done for them in the last few years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To make matters worse, for the last 40 days, most of them could not go out to fish. Many had already ventured out to sea when the lockdown was suddenly announced, but they came back and found they could not sell their catch, as the fish supply chain on land had been disrupted, with restaurants and fish markets closed. Fisherwomen could not go from house to house to sell their husbands’ catch because of restrictions. For a group that survives on a hand-to-mouth existence, their inability to conduct basic daily activities is causing significant economic trauma. With little cash in hand, they cannot buy medicines and emergency rations, or attend to existing debts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The lockdown was instituted at a time when weather conditions were conducive for fishing, shortly before imposition of the monsoon fishing ban. This means that fishermen, anxious to make up for the losses caused by cyclones late last year and bracing for a period without income, have had to accept another fallow period. Trawlers have been pulled ashore, fishermen are idle and big city markets are mostly closed. Even fishing harbours and fish landing centres are only able to receive customers with advance bookings, and function for limited hours. Seafood is perishable, and since it could not be transported from fishing villages to consumers in the cities for weeks, it was a disaster. Most boats will have to stay off the water until the end of August.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This crisis has laid low a group of stout-hearted people who have made the nation proud through their heroism time after time. When severe floods swamped Kerala in 2018 and 2019, fisherfolk put their own subsistence aside to save marooned citizens with their boats. They joined the Navy in looking for capsized vessels and people in distress on the seas. Though barely able to make ends meet, they have always embodied the principle of selfless service. But when they are in distress, they never get the attention they deserve. That is why I nominated them, unsuccessfully, for the Nobel Peace Prize.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But they need something more tangible, something they can live on. An urgent financial package is essential for the community—some four million people nationwide, of whom 61 per cent live below the poverty line. The “fish famine” is not less than any headline-grabbing drought or calamity. A simple allowance of Rs7,500 per month to fishing families, paid into their Jan Dhan accounts, will help them cope till they can fish again. And it is not as if they do not contribute significantly to our economy. The fisheries sector contributes 1.03 per cent, or Rs1,75,573 crore, of our GDP (2017-18 figure), and indirectly provides income and employment to more than 14.5 million people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Central government must help this community—who were betrayed by the paltry compensatory and relief packages received after previous calamities—more substantially during lockdown. It is the very least we can do for these most vulnerable Indians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 22 16:49:27 IST 2020 physical-not-social-distancing <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Early on in the Covid-19 crisis, I became convinced that, despite all the global protocols, we in India should not be speaking of ‘social distancing’. The phrase has become familiar because of its reiteration by the prime minister and in hundreds of memes, jokes, WhatsApp forwards and Facebook posts, featuring pictures and videos of people standing in circles and squares marked on the street to buy essential items. But in a country like ours, where society has for too long been stratified hierarchically and privileged sections kept aloof from “lesser” breeds, don’t we have too much social distancing already?</p> <p>What we really needed was <i>physical </i>distancing, not social distancing. The latter we have practised for too long as a culture. As retired IAS officer-turned-contrarian blogger Avay Shukla wrote not long ago, “the higher castes have for centuries made it a point to keep the lower castes at a safe distance: their water sources, toilets, houses, even cremation grounds have to be in a distant corner so as not to contaminate the twice-born....” These iniquities should make us vow to end social distancing, not advocate it.</p> <p>But physical distancing is another matter: it is the key to resisting the contagion. The WHO recommends that we stay three feet away from each other to minimise the risk of contamination by a cough or a sneeze. But how is a country with one of the highest population densities in the world going to ensure that? Many of our slums and poor urban areas are estimated to pack people in at 80,000 to a square kilometre. There are 4.5 lakh Indians in jails, living cheek by jowl in conditions that could turn a minor term of imprisonment for pickpocketing into a death sentence by a pandemic. We cannot, literally or metaphorically, wash our hands off them.</p> <p>For some of us, the lockdown was a welcome opportunity to slow down, to rest, read and sleep (and maybe, in some cases like mine, to write). But for others, quarantine occurred in tiny apartments with packed rooms and no breathing space, no access to fresh air and few facilities for recreation or exercise. For them the risk of infection was matched by the risks of proximity, both balanced by the loss of work and income. What would social distancing mean to those who live in circumstances so overflowing with people that physical distancing is an impossibility?</p> <p>Around the world, lockdowns have generated stories of social breakdown because of lack of physical distancing. News reports spoke of a dramatic rise in divorce rates in China, where couples unaccustomed to spending so much time in a confined space with each other realised that they didn’t actually relish each other’s intimacy all that much. Photos on the internet revealed long queues in the US outside gun stores, as people decided that arming themselves against their fellow men was an essential complement to arming themselves against the virus. In India, the imperative to create distance from possible sources of contamination led to unpleasant episodes—white people being ordered off a bus by fellow passengers, hotels refusing to admit foreign tourists, residential societies turning away Air India pilots and crew on their return from heroic missions to evacuate Indians stranded in contagion-affected countries. These incidents revealed unattractive aspects of our culture that will require serious rethinking once the pandemic is over.</p> <p>But there were encouraging examples, too, none better exemplified than when large numbers of Italians came out onto their balconies in Milan and sang arias to one another. Such moments give us hope that however much we may seek social distancing from each other, at heart we recognise that we all need other people, and it is interacting with them that gives our lives meaning.</p> Thu Apr 23 14:09:39 IST 2020 ahead-of-the-curve <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As health authorities around the world advise people to avoid shaking hands (and even to eschew Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s preferred bear hug) to minimise the risk of being infected by the highly contagious coronavirus, the Indian <i>namaskaram</i>, more commonly known as namaste, offers the preferred alternative.</p> <p>This desi salutation is now quite being considered the most “virus-proof”way to greet people. While various other gestures have also been tried, many world leaders have shown a distinct preference for India’s traditional folded-hands greeting.</p> <p>“Namaste goes global”, understandably chuffed Indian headlines screamed as world leaders including US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Britain’s Prince Charles adopted it on widely-televised occasions during the coronavirus pandemic. With palms pressed together and a little bow, Macron received Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia at the Elysee Palace in Paris even as his ambassador to New Delhi, Emmanuel Lenain, tweeted, “President Macron has decided to greet all his counterparts with a namaste,&nbsp;a graceful gesture that he has retained from his India visit in 2018”.</p> <p>When Trump greeted Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House recently, it was with a namaste. While that should have been easy for the half-Indian Irish prime minister, Varadkar said: “It almost feels impersonal. It feels like you are being rude.”&nbsp;</p> <p>This is no small matter, since the customary handshake is what provides world leaders the usual photo opportunity that is publicised around the world to mark their meetings. Trump admitted that it was “sort of a weird feeling”to forego the handshake. Prince Charles nearly forgot during a recent meeting with the lord-lieutenant of Greater London, offering a handshake before quickly remembering to switch to a namaste.&nbsp;But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no hesitation in recommending the Indian namaste to his fellow citizens with a demonstration at a press conference.</p> <p>India is hardly alone in having devised a greeting that does not involve the vigorous pumping of hands. The Japanese have the custom of&nbsp;<i>ojigi</i>—bowing to each other, with the depth of the bowing conveying the degree of respect in a hierarchical society. Tibetans stick out their tongues in greeting, while Eskimos rub noses. In Oman, Qatar and Yemen people touch their noses in a salaam to others. Some Arabs hug each other, the greeter’s head crossing one shoulder after another. The Europeans, of course, famously kiss each other on the cheeks. But if you want to greet someone while avoiding close contact or even proximity with the other, nothing beats the namaste.</p> <p>As I pointed out in a tweet, behind every major ancient Indian tradition, there is science. I should have added spirituality, since “namaste”is not just a gesture of greeting. It is one of the six forms of <i>pranama </i>in Hinduism and conveys that the person one is greeting, even a stranger, shares a common atman with you, so that “the divine in me bows [in greeting and recognition] to the divine in you”.</p> <p>The term namaste is derived from Sanskrit, and is a combination of the word&nbsp;<i>namah&nbsp;</i>and the second person dative&nbsp;pronoun,&nbsp;te, in what linguists call its&nbsp;enclitic&nbsp;form.&nbsp;<i>Namah </i>means “bow”or “obeisance”, and&nbsp;te&nbsp;means “to you”. The namaste sees and adores the divine in every person, and is therefore an act of both humility and spiritual bonding.</p> <p>What could be more appropriate today than this message of universal brotherhood, from the very culture that proclaimed “<i>Vasudhaiva kutumbakam</i>&nbsp;(the whole world is a family)”? As Covid-19 assails us all, we are all in this together. We share the same divinity, the same soul, and the same vulnerability. Namaste to you, dear reader—wherever you are.</p> Thu Mar 26 14:20:09 IST 2020 india-not-prepared-for-coronavirus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>India seems quite blase about the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), even as it spreads alarmingly through China, with more than 75,000 people being infected and the number of fatalities climbing upwards. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. And, India, with all its vulnerabilities, could be a prime candidate for a disaster, and we are not well prepared.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The worst may yet not come to pass. Only three cases of infection, all involving medical students from Wuhan, have been confirmed; all three have been sent home after hospital isolation ended in negative tests. India successfully evacuated 324 students from Wuhan, who were in a quarantine facility in Manesar, less than two hours from Delhi, where no one had tested positive for the virus. Some 4,000 people were reported to be under observation at isolation wards across the country. The number of confirmed cases, however, has mercifully not gone up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government has sprung into action and instituted health measures at airports and ports, including entry screening, travel advisories and signages, with checks of any travellers showing signs of cold or fever. But infected persons could still slip through in the asymptomatic yet infectious phase of the illness. One sees very few staff or passengers sporting masks at Indian airports. If a carrier enters any city and mingles with people, the potential for the virus spreading rapidly remains high. In India, which has one of the world’s highest population densities, it is impossible to maintain the WHO-recommended three-feet distance between individuals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anyone in close contact with an infected person would need clinical assessment and restricted mobility till the two-week period, within which the virus incubates, is over. But there is no doubt that we would never be able to replicate China’s draconian measures to control the outbreak. The ongoing lockdown of Wuhan would be inconceivable in any Indian city.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are worries about how well India is equipped to conduct disease surveillance, deploy adequate laboratory testing capacity, elevate hospital preparedness including infection prevention and control, and communicate effectively to the public. Hospitals are overcrowded and overburdened with little scope for a sudden influx of highly contagious patients. Public awareness is minimal, and no precautionary guidelines have yet been issued to the public by the Indian authorities, in English or in local languages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no comprehensive nationwide surveillance system in place. Lab testing facilities are few and far between: though facilities were expanded since the swine flu threat arose a decade ago, samples from Kerala are being sent to a virology lab in Pune which remains the only one in India capable of testing for Covid-19. Against a 2012 proposal to set up 150 diagnostic and research labs with virological expertise, 80 are in various stages of operational readiness—a grossly inadequate number for a population of 1.3 billion. These are also not all linked to the public health response system.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kerala’s handling of the Nipah virus, which claimed 17 lives in 2018, is our one success story. The state has learned its lessons well from handling that tragedy. However, not every state is like Kerala, and an outbreak almost anywhere else in the country is unlikely to be countered by an agile response system, adequate primary health care facilities to conduct the needed clinical assessments, sufficient lab capacity or effective isolation practices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A serious virus epidemic would have a catastrophic impact on the country. Indians have been lucky so far that the suspected cases have been few enough to be manageable. We can only pray that it stays that way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 28 14:28:06 IST 2020 no-longer-the-india-th-world-admired <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Every time I find myself arguing with a supporter of the ruling party, especially when he has nothing to say in rebuttal to my points about the economy, the social unrest and the divided political climate, the response comes: “At least India’s stature in the world has never been higher.” As my jaw drops in astonishment, the ‘bhakt’ goes on: “For the first time, Indians can hold their heads high in the world.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The breathtaking falsity of this assertion testifies to the powerful impact of the BJP propaganda, assiduously spread through social media, where repetition alone is enough to secure conviction. But the truth is exactly the opposite: India’s stature in the world has never been lower.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It gives me no joy to say this. Even as an opposition MP, I would like my country to be held in high regard globally, as a thriving democracy and an example to the world of how to manage diversity in a free and open society. Instead, I know that for some time now the world has been troubled by an India that is seen as increasingly bigoted and intolerant, one that is wilfully driving sectarian wedges between its people and is being overtaken by an intolerant majoritarianism that has no appeal to the world outside.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every major newspaper abroad, whether on the right (like The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times) or the left (The Guardian or The Washington Post) has published critical editorials about India, and the drumbeat of daily reporting as well as the op-ed columns is relentlessly negative. But the blinkered bhakt sees none of this.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At home, even neutral figures known for their reticence on political matters have expressed alarm. Former foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon said the government’s amendment to the Citizenship Act was a “self-inflicted goal”that has isolated India and resulted in the country being hyphenated with Pakistan as an intolerant state. “We have no international support apart from a section of Indian diaspora and some extreme right members of the European parliament…and the list of critical voices in the international community is also pretty long,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Referring to Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan’s comment—“let them fight among themselves”—Menon added, “If this is how our friends feel, think of how happy this will make our adversaries.” Several world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and chiefs of UN bodies on human rights and refugees were critical of the government’s recent moves. Kashmir has been discussed in the UN Security Council again after 40 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the US, the bipartisan consensus on strong India-US relations that used to exist for the last 25 years, irrespective of who was in power in Delhi or Washington, has been broken. All the significant Democratic presidential candidates have spoken out about their concerns. Hearings have been held in the US Congress, negative language on Kashmir has been inserted into the annual Foreign Appropriations Act for 2020, and a resolution critical of India is gaining co-sponsors. So is one in the European parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What the world thinks matters more to us now than ever before, not least because we are far more dependent on external trade and investment than we ever were. But foreign investment is an act of trust and faith in the future, which is fast eroding. Our credit ratings have declined; seven countries have issued travel warnings about India. For years, India was seen as a model for other countries in the developing world. Now, the ruling party’s divisive actions, driven by narrow party-political goals, have dented that image.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I, too, was proud to hold my head high as an Indian abroad. Today I am mortified when foreigners ask me to explain what is going on. “What has happened to India?” they ask in dismay. The sad answer is, we have ceased to be the India the world admired.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 31 10:56:25 IST 2020