Thursday, August 27, 2015

Commentary - Modi govt's 'Mission Encircle and Isolate Pakistan'

A good reading of why Modi government is ignoring dialogue with Pakistan - Modi govt's 'Mission Encircle and Isolate Pakistan'

If one were to agree with this spin on recent India-Pakistan diplomatic deadlock, it would seem the deadlock is part of a wider strategy to isolate Pakistan. There is enough evidence in the article for informed speculation. Narendra Modi-Sushma Swaraj duo have been busily visiting countries that are vital for the alleged ‘encirclement’.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Crazies To Lead World

President Obama calls opponents of Iran Deal as crazies. That is one variety. I am hoping that turmoil in financial markets will convince more of Democratic Congress members to back the Iran deal. Wavering Democratic members should be thinking - why bring 'war' when your hands are already full dealing with financial uncertainties? Apart from these Iran deal haters, I am talking about another variety of crazies in this post.

One of the leading GOP candidates, Scott Walker, wants President Obama to cancel state visit of Chinese boss Xi Jinping because washout in Chinese Market is causing Wall Street indices to go down. Meanwhile the leader of the pack of crazies - Donald Trump - is on 'I told you so trip' - Decouple from China! Plan more! What is Donald asking USA Government to do? Can he explain bit more coherently so as it becomes an actionable plan?

Na....that is the meaning of 'post-policy politics' practiced by today's Republican Candidates; all in the great tradition of Sen. John McCain who jumped the shark and suspended his campaign in 2008 in laughable manner. 

If one keeps aside knee jerk politics, one can identify causes of continued global market chaos:
- China is having hard time 'soft landing her economy' from export driven high growth rate model to internal consumption oriented economy.
- Europe by large is still struggling economically.
- Resource dependent economies like Brazil, Russia, Venezuela, Australia, Canada, all are impacted by reduced Chinese demand and increasing Oil supply.
- Many countries are still fiscally mismanaged (again Venezuela, Brazil, China, India and most other third world countries).
- Finally, of course Janet Yellen's hand is likely to be hard pressed to increase Fed interest rate due to sustained strength in American employment.

All these things will for sure impact USA economy, but the impact can be manageable if politics is kept aside. But as expected, that might not happen and hence the global capital market drop is scary. For example, Fed is in bind as some experts are warning not to increase interest rates, while it is out of options (except QE4) to flood the market with cash. Fed has much less remedies to address the financial collapse now when the interest is already at zero than what remedies it had in 2008 when rates were high and QE was never used by then. But the politics will make it harder for Yellen to pursue a patient policy. Bernanke battled Paul Ryan's of the world successfully, it is not clear whether Yellen would withstand Trump and Fiorina's of today. This is because political Opposition tends to benefit politically in financial crisis by claiming 'change' without offering any coherent, practical, workable solution. 

Another example of why one fears politicians more in such financial crisis is the conduct of Chinese leadership so far:
- Generally Chinese PM is responsible for managing economy with the purpose of shielding President from vagaries of financial markets. Xi wants to 'hog' all the credit and has made himself the poster boy of Chinese financial management. Anytime financial management fails, naturally the credibility of central leadership gets challenged. 
- Xi made the blunder in exhorting Chinese people to buy stocks. He had a plan to exploit Capital Markets to beef up balance sheets of Chinese corporations - state and private alike. It went out of hand when Chinese Capital Markets ran ahead of Chinese Economic Growth rate. The shock to basic bargain - that Communist Party will take care of financial well being in lieu of compromised political rights - is big; coming at the cost of hundreds of billions (except that state pension funds will now enter stocks at bargain prices - some silver lining).
- Instead of following the promised reforms, Xi got caught up in the game of outwitting political opponents under the grab of catching corrupt folks. Cleaning corruption from Chinese system is essential. But longer term, sustainable solution for that is to develop independent judiciary system which will successfully take on law breakers in a reasonable time. Xi has no interest in developing such institutions in China. Result is low trust in reforms to remove corruption. 
- Finally, while Chinese Leadership is busy managing Chinese Economy; there should not have been any distraction by undertaking jingoistic, nationalistic postures against neighbors in South Asian Sea. But Xi is engaged in building artificial islands when a measured and prudent course is needed to resolve difficulties via multi-lateral negotiations.

All these missteps by Xi - do they warrant President Obama not meet Chinese Leader? That is utter non-sense. Would that mean, when Shanghai Composite Index was flying high months on, President Obama should have given red carpet treatment to Xi Jinping every month? No wonder people doubt foreign policy chops of Scott Walker. But such non-sense and deliberate adoption of policies which will hurt common Americans is not restricted with Walker only. Across the board in Republican Party, any impeding financial crisis will be utilized to bring austerity, reduce badly needed public spending, to cut welfare spending and on top of it offer tax cuts to rich people in the name of more job creation. That is the true danger of Market collapse - Conservative politicians in countries like USA, Canada, UK, Australia (and Germany to an extent) would precisely adopt wrong policies. The danger in USA is real because as Economy and Capital Markets come under pressure, tendency of voters to adopt change or opposition party increases. Unlike 2008-10 there is no Democratic majority in any chambers of Congress to stop such destructive policies and there is no freshly minted President like Obama as in 2009 with competent economic advisers. Paul Krugman has already warned the impeding misuse of circumstances for ideological purposes by Conservatives. The job is cut out for progressives, leftist and democrats - to dispel this spell of 'misguided policies' by Conservatives in the name of addressing financial hardships.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Time for Biden-Warren Ticket?

Political media is ablaze with unscheduled meeting between VP Biden and Senator Warren. There have been reports lately that VP Biden wants to throw his hat in the Democratic Presidential Nominee contest. 

Biden candidacy as a 'back stop' for Hillary Clinton political bleeding is an understandable proposition from Democrat point of view. Clinton is rightly or wrongly getting embroiled so much in her email scandal that there is a real possibility that by the time Hillary Clinton wins Democratic Nomination; she is completely damaged politically to a point as a sitting duck so that Republican wins the White House easily. At that point with the dominance of GOP in both chambers of Congress; Republicans will be in total control of Federal Power to undertake thorough dismantling of Obama Policy regime (primarily breaking ObamaCare, reverting tax increase for rich to go back to Bush Tax Cuts, scrap Iran Nuclear Deal, rescind immigration easing and EPA actions among many others). Relative easy of winning White House is the only thing otherwise in advantage of Democrats as the vice like grip of GOP on House is unlikely to go till 2022. Indeed if American Politics were parliamentary politics, Democrats by now need to hit the panic button for the possible scenario of complete power loss come 2016. 

As usual, the problem of Democrats is the problem of Clintons. Infamous 'sense of entitlement' prodded Hillary to opt for private email server during her stint at Foggy Bottom. Imagine you are working for Walmart or Microsoft or IBM or Boeing as an executive and you decide to use your own private email address and server to conduct your business. True, in corporate context it will be illegal and it was at least not so when Hillary was Sec. of State. But still utter lack of judgement and tendency 'to consider oneself above everyone else' is jaw dropping here. That is Clintons.

Having committed political foolishness in using her own email server, she just kept digging the hole further rather than coming out clean early. Not that she has not revised her policy position - look how Americans accept her Iraq vote as the mistake to be pardoned. But then you have again infamous Clinton mendacity - keep refusing any wrong doing on your part and worst of all keep blaming your political opponents.

Truly speaking Democrats might have been tired of this Clinton line of "this is politics as usual from Republicans" when they are raking up email controversy. But your political opposition keeps digging your past - what is new in that; that is their job. But how long Democratic base have to excuse and defend Hillary for her 'flat foot, awkward politics'? No wonder, Joe Biden sees an opening. He will make the case that in order to sustain the Obama legacy he is the best man to do.

On his own Joe Biden has no chance of beating even embattled Hillary Clinton. Despite knowing her faults and political baggage; Democratic base and establishment are too vested in her (and that inevitability is what GOP precisely wants since then by 2016 they will get a sitting duck given how many skeletons Hillary would be carrying in her closets). That is where the darling of Left Elizabeth Warren comes into the picture. She is the one who will be natural vessel for Left's crusade against Wall Street as well as full embodiment of Women voters base of Democratic Party. Especially if Biden gives upfront commitment that he will be only one term president - more in the mode of a care taking president for Obama Policy Regime until Elizabeth Warren completes her apprenticeship and takes over in 2020 with full gusto.

It will be sad to see Hillary go ashtray. She will fight, but kicking, dragging and screaming; may be the time has come for Democratic Party to remove her from its mast. Not sure whether Republicans will be happy to prevail on Clinton Machine or losing an opportunity of having a sitting duck on the Democratic ticket in 2016. But Biden-Warren Ticket will have to deal with strengthened Republican Party once Hillary Clinton withdraws. Of course, Donald Trump is there to keep dragging the entire Republican Party in gutter politics where in no Republican has any ability to stop the descend. On that background the late entry of Biden-Warren ticket should still make it viable politically.

In 2004, the 251 electoral votes which John Kerry carried; that can be regarded as the rock bottom Blue base from where every Democratic ticket in 2016 will start. Biden-Warren will be purely a Left ticket with no ability to cross over to Red voters unlike what Hillary Clinton can bring. The gap of 25 (Kerry states will yield 7 votes less in 2016 due to population changes) electoral votes should not be that hard for the Left ticket of Biden-Warren as Barack Obama carried Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa (total 30 electoral votes) both in 2008 and 2012. Point is for a pure partisan Democratic Ticket to carry 2016, reliability of Blue Electoral votes is very high even if vote margin may not be that high. It may not sound the strongest political play for Democrats, but perfectly viable given the compromised 'hand' Hillary Clinton has pulled on Democratic Party.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Strike by Students of FTII - An Exercise in Futility

The strike by students of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, the pioneer institute started in late 1960’s) has completed two months, and counting. Still, the real issue has not even been clearly spelt, let alone addressed.
It all started when Narendra Modi led BJP central government appointed one Gajendra Chauhan as the Head of the FTII. FTII has been a ‘liberal’ institute. So when Chauhan was appointed, his links to Hindu Nationalist organization RSS were quickly unearthed and the protests began.
Gajendra Chauhan’s claim to fame is his role in the epic Indian TV serial Mahabharat. Apart from that, he has acted in some 100 plus obscure, low budget movies. Which of these is his sin? Acting in Mahabharat? If yes, why not make a law that only the cast and crew of such serials that pass the ‘liberal’ muster should be allowed to become a head of FTII? If acting in C-grade movies is a sin, then one of the earlier FTII heads - Mahesh Bhatt - has produced a plethora of films that can be considered milestones in commercialization and sexual exploitation of female body. If having certain political views is sin, then former FTII head Mahesh Bhatt and U R Ananthamurthy have been openly anti-BJP. Bhatt even campaigned against BJP in 2014.
FTII has been so chaotic and directionless that that batch that entered in 2008 and was supposed to exit in 2011 is still at the campus, ‘studying’. As a result, the entry of the next batches was hampered as the classrooms and hostels were full. Did this happen overnight after Gajendra Chauhan was declared the head? Who is responsible for this?
No other institute in India gives students the right to select their head. On the contrary, even an institution like University of Mumbai (established in 1857  etc. etc.) had to suffer under a Vice Chancellor (Rajan Welukar) whose academic credentials were doubtful to say the least, for full five years. Welukar sucked up to all relevant politicians, spread across the spectrum from one extreme to another, to stay in power.
Idiocy begets stupidity. This eternal truth was proven by the other side. Some staff members of FTII, who are ‘concerned’ about the institute, have come under a forum called ‘Save FTII Forum’. It would be very interesting if the forum members answer the question – were they not ‘concerned’ earlier? Where were these ‘concerned’ faculty members when a batch has been staying more than double its assigned time on campus, and still hasn’t graduated?

The fact is, nobody is getting disadvantaged by this strike. The students are used to spending more time than needed for the normal course in the institute. They have cheap/free hostel facilities and subsidized canteen. What else does one need? The staff, ‘concerned’ or otherwise, is getting their salary paid on time. So this strike is actually a nice break for them. Even if the strike goes on for a year, the ‘concern’ of the staff will manifest itself in some token press-releases at the best. So, the taxpayers are sponsoring this strike. After all, why should the taxpayers sponsor only the BMWs and Audis of the road contractors? A strike is a nice change sometimes.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Commentary - Pakistan Imbroglio

India Pakistan relationship has been very interesting, to put it safely. The seeds of dissension sowed some seventy odd years ago have grown into a giant tree that overarches any efforts to change the balance either way.

There are groups of people on either side of the border, who think that total war is the only way out. There are also groups who side heavily towards holding talks irrespective of the happenings. And there are groups who think that neither strategy will work.

In the article ‘A New Toolkit’, Praveen Swami takes a sane and sensible approach. He neither dwells too much on history, nor does he go in “I told you so” or “Only a nitwit will fail to see the futility of this argument” mode. He starts by quoting history, but he joins it beautifully with the present scenario. Though he gets in Cassandra mode in the end, he gives enough justification for adopting that mode. Sometimes, pointing out that the situation is hopeless is the only way of generating some hope of finding a solution.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Against the idea of stillness: or modernity as vertigo!

Recently I came back from an academic conference in Amsterdam on transnational migration. I too presented my research findings about the knowledge workers from India who come back to the country after spending several years in the west. Mine was a mostly happy tale of acceptance and embracing. Some others spoke about migration caused by distress, about being stuck on the high seas between the African and the European continents. For those three days of the meet, the world seemed a restless place forever churning with movement. But were we all exaggerating the frantic mobility in the world? 

Thus wondering, I sought some repose during the next few days during long walks in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam, all cities which created their wealth only upon interacting and trading with rest of the world, which I must admit made me even more giddily aware of human movement on the planet – all these towns were teeming with tourists seeking their own kind of novelty and relief in a foreign land. I made so many foreigners feel miserable, unable to help me with the directions. Around the same time my Dutch friends and colleagues were packing stuff and heading en masse for their own preferred holiday destinations. It felt as if even as the whole world was descending on Holland, the Dutch were busy vacating their own lands. This transient swapping of territories seemed strange but no stranger than the Mall in Shimla in the month of April this year swamped as it was by the Delhi crowds, with the locals giving them a wide berth. 

I then came back to my state Bihar, known for its dramatically high levels of migration among both the educated and the unskilled poor. One of the first bits of news I got from my grocer was a most tangential one - his father with his fifteen neighbours and relatives has taken off on the Mansarovar Yatra and is currently walking somewhere on the Chinese territory. 

I will scale down the picture further and describe the scene at the main thoroughfare in my village in Bihar. During my visits there I spend my mornings watching a streaming procession of commuters leave the village from six to ten in the morning. By eleven, the village has emptied out and you only see old men, women and infants. The grand village institution, the banyan tree remains where it’s always been with no one but a few goats hanging around in its shade. As in Mumbai or in Delhi, so in my humble Tiwari Tola – my host’s son gets back from work around 11 PM. 

But all this is just half the tale. Or only the tangible part. 

Even as men and women move, the information, the news, the mail seem to move in a way that makes an avalanche look like a snail. Very often you don’t know who is where, but also who knows what at a given moment. The point is not to throw up our hands in despair over how to manage all this. The real point is we are already managing it, constantly absorbing and emanating information and opinions, and not doing hopelessly badly either, despite the profound shortfalls.  We millipedes need no training to walk.

One of the traits of modernity is every generation thinks it is on the brink of a fundamentally new era, the new man. Kurzweil or no Kurzweil, singularity or no singularity, as you cross your forties, the mad vortex seem to settle into a modest churning of the here and now, of the homely slipper - shuffling movement between the kitchen, the study and the bedroom.

The benign view from the tourist brochures is as you get to know more people, you develop more understanding and the ability to be understood. A more realistic view would suggest as you meet more people you risk hating many more people and in turn being hated by them. 

The question is – is there more rejection than acceptance on the ground where you stand at a given moment, however briefly? If there is more acceptance, you have achieved the stillness mentioned in the title. For the moment, that is! But the fact remains that across the globe people are ‘moving’ and learning to ‘manage their lives with these constant movements’ – rich or poor; urban or rural.

New Contributors

I am pleased to introduce my colleagues who have graciously agreed to contribute to this blog:

Ratnakar TripathyHe is a researcher and commentator based in Patna, Bihar, India. His areas of interests include Global Migration, Indian Entertainment Industry, Politics in Democracies and Biological origins of Human behavior.

Uday Oak -  He is a consultant based in Pune, India. His varied interests include Film-making, IT Industry in India, International Legal frameworks, Literature, History, Food and Music.

Welcome Ratnakar and Uday!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

England wins Ashes - Majestic Beauty of Cricket

Now those memories of being on top of the world when Clarke won World Cup for Australia or the Golden Summer of Smith....those are all gone to ashes. How 'mighty' falls in the game of Cricket! This is Cricket at it's majestic beauty

Sad to see my hero Captain Michael Clarke going away. But that is the way of life. Australian Team is in shambles and ACB will be have to rebuild it practically from scratch. Meanwhile, with top class seam and pace bowling squad, English Cricket Team is riding high.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Republican Debate - Dissonance in American Politics

There is a sense in American Politics that the Republican Presidential Debate Circus is coming to the town. In 2012 cycle Republican party faced many number of debate participants, each one overdoing the other in extreme policy proposals to please Tea Party Base. 2016 cycle does not seem to be any different with the additional Clown Chief Donald Trump as the kicker. On Republican side the sense of 'seriousness is understandable'; well illustrated by the piles of money raised by various Super PACs as well as hosannas raised to party 'spiritual leader or god of wealth' Koch Brothers. But still it is all a circus, here are some of the main reasons:

1. As usual Trump and most Republican Candidates have started their campaign more or less exclusively based on that fabled American rage against 'these Washington Politicians'. This is a classic American boggy man. American voters, especially radical Republicans and Tea Party members, hide behind such anger while dispensing any responsibility whatsoever a voter has - to evaluate any policy proposal on common sense basis. And for candidates, oh yeah, safest bet is to start the campaign by condemning Obama, his regime and some imaginary claims of how they will go beyond the 'broken Washington'. For most Republican Candidates, 'Washington is always broken' while ignoring the mayhem their own party members cause in Congress. And when these Republican candidates are not 'running on anger against Washington'; they would base their campaign on mythical prosperity and vanquishing terrorists which they see in American Union folks!

2. Hillary Clinton talked about how she wants to tackle money in American Politics. Of course, that is hypocritical since she more or less raises the money same way as Jeb Bush; who is all content in 'playing by the rules' ignoring the larger damage done to American Democracy. Carly Fiorina said in a sense correctly that 'any kind of speech costs money in our country' implying that those who would not have money obviously do not have 'right to speech' in any effective manner! There you go, those 47% of Americans.....Point is none of the Republican Candidates are expected to address this obvious corruption going on in American Politics - deep influence of money in American Campaigns, open malarkey called Super PACs and sheer amounts involved in all this.

3. American Electoral System has developed organically. It is one of the rare political systems which has lasted over centuries, but from time to time it needed improvements and upgrade. Today, there are number of weaknesses of the system which have been exposed for a while and none of these Republican Candidates are offering any solutions for these gaps. Namely, the important issues are:
a) We know that we can have an American President with lower popular votes than the defeated candidate. Electoral votes system is faulty and a right way to fix is two pass national popular vote - first pass where all candidates vie while in the second pass top two candidates campaign if none gets 50% of the eligible votes in the first pass.
b) Gerrymandering of Congressional Districts is a well documented problem which ends up resulting in million more votes for Democrats but still Democrats having much less seats than Republicans in the House. Essentially this makes our 'representative democracy as a sham'; again no one will speak about that.
c) There is an active suppression of Black Votes in this country, getting fillip on those techniques in recent years after Supreme Court essentially loosened provisions of Voting Rights Act. (It is no surprise that Conservative Roberts Court has set in motion many of these damaging changes, likes of Citizens United to unleash money in American Politics, loosening of Voting Rights Act or continued ignorance of rampant guns in America.) Instead of ensuring 'every vote counts in 21st century'; American Electoral System is sliding towards active and open voter suppression.

4. These Republican Presidential Candidates get outraged when Supreme Court backs gay marriage or ObamaCare. Their solution is a yet another outrages proposal - abolish the Supreme Court. Thank lord so far none of them have said to banish Roberts Court judges to an island. Again, these Republican Candidates are not offering any constructive solutions like 'term limits' for Supreme Court judges; but simply emitting hot air in this regard.

5. When it comes to the core problem of 'economic well-being of common Americans' in today's times; we still get same old failed policies of 'tax cuts for rich' to make outlandish and non-substantiated 4% or 5% growth rate projections. There is no policy dexterity in understanding the need to intervene Global Capitalism to protect livelihood of common people / labor. We need articulation of ideas along the lines: 
a) increased participation of labor in profit sharing or broader equity sharing and
b) continued strengthening of safety nets we have (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, ObamaCare, Unemployment Insurance and Disability Insurance) to cope up with turmoils of inevitable job losses in today's hyper competitive Capitalism.
No one is expecting Republican Candidates to argue for a Barnie Sanders style socialistic plan. What we need is a clear acknowledgement of 'loop sided' distribution of economic growth and a sensible policy framework to correct that imbalance without destroying the heart of Capitalism - creative destruction with individual rewards and self help. 

Reasons Republican Candidates struggle in articulating any such sensible economic policy framework are:
a) ideological blindness to anything which is not Reaganomics i.e. tax cuts for rich; and
b) refusal to accept the role of Government / State in providing the needed 'intervention' in a capitalistic system to correct it's imbalances.

6. Similar kind of adherence to extreme ideology is exhibited by most of these Republican Candidates when it comes to Foreign Policy - all of these candidates chastise President Obama for being 'weak' and all argue that they will be 'tough' with Russia, China, Iran; you name it. Moreover, many would openly want to continue the disastrous foreign policy of George W. Bush. It was a surprise that Jeb Bush entered the presidential campaign without having a decent answer to the question - whether he would wage the Iraq war as like his brother did? Jeb Bush shows extreme preparedness and discipline when it comes to raising money, but that same kind of home work is missing when it comes to foreign policy. Worst, when he argues that ISIS wants 'to wage a war against Western Civilization'; he is playing in hands of ISIS and that is the exact argumentation - 'us versus they' - his brother used to take us to astray. 

There is a place for American Exceptionalism in today's world. It is practically impossible to visualize bright and peaceful future for humanity in absence of America on this planet. But as our nations and societies come up - China, India and even countries like Iran in future - it will not be America alone to carry the weight and responsibility of peaceful world. Wisdom for America is in recognizing this global context and to transition from 'Pax Americana' role to 'the global nerve center of deeply entranced alliances'

7. Finally, America today is a highly polarized society politically. President Obama failed in unifying America even though we might grant him great success for his policy achievements or excuse him for already developing political polarization before his first term. Fact is President Obama did not reduce any of our political polarization. Persistently agitated state like that fails us in taking on any of the larger challenges mentioned above. The current Republican field is nowhere at even starting point of how to bridge this political gap between two warring factions of America - Reds and Blues. Rather rhetoric of Republicans is to exasperate this polarization. No wonder so many in America yawns at the Republican Presidential Debate as one more media circus show.