Monday, May 30, 2016
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Sunday, May 8, 2016
By Swapan Dasgupta
Among the biggest pitfalls of political analysis is the belief—sometimes not altogether self-conscious—that what we believe is desirable will translate into reality. All of us have, at some time or another, been guilty of such a misreading of the situation, and not necessarily because of ideological convictions.
Last week, contrary to all the wisdom of punditry, the flamboyant billionaire businessman Donald Trump decimated all his remaining Republican opponents and emerged, for all practical purposes, as the Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidential election in November 2016. When he entered the race many months earlier, the pollsters gave Trump only a two per cent chance of negotiating the primaries successfully. He defied the collective wisdom of the punditry and the organised might of the Republican Establishment to prevail. The next few weeks before the Republican convention may witness another last minute attempt by the grandees to deprive him of the nomination. But with the party faithful rallying behind him, any last minute bid to foist a more ‘respectable’ candidate is doomed to failure. In democracies, manipulative politics is powerless in the face of popular fury.
The Trump nomination has also set in motion a parallel explosion of conventional wisdom: the firm belief that November will witness the easy victory of Hilary Clinton. This confidence stems not so much from a larger international confidence in the wife of the former charismatic US President. The Democratic Party primaries have revealed the extent of Hilary’s vulnerability in the face of a popular onslaught. If a poorly funded, slightly maverick, self-professed socialist such as Senator Bernie Sanders could the well-oiled Clinton many nervous moments, imagine what Trump can do?
Hilary may well end up as the first woman President of the US. But her victory against Trump isn’t by any means assured, as yet.
It is tempting to portray Trump as a loose cannon blessed with a foul tongue and a repertoire of crazy conspiracy theories. The belief that such a man could only go so far and no further has been unendingly disproved over the past few months. Obviously, Trump’s wild politics strikes a chord among many Americans. While debunking those beliefs is easy, it is far more instructive to identify the basis of his undoubted appeal. Just as Indian politics isn’t determined by the Left-Liberal consensus of the newsrooms in Delhi or even the preferences of the insiders in Lutyens’ Delhi, the mood of America isn’t always gleamed from the self-comforting echo chambers of the campuses and financial wheeler-dealers. While their inputs should always be factored, they don’t constitute the whole story.
To my mind, what makes the Trump campaign very potent is the fact that it has been able to tap the vast reservoirs of accumulated anger. When combined with fear, the cocktail is both hateful and explosive.
At the top of the anger-filled agenda is the belief that the US has slipped from its divinely-ordained position as the world’s top dog. The Trump supporters believe that the once-mighty US of A is being kicked around by Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and an unscrupulous China on the other. American workers, they feel, are losing jobs and being reduced to impoverishment because they are hostages to transnational capitalism. Moreover, the demographic shift that has accompanied a permissive immigration policy has resulted in a huge mass of people who are no longer attached to the fundamental Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of the US.
Most of these beliefs aren’t unique. Over the past two decades, the facets of American ‘declinology’ have been articulated by well-heeled think tanks. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan articulated the resentment against multilateral trading systems and the Harvard academic Samuel Huntington (better known for his Clash of Civilisations) wrote tellingly of immigration destroying the American ethos.
Trump’s achievement has been in tying all these different strands of resentment into a single, angry narrative and a single slogan. For a man whose campaign has so far been largely self-funded and without the benefit of a large army of pollsters, speech writers and researchers, the achievement has been colossal. As a canny businessman Trump instinctively detected political openings and rushed to fill the void. Whereas his Republican opponents in the primaries focussed on their Christian credentials, Trump’s appeal was more wide ranging. Trump appealed to angry New Yorkers as well as those who felt short-changed by the ‘system.’
It is the fierce anti-Establishment thrust of the Trump campaign that should not be underestimated, and more so since Hilary is seen as the personification of everything that is rotten about a cosy consensus. But more than that, Trump scores by not accepting the neo-Conservative beliefs on the economy at face values. Indeed, at times the differences between Trump and Hilary’s Democratic rival Sanders is notional. It is this positioning that provides him the opening to appeal to traditional Democratic voters who are not driven by ethnicity. To put it starkly, against Hilary’s grand alliance of the educated, the Blacks and the Hispanics, Trump offers a grand alliance of angry white America. His only shortcoming is that he alienated women with a few incredibly stupid comments but he still has time to repair that damage.
I believe that unless Trump scores a series of self-goals or unless Hilary somehow reinvents herself after securing the nomination, we are likely to see a riveting election whose outcome is not pre-determined. Decision makers in India should keep an open mind on developments in the US.
Sunday Pioneer, May 8, 2016
Sunday, May 1, 2016
By Swapan Dasgupta
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that India was facing a crucial election whose outcome would determine its future course. Then consider the likely public reaction if the leader of a mighty country with which we have a “special relationship” flying down to Delhi and telling the people which way to vote. Worse, informing us that if the vote went differently, India would be relegated to the “back of the queue.”
This is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom last week. President Obama flew down to London, lunched merrily with the Queen, presented a lovely wooden rocking horse to the young Prince George and then lectured Britons on what was good for them, because it was in his national interest.
Obama’s intervention—laced with characteristic charm and smooth talking—centred on the June 23 referendum that will determine Britain’s troubled relationship with the European Union. The stakes are high. If Britain votes for Brexit, it is calculated to have a knock on effect all over Europe and, conceivably, trigger the unravelling of the EU. As it is, there is widespread scepticism of the EU in France over immigration. And in southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, there is rage over what is perceived as a German-controlled EU. From economic austerity to unregulated immigration, almost every European country has a grudge against an emerging super-state.
Yet, quite ironically, Obama’s gratuitous advice to British voters didn’t witness an uninhibited display of outrage and nationalistic flag waving—as it inevitably would have done in India. On the contrary, the Churchillian we-will-protect-our-sovereignty voices were (at least in the opinion polls) momentarily subsumed by the concerns of the risk-averse. There was jubilation in the City of London and among the so-called “Davos men” that Obama had successfully injected the profound fear of an uncertain future if Britain exited the EU. Yes, they asserted, the EU wasn’t perfect but the alternative was far more dreadful. If this trend persists for the next few weeks, the referendum outcome is likely to show that contemporary Britain has turned its back on history and embraced a new European identity.
The forthcoming referendum may well suggest that, unlike emergent countries where nationalism has a profound emotional appeal, the more prosperous parts of the world are guided by economic pragmatism. To put its starkly, the Remain voters are more guided by a concern for their jobs, mortgages and pensions than the face of Britain changing with the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the EU countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And, for the moment, the Remain brigade appears to be the less-shrill majority.
On the face of it, apart from the sheer quaintness of the campaign, Brexit doesn’t appear to excite the Indian imagination. The conventional wisdom in the corporate boardrooms and among the strategic community is that India would prefer a UK inside the EU. After all, thanks to the English language, London has become the new gateway to Europe, one of India’s larger trading partners.
To my mind, apart from reflecting the American consensus, this quiet preference for the status quo is a typical risk-averse approach grounded in intellectual laziness. There is little by way of preparation in the event a majority of Britons decide they prefer to be governed by politicians in Westminster than bureaucrats in Brussels.
That the final decision is beyond the control of New Delhi is undeniable. At the same time, India should be heartened by the robust enthusiasm of the pro-Brexit camp for developing closer economic ties—leading to possible Free Trade Agreements—with the Emergent Asia that includes India and China. Brexit actually permits India to develop an economic outpost in a European country. The EU is governed by abstract principles and its preachiness is infuriating; the UK being a “nation of shopkeepers” is by contrast flexible and driven by commercial calculations. India and Britain understand each other far better than an amorphous EU comprehends the exotic Orient. India would rather do business bilaterally with European countries than be weighed down by a monolithic Europe.
At this stage of our development, India should welcome a little churning in the West. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union did us absolutely no harm.
Sunday Times of India, May 1, 2016