Monday, April 17, 2017

Birds of a feather





Birds of a feather?: A President, a Prime Minister and a Chief Minister

T.P.Sreenivasan

No three men could be more different from each other than Messrs. Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Pinarayi Vijayan. They differ in backgrounds, ideology, values and habits. While one of them was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the others had humble beginnings. Their responsibilities are different and they exercise power of varying degrees. Even their lifestyles have nothing in common. The pomp and splendor of the White House do not match the grandeur of the ornate Trump Towers around the world. Mr.Modi has carved out a sartorial fashion niche for himself after he became the Prime Minister. The move to the Cliff House has not made any difference to the modest apparel and lifestyle of Mr. Vijayan.

However, a slender thread of similarity runs through them across miles of land and sea. None of them was in power three years ago. Messrs.Trump and Modi had only a small chance of winning the elections they fought. There was many a slip between the cup and the lip for Mr. Vijayan. None of them had absolute political power before. But today the fortunes of the US, India and Kerala will depend on their performance. Their successes and failures will determine the fate of about 1.5 billion people. They are committed to the progress of their people, but their methods are considered decisive and divisive at the same time.

The three of them came to power through free and fair democratic elections, but none could claim to have formed governments of the people, for the people and by the people. They had high majorities to take them to the pinnacles of power, creating anxiety in the minds of those who opposed them. There was hope that once they were elected, they would become the leaders of their people, in true democratic fashion, regardless of the size of their majorities. But they remained loyal to the platforms they had announced before the elections, without seeking the support of their opponents. Majoritarianism, rather than democracy is the source of their agenda and power. Succession is also not clear for the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister.

All of them rode to power on an anti-establishment wave because of the failures, inefficiency or corruption of their predecessors. The voters chose them not necessarily for the promises they held or their record of the past or their integrity. All of them had skeletons in their cupboards, such as unfair business practices and disrespect for women in the case of Mr.Trump, communal antagonism in the case of Mr.Modi and suspicion of corruption in the case of Mr.Vijayan. It was not that the voters loved them more, but that they loved their predecessors less. The voters were shooting in the dark when they elected them. Anything would be better than the craftiness of Hillary Clinton, the ineffectiveness of Manmohan Singh and the mistakes of Oommen Chandy.

It is too early to make an assessment of the three men. Mr. Modi has done three years, Mr. Vijayan six months and Mr. Trump less than a hundred days. But their strengths and weaknesses have been displayed sufficiently to see where they are heading. All of them are likely to complete their terms of office.

Mr.Trump has stuck to his election guns, regardless of the anxieties about them around the globe. Except on the day of his election, he has neither spoken nor behaved as a President of all Americans. His executive orders, appointments and pronouncements only increased universal concern. But he has begun to be flexible and willing to reverse personnel decisions more than Mr.Modi or Mr. Vijayan. He has adopted a more traditional line with China and Russia than originally indicated and has shown no signs of withdrawal from global issues as he had professed. He sees no nepotism in deploying his close relatives in the White House to assist him, an idea that neither Mr. Modi nor Mr. Vijayan can emulate. He gives the impression that he will safeguard the integrity of the Presidency and will not do anything to invite impeachment, which was talked about within days after the election. His strong intervention in Syria, challenging both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, looked principled and instinctive.

Mr. Modi has virtually washed away the blood of communal carnage from his hands even though it had appeared that all the perfumes of Arabia would not sweeten his little hand, as Lady Macbeth lamented about her own misdeeds. He has established his priorities in domestic and foreign policies and framed slogans and actions to pursue them with determination. The "good days" and "development of all" he had promised appears to be in the realm of reality today. He is leading from the front and he takes failures in his stride. In foreign policy, he took India into the American camp even more deeply than his predecessors did. With Pakistan and China, he took a tough line and made peace more elusive. He will definitely leave behind a well governed and prosperous India, but he will only pay lip service to secularism and communal harmony. He appears poised to win another general election, which would strengthen his self proclaimed mandate. The streak of dictatorship in him is likely to accentuate rather than recede in the future.

As a Communist Chief Minister, Mr. Vijayan was expected to carry the party along all the way to swim or sink with it. But he appears to be enchanted by Mr.Modi’s success in dominating the party and the state. His penchant for wrong decisions and then sticking to them, with a few exceptions, even against the bigwigs in the party may hurt him unless he corrects his highly personalized style of decision making. His steely determination has won him the reputation as a “man with two hearts”. The phrase is not supposed to mean that he is kind and benevolent, but that even if one heart melts, he has another one to hold firm. The thorn in his side is the “Fidel Castro” of Kerala, 93-year old Mr.VS Achuthanandan, who, unlike Fidel, intervenes in the day to day administration of the state and hits Mr.Vijayan where it hurts. With Mr. Achuthanandan in his own party, he does not need the opposition to keep him on his toes.

Messers. Trump, Modi and Vijayan may not compare themselves with each other or consider each other as role models. They are not birds of a feather that flock together. But history has placed them as leaders with similar expectations and similar challenges. Inveterate optimism on the part of the electorates has invested them with the power to dispense justice, despite their past errors. None of them had a period of political honeymoon with the people as they had to confront events, which rolled in like unending waves from the first day. Their methods have not been particularly popular, but there is still considerable optimism about them as their people realize that they have a major stake in the success of these three men.





































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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Indians in the US are victims, not targets

Indians in the US are victims, not targets

By T.P.Sreenivasan

In this age of post truth, impressions rather than facts matter and there is a tendency to jump to alarming conclusions, based on signals. So there is nothing surprising about the three attacks on Indians in the US being put at the door of President Donald Trump. After all, he is the one who has poisoned the minds of his people against foreigners, imposed restrictions on arrival of immigrants and restricted the H-1 B visas, whose beneficiaries are mostly Indians. But objective facts show that the Indians were unintended victims rather than targets.

The Kansas shooting that killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injured his friend, Alok Madasani occurred in a bar, which they had adopted as a hangout. A local man, who was known for his drinking habits and petty crimes, Adam Purington was telling them, half in jest that they did not belong to the US. This irritated not only the Indians, but also other customers and they threw him out of the bar. An enraged Purington returned after a while and shot at not only the Indians, but also a young white man, who tried to apprehend the culprit. Purington was charged with premeditated first degree murder and attempted murder.

The authorities considered the attack a possible hate crime and it reverberated in the US and India, raising
Fresh alarm about a climate of hostility towards foreigners in the United States, where President Trump had made clamping down on immigration a central plank of his “America first” agenda.
The White House strongly rejected the notion that there might be any connection between the shooting and the new administration’s sharp language about immigration and President expressed concern. In his address to the Congress, the President said that the “shooting in Kansas City ... remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

 “People are devastated,” said Somil Chandwani, a friend of the two victims who lives in Overland Park, Kansas. “I wouldn’t say they are angry. They have a sense of insecurity at the moment. People are trying to find answers.” The charge sheet gave no details about the motive of the shooting.
The word, India, did not figure in the conversation between the two Indians and their attacker, but there was a mention of illegal migrants and the Indians said they were legal residents, who had studied in the US. It was the fact that the attacker was thrown out by the other customers that enraged Purington and not necessarily any words or action of the Indians.

The silver lining on the incident was that the young white man, who tried to rescue the Indians and took a bullet was duly rewarded by the local residents and Kansas declared March 16 as an “Indian American Appreciation Day”. The incident was clearly isolated and did not reflect a sentiment in the locality. There were also reports that the attacker said later that he had shot two Iranians.
Within a few days, two more attacks took place, one in Lancaster, where Harnish Patel, who had lived in the US with his family for 14 years, was shot and killed outside of his home. A Sikh man was also shot in Kent, Washington, while he was in his drive way, working on his vehicle. The victim, Deep Rai was also allegedly told to go back to his country at one time.
These three attacks have naturally deepened the fear among South Asian and immigrant communities that President Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and executive orders encouraged violence against them. But there is no evidence that the Indians have been specifically targeted. The average Americans are fairly ignorant of geography and the differences between various nationalities. Similar incidents took place after 9/11 terrorist attacks and the victims were Sikhs, who apparently were mistaken for Muslims. The headgear was enough to make them look like Osama Bin Laden! They were unable to distinguish between Iraqis and Kuwaitis at the time of the Gulf war. An American was heard boasting to his neighbours that his son had gone to finish off the Arabs. He was not aware that the US was fighting to liberate one nation of Arabs from another nation.
Undoubtedly, the immigrants have not been particularly popular in the US, except among the city dwellers, who knew their worth as doctors, teachers, intellectuals and more recently, IT experts. Outsourcing was seen as an evil by the unemployed in the villages, prompting even President Obama to say that the US should have business in Buffalo, not in Bengaluru. But he did not do anything to halt outsourcing, which was a win-win situation for both the US and India. Even President Trump will not be able to do without immigrants, particularly the Indians in the IT industry.
Many people have been asking what India can do to prevent tragic incidents involving Indians. It can do precious little, except to condemn the incidents, insist on proper investigation and payment of adequate compensation. If the victims are US citizens, our leverage is even less. As long as there is no systematic targeting of Indians or condonation of such incidents by the Government agencies, there is no reason even to protest. The case was different in 1998, when the US Government itself denied visas to Indians and repatriated scientists, in protest against our nuclear tests. The Khobragade incident was also deplorable to the extent that an Indian diplomat was arrested and humiliated with State Department connivance. Our concern about the possible implications of the present Government policies shall remain unexpressed as this cannot be proved either way.
There are reports that fewer Indians are travelling to the US, even fewer are going for education there and alternate destinations are being explored. But, hopefully, normalcy will be restored, once the current period of uncertainty in US policies is over. The American dream will outlive the present dispensation for civilizational reasons.








Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Science, Technology and Diplomacy A NIAS Talk



Science, Technology and Diplomacy.
By T.P.Sreenivasan

The bewildering developments in the recent past have brought international affairs to a standstill at a cross roads of history. A definite shift towards the right, increasing xenophobia, nativism, irrational antipathy towards established norms, readiness to leap into the unknown and reliance on post-truth for judgments are clearly identifiable as the trends of the times. Democratically elected leaders tend to remain loyal to their voters and not to the entire electorate, thus casting aspersions on democracy itself. An uncertain and volatile world is paralyzed by some ill-conceived policies of some leaders. Indications of impending withdrawal of the US inwards and its inattention to world affairs have already encouraged Chinese expansionism. The world is waiting breathlessly to see what turns and twists the new US Administration will take.
I speculate that the disruptive tendencies in political life of the world may have their roots in the disruptive innovations in science and technology. Innovate or perish is the call of the times. The unprecedented technological upheaval without an owners’ manual or restraining radars may transform the way the society is organized. Immanuel Kant had observed in 1784, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” The question today is whether democracy will survive big data and artificial intelligence, as automated societies will acquire totalitarian features. It appears that the genie of innovation may have to be put back into the bottle to give its growth some guidance. China is already considering “institutional surveillance” and “persuasive computing” to apply restraints on technology. For China, such controls are instinctive, but the rest of the world too has to think of preserving social cohesion and protecting the basic rights of citizens.
Long ago, when I was on my first posting in Tokyo, I was told that a time would come when we would print our newspapers at home, a prospect which could not even be imagined. Today, we can print the New Yok Times before the New Yorkers wake up to see their print edition stacked up at the door. Today, we are close to replacing manufacturing by 3-D printing. Children born in 2017 will never hold a steering wheel or own a driving license as driverless cars will be in use by the time they grow up. The fourth industrial revolution is upon us. We need more diplomats with scientific training, but we also need rational scientists to preserve and protect human values.
The most sensational development in war, the event that changed the course of history, the dropping of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was proclaimed by Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist, not a politician. He quoted from the Bhagavad Gita:
“If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One..
I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds.”
Such is the grip of science and technology on politics and diplomacy. In fact, every twist and turn in global affairs can be attributed to a particular scientific advancement. Maritime development brought colonialism in its wake, the invention of the steam engine engendered the industrial revolution, the transportation revolution created the global village, the atom transformed war and peace and the internet changed everything. Like all other professions, diplomacy, caught in the world wide web. has changed beyond recognition.
Science and technology have become key drivers in international relations and knowledge of trends in advancement in various fields is an essential prerequisite to effective international negotiations. Increasingly specialized expertise has become essential as negotiations today deal with specialization and integration. Major powers have realized that promotion of values and foreign aid will not generate gratitude and that their strength lies in the global acceptance of their contribution to science. Nixon’s visit to China and the Chinese embrace of American technology set off bilateral cooperation between the two countries and established bilateral mechanisms, which have grown ever since. Soviet influence in India stemmed from the scientific training received in the Soviet Union by generations of Indian students. It is the dominance of its fundamental research that will ensure US dominance in the world for a long time to come.
The United Nations was created to rid the succeeding generations of the scourge of war, but on its seventieth anniversary, the Secretary General of the UN claimed that the greatest accomplishment of the UN was that it had immunized the world’s children against infectious diseases. Most of the present preoccupations of the UN were not anticipated in 1945. Infectious diseases, environmental degradation, electronic crimes and weapons of mass destruction and HIV/AIDS cannot be eliminated without international cooperation in science and technology. Tapping into the growing science base beyond a nation’s borders has become imperative for the pursuit of the truth and promotion of trust among nations. Diplomats cannot lie abroad for the good of their country any more as science is the business of establishing truth. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein had exhorted the scientists, not diplomats to address the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
According to the Royal Society of London for improving Natural Knowledge, science diplomacy has emerged as the use of scientific interactions among nations to address the common problems facing humanity and to build constructive and knowledge based international partnership. In Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power, science and technology is a primary ingredient. The concept of science diplomacy is gaining increasing currency in the US, UK, Japan and elsewhere. It is still a fluid concept, but can usefully be applied to the role of science, technology and innovation in three related areas:
·       informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice (science in diplomacy);
·       facilitating international science cooperation (diplomacy for science);
·       using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries (science for diplomacy).
Scientific values of rationality, transparency and universality are the same the world over. They can help to underpin good governance and build trust between nations. Science provides a non-ideological environment for the participation and free exchange of ideas between people, regardless of cultural, national or religious backgrounds.
Science diplomacy seeks to strengthen the symbiosis between the interests and motivations of the scientific and foreign policy communities. For the former, international cooperation is often driven by a desire to access the best people, research facilities or new sources of funding. For the latter, science offers useful networks and channels of communication that can be used to support wider policy goals. Foreign ministries should place greater emphasis on science within their strategies, and draw more extensively on scientific advice in the formation and delivery of policy objectives.
The constraints to science diplomacy include regulatory barriers, such as visa restrictions and security controls. Immediately after September 11 2001, more stringent travel and visa regimes in countries like the US and the UK severely limited the opportunities for visiting scientists and scholars, particularly from Islamic countries. Although efforts have been made to relax some of these strict controls, there are still significant problems with the free mobility of scientists from certain countries. Such policies shut out talented scientists and hinder opportunities. Security controls can also prevent collaboration on certain scientific subjects, such as nuclear physics and microbiology. Although these policies are based on legitimate concerns over the dual use potential of some scientific knowledge, they should also take into consideration the diplomatic value of scientific partnerships in sensitive areas to help rebuild trust between nations.
Coincidentally, the trend today is for engineers, doctors and scientists to join the diplomatic service. This has changed the character of the service from a generalist dominated service to a technologist oriented service. The emphasis is shifting from political and trade issues to technological issues. Many problems of the global commons such as climate change, epidemics and disasters need a combination of management of resources and technical understanding. More than any time before, science, technology and diplomacy combine to find solutions to global problems.
Thank you.