Authoritarianism in Democracies


It is rather strange why so many democratically elected leaders of countries feel the urge to play god or superman when it comes to ruling in a majority government.

I believe that a streak of authoritarianism exists in most strong leaders with a strong will and powerful determination to take their nations and people forward. It is not an unnatural tendency, especially when the exercise of real power is possible, and there are a number of other influential people who assume the role of sycophants and sing the praise of the leader all the time.

If the strongman leader is well-intentioned, incorruptible, and not given to the negative influences of sycophancy, then he will be able to make a positive impact on his nation. Even then, he would constantly need the counsel and services of like-minded individuals, which becomes difficult especially in a conflicted country with heavy bureaucracy and multiple priorities. If such advice is not provided or sought, it is anybody’s guess where the country will eventually land, notwithstanding the good intentions of the elected leader.

Democracy is the most challenging form of government in practice today. It is prone to excessive meddling by mostly corrupt politicians, operating in a loosely managed system which can almost be considered as “free wheeling”. Unfortunately, it is currently the best possible scheme of governance available with all its foibles and inconsistencies.

The question then arises: how come a functioning democracy allows the emergence of a strong-willed authoritarian leader, and his/her free functioning despite the oversight functions built into a democratic system of government, and even tends to allow his/her excesses beyond what is permissible under such a system? Despite all the good work and progress that can be achieved by such a leader, the question still remains on “authoritarian excesses beyond what is permissible”, or the use of government machinery and authority to bully the naysayers and the well-meaning critics of the administration, curtail the freedom of the press, instigate lawsuits against dissenters and the media, and trample on civil rights.

There are many examples I can cite in defense of my surmise, the most potent ones being that of the Philippines and the U.S. In the Philippines, an authoritarian yet democratically elected President has totally destroyed civil rights and is pursuing a lawsuit against the most vocal media entity in the country. At last count, atleast 8,000 citizens have been shot down by law enforcement for drug trafficking or drug use, without any recourse to the country’s judicial system. In the U.S., we see the daily drama of a wayward President, who does not seem to care much about the fact that he is successfully dividing the country along race, colour and gender lines. The U.S. Congress has, so far, acquiesced to the whims of the President, and has rarely challenged him. This brings us to the next question.

Why do the other organs of a parliamentary democracy, such as the Parliament / Congress and the Judiciary just watch what is going on in the country, but rarely ever take suo moto actions to stop, challenge or dissuade the strong but erring leader? What prevents these organs from exercising their powers vested in them by the Constitution?

One reason could be that the Congress or the Parliament is run by the same party of which the head of government is also the leader, and the party is worried about the political ramifications of challenging its own leader and the next elections. In democracies, parties always worry about the next election. If there are a few vocal challengers in the party who give trouble to the President, they will eventually be silenced or ignored and replaced. Most political parties have average or weak leaders, so a strong leader who executes election promises and woos the electorate and voter base is always admired by the party, which becomes subservient to the relentless whims of its leader.

The Judiciary, in general, keeps a safe distance from politics and political happenings. This is the case, unless an affected party approaches it with a credible lawsuit against the government. In some cases of extreme injustice, the Court could resort to suo moto cognisance and initiate legal action on behalf of the victim.

While democracy provides for adequate checks and balances against the commitment of excesses by the Executive branch of the government, we have, of late (and in the past), seen real evidence of breakdowns which will eventually affect the fabric of democracy and its institutions.

The situation becomes worse when the “strong” leader delivers economic results and bolsters national security. It becomes extremely difficult to argue with positive results of benefit to the overall population (though not to segments of it). It may be sheer luck, but then it can be argued that specific actions resulted in solid positive economic progress, for instance.

Also, unfortunately, the general population usually prefers strong leaders who have a unique personality and a no-nonsense approach. This is one reason why movie actors went on to become successful in some regions as political leaders, while I would not believe they can deliver in real world what they did as actors in the make-believe world of movies.

Is there a way that democracies can adopt to avoid being caught in such an indefensible situation?

One way is to curb the discretionary powers available to the Executive for arbitrary exercise in favour of some stupid idea, or against an individual / entity who is opposed to the leader or his/her government. Easier systems of appeals to the Parliament which comprises of elected representatives and to the Judiciary will halt the President’s efforts in arbitrary exercise of power. However, nothing will prevent a determined leader in carrying out his mission vigorously with total insolence towards anyone beneath him or even those who are on par with him.

So we do have a serious issue with the democratic system of government. There is no immediate solution. Reprimand or threats of impeachment will not do the job. Aggressive judicial intervention is a real possibility, but not yet tested.

Think about it! Most of us live in democracies by the way!!

Have a good week ahead,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

11th November 2018

Does Government own You?


For thousands of years, humans did not have a form of government which took responsibility to manage and defend a nation or territory. Before government came into picture, the rule of law was based on the inalienable rights of an individual to his or her life, liberty and property. You might have read this principle of what is known as “natural rights” during your school years.

Fights and battles happened when one person or his army tried to violate this natural set of rights, and take away the life, liberty or property of one individual. That was not at all acceptable, and it was perfectly fine for the aggrieved individual to wage a fight against the aggressor.

With the advent of a system of government, people came under the government’s governance mechanism. In return for infrastructure, safety and security, the people were ready to pay taxes to cover the costs of governance. In essence, a social “compact” was struck between the society and the government which was elected by the society. The government assumed primacy in all matters pertaining to the state, running of the governmental affairs, dealing with other states, protecting the people, investing in infrastructure, et al.

The influence of the government on the society or any individual in the society is nothing short of phenomenal, whether we are living in a democratic society or not. Unfortunately, in today’s world, there are no option to live “outside” of your society or country’s system of governance (after all, we don’t choose our parents or country of birth!). We can carry our thoughts which will never be subject to any external controls, but even our thoughts are subject to controls once explicitly expressed. This is the situation in many countries.

So, the question arises: which part of you the government owns? Whole or some part? The physical part or the mind part? Are we really fully free in any society? Does the government own us? Can the government take away our “inalienable” rights to life, liberty and property? Where does the government stop?

And so on and so forth………..can the government dictate to us on what we should be doing? Is it a facilitator or commander of your talent and skills?

Do we have the option to break our social “compact” and return to the nomadic way of life?

Do we subjugate ourselves to the primacy of the government which rules us? Do we totally give up?

Well, of course, we all know that the situation is not so dire in most countries. The government does not intervene in your personal life, unless there is a law and order problem. It really does not care.

Some governments, however, try to own you, commandeer you, and punish you if you commit offences not palatable to them. Taking away a citizen’s life, as we have seen recently appear to be quite extraordinary (I am referring here to the Kashoggi case in Istanbul). While I am stunned by the apparent indifference to the murder of an innocent civilian citizen in a diplomatic facility, let us not forget the foreign intelligence agencies of the top nations of the world routinely carry out targeted assassinations around the world, in countries where they do not have any jurisdiction. Torture, cruelty, killings and threats are all normal practices practiced every day in the name of national security, or if that does not work, in the name of regional security / protection of valuable allies / in the cause of world peace, etc.,

So, in a nutshell, be prepared at any time to be owned by your own government apparatus. And, if your country’s government is very closely connected with the the government(s) of the most powerful nations of the world, then you are in for an even scarier ride if your thoughts are on the wrong side of what these governments think is right. How about sympathizing with the suffering Palestinians, Uighurs, Yemenis or Rohingyas, just to name a few?

Food for lot of thought, I should say, pun intended!

Have a good week ahead,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th October 2018

Laughing Stock


The widely covered and reported saga of Brett Kavanaugh for appointment as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has become a laughing stock for all the world to witness as an example of things which have gone wrong in the U.S. democratic system of governance.

It was apparent from the beginning that the FBI had not conducted a thorough check of the background of Judge Kavanaugh. At least it was clear that the FBI had not dialled back even up to his Yale college days, an investigation of which would have provided grist upon his bad drinking habits and sexual exposition.

While what happened at age 17 or 18 should not be of major concern after 36 years have passed (though disturbing if you had seen the testimony of Dr Christine Ford in the Senate Judiciary Committe hearing), the key aspect for any public appointment, and more so for a judicial appointment, is integrity, and it was apparent that Judge Kavanaugh lied in his testimony about his drinking problem. Lying is clearly a non-starter in pursuing public office, and apart from this, it was also clear that the Judge was a wild adolescent and then a wild adult during his Yale college days. I cannot recall any other appointment which has caused such a major controversy, partisan split, and serious doubts about the adequacy of the candidate (not his competency).

In India, the Judicial Collegium shortlists and recommends judicial nominees for the government to approve. While there has been a serious disconnect between the Indian Supreme Court and the government on the last such appointment a few months ago, the government had to ultimately yield to the Collegium. There is no public hearing for public service appointments in India.

I am not suggesting that the Indian system of selecting judges is better, but it is important to recognize alternative systems are in place around the world. Not that there is no controversy – we know that the last judicial appointment led to a tough public fight between the Supreme Court and the government, represented by the Law Minister (India’s equivalent of Jeff Sessions).

Of course, the whole world looks up to the example of the U.S. democracy in full action, as it played out in this case in a totally public fashion. Every day, right through all of September, the world witnessed the intense testimonies and the tough questioning of Judge Kavanaugh at the U.S. Senate.

There is one long-standing and widely respected (though now widely adopted) principle in public service life in democratic nations, and that is simply the following: even if there is an iota of doubt about a nominee for high office in the minds of the selectors, as to his/her complete suitability, competency, integrity, and commitment, then that nominee needs to be thoroughly investigated, and in most cases the nomination should be withdrawn for the greater good of the larger public. The loss of faith in the ability of one to discharge public duties and service cannot be sustained if there is a slight doubt on one’s integrity.

The argument that the nominee’s reputation and future are irreversibly damaged by unsubstantiated and unverified allegations, and so these accusations should be dispensed with forthright, is not amenable to a logical and rational interpretation on how nominees should be prepared for a totally open and transparent yet risky interrogation and investigation.

Given what has transpired, especially the emotional outbursts of Judge Kavanaugh against Democratic Senators who questioned him vigorously and his explicit allegiance to President Trump and the ideals of the GOP, it would be rather interesting to carefully watch how Justice Kavanaugh plays out and leverages the conservative majority in the Supreme Court in the months and years to come. Don’t forget the fact that the Supreme Court appointments are for lifetime, and so what happens to the decisions of the Supreme Court now tainted by overt partisanship is no longer anybody’s guess – it will hit Americans in a way they would not have imagined till now.

Well, the idiosyncracies of democracy are well known. Unfortunately, there are significant negatives and inefficiency in the system of checks and balances.

Let us see how this drama unfolds in critical legal policy issues confronting the U.S. Supreme Court.

Have a great week ahead,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

7th October 2018

The Unusual President’s Brash Initiatives


When I look at the continuous drama going on in Washington, D.C., I cannot but fail to appreciate the unusual nature of the White House incumbent. Never before had there been a President of the U.S. who has flouted all public norms of decency, all diplomatic protocols, all trade agreements, and whatever has so far formed the foundations of American Democracy.

Some of the President’s, sorry, most of his actions border on incredulity, what else can I say? It is simply unbelievable that so many things that the President says are things which have never been stated publicly (I am including his tweets, obviously). America is changing dramatically during this Presidency, and the America which will exit at the end of this Presidency is going to be vastly different from the one that existed in 2016.

Of course, I am not going to fault this President for some of his “actions”, which are apparently what he promised to the electorate and let us not forget that he got elected via a public election process in the U.S. One cannot hide behind the fact that Hillary Clinton won 3M more public votes than Donald Trump, that is not the way the U.S. Electoral System works.

Let us see what President Trump has accomplished in the past 18 months:

  • The first ever major Tax Reform signed in 30 years
  • Lowest unemployment in 20 years
  • GDP rapidly growing at over 3%
  • More than USD 5T wealth created

There are many actions that President Trump took which have put fear into the most important trading partners of the U.S., such as Canada, Mexico, the U.K., the E.U., China, and India. His “America First” philosophy is now deeply ingrained in the psyche of the U.S. public, and in fact, in most countries around the world.

There are many negatives spawned by President Trump which have impacted the world in the wrong manner, and he is facing several personal scandals as we all know well. The “fake news” media (his term for the mainstream media comprising of liberal news channels and publications) have kept all of us very well informed. I look at Fox News everyday to see how is their version of the news unfolding, and the dichotomy is greatly interesting.

Coming back to my rationale for writing this blog post (I think this is my fourth post on Trump), I cannot disagree on his economic or trade initiatives. I will not cover his immigration and border security initiatives in this post. It requires an American President made up of an entirely different fabric to contest the long-held notions on free trade. But I think he is executing his trade strategy brilliantly, while the U.S. economy is chugging along well and wage growth has started trickling in. The U.S. is the biggest buyer of most goods in the world, and runs a big trade deficit with most large countries, which is simply untenable. I cannot understand why trade parity is so difficult to accomplish – it need not even balance entirely, what the U.S. wants is some kind of parity – not a very lopsided one such as the one it has with China. The U.S. cannot be importing over USD 500B of goods from China, while exporting just around USD 130B to China – highly untenable.

It has become very difficult to gauge President Trump and forecast his next action plan. It is apparent that most of his ideas are actually stemming from his brain, as he hardly trusts his own cabinet. He has seen a continuous exit of his cabinet team members who could not see eye to eye with him on apparently random ideas or actions. It is also very clear that President Trump does not like to wait to take action on his random ideas – he wants almost immediate action. If the Congress does not play along, he will even go to the extent of threatening his own party members!

So, the world is in for a continuous random adhoc ride the likes of which it has never experienced. I am now almost sure that President Trump is going to be re-elected, simply because there is no other contender from his own party, and the Democratic Party is in a state of disarray with no strong personality emerging with less than 18 months to go for campaigning to start for the 2020 Presidential Elections.

Who will the U.S. public go with? A guy who has delivered on his economic and trade promises, though he has misjudged on many other initiatives, and plagued by sleazy scandals? Or, a relatively unknown candidate who is yet to be tested though he might bring new ideas to the table? The jury may be out, but it is my considered guess that President Trump will win a second term, at the end of which the U.S. will be an unassailable economic and military power, though not liked around the world for its exclusivity in global affairs.

If I were an American citizen, my vote will have to be cast for President Trump. There is not much to argue against such a vote as I stand to benefit in a variety of ways – lower taxes, better wages, more economic growth potential, and more demand for American goods.

If I am an Indian or Chinese citizen, my vote will obviously go against President Trump. I would like a pro-trade, pro-immigration candidate.

If I am Singaporean, I may not give a damn, though an inner voice is asking me to stay involved with the U.S. – but, it is not a choice I have, and as a small nation, it is better to manage the middle ground extremely well. There is no point in rocking an already shaky boat. We realize the world is forever, unstable, and it is our duty to demonstrate rationality in decision-making.

That’s it folks, have a great week ahead,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

23rd September 2018

A Reckless Mind-Altering President


Democracy is a demon.

How else can we describe the current sorry state of affairs in the U.S., which in turn is causing consternation all around the world?

At the outset, it is difficult to challenge the “simpleton” logic employed by Donald Trump.

  • Is it wrong to make an attempt to control illegal immigration?
  • Is it wrong to separate young children from their parents who are illegal immigrants?
  • Is it wrong to challenge China for its trade policies which have caused a huge lopsided trade deficit with the U.S.?
  • Is it wrong to arm twist the European Union on defence spending for their own protection?
  • Is it wrong to select a conservative Supreme Court Justice who shares common opinions with the President?
  • Is it wrong to impose customs tariffs on imported goods which affect American industries and cause unemployment?
  • Is it wrong to attempt to control legal immigration and disallow spouses of temporary legal corporate employees from working?
  • Is it right for American manufacturers to shift production to low-cost countries like what Harley Davidson has done?
  • Is it wrong to attack the “fake” media when it has been proven that there are instances when the real media reported fake news?
  • Is it wrong to attack long-standing American allies on trade, immigration and defence spending?
  • Is it right to exit from the U.N. Human Rights Council?
  • Is it right to throw away an international agreement with Iran which was signed by the previous Presidential administration?
  • Is it right to schmooze with President Putin of Russia when there is significant evidence that Russia had interfered with American Presidential Elections in 2016?
  • And so on, and so forth………..

Prima facie, it appears that the President is doing all the things that he committed to do while campaigning for the President job, and it also appears that he is right to carry out his commitments to the American people who elected him President, right?

Right. That’s for him.

Right. That’s for the vocal electorate in Middle America who voted for him.

Right. That’s for the coterie of his cabinet members who are not allowed to have their own unique opinion which could be different from those of the President.

Wrong. That’s for the rest of us.

But does he care? Absolutely not.

President Trump is convinced that he is doing the “right” thing for America and the American people. It is his unshakeable belief.

What he does not understand, or does not wish to understand, is that the U.S. is currently the #1 Nation impacting global policies in all facets of human life. Almost. When the U.S. is in such a unique and vaunted position, it is absolutely necessary for it to take the global impact into consideration, notwithstanding the fact that it could sometimes appear to be a philanthropic action, or cause temporary negative impact on the U.S. itself. Unfortunately, no other nation has been able to rise to the level of the U.S. over the past 70 odd years or so. American Presidents cannot be reckless and clueless about rules governing international law, trade, immigration, security, and diplomacy.

While what President Trump does to his people is his own business, Americans are now sufficiently global in their thinking that they should see through if their leader is violating global compacts and policies. Fortunately for President Trump, the U.S. economy has been doing well, and unemployment rate is falling. But, this is a time-sensitive phenomenon, and it only takes a couple of months before things start to unravel, as his trade policies are sure to cause trouble.

Global diplomacy is not about just getting to know each other, shaking hands and indulging in small talk. There is a huge amount of work which goes in, preparing for a global summit meeting. President Trump is now realizing that fact with reference to North Korea.

President Trump indulges in propagating fake news himself at his election rallies. There is only one single truth on every matter, and factual inaccuracies are mounting in his talk at his rallies where wild crowds of supporters cheer him on. He goes back to the White House with increased drive to continue his policies. His twitter feed has become a series of utterances against his “enemies”.

Overall, here is a President who self-indulges himself, berates constantly against his opponents, derides the Special Counsel investigation on Russian interference in U.S. elections, stumbles on conflicts of interests, communicates his racist tendencies, and his bad views on women in general. When a global leader of stature meets President Trump, what do you think will be going on in the mind of that global leader?

It is not hard to guess.

So, President Trump needs to get back to the basics of governance which are probably taught in a U.S. university of repute such as Georgetown in Washington DC itself, or consult past Presidents who could provide him some serious counselling. He needs to kick out sycophants from his Cabinet. He needs to listen to some seasoned leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany. He needs to understand that running the U.S. government and managing global affairs is totally unlike running a corporation. And, he needs to kill his twitter handle. His digital skills have ruined policy making.

In a nutshell, President Trump can recover from his governance lows by actively seeking counselling assistance. All of us need counselling or mentoring at some stage in our lives, and it is nothing to smirk or laugh about. So, here we are – President Trump will hopefully read this blog post of mine and adopt my sage advice rendered to him without any prejudice by a global citizen who thinks globally.

Have a great week ahead,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

8th July 2018

 

Two Dictators and their Antics


Singapore was witness to a historic summit between two dictators earlier this week (on the 12th June 2018) in the idyllic small island of Sentosa off the main Singapore island.

One dictator has established himself as a ruthless governor of the pariah state of North Korea (NK or otherwise known as DPRK – Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea). He has been the leader of NK for the past 7 years only, but has amply demonstrated his cruelty by murdering many of his people in the shortest possible time, including his own uncle. His citizens are starving. He has channeled all his slush funds into developing ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs, and his unstable government has incited fears even in his closest ally, China. I do not understand the relationship between NK and Russia, however. May be technology transfer? In a nutshell, NK is neither democratic nor socialistic – people are just slaves of the Kim family for over 7 decades.

All these things are well documented, with news coverage of NK being incessant over the past 12 to 18 months or so, with the aggressive posturing of its young leader, often against the U.S.

The other dictator I am referring to here is of course, Donald Trump, the President of the U.S. who is unpredictable, unstable, and easily incited into drastic actions. How can he be the so-called “leader of the Free World”?. Under his stewardship, the U.S. is being castigated for a series of diplomatic and trade-related missteps. No one in the U.S. government or even the White House knows what Trump is up to with his early morning tweets setting government policy and heavily criticizing his opponents and the media. He wants his way in everything that matters to him, and appears to be totally devoid of careful counsel. And, that is exactly the way he made the trip to Singapore to meet with Kim Jong Un.

The meeting was totally unscripted and was deemed to be a “relationship” meeting as Trump continually attempted to downgrade expectations, having built up those expectations to a feverish level in the days leading up to the “dictators’ meting” in Singapore. Kim was wiser, he hardly stated anything publicly, and kept his counsel, and demonstrated a cool head during his Singapore visit without appearing to be unduly excited.

Why should he be? He was, in any case, not giving away anything to Trump. The meeting was hailed as an outstanding success by Trump, though many observers thought it was a complete waste of time having accomplished nothing of substance – no complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization; no stopping of missile launches; no resolution to the thorny issue of abducted Japanese citizens by NK agents; no tight time schedule for anything; no way forward on the big human rights violations by NK against its own citizens; and no, no, no for many other demands.

For Trump, it was a public relations exercise, becoming the first ever sitting President of the U.S. to have met with the leader of NK – ever. He thinks he has figured Kim out and can handle him well. How? All by touch and feel, as Trump claimed in his media interactions? Why would he think and then say that Kim is a “talented” guy? Trump expressed his appreciation of the fact that Kim took over as Chairman in 2011 when he was barely 26 years of age, and brushed aside questions on the very bad human rights record of NK.

In my opinion, it was a waste of time with no solid returns for the stakeholders – South Korea, Japan and the U.S. It was a failure.

It was horrifying to see that the leader of the Free World has now become a close friend of the worst dictator on earth. For a very long time, the U.S. has entertained dictators all over the world, and antagonized democracies. Any one who has followed world history will attest to this fact. The U.S. always hid behind domestic compulsions, national security, and cold war antagonism. In the past one week, Trump has even alienated his closest allies in the G-8 meeting in Canada, and blasted Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, as a dishonest person and a liar.

So, the world is heading towards a circus play of these two dictators. We have no choice but to play along, as otherwise the world will be headed towards another war – as Trump himself stated during his Singapore trip, he has saved 28M lives! Totally ridiculous, unacceptable and irresponsible.

Singapore spent a lot of money in organizing this summit of the two dictators – upwards of $15M. Many locations, especially the hotels in which the two dictators were staying, and the meeting venue in Sentosa were all in locked-down status. Thousands of police personnel were pressed into duty. For Singapore, it was beneficial as it gained worldwide attention as the venue of the summit, having been friends with both sides over the years. Singapore is a close military ally of the U.S. and it also has other wide-ranging business, trade, economic relations with the U.S. Singapore has also maintained diplomatic relations with NK, though it complied with the U.N. sanctions against the regime.

Chairman Kim Jong Un gained big publicity as well – he was treated as a visiting head of state and acquired legitimacy as a leader in his own right. This would not have happened for a long, long time under the U.N. sanctions scenario (which still apply).

So, in a nutshell, lot of noise and fanfare for a very weak 4 points agreement which has been touted as something huge back in the U.S. by President Trump, and deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobel Prize? Forget it. NK has a long way to go before the world recognizes it on par with South Korea (unless there is a merger).

In any case, visit Singapore and see the Capella Hotel in Sentosa Island – you might like to walk along the same corridor that both the dictators walked on!

Here’s Wishing all Friends a “Selamat Hari Raya or Eid Mubarak”.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

16th June 2018

 

The fallacy of elections


Just this week we saw how democratic election results can be hijacked by instruments of democracy – I am referring here to the State Elections in the Southern Indian State of Karnataka. As most people know, Bangalore is the famed capital city of the Karnataka State which is responsible for the IT revolution which propelled India as the world’s leading software services power.

This is not the first time, and it will not be the last time that such hijacks take place in the democratic process. By and large, India has proved that democracy does work as a system of government over the past seven decades, except for a brief two-year period when it was itself hijacked with the imposition of “emergency” in 1975 -77. Well, there are many lacunae in any system of government, and democracy is no exception. It has its own share of problems in implementation, but that is for another blog post!

The federally appointed Governor of Karnataka State invited the Opposition BJP Party to form the government, instead of inviting the ruling Congress Party which had formed an alliance with another party, the JDS. The number of legislators in this alliance was 117, as against the 104 in BJP. In the normal procedure, the Governor would have invited the biggest alliance which can then win a trust vote in the State Assembly.

However, the Governor invited the single largest party (the BJP) and gave it 15 days to prove its majority in the State Assembly, which is only possible if BJP is able to snare at least 8 legislators from Congress/JDS alliance. And, how will that happen? Just think about it. India has already passed the Anti-Defection Law, which means it would be hard for legislators or parliamentarians to cross the aisle and join the other party. It is also not moral to do so, having been elected under the auspices of the party under whose symbol the legislator(s) won the election.

In other State Elections in India, the respective Governors had invited the biggest alliance to form the government, not the single largest party. That suited BJP (the party which rules India at the federal level) in couple of States. However, in the case of Karnataka, they tried to change that rule which a Governor should follow once he or she receives the letters of commitment from the legislators.

So, what happened?

In a tense 3 days of drama, played out in the Supreme Court of India and in Bangalore, the BJP lost out against the alliance of Congress/JDS. I am not in favour of either party, but I am concerned when the powers that be plays out the political game with utter disregard towards established precedents under their own rule. The Supreme Court played a central and decisive role in the whole episode and determined what way things should go in Karnataka State Assembly – it gave just 24 hours to the BJP Chief Minister (who had been invited by the State Governor to form the government) to face a trust vote in the Assembly. So, left with no time to indulge in horse-trading both sides brought their safely guarded legislators to the Assembly for the trust vote. Facing the loss of the trust vote, the BJP Chief Minister resigned.

The whole drama could have been avoided if the Prime Minister had intervened and ensured that proper procedures are followed. The fight should be at the hustings, not at the assembly after the elections were completed. Exposing the respective parties’ machinations to the common man and to the world at large, and going to the Supreme Court which was forced to intervene are not good examples of running the world’s largest democracy.

This proves that at the end of the day, all politicians are the same in India. Some are articulate, polished, well-behaved, and most are corrupt and bend rules in their favour. However, when it comes to winning elections, they let lose anarchy and throw principles to the wind. Similar things happen in other nations as well in varying degrees. However, India cannot risk its strong democratic institutions and the three well delineated arms of governance – the Executive, the Parliament/Legislature, and the Judiciary. These are self-balancing to a large extent, and each one is expected to check on the abuse of power by any other arm, and eventually balance the overall system of governance.

What the Karnataka Elections proved is simple – the will of the people have to be respected and cannot be manipulated in the way that one party wants. The alternative would be to call for re-elections at a great cost, annoying the voters; or, to bring down the government once it has been formed by legislative techniques and defections. However, it has been proven time and again that the voters exercise their power at the hustings to elect their representatives and have the ultimate power to dislodge parties which do not perform to their expectations.

Viva La Democracy, or to put it precisely “vive la démocratie!”.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

20th May 2018

 

The News Bias


There exists a political bias in almost all news organizations. Most famous ones such as CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post are considered liberal, which means “leftist” in the U.S. News organizations such as Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and countless others are best characterized as conservative, which means “rightist” in the U.S. There is hardly any neutral news organization or publication anywhere in the world. The closest that I have seen are The Hindu newspaper in India, and The Guardian in the U.K. There may be others that I do not know, and my lack of mentioning others does not mean that there are no other neutral publications or TV news channels.

There is nothing wrong with some bias, as news editors are, after all, human beings, and have certain orientations and thought processes in their heads as they handle news and news analyses. However, they are not supposed to twist or tweak the factual news to their advantage, with an insidious purpose in mind. It could be that they wish to provoke an anti-government or anti-establishment public reaction, which goes against the grain of news gathering and publishing. The editorials could convey what the editor(s) wants to comment on the main news of the day, but the reporting has to be absolutely factual, as otherwise it could turn dangerous, as we have seen recent instances especially in India with fake news (“faked” news) dominating and corrupting the public’s view of the happenings. Such reporting happens in many countries around the world, and is designed to serve the political orientation of the editor or owner of the publication.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there has to be a law to regulate news, much like in the old days when news publications could be prosecuted for incorrect news reporting which results in public mayhem, destruction, deaths, violence, etc., (this used to be called “censorship” in old times). There is nothing wrong in seeking to enforce law and order against what is famously known as the “Fourth Estate”. I am not inclined to believe that a carefully calibrated law and order enforcement against an erring news publication or TV channel or news organization can be termed as shutting down press freedom. Everyone is subject to the same laws, so what is so unique about one segment of the society?

Well, we might need a “news ombudsman” to ensure impartiality, and to enforce actions against all publications without fear or favour. It is easier said than done. Any government appointee is going to be at least slightly biased, and so it is critical to select someone with the involvement of the government of the day, the political opposition in the parliament and the judiciary, and to embed sufficient powers in the office of such an ombudsman, who can issue orders to law enforcement, much like the Election Commissioner, or the Head of Anti-Corruption Agency.

News organizations should also include all social media platforms such as FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. They need to be regulated simply because they are more powerful than any brick and mortar news producer. News on such platform posted by anyone spreads at exponential speeds and rumours could create havoc. We have also recently witnessed how FaceBook sacrificed the personal data of millions of people who use their platform for monetary benefit. Given the proclivity of the younger generation to take up social media platforms with amazing speed, it becomes essential to moderate such platforms without causing damage to the neurons of youngsters at a very young age.

I enjoy flipping the news channels between CNN, BBC, Fox News, CNBC, and other local / regional channels. The priority given to news coverage varies across the channels. Sometimes what you think is a very important piece of news does not even merit a mention in some of the channels. If things do not go well for the audience of Fox News, then the anchors distract them with some unimportant sidelights. And so on and so forth. Of course, it requires a worldly intelligence to segregate fake news from what is real. It is not an easy skill, as fake news could easily be debunked and thrown away upon a refresh of the news website; it could be worded in a convincing way which reflects in certain measure some amount of truth, or it could be covered by a famous news anchor. If Russia is disliked by most news channels for ideological or political reasons, it is very easy to spot that dislike. If China is berated for trade or intellectual property thefts, that also gets highlighted in a big way. There are hardly any counter arguments that you would hear in the world famous TV news channels against their own governments or allies. It is not unnatural, but it is not normal in a news reporting organization. There are, of course, good examples of news reporting which is balanced and also good analysis of news with differing viewpoints which we get to see sometimes, but such balanced coverage is slowly declining in my opinion, as the audience wants “supportive” analyses, not “destructive” analyses by political commentators. There is also disdain of these commentators or opinion-producers amongst the common public, as they are repeatedly used throughout the year, with more or less the same views. They are either “supportive” of the government, or in some cases “destructive” of the government’s stand on issues. Eventually, people will realize that anyone on this planet can have a view of his/her own on any issue which may or may not affect him/her. Nothing wrong with that position either. The point is that fast-talking commentators have not helped to define a news organization, they only reflect their own biases in their opinion piece.

Looking at the overall stained news scenario, it is but normal to conclude that we should make up our own news – what I mean is that, you pull together pieces of news from various publications using some software which can generate your own news as per your own criteria. If I am a conservative, rightist kind of person, then my filters would produce news that I am looking for! Tomorrow, I could become a liberal and I will then get to enjoy the “liberal” view of world news and happenings!!

Well, folks have a good weekend, and avoid drinking alcohol,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

14th April 2018 (Today is TAMIL New Year, Wishes to my Tamil Friends and Families!)

Why is the West always against Russia?


In the world of geopolitics, there are two constants: spying and deterrence.

Almost every major nation has an army of spies – whether they are directed to obtain the military, political or technological secrets of their most important competitor nation(s) or not, it is a fact that they do exist formally (as part of embassy operations) or informally, as undercover agents. Both Russia and the U.S. are masters in the art and science of spying, and we have to include the U.K. and increasingly, China, in this list of major spying countries of the world.

Deterrence is a simple concept which has evolved into a key policy initiative of large countries. The idea here is that the arsenal of weapons at the disposal of a major power is such that it would make any potential attacker think many times before launching a direct attack, or even a proxy attack. An important extension is that nations communicate their policy framework allowing them to cause an asymmetrical, disproportionate damage on the attacker, ensuring that it is almost impossible for the attacker to defend himself or launch a second attack. I am only providing a layman’s understanding of these important concepts, and there are many resources from which one could derive a better and stronger understanding.

When combined, these two constants form the basis of a “siege” or war-like mentality, at least in the minds of military planners. Options such as pre-emptive attack, and counter-attack dominate the minds. Various military scenarios are played out in computer simulation, laying out options and the abilities to deal with these options. The whole idea is how to put the enemy out of business for good. But then, such a conclusion is not inevitable. The enemy never goes away from the world ecosystem.

In the past, the U.S., the U.K., and France justified spying as legitimate activity as something which is crucial in a cold war mentality. It was necessary, no doubt about it. Spying was used both for good and bad outcomes, as we all know. Any student of political history which has transpired in the past seven decades would understand that not all decisions made by the so-called “good” nations were actually good for anyone, and not all decisions by the “bad” countries were actually bad, and vice versa. Nations have their reasons for taking decisions, but unfortunately the cost of those decisions were never fully understood at the time of making decisions, and we all know the repercussions.

In today’s world, the West is not unfortunately enjoying the good name it had in the past. Due to various misdeeds, and misguided decisions taken by the West, millions of people have been annihilated all around the world. This cannot be justified based on the principle that “good” outcomes trump the means to achieve them. Means are as important as the desired ends, and no sacrifice, intentional or otherwise, should be planned into decisions.

Russia is not guilt-free either – it has been the cause of millions of deaths in the past due to the power of the Soviet Union. Communist ideology failed to take off in the Soviet satellite countries, and even in Cuba. In a clear analysis, it is not impossible to conclude that the five Security Council Members have been the cause of the maximum number of war deaths in the world, post the Second World War. Most of these wars were unnecessary, as these were fought on ideological grounds.

So, now the West is against Russia due to multiple reasons, not the least of which being the chemical poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. While no proof has been offered, it is clear that the chemical was invented in Russia. What is not clear is how it made its way to the U.K. Diplomats have been ejected from many Western countries as a show of support to the U.K. Russia has countered by ejecting similar number of  Western diplomats last week.

So, who is going to gain? No one is going to benefit as a result of this tit-for-tat expulsions. The diplomatic situation is fast deteriorating, and it is not inconceivable that we will very soon see the advent of Cold War 2.0 with the world getting divided into two blocs. Of course, China will always be behind Russia, so there you have two veto-wielding Security Council Members fighting back against the West.

I also believe that the West is strongly against Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia (who just got re-elected for yet another 6 year term). It is a strong personal revulsion of the individual. They cannot trust him, and they want him to go away, hopefully to be replaced by a more pliant president that they can control in some way. Russia as a country is a big market, with a preference for Western products, and why would the West walk away from a market of 160M people? Further, Russia seems to be doing all right economically, though not great. It is all about one individual, who is intimately controlling Russia, and who has apparently no flexibility at all towards the West.

Now that Putin is re-elected, what would the West do? They will create disturbance in Russia, support the opposition candidates (like Alexei Navalny), and do a variety of things that Russia could not find and retaliate about. The West will continue to constantly irritate Putin on a number of factors on which they have better control. They will push Russia and China into a tighter bond. We do not know if Putin or his coterie is responsible for the chemical attack in Salisbury, probably we will never find out. Given that plausible scenario, it is surprising how the U.K. reacted and pushed forward with the formation of a “coalition” of like-minded Western countries to expel Russian diplomats. It is an unusual act by a country which cannot do much against a bigger superpower at its doorsteps, with or without NATO. Likewise, the U.S. chose to retaliate rather strongly against Russia, which was promptly returned in kind by Russia.

And, so on and so forth. It will never end. There is simply no dialogue happening, and I will not be surprised if the diplomatic relations are downgraded which will be a very serious setback to normal relations between world’s most important military powers.

No one knows where all this will end, but one thing is very clear. Vladimir Putin is an ex-spy and spymaster, and he is not about to give up his chess game easily. He has the tools, techniques, weapons, and the most important thing – nuclear deterrence.

Have a good weekend, and a great Easter break,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

31st March 2018

 

 

 

Falling Markets


We saw that the major equity markets around the world suffered steep losses during the week which just ended.

There are always multiple reasons why the equity investors fret at times and start a major selling operation of their holdings. Mostly it is sentiment, sometimes emotions, but almost always there is a reason or many reasons why the market sell-off happens.

In the current scenario, the negative sentiment is driven by multiple factors afflicting the U.S. economy, aggravated by bad government policies which appear to keep shifting all the time under the wise administration of President Trump. To start with, there has been a series of exits of experienced people from the administration – the latest being General McMaster who was the National Seecurity Advisor to the President. He has been replaced by the rather hawkish hothead – John Bolton, who is likely to plunge the U.S. into another back-breaking war, either with Iran or North Korea.

So, you have a combination of the following factors:

  • a huge deficit budget of USD 1.3T which has just been signed off by the President, necessary to keep the government running till end of September 2018, which has a massive allocation for the military (not all of that is necessary);
  • a possible credit squeeze, with the Federal Reserve planning to raise the interest rates at least twice if not more times during this calendar year;
  • a high dependency on China which buys most of the U.S. Treasury Bills;
  • a looming trade war primarily with China, with the President planning to impose tariffs worth USD 50/60B on imports from China, and the already planned retaliation by China;
  • a strong noose tightening around the President’s neck – the Russia investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller – Trump cannot fire Mueller as that would lead to unforeseen consequences, but he might still do it, plunging the U.S. into uncertainty;
  • more potential exits from the Trump administration – Jeff Sessions is one clear possibility;
  • sex scandals threatening Trump from a series of women – the courts are admitting the cases against the wishes of Trump and his lawyers;
  • the clear possibility that Kim Jong Un might refuse to enter into talks with the U.S. if John Bolton is involved; North Korea termed Bolton as a “scum” and a “blood sucker” in 2003/04 and is unlikely to talk to him if Trump deputes him or brings him along to threaten Kim Jong Un, which will very likely happen;
  • the Iran nuclear deal imbroglio; Trump might refuse to certify the continuance of the deal when it comes for his quarterly certification signature as required by the U.S. Congress, in which case Iran will be free to walk away from the deal, and that might lead to Bolton arguing his case to bomb all of Iran’s nuclear facilities;
  • the continuing loss of elections to the Democratic Party as just happened in Pennsylvania – the potential loss of both the House and the Senate majority, which is not likely, but appears possible now;
  • and, so on and so forth…………there are many such factors

So, the equity markets falling was expected by all and sundry. If I recollect, the U.S. market ran up by more than 6,500 points (DOW) in about 14 months from the time Trump took office, allowing him to tout the market gain as one of his signature achievements. Now out of this increase, 3,000 points are gone, and it is likely that the sell off will continue into next week.

A government that is so critical for world peace and stability cannot be tottering every day. One has to just see CNN News and the U.S. Talk Shows by major news organizations, to get the full import of what is going on in Washington D.C. The Trump administration has become a laughing stock, even within the U.S.

The only silver lining is that Trump is the first U.S. President who has succeeded in pushing North Korea to the negotiating table (mostly by harsh tweets from Trump!), though both Koreas claim that they decided to play the Olympic game together and cool off the rhetoric. The other achievement of Trump is that he is the first U.S. President to stand up to China without any fear of repercussions and challenge them to a trade war.

While these are great to see and hear about, we have to recognize that Trump has still not won any battle with either one of these countries. He could not even win the Border Wall case against Mexico, which refused to foot the bill. It is going to be very tough for the U.S. to negotiate when Trump has surrounded himself with foreign policy and military hawks such as Mike Pompeo (the new Secretary of State, yet to be confirmed by the Congress), John Bolton (the new National Security Advisor who does not need Congress confirmation), Gina Haspel (the new CIA Director nominee who needs to be confirmed by the Congress), and the perennial lady hawk Nikki Haley who is the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. A war is surely looming with such hot heads around the President, who himself is a strong hot head who will not take a slight from anyone, or advice from anyone. All the major departures have happened apparently due to the fact that the concerned person begged to differ from the views of the President.

So, here we are, with markets having fallen all around the world, including India’s SENSEX. We are entering an uncertain phase in world history and diplomatic relationships. Everything can come off unhinged. No relationship is going to remain sacred. Continuous drama at the White House is going to rock the markets on a daily basis. The markets can no longer afford to do their own business disconnected from political and economic realities.

So, we are all in for a rocky ride, folks.

Enjoy the ride however.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

24th March 2018