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Sister Nivedita on Spiritual India, Israel-Sudan Deal. Paris Beheading and US Elections 2020: New Age Islam's Selection, 28 October 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

28 October 2020

•  Sister Nivedita’s Call For A Spiritual India

By Pranav Khullar

• Flaws In US Electoral System

By Manoj Joshi

•  Paris Beheading: What Pakistan PM Needs to Understand About France

By Francesca Marino

• India Must Watch Out for Pakistan Army’s Response to Politics

By Vivek Katju

• Israel-Sudan Deal Seals Trump’s Middle East Legacy

By Daniel Moss

•  What Ails Arab Economies Is Older Than Covid-19

By Amr Adly

• Bricks Must Fall

By Ruchir Joshi

•  Can Americans Count On A Peaceful Transition Of Political Power?

By Sanjib Baruah


Sister Nivedita’s Call For A Spiritual India

By Pranav Khullar

October 28, 2020


Sister Nivedita


The lockdown led me back to some childhood classics like ‘Cradle Tales of Hinduism’, and the story of the Buddha in ‘Footfalls of Indian History’. Abstruse philosophical readings of later times could not erase the charming storytelling ability of these two companion publications, written by one whose love and dedication to the cause of India’s resurgence have become legendary.

Swami Vivekananda called her Nivedita, ‘the dedicated one’. Transformed by the clarion call of Vivekananda, Elizabeth Margaret Noble left home and hearth to plunge into the task set out by her preceptor, to immerse herself completely in Indian spiritual renaissance.

Rabindranth Tagore was to call her Lokmata, ‘mother of the people’. Sri Aurobindo described her as Agnishikha, ‘flame of fire’.  Vivekananda would say she was “a real lioness”. Nivedita loved her adopted motherland where she led a simple and austere life in the tradition of her teacher.

The spiritual trigger provided by Vivekananda propelled Nivedita to nationalist and cultural causes as well. She would say, “I will look to India; India may look to the West if she wishes … my task is to awaken the nation.” She inspired Abanindranath Tagore to revive the Indianness of Indian art. She helped Jagdish Bose not only with her generous sponsorship but was willing to be an editorial apprentice for his scientific research. Nivedita encouraged Subramania Bharati’s vision in his fight for women’s rights and against casteism. Bharati would say that in the presence of Sister Nivedita, he felt a tremendous power, a powerful shakti.

Her work among the poorest and the most destitute in Kolkata, makes her an early forerunner of Mother Teresa. During the 1899 plague in Kolkata, her work was inspired by her master’s spiritual vision of ‘Daridra Narayana’, that God is to be found amongst the poor and the infirm, that service takes one to Self. She initiated relief work and organised relief camps by sweeping streets and cleaning drains. Thousands came out on the streets to help her in recognition of the ideals of service and sacrifice, which Nivedita embodied.

It was this tremendous willpower and strength that saw her go door-to-door to enlist girls for her school in Kolkata in the same period, in an effort to break down prejudices about girls’ education. Her involvement and concern ensured her being accepted as member of all the families she touched with her concern and kindness. Despite lack of funds and extreme privation, she kept the girls’ school going and became known as the Sister of Kolkota. Her spirit of service saw her wade through muddy waters to help people in villages during the 1905 Bengal floods.

Nivedita’s love for everything Indian was eloquently demonstrated in her serving of tea to Lady Minto who was on a visit to the Dakshineshwar temple. Swami Tathagatananda records that everything was swadeshi – biscuits, tea, sugar, cups and saucers, even.

Jagdish Chandra Bose got the image of a woman stepping forward, lamp in hand, installed at his Centre, in Nivedita’s memory. But nowhere is Sister Nivedita’s life more poignantly summed up, than in her epitaph in Darjeeling that says, “Here repose the ashes of Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”.


Flaws In US Electoral System

By Manoj Joshi

Oct 27, 2020


WHATEVER IT TAKES: A militant minority is ready to do anything to protect its privileges. Therein lies the danger to the US, and by extension to democracies around the world.


Exactly a week from today, on November 3, the US will have its presidential elections. These will, perhaps, be one of the most consequential elections the country has ever had. American democracy itself is at stake. Trump may have his die-hard supporters, but any objective assessment of his presidency would be that he has brought the US to a tipping point.

Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 lost the popular vote, but won the vote of an electoral college.

Trump has undermined the integrity of the electoral process by making false claims of electoral fraud, his supporters have sought to derail the mail-in voting process, and the President himself has suggested that he may not accept the verdict of the election. He has earned the fanatical support of a minority of mainly white Americans, but in sufficient numbers to place a political stranglehold on his Republican Party which has stood by as he has undermined the institutions of governance and subverted the Supreme Court.

There are concerns over armed right-wing militias mobilising if things don’t go their way on election day. It has come to such a pass that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, has had to rule out military involvement in any election dispute. Even now, we are not sure how the election will play out. Given Trump’s record of lawless behaviour, anything is possible.

There are many factors responsible for this situation. In part, it is the outcome of globalisation that took the jobs of many US communities. Then, automation made many jobs obsolete. Successive governments did little to deal with these issues, leaving angry disaffected people who are attracted to Trump’s populism and white nationalism.

This has been compounded by the archaic US election system. Two centuries ago, the US adopted a system where the person with the largest number of votes does not necessarily win. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 lost the popular vote, but won the vote of an electoral college.

So, next Tuesday, even if Biden wins the popular vote, he may lose the presidency, unless his margin of popular vote is bigger than 6 to 7 per cent. This rule of the minority translates itself in other institutions like the Senate and the Supreme Court.

The Senate, where each state gets the same number of Senators, was aimed at providing a sense of equality for the entire country. But in the two centuries since it was created, the demography of the country has completely changed. So, California with a population of 40 million is represented by two senators, as is Kansas with a population of 3 million, or Oklahoma with 4 million. And it is this skewed Senate which confirms nominees to the Supreme Court.

America’s problems go back to its very founding. At the root lies a constitution which was designed to serve a sprawling agricultural country peopled by white people, many of who had black slaves. The US is a nation of immigrants and just about 10 years separate the arrival of the first whites and the first blacks in the early 17th century. The only difference being that while the former came willingly, the latter did so otherwise.

Cut to the founding of the US and its constitution in the late 18th century. The document does not mention ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ at all, even though more than a quarter of the population at that time were black Americans, most of them held in slavery. Many states were admitted into the union, with three-fifths of their slaves being counted for their representation and taxation.

The sorry story of discrimination against black Americans comes down to this day. Wherever it can, the Republicans gerrymander electoral districts to keep out black districts. They purge voter rolls based on flimsy pretexts to exclude poorer people, especially blacks.

It’s hard to believe, but a poor Indian peasant got the right to vote in 1950, before the black man did in the US in 1964.

There is an interesting coincidence in the voter behaviour in India and the US. In both countries, it would seem, elites—whites in the US and upper castes in India—have fretted about the prospect of having a real democracy where the majority rules. Barack Obama’s election triggered the upsurge of white nationalism in the US, where there is a belief that traditional American values are under threat which may even necessitate people taking law into their hands to protect themselves.

What emerges from all this is the deep fissures in the US polity where the ideological divide between the Republicans and Democrats makes bipartisan cooperation on issues of national importance difficult. The most recent example of this is on the issue of working out a public health and financial response to the Covid pandemic.

A minority of whites can delay the process, but the US will become the multi-ethnic democracy it is on track to be, sooner, rather than later. This was evident from the protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis which set off what may have been the biggest wave of protests in US history. But the process does not look to be an easy one. A militant minority, with a sense of entitlement, is ready to do virtually anything to protect its privileges. Therein lies the danger to the US, and by extension to democracies around the world.


Paris Beheading: What Pakistan PM Needs to Understand About France

By Francesca Marino

28 Oct 2020

Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has done it again, projecting himself (via Twitter) as a ‘protector of the faith’ and ‘champion of the Muslim world’: “This is a time when Pres Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation and marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation.”

“It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists. Sadly, President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens, through encouraging the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam & our Prophet PBUH.”

“By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe & across the world. The last thing the world wants or needs is further polarisation. Public statements based on ignorance will create more hate, Islamophobia & space for extremists.”

A few hours later, Turkish President Erdogan followed, saying during a speech: “What problem does this person called Macron have with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” And, back in Pakistan, simultaneously, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder and president of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, was calling for ‘jihad’ against France on social media: “France is challenging you. Declare jihad” – he was heard saying.

They are proposing, most likely, an ‘alternative model of inclusive, democratic and civilised society’. A society where, according to Pakistan’s human rights groups, in the month of August, the police registered at least 40 blasphemy cases.

Where most of these cases have been registered against Shia Muslims, and where in September, a Lahore court sentenced to death a Christian man with charges of blasphemy, while in July, another man on trial for blasphemy was shot dead in Peshawar in the same courtroom where the trial was going on.

Imran Khan wrote to Facebook, in fact, just to accuse other countries of ‘Islamophobia’ and to ask for a ban on contents that were deemed 'offensive' against Muslims. But the others are not allowed to take offence for being regularly insulted (or killed) by his country fellows, apparently.

This campaign started less than a month ago, when the burning of French flags, calls for jihad and hate speeches in Pakistan, ‘endorsed’ by Imran Khan and his Foreign Minister Shah Maqmood Qureshi, seemingly ‘resulted’ in the the stabbing of two journalists in front of the former office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. After that, another Islamist beheaded a school teacher, Samuel Paty, who showed Charlie Hebdo's cartoons to his students.

Days later, in Montpellier, the cartoons appeared, as a mark of protest against the acts of stabbing and beheading, on government buildings. And President Macron announced tougher laws to tackle what he called ‘Islamist separatism’, to defend the secular values of the country.

While a French Muslim called Karim Akouche wrote: “Stop calling me brother” in an ‘Open letter to Allah's soldier’ to defend the values of the country where he was born, many people reacted saying, “Charlie Hebdo offended and provoked Muslims – and so does Macron”. In their opinion, apparently, stabbing and killing is just an ‘unfortunate buyout’ and an ‘obvious consequence’ – ‘stop doing it, give them what they want and everything will be all right.’

What they don't get is that France is a secular country; Europe is a secular entity. An entity where people fought not to include the 'Christian roots' of Europe in any declaration. Where 'secular' means that for the State there are no Christians, Muslims, Jews or Buddhists or whatever else, but only citizens. And those citizens are expected to abide by the Constitution and the law – and where they are bound by the same rules.

If you are asking for special treatment because of your religion, you have got it totally wrong. “My dear countrymen, the battle for the Republic is, in this moment, the battle for secularism” – this is how the Macron addressed the country at the beginning of September, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Third French Republic.

On the same occasion, Macron made many references to the Charlie Hebdo trial, that had just started, and to the values of the republic, the values inherited from the French Revolution, the values that should and must be shared by any citizen of the country, or any guest.

The battle for secularism, the battle for the values shared by all of Europe, the values of the French Revolution, the values shared practically by all the European countries are NOT negotiable. Europe guarantees and protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech and non-discrimination on religious or racial base.

If you don’t like a cartoon or a movie, simply don’t buy it or watch it. There have been battles in the past, both in France and in Italy, against movies and satirical cartoons targeting the Catholic Church – thousands of cartoons are out there depicting the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ in ‘blasphemous’ ways.

What Imran Khan, Erdogan, Rizvi don't get is that Europeans may may not agree with the low-grade, gross humour of Charlie Hebdo, but they will do everything to protect their freedom of expression and their secular, democratic institutions.


India Must Watch Out for Pakistan Army’s Response to Politics

By Vivek Katju

27 Oct 2020

Events are in the saddle in Pakistan. The opposition is fiercely attacking the ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan. More significantly, it also targeting his patrons, the generals, for interfering in politics.

India has to be wary lest the generals, under pressure, seek to turn the attention of the people towards the permanent enemy, India. The temptation will be substantial for the people are weary of Khan’s misgovernance which has led to food inflation.

Nawaz Sharif has continued his pointed and sharp attack on army chief General Qamar Bajwa and the director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed. On Sunday evening at a People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) rally in Quetta, Sharif once again accused them of interfering in Pakistani politics.

Significantly, the country’s leading and respected newspaper Dawn reported Sharif’s specific charges against the two officers. Earlier, the Pakistani print media had carried only general accounts of Sharif’s and other PDM leaders’ accusations against the army while giving detailed accounts of what they said against Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Indeed, the electronic media has refrained from telecasting Sharif’s charges against the generals and the army. It had, though, extensively reported on the formation of the PDM on 20 September. The Movement’s impressive rallies in Gujranwala on 16 October, in Karachi three days later, and on 25 October in Quetta were extensively reported.

Dawn reported Sharif as saying “General Bajwa, you will have to answer for record rigging in 2018 elections, for horse-trading in Parliament, for making Imran Niazi against peoples wishes [by] tearing apart the constitution and the laws, for pushing people towards poverty and hunger”.

He also accused the ISI chief of “interfering in politics for several years with Impunity” and thereby of violating his oath. Such strong, in fact, incendiary words have never been publicly used during civilian rule against an army chief and the head of the ISI or reported in the main-steam media against holders of these two offices.

Sharif justified his naming of Bajwa and Hameed “because he did not want the army to be defamed”. This attempt at making a fine distinction between the army as an institution and the officers who lead it is not completely tenable. This is because Sharif’s daughter and political heir Maryam Nawaz Safdar and Sharif himself raised the sensitive issue of missing persons in Balochistan.

The army’s brutal practice of picking up Baloch men of all ages, particularly the young, who raise their voice against the exploitation of the province and the denial of human rights continues unabated. Thus, the very reference to missing persons was a direct attack on the army.

Certainly, Sharif by taking on the army chief and the director-general of the ISI is signalling that the Movement’s purpose is to erode, if not end, the role of the army in Pakistan’s politics. Sharif has called the army as a “state above the state”. This is true for the army considers itself as the guardian not only of Pakistan’s territory but also its ideology. It does not really allow elected leaders to have the final word in the country’s security and foreign policies. It also intervenes in other areas of governance whenever and wherever it considers appropriate.

The present confrontation has arisen because a major section of the political class is demanding, for the time being at least, that the army confines itself to its constitutional and legal roles. This is unprecedented in Pakistani politics where political leaders have accepted a subordinate status to that of the army.

That the army is unhappy with these developments is clear. Before the PDM was formed the generals had urged the opposition parties not to drag them in their political disputes against Imran Khan. This could hardly be so for there is no doubt that the army had wanted Khan to succeed in the 2018 elections and had helped him from behind the scenes. Hence, the opposition charge that he is a ‘selected’ prime minister is not without foundation.

Imran Khan claims that the two main opposition parties and nine other parties that constitute the PDM have come together because their leaders want to pressure him to give up his campaign to end corruption.

There is no doubt that the corruption of the Zardari-Bhuttos led Pakistan Peoples Party and of Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League (N) has been substantial. The opposition is unhappy with Imran Khan in targeting it on corruption charges. But this is not the only reason why the PDM was launched.

Imran Khan has taken on Nawaz Sharif. He has accused him of playing into the hands of Pakistan’s enemies. He has of course specifically named India in this context but has latterly also referred to Israel as benefitting from Sharif’s actions. The army has remained largely quiet till now letting Khan take the lead in combatting the PDM.

There are suspicions, though, that the army, or a section of it, has signalled its intent through the action taken against Maryam Nawaz’s husband Captain Safdar in Karachi after the rally. The hotel room Safdar and Maryam were staying in Karachi was broken into by the Sindh police and other security forces at night and Safdar was taken into custody on the charge of illegal actions at Jinnah’s mazar in Karachi.

While the intrusion of a lady’s privacy was deeply offensive, the real story was the virtual abduction of the head of the Sindh police at night from his residence by the federal forces. He was taken to an office and put under pressure to sign orders for Safdar’s arrest. Naturally, the incident has caused a furore and Bajwa was forced to order an enquiry.

Sooner rather than later the army is bound to act. It would not like to take on power directly. It may also not find it easy to abandon Imran Khan at least early on. It is aware of the public mood though which is negative because of economic difficulties. It was no easy choices. But it cannot accept these continuing attacks on the prestige and standing of its chief even though his acceptance of a full extension caused some rumblings within.

Notwithstanding all his brave words Imran Khan is aware of uncertainties for he admitted in a TV interview some days ago that he is hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. For him this would be the loss of government and fresh elections.


Israel-Sudan Deal Seals Trump’s Middle East Legacy

By Daniel Moss

27 October, 2020

Donald Trump’s Middle East diplomacy began life with implausible grandiosity. He announced his intention not only to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but also to resolve the century-long conflict between the Jews and the Arabs.

Foreign policy experts scoffed. Better men than Trump had tried and failed to resolve the issue for the better part of a century.

To everyone’s amazement, the Trump formula — transactional, nonjudgmental and businesslike — rendered a series of peacemaking successes. The latest is a normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan. It is not a final destination, but it is an important station on the peace train.

Trump broke the news last Friday in a televised three-way conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the president of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Trump was typically exuberant. He announced that five more Arab countries were in line to join, mentioning Saudi Arabia specifically. He predicted that there would eventually be a family reunion of all Abraham’s descendants on the lawn of the White House.

In that unlikely event, Trump won’t be around to host the ceremony. It is very possible that he won’t even be in office after Jan. 20. But win or lose, he has changed the Middle East by re-establishing American economic and diplomatic credibility. That was the main factor in the peace agreements the U.S. brokered between Israel and two Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and they, in turn, encouraged Sudan to get on board.

Sudan is important to Israel because it is the third-largest Arab state. It is a former ally of the Iranian state. It gives Israel strategic depth along the coast of the Red Sea. And it has great symbolic value — consider the Arab League’s famous “three no’s declaration” made in Khartoum in 1967: No recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel, no peace with Israel.

Netanyahu declared general enthusiasm from “most people in the world for the new rapprochement.” Not everyone is happy, though. The Jewish Democratic Council of America, an adjunct of the Democratic Party, labeled the Sudan deal “an Israel quid pro quo driven by Trump’s short-term political interests rather than the long-term safety and security of the United States and its allies, including Israel.”

I get the partisanship, but it is hard to see what electoral benefit Trump derives from this deal. Recent polling shows Joe Biden leading Trump by a margin of around 3 to 1 among Jewish Americans. If recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem didn’t win the hearts and votes of the Jewish community, it is hard to see how brokering a deal with Khartoum is going to do the trick.

Iran had the most astute reading of the deal. It accused Sudan of selling out the Palestinians in return for being taken off the U.S. list of terrorist nations and the promise of massive financial aid from America and the Gulf states.

This is both true and unremarkable. Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed of the Arab countries. It desperately needs cash and investments to stay afloat. Israel has already announced that it is sending a shipment of wheat to “our new friends.” Much greater aid will come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Sudan, like most Arab states, has a terrible human-rights record, though that concerns neither Trump nor Netanyahu. The American president made his hands-off policy clear in his address to the Islamic meeting Saudi Arabia convened in May 2017. Bibi’s only concern is that opposition forces in Sudan might try to destroy normalization as they did in Lebanon in 1983.

Israel’s Gulf Arab allies see Israel as influential in Washington, as well as a useful economic partner. Joint business ventures are already underway. Other Arab countries will have other motives for making peace. But the overarching impetus comes from the recognition that the U.S. is the strong horse in the region, something that was not true during the Barack Obama administration.

Clearly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and most of the other Sunni states are rooting for a Trump re-election. Netanyahu would also like to see four more years, but he isn’t saying so publicly. In their televised phone conversation, when the president fished for an endorsement (“Bibi, do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal?”), Netanyahu ducked the question and said he appreciated the help of every American working for peace.

If there is change in Washington, Netanyahu will seek to convince the new president that the old certainties of the Obama years did not work and, in any case, no longer apply. His message to Biden will be that the peace train is real and moving in the right direction. Rather than dismiss it because it was started by Trump, Biden should get on board and declare himself engineer in chief. -Bloomberg


What Ails Arab Economies Is Older Than Covid-19

By Amr Adly

27 October, 2020

The International Monetary is predicting the economies in the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa will contract by 5.4% in 2020-21 due to the covid-19 pandemic and the collapse in international oil prices. (I’ve left out Lebanon and Libya, because they face exceptional circumstances.) This means the Arab MENA region, despite being among the least affected by the pandemic in terms of confirmed cases and deaths, will suffer disproportionate economic pain.

The IMF’s economic outlook for the world shows that economic contraction has been proportionate to the public-health crisis caused by the pandemic in most regions — North America, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia. The U.S. economy is to contract by 4.3%, the Euro zone, Latin America and India by 8.3%, 8.1% and 10.3%, respectively. Conversely, China is expected to grow by 1.9%, which reflects Beijing’s effective containment of early outbreaks.

Now look at Arab MENA region, excluding Israel and Iran. On the public-health front, the Arab nations have done relatively well when compared to many other parts of the world. This is borne out by the data for Covid-19 deaths per million people in the period between December 2019 and October 2020. The ratios for the U.S., European Union and South American were 673.80, 360.45 and 661.29, respectively. The average for the Arab world was 79.46 per million. For the most populated Arab nations — Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia — the average was even lower, at 62.21 per million.

Even if there is some underreporting in the figures for these countries, they should be comparable to the other parts of the world with similar income levels and relatively limited state capacities to collect, process and report data.

Nobody knows for sure why some world regions are worse-hit than others. However, the situation in the Arab MENA becomes more inexplicable still when you consider that some of its most populated countries — like Egypt — never had full lockdowns for extended periods. This should have mitigated the economic impact of the pandemic, but did not. How can this be explained?

The global pandemic has exacerbated the region’s already troubled mode of insertion into the world economy. Three factors come to the fore: the heavy and persistent dependence on oil and natural-gas exports as the most defining feature of the Arab nations’ place in the global division of labor; the over-reliance on Europe and the U.S. as the main trade and investment partners; and the low levels of trade integration within the region itself. These longstanding structural weaknesses have magnified the economic impact of the covid-19 crisis.

It is hard to say that this is exceptional to the Arab world, as the same pattern seems to apply to sub-Saharan Africa, albeit to a lesser extent. Both regions are major raw material exporters to more developed parts of the global economy in North America, Europe and Asia.

The Arab MENA has the highest ratio of merchandize trade to GDP in the global south, but the trade is dominated by oil and gas as exports and heavy imports of basically everything else. In 2019, the MENA ratio was 63.7%, compared to 41.3%, 40.6% and 28.9% for Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, respectively. Even if the high-income MENA countries, that are all oil-exporting small nations, are excluded, the ratio of merchandize trade to GDP would still be around 57%.

In 2013, before the collapse of the international oil prices, fuel exports constituted 71% of total merchandize exports for the Arab MENA region. Even when excluding the high-income oil exporting small nations, the share of fuel exports was 67%. The decline in the share of fuel imports after 2014 did not indicate better diversification: In fact, total merchandize exports shrank dramatically.

In addition, the fact that the EU and the U.S are the main trade and investment partners of the Arab world has amplified the impact of the health crisis in those areas on the economic performance of the MENA region. The region has by far the lowest percentage of merchandize exports to low- and middle-income countries, compared with any other region in the global south.

The low level of intra-regional integration in trade has denied the MENA countries the chance to make use of the relatively better public-health situation in the neighborhood by exploiting a potentially huge market in terms of population and purchasing power.


Bricks Must Fall

By Ruchir Joshi


When I went to the United States of America in 1979, to study in an undergraduate college in Vermont, I carried certain ideas and assumptions about the country. As a 19-year-old with reasonable reading in current affairs, I thought I had a balanced view of the US and its role in the world. I understood that American foreign policy since the Second World War had wreaked hell on many parts of the planet and added grotesque misery to the lives of millions of people. Yet, along with the strife and bloodshed, America had also exported some hugely positive ideas and attitudes. In the civil rights movement, in the widespread protests against the Vietnam War, in Nixon being forced to resign from the presidency by courageous reporting and federal agencies working with real independence to investigate their own president, the country had demonstrated that democracy and freedom of speech were not just theories to which one paid lip-service but principles that American civil society put into action. Coming out of a newly post-Emergency India, watching what was going on in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, not to mention Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and Deng’s China, what America and Western Europe offered was crucial to struggles for political freedom and equality all over the world. 

Along with the outspoken democracy were the host of things that today would come under the label of ‘soft power’: most important was the gift of jazz, blues and rock and roll that the States gave to the world; next for me came the fearless churning in my own chosen field of visual arts, where every few years some crazy new upheaval would challenge the set of practices that had gone before; then there was the sexual revolution, which I was yet to understand as actually being three connected revolutions, but which, in conservative, fear-ridden India, seemed like a magical thing — the idea that you could be completely open about your desires without worrying about parents, police, the State or any other moralizing big brother or sister.

The America I ‘knew’ was, of course, the country as depicted in the news magazines, Time, Life and Newsweek, in the films, the music and the literature. A proper examination of the last three, at least, should have prepared me for the reality, but I made the elementary mistake of seeing the sophistication of the rendering far more than the things being rendered. Thus, I was waylaid by the spare and humorous aesthetics of rows of tomato cans screen-printed on a canvas, the panache and beauty of the camera movement and editing in the Hollywood and independent films, the hilarious lyrics and punchy musicianship of a song like Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” rather than the reality of a man who ‘puts his cigar/ out in your face just for kicks/ his bedroom window/ it is made out of bricks/ (while) the National Guard stands around his door’.

Once in Vermont, it took some time to understand that I was in one of the most free (as in non-mainstream) and yet one of the most conservative areas of the US. There and travelling up and down the east coast, moving between New York and Boston — two of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world — and small-town New Jersey and Virginia, it finally got driven home just how parochial and ignorant many Americans could be.

Shortly after I got to Vermont, the hostage crisis in Iran began to take over the headlines. As news of Americans being held hostage in Tehran spread in the general consciousness, my first semester ended and I found myself spending part of my holidays in Washington, DC. Once, sitting with two American friends in a bar, some off-duty Marines at the next table began to stare at me. One of them leaned over and asked my friend something. Upon receiving the answer the muscular group of soldiers visibly relaxed and began to lift their glasses in our direction — “Indiaa! Awright!”. My friend told us that they wanted to know if I was “Airanian”, in which case they would have put me in hospital. On other occasions I tried asking people if they even knew where Iran was on a map and I realized they had no clue — their windows to the world were, indeed, made out of bricks.

The America in which I lived between 1979 and 1981 dumped the ‘softie’ Jimmy Carter and elected an incompetent, B-grade actor called Ronald Reagan in his place. A precursor to Donald Trump and so many other ‘strongmen’ leaders of today, Reagan too specialized in performing the vesh of a leader rather than actually being one. It is his policies (or policies made using him as a vehicle) of favouring the already wealthy, the morally reactionary and enemies of the environment that have trickled down to the current times and turned into a toxic torrent worldwide. Yet, those same years of the late 70s and early 80s also saw the sharpening of the American feminist and gay rights movements, inspiring and linking up with similar movements across the world. That was the same period when the awareness of concepts such as ‘ecology’ and the ‘environment’ moved out of marginal campuses such as my college into the mainstream.

History repeatedly teaches us not to take improvements of the human condition for granted. It also teaches us that you cannot locate the growth of freedom and social justice in any one place, that emancipation and equality require shifting cultivation around the globe, new or refreshed fields from which the impetus can be distributed. Today, when I read columns in Indian media that insist on seeing the forthcoming US elections only through the lens of what the results would mean for India vis-a-vis China or some other narrow economic focus, I find myself in vehement disagreement. It is critical for the well-being of this small planet of ours that Donald Trump, his coterie  of ethics-free Republican politicians be emphatically ejected from power by the American voters. Four more years of this man and the people who’ve been deliberately blind to his actions would be akin to an unchecked continuation of a raging wildfire that’s devouring the already denuded forests of humanity across the globe. Whether you believe in some higher power or are a firm rationalist, it’s time to pray that enough bricks have fallen out of walled-up American windows that not too long after November 3 we will see the back of this odious man.


Can Americans Count On A Peaceful Transition Of Political Power?

By Sanjib Baruah

October 28, 2020

There was a time when the United States was regarded as one of the world’s most stable democracies. It has one of the world’s oldest modern constitutions, which was drafted in 1787, ratified in 1788, and has been in effect since 1789. This political order has survived numerous challenges, including a four-year long Civil War (1861-1865) when the 11 slave-owning southern states broke away to form the confederacy. However, this challenge to the Constitution serves as a reminder that this economically and politically powerful democracy has not always been a liberal one. The US, as political theorist Judith Shklar liked to point out, “was not a liberal state until after the Civil War”, and even then, for a long period “often in name only”.

The peaceful transition of political power is only a bare minimum threshold for a stable democracy. Yet, whether this would happen in the US after this election is today in doubt to a degree that is unprecedented in living memory. In some of the most influential quarters of American life, there is great concern about the prospects of an orderly presidential transition. The New York Times has even published the “nightmare scenarios” of seven election experts — their fears about the worst thing that could happen with the elections — and possible measures to prevent it.

When Donald Trump won his unlikely election victory four years ago, the talk was of a populist challenge to liberal democracy. Concerns about the rise of populist demagogic politics in various parts of the world were then based on parallels with the politics of Europe in the 1930s, which seemed overblown to many.

But the fears about the possibility of a peaceful presidential transition point towards a crisis of liberal democracy that has uniquely American characteristics. The efforts by Trump and his allies to undermine the integrity of the election system — through often-repeated but unsubstantiated concerns about voter fraud and misinformation about the credibility of postal ballots — creates conditions for Trump’s supporters to reject the election results. In addition, the talk of voter fraud provides cover to controversial local-level decisions on polling locations and postal ballot requirements that could lower voter turnout among groups that disproportionately support Democrats.

Postal ballots will most likely account for more than half the votes in the coming elections. But since Trump has successfully politicised the COVID-19 precaution protocols, many more Biden supporters will vote by post than Trump supporters. As a result, the results available on the night of the elections on November 3 — based on the counting of only in-person ballots — are likely to be substantially different from the final count. All this could lead to significant uncertainty, legal battles, public protests and mayhem, plunging the country into a post-election crisis.

This threat became menacing when the moderator of the first presidential debate asked Trump if he would encourage his supporters to stay calm during what could be an extended ballot counting period. Trump said in response that he would urge his “supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully”, which could easily be interpreted as a call for voter intimidation.

Trump’s war on the democratic process has had a significant impact on the present election cycle. Consider former President Barack Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic national convention. The symbolism of the visual setting he chose for his recorded video speech is quite telling. He spoke standing in front of a display about the drafting of the US Constitution outside the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, the city where the US Constitution was drafted and signed.

It was anything but a conventional party convention speech, trying to rally loyalists behind the party’s candidates. Quite astonishingly, Obama appealed to Democrats to get behind Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in order to defend democracy. He had hoped that Trump might “discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did”. Pointing to a few standard democratic principles that are usually noncontroversial, Obama said, “this president and those who enable him, have shown they don’t believe in these things”. Biden and Harris should be supported because they believe that the right to vote is sacred in a democracy and that “we should be making it easier for people to cast their ballots, not harder”. Unlike Trump, they believe that “no one, including the president, is above the law”, they don’t think their political opponents are “un-American”; or that the free press is the “enemy”. And then came Obama’s clincher: “That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all

What makes American democracy particularly vulnerable to the Trump challenge is the peculiar way in which it elects its president. Presidential elections are determined not by the national popular vote, but by the votes of individual states reflected in the Electoral College. Donald Trump became president in 2016 even though nationally Hillary Clinton won 2.9 million more votes than him (2.1 per cent of the total votes). But Trump won 304 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227.

The Electoral College gives states with small populations such as Vermont, Alaska, Montana and Wyoming a disproportionate voice in choosing the president. They enjoy the same advantage in the Senate, the country’s most powerful legislative body: Wyoming (population: 0.6 million) and California (population: 39.5 million) both have two Senators.

The Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar, author of the new book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College, tells us that historically the institution can only be understood as a legacy of “slavery and white supremacy”. There have been more amendments proposed to change the Electoral College than on any other subject. But the US Constitution is notoriously difficult to amend; there have been only 17 constitutional amendments in the last 230 years. For most of its history, says Keyssar, the efforts to reform or abolish the Electoral College have been stymied “by Southern politicians in the interest of maintaining white supremacy”.



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