Murari Sharma: Nepal in Indian Elections

India, the largest democracy in the world, has been conducting its general elections, stretched over a month. Almost 900 million people will cast their ballot, deemed as the referendum over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-year-rule. The election result might have serious implications not only for India but also for Nepal.

Although some call Modi as a divisive figure, I call him controversial, simply for the fact that party leaders are meant to be divisive in two-party and multiparty democracies. They represent one section or one ideology and endeavor to win the people on their side through their election manifestos and charisma.

More aptly, Modi is controversial personally and politically. Personally, he is married but does not live with his wife. He is robust to the point of being authoritarian. Politically, he has been tied to the massacre of Muslims when he was chief minister of Gujarat, open-armed welcome of Western capitalism, pro-Hindutva agenda, high unemployment rate, high-octane rhetoric against Pakistan, and demonetization of higher denomination of currency notes.

This election is more consequential than many in the past in India for political, economic, cultural and foreign policy reasons. Politically, if I am not mistaken, Modi is the second Bharatiya Janata Party leader who has become prime minister on the strength of his party’s majority in parliament. Before him, only A. B. Bajpayi had held the high post at the head of a coalition government. This election, if Modi wins, will establish BJP as the alternate to the Congress Party that has ruled India most of the time since its independence from Britain in 1947.

This election will have a gargantuan impact on Indian bureaucracy, the so-called permanent government, if Modi wins it. So far, even under the Modi government, the Indian bureaucracy has functioned as a bastion of the Congress Party.  The repeat election of Modi’s party to power will shock the bureaucracy into making necessary adjustments to function an a-political mechanism.

Although Modi has made generous promises to farmers, who constitute about 60 percent of the Indian electorate, his focus, once elected, will continue to modernize India by infusing Western capital and technology, which is likely to give not only impressive growth but also augmented divide between the affluent and the indigent. Even though Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi, Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh have received credit for liberalizing the Indian economy, Modi has been more vocal and perhaps more dynamic in this realm than them.

Culturally, Modi has been the most vocal supporter of Hindutva, more than his BJP predecessor A. B. Bajpayee. While he himself has shown the alacrity for pilgrimage, he has enforced the laws regarding the protection of cows and Hindu religious shrines than his predecessors. These measures will be more strident in the future if Modi gets the second go in his office with a comfortable majority.

In terms of foreign policy, Modi has brought to bear a blend of strong-armed and soft-rhetoric approach. While he has been largely amiable to Donald Trump, the US president, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, his approach to other countries has been rhetorically friendly and action-wise tough.

For instance, he imposed undeclared economic embargo when the Nepali leaders refused to accommodate his demand on behalf of Nepal’s Terai-based parties. Similarly, when terrorist killed several Indian army personnel in Kashmir, he ordered a limited air assault of Pakistan. He has been actively cooperating with Washington to keep China in its place in East and Southeast Asia. If Modi wins this election for his party, his foreign policy likely to be more robust with smaller countries.

And it will have far-reaching consequences for Nepal in different fronts. Politically, Modi may try to reinstate monarchy  in Nepal and cut the communists down to size. Well, several astrologers and fortune tellers have been making such predictions more by reading the South Asian political climate than the crystal ball. Modi is also more likely to reach out to Nepal’s Province 2 and prevent Nepal from going closer to China in his second term than he did in his first term, and its impact could be more destabilizing than it has been thought so far.

Therefore, the current Indian general election is almost as important to Nepal as it is to India. While predictions vary from a clear majority for Modi’s party to an outright victory for the Congress Party, it is impossible to predict how the 900 million people are going to vote. But I will be surprised if Modi cannot retain his current post either as head of his majority party or of his coalition group, which means that Nepal, as much as India, will have to brace up for five more years of Modi rule. 



Murari Sharma: Rising Bigotry is Worrying

An Australian citizen, living in New Zealand, massacred 50 people in two mosques of Christchurch. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rose to the occasion, seldom equaled by other leaders. While bigotry has fortunately been going down in several countries, it has been rising in a number of Western and Islamic countries. That is deeply worrying.

Hate crimes have increased in the United States, United Kingdom, the European continent, Australia and have now reached New Zealand. For instance, in the United States, religion-based hate crimes have shot up by 23 percent and anti-Jewish crimes by 37 percent after 2016, under President Donald Trump.   

In England and Wales, the United Kingdom, hate crimes have edged up by 17 percent after the British referendum over leaving the European Union in 2016. In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, they have skyrocketed by more than 500 percent.  Prime Minister Teresa May, who introduced the policy of hostile environment when she was home secretary, and her Tory Brexiteer, who support Brexit with a dose of xenophobia, have fueled the fire of racism. 

Elsewhere in Europe, Mary Le Pen of France has obtained national prominence riding the tiger of racism and xenophobia. Leaders in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic have also hidden their authoritarian impulse behind xenophobia. 

For some time, Australia has been notorious for its intolerance towards migrants and minorities, including asylum seekers. Disgusted by the racist rhetoric of a senator, even a White teenager broke an egg on his head, in front of cameras. 

But Ardern has proved herself a different brand of leaders, in sharp contrast to other Western counterparts that have presided over similar massacres.  Quickly and forcefully, she denounced the slaughter in Christchurch, demonstrated solidarity with the victims and banned the military-grade sub-automatic guns, something the United States should have long done to stop the recurrent gun crimes across the land.

When Trump asked Ardern what he could do to support her, she said he should send sympathy and love to Muslim communities, in an apparent reference to his anti-Muslim policies. A polite but potent punch in Trump’s gut.

Although data are not available, anecdotal evidence suggests that religion-based bigotry has increased in Muslim countries as well. For example, the sizable non-Muslim population in Pakistan at the time of India’s partition in 1947 has dwindled into insignificance, in sharp contrast to the accelerated the rise in the Muslim population in India. In the Middle East, non-Muslims have fled their countries and taken refuge elsewhere. In many Islamic countries, laws officially sanction religion-based discrimination.

Evidently, there is a correlation between the rise of hate crimes and rise of the immigrant population through labor import and asylum in Western countries and through labor-import in Muslim countries. If a country needs additional human resources to keep its economy chugging along or provides refuge on humanitarian grounds, it also must offer equal rights and equal treatment of minorities.   

Not all complaints about hate crimes are created equal, however. For instance, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have existed in several Western countries but they have been qualitatively different in their origin and virility. In my understanding, which might be faulty, anti-Semitism has mostly come from jealousy whereas Islamophobia from intolerance. Besides, anti-Semitism has become more visible due to its conflation with the opposition to the policies of the Israeli government. 

Although we understand that not all Jews are rich or crooked, history and culture have created a tilted perception about them. For a reference, all you have to do is read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. But jealousy is not the same as intolerance, though both may manifest in discrimination. Necessary is a similar nuance between anti-Semitism, which is wrong, and opposition to Israeli government policies, which is legitimate in free societies. 

What has brought about this increased racism in both the Western and Muslim worlds? First and foremost, politics has become value-free. Gone are the days when different lofty political ideologies and worldviews rooted politics. Gaining and retaining power by hook or by crook has become the main objective of politics. If minority-bashing and xenophobia help, they are a fair game. Increased interaction between groups has also given the prejudiced people the opportunity to express their sentiments.   

Over the last few years, a number of bright spots for race and religion relations have also emerged. For instance, in Rwanda, as my friends tell me, the Hutus and Tutsis have put the age-old rancor and the recent genocide behind and moved on, logging unprecedented economic growth and social understanding. In Nepal and India, the old walls of prejudice have been crumbling as their governments have been embracing more inclusive policies to accommodate minorities in all aspects of politics and government.  

However, overall, the tide of bigotry has risen, which is deeply worrying. To reverse this tide, we need several Jacinda Arderns and no more Christchurch incidents. I am afraid that, if hate crimes continue to rise in Western countries that directly or indirectly control international politics and economy, even those nations where racism is on the wane could turn back. The impulse to turn back would be stronger in countries like Nepal where inclusiveness has only recently entered public conscience. 



Murari Sharma: Brexit Conundrum and Self-harm

British Prime Minister Teresa May has promised the second meaningful vote in the parliament on her Brexit deal, on 12 March 2019, after it was voted down by 230 votes earlier, a record. Unless she obtains significant concessions from the European Union to win a few more votes, she will likely lose this time as stunningly.

While the EU has shown no signs of budging, May has offered no clue yet about what she would do if her deal fails to win the majority in the house, again. This uncertainty and Brexit, in general, have taken a serious toll on British politics and economy.  

Before the 2016 referendum on its divorce from the EU, Britain had been doing well. Politicians had been spending more time on domestic affairs. The British economy had been galloping towards a full recovery from the Great Recession overall, though too much austerity had been inflicting debilitating pain on the poorest. 

However, resurgent populism in the governing Tory Party altered the situation. Populist Tory leaders, nostalgic about the good old days, pushed David Cameron, then Tory prime minister, for the referendum, and Cameron conceded to the demand to manage the division in his party. The pro-leave leaders mis-sold populist dreams — higher prosperity, more money for hospitals and schools, full control over the border, full access to the EU single market without obligations — that were not on the shelf or in the pipeline. The pro-remain leaders did not or could not effectively expose the false promises and the British public voted for them with a thin majority. 

Ever since, Britain has suffered a mega-mess in multiple areas. Notably, Brexit has obsessed the British parliament and government that have left other important state matters by the wayside. Schools have been failing, crimes rising, hospitals collapsing, and austerity and homelessness killing people. 

The British economy has been faltering as well. The pound’s value has plummeted, growth has declined to the lowest in the last quarter since 2012, investment has stalled, companies have been relocating to other countries and scaling back production in the UK.

Equally disturbing, British foreign policy has become incoherent and Britain has lost its influence. As the  Brexit and International Trade Departments have chipped away the Foreign Office’s functions, British foreign policy has lost its coherence. Witnessing it on its way out of the EU, other countries have stopped listening to Britain. For example, the United States has been patronizing Britain on trade, and Iran has not been heeding the UK on the Nazanine Zaghari-Radcliff case. 

While some of these consequences had been expected from Brexit, ineffective leadership has exacerbated them further. Although Teresa May has been tenaciously cleaning the mess left behind by David Cameron and working towards exiting the EU on 29 March 2019 with a deal, she has failed to garner her party’s support and reach out to the opposition to carry her deal over the line. Therefore, the country has been jumping from crisis to crisis. 

What lies ahead has been uncertain and difficult to anticipate all along. Only recently, the Tories have saved May from the Labor no-confidence motion and prevented a general election. The divided parliament has no majority for a no-deal Brexit or a people’s vote, aka, second referendum. What next?

May has only two options: Either to ask the EU to extend Article 50 and postpone the departure date to continue muddling through or suspend the parliament until March 29, as some in the Eurosceptic European Research Group have suggested,  to crash out without a deal.  

Whatever the course, the country has already been living through a nightmare. The voters have been angry at their political leaders for their incompetence and slightly moved towards remaining in the EU, younger voters, in particular, leading the way by more a two-thirds majority.  

In the economic realm, growth in the last quarter has collapsed to 0.2 percent, the lowest since 2012. The pound’s value has plummeted from around 1.50 against the US dollar to 1.30 or lower since the referendum. Nissan, Airbus, Honda, and Mini have served a notice to the government that they would drop their planned investment or scale back their production.

If the UK leaves the EU without an agreement, the situation will only worsen. For instance, Scotland that voted to remain may decide for another referendum to secede from the UK. If the Good Friday agreement, which guarantees a soft border with Ireland, is violated, Northern Ireland might witness the resurgence of violence. 

In the trade domain, first, trade negotiations between the EU and Britain will be so much more difficult given the acrimony developing between them. Border clearing requirements will slow down the flow of goods between the two jurisdictions, creating shortages and chaos on the British Isles.  

What is more, the United States, which the pro-leave leaders had expected to become their savior, has made it abundantly clear that Britain will have to surrender its food and other higher standards to strike a deal with them. Other countries like India, South Korea and Japan have already indicated that they would rather renegotiate a trade deal with the UK after Brexit, rather than replicating their agreement with the EU. 

Consequently, by the government’s own estimate, Britain after Brexit will be poorer by 9.3 percent in the next 15 years than if it were to continue with EU membership.   

All said and done, while Britain may not be as prosperous and vibrant outside the EU as inside, it will remain a successful economy in the years to come, given its glorious past and hard-working people. But it will certainly lose its dignity and influence in the international arena. Even its permanent membership in the UN Security Council might be challenged. 

With the Brexit conundrum, Britain is doing itself gargantuan self-harm. There is an enormous difference between doing well, as the pro-leave advocates argue, and doing as well as one has the potential to, are two different things. The UK without the EU backing may achieve the former but not the latter. In the days ahead, that is what is at stake for Britain.

Murari Sharma: Nepal is More to Blame for its Woes

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has blamed the United States for his country’s conflict. In Britain, Conservative Prime Minister Teresa May has been blaming the Labor Party for her country’s economic pains, though her party has been ruling now for 8 years. Nepali leaders have often blamed India for the country’s backwardness. In all these cases, those who are blaming others have been more to blame themselves. 

Blaming others for one’s weaknesses has been a popular sport across the world–rich and poor, powerful and powerless countries do it all the time. Some of it is justifiable because it was not invited, but most of it is not. For instance, the colonized countries never invited the colonizers to colonize them. The second Gulf War was uninvited, and so was the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001. 

In Nepal, the second Nepal-India War was uninvited. So was the economic embargo of 1969/70. Nepal has not invited Indian effort to bring Nepal under its wing and Chinese effort to prevent Nepal from developing even economic and social contacts either. 

However, in other cases, a section of leaders in troubled countries have requested external interference and therefore, one-sided blame is has been unjustified. For instance, Juan Guaido asked for US interference in Venezuela. The Conservative Party itself has invited the Brexit and rising homelessness. In Libya, Yemen and Syria, one section of their leaders have requested the western intervention. 

In Nepal, King Jaya Prakash Malla had asked for British Indian military support in 1767. Some Nepali leaders had encouraged India for the economic embargo of 2015/16. The 1989/90 Indian economic embargo had been a combined result of Indian anger at Nepal for importing Chinese weapons, the rift between King Birendra and Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi and Nepali democratic leaders’ call for help to restore democracy.

Both the invited and non-invited external interference has hurt the Nepali economy. However, these internal factors have hurt it more: the passive approach to development in the Panchayat era, the Maoist insurgency for a decade, and our own continued misappropriation and mismanagement in the post-1990 period.

For example, Nepal and South Korea had launched planned development at the same time and almost from the same base. By 1990, South Korea had become a developed country (having 29th highest per capita income in 2017 according to the UN) while Nepal continues to languish as a least developed one (169th), just above war-torn countries. 

The decade-long Maoist insurgency has not only caused the death of 17,000 economically active young Nepalis and disability of many more thousands but has also inflicted the economic damage of more than 7 billion rupees and many more billions worth of lost opportunity and time. Misappropriation/corruption and mismanagement have continued to hemorrhage our economy after the end of the insurgency.

Thanks to the misappropriation and corruption, every year, more politicians, bureaucrats and businesspersons have been joining the millionaires’ club without incomes to back their rise. We are 124th in the Transparency Index. Expensive cars and palatial houses in Kathmandu and Swiss bank accounts and the Panama papers have already proven it. At all levels, corruption has been flourishing: legislative and policy level, managerial level and operational level.

At the top of the pyramid, the parliament and the cabinet themselves have been the main conduits of institutionalized corruption. For instance, the funds allocated to every member of parliament at their discretion is one example of institutionalized corruption. The inclusion of hundreds of political projects without proper justification and planning or of thousands of studies to fool voters without the intention to pursue them further is another.

Another equally gargantuan source of institutionalized corruption has been the cabinet. It has been providing health assistance, disaster relief assistance, martyrs compensation, one-off grants to the powerful, rich, and politically connected.

The health assistance has been going to the pockets of top leaders, their families and their supporters, who are well off, rarely to those who really cannot afford. Only a small portion of the disaster relief assistance has been going to the real victims of disasters. The rest has been going to the same group as the health assistance.

Equally misused has been the martyrs’ compensation. The family of every martyr has been getting 1 million rupees. Anyone politically well connected but dead in a traffic accident, gang fight, or fall from a tree, or political protest would qualify as a martyr. No wonder why Nepal has had over 10,000 martyrs, which trivializes the genuine martyrs.

The one-off grant has been seldom one-off. It has been the regular source of milking the state for the politically influential people, who are also well off. 

To add insult to injury, the managerial level and operational level have been further aggravating corruption and misappropriation. Consequently, revenue collection has been consistently sub-optimal, expenditure has been riddled with loopholes and leakages, and justice has been corrupted.

As long as the legislative and policy level institutionalized corruption continues, corruption and misappropriation cannot be stamped out at the managerial and operational levels. So the promise Prime Minister KP Oli has made to wipe out corruption is an empty slogan, just like his predecessors’. The prime minister and his ministers have been quick to drop the name of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority for controlling corruption.

However, the Commission is part of Nepali society. More seriously, it has no jurisdiction over the parliament and the cabinet. Elsewhere, its performance has failed to inspire confidence. At times, people who should have been the subject of its investigations have headed it. Commissioner Raj Narayan Pathak is only a small fish. At other times, politicians who appoint them and who should be under its purview, have waved the flag of impeachment, directly and indirectly, if the Commission came after them. So the Commission goes after small targets, not big ones.

Mismanagement is another key factor for Nepal’s backwardness. Progress requires efficient use of scarce resources. But you seldom come across a project in Nepal that has been completed on time and within the budget. This happens because personal pecuniary interest, nepotism, and political preferences come in the way of awarding contracts, deploying staff and rewarding staff performance. 

Ministers do their best to award contracts to their cronies and relatives who promise them commensurate returns and appoint to key posts those employees that are ready to serve their personal interests and preferences. Delivery on time and within the budget has stayed in the paper. Cost overruns, bad for the taxpayers and the country, are excellent for ministers, contractors, and bureaucrats, who can all squeeze more money from the same projects by delaying them.

Blaming others for one’s weaknesses is human nature. Only a few leaders and people have been exceptions to this general rule. And only they have led their countries and organizations to greater heights and glories. Therefore, Nepal will move forward significantly with empty slogans and blame game. Our leaders and we ought to take responsibility for what we have been doing and stamp out corruption and mismanagement at all levels if we want to join the league of prosperous nations.

Murari Sharma: Contain but not Kill Identity Politics

The rise of identity politics is a threat to human rights, coexistence and even civilization. If we have forgotten the Holocaust, crusade, jihad, apartheid, genocides, etc., we should not. They were essentially the products of identity politics, in which the ‘others’ were treated as subhuman or liquidated. If the rise of identity politics continues at the current rate, humanity itself could be at risk given the weapons of mass destruction.

The British voters deciding to exit the European Union, American voters electing Donald Trump, far-right parties getting unprecedented support in elections in Europe, and anti-immigrant policies getting popular in several other countries are some of the many examples of the rise of identity politics. It has accelerated now due mainly to three factors: competitive politics, globalized economies, and technological progress.

Never before has politics been as competitive and identity-based as it is now. The wave of democracy unleashed by the end of the Cold War has washed all shores more or less, making politics so competitive across the world that every vote counts. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, ideological politics has taken a back seat, leaving politicians with only a narrow band of policy choices.

As a result, politicians have turned to ethnic or otherwise narrow identity for their support. Even in absence of such orientation, we vote for our own, for we love our family, our community and our culture, where we feel comfortable. The situation gets worse when politicians use identity politics to sow divisions in society to win.

Usually, the such divisive politics manifests itself in two forms.

Parochial politicians from the majority culture, as we have witnessed, whip the fear and hatred of ‘others’ for their advantage. They blame ‘others’ for invading ‘our country’, taking ‘our’ jobs, and straining ‘our’ public services and ask the voters to vote for them so they could stop ‘them’ from doing so.

On the other hand, parochial leaders from minority groups incite resentment against the majority by calling them exploiters, colonizers, usurpers, etc. and promise to stop ‘them’ if the voters voted for them.

However, the motivations of these two groups are different. The ones from the majority culture use identity politics to preserve the power and privileges they have been enjoying. In contrast, the ones from the minorities use it to obtain power and privileges at the first stage and preserve them subsequently.

Obvious has this phenomenon been in all countries–rich and poor–and all cultures. For instance, the British politicians backing Brexit used fear as their main tool to win the votes. They accused the ‘others’–the continental Europeans and the EU–as colonizers (though Britain joined the EU voluntarily) and unelected bureaucrats (even though the European Parliament is there) and asked voters to vote leave to take back control of their immigration, law, and money.

Some even suggested Britain should celebrate the day Britain leaves the EU as the day of their independence.

In the USA, the candidate Donald Trump used the fear of ‘others’ to clinch the presidency. He blamed Mexicans and other legal and illegal immigrants for all US woes–crimes, drugs, unemployment, decline in wages in real terms, and economic decline of most red states. He has still been using racially charged language and filling courts with arch-conservative judges to preserve the old American values.

This phenomenon is playing out in several other countries like Hungry, Poland, Czech Republic, India and elsewhere. In these countries, leaders from the majority culture have been using anti-minority or anti-immigrant slogans and policies for their political advantage. Though these developments have come about as a backlash to past policies, it does not make them welcome or wholesome.

In countries like Nepal, you witness the tug of war between majority and minority parochial leaders. The minority leaders have been blaming as colonizers, usurpers, and plunderers for destroying their identity and keeping them and the country poor. The majority leaders have been seeking to minimize the loss of their privileges. 

Likewise, liberalized and globalized economy has been another, though less significant, contributor to identity politics. Liberalization has made rich richer and poor poorer through the concentration of economic power in fewer hands. Globalization has made it possible for the factors of production to move and relocate to where they have better opportunities to profit.

For example, the rich have been taking domicile and investing their wealth in countries where taxes are now and their enforcement is weak. The poor have been traveling to other countries for jobs and economic opportunities. Such movements reduce revenues of the countries from where such outflows have occurred.

It leads to a reduction in their public services and in their capacity to invest in popular programs. Often, the main and direct victims of such reduced spending and investment happen to be the poorest sections of society. So the poor blame liberalization and globalization as their enemies and treat immigrants as ‘others.’ 

Technological progress–communication, cleaner sources of energy, etc.– has also contributed to identity politics. It has facilitated not only globalization but also made it possible to automate production and replaced workers. Similarly, the growing awareness about the fragility of the environment and development of new energy source, both made possible by modern technology has affected jobs in extraction industries.

When the path of progress is blocked, you turn into yourself and your past glory, however bright or dubious it might have been. This has been the case in old mining and manufacturing towns which have suffered the loss of jobs and other opportunists.

While we know why identity politics based on the far-right rhetoric and policy prescription in on the rise, what we do not know is how to contain and reverse it. Some have suggested liberal forces should come up a story of hope to win the disenchanted groups and disadvantaged areas.

However, it may or may not work. For instance, it did not work in the British referendum in 2016 to leave the EU. The remainers told the fact-based story of benefits of staying with the EU and disadvantages of leaving it. But they lost the game.

In the United States, Hillary Clinton’s fact- and policy-packed Better Together went down to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and fact- and policy-free Make America Great Again in 2016. In 2018, the Republican Party gained seats in the Senate invoking identity politics: Help shape the Supreme Court into a conservative bastion to protect the old American values.

At times, the story of hope has also prevailed. For example, in 2017, the French voters put President Emanuel Macron in the Elysee Palace, endorsing his message of hope. Similarly, in the 2018 US elections, the Democratic Party ran on health care and other policies, won nearly 40 seats from the Republican Party, and wrested the control of the lower house.

Therefore, no silver bullet exists to work in all situations. More often than not, identity politics works. But we should not kill it to preserve democracy and vibrancy in politics. But we should allow it to dehumanize and destroy society, as it did in World War II, the Rwandan genocide, religious crusades and jihads, and the apartheid. Finding a middle ground is essential but tough.

Murari Sharma: Only the Resilient Survive Long

Today is the 29th day the US President Donald Trump has shutdown his government partially and one day before the British Prime Minister has to submit the alternative to her Brexit deal that was voted down overwhelmingly by the members of parliament, including 118 from her own Conservative Party. Both these leaders have shown immense aversion to compromise.

Leon C. Megginson, a Management Professor, says, “According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” 

It applies to politics also. The New York Times has reported, the two foremost democracies in the world are in a state of paralysis under their uncompromising leaders. Often, uncompromising leaders have a fragile ego and inherent sense of insecurity, even cowardice. To hide their inner insecurity and cowardice, they wear chips on their shoulders and project brutal power and authority on the outside. They have no eye or ear for criticism and no resilience to survive in the tumultuous political whirlpool, so such leaders may quickly and abruptly meet with atrophy and fade away.

President Donald Trump has proved that he lacks resilience. He has shut down the government until Congress gives him money to build a wall on the border between America and Mexico.  The shutdown has entered its fifth week and affected services across America, paralyzing several government functions across the country. Nansy Pelosi, the US Speaker, has called Trump’s hubris a ‘manhood thing.’

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Teresa May is in a similar boat. Even though the parliament rejected her deal to pull Britain out of the European Union by an overwhelming majority, She has refused to budge from her numerous red lines. Her defeat has had the dubious distinction of being the greatest since 1920.  

More specifically, both these leaders share at least five things in common. First, although May is a long-time conservative and Trump contextual, both represent and lead the conservative party in their respective countries.

Second, both oppose immigration. When she was home secretary, May introduced the anti-immigrant policy creating a hostile environment for minorities and sent red vans emblazoned with “Illegal Immigrant, Go Home.” Trump has courted the white nationalists, said Mexico sends criminal to the US and called poor countries shit-holes.

Third, both have projected their toughness at the wrong time. If May had shown the toughness she displayed well before the parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal, she could perhaps have negotiated a better deal. But she chose to work in silence. She tried to shut the door of the stable when the horse already half out of the stable.

As long as both houses of Congress were under his party’s control, Trump did not insist hard enough for his border wall. He did it through the shutdown after the Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives in the November 2018 elections and had one foot already out of the door. The Democrats refused the wall funding and Trump refused to sign any legislation without the wall. Therefore, Trump’s wound is self-inflicted.

May’s case is much different. She lost the majority in the Commons in the unwarranted general elections she called, even though the parliament had a five-year fixed term. Her coalition government is hostage to the Democratic Unionist Party, a regional outfit. And her party is split between the Brexiters and Remainers.  But she has not shown political acumen to salvage the situation. 

Fifth, both leaders do not trust others. President Trump sent Vice President Pence to negotiate with the Democrats and undercut him. He does not trust cabinet ministers either. Prime Minister May negotiated the Brexit deal keeping her Brexit Secretaries of State mostly out of it.

For Trump or May and the countries they lead, this does not bode well. While they will leave the political scene sooner or later, some people worry that by the time they leave their present posts, so much damage would have been done to the institutions and countries they are supposed to uphold and advance that they could not be fully restored for years, if ever.

That brings me back to Darwin’s finding. Indeed, neanderthal, human’s predecessor were extinguished because they were not resilient enough. For the same reason, dinosaurs that once dominated the earth were wiped out. So many other species have suffered the same fate. But crocodiles and cockroaches have been around for longer than any other species because they have adapted to new environs as they developed. 

Of course, we all have certain principles that we will not negotiate away. Similarly, countries have vital interests that are non-negotiable, like sovereignty. In other issues, if negotiations are to succeed, they must be conducted confidentially, not through the media, where give and take is possible without any party losing their faces. Talks through the media is counterproductive because they only promote posturing to undermine the other party.

Although both Trump and May have been seasoned and successful people in their previous stations in life, their negotiating gambits could not have been worse: Both are negotiating through media posturing. As someone with some experience of several sensitive negotiations, I can tell that the sure way to fail to reach a compromise is to negotiate through the media in an effort to publicly humiliate the other side.

But who knows? Maybe, Trump and May’s negotiating strategy will bear fruit. If that happens, I will have to question my own experience with negotiations.

Murari Sharma: South Asian Conundrum

South Asia reminds me of the most complex family of Lord Shiva in South Asian mythology.  Shiva lives in Kailash Mountain, one of the coldest places, and wears the Ganges River on his head and snakes on his body. His throat posits the most potent poison and his mount is a bull. The mount of Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is a lion. Their elder son Kartikeya’s mount is a peacock and younger son Ganesh’s is a mouse.

To keep peace in Shiva’s family is next to impossible. The lion eats the bull. The peacock eats the snakes and the mouse. The river sweeps everyone. The poison could kill everyone. In this situation, the guardians cannot  blink even for a second without inviting disaster. This is the conundrum of South Asia as well.

The South Asian family is only a tad less complicated than Lord Shiva’s but not much less. India, the old hegemone, has been losing its sphere of influence in the region. Pakistan spun out of its orbit as soon as it was carved out from the old India. When India moved closer to the Soviet Union, Pakistan aligned itself with the West and China. The two countries have fought three wars and have been accusing each other of promoting terrorism in each other’s territories. 

Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are also on the rock. Islamabad had allowed the West to use its territories to wage war against Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Subsequently, it has allegedly supported Taliban terrorists who have been causing mayhem for the West-supported government in Kabul.   

For plausible reasons, other small South Asian countries entertain the fear of India. India is the elephant in the South Asian room. Although the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government is cozy to India, the Bangladeshis have not forgotten the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan that led to the swift creation of their country. Besides, South Asian public consciousness is still fresh that Indian military intervention ensured Sikkim’s merger with India, prolonged the civil war in Sri Lanka, and crushed the rebellion against the incumbent government in the Maldives. 

Indian military presence continues in Bhutan, which has accepted Indian security umbrella. But over the last two decades or so, Thimpu has been trying to establish and strengthen its relationships with Beijing to resolve its border disputes, especially after the Doklam standoff between India and China and reach out to the rest of the world without Indian guidance.

After Bhutan expelled its Nepali speaking citizens, relations between Kathmandu and Thimpu have remained far from warm and cordial in essence.

From the 1950s, Nepal has gradually spun off the Indian pivot. It remained neutral in the India-China War, removed the Indian security posts from the Nepal-China border, opposed the three Indian economic blockades imposed to bend the Himalayan country. It has been resisting Indian efforts to bring it under the Indian security and diplomatic umbrella in line with Bhutan. The present Communist Party government in Kathmandu, which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the parliament and which has been pushing the cross-Himalayan road and rail links, has become a major cause of concern for New Delhi.

China has been the main factor in eroding Indian hegemony in South Asia. It has aggressively reached out to South Asian countries with its increased trade and investment and its latest infrastructure initiative–Belt and Road–that seeks to connect itself to all South Asian countries and beyond. More specifically, Beijing helped Islamabad to develop its nuclear weapons to counter India, Colombo to end the civil war Sri Lanka and build its infrastructure, Male to improve its ports and other facilities. It is helping Nepal with trade, investment and infrastructure development, including the cross-Himalayan rail and road networks, which India frowns.

On an important level, Western countries have also contributed to the erosion of the Indian sphere of influence. After Britain receded to the British Isles, Western countries have massively expanded the network of their non-governmental organizations directly and through South Asian proxies. These organizations finance development activities in the region and proselytize the deprived South Asians to Christian faith to counter the authority of the Indian and other South Asian governments.

The slowing Chinese economy in the face of US-China trade war and American President Donald Trump’s US-centric policy might come to India’s rescue, but there is no guarantee. After a long gallop, the Chinese economy has decelerated into a trot which, if continued, will curtail Beijing’s infrastructure initiative and military buildup that has helped it spread its influence in the neighborhood and beyond by leaps and bounds. Similarly, Trump’s policy is likely to discourage the massive financing of Western non-governmental organizations that work in South Asia and seek to curb the power of South Asian governments.   

Due to the difficulties inherent in managing his complex family, Lord Shiva used to spend most of his time away from home. He would spend most of his time away from home either meditating or converting himself into one of the animals to enjoy their innocent company.

But the problem in South Asia is that countries cannot go out of their neighborhood like Lord Shiva. They will have to learn to live in their neighborhood the way it is and their guardians will have to keep the tempers down without blinking for a second. The challenge is more serious for landlocked countries that have to depend on their coastal neighbors to reach out to the rest of the world.