Murari Sharma: Kavanaugh has failed the job interview

On 27 September 2018, I watched the testimony by Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh in the US Senate Judiciary Committee and could not help to conclude that the US justice system has lost its soul in these hyper-partisan times. Though the hearing is only part of the vetting process, if it were the only process, Kavanaugh has failed to establish his bona fides and failed his job interview.

For starters, the US President Donald Trump has nominated Judge Kavanaugh for the vacancy left open in the Supreme Court by the retirement of Anthony Kennedy.  Ford has alleged the judge had sexually molested her when both of them were in high school. He said he never did it.

Both Ford and Kavanaugh did it under oath. She said with 100 percent certainty that Kavanaugh assaulted her. He said, though sometimes he drank too many beers, he never assaulted Ford. Evidently, one of them has lied under oath and committed a crime, but it would be impossible to know who has been mendacious until an independent body carries out a thorough investigation.  

Both Ford and Kavanaugh made their cases forcefully and emotionally. Several times, both suffered a broken voice. Both had backers in the Judiciary Committee. Democrat senators were soft on Ford. Republican senators asked Rachel Mitchel, a prosecutor tapped by the all-male Republican senators to question Ford, and openly urged and egged on the judge to spit fire against the Democrats. 

Other than that, their presentations were in sharp contrasts.  Ford was calm, clear, coherent, professional and believable. In contrast, Kavanaugh was hysterical, angry, incoherent, obfuscating, evasive, openly political and unprofessional. If they were being interviewed for their academic grade, Ford would have received my A+ and Kavanaugh no more than a C.  

Similarly, if Ford and Kavanaugh were competing for the same one vacancy and if I was one of the selectors, my vote would have gone to Ford, not Kavanaugh. I have several reasons for such evaluation.   

One, Ford was measured, civil, polite, composed, and apolitical. These are qualities the American people would want in Supreme Court justices who are appointed for a lifetime. Kavanaugh was just the opposite — hysterical, rude, restless and threatening, and highly political. He openly lashed out at Democrats, almost half of the Judiciary Committee membership — 10 out of 21 members. 

Two, Supreme Court justices, appointed for a lifetime, must in principle stay, and act, above the political fray. Ford mentioned that she was independent and acted like one, without slinging partisan muck. On the other hand, the man who was supposed to be above politics attacked one party as if he was one of the political operatives, not a judge who must apply the law without fear or favor.  

Three, Ford’s presentation and answers were clear, logical and coherent, like that of an accomplished judge, even though she was the victim of a sexual assault by Kavanaugh.  In contrast, the judge was evasive, obfuscating, and frequently illogical and incoherent. 

Four, I am sure both Ford and Kavanaugh rehearsed their presentation prior to the testimony, but their public presentations were in sharp contrast. She could have been more hysterical because she was the victim. But Kavanaugh was way more hysterical, aggressive and over-rehearsed, giving the impression that he was hiding the facts behind the drama. Perhaps, he rehearsed too much.

The judge might have imitated the hyper combative style of President Trump who nominated him. The style the privileged minority grievance and anger shown towards the lesser mortals who are trying to hold them to account. But there is a significant difference between them.

Trump has been using elite victim-hood and anger to score political points and prolong his rule beyond the first term. It makes his style politically understandable. Kavanaugh, a judge, must have been balanced, judicious, and professional.  But he was ill-tempered and hysterical and therefore professionally inexcusable. 

What makes Kavanaugh’s performance dreadful is that, if he is confirmed, the Supreme Court, already polarized between conservative and liberal justices, will be further politicized. At 53, as a lifetime judge, his legal views will shape the course of the US justice system for decades in the wrong direction. 

On a personal level, I fully sympathize with Ford who was sexually assaulted. If Kavanaugh is innocent, as he has claimed he is, I equally sympathize with him. But the issue has already tarnished his image beyond redemption. Even if the Republican majority in the Senate rams his nomination through (though FBI is asked to investigate the allegations before the Senate vote), his public image as a reckless sex predator when he was young will stick to him forever regardless of the FBI’s findings.

As a result, even when he uses his best legal mind, his legal opinions and verdicts will always be suspect of partisan and anti-women bias. Therefore, it would be best for the US justice system for Kavanaugh to pull out his candidature and let someone else without such controversy take the seat in the Supreme Court.  


Murari Sharma: Brexit — A Political Project

If you are frightened that Britain’s exit from the European Union will make life in Britain more expensive and less pleasant, you could very well be in the majority now. But as a British citizen, you can still prevent it if you and millions of other voters like you write to your members of parliament and tell them at their local surgeries that Britain should not leave the European Union.

It would not be easy, however. Most Brexiters and some Remainers would argue that Brexit must happen owing to the fact that the British people have voted in favor of Brexit in the 2016 referendum. On the surface, that is true.

However, in essence, it is not true for two fundamental reasons. One, democracy allows people to change their mind in every election and change their government if they deem it necessary. Therefore, another referendum can change the result of the 2016 referendum.  

Two, when the British people voted to leave the EU in 2016, they did not know what they know now. The Brexit leaders had lied to them that Britain outside the EU would be much better off. Now the government itself has published a series of papers describing the potential short-term disaster — lack of food and medicine, miles long queue of trucks at Dover, etc. —  and long-term impacts and measures to mitigate them, including the mobilization of the military. 

To avoid such a disaster, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has written in The Observer of September 15, 2018 that the British people must have the second vote on whether they want to leave the EU. Even wildly ideological Brexiters — such as Jacob Rees-Mog, Boris Johnson, and Davis Davis — now concede in their significant volte-face that there would be short-term pain when Britain leaves the EU.

However, that was not what these Brexiters had told the British voters before the 2016 referendum. At that time, they had falsely promised that Britain would control migration, divert the 350 million pounds paid to the EU to the National Health Service, and conclude trade agreements with the rest of the world quickly and favorably. None of them has turned, or will turn, to be true.

Let us examine these elements individually. The British society is aging, and its birth rate has tumbled to below the replacement rate. To work in farms, factories, shops and old-age homes and to pay taxes, you need all categories of people — skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled — through immigration.  If you stop immigrants from EU countries, you would have to bring them from other nations. So controlling immigration was largely a myth.

Likewise, the promise of an additional 350 million pounds to be given to the NHS every week was a snake oil. According to the Treasury, Britain would lose 12 billion pounds every year if it cannot strike a free trade deal with the EU, which is several times more than the expected savings of 350 million pounds paid to the EU every week. So the NHS will have less money and it will also lose hundreds of thousands of skilled healthcare people from the continent when Britain gets out of the European club. 

In the trade front too, the picture is not rosy. Japan, India, and other large trading nations had warned before the referendum that Britain would lose if it left the EU. These countries would rather negotiate a trade agreement with the EU covering 27 countries than the United Kingdom.

Similarly, the United States under President Obama had told Britain that it would have to wait in the back of the queue for a trade agreement. No matter what he says at the spur of the moment, President Trump would not conclude any trade agreement without his country having a significant advantage over the British side to fulfill his pledge of “America First.” 

In fact, Brexit is a project of the British elite, for the British elite, and by the British elite facilitated by the lay people through their votes.  The prominent Brexiter have already secured their economic future in Britain and outside. For instance, Jacob Rees-Mog has established the arm of his investment fund on the continent. Some of them have their accounts in Bermuda, Panama and other tax heavens.

But Brexit will make these elite politically more powerful against the ordinary people. They can gut slash taxes for themselves as they please, gut the state as they want, destroy the labor protection provision as they wish, and limit your human rights as they find convenient, without the checks and balances from the EU and the European Court of Justice.  

Having said that, I am not here to suggest that Britain has no future outside the EU. Simply because it has left EU, Britain will not be Somalia or Egypt. It will still remain a rich country. The question is whether it would be as rich as the comparable European countries, let alone being Singapore, as the Brexiters seem to dream. 

Britain can pioneer a new technology and pull ahead of other European countries, as it had done with the industrial revolution. But short of that, it does not have the bullying strength of the United States to have favorable trade deals or does not enjoy the strategic commercial location as Singapore does. So take what Brexiters say only with a pinch of salt and support the second vote. 


Murari Sharma: Big Countries Often Don’t Like Rules

There has been a continuing debate about whether India wants both the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to succeed or is using the former to dilute and weaken the latter. The fourth summit of Bimstec concluded recently in Kathmandu did not dispel the reason for that debate.

For starters, Saarc consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Bimstec has Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand as its members. In both groups, India —  the largest country and economy — is the pivot.

Evidently, progress in Saarc has been sluggish. Established in 1985, it has set up some regional institutions, harmonized and standardized the nomenclature of goods, and relaxed some visa rules, and that is about it in almost four decades. Introducing a free trade regime in the region a-la the European Union remains a pipe dream.

For this slow progress, the strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan is often cited as the reason; it is certainly a major reason but not the only reason.

About Saarc, India has always held ambivalent views. On the one hand, New Delhi needs Saarc and free trade within its members to expand its own market for goods, investment and technology and to project regional power, including in the event that the UN security council expanded to possibly include India as one of the permanent members.

On the other, New Delhi privately sees Saarc as a forum where smaller countries seek to gang up against it to tame it. One Indian former foreign secretary was caught fuming against Saarc along this line. Bimstec will not be free from the same Indian ambivalence for the same reason.

However, this attitude is not unique to India. All large countries don’t appreciate the regional/global mechanisms and rules that demand of them to compromise their interest for greater good and demonstrate such ambivalence. Transformational leaders make compromises for long-term interest and hide their disdain for such rules and mechanisms. Transactional leaders like the US President Donald Trump wear it on their sleeves.

Trump has done it by pulling the USA out of the Transpacific Trade Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement and threatened to pull out of the NATO, the WTO, and NAFTA.

In addition, we know it takes years to develop uniform standards and regulatory alliance necessary for a free market. For instance, several countries have been negotiating for years and even decades to join the EU. On the other side of the spectrum, the United Kingdom is struggling to strike a balance between the regulatory alliance to benefit from the EU’s common market when it leaves the organization and to exercise its independent right to make laws and control the border.

Therefore, one cannot imagine that the regulatory and standards alignments within Bimstec and between Bimstec and Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which would be inevitable owing to Myanmar and Thailand being members of the latter as well, is going to be easy. Which means, in the short to medium term, the prospects for Bimstec to establish a free trade area are not any better than doing so within Saarc. In the long run, as John Keynes has said, we would all be dead.

Yours truly has no doubt on his mind that that Indian authorities understand this complication very well and yet they have put their feet in two boats. This has given room for the suspicion that perhaps New Delhi has pushed Bimstec forward to sideline Saarc. It is up to the Indian government to dispel such suspicion by pushing the Saarc process forward as its largest member while also moving ahead with Bimstec.