Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brakes Hit: Rampaging globalisation gets a reality check

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a rule, settled and reasonably prosperous societies prefer the known to the totally unknown. It is a commentary on the extreme exasperation of British voters with an arrangement that had endured for 43 years that they chose a high-risk departure from the European Union over a troubling dispensation that had conferred some prosperity but denied them political dignity. 

The outcome of last Thursday’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU came as a surprise to those who control the levers of global capitalism, a reason why the markets saw extreme turbulence. But the verdict was not unexpected, only that those entrusted with taking a call had chosen to not to go beyond their comfortable echo chambers. There was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that a very large section of British society were becoming deeply troubled by the type of change they were experiencing. What exaggerated the disquiet was the realisation that they were powerless to do anything about it. 

The unease was partly a consequence of the demographic transformation of the UK. In the past four decades the human landscape of urban Britain has changed beyond recognition. Today’s London is a more cosmopolitan city than at any time before. It is also materially more prosperous and culturally vibrant. Unfortunately, there was an unintended social cost of a globalisation that was backed up by an indulgent welfare state. The rise of British competitiveness, a post-Thatcher phenomenon, rewarded successful professionals and moneybags but it also drove the less adept to the margins. On top of this, the free flow of migrants from the newer member-states of the EU depressed wages and curtailed opportunities. A substantial portion of the No vote came from the left behind sections, mainly traditional Labour voters who disregarded the party line. 

However, class resentment tinged with a measure of anti-foreigner sentiment was part of the phenomenon. More far-reaching was the defence of national sovereignty—the call to rescue decision-making from a remote bureaucracy in Brussels—that lent intellectual weight to the pro-Brexit campaign. Maybe it was David Cameron’s inability to control immigration from Eastern Europe and the European Court’s spat with the British Home Office over ‘human rights’ of undesirable extremists that underlined the growing redundancy of Westminster. But the reality was also the inclination of some European politicians to constantly extend the reach of the EU. Britain had stayed outside the Eurozone and hadn’t joined Schengen—in hindsight, both sensible decisions—and now it was confronted with demands for a common EU foreign policy and even common defence forces. In other words, what had begun as a Common Market had gradually expanded into a Super State that, according to Brexit’s main campaigner Boris Johnson was “now responsible for 60 per cent of the law that goes through Westminster.” 

Globalisation, including regional arrangements, has always implied ceding elements of national sovereignty to a multilateral body. The World Trade Organisation is an example of how rule-based trade has curbed the economic autonomy of member countries. Today’s EU, crafted on the noble belief that the grim history of the 20th century must not be repeated, took the process many steps further and ended up negating democracy itself. Last year, there was the pathetic example of Prime Minister Cameron pleading to the EU to restore some of the UK’s sovereign rights on matters of immigration and criminal justice and being rebuffed. Maybe after the June 23 vote, the high priests of Europe may recognise that it is imprudent to force nation-states to swallow more than they are capable of chewing. Brexit has certainly put the brakes on rampaging globalisation. 

The more lucid advocates of Brexit are incorrigible romantics. Their view of a reinvented post-imperial UK becoming a Japan of the Western world has struck most cosmopolitans as being impractical and a recipe for a retreat into Little England. The possibility of regression shouldn’t be discounted, particularly if the post-Cameron leadership proves inept. But should the UK recover its sense of national purpose—missing since the end of Empire—it offers opportunities for re-forging historical links on a more equitable basis. 

For India, ‘independent’ Britain offers an opening to build a vibrant economic gateway in the West. In the coming days, the UK will need India as a special partner—a point emphasised by the Brexit lobby. India too could profit from a benign partnership that comes without the political baggage of either the EU or the United States. Having rediscovered ‘independence’, Britain may India’s strategic autonomy appealing. 

Times of India, June 25, 2016


Friday, June 17, 2016

In the echo chamber - India, Trump and the Brexiteers

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the rigid and unwritten codes of social behaviour in the England I inhabit in my frequent trips there is to never embarrass your host/hostess. I try to adhere to this rule by being anodyne in my comments on politics and pretending that I don’t do God in my public life. 

Last month, I tripped and almost caused a near silence to descend on a small gathering. The subject seemed pretty innocuous: the Brexit referendum scheduled for June 23. Having silently heard various comments proffered by professors, MPs and other beautiful people who make up a convivial dinner gathering, I was hesitant to say my piece. After all, Brexit was entirely a British or, at best, a European problem and there was very little we could contribute to the debate except face up to the consequences of the referendum outcome. Alas, I let my guard down and told the gathering that if I were a registered voter in the United Kingdom, my vote would probably be for the UK’s departure from the European Union. 

I don’t think I said anything that outrageous. If recent opinion polls are to be believed, the Brexit camp has a clear advantage over the Remain camp. As a consequence of this shift in public opinion, Sterling has weakened somewhat and British equities have suffered on the bourses. An Indian friend returning from a seminar in Oxford remarked that while the University seemed solidly Remain, adjoining rural Oxfordshire was equally solidly Brexit. 

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is quite clear that there is a sharp division of feeling over which way to vote. Consequently, my opinions on the dinner table weren’t necessarily all that outrageous. Nor is there anything to suggest that being a ‘person of colour’ (that horrible American politically correct term) and abandoning Europe to itself were all that contradictory. My friend the Cabinet minister Priti Patel who I have long advocated should relocate to India to head the BJP is, for example, one of the three stalwarts of the Brexit campaign, along with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As an old reader of the Daily Telegraph (I think it has the best Obituaries page), I am also reassured that the campaign for national sovereignty—which is really what Brexit is really all about—also enjoys some media backing. 

Looking back, I think the reason why my rather subdued Brexit comment was thought to be a trifle odd were two-fold. First, most of my liberal, largely Labour-voting, Guardian-reading friends seem to live in an echo chamber. I would not be surprised that there was probably no one in their cosmopolitan circle of friends who would even envisage voting from Brexit. At best, their parents living in some small hamlet in the Shires and voting Conservative out of habit, were the nearest they came to associating with the Brexit ‘other’. 

The situation was eerily dissimilar to that encountered by visiting academics from overseas in the summer of 2014. They had heard that there was a momentum in favour of Narendra Modi and the BJP but, alas, they had not encountered anyone who was likely to vote on the lotus symbol. Indeed, one American confessed to me that, purely on the strength of anecdotal evidence, he imagined that the Aaam Aadmi Party would do spectacularly well. 

Just reading the reports of the Brexit referendum campaign in the Indian media, I cannot be faulted for believing that most correspondents of India-based organisations rarely step out of their comfortable, quasi-lefty echo chambers. There is another Britain (or, should I say, England) that they choose not to engage with. 

There is a second factor too. The Brexit referendum has, quite coincidentally, coincided with the astonishing success of Donald Trump in securing the Republican Party nomination for this year’s US presidential election. Trump not merely defied the wisdom of established punditry that felt he was just a nutter who would shoot himself in the foot sooner or later, he took on the established might of the Republican Establishment and won. I can’t think of a single established Republican foreign policy pundit or a think tank apparatchik—the types we usually encounter in the politico-academic circuit of Delhi—who is a Trump supporter. That doesn’t mean Trump is bereft of supporters and that his electoral performance would equal that of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace, the third candidate in 1968. The point is simply that Trump is not ‘respectable’ in the accepted sense of the term. 

The inclination to equate Trump’s overstated views on immigration, Islam and multilateral trade agreements with the Brexit camp’s concerns over immigration and national sovereignty is quite tempting. Of course, insofar as both camps look back with nostalgia at past certitudes and the days of national glory, there are convergences. There is also a meeting point of sorts between Trump’s disavowal of a cosmopolitan elite that has no real commitment to the foundational values of the US and its underlying Judaeo-Christian ethos and the anger of the Brexiteers at an unresponsive, unelected Brussels-based bureaucracy. Finally, there is also a yearning on both sides for recreating communities based on broadly common cultural assumptions and ties. 

However, what makes both Trump and the Brexiteers seem unacceptable to those mocked as the ‘Davos-set’ is not a Right-Left divide. Since the advent of Margaret Thatcher and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan, the Left and liberals have reconciled to Right wing economic impulses. Right-wing economics centred on the curtailment of the state, promotion of individual choices and the dominance of the market have now earned a place in the sun, despite the occasional sneers about neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. In the process what seems to have been intellectually outlawed are the older visions of conservatism centred on religion, community and the nation. What we are seeing with the Trump upsurge and the robust anti-EU sentiments across Europe is the restoration of traditional conservatism where economic considerations are secondary and even peripheral. 

For a very long time, the Indian intellectual establishment decried Right-wing populism. ‘If only the BJP was more committed to the economic Right’ was a familiar, even a legitimate lament. The model for the Right was, of course, borrowed from either Europe or the US. In the event that the UK walks out of the EU and Trump gives the liberal establishment a scare and even establishes a new basis of American populist exceptionalism, it will be interesting to see whether this leaves the world of cosmopolitanism unaffected. In both the UK (and indeed all over Europe) there is a vibrant and intellectually rewarding debate that is raging. This may be replicated in the US once the traditional conservative movement comes to terms with the reality of Trump. 

Since the 18th century, India has been strikingly influenced by Western intellectual debates. It will be interesting to see how it now internalises developments in the US and Europe that it never really anticipated. 

The Telegraph, June 17, 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Residual pretensions - Hopelessness versus revolutionary politics in Bengal's Left

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Nuffield studies of each British general election since 1945 are valued to two reasons. First, they assess an election campaign from all possible angles, from the perspective of politicians to the media coverage of the exercise. However, far more important, these studies approach the elections, not from how it appeared in hindsight but how they seemed “in flight.” This is particularly valuable as it prevents sweeping generalisations of how an election campaign seemed before the final counting of votes and declaration of results.

It is important to inject this chronological perspective into the recent West Bengal elections, a fortnight after the Electronic Voting Machines revealed an unequivocal mandate for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. With the outcome revealing little or no scope for ambiguity, posterity will probably forget that even as late as the evening of May 18, after all the anecdotal evidence from the districts had been dissected by the pundits and analysts, there were a very large number of people who predicted that the next morning would see Mamata and her loyal followers scurrying for cover. On the final day of polling I had spoken at length to a Communist leader and a ‘dissident’ TMC parliamentarian at the Central Hall of Parliament. Both had assured me that the groundswell of anger against the Mamata administration was far beyond their wildest expectations and that the TMC was heading for a complete rout. One Left stalwart gleefully described Mamata’s apparently tense body language as she visited her offices for the “last time” before the declaration of results.

The wild optimism that had gripped the Congress-Left combine in the final days of the election campaign warrants mention. The idea is not to mock their horrible misreading of the situation: even the most experienced of political observers do get their sums wrong. It happened in May 2016, just as it has happened in the past and will happen in the future. Basically, all politicians live in an echo chamber and are inclined to talk up what they envisage is the reality. I recall the remarkable extent to which both non-Congress and media professionals failed to anticipate the phenomenal pro-Congress avalanche in 1984. Even a casual re-reading of the press coverage of that election demonstrates how the popular mood was insufficiently understood.

That the state unit of the CPI(M) miscalculated the verdict of May 2016 and ended up behind both the TMC and the Congress is apparent. In Left circles, this spectacular debacle is now the stuff of a fierce political battle involving the so-called ‘Bengal line’ and the orthodoxy. The Bengal CPI(M), it may be recalled, had basically told the Politburo to go and take a walk as it, inspired by Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, crafted a variant of a Left-Democratic alliance involving the existing Left Front and the Congress. It was a quiet rebellion and was quite unprecedented from the standpoint of the CPI(M) that, in its internal structures, still adhered to Lenin’s top-down command structure. The Bengal CPI(M) was more or less united in its resolve to include the Congress in a broad alliance against the TMC. Indeed, the local unit was so determined that many of its hotheads were even willing to contemplate a formal split in the party.

Now that the disastrous performance of the CPI(M) is a grim reality, there are some awkward choices that confront the party. First, a recalcitrant local party has informed the Politiburo that, far from admitting the error of its ways and shamefacedly falling in line, it proposes to continue the alliance with the Congress both inside and outside the Legislative Assembly, at least until the general election of 2019.

On its part, the Congress, which was the major (and unexpected) gainer from the alliance, has indicated it is willing to play ball with the CPI(M). Humbled in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and confronted with its own existential dilemmas vis a vis the rising regional parties, Congress Party spin doctors have lauded the Bengal experience as a way of blunting the BJP onslaught. Dejected promoters of the Congress-Left deal in West Bengal now say that the TMC prevailed only because a major chunk of the votes the BJP secured in the 2014 general election went totally in favour of the TMC. Earlier, during the campaign, it was presumed by the same people that the anticipated contraction of BJP votes would benefit the main anti-TMC combine. The presumption was a bit unreal since voters who lean towards the BJP are more than likely to favour other anti-Left forces as their second choice. But then, in hindsight, many of the political assumptions of the Congress-Left were based on the spurious belief that the battle to oust Mamata was essentially to restore civil liberties in the state.

Indeed, for the beleaguered CPI(M), the electoral battle in 2016 was essentially one of political survival. There was a time when the CPI(M) was driven by a desire to effect profound social change and use West Bengal as a springboard for expansion into the rest of the country. That dream was put to rest after more than three decades of uninterrupted power and the Left Front’s failure to introduce socialism in one province. By and large, those who joined the CPI(M) after Jyoti Basu’s victory in 1977 were driven by the desire to benefit from being on the right side of the political power structure. Once power slipped out of the Left hands in 2011 and the TMC mounted a campaign of ruthless expansion, the Left found itself struggling to just about stay afloat. It is interesting that, apart from a few mass rallies, the Left has been unable to intervene effectively at the constituency level since 2011. In short, the character of the Left and its political priorities has changed immeasurably. At its best, the Left has piggybacked on loose ‘progressive’ causes in a bid to roll back the advance of the BJP. To add insult to injury, as the swearing-in ceremony of Mamata last week demonstrated, it is being regarded as a bit player (if not a liability) by the regional parties that now dream of providing a ‘federal’ alternative to Narendra Modi in 2019.

The growing mismatch between Left hopelessness in West Bengal and the residual pretensions of revolutionary politics in the CPI(M) Politburo are now becoming increasingly visible. There is a growing contradiction between the CPI(M)’s larger political programme and the grim realities on the ground in West Bengal. At one time, revolutionary intransigence may have been a shield against the bad times but with international Communism now relegated to the history books, there is little hope for future optimism.

Traditionally, in India, Communists punched above their weight and made their impact through strategic interventions in the larger ‘progressive’ ecosystem. That might still happen if the Congress persists with its leftwards lurch but for the CPI(M) to remain relevant, it will have to undergo a doctrinal revision, incorporate the Congress into its definition of ‘democratic forces’ and, most important, reassess the relevance of being the ‘vanguard’ party of the proletariat.

Some of these shifts may have been forthcoming had the CPI(M) performed well in West Bengal. Unfortunately for it, the staggering setback has only hardened the resolve of those who see continuing merit in the historical legacy of the Red flag. If the CPI(M) is to maintain a relevance it can exercise two possible options. It can either make itself indistinguishable from the CPI of the mid-1970s by tailing the Congress. Alternatively, it can emulate the European examples and submerge itself into the largest ‘progressive’ party. The present incoherence can’t persist indefinitely.

The Telegraph, June 3, 2016

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