Orwellian Thoughts

A good friend and economist reminded me this morning that today is the 70th anniversary of the publication of “1984” by George Orwell. The book was written in 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War. A war which saw two totalitarian regimes and one set of democratic allies fight each other, killing millions. Orwell wrote the first draft in 1944 – at a time when it was clear that the Allies were winning, and the Western democratic world lead by Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to a division of the spoils with the Communist dictatorship lead by Joseph Stalin.

Orwell envisioned a dystopian, totalitarian world where an unknown global power tells us what to think, what to feel and who to love and hate. It is a follow on from his other analysis of how authoritarian societies behave – the pig farm in “Animal Farm”. Both these books arose from his fear of authoritarianism sweeping through the world, a communist menace replacing the fascist monster.

So many of the terms coined by Orwell have made it to general usage without us thinking of its origins: “Double-Speak”. “Double-Think”, “Big Brother Is Watching You”. And many more. The propaganda and manipulation techniques described in the book are part of any dictator’s playbook to this day. It is astonishing how prescient the book was, and why it is still so relevant today.

Orwell was not the first to imagine this kind of dystopian world. The prophesy of doom was also echoed by Arthur Koestler in his masterpiece “Darkness At Noon”, which largely describes the Stalinist purges of 1939. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was written in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was a cry for stability that generates a response in the form of an over-engineered world of genetic modifications and thought control. The origins are different but the implications are the same. A messy world that will be controlled by a greater power that uses technology to control how people think, behave, reproduce and live, to reduce the entropy to a point where all we have is dull uniformity.

And who can blame them for thinking so? The first half of the 20th century, for Europe, was one long period of instability and disorder, punctuated by a very brief period of wild prosperity and creativity. The forces of fascism and communism had reared their heads in response to the destruction of the existing political order in WW1. Fascism blamed the lack of racial uniformity for the ills of society. Communism put the blame on the dialectic between capital and labour. At least Communism had a body of thought behind it. Fascism was prejudice, pure and simple. Yet both of them used the tools of history to diagnose the ills of society and to promise a brighter future if the correct historical path was followed. In the case of Communism – a complete and total dictatorship of the working classes, and in the case of fascism, a continuous war on racial and ethnic impurity.

These historical pathways for the future – or historicism – was notably attacked by Karl Popper in his masterpiece “The Open Society and its enemies”. Popper opens the book with an attack on the forces of historicism.  When we look at society not from the ground level view of the ordinary man, but rather as an interplay of great forces and great actors that determine human progress. This view implies that there is a historical destiny that needs to be fulfilled. The doctrine of historicism states that “history is controlled by specific historical or evolutionary laws whose discovery would enable us to prophesy the destiny of man”.

One of the oldest forms of historicism is the doctrine of the chosen people – that God has chosen one set of people to function as the instrument of his will and these people will hence inherit the earth.  Popper says this grew out of tribalism. Tribalism sometimes becomes collectivism – in which the individual is smaller than the society – this being something it shares with tribalism. The path for the chosen people is going to be long and hard, with twists and turns. But to believers there is certainty of outcome.

Popper classifies both fascism and communism as modern forms of historicism. Fascism uses race as the mechanism to select the chosen people, Marxism uses class. Both forms of historicism interpret history to derive a law of development that guides the evolution of the chosen people. In the case of Racialism it is biological superiority of a race. In the case of Marxism it is an economic law of struggle for economic supremacy of a particular class.

The forces we have to fear are the forces of fascism. Fascist forces live. As the world lurches towards majoritarianism as a reaction to the liberal values that have prevailed over the last 70 years since the War, it is entirely possible that this self-correction may give shelter those who believe in concepts such as manifest destiny of a people – which is the basis for most historicist thinking. This is not to say that all majoritarianism is fascism – fascists are majoritarians by definition.

Is this a conflation? We do see identity politics now given full flow all over the world, using democratic means to gain power. We do see a certain narrow, thin-skinned view of the world that sees everyone in terms of their affiliation than their intentions. Citizenship is undergoing a re-definition. What kind of “Brave New World” awaits our children – the Huxleyan or the Shakespearean?

Remembering June 3 1989

Mumbai June 3 1989. I had just come in on the night train from Ahmedabad, and was going to Pune for a few days of down time.  Work was tough, and I had a lot going on in my life, not least of which was the fact that I had not seemingly settled down to domesticity like a number of my friends. I was not yet past my twenties but getting closer to the big hump. One of my closest friends who was the most bohemian of them all, had found love and a home. I was not sure where I was headed. My life had not changed that much, ever since I got out of business school. My job did not pay well. What I thought was the love of my life had ended up a bust. What did my future hold? Around me was a country that seemed frozen in time – the noise, the bustle, the vast numbers of people, the ramshackle infrastructure – all of them seemed to indicate that I was in a static world slowly gathering mould, as was my own existence.

I looked around me at ordinary people in the bus with that sense of discombobulation that young people have. My friendly Sony Multiband Radio was in my backpack with headphones to my ears. My favourite station, BBC World Service, was on. It was morning. And what I heard astonished me.

Through the ether came the voices of radio broadcasters telling the world that young men and women in China were doing an incredibly courageous thing. They were asking for the right to live fully free lives, free to say what they want, live where they want and be who they want. They wanted the Party to butt out of their lives. They were willing to fight for these rights, and if needed, to die for these rights.

It’s easy to dismiss these as mere clichés. But on the radio, the sounds of the passion and intensity of protest were loud and strident and very, very real. As was the gunfire and the shouts of kids dying as the State finally decided on a bloody end.

Today, images of Tien An Men crowd the media, especially that of the young man in front of the tanks.  Sitting on the bus, headphones stuck to my ears, the words that I heard seemed to convey the sense of a brand new beginning taking place in one of the oldest countries in the world.

Tensions had been building up since the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989. China was then experimenting with letting economic freedom develop while trying to keep strict political control under the Communist Party.  Scarce eight years before, Deng Xiao Ping had enabled Chinese people to break free of the economic shackles of the Party.

The students had been in occupation of Tien An Men for a few weeks, demanding liberty and political freedom. When the crackdown came, it came on the orders of Deng Xiao Ping, who took the opportunity to side-line (and later exile internally) his great rival Zhao Ziyang who appeared sympathetic.  People’s Liberation Army soldiers in tanks and armoured cars poured into the Square, firing into the crowd and killing and wounding thousands.  As we all know, the State never fell and the revenge of the Chinese state was swift.

I did not realize then, that a scarce three years later, I would find myself standing on Tien An Men Square. All traces of those events three years ago were wiped clean. However, not all the scars. The big buildings surrounding the Square, on what is Chang’An (Long March) Avenue, still carried bullet holes from the machine guns that day,  These were pointed out to me by the young Chinese computer programmers I was hiring for my company to work on automation.  I asked them what really happened.  They would go silent, shake their heads and tell me “Many people died”.  Nothing more was said.  The book shop at the Shangri La Hotel had a Chinese Government publication on sale that went by the title of “The Truth About June 3 1989”.  I still have a copy. It had pictures of dead and dying youth, all labelled as Party activists and unarmed soldiers, who had been brutally massacred by the counter-revolutionaries.  All said with a straight face.

Anyone who has spent some time in China will tell you that they are the nicest people, very friendly and eager to learn and make something of themselves. They are also fiercely proud of being Chinese. They have had the most horrible transition from an ancient Empire to a modern State.

And yet it is amazing that these kids still trust and believe in the idea of a strong Chinese state to get them back to the great nation they once were. The State has become more and more authoritarian as the Chinese Republic rapidly becomes wealthier and more powerful by the day. The Party knows it has the people with it as long as they keep delivering wealth and stability and a tiny bit of freedom,  but is not taking any chances. Every June 3,  the old men at Zhongnanhai remember how close the state came to collapse and prepare to head off any more threats to the State. Preventive arrests, a further clampdown on the press, threats to foreign media – the usual formula. Like this year.

In his book “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, Milan Kundera talks of how the Communist State would make an “un-person” of a person in order to remove him from public memory.  June 3 1989 will not be forgotten.  At some point the Chinese State will come to terms with what happened. But not any time soon.

Listening to archives of some of those broadcasts brings those memories back. It was heady to listen to those events, and also incredibly sad. At the same time, so empowering that young people always want to change the world for the better.  The BBC was right in front.   In China – and to me – shortwave radio was indeed the window to the world,. Listen to this broadcast from Radio Beijing, dated June 3 1989. The announcer later spent several years in a Re-education Camp.  And to this.

I have to ask myself if India should have had it’s own Tien An Men moment. When young people came out to ask for change, to ask for the status quo to be demolished. For the State to be more responsive. Beneath the garb of democracy the Indian state can be just as venal. Are our youth too compliant, too passive, too accepting of the many ways used by politicians to make them blind to what would be blindingly obvious – the lack of jobs, of prospects, of real change?

I remember that day on the bus so vividly. Full of hope, and sadness.

 

 

 

 

Making sense of India 2019 – A Review

The scale and depth of the BJP-lead National Democratic Alliance’s victory in the 2019 General Election has taken everyone by surprise.  A few outliers (like my own friend Salil Shetty) predicted a narrow defeat, but most observers put the BJP in the 250-seat range, placing their Alliance within touching distance of a majority. No one was prepared for the actual results.

I believe these elections mark a sea-change in the political landscape of India.  Very clearly, it appears that the liberal-secular agenda is under threat. But is it really case? I have been doing some reading on this.

First, lets examine the Muslim position. The Indian Muslim elite do not say much. That is perhaps not a good thing in itself.  Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) said that the Hindu mind had been rigged against Muslims by the BJP, but that as an Indian and a Muslim, he accepted the verdict and would oppose the government on issues of policy. That’s a fair position given the tone of the campaign from the BJP.  But a more informed comment came from across the border in Bangladesh.

Writing in the Dhaka Chronicle, Shafiqur Rehman asks the profound question:

If and when modern humanism and liberalism crashes and burns, will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?

He actually asked this question two years ago in a blog post that I admire for its honesty.  He further argues:

By obdurate refusal to accept the fundamental assumptions of post-enlightenment worldview, by obstinate resistance to assimilate with the mainstream when in the minority and by dogged persistence in recreating antediluvian theocracies when in majority, Muslims not only undermined the universal validity of the whole liberal project, but also sowed deep doubts about the liberal project among its previously most faithful adherents.

Is this an issue innate to the religion itself, or is it a failure of Muslims everywhere to adapt? It is true that a right-wing nationalist juggernaut swept everything in its wake away, but is it true that this is a recent phenomenon? Could we say that all of this began in 1991 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed?  Again, a different point of view from Vinay Sitaram (who wrote the must-read biography of P V Narasimha Rao).

 

Hindu nationalism was born exactly 100 years ago. The colonial Government of India’s Act of 1919 allowed for direct (though limited) elections, a first in Indian history. Never before had Indians, as Indians, been able to choose their leaders. In a society composed of individuals with interests, this would have resulted in the ideal of western-style democracy. But in a society composed of groups with identities, the logic of democracy began to be seen through the prism of demographics. For the first time in Indian history, numbers could translate into power.

A remarkable insight, and one that was hidden in plain sight. Universal elections exposed the Hindu faith for what it really was – a majority.  Subjugated by Islamic rulers, and then by the British who also demonized their religion as being pagan, backward, worthless and backward – it now had the power to look at itself very differently.  It required politicians to unlock that self-image in very different forms.  Gandhiji took the soft approach –  he took the elite Indian National Congress by the scruff of its posh neck and dragged it into rural India, asking Congressmen to imbibe the spirit of India and infusing in it a basic concern with the reform of Hinduism, and invoking the mythical spirit of Ram Rajya.  He sought a modus vivendi with all people of India while retaining his religious affiliation in the most obvious way possible. It was “Vaishnav Jana To” on one hand, and his deep endorsement of the Khilafat movement on the other.

The birth of the Hindu Mahasabha, around the same time, raised the Hindu question but in a wholly different way. It was a response to the aborted Bengal Partition on communal lines in 1905, the Minto-Morley Reforms in 1906 and the formation of the Muslim League. Veer Savarkar raised the question of whether or not Hindus and Muslims could ever co-exist in a single geographical entity. It gave birth to Hindu movements that sat uncomfortably with the secular Independence Movement. The demand for Pakistan in 1940 and Partition gave impetus to the movement, leading ultimately to the assassination of the Mahatma in 1948.

The Hindu project never really died in the aftermath of Partition and the assassination of the Mahatma. It just lay low. So what happened that shifted the momentum towards the BJP? After all, did they not win just two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984? Here’s Shekhar Gupta:

We are marking the end of the Mandal-Mandir politics and the unfolding of the Modi epoch…In 1989 ..the BJP, reduced to two in Lok Sabha by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, had begun to see a chance for a comeback in the last year of his prime ministership. Rajiv confidant and defence minister V.P. Singh had rebelled, and looked the natural leader for an alliance to replace Rajiv….(L K Advani) wanted the BJP to win power on its own. For this, the BJP needed an agenda going beyond the day’s flavour: Defeating “corrupt” Rajiv. He picked up Ayodhya, combining aggressive nationalism with Hindu revival. This was his Mandir doctrine.

The 1989 VP Singh Government was propped up by the BJP. In a desire to create his own vote bank, V P Singh revived and implemented the Mandal Commission Report, expanding reservations to castes not previously included. It sparked off a caste war that continues to this day, while at the same time, Advani opened a fissure between Hindu and Muslim by getting a mob to knock down the Babri Masjid while he toured the interiors of India spreading the message of the temple.

It is Shekhar Gupta’s view that the Mandir vs Mandal war has been settled now.

The 2019 verdict has ended that. To say that Mandir has triumphed Mandal will miss the point. It is more like Mandir, under Modi and Amit Shah, has subsumed Mandal. Helped along by Modi’s rise as India’s first full-term, full-majority OBC prime minister winning a second term, the Mandalite vote-banks are broken. Modi has taken the mantle from both Mandal and Mandir.

In terms of political geology, this isn’t just a tectonic shift, it is a continental collision. How has it come about? What are its consequences? What will it take going ahead to contest it, and invent a new pole in Indian politics?

Caste never really disappears from Indian politics, its roots are too deep and loyalties are too tribal.  For now, caste has lost. Here’s Shekhar Gupta again:

Modi and Shah have dared to take the BJP where Advani and his generation had not dreamed. Their Mandir polarisation was read by the heartland voters with their evident sympathy with the upper caste anti-Mandal suicide-burners. Modi and Shah have actively reached out to the OBCs and Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh, they’ve been breaching both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s vote-banks, diminishing them essentially to single-caste leaders — Jatavs and Yadavs respectively.

The rest are gravitating towards the BJP. Since it already has a Hindu nationalist upper caste vote-bank, these additional numbers give it devastating power. Bihar has been handed over to a non-BJP OBC leader (Nitish Kumar); the leader of a large and powerful Dalit group, Ram Vilas Paswan, has been accommodated. The challenge of Mandal, which kept BJP out of power for almost two of the past three decades, was put to flames in 2019.

What about the man himself? Clearly a force of nature, indefatigable, energetic, imperious and most of all, carries the image of being clean and incorruptible. Listen to Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

Modi deserves his victory. But this is also a moment of dread for Indian democracy. Let us be clear. This is the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history. Never has a force emerged, not even the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, where a leader had such unchallenged power in the party, a party organisation this energised, complete control over capital, and a vast set of civil society organisations that are poised for dominance in every institution in every corner of the country. India’s fate is now truly in his hands. This victory puts an imprimatur on the idea that India has given up on the central tenets of its politics. In both its institutional and aesthetic form, this is a victory for electoral Caesarism pure and simple, where the power of every institution, from business to religious institutions, will revolve around one man. In ideological terms, it is a victory for majoritarianism, a desire to openly marginalise minorities and assert the cultural hegemony of Hindutva. In sociological terms, this is yet another blow to those who peddle illusions about the power of caste and regional politics. Those identities are breaking down, and ripe for appropriation for the larger project of Hindutva. It is probably also the case that despite the cult of toxic masculinity that characterises BJP’s ideological discourse, Modi upended the politics of gender in new and creative ways. There are now no barriers to the Hindutva project that we take for granted that emanate from social structure. This is a victory for the politics of unreality. The Modi government has several successes to its credit. It certainly managed to create a sense that some of its schemes touched the lives of more people than ever before. But let us be clear: Modi has not won because of his economic success; he has won despite his economic failures. The economy is tottering at a growth rate that feels closer to four or four-and-a-half per cent. That this election was almost entirely bereft of a serious economic narrative of hope does not portend well. To be fair, the Opposition did not have any eye-catching ideas either. Indian elites are now compensating for a faltering India story, a make believe world where our explanation of our failures is the fragmentation of power. If only we gave one man more power, he would do wonders: Nationalism became a refuge for us, because participating in it seems to vicariously lift us, even though it does not do anything to secure India’s future. This is also, finally, a victory of the politics of fear and hate. In 2014, Modi struck a hopeful chord; perhaps it was easier as an outsider. But this campaign was a relentlessly negative one, full of mendacity and hate. This is not a poison that is easy to roll back.

Perhaps the most telling comment Mehta makes is this:

(Modi) has fully grasped the potential of a dangerous idea in democracy: That even evil that has a whiff of a larger cause about it has the power to move more than civility that is tainted with pettiness.

So that does this mean for Indian politics?  Sitapati again:

This creation of a Hindu vote-bank has been a hundred-year project. In order to achieve this, it has been necessary to play up (and in many cases invent) what Hindus have in common. This ranges from common cultural grammar (a taboo against beef, the uniform worship of Lord Ram and now, a common reaction to Pulwama) as well as common loathing of Muslims as the “other”.

And does it mean Indian politics has now been frozen for a period of time?  Shekhar Gupta:

Under the BJP’s 303 and 52 of the Congress, are two important numbers. The BJP’s votes have risen to 22.6 crore now from 17.1 crore in 2014. The Congress vote has also risen to 11.86 crore from 10.69 crore. The combined 2014 tally of 27.79 crore between them has now risen to 34.46 crore. In percentage terms, this is 57 per cent of the total vote compared to 50.3 in 2014. The vote Mandalite and other regional forces took away, is gravitating back to national parties. That’s why, you may take the Congress lightly, Modi and Shah won’t.

A new chapter has begun. Hindu Rashtra is here, delivered by the ballot box.  Time will tell what it means.

Songbirds…

April 17 2013

There is something wonderful about the black American songstress of the days gone by.  They were usually big, with voices to match.  I can always tell a black singer from her voice, because of a certain something, a je ne sais quoi in their voices, in particular, in the voices of the great jazz singers of the 50s and later.   I venture an extreme opinion here when I say that singers of that era invariably were less schooled and less adept in the use of technology than their soul sisters of later decades.  For one – they had to graduate to the recording studio by singing in clubs and speakeasies, in smoky and noisy conditions where they had to make themselves heard. Second, recording technology was not as advanced as it is in these days, so a less than perfect voice could not be digitally tampered with.  As a result their voices sounded more authentic – a naturally lower timbre and the ability to hit high notes with great ease.

Last week I received my long lost consignment of LPs from France and among them was the treasured “At Last” by Etta James.  Etta was born during the Depression to a single mother who had an unsettled life – many jobs, many men, and no money.  No one knows for sure who her father was.  She was brought up in a foster home and discovered singing in a club.   Recording contracts followed. After she was relatively successful with a couple of big hits, the Argo label signed her and released this song and the eponymous LP in 1960.  The song itself was moderately successful initially, but over the years has acquired a sheen. Just listen to the voice here, filled with longing for the loved one who is finally with her.

Music reflects the times, and it is very difficult to separate the performance from the context. This brings to mind the incomparable Queen of Soul, the one and only Aretha Franklin.  One of most beautiful songs from the 60s is “I never loved a man (the way I loved you)”.  And here is a story behind it.  Atlantic Records (founded by the Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun) signed Aretha from another label.  She was then flown to Atlanta to meet the backing band.  This was during the 60s, civil rights, black power etc.  The story goes that she met the band – all of whom were white and of course, all enamoured of this young lady who had already shown her talent.  So they sat down, Aretha on the piano, and they banged out this song in two hours flat. It is very hard to not discern the natural desire of a newbie to showcase her talents even if it was to an admiring bunch of musicians who had not an ounce of prejudice. But this was the sixties in the South, and one can almost hear Aretha say – listen to this, boys, you ain’t heard nothing like this.

Love songs are normally about longing and absence – at least that was how they were. Therefore it is quite rare to come across this gem of a song that combines the longing of love with the pure lust of union, no matter how wrong it is or how messy the whole aspect of a man and a woman in love can get in life. Bessie Smith was another great black musician, who lived between 1895 or so until he tragic death in a car accident in 1937. She started life as a busker and lived a hard life.  The story goes that when she was taken to hospital after the accident the hospital refused to admit her because she was black. The original recording by Bessie Smith is here. However – no disrespect to Bessie – I prefer the version by Nina Simone.  Nina was a regal singer with a strong voice. She took Bessie’s original song and lyrics and modified it in 1968.  I prefer it to Bessie’s – probably because the permissive 60s allowed Nina to include the lust in love into the song.  Here it is – it really catches you by the throat.

And how can one not talk of the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald.  She lived a long and honored life, culminating in the Congressional Medal of Freedom awarded by Bush 41.  Born in 1917, she had a difficult and unhappy childhood but soon began singing on stage until her first recording contract.  She sang scat and bebop, but really became the darling of the American people when Verve Records (a label created around her!)  got her to record the Cole Porter Songbook.  This became the first of a series of records that focused on a single composer and helped establish them in the pantheon as serious musical works.  She also performed a subtle service to America – here was a black woman singing the songs that were predominantly composed by, sung by and listened to by the white American public.  There are many songs by Ella to choose from but my personal favourite is from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, “Manhattan”.  So evocative of that wonderful city, and so full of the simple joys of love between an ordinary guy and an ordinary girl.  What could be more democratic than that?

Let’s conclude with my personal favourite from Billie Holiday.  Another big black lady, with a voice that was made for wit and play with a beautiful vibrato.  Her childhood was anything but happy.  Born in 1915 to a teenage single mother, she spent her childhood with a relative for the most part since her mother worked on the railroads.  Billie (born Eleanora Fagan) played truant from school at the age of 10 and was sent to reform school. At the age of 11 her neighbour raped her.  Her mother moved to Harlem, and both mother and daughter became prostitutes.   She was arrested and released at the age of 14.  She then started singing in bars and clubs in Harlem. Talent will out, and she made her first record at the age of 18.  Towards the end of her life (she died in 1959) she made an album for Verve whose title song “Day In Day Out”  showcases her amazing talent. The sheer joy of it belies her incredibly difficult and tragic life.  And when you listen to it you will understand why she is one of the great influences on jazz and pop singers since.

This cannot be an exhaustive list by any means and neither is this anything but a set of purely subjective opinions.  I love these songbirds, and listening to them gives me hours of joy. It is always poignant to remember how unhappy their lives were, and wrought from these tempestuous beginnings were a musical gift we must treasure. Do explore these singers.  Switch on the music. Take your favorite senor or senorita by the hand to the dance floor.  On commence!

 

Reaction from a friend to my post

My brother in law, who is also a close friend, sent this reaction to my two posts on secularism and what Congress should do.

“Regarding your blog, I have a fundamental question. Why should congress change in all those ways to win power? It is what it is and let it run its course. Why can’t BJP be the party to do it all and be in power? Why should we have two national parties? Why can’t we have sound regional parties to be a check on BJP the national party? Why should BJP be seen as a Hindu party, and if it is so, why is it always in a pejorative sense? I am not so sure that it is so. Why should we not push for an inclusive, humane, pluralistic party which is Hindu because hinduism is all that? Other than Godhra, which was in retaliation, where did it act with impunity in majority hegemony? Beef ban makes humanitarian, health and environment sense. The world will get rid of much of animal meat over time for other reasons even if BJP doesn’t do it for religious reasons. BJP stands for plurality too but on terms that also respects the will of the majority. What it does not stand for is a plurality that appeases the minority and runs roughshod over the concerns of the majority. Look at the nonsense in the Sabarimala issue. The judicial overreach is atrocious. The legislative ought to have peritioned the executive to moderate the judiciary. BJP didn’t have the guts to do it in an election year. Society must be dealt with by people on the merits of things as they are in time and not only as how they ought to be in theory, as per the constitution. For too long now, it has been fashionable to be left-of center as a position of moral and intellectual superiority. Nationalism has a bad rap because it is conflated with jingoism and denigrated. Look at the US too, where the Silicon Valley social liberals denigrate nationalism, lobby govt and park their profits & esops overseas while waxing eloquent about liberal values and inclusion. It’s time to call a spade a spade and spare the niceties. I believe we will be better off working to refine BJP to align with true Hindu pacifist, pluralist and tolerant values without succumbing to populism and appeasement.”

I promised him I would reply on the blog. Here goes:

  1. The suggestions I made (on what the Congress should do) can be followed by any party wishing to be a national party.  I proposed Congress only because they try to be national.  There is no need for an avowedly regional party to do any of these on a national scale. But they can try.
  2. You question why there should be another national party other than the BJP and why should we not let the BJP pretty much run things nationally.  I am quite surprised at this. Do you wish to change the Constitution, and mandate that only the BJP can function as the governing party? Such a thing is possible – look at China. Or do you wish the Singapore model where even though it is a pluralist democracy on paper, in practice only the PAP wins. I assume you do not want this to be the case.
  3. India’s regional parties run states. Running a State is a local affair. For a check on the BJP (the winner of the 2019) election, you need to be present in Parliament at the Centre. Now this can be a coalition of regional parties that are represented at the centre via the Lok Sabha elections. However someone needs to challenge the ruling party on national issues. If a regional party is able to do that, fine. But the track record is dismal.

The BJP IS a Hindutva Party, not a Hindu party. Hinduism stands for a number of universal values – just as any religion does. But if these religions gain political power the result is pernicious because the power is wielded by human beings and not by the lofty concepts that drive the religion. Romila Thapar (that much hated and reviled historian – reviled by those who have not read a word she wrote) makes a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. Hindutva is a political philosophy based on bringing in tenets and concepts dear to the majority. Most of these are difficult to disagree with. Even cow slaughter – but more on that in a while. The tricky bits have to do with how the proponents of Hindutva deal with people who are not Hindu.

The real question here is how is your citizenship defined. Do you need to be a Hindu to be a citizen? Or are you a premier-grade citizen if you are Hindu but children of a lesser God if you are not? Or does citizenship have nothing do with religion but based on your adherence to the expectations of the State (based on which you get certain rights that are no different from those of anyone else)?  My friend – if your answer is the last because it appeals to your natural sense of fairness (which I know you possess), you have selected Secularism as the basis of the state.

Two points in your post will be answered below in points:

  • Cow Slaughter:  Many Hindus eat beef. There are poorer people in Tamil Nadu who eat beef. It is not just a Muslim or Christian practice. Meat eating is responsible for livestock-originated methane emissions. At some point the entire human race has to give up eating meat. The reason the BJP took a position on this is not because of concern for the environment – entirely to do with Hindutva politics. It is laughable to think otherwise.
  • Godhra and Gujata 2002: It was so monstrous – this retaliation you admit – that I do not think any other example is needed. By the way the man who slept at the switch, called the refugee camps “Baby Making Camps” – is running the shop now. We can now cue “did not Congress do so” etc – but that is not what is being discussed

Everything else – well, we are not perfect and I am too old to think that a potential majoritarian government by the BJP ruling as the sole national party is going to be benevolent, benign entity.

I think you saw my blog on Congress and simply saw Red. You probably thought I held a candle for the Congress and was teaching them methods of combating this rightful, benign set of saffron-clad Hindus. Nothing is further from the truth. The BJP needs an Opposition. Someone will provide it.

In my blog on secularism  I have clearly stated that India has and had no choice but be secular, and explained why. But that does not excuse the monstrous and mala fide misuse of secularism. I cannot change the past but fully acknowledge that this should not happen again.

India has a surprisingly mature polity. Even if the BJP wins 400 seats, they will not be able to convert this into a Saffron Strong State as some people wish. The best that I can hope for is that they show future national parties what happens if the secular credo is misused or misinterpreted. You open the door for the Orbans, the Trumps and the Modis.

Preparing for 2025: What should Congress do?

It is clear that the BJP and Allies will form the next government. At the time of writing, results are not yet out and we have exit polls forecasting anything from 260 to 330 for the NDA. The polls are not going to be so off-base that the NDA would end up with something like 220 or so. So lets spend a few minutes on what the only other National Party should do in these circumstances, to ensure that they win the next elections.

  • Remove the Gandhi Family from all posts:   The presence of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi as leaders of the Congress campaign was a huge mistake. It allowed Modi to relentlessly target them as examples of entitled, out-of-touch, dynastic rule.  Which is true, by the way. Key opponents of the BJP like Nitish Kumar, Mamta Banerji, Amarinder Singh, Arvind Kejriwal – to take a few names – have administrative experience and grassroots political appeal. Rahul and Priyanka have only their names.  New India does not care very much about the leaders from 70 years ago. Even the venerable Gandhiji is not safe. As an electoral card to play, these two were the worst.  But it goes beyond that.  The Congress must sever all links and connections with the Gandhis. It must dismiss their faithful family courtiers and end their (apparent) financial dependence on the Gandhis. I pass no judgement on the kind of people Rahul and Priyanka are. They must return to their private lives. In exchange I would hope Amit Shah and Narendra Modi leave them alone. The Indian State can be vicious and venal when it wants to be.
  • Immediately elect a young leader :The Congress has a name and an appeal to Indians who care more for their livelihoods and yet want to see fairness in society. There has to be a few young leaders familiar with the organisation who need to take the reins. I can think of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia only because they are relatively young, are supposed to be intelligent, and have appeal to the Hindi heartland while being cosmopolitan enough to appeal to non-Hindi India. There may be others. This person, elected immediately, must get rid of the Gandhis. Once done, go back to becoming a genuine cadre-based party drawing competent leaders from the ground up. This requires serious work but it needs to be done to counter the BJP.
  • Become a party of economic competence:  The Congress manifesto for the recent elections shows that it is prepared to think seriously about the economy. Had the elections been about economic management, they would have won. But that was not the case. See Point 1.  This is a key strength that needs to built on. GST, Aadhaar and the initial moves towards cleaning up bank books and holding promoters to account were all Congress initiatives. Credit to the BJP that they followed through on them when in power. It is sad that both parties resorted to populism but the Indian voter is more perceptive than that. The country faces long term economic issues. While the government grapples with the short term the Congress has develop its nous on the long term challenges. Let me outline a few. 
    1. India’s agricultural economy needs a serious overhaul. Land holdings are small, there is over-employment to the extent of 250 million (while it can employ just 50m), productivity is low, water usage is inefficient – I can go on. Throwing money is not the solution. There needs to be a localised, sector by sector plan to sort this out over the next ten years. The farmer used to be a traditional Congress strength. The party can go down to the grassroots to work with NGOs, scientists, agronomists to solve some of these problems and find market solutions for them.
    2. Industrial employment needs to grow. There is no place to absorb these 250m workers. The expected fiscal stimulus from the government will help in the short run but long term planning is essential to build and sustain domestic industrial capacity.  Focus on creating industrial capacity will bring into line thoughts on industrial inputs like coal, steel, material, transport. Instead of treating them as sectors the congress must focus on growing industrial employment.
    3. Creating a smaller state. The touchpoints of the state in the daily lives of citizens and employers is still too many. In the last five years, this has improved tremendously but still needs to improve further. This should be a key Congress focus.
    4. Local Self Government. How much more Gandhian can this get? To reduce the feeling that the State is an impersonal, oppressive, distant entity, it is important to get local citizens direct access to their local government. They should elect them, the local government must be answerable to them, and citizens must expect daily, incremental improvements such as cleaner pavements, cleaner roads, etc.
    5. Police Reform.  The Indian police system is inherited from colonial rule. From a law and order organisation it has to become more of a community enabler. This could be one of the Congress areas of focus.
    6. Environment.  The Congress must champion the cause of removing single-use plastics from our daily lives. This has to be a local campaign at ground level. Right now laws are made but totally ignored – or followed only when the police show up. The Congress can become effective community organisers in this area. 
    7. Energy and Climate Change.  India’s energy needs in the next ten years must come out of alternate sources like atomic energy, tidal, hydro, solar and others. Congress must think about all these and present credible solutions to the public.
  • Connect with the local public through grassroots organisations: Go back to the community organiser ethos of the Congress in British days, with credible ideas and proposals for the areas outlined above. Be known as a competent party that has policies to put into effect immediately.
  • Keep Religion out of politics: The Congress brought a bad name to secularism, which is still the best way to govern India. Promote fairness amongst all. Publicly disavow all previous cases where the Congress pandered to minority or majoritarian interest. If you defenestrate the Gandhis, that gives you an immediate clean slate on this. Work with Muslim groups to become more Indic without abandoning their faith. Publicly admit that there is an agenda to change population demographics in Bengal and Assam through legitimisation of illegal immigration. This will win them a lot of friends and they can do this without becoming a “soft Hindutva” party  – a strategy that failed in the 2019 elections

These are some thoughts on what the Congress can do. Losing an election is not a bad thing, it tells you a lot about what the people actually want. Indian democracy and our institutions are very strong. The Congress can become the agent of change for India. We have been around for 5,000 years. There is time ahead. Grasp the mantle!

 

 

 

Rethinking Secularism in India

In a deeply religious society, struggling to balance modernity with tradition, is it is a mistake to consider religion a private business that has nothing to do with the state? Or should we concede that religion is too important a subject to be treated as an item outside the purview of the state?

Let us consider a few examples of how modern states have dealt with religion.

The United States is secular in construct. Yet Christianity pervades the State and inflames its politics. The secular divide is alive and well in the US. Right wing Christianity is the bedrock of the Republican Party, and a secular, liberal outlook informs the Democrats. Yet in daily life – with some broad exceptions – race matters more than religion. A black Christian man may find it difficult to get a job in some cases even though he is Christian, because of his skin colour. The Constitution, the Courts, the Bill of Rights and the system of Government do not acknowledge any religion and are willing to be tested on it – as indeed has been done over the past 150 years.

The United Kingdom – and indeed most of Western Europe – can safely be described as post-Christian societies. Though the majority of the population are born or descended from Christian parents, people today hardly practise it, and indeed, the Church struggles to keep places of worship open and staffed. Despite the Head of the State in the UK being the Defender of the Protestant Faith, no one in their right minds would describe the UK as being anything other than firmly secular.

China bans any form of organisation that could supplant or supplement the role of the Communist Party in Chinese society. Though the country is no longer Communist in practice, it controls religious practice and frowns upon those religions that have a focal point outside China. It regulates the Catholic Church, and it actively suppresses Islam. The State is determinedly secular (unless you consider Chinese Communism a religion it itself).

India was born in the middle of the worst religious strife seen anywhere. A theory that the two nations – Hinduism and Islam – were incapable of existing in the same political entity was floated, supported and given action to – all in 10 years time. But that did not solve any problem. The newly independent India ended up with more Muslims than the new State of Pakistan. Muslim majority states went to Pakistan. Hindu majority territories went to India. And those that had a mixed population were ruthlessly divided in the middle. Millions were displaced. Millions died. And the wounds are raw to this day.

It would have been natural for India to hew to a quasi-Hindu state structure. After all, the Father of the Nation was assassinated by a Hindu extremist and the nation was raw from the wounds of partition. Many members of the Congress were strongly pre-disposed to being Hindus first – Sardar Patel, K M Munshi, Babu Rajendra Prasad, for example. But the collective decision was to declare India a secular Republic.

Seventy-odd years on, the secular dispensation is under threat and I think it is because the weight of reality that challenges the ideological position. Secularism has also been grossly misused and misinterpreted. It is time to consider a modified version of the same philosophy, that may better reflect the Indian reality. Specifically, the Indian State seems to wish to renegotiate its relationship to its largest minority – Islam. So lets talk a bit about Islam.

A detailed reading of the Quran is revelatory. It is safe to say that many Muslims have not read it. I relied on translations and also commentaries (the one I used was by Barney Rogerson). In the middle of all the injunctions to kindness, brotherhood and love, there is much that can be taken literally by the ignorant and feed hate. Those parts of Christian scripture that are extreme in view are not taken seriously by 99.9% of its followers (except some crackpots in the United States). But Islam does tend to be black and white – and mullahs who do not understand the Quran re-inforce these contrasts instead of mediating them for the modern world. Perhaps this is part of its origin myth. The TopKapi Museum in Istanbul used to have letters written by the Prophet, saying to the receiver – “Convert Or Die”.

Islam has not been able to deal with the sudden and precipitous loss of temporal power from the 18th/19th Centuries. Examples – the end of the Mughals in India in 1857 (largely symbolic by that point), the humiliations heaped on Persia, the gradual then sudden destruction of the Ottomans and their significant satrapies (like Egypt), the Balkan Wars, the re-creation of the myth of Greece into Greek Independence —- I could go on. Wahhabi Islam and the Barelvi/Deobandi school start with this as the basis. Islam would have remained a quiescent religion for the rest of the 20th Century, nursing its grievances and lashing out once in a while, but for the discovery of oil in the desert sands.

Post the OPEC Oil Shock, and the abandonment of Bretton Woods (leading to the petro-dollar), real economic power now rests in the hands of Muslim nations. Combined with the resentment of the past 200 years, fed and kept alive by mullahs, and the ability to fuel that resentment with money, the world has become a dangerous place for anyone who is not Muslim – in greater or lesser degree.

The Muslim believes in Dar-Ul-Harb and Dar-Ul-Islam. Dar-Ul-Harb is a land where Muslims live that is not ruled by Muslims. The aim of a good Muslim (according to the Quran) is to be a good citizen but work towards the creation of a Dar-Ul-Islam (a land ruled by Islam). India used to be Dar-Ul-Islam and is now Dar-Ul-Harb. This loss is felt keenly by the extremist Mullahs.

In spite of these well-known ideological issues with Islam, what do we do about the huge Indian Muslim minority – largely law abiding, and largely in peaceful co-existence with the Hindu majority. Would extremism towards them help? I am not sure. It might have the opposite effect, and we would be handed with an administrative and law and order problem of a huge magnitude. Do we tell them “You are second class and by definition suspect because you touch your head towards Mecca five times a day and read the Koran”? What is the probability that this could lead to the creation of more extremists? This is akin to the view the Nazis had on Jews. They are suspect by race. There is no argument, no recourse, no redemption. Only death.

I started to wonder recently if secularism in the Indian context was, in hindsight, a mistake. I do not believe for a moment that there was any kind of mala fide in this. Indeed, decisions have to be understood in the context of the time and times during they were made. Given the ghastly riots in 1947, the reaction of Patel and Nehru was to banish religion from the State. This separation of Church and State, had it been done the proper way, would have resulted in many benefits. I can make a short list – the Uniform Civil Code, Right to Property, Right to Education, Regulation of Religious Places, Blindness to Faith in Citizenship. You may agree or disagree with the list, but you will agree that we have not been able to achieve what an ideal secular state should achieve. Perhaps it is because the ideal is never attainable; but I am willing to accept that many of the distortions were deliberate and conscious, and in cases, totally mala fide.

I think making India a Hindu State would not have been the right answer. Had India declared Hinduism as the State religion, it may have lead to worsening unrest and more bloodshed, as other Muslim areas of the country asserted identity over citizenship. It is too frightening to contemplate.

What if, in a counterfactual world, India had indeed accepted that faith formed a huge part of the lives of our vast uneducated millions. What if we had declared as follows: India is a religious state that is home to the great religions. It is home to Hinduism – that most tolerant and peaceful of faiths that has always allowed in people of all faiths and let them make their home here, regardless of how they came to this land and why. But in a poor, diverse, largely illiterate State like ours, the concept of citizenship in a modern state is likely to be misunderstood or not understood by many people. Therefore India needs to ensure that its religions work in the interest of the State. To do so, the government set up independent bodies answerable to the President, that would guide religious practices to ensure they serve the State. There would be a Hindu Council, and Islamic Council, a Council for the Christian Faiths, A Sikh Council and a Council for Smaller Faiths. Without getting into the how of it (which I am happy to attempt), the Council would provide guidance on how Hindu children (depending on language and area) would learn about their faith, ensure that the religious teachers of each faith were available in schools and colleges, that the teaching in each establishment would not educate against the State (thus addressing the big issue with Islam), that faiths that had transnational loyalties (Islam and the Catholic faith) were able to guide themselves to be Indian first (without going the Chinese Communist way in terms of regulation).

I think the big mistake that we are discovering is that rather than co-opt in the fact that religion is important, we have taken the western way and designed it out. Though the US is secular it is Christian in politics. Western European countries have lost their Christianity, and are now grappling with Islam. Their model also does not work. Pushing religion outside the State in India means that non-state actors take control. This is true of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. All the distortions taking place today are because of non-state actors. The reason leftist liberals take umbrage against the BJP today is because the BJP is incorporating Hinduism into its political message. Technically, unconstitutional by definition. But what if we change the definition?

The more reasoned opponent of the current secular framework believes an un-modernised faith cannot co-exist with a modern state. There are many things that our founding fathers could have done differently. We should remember that the poison of religion had infected Indian politics by the 1920s. A secular opposition to British Rule was easily fragmented and exploited by the British. Jinnah seized the initiative in 1940 and proceeded to define the terms of India’s Statehood in terms of what it could not be. It could not be a religious state just when one part of an ancient whole had decided to part on the basis of religion – leaving more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. The only sane response to this ridiculous state of affairs was to state clearly, that the new Indian State had no religion. Patel, Nehru and Gandhi could have done differently, but I look at the larger picture – toward the extraordinary lives they lead – and remember that mistakes made were not mala fide.

We are now at the cross-roads. We need to have an urgent debate about this. We need to sit down with our Muslim and Christian and Hindu friends, and discuss how to renew the Indian State.

A Suez Canal Moment

It’s springtime in London, and things are just what you would expect. Spring slowly peeps out after a hard winter, shoots showing on the many plane trees, early flowers in the gardens that dot the city, and the Sun no longer a strange visitor. The restaurants are full – it’s hard to get a table.

The shops are full of Londoners – permanent and temporary – from all parts of the world giving a boost to the retail economy. The baristas are all from Eastern Europe. The Uber drivers are invariably foreign as well. The banks, the companies, the offices have a healthy sprinkling of other nationalities. On the streets, you hear Arabic spoken next to Polish, Spanish next to Chinese, Hindi next to Russian, and of course English in every accent other than that of England.

In other words, nothing has changed.

In a Brussels conference room, an elderly woman sat, alone with her thoughts. Her immaculate grey hair, normally beautifully coiffed, was looking a little worse for wear thanks to having her hands run over through the gruelling day. She had her papers in her briefcase and a few spread before her. She read some of them in order to occupy her mind and project calm to the few assistants sitting across her. Appearances had to be maintained.

But her mind was far from calm. She had staked her all over the last three years to do what she thought was right. Not very imaginative and not capable of personal transformation, she was true to herself and to her basic nature, as went about the complicated task of the last three years. Perhaps in her mind she knew she was being asked to do the impossible. She was aware of her personal preferences and prejudices, and yet, was driven by a sense of loyalty to those she owed her current position to, to protect those interests and try to square the circle.

As the sounds left the empty building, she waited, not far from another conference room, much larger than the one she was in. It was a very different scene. Twenty-seven serious men and women, each surrounded by aides and analysts, debated furiously into the night. The President of the Council and the Head of the Parliament were there along with other officials. The discussions were heated at times. While most of the the twenty seven first began in their own languages and relied on the instant translation services, that was soon abandoned. Every one switched to English – the common language they all knew but sometimes would not admit to.

Some of these men headed countries with populations of a couple of million. Some of them headed large, serious nations. The twice-defeated Germany, headed by the matronly former physics professor, who combined sharp political instinct with the kindliness of someone who has known hard times. France, with a youngish rake at its helm. Italy with its dysfunctional head of government presiding over a state heading firmly towards the right. A grey haired man, heading Hungary, a former liberal now turned fascist. And so on.

In the smaller room, she waited to hear from these important men and women. Her small island nation, now at the mercy of the decisions of these men and women. How had it come to this, she must have pondered?

The thoughts of the men and women in the other room were anything but charitable, but it was not personal. It was pure business. Their job was to protect the interests of each of the member states, and collectively that of the Union. To preserve the idea of the Union, they had to be tough towards the member who wants to leave. At the same time, too vindictive an attitude would also not help. If any, it could end up fanning similar right-wing flames in other parts. They also had to ensure that there was no abrupt dropping out, no sudden exit. That could harm the Union as well.

And so they debated and argued. The relatively sane voices of the German Chancellor and that of the President of the Union moderated the sometimes heated exchanges. They, in particular, understood what it meant not to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted, and hence were appalled at its irresponsible use.

And finally, when they had a position ready, they opened the door and summoned the lady waiting in the other room. She came in, was welcomed warmly and with a note of apology by the Chancellor and the President for the time it took to complete their deliberations.

Then they told her what had been decided. They told her, we do not have any faith in any of your assurances that the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated over two years and which adhere to your own announced “red lines”, will ever pass in Parliament, let alone in one week. And we will not open negotiations on the Agreement. We will also not let you leave the Union on your own terms, without any agreement. Rather, we give you six months. In six months, try and work out an agreement or an approach with your country and come back to us.

In the meantime, they said, on May 23, we ask you to ensure your country participates in the elections to the Union Parliament. Until you leave, you are a member of the Union and hence would ask you to behave like one. However, since we no longer believe in the bona fides of those who may end up representing your country in our institutions, we ask you to provide a guarantee of good behaviour in our institutions, until to leave.

She sat and heard all of this in stunned silence. The Chancellor and the President lapsed into silence and waited for her to respond. In her stilted English and her grandmotherly way, the Chancellor placed her hand on the lady and gently asked “Theresa, is all this clear to you? Would you want us to go through with it again?”. No reply. The President gently placed a letter, with all these terms, in front of her.

In her mind, she recalled that infamous day in November 1956, when her predecessor Sir Anthony Eden was told by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan, that the Americans had forced Britain to end the Suez Canal takeover by the simple expedient of telling the IMF that Britain should not get any loans to shore up the pound. Facing imminent and heavy economic pressure, Eden ordered an immediate and humiliating retreat. It clarified to the world that Britain was indeed now a client state of the United States. It also made the French realise that their European future could not be based on British power but on an accomodation with Germany, thus giving rise to the European Union.

She remembered reading of the humiliation Sir Anthony suffered. It was end of Empire, end of Great Britain as a first rate military power.

As she gathered up her papers, she wondered. Is this our new Suez? We retreated from Empire to Continent. And now from Continent to island nation. Little England as it was before Elizabeth I.

She left the room, back home, back to her red lines, back to her deals, and back to her Agreement.

But in her heart she knew.

Backstop Redux

I happened upon an archived radio program the other day – this was Desert Island Discs from sometime in 1992, and it featured Sir John Major. Sir John is easily one of my favourite politicians. Not just because he is a fellow cricket lover, but because he shrugged off immense hardship and many obstacles in his youth. Without a university degree, he rose to become Prime Minister. Like his illustrious predecessor before him, who was a grocer’s daughter, he embodied old fashioned conservatism. The values of work, of perseverance, of stoicism in the face of hardship, of never losing faith in oneself.

How very sad therefore it is to see the display of mendacity of his many successors in the Conservative Party. As previously pointed out, the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, is a solemn commitment of the United Kingdom on which the spadework had been done by John Major and then selflessly handed over to Tony Blair – who then took all the credit.

After the defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement, the Prime Minister and her team have been walking away from the backstop, leaving the suggestion hanging in the air that this was something the EU insisted on.

The Tories now believe that the EU must remove the backstop. The motion that is likely to pass in Commons is the Brady Amendment, that replaces the backstop with a wooly phrase saying “a solution will be found”. Nothing is specified.

This has caused consternation in the EU.

The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte ridiculed the idea that the EU should remove the backstop. “The backstop was not our idea”, he said. “We both agreed, UK and European Union, we don’t want a hard border in Ireland. That was a joint position. Then the UK government said three additional things: no hard border in the Irish sea, no membership of the customs union, and no free movement of people. Given that whole set of circumstances, the present deal is the only deal on the table.

Echoing the same sentiments, the Deputy Negotiator for the EU Sabine Weyand said “There’s no negotiation between the EU and UK, that negotiation is finished.” Weyand says that the controversial ‘backstop’ was heavily shaped by British negotiators and that it will not be amended.

The Irish reaction is no less scathing, and whatever goodwill exists is evaporating. John Humphrys of BBC Radio 4 harrumphed to a bemused but polite Irish Minister, that if Ireland does not “relax the backstop” then they too must quit the EU and throw their lot in with Britain.

The mendacity of the Prime Minister knows no bounds. Consistently, her only effort has been to survive. In response to the reaction from her party on the backstop, she should have risen to the statemanship her position affords her and reminded the nation of why and how the backstop came about.

Indeed, speaking to Channel 4, Weyand said that the biggest problem with Mrs May’s negotiating position is that there seems to have been insufficient consultation within the UK – at least in Parliament.

As I write this, at around 430pm UK time, I predict that this vacuous amendment will win. Britain will go the EU and ask them to “remove” the backstop. The EU will reply that this is not possible. And it is very likely that the UK will crash out of the EU.


Solutions to Brexit 2: Ireland

To understand why Ireland is important to the Brexit discussion, it is critical to review the complicated history of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Ireland – more properly the Republic of Ireland, a fellow member of the EU – is the independent country that occupies the majority of the Emerald Island. The northern part of the country is part of the United Kingdom and is known as Northern Ireland. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only physical border between the UK and the EU.

If the UK leaves the EU exiting the Customs Union and the Single Market, then this border becomes critical. Overnight, on March 29 2019, this border will need to be policed for movement of people and goods between the EU and UK. Nothing can cross the border without a customs check.

So why can’t we have a simple customs check at specified points on the border? After all, that is how goods used to move between various countries in Europe before the Schengen Agreement and the Maastricht Treaty did away with these checks.

Lets go back a bit in time. Most people in Britain have forgotten that Ireland was once colonized and occupied by England with great brutality. A great deal of racism and religious bigotry was also in play. The Irish were supposed to be a feckless lot, and Victorian Protestant Britain harboured deep prejudices against Catholics (which most Irish people were). The struggle for Irish self-government, which began around the last 20 years of the 19th century, resulted in Ireland being given Home Rule in 1912, with lots of restrictions.

The lead up to Home Rule was a difficult period for Britain and it nearly split the country and its Home Army apart. As a cynical ploy, the British encouraged the Protestant settlers to agitate against Catholic rule and worked out a split of one of the provinces – Ulster.

Matters came to a head in the Easter Uprising of 1916 while Britain was at war. The Irish War of Independence, which began in 1919, was low-key in comparison to the carnage that had taken place across the Channel. But it was every bit as intense. The War ended in 1921 when the Irish Free State was created by partitioning the island and leaving Ulster in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has been a long-standing wound in the Irish heart and a source of violence and tension. The Catholics, via the IRA and its successors, have been in armed insurrection for quite some time. At various times the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Protestant militias have retaliated in kind. Much blood has been shed.

Peace came to Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement concluded in April 1998. The Agreement was an example of peace-making that took the highest calibre of self-less statesmanship on all sides – the British, the Irish, the Ulster Protestants and the Ulster Catholics.

The genius of the Agreement was that it recognized the existence of a common geographic, economic and social unit in the form of the island without in any form changing the political reality on the ground. Until 1998, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was a barbed wire fence and heavily militarized. Since both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were members of the EU and shared the same Single Market the Customs Union, it made no sense to keep the two entities economically apart.

As part of the Agreement, the IRA and its various offshoots were forced to demilitarize and destroy their weapons under the supervision of General de Chastain of the Canadian Army. The UK formally gave up its claim on Northern Ireland until such time as the people of Northern Ireland decided their future. The Republic of Ireland recognized this, and agreed to support Northern Ireland in any form until such time as the people decided what to do. There was no longer any need for border policing to stop weapons moving, because the former belligerents were part of the peace process.

It was a brilliant example of how long-standing conflicts can get resolved if both sides were willing to give a little and trusted each other. Ireland and the UK had become very friendly, the Irish were now a relatively wealthy country in their own right and the Irish leaders and the British leaders at that time had a very good personal equation. The colonial era leaders in both countries were long gone.

So why do the Irish not like the hard border, even though they are EU members? First, it puts an end to the cultural integration that had taken place between the two entities. People routinely live in Ireland and drive to Northern Ireland for work and vice versa. People live and love and marry across the border. The old religious divides were fading away and a sense of Irishness had begun to develop.

Secondly, the two economies are now quite closely linked. Goods and more importantly, services are routinely exported between the two entities. Car rental companies, for example, operate across the border. The same goes for professional services, medical care, you name it. A hard border will put an end to this exchange and instead, regulate it.

Britain could do one of two things. It can recognize that Northern Ireland needs to be closely allied with the rest of the island, and concede that the customs border with the EU is on the coast of Northern Ireland. This carries enormous political implications. The Protestant majority would now be in a de facto union with the Republic. While a bilateral agreement has governed mobility between the two for some years now, movement of a person from Belfast to London will not be affected. But provision of goods and services will be.

Or, she can place the customs border at the political border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But doing so cuts Northern Ireland off from the reality of the last twenty years – close economic integration with the Republic, free movement of people and goods, and a narrowing of the cultural and religious divide.

Both these options violate the Good Friday Agreement.

It astonishes me that at no point in the Brexit campaign was the Irish problem ever discussed. Certainly the Leave Campaign carefully concealed any concerns they may have had and instead concentrated on demonizing the EU.

The compromise that was worked out was: For an unspecified period of time, the United Kingdom would stay locked in the Customs Union and the Single Market, to protect the special status Northern Ireland enjoys in relation to the Republic of Ireland. The Common Travel Area Agreement between Ireland and the UK would stay in place. To ensure that no future UK government would withdraw from this arrangement, Ireland insisted that the withdrawal from this Backstop (as it has come to be called) will need the consent of the EU. Northern Ireland will have full access to the markets of the United Kingdom and vice versa.

Normally this would be a far-sighted and practical solution, but the Leave campaign do not like it – there is no withdrawal from the Customs Union and the Single Market. Further, Britain is now shackled to the EU for an unspecified period of time. The term “vassal state” was thrown around when the Irish Taoseach Leo Varadkar announced this agreement in December 2017. Moreover, the Northern Ireland government – lead by the Democratic Unionist Party which is Protestant and consider themselves British – oppose this arrangement because it removes their say in the future of the territory – and somehow makes them less British.

More than a year has passed. The English right wing and the Eton-educated snobs have said some awful and insensitive things about the Irish. The Irish and the EU show no signs of changing their stance. It is a very reasonable one and they are absolutely correct – they did not ask Britain to leave, and if the British ignored the Irish question during the lead-up to Brexit, then one cannot blame the Irish for taking a stand.

Brexit is no longer backed by reason, it is now a belief in some mythical future in which a buccaneering Britannia will conquer the world. It is very courageous of Theresa May to come to this agreement.

Since some sort of Brexit has to take place, in my view, Parliament must vote for the backstop to preserve the peace and secure the futures of the Northern Irish. Over time, the Northern Ireland situation will resolve itself. Lets not forget that the Good Friday Agreement stalls any territorial ambitions the United Kingdom may have on the Emerald Island. Northern Ireland’s natural future is with Ireland. If as expected, Britain suffers some economic damage after Brexit, the citizens of Northern Ireland may appreciate the gift given to them by the UK Government – the gift of choice.