How Old Is Too Old To Be a Head of State?

How Old Is Too Old To Be a Head of State?

Frequent gaffes by the two main contenders for the 47th presidency of the United States has brought the focus sharply on whether age is more than just a number when it comes to politics. Unless something unforeseen happens, the US presidential elections in November this year will be a face-off between the incumbent Democratic US President Joe Biden, who is 81, and his challenger and former Republican President Donald Trump, who is 77.

Both gentlemen have been grabbing the headlines recently with what would seem like instances of memory lapses or cognitive failure. A few weeks back, while delivering a speech, President Biden mistakenly referred to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the leader of Mexico. Earlier this year, Trump confused his main Republican rival Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and former speaker of the US House of Representatives. Ironically, Biden made his confused remarks when he was defending his position after a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents that had referred to his memory as “poor”.

Both Biden and Trump have committed other similar gaffes that point to memory lapses but their aides insist that the two are not mentally infirm and that they do not suffer from age-related mental conditions that could interfere with a job that is arguably one of the most important and impactful in international geopolitics. The US is the most powerful country in the world–economically and politically–and the US President is highly empowered to take decisions that could affect the rest of the world in profound ways. 

How old is too old in politics?

The focus on their age, however, can raise questions about whether age should be a factor determining eligibility for top political jobs. Should there, for instance, be an age limit for those who aspire for top political jobs? Many company boards have retirement ages for their directors who have to step down, say, when they reach 70 or 75. Should governments have similar rules on retirement? 

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, the average age of current national leaders is 62 years. When grouped by decade, the largest share of global leaders today (35%) are in their 60s. Roughly a quarter (22%) are in their 50s, while 18% each are in their 40s or 70s. Measured against those statistics, both Biden and Trump are much older than the average. 

Yet, both of them are younger than many heads of state in the world today. For instance, the oldest currently serving head of state is Paul Biya, who at 91 has been the president of the Central African country of Cameroon since 1982. There are others too who are older than Biden and Trump. Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas is 86; Cuba’s Raoul Castro is 85; and Namibia’s president Hage Geingob served till he died early this month at 82. 

In India, surprisingly, heads of state (and I refer here to Prime Ministers and not Presidents) have been relatively young. When Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India in 1947 he was 57; Indira Gandhi was 48 when she became Prime Minister; Rajiv Gandhi was 40; and Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister, was 63 in 2014 when he began his first term. He’s 73 now. 

India has also had its share of older Prime Ministers, though. When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister in 2004, he was 71, the same age at which the late Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister. And, in 1977 when Morarji Desai became Prime Minister he was 81. His successor Charan Singh was 76 when he got the top job; and when I.K. Gujral became Prime Minister in 1977, he was 77. 

There aren’t really many instances of cognitive failures or memory lapses by Indian Prime Ministers or other senior ministers–at least, they haven’t been reported in the media (although I once attended an Indian foreign minister’s press conference in 2010 where he repeatedly referred to Russia as the Soviet Union but I guess we can pardon that slip!). 

In fact, some anecdotal accounts of Indian Prime Ministers showing signs of exhaustion or tiredness are lapses that might not have anything to do with age. One of them famously concerns H.D. Deve Gowda, who became Prime Minister quite unexpectedly in 1996 when a short-lived coalition of regional parties won the elections. Deve Gowda was only 63 when he got that job but he soon earned an unenviable reputation for falling asleep during official meetings. His nodding off probably had nothing to do with his age. After all, who doesn’t like to sneak in a cheeky siesta or a power nap?

Lifestyle choices can make a difference

Indian politicians, particularly those who have taken up powerful positions in government often enjoy and edge over others when it comes to health and mental well-being. Many of them follow healthy lifestyle routines that keep them in good stead. At 73, Prime Minister Modi is pretty fit, both physically and mentally. A keen adherent of yoga, he practices the discipline daily and has been doing so for years; he walks regularly; and is a vegetarian who also fasts intermittently. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, now 91, was also known for his spartan eating habits and healthy lifestyle. Neither Modi nor Singh (during his two terms as Prime Minister) has ever shown signs of mental confusion or committed gaffes such as ones by Biden or Trump.

Historically, India’s prime ministers have led disciplined lives that have been healthy and abstemious. Forty-six years ago, when Morari Desai became Prime Minister at 81, the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Desai forswears many pleasures of life. Not only is he a teetotaler, he is also a rigorous vegetarian, living on a diet of fruits, nuts and milk and fasting frequently. He renounced sex after he and his wife had five children.”

Zooming back to the two most likely candidates for the US presidential election, the question is whether having an age limit is a guarantee for having someone who is sound of mind to run a country or should it be something else. Earlier this month, in a guest column for the Economist, David Owen, a former British foreign secretary and Member of Parliament, waded into the Biden-Trump age controversy and argued that no one above the age of 70 should be considered for the job of head of state. Lord Owen, who is also a former neurologist, argued that in humans aged 60-70, the brain’s frontal lobe and an area called the hippocampus begins shrinking and this affects how the brain processes information. Because of that memory and cognitive functions can get affected.

Extrapolating from that and with examples from history (examples involving the US President Franklin Roosevelt and his decision to stand for elections in 1944), Lord Owens recommends that Biden should voluntarily step aside in favour of a younger nominee from the Democratic Party during this spring’s national convention of the party.

Lord Owen’s suggestion of an age limit is one point of view. The problem with it is that not everyone ages in the same way. There are enough examples that one can draw from different fields to show that some individuals continues to demonstrate mental acuity well into their eighties and even nineties. The list of notable people who have continued to work well into their senior years is too long to list out here. 

Why not tests instead of an age limit?

Rather than an age limit to ensure that only people with sound minds get to govern countries, would it not be more scientific to test the brain functions of an ageing person, depending on the purpose and the level of cognitive abilities that are needed for a job? There are different ways of assessing the brain function of an aging person, depending on the purpose and the level of detail needed. Some methods that could be adopted are:

Cognitive screening tests: Short, quick tests that check how well your brain is processing thoughts. They involve answering simple questions and performing simple tasks, such as recalling a list of items, spelling words, or drawing a clock. These tests do not diagnose specific diseases, but they can identify a problem with cognition and the need for more in-depth testing.

Brain imaging techniques: These are methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans or electroencephalogram (EEG) that can help detect changes in the brain due to aging, disease, or injury.

Neuropsychological assessment: This is a comprehensive evaluation of the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions of the brain. It involves a series of tests that measure memory, attention, language, reasoning, problem-solving, and other skills. This assessment can help diagnose specific conditions, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, or brain injury.

Instead of an age limit, scientific tests and assessments such as those listed above could be a better way of ensuring that an aging candidate retains the mental capabilities that the job of, say, the head of state would require. However, there is a catch. Will such tests be acceptable for politicians, political parties, and the interest groups that they represent? My guess is that they probably won’t. At least not in the foreseeable future. Till then, we will have to amuse ourselves as some senior citizen politicians make their occasional gaffes, suffer memory lapses or just nod off to sleep. 

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Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again

The Anatomy of an Agitation: Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again?

The irony is dark. It has been barely two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Kisan Drone Scheme in India. In the beginning, the scheme, which assists farmers to deploy drones for spraying fertilisers, nutrients and pesticides more efficiently on their farmlands, was launched in 100 places across the country, and later, expanded to more areas. Last week, however, drones were deployed against farmers for an altogether different purpose. They were used to bombard them with tear gas as thousands of farmers converged upon Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in what is seen as a reprisal of the protests in 2020 and 2021 against the government’s policies.

Back then, in what became one of the biggest and longest mass movements in India’s history, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mainly from the agrarian states of Punjab and Haryana, had agitated for around a year against three new farm laws of the government. That movement had coincided with one of the worst phases of Covid that had hit India and it was a period of tumult. In the end, the Modi government had to repeal the three laws and accede to the farmers’ demands.

What then is the fresh wave of agitation all about? To understand that we need some recapitulation.

The farm laws and why they were repealed

The three laws that were passed in 2021 and then repealed after the protests were aimed at first, giving farmers more freedom to sell their produce outside the regulated markets or mandis; second, they enabled contract farming when farmers and buyers could pre-agree on pricing and other terms; and third, they relaxed the restrictions on storage and movement of some farm commodities such as cereals, pulses, oilseed, onions, and potatoes.

The laws led to massive agitations and clashes with the government’s security forces and police. Farmer leaders said over 700 people died during the year-long protests but the government did not confirm any deaths. The farmers opposed these laws because they feared that they would lose the protection of the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system, which guarantees a fixed price for certain crops, and that they would be exploited by big corporations. They demanded that the government repeal the laws, withdraw the criminal cases against the protesters, provide compensation to the families of the farmers who died during the protest, and ensure a legal guarantee for MSP. They also had other demands, such as pensions, debt waivers, and stricter regulation of fake seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers.

In December 2021, Prime Minister Modi announced the repeal of the laws after which the farmers temporarily suspended their protests. Why then has the agitation begun afresh and what are the issues this time round?

What do farmers want now?

Last week farmers renewed their protests as hundreds of them, mainly from the two northern states, Punjab and Haryana, marched towards the capital and the NCR. The timing of the protest was significant as it came only a few months before parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held and in which the Modi regime that is completing its second term is keen to win a third.

This time the authorities were more prepared as they barricaded the capital and adjoining areas. Delhi and the urban sprawl that makes up the NCR has an urban population of around 30 million people and the farmers’ march can drastically disrupt the functioning of the area. This time local and central police had ramped up their efforts to stop that from happening by barricading highways, pouring concrete and stacking shipping containers to halt the advancing tractors and masses of protesters.

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At the core of the provocation for the renewed protests is the farmers’ demand for a guaranteed implementation of the minimum support price (MSP) for all crops so that they get what they consider fair prices and protect them from exploitation by private companies. The repealed farm bills were aimed at increasing market access and competition, but farmers had feared they would weaken existing structures and leave them vulnerable to corporate control.

About 58% of Indians depend on farming for their livelihood and as much as 68.8% of them live in the rural areas. Considering India’s estimated population of 1.4 billion, those translate into huge numbers. Many farmers are burdened by debt and demand loan waivers to alleviate their financial hardships. They also think that rising costs of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs put further pressure on their livelihoods.

Among their list of demands is also a call for repealing the electricity amendment bill, which was enacted in 2022, to change electricity distribution rules. Farmers fear that it will increase their costs and further increase their dependence on private companies. 

Government’s view on farmers’ demands

To begin with, although the three farm laws have been repealed, the Indian government still maintains that they were beneficial for farmers and were needed to modernise the farm sector. The contribution of agriculture in GDP of India is 18.3% as per the second advance estimates of national income for 2022-23. This share has been declining over the years as the economy diversifies and grows.

However, the growth rate of agriculture in India is low. In 2022-23, it was 3.3%, which is lower than the previous two years, which recorded 4.1% and 3.5%, respectively. The growth rate varies depending on the monsoon, crop prices, and other factors.

India’s farm productivity, measured by the gross value added (GVA) per worker, which was Rs. 1,00,000 in 2022-23, is much lower than the global average of Rs. 3,60,000. India’s farm productivity is constrained by factors such as small and fragmented land holdings, lack of irrigation, low use of technology, and poor market linkages. According to the government, many of these problems were sought to be tackled by the laws that the Indian government had proposed in 2021.

After the previous round of protests and the repealing of the farm laws, the government has offered what it considers alternative solutions such as MSP for select crops and increased procurement efforts. It has also held multiple rounds of talks with farmers but has not been able to agree on some of the demands such as MSP for all crops. One of the main constraints is the lack of resources to be able to do that.

The problem is compounded by the fact that with a few exceptions, agricultural income is generally exempt from income tax in India. Under the existing laws, even rich farmers with large holdings can be exempt from tax, and this often creates a loophole for tax evasion and inequality.

Is there a solution to the farmers vs. government impasse?

While farm union leaders are demanding guarantees, backed by law, of greater state support or a minimum purchase price for all crops, the government is unable to acquiesce. The central government announces support prices for more than 20 crops every year. However, agriculture falls under the jurisdiction of individual states and their buying agencies can usually buy only rice and wheat at the support level, which benefits only an estimated 7% of farmers.

The procurement of rice and wheat, the two staple foodgrains, is aimed at building a food bank to supply to a massive food welfare system in India that entitles more than half of India’s population (or 800 million people) to subsidised (essentially, free) rice and wheat through the public distribution system. In 2024-25, this food subsidy bill is estimated at Rs 2.05 lakh crore ($24.7 billion). The government has extended its flagship free food welfare scheme, which was announced during the Covid-19 pandemic, for the next five years.

Given the magnitude of the food subsidy bill, the government will find it difficult to extend the MSP to all crops as the farmers are demanding. That is why it is not able to guarantee by law the state support for procurement as demanded by the farmers. The government had, while repealing the three farm laws in 2021, said that it would form a panel of farmers and government representatives to find viable solutions to the issue. Farmers are now accusing the government of going slow on that assurance.

What to expect in the future?

The renewed protests are smaller than the massive agitations that marked the 2020-21 movement but the farmers remain persistent. The government has said it is willing to engage in dialogue but is hesitant in meeting the core demands of legally guaranteed MSP and loan waivers.

The government stresses that alternative solutions and a focus on long-term reforms are the only way to resolve the impasse but farmers are not convinced. The outcome would depend on the government’s willingness to address core demands and farmers’ ability to sustain the movement.

There is, obviously, also a political aspect to it, which is heightened by the coming elections. Further escalation of protests or a deadlock could impact agricultural production and political stability, both highly undesirable outcomes for the ruling regime that is keenly looking to be re-elected for a third term in May.

Fighting Delhi’s Pollution is Not a Seasonal Gig

Fighting Delhi’s Pollution is a Full-time Job; Not a Seasonal Gig

Air pollution is now no longer something anyone living in Delhi or the National Capital Region (NCR) is concerned about. Residents are not talking about it anymore. The media don’t care about it either – you won’t find coverage of the issue in any publication, local, regional, or national. Barely three months ago, Delhi was choking. On November 5 last year, the Air Quality Index (AQI), a measure of particulate matter in the atmospheric air that we breathe, had touched 382; around the same time in some of the city’s adjoining suburbs, it had crossed 400. On February 10, as I write this, AQI in Delhi was 186 (as per data on the website); and in Gurgaon 177.

No wonder there’s little concern about air pollution now. AQI has sharply declined since January, almost halved by some measures. Yet, this might be the right time for India to ramp up its fight against air pollution. Every year, beginning in the end of October and lasting well into January, air pollution levels in India rise to dangerous levels, hazardous even. Those are the colder months and as we know cold air traps emitted particulate matter and the density of pollutants in the air increases. Then, as it starts to get warmer, the particulate matter disperses and pollution levels decline.

AQI measures the density of five pollutants in the air: ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Tiny particulates are most harmful for the respiratory system as they get embedded in the lungs and can lead to a host of serious health problems from breathing-related ailments to death. An AQI level that is higher than 300 is classified as “Hazardous”, which means that the entire population of a city or a region is at risk of health effects and the only safe bet is to stay indoors, avoid outdoor activities and follow health advisories.

Everybody knows that warnings such as those mean nothing in India. People have to be outdoors. Many have to work outdoors, and life has to go on no matter what. Ironically their lives face increasing levels of risk. Consternation and concern about pollution peaks with the AQI level: the higher the AQI the more the outrage and worry. When the AQI levels fall, those worries disappear. That cyclical variation in concern about pollution is as predictable every year as the cycle that the AQI levels follow.

That cycle has to be broken. Let’s consider today’s aforementioned pollution levels in Delhi and Gurgaon. At 186 and 177, respectively in Delhi and Gurgaon, the AQI levels (at the time that I write this) are considered “Unhealthy”. That is, everyone, including those who are otherwise healthy, may begin to experience health effects; sensitive groups, such as people with existing respiratory conditions, are at significantly higher risks; and the warning is to limit outdoor activities, especially strenuous ones. Well, is anyone in Delhi or the NCR heeding these warnings? Silly question, because after all, “unhealthy” is better than “hazardous”.

GRAP(pling) with the pollution

Yet, the time to tackle air pollution in Delhi and the NCR (as well as in an ever-lengthening list of Indian cities and towns) may be now. Unfortunately, thus far the response to the pollution problem has been short-sighted. In the Delhi & NCR area (as well as in some other Indian cities), there is something called the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). Introduced by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), GRAP triggers specific actions that escalate depending on the level of pollution in a city as measured by the AQI level.

When the level is “Moderate” to “Poor”, GRAP triggers restrictions on construction activities, vehicular emissions, and industrial processes. When it is “Very Poor” to “Severe”, more steps such as banning diesel generators, closing brick kilns, and implementing the odd-even vehicle rule (cars with odd registration numbers are allowed on one day and those with even numbers the next day). If pollution reaches “Emergency” levels, even stricter steps are added such as shutting down schools, restricting outdoor activities, and enforcements are made tougher.

In theory, GRAP seems well-calibrated. In practice, it has failed. GRAP was introduced nearly eight years ago. In eight years, the pollution problem in Indian cities has worsened at an alarming pace. Every year, especially during the colder months, which ought to be called the “pollution season”, peak AQI levels become higher.

GRAP has faced challenges mainly because the various agencies involved are unable to efficiently coordinate their actions. Also, GRAP is triggered only when pollution actually happens. It is a sort of post facto action, a retroactive system that is triggered only after the problem has already occurred.

Getting a long-term solution

To seriously tackle air pollution in Indian cities, particularly in the NCR where it is acute every year, a longer term, sustained plan is required. A plan that is constant and not triggered only when things get truly out of hand.

Many countries have tackled chronic air pollution problems. In developed countries, which are less densely populated and where industrial activity, particularly in heavy industrial sectors that consume more energy and spew more effluents, has already ebbed, the problem of pollution is less acute. Yet some of the energy conservation and recycling measures followed by them could be lessons. More important, though, are the sorts of solutions that cities in China have been able to find. Ít is a combination of these lessons that Indians must adopt to tackle air pollution in its large cities. And they have to be implemented constantly; not episodically.

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In China, sprawling metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai made headlines because of uncontrolled pollution levels less than 10 years ago. Today, things have improved. The Chinese government and authorities have taken significant steps to combat air pollution. They’ve implemented strict emission standards for vehicles and industries. Investments in renewable energy, afforestation, and urban green spaces have also been done to improve air quality.

The key lies in implementation. City states such as Delhi and its burgeoning satellite cities of Gurgaon, Noida, and Faridabad, have not had big success with controlling construction activity. In a developing country with a population as large as that of India’s and one that is constantly urbanising, construction becomes a constant activity as demand for housing grows unabated. Then there is the difficult task of zoning in urban areas. Despite decades of effort, polluting factories and manufacturing facilities merge with residential areas in Indian cities, which often become messy sprawls of residential and commercial activity.

Vehicular traffic in Indian cities continues to grow. The number of vehicles in Delhi and NCR is estimated at more than 15 million by some sources. Despite periodic expansions, the area’s public transport system is overcrowded and as the number of middle-income households increases, the number of personal vehicles such as cars and two-wheelers increases too. Many of these add to the emissions that contribute to air pollution.

Integrating pollution control and development

To tackle pollution, India must integrate environmental concerns into its overall development plans. Rather than treating pollution control as an isolated issue, it should be part of a broader strategy. This would require involving multiple stakeholders including different government agencies, local communities, industries, and NGOs. Collaborative efforts can lead to better policy formulation and implementation.

India will also have to revamp and make its real-time data on pollution more accurate. That could help monitor the results of anti-pollution efforts better. It could also improve public accountability and drive more action on the part of communities and individuals.

Nothing works as well as carrots and sticks, particularly when they are in the form of incentives and penalties. India could introduce special taxes on polluting activities (e.g. emissions, waste disposal) and provide incentives for cleaner practices (e.g. renewable energy adoption). Industries have to be held responsible and accountable for pollution. Penalties for non-compliance should be significant.

To be sure, India does have fiscal incentives to address pollution and encourage more sustainable practices. These measures aim to make waste generation, energy production, and transportation sectors more environment-friendly. India has proposed incentives worth $12.4 billion to encourage power plants to install emission-curbing equipment and develop infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs). What it needs to work on, however, is to make the penalties stricter for polluters.

Indian industry needs to adopt less polluting, cleaner technologies, which can be a challenge and also expensive in a developing country. And invest in more research and development for sustainable solutions.

Finally, there is the challenge of urban planning. Can Indian cities continue to expand in unlimited ways? Should urban planners and city authorities curb such unfettered urban expansion and instead aim at compact cities that are well-planned urban areas with efficient public transportation, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and green spaces.

Ideally, such cities would encourage waste reduction and recycling and develop efficient waste management systems. They would limit plastic waste through bans, alternatives, and awareness campaigns. And their residents would have access to education about the impact of pollution on health and the environment.

All that sounds like a great utopian dream. Yet, while it is true that achieving development targets hand-in-hand with environmental goals is a balancing task that is fraught with huge challenges, it is not impossible to achieve. In some parts of large cities in India, pedestrian zones, albeit tiny and limited, are being developed; school students have been active in their efforts to spread awareness of the harms of pollution; and there is the beginning of a shift towards alternative energy to fuel growth. Sadly, though, a lot more will have to be done. Tackling air pollution in India’s big cities is a full-time assignment. Not a seasonal job.

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BJP is India’s Most Powerful Political Magnet

Under Modi, BJP is Now India’s Most Powerful Political Magnet

It’s a phenomenon that has become so common that it is almost a part of the official protocol. When an incumbent administration has to announce a budget barely months before it seeks reelection, that budget invariably becomes a crowd pleasing one – full of sops, tax rebates, and other carrots that are proffered as enticement to voters. Last week, however, when the finance minister announced India’s interim budget, it was not especially laden with those customary come hither propositions. That’s because Prime Minister Narendra and his regime that is completing its second term and will be seeking a third at the elections, scheduled for April and May this year, expect that they will be a shoo-in for the voters.

In fact, to many it could seem that for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the elections will be a one-horse race. At the national level, opposition to the ruling regime is in shambles; the multi-party Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), which was formed last July, has all but disintegrated; and the BJP’s strength and prominence has grown without any signs of abatement.

The BJP has become so dominant that Modi’s government didn’t have to throw in sops or lollipops for voters in last week’s budget. Yes, it had the routine nods and doffs of the hat aimed at the poorest sections of the population: it has focussed on the rural sector and agriculture by boosting several schemes. Yet, it has also cut food subsidies, a delicate area, and not lowered income tax rates. In fact, it will lean on higher tax collections for the coming financial year.

In an election year, an interim budget lets an incumbent government spend until the new administration takes over. If the ruling regime is reelected it can seek approval for a full budget.

That eventuality looks like a certainty. Few doubt that the Modi regime can be ousted in the coming elections. For one, there seems to be no alternative to challenge it. Potential challengers have mainly self-destructed or become weakened. Some former challengers have crossed over to join the BJP or ally with it. Most recently, Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s longest lasting chief minister (last week he was sworn in for a record ninth time) jumped ship to join the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is led by the BJP. Ironically, Kumar was the main architect of the opposition alliance, I.N.D.I.A., formed with the sole purpose of ousting the Modi regime. Amen!

Kumar isn’t the only renegade in contemporary Indian politics to clamber aboard the BJP’s bandwagon. Politicians of all stripes from various opposition parties have jumped onto it. It may serve us well to remember that the word “bandwagon” was coined by Phineas T. Barnum, also known as P T Barnum, a famous 19th century American circus owner and showman. He created the term to describe the wagons that transported a circus band. The circus metaphor does fit Indian politics rather well.

Among those who have joined the BJP have been many of its erstwhile critics and sworn opponents. But then politics, at least in India, is marked by promiscuity. Some Congressmen who ditched their party to join the BJP have also been rewarded (or was it a quid pro quo?) by ministerial portfolios in Modi’s Cabinet. The current civil aviation minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, 53, was in the Congress party for nearly 20 years before joining the BJP in 2020; and the minister for micro, small and medium enterprises, Narayan Rane, 71, also left the Congress to join the BJP in 2019. Rane is not a shy party-hopper. Before joining the Congress he was with the Shiv Sena. 

There are many other political leaders, who were originally opposed to the BJP, but now members of that party. Jitin Prasad, 50, a longtime member of the Congress party who has also served as minister in the Congress regime, is now part of the BJP and a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government led by BJP’s Yogi Adityanath. In 2017, the veteran Congress leader from Karnataka, S.M. Krishna, once a foreign minister, joined the BJP. Other prominent politicians who have joined the BJP include the Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, 55, who left the Congress in 2014; Mukul Roy, 69, who left the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal to join the BJP in 2017. In some states such as Uttar Pradesh, there have been televised events organised where opposition politicians have formally joined the BJP ceremoniously.

What makes the BJP a political lodestone in India? A simple answer to that is power. Politics, purists would say, is a pursuit of a calling rather than a career. In a democracy such as in India, the copybook definition of a politician’s ambition would be the urge to serve the people. However, in reality it is the power that politics can bestow on an individual and burnish his importance and status that drives many politicians. 

The BJP won the elections and formed the government at the Centre in 2014 and has during the past 10 years decimated opposition at the national level. It is without doubt the most powerful political party in the country and one that offers the most potential for ambitious political leaders. In contrast, the Congress, once referred to as India’s Grand Old Party, is a weak shadow of itself. It has repeatedly lost elections at the Centre as well as in the states: in Parliament, the Congress now has 47 of the 543 seats. In 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, it had 414. His son, Rahul, now the party’s most prominent member, is witnessing the Congress’ steady and devastating decline. Of the 28 Indian states, the BJP rules 12 and is part of the ruling alliance in four more. The Congress is part of the ruling alliance in only five states. 

The steady decline of the Congress’ importance and sway in Indian politics is one of the chief reasons why ambitious politicians from that party have been disillusioned and have decided to ditch it and join the Modi bandwagon. It is for the same reason that veteran politicians of regional parties such Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) have chosen to ally with Modi and bury earlier differences with him.

The BJP on its part has welcomed the influx of such renegades. First, many of the new entrants are leaders with considerable influence in their constituencies and can obviously beef up the BJP’s electoral might further. Second, their departure can also serve to weaken their former parties, which is good for the BJP. Some of the younger joinees have good track record as ministers–for instance Scindia or Prasad – and, therefore, can strengthen the BJP’s administrative firepower. They can also help win elections.

Meanwhile, the BJP has been quietly, and a bit invisibly, deepening and strengthening itself. It has become a significant force in Indian politics, and its appeal is multifaceted. While the party has been associated with Hindu nationalism and has been accused of being anti-minorities, it has also been successful in projecting an image of good governance and welfare schemes that appeal to a broad section of the electorate. 

The BJP’s leadership, particularly Prime Minister Modi, is seen as strong and decisive, and the party has been successful in expanding its base and electoral presence. Last December, Modi retained his position as the world’s most popular leader with an approval rating of 76 per cent, as per the data released by US-based consultancy firm ‘Morning Consult’.

Additionally, the BJP’s well-oiled and lethal electoral campaign machine, which leaves nothing to chance, has been a significant factor in its success. The reasons for politicians leaving other parties to join the BJP may include disillusionment with their former party’s internal dynamics, leadership, and electoral prospects, but it is also the appeal of the BJP’s ideology, governance, and electoral success that has drawn them to it. Therefore, the BJP’s appeal is not limited to its association with Hindu nationalism, and it has been successful in projecting an image of good governance and welfare schemes that appeal to a broad section of the electorate.

Some observers feel that the BJP lacks a lineup of successors beyond Modi, 73, and home minister Amit Shah, 59, the two most prominent faces in the government. This may not be true.  The party has a history of grooming and promoting leaders from within its ranks and is far less dynastic than many other India political parties such as the Congress or even regional parties where the route to leadership is often limited to those with family ties and connections. 

Although some BJP leaders have been “sidelined”, including Shivraj Chouhan who was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Sushil Modi, who was deputy chief minister of Bihar, Vasundhara Raje, who was chief minister of Rajasthan for two terms, and Raman Singh, who served as chief minister of Chhattisgarh for 15 years, the BJP does have future leaders that it has been grooming.

Some of the younger leaders who have begun making a mark in the BJP and could be watched in the future include Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has emerged as the party’s point person in the north-east; Manoj Tiwari, 53, who the the Delhi BJP leader and whose influence has been growing; Tejasvi Surya, 33, an MP from Bangalore, known for his articulate speeches and strong conservative views; Poonam Mahajan, 43, another MP who is seen as a rising star in the party; and Sarbananda Sonowal, 61, an MP from Assam and currently a minister in the Modi cabinet. 

These are just a few names of leaders to watch from the BJP. It will be worth the while to watch how these younger breen of party leaders are groomed and given more responsibility in the coming years. Also worth watching is how many more leaders from other parties make a beeline to what has become India’s most powerful political magnet.

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Paltu Kumar: The Flip-Flop Man of Indian Politics Strikes Again

Paltu Kumar: The Flip-Flop Man of Indian Politics Strikes Again

When things turn darkly cynical, seek solace in humour. In Indian politics that’s a truism. When early rumours swirled last week that Nitish Kumar, the veteran Bihar politician, chief minister of that state, and the main mover behind the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), last summer’s alliance of more than two dozen Indian opposition parties, was likely to jump ship and ally instead with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once again, a colleague reminded me that many have named him “Paltu” Kumar, which roughly translated could mean “Flip-flop” Kumar, a reference to the series of switches in allegiance that have marked the 72-year-old political career. 

Last Saturday, Kumar, who has been the longest serving chief minister, resigned from the post (he will stay on as caretaker chief minister till a new government is formed) and announced that he was joining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the BJP-led alliance, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is in power at the Centre. 

The “Flip-flop” nickname fits Kumar well. In his political career, which he began in the 1970s as a student socialist leader, has changed his political alliances so many times that it can be easy to lose count of those changes. Here’s a recap of his political moves through the years (make of them what you will):

In 1996, Kumar left the Janata Dal and formed the Samata Party with the late George Fernandes, and allied with the BJP-led NDA. In 2003, he merged the Samata Party with the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and continued to be part of the NDA. 

Then, in 2013, he broke away from the NDA over the BJP’s decision to project Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, and joined the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress. But barely four years later, in 2017, he again switched sides and rejoined the NDA, after breaking the Grand Alliance that his party had forged with the Bihar regional party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, over corruption charges against his then deputy, Tejashwi Yadav.

Then, in 2022, Kumar resigned as chief minister and removed his party from the NDA, announcing that his party had rejoined the Grand Alliance, and would form a governing coalition with the RJD and the Congress. And two years later, last weekend, he resigned and joined the NDA once again. Yes, phew!

During all these hop-on, hop-off activities, one thing has remained constant: with the exception of a year, Kumar has remained chief minister of his state for the past nearly 20 years. Kumar has always defended his moves as being motivated by what is good for the people of Bihar and the good of the state. And as well as being known for his frequent changes of political loyalties he is also known for his development-oriented policies and governance in Bihar, which remains among the poorest and most economically backward states of India. And the fact that voters have in election after election, chosen to repose their faith in Kumar is indication of both his popularity and approval as the state’s chief minister.

There is, however, another consequence of Kumar’s latest move to hop aboard the alliance headed by Modi, an erstwhile arch political rival of his. After all, in 2013, when the BJP projected Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, it was the reason why Kumar decided to exit the alliance. And, last summer, Kumar was the main political leader behind the formation of I.N.D.I.A., whose raison d’etre or reason for being was to ensure that Modi and the BJP do not win the 2024 parliamentary elections, which will be held in a few months. 

That possibility, already quite unlikely, will now be dealt another blow as one of I.N.D.I.A.’s most prominent members doesn’t just quit the alliance but joins its main foe. In June 2023, it was Kumar who convened a meeting of 16 opposition parties in Patna, the capital of Bihar, to propose a new political front to challenge the ruling NDA government led by the BJP in the 2024 general elections. The alliance was formally created in July 2023 in Bengaluru, where 10 more parties joined the group and adopted the name I.N.D.I.A. The alliance currently has 26 parties, including two national and 24 regional parties, and accounts for 142 seats in the Lok Sabha and 98 seats in the Rajya Sabha. 

I.N.D.I.A. is led by the Congress party, with that party’s president, Mallikarjun Kharge, as the chairperson but besides the departure of Kumar, the alliance faces other problems. Many of the alliance’s constituents disagree over several issues. Originally, I.N.D.I.A. had hoped to reach a consensus and put up one candidate to fight the BJP or its allies’ nominees in each of India’s parliamentary constituencies. It had also been expected to reach a consensus on fielding a prime ministerial candidate to take on Modi. None of these appears to have happened.

Seat-sharing has been an especially sore point. The Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee recently said that her party would fight the elections independently and not back a consensus candidate; and even before he quit the alliance, Kumar’s supporters have been demanding that he be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. Then there have been schisms and rifts elsewhere: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress have been sparring over seat sharing in states such as Punjab, Delhi and Haryana. And in Kerala, the Congress and the CPI(M), traditional adversaries in the state, are unlikely to agree on a common candidates’ list. 

On the other side, Kumar’s crossover to the NDA will strengthen the alliance’s prospects, particularly in Bihar where there are 40 parliamentary seats. As of now, after the 2019 elections, the BJP has 17 of those seats, while Kumar’s JD (U) has 16, the Lok Janshakti Party has 6, the Grand Alliance 1 and the Congress 1. With Kumar aligning with the BJP, the NDA’s increased heft in the state is obvious.

Whatever motivates Mr Flip-Flop to keep switching sides, his latest manoeuvre further bolsters the near certainty of a third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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Rahul Gandhi Missed Hindutva Train

Hanuman Mask or Not, Rahul Gandhi Missed the ‘Hindutva’ Train Long Back

When Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Congress Party’s most-dominant dynastic family, the Nehru-Gandhis, kicked off his new yatra or journey (he will cover 4,000 kilometres, partly on foot and partly by vehicles) last week, he carefully chose to start in Manipur, a north-eastern state that has been torn by violent ethnic clashes over the past eight months. The clashes are between the majority Meitei community and the minority Kuki community in which more than 200 people have been killed, women abused, and thousands displaced from their homes.

Yet, even as Manipur’s problems continue to simmer there has been inadequate effort by the Indian government to calm things down there and few central government leaders have showed up to express their concern and commitment to sorting things out in a state where an alliance of the Prime Minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the National People’s Party, Naga People’s Front, and the Lok Janshakti Party is in power since 2022.

Considering that, Gandhi’s choice of Manipur as the starting point for his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra (Unite Bharat Justice March), which follows last year’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, is an astute one. In his new yatra, he will go from East to West, cover 110 of India’s 543 parliamentary constituencies in 15 states, and finish in Mumbai in 66 days.

By then we will be well into the second half of March and there will be barely two months left for the 2024 parliamentary elections. Gandhi’s yatra is a crucial part of his party’s election campaign. After Manipur, towards last weekend, Gandhi hit Assam where at a temple, he wore a mask depicting the face of the Hindu god, Hanuman or Bajrang Bali and held aloft his hand Hanuman’s most familiar accessory, a battling mace. 

On X, Gandhi has posted to say that his yatra or journey “is a balm of unity and love on the soul of India wounded by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) politics of division and neglect”. It is really all about the elections. Gandhi and his party have been pulling out all the stops to try and reverse their dismal fortunes in India’s election–both at the parliamentary level as well as in the states. The desperation is understandable. It is part of the government in just three of India’s 28 states, while the BJP rules in 12 and is part of coalition governments in three.

The Congress and Gandhi are trying every trick in the book to try and fare better in next May’s parliamentary polls. With India in the throes of a massively orchestrated and feverish wave of Hinduism, which is the religion of 80% of Indians (1.12 billion people), the Congress has in recent times tried to display empathy towards the majority community. Gandhi’s Hanuman mask and mace waving; his visits to temples; quoting of religious texts and the Bhagavad Gita; and hob-nobbing with religious leaders of the Hindu faith are all the party’s way of trying to respond to the BJP’s pronounced emphasis in its politics on Hindutva and Hinduism.

Not to much avail, though. The Congress’ feeble attempts to consort with the religion of the majority in India will barely be noticed in the high-decibel, high-definition ramp up that is happening in the country. Even as you read this, the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple will be formally opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The frenzy over that carefully-timed event has been unprecedented. A huge ceremony will take place at the site of the temple in Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, where it has been built on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque, which sparked religious violence in 1992. The event is seen as a symbol of Hindu nationalist ambition and a source of anxiety for many Muslims in Ayodhya.

While massive security measures have been taken and special trains and choppers have been arranged for visitors, the fervour has also spread elsewhere. In India, several states have declared a holiday for schools; government offices will be partially shut. The event will also be livestreamed so Hindus across the country and elsewhere in the world can watch it. Indian embassies across the world and a sponsored screen at Times Square in New York will provide the live screening of the Ayodhya inauguration.

In the immediate run-up to this, we have seen viral social media posts that show Prime Minister Modi taking holy dips in the sea in southern India near a revered temple; and feed cows on the occasion of Makar Sankranti at his residence (the act is believed to yield benediction).

The extent of how much religion (read Hinduism) is embedded in the politics of Modi and his party (and by proxy the central government) is far greater than what those recent social media posts of the Prime Minister showed him doing before the temple’s inauguration. It is deep and inseparable.

Seen against that, what Congress may be doing to try and polish its Hindu credentials seem ineffective. Pathetic, even.

For the Congress and Gandhi, the Hindutva train left the station long ago. And they have missed it. The mask that Gandhi wore last week in Assam only made him look silly. But that’s a look that he seems to have perfected over the years.

Gandhi, who is 53, is what you would call a middle-aged politician although his party’s leaders (read loyal sycophants of the Nehru-Gandhi family) would insist that he is young. In the 20 years since he has been in active politics, if you look at it carefully, he hasn’t really achieved much. True, he has been elected to Parliament multiple times; and held official party positions, some of them reluctantly, but not much else. His election strategies have not worked; he has not been able to stem the tide of exodus from his party, particularly of talented and competent younger leaders who have usually left to join Modi’s BJP; and Gandhi’s speeches and pronouncements on politics, governance, and the economy have been of middling standards, quite often also demonstrating how embarrassingly naive and confused he can be.

Yet, Gandhi’s rallies and the yatras are well attended events. Crowds have been impressive at the public meetings he addresses; and when the yatras he does arrive at different cities and towns, thousands throng him. That, however, has not much to do with him as a politician but as a celebrity. It can seem most cynical to say this but Gandhi is half-Italian, and is nearly White–features that many Indians would describe as handsome (although I am not sure about that unkempt beard he grew last year)–and the crowds of people that gather at his rallies and meetings probably come to get a glimpse of him as they probably would have, had he been, say, a Bollywood actor. Not perhaps to hear what he says or with an intent to vote for him or his party. Entertainment and not elections are on their minds when they go to get a glimpse of him.

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Countdown To Modi's Third Term Begins

The Countdown to Narendra Modi’s Third Term Begins

The next time you are at an Indian railway station and it happens to be one of the hundred that has a selfie point, you can pass the time while waiting for your train by taking a photograph of yourself along with a life size replica of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The selfie points, if they’re of the permanent sort, cost around ₹6.25 lakh, while the temporary ones are cheaper at ₹1.25 lakh.

Railway stations aren’t the only places where you can take a selfie with the Prime Minister (albeit in a life-size 3-D avatar) beside you. Such points have also been installed at museums, parks, and other public spaces. According to media reports, universities and even the armed forces have been instructed to install them. One source says the total number of selfie points is 822.

At New Delhi’s international airport terminal, as you walk to the departure gates, there are several booths with Modi’s image along with that of Swami Gyananand where you can take a selfie. Swami, an Indian Mahamandaleshwar saint, is known for his research on Bhagavad Gita, the 700-verse Hindu scripture. He has also founded another organisation to globally promote the Gita.

The ubiquity of images and pictures of Modi, on posters, banners, official documents, and other commonly used official papers and forms for the past 10 years that he has been Prime Minister is not new but now their omnipresence seems truly larger than life and, quite clearly, this has much to do with the forthcoming parliamentary elections, which Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like to win and extend the tenure of its rule by another five years.

Last December 31, The Guardian’s headline of an article said: BJP win in India’s 2024 general election ‘almost an inevitability’. It was written by Hannah-Ellis Petersen, the newspaper’s South Asia correspondent, and it described how, with less than six months left for the election (in which 900 million Indians will be eligible to vote) the Modi government had launched a nationwide campaign to highlight its achievements “despite criticisms of politicising government bureaucracy and resources for campaigning purposes”.

The Guardian’s use of the word “inevitability” in its headline (although in the article it is attributed to a prominent Indian policy analyst) displays the newspaper’s bias against Modi and his government, which are seen by the West as pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda and creating insecurity among minorities. Nearly 80% of Indians are Hindus and 14% are Muslims. As a percentage of India’s population of more than 1.4 billion, viewed against any global population statistics, both those numbers are huge.

Still, the view from the West could miss the reality on the ground in India. For instance, The Guardian article says: “At state and national level, the apparatus of the country has been skewed heavily towards the BJP since Modi was elected in 2014. He has been accused of overseeing an unprecedented consolidation of power, muzzling critical media, eroding the independence of the judiciary and all forms of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability and using government agencies to pursue and jail political opponents.”

To be sure, many Indian observers also agree that since the BJP-led regime came to power, elections, especially in the more populous northern and central states, have been marked by religious polarisation. And that inequality remains one of the biggest concerns and challenges. The richest 1% of Indians own 58% of wealth, while the richest 10% of Indians own 80% of the wealth. This trend has consistently increased–so the Indian rich are getting richer much faster than the poor, widening the income gap.

Also sadly, despite over 70 years’ of effort by the Indian government, the caste system (or social inequity) also continues to keep widening that gap. People coming from the marginalised sections of caste-based social categories, continue to be directly impacted in terms of their opportunities, access to essential utilities, and their potential as a whole.

The ordinary Indian voter, however, sees Modi as a strongman, a hero who has not only tried to enhance India’s prestige and status on the global stage–last year it hosted as rotational president the G-20 summit; and sent a space mission to land on the moon–but also tried to help improve the average Indian’s economic fortunes. India’s economy has grown at a higher rate than most large economies (although inequality has not been impacted significantly); a slew of subsidies aimed at the poor have benefited millions; and universal digital services have ensured that beneficiaries are not denied what they have the right to receive. Infrastructure, especially roads have improved impressively and so has public access to medical facilities and hygiene.

A well-known publicity and communications strategist of the Congress party, which is the BJP’s main challenger from the Opposition, admits that India will go to the polls with a clear advantage for Modi and his party. In 2019, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is led by the BJP, won 353 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament. The BJP on its own won 303 seats. This time, the Congress strategist who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the NDA wins 350 seats, a staggering 65% of the total seats.

It is a fact that the Indian mainstream media is no longer a platform where criticism of the ruling regime or a focus on problem areas such as religious polarisation is encouraged. In fact, India’s largest newspapers and TV channels are dominated by hagiographic coverage of the Modi-led regime. Even “independent” media outlets, most of which are small and lack robust business models, have begun to shy away from criticising the government or its policies, some of them because they fear retaliation in the shape of tax raids or other regulatory action.

No one really cares. Last year, several leading Indian artists were “commissioned” to make artwork themed on the Prime Minister’s monthly addresses to the nation, Mann Ki Baat. The event, which occurs once a month, is aired by the state-owned TV channels (and co-telecast by many private channels as well) and streamed on the internet and social media platforms. The commissioning of artists marked the 100th episode of Mann Ki Baat and the art that they created was exhibited under the title Jana Shakti (people’s power) at Delhi’s prestigious National Gallery of Modern Art.

Last week it was announced that the Opposition alliance of nearly 30 parties, called I.N.D.I.A., would be headed by the Congress Party’s president, Mallikarjun Kharge. I.N.D.I.A., which stands for ‘Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance’, is a group of opposition parties, including the Congress, which have joined forces to challenge the NDA, led by the BJP, and stop it from securing a third consecutive term at the Centre in the Lok Sabha elections. Most Indians think that it will end in a whimper. And that Modi, 73, and his party will win the elections decisively and secure a third term for the regime he heads.

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Earth’s Year of Elections

2024 Will Be Earth’s Year of Elections. What Should You Expect?

This year could be the year of national elections on Earth. In 64 countries (plus the European Union), two billion humans or one in every four of the eight billion of us that populate the planet will be set to go to the polls. An estimated 1.16 billion of these voters will be from the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, with India alone accounting for more than 900 million voters, which is 100 million more than the number that was eligible to vote in the previous national election held in 2019.

After you have wrapped your head around those staggering numbers, consider also how the outcomes of some of those elections could impact the state of the world here on our planet. Take the big ones first. The US will hold its presidential elections in November. As of now, indications are that former Republican President Donald Trump, who served as the 45th president from 2017 to 2021, could be his party’s nominee for the 2024 election. Trump is facing a slew of legal problems but this does not seem to deter his supporters: with 52% of Republican voters or Republican-leaning independent voters, Trump is way ahead of his nearest rivals in the race for nomination.

If Trump, 77, is nominated, the face-off will likely be between him and the Democratic incumbent Joe Biden, 81. If Trump wins, as many analysts think he will if he is nominated, his policies and actions as President of the US will affect not only his country but also the state of the world. More on that soon. For now, turn to another election that will take place this year.

Two months from now, in March, Russia will go to the polls to elect a President. In all likelihood it will be Vladimir Putin who will be re-elected. Putin has been in charge of Russia since late 1999 or more than 21 years and is eligible for re-election this year, as a result of constitutional amendments that he orchestrated in 2020. The amendments reset his previous terms and allowed him to seek two more six-year terms, potentially extending his rule until 2036. Putin is 71 so, in theory, he can rule till he is 84.

Russia is a democracy only in theory. In reality it is an authoritarian state where elections are not free or fair. The Kremlin, Russia’s seat of power, controls the media, the security forces, and the election commission, and Putin has effectively suppressed all opposition, barred many of rivals from contesting the elections and either imprisoned dissenters or exiled them. 

A Trump-Putin Combo? If Putin is reelected, Russia will likely continue its aggressive foreign policy, especially in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and face more international sanctions and isolation. Putin will also tighten his grip on domestic politics and suppress any dissent or opposition. If Trump is elected in 2024, the US will face more political and social turmoil, as Trump will try to overturn his 2020 election loss and pursue his populist agenda. Trump will also undermine democratic institutions and norms, and alienate many US allies and partners.

A Trump-Putin combo would mean that the world could face a more unstable and unpredictable geopolitical situation. Trump and Putin have a long history of mutual admiration and personal rapport, but their interests and agendas are often at odds. Trump could weaken NATO and other US alliances, while Putin could exploit the chaos and expand his influence in regions like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East. The risk of conflict and escalation between the two nuclear powers would increase, as well as the challenges for global cooperation on issues like climate change, human rights, and cybersecurity.

A third term for Modi? The biggest national elections this year will be in India, which has the largest electorate in the world, with over 900 million voters eligible to vote for the lower house of Parliament, Lok Sabha, which has 543 seats. India has a multi-party system, with two major alliances competing for power this year: the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), led by the Indian National Congress (INC) and its president, Mallikarjun Kharge.

India’s elections are held in multiple phases, spanning over several weeks, to ensure security and logistical arrangements. In 2019, the elections were held in seven phases, from 11 April to 19 May. The schedule for 2024 is yet to be announced by the Election Commission of India (ECI).

India’s elections also involve millions of polling staff, security personnel, electronic voting machines, and observers. In 2019, there were over 10 lakh polling stations, 17.4 lakh voting machines, and 23 lakh security personnel deployed across the country.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widely expected to win a third term in 2024, as he enjoys a strong popularity and because the Opposition is weak. In recent months, his party has scored significant victories in state elections, which could be an indication that voters’ support for it is strong.

A third term may see India becoming one of the top three economies in the world. India’s economy is one of the largest and fastest-growing in the world. According to the latest data from the World Bank, India’s nominal GDP was $3.73 trillion in 2023, making it the fifth-largest economy in the world after the USA, China, Japan, and Germany. India’s GDP growth rate was 7.6% in the second quarter of 2023-24, higher than most of the major economies.

India’s per capita income was $2,389 in 2022, which ranked 112th in the world. India’s per capita GDP on PPP basis was $8,379 in 2022, according to the World Bank. In comparison, China’s per capita GDP on PPP basis was $21,476 in 2022. This means that China’s per capita GDP on PPP basis was more than twice as high as India’s.

Prime Minister Modi faces some challenges such as poverty, inequality, infrastructure gaps, environmental issues, and fiscal deficits. However, during his tenure, which began in 2014, India has also undertaken several reforms and initiatives to boost its economic potential, such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the Make in India campaign, the Digital India program, and the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. India aims to become a $5 trillion economy by 2027 and a $10 trillion economy by 2032.

Led by Modi, India recently had a successful G20 presidency and a lunar mission. For a country of its size, it has also managed a satisfactory a post-COVID-19 recovery and achieved robust growth. India has also been part of a new Indo-Pacific alliance against China, along with the US, Australia, and Japan, to counter China’s expansionist ambitions and assert India’s role as a key player in the region.

In crisis areas such as the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war, India has protected its own economic and political interests instead of taking sides. That sort of strategy could be expected to continue on the international front. Relations with China remain tense, though, especially on border disputes between the two countries although under Modi, the foreign policy targeted at China and Pakistan (with which there are continuing disputes on the western borders of the country) has been assertive.

Modi may, however, face some challenges in balancing the interests of different Indian states and regions, as well as in addressing the issues of social justice, environmental protection, and democratic rights.

Elections in the rest of South Asia. India’s neighbours, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, will also go to the polls this year. In Pakistan, elections are scheduled to be held in February but the Pakistan Senate has passed a resolution seeking to delay the elections due to security and weather concerns. The resolution is not binding and the final decision rests with the Election Commission of Pakistan. With the former Prime Minister Imran Khan in jail on corruption charges, the main contenders are the Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. In Pakistan, the army plays a key role in politics and the government and outcome of the election there will be keenly watched.

Elections will also take place this year in Bangladesh, where Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League has been in power since 2009 and where she is accused of silencing dissent and ruling with an authoritarian iron hand. She is expected to win another term.

India’s other neighbour, Sri Lanka, also goes to the polls this year. Two years ago, the then president of the island nation Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to flee his country after protests accused  him for the country’s worst economic crisis in 73 years. Inflation had soared and the nation had turned bankrupt leaving millions in the tiny country unable to get food, fuel or healthcare. That was when the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe took over. But elections haven’t been held in Sri Lanka since 2018 and if a date is finally announced for this year, all eyes will be on who gets the people’s mandate. Wickremesinghe, who helped get a loan from the International Monetary Fund and has led several reforms to get the economy back on track, will likely contest and hope for a second term.

Other notable elections in the world include Indonesia, where the current incumbent Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) is ineligible due to term limits.

Besides this, there will be elections in Iran, South Korea, Panama, and several African Nations, including Rwanda, Libya, Mali, and Ghana. As I said, this year is the year of elections on Earth.

A Gas Chamber Called Delhi-NCR

Of Life and Living in a Gas Chamber Called Delhi-NCR

It is a mild winter afternoon and I am meeting a friend at the DLF Golf and Country Club, a private members-only club in Gurugram. Widely acknowledged as the best golf course in India and a regular host to international tournaments, it is also a paradise for golf enthusiasts and a symbol of luxury and exclusivity in India. With an annual membership fee of around Rs 7 lakh (USD 8400) or 3.5 times the per capita income in India, it better be a paradise. We are sitting inside one of its glass-encased restaurants and the conversation turned to Delhi’s air pollution.

Through the glass we can barely see the carefully landscaped green lawns, undulating hills, and a manmade lake with a fountain because all of it was covered by a thick blanket of fog. Only, it was not fog but smog, or air that was polluted densely with tiny particulate matter that can get into your lungs when you breathe and lead to serious respiratory and other ailments. It is said that an average resident of Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) inhales the equivalent of a pack and a half (or 30) cigarettes every day during the worst days of pollution. The worst days are now. And they are ubiquitous. Between October end and January, air pollution levels in the sprawling megalopolis, home to nearly 33 million people, which is about half the population of the UK, routinely turn horrific each year.

Air pollution is not a problem for Delhi and the NCR alone but has come to affect every large and medium sized city in India where construction activity is booming; the number of vehicles on the road is spiraling out of control; and where industrial activity in the form of smoke spewing factories mushroom as zoning restrictions are enforced only leniently. In northern parts of India, such as Delhi and the NCR, the problem is compounded by farmers burning crop stubble to clear the soil for fresh sowings and the smoke from that being swept over the city and its suburbs. 

My friend tells me how all his three cars have air purifiers, which also, of course, are in every room of his sprawling five-bedroom home in a luxury condominium on the edge of the golf course where we are sitting. He coughs frequently, though, and when I ask him whether he wears a mask when he is outdoors, he demurs and doesn’t answer. He is one of India’s privileged class of rich people who lives his charmed life in a bubble but even he doesn’t seem overly concerned about the havoc that the air in the city is wreaking on his body and his health. It is believed that in Delhi and the NCR, pollution may be slashing 10 to 12 years of a person’s life.

As we finish our coffees and prepare to leave, I check the real time Air Quality Index (AQI) on my phone. It is 402. That means the air quality is very very poor and may cause respiratory illness in people on prolonged exposure. It also means that the average concentration of PM 2.5, a harmful pollutant, is 250 micrograms per cubic metre, which is four times the permissible limit. I take out my mask, a N95 that is said to help filter out the dreaded particles–at least a bit–and put it on for the walk to my friend’s car parked about 800 metres from where we are. He doesn’t have a mask and even though he is still coughing a bit, he doesn’t seem to care.

My friend is among the 17,400 dollar millionaires (estimate courtesy Hurun India Wealth Report, 2021) in Delhi and NCR. And as I said, he doesn’t wear a mask when he is outside. Little wonder that very few of the millions of his co-residents in the megalopolis also don’t. Most don’t own and cannot afford air purifiers and millions have to work outdoors all day or live in homes that are just not equipped to prevent the spread of poor air.

This November when air pollution levels in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) reached alarming levels once again, a leading Indian newspaper did a feature titled, “Choosing the right mask for Delhi–your ultimate guide”. It was a timely article, exhaustive and well-researched, and listed different masks and their efficacies in tackling or, rather, lessening the grave consequences of breathing the urban sprawl’s terrible air. I am sure many other media publications have done the same thing: warning people about how bad the air quality is and how important it is to take precautions. They needn’t have. No one wears masks in Delhi or its adjoining areas that make up what is known as NCR.

This winter, Delhi and the NCR’s air quality was the worst in several years. On December 23, in parts of the city the AQI crossed 450. AQI values at or below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy—at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values increase. In Delhi and the NCR area, AQI levels during the colder months, beginning in November, routinely rise to beyond 400, which is not only unhealthy but hazardous and, for people breathing it over a sustained period, can have life-threatening consequences. 

A decade ago, China’s Beijing (population around 22 million) had a similar problem. Thick smog stubbornly enveloped the city and AQI levels soared. But the Chinese government declared a war against pollution in 2013. In Beijing, a $100-billion plan was actioned, which included clampdowns on factories, a ban on old vehicles, and a decisive move from coal and fossil-fuel sources of energy to natural gas. In 2020, Beijing was reported to have had 288 days of clear skies compared to 176 in 2013 when the war against pollution began.

And in Delhi? In 2021, according to one estimate, there were only 60 satisfactory air days (AQI of 100 or less). Things may have gotten worse since then. And, on the face of it, not much is being done to effectively improve things. 

One of the factors that made the Chinese government combat the pollution problem in its biggest cities was public outrage. Even under an authoritarian regime, people in Beijing and other cities protested publicly when air pollution began reaching hazardous levels. That and the fact that China was eager not to have its international image, particularly among investors, tarnished were what spurred the authorities into action. 

In Indian cities, especially Delhi and the NCR, there has hardly been any public protest. Instead there is a pall of fatalism that seems to be pervasive. On the streets of Delhi, Gurugram, Noida, Faridabad, and other satellite towns, hardly anyone wears masks. And, while schools were closed briefly, and some offices reverted to Covid-era remote working for their employees, these were stop-gap measures. 

To be sure, the government has rolled out a set of plans. GRAP, which stands for Graded Response Action Plan, is a set of emergency measures that are implemented incrementally when air quality begins to dip in Delhi-NCR in the winter months. GRAP has four stages, depending on the severity of the air pollution: poor, very poor, severe, and severe+. Each stage has different actions to reduce emissions from various sources, such as vehicles, industries, construction, and waste burning. 

Has that helped? The short answer is no. That is because of several factors:

First, there is a lack of coordination and compliance among various agencies and states involved in implementing GRAP. Second, even after GRAP triggers actions such as a ban on construction, waste burning and diesel generators, these are not implemented by local authorities. Third, the response to changing air quality levels is delayed or insufficient. And fourth, there is a lack of a long-term plan to address the root causes of air pollution such as vehicular emissions, industrial activities, crop burning, and meteorological factors.

To be sure, there have been bans on certain categories of vehicles that don’t adhere to emission standards. There have also been some restrictions on factories and smoke-spewing industries in and around the megalopolis but clearly not enough has been done to have a meaningful impact on the quality of air that millions have to breathe.

Soon, India’s political parties will begin their run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for next May. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will lead the campaign for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, is keenly expected to win a third term. By February or perhaps March when electioneering will really pick up momentum, the skies will be a bit clearer (read: AQI levels will no longer be hazardous but merely poor) and that would be good enough for everyone to forget about pollution. The issue of bad air quality, which has already become “old news” that is undeserving of highlighting for India’s media publications will by then disappear completely from their news reports; and you can be sure that air pollution will not be an issue that anyone is going to focus on during the high-decibel election campaigning that usually marks India’s polls.

Instead, the citizens of Delhi-NCR (as well as other Indian cities) will fatalistically breathe “poor” or “very poor” air, thankful perhaps that at least it is not hazardous… till the smog rolls in again next November. 

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2024 Will be About Russia China Modi

2024 Will be About Russia, China, Modi, the Middle East, White House, AI and Much More

We humans are remarkably adept at adaptation. We can adjust to most changing situations, sometimes swiftly and at other times less quickly. Perhaps the speed with which we can adapt to technology is among the highest. The pace at which we adapt to geopolitical changes is probably slower. Regardless of how quick or slow we are, we most certainly can adapt to change. 

According to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist known mainly for his work on how a child develops cognitive abilities, humans adapt to new information and experiences using two processes. We first assimilate new situations by incorporating the new information into our mental framework. Then, in the second stage, we change our mental framework or structure in order to fit the new information. Together, the two processes help us learn, adjust and grow with the new environment or changed situation.

Russia’s Ukraine War May Conflagrate. In 2023, there were huge upheavals in our environment. Some of them, such as Russia’s conflict with Ukraine began earlier, in early 2022, but it was in 2023 that it became more grim. The war was here to stay. In the beginning, many, including seasoned analysts of geopolitical conflicts, assumed that Russia’s war against Ukraine wouldn’t last long and would peter out because, at least in the beginning, Russia was perceived to be ii-equipped to win the wat and its initial onslaughts had not been very successful. Then there was also the setback when Russian mercenary fighters, the Wagner Group rebelled, ostensibly, against the Kremlin but then backed down before its controversial leader Yevgeny Prigozhin died mysteriously. 

For a while in 2023 it seemed that Russia would back off and that the war would end. It didn’t. As we move quickly towards 2024, it could seem that in the coming year, the Russia-Ukraine conflict could not only continue to rage but Russia could firmly dominate the situation and even be a real threat to other regions in the neighbourhood. Vulnerable countries include Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 

In Ukraine, which is already straining since the offensive began, the situation could get worse in 2024. Although the European Union (EU) has decided to begin talks on the country’s membership of the union, the war funds that it wanted to provide have been blocked by a veto from Hungary. And NATO, which is dominated by the US, could also be hamstrung in its efforts to help Ukraine because in the US legislators have been blocking moves to increase America’s support to the beleaguered nation.

Meanwhile, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, 71, will contest (and, in all probability, win) a fifth term in next year’s elections and continue his authoritarian grip over his country’s policies, strategies, and actions.

These developments can embolden Russia, which has already unleashed hybrid war tactics against Finland, a new Nato member with which it shares a 1340-km border by sponsoring cyberattacks, pushing in illegal migrants from third countries, and threatening oil pipeline disruptions. 

In 2024, with flagging support for Ukraine, you could expect to see a further conflagration of Russia’s expansionism in the region. 

In Gaza, Peace Could Be A Far Cry. Since October 7 when the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, launched horrific attacks against Israel (more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians were killed, and hundreds were taken as hostages). Israel responded by launching a war in Gaza, killing thousands of Palestinians and displacing nearly a million more. The conflict is still ongoing, despite international efforts to broker a ceasefire. 

With both Israel and Hamas not willing to yield or agree to a long-term ceasefire, the current situation could get even more volatile in 2024. The prospect of settling in favour of a two-nation theory–the idea of creating two separate states for Israelis and Palestinians, based on the 1967 borders–is highly uncertain. Although that theory is backed by the UK, US, the UN, and many other countries, the main protagonists, Israel and Palestine, have irreconcilable differences that are related to issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the security concerns of both sides. 

Israel, which has expanded its settlements in the occupied areas of Gaza, also demands that any Palestinian state be demilitarised and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has rejected the two-nation theory and calls for the liberation of all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea, does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has waged several wars against it, firing rockets and launching attacks from Gaza.

Hamas has Iran’s backing and 2024, it is feared, could see a growing involvement of Iran in the conflict. Iran, whose efforts at developing nuclear weapons is a source of global concern, is allied with Russia (it supplies Russia with drones and other weapons to use against Ukraine). Israel’s counter-offensive against Hamas, which has affected millions of civilians in the region, has already raised the ire of Muslim countries in the neighbourhood and in 2024, unless a breakthrough settlement emerges, the Middle East could become a much larger and more critical arena of warfare that could draw in other nations and become a full-blown catastrophe.

A New Occupant in White House. There are few offices that are of as much consequence to the world as that of the President of the United State of America. It is a fact that is both unfortunate and true. Next year, Americans will elect a new President. While the current president, Joe Biden, will likely be in the race as the Democratic candidate, many expect a Republican to win the contest. Curiously, Donald Trump, who may be besieged by court cases of different kinds and could be even facing jail time, continues to be the most favoured Republican Party candidate. His approval ratings are way higher than other hopefuls from that party (namely, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek ramaswamy). 

Biden will be 82 around the time of the election and is believed to be showing signs of age-related unfitness. Trump, 77, is no spring chicken, but his legion of supporters keeps growing. A second Trump presidency could mean a harder line of inward looking American policies, protectionism, transactional diplomacy (read: deal making), and, in effect, a reduction of commitment to Nato, Ukraine, or the Middle East. Any of those policies could alter the global trends in 2024 profoundly.

Even if Trump is not the next President, any other Republican in the White House would likely have similar international policies–for instance, to downsize America’s involvement in international conflicts. As it stands, even Biden is facing problems in his efforts to pledge more support for Ukraine (the Democrats have a slight edge in the upper chamber of the American legislature, the Senate, but in the lower one, the House of Representatives, it is the Republicans that have an edge). 

China’s Third Revolution. China’s growth may have slowed down in 2023 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the weakness in the property sector, and the subdued external demand. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has upgraded its growth forecast for China to 5.4 percent for 2023, but expects it to slow to 4.6 percent in 2024. Other institutions, such as the World Bank and Moody’s, have also cut their 2024 growth forecasts for China to 4.4 percent or lower. Does that mean China’s influence next year will be less consequential? Most certainly not.

For one, the Chinese government has vowed to strengthen its fiscal policy and expand its domestic demand to boost the economy despite the many challenges and risks it faces such as overcapacity in the electric vehicle and other sectors, the ailing property market, the mounting local government debts, and the structural factors such as weaker demographics.

Yet, we must not forget the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s unwavering ambitions of transforming  the world order by redrawing the geographic boundaries of China and replacing the US-led West as the dominant power in the Asia Pacific. He has also sought to advance the principles of his new China on the global stage and to make other countries follow “a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind”. 

Like Putin, Xi, 70, is here to stay and could remain as his country’s supreme leader for life. Unlike Putin, Xi’s international moves are more entwined with trade, commerce and dominance via China’s manufacturing heft. Expect in 2024 to see China wield more clout in the Middle East, where it has already brokered a historic deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and in the South (especially in developing nations of Africa, and Asia) where its presence and influence has been steadily increasing.

Modi 3.0 and the Rise of India. Next year in May, more than 900 million Indians will be eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections, in which Prime Minister Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hope to win a third term. Many observers believe that he will. In a recently held round of state assembly elections, the BJP won three important ones–Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh (in first, it won a fifth consecutive term; and in the other two, it wrested control from its main rival, the Congress party). 

The Congress, which was once a more powerful central party, is now much diminished. Of India’s 28 states, the BJP is now in power in 12 of the 28 states and is in the ruling coalition in four others. The Congress, on the other hand, is now in power in only three states. 

Regardless of its performance in the recent state elections, the BJP’s prospects of winning next year’s parliamentary elections are high. First, because the opposition does not offer a big challenge. A recent coalition of several parties, including the Congress and other BJP-opposed regional and other parties has not really made significant impact on national politics in India.

More importantly, the Modi government, which came to power nearly a decade back in 2014 is seen to have delivered on many fronts. 

According to the IMF, India’s GDP growth rate for 2022 is projected to be 7%, which is higher than the world average of 3.08%. India’s economy is also the fifth largest in the world by nominal GDP, with an estimated size of $3.73 trillion in 2023. However, India’s GDP per capita is still low compared to other major economies, ranking 139th in the world with $2,690 in 2020. Inequality and disparities in development continue to be challenges in a country with a population of 1.4 billion.

Yet, the Modi regime’s track record has won him plaudits. According to a US-based consultancy firm, Morning Consult, Prime Minister Modi has the highest approval rating among 22 global leaders, with 76% of the respondents expressing satisfaction with his performance. Similarly, the Ipsos IndiaBus Poll found that Modi had an approval rating of 65% among urban Indians as of September 2023.

Some of the possible reasons for Modi’s high approval rating are his government’s achievements in various sectors, such as tax reform, bankruptcy code, sanitation, housing, energy, infrastructure, digital services, and national security. Next year, you could expect him to win another lease of trust from Indian voters.

Finally, 2024 Could be the Year of AI. Many believe that the real threat of artificial intelligence (AI), whose technology is rapidly progressing, is when it becomes capable of performing any intellectual task that humans or animals can do. Hypothetically, it is called AGI or artificial general intelligence and would be able to understand natural language, reason, plan, create, and adapt to new situations. 

AGI is the long-term goal of some AI research being conducted now at companies such as OpenAI and others and while it is not known when or whether it will be achieved, many have expressed apprehension about what its impact on humanity could be. For instance, AI could be weaponised. Drug discovery tools could be used to make chemical weapons; AI could use disinformation to destabilise societies and nations; or be misused by empowering groups with destructive intent. ‘

Expect 2024 to be the year of debate about how to control or regulate the development of AI and what impact it could have on humanity: on jobs, sovereignty, stability, and society.

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