Saturday, May 18, 2024

US campus protests: a post-script

In my last post, I wrote about the muted faculty response to the pro-Gaza student protests in the US. Based on my experience at IIMA, I find this not at all surprising. Over the long years I spent there, I found that, on a number of matters of internal governance, faculty response was inadequate. I could cite numerous instances. Let me mention one.

In 2008, IIMA announced a hike in the two year PGP fee from Rs 4.4 lakh to 11.5 lakh, an increase of 155% at one go. The faculty came to know of the biggest fee hike in IIMA’s history via email on convocation day after the board had approved it. Many faculty were busy with the convocation formalities and had not checked their email, so they got to know about it from the newspapers the next day!

There was a bit of a storm in the papers. The former minister for HRD, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, denounced the fee hike saying, ''It is a decision of the elite, by the elite and for the elite.”

A few days later, a faculty meeting was held. A senior faculty member rose to say that the convention had been for fee matters to be brought to the faculty for discussion. He wondered why this had not happened. He was right. The procedure was for the director to set up a committee to look into the costing of the PGP programme and recommend a fee. The proposed fee would be brought to the faculty council and, after approval, would be duly endorsed by the board of governors.  

The then director bristled at the suggestion that the faculty body needed to be consulted in the matter. “Faculty autonomy has always been a myth”, he said blandly, adding, “Financial decisions are always taken by the board.” Going by precedents, this was factually incorrect. But even if it was true, were the board and the director not obliged to provide a rationale for a near tripling of the fee at one go? There has to be a better argument for raising fees than “we can get away with it, so we shall”. So far as we could make out, the increase in fee bore no relationship whatsoever to any escalation in costs.

Institutional autonomy does not mean that the director and the board can do whatever they like. The IIMs are public institutions and are expected to conduct themselves with a measure of transparency and a sense of accountability to the people at large. It was incumbent on the board and the direct to explain why exactly they had gone in for a stupendous increase in fee. They failed to do so. 

In the case of the fee hike, both the faculty body and the board failed to ensure conformity with these basic principles. The board of governors was a mute witness to the director's frontal assault on faculty governance. From that point on, governance at IIMA went inexorably downhill, with the consequences that have inevitably followed, including the passage of IIM Act (Amendment) Bill in parliament last year.  IIMA enjoys considerably autonomy now but it is subject to monitoring- by the government, not the board of governors. Given the conspicuous failures of the board over the years, that is most appropriate. 




Crackdown on pro-Gaza student protestors in the US

Like many others, I have been watching the response of America's great universities to the pro-Gaza student protests with some consternation. I cannot imagine how disallowing peaceful student protests can be consistent with the spirit of academic freedom at all. Several universities have had students evicted by police from the camps that had set up on the campus. Students have been suspended, expelled, arrested. 

One of the things I find disconcerting is that America's star faculty have not been sufficiently forthcoming in defence of the students. There is the odd vote of no-confidence from a section of the faculty in some universities (eg. School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia university) but these are few and far between. There has not been the sort of unequivocal defence of students' right to peaceful protest that one would have expected of American faculty.

My latest article in BS is on this subject, US protests: why are faculty voices muted?

Here is the full text:


US protests: Why are faculty voices muted?

American university campuses erupted in protest last month over the conflict in Gaza. The pro-Palestine protests are still on and have since spread to Europe. These protests have raised fundamental questions about freedom of expression at universities. University administrators (often distinguished academics) have not been able to withstand pressure to silence the protestors. The voices of faculty, too, have been strangely muted. 

In dealing with such protests, universities obviously need to strike a balance between allowing freedom of expression and maintaining order on campus. The American Civil Liberties Union has spelt out ground rules that nobody can quarrel with. 

First, no viewpoint, however offensive, must be censored or disciplined.  Secondly, no student or group should be targeted or intimidated in any way in the name of free speech. Thirdly, universities can place restrictions on the time and place of protests so that the functioning of the university is not disrupted. Fourthly, the police must be called in only as a last resort. Lastly, campus leaders must not yield to political pressures.  

It should not have been difficult for the university authorities to have allowed the protests subject to these rules. Sadly, the situation has got out of hand at many American universities, such as Columbia in New York. Police (including anti-terrorist squads in combat gear) have been called in to clear out encampments of students even where they were not disruptive of normal activities.  The universities’ response to the protests may be disappointing, but nobody should be overly surprised. 

The United States is almost unique in the scale of philanthropic contributions to universities. Donor contributions are typically the single biggest source of finance for universities. Student fees don’t even cover operational costs, let alone capital expenditure.  The more funds a university or college can raise by way of donations, the more it can invest in infrastructure, research, and faculty and hence the greater its stature. Annoying donors is a terrible idea for any university.

In addition, universities get large funds for research projects from the government.   The US Defence Department, for instance, has historically been a major source of funds. Corporations, too, fund research projects. Universities, in turn, invest their endowment funds in corporations. 

Leading donors, major corporations and politicians have not cared to conceal their displeasure over the pro-Palestinian protests on campuses. Many tend to reflexively label the pro-Palestinian protests as anti-Semitism. America’s donors and politicians have been keen to oblige Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has called on the universities to shut down the protests. 

So deep are the links between universities on one side and the government and the private sector on the other that the universities can’t afford to antagonise either. The students’ demand that the universities divest from corporates with links to Israel is thus a non-starter for most universities. A crackdown on the protestors was inevitable.

It’s not just university administrators who have been timid in responding to outside pressures. Faculty have not been sufficiently forthcoming in support of the students’ right to legitimate protest. At Columbia university, the 111-member university senate considered but did not pursue a vote to censure the university president for her decision to call in the police, among other things.  

At Harvard, about 300 faculty have signed a letter urging the president to negotiate with the student protesters. That is a relatively small number out of the 2400 faculty the university boasts of. Most of the signatories are from the humanities departments. Faculty at Harvard’s famous schools of law, business, medicine, and the departments of physics, chemistry and economics appear largely absent from the list. At a few universities, faculty have passed a vote of no-confidence in the leadership.  Such faculty actions have been pretty rare.

Where, one wonders, are America’s many Nobel Laureates and other thought leaders? Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz, himself a Jew, has decried the “interference in academic freedom”. He has said in an interview, “They (the students) had empathy for what was going on in the world. How could anybody not react after seeing the pictures, after seeing the numbers of people dying, being injured?” Professor Stiglitz is a distinguished exception to the silence of the leaders of America’s academic community.  How come?

Faculty in the US comprise two groups: clinical or adjunct faculty and tenured faculty. Clinical faculty do mostly teaching and are on contract. They would be reluctant to put their jobs on the line by taking a position on such issues. Tenured faculty enjoy complete job security and are not subject to any retirement age. With that sort of protection, people would expect tenured faculty to speak up on issues of academic freedom. 

Alas, that doesn’t happen. For one thing, governance in American academia has changed quite a bit over the decades. American universities are said to be “faculty governed”; that is, faculty are supposed to play an active role in the running of colleges and universities. Over the last two or three decades, however, American colleges have tended to become Dean-centric, which means more power has come to be concentrated in the office of the Dean. Finance, faculty appointment and confirmation, and faculty compensation (including annual increments) are all matters on which  Deans have come to have the larger say.  

The “incentives” that have caused academic administrators to fall in in line with donors and politicians also operate to keep faculty on a leash. Distinguished faculty hold Chairs that are endowed by wealthy donors, whether individuals or companies. Funding for research projects and, broadly, power and influence within the college or university are contingent on faculty keeping administrators and donors happy. 

So faculty may hold forth on human rights abuses and limits on freedom of speech in China, Russia, Myanmar and other places. They may sit on government and regulatory bodies and record stirring notes of dissent. They may write searing critiques of political parties succumbing to powerful lobbies. They may exhort graduating students to stand by the “values” of the university and to speak truth to power. 

Within their own colleges or universities and in their dealings with Deans and Presidents, however, faculty know how to lie low on issues that matter- and not just in the US. Your columnist, who has had a long stint in academia, is happy to share a little secret: The internal culture of academia is not all that different from that of the typical corporation (whose authoritarian culture academics are apt to decry). 

Academics, like sensible people everywhere, know which side their bread is buttered. They understand that the price of annoying administrative leaders and powerful external lobbies is steep. Freedom of expression, “governance” and “values”, then, are strictly for the birds. 

Monday, April 29, 2024

Can India grow faster? The Economist's perspective

The Economist had a special report on the Indian economy recently. It has all sorts of interesting facts and it's written in the easy, readable style one associates with the Economist. At the end of the day, there are only a couple of things one wants to know. What rate of growth can one expect of the Indian economyin the years ahead? What do we do to sustain growth at a brisk pace?

The Economist notes that growth in the decade of NDA rule has been 5.6 per cent, below the overall rate of 6 per cent during the three decades of reforms. It is, of course, true that the slowing down of the Indian economy had to do with the overall slowing down of the global economy during this period, notably during the pandemic. The journal doesn't give a precise projection but it seems to think that sustained growth of 6 per cent should be okay- and even that could prove a challenge. We in India now hope for something closer to 7 per cent.

As to what is to be done to sustain a growth rate of 6 per cent or so, I picked up the following, none of which is novel. I give my comments alongside the idea:

  • Boost tax to gdp ratio.: How do we do this when we have been narrowing, instead of broadening the tax base, by raising the threshold for income tax and cutting corporate tax steeply?
  • More divestment: Rarely in the past several decades has the divestment target been met. The present government had a huge parliamentary majority, yet found it difficult to accelerate divestment. That is the political reality which cannot be changed easily.
  • Cut agricultural subsidies: The Economist grants this is a political minefield. So it is. Even keeping subsidies from growing from the present level would be an achievement
  • Better centre-state relations to push through reforms in education, labour, etc. Perhaps, the only answer is to have the same government at the centre and the states. That is, perhaps, part of the motivation for the one nation-one election idea but this is not going to happen quickly. 
  • Devolve more powers to the local administration: Political decentralisation, brought about by the forces of democracy, is sought to be countered by growing economic centralisation. Ceding more powers to the local level or to the states is at odds with the perceived need for a strong centre to hold the country together. India, unlike the US, is not a union of states with the states relinquishing powers in favour of the centre. It is a union that has allowed powers to flow to the states but with a distinct tilt in favour of the centre.
That's about it- and there's nothing in the list that lends itself to ready accomplishment. The only possible inference is that we should be happy to grow at 6-7 per cent instead of seeking hard to accelerate it to 8 per cent or more. There is, perhaps, a greater need now to address the question of equity or growing inequalities within the country and to focus more on human development indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy rates, etc. 

Rising inequality is not just an ethical issue or an issue of containing tensions within our society, it is also about recognising that inquality is limiting the possibilities for consumption growth and hence the overall growth rate. As for human development indicators, we need to worry that our indicators are worse than those of many in South Asia including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Let the overall growth rate be. It's time to focus on the quality of life of Aam Aadmi.







Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Gaza conflict: where do we stand now?

Israel has announced that it is pulling out its troops from Khan Younis, the scene of bitter battles between the IDF and Hamas for several weeks. Some reports suggest that Israel has withdrawn all but one of its brigades from Gaza. Israel claims its job is substantially done. The claim has little credibility. Hamas is still standing and the remaining hostages are yet to be returned. So neither of the two objectives of the war set by the government of PM Netanyahu have been met. 

Two well-known blogs, A Son of the American Revolution, and Moon of Alabama, both known for their incisive military analysis, present interesting views here and here. .

Here is Larry Johnson of the first blog:

Israel is losing because it has failed, after six months of lopsided combat, to defeat Hamas and free the hostages. Israel has proved itself to be quite skilled in killing unarmed women, children and elderly. The Izzies sure know how to bomb hospitals, medical clinics, schools, churches, mosques, universities and UN refugee centers. Instead of fortifying the myth of Israel as David fighting the colossus Muslim Goliath, Israel’s military campaign has been an unmitigated public relations disaster. Early claims of beheaded children and mass rapes turned out to be fabrications by a determined Israeli psyops campaign. Public opinion around the world views Israel as a murderous thug. There was a time that Israel could count on having a majority of Western nations in its corner. That time is over.

And here goes Moon of Alabama:

International criticism of Israel has risen to unprecedented levels. Several UN resolutions have condemned it for its war crimes in Gaza. The International Court of Justice has ruled against it.

Only the support from the United States had allowed Israel to continue. But two recent incidents have jeopardized it.

The first was Israel's assassination of seven people who had been working for World Central Kitchen, a U.S. based charity with good connections to Congress. Forty members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, have since spoken out against further unconditional support for Israel. The U.S. government under Joe Biden had to acknowledge that. It finally threatened to end its support for the Israeli government.

Following U.S. threats Israel immediately increased the provision of food to the starving population in Gaza:

The Defense Ministry body that coordinates Israeli activity in Palestinian territories said that 322 aid trucks entered the Gaza Strip on Sunday, the highest one-day total since the beginning of the war.

The second game changing incident was the Israeli attack on an Iranian embassy building in Damascus. A hit on any embassy is a serious crime that concerns all governments in this world. Iran would be fully within its rights to retaliated for such a strike.

The U.S. was extremely concerned over this as any Iranian response might well hit the many U.S. installation in the Middle East and could escalate into a wider war with severe consequences for all sides.

This had to be averted. Iranian media report now that a deal has been made in negotiations between Iran and the U.S. Iran will refrain from a direct attack on Israel if the U.S. guarantees a ceasefire in Gaza.

But does Israel being on the defensive mean that peace will return to Gaza? It still seems unlikely. PM Netanyahu has every interest in continuing the war- the moment the war ends, his government will fall and he will have to face long-standing corruption charges. Hamas' chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, will feel less of a compulsion to pursue peace talks now that Israeli military presence is considerably reduced. He has every incentive to play for higher stakes: the end of Israeli occupation of Gaza and the hand over of the strip back to Hamas.

The big imponderable is the Iranian response to the assassination of one of its generals in Syria, widely ascribed to Israel. Will a response provide the pretext for Israel to launch an assault on Hezbollah in Lebanon? 


McKinsey could use some advice- on strategy

 McKinsey has, for some years now, often been making news for quite the wrong reasons. It was in the news when its former partner, Rajat Gupta, went to jail on insider trading charges. It got mixed up with the wrong people in its business in South Africa. It was embroiled in the opiods scandal in the US. There are a few more items on the list.

Currently, it is in the news because it has offered paid leave of several months to those who would like to look for jobs outside the firm. Quite plainly, it wants to shrink. Nothing wrong with that, you would say, except that people expect experts in strategy to plan their growth to avoid hiccups such as largish layoffs. McKinsey's problems, columnist Schumpeter argued in the Economist, arise from having grown far too big to be manageable. It needs to shrink. 

There are other problems, some of which are spelt out in another article.  Strategy, which was the main business for McKinsey, accounts for 10 per cent of its business now. Other businesses, such as digitisation of businesses and ESG, are prone to ups and downs and this renders consultants' businesses cyclical. That means there will be both hiring and firing as in investment banks. A third problem is that, with globalisation in reverse gear, overseas businesses, notably the one in China, may come under stress. Finally, businesses have their own large complements of MBAs now and may not be so much in need of strategy. What they want is people who will implement strategy, produce improvements in operations and profits and help them stay one jump ahead of competition in technology.

McKinsey will have to manage growth hereafter at a pace that helps it preserve its culture and identity. It will have to reinvent itself in ways that help it to remain relevant. In short, it needs to think through its own strategy. 

Monday, April 08, 2024

Why is Mr Modi so popular with the electorate?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took his party to a huge win in 2014 and repeated it in 2019. Going by most forecasts, he is set for a third consecutive win. Many have been puzzling over the amazing electoral success Mr Modi has had. Fund manager Ruchir Sharma provides his own explanation. He says Mr Modi has provided growth with relatively low inflation. For that reason, the electorate is willing to overlook things such as his alleged going after opposition parties on charges of corruption or the supposed curbing of civil liberties. The electorate has done a deal of the sort East Asian economies had done with their rulers earlier:

I think what we are seeing is a kind of tacit deal, in which swing voters accept a democratic recession under Modi, so long as he delivers economic progress. While the hardcore supporters of his Bharatiya Janata party were always going to stand by their leader and the party’s Hindutva ideology, Modi has significantly expanded its traditional base by offering a deal that appeals to an increasing number of young and new voters. This is reminiscent of east Asia after the second world war, when countries such as South Korea and Taiwan put together long runs of rapid growth with low inflation under autocratic leaders, who gave way to genuinely free elections only after their nations reached a middle-income level. Under Modi, India has witnessed relatively robust economic growth, with low and stable inflation — much like the early east Asian model. It also has enjoyed a booming stock market, the rollout of gleaming infrastructure projects and new digital platforms that facilitate the delivery of welfare benefits.

This sound more than a little glib. The UPA government produced simple average growth of 6.6 per cent in its second term on top of 7 per cent growth in its first term. These are both very healthy numbers, yet that could not save the government from defeat in 2014. The NDA government produced growth of 7.38 per cent in its first term, not vastly superior to what the UPA government produced in its second term. In its second term, however, it has produced growth of  4.5 per cent; evidently, that will suffice to get it elected.

It's not at all clear that the Modi government has won on the strength of economic growth alone. There are several other elements that must be factored in. The government has sought to redefine nationalism in very different terms through its projection of Hindutva; that appears to have resonated with large numbers of people, including young voters. It has been successful in reaching welfare benefits- food, cooking gas, health insurance etc- to large numbers of people. There is Mr Modi's personal charisma- he comes across as somebody who's incredibly hard-working and committed to the objective of making India a developed country by 2047.

Lastly, the electorate probably does not see the opposition as shining angels of the protection of civil liberties or tolerance of the opposition. The Indian state has never quite got out of the framework created by the British Raj to perpetuate its rule. No political party can really claim moral superiority on how the state treats its citizens. It is an important area crying out for future reform.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Dealing with inequality: are wealth and income caps the answer?

Inequality today, perhaps, draws more comment than poverty if only because extreme poverty has been successfully tackled in most parts of the world. There are many studies that document increases in inequality (notably the book by Thomas Picketty). Many of these findings are contested- some dispute the contention that inequality is rising. But the fact that there is substantial inequality is not disputed.

Now, we have two books that propose radical solutions. One wants a cap on wealth or savings of $ 10 million. Another argues that nobody should earn more than the current threshold for entering the top 1% of taxpayers ($330,000 in the US). The Economist argues that, whatever the theoretical arguments for limiting inequality, we do not have effective ways to place limits on income or wealth.

First, if we want to cap wealth  or income, it implies a 100% marginal income tax rate above a certain income. That is very difficult to enforce: there would be massive evasion or people would flee to friendlier tax regimes. And if all nations enforced such a marginal tax rate?  The effect on incentives would be devastating:

Imagine a world where any gain above £180,000 a year, or $10m over a lifetime, was forfeit. Highly productive people—such as surgeons and engineers, never mind word wizards like J.K. Rowling—would have no financial incentive to keep working after that point was passed. Perhaps some would carry on toiling out of altruism or for the love of the job. But many would be tempted to kick back, relax and deprive the world of their exceptional skills, drive and imagination.

Consider, too, the incentives such a system would create for entrepreneurs. You have an idea for a better mousetrap. Under the old system, you might mortgage your house to raise cash to build a mousetrap factory, in the hope of making a fortune. Under the new system, you must shoulder the same risks (such as losing your home), for a small fraction of the rewards.

Potentially big ideas would stay small. Even if your mousetrap is so good that the world might reasonably be expected to beat a path to your door, it would be irrational to borrow money to expand production. The financial risks of trying to build a global business fall on you. The rewards go to someone else. Only a mug would take such a bet.

Well, it's important that we steer clear of extreme solutions to inequality. Wherever inequality is rising, we need to fix a few things that Joseph Stiglitz has emphasised several times: the bargaining power of workers, the power of corporations and the way the elite frames rules to suit itself. People will accept even a high level of inequality in society provided they see a certain fairness to it. At the moment, it all seems like a game that is rigged by the rich and the powerful. 

Nuclear war: a close look at its horrors

All of understand that a nuclear war will wipe out much of the planet, that there are enough nuclear weapons with the US and Russia to kill the world's population several times over. But how exactly would a nuclear war unfold? 

The Economist reviews a couple of books that sketch out the nightmare. Let us say North Korea launches a nuclear attack on the USor a Russian submarine fires nuclear missiles off the West Coast of the US.Then, here is a possible sequence:

The American satellites which pick up the North Korean launch have sensors “so powerful they can see a single lighted match from 200 miles away”, she writes. Within 15 seconds radars can work out that the missile is headed for America. It will take just over half an hour to arrive. Once the president has been briefed he has six minutes to make a choice.

A Russian submarine off America’s west coast could launch its full complement of missiles at all 50 states at once in 80 seconds. Even if an American submarine was close behind it could not fire a torpedo in that time, notes one expert. That fact is said to have shocked America’s navy chief when it was revealed to him in 1981. Missiles launched from close to the American coastline would take little over seven minutes to hit their target.

American missiles bound for North Korea must overfly Russia by dint of geography. American leaders cannot get Russia’s president on the phone. Russia’s sub-par early-warning satellites, which have indeed been known to confuse clouds for plumes, mistakenly see hundreds of missiles incoming. The Kremlin attacks America. America responds. There are 100 “aimpoints”—jargon for targets—in the greater Moscow area alone.

Another book shows how deeply the scientific community is divided over the issue:

Some are gung-ho about the importance of nuclear deterrence, brandishing charts which show how deaths from major wars plummeted after the invention of the bomb. Others are equivocal, expressing opposition to nuclear weapons while insisting that someone has to ensure that the ones which exist remain safe and reliable. Still others seem deeply conflicted, preferring to emphasise the civilian applications of their research. “I wonder if the activists on the outside understand that there are those of us on the inside that share many of their goals,” says one scientist at Los Alamos, professing support for (eventual) disarmament. “That’s not an extreme position here at all.”

You could say mankind has carried on like this for over six decades and that deterrrence has worked. But the men who manage nuclear arsenals, it appears, continue to have sleepless nights. 

Friday, January 05, 2024

Conflict in Gaza: what does Israel want now?

It is three months now since the Gaza conflict erupted. The slaughter continues. We have had several developments over the past few days. One, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has announced a withdrawal of some of its forces stationed in Gaza. Two, the number two person in the Hamas leadership was assasinated in Beirut- nobody doubts that is the work of Israel. Three, an Israeli strike killed a senior Iranian commander in Syria. Four, the US has announced the withdrawal of its aircraft carrier, USS Gerald Ford, from the Mediterranean.

What do we make of all this? Well, the Israelis clearly want to scale down their operations in Gaza. They recognise that the complete elimination of Hamas, their stated goal, cannot be realised in quick time. They wish to move on to more focused operations that target the Hamas leadership instead of the all-out war we have seen thus far.

That much is clear enough. The two assasinations are a provocation. The killing of a Hamas leader in Beirut flouts the warning of Hezbollah chief Nasrallah that assasinations by Israel on Lebanese soil are a red line Israel should not cross. The assasination in Syria shows the red rag to the Iranian bull, the principal backer of Hezbollah. Israel knows it must expect a strong reaction and yet goes ahead- clearly, a strong reaction is what it wants. A strong reaction would mean that the managed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah would move to a higher level and draw in Iran, inevitably drawing in the US as well.

There are both strategic and political calculations involved in moving towards such a confronation. Israel views Hezbollah as a far bigger threat than Hamas and Iran an even bigger threat. An estimated 75,000 Israelis have been moved out of the border with Lebanon and relocated elsewhere. They refuse to go back until the Hezbollah threat on the border is removed. At the very least, Israel would like Hezbollah to move to the north of the Litani river with a buffer zone that is protected by, say an UN force. Israel cites an old UN resolution in support of that demand.

Hezbollah has never accepted that interpretation of the UN resolution and it is no mood to oblige. The Americans are using diplomatic channels to pressure Lebanon and Hezbollah into accepting Israel's demand. Israel has said that if diplomacy fails, it will have to do the job of evicting Hezbollah itself.

That would mean a serious escalation of the conflict in Gaza. But that is precisely what the present leadership in Israel seems to want- a confrontation with Iran that addresses this threat once and for all,of course, with the help of the US. 

There is a cold political calculation underlying all this. Israel's PM Benajmin Netanyahu knows that any end to the war will mean an enquiry into the lapses that resulted in the October 7 attack by Hamas and a demand for his ousted. Once ousted, he faces corruption charges and the prospect of jail. A prolongation of the war helps the PM avoid that unpleasantness. 

Alastair Crooke,  a former British diplomat with vast experience in the region, has been making some of these points for quite some time now. He argues that the Gaza quagmire for Israel is not what its leadership had expected- they had thought the mighty IDF would vanquish Hamas in next to no time. Crooke writes, "One man -- a retired Maj. General Brik, a highly respected military officer -- warned PM Netanyahu personally that a quagmire trap in Gaza was a true risk. The military establishment did not like hearing his warning.  Now it is clear; Major General Brik was right. He said a few days ago that ‘the number of Hamas casualties on the ground is much lower than what the IDF reports.’ 

Crooke quotes another retired general as saying 'I cannot see any signs of collapse of the military abilities of Hamas – nor in their political strength with in Gaza'." He goes on to suggest that Israel's getting involved in a prolonged war may have to do something beyond the Iran threat and PM Netanyahu's calculations. 

What has happened in Israel over the years is a pronounced shift towards the right and a progessive embrace of the idea of a Greater Israel. Crooke quotes an Israeli historian, Martin Zimmerman, on what has resulted from that idea:

"Jewish nationhood in the Land of Israel went through a process of nationalism, racialism and ethnocentrism. It created a situation of being unable to reach a modus vivendi with the neighbouring world.......And that is the problem: Once you have embarked on the path, it's difficult to leave it without undergoing another catastrophe."

What is unfolding in the Middle East now thus has the makings of a Greek tragedy, one that could plunge the world into turmoil through this year. Only one power on earth can prevent it from happening, the US. That helps us to connect the fourth dot mentioned at the outset, the departure of the US strike carrier group from the Mediterranean. The carrier group was sent in to reassure Israel after the Hamas attack of October 7. Can we hope that the removal of the carrier group is meant to convey to Israel: we are with you but don't push us too far? 

My views on the outlook for the Indian economy

 Financial Express carried an interview with me earlier in the week.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Gaza's plight: is there hope at all?

How will Israel's assault on Gaza pan out? Will it lead to the ethnic cleansing of vast portions of Gaza, a repetition of what happened when Israel came to be founded? Or will the world rouse itself to put an end to the suffering of a helpless people?

Here's  a somewhat bleak view penned by a former UN official:

To date, only Bolivia has severed diplomatic relations with Israel to protest against the ongoing war crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians. Unless Egypt, Jordan, UAE and Morocco sever their diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv as their people demand; unless countries such as Turkey, South Africa and Brazil, which have denounced Israel’s war crimes, align their diplomacy with their own pronouncements; unless these countries emulate Bolivia’s principled diplomatic move and put pressure on their Western partners; unless Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Qatar, Azerbaijan and other large exporters of oil and natural gas use their economic leverage on Israel’s blinded backers, Gaza and its population will be destroyed, inch by inch, soul by soul. And no one would be able to say: “We didn’t know.”

The view from a South African who was witness to the end of the apartheid is more hopeful:

They will do well to learn from white South Africans who, after 300 years of minority rule, realised it was an impossible political project to continue to defend so violently, and still maintain any semblance of a moral high ground.There is a tipping point when even for the defenders of such a project, the faint question rings louder and louder in the collective conscience: how far is too far? There can be no going back to the promises of security based on what was before. There can be no going forward in peace if it means more and more blood of children and civilians haunting successive generations who will have to take responsibility for the actions unfolding before our eyes today.

The most astonishing thing about the ongong carnage is much of Western Europe (UK, France, Germany) is firmly with Israel with dissenting voices being heard from the smaller countries such as Belgium and Spain.