Brexit a symptom of discontent against growing inequality

Dev Nadkarni

Like a massive earthquake, Brexit, in one fell swoop, has laid bare the many deep fissures and fault lines that so dangerously divide not just Britain but the world at large in so many different ways today.

Statistical and psephology analyses quickly revealed that the vote was split between blue collar and white collar, urban and rural, the less educated and university graduates, haves and have-nots and along distinct geographical areas (Think Scotland, which has created a whole new post-Brexit problem for Britain – but that’s an entirely different story).

The ‘leave’ voters clearly had a deep sense of disenfranchisement that has been bubbling away for years. The establishment, not just in Britain but also in many western countries around the world, seems increasingly out of touch with the hoi polloi – the people at the grassroots. In recent decades the nexus of mutual convenience between the political and business elite is so blatantly self-serving, that those who don’t see themselves belonging there have been hardened to embrace ideologies of the far right: nationalism, insularity – and xenophobia.

This is happening around the world. The success of Donald Trump’s campaign for his presidential nomination is another example of this. A certain sizable demographic at the grassroots level is fed up with the politically correct, please all brand of centrism. People increasingly want leaders to take a stand. Go left or right. The centre isn’t cool anymore – at least among those who feel they’ve been left out by that self-serving nexus between politics and big business.

India, the world’s biggest democracy, too, has in recent years displayed a marked shift to the right, with the centrist UPA and the once ubiquitous Congress party nowhere in the political reckoning in recent years.

The malaise of inequality

Forces that drove Brexit are a symptom of this widespread malaise of growing inequality: it was more an angry vote against the establishment. When the disappointed and the disenfranchised go out to vote, they vote with more emotion than rationality and it is no surprise that many weren’t even aware of the full consequences that would unfold after Britain left the European Union. Reports said that ‘EU’ was among the most searched words on Google after the Brexit vote. The ‘remain’ voters accused the government of not adequately explaining the repercussions of leaving to those backing that move.

Discontent on several fronts has been brewing in the UK for years. But it is the highly emotive issue of immigration that seems to have played a major part in hardening the stance of the ‘leave’ voters. Being part of the EU has brought in a flood of workers from other poorer European countries like Poland into Britain, with the immigrants eager to work for far less wages than the typical British blue collar worker is used to. The sudden spike in anti-Polish rhetoric and signs that have sprung up particularly in Britain’s rust belt (which overwhelmingly voted to leave) are a rather discomforting testimony to this.

The consequences for not just Britain but also for the EU are flying thick and fast. Scotland feels shortchanged that despite an overwhelming vote to remain it is being forced to toe the majority line to leave. So it’s seriously considering a second referendum to ask its people whether it should leave the United Kingdom. Over in the EU, member nations are beginning to worry if Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU. Would other countries see less and less value in remaining in the union in the coming months and years? There is discontent in some countries already while in some others the voices to leave are becoming shriller post Brexit.

Lessons for New Zealand

At the heart of the issue is inequality – the widening and deepening chasm between the rich and the poor across the world. Incredibly, we see this phenomenon as the world frenetically pursues globalisation, ostensibly to create a more equitable and egalitarian world. But the exact opposite seems to be happening. Instead of being distributed equitably, wealth is being even further concentrated. Statistics in every country underscores the fact that the gulf is ever widening.

Inequality in New Zealand is growing fast. Last week Statistics New Zealand figures said the country’s richest 10 per cent owns 60 per cent of its wealth while the poorest 40 per cent owns a paltry 10 per cent. These are the sorts of figures that are bandied about by pro-poor NGOs ahead of high profile annual jamborees of the rich and famous like the Davos meet in Switzerland every January. Much is discussed and lip service paid. But little ever is done to bridge the chasm at the policy level and ensure a more equitable distribution of global wealth.

Brexit is a red light for the entire world. More than just a desire to leave the EU, it needs to be seen as a vote of no confidence in the status quo of the establishment. Discontent, when it bubbles over, could manifest itself in many ways – whether it is leaving an elite club of nations, bringing in an extreme right wing president, a rising tide of xenophobia against immigrants or having to live in cars because of housing unaffordability. Inequality is fertile ground for such disasters to unfold.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender July 1, 2016

Slumbering elephant stirs

India, often described as a sleeping elephant in contrast to the Chinese dragon, has thrown up a clear verdict for change. With a new prime minister and an all-new government, what will this mean for the world – and the Pacific?

Dev Nadkarni

Last month the world’s largest democracy delivered it’s most decisive verdict in three decades, completely belying the prognoses of political pundits of all hues. An overwhelming majority of India’s voters sent a loud and clear message to the political class: they were fed up with the status quo and wanted big changes in the world’s second most populous nation. Does this signal the stirring of the proverbial slumbering elephant?

The Indian elections are a statistical spectacle that has always held the free world spellbound. It is the biggest political logistic exercise anywhere in the world. The latest polls had 815 million eligible voters, 935,000 polling stations, 11 million election officials, 8250 candidates contesting 543 seats, in an election process that ran from April 7 to May 12, the longest ever. The voting was totally paperless with the deployment of more than 1.7 million electronic voting machines. At more than 66 per cent, this election saw the biggest voter turnout ever – underscoring the steely determination of the Indian public to vote for change.

Unambiguous verdict

The results were declared on May 16 and the country’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was declared the winner with a clear majority. The Congress party, which has been in power for most of the years since the country’s independence, suffered the worst ever loss in its history. For the first time in thirty years, the electorate has delivered so clear a verdict that the winning party will need no coalition support from its allies. It can govern on its own. On May 26, Narendra Modi, who led the party to this decisive victory, became India’s new Prime Minister.

In many ways, this election has been a game changer for India and its dealings with the world. For one, the voting public has put the dynastically ruled Congress Party and its corruption tainted leaders out to pasture. It has swept to power a humble, former street tea vendor to the country’s highest office – something that has not only never happened before but was inconceivable given the Nehru-Gandhi family’s dynastic hold on the upper echelons of India’s politics.

The previous regime was racked with dozens of mega corruption scandals running into billions of dollars, involving almost every core industry sector ranging from mining and energy to telecommunications and infrastructure. India, once touted as the second fastest growing economy, with near double digit growth rates at the turn of the century, has slowed down to almost half that. Infrastructure growth is lagging behind and the country’s institutions, its bureaucracy and its workforce are in dire need of modernisation.

Negative portrayal belied

Prime Minister Modi has been widely portrayed as being a hardline right wing politician and has been accused of complicity in a major communal conflagration in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat where he has been the chief minister for 12 years. The fact that India’s supreme court has exonerated him has not convinced a section of his critics. But now the silent Indian voter, with such an unambiguous verdict, has all but silenced even his bitterest critic.

The campaign against Mr Modi and his party was so strong that several countries including the United States and the United Kingdom denied him visas while they had no qualms about laying out the red carpet to proven political rogues from other parts of the world. These two powerful countries, too, have been delivered a firm message by the Indian voter through the most democratic of processes – a message they simply cannot ignore. And they haven’t: just hours after the results were declared last month, both countries shamefacedly extended invitations to Mr Modi to visit them.

Analysts and long time India watchers see this election as a turning point in the country’s history, not only internally within the country and not just with its neighbours, with many of whom it has had difficult relationships, but also with the rest of the world. Throughout his election campaign, Mr Modi has stressed on inclusiveness and even in this most decisive of election victories has invited dialogue with an all but decimated opposition.

Mantra of inclusiveness

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif became the first ever prime minister of his country to attend the oath taking ceremony of an Indian prime minister. Prime ministers of nearly all the SAARC countries, too, attended. It is widely believed that Mr Modi will most likely look east before he looks west. Reports indicate that the Chinese dragon seems happy to play ball with the stirring elephant: it is looking forward to the new dispensation in New Delhi and to building new bridges with a fresh administration that is widely seen as being far more business friendly and efficient than the one before.

India’s old ties with Russia are also likely to be strengthened. An India-Russia-China counterweight to the west looks more possible now than at any stage before in history. In his television interviews in the run up to the polls, he has talked about improving relations with countries across the world following the ancient Indian concept of ‘the world is truly one family’. He has talked extensively, particularly about reaching out to nations that are now home to India’s nearly 30 million strong diaspora scattered across the globe. That includes countries like Fiji, Mauritius, the Maldives, Suriname, the Caribbean states, among others.

Opportunities for the Pacific

There is great hope among Indians as well as the rest of the world that the country’s stalled business reforms will continue and Indian business will be far more integrated into the world economy than before. This presents a great opportunity for the Pacific Islands region just as it does for many other countries. Just as the region has developed deep links with China, which is now beginning to bear fruit for the islands, it can now look with hope to another huge marketplace of a billion people and more.

Indian businesses are slowly but surely increasing their presence in the region. There are several Indian firms operating in Papua New Guinea and looking for opportunities further into the Pacific. Indian professionals are also known the world over for their work ethic, pragmatism, entrepreneurship and innovative styles of doing business. Their ability to communicate in the English language makes it easier for them to work with the rest of the world. This is an asset that the region can leverage, just as the US and the UK have over the past few decades.

Now is a better time than ever before for the Pacific’s leadership to think in terms of setting up a collective presence for the region in New Delhi particularly with a view to attracting investment in the region and promoting trade. The Pacific region as a whole, bar Fiji, has been a bit of a blind spot for Indian administrations in the past. That needs to be corrected if the region is to benefit from the new, forward-looking Indian Government.

First appeared in the June 2014 issue of Islands Business

Climate Karma – chickens come home to roost?

Dev Nadkarni

According to popular climate change lore, the continuous spewing of carbon and harmful greenhouse gases over nearly 200 years, primarily by western nations, is what has caused the earth to warm up irrevocably these past few decades. This warming has caused polar ice caps and continental glaciers to melt like ice cream on a hot tin roof. Different climate scientists have come out with different estimates at different times about how much this melting will cause sea levels to rise over the next century or so.

Estimates vary from a couple of metres to several tens of metres. Scary scenarios have been painted about what the world map and the world’s demographics will look like in 100 years. Famines, water shortages, mass migration, wars, natural catastrophes, even apocalypse have all been predicted with all manner of scientific modeling. The direst of these contend that only 20 per cent of humanity will live to see the year 2100.

At climate change meets down the years, small island states and countries that perceive themselves as being vulnerable to rising sea levels have repeatedly complained that they are being made to pay for the centuries long abuse of the environment by the industrialised world. Countries like Tuvalu have leveraged the emotive appeal of this argument to drum up support from governments and world development organisations.

A few years ago, even Queen Elizabeth said in a speech that the world’s poor were suffering the effects of climate change for no fault of theirs and because of the industrial pollution caused by the relentless growth ambitions of the industrial western world. Rising sea levels has all along been seen as the single most devastating effect of climate change – and low lying coastal areas and small island states have been seen as those being the first to be affected.

The poor, impoverished, far flung, low lying nations of the world being made to suffer because of the careless, callous profligacy of the rich nations! What a travesty of the Karmic principle, if ever there was one. ‘Make them pay’ – that was the refrain of the small nations at the receiving end of the effects of climate change.

Under growing pressure and perhaps out of some desire to clean up the world after them and probably their conscience, large mitigation and adaptation funds were announced and pledged to help the soon to be inundated little people. The actual funds, however, have been long in coming for a variety of reasons – political, economic and scientific, besides others.

But Karma might still be at work, as might be the wont of the fatalistically inclined to say. Over the past few years, freak wild weather largely attributed to climate change has affected the developed western world much more and immediately than the anticipated effects of sea level rise. Typhoons, king tides, polar blasts, heat waves, droughts unprecedented flooding and other unusually inclement weather have badgered much of the developed world.

Many of these weather incidents have been described as once in 500 years events. The high temperatures caused by heat waves in California and Australia in recent times was predicted for the 2030s, according to climate change models. The flooding in the United Kingdom, particularly around London and the southeast, are the worst in recent history and authorities fear there might be even worse inundation coming.

It seems as though climate change modeling, at least as reported in the world media, was hitherto too focused on sea level rise and the potential inundation of coastal and small islands’ population. Not much attention was paid to the rapidity of changing weather patterns and whether that is directly linked to climate change.

With this rash of disasters in the past six to eight months almost on every continent, the threat of the effects of climate change seem much more urgent and all pervading rather than confined to attention paid to measuring a few millimetres’ rise of sea levels around far flung islands. If the link of these recent disasters with climate change is established beyond doubt for politicians and those inclined to deny climate change – whether natural or manmade – the approach to tackling climate change and the attitude of the industrial nations will undoubtedly change.

For the first time since the climate dialogues began, the industrial world has been rattled by such a first hand experience of climate change. It is no longer some distant bogey, which is going to affect tiny, idyllic islands in the middle of some ocean somewhere at some unspecified time in the future. These events are ferocious, threatening, and more importantly, happening in their very countries – that, too, repeatedly.

The two polar blasts that have snowed out Canada, the United States and Japan in the northern winter  – incessant snowfalls in -40 degree cold is an extremely rare event. But it has happened. Not once but twice. Weather scientists are now saying there will be more unpredictable instances of wild weather. Weather patterns have changed so dramatically and suddenly that even the staunchest of climate change deniers will find it hard to delink such events with the effects of climate change.

The question is no longer whether climate change is natural or anthropogenic or a bit of both. The fact is that it is happening here and now – whatever may be the reason, it is reality and it is devastating. Perhaps there is little that can be done to stop it from happening so repeatedly. Perhaps it is too late and whatever we might attempt to do now is too little. But what can undoubtedly be done is step up preparedness to meet the challenges that disasters will bring in their wake.

“Money is no object,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, when his Government was accused of doing too little too late to prevent the never before seen flooding around London. The British Royals provided Social Media with viral fodder as they chipped in to sandbag towns threatened by the flooding. The wild weather both in the US and the UK have shown how poorly prepared even the industrialised west is to face up to sudden, calamitous events.

These events as well as the ones that will inevitably follow, according to weather experts and climate scientists, bring a sense of immediacy like never before to the political and economic business of dealing with the effects of climate change. Natural disasters don’t follow the boundaries of political geography. Any preventative strategy has to be global and must encompass all regions and peoples.

These extreme weather events of the past few months might yet prove to be instrumental in changing the way the rich nations look at climate change financing and mitigation and adaptation strategies for the world at large during future climate change meets. This may well be the time when the rich nations put the money where their mouth is, to walk the talk – time is clearly running out, if it hasn’t run out already.

First appeared in the March 2014 edition of Islands Business magazine

‘Aho Nadkarni, Dahaa-Baaraa Tandoori Chicken Maagwaa’ – our encounters with Thackeray

Dev Nadkarni

During its early days, Esselworld, Mumbai’s first major amusement park, was faced with all sorts of roadblocks – governmental, municipal, opposition from local residents, environmentalists, wildlife and heritage groups, the whole lot.

I was in the corporate communications team handling external communications and my job was to work with opinion leaders to sell them the then relatively nascent concept of amusement parks and get them over the line to make positive noises in their circles and in the media. I escorted dozens of celebrities to the newly built park.

The park’s promoter Subhash Chandra (of Zee fame) picked me to escort Bal Thackeray and his family to the park one fine day. “Dev, aap Marathi achche jaante ho, aap hi chalo.” I met the Thackeray family at the park on the appointed morning. He was with his wife Meena and a brood of 5-6 young children, presumably grandchildren and their friends or relatives. And of course there were more than a couple of gun-toting bodyguard types.

The family tried many of the rides and attractions for several hours and I could see Thackeray take great delight in the way the kids were enjoying the visit. I seized the opportunity to tell him about some of the governmental and bureaucratic hurdles that were nearly deeming the operation illegal because of anachronistic entertainment tax laws.

“Kaalji karu nakaa Nadkarni, mee Sharad shi boleen.” Sharad Pawar was the chief minister of Maharashtra then. By then, despite my best efforts at speaking Marathi and my ooh so Marathi sounding last name, Thackeray had picked up that I was a faux Marathi Manoos. When I told him he said, “Kokni mahnze aamchech ki ho.” (It would’ve made more sense if he had said “Kokni mhanze amchi ki ho”). (And again, that’s not the first time I had heard that sort of comment – and thereby hangs another tale but for now I’ll stick to the tiger’s tale).

Soon it was time for lunch and park general manager Rajesh Singh (now writer, blogger and filmmaker) had organised a spread after previously consulting with Sena officials. The park was very basic then and there were no offices thanks to development control rules that prevented the construction of any permanent structures. Lunch, therefore, was organised in one of the porta cabins.

When the family was comfortably seated in the air-conditioned cabin, I asked if we could serve lunch. Because of the basic canteen and serving facilities then, we had the lunch pre packed with cellophane wrapped paper plates – nothing fancy. When the trays with the plates were brought in, Thackeray asked me not to serve it to them.

“Aho Nadkarni, Daha-Bara Tandoori Chicken Maagwa… ekaach tray madhye. Hae nako.” I hurriedly got on the intercom and ordered his bidding. We chatted while the order was getting ready. He was perfectly pleasant, even soft spoken, as he engaged in discussions on a wide range of topics. Then he asked for a phone. I got him a cordless handset. He motioned to one of his bodyguards saying, “Sharad laa lavoon de.”

The man got Chief Minister Sharad Pawar on the line within minutes. Thackeray spoke: “Sharad, mee ithay Esselworld laa alelo aahe. Kiti sundar jaaga ahe hee. Mulaansaathi kiti chhan ahe… Arey, tyaana itka traas ka detos? Karun taak naa tyancha kaam…” and went to chat for a few more minutes. He ended with “Theek aahe nantar bolto tujhyashee.”

Obviously the two were the best of friends, as most suspected then but a fact that everybody knows now (and which Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule alluded to when condoling Thackeray’s death last week). The bitter political rivalry was for the consumption of us hoi polloi. In fact all politicians would have to be extremely good friends with one another outside the political arena. They’re all in it for power and money – it is what unites them.

The dozen tandoori chicken plates arrived and he handpicked 4-5 plates at random and asked for the rest to be taken away. The Thackerays left after spending a few more hours at the park.

I wondered why he had insisted on ordering a dozen plates and randomly picked a few of them. Then I remembered my father’s encounter with Thackeray in the days after Indira Gandhi declared her draconian Emergency in 1975.

As a director of information with the Maharashtra Government, my father was ordered to act as the chief censor of news for Mumbai’s newspapers in the days just after the Emergency was declared. News editors were obliged to get an endorsement from my dad as “OK to publish” before putting the paper to bed. Every news editor had to turn up to his office and he had a bevy of translators to advice him if the language papers were “clean”.

(Dad was hauled up for questioning at dawn from home because of the famous classified ad in the obituaries column, which signaled the death of democracy. It went something like this: “D’Ocracy D.E.M. Son of T Ruth, Justicia….” And so on. It had escaped the censors’ eyes and dad had to spend a night at the police station to explain how it had slipped through… that’s another story and I digress again).

Thackeray turned up at dad’s office with an issue of Marmik, his magazine (there was no Saamna then). Dad offered him a Coke (that was before George Fernandes’ Janata government banned the drink two years later). When the office boy brought a bottle with a straw in it, Thackeray declined and asked for a whole crate so he could pick a sealed bottle at random. The boy did as he was told and Thackeray picked a bottle at random and then sipped from it.

Exactly like the way he was to ask for “Daha bara Tandoori Chicken” to choose a couple from, more than a decade and a half later!