Festung Europa :: The Politics of a Humanitarian Tragedy

As the rolling coverage of the horrific terror attacks on Paris continued to squeeze out every last drop of usable information, two separate bits of news caught my eye.

First, in typical Parisian fashion, the top trending hashtag on Twitter immediately following the attacks was #OpenDoors – Parisians took to Twitter to ask their compatriots looking for shelter to come and share their flats and homes.  It was astonishing, and yet somehow not at all surprising that this very international city, famed for its hospitality should react in this open way.

Paradoxically this ‘openness’ policy is seemingly what caused this attack. France has been leading the EU in pushing for other member states to accept the huge numbers of Syrian and African refugees ; and while many had questioned this policy the state had gone ahead and agreed to house and shelter large numbers of migrants, fleeing the civil war in Syria and the violence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Amongst the larger and richer EU nations only Germany has done more to house, clothe and feed the many hundreds of thousands of people who make the perilous journey to mainland Europe. A few weeks ago the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that Germany would take in an additional 800,000 refugees (roughly 1% of the population). This immediately started a huge rush to get to Germany from within Europe and emboldened those yet to make the journey from the badlands.

While she may have had genuine humanitarian concerns, this was a shrewd decision – based mainly on social welfare and economic considerations. Germany’s industrial powerhouse is slowing down, added to this, life expectancies are rising. This puts a pressure on the present generation of tax payers whose tax Euros go to the social welfare of retirees. Unfortunately, Germany’s population growth rate has been steadily declining for more than a decade. This makes it difficult for the industrial powerhouse to perform as well as it wants to and for the state to get its social welfare contributions.

This uncharacteristically unilateral decision by the Chancellor – who has usually played a stickler by the EUs rules hitherto – put huge pressure on the other EU states to either follow suit and face an electoral backlash or face a breakdown of the Schengen system. Sweden imposed border controls, followed swiftly by Hungary and Slovakia who erected border fences – as they neither had the economy to absorb the new workers nor the social safety net to look after them. Italy and Greece, reeling from their own economic depressions threatened to flood southern Europe with undocumented migrants.

At the heart of this matter are a few questions that need answering: firstly, are these people to be treated as economic migrants or political asylum seekers? If the migrants are political asylum seekers, then will they and their families be repatriated to their homelands once the conflict is resolved? This would raise fresh issues.

Between now and when peace and stability is restored, the migrants may enter the social welfare system of the host nations, children may be born in the EU states and may enter the state schools. What is to happen to these people? Are they to be sent back by force, if they refuse to go voluntarily? Further, if a number are sent back, who decides who has to leave and with what criteria?

If they are to be treated as economic migrants, then what of Europe’s own unemployed youth? Spain, Portugal and lately Greece have seen record unemployment amongst the youth and it may be legitimately asked, what right does Germany or France have to provide opportunities to people from non-EU states while fellow EU-member states suffer.

These questions need answers and unfortunately the climate isn’t conducive for it. However, before long such matters will have to have solutions. Europe cannot afford a rightward swing. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Poland has elected a hard-right President who campaigned on an anti-immigrant stance and won handsomely. This might give ammunition to France’s Marie-Ann Le Pen and German PEIGDA party to harden their stance. The UK’s UKIP also isn’t far behind and recently grabbed headlines during the recent Calais Crisis by calling on the Government to bring out the Army.

Europe simply cannot afford another right-ward tilt, especially as it is now, embarking on a project to become more than ever, a tightly knit, inclusive global community of peoples.


The second – not unexpected at any rate – was the reaction of some sections of the American media who immediately managed to find a shared sense of victimhood with France. As words like “American values” started making appearances on CNN, several ex-law enforcement officers and almost all the Republican Party candidates and grandees called on the President to take more effective steps to combat ISIL in the middle east, including putting “boots on the ground”.

Things got out of hand a few weeks later, when Republican Party front runner Donald Trump called for Muslims in the US to compulsorily have ID cards. Not to be left behind, other primary candidates joined in the shrill chorus – establishment candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz called for only Christian refugees from the middle east and Africa to be taken in; former neurosurgeon Dan Carson likened the refugees to ‘rabid dogs’ and in the US Congress, 48 Democrats helped pass a Republican bill for greater scrutiny and vetting of refugees while almost a quarter of all state governors signed a petition saying that they wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into their state.

There is a section of the politicians in the US that believe that the Islamic State (IS/Da’esh) can be beaten by a show of force. However, mindful of their domestic pressures, they’re not committing to “boots on the ground”, just smart bombs and predator drones. This is problematic on many counts.

Firstly, IS controls territory where there are many innocent civilians who are trapped and have no means of getting out. Bombing those areas puts them in the very real danger of becoming a depressing statistic of collateral damage. Second, IS doesn’t have formations or columns like a regular army and thus aren’t in one place ready to be bombed. Thus the very expensive bombs that will be dropped on them won’t make much headway unless they target a commanders’ conference (which isn’t likely to be advertised). But most importantly, bombing has usually always been used as a tactic to soften up resistance so that the regular ground forces could advance and hold territory.  As this isn’t likely to happen, it’s equally unlikely that any great headway will be made against IS.

The best solution would have been for a multi-nation Arab coalition take on IS and defeat them on the ground, retaking land and restoring sovereignty of Syria and Iraq. This too is unlikely as Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia aren’t likely to agree on anything; put the historic Shia-Sunni split in the mix and the geopolitical cocktail gets toxic.


Meanwhile, the refugees keep streaming in, politicians bicker and the Islamophobes and Islamists sharpen their knives.

If you want more background, there is an excellently researched article on the Islamic State in the Atlantic here



An Untamed Beast :: The Global Conglomerate

The HBO featurette, “Too Big To Fail” traces the path taken by the high and mighty of Wall Street and the US Financial system in the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse and the subsequent ‘nationalisation’ of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In its opening credits a clip of former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan saying that regulation for regulations’ sake would destroy the financial markets sets the tone for somber viewing.

Greenspan, along with US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt saw to it that risky financial derivative products and swaps were de-regulated and – according to some – laid the foundations for what was to be the great financial crisis of 2008.

While he may have had his critics; that the dismantling of the regulatory structures that Reagan started has resulted in some startling instances of corporate malfeasance and fraud is undeniable. From WorldCom & Enron and recently to Goldman Sachs and the AIG bailout point to a startling trend in High Street bailing out Wall Street. It is against this backdrop that the articles make for such interesting reading.

The Economist article “The Company that ruled the waves” is an interesting read because it talks about what will happen in the future; by analyzing what has happened in the past. The monolithic East India Company was the first truly global multinational organisation. It paved the way – in its own way – for much of what we take for granted in management practice.

Promotion on the basis of merit, frugality, and a dedicated management cadre – trained specifically for their jobs – are ideas that the conglomerates of today have just started to wake up to 150 years after they were espoused by the Company.

Offshoring – cotton grown in India and spun in Lancashire; a grouse of the early Swarajists – was a company innovation. As was its system of building ports and warehouses to conduct businesses where it went – a precursor to FDI today. Even in India, much of its profits were channeled into infrastructure that, although built for the British, nonetheless did aid in the integration of India in to a single country much later on.

It also was a trading organisation that created markets for tea, silk, spices and aided in a balance of payments surplus for Britain. It influenced policy decisions and lobbied. Its ability to work around troublesome rulers in India and bribe or lobby its way out of regulation in England, is perhaps the foremost proponents of the school of thought currently practiced by the likes of Nira Radia today.

The article is perhaps a bit gushing in its praise for an organisation that according to the British themselves was “bloodthirsty and inhumane”. However, to the authors credit he does succinctly put across the point that the reason for its success was its dual nature – merchants ran the show and the government backed it up. It correctly sums up many salient pros and cons of such an organisation – and more importantly the ploys used by it and its detractors to ultimately put it to rest. It paints a deft picture of a much maligned organisation – and tries to ask questions about why such organisations are coming back in fashion today. It is thought provoking and engenders some debate as to the future and viability of large public limited corporations.

This is also a theme mirrored in the another Economist article “The Endangered Public Company”. It talks about how listed public organisations – the greatest inventions of the 20th Century – no longer are thought of as the great money-making machines that they once were. The article lists the three main reasons for this; over-regulation, the demand for super-transparency and most importantly the rise in alternative ways of financing and organisational structuring.

While the article does tend to over simplify a hugely complicated issue, it does get its main premise right. The public limited corporation is gone. In its place private equity-led and sometimes government backed megaliths now bestride the earth like colossi.

The fault lies, not with our stars, but with ourselves”.

Over the last decade as globalization and privatisation have become catch-phrases to do business by, the world seems to have moved away from selling and on to profiteering. The article points out that owners and managers seldom have goals that are aligned. A far worse situation is that policy-makers and managers agree even less. Soaring corporate profits are a sure indication that there is a lack of competition in the industry. Competition leads to lean organisations and slimmer profits. While politicians want competition – which is good for the people and gets them the votes; managers root for monopolies and look for ways to get them past legislation. A knee-jerk reaction to this sneakiness usually is the sort of over-burdensome legislation that Greenspan was talking about.  To get around that legislation – which sometimes work against the company – the great public limited company is now threatened.

Another aspect of this standoff is the widening right between the rich and poor. Since the 1980s the tax rate for the richest Americans has reduced by 60%, while the cost of living has gone up. Unrestricted speculation and risky investments only make a bad situation worse.

A leaked CitiGroup memo [shown in the Michael Moore documentary “Capitalism: A love story”] warns that despite the US being a plutocracy – the “other 99%” still have one vote each. Each passing day brings uncertainty. Since all major investments are near-permanent; with rising uncertainty – the value of waiting for more information increases; and thus stops investments and growth. Hence the great IPOs of the past will probably not see an equal in future. Even Facebook wasn’t good enough.

The hard but sure way to get out of this mess would be fiscal reform and a monetary union. But the EU – which has tried it already – is an example of how a good thing may be spoilt. A monetary union without fiscal policy uniformity – if not hegemony – is useless. Globalisation too has not borne the fruit promised. It certainly did not make equitable wealth distribution a reality.

In the end Adam Smith’s invisible hand has failed. Collectivism would see us back to the days to Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. That too didn’t work. The state-owned organisations where government funds become productive in private hands and private equity is more responsibly used under state supervision seem to be the way out. But that will start a troublesome debate on what the modern world has come to.

The Story Of India – Rediscovered: The Foreword

India’s 1st “census” of sorts was compiled during the tenure of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II back in the late 1700s and was more in the nature of a complicated head count than anything else. Historians have long been at loggerheads about the nature of this effort that, to say the least, was unexpected from the person who, symbolically at least, gave away our independence.

While some historians say that the idea wasn’t really his, but belonged to a more farsighted courtier; the nationalist school of history has claimed that it was a more Company Sahib-led initiative to see what wealth lay to be taken. Although both schools have a great deal of evidence to support their respective claims, they are united on the issue of caste having not been an issue at those times; in other words no one made such a big hue and cry over it.

Now in 2011, 230 odd years down the line, the Govt. of India has agreed to include Caste in the census. That they have pushed Indian society back a good 100 years is not in doubt; neither is that fact that they’re bowing down to parties that have made caste their primary ladder to power; the important question is how do we get out of this almighty rut.

Nehru, the founder of modern India and its 1st family, not to mention its 1st PM was not only an atheist but a socialist to boot; that means he neither believed in God, nor the baseless and superfluous distinctions between men. He, doubtless, would have strongly disapproved of the doings of his party, just as he strongly disapproved of Gandhi’s acceptance of “reserved constituencies” for social and religious minorities back in 1935. The problem, then, was that Ambedkar, leader of the dalits, and Jinnah of the (then nascent) Muslim League were far more astute thinkers and negotiators than they were thought to be (by Nehru who was more of an idealist than anything else). Also they were neither impressed nor bowled over by Gandhi’s charm offensives and PR gambits; and since on both occasions Gandhi (who was never a formal member of the Congress Party) carried on these negotiations alone, disaster was bound to ensue.

The past, as they say, is history; and the world has certainly moved on since then. In 2007, for the 1st time in human history, more people around the world will live in cities than in the country side. India, as always, will be an exception to this; but even here the country side has changed. The India that Gandhi said lived in its villages is long gone, yet why does caste still play such a major role in people’s lives today and can the people do something to stop this relentless march to divisive policies.

One answer is to look to the urban middle class. Some say that when the urban, educated middle class makes up 50%-65% of the population, the politicians will have to change their rhetoric to suit these new aspirations, but that is still generation away at best. Even a progressive western education might not be enough to ward off the evils that befell our forefathers. The recent spate of caste-based honor killings in UP, Bihar and Haryana (where such things have become disturbingly common) show that even the most broad-minded of parents can be shockingly conservative (read boorish) when it comes to their daughters’ future.

The answer is to look back to India’s past, for clues to its future. The past must be re-examined in the cold light of reason and enlightenment. We must clearly examine every choice made and reflect on the roads not taken to properly gauge the course ahead.

There was once a concept called India, an idea that lived in its people; that idea must be found, its story unearthed and its message rediscovered.

The Story of India – Rediscovered : Beginnings

Some years ago, a well dressed gentleman walked into an up-market departmental store in the Belgravia suburb of London. Once he had found what he was looking for he walked up to the counter and stood in line at the cashiers’. When it was his time to pay up he took out his wallet and with the pound-notes out fell a picture of an Indian Hindu deity. The person standing right behind our protagonist, himself an Indian, saw the picture and immediately warmed to the latter.
Our protagonist, the well dressed man was immediately asked if he was a Punjabi. He was not. He was then asked if he was a Gujrati. He was not. He was then told (firmly) that he then must be from UP. Our friend still replied that he was not. The gentleman asking all these questions, by now very hot under the collar, asked quite abrasively (thinking it was some kind of joke) “so what the hell kind of bloody Indian are you?”

This simple event, describes in a microcosm the socio-cultural & linguistic divide that is prevalent in India. The two Indias divided by the Vindhiya Mountains, have existed separately for nearly 2000 years and were only brought together by the much (and not always rightly) maligned British; and this fact somehow, never has been accepted by the historians of the nationalistic school.

The nationalist school of history, fashioned by the Congress in the early 1900s, was founded to give India some sort of cohesive identity. An identity that had eluded it for all of the 10,000 years of its civilisation. If the country had to be united in its desire to rid itself of foreign rule, then it must have some idea of its own identity and heritage. There must be a valid reason to want to get rid of the invader and the simplest reason was that they were foreign and thus oppressive and somehow seeking to obliterate Indian culture and society.
The problem facing the high-priests of this school was that there was no such identity to be found. India as we know it today, has only existed since the 1930s when the British (somewhat arbitrarily) drew the borders of this country out of the areas that it ruled over. Never before has such a landmass been ruled over by one single entity or polity. So who was to decide who was a foreigner and who was Indian? What were the Indian cultures & values that the British were trying to erase and more importantly why would one want to be called an Indian?

Ironically it was the British who gave us the help we needed. When they carved out a large political entity out of their South Asian dominions, they accidentally gave us not only a nation but also our identities. All those who were born inside that area were Indians. Simple. Off course the problems with that were that the borders drawn were completely arbitrary and later on (in 1962) would be the cause of numerous problems. The other big problem was that there was a lot of recorded history to contest this one-nation theory.

In about 2000 BC, the nomads of central Asia came down through the Hindu Kush mountains and settled in the lush Indus plains. These were the Aryans. Tall & fair, with high cheekbones and long noses, they were at a complete contrast to the original inhabitants of the Indus plains. These were short and dark people who worshiped numerous Gods, mostly of the natural world. Dravidians.
The Dravidian culture and society was far more civilised and socialised and sophisticated that the Aryan nomads’.
The displaced Dravidians went back down south to their homeland and built the stunning temple complexes (in Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh & Kerela) that haven’t seen an equal in the North yet. Their language also evolved separately and Tamil , today is the world’s oldest continually spoken classical language. Far older and certainly far more perfectly (sophisticated) structured than Sanskrit – the (so called) mother of all Indian languages.

Not only the language, but also the sociological structure and even the religion was far removed from that of the Aryan North. While the Aryan’s had a simplistic Triumvir of Gods, the South had a complex structure of a multi-layered divine society. The caste system, a plague upon India – even as recently as 2010 – is a Aryan thing.

The Voyager & Blind Willie Johnson: Some Thoughts At Midnight

In September of 2013, the Voyager-I spacecraft left the solar system. It was the first time that an object dreamt, created and operated by a species as new and as infirm as the humans had gone beyond the far reaches of the sun that had sustained the very life form that built it.

On that spacecraft were greetings in 55 languages, pictures showing life on Earth and 27 songs that were ‘representative of humanity’. One of those songs was “Dark was the Night, Cold wass the Ground” written in 1927 by the black jazz musician, blind Willie Johnson.

He was so called, because his mother had thrown rye in his eyes, after she was beaten by his father for allegedly being with another man. Willie died in penury, after contracting malaria, shortly after his house burnt down.

When in 1977 Carl Sagan and the Mars Voyager Team chose his song, it was part of the US Library of Congress’ selection of songs that were deemed to be ‘culturally significant’; Sagan wroteof the song that “…since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight”.

It is significant then, that amongst the 1st sounds of the earth that a wandering extra-terrestrial may hear would be the music of a segregated, blind man, who never found peace happiness or joy in his life.

In the same month as the Voyager-I was making history, another queer circularity of life was making itself apparent. As the UK remembered Winston Churchill – arguably Great Britain’s finest and most remembered Prime Minister, a guest was signing the memorial book at No 10 Downing Street. Churchill in the late 1880s was responsible for the setting up of ‘internment camps” for African tribes’ men. These camps were not so dissimilar to the concentration camps of the Nazis. In one of these camps, there lived an African tribal elder. After a year in captivity, he was released. It was surely a twist of faith that the great-grandson of that tribesman was – the man signing the guest book that day in September 2013 – the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama.

These two instances, if anything, don’t call for either lessons or judgment. They simply are to be remembered, for they represent the opposites of the human condition. The loneliness of despair and the potential of human endeavor.

Robert Francis Kennedy, speaking to the black students of South Africa, on their day of Affirmation in June 1966 said,:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows.”

“But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

It is perhaps this duality – that led Tagore to write, ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. In the battle between – what Shakespeare calls nurture and nature – while we struggle and fall to our baser instincts; our hopes, dreams and aspirations push us to pick ourselves up and keep climbing. Out from the dark forests, into the sunlight slopes. The battle will not be won in our life time. It may even not be won in the lifetime of the human species on this earth – but that should not stop us from fighting.

As Brad Pitt’s character in the film Troy said, “In a thousand years from now even the dust from our bones will have disappeared; what will people remember?” Let people remember that we fought. Not with each other, but with ourselves. Being human is not about empathy and sympathy, it’s about choosing to live our lives by something. As Kennedy said, ‘we can perhaps remember…….

If not, then as the Script sing, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything!”