Thursday 30 June 2016

Brexit - An Indian Perspective

Brexit – An Indian Perspective

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 30 June, 2016

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

On June 24, 2016, the entire world woke up to some stunning news. The UK had voted to leave the European Union. It was an unexpected verdict because polls had been saying that the “Remain” group (which campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU) would win, even though the numbers were close. It is fair to say that few expected the victory. This was true around the world, including in India.

Following the verdict, Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain in the referendum, said it would want another referendum on independence as it did not want to be forced to leave the EU against its will. The Irish from Northern Ireland, who also voted to remain in the EU, also made some statements about their unhappiness with the result.

The leaders of the EU made some blunt statements indicating their desire to punish Britain for leaving, and to set an example to others who might thinking of copying the British example. Newspapers started analysing the results and explaining how much the UK would lose because of this decision. Shortly thereafter, and not unexpectedly, the pound fell, as did the Euro, and some companies announced their intention to move jobs from the UK to the continent.

This is a continuing story, and there have been several developments since the announcement of the result. My objective here is to record some impressions as an outsider on the state of things in the UK, as well as talk about some of my personal impressions of the UK and what I think this might mean for the UK as they go forward.

In discussing Brexit, I am not going to focus on whether the decision to leave was correct or not from an economic or a social viewpoint. Countless excellent analyses are available through various media outlets for this purpose, and will doubtless continue to be published.
Instead, I am looking at two things: the process followed and its implications, and, now that the decision has been made, the prospects for an EU-free UK.

These are perceptions from a distance. I do not live in the UK, and so do not have the benefit of seeing daily debates on the issue on TV and in the daily newspapers. So some of my observations and conclusions could well be wrong, and I am happy to be corrected. (We do get BBC TV in India, though, and I have followed some of the debates there – but it isn’t the same as living in the UK.)

Despite this, I am hopeful that this outsider perspective on the Brexit issue might still be valuable. One of the lessons in life that I learned a long time ago is that perception is more important than reality. Britons may kindly view these observations as an outsider’s perceptions of the country and what it is going through, and hopefully find something valuable in them – because, to the outsider, his or her perception is his or her reality.

Was a Referendum the Right Option?

Since that historic day, many people who were shocked by the vote have said that referenda are wrong, that they are undemocratic. They point to the 52:48 verdict on Brexit and say, “Look, nearly half the population disagrees with the verdict. How can this be representative and democratic?”

Well, for such people, I have some news. Even in a landslide general election in a democracy, the winner rarely polls over 50% of the vote. That means that in most elections, at least half the country is against the winner.

Some examples will illustrate.

The 1980 US Presidential election was considered to be a landslide victory for President Ronald Reagan. It certainly was, based on the Electoral College system: Reagan won a staggering 489 electoral votes, compared to 49 votes for incumbent President Jimmy Carter and 0 votes for third-place independent John Anderson. But take a look at the vote share, and the picture is quite different: 50.7% of the votes went to Reagan, 41% went to Carter, and 6.6% went to Anderson. Opponents of the greatest victor in US Presidential elections got 49.3% of the vote!!!

President Ronald Reagan won 429 out of 538 Electoral Votes, But Only Got 50.7% of the Popular Vote
Closer to home, the 1984 parliamentary elections in India, following the death of Mrs. Indira Gandhi was the most one-sided election in Indian history. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s party, the Congress (I), won a staggering 404 seats out of a total of 514. But in terms of popular vote share, the Congress (I) won less than 50% of the popular vote – it won only 49.1% of the total votes cast.

Late Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi won by the Biggest Majority Ever in India in 1984, with 404 Seats out 514, but only 49.1% Vote Share
More recently in India, in what was widely considered a popular “wave,” Mr. Narendra Modi led his party, the BJP, to a more modest victory in 2014 – his party obtained 282 seats in the Lok Sabha out of a total of 543 and an absolute majority. However, the BJP’s vote share was a mere 31.3% - way short of a majority. Yet that government is making changes that affect all Indians, including the nearly 70% that did not vote for it.

Current Indian PM Narendra Modi, who won an Absolute Majority in 2014 But Only Received 31.3% of the Vote
In 1997, Tony Blair of the Labour Party won the election to the House of Commons in a landslide, winning 418 out of 659 seats. However, Labour won only 43.2% of the popular vote. In other words, a majority of 56.8% of the people did not vote for Labour.

British PM Tony Blair After his Historic Win in 1997
Therefore, in comparison, a 52% vote in the Brexit campaign is far more representative of the voice of the people than most popular elections, and far more democratic. The fact that so many from the Remain campaign dislike the result cannot make the result undemocratic.

Some people may also wonder why it might not simply be enough for the ruling government to decide for the country by passing laws instead of having a referendum. After all, are they not the elected representatives of the people?

The problem with a current ruling government deciding on a singular matter of great national importance is this. The ruling Tory government was elected in 2015 on the basis of a manifesto and promises made during the election campaign. One of the promises was that there would be a referendum on Brexit. The election itself was not about whether to stay in or leave the EU – the manifesto only promised a referendum. So the Cameron government of 2015 did not represent the popular vote on remaining in or leaving the EU.

This is highlighted by the fact that a majority of the ruling government in Britain is against leaving and against the popular verdict. This is the reason Cameron’s decision to resign was correct – given that he did not agree with the verdict of leaving, it would be wrong for him to lead the country in the process of leaving.

British PM David Cameron Announcing His Decision to Resign Following the Referendum Result
(There is also a political calculation there – nobody wants the hot potato of the Prime Ministership when having to deal with the heartburn of many because of leaving the EU. But more on this later in this article.)

Having Second Thoughts – A Second Referendum?

Following the election and public discussion of its consequences, many people seem to have had second thoughts about their decision. There is an online petition to have a second referendum, which at the time of writing has gathered 3.5 million signatures.

Technically, nothing stops the UK from conducting a second referendum, but it will be hard to justify. The demand for a second referendum is primarily coming from the social-media-savvy folks from big cities like London, which voted to remain. But this might send the wrong message. The relatively quieter rural parts of England, which overwhelmingly voted to leave, would not like their voice taken away. They might get the impression that the Remain campaign wants to keep repeating the election until they win.

Besides, what is the justification? That people voted without thinking and without understanding the issues (as evidenced by Google trends after the result on what the EU is)? Surely such irresponsibility cannot be rewarded? Would such an argument be accepted in a General Election? “Oh, we think we made a mistake electing the Conservatives – we only Googled David Cameron today, the day after the elections, and we don’t agree with what he says!” Would such logic fly?

One could rebut that argument by saying that voting a political party in a general election is a temporary decision, which can be reversed after 5 years, whereas the decision to leave the EU is permanent (relatively speaking – there is no clear timeline on when, if at all, the decision to leave could be reversed.) Even then, in any election, “I didn’t know what this would mean and what I was doing” is usually an unacceptable reason for demanding a re-election. It speaks very poorly of the electoral maturity of the British people.

It wasn’t that this decision was taken in a hurry or that people did not have time to understand the issues. The UKIP (UK Independence Party) was formed on the platform of leaving the EU in 1993. It has been steadily gaining in vote share in the UK in European elections in the last 15 years, getting 27.5% of the vote in 2014. The issue of whether to stay in the EU or leave it was a prominent issue in the election campaign of 2015, during which Cameron promised to address the issue by holding a nationwide referendum. The referendum date itself was announced on February 22, 2016, four months before the actual event was held. There is no excuse that the British people had inadequate time to study the issues.

What was the real surprise with a “Leave” vote? Did those who voted to leave really not understand that the reaction from the EU would be harsh? Did they understand only that day that their travel through Europe and their ability to work in jobs across Europe would be severely curtailed? Did they not know that the stock market would tank and that the pound would lose value? All of this had been the subject of countless newspaper articles and debates.

In any case, Cameron has just shut the door on all that talk, despite the millions who signed the petition for a second referendum.

The Surprising Reaction of Boris Johnson

The Brexit campaign has had its share of surprises. One of the big surprises was when Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, switched sides and started supporting the Leave campaign in February. He joined another defector, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove. The defection of these two important personalities is considered to have had a decisive impact on the Brexit vote.

Former London Mayor and Prospective PM-in-waiting Boris Johnson
Given this, it was extremely surprising that after the decision to leave the EU, there was no triumphant and exuberant reaction from either of these gentlemen, quite in contrast to Nigel Farage’s very public, triumphant reaction in Brussels, which greatly annoyed the Europeans. Boris Johnson appeared very subdued after David Cameron’s address to the nation in which Cameron announced his decision to resign. Looking at Johnson’s body language, one could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking he had lost and the Remain group had won the vote.

One remarkable analysis by a commenter on an article in the Guardian, which has been cited hundreds of times by now, explained Boris Johnson’s muted reaction in terms of David Cameron’s decision to step down and leave the implementation, including the activation of article 50 of the EU, to his successor, most likely Johnson. There is no guarantee that these were Mr. Johnson’s motivations, but it is certainly a highly plausible theory.

This highly lucid comment described the Prime Ministership after Cameron’s departure as a “poisoned chalice,” because Cameron had abdicated responsibility for leaving the EU, and so Johnson would be faced with three choices:

If he runs for leadership of the party, and then fails to follow through on triggering Article 50, then he is finished. If he does not run and effectively abandons the field, then he is finished. If he runs, wins and pulls the UK out of the EU, then it will all be over – Scotland will break away, there will be upheaval in Ireland, a recession … broken trade agreements. Then he is also finished. Boris Johnson knows all of this. When he acts like the dumb blond it is just that: an act.

(Apologies for the politically incorrect language, but I thought it best to reproduce the comment verbatim.)

The interesting thing about this comment is this. While the consequences of the first two options are quite obvious, it is the third option that is very curious. The third part of the commenter’s theory is based on the idea that “it will all be over.” And why will it be all over?

Scotland will break away, there will be upheaval in Ireland, a recession … broken trade agreements.

If this is the reason Boris Johnson was very quiet, the implications are stunning.

These possibilities had been suggested well before the referendum took place and very publicly. Did Johnson realize them only after the referendum? What kind of leadership is this?

It wasn’t just Boris Johnson’s body language at his address on the 24th. When someone has vigorously pushed the people of the UK for a certain policy, and when the world seems to be crashing around the UK as a consequence of the policy, I would expect the person who spearheaded that initiative to appear daily on television, reassuring the people who followed his advice, and telling them not to worry – “I know the pound is down, jobs are going away, and people are talking tough, but things are going to be all right. We anticipated all this, and we have a plan.” But there was none of this at all while people in the UK are fearful for their future. Instead, Mr. Johnson seemed more concerned about winning the election of the Conservative party so he can succeed David Cameron.

But wait – was there a plan? The fact that Mr. Johnson did not bother to reassure, and reassure strongly, the people of the UK, and tell them there was no need to worry, in nearly a week since the referendum result, raises this obvious question. But here is the thing. While it is not easy to publicly say that you have a plan when you really haven’t the foggiest idea, it is Politics 101 that you don’t go around giving the impression that you are clueless. Not exactly the best thing to do when your aim is to create a favourable impression and generate confidence in a very scared country.

I come to the example of my own country. Mr. Modi got into power promising a much faster pace of development than ever before. The campaign rhetoric was: “You gave them 60 years. Give me 60 months.” While only a fool would expect him to be able to do things at 12 times the pace of the previous governments, there were hopes that he at least had a plan for faster growth. After 2 years, most economic indicators are worse than those of previous administrations, and the performance of his government has been roundly panned by critics for failing to make adequate headway on its campaign promises.

However, to his credit as a politician, Mr. Modi insists that he has a plan and that he has instituted long-term measures that will yield fruit in the next 3 years of his term, even though the effects of those measures are not immediately evident. Whether this is true or not, it helps him retain the support of his core constituency, allows him to parry criticism for at least a couple of years, and buys him time.

The projection of competence in leaders and the generation of hope in the masses is an important part of leadership. The results may not yet be there, but the Indian populace is regularly bombarded with news of yet another “yojana” (scheme) to uplift this or that sector. Whether something actually happens is another matter, as the much-vaunted plan to clean the river Ganga illustrates. The point is that the PR campaign to suggest that the government is actually working on the issues, with a plan in hand, is quite effective. The proof of this is the large numbers of supporters of Mr. Modi on social media advising critics to “wait a little longer” for the inevitable fruits of development.

That the leaders of Britain are unable to infuse the population with even a false hope at a time of crisis like this is indicative of a failure of leadership. Regardless of whether something can be done or not, it is important to work hard to raise the flagging spirits of the public – otherwise, Britain could sink into a deep, avoidable recession. As President Franklin Roosevelt told America in his first inaugural address during the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If a general panic were to permeate the general public, things could get much worse than they need to. The ideal situation would have been that the Leave leaders had a plan ready to deal with all contingencies, but in the absence of such a plan, the least the Leave leaders could have done is to keep the confidence of the public up, even by lying if necessary.

The lyrics of a well-known old Bollywood song capture the predicament of the British people very well (translated from Hindi):

It is agreed that no one can withstand the fury of the storm
Blame not the seasons, it is the fault of humans:
If the boat sways in the ocean, the boatman steers it to safety;
But if the boatman himself sinks the boat, then who can save you?

It is one thing if the common people are unaware of the consequences of a major referendum. Such ignorance is not desirable, but it is quite common in all democracies. Most people, the world over, prefer not to think for themselves, but to follow the leaders that they trust. But the idea that the leader who was pushing for the UK to leave the EU really did not have a clue as to how profound the implications of such a decision would be is beyond comprehension.

For us in India, that this could happen in a first-world nation like the UK is even more amazing. It even turns upside down some of our most fundamental and deeply-held notions about the world – such as the notion that education and literacy makes for a more responsible and intelligent people who can make mature decisions. Viewed in this light, disappointing as the reports of ordinary Britons Googling “what is the EU” the day after the referendum were, even more disappointing was the idea that the leaders of a nation who were advocating a dramatic policy change for months and years were doing so without a clear understanding of the enormous consequences of that policy change.

As I already mentioned, it is not that we in India are not used to politicians promising more than they can deliver. It is the norm rather than the exception. But it is usually a case of calculations going awry, of political alignments not working out as planned, or of unanticipated changes in the global economy. There are also deliberate exaggerations of what can be achieved, as I mentioned earlier, in order to win elections. But it is usually a case of not having done as much as promised, with things not going exactly as planned. Never a case of not having a plan at all.

We are used to U-turns in policy in India, too – of governments promising to do one thing and doing quite another when in power. Mr. Modi promised communal harmony (“Development for all, in harmony” was a well-known slogan) in order to get elected in 2014, only to have regular statements by its officers and ministers threatening the minority Muslim community and telling them that they could be lynched for what they ate and that they should leave the country if they could not behave. We elected a leader who said he would not have talks with our neighbour Pakistan until they abandoned terror as an instrument of state policy, only to announce, after assuming power, comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan – with plenty of going back and going forward, when nothing had changed on the terror front. We elected a leader who promised to reduce the size of government, only to increase spending on welfare programs.

These things are not unusual in democracies. One of the reasons former American President George H.W. Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton in 1992 was that he had promised in the election campaign that there would be no new taxes, only to renege on that campaign promise during his term as President. 

But the difference is that in all those cases, the new government at least took a few months, if not years, after getting into office, to size up the situation, and then realized that what they had promised was not feasible. Here the realization seems to have happened overnight!

What new information did Mr. Johnson have on the morning of the 24th of June that he did not have on the evening of the 23rd of June that he was not going around town addressing victory rallies after the result was announced? This is shocking beyond measure. It suggests that he advocated a separation from the EU without doing adequate homework and without understanding fully the arguments for or against the motion.

The final chapter in the miserable story of Boris Johnson is the news today that he has ruled himself out of the race for leader of the Conservative Party. It appears that Mr. Gove will run for the position of leader. The utter disaster of the Leave campaign and the complete irresponsibility of its leaders does not need a better testament.

Can Brexit Give the UK Back Its Lost Mojo? A Personal View

Whatever the reasons, and whether this was a good move or a bad one, the die has been cast. Britain is leaving the EU. It is no longer a matter of if, only a matter of when. It is time the Remain campaign followers got used to it. Cameron is doing the right thing now. He wanted the UK to remain in the EU. Let Johnson, who wanted the UK to leave the EU, deal with the problems of leaving.

What does the future hold for the UK, now that a divorce with the EU appears inevitable?

I am not an economist, and am not going to talk about economics here. I am, instead, going to talk straight from the gut, based on my personal experience.

I believe it is likely that Brexit, if handled and viewed correctly, could be a good thing for the UK. Let me explain.

I lived in the UK for 7 months in 2005-2006 on my way back to India after living, studying, and working, for a total of 15 years in the US. I had gotten a job with a private engineering company that was headquartered in the US and UK (the majority shareholder of the private company was an American, but they had a big office in London.) I was hired to start their India operations in Bangalore along with a colleague from the UK. My stint in their London office was to help me get acquainted with the company and its products before starting things in India.

For me, having lived so long in the US, it was somewhat of a shock to live in the UK. The main reason for this was cultural. One early sign of the cultural difference was when I wanted to buy some clothes for myself. Since the office worked 8-5, I could only go out to buy something after work, but I was stunned to find that most shops closed by 5.30 pm or latest by 6 pm! After this happened a few times, I found out that it had to do with labour laws - that making people work late or extra would violate UK labour laws, and so businesses had to close shop. The funny thing is that no one at work thought it was strange. I asked them how stores could expect to do any business if their clients were in offices all day and if they were closed all the time when their clients were free. No one had a good answer...mostly a sense of "well, that's how it is." In contrast, most stores in the US are open at least until 9 pm.

This was just one example of culture shock. The bigger picture was that the gung-ho spirit I had grown up with in the US - the “can do” attitude which I had learned to internalize and which you can find anywhere in the US - was conspicuous by its absence. I worked for a hard-driving American company, so you could see the urgency at work - but I sensed that it was limited to the office. More commonly, as I moved around London, talked to people outside and colleagues in the office, I consistently sensed a subliminal pessimism everywhere. It seemed the very atmosphere was soaked in pessimism - and the constant rains and overcast skies in London did not help dispel that notion one bit. There was little sign of people thinking that the future was bright, of people talking excitedly about their plans for their lives – nothing. Mostly a sense of “we’ll muddle through it somehow.” Neither in the US, where I had just lived, nor in India, where I was moving to, did I sense such a blasé attitude to life.

I realize this is a highly subjective opinion. But it left a strong imprint on my mind. Britons will kindly forgive me for stating my opinion, and be assured that I bear no malice towards their wonderful country.

As I wandered around London on the weekends, and saw Horatio Nelson's statue at Trafalgar Square or Robert Clive's statue in Whitehall, I wondered, “Is this the same country that once justifiably claimed ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire?’” It almost seemed like the loss of Empire in the years following WWII had robbed Britain of that vitality that once led it to be the world superpower for nearly 200 years, and had led to a national loss of confidence that persists to this day.

Now, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed my time in London. That was mainly because I had my fill of the cultural events in London, between the Royal Opera House, the Coliseum, the Barbican, and the SoHo theatres. I visited every major museum in London, and a visit to the Tate Modern was a given every other weekend. St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The British Museum, the V&A Museum, and the London Eye. So much to see. A trip to Oxford one weekend. And I blew most of the substantial salary that my company paid me on eating out at all the amazing restaurants, along with the rather expensive Royal Opera House tickets (₤134 a pop then) and the tickets for all the musicals.

But I also experienced London beyond the tourism, the museums, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, and the South Bank. I once fell ill and had the experience of the NHS; used to shop regularly at the neighbourhood Tesco for my needs; used to go to beer bars in many parts of London where I had the dubious fortune of drinking warm beer (an absolute no-no in the US.) I got a very threatening letter from the government in my mailbox saying they had found out that I was using a TV without a licence and should pay up to avoid consequences. But it was all fun and immensely enjoyable. I had a lovely old Irish lady as my landlady, and I even went to her home on Christmas for dinner.

But I could not imagine living there. The mojo was missing.

And that is what I think this Brexit vote might bring back. The analysts may well be right - that Britain might lose a lot in the short term – companies may move from London to the continent; the pound might lose value; British citizens will not be able to work freely in Europe; and there might be a recession in the UK.

But I also think this exit, if played right by the leaders and the people, can finally give some sense of purpose to a people who, for 70 years, have not really had much to live for.

America came out of WWII feeling like they had won the war. The UK came out of WWII feeling that they had barely survived. 

And that imprint has stayed on to this day, as the UK gradually kept losing its positions of leadership – not only politically, with the steady loss of colonies; but also in technology, as the best scientific research moved from Cambridge and Imperial College to places like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford; and in culture, whereby today most people in the world try to imitate American culture, not British.

The best students from India used to go to the UK for higher studies before 1960; after that, everyone wanted to go to the US. My father’s elder brother left India in 1959, after studying medicine in Mumbai, to do his FRCS in the UK; but my father, in 1960, preferred to go to the US for post-doctoral studies in organic chemistry after doing his PhD at the University of Bombay. Even in the creative faculties, students started preferring the US over the UK. Contemporary news reports consistently refer to the UK as America’s junior partner and, less charitably, as “America’s poodle.” All these things play on the collective psyche of a nation. It took me less than a week to sense this depressing feeling after arriving in the UK.

So, while Brexit may isolate the UK, it may just be the antidote to the pessimism and the lack of self-belief that I think the UK suffers from. Brexit may finally give some purpose to the people of the UK - a nation-building project that might see the UK come out stronger than ever before, with a need to prove itself, its back against the wall, and no one giving it a chance.

As with people, sometimes countries also need a kick in the rear to shape up. The UK has certainly not lived up to its potential in the 70 years since WWII. This is not the same UK that produced Keats, Milton, Tennyson, and Shakespeare; Newton, Watt, Jenner, Turing, and Fleming; Locke, Mill, Russell, Hume, and Shaw; the brilliant folks at Bletchley Park who cracked the Enigma code of the Germans; or the folks who invented radar and helped the RAF defeat the Nazis in the Battle of Britain – to name just a few. But it can again be that nation. 

This is not to argue for a return to Empire, but for a return of that creative efflorescence that led to great achievements such as the industrial revolution and advances in medicine that made Britain a great nation. It was the achievement in science, philosophy, literature and poetry that made Britain the leading power in the world, which in turn led to it becoming a technological and imperial superpower - not the other way around. 

Creative genius was used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means to building an empire; but that does not need to be its focus today, and should not be. It can be used to alleviate poverty, create new sources of energy, cure serious illness and improve the health of humankind, and so much more.

I am not suggesting that such a reinvention of the UK could not have happened within the EU – it most certainly could have, with the right leadership and the right decisions. But crises have a catalysing action and the ability to make the people of a nation opt for tough choices that are necessary, not only for greatness in the long run, but simply for survival in the present. The crisis engendered by Brexit could be that catalyst.

But for that to happen, strong visionary leaders need to step up. Does the UK have such leaders who can harness the energy of its youth to chart a new, better future? The present crop of leaders does not offer the promise of leading a young UK to the heights of achievement it once attained in the world, if the leaders involved in the Brexit campaign are anything to go by.

Who will rise to lead the British?

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Don’t Shoot the Messenger; Destroy the Message

Don’t Shoot the Messenger; Destroy the Message

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 15 June, 2016

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


In the wake of the Orlando shooting, some people have posted links of Christian pastors who support the shooting because the victims were gay and because Christianity abhors homosexuality. Most people react to these posts by calling the pastors bigots and demonizing them. They refer to their speeches as hate speeches and ask YouTube to remove the links where they are supporting these killings.

But all of these people are misguided.

I saw one of these videos because one of my friends, in a similar vein, shared a news article about a Pastor Roger Jimenez, with a link to a video of his, who said that he was sorry the killer did not “finish the job.” Pastor Jimenez would have liked the killer to kill everyone in the bar because they were sinners owing to the fact that they were gay.

I saw the video. Pastor Jimenez is very clear and articulate. I thought what he says in the video is very logical and clear. Christians should react to this incident as Christians, he says, and then he proceeds to explain what exactly the Bible says about homosexuality. He quotes passage after passage, verbatim, from the Bible, that clearly talk about how God views homosexuality. There is absolutely no ambiguity about what God wants for these sinners. The implication is clear: if you are to be a true Christian, and if you claim to follow the Bible, then you must feel as he does – that those gays deserved to die, because that is what God would have wanted.

So, is the fault with Pastor Jimenez or the Bible that he follows? The Bible that all Christians follow? Which is also common to Jews and Muslims? (For the most part, with some minor variations, the Old Testament is common).

This is the book that is considered so holy that witnesses are asked to testify in Court after swearing on it. If the book is considered sacred, can we blame Pastor Jimenez from simply quoting from it and obtaining the logical inferences? I do not think anything that Pastor Jimenez said was inconsistent with the Bible. The God of the Bible would want us to kill all the homosexuals in the world. If we allow the Bible to be called holy, then Pastor Jimenez said nothing wrong.

If, on the other hand, we say that what he said was abhorrent, then understand that the abhorrent stuff came from a book that we say is holy. You cannot have it both ways.

It is kind of silly to expect followers of a religion to not follow the teachings in their holy book. Somehow we expect that Christians should selectively read from the Bible. Why? Why put this burden on the religious follower?

No. If you think what he said was wrong, change the Bible! Christianity, and every other religion, needs another reformation to keep with the times (to the extent that one needs religion at all.) Pastor Jimenez has done nothing wrong in simply quoting passages from what you accept as a holy book and giving the logical conclusion from the teaching in that book!!

This highlights one theme that I have believed in for a long time – that the key to changing the offensive behaviour of religious people is changing their offensive scriptures.

As long as the Quran says that it is okay to stone a woman to death for adultery, you are going to have Islamic governments practice such laws. When their religion places women so low, of course women, rather than their rapists, will be punished when they are raped by men. If Sharia says the penalty for stealing is to cut off the hand, should you really be surprised when an Islamic government actually institutes this punishment? No.

It is the same Quran that the killer, Omar Mateen, had read. The same Quran which shares the Old Testament with Christianity. Which, like the Bible, teaches its followers that homosexuality is a sin. That those who are gay or lesbian are sinners in Allah’s eyes. Should we be surprised that someone who believes his religious scripture takes it upon himself to kill people in a gay bar?

It is the same in any religion – only the themes may be different. When Hinduism explicitly tells you that high caste people should not mix with untouchables (yes, the scriptures explicitly say so – do not tell me it is a social custom. I have studied it, and it is in the scriptures), how do you expect upper-caste Hindus today to intermarry with Dalits, allow them into their temples. or even mix socially or eat together with them, when they know the caste of the other person? If they do so, they are disobeying their religious scriptures. In other words, a true Hindu cannot be free from caste prejudice, as Ambedkar said long ago in his “Annihilation of Caste.”

If religious scripture says something, then true followers of the religion are bound to obey the scripture. By asking them to be more liberal, you are essentially saying they should be apostates. Is this fair?

No, the solution is to change religious scripture for the better. It would be best to completely abandon religion and make everyone a humanist, but that would be wishing for the moon. So this is the next best thing: Get religious leaders to agree to change their scripture; ask them to tell their followers that these were wrong notions that are not central to the message of their God; that these have crept into their scripture over centuries; and need to be removed.

Religious leaders may not oblige, and it is quite likely there will be resistance. Religious leaders may plead inability – that they have no authority to change what they consider the word of God. Then it is the job of individual nation-states to declare offensive portions of the religious scripture of each religion illegal – that anyone preaching these offensive parts of their religion can be imprisoned and fined. If religions will not reform themselves, then civil society has to step in. If Popes and Pontiffs and Imams will not declare parts of their religion wrong, then Governments have to step in and tell them that yes, their God was wrong about some things. Anyone found preaching any of the offensive parts or propagating them in any form – in print, on air, or on the internet – should be arrested forthwith.

To be sure, there will be people arguing that this infringes on the right to practice their religion. But if your religion asks its followers to kill others or discriminate against others, is it not against the principles of your Constitution? How can you allow something unconstitutional and illegal to be preached and create a social crisis? Arguments for freedom of religion are untenable when considering the high cost of allowing these passages to be preached. The Constitution should be the holiest book of the land, and any holy book that contradicts the Constitution must be brought in line with it.

One cannot have two mutually contradicting codes of conduct for the same behaviours under two authorities. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Saturday 11 June 2016

A Guide to Future Indian PMs for Getting Applause and Standing Ovations from Joint Sessions of the US Congress

A Guide to Future Indian PMs for Getting Applause and Standing Ovations from Joint Sessions of the US Congress

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 11 June, 2016

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


On June 9, 2016, Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, addressed the Joint Session of the US Congress. According to those busy counting, he received as many as 9 standing ovations and 40 rounds of applause. The full text of his speech can be found here.

Wow. Very impressive, eh? Those Yanks must have really liked what Narendrabhai told them. Absolutely. No question.

So what exactly did he say that made them applaud his speech like that? Did he speak about, say, the most famous and popular Indian dish abroad, Chicken Tikka Masala? Sorry, cross that out. Narendrabhai is a pucca Gujju vegetarian. Ok. Khakhra? Thepla? Khandvi? No. Besides, if that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this article, as there is no guarantee that future PMs from India will be from Gujarat. Unless Anandiben Patel succeeds Modi as PM.

But not to worry, there is a method to the madness. In this article, which is written for the benefit of future Indian PMs who might have the good fortune of addressing Joint Sessions of the US Congress in the future, and who might need applause from the Congressmen and Senators to tell their constituencies back home how amazing and well-liked they are, I give a fool-proof set of tips on what topics to cover to virtually guarantee applause and standing ovations if you happen to give an address to the American Congress. If you play it right, you may even be able to beat Narendrabhai’s numbers of 40 and 9. It is a simple matter of psychology and understanding the needs of the Americans.

Sounds good? Get your pen and paper and start taking notes!

Topic 1: America the Great, the Just, the Kind, and the Brave

Americans always think their country is the nicest place on earth, the “double greatest” (to use one of the late Muhammad Ali’s over-the-top self-descriptions), and believe their leaders to be the most benevolent, who would never do things like overthrow democratically elected leaders and replace them with military dictatorships that oppress their own people and kill thousands, if not millions, with American guns.

This belief is part of the general doctrine of American Exceptionalism. It is important for visiting leaders to emphasize aspects of American benevolence and self-sacrifice if they wish to get repeated rounds of applause, whatever the reality of the situation may be in the world today, be it American intelligence forces helping foreign dictators perfect their torture procedures, invading sovereign nations under false pretexts like weapons of mass destruction, or unmanned drones killing innocent civilians. For example:

·       It was also the seventy-second anniversary of D-Day. On that day, thousands from this great country fought to protect the torch of liberty on the remote shores of a land that they did not know. They sacrificed their lives so that the world lives in freedom.
·       I applaud…India applauds – the great sacrifices from the men and women of the “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” in the service of mankind.

The latter is a particularly nice touch as it alludes to the American national anthem. This should guarantee a standing ovation. Which patriot would not give a standing ovation when his national anthem is being praised?

It is also important to use World War II examples to highlight American bravery and heroism, as this was the last war in which Americans could credibly say they fought on the “right” (in the moral sense) side. The lack of moral ambiguity means that reminding Americans of their glory during World War II is guaranteed to get you a standing ovation.

And lies (for example, “in the service of mankind”) are perfectly okay. It is the feel-good atmosphere that is important, not facts. Remember, your objective is not to win a debate, but to get maximum applause. Also, if you lie in their service, they won't mind so much when you lie for your own benefit (more on that later.)

Topic 2: Democracy, Equality, Freedom of Speech

Americans are also very proud of their freedom of speech and democracy, and so visitors would do well to remind them and tell them how great they are. For example,

·       This temple of democracy has encouraged and empowered other democracies the world over.
·       It manifests the spirit of this great nation which, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
·       The idea that all citizens are created equal is a central pillar of the American constitution.

The second example absolutely demands a standing ovation. These words are from Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address, which every American school child knows by heart. It would be unacceptably unpatriotic for an American to not stand at attention when a visiting dignitary quotes this sacred verse of their history, and to not applaud as loudly as possible. It would be the equivalent of an American using the words “Tryst with Destiny” while addressing the Indian Parliament. (Well, what should be the equivalent response. These days Nehru is not that fashionable in India.)

Topic 3: Re-Emphasize The Greatness Of American Ideals By Reflection and Commonality

This is similar to the previous topic, but with an added twist. In the previous topic, American ideals were praised in isolation. In this topic, you should glorify American ideals by saying that they were so great that India also adopted them. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and nothing warms the cockles of an American’s heart than to hear that a country that became independent almost 200 years after it did took inspiration from American ideals to create its code of living:

·       As a representative of the world’s largest democracy, it is indeed a privilege to speak to the leaders of its oldest.
·       The genius of Dr. BR Ambedkar was nurtured in the years he spent at Columbia University a century ago. The impact of the US constitution on him was reflected in his drafting of the Indian constitution some three decades later.
·       Our independence was ignited by the same idealism that fuelled your struggle for freedom.
·       Our founders created a modern nation with freedom, democracy, and equality as the essence of its soul.
·       Our founding fathers too shared the same belief and sought individual liberty for every citizen of India.
·       No wonder that the shared ideals and common philosophy of freedom shaped the bedrock of our ties. No wonder, then, that President Obama has called our ties the defining partnership of the 21st century.

What a nice guy. Aren’t we Americans great? We helped and are helping a nation of a billion people live a good, civilized, and moral life, based on our ideals. Give that guy another round of applause. Better still, a standing ovation!

Topic 4: Gandhi

Gandhi (the Mahatma, not Sonia) is unarguably the most famous Indian in the world. He is probably the most revered Indian abroad. It would be foolish not to milk him to the hilt, regardless of what you or your party or the “cultural organization” you originally come from actually thinks of him. Gandhi is so revered globally that simply taking his name guarantees a standing ovation. India has the monopoly on Gandhi. Absolutely stupid not to use your trump (no pun intended) card.

And, of course, Gandhi was influenced by America’s Thoreau, and Gandhi influenced America’s greatest civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK). MLK’s name also guarantees a standing ovation on its own. He was a great man, of course, but fear operates here in addition to veneration: you don’t stand up when someone respectfully mentions MLK, and people in the US, especially blacks, could think you were racist. And that might hurt you in the next election. So here goes:

·       Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience influenced our political thoughts.
·       Gandhi’s non-violence inspired the heroism of Martin Luther King.
·       Today, a mere distance of 3 miles separates the Martin Luther King memorial at Tidal Basin from the statue of Gandhi at Massachusetts Avenue. This proximity of their memorials in Washington mirrors the closeness of ideals and values they believed in.

Topic 5: India’s Ideals Which Mirror Universal Ideals

It is always a good idea to talk about universal values, because everyone starts to feel warm and fuzzy: truth, honesty, respect for all faiths, harmony, unity in diversity, freedom of thought, expression, religion, and belief in the Constitution. Who can disagree? (Again, considerations of truth are not important here. This is not a press conference. People are not going to ask you awkward questions about how much “freedom from fear” Muslims or Dalits actually have in India. Nobody here is going to challenge your equal treatment of all faiths given that your politicians tell Muslims in India or even your critics to go to Pakistan.)

Go for it. Give it your best oratorical flourish:

·       And, in doing so, our founding fathers ensured that we continued to celebrate our age-old diversity.
·       Today, across its streets and institutions, in its villages and cities, anchored in equal respect for all faiths; and in the melody of hundreds of its languages and dialects.
·       India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one.
·       For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And in that book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights. 800 million of my countrymen may exercise the freedom of franchise once every five years.
·       But all the 1.25 billion of our citizens have freedom from fear, a freedom they exercise every moment of their lives.

As I have already emphasized, it is more important to entertain than be truthful. You are here to garner applause. People applaud what they are entertained by, not by what is truthful (except in rare circumstances.) They will not ask you about your lip service to the Indian Constitution and how it contrasts with your actual behaviour.

Topic 6: How America Has Helped India

Go read any book on how to become a better conversationalist and it will tell you that the best way to do this is to talk about the other person. The most favourite topic for any person is himself or herself. People love hearing positives about themselves, and think very highly of those showering praise. This is standard psychology.

But you can do better. The only thing better than praising someone is to show gratitude to that person. You are telling the other person that not only is he great, but that he is also kind and generous enough to help you in your hour of need. He is noble. And being noble beats being super-competent any day of the week.

Is he so miserly that he will not reward you with a standing ovation when you have done so much for him? Some samples here for your future reference:

·       The genius of Norman Borlaug brought the Green Revolution and food security to India.
·       The excellence of the American Universities nurtured institutes of technology and management in India.
·       You helped us turn barriers into bridges of partnership. In the fall of 2008, when Congress passed the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, it changed the very colours of the leaves of our relationship.
·       We thank you for being there when the partnership needed you the most.
·       You have also stood by us in times of sorrow. India will never forget the solidarity shown by the US Congress when terrorists from across our border attacked Mumbai in November of 2008.

The last point, again, absolutely demands a standing ovation, because only an uncivilized and unfeeling brute and emotionally-bankrupt monster would not grant one when reminded of the hundreds of innocent Indians who lost their lives to terrorism. Are their lives not even worth a round of applause and a standing ovation? Especially when the man says you helped them cope with that tragedy?

Topic 7: Povertarianism

Repeat after me: India is a poor country. Now say it another 20-30 times so you don’t forget this. Because this is extremely important when talking to Americans.

Especially to members of the American Congress. Some of these people have two or three mansions, a car for every member of the house, including one for the family dog; and most of them, especially senators, are millionaires. You cannot, in practice, run for the senate if you are not a millionaire.

So telling them about the poor wretches in India who have next to nothing – and telling them that you are going to lift these wretches out of the hovels they live in, that are not even fit to be called homes – helps alleviate a deep sense of guilt. The average American has 20 times the carbon footprint of the average Indian. If you made them feel that much better today – and by being around you on this day, listening to your promises to lift these people from the bottom of the barrel, they feel they too have done their bit – surely you deserve some applause! 

Further, when someone who is as privileged as an American confronts evidence of such abysmal poverty and misery, it is almost impossible for him or her not to think, “There, but the grace of God, go I.” Birth, after all, is an accident of fate, and so, at least for a fleeting moment, the American will thank his stars that he was born in the land of plenty that is the United States and not in a dreadful hellhole like India into a poor, miserable family. And so, hearing descriptions of miserable people in the Third World is very therapeutic for an American, for it reminds him that his life is not so bad after all, and that he has much to be happy about. Surely someone who has made you feel so much better about yourself deserves some applause?

Learn from these gems and understand how to talk up poverty:

·       A roof over each head and electricity to all households.
·       Have broadband for a billion, and connect our villages to the digital world.
·       And create a twenty-first century rail, road, and port infrastructure.
·       And, to be achieved with a light carbon footprint, with greater emphasis on renewables.

It doesn’t matter if you are actually going to do this or not. The person who is living in relative grandeur and luxury has to applaud when someone says miserable people should get the basics of life. Otherwise what does that say about him?

The statement on renewables is a nice touch because it again ignites the guilt of the Americans, who even today only produce about 13% of their total energy through renewables. So a third world country talking about renewables must be applauded – at the very least, to assuage their own guilt.

Topic 8: NRIs and PIOs

Remember that the objective of an address to the Joint Session is to get the maximum number of standing ovations and grand bouts of applause and interruptions. Don’t forget that your target audience is not America; it is India, including NRI and PIO Indians living in the USA. It is absolutely imperative to talk about NRIs and PIOs. And it guarantees applause because Indians are an important minority in the US. As with blacks, any reference to any American minority absolutely must be applauded effusively if, as an American politician, you are not to be accused of racial prejudice. It is important to praise the contributions of NRIs and PIOs:

·       Connecting our two nations is also a unique and dynamic bridge of three million Indian Americans.
·       Today, they are among your best CEOs, academics, astronauts, scientists, economists, doctors, and even spelling bee champions.
·       They are your strength. They are also the pride of India. They symbolize the best of both our societies.

With those statements, you have swelled the chests of all the NRIs and PIOs who, after these kinds of statements, will not brook one cross word against you by any critical writers such as me (especially after you even bother to mention spelling bee champions – and everyone knows all the PIOs in the US put their kids through spelling bee camps). This is an absolute winner, given your objective.

Topic 9: Benefits to American Business

The American is the global Marwari/Gujju and, just like the Marwaris and Gujjus, Americans love to hear about business benefits, and will happily give you as many standing ovations as you wish if you tell them how they can make a profit. So, no address to an American audience should leave out the important topic of how this is beneficial to them. And if you have any examples of Indians starting businesses in the US and providing jobs to Americans, don’t ever miss mentioning them. They are getting jobs from Indian business – they have to applaud! Some examples:

·       We trade more with the US than with any other nation.
·       Defence purchases have moved from almost zero to ten billion dollars in less than a decade.
·       As the US businesses search for new areas of economic growth, markets for their goods, a pool of skilled resources, and global locations to produce and manufacture, India could be their ideal partner.
·       Transformative American technologies in India and growing investment by Indian companies in the United States both have a positive impact on the lives of our citizens.

Topic 10: Promises to Help America Strategically

America is feeling the heat internationally. The two wars that little Bush pushed the US into, Iraq and Afghanistan, are taking a big toll on American resources. They need a partner who can share the load. No country has been foolish enough to take the bait so far, except NATO countries, which were forced into the American embrace because of the Cold War. But if you offer stuff like this, an ovation is the least they can do for you:

·       India is already assuming her responsibilities in the Indian Ocean.
·       A strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity, and stability from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
·       It can also help ensure the security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas.

Topic 11: Terrorism

This is the last topic on my list, but certainly not the least. In today’s climate, it is one of the most important topics if you want applause in Washington. The US government has been under fire from civil liberties advocates in the US for all the wiretapping, monitoring of emails, etc. of its own citizens, and under fire internationally for its illegal actions that are in stark violation of all international norms, like drone attacks in Pakistan, not to mention the blatant attacks of its key middle east ally, Israel, on the Palestinians.

Americans are being subjected to more and more intrusive surveillance at home, and giant facilities with monster data servers to store all possible information on all citizens of the US have been constructed. Boarding a flight in the US today is a nightmare, with security checks even for domestic flights taking up to two hours as you remove your belt, your shoes, your keys, your wallet, your phone, and maybe even your pants.

The government’s response to why all of this intrusion is necessary, and why the needless killing of civilians abroad is essential “collateral damage” and is unavoidable is the threat of terror, the axis of evil, and enemies all around us.

What better, then, than for a visiting Indian Prime Minister to echo exactly what the US President himself would like to say? There is no dearth of examples, which one has to reward with hearty applause and standing ovations:

·       Yes, distinguished members, not just in Afghanistan, but elsewhere in South Asia, and globally, terrorism remains the biggest threat.
·       Its philosophy is common: of hate, murder, and violence.
·       I commend the members of US Congress for sending a clear message to those who preach and practice terrorism for political gains.
·       Refusing to reward them is the first step towards holding them accountable for their actions.
·       The fight against terrorism has to be fought at many levels. And the traditional tools of military, intelligence, or diplomacy alone would not be able to win this fight.
·       Isolate those who harbour, support, and sponsor terrorists.
·       Terrorism must be delegitimized.

Got that, peeps? See, it’s not just us saying this. The world is a scary place – see, even the Indian PM is saying so. So keep quiet and don’t make any noise as we continue to record your phone conversations, snoop on your email, and maybe even photograph you using secret drones that look like strange flying insects. Didn’t you hear Modiji say, “Terrorism remains the biggest threat?”

Give that man another standing ovation!!

Concluding Remarks

Forty interruptions and nine standing ovations may seem intimidating as targets. But don’t worry, dear future Indian PM, when your turn arrives, keep this document handy and give it to your speechwriters so they come up with the perfect speech that can get even more standing ovations than PM Modi! (I mean, you don’t have to create this speech anyway – there are professional speechwriters who are experts in this business – and even for delivering it, there are teleprompters to help you. You can do it.)

There is certainly room for improvement, if you did not know – Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu got 26 standing ovations when he addressed the Joint Session of the US Congress in March 2015, irrespective of what people think about his genocidal tactics against the Palestinians. 

As I said before, it is not about whether you are morally right or wrong, or whether you are telling the truth – it is about whether you say the right things to make your hosts feel good. If you see that link on the Netanyahu speech that is in the link I have provided, you will be able to quickly see the instances where he got standing ovations. Worth learning from. And you can see from Netanyahu’s speech that Modi missed one important trick in his speech – he did not end it with “God Bless America.” That would have brought the house down. 

Of course, Netanyahu is a tall target, even for Modi, in many ways, but you get my drift – you can do it too, and do even better than PM Modi, if you only follow the principles in this guide!

Good luck, and Bharat Mata ki Jai! Vande Mataram! May you get more ovations than any previous world leader when you address the Joint Session of the US Congress!