* Editorial 1

The U.S. President’s tenure and its baggage have given a new meaning to the term ‘American exceptionalism’

AFPJIM WATSON

For approximately half the U.S. electorate, a nightmare that began with the unlikely election of Donald Trump to the presidency, is beginning to look as if it may continue into a second term. The U.S. President’s current approval rating (at 49%, in one poll) is the highest it has been since the day he took office. Initial hopes that his evident venality and incompetence may lead to an early termination of his presidency have gradually given way to a shocked realisation that no matter what he does, says, or tweets, there is no diminution in his support among those who voted for him in the 2016 election or in the Republican party. Indeed, as the abortive attempt to impeach him underlined, his command over the party is stronger than ever today.

Nothing stuns

The eruption of each outrageous scandal followed by Mr. Trump’s brazen strategy of a scorched-earth counterattack has led the U.S. to a point where it is now impossible to conceive of any scenario that could lead his supporters to rethink their allegiance. A seemingly hyperbolic comment made by Mr. Trump way back in January 2016, when he was a complete outsider among the aspirants for the Republican nomination (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”) is reality today.

This presidency and the scandals of the last three years, on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, have given new meaning to the term “American exceptionalism”. Where it once stood for the idea, at least among the patriotic faithful, that the United States was a beacon for democracy and human rights, a land of opportunity for all comers, and unvested in the social hierarchies of Europe, today it signifies a country that elected, and may re-elect, a bigoted, climate-change-denying carnival barker incapable of distinguishing public office from private pelf.

Sanders and the Democrats

If Mr. Trump and his supporters present a united bloc impervious to self-doubt, the opposite is true of the Democrats. A crowded field of contenders caught in a seemingly endless series of primaries and caucuses with arcane rules has meant no candidate has really pulled clear of the pack. More importantly, Democrats are deeply divided in terms of a strategy to defeat Mr. Trump. One of the front runners, Bernie Sanders, is running on an explicitly socialist platform that clearly energises racial minorities, youth, poorer sections of society, women, and liberals looking for an alternative to a two-party system bereft of ideas in the face of global warming, endless war, and unprecedented polarisation of wealth.

Yet, socialism or anything vaguely associated with the term has long been anathema for many in the U.S. Mr. Sanders’s ideas on socialised medical care, free college education for everyone, and a more progressive tax structure evoke incredulity. Similar incredulity, however, is never expressed about the irrationality of a trillion dollar defence budget year after year; nor is there much recognition that in other industrialised democracies, variants on “socialized” medicine vastly outperform the U.S., or that college education is highly subsidised and incomparably cheaper in such countries.

The mainstream media’s conviction that the candidacy of Mr. Sanders will ensure Mr. Trump’s victory — one evidently shared by many in the Democratic Party leadership — is perplexing. He is the one candidate who seems to genuinely energise those groups that were central to Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012: racial minorities, youth, and first-time voters. The self-confident pundits who prematurely dismiss Mr. Sanders prospects may do well to remember that even as late as the evening of November 9, 2016, as the first results were coming in, none of them gave Donald Trump any chance of defeating Hillary Clinton.

Carceral state

In a form of slow violence that has escaped the attention of many both domestically and abroad, the U.S., with just 5% of the world’s population is now home to about 25% of the world’s prison population (2015 data), the overwhelming majority of whom are black or brown minorities. A criminal justice system thoroughly vitiated by racism has interacted with a prison-industrial complex to produce a situation in which a young black man has a higher chance of ending up in prison than he does in college. In deindustrialising States across much of the U.S., one of the few growth industries is prisons staffed by poor whites guarding poorer blacks and Hispanics.

Recent scholarship and quality investigative journalism have established beyond doubt that the emergence of the carceral state in the alleged “land of the free” was a bipartisan effort. Since the early 1980s, first Republicans and then Democrats competed fiercely to be seen as the party of “law and order”, of being “tough on crime”, and backing the relentless pursuit of the “war on drugs” — all euphemisms for appealing to the worst instincts, fears, and racism of whites seen as key to winning elections. At least three important remaining Democratic aspirants are tainted by their role in the creation and maintenance of this carceral state: Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg.

Mr. Biden was a high-ranking Senator and Chair of the Senate Judiciary committee during the 1980s and 1990s, and instrumental in passing legislation that produced the carceral state. The billionaire Bloomberg is former Republican Mayor of New York City and architect of the city police’s notorious “stop-and-frisk program”, which racially profiled blacks and Latin Americans leading to disproportionate levels of arrests, often for trivial degrees of drug possession or petty crimes, if even that. Mr. Bloomberg has very recently, and unconvincingly, apologised for the disastrous results of “stop-and-frisk”. Mr. Buttigieg pursued similarly “tough” (read racialised) policies during his tenure as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, from 2012-20, and has been unrepentant, even proud, of this aspect of his record.

It is hard to see any of these three candidates energising minorities or the young given this track record. Meanwhile conservative whites susceptible to such dog-whistle politics may well stay with Mr. Trump and his unapologetically white supremacist views: why opt for the ersatz when you already have the real thing? (Mr. Trump’s faithful often cite the fact that he “says it like it is” as their reason for supporting him.)

Besides Mr. Sanders, at this moment the other seemingly strong and viable candidate in terms of appealing to the constituencies that could help the Democrats defeat Mr. Trump is Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her impressive track record as economic manager (she was part of the committee that oversaw the post-2008 financial crisis recovery programme, and pushed for greater regulations over banking and finance, and for consumer protection) and the calm competence she radiates on matters of public policy could be an ideal complement to Mr. Sanders.

Trump’s cards

Besides the advantages of incumbency, Mr. Trump has a huge re-election war chest, the largest in U.S. history as a matter of fact; Republicans (like right-wing parties all across the world) have a pronounced advantage over Democrats in manipulating social media in their favour and against opponents; and polls indicate that as much as 63% of the electorate approves of the way Mr. Trump is handling the economy.

Those are dispiriting facts. Yet, if the long and unpredictable primary season ends with Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren (or Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders) as the Democratic ticket, they are likely to bring energy, the newest voters, and alienated minorities into the Democratic fold in a way that none of the other candidates is likely to do. All that may not be enough to unseat the current occupant — but at this point in time, it would appear to be the Democrats’ best bet.

Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, U.S.

While there are well-equipped schemes to address malnutrition, funding and policy gaps are problem areas

K.R. DEEPAKK_R_DEEPAK

A few months ago, the Global Hunger Index, reported that India suffers from “serious” hunger, ranked 102 out of 117 countries, and that just a tenth of children between six to 23 months are fed a minimum acceptable diet. The urgency around nutrition was reflected in the Union Finance Minister’s Budget speech, as she referred to the “unprecedented” scale of developments under the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition, or POSHAN Abhiyaan, the National Nutrition Mission with efforts to track the status of 10 crore households.

Plan and allocation

There are multiple dimensions of malnutrition that include calorific deficiency, protein hunger and micronutrient deficiency. An important approach to address nutrition is through agriculture. The Bharatiya Poshan Krishi Kosh which was launched in 2019 by Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a recent attempt to bridge this gap. Existing schemes can well address India’s malnutrition dilemma. However, where are the gaps in addressing this concern? We analyse Budgetary allocation and the expenditure in the previous year to understand more.

First calorific deficiency. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme provides a package of services including supplementary nutrition, nutrition and health education, health check-ups and referral services addressing children, pregnant and lactating mothers and adolescent girls, key groups to address community malnutrition, and which also tackle calorific deficiency and beyond. For 2019-20, the allotment was ₹27,584.37 crore but revised estimates are ₹24,954.50 crore, which points to an underutilisation of resources. The allocation this year is marginally higher, but clearly, the emphasis needs to be on implementation.

Another pathway to address hunger is the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, to enhance nutrition of schoolchildren. Here too, the issue is not with allocation but with expenditure. The 2019-20 Budget allocation was ₹11,000 crore and revised estimates are only ₹9,912 crore.

The second is protein hunger: Pulses are a major contributor to address protein hunger. However, a scheme for State and Union Territories aims to reach pulses into welfare schemes (Mid-Day Meal, Public Distribution System, ICDS) has revised estimates standing at just ₹370 crore against ₹800 crore allocation in the 2019-20 Budget.

Next is micronutrient deficiency. The Horticulture Mission can be one of the ways to address micronutrient deficiency effectively, but here too implementation is low. Revised estimates for 2019-20 stand at ₹1,583.50 crore against an allocation of ₹2,225 crore. In 2018-19, the Government of India launched a national millet mission which included renaming millets as “nutri-cereals” also launching a Year of Millets in 2018-19 to promote nutritious cereals in a campaign mode across the country. This could have been further emphasised in the Budget as well as in the National Food Security Mission (NFSM) which includes millets. However, the NFSM strains to implement allocation of ₹2,000 crore during 2019-20, as revised expenditures stand at ₹1,776.90 crore. As millets have the potential to address micronutrient deficiencies, the momentum given to these cereals needs to be sustained.

Moving to POSHAN Abhiyaan, the National Nutrition Mission which is a major initiative to address malnutrition, had 72% of total expenditure going into “Information and Communication Technology enabled Real Time Monitoring for development and setting up Common Application Software and expenditure on components under behavioural change” according to Accountability Initiative. The focus of the bulk of the funding has been on technology, whereas, actually, it is convergence that is crucial to address nutrition. The Initiative also found on average that only 34% of funds released by the Government of India were spent from FY 2017-18 to FY 2019-20 till November 30, 2019.

Impact of linkage schemes

With underspending, allocations for subsequent years will also be affected, limiting the possibility of increasing budgets and the focus on nutrition schemes.

Next is the agriculture-nutrition link, which is another piece of the puzzle. While agriculture dominated the initial Budget speech, the link between agriculture and nutrition was not explicit. This link is important because about three-fifths of rural households are agricultural in India (National Sample Survey Office, 70th round) and malnutrition rates, particularly in rural areas are high (National Family Health Survey-4). Therefore, agriculture-nutrition linkage schemes have potential for greater impact and need greater emphasis.

So how can we bring about better nutrition in India? With the largest number of undernourished people in the world, India needs to hasten to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 of ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2030. The Economic Survey notes that India should give special attention although the Budget has not explicitly spelt out nutrition in greater detail in many ways.

The following are suggestions to move forward: Focus on nutrition-related interventions, beyond digitisation; intensify the convergence component of POSHAN Abhiyaan, using the platform to bring all departments in one place to address nutrition; direct the announcement to form 10,000 farmer producer organisations with an allocation of ₹500 crore to nutrition-based activities; promotion of youth schemes to be directed to nutrition-agriculture link activities in rural areas; give explicit emphasis and fund allocation to agriculture-nutrition linked schemes; and ensure early disbursement of funds and an optimum utilisation of schemes linked to nutrition.

Nutrition goes beyond just food, with economic, health, water sanitation, gender perspectives and social norms contributing to better nutrition. This is why implementation of multiple schemes can contribute to better nutrition. The Economic Survey notes that “Food is not just an end in itself but also an essential ingredient in the growth of human capital and therefore important for national wealth creation”. Malnutrition affects cognitive ability, workforce days and health, impacting as much as 16% of GDP (World Food Programme and World Bank). In that sense, while Budget 2020-21 looks toward an ‘Aspirational India’, fixing the missing pieces on the plate, can make a difference not just to better nutrition but to build a wealthier nation too.

Jayashree B. and Dr. R. Gopinath work with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. The views expressed are personal

India cannot peg its strategic plans on the chemistry between Trump and Modi

When he visits India for the first time later this month, U.S. President Donald Trump can expect thronging crowds in Gujarat and perhaps a substantive discussion on trade policy in New Delhi, but more than anything, it is his growing bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is expected to steal the limelight. Indeed, this chemistry was evident during the four times that they met in 2019. The pinnacle of those encounters for Mr. Modi was undoubtedly the public relations victory that he won when Mr. Trump graced the ‘Howdy Modi!’ event in Houston before some 50,000 Indian-Americans. Now Mr. Modi is returning the favour perhaps, as he has, in Mr. Trump’s words, promised an attendance of five to seven million, from the airport to the new Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel cricket stadium, the world’s largest; here, they will address the “Kem chho Trump!” event before an expected 1.25 lakh people. While there will always be areas of untapped potential in bilateral cooperation, things could hardly be better between the two nations at this time of global turbulence, in trade and security. On the former issue, despite skirmishes surrounding tariffs in specific sectors, such as medical devices, and counter-tariffs following the U.S.’s termination of its Generalised System of Preferences toward India last year, there is hope for at least a limited trade deal — pegged at $10-billion — that could take a measure of stress out of the protracted closed-door negotiations. Prospects look brighter still on defence cooperation. India is reportedly moving toward approving a $2.6-billion deal for 24 Lockheed Martin-built MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. An agreement to buy a $1.867-billion integrated air defence weapons system is also on the cards.

Notwithstanding this slew of positive, if incremental, cooperative advances, it is the deeper fault lines across the two countries’ domestic polities that could, in the longer-term, impact the prospects for smooth cooperation in the bilateral space. For instance, the Indian government’s recent policy shifts regarding special status for Kashmir as well as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have spooked some U.S. Democrats, including Senators and lawmakers in the House of Representatives. Some have explicitly voiced concerns about the impact in terms of India’s commitment to remaining a tolerant, pluralist democracy. In this context, if the November 2020 presidential election puts a Democrat in the White House, it could potentially impact some of India’s plans. Even if Mr. Trump wins a second term, deepening Congressional opposition to India-friendly White House policies could endanger bilateral prospects. In this sense, there are limits to how much India can peg its strategic plans on the personal chemistry between its leader and the U.S. President.

Ireland’s election results threw up no definite winner, opening up the possibility of a churn

Ireland’s general elections on Saturday have thrown up many paradoxes, offering few clues about the next government, or the future of the country’s three largest parties. Fianna Fáil, which has been out of power since 2011, has topped the tally. However, its 38 seats leaves it far short of the requisite 80 for a clear majority in the 160-strong Irish Parliament. Sinn Féin, the country’s Republican party has, perhaps with good reason, proclaimed itself the real winner: 37 seats, up 14 over the 2016 polls, and its best result. Yet, such a performance does not guarantee the party, with past links to the IRA, an automatic path to government in the current electoral arithmetic, notwithstanding the protestations of its leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The obverse is the position of the governing centre-right Fine Gael of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, now relegated to third place with 35 seats, down 15 from the previous election. To be sure, Mr. Varadkar earned international recognition for steering Dublin’s negotiations with London to protect the soft border with Belfast, and in turn the peace on either side of the island’s political divide. The country is also forecast to emerge among the fastest growing economies in the European Union in 2020. But this putative achievement may only have brought into sharp focus voter disenchantment with Fine Gael’s domestic record.

Ireland has experienced severe shortfalls in affordable housing and health-care delivery, potentially rendering the party’s return to government politically more delicate. All the same, it would be premature to rule it out of contention for power in any coalition. Sinn Féin is said to have benefited from the prevailing discontent. In the run-up to the polls on Saturday, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had ruled out an alliance with the left-wing Sinn Féin. But Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil leader, has not dismissed working with Ms. McDonald even while emphasising differences over taxation policy and her party’s IRA past. She is believed to have sent out feelers to Labour, the Greens and independents to explore forming a coalition. Sinn Féin has in any case already set out its priorities, to work for the country’s unification with Northern Ireland. This stance will boost nationalist sentiment across the border, where Sinn Féin has consistently opposed Brexit. Under Britain’s EU withdrawal deal, Belfast is de facto member of the bloc’s single market. Sinn Féin’s participation in a new government would almost inevitably alter Ireland’s political configuration. But going by the 70-day stalemate in 2016, negotiations among the main parties could prove protracted. As deliberations commence, the traditional two parties must note that it is a democratic imperative now to engage Sinn Féin with an open mind.

Punishing hate

The electorate in Delhi punished the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its hate-filled campaign. On the other hand, the resounding victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was the outcome of the solid grassroots work done by the Arvind Kejriwal-Manish Sisodia duo. It is increasingly becoming clear, even to those in awe of the BJP-led Central government, that beyond the vast numbers in the Lok Sabha, the dispensation has nothing to offer to the people by way of positive economic agenda. Its arrogance, haughtiness and megalomania can barely conceal its cerebral emptiness (Front page, “AAP sweeps Delhi with 62 seats,” Feb. 12).

M.A. Siraj,

Bengaluru

The Delhi model

The Delhi government has indeed revolutionised the public school education system by showing the political will to spend a large amount of money on an area that is often neglected in this era of populist politics. First, the government took steps to improve infrastructure. Next, it instituted school management committees, giving a sense of ownership to parents in the learning process of their children. These were not novel concepts, they were very much present in the Right to Education Act; what was needed to put them into action was political will. However, the face of education is not something that can be changed in a span of five years; it needs sustained investment, both financial and political (Op-Ed page, “The Delhi model of education,” Feb. 12).

Sandeep Kumar Meena,

New Delhi

No seat for Congress

The decimation of the Congress, with a vote share of just 4.26%, should serve as an eye-opener to the rank and file of the party on the futility of continuing with a dynastic leadership. It is bizarre to note that instead of doing introspection, the party is celebrating the victory of AAP, which has no love lost for the Congress. This only exposes the fact that the Congress has given up hopes of being a frontline Opposition party and is content to piggyback on regional outfits to stay relevant. It is a great fall for an organisation which fought for the country’s freedom under selfless leaders and is now being staffed with sycophants in thrall to a single family. The Gandhis — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — should keep away from party affairs completely so that the outfit can be rejuvenated with new young faces who currently have no baggage.

V. Subramanian,

Chennai

The need of a Lokpal

It is unfortunate that the government’s lack of commitment and the Opposition’s indifference have reduced a landmark legislation like the Lokpal law into a farcical exercise. That the anti-corruption watchdog remains in a state of inertness even six years after the law’s enactment is an indictment of India’s political culture. A mere absence of corruption is not enough to satisfy public perception about the rulers’ integrity; there has to be an independent authority that can stamp the seal of probity on the government’s functioning through fearless investigation. When a de jure Lokpal is in place, there is no reason the judiciary, groaning under the weight of a huge backlog, should continue to act as the de facto ombudsman. Acting only under the compulsion of a judicial diktat doesn’t enhance the government’s image. It must operationalise the office of the Lokpal (Op-Ed page, “Six years on, Lokpal is a non-starter,” Feb. 12).

V.N. Mukundarajan,

Thiruvananthapuram

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