From a democrat to a demagogue

From a democrat to a demagogue

If this reads like praise for Barack Obama and alarm and concern about his successor, Donald Trump, so be it. It reflects the near-universal twin...

The absence of a strong voice for progressive, inclusive and democratic values internationally may have all manner of consequences, few of which will be good. Sadly, a sort of ethno-nationalism appears to have taken hold in the US and others are bound to take the cue

If this reads like praise for Barack Obama and alarm and concern about his successor, Donald Trump, so be it. It reflects the near-universal twin sentiment, even though one must look ahead to the new phase in the life of the United States.

The world by and large rings out the old in a hurry, showing minimal grace, and rings in the new with expectations. But ringing out Obama and seeing Trump sworn in was remarkably different.

Never has nostalgia gripped transition. Whatever history’s judgment on Obama’s presidency, the Obamas – Barack and wife Michelle – were an undeniable inspiration for millions across the globe.

Obama, despite his many failures, was not being boastful when he said he would have won a third term had the law of the land permitted. He was reflecting the agony of many Americans – even those who voted for Trump — who feel let down and having let down the world community.

It is rare that an American President demits office after two terms with a high 60 per cent-plus popularity rating despite his party losing the election. And it is, perhaps, unprecedented that a new president takes office with a low 20 percent rating, only reinforcing most of the fears generated during a toxic election campaign, doing little to remove them in time between his polls victory and inauguration.

His inauguration address amidst protests was strident with several notes of dissonance, not harmony. His repealing Obamacare, the health plan that had benefited 25 million Americans, on the very first day in office, leaves few doubts about his intentions and plans. Much more is in store.

In contrast, read Obama’s last meet-the-press. The first mixed-race president said as long as the United States recognises merit and provides equal opportunity to all, it will have not just a woman president but could also see a Latino President, a Jewish President, and a Hindu President in the future. This reflects a vibrant American society. That is what is expected of the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

But we are witnessing the current times in which exclusivist, inward-looking demagogues and their parties mouthing nationalistic slogans combined with hate speeches against those they dislike and making tall promises are engulfing one nation after another. And Trump, a man known for blunt bombast and raw emotion has come to lead them all.

Even before he took office, Trump’s team issued marching orders to political appointees among the ambassadors. There were six Indian Americans, including the envoy to New Delhi, Richard Rajeev Verma and Atul Keshap, envoy to Sri Lanka. To say the least, it is unjust and unreasonable to hound political appointees to an administration when they go in, or to persecute them when they go out.

Frankly, it is not quite clear what Trump stands for. Many of the new president’s cabinet nominees are hardcore conservatives. Save two retired military officers, most others are businessmen and corporate honchos with no known acquaintance with governance, diplomacy and a lot else that goes into running a government.

It is not clear whether Trump will, in fact, embrace a radical social and economic agenda. The builder-businessman has, as written in this space earlier, predictably promised roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure to make the lives of his countrymen more comfortable, which is fine.

But there is more to a nation beyond jobs and comforts. It is a nation’s ethos. Some of the damage was apparent even before Trump was elected. For better or worse, the US has been a global leader when it comes to rights-based, liberal democratic values.

The actual record has been decidedly mixed, what with its support to dictatorships, but at least when it comes to promoting progressive, inclusive, democratic values, the US has been a self-professed leader.

The absence of a strong voice for progressive, inclusive and democratic values internationally may have all manner of consequences, few of which will be good. Sadly, a sort of ethno-nationalism appears to have taken hold in the US and others are bound to take the cue.

One way of looking at his inaugural address is that the US doesn't consider itself a super power anymore – which should be good news for the rest of the world. But can America afford to go into a corner?

Someone aptly tweeted on Trump’s inaugural speech: “Standing behind Ikea (Swedish) podium, smiling in front of a 4K Sony (Japanese) video camera, speaking into a Dolby Sennheiser (German) microphone, with vigorous hand gestures that gave a glimpse of Rolex (Swiss) wrist watch under the cuff, he said “buy American,” “Hire American”.

Trump has had business interests in India. Even if he formally sheds them, they could grow and this may be good for the overall Indo-US business ties. Trump gushed about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the support he received from the “Hindu Republicans.”

Overall, the ties are bound to remain uneven, given his protectionist approach affecting visas for Indians and support to Indian ventures in the US that, definitely, has created more jobs. Exports in some sectors, especially drugs and pharmaceuticals may suffer.

On his last day in office, Obama had telephoned among few leaders, Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the context of Afghanistan imbroglio. That remained his unfinished resolve. Under him, the US and its NATO allies carried out a victory-less withdrawal. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai has said Obama had promised to ’degrade’ the Afghan Taliban and their allies, the Haqqani network who remain sheltered and supported by Pakistan.

Obama, Karzai says, had agreed to take them on in Pakistani territory, but that never happened. If the US kept asking Pakistan to “do more” to curb militant outfits, the Obama administration itself suffered from “not enough” in carrying out its own resolve.

The initiative on Afghanistan, post US/NATO withdrawal has already passed on to China, giving Pakistan an overwhelming advantage, thanks to “all weather” Sino-Pak friendship. The two have roped in Russia and Iran, both old allies of India in the region. This development, more than anything else, will deeply impact India and in the process, Indo-US ties in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya have all been disasters for Obama. His China policy turned out to be contradictory and counterproductive rather than balanced and foresighted. His spat with Netanyahu merely irritated but did not pressure Israel in the least.

He did strike deals with Cuba and Iran, both of which run the risk of being undone under Trump. Tragically, Obama paved the way for his political nemesis Trump to succeed him and threaten everything he achieved and sought to achieve.

Trump has given terror a religion when he promised to “completely eradicate Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth,” something his predecessors tried but did not engage in rhetoric. Trump thinks they failed and how he will tackle it remains to be seen.

Indeed, the US is accused, with good justification, of having created these very forces – the Al Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS or Da’esh – among them. Critics are already asking whether the US under Trump will go after these forces and create a new one.

Trump has displayed a clear preference for Russia, sending and receiving messages to and from Vladimir Putin. He has chosen as his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who has deep business ties with Russia. But his Defence Secretary, Gen. Mattis and CIA Director share deep concerns about Russia.

If Trump befriends Russians, but goes after the Chinese, as he has promised (both of which have deep implications for India and the region around it), will the world witness a new phase of cold war that never really ended?

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