From the Desk of the Chairman (April 2023)

Around the world, we find with alarming regularity, the rise of autocrats who have no concern for, nor do they feel the necessity of, following democracy.  When countries are ruled by such despots it gives rise to a number of intractable problems. The primary one is how to brand one an autocrat without being subjective about it. Recently Kofi Annan Foundation released a paper that is both revealing and educating at the same time. By the way, Kofi Annan was the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006.  Annan along with the United Nations was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. Annan passed away in 2018. In 2007 before his death, he had established the Kofi Annan Foundation, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that “works to promote better global governance and strengthen the capacities of people and countries to achieve a fairer, more secure world”.  This Atlas of Impunity is a comprehensive tool designed to track the abuse of power across five key societal dimensions – unaccountable governance, abuse of human rights, economic exploitation, conflict and violence and environmental degradation.  This has sparked vigorous debates on the rise of unaccountable power worldwide.  According to the Foundation, Impunity is the exercise of power without accountability, which becomes, in its starkest form, the commission of crimes without punishment. In a phrase, impunity is the idea that “the law is for suckers,” a notion that human rights leaders fear is on the rise in political institutions around the world. From behaviour in conflict to economic exploitation, and environmental degradation to democratic backsliding, the battle between impunity and accountability is a critical lens for understanding what is happening worldwide”.  The key findings of the first Report of the Foundation are as follows:

  1. The legacy of colonialism and the slave trade is correlated with higher impunity scores.
  2. Even the US is closer to the median than top performers and ranks higher on impunity than both Hungary and Singapore.
  3. Environmental degradation is where impunity continues to thrive, even among otherwise accountable societies. Canada, which is one of the best performing countries on the Atlas and traditionally scores well on similar indices, is only moderately better than the mean in terms of environmental degradation.
  4. Violence against women and gender-based discrimination is a global problem. This type of impunity negatively affects the human rights and conflict and violence scores of theocracies such as Afghanistan.
  5. Human rights are being abused and accountability is falling within democracies. Certain democratic countries that perform well on the unaccountable governance dimension perform substantially worse on the abuse of human rights.

The Atlas is intended to provide a practical and accessible tool to draw attention to abuses of power and press policy makers for change. The report and accompanying data aim to shine a light on the norms and practices that perpetuate impunity and hinder accountability around the world. The job is cut out for those who care about this world.  Now it all depends on what the world does with the Report. Autocracy has always been a thorny issue to deal with.  Impunity is a helpful lens through which to understand the global drift to ‘polycrisis’ – from climate change to the weakening of democracies around us. Quotes here are from the website of the Foundation. With increasing number of autocrats inhabiting the planet, these metrics put out by the foundation have not come one day too soon.  What is not measured is not improved.

The Supreme Court can surprise you at times and surely, it does. There has been this practice of exchanging files between the Executive and the Judiciary albeit in sealed envelopes.  In the not distant past, this practice had become so common that one could be excused to describe the apex court as a place where justice was available only in sealed envelopes. Recently while dealing with the cases involving payments under OROP (One Rank One Person), D Y Chandrachud, the Chief Justice of India refused to take an envelope containing confidential information from the Attorney General.  The latter was asked either to read the contents of the sealed envelope or take it back. The CJI said “We will not take any confidential documents or sealed covers and am personally averse to this. There has to be transparency in Court”.  The CJI further said that he wanted to put an end to the “sealed cover business”. Such practice can be resorted to only in extremely serious cases involving someone’s life or on things dealing with state secrets. By the way, while dealing with the case the CJI was anyway upset that the Defence Ministry had unilaterally ordered for payment of OROP arrears in instalments in breach of the Court’s directions to pay them by 15th March 23.  Sealed envelopes not only conceal bad money but also inconvenient truths. Thank God that justice cannot be constrained by sealed envelopes anymore.

I have always believed that the political system in India is the worst in the democratic world what with politicians openly bribing voters through freebies and influencing their voting behaviour through sheer power acquired through pelf or privilege and used without qualms.  I had started realising that all those assumptions were unwarranted ever since Donald Trump became a candidate in 2020 presidential elections in the US.  In the US political system, Trump used everything at his command to delegitimise the electoral process of that country.  India has always projected itself as an enlightened democracy despite being an illiterate society. The money and muscle power of the political candidates have ensured that the ultimate power has always remained with the people who are rich and well connected. Merit is of no consequence while deciding whether a candidate is fit enough to be elected.  All these assumptions about my country and its electoral processes have now changed ever since Donald Trump emerged in the political conversations again so much so that the Indian democratic practices look healthy in comparison.  The hush money that Trump paid to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress, was shown as campaign political donation by Trump in the previous election in clear violation of the electoral code in the US. (Just as I am writing this, news comes in that Trump has been indicted for this indiscretion).  The defence put up by the defenders of Trump is so bizarre that you are tempted to dismiss it as a joke, had it not been serious and a prosecutable offence under the law of that land. The coterie defending Trump is jumping to his defence with unbelievable stupidity.  It appears that the blind (they call it ardent) followers of Trump seem to have lost their senses.  Jessie Waters, a Fox News host told viewers “There is no proof that Trump slept with Stormy.  There is no baby”. Senator Shelley Moore Capito put it best when she told Punchbowl News: “The House is gonna do what the House is gonna do”. Donald Trump must be enjoying the spectacle knowing full well that when his Party goes against the authorities, it is actually defending him. You need not subscribe to any local entertainment channels anymore.  The US channels will provide you the best fare without fail. In the process if democracy is going to fail, no worry.  Uncle Sam will pay for it.  Not you and me.

The Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is a busy man these days. It is nothing new for him.  He is a consummate politician. He had been through all these before and is confident that he will do better in the battle that he is engaged in right now also. I, for one is not so sanguine about this.  Netanyahu has taken upon himself to reform the judicial system of Israel.  This has drawn hundreds and thousands of Israelis to the streets and has attracted fierce criticism from a wide segment of Israeli society.  Though the Israeli PM has expressed his willingness to make compromises, he is in no mood to make any major changes as demanded by the protesters. For the Prime Minister and the protesters alike, issues at stake are of existential nature. Disparate voices including Israeli tech workers, military reservists, business leaders and an ex-Mossad Chief are participating in the protests. Israel is no stranger to protests; but protests of existential nature had been rare as these protests are proving to be. Netanyahu’s proposals supported by the right-wing governing coalition would allow the Knesset, the country’s legislative body to override the Supreme Court. There are other measures as well. The Knesset has already passed a law making it more difficult to remove a Prime Minister from office. Israel has no written Constitution.  The country runs with certain basic laws that are sacrosanct. The country also has clearly defined separation of powers well demarcated and well followed.  With the Prime Minister himself facing corruption charges, his intentions are suspect in the eyes of the public.  If Netanyahu is fighting for reforms to judiciary, those fighting against these measures are fighting for the ‘soul of the nation’.  As one of the observers succinctly put it, “If recent years of global chaos have taught us anything, it’s that clean government, democratic freedom and the rule of law aren’t boutique items for pampered elites, they’re essential for maintaining public order in an increasingly complicated and dangerous world”. One only hopes that better sense prevails before it is too late. There is a danger that Israel would become an ‘electoral autocracy’ as BBC called India. That does not augur well for this fledgling democracy that has achieved so much in such a short time against all odds in a hostile environment.  At the time of writing this piece news in breaking that Yoav Gallant, the Defence Minister of Israel has called on his Prime Minister to halt legislation to changes in Judiciary.  Hopefully that split in the ruling alliance should put an end to Netanyahu becoming a ‘democratic dictator’.  Just as I have finished writing this piece there comes the news that Yoav Gallant has been shown the door and Netanyahu has deferred the proposals.

Pakistan has been in turmoil for more reasons than one.  The crises have all the indications of an open invitation to the army to intervene. Intervene it will, if previous experiences are any indication.  The economy has failed (and continues to do so) and the government’s efforts to reach a settlement with the International Monetary Fund also have failed as can only be expected.  If you add the political turmoil to the current scene the picture of a failed state is complete.  For Pakistan the situation is nothing new. It had happened in the past and it is all set to happen all over again. According to Financial Express the escalating feud between the former prime minister Imran Khan’s supporters and security forces is begging for a “military-led solution”.   The army in Pakistan can afford to be a silent spectator only up to a point.  The country is used to periodic financial crises.  This time around such situations have brought along unprecedented political violence and terrorist attacks. In January the country witnessed the deadliest terrorist attacks killing more than hundred people. The biggest casualty of these developments are the country’s institutions. The economic crisis and the external debt liabilities have already reached the size of its annual GDP.  Historically the country has always depended on foreign sources to sustain itself. Pakistan looks at the prospect of cutting the budget for the military establishment in order to get a bailout.  So many years of army rule of Pakistan has resulted in the military elites controlling more than 10 percent of the country’s real estate in addition to its interests in diverse sectors ranging from construction to oil imports.  The country has already postponed the general elections.  In this mayhem foreign investors are fighting shy of making any commitments in terms of investments. The question people are entertaining is not whether the army would intervene; but when.  Having followed cricket passionately for so many years it is my take that Imran Khan is too shrewd a person for the ordinary Pakistani. I have always considered that he is perhaps the best cricketer ever to become a captain of a Test team. If only he could use his capabilities to turn the country’s fate too. Else there will be little to differentiate between Pakistan and its neighbour Afghanistan. Together both the countries will have one industrial product to export – terrorism. It is time India starts working on its contingency plans.

I did not know Gordon Moore.  But I know about him. He was a true Silicon Valley pioneer.  He founded Intel Corporation (long before the Silicon Valley Bank was established) that makes semiconductor chips without which I might not have been able to write even this piece. He predicted and facilitated the growth of an industry without which today’s industrial progress would only be dream.  His take that “the number of transistors in an integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years” is today known as Moore’s law. He died last week at the age of 94.  Every time I use my laptop or computer it would remain a tribute to him from me.  May his soul rest in peace.

Thank you.

Venkat R Venkitachalam

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