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US mired in Trump, Chinese puzzle in Africa, India over the moon, Sri Lanka so-so

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Former US Pesident Donlad Trump now faces four criminal Indicments. Pic courtesy USA Today

by Rajan Philips

The fading and the emerging superpowers have had an eventful time this week. Trump’s twisted saga took another massive twist on Thursday with his indictment and surrender at an Atlanta jail in Georgia. He was released on bail after posting a $200,000 bond through a private bonding company. This is Trump’s fourth indictment in five months and by far the largest and the most damning. The unfolding Trump saga involves the intersection of law and politics in the US, showing the former at its best and the latter at its worst. The week also saw the convening of the BRICS summit in South Africa, an underwhelming economic bloc that is also the only formal counter to America’s faltering global hegemony.

Russia’s Putin was a no show. China’s Xi Jinping seemed set to steal the BRICS thunder with the South African government rolling out more than the red carpet to welcome Xi’s arrival in Pretoria on Monday night. Then on Tuesday Xi was a no show for a scheduled speech to a multi-lateral business forum. The unexpected no show led to swirling rumours about the health of the Chinese leader, and even the state media in Beijing seemed to have been caught off guard as it published reports as though Xi had delivered his set speech at the business forum.

The glittering welcome given to Xi on Monday was widely seen as a clear indication of China’s growing influence in Africa. It also had the effect of overshadowing the presence of Modi and the influence of India both at the summit and in the continent. But everything changed when at 6:03 PM local time, Wednesday, India’s lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-3 executed a perfect soft landing on the south side of the moon. India was literally over the moon.

“This success belongs to all of humanity,” exulted Modi from South Africa. Quite a world apart from the South Africa that Mohandas Gandhi experienced in 1893. Hopefully, someone will remind Modi when he returns to Delhi that his humanity, like that of Mahatma Gandhi, should also include the Muslims of India. In New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi justifiably recalled the beginning of India’s space programme in 1962, and the tremendous strides that have been made since. Although Mr. Gandhi did not drop any name, India’s Prime Minister in 1962 was Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul Gandhi’s great grandfather and Narendra Modi’s existential bête noire.

There is nothing to exaggerate about the scientific, technological, and most of all cost-efficient achievement that the success of Chandrayaan 3 represents, especially after the failure of its predecessor Chandrayaan 2 in 2019, and the crash landing failure last week of Russia’s Lunar 25. That was Russia’s first mission to the Moon after 1976, and it was also aiming to land near the south pole of the moon. India is now the fourth country to execute a controlled soft landing on the moon, and it joins the elite lunar club alongside the US, Russia and China. It is also the first country to land near the south pole, bringing that region of the moon for the first time into scientific observatories.

Space Business

The space race of the 1960s was monopolized by the US and the then Soviet Union (USSR), as they took to outer space their ideological fight over controlling the planet. There is now talk of a different race driven by market forces and profit motives. Space is already big business with global revenues expected to rise to trillions of dollars (from less than half a trillion now) by mid-21st century. A major driving force is the reduction in launching and, now after Chandrayaan 3, landing costs. In addition to navigation and weather satellites, new enterprises will include manufacturing and mining of the moon and asteroids.

Under Modi’s direction, India is privatizing space launches and inviting foreign investment. The success of Chandrayaan 3 will surely be exploited to achieve the fivefold increase that the Modi government is targeting for foreign investment in the space industry. India is now more than a step ahead in the race for space capital after Russia’s failure this year (not to mention Putin’s war), as well as the 2019 failure of a privately funded moon landing initiative from Israel, and Japan’s failure earlier this year.

From an overall economic standpoint, out of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) India alone is being seen as the standout country with the “strongest macroeconomic promise” and the least social and political uncertainties. Chandrayaan 3 is a sure fillip to that promise and the prospect to emerge “as the world’s great economic power and foreign investment destination.” India’s broad economic promises are as much due to good political leadership, as they are in spite of bad political lapses.

The Modi government has generated both in equal measure, but the great resilience of India’s democracy is that it can survive a change in government and march on, as it did in 2004 (when a Congress alliance ousted the incumbent BJP government), and again in 2014 (when the BJP led by Narendra Modi turned the tables on the old Congress). It can happen again in 2024, and the country will be richer for it.

A concerning social dimension to the success of Chandrayaan 3 is India’s challenge of prioritizing between providing social protection for the poor and securing capital investment for luxury growth and space programmes. At a global level, prioritization is also about investments in outer space sucking out much needed resources for dealing with problems at home on the planet. Especially climate change problems, and the recurring cycles of forest fires, heavy rains and prolonged droughts.

India’s challenge is all the more critical given the widening disparities in income levels and consumption patterns in the country. A recent Oxfam study suggests that India’s top 1% own 40% of its wealth. The figures are being disputed, but the underlying disparities cannot be denied. Apart from income, less than 30% of working age (15-59 years) women are employed, in contrast to the employment rate of 80% among men. Unemployment is high in the cities, while rural workers on government employment programmes do not receive their wages on time.

So-so Sri Lanka

Things are so-so in Sri Lanka, which is small enough to be beautiful, even if it has to navigate between the fading far away power of America and the far more proximate and emerging powers of India and China. After the tumults of 2022 and a full year of the Wickremesinghe caretaker presidency, there is an appearance of calm over underlying uneasiness. There are no breakthrough signs yet, unless you want to take President Wickremesinghe’s advice to school children to learn Hindi and Chinese, along with English, “in order to fit into the changing world,” as a sign of things to come under an extended Wickremesinghe presidency. This is old colonial thinking applied to new languages.

Will it be a brave new world, where Sinhalese and Tamil children in Sri Lanka can speak to one another in Hindi or Chinese before they go out to conquer the world?. Will it be a better world than the one where Sinhalese children may learn some reasonable Tamil, and Tamil children a bit of official Sinhalese. Already, Tamil children growing up in Europe speaking French or German are apparently not able to talk with their cousins stuck in post-Brexit English.

But the really changing linguistic Sri Lankan landscape belongs to trilingual-fluent Muslims and hill country Tamils, who are also changing the island’s ethno- demographics. It is time anyway, as hill country Tamils mark the 200th anniversary of the arrival of their forefathers from South India to labour on British colonial plantations. It has been a long journey for them.

There are also signs of constitutional lightness of being with parliamentarians led by the Sports Minister getting busy to adopt a new Constitution for “Sri Lanka Cricket” (SLC). That would give some much needed rest to the national constitution, which has been propositioned for change by too many people, too many times, with no outcome to write home about. Things may change if President Wickremesinghe were to decide that it is time for Sri Lankan voters to have an early election and formally (and finally) elect him as their default President.

The economy is humming along, but not at all at the pace to start paying back our debts, or to be on the launchpad for the promised landing in 2048. Tourism and worker remittances have reportedly picked up and brought much needed foreign exchange. And so have agricultural exports. But the apparel sector is apparently in distress as it continues to lose market share to other competitor countries, which seem to be focused on improving technical education and productivity rather than thinking about learning Hindi or Chinese.

According to the World Bank’s country mission, Sri Lanka is still far short of its full potential as an investment destination. Although that should not be the only or even the primary consideration for planning economic growth, the mission’s assessment that Sri Lanka may have missed about USD 10 billion in foreign investment and a corresponding 142,500 jobs, is a metric that Sri Lanka’s aspiring political leaders may want take note of. President Wickremesinghe of course knows it all, but everyone is waiting for him to show it all in results.

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