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Daily Current Affairs 01.09.2021 (UNSC resolution addresses ‘key concerns’ on Afghanistan: India, The next step in democratic evolution is overdue, It’s time to build BRICS better)

Daily Current Affairs 01.09.2021 (UNSC resolution addresses ‘key concerns’ on Afghanistan: India, The next step in democratic evolution is overdue, It’s time to build BRICS better)

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1.UNSC resolution addresses ‘key concerns’ on Afghanistan: India

P5 members divided; Delhi plays ‘active role’ to ensure resolution went through

Despite the abstention of two “P5” countries — Russia and China — from the India-led United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2593, the Government of India said it was a “matter of satisfaction” that the resolution addressed India’s “key concerns” on Afghanistan.

P5 refers to the five permanent members of the UNSC — China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.

According to official sources, the resolution, which called on the Taliban to keep their commitments on preventing terror groups in Afghanistan and urged them to assist the safe evacuations of all Afghan nationals wishing to leave the country, was the result of a careful coordination and “high-level” official contacts with UNSC members, including a call to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The efforts were overseen by a special new group led by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.

“The resolution demands that Afghan territory should not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter and train terrorists and plan or finance terrorist attacks. It mentions individuals designated by Resolution 1267, (which includes the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad),” said the sources, explaining why India played an “active role” in ensuring that the resolution went through on Monday, a day before it demitted presidency of the UNSC.

Explaining the split within the P5, Russia and China said they wanted all the groups, especially the Islamic State and the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement to be named specifically in the document, and listed a number of objections to the drafting of the resolution. They accused the U.S., the U.K. and France, the sponsors of the resolution, of having rushed it through on a “tight schedule” while seeking to absolve the U.S. of responsibility, and distinguishing between “their and our terrorists”.

2.The next step in democratic evolution is overdue

India must change, from a darkening elected authoritarianism to building institutions for citizens’ inclusion in governance

The human body, like a nation, is composed of structures and processes. A bony skeleton holds it together. Processes such as breathing, blood circulation and the formation of new cells give the body life. When vital processes become weak, the body becomes unhealthy even if the frame is strong. And when they cease, overpowered by infection, life ceases, and the bones remain to be buried.

Elements of a democracy

A democratic nation, or any nation, is also composed of structures — its constitution and laws. What distinguishes democratic nations from authoritarian ones is the liveliness of citizens’ participation in the governance of their nation. In healthy democracies, citizens participate effectively in the shaping of the policies and laws by which they are governed. Democratic constitutions provide elected assemblies for citizens’ representatives to shape new policies and pass laws.

Open-minded deliberation in these forums is necessary to meet the requirements of democracy. It is also essential for finding good solutions for systemic problems which must be considered from many perspectives. When these forums become chambers for close-minded partisan politics, they cannot find solutions to the complex, systemic problems that all nations must address in the 21st century: climate change, historical inequities, increasing economic inequalities, and violence brewing with discontents within. The U.S. houses of Congress seem ham-strung by party politics; debates in the Indian Parliament have degenerated into floor battles with missiles; and, citizens of many European democracies are dismayed by the performance of their elected institutions.

Constitutions, elections, and assemblies are not all that a democracy needs to function. Though this is what the simplistic U.S. vision of converting nations to democracies — on the heels of its armed interventions in many nations — seems to suggest. Democracies have life from what happens outside the elected chambers and what happens between elections. People who belong to different political factions, practise different religions, and have different histories within the history of their nation, must listen to each other, and learn to live democratically together every day of their lives. Therefore, what healthy democracies need most of all are processes of democratic deliberations among citizens themselves.

Widening fissures

Sadly, the cracks in the Indian nation dividing ‘people like us’ from ‘people not like us’, are widening in institutions at the top as well as in relationships on the ground. Majoritarian electoral systems of democracy will harden these divisions in India, as they are in the United States. Therefore, stronger processes are urgently required for democratic discourses amongst citizens themselves to bind the national fabric before it frays further.

The media, which used to provide space for diverse perspectives to be heard, is divided along partisan lines. And social media, touted as a saviour of democracy by enabling citizens to freely listen to many points of view, has turned out to be a hardener of divisions. Smart algorithms have created echo chambers of people who like each other, and who do not listen to those in other chambers, and lob hate bombs at each other across the walls.

Discussions of India’s chronic problems that cry for new solutions have descended into debates about whether the origins of the problems were in the times of the National Democratic Alliance or the times of the United Progressive Alliance. It seems that in any discussion about what ails the country, whether in Parliament, the media, or social gatherings, one must be seen to either support the political dispensation in power, or its opposition. There is little room for thoughtful, non-partisan deliberations among citizens.

Taking a new step

It is time for the next step in the evolution of democratic institutions. Kalypso Nicolaidis of the School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute, says, “Consent of the governed is about more than periodic elections or referenda. The process of deepening the reach of democracy remains the same as it has been for the last 200 years: a struggle to expand the franchise. This time around, it is a franchise that does not necessarily express itself through the right to vote in periodic elections, but rather through widespread inclusion in the political process in all its forms.” A civil society movement, Citizens for Europe, has proposed a solution: a European Citizens’ Assembly — a permanent transnational forum for citizens’ participation and deliberation.

Words of caution though. Citizens for Europe explains the drawbacks of purely online methods, which civil society groups in Europe have tried, viz., “the risk of accentuating ideological cleavages and excluding groups affected by the digital divide”. Online forums must be supplemented by real meetings. On the other hand, merely putting people together into a room does not create conditions for thoughtful deliberation. Elected assemblies everywhere are cleaved along partisan lines. James Madison, a framer of the U.S. Constitution, had anticipated this. He wrote in Federalist paper No.55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” It is not just the quality of the people in the room that matters. Citizens’ meetings, online or offline, must be properly designed and professionally facilitated to enable all points-of-view to be listened to for new insights to emerge.

I return to the analogy of the human body. The human body is a complex system composed of many complex organs and processes — the heart, the brain, the liver, digestion, respiration, self-healing, etc. Breathing is a very simple process — it is the first one that a baby learns as soon as it emerges from its mother’s womb. Yet, we forget how to breathe well as we grow up. Yoga teaches us that learning to breathe well can tone up all the complex systems of the body and mind.

The missing dialogues

Human societies are also complex systems, composed of many formal institutions, and many processes of interactions among people. Listening like breathing is a basic process.

We have forgotten how to listen well, especially to “People Not Like Us”. In schools we are taught how to speak well and win elocution contests and debates. There are no lessons in how to listen well, and no prizes for the best listeners. We listen only to “what” others say; we do not listen to understand “why” they believe what they do. Often, we stop listening even while another is speaking, mentally preparing our ripostes to win a debate. Dialogues to understand are not debates to win. They are explorations of complex issues by combining the knowledge of diverse people.

Monocultures of thought can be as sterile as monocultures in Nature. Diversity in the composition of the participants is essential for ensuring that complex issues are fully understood and new insights can emerge. However, diversity of opinions can create cacophonies unless the deliberations are managed well.

The time has come to learn to listen well, not just speak well; and to conduct dialogues, not debates. The assemblies Emperors Ashoka and Akbar conducted centuries ago in India provide some role models. Technologies of democratic deliberation have advanced since the times of the Athenians, Ashoka, and Akbar, as James Fishkin explains in When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. The soft power of India, the world’s most richly diverse nation perhaps, will increase when it returns from the presently darkening elected authoritarianism to lead in the evolution of institutions for citizens’ participation in democratic governance.

3.It’s time to build BRICS better

The grouping succeeded up to a point but it now confronts multiple challenges

The 13th BRICS summit is set to be held on September 9 in digital format under India’s chairmanship. This plurilateral grouping comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is chaired by turn. India held the chair in 2012 and 2016 too. The preparatory meeting of Foreign Ministers in June and dialogue at the BRICS Academic Forum in early August offered an important opportunity to present an objective assessment of the grouping’s record amid differing views of believers and sceptics. The importance of BRICS is self-evident: it represents 42% of the world’s population, 30% of the land area, 24% of global GDP and 16% of international trade.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, noting that BRICS was 15 years old, recently portrayed it as a young adult, equipped with “thoughts shaped and a worldview concretised, and with a growing sense of responsibilities.” Others tend to view it as caught up in angst and confusion typical of a teenager.

Still, member states have been carrying BRICS forward in an era of complex geopolitics. They have bravely continued holding dozens of meetings and summits, even as China’s aggression in eastern Ladakh last year brought India-China relations to their lowest point in several decades. There is also the reality of the strained relations of China and Russia with the West, and of serious internal challenges preoccupying both Brazil and South Africa. On the other hand, a potential bond emerged due to the battle against COVID-19. In this backdrop, does BRICS truly matter?

Four priorities

Launched by a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Russia, India and China in 2006 and riding on the political synergy created by regular summits since 2009, BRIC turned itself into BRICS in 2010, with the entry of South Africa. The grouping has gone through a reasonably productive journey. It strove to serve as a bridge between the Global North and Global South. It developed a common perspective on a wide range of global and regional issues; established the New Development Bank; created a financial stability net in the form of Contingency Reserve Arrangement; and is on the verge of setting up a Vaccine Research and Development Virtual Center.

What are its immediate goals now? As the current chair, India has outlined four priorities. The first is to pursue reform of multilateral institutions ranging from the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the World Trade Organization and now even the World Health Organization. This is not a new goal. BRICS has had very little success so far, although strengthening multilateralism serves as a strong bond as well as a beacon. Reform needs global consensus which is hardly feasible in the current climate of strategic contestation between the U.S. and China and the devastation caused by COVID-19 to health, lives and livelihoods. Nevertheless, Indian officials rightly remind us that BRICS emerged from the desire to challenge dominance (by the U.S.) in the early years of the century, and it remains committed to the goal of counter-dominance (by China) now. Mr. Jaishankar observed that the “counter-dominance instinct and principled commitment to multipolarity in all forms” is “written into the DNA of BRICS.”

The second is the resolve to combat terrorism. Terrorism is an international phenomenon affecting Europe, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. Tragic developments concerning Afghanistan have helped to focus attention sharply on this overarching theme, stressing the need to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action. China, for example, feels little hesitation in supporting clear-cut denunciations of terrorist groups, even as its backing of Pakistan, which is heavily enmeshed with a host of international terrorist groups, remains steadfast.

In this context, BRICS is attempting to pragmatically shape its counter-terrorism strategy by crafting the BRICS Counter Terrorism Action Plan containing specific measures to fight radicalisation, terrorist financing and misuse of the Internet by terrorist groups. This plan is expected to be a key deliverable at the forthcoming summit and may hopefully bring some change.

Promoting technological and digital solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals and expanding people-to-people cooperation are the other two BRICS priorities. Digital tools have helped a world adversely hit by the pandemic, and India has been in the forefront of using new technological tools to improve governance. But enhancing people-to-people cooperation will have to wait for international travel to revive. Interactions through digital means are a poor substitute.

Among other concerns, BRICS has been busy deepening trade and investment ties among its member states. The difficulty stems from China’s centrality and dominance of intra-BRICS trade flows. How to create a better internal balance remains a challenge, reinforced by the urgent need for diversification and strengthening of regional value chains, all exposed during the pandemic. Policymakers have been encouraging an increase in intra-BRICS cooperation in diverse areas like agriculture, disaster resilience, digital health, traditional medicine and customs cooperation.

Takeaways

The idea of BRICS – a common pursuit of shared interests by the five emerging economies from four continents – is fundamentally sound and relevant. The governments have invested huge political capital in pushing the BRICS experiment forward, and its institutionalisation has created its own momentum.

The five-power combine has succeeded, albeit up to a point. But it now confronts multiple challenges: China’s economic rise has created a serious imbalance within BRICS; Beijing’s aggressive policy, especially against India, puts BRICS solidarity under exceptional strain; and BRICS countries have not done enough to assist the Global South to win their optimal support for their agenda. It is necessary for leaders, officials and academics of this grouping to undertake serious soul-searching and find a way out of the present predicament.

A parting thought: BRICS negotiators need to master the art of brevity and tight drafting. When they do so, they will realise that unduly lengthy communiqués are an index to the grouping’s weakness, not strength.

What is BRICS?

  • To be clear, BRICS was not invented by any of its members.
  • In 2001, Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill authored a paper called “Building Better Global Economic BRICs”, pointing out that future GDP growth in the world would come from China, India, Russia and Brazil.
  • Significantly, the paper didn’t recommend a separate grouping for them, but made the case that the G-7 grouping, made up of the world’s most industrialized, and essentially Western countries, should include them.
  • O’Neill also suggested that the G-7 group needed revamping after the introduction of a common currency for Europe, the euro, in 1999.
  • In 2003, Goldman Sachs wrote another paper, “Dreaming with BRICs: Path to 2050”, predicting that the global map would significantly change due to these four emerging economies.
  • In 2006, leaders of the BRIC countries met on the margins of a G-8 (now called G-7) summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and BRIC was formalized that year.

Issues in its consolidation

  • Common ground for the members was built by ensuring that no bilateral issues were brought up, but the contradictions remained.
  • Many economists soon grew tired of “emerging” economies that didn’t reach the goals they had predicted.
  • Others saw India’s closer ties with the US after the civil nuclear deal as a sign its bonds with BRICS would weaken.
  • Meanwhile, Russia, which had hoped to bolster its own global influence through the group, had been cast out of the G-7 order altogether after its actions in Crimea in 2014.
  • China, under Xi Jinping, grew increasingly aggressive, and impatient about the other underperforming economies in the group, as it became the U.S.’s main challenger on the global stage.

Long-term prospects

  • China’s decision to launch the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative in 2017 was opposed by India, and even Russia did not join the BRI plan, although it has considerable infrastructure projects with China.
  • South Africa’s debt-laden economy and the negative current account have led some to predict an economic collapse in the next decade.
  • Brazil’s poor handling during the Covid-19 crisis has ranked it amongst the world’s worst-affected countries, and its recovery is expected to be delayed.
  • India’s economic slowdown was a concern even before Covid-19 hit, and government policies like “Aatmanirbhar” were seen as a plan to turn inward.

Issues with BRICS nations

  • Concerns about aggressions from Russia in Ukraine and Eastern Europe and China in the South China Sea, the border with India and internally in Hongkong and Xinjiang are clear visible.
  • There is creeping authoritarianism in democracies like Brazil and India have made investors question long-term prospects of the group.
  • In the market, BRICS has been mocked for being “broken”, while others have suggested it should be expanded to include more emerging economies like Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey, called the “Next-11”.

A roadmap to progress

  • BRICS is an idea that has endured two decades, an idea its members remain committed to, and not one has skipped the annual summits held since 2009.
  • Along the way, BRICS has created the New Development Bank (NDB) set up with an initial capital of $100 billion.
  • There is a BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement fund to deal with global liquidity crunches, and a BRICS payment system proposing to be an alternative to the SWIFT payment system.

Reforming the multilaterals               

  • The BRICS ministerial meeting held this week sent several important signals to that end, issuing two outcome documents.
  • It included the first “standalone” joint statement on reforming multilateral institutions, including the UN and the UNSC, IMF and World Bank and the WTO.
  • It remains to be seen how far countries like China and Russia, which are already “inside the tent” at the UNSC, will go in advocating for the other BRICS members.
  • Another important agreement was the BRICS ministerial decision to support negotiations at the WTO for the waiver of trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) for vaccines and medicines to tackle the Coronavirus.
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