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Daily Current Affairs 17.12.2022 (Crude oil imports rose 52.6% to $147 bn in April-November, Election results and the dangers of false explanations, Countering terror, Dangerous gamble)

Daily Current Affairs 17.12.2022 (Crude oil imports rose 52.6% to $147 bn in April-November, Election results and the dangers of false explanations, Countering terror, Dangerous gamble)

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1. Crude oil imports rose 52.6% to $147 bn in April-November

Commerce Ministry data shows coal and coke imports almost doubled in the period to $37.25 bn; in exports, shipments of petroleum grew by 58.9% to $62.65 bn, gems & jewellery increased by 2%

India’s imports of crude oil rose by 52.6% to $146.57 billion during April-November period, according to Commerce Ministry data.

Coal and coke imports increased by 97.7% to $37.25 billion in the same period, the data showed.

Gold imports, however, dipped by 18.1% to $27.21 billion during the eight-month period.

Oher products which recorded double digit growth in imports include electronics, chemicals, transport equipment and vegetable oil. Vegetable oil imports rose by 16.7% to $14.28 billion.

In exports, sectors which recorded negative growth in the period include engineering goods (-2%), cotton yarn/fabrics/made-ups (-25.8%) and plastic (-9.66%).

Petroleum exports grew by 58.9% to $62.65 billion, while gems and jewellery shipments increased by 2% to $26.45 billion.

India’s exports posted marginal growth of 0.59% to $31.99 billion in November, even as the trade deficit widened to $23.89 billion during the month.

Briefing reporters on trade data, Additional Secretary in the Commerce Ministry L. Satya Srinivas said the government was regularly monitoring the export performance.

2. Editorial-1: Election results and the dangers of false explanations

On October 26, a 19th century bridge over the Machhu river in the town of Morbi in Gujarat — it was reconstructed with the money of the local people — was opened to the public in a grand show. Five days later, the bridge collapsed, killing an estimated 135 people and injuring 180 others. It was obvious that there was mischief and dubious dealings in the awarding of the contract to an inexperienced private firm to renovate the bridge. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was (and is) in power in the State and in the local administration; the local legislator was also from the BJP.

Falling into a trap

A little over a month later, in December, there was a State election where voters in Morbi cast their votes. Nearly 50,000 more people in Morbi voted for the BJP than they had in the election in 2017 or the 2020 by-election. That is, soon after the bridge collapsed and where many people lost their lives, the people of Morbi seem to have rewarded the BJP by voting for the party in greater numbers than they had previously. The BJP’s vote share in Morbi was a whopping 60% in 2022 vis-à-vis just 45% in 2017. In fact, even in the polling areas right near the collapsed bridge, more voters voted for the BJP in 2022 than they had in 2017. Can we then infer that the BJP won Morbi constituency only because a bridge collapsed, and many lost their lives?

It is obviously a silly and facetious, but a deliberately provocative question. Such a stupid question insults our basic intelligence and assaults our moral senses. If any, the real question to ask is: why did voters in Morbi not punish the BJP for this tragedy, especially when it happened just a few weeks before the election?

Yet, if one were to look at it dispassionately and in an abstract manner, an event x happened (i.e., the bridge collapse) and then a seemingly related event y happened (the BJP’s victory). It is tempting and intuitive for the human mind to correlate the two and conclude that x led to y.

This happens all the time in our public commentary.

In the rush to explain electoral outcomes, media commentators and even so-called experts such as pollsters and political scientists fall into this trap constantly. If a political party makes a promise or carries out a specific campaign (x) for an election and then that party wins the election (y), commentators immediately conclude that the party won the election because of its promise (x led to y). Why is it that the “x led to y” rationale seems so absurd in the case of the collapse of the bridge but is entirely plausible in the case of an election promise or a campaign, even though the underlying logic is exactly the same? Because, context matters.

Just as it is illogical to assert that the two events — the collapse of a bridge due to the BJP’s misgovernance and the subsequent victory of the BJP in that constituency — reflect a causal relationship, it is equally inappropriate to assert, without rigorous evidence, that a particular campaign or a promise or an event led to an electoral victory or loss.

Simplistic correlations

Pollsters who carry out surveys to determine what influences people’s voting choices, often ask people what their major issues are, and then which way they plan to vote. They then correlate the two simplistically to draw/make strong conclusions. For example, a survey may show that people want lower taxes. If a political party promises lower taxes and wins an election, it does not automatically mean that the party won because it promised lower taxes that the people wanted, although it seems very intuitive. The more rigorous way to analyse this is to ask this: would that party not have won the election had it not promised lower taxes?

The philosopher Karl Popper famously argued that unless a theory can pass the test of ‘falsifiability’ it cannot be regarded as the absolute truth. To put it simply, he said claiming all swans are white should also conclusively mean that there is not a single black swan. The economists Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer won the Nobel prize (2019) for developing a methodology called randomised control trials (RCT) that designs experiments to conclusively infer that x led to y in policy experiments such as providing midday meals in schools will lead to improved educational outcomes. A simplified version of such RCTs can be adapted for electoral surveys to draw more robust inferences.

In our example, two sets of survey questions can be designed, with one set telling voters clearly that a political party has promised lower taxes and another set in which the party does not make such a promise. Voters can be randomly given one of these two questionnaires for a survey of equal sample sizes. If there is no difference in vote shares for the party across these two survey sets, then it will be clear that a promise of lower taxes has no influence on people’s voting intent, and if there is a significant difference, then it makes sense for the party to promise lower taxes.

This is a more rigorous way of establishing causal links between the two than the current simplistic and grossly misleading manner of imputing causation through what pollsters call ‘cross-tab’ analysis. This is one major reason why the same election promise or tactic seems to work for just one party or in one State or one area or with one section of people while it does not in others, puzzling political parties and leaders.

For example, the Aam Aadmi Party promised many of the same things that the Congress party did in Himachal Pradesh in the run-up to the elections in November, but it did not seem to work for them; nor did some of the same promises work for the Congress party across all districts of Himachal Pradesh. Misinterpreting causal links for electoral outcomes through simplistic and non-rigorous narratives and developing a misleading narrative for an electoral outcome is often more dangerous than having no explanation at all.

The last word

It is easy to dismiss all this as some inane academic discussion of scientific methods (by intellectuals far removed from the ground) that are irrelevant to the real world. Learning from electoral victories or failures is extremely important to democracies as they shape and influence political and policy ideas for the nation. For example, one may wrongly infer that religious polarisation or promising zero taxes, foe example, wins elections, prompting all political parties to indulge in it in their quest for electoral victories, thereby causing irreparable damage to the nation. Attributing causes to electoral outcomes in a democracy form a serious exercise that needs to be carried out with extreme rigour and care by experts. It is too important and dangerous to reduce it to flippant theatrics for television or lazy research.

3. Editorial-2: Countering terror

All nations must come together against groups targeting civilians

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s listing of four hurdles to better counterterrorism cooperation, i.e., state support for financing terror; multilateral mechanisms that are opaque and agenda driven; double standards and politicisation of countering terrorism according to where terror groups belong, and the “next frontier” (the use of emerging technologies such as drones and virtual currency by terrorists), needs attention. The focus of the UNSC special briefing on Thursday, ‘Global Counterterrorism Approach’, that was convened by India, is well-timed given that the “Global War on Terrorism” and the sanctions regimes launched after 9/11 are in disarray. In their haste to exit Afghanistan in 2021, for example, the UNSC’s permanent members, the U.S. and the U.K. struck the biggest blow to the sanctions regime by holding talks with the Taliban, easing their path to power in Kabul and letting their handlers in Pakistan off the hook. Second, as Mr. Jaishankar has pointed out, a P-5 country (China) continues to block the designations of Pakistan-based terrorists, including five named this year, from the LeT and the JeM. Finally, instead of uniting to accept India’s proposal, of 1996, of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terror to institute global practices on countering terror, the P-5 countries are hopelessly polarised, and irrevocably so, over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Given the scenario, New Delhi’s attempt at highlighting the issues during the last few weeks of its two-year UNSC tenure was apt, as it built up to the briefing with conferences in India including a UN Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting, the No Money For Terror conference, and an Interpol conference.

It is unfortunate, however, that the briefing appears to have been overshadowed by heated words outside the Council between Mr. Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. In response to Mr. Jaishankar’s comments on Pakistan being the “epicentre of terrorism”, Mr. Bhutto chose to launch a personal tirade against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots. That Pakistan’s “dossier” on what it claims is an Indian hand behind a blast in Lahore essentially pertains to an attack on the 26/11 terrorist strikes mastermind and LeT chief Hafiz Saeed is equally telling about the Pakistan government’s regard for him, as well as its desire to muddy the global narrative on terrorism. The Government would be better served by not taking the bait, and focusing instead on the task at hand: “re-invigorating” the global agenda and counter-terrorism architecture by emphasising the need for unity on the issue, and for all countries to provide resources to the battle against those driven by a radical ideology who continue to threaten civilian populations worldwide.

4. Editorial-3: Dangerous gamble

Turkey should not use its geopolitical advantage to crush Syrian Kurds

Turkey’s recent attacks on Syria’s Kurdish towns and its threat of a ground invasion could destabilise the border region, which has yet to recover from the scars of a long civil war and the violence by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. The trigger was the November 13 blast in Istanbul that claimed six lives. Turkey has blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant group operating in its southeastern parts, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia, for the blast (they have denied the allegations) and has carried out air strikes in Syria’s Kurdish towns. Turkey has reportedly asked the YPG to withdraw from key towns on the border — Manbij, Tal Rifaat and Kobane — soon and has threatened to launch another cross-border incursion into Syria if the YPG failed to do so. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to create a buffer zone between the YPG-controlled towns in Syria and Turkey’s own Kurdish territories, where the state has been fighting the PKK. Ankara sees the YPG as an ideological and organisational brother of the PKK, which it has designated, along with the U.S. and European countries, as a terrorist organisation.

Turkey has carried out several incursions in the past into Syria, gobbling up territories now manned by the Syrian National Army, a rebel umbrella group that is opposed to Damascus and backed by Ankara. But, Turkey had also come under pressure from the U.S., its NATO partner that backs a YPG-led militia group, and Russia, an ally of the Syrian regime, which placed constraints on its operations. However, Russia’s Ukraine war seems to have altered the geopolitical reality in the region in Turkey’s favour. A preoccupied Russia would not like to antagonise Turkey, which despite being a NATO member has not joined the U.S.-led sanctions, and the U.S. would want Ankara’s support for the inclusion of Sweden and Finland into NATO. This opens space for Mr. Erdoğan to up the ante in Syria. But this could be a dangerous bet. The IS had captured most of these border towns in 2014-15. The YPG, with U.S. help, had fought hard against the IS to liberate the region. Now under attack, the YPG has already said it would end patrolling of many towns on the border. A Turkish incursion could trigger further chaos, which could help Islamist militants to regroup and push the Kurdish population, already victims of years of wars, into further misery. Instead of taking the military path, Mr. Erdoğan should hold talks with Russia and the U.S., which have better ties with the Syrian Kurds, to find a workable solution to stabilise the border.

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