Issue 12 Issue 13

It is the ‘Tax-the-Rich’ hour!

On 31st March 2021, The Guardian reported that New Zealand was raising its top rate tax for the country’s highest earners to 39% and also raising its minimum wage to $20 an hour. On 9th April, the New York Times reported that the budget for the coming fiscal year includes a long-overdue increment in the income-tax cuts of people making more than $1.078 million. Back in April of 2020, Landais, Saez and Zucman proposed a Progressive European wealth tax to fund Europe’s COVID response. However, the idea of taxing the rich started reappearing in mainstream media a little before the pandemic itself hit. In the recent US Presidential race, two candidates, namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, proposed two separate models of progressive wealth taxation as a policy suggestion in their campaigns. These models were also designed by UC Berkeley Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. But despite Europe’s failure with the wealth taxation system, one may ask the very obvious question, ‘Why expend time, effort and resources on a failed policy?’

The progressive wealth tax model presented by Saez & Zucman is widely lauded for its striking approach towards countering the flaws persistent in the European system and coming up with a more effective system suitable for the USA. They argue that a wealth tax is a potentially more powerful tool than income, estate, or corporate tax when it comes to addressing the issue of wealth concentration. This is because the wealth tax goes after the stock rather than the flow, i.e., it does not target the annual income, but rather the accumulated wealth of the individuals. The two striking features of their model are that a) they propose a fairly high threshold, beyond which wealth will be taxed, which ensures that it doesn’t lead to the problems of illiquidity (as was the case in many European countries) and b) they can find ways to counter tax evasion, which was one of the main reasons behind the failure of European countries’ wealth taxation systems. They argue that since the USA’s taxation system is citizenship-based, it makes the USA’s system much less vulnerable to mobility threats than other countries.

One of the major contentions against any sort of wealth tax or taxation targeted on the rich is that it disincentivizes them from working hard and/or innovating. However, Smith et al., argues that most top earners derive their income from human capital rather than financial capital. And while credit constraints could perhaps be a problem, a wealth taxation model with a high exemption threshold like the one presented by Saez & Zucman, by definition, spares the credit constraint. Moreover, they also argue that it is the established businesses that gate-keep innovation in their industries by fighting any new competition in order to maintain their dominant position. Moreover, it has a significant impact on income inequality, because wealth taxation prevents maintenance and growth of people’s existing accumulated wealth, and specifically reduces consumption inequality.

Although wealth taxation may seem like a good idea on a solely altruistic basis as well, it might actually be very instrumental in poverty targeting policies, especially for countries that face a severe lack of resources, like developing countries. In fact, a targeted and strictly enforced wealth taxation model could be very helpful for a country like India. Saez & Zucman argue that tax evasion depends only on the design of the taxation system and the strength of enforcement, both of which are active policy choices. The long-run revenue-maximizing wealth tax rate according to their model is about 6.25%, which they categorize as a fairly high rate. According to S Subramaniam, if India’s top richest 935 families’ wealth was taxed at a flat rate of 4%, it would be able to generate revenue that is equivalent to 1% of India’s GDP. This money could then be used to fund more targeted schemes such as a Quasi-Universal Basic Income (QUBI). There could be various QUBIs like ones that provide a guaranteed income to women or one that seeks to provide a basic income to people that have lost their jobs owing to the pandemic, or even to automation.

It is certainly no coincidence that policies targeted at taxing the rich are making a comeback, it has taken relentless effort on part of activists around the globe to bring this up to the forefront. The New York Times reports, about the increment in income taxation on rich in New York, that: “In January, 170 grassroots organizations along with dozens of legislators formed the Invest in Our New York coalition, which in the subsequent months made close to one million calls to lawmakers, sent more than 260,000 texts to residents across the state, held 100 teach-ins and placed hanging cards declaring “Tax the Rich” on 120,000 doors.” And while the debate about taxing the rich has been around for long enough, it does seem like the world is finally ready to embrace radical measures to reduce inequality and make the world a more equal place to live in (at least in economic terms).

This article has been republished from LiveWire with permission of the author.

Ishita is currently pursuing her postgraduate diploma in Entrepreneurial Leadership & Strategy, and has recently completed her undergraduate studies in Economics & Finance, from Ashoka University. When she’s not stressing about the next thing and over-planning her coming activities, she can be found discussing issues related to politics, managing her page @angrybrowngal.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 7

The Biden-Harris Campaign: Representation or Presentation?

On 20th January, as Joe Biden was sworn in as United States of America’s 46th president, Democrats celebrated Donald Trump’s departure from the office while also rejoicing in Kamala Harris’ entry. Kamala Harris, the vice-president with several firsts, has been the talk of the news cycles ever since she was picked by Joe Biden as her running mate, after she suspended her own presidential campaign in August.  USA’s first woman, Indian-American, Asian vice president’s candidacy has added onto the world’s fixation with US politics because of the position and the power the country holds in global affairs. It is extremely important to acknowledge and appreciate Harris reclaiming space where women, especially black and other women of colour are constantly overlooked, silenced and shut — as also noted by Harris in her speech. This joy gets doubled when one looks at it as a victory that comes off at the heels of an administration that has  enabled white supremacy. 

Though Kamala’s Harris’ entry is a historical win for the United States of America in most means, people of the country are looking at Kamala Harris unidimensionally, and reducing her existence to only her identity:  Indians, both in USA and abroad, have been quick to claim her as their own, just like they have always been with every successful member of the diaspora, with remote links that root them back to the homeland. The internet is flooded with people from all over the world, especially Indians reacting to someone who “looks like them” making a place for herself in a majoritarian white-male office. From people calling her “Kamala Aunty” to Mindy Kaling claiming that her toddler does not see a difference between Harris and Kaling herself, Indians, mostly Hindu, out of which a significant portion is upper caste, immediately appropriated every aspect of Kamala Harris’ existence to make it their own. Many feminists are referring to Harris as “girlboss”, a term most commonly used to describe women in power, that has been criticised time and again for straying away from activism. 

Such a reductionary approach to a politician is definitely not new but it is dangerous as it tends to be used as a weapon by the candidates to mask their intentions and mislead the voters into buying a revisionist identity. Kamala Harris’ campaign is often seen focusing on Harris “going back to her roots”, whether it is making dosas with Mindy Kaling or talking about the importance of idlis and festivals in her mother’s house, time and time again we have seen Kamala Harris’ identity been marketed as an identity tool to appeal to a particular kind of vote bank — the upper castes from the Hindu diaspora through quick and lazy surface level tropes. Identity Politics, that is crucial for bringing forward a diverse panel to avoid trampling of minorities in the country, is increasingly being misinterpreted and reduced to a marketing tactic that caters to the “feel good” sentimentality without actually bringing any tangible change. 

Representation holds concrete value, however, only when the candidate reflects back onto the struggles of the community they claim to represent. There is nothing about Kamala Harris’ candidature that separates her from her white colleagues and opponents. . It is extremely hypocritical of Harris to bring up her “Jamaican roots” and talk about smoking pot as a youngster and claiming to be for the legalisation of the same. when she saw around 2,000 marijuana related convictions during her term in San-Francisco.  All this is just talk that profits off people’s struggles by giving them a false sense of relatability when in reality it is hollow, keeps stereotypes alive,while enabling divide and rule of the proletariat. This kind of playing on the sentiments of the voters also helps the public hold their representatives less accountable — the marketing strategies of the campaign are rolled out in such a manner that only diverts all attention to just one part of the candidate, their persona, completely taking away the focus from their policies and ideology.  

During the peak of Black Lives Matter movement in America, the Jamaican side of Kamala Harris’ identity was brought out time and again. She called herself a proud black woman, talked about her experience as a black student in college, told the public about the societies she was a part of in college that helped her get a deeper understanding of her community and its struggles, she calls herself a “progressive prosecutor”. However, if one looks at her past actions, we can see how during her term alone in California, more than ⅔ of the men killed by police officers were people of colour, of which a majority were unarmed. She was also responsible for holding black men longer in jails when they were eligible for release just to extract cheap labour out of them. It is disheartening to see an important movement that seeks to bring resolution to racial disparity in the country being twisted to fit a political campaign and agenda, when the candidate does not comply with anything that the movement stands for. Kamala Harris’ campaign runs in a similar manner to that of any big co-operative, where they take people’s real struggles, and capitalise on them under the false pretense of bringing forward a social change — like how brands do with LGBT struggles during the pride month.   

Kamala Harris has also constantly referred to herself as a feminist beacon, who purportedly understands women’s struggles when her activites have shown otherwise. Harris has not done much that aligned with the feminist movement, more so, she has been dangerous to the sex workers and the trans community alike. In 2008, Kamal Harris opposed the Proposition K, which was directed at decriminalisation of sex work and prevention of STIs. She argued that Proposition K unfurled “a welcome mat for pimps and prostitutes to come into San Francisco”. Her campaign completely ignores this past of Kamala, which had put women into danger and continues to show her as a feminist crusader and a “girlboss” who would bring a fresh perspective and voice into the US politics. She willingness of people to selectively see their candidates as it seems fit to them, makes it even more convenient for the campaign to do so. She also claims to be pro-decriminalisation of sex work but has not even commented to make amends to this action she undertook as an attorney general. 

The Democratic party during the Biden-Harris campaign has shown exactly what happens when neo-liberals twist the identity politics model, and reduce it to a weapon that centres itself around one aspect of an individual’s identity and uses it as a ladder while aligning with interests do nothing to dismantle a pre-existing model, all the while disillusioning the masses into believing that they would bring some concrete and effective change. 

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 4

Breathe Again

‘I can’t breathe.” That wasn’t just George Floyd. There were a lot of people who felt like they couldn’t breathe.” 

– Van Jones. CNN commentator/ Former Obama Administration Advisor. Nov. 7, 2020. 

George Floyd’s last words— a rallying cry, and an anthem for those protesting the injustices and discriminations of race and colour in America. Floyd, an African American, was killed during an arrest by the Minneapolis police in May this year, when an officer knelt down hard on his neck for over 8 minutes, suffocating him to death. The incident sparked off a summer of unrest, as racial violence erupted on the streets of major American cities. 

Unable to contain either his relief or his tears as Joe Biden was declared America’s new President-Elect, Van Jones said what was on the minds of 74 million American voters who cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate in this uniquely divisive election, held in the midst of a pandemic. “If you’re Muslim in this country, you don’t have to worry that the president doesn’t want you here. If you’re an immigrant, you don’t have to worry if the president is happy to have your baby snatched away or sent dreamers back for no reason,” Jones elaborated. His emotional response to the election result has gone viral on social media— evidence of the steam that’s been let out of the proverbial pressure cooker that America has been for the months during a tense, vitiated election. 

When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign, he said he was launching a battle for the soul of America. When he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate he sent a message. Harris, who, with Indian-Jamaican roots identifies racially as Black and is married to a White American Jewish husband is a symbol for all — immigrants, African Americans, racial and religious minorities. And, when Biden accepted the office of President at a rally filled with honking automobiles in the Northeastern state of Delaware on Saturday night, he promised a return to decency in US politics. But how easy will this be to achieve? 

Four years was more than enough to see the divisions sown by an emboldened White Supremacist extreme right-wing rise to the surface of everyday America. Vitriolic campaigns, often dictated by hate-filled propaganda and misinformation have fed economic grievance and fear, created enemies where none existed and propagated the perception of White identity, faith and culture under threat. Trump’s supporters on social media and his allies in the mainstream media further weaponized hate to perpetuate his agenda willfully; discrediting Democrats, political activists, journalists — just about anyone who questioned him — along the way.

From the ban on travellers from six Muslim countries to Neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville to antisemitic attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, and the most recent incidents of racial violence that sparked a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, to his deliberate characterization of #BLM protests as violence by ultra-left angry mobs, to his targeted campaigns against Joe Biden calling him a corrupt socialist who wanted to take away public wealth from the Whites for ‘others’, America’s spiralling descent into domestic chaos will perhaps be the abiding memory of Donald Trump’s single-term presidency. Even as he threatens lawsuits to challenge the result, Biden’s message to the public is one of unity. ‘We can be opponents, we are not enemies. We are Americans.’ he said. An important message— one that recognizes America’s current political reality. 

In his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, conservative author JD Vance exemplified the rightward shift of the poor, white, blue collar American— originally largely Democrat, but one that felt left out of an inclusive politics that he suggests, seemingly prioritized racial minorities. If 74 million Americans voted for Biden, 70 million more chose, unsuccessfully, to re-elect Trump. The underlying message is this—  Trump’s win in 2016 was not a one-off. It is in fact symbolic of deep divisions within American society which is seeing both newer Democrats and newer Republicans push towards the extreme ends of their ideological compasses. 

Decency in politics demands empathy, integrity, courage and tolerance. It demands the ability to listen to your opponent, to live with differences and most importantly it urgently demands an expansion of a middle ground. Sitting halfway across the world, often forced to deal with the aftermath of the follies and misadventures US policy in lands far away from its own shores, one could argue that the soul of America was lost a long time ago, or that the Democratic party’s intentions of speaking for true democratic values are hypocritical. But if you’re in the continental United States, Biden’s pledge to engage and empathize in the wake of social conflict and armed violence in a population known globally for political correctness and liberal principle; and his pledge to rebuild partnerships with traditional allies around the world is an important, necessary step towards  America’s healing— both at home and abroad. 

Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Liberalization at the Margins in Hard Times

Observing a world where the global momentum towards democracy is stalling, I asked in my book what donors can do to nudge aid recipients towards democracy. The audacity of the question stems from the fact that we are living in an era characterized by feckless democracies and resurgent authoritarianism.  These are hard times. If we are not to despair, we should examine our political constraints realistically. 

In democracy promotion, I argue we should take both the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients seriously. Unlike other approaches to democracy promotion, I do not assume donors value democracy promotion as much as they say they do. Neither for that matter do I assume that authoritarian regimes will give up power voluntarily. The reforms that donors seek are painful for autocrats. Which self-respecting dictator will voluntarily give up power? Instead of democratization, our smart autocrat can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions in exchange for the desired aid. This means some recipients like Egypt, will have leverage against the West and are effectively immune to donor pressure to liberalize. I label such countries, “primary recipients” in my book. Primary recipients can push back and as such are not suitable targets for democracy promotion. It also implies that some recipients, like Fiji, will lack the attributes to make counteroffers attractive enough to the aid donors. I label this group the “secondary recipients” in my book.  Secondary recipients, precisely because they have little else to offer to donors, are more likely to liberalize in exchange for the needed aid. Notice what have been theoretically achieved, I just spelt out a path that works around both the disinterest by democratic donors and the resistance by authoritarian recipients for focusing on the leverage of recipients. If my theory is correct, it follows that a strategy of targeting secondary recipient is a way to promote democracy. 

A not uncommon response to this strategy is to assert that it has been invalidated by the Trump administration, with its lack of interest in democracy promotion. Behind this stance is a sense that Trump’s foreign policy is radically different from those held by previous American presidents.

When evaluating foreign policies of any country, it is important to go beyond their rhetoric and look at their actual behavior. A politician, a country or any actor can claim a commitment to a lofty goal. It does not mean they will allocate the resources necessary to realize such goals. The verbal commitment is cheap talk. The actual spending of resource is a costly signal. We focus on the later. It is true that Trump’s foreign policy does not follow traditional Republican principles such as the promotion of free-market capitalism, democracy and the liberal world order. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is an eclectic mix of realism, protectionism and personal expediency.  Under this approach, any deal is judged acceptable so long as the US or Trump himself personally benefits more than the other negotiating party. 

Trump’s approach is also distinctive in that he is indifferent to the identity (read regime-type) of his negotiating partners. Liberal democracies are treated no different from authoritarian regimes. Long standing NATO allies (such as Germany, France) and trade partners (Canada, Mexico) have to pay their share or they risk US tariffs. Trump demonstrated a personal affinity for populist leaders (including Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, and Hungary’s Orban) and found common course with authoritarian leaders (notably Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim and Saudi Arabia’s MBS). Authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that provide tangible benefits to the US (or to him personally) were given a free pass in human rights abuse and democratic backsliding.   

These imperatives of Trump do not consider the secondary consequences for the international order or the impact on the US credibility as an ally. The result is predictable. William Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer, and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made the following memorable observation: 

For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing (Foreign Affairs 2019). 

This verdict is devastating for US prestige, what does it imply for democracy promotion?  The key is to recognize Trump’s foreign policy is transactional. Under Trump, every relationship of the US, regardless of whether they are with democracies or autocracies, has to offer value to the US in direct monetizable terms. Primary recipients, by definition, have lots to offer to aid donors. They, by virtue of their policy concession to the US, remain unsuitable targets for democracy promotion – just as my theory predicts. More importantly, secondary recipients, who have less leverage because they have little to offer to donors, remain the group that is more suitable for democracy promotion.  

It is plausible that recipients who have no direct monetary value to the US might fall beneath the attention of the White House. This may allow for aid agencies such as the US Agency International Development (USAID) to work behind the scenes and quietly push for liberalization.   

If, by way of a counterfactual, I had argued that there was a time when the US values democracy promotion above all, then the current Trump administration would present a severe challenge since they prioritize interests that are immediately monetizable.

Instead, I observe that the US is not that invested in democracy promotion, if doing so entails the sacrifice of other strategic or commercial interests. The Trump administration, as negative as it has been for democracy promotion, does not represent a fundamental break with the past behavior of the US (recall the distinction on costly signals); there was simply no Golden Age of democracy promotion to harken back to. A transactional US does not fundamentally alter a strategy of liberalization at the margins. This holds true even if Trump wins a second presidential term

The bad news is that “we the people” do not care enough about international democracy promotion to prioritize it over other policy concessions we might get. We have to recognize the political limits, such as they are, and work around them. The good news is that there is a way forward.  We can filter recipients by their leverage. This suggests a focus on secondary recipients as the path to democracy promotion. Liberalization at the Margins, as it were. 

Bann Seng Tan is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His first book is on the strategic use of foreign aid in democracy promotion (

*The author retains copyright over this article

Issue 2

A Vote for America’s Soul

Since 2016, American politics and governance have been marked by a disappointing lack of trust in institutions, both international and domestic. Now, amidst the pandemic and during the run-up to the presidential elections, most of the world has been looking at the United States with a mix of shock, bewilderment and exasperation. Even as the diminution of America’s image and it’s power began before the pandemic, it has come into sharp focus this year. The country’s reputation seems to be in a free-fall. The perception of the USA seems to be that of a first-world country increasingly acting like a third-world country. A Pew Research Center poll of 13 countries (such as Japan, Australia, and Germany and Canada) found that its populations have been looking at the United States in its most negative light in many years. In all the countries surveyed, most respondents thought that the United States was botching its pandemic response.

As a candidate starting in 2015, President Donald Trump prioritized “America First”, in what he promised would be the “major and overriding theme” of his administration. By doing so, he pushed for nationalist, and anti-interventionist policies at the global stage. Nearly five years later, it is evident that we are now living through arguably one of the worst presidencies in modern history. For Trump, “America First” seems to stand for Trump first, America second, and Americans all alone. Starting with the global financial crisis, and exacerbated by the stewardship of Donald Trump, the USA evidently no longer occupies the position of the undisputed leader of the free world. International accords have been snubbed, policy agreements have been left unsigned all in the name of an America First policy. In 2017, the US pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate deal, originally signed by 196 countries, to widespread condemnation. Donald Trump also weakened NATO by not publicly announcing USA’s compliance with Article 5 of it’s charter. His refusal to support the idea of collective defence commitment shook the base of the military alliance. The culmination of the last 4 years, compounded by the gross mismanagement of the pandemic, is that the status and power that American citizens have enjoyed is rapidly waning. Commensurately, the passport of the United States has lost the enviable status it once enjoyed, with a large swathe of countries disallowing American citizens. President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has automatically implicated US citizens with his racist and anti-science perspective. 

Within America itself, the presidency and Mr. Trump’s businesses have lost logical and moral separation. He makes money by visiting his own golf resort in Mar-a-Lago as a sitting President. The Trump International Hotel in Washington has become a meeting site for conservative politicians and lobbyists, for those currying favor in Republican halls of power. Donald Trump’s reluctance to release his Income Tax returns, and the subsequent leak by the New York Times paint a worrying picture of his financial liabilities, amounting to more than 420 million dollars. The President has reportedly only paid taxes in 11 out of the 15 years with available data. In 2016 and 2017, he only paid 750$ in Federal taxes. Additionally, The Justice Department has been transformed from a public affairs apparatus to a partisan instrument of the administration. William Barr, the Attorney General has taken strides to diminish the reputation of his department, one that is supposed to be a legitimate arm of the government that seeks public trust. As the commander-in-chief, Trump has also repeatedly disparaged the military and servicemen, calling them “sore losers”.

Worryingly, Mr. Trump refuses to commit to the American populace a peaceful transition of power after November 3rd, raising fears that he would mount an unprecedented effort to wield power after an electoral loss, leading the nation into unchartered territory at a historical moment defined by national and international tensions. Poll predictions of the race have remained steady, with Biden continuing to hold a significant lead. This has been sustained through all sorts of turbulent developments and drama that are characteristic of Donald Trump. 

Joe Biden’s electoral campaign has been centered around a referendum on Donald Trump. Through a 47-year long career as a Senator, Joe Biden has had a mixed record on issues, and has hardly been progressive. His redemption, however, comes with his willingness to consult, listen to and follow through with the advice of experts on issues ranging from healthcare and climate change, to policing reforms. The Democratic Party continues to deliver searing moral rebukes of Trump’s 4 year tenure in the White House, a stance that doesn’t seem far removed from the truth. Delivering to Donald Trump 8 years at the helm of the country will result in fundamentally altering the idea of America. His personal contempt for American values and institutions might convince Americans that democracy and checks of power do not work. The scary implications of a second Trump term justify this election as a test of America’s moral pulse, the trajectory of the country, and the world. 

The triumphs of globalization seem to be firmly in the past. Countries across the world are struggling with widening inequality and mercantilist impulses. Isolationist stances by leaders are becoming common. Democracy and its institutions seem to be in a decline across the world, and nationalism is apparently the flavour of the day. International institutions, the bastions of a coordinated global society are paralyzed by those initially championing them, by too much bureaucracy and evidently too little investment. All this is occurring as the clock of climate change ticks at an accelerating rate. To navigate this, the United States will need to move beyond the recklessness emblematic of this administration. America still has the world’s strongest military, the most influential economy, widest-ranging alliance system, and with it the most potent soft power in the world. However, a reinvention is needed to figure out America’s role in the world. That begins with the election of 2020, and recognizing it as a vote for the soul of the country.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Give Me Liberty, COVID, or Cow Urine

Before 2020 the idea of the world coming together against a large-scale disaster was placed in the distant future, possibly once climate change had an apocalyptic effect. Natural disasters were far more localised, with only parts of the world being affected at any given point in time. The rest of the world stayed unaffected and in a position to provide support to affected areas. COVID-19 changed that. Suddenly, entire countries, and to some extent, the entire world had to come together to successfully control the disease. And we as a society proved our inability to do so. People around the globe continue to deny the dangers and at times even the existence of this virus which has already claimed more than 1 million lives.

Handling a disease at policy and personal levels requires a certain scientific temperament. One needs to accept advice from expert sources and follow safety measures. The basic prerequisite to this is believing in scientific evidence. In the current scenario, one can observe a lack of this temperament with too many Americans openly defying safety measures and even denying the existence of the virus. How do we understand Americans denying the virus even as their country has registered the highest number of COVID deaths in the world?

April 2020 saw widespread anti-lockdown protests across America. In Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states, protesters called their Governor a tyrant and compared her to Hitler.  Almost all the protests called for freedom, with slogans like “Give me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” and “Freedom over fear”. Protestors ranged from those simply wanting to reopen businesses to COVID-deniers and anti-maskers. The general sentiment amongst the protestors was that stay-at-home orders and the closure of businesses were un-American because they did not respect individual choice and liberty and that the economy could not be threatened for public safety.

A common thread among these protestors was their political orientation — they were overwhelmingly conservative. Almost all the protests had Pro-Trump and MAGA posters, guns and confederate signs, and even anti-abortion signs. President Donald Trump praised these protestors, as people who “love our country”. 

Political Psychology may hold the answer to why these people underplaying the crisis were largely conservative. Decades of research on personality types has led to an understanding of conservatives as people who are fearful of change, of unfamiliar people and places. They try to maintain a sense of familiarity and comfort by following rules But by this logic conservatives should be more inclined to following government guidelines for COVID control.

Needless to say, there is a lot more nuance to the connection between our scientific temperament and political ideologies. A 2013 poll found that while liberals believed in the primacy of science during the policymaking process, conservatives were more moderate in their approach towards science. Additionally, there is a divide in the kinds of scientists either sides prefer and by extension the issues on which they will regard scientific advice as important and necessary. Liberals trust scientists involved in areas of regulation, like public health and environmental science while conservatives prefer those involved in economic production — food scientists and petroleum geologists for example. 

These nuances can help us better understand the reaction of conservatives towards COVID-19. ABC News has quoted a Michigan conservative leader as saying “bankrupting the state is not going to cure this virus.” Another protestor is quoted saying “…I don’t think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe.” As we can infer from the studies, conservatives are inclined towards economic interests and are not very trusting of public health experts. They are thus more concerned with protecting their businesses, even when they acknowledge the threat posed by the virus. They are also inclined towards protecting the law and thus extremely protective of their constitutional rights, which they feel are being threatened by impositions of lockdown. It isn’t a case of dismissing science as much as it is a case of misplaced priorities.

The most important factor influencing conservatives is political propaganda. Conservative news outlets, politicians and most importantly President Donald Trump have been consistently underplaying or outrightly denying the virus, touting it as a Chinese or Democrat conspiracy to undermine Trump’s rule by crushing the economy. The virus has become a political issue rather than a scientific one. Human beings have a tendency to think emotionally more than logically. It has also been found that one can be persuaded of anything if the correct language is used, and if exposure to any kind of information is high. When one is exposed to such propaganda, one has an emotional instead of rational response to it and will be prone to believing it if it fits with one’s values. Since conservatives are being told that the virus is a conspiracy to undermine their leader, they believe this over their already weak scientific beliefs. Political propaganda and a desire to fit in has ultimately won over scientific temperament in conservatives.

It is interesting to examine India’s scientific temperament in its reaction to COVID. While American conservatives undermined the virus to align with and protect their political leaders and beliefs, Indians acted in a very different manner for similar ends. In recent times, India has become increasingly conservative with a rise in Hindu-nationalism. These ideas follow from the nationalist ideologies of the ruling political party, the BJP. PM Narendra Modi of the BJP has enjoyed immense popularity in recent years and has gained the support of a majority of conservative and right-wing groups in the country. 

Unlike Trump, Modi insisted on the dangers of the virus and the necessity for a nationwide lockdown. In his speech announcing the ‘Jantacurfew’ in India in March, he asserted, “one step outside can make way for coronavirus into your house” and “Experts are saying that ‘social distancing’ is the only way to tackle coronavirus”. His response created a sense of fear about the virus. His supporters followed his advice, but this had more to do with their trust in him than with their scientific temperament. 

This was apparent in the paranoia that followed. While Modi simply insisted on the importance of following safety guidelines, paranoia around the virus was at its peak despite the number of cases being at a few thousand. There were reports of people denying cremations to COVID patients and ostracising the ones that lived. Doctors and nurses were forcibly evicted by landlords. These behaviours continued even after the government issued notices asking the public to fight the disease and not the diseased. Unlike American conservatives whose fear was expressed through denying the virus, Indians reacted with heightened fear responses.

In addition to paranoia, scientific temperament was challenged by the government promoting traditional medicine. There were countless WhatsApp forwards about alternative medicines claiming approval from the WHO. These ranged from “Kadhas” (broths) of turmeric, honey, black pepper, cloves and every popular ingredient used by Indians to treat common colds. There were claims of methylxanthines, found in tea, declared as a cure by the Chinese doctor responsible for raising alarm about COVID early on in Wuhan. Using the WHO and names of chemicals helped legitimise these myths. Union AYUSH Minister Shripad Naik stated that COVID-19 can be treated by Ayurveda and that 60-70 percent of COVID cases in India were cured by Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha prescribed home remedies. He claimed that Ayurveda would boost one’s immunity and prevent the virus from attacking. A peculiar solution was found in cow urine, which was said to strengthen lymphocytes in the blood and be rich in antioxidants. The cow is considered holy in Hinduism and is being used as a violently nationalist symbol by the Indian right, with a leader claiming touching one helped cure her cancer. COVID gave these groups another opportunity to promote the cow. Thus followed cow urine-drinking parties organised by senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha. The consumption of cow urine surged to 6000 litres per day in the state of Gujarat.

Like the cow, Ayurveda and Indian home remedies have also been used as a political tool to claim the supremacy of Indian, specifically Hindu culture and tradition. The BJP and the Indian right have been trying to invoke pride in an ancient Indian history that is rooted in Hinduism, before the “invasion” by Mughals and the British, to increase nationalistic pride.

In the USA, scientific temperament was challenged by a preference for economic stability by conservatives, and by Republicans to protect the reputation of their leader Donald Trump as a saviour of the American economy. The Indian right used traditional medicine as a tool to battle coronavirus and further nationalistic sentiments. Whatever the end goal, the casualty was the same — the death of scientific temperament.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


Phones and Guns to Phones with Guns: Am I a Soldier?

By Sanya Chandra

Do you ever think how many ways the state is in your home, or on your phone, quite literally hugging your person? Do you think your means of entertainment are detached from diplomatic posturing? If the answer is yes, you are wrong.

A writer and producer of a videogame company was invited to join a panel advising on the future of modern war. This is Dave Anthony, a creator of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 whose expertise the Pentagon evidently thought could benefit US conceptions of real warfare.

The video game, part of the larger Call of Duty series, features Europe dependent on American forces for liberation after having been invaded by the Russians. How and why did a game developer have enough currency to advise on matters of international warfare? Purely because modern war videogames deal in authenticity. To create his product, manufactured and sold to you, Anthony engaged in conversations with war veterans to give it a life-like character.

Making the game gave Anthony the skills to comprehend, create, and also think of possible solutions to complex real-life problems. Playing them does the same to you, as you’re dealing with situations veterans have partly provided. This is just one example of how politics shapes popular culture and is in turn shaped by it. The fact is, that this is not the only example out there.

Indians today would have noticed the announcement of the videogame FAU-G (Fearless and United– Guards) on 4th September, a couple of days after the game PUBG Mobile was banned. FAU-G is Fauji Hindi, meaning soldier. Released by a prominent actor, Akshay Kumar, it is a prime example of what is generally termed as the Military-Entertainment Complex.

The idea goes to show that actions of private companies and the domain of diplomacy overlap. While no state will go as far as to produce its own games or movies, political events create the context under which are accepted,  thereby motivating their production.

Akshay Kumar’s tweet announced FAU-G, specifically in support of the Indian government’s AtmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. It is a movement to make India self-reliant, in terms of economy and infrastructure, among others. 20% of FAU-G revenues will be donated to BharatKeVeer, a trust set up by the Office of the Home Minister. Donations to this trust are also exempt under the Income Tax Act. The ‘Atma Nirbhar’ scheme came in the wake of global disruptions in Chinese led manufacturing supply chains because of lockdowns and travel restrictions caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic; and exacerbated by military tensions between India and China in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, provoked by Chinese attempts to claim the territory as its own. As troops are eyeball to eyeball, India’s response has been to boycott over 118 Chinese apps including PUBG’s mobile version. The tweet ends with “Trust #FAUG”, a sentiment often echoed in the Prime Minister’s addresses.

The entire episode reflects a symbiotic relationship between the military and popular industries. Military videogames, by that logic, establish both your national identity and the context itself. They see you as the crusader for justice and they posit the context that a hostile environment is threatening you. You become Rambo, a soldier who fights enemies to protect his country’s interests. While this may not be overt or even intentional, it creates the scene in which warfare becomes palatable for the general audience.

In addition, videogames are set in a military warfare setting. They rule out the possibility for negotiation to ‘fix’ the hostile situation. Negotiation is a key part of most exchanges between two nations; when games and movies tell stories they seek to entertain. Situations where threats have existed and a successful response has been military are precisely that– entertaining.

Drawing back on the Call of Duty example, another edition of the game imagines a second cold war set in the year 2025. Hence, while some games draw on the past and attempt lessons from history, others cultivate preparedness for war in the future.

The same logic flows through movies as well. We are now seeing Chinese assertiveness widely called ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ after a 2015 nationalist film and its 2017 sequel of the same name. This phrase is used both by Chinese and international media. The cinematic Wolf Warriors are soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army.

China is actively constructed as a nation under attack. Seeing itself as uniquely vulnerable, the tagline begins to make sense– “Even though a 1000 miles away, anyone who affronts China will pay.” This is linguistically evident, especially in the case of the Twitter allegations by Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijan. The tweets were a response to international criticism of Chinese ill-treatment of Muslim minority group, Uighurs, in Xinjiang province. Lijan’s response– a criticism of racial segregation in the United States capital.

This aggressive stance comes with the LAC clash and importantly, the enactment of China’s new security policy towards Hong Kong which depicts the willingness of Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping to openly assert and consolidate its power. The pandemic of course looms like an ever-present threat which first originated in Wuhan. According to career diplomat Shyam Saran, the pandemic question has caused a sense of “deep insecurity” to Chinese leaders.

Insecurity is dangerous, popular culture tries to replace self-doubt in your country with a degree of surety. You are after all Rambo, Fauji, Warrior. This perfectly complements national leadership’s pleas to support unequivocally the actions of the armed forces. In addition, popular culture feeds the attempt to justify actions as you, the citizens, have carried out the same actions, albeit virtually, from your phones. Your actions, games, and movies have no direct consequences, but they serve as testing grounds for belligerence.

We have seen two tangible instances of the link from popular culture to war and diplomacy– the USA and China. The link is mediated between theoretical reflection and the lived dramas of everyday life . With the coming of a new videogame, will India follow suit?

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).