The World Today for August 05, 2016


Two Steps Back

India’s most popular prime minister in decades just pushed through the country’s biggest economic reform since its 1991 liberalization – at least in theory. But as always seems to happen in India, the big step forward came with two steps back.

The big reform – an overhaul of the tax system to replace cascading state taxes with a nationwide goods and services tax, or GST – made headlines in all the big outlets, despite its arcane nature.

That makes sense.

No doubt the story wasn’t very effective clickbait. But it’s a move that Indian planners have been wrangling over for some 30 years. And if it’s implemented properly, it will have a dramatic impact on the Indian economy.

The Wall Street Journal spells out the arcane details here. But the gist is that GST should make an extremely complex tax system much simpler, resulting in a boost of as much as 1.5 percentage points to the country’s gross domestic product – which grew 7.6 percent for the fiscal year ending in March.

Its passage in the upper house of parliament on Wednesday also marked a significant political victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a business-friendly reformer who had otherwise proven to be a growing disappointment.

But out of the international spotlight, the cracks in Modi’s armor have widened dramatically over the weeks leading up to this big step forward – once again thanks to his inability or unwillingness to crack down on the Hindu nationalist thugs prominent among his supporters.

It’s another arcane story. But it may be a more important one.

On July 11, Hindu nationalist vigilantes in Modi’s home state of Gujarat – claiming to be “gaurakshaks” or “cow protectors” – brutally assaulted young men they “caught” skinning a dead cow. Apparently proud of their work and confident that they would not be punished for it, the vigilantes recorded the vicious beating as they took turns hitting the men with a broken piece of lumber. Then they uploaded it to the internet, where it swiftly went viral.

Many readers will recall that a 50-year-old Muslim man was beaten to death in a similar incident of “cow protection” in December last year. But this time, the targets were not Muslims – which is irrelevant morally but very important politically.

Hindu nationalists have long promoted the battle against cow slaughter as a way of demonizing Muslims and uniting Hindus – many of whom consider the cow to be sacred. This time, however, the beating victims were Hindus from the lowest groups in the caste hierarchy – which were once called “untouchable” and are now known as Dalits or “the oppressed.”

The practice of untouchability was outlawed as early as 1950. But the Dalits are still badly marginalized. More than half of the so-called “Scheduled Castes” in rural India are landless laborers. In general, they’re significantly more likely to suffer from third world ills like malnutrition and lack of access to piped water than other Indians – 27 percent of whom still refuse to let them drink from the same wells or take the same village paths, according to a National Crime Records Bureau report cited by India Today.

But in one way they may be better off than the Muslim victims of the cow crusade: They’re a vital political block. Modi’s unprecedented majority in the 2014 national polls hinged in part on a dramatic swing in the Dalit vote. And now, as he steadfastly refuses to make a public statement about the Gujarat situation and other similar atrocities, Modi looks likely not only to lose their support but also to galvanize them against the BJP.


Historic Upheaval

Voters handed South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party (ANC) its worst election result since it came to power in 1994 in local elections this week – threatening the party’s control of several major South African cities and humiliating President Jacob Zuma.

The ANC’s share of the vote sank to 55 percent or less as millions of voters — frustrated with a moribund economy, a 25 percent unemployment rate, and corruptions scandals surrounding Zuma — turned their back on the ANC.

Results on Friday indicated that the ANC was even poised to lose control of Nelson Mandela Bay, which contains the ANC’s former stronghold of Port Elizabeth. The ANC garnered 40.99 percent of votes, while the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) polled 46.65 percent.

The DA had secured enough votes to announce early Friday that although they need a coalition partner, they would not enter into a government with the ANC.

The DA also had a slight lead over the ANC in the capital of Pretoria, while the two parties were neck-in-neck in Johannesburg after two-thirds of the votes were counted, reported Reuters.

Holiday Ambush

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for an ambush on a tour bus carrying western tourists on Thursday, Afghan officials said.

The bus was heading toward the city of Herat, Afghanistan’s ancient cultural center in the province of the same name near the Iranian border, when Taliban gunmen fired on the bus and launched a rocket at it.

The attack wounded at least five tourists and their Afghan driver, although none of the injuries are reported to be serious, said officials. A spokesperson for Herat’s provincial governor said the tour group included eight Britons, three U.S. citizens and one German.

The tour group had traveled to Afghanistan with a British tour operator, Hinterland Travel, which specializes in adventure tours to war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The company defends travel to Afghanistan despite warnings from various governments to avoid the country, wrote the Guardian.

Turning up the Heat

A Brazilian Senate committee overwhelmingly voted 14-5 to recommend that suspended President Dilma Rousseff be convicted in her impeachment trial and that she be permanently ousted from her position.

Rousseff’s impeachment trial now goes to the full Senate, which will hold its own hearings in the coming weeks. In that forum, Rousseff, who is accused of disguising gaps in Brazil’s state finances with illegal accounting, will be able to present her defense.

Rousseff was temporarily removed from office in May after the Senate voted to open impeachment proceedings. Vice President Michel Temer, a one-time ally turned foe, replaced her.

Proceedings in the impeachment trial are continuing even as the Summer Olympics kick off in Rio this evening with the opening ceremony. That’s ironic, given that Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva fought a tough battle to bring the games to Brazil.

A decision from the Senate is expected in the next several weeks. If Rousseff is convicted, Temer will serve out the remainder of Rousseff’s term until late 2018. Rousseff will be immediately reinstated if she is acquitted.


Ms. Bardot, Meet Bulgaria

Legendary French femme fatale Brigitte Bardot had no trouble drawing audiences to cinemas across the globe in her heyday. But can she still deliver the crowds to a remote village in Bulgaria?

Two Polish artists, Ventzislav and Katarzyna Piriankov, are hoping to accomplish just that in Staro Zhelezare with a mural of Ms. Bardot – and other notables like Che Guevara and Boris III, the former czar of Bulgaria.

The Piriankov’s aim is to use the village as a canvas, transforming it into a work of art and in doing so helping to reverse trends – including low birthrates and the outward migration of young adults – that have seen Staro Zhelezare shrink to a population of 400 since the Iron Curtain came down.

Art students descended on the town last weekend for the second summer in a row to add more murals to the “Village of Personalities.” New murals this year included Gandhi, Abe Lincoln and Cleopatra.

Residents of Staro Zhelezare seem pleased with how the project has turned out so far.

“It’s a natural pairing,” Stefana Gospodinova, 64, told the New York Times of herself and Bardot. “I am mistaken for her all the time.”








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