From India to Brexit

Shashank Bengali
LA Times Correspondent

If the UK held the referendum on whether to leave or remain in the EU again today, the chances are the remain vote would carry the day, according to Shashank Bengali, an LA Times correspondent who covered the aftermath of Brexit for the paper. "I think you would have a different result now - a number of people felt they had been lied to, and said afterwards 'we believed the rhetoric'." Bengali, who is normally based in Mumbai covering South Asia for the LAT, flew in to the UK just after the Brexit vote on June 23rd and was sent by his editors outside London to report in the less affluent areas of the British midlands and Wales, where the "Leave" vote was high.

The irony that Bengali discovered during his reporting was that it was precisely in those areas that had received above-average EU funding where the "Leave" vote was at its highest. This apparent paradox comes from the fact that those areas were economically disadvantaged in the first place, and even the granting of EU funds was not enough to bring them up to the levels of affluence enjoyed in the prosperous south east of the country in and around London. "It is very easy to get complacent about things in London, which is a very prosperous city."

Complacency is precisely what caused the political elites to miss the growing anger at economic inequality and the associated anti-immigrant sentiments felt by many in under-privileged areas of Britain. "It expressed itself as an anti-establishment vote - 'we are being left behind even as other parts of the UK are doing well.'" Bengali roamed the coal mining areas of the midlands and Wales and the shipbuilding yards of Cornwall - mostly now abandoned in the British equivalent of the Rust Belt. The locals in these areas did not have very high level of educations, and little ability to find new jobs once their old jobs disappeared. And so they blamed immigrants, as convenient targets for their mounting discontent. "Wales actually has a very low level of immigration, but the locals nonetheless said they wanted to block immigration - it came from a level of unfamiliarity, a level of fear... there were all these ads showing 'tidal waves' of Syrian immigrants..."

In Birmingham, which has a much larger and longer history of accepting immigrants, the anti-immigrant feeling was more complex - Indians resenting Pakistanis, Hindus versus Sikhs. "The vote gave license to people who harbored these feelings to vent - even against Poles, who are not obviously different in skin color or religion." Bengali noted with concern the spike in racist outbursts and graffiti across the UK in the days following the Brexit vote, and suggested the longer term consequences of the whole referendum on British society remained to be seen.

Jumping to his assigned territory in South Asia, Bengali said the sense of impatience with Indian Prime Minister Modi "is palpable" - most notably in Mumbai, the business capital of the country. Modi's reforms have been delayed, and in some cases blocked, by the lack of a majority for his party in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, where the opposition Congress Party has been playing a partisan, spoiling role. One of the most pressing issues that all businesses are desperate to see is the introduction of a uniform Goods and Services Tax (GST) system, to replace the chaotic, fragmented and unworkable tax regime that now applies in India. But given the political reality, Bengali said "I don't think it will get through parliament any time soon."

Bangladesh he said had been making strong progress in health care and education - thanks to strong support from international NGO's and a steady income stream from the garment industry, and had achieved many things in health and schooling that even India couldn't match. But now the country is embroiled in political infighting, just at the time when some of the country's youth are being subjected to "transnational radicalization" from ISIS. In fact ISIS has openly declared in its online magazine Dabiq that it views Bangladesh as a good recruiting ground, and this has led to a number of fatal attacks in recent months.

In discussion with LA Times correspondent Shashank Bengali

Bengali was even more downbeat on the future of Afghanistan, which he says is backsliding after some years of progress when Obama increased US troop numbers in 2009-2011. But now most of the S troops have gone, the Taliban are returning - partly because the Afghan security forces are not strong enough to resist, and partly because of weak leadership from the top, since Hamid Karzai handed over power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani has been less capable of keeping various warlords under control, and some have defected to the Taliban side. Compounding this is the fact that as the US has drawn down its troops, foreign investment and aid has also radically contracted, giving the government less money to shore up its defenses.