India doesn’t need SAARC

Instead of getting caught in the pointless politics of SAARC, India should create a web of bilateral relationships

India doesn’t need the South Asian Association for Region Cooperation (SAARC). India’s neighbours wanted the outfit so that they could collectively pin down their bigger neighbour, something they cannot do individually.

Why New Delhi plays ball with this is unfathomable, for given India’s size, geography and power, it can achieve bilaterally everything that SAARC can achieve multilaterally. From freer trade to open skies, from counter-terrorism cooperation to join management of environmental resources, it is far easier for New Delhi to work out a web of bilateral arrangements than to attempt a big multilateral negotiation. It is hard to make a case for SAARC on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness of subcontinental cooperation. [See this from the archives] Moreover, there is a lot of slack in the domestic policy environment before the neighbourhood becomes a constraint to India’s growth.

Some argue that India needs SAARC as a regional geopolitical bloc, on the lines of ASEAN or even a European Union. To accept this would be to ignore the history of the subcontinent’s political map looks the way it does. No country in the subcontinent needs regional solidarity to counter foreign powers. On the contrary, every one of India’s neighbours needs a foreign power to counter India’s influence. The dream for a ‘South Asian Union’ on the lines of the European Union is absurd, because Partition and Bangladesh were expressions of desires against being part of a liberal, democratic, secular, plural state. In fact, the EU took five decades to move towards something like the Indian Union (which is what the Republic of India is).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was off on the right footing when he invited leaders of the subcontinent’s states to his swearing in ceremony. That was an expression of how India can unilaterally act to bring together the subcontinent. The SAARC summit, on the other hand, is at best a waste of time, and worst a perpetuation of an old mistake.

Related Links: We are not South Asian; and if Maldives is a neighbour, why isn’t Indonesia?

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NRI voting should not be made too easy

How to raise political engagement without raising moral hazards

The connectedness of the Information Age made the issue of political rights of expatriate citizens more salient. The question of “should Non-Resident Indians get the right to vote?” was the topic of endless university canteen discussions, Usenet flame wars and online discussion forums before the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill, 2010 was passed to allow Non-Resident Indians to come back and vote in their constituencies. Many NRIs came back to vote in the May 2014 elections, and many others worked in the campaigns.

There are demands for more—that NRIs should be allowed an absentee ballot, to vote from their foreign domicile. This is sometimes coupled with the demand for internet-voting, a feature request that is common to both resident and non-resident Indians. While both these demands enjoy a certain degree of popularity, few have taken a hard look at the implications of doing so.

NRIs are citizens of India, many of who have retained their citizenship despite the lure and the attraction of a foreign passport. They have ideas, knowledge, skills, perspectives, capital and human resources that add to the quality of India’s politics, policy and industry. Leaving them out of the political process is unfair and wasteful. They must have a political voice.

The Election Commission has cited logistical challenges as the reason for not setting up polling booths in foreign countries. However, the real problem is more than just logistics. Absentee ballots have a moral hazard: the absentee voter is not around in the constituency to directly benefit from or suffer the consequences of his political decision. This insulation from the direct effects of one’s own voting decision weakens both the representativeness and accountability of the democratic process. The NRI has insurance too: if he does not like the outcomes in India, he can choose to continue foreign residency or take foreign citizenship. Of course, resident Indians can emigrate too, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Empirically, Diaspora politics tends to focus on the emotional and the ideological, and is often hardline and uncompromising. [Devesh Kapur’s latest paper on the political effects of international migration puts this in perspective]. The resident population has a greater need to balance the emotional with the quotidian and the ideological with the practical, so it makes a lot of pragmatic compromises.

The 2010 amendment to election rules balances, to a certain extent, the electoral inclusion of NRIs and managing the moral hazard arising from it. In economic terms, only those NRIs whose expected value of the benefit of voting exceeds the cost of a return trip to their polling booth will vote. The height of this hurdle protects the resident electorate from the political choices of their expatriate compatriots. It also means that richer NRIs are more capable of crossing this hurdle, and therefore, more likely to affect electoral outcomes in India. This is a price that must be paid to address the moral hazard of allowing NRIs to vote.

Allowing NRIs to vote in Indian embassies and consulates abroad lowers the hurdle. Internet voting reduces the hurdle almost to zero. The moral hazard problem gets worse with overseas polling stations and very acute with internet voting. Therefore, given the nature of dynamic compromises that characterise the politics of a highly diverse, plural India, it is prudent not to consciously stir up the pot by reducing the economic cost of voting.

That’s why internet voting, even for resident voters, is a bad idea. The inconvenience of standing in a queue for the time that it takes to cast a vote ensures that only those who value their vote more than that will turn up to do so. Yes, this system disproportionately favours those who put a low value on their time (in other words, those with lower incomes), but it is fair in that there is nothing to prevent anyone who values the subjective political outcome more than his subjective cost of voting to turn up and vote.

Another problem with absentee ballots is the question of constituency. Which constituency should an Indian citizen who’s lived in New York for 10 years belong to? She might have friends and relatives in one constituency—but putting her on the voters list of that constituency is against the principle of domicile-based voting. Many resident Indians live in one constituency but have family links in other constituencies, but they get on the electoral rolls of the constituency they are resident in. (Some resident voters do prefer to vote in their native constituencies, which the electoral system currently ignores.) Domicile-based electoral rolls are important for representation and accountability, and our New York-based voter might not know (or care) how bad public services are in her Indian native town are for her to hold the elected representative accountable.

Current electoral rules do not address the constituency question. One way would be to create a NRI constituency in the Rajya Sabha and the upper houses of state legislatures, and allow all NRIs to pick a representative who will voice their interests. We might need several NRI seats because different NRI populations have different needs. For a half-serious take on what might result, see why the sun does’t set on the Indian Republic.

It is important that all Indian citizens are included in India’s political system. After the 2010 amendment, a better balance has been struck. Further easing of the rules of voting is not advisable. Hurdles that impose economic costs on voters are not a bad thing—voting should not be made cheap.

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The eightfold path to transforming India

A step-by-step guide for the awakened citizen

Outline of my video address to the Model Youth Parliament, September 2014

Transforming India is a marathon, not a 100-metres sprint. You can’t change things overnight or in months. It takes years, decades & lifetimes. So you need to prepare and pace yourself accordingly. It needs stamina, endurance, determination, patience and training.

I want to offer you an Eightfold Path to Transforming India, and you will realise, to Transforming Yourself.

Step 1. Find the Right Balance between your self-interest and public interest, between selfishness and altruism, between thinking for yourself, your family and for the nation. Swinging to either extreme is dangerous. You must find your own Right Balance.

Step 2. Have the Right Faith, in the moral legitimacy of the Indian Republic. It is the Republic that guarantees our Liberty, that upholds our Pluralism and that protects our Democracy. Do not believe ignorant or ideological critics who run down our Republic. It is not perfect, but it is better than other options. It is up to each generation to strengthen and improve the working of the Republic.

Step 3. Learn the Right Ideas. Take the effort to understand and promote good ideas. Good ideas in public affairs come from the scientific method, from economic reasoning and from open-mindedness. Not from dogma or authority. Beware of your intuition.

Step 4. Do the Right Politics. Politics is not a bad word in itself. It is Bad People who make Bad Politics. Good people can do Good politics. When Good people do Good politics, Politics becomes Better. Join political parties. But don’t give up your Goodness.

Step 5. Right Organisation. You cannot achieve public outcomes alone, by being a Lone Wolf. Gather the right team. Form the Right Organisation. Create and join the Right Networks.

Step 6. Right Contribution. Some people have knowledge, others have money, yet others have time. Contribute what you can. Stand for election. Join political campaigns. Donate money to political parties. Join NGOs that work to improve politics.

Step 7. Right Voting. Vote in Every Election. Every Time.

Step 8. Right Engagement. Keep in touch with your MP, MLA, Municipal Councillor or Gram Panchayat Member. Keep reminding them about the issues you care about. Use online methods, write letters and go and meet them.

I want to congratulate you on choosing to step up and do something for India. Reflect on the Eightfold path and act on it if it helps you. All the very best.

(This is a shortened version of a speech first delivered at the Mahabodhi Society Hall, Bhubaneshwar, at an event organised by the Round Table 53)

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G-20, East Asia and high-profile foreign policy

The focus on G-20, East Asia and raising India’s foreign policy profile are all the right things to do, and long overdue.

Notes for my television appearance on CNN-IBN at 9am IST today:

The Brisbane G-20 statement is so closely aligned with India’s own growth agenda: India must capitalise on this opportunity.

G-20 should become India’s most important international engagement (as my Pax Indica article from June 2010 argues). What the UN was to newly independent India, G-20 should be for a newly resurgent India. New Delhi should invest in high forums that India is already a member of is more valuable than pleading to enter stodgy old clubs like the UN Security Council.

India must contribute to the Asian Balance because it is in our interests to do so. As China and the United States contest for global power, India must project power in regions like East, West and Central Asia to defend its interests. [This is the central argument of The Asian Balance, my monthly column in Business Standard.]

It is good for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invest time in international engagements: India’s growth is influenced by the world and the world’s situation influences India’s growth [This is the subject of an ongoing research project between Takshashila and the Hudson Institute]. India’s policy discourse will benefit from the prime minister’s international engagements & exposure.

(Point made in response to other panelists)
Mr Modi’s personal popularity among expatriate Indians and the enthusiasm they have shown around his visit to Australia help elevate India’s foreign policy profile. However, it is important for the media to not hype it beyond a point. It is in India’s interests for Indian-Australians to be good Australians: by being loyal, responsible and successful members of their communities.

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Overpopulation is not the problem

The real problem is undergovernance

People say and believe many things to explain India’s failings. The most popular is that many things are broken in India because “India is a poor country.” A discussion on this is for another day. The second most popular explanation is that India’s problems are because “India is overpopulated.” Let’s interrogate this further.

The claim that any place can be overpopulated presumes that there is a optimum level of population. Well, there isn’t. Whatever the geography, there is no ideal number of human beings. To argue that there is an optimum population would be to ignore history, geography, biology and technology.

The human population has grown, and the population at any time appears shockingly large to a person from an earlier epoch, perhaps even an earlier decade. That same person is also likely to be shocked by the advances in material well-being over time. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal population beyond which human well-being falls apart…in living memory and fossil record.

It is easy to believe, like Malthus, that human beings are outstripping the capacity of the land to provide for their food and other necessities. Educated people in the 18th century can be forgiven for believing this. Educated people in the 21st century believe this only by ignoring three centuries of empirical evidence. Current day environmentalists, like Malthusians of an earlier era, ignore or underestimate the capacity of human beings to adapt, innovate and thrive in any environmental context. Yes, the great march of human innovation can stall, ingenuity can come to a halt, and humans might take the ecosystem to a point where the species will be destroyed. One serious response to it is “so what?”. The other serious response is to put the onus of those who believe in such things to show why innovation and ingenuity should falter now, when it has not done so in living memory and fossil record.

Humans will transform the environment—driving some species to extinction, creating entirely new species, changing the physical landscape—but only those romantically wedded to any particular status quo will place a negative value judgement on this. The rest will enjoy brave new worlds day after day as we have throughout living memory. (Imagine how beautiful the countryside in Wiltshire, England would have looked before those humans put some big, ugly stones there).

So there is no ideal population size. Some of those who accept this conclusion will argue that that being so, surely overcrowding is a problem. The evidence for this argument is weak: Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands have higher population densities than India and few would argue that they are worse governed than India is. Yes, Indian cities have among the highest population densities in the world, but there are many cities outside India with high densities that do pretty well on the governance front.

The overpopulation argument does not hold up. That should lead us to ask what is the problem that we are describing as overpopulation. The answer is undergovernance. To say that our public institutions have the capacity to handle only so large a population is not an argument to reduce the population. It is an argument to enlarge the capacity of our public institutions. Like Procustes, we cannot chop off the legs of sleepers who were too tall to sleep on his bed. We need longer beds. Enlarging capacity is about better ideas, better technology, better people and more people engaged in governance. It is wholly wrong to attribute our failure to scale up governance to keep pace with population growth to ‘overpopulation’.

The overpopulation argument is prevalent in many democracies where the state has to perform welfare functions. It is particularly popular in India because of our history (why only history, our current reality) of being a socialist welfare state. When “mouths have to be fed” then having more mouths than the money to feed them is a problem. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most socialist government of them all was also the one attempting the worst methods to control population growth.

If the governance mindset changes to equipping people to feed themselves then the number of mouths is less of a concern. Straitjacketing human capital, limiting its ability to grow, constraining its ability to develop and then complaining that there are just too many people is an astoundingly self-defeating argument. It is time to stop indulging in it.

(This is an unedited draft. There might be typos)

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To escape the tyranny of the ignorant

Why education must outpace population growth

How do societies become enlightened? If they are under authoritarian rule, a small elite can impose values of the broader population. Sometimes authoritarians—or leaders with personal charisma and political power—promote enlightenment values: Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for instance, used political power to push liberal values into their societies. Indian nationalists like Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar did the same, although they took a more democratic approach and constitutional methods to do so. The Constitution of India was an elite enterprise and was (is?) far ahead of its time in terms of the values it sought to enshrine in the genetic code of the new republic. Whether in Russia, Turkey or India, what we can see is that while it is relatively easy for the state to inject enlightenment values into society, it is by no means a given that society will completely adopt the package.

The challenge of promoting enlightenment values becomes much harder in a democratic societies that are under the grip of tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, ignorance or lack of education. Here the principal channel for promoting enlightenment is education (again, in the sense of open-mindedness and critical reasoning). Yet it is not uncommon for the education system to be controlled by the very sections of society that oppose enlightenment values. Democracy empowers everyone alike—the liberal and the bigot, the enlightened and the ignorant, the reasoner and the dogmatist. Ignorant majorities can democratically decide to expunge Reason. In the absence of an educated population, democracy ends up as the tyranny of the ignorant. [See this post on dogma, reason and democracy]

For democratic societies to become enlightened the pace of education (E) must be higher than the rate of population growth (P). If E > P long enough for a majority of the population to be educated, then enlightenment is likely to prevail in a democratic society. If E < P, then that society is likely to ultimately reject enlightenment. It becomes impossible to endogenously and democratically reform the education system (in the broadest sense of the term) once it crosses a point of no return. The existence of countries like this in the contemporary world should serve as a signal warning against complacence on the E/P ratio.

One important argument that contests reaching the conclusion we have arrived at concerns the role of institutions. Institutions where they exist, the argument goes, will defend enlightenment values. Well, yes, but institutions are comprised of mortal individuals. The individuals that constitute institutions are prisoners of the same narratives as the rest of society. The 'doctrine of necessity' will cause them to side with the popular. No institution can escape the hard social arithmetic of the E/P ration. The strongest constitutional institution, the most influential liberal social institutions are subject to education prevailing over ignorance. Tamasoma jyotirgamaya.

Tailpiece: The term “education” is used here not in the narrow technical sense of literacy rates, graduation rates and so on. It is possible to acquire post-graduate degrees while remaining uneducated. Similarly, it is possible to be well-educated without ever having to go to school. Education is the ability to acquire and use knowledge and most importantly, employ reason in decision-making.

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Dogma, Reason and Democracy

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma

Democracy is popular. Other than self-serving polemic promoted by authoritarian regimes or by dispossessed elite, it is rare to find anyone criticising democracy. For thoughtful people, democracy is, as that Churchill cliché goes, “the worst form of government except for all the others.” Yet some—perhaps even a lot of—scepticism is warranted in terms of democracy’s role in the long war between Dogma and Reason that has been in progress for much of human history.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that most—if not all—big political debates are essentially different forms of the fundamental conflict: should humans follow some form of dogma, or use knowledge, reason & critical reasoning in making decisions. What individuals do in their private lives is less of a concern. How they decide on public issues matters a lot more. Should slavery be banned? Should abortion be declared criminal? Should women be allowed to willingly immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands? Should cloning be allowed? Should we allow foreign direct investment in retail? Should voting rights belong to citizens or to all people living in the country? The most vexing questions of politics are essentially dogma vs reason, playing out in different contexts.

So what role does democracy play in this conflict? Do democratic states always tend to push the moral envelope towards greater reason? For instance, aren’t democracies more liberal than non-democracies? Perhaps yes. But this might merely be a temporary correlation: are they liberal because they are democracies, or democracies because they are liberal? We can’t say for sure, as there are other factors at play that might have made societies more liberal, democratic or both.

Bryan Caplan has a compelling argument on why democracies fail:

“In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality. An irrational voter does not hurt only himself. He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies. Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external—paid for by other people—why not indulge? If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.[The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies]

Mr Caplan’s argument is that people have systematic biases that, unlike random biases, do not cancel each other out. In other words, if biases towards colour of shirts were random in the electorate, then they would cancel each other out and no particular colour would be more likely to win. However, if people had a systematic bias towards purple even to a small degree, the electoral verdict is quite likely to go purple. (Read the book to understand more deeply how this happens)

This argument, in itself, is a powerful indictment of democracy. It explains why democratic governments choose policies that are bad for them. If we factor in “education” (in the sense of reasoning, critical thinking and open-mindedness) then democracies can amplify dogma, in extreme cases, into a vicious cycle where society surrenders to dogma.

Consider a democracy where a simple majority of the people have an unshakeable dogmatic belief that Everyone Must Wear Purple Shirts. The rest of the people have a shakeable belief in everything and make up their minds based on available facts. Since the facts do not point to any advantage of purple shirts, they disagree with the Dogmatists who insist on purple shirts. Let’s assume everyone votes. It is quite likely that the politician who runs on a “Wear Purple” ticket is likely to defeat her competitors. And once she acquires political power, depending on her political strength, she is likely to change public policies to promote the wearing of purple. She is likely to focus on the education system, introducing purple into the curriculum so that she has an inherent advantage against the Reasoning politicians. In the future, politics will be about the shade of purple that people must wear.

In this highly simplified example, Democracy worked, the majority got what they wanted, but Reason lost. The real world is more complex, but the fundamental argument remains valid. To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

Mr Caplan sees democracies failings as an argument for governments to let the market determine economic outcomes (his book consciously limits itself to economics). Given the risk democracy poses to Reason*, and therefore, to itself we should go further. The zeroth requirement is for democracies to be constrained by a republican constitution that affirms fundamental rights.

First, those who prefer a slightly more reasoning society than a slightly more dogmatic one must unequivocally defend freedom of speech and expression. Unpopular and dissenting voices must not only be tolerated but enjoy absolute protection. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted during a recent conversation on this topic, actors in ancient India enjoyed total freedom and protection for what they said on stage. Likewise, court jesters. Such freedoms are protected in many democracies, but your mileage varies depending on which democracy you are speaking out in. Freedom of speech and expression must be protected in law and in practice.

Second, those who believe minds should not surrender to dogma must hold up the freedom of education. This means that while the government can pursue uniform standards, syllabi and curricula in its role of delivering a public good, it should not be allowed to monopolise the curriculum. People should be free to start and send their children to schools of their choice, teach and learn curricula of their choice, with no interference by the government or self-appointed custodians of public values. If this means some parents send their children to religious schools, nature schools or witchcraft & wizardry schools, so be it. It would be a small price to pay in the defence of Reason.

Third, the separation of powers into the legislature, executive and judiciary is not only for the purpose of ensuring that no single entity is too powerful. It charges the judiciary with the duty to defend the constitution and dispense justice without reference to what is popular. Here again, your mileage varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time. In recent years we have had the US Supreme Court under John Roberts declaring it is not the job of the Supreme Court to “protect people from the consequences of their political decisions”. In India, while courts have been criticised for judicial activism and overreach, cases of judicial populism have received lesser attention. Trials by jury suffer from the defect that they subject questions of guilt and innocence to popular mores. This doesn’t mean trials by judges escapes the defect completely: judges are cut from the same cloth as jurors, and both from that of their compatriots. One way to reduce such risks might be for judges to come from other jurisdictions—rotate them more frequently across states, and bring in foreign judges from similar jurisdictions.

* Disclaimer: In a contest between Dogma and Reason, The Acorn stands on the side of the latter. Hence the implied value judgement.

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Three thoughts on Independence Day

On society, its attitudes and a mantra for improvement

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day:

– Why Tagore said India’s problem is not spiritual, but social:

It is our disorganized society which prevents our ideas and activities from being broad, the narrower self from being merged into or sacrificed for the sake of the greater—and our national experiences are being dissipated and wasted for want of a storing and coordinating centre.[Our problem…]

– How hypocritical attitudes in our society breed corruption and erode moral values.

Hypocrisy, freedom & corruption

Hypocrisy, freedom & corruption

– And a mantra for the alternative:

Give us back our economic freedom, and let it reverse the entitlement economy of corruption and cronyism.

Give us back our individual liberty, and let it reverse the competitive intolerance that is destroying India’s social capital.

Give us a government that restricts itself to being competent in its basic duties — like ensuring the rule of law –, and let it reverse the tide of violence and the grammar of anarchy.

Peace! Peace! Peace! [The mantra…]

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Independence Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

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India’s position on Crimea

Don’t rush to take sides.

This was my response to a journalist’s question on what I thought of India’s position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

India neither has important interests nor the capability to be a useful player over Ukraine and Crimea. It is therefore sensible for New Delhi to let those with interests & capabilities play it out and deal with the outcomes. In any case, the Crimean case conclusively shows that the UN Security Council cannot be relied upon to uphold and enforce the UN Charter.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea leads to a wider armed conflict then New Delhi will have to review its position.

The Acorn's Power Principle Matrix

Power & Principle Matrix

For context, see this post on the Power & Principle Matrix. Taking gratuitous moral positions is not a good way to conduct foreign policy. Let’s not forget that the principle of territorial integrity that the United States and European Union are invoking over Crimea was overlooked with respect to Kosovo a few years ago. A different principle—mass atrocities against the population—was invoked then. Clearly, interests determine which principle is evoked in international relations.

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MH370 and three worrying “ifs”

Implications for India’s diplomacy, national security and civil aviation policy.: my The Asian Balance column at Business Standard.

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH470 was lost over South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of assistance. Given that the Malaysian authorities knew — for Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the Andaman Sea — that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, we wish they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister said that “(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners – including neighbouring countries…(in the investigation)”, which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either. Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand—which implies overflight or landing on Indian territory — Kuala Lumpur’s lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India’s Look East policy in general and the Indian navy’s sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leaves countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur’s delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging & capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing.

From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India’s direction is only 50% (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean). The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India’s borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircrafts in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the Andaman Sea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three “ifs” concerns our military setup in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s only tri-service theatre command, it is “charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman & Nicobar territories, its air space and waters.” If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars. That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told the Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focussed on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and might not be operate round-the-clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can’t spot a lumbering elephant the chances are that you can’t spot quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That’s not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don’t miss the next bird.

The second “if” involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane’s transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn’t have detected it — but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable. However, if (and note that this is a bigger “if”) it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far fetched “if”. What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn’t diminish the risk to national security. Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

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