Being credible

New Delhi must not buckle to Chinese pressure in its engagement of Indo-Pacific countries.

After hiatus of over a year, I resume my monthly column in the Business Standard on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific region. As the edit page is behind a paywall, I will put up unedited drafts, excerpts or the published column a day or two after it is published.


The central argument of the first innings of this column (September 2010-October 2015) was a simple one: that India should recognise that East Asia is a part of its extended neighbourhood and that it is in our national interest to invest in the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region.

Why? Because by the mid-2000s, China under Hu Jintao was shedding the facade of ‘peaceful rise’ and beginning to take assertive positions on its territorial disputes and claims in the waters off East and South-East Asia, causing the countries of the region to look towards India for support. In their strategic calculus, if they fail to bring the United States, China and India into a balance, they had little choice but to hop onto the Beijing bandwagon. Month after month, your columnist exhorted New Delhi to exploit the geopolitical and geoeconomic opportunities that Beijing had unintentionally created.

That prescription is just as valid today as it was seven years ago. Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping has moved from assertive to aggressive, always arrogant and increasingly adventurous. The men in black suits and hair dye in Beijing have not only completely blown the cover story of ‘peaceful rise’ but have managed to antagonise the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific.

Even as Beijing pushes Chinese hegemony under clever phrases such as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), Maritime Silk Road and “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC), it does so in the absence of the regional goodwill that enabled its entry into the ASEAN-centred economic and security architectures in the early-2000s. South East Asian countries watch with increasing anxiety as their more of their ASEAN counterparts are attracted or coerced onto China’s camp. The divide that your columnist had predicted within ASEAN is now gaping wide.

President Xi appears to have moved beyond merely maintaining China’s claim in a dispute to pressing it. He might have calculated that Beijing is now strong enough to negotiate where it cannot just coerce the other side into caving in. In November last year, Hong Kong authorities seized military vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces on their way back from routine exercises in Taiwan. Given that the Singaporean armed forces have been training in Taiwan since the 1970s with China’s tacit non-disapproval, it is clear that Mr Xi deliberately upped the ante. Similarly, Beijing coerced Mongolia into submission after the latter allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar the same month. Since the Dalai Lama had visited Mongolia at least eight times earlier, Beijing’s reaction this time stands out as extraordinary.

This week, China sent its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan straits quite likely signalling a more aggressive stance on that issue. This comes a few weeks after it challenged the US Navy in the region by stealing an underwater drone from under its noses. It is uncertain how the incoming administration of Donald Trump will handle the military dimension of its relations with China, but Mr Xi is not done with testing the nerve of Washington’s new establishment.

As much as there is a regional demand for India to play a stronger role in regional security, it has become harder and riskier for New Delhi to do so. The Modi government is reportedly considering selling medium-range surface-to-air missiles to Viet Nam. Both New Delhi and Hanoi will come under Chinese pressure and possible retaliation if the deal goes through. It would be imprudent for New Delhi or Hanoi to back down under pressure. It is in Beijing’s interest to create a perception that India is unreliable as a partner, whose promise falls short of delivery. Chinese commentators suggested as much after Beijing arm-twisted Mongolia over the Dalai Lama’s visit, drawing attention to the fact that New Delhi’s promised $1 billion line of credit failed to save Ulaanbaatar from China’s economic coercion.

New Delhi should thus be scrupulously careful about the commitments that it makes, implies, or might be construed. Once made, it should not hesitate to keep them in the face of China’s opposition. With rising risks and emerging uncertainties, credibility is the new currency in the Indo-Pacific.

This is by no means an argument to deliberately antagonise China: it is in India’s interests to nurture a close relationship with its northern neighbour. To be an effective swing power, we must enjoy better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other.

This will not come by wishing for it, especially if the wishing is one-sided. Nor will it come by succumbing to Chinese hegemony. To the extent New Delhi accumulates economic strength and demonstrates foreign policy credibility, Beijing is likely to reciprocate India’s desire for amicable bilateral relations.

Copyright: Business Standard

The pink rhinoceros at the party

How to win followers and influence people

There was a pink rhinoceros at the cocktail party. All the guests saw it but no one talked about it. They believed it would be rude to do so, for who knows what reasons the hosts might have had to let it into the room. Maybe it was a dear pet. Maybe it escaped from wherever it was kept and the hosts couldn’t put it back in time. The hosts, for their part, didn’t talk about it either. For they thought it rude to make comments on guest’s companion, human or animal.

So the pink rhinoceros walked about the room, sometimes nibbling on the canapés, sometimes bumping into the guests, but mostly standing around looking mildly confused.

Mr Grindle, as usual, was a great conversationist. He spoke at length and in great detail about the weather, history, sports, art, food, wine and the great events of the day. He was always at pain to be factually accurate. He went to great lengths to mention both sides of any debate, before stating his own position. He cited empirical evidence. His knowledge made him humble, and he readily acknowledged that there were limits to his own knowledge. He didn’t, however, even once mention the word rhinoceros, less acknowledge the pink animal that at the very moment, was trying to snatch grilled asparagus off his plate.

Mr Leroy’s idea of a good conversation was to listen to the sound of his own voice, which was usually in a state between a rant and a harangue. He usually spoke utter nonsense about the weather, history, sports, art, food, wine and the great events of the day. He was poorly informed, massively prejudiced and utterly illogical. His ignorance made him arrogant, and he would engage in sharp attacks on anyone who challenged his strongly held opinions. In his conversations, he not only mentioned the pink rhinoceros but said that such animals should not be allowed at cocktail parties. Moreover, he said, they bring bad luck to people who saw them, and the guests better be extra careful over the next few days.

As the guests went home, they were mostly of the view that Mr Leroy might have his faults, but is a far more credible man. After all, how could anyone believe in all the things Mr Grindle said, when he couldn’t even be trusted to mention the pink rhinoceros they could clearly see? Of course, Mr Leroy is the trustworthy one, because he talked about the animal and confirmed their fears that it would bring them bad luck.

Hindu, Hindoo, Gentoo and Indian

What came first and what was more popular

While researching the origins of liberalism for another project, I came across an interesting analysis by Daniel B. Klein in the Atlantic magazine, where he used Google’s Ngram Viewer to trace the origins of the use of the word ‘liberal’ in a political sense.

I used the same tool to see when and how frequently the words Hindu, Hindoo, Gentoo and Indian were used in the English language.


So, although the word spelt as “Hindu” was used early on in English, the word “Gentoo” was more in vogue until 1781, after which “Hindoo” took over. The “Hindu” returned to popularity around 1867 and stayed in currency since then. We will have to ask historians to explain what happened in the 1780s and the late 1860s that led to these changes.


In comparison, the word “Indian” has always been more popular than “Hindu”, although they mean the same thing semantically. There might be some overcounting as the former was also used to refer to Native Americans during most of the period covered in this chart. The pattern is similar in other European languages that Google provides for.

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)

The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

Thoughts from the doorstep of the second decade

This blog turns ten today

It all started with a post in September 2003 calling for India to send troops to the Iraq, to enable the United States to send more troops to Afghanistan and take on what I came to since call the military-jihadi complex. The blog initially used Blogger (remember “Push button publishing for busy people”?) before moving onto Movable Type (remember MT?). The Wayback Machine has a snapshot of what this blog looked like in December 2013 2003.

My first tagline was “Expressions of an Opinionated Mind.” Over time as I came to appreciate how much I didn’t know, the tagline changed to “The Education of an Opinionated Mind.” I received more education from writing this blog and discussing issues with regular commenters than at the universities I went to. In fact, the blog attracted very intelligent and well-read readers and commenters, and the discussions were almost always civil and of high quality. Comments dwindled with the rise of Twitter. That’s unfortunate, because blogs and comments elevated the public discourse as much as Twitter has lowered it.

From the outset, this blog has focussed on narrow set of themes: foreign affairs, national security and public policy, with some eclectic asides. The actual posts perhaps reflect the concerns of the times: from navigating the geopolitical tumult following 9/11 and the transformation of the India-US relationship in 2003-06, to first warning and then despairing over the destructive and self-defeating domestic policies of the UPA government.

Mighty oaks it is too early to tell, but the acorn did sprout several saplings. The Indian National Interest (INI) platform of blogs came into being in May 2005 and brought together some brilliant minds. To this day, each of the several INI blogs is independent, with no editorial control or ‘party line’ (and here’s one place to read them all). In April 2007, we started Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a monthly magazine on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. It published its 77th issue last month and is now updated on a weekly basis.

Then in October 2010, we formed the Takshashila Institution, and moved the blogs—including this one—and Pragati to a public charitable trust. Takshashila envisions becoming a lighthouse of ideas for an India with global interests and one of the best schools of public policy and statecraft. We took the first step in that direction with the launch of our Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP) programme in 2011. All this happened because of the collective talent, energies and resources of my fellow bloggers, co-founders and supporters of Takshashila.

Until the opinion editor of Mint invited me in 2007 to write occasional articles for the then new newspaper, I had not thought much of writing in the mainstream media. Since then I started writing for mainstream media (MSM). In September 2010, the editor of Business Standard asked me to write a monthly column on East Asian geopolitics, which I called the Asian Balance and which I continue to enjoy writing.

The journey this blog started eventually brought me back to India—after almost two decades abroad—last year. My colleagues and I decided to work out of a physical base in Bangalore even as we continue to operate as a networked organisation—with fellows, members and scholars in several countries around the world. The Bangalore office now houses some dangerously smart people and attracts a wide variety of seriously talented people (and last week one intrepid mouse, who was eventually non-violently repatriated).

I know that my wife has been reading this blog from the very first day, so it’s important that I acknowledge her patience and superior wisdom. It still scares me to know that my mother reads it too. In a few years, the kids are likely to do so. The internet never forgets, so I am mildly worried about the prospect of them debating my old blog posts with me.

While I can’t say I have robust empirical evidence, I do think that the frequency and quality of posts are linked to the quantity of caffeine in the bloodstream of this blogger. The quality of beans matters too, I think, although some of the best posts have been written after consuming the humble three-in-ones from the office pantry.

To longtime readers, thank you for sticking on (I suspect you have enjoyed the ride so far). To all readers, thank you and I hope the reading has been worth your while. Don’t believe anything that’s written on this blog (or elsewhere)—think about it before making up your mind.

One of my discoveries as a father was that babies never stop to celebrate their achievements: they just go on to the next one. That’s a good rule to follow—I just made a little exception today.

This road will take you

To Takshashila!

The following poem is an excerpt from Rahul Soni’s translation of 21 poems from Magadh, by Shrikant Verma

NALANDA

I am going
to Takshashila

Where are you going?
To Nalanda

But this road does not lead
to Nalanda

It used to once, but not anymore
The road to Nalanda has changed
Now this road will take you

to Takshashila
not Nalanda

Do you want to go
to Takshashila?

People going to Nalanda, often
the roads that you are shown do not
take you where you want to go –

like Nalanda

Our problem is not spiritual but social

Rabindranath Tagore’s diagnosis of India’s problem

In this letter to a New York lawyer, Tagore accurately pinpoints the big problem—parochialism based on identity—and its unhappy consequences. It comes up again, in verse, in Where the Mind is Without Fear: “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls”. This letter was perhaps written around the same time (Gitanjali was published in 1912) and elaborates on the argument in high prose.

Letter to Myron H. Phelps (New York)
16 December 1911

In every age the spiritual ideal has found its highest expression in a few specially gifted individuals. Such are to be found in India even today, often in the most unlikely places—among the apparently sophisticated, as well as among the unlettered and outwardly uncultured—startling us with the wonderful depth of their spiritual perception and insight. I do not feel that India has lost her spiritual heritage, for it is clear to me that her highest thought and activity is still spiritual. In the old days, however, the simpler environment—the comparative freedom from so many diverse and conflicting interests—permitted of the easy permeation of this ideal, emanate though it did from a few isolated altitudes, through and through the lower strata—with the result that Truth was recognized and realized not only intellectually but also in the details of everyday life.

A distinguishing characteristic of this spiritual civilization, as I have explained in my former letter, was its inclusiveness, its all-comprehensiveness. Aliens were assimilated into the synthesis; their widely differing modes of thought and life and worship being given their due places in the scheme by a marvellous interpretative process. But while the evolution of the spirit thus proceeded upon highly complex lines, the growth of the material body went on in a simple unorganized fashion, so that the time arrived when the mesages of the spirit could no longer find their way unimpeded throughout, resulting in differences of spiritual intensity, and consequent compromises and aberrations in the character of its manifestations. That is why high thinking and degenerate living are seen side by side; ideals are converted into superstitions: and the finest of inspirations reduced to grossness in action, wherever the vitalizing spiritual stream is deprived of its freedom of onward movement.

The problem of India therefore does not seem to be that of re-establishing its lost ideals, but rather of reforming its overgrown body so as to harmonise with and give free and fitting expression to its ever-living soul. In other words our problem is not spiritual but social—that of reviving, by organizing and adapting to its more complex environment, our fast disintegrating social system. 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. The workings of the spirit are seen as flashes but cannot be utilised as a steady flame.

In the west the situation seems to bejust the opposite. There we see a highly organized body, as it were, of which the soul is dormant, or at least, not fully conscious. While our soul is in search of an adequate body for want of which it cannot give its inspirations effective shape, and succeeds only in displaying to the outside world various incongruities clothed in phantastic forms, we find the west deploring its lack of spirituality. But surely spirituality cannot be lacking where the larger self is finding such noble expression in comfort-scorning striving, in death-defying heroism. On what can this living for ideas be based if not on spirituality? As for the want of consciousness, does not that tend more and more to be remedied by the very activities to which so efficient an organism finds itself increasingly impelled?

It is only where life is petty and scattered, and society partitioned into mutually exclusive sects that the vision of the Great is lost—it is only there that the mental horizon becomes narrow, aspirations fail to soar high, and the spirit remains steeped in a perpetual despondency. Here and there some greater soul may succeed, like a cloud-topping peak, in rising into the serene atmosphere above; but the multitudes wallowing in the slough below are as devoid of material consolations as of clarity of spiritual perception, and an unmeaning repetition of ritual is the only lifelike response of which they seem capable.

If the spiritual genius of India is not to prove futile for the purposes of humanity then it needs must seek to acquire the art of body-building. May it not be possible, in that quest, to avail ourselves of the assistance of the West without treading that slippery path of imitation which leads only to self-destruction?

Source: The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: a miscellany (Sahitya Akademi, 1994)

Mirpur se Birmingham tak

A thrilling ride across continents

This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in the Indian Express.

For a mere $200 you get a 12-day, 6400 km “thrilling ride” across the English channel through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran before the journey–and perhaps your enthusiasm–ends at Mirpur, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

If the ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir transport minister’s plans come to fruition, Birmingham and Mirpur, two parts of the same city separated by distance but joined together by immigration, shall be connected by the world’s longest local bus route. Families will reunite more frequently. Nephews will find jobs more easily. Tourists who have plenty of accumulated annual leave will be able to spend $525 more on supporting the local economies instead of on air tickets.

It’s hard for many of us to get our minds around the idea of a bus that crosses a dozen national borders today. Yet, just over three decades ago, there were many intrepid travellers who could make the journey.

Between 1968 to 1976, Albert Tours operated a Sydney-Calcutta-London route, doing 15 overland trips in those years. I found an old brochure advertising departure from London’s Victoria terminus on July 25th 1972 and arrival at Calcutta’s Fairlawn Hotel on September 11th. You could experience “Banaras on the Ganges, The Taj Mahal, Afghan Tribesmen, The Khyber Pass, The Peacock Throne, Communist Bulgaria, The Blue Danube and the Golden Horn”, while enjoying shopping days in New Delhi, Tehran, Salzburg, Kabul, Istanbul and Vienna. Unscheduled adventures included having to “dig out a dry riverbed plus a piece of the mountain.” The fare for the journey of around seven weeks, including food and sundries was £145, which in those days was a lot of money.

Geopolitics put an end to those adventures. By the late-1970s, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup in Pakistan and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made it all but impossible for an ordinary passenger to innocently sit in a bus and get off at the next continent.

Violence, sanctions, travel restrictions and international suspicions cut off the Indian subcontinent from Europe since then. Hiram Warren Johnson, the US Republican politician who declared that truth is the first casualty of war was obviously wrong. It’s the bus route that suffers first. (Our own Atal Bihari Vajpayee thought starting a bus would end the war, with rather mixed results).

Is a trans-continental bus service from Birmingham to Mirpur feasible today? Three decades ago, the European leg had to traverse two geopolitical blocs. Today the entire stretch from the United Kingdom to the border with Turkey is within the European Union. It’s the journey from Turkey to Pakistan that is, to put it mildly, rocky. Turkey to Iran across restive Kurdish areas, Iran to Pakistan through a Balochistan under an insurgency and military occupation. Then through a Pakistan undergoing a political transformation under the shadow of severe violence.

While it may well be possible to squeeze past these conflicts, it is unclear if people will want to take the risk to save a few hundred dollars. Or, whether it will be possible to price the ticket at $200 after factoring in security risks. In any case, twelve days’s food, accommodation, transit fees and other administrative costs might already bring the fare close to that of a cheap air ticket. It is quite likely that the Pakistani politician allowed his excitement to get ahead of the business case.

Given the differences in purchasing power in Birmingham and Mirpur, the bus is likely to appeal more to those making the journey into the EU. Immigration authorities in the UK and elsewhere in the EU are likely to scrutinise visa applications a little more than they usually do. The security dimension adds to the economic one. Birmingham’s MP, a British politician of Pakistani origin, was putting it mildly when he suggested that “there could be a guarantee from the Pakistani government that there would be rigorous security checks.” A Pakistani government guarantee? On rigorous security checks? Seriously, now.

The idea of seamless overland connectivity across countries and continents is a good one. It is possible, for instance, to drive from northern Thailand, across Malaysia into Singapore. Even if few people actually drive down this route, international road connectivity has contributed to the economic development of South East Asia. China is plugging into South East Asian road networks by building good connections. India is late in the game and trying to build its own road links to the region. The ASEAN-India car rally, covering 7448 km from India to Indonesia is a showpiece of this effort (and has been scaled down due to budget cuts at the Ministry of External Affairs). There is sound economic, strategic and common sense in building good road connections.

It does not follow, though, that good overland connectivity must have an end-to-end bus route. The economics of bus routes might not hold up favourably compared to air, rail and sea transport for distances that span several thousand kilometres. Like the old Albert Tours, the journey will certainly appeal to those with the time, taste and money for adventure. It is unlikely to result in bringing Birmingham and Mirpur any closer together.

Copyright © 2012. The Indian Express. All rights reserved.