This needs diplomacy

Going overboard on local law enforcement is not the way to go

There have been two broad sets of reactions in India and among Indians to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on underpaying the domestic helper.

First, there has been a fierce nationalistic response, supporting retaliatory measures against US diplomats in India. This has not only staunchly backed the Indian government’s surprisingly swift actions in suspending import clearances for the US embassy’s liquor supplies and removing traffic barriers that the embassy installed outside its premises. There is a clamour among such quarters for even more.

Now, while it is important that New Delhi send strong signals to the Washington that India will not tolerate its diplomats—albeit one accused of an offence—being treated as dangerous criminals, the reactionary perspective ignores the risks to the painstakingly built bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Second, there are those who argue that Ms Khobragade is in the wrong and her absconding domestic helper is the one who is truly wronged. Some have argued that the Indian bureaucracy is too used to privilege at home and should not expect such perquisites as domestic helpers abroad, that they should “do their own dishes, like everyone else.” Furthermore, they contend, would the foreign service act with such alacrity if an ordinary citizen had been arrested?

Going by media reports there are grounds to accept that the authorities have a case against Ms Khobragade. Whether or not she enjoys diplomatic immunity, if it is established she has committed an offence, it is right that consequences should follow. NRIs and Indians might reasonably resent what they see as privilege and less reasonably use stereotypes to pronounce judgement on Ms Khobragade, but these are peripheral to the issue. The Indian government is obliged to take care of its employees abroad—not least a consular officer charged with the responsibility of taking care of citizens’ interests abroad!—just like any other employer.

Between liberal democratic rule-of-law countries like India and the United States, such matters are best handled in courts of law (see an earlier post on the case of the Italian marines). This is complicated in Ms Khobragade’s case, as both Indian and US courts are involved. Even so, letting the legal process determine a solution would have been and is still probably the best course of action. What complicated matters is the manner in which Ms Khobragade was arrested and treated by US authorities. She is a diplomat, the nature of her alleged offence is more in the nature of a breach of contract than a violent crime, and despite what is popularly claimed, the US authorities do treat different people differently (ask Prince Bandar for details).

The bigger problem with the “US enforces its laws seriously” argument is that Indian authorities can do it too. That would make things ugly indeed because there are quite a few statutes in our books whose strict interpretation could place more than a few foreign diplomats in prison, and ordinary treatment in Indian prisons is not, to put it mildly, pleasant. For instance, a senior BJP leader has demanded that the government invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—that renders illegal many quotidian sexual acts between consenting adults—against US diplomats. Even if it sounds over the top, it demonstrates that riding the legalistic high-horse won’t help. [We strongly disagree with Section 377, just as many Americans disagree with minimum wage laws.]

Therefore, diplomacy needs to kick in to make the situation conducive to a legal solution. Unless this happens, legalistic processes can escalate the matter into a situation where it becomes difficult for either side to give in or back off. Foreign relations are too important to be left to district attorneys, traffic policemen and customs officers. We can say with some confidence that no serious person in Washington or New Delhi wants Ms Khobragade’s case to undermine bilateral relations. Now that both sides have made their points, it is time for the political leaders to intervene and arrest the process.

My colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted that the speed and force with which New Delhi acted against the United States on a minor issue like this stands out against the reluctance the Indian government demonstrates while handling Chinese or Pakistani transgressions. Of course, grandstanding against the West comes naturally to New Delhi but could it also be that the bilateral relationship is on such a footing today that our foreign policy establishment presumes that this won’t affect the big picture?

Even so, the UPA government and the Obama administration will be jointly responsible if this incident is any more than a temporary irritant in the bilateral relationship.

Related Link: An ugly diplomatic exchange — My storified comments on Twitter.

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The Saudi bomb

Made in Pakistan, Supported by China, but still Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon

This week, a major Western media house discovered that the Saudi Arabia has already paid Pakistan for the bomb and can have it home-delivered pretty quickly. This is perhaps the first time that news of the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear arrangement is getting media coverage. This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public. Even the most committed advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation regime still do not write or talk about the relationship, which makes their advocacy and intent a lot less credible than it otherwise might have been.

Regular readers of this blog will recall analysis suggesting that Pakistan’s rapid stockpiling of fissile material is linked to Saudi Arabia’s needs in correlation with Iran’s nuclear advancements. China’s grandfatherly nuclear largesse makes Beijing an accomplice in this nuclear weapons manufacturing and transfer business. This is plain and simple nuclear proliferation, no matter if the self-appointed guardians of that term choose to ignore it.

Given this background, the fact that BBC’s Newsnight is now revealing that the Pakistanis might transfer the bomb to Saudi Arabia on demand suggests that the Saudi Arabian government wants it to be revealed. This is understandable: with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising. Letting it be known that Saudi Arabia also has nuclear capacity—albeit in an outsourced model—serves to reinforce Riyadh’s prestige, proto-deterrence and adds pressure on its Western allies to not cut deals with the Iranians. It also helps prepare the ground for an eventual coming out of the nuclear closet.

What Western analysts of nuclear proliferation have to answer for is when exactly did the Saudi-Pakistan-China nuclear arrangement start? If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing? Recriminations of the intellectual kind are futile in geopolitics, but to the extent that the United States recognises Iran’s security challenges, it might be able to negotiate for better outcomes with Iran, for the international community.

The emerging problem in the Middle East is one of shaping a stable nuclear deterrence relationship primarily involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States, Pakistan and China as actors in a supporting role. Getting facts out into the open is the good way to begin addressing it.

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Rackets, threats and good sense

Handling the Nigerian kerfuffle in Goa

Only the credulous will be surprised that there are a number of organised criminal groups involved in the drug trafficking business in Goa. Russian, Israeli, Nigerian, Chinese and presumably local syndicates have carved out the market geographically, in terms of the drugs peddled and so on. Again, only the credulous will believe that this state of affairs can exist without connivance of the local politicians and law enforcement authorities. As Mayabhushan Nagvenkar reported in FirstPost last month, a report tabled in the state legislative assembly says as much.

It is in this context that we must see the murder of a Nigerian and the subsequent events it triggered. To be sure, not all Nigerians in Goa are involved in drug smuggling, just as not all Goans are anti-Nigerian racists. Yet the existence of Nigerian criminals, crooked cops, corrupt politicians and racist Goans is undeniable in this case.

On Thursday, a mob of over 200 irate Nigerians, who police allege are part of a narcotics gang, blocked a national highway for several hours and attacked locals and policemen, protesting the murder of their compatriot, allegedly by a local rival gang operating from Chapora, a coastal village and “hub” for the drug trade.

What followed the blockade was a bloody and sordid episode where one Nigerian was nearly beaten to death in police presence and a sustained outpouring of racist tripe against the ebony-skinned Africans on the social media network, the mainstream media as well as the public at-large.[Nagvenkar/DNA]

Policing in India is not known for its sensitivity or, well, discrimination. After the state government ordered a ‘crackdown’, police have been out and about the place looking for foreigners and verifying their papers. Now, because there are a number of foreigners — of several nationalities — in Goa without proper documentation, the business of police verification has caused, as of now, something bigger than a kerfuffle and smaller than an upheaval.

It is a diplomat’s job to be concerned about the well-being of a country’s citizens in foreign lands. Given the consular problems concerning Nigerians in India — from undertrials to deportees –, accusations of maltreatment by Indian authorities and further accusations of racist attitudes, it is fair for the Nigerian consular officials to take a proactive role in managing the tensions in Goa.

What Jacob Nwadidia, reportedly a Nigerian consular attache in India, said transgresses all norms of civilised diplomacy. If the Goa state government’s crackdown does not stop in 24 hours, he threatened, “that hundreds of thousands of Indians will be thrown out on the streets in Nigeria.”

If you have heard of the order of the authorities, especially Michael Lobo who is the MLA of Calangute, I am giving him 24 hours from tonight to cancel his ‘order’ that Nigerians should be thrown out on to the streets. If he does not cancel (it), I am telling you that hundreds of thousands of Indians will be thrown out on the streets in Nigeria. And I’m serious about it. India is five hours ahead of Nigeria. There is still enough time to reach my headquarters and tell the Nigerian government that Nigerians in Goa have been thrown out on the street,” he said.

“If Michael Lobo does not cancel that ‘order’ I am telling you that news will come that Indians in Nigeria have been thrown out on the street. That’s what I’m telling you and I mean what I’ve said,” he told Herald. Referring to the ongoing police verification drive in Parra and surrounding areas, he added: “Police should stop from going house to house to eject and evict Nigerians. If that does not stop in 24 hours then Indians should bear responsibility for what happens in Nigeria,” he said.

“There are only 50,000 Nigerians in India but over one million Indians live in Nigeria. Several thousand Indians will be on the streets if forcible eviction of Nigerians in Goa does not stop,” Jacob Nwadidia is reported to have said.[Herald]

If Mr Nwadidia indeed made the threats as several media reports indicate, New Delhi should declare him persona non grata and expel him. Diplomats don’t threaten mass violence against innocent people. Thugs do. The Nigerian High Commission in New Delhi would do well to repudiate the comments made by one of its officials.

Mr Nwadidia was not only wrong in form but also wrong on facts. According to the Indian High Commission in Abuja, the size of the Indian community in Nigeria is around 35,000 persons, of which 25,000 are Indian citizens and the remaining persons of Indian origin. India has demonstrated that it can evacuate such numbers of its nationals if the need arises.

The threat is especially dangerous because of Nigeria’s deteriorating security situation. In January this year, the Indian mission issued a security advisory noting that “Indians living in Nigeria came under unprecedented level of insecurity and were, occasionally, unfortunate victims” and calling upon nationals to take precautions.

In a subsequent advisory issued in May it said

“(in the recent past), security situation in some parts of Nigeria has deteriorated. There have been violent incidents in the north, north-centre and north-east of the country. A sharp increase in cases of kidnappings in coastal belt, particularly by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, has also been noted. These instances of insecurity have occasionally involved Indian nationals as unfortunate victims. While in most cases they were passive victims of a situation or a criminal conspiracy, there are cases when they were specifically targeted for kidnapping or physical harm.”[IHC Abuja]

India is among Nigeria’s top trading partners, not least due to oil and gas imports. Indian companies are increasing their investments in West Africa and Nigeria is a big recipient of Indian investment. Last year, 40,000 Nigerians received visas to visit India. The nature of bilateral relations indicates that there is a lot that the two countries have to lose if irresponsible talk leads to violence on the ground. If memories of Idi Amin’s actions against ethnic Indians are brought up to scare the Indian government, the Nigerian government can’t be unaware of the more proximate example of Robert Mugabe’s ruinous policies in Zimbabwe.

It is unclear if the Goa government is committed to a clean-up of the criminal activity in the state. If so, expect more such kerfuffles involving other foreigners. Given the international effects, the government ought to employ a lot more sophistication in its law enforcement activities. Beyond that, it would be out of place for one of India’s most open-minded and cosmopolitan states to allow racist sentiments to dominate the public discourse over this issue.

For New Delhi’s part, action against the errant Mr Nwadidia ought to signal its rejection of the suggestion that Nigeria is holding Indian nationals hostage. That should get saner heads into the equation.

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Aiming for nuclear war prevention

Non-proliferation is not the only way to prevent nuclear war. (It may not even be a way at all.)

Craig Campbell and Jan Ruzicka have a refreshing blog post at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on how what they call the “non-proliferation complex” has locked down fresh thinking on the nuclear problem.

It is refreshing to see Western commentators accept that the current nuclear order is based on “massive hypocrisy” (for the nuclear powers reneged on their commitment to disarm) and that the “complex’s domination of nuclear politics is its stifling of thinking about serious alternatives to the current nuclear order.”

Campbell & Ruzicka suggest that a solution may lie in the direction of forming a—admittedly unrealistic and unfashionable—world government.

It might not be necessary to form a world government for this purpose. Creating an international regime that performs certain nuclear risk management functions (okay, that guarantees a retaliation against any nuclear attack) is likely to be good enough for the limited purpose of preventing nuclear war. This modest proposal from 2009 lists out a three step process that can get us there:

Step 1: Adopt a Global No First Use Treaty (GNFUT)—all countries of the world, regardless of whether they already have, almost have, can soon produce and do not have nuclear weapons commit that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against another country.

Step 2: Convert the world’s arsenal into a ‘force-in-being’—states that have nuclear weapons will reconfigure their arsenals and deployment postures such that the risk of a surprise first strike, or indeed an accidental nuclear exchange, are minimised. Complete verification will be impossible but advances in technology will aid the process. But better a cat-and-mouse in verification and obfuscation than arms races and hair-trigger alerts. This step can accompany a global reduction in the number of weapons and delivery systems to a negotiated minimum (so-called “minimum deterrence”).

Step 3: Globalise nuclear deterrence—an international treaty that allows the international community to punish any violation of the GNFUT with a punitive nuclear strike will globalise deterrence. [A modest proposal]

It is unclear if the combination of a mindless worship of nuclear disarmament and the dubious theology of the non-proliferation complex will permit such proposals to be even discussed in wonkdom, forget their consideration by official multilateral forums. It isn’t in the interests of the beneficiaries of the current order to do so.

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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.

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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.

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Looking for morality in chemical composition of death devices

The debate in Washington is about guilt management, not Syrian lives.

The very public handwringing and teeth-gnashing that is Barack Obama’s decision-making on intervention in Syria is on the surface and according to the protagonists about upholding international humanitarian norms, punishing regimes that transgress them and maintaining US credibility. To do some or all of the above, they argue, the Washington must punishing Syria’s president Bashar Assad and his government for having used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.

Much of this is strange (and strangely doesn’t appear to be strange for many people) because the ‘international community’ seems to be less concerned about dead Syrian civilians as long as they died from chemicals like gunpowder, TNT, RDX or PETN. However if the same dead Syrian civilians had died from other chemicals like Sarin, it is concerned that ‘norms’ have been violated.

No, this is not an argument to give the use of chemical weapons a pass—rather, it is to make the point that such distinctions neither address the humanitarian cause nor lead to clear thinking about what the international community ought to do when civilians are being subjected to mass atrocities.

Making the use of chemical weapons the “red line” is in effect a license to odious regimes to do just what they want with conventional weapons (note the loaded term ‘conventional’ weapons). If the proposed Russian-brokered compromise—where Syria will place its chemical weapons under international supervision—comes to fruition, the international community will be forced to be a wilful bystander as the Assad government and its opponents go about committing atrocities against civilians. The death toll is both a function of the type of weapons used and how long the conflict endures. As we found out in Rwanda, it is possible to kill millions of people in months using such simple mechanical weapons as machetes.

Yet the international community seems not to be interested in finding ways to end the conflict. How can we explain its preparation to use military force without even first making a serious attempt to engage Iran?

Washington’s old dogmas on Iran, war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan, and new fashions on protecting international norms has clouded the Obama administration’s fundamental reading of the situation. In an shocking display of serpentoleum salesmanship or dangerous naïveté the US secretary of state claimed that military intervention in Syria does not mean going to war. What Washington had in mind was an “unbelievably small, limited” strike that would rap Mr Assad’s knuckles. He didn’t say—and no one bothered to ask—what after that? [See the previous post on why such claims are dubious.]

Mr Kerry’s boss had already passed the buck to the people’s representatives. His reluctance to use force is understandable, but he has to wrap his position in a label that would mean different things to different domestic constituencies. One thing he can’t say though is that what Western governments are concerned about is not upholding moral norms—for if it were so, then the chemical composition of Syrian ordinance wouldn’t have mattered. What they are really concerned about is upholding arbitrary norms of international guilt mitigation.

There’s a certain dishonesty to liberal internationalist claims of international humanitarian norms. The need to cover that dishonesty causes the rather shameful performances that we’re seeing in Washington.

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The Syrian question

Obama’s appetite for a fight

David Ignatius has a good article in the Washington Post arguing that US credibility is at stake in Syria, and the consequences of a tattered credibility will hurt US interests in the region and beyond. In articulating what the Obama administration should do, he reflects what many commentators in Washington are saying: carry out a military strike to punish the Bashar Assad regime and deter it from carrying out further atrocities.

The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The strike should be limited and focused, rather than a roundhouse swing aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. But it should be potent enough to degrade Assad’s command-and-control structure so he can’t conduct similar actions in the future. Officials hope the strike will make a diplomatic settlement more possible; they don’t want a decapitation of the regime that would leave no counter-party for negotiation.[WP]

This prescription should sound reasonable to Barack Obama, a man too liberal to ignore the atrocities in Syria but too prudent to launch into a muscular military interventions abroad. The problem, though, is that while Mr Obama’s stakes are limited to shoring up US credibility, Mr Assad is battling for survival. So there is a good chance that Mr Assad will not be deterred or punished at any level short of being overthrown. Should this happen, Mr Obama will have a choice between a dented credibility (should Mr Assad brazen it out) or a much bigger military operation, that could trigger other conflicts.

Also, if the international intervention is ‘limited and focused’, the risk to civilian lives does not disappear. If the Assad regime continues, we can expect more bloodbath. If the Assad regime collapses, we can expect more bloodbath. It is not as if Mr Assad’s adversaries are liberal democrats who will spare the lives of members of the Assad regime or the sectarian/ethnic communities that are aligned to it.

There is enough happening in Syria for the United Nations to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. It is quite unlikely that the dynamics of the UN Security Council will allow it. Even if there is an international intervention now, the expectation that it will be limited, focused, inexpensive or quick is likely to be unfounded. Protecting lives in Syria requires the United States to have the appetite for a big fight, and the tenacity to embroil itself into a longish peace-enforcing mission. If this is not forthcoming, it may perhaps be better to let events take their course and deal with the consequences.

From India’s perspective, any steps that heighten the risk of a conflict that raises oil prices and might cause supply disruptions will be undesirable. The domestic economic situation—and the current account deficit—looms larger on the minds of India’s political leaders than events in Syria. Expect Indian diplomacy to reflect this concern.

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Robbery is not right

The ‘rights-based approach to development’ is immoral and illiberal

Why was there ideological collusion in the passage of a bill that promises ‘food security’ but is certain to severely undermine India’s development path? Several reasons can be adduced—from the electoral to the conspiratorial—but what gave both the terrible bill and the even more terrible scheme it seeks to implement the impression of inevitability was the underlying narrative of a “rights-based approach”. And, as Narayan Ramachandran writes, “[the] apostle of the rights-based approach in India is the National Advisory Council (NAC).”

Over the last decade, the NAC’s narrative of a “rights-based approach” to development has acquired dominance. It has pervaded government policy because Sonia Gandhi, its chief and Congress party president, in all likelihood, genuinely believes in it. The power of narratives is such that even if you replace Mrs Gandhi and her NAC with another political leader and his or her own clique, they will be compelled to persist with the same policies as before, or undertake the Hanumanian task of countering the rights-based narrative before rolling back or changing tack on the massive entitlement schemes. (See my previous post on this).

Narayan argues that the rights-based approach is the wrong development model for India. In fact, “rights-based approach” is a misnomer. It is a clever way to refloat the failed policies of socialism under a new, fashionable but dubious political philosophy. In essence, this ‘development model’ identifies an ever-growing list of life’s needs and necessities, declares that they are ‘rights’ and suggests that these be provided by the state.

A lot of well-meaning people are fooled by this sophistry. Since few good people will dispute that people need food, education, healthcare and jobs to live in this world, they become susceptible to the argument that such necessities are rights. Moreover, since a lot of famous people, including Nobel laureates and rock stars, advocate this approach, the notion that such things are rights acquires wings.

Yet for all the celebrity endorsement, warm fuzzy feelings it creates, the so-called rights-based approach is immoral and illiberal. The only true rights are those that do not come at anyone else’s cost. Preetam’s right to life, equality, freedom and property do not come at Palani’s cost, and vice versa. The state might have to incur a cost to protect these rights, but not to provide them. [Meet Preetam and Palani, in Redistribution as Theft]

The entitlements that the NAC-types call ‘rights’ are different. It costs someone something to provide them. If Preetam and Palani are the only two citizens in a hypothetical state, the cost of providing Palani’s right to food, education, healthcare and jobs must be borne by the state. If the state, in this example, is financed by Preetam’s tax payments, Palani’s entitlements come at the cost of further infringing on Preetam’s rights (in this case, the right to use his money as he pleases).

It is sometimes reasonable to argue that Preetam must be made to pay for Palani’s necessities in order to have a equitable society. Or because Palani might be contributing to Preetam’s welfare in other ways. What is wholly wrong, though, is to contend that food, education, healthcare, internet connections, jobs and suchlike are ‘rights’, in the same way as life, freedom and property are rights.

However desirable, however necessary, if it costs (someone else) to provide, it is not a right. It is an entitlement. Liberal democracies can agree to make some entitlements obligations of the state. But it is important to keep these obligations distinct from rights. The framers of the Indian Constitution made this distinction when they separated Fundamental Rights from Directive Principles. Unfortunately, their successors in parliament lacked the same moral clarity, and proceeded to undermine Rights even as they attempted to rightify the obligations that fall under the Directive Principles.

Because it violates (someone else’s) rights, the rights-based approach is universally immoral. India cannot afford the luxury of this ‘international development’ fashion. The cost of providing an ever-growing list of entitlements is prohibitively large, and will severely undermine India’s future. Right-minded people and political parties (no pun intended) should reject the rights-based approach.

Tailpieces:
1. The Two-Person Test to determine what is a right (also known as the Preetam & Palani Test). If it costs Preetam to provide Palani something (and vice versa), then, however desirable it might be, it is not a right.

2. If we accept the rights-based approach, then we urgently need to legislate the “Right to Richer Spouse.” If every citizen has an enforceable right to marry a richer person, then poverty will disappear fairly quickly. Such a right will take away some freedom from the richer persons, but that’s no different from the rights to food, education, jobs and suchlike. If you find the Right to Richer Spouse absurd or repugnant, just remember that it is based on the same logic as the right to food, education, healthcare, jobs, internet connections and so on…

3. A storified series of tweets on the topic.

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How the government will keep its entitlement commitments

You won’t like any of them

No one really knows how much the Food Security Bill (or Act, if it becomes law) will cost the exchequer. Given the way the legislation is framed, it is impossible to make an accurate assessment of its costs. That doesn’t mean we are short of proponents who argue that it should be (or, worse, normatively must be) affordable. We also have a few opponents who argue that it’s more expensive that what the proponents suggest. We’re talking about numbers whose order of magnitude is in the range of single-digit percentages of GDP.

The scheme is open-ended: there’s no expiry date, no sunset clause. It covers around two-thirds of the population—even those who are not really needy. This means that the outlays will have to increase as the population grows.

Obviously, finding the money to keep this scheme going year after year will be a big problem. There’s worse news though—this programme is over and above other open-ended spending commitments like the NREGA, fuel and fertiliser subsidies which are in the vicinity of 2%-3% of GDP. These are the explicit subsidies. We will not even attempt to calculate the implicit subsidies and opportunity costs in this post.

Many of these schemes work such that the subsidy load will increase when growth slows down. In other words, at such times, subsidies as a fraction of GDP will increase—tightening the government’s budget constraints and reducing its fiscal space.

The nature of these schemes is such that governments will be scared to cut them during times of distress, forget ending them altogether. So how will the Indian government finance the gargantuan entitlement economy and what might be the consequences?

First, through new and higher taxes. This has already happened. Didn’t you notice the ‘education cess’? Didn’t you notice the higher marginal taxes on high income earners? Expect more of the ‘Good Cause Cesses/Surcharges’, a fiscal sleight of hand to raise new taxes by citing a plausible good cause. (See this post on education cess for more). As the economic and fiscal situation gets worse, expect higher tax rates lower down the income pyramid. Corporate profits are also an easy target—so they too will be taxed in increasingly creative and extortionary ways.

The consequence of higher taxes are lower investments and higher tax evasion. Lower investment means lower growth. Higher taxes when you are already in a low growth phase is a recipe to stay in the low growth phase longer than otherwise.

The second way for the government to raise resources is through borrowing. It can borrow money abroad (and incur foreign debt) and borrow money from the domestic market. The former puts the Indian government at the mercy of its foreign lenders to the extent of its borrowings. If you do not recall the days of the 1960s-80s, when India was mired in foreign debt, ask someone who does.

The Indian government can borrow from Indian citizens and corporates through the bond market and other instruments (a new -Vikas Patra can be invented quite easily). While it transfers money into the government’s budget, it crowds out the private sector. Interest rates will rise because of the large government demand for funds, making it harder for entrepreneurs and businesses to raise funds to expand their economic activity. This too puts the brakes on economic growth. Higher interest rates during an economic slowdown will prolong it.

The third way for the government to raise resources is to get the Reserve Bank of India to print more money. This has the effect of increasing inflation and depreciating the value of the rupee vis-a-vis other currencies. Higher inflation makes people poorer. It makes poorer people even more poorer (because they do not own assets like real estate, shares or foreign exchange that can weather inflation). A drop in the value of the rupee will make it tougher to service foreign debt, both for the government and for private firms. If the rise in exports on the account of a cheaper currency does not outpace the higher cost of imports, the current account deficit will grow. It could even result in a balance of payments crisis, like the one seen in 1991.

The fourth way is what is termed an “austerity drive”—for the government to cut expenses. Because politics will not allow cutting back on salaries, pensions, subsidies and entitlements, the government will cut two things: office expenses and capital expenditure. So you’ll probably get to see ministers photographed coming to work on bicycles and civil servants working without air-conditioning. Other than schadenfreude, these measures achieve nothing substantial. Cutting down on capital expenditure—roads, power plants, defence equipment—does create fiscal space, but at the cost of future growth.

Where does this leave us? Well, at the edge of a vicious cycle of low growth, high inflation, low investment, higher unemployment, higher taxes, greater evasion and higher out-migration of talented individuals and firms. We’ve been there before. It’s unconscionable that we are being taken there again.

The only way to avoid this vicious cycle is to suspend entitlements and rekindle growth. It is unlikely that growth can be rekindled without sustained pro-growth measures: greater liberalisation, simpler taxation and coherent economic governance. The Delhi Straitjacket must be dismantled.

Related: INI9 Conversation with V Anantha Nageswaran on the falling Indian Rupee.

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