The reaction from the other side

Post-surgical matters

Last night, militants attacked a Border Security Force-Rashtriya Rifles camp in Baramulla, killing one trooper and injuring another. Coming a few days after India announced that it had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control, the attack on Baramulla will be seen through the prism of ‘retaliation’ from the Pakistani side.

There are two broad ways of looking at this attack: First, the jihadi components of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC) are retaliating after last week’s strike by the Indian Army.

Second, that this is part of a larger campaign by the MJC to use militants to target Indian military/security installations along the Indian-Pakistan frontier: Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Uri and now Baramulla, fit the pattern. The intention of such discriminating attacks could be to unsettle the Indian government as it attempts to manage the political turmoil in the Kashmir valley. It could also be to provoke the Indian armed forces to an extent to make the 2004 ceasefire defunct, to undermine political overtures like the one Narendra Modi engaged in late last year and to escalate the conflict to a level that will re-attract international attraction.

Given the timeline, the latter explanation is more likely: it does not exclude the first explanation that this is Pakistani retaliation, but rather, that this Pakistani retaliation is part of its overall strategy. However, if in the days to come, the number, scale and scope of jihadi attacks on Indian targets intensify then we can conclude that the MJC is escalating the conflict using jihadis (rather than the military) as instruments.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

The Great American Election. Yawn.

Just enjoy the drama, if that’s your cup of tea.

Every four years the news-consuming people of India get caught up discussing politics—US politics. They seem to know a lot about the potential candidates, the nominees, the primaries and so on. Things seem to get a lot more exciting when the candidates square off on television. It’s a grand spectacle, much song, dance and drama, rivalling the Olympic Games and the Cricket World Cup.

It’s all very nice if you see this as good harmless entertainment. But if you are not a voter, and perhaps if you are not a certain Russian political leader, you don’t have a, er, dog in this fight. Enjoy the television if that’s your favourite poison, but hey, don’t even begin to ask “what will it mean for India?” Not even this time.

Now, I’ve had a lot of fun over the past year trolling my American friends with questions like “So, how will this change under President Trump?”, to sophisticated explanations of how the US party systems and electoral colleges work; and to decreasingly confident pronouncements of why that will never happen.

For the rest of the world, you play the ball as it comes to the bat. Perhaps Mr Trump will do this if he becomes president, but then again, maybe the policy roulette will point in a different direction. Perhaps Mrs Clinton will do that if she becomes president, but then again, global events might cause her to chart a different course. Or the other way around. We just don’t know. Analysts claiming to predict foreign policies under future presidents are demonstrating more conceit than analysis.

In foreign policy, it is mostly better to be prepared to manage consequences than try predicting the future. Let’s wait for whoever US citizens vote in as their president. And then let’s deal with him. Or even her.

Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

Foreign policy and social media jingoism

Statesmanship is about rescuing policy from being hostage to mass hysteria

My response to a request for comment from the Times of India:

The role of social media in spreading both revolutionary dissent and ultra-rightwing sentiment has now been seen across the global. Even in non-democratic China, the political leadership has to contend with online ultra-nationalist sentiment that constrains its options. It shouldn’t surprise us that the effect is far greater in a democracy like ours. Social media acts both as a lightning rod and an amplifier: whether for protests against government, or to compel government to act against internal and external enemies.

In India at least, social media is no indicator of considered public opinion. Neither are aggressive television anchors and studio guests. However, to the extent that they prime citizens what to think about, and how to think about it, they are important to our public discourse. Now unlike intellectuals, political leaders have been elected by the people and have democratic legitimacy — it is incumbent on ministers not to be overly compelled by social media sentiment or television studios. Good statesmanship demands that leaders make calm, well-considered decisions and explain them to the people, using social media and television studios.

Social media and some television studios have enabled people to express their subconscious fears and desires: it is not only today that people of India have been angry with Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in our country. It is only now that they have ways to express this anger; unfortunately social media dynamics amplify this anger in a grotesque, distorted manner, allowing the ugly and the less-sensible views to rise up to the top of the public discourse. In fact, this very phenomenon can be used against us by our adversaries, giving them a inexpensive way to throw policy off the rails. If a provocation is a guaranteed to evoke a hysteric public reaction and put our political leaders in a spot, then our adversaries can easily exploit it.

See Manju VI’s report in the Sunday Times of India

Related Link: A recent op-ed in The Hindu on the do’s and don’ts for a digital sarkar.

On Kaveri

Change the ground, er water rules

This is my response to Mint’s request for comment:

The political and constitution crisis is a direct consequence of the faulty basis on which the decision to allocate Kaveri river waters is being made. Regardless of which court or tribunal and which year, whatever allocation it decides will be wrong; and one or the other side will be dissatisfied enough to contest the decision. This is the reason why this dispute has persisted for more than a century. We cannot blame courts or political leaders, because they are trying to make the best out of a faulty set of ground rules.

The ground rules must change: the principle on which water is allocated cannot be based on an arbitrary historical snapshot of the South Indian economy. Unless we move to principles that acknowledge water is scarce, water use patterns are changing rapidly, have incentives for new technology and allocations need to keep pace with the economic growth, we will be doomed to social acrimony, constitutional crises and political violence.

See Nidheesh’s report in the newspaper, and my Pragati essay on how river water can be better managed.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

A beacon of liberal nationalism
My freedom to introspect

We are like a lighthouse, a beacon of liberal nationalism. Freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution, but will be lost unless protected. We stand strongly for freedom of an individual along with economic freedom and belief in diversity.

We believe freedom should reflect in the way you do things, not just in the outcome. When you talk to people about nationalism, they often speak of borders, or integrity. As if national interest is a real estate game. Whereas, in a liberal democracy, the individual is the ultimate cause. In one of our earliest editorials for Pragati – The National Interest Review, we said, “We are a land of 1.2 billion minorities,” that is, every individual is like a minority.

Natan Sharansky, the Russian politician and human rights activist, once said, “Can someone within that society walk into the town square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views? If so, then that society is a free society. If not, it is a fear society.” We believe if we can go to a town square and simply announce what we want to eat, wear, read and nobody attacks us for it, then we are a free society.

Freedom is not necessarily going against the state, it is also about staying protected from communities and civil society. The Republic of India is the best way to achieve it and one that can protect the rights of the maximum number of people.

(Recorded by Suchi Bansal for India Today’s special Independence Day issue)

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

On Independence Day 201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004;

On Republic Day 2016, 20152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

On regulating geospatial information

A license-permit raj for maps

My responses to Times of India’s Kim Arora on the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016.

The wording in the draft bill is way too general and could cover anything from school children’s maps, to digital maps used by consumers to navigate, to more specialised commercial/scientific usage. Such a general wording will defeat any policy intention and create a morass of bureaucracy and corruption. With that kind of wording, anything is possible. Lawyers will have a field day.

There is a case for the government to insist that all companies and individuals in India must represent India’s boundaries accurately according to our government’s official position. However, this purpose does not require a license-permit-enforcement raj that the bill will end up creating. A simple law that imposes penalties for deliberate misrepresentation of boundaries will suffice.

As it stands, the bill will harm innovation in the IT and tech sector, raise costs for farmers and industry and create a lot of petty corruption. This is not a bill that is consistent with PM Modi’s stated vision of Digital India and Startup India.

Read her report that also quotes the indefatigable Nikhil Pahwa.

Why the Modi government must ignore Pakistan

High level engagement of Pakistan is a waste of diplomatic capacity and political capital

Pakistan’s decision to ‘suspend’ the peace process with India along with the ‘co-operation’ on investigating the terrorist attack on Pathankot air station came suddenly. It should, however, come as a surprise only to those who believe that Pakistan is a normal nation-state where the elected government is in charge of state policy. In reality, Pakistan’s government and the military-jihadi complex are two separate entities vying for control, with the latter usually having the upper hand and the last say, especially on foreign policy. [See Understanding the military-jihadi complex]

Here’s a deconstruction of the events since before Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan to attend Nawaz Sharif’s family function.

The Pakistani military establishment was clearly not in favour of the Nawaz Sharif’s overtures to India, and authorised attacks on the Pathankot air station in view of Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan in December 2015. Why would the military establishment do this? Because any reductions of tensions with India would not only reduce damage the military-jihadi complex’s interests but also strengthen Nawaz Sharif’s vis-a-vis the military establishment. A spanner had to be thrown into the works. This is not dissimilar to 26/11, which had the effect of halting President Asif Zardari’s conciliatory engagement of India.

However, what complicated matters for the army was Nawaz Sharif’s decision to ‘co-operate’ with India on the investigation of the Pathankot attack, and further getting Pakistani investigators to visit India to collect evidence. By this time, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and it’s leader Masood Azhar had already been identified as prime suspects in the case. If events were to take their course, in due course, Azhar or his close associates would find themselves under arrest, with the Pakistani authorities compelled to curb their movements (much like in the case of the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi after 26/11). Such a move would tilt the domestic balance of power in favour of Nawaz, and Gen Raheel Sharif would have none of that.

So we had the drama of the ‘capture’ of an Indian spy in Balochistan and China’s blocking of international action against Masood Azhar at the United Nations. The claim that Kulbhushan Jadhav’s capture is cause to ‘suspend’ the peace process and halt the investigations into Pathankot is laughable: the Pakistani establishment has long been claiming that India is stirring the pot in Balochistan and has even presented ‘evidence’ to foreign officials of this. Whatever the facts of the Jadhav case, they do not present any compelling new information to cause Pakistan to walk out of the peace process. The drama only makes sense when seen as providing an excuse for the military establishment to move to protect its jihadi assets from scrutiny, investigation and punishment.

Much of this drama is Pakistan’s domestic politics. The military-jihadi complex put the civilian government in place and restored its own supremacy. New Delhi’s fault was to walk into these murky waters and end up with a terrorist attack and a red face after being played out by the Pakistani establishment. Mr Modi did well to try engaging Pakistan positively from the beginning of this term — where he erred was in believing that he could force the pace of relations. Unless New Delhi realises that there are two Pakistans, the civilian government and the military-jihadi complex, and has a policy sophisticated enough to engage both simultaneously, it will come a cropper.

But why bother? Pakistan is irrelevant to India’s development agenda. It is a distraction (See this article in OPEN). Instead of wasting limited diplomatic capacity and political capacity on the Pakistan project, it would be much more prudent for Mr Modi to ignore Pakistan, and let it sort itself out. New Delhi ought to invest in protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks, creating political conditions that will minimise its impact and cranking up the economic engines to achieve rapid growth. Mr Modi should practice the necessary art of ignoring Pakistan.

Related Link: Takshashila’s discussion document on the dynamics of engaging Pakistan.

Three thoughts for the Republic

On standing to reason, avoiding more moral panic and guarding against coercive majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Our Republic is founded on Reason

Of course, government and citizens must uphold the Constitution and live by its lights. That said, every law, every statute and every clause is and ought to be subject to public reasoning. For instance, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the existence of multiple personal laws, the low bar to what is considered sedition and indeed the advice against cow slaughter — to name a few contemporary issues from our penal code and Constitution — must be re-examined in the court of the latest knowledge and understanding of the world. They should stand only when they stand to reason. [The Hindu]

On not letting moral panics consume us

Moral panics in radically networked societies are likely to be intense, personal and, of course, transient. It is unclear how they will affect public policy: politicians and bureaucrats can overreact to what they see as popular demand, or contrarily, tend to ignore what they see as a temporary fad among the digitally connected population. Either way, there are risks. Politicians and parties need to keep their ear to the ground as well as have a finger on the pulse to function effectively. If they lose it, or are confused, the results are unpredictable.

Unfortunately, we know little about how to manage and defuse ordinary moral panics, less these social media-driven recursive ones. We have to grope our way out of the darkness. The stakes, especially for us in India, are high: it is not only about sustaining the conditions for economic growth and transformation. It is also about preserving our constitutional values: As Mr. Desai warns, albeit in another context, there is a risk of how “using the instrument of democracy, fear and divisiveness are likely to triumph over ideals and inclusiveness”. [The Hindu]

The risk from coercive majoritarianism

…we find ourselves in the midst of coercive majoritarianism and the backlash against it.

Yet, it would be dangerously wrong to believe that Hindu majoritarianism is the only game in the country. Like competitive intolerance, majorities everywhere are trying to assert themselves by pushing their agenda onto everyone in their space. We see this in many states: Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It is also happening in villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods, although we do not see it because the national media do not cover it. Everywhere there are trends of a social consciousness that seeks to respond to diversity and pluralism by imposing a majoritarian order. Democracy is offered as justification for this. But India is a republic in addition to being a democracy. This means that there are certain basic values — like individual liberty and fundamental rights — that cannot be pushed over because the majority of the population so desire.

Coercive majoritarianism is a dangerous trend because, like intolerance, it is competitive. It comes at the cost of individual liberty. Conversely, only the relentless defence of individual liberty and constitutional values can counter coercive majoritarianism of the current time. Unfortunately, few political parties and leaders can relied upon to fight majoritarianism, for the simple reason that siding with it is a easier route to power. Perhaps that explains why parliament is discussing “intolerance” rather than the real problem—coercive majoritarianism. [On coercive majoritarianism]

[divider]

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

On Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.