What should India do about US snooping?

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Boundless Informant Heat Map

According to reports in The Guardian—based on information illegally divulged by NSA contractor Edward Snowden—we know that India is among the top ten countries that the United States snoops on. In March 2013 alone, one of NSA’s programmes collected 6.3 billion pieces of information from India. (Yes, all the hoopla in the US about spying is limited to outrage over the US government spying on its own citizens. Spying on other countries’ citizens is somehow acceptable to many freedom- and privacy-loving Americans.)

What should the Indian government do about this? Here are some options:

1. Do nothing. High officials can express their disapproval. The foreign ministry can register a strong written protest. The US ambassador can be told in no uncertain terms that New Delhi is displeased with the snooping. Essentially, nothing actually changes.

2. Take defensive measures. It is incredibly hard to defend Indian communications networks against the kind of surveillance that the NSA is carrying out. It is impossible to harden all networks—although the government can attempt to move its employees onto more secure platforms. When so many government employees still use Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo for correspondence with people outside government, there is a lot that the government can do to make official communications more secure. This still leaves public communications heavily vulnerable to snooping by one and all.

3. Attempt to achieve a balance-of-snooping. Start snooping on ordinary Americans (okay, suspected terrorists only) until the US government gets concerned. Then negotiate a truce to control snooping, much like arms control deals that managed arms races. Even if cyberspace offers asymmetric opportunities, the gap in capacities between India and the United States are mindbogglingly large. It will takes years of sustained investment and effort for the Indian government to do anything that’ll worry the US government enough to want to negotiate. The Chinese might be able to pull this off, though.

4. If you can’t stop them, join them. Use the India-US strategic partnership to collaborate with the United States in the cyber-surveillance and intelligence domains and use the collaboration to acquire skills, capabilities and technology that India does not currently have. Once such capabilities are acquired, India will have more options.

Update: I make some of these points in an NDTV programme.

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Lashkar-e-Taiba vs Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

Is the fratricidal war here?

It was in 2009 that this blog suggested that a fratricidal war among Pakistani militant groups is possible: the likelihood of this happening would increase as long as Pakistani army persisted with its policy of appeasing the United States while simultaneously nurturing Islamist militancy. The Pakistan army has long relied on groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to act on its behalf—so it is conceivable that they will be employed against Pashtun insurgents, like those belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. (Militant proxies are already being used against insurgents in Balochistan and to terrorise religious minorities in Gilgit-Baltistan).

There were some rumblings of conflict between militant groups the following year. However, this month, the fighting is out in the open.

Mukarram Khurasani, spokesman for the TTP’s Mohmand chapter chief Omar Khaliq, told Dawn.com that hundreds of militants had attacked the Pakistani Taliban positions in Shongrai and the bordering village of Jarobi Darra.

Khurasani also accused Lashkar-i-Taiba commander Haji Abdul Rahim of leading the attackers.

The Taliban’s Mohmand chapter chief also claimed that the attack had been repulsed and said that one attacker was killed while three were injured.

Meanwhile, Lashkar-i-Taiba spokesperson Mahmud Ghaznavi rejected the allegations that the group was involved in the clashes. [Dawn]

The report also claims that the Afghan Taliban had also lined up with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, but pulled back after TTP sought Mullah Omar’s intervention. As I wrote in this week’s Business Standard column, this is a tricky situation where the TTP is at war with the Pakistan army but swears allegiance to Mullah Omar, who for his part, is beholden to the Pakistan army. Yes, it’s complicated.

The TTP is spoiling both General Kayani’s and Mullah Omar’s party. Not to forget, there are factions within the Pakistani military establishment that are backing the TTP.

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A British act of unfriendliness

New Delhi must respond to Britain’s discriminatory visa regime.

The British government has included India in a list of ‘high risk’ countries whose citizens will have to post a bond of £3000 (around Rs 275,000) when they apply for a six-month visa. The bond will be fully repaid when the visa-holder leaves Britain, but forfeited in cases of overstay and deportation. It will will apply to highest risk visitors and not to all visitors from the selected countries (LT Sachin Kalbag). The new visa policy is consistent with the Conservative government’s policy to reduce immigration.

How Britain designs its immigration and visa policies is entirely its prerogative, just as it is India’s prerogative to interpret the steep visa bond as an unfriendly act. David Cameron’s homilies for stronger ties with India’s are effectively pointless if Britain discriminates against ordinary Indians. Perhaps the British government has good reason to place India in a ‘high risk’ category as far as immigration is concerned. But then, if you desire strong, strategic ties with another state but see that country’s citizens as ‘high risk’ immigrants, then you are trying to have your tandoori naan and eat it too.

If the British government discriminates against Indian citizens—whatever the reason—then it must bear the geopolitical costs of doing so. New Delhi must review the scope and tenor of India’s relations with Britain. The first thing to discard is pretence. The biggest pretence and pretension is the absurd, anachronistic entity called the Commonwealth. What good is membership of the Commonwealth if the ostensible ‘leader’ of the grouping treats non-members more favourably than members? As this blogger has argued before, India must quit the Commonwealth. Some Indian diplomats will be deprived of lucrative offices, but it’s time bureaucratic interests are overruled by political ones. India’s scarce diplomatic capacity is wasted on the pointless pomposity of the Commonwealth.

It is unfathomable why the Indian government still accepts aid from its British counterpart. We don’t need it. Foreign aid only encourages fiscal irresponsibility in India.

David Cameron - Pragati CoverThis blog had been encouraged by David Cameron’s enthusiastic and seemingly sincere attempt to recast Britain’s ties with India into a genuine strategic partnership. The disappointment at Britain’s actions, therefore, is deeper. Immigration is not only a foreign policy issue that affects ordinary Indians. It is a matter of vital national interest in a world where easy movement of capital, ideas and people is a source of competitive advantage.

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Explica a ABC el analista indio

Quoted in the Spanish

Jaime León, a reporter for the Spanish daily ABC, quotes me in his report on India-China relations. Here’s my opinion in Spanish.

«Los dirigentes chinos están preocupados por la creciente relación entre la India y Estados Unidos. Li Keqiang es el primero en decirlo públicamente», explica a ABC el analista indio Nitin Pai, director del «think tank» La Institución Takshashila. Y es que la desconfianza india hacia china es antigua, profunda y difícil de eliminar. «La guerra de 1962, que los indios piensan que fue una traición, continúa viva en la memoria colectiva en la India», afirma Pai, quien añade que «además, el apoyo de China a los insurgentes del noreste indio y el apoyo nuclear a Pakistán han ayudado a aumentar ese recelo». A su juicio, «es un hecho que China va por delante de la India en muchos aspectos, desde el económico al militar. En la percepción india, China es un adversario estratégico superior con un historial de hostilidad directa e indirecta hacia la India». [ABC]

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Karma is not an excuse for Mao

There is no justification for the Maoist’s armed struggle

The ghastly ambush and murder of unarmed political leaders by Maoists in Chhattisgarh ought to focus the national discourse on the nature of the problem the India republic faces in the forested areas of Central India. Instead, the discourse is being distorted in two baleful directions. First, into a partisan “Congress vs BJP” shouting match. Second, and more dangerously, it is being purposefully led astray by arguments that position Maoist violence as a reaction to Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist vigilante group whose leader, Mahendra Karma, was killed in the incidents.

Let us get the discourse back on line. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is engaged in a war against the Republic of India. Violence and “armed struggle” are core part of the ideology, practice and empirical record of Maoist groups. The violence didn’t start in 2006, when Salwa Judum was created.

Rather, Salwa Judum was a reaction—albeit a deeply flawed and misguided one—to decades of Maoist violence. To argue that the Maoists escalated violence because of Salwa Judum—for instance, as Ramachandra Guha has done in The Hindu—would be to ignore the broader historical context. Also, would a “peace” imposed by the Maoists on a hapless tribal population be morally acceptable to the citizens of the Indian republic?

Therefore, the Chhattisgarh attack must be seen for what it is—an attempt to disrupt a democratic political process whose success could further marginalise the Maoists. (See our issue brief for details).

This blog has been a severe critic of Salwa Judum from the outset: the state cannot outsource its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. It does so at the risk of landing up in a moral quagmire. Salwa Judum was not merely unconstitutional, it was poor strategy. The use of surrendered militants in Jammu & Kashmir, for instance, undermined India’s counter-insurgency initiatives in the longer term. That lesson was not learnt, and was certainly not applied in Chhattisgarh. If Maoist depredations are explained away by commentators today, it is because of Salwa Judum. Of course, Maoist sympathisers and fronts would find other reasons to justify the violence, but Salwa Judum gave them one highly visible and easy target to hit.

Even so, the fact that Salwa Judum was a wrong move does not mean that killing Mr Karma is somehow justified. It is the strength of the Indian republic that citizens were able to get the Supreme Court to wind down Salwa Judum. Those who felt Mr Karma had crimes to answer for should have taken recourse to the legal system. Yes, cases take too long. Yes, some politicians get away on technicalities. Yes, sometimes judges are compromised. None of this legitimises Maoists killing Mr Karma and massacring many others. In fact, those who claim killing Mr Karma is legitimate cannot also claim Salwa Judum is not—unless, of course, get into the Orwellian territory of saying “unconstitutional actions are morally justified when our side does them, but illegitimate when our opponents do them.”

Salwa Judum is just one aspect of the reluctance and half-heartedness of the Indian establishment’s defence against the Maoists’ war on the republic. The Chhattisgarh massacre should inject moral clarity and lucidity into the public mind. The Indian republic must fight this war. It would be another mistake to use the armed forces for this task. Counter-insurgency needs a different sort of capacity. How to acquire this capacity and how to deploy it needs a far more nuanced debate than the one we have now.

Related Link: What kind of capacity does India need for counter-insurgency:a special report in Pragati on a panel discussion on this topic.

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Why sports betting must be legalised

An industry that operates above ground is less likely to engage in fixing

The ongoing spot-fixing controversy in Indian Premier League cricket has evoked the usual response. We need a new law—to criminalise cheating in sports—, with harsh punishments, strict enforcement and so on. Given statements made by politicians who are also cricket administrators, it is possible that such a law will indeed be enacted. But if you think the problem of fixing will come down substantially because of this, you will be mistaken.

First, let’s be clear—no matter what you do, it is impossible to completely eliminate illegal activity. There will always be some people who will cheat. What you can do, however, is to reduce the incentives for cheating to such a level that very few people cheat and tighten enforcement enough to catch some of those who do. If this is done, there is a possibility that eventually a culture of integrity will emerge and you’ll have few errant cases to deal with.

In other words, you need to drain the swamps. In the world of Indian cricket, the swamp consists of the illegal economy of betting. Because betting is considered illegal, it is mostly under the control of underground international syndicates that are usually mixed up with other, more dangerous types of illegal activity—like arms trafficking and terrorism. These syndicates operate outside the law and often with key operatives located outside the country, beyond the reach of Indian authorities. The criminal syndicates bribe policemen, bureaucrats and politicians in order to be able to carry out their activities. They also employ thugs and other unsavoury characters to enforce ‘contracts’. And yes, it also creates a lot of unaccounted money that then goes into other underground activities.

There is an economic rationale for this entire criminal economy to exist—there is a lot of money in betting. According to FICCI, illegal betting in sports is worth Rs 12000 crore to Rs 20000 crore per annum. If betting is legalised, this rationale begins to weaken. If people have a choice to place their bets at licensed betting counters—like they do for many sports in many countries—the likelihood that they will prefer to deal with unlicensed bookies will be lower. How much lower depends on the regulatory framework—competition among operators, taxation and anonymity, for instance—but to the extent that it does, the illegal operators will suffer.

It makes ample sense, therefore, to legalise betting and regulate it with the purpose of prevent the industry from falling into the hands of criminal syndicates. As the swamp is drained, the likelihood that it will breed disease-causing mosquitos will go down. There will always be unscrupulous individuals who will attempt fixing, but they will be a lot more isolated from the underground criminal networks than they are today. It is riskier to be an individual crook than to be a member of a big criminal syndicate; so fewer people will be tempted. Law enforcement authorities will be able to do a better job apprehending them because they are fewer in number and operate as individuals or small gangs.

Is it necessary to legalise betting? Won’t law enforcement alone suffice? Well, merely tightening laws and enforcement is likely to have the effect of raising the price of fixing. Spot fixing, like match fixing, will continue, but players and bookies will demand higher prices.

From my archives: On legalising prostitution and two thoughts from Amsterdam

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What Karzai seeks from India

How India’s Afghanistan policy might shape up

Suryatapa Bhattarcharya sought my views on Hamid Karzai’s visit to India for his report that appears in today’s edition of The National.

Here is the full version of the Q&A.

What is it that Karzai is seeking from India when we talk about military aid?

What Karzai wants is for other powers to fill the power vacuum that will be created after US troops withdraw. Part of this will be filled by internal realignments—as anti-Taliban forces are likely to coalesce as they did in the 1990—and part of this will have to be filled by external powers.

Karzai’s trip to India is towards both these ends: to get India to use its political and diplomatic capital to shape a modern, liberal, democratic dispensation in Afghanistan; and possibly to employ military power as well.

(Related post: Let the Buzkashi begin—the implications of Obama’s policy shift on Afghanistan)

You have mentioned that it would be better to send Indian troops to Afghanistan (correct me if I wrong) but what sort of implications can that have?

The primary risk to India is a replay of the early 1990s, when militant alumni from the Afghan war were directed towards Jammu & Kashmir by the Pakistani military establishment. Today we still face that question: where do these fighters go? Tens of thousands of Taliban militants and hundreds of thousands of Pakistani militants pose a risk to their home countries as well as to the external world.

If there is a possibility of a 1990s-like situation recurring, India should not hesitate to deploy the necessary military assets to counter the threat. It also makes sense to use a judicious combination of intelligence and security operations to prevent such a threat from materialising.

Karzai is seeking military support as NATO troops pull out. Are they seeking more support for their military institutions in Afghanistan or looking for more support vis a vis the deal signed between India and Afghanistan in 2011?

The situation is still in a state of flux, regardless of what Karzai is asking for at this time. There is no doubt that Afghan army, intelligence and security forces need technical assistance and training. The entire Afghan state apparatus needs capacity-building.

We must see India’s role in Afghanistan as a comprehensive support for the Afghan state. This is consistent with India’s policy over the last decade — alone among international actors, India has chosen to work through the Afghan government.

The question is, of course, whether all this will survive without hard military support. Let’s not underestimate the Afghans—with a supportive external environment they can protect their country.

How does this affect India’s relationship with Pakistan, given the recent troubles Afghanistan has had with Pakistan over border issues?

It’s a balancing act. It’s one that New Delhi is capable of managing.

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The wages of distrust

Tackling a Mahatma Grade Problem

In a discussion at Takshashila’s Bangalore centre several months ago on what might be India’s biggest problems, I nominated “lack of social trust” as one of the fundamental ones. In today’s new column in Business Standard—the old monthly column on geopolitics continues as usual—I argue that lack of trust is undermining India’s economic growth.

“Widespread distrust in a society,” according to Francis Fukuyama, “imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” In a 2001 study of 41 countries, economists Paul J Zak and Stephen Knack conclude that “growth rises by nearly a percentage point on average for each 15 percentage point increase in trust.”

According to the World Values Survey, social trust plunged almost 18 percentage points in the first half of the last decade. This suggests India might have lost an entire percentage point of economic growth due to the loss of social trust. So while economists and “policymakers have been sensitive to slowing growth, growing inflation and widening fiscal and current account deficits, few account for the impact of the fall in social trust.” Read the column for what role public policy might have in addressing this problem.

How did other countries fare? Scandinavian countries score very high. Brazil, surprisingly, scores very low. Here’s a chart that compares India, China, Japan and the United States.

generaltrust-wvs

Even if social trust in China appears to be declining gradually, the Chinese enjoy much higher levels of trust than the others being compared. The United States seems to be recovering gradually from a plunge in the 1990s. For a country that is relatively homogenous, Japanese trust levels are lower than Chinese, and are comparable to the much more diverse United States. Note, also, that other than the Chinese, a majority in the other countries does not trust other people.

Restoring trust is a Mahatma Grade Problem (MGP) — we can be reasonably sure that public policy alone cannot solve it: the solution has to emerge from society itself. As I write in today’s piece, “even if we somehow found a way to make us trust each other, only one out five is likely to trust the persons advocating the solution. A democracy with high levels of distrust will, thus, find policies hard to implement, especially if they are non-intuitive.”

Addendum: What causes some countries to have greater social trust?

Jan Delhey and Kenneth Newton analysed social trust levels in 60 countries and arrive at the following conclusion:

The highest levels of generalised social trust across the globe are closely associated with a tight syndrome of religious/cultural, social, economic, and political characteristics.

Protestantism, but no other religion, is strongly associated with trust, probably because the Protestant ethic has left an historical imprint on cultures of equality and the importance of consistently trustworthy behaviour.

An absence of ethnic cleavages is also important, presumably because people of the same ethnic background find it easier to trust one another.

Wealthy and egalitarian societies are trusting societies, although wealth seems to matter more than equality.

Last, good government is an essential structural basis of trust. Corruption free and democratic government seems to create an institutional structure in which individuals are able to act in a trustworthy manner and can reasonably expect that others will generally do the same. [Delhey & Newton, Predicting Cross-National Levels of Social Trust: Global Pattern or Nordic Exceptionalism?]

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When Italy behaved like a rogue state

Turning a legal issue into a geopolitical one has raised the stakes and hurt bilateral relations.

The Italian government reneged on its commitment to the Indian Supreme Court and unilaterally refused to return two of its marines, under trial in India for murdering two fishermen in India’s waters, after they were allowed to visit home first for Christmas (Christmas!) and second, to vote (vote!). (See an earlier post on the legal issues relating to this case)

The Supreme Court order, issued by a bench headed by the Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, allowed the accused’s petition on the basis of an affidavit filed by the Italian ambassador and based on the surety of his (and thereby the Italian government’s sovereign-) guarantee. Unlike the earlier instance when the Kerala High Court permitted them to visit Italy for Christmas, the Supreme Court did not ask for any bond to be posted. The Court can perhaps not be faulted for presuming that the written promise made by a member-state of the European Union can be trusted, but left itself exposed to a risk of default. Because the Italian ambassador enjoys diplomatic immunity, he cannot be charged in a criminal or civil suit—a norm which the Italian government abused in this case. The Court has limited options now.

The action has shifted to the geopolitical domain. As of this writing, reports indicated that New Delhi has decided to expel Ambassador Daniele Mancini. [See these storified tweets on the subject.]

Samanth Subramanian and Suryatapa Bhattacharya report this matter in The National where they quote me. My detailed responses were:

What sort of diplomatic fall out can we expect, if any?

The UPA government will be under pressure to react to what is clearly a breach of law, faith and norms of engagement between civilised states by the Italian government. The Indian Supreme Court went to the remarkable extent of letting the undertrial marines off for Christmas and voting based on the presumption of good faith. So New Delhi will have to act — although at this point it’s not clear to what extent the UPA government will go.

Do you think expelling the Italian diplomatic mission and recalling the Indian mission from Rome will send across the point that India’s judiciary and government is serious about prosecuting the two Italian marines accused of killing the fishermen?

It’s highly unlikely that the two marines will be sent back to India for trial. So what actions New Delhi takes — including expelling the ambassador and the military attache and downgrading bilateral relations — will essentially have signaling, punitive and deterrent value. New Delhi will have to signal that it will not let illegal actions by foreign governments go unpunished. It will then decide on how much it can and it should punish the Italian government. Finally, to the extent that setting an example dissuades others from treating the Indian judicial system with contempt, New Delhi’s response can act as a deterrent.

Mostly though, New Delhi’s actions will have a signaling value, with some degree of punitiveness.

Who should be held accountable for this breach of trust?

This is hard to answer. Clearly the Italian government is responsible for acting like a rogue state, not a civilised member of the international community. That said, it was unwise for the Indian government and Supreme Court to accept Rome’s bona fides because its leaders and officials have consistently demonstrated their contempt for the Indian judicial system right from the start. The Supreme Court allowed the marines to leave based on the word of the Italian ambassador, but surely the Union government’s counsel could have argued its case more strongly.

On NDTV’s The Social Network show last evening, I argued that this issue will affect bilateral ties and potentially even India-EU relations.

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Diplomacy, politics, power and norms in the neighbourhood

Can New Delhi shape and use a normative consensus?

In today’s Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta carries forward the debate on neighbourhood policy that I attempted to initiate last week through the columns of Business Standard.

In short, I had argued that New Delhi finds itself in reacting to events around the subcontinent in an ad hoc manner because it has not yet thought out a policy framework on how to deal with the region. I recommended a new neighbourhood doctrine:

First, India must continue to generate high rates of economic growth so as to remain the economic engine of the subcontinent.

Second, India must unabashedly back pro-India political parties in neighbouring countries and make it more expensive for anti-India parties to hold their positions. [Business Standard]

Mr Mehta qualifies both these arguments. The influence of economic growth is gated by the fact that “region is still populated with leaders and political forces that will cut off their own nose to spite their face; and investments in enmity override the well-being of populations.” As for backing pro-India parties, he contends that, a short-sighted partisanship will not work, and “in the long term, these forces can only be those that have the potential to build a new normative consensus” in the subcontinent.

These are well-considered qualifications. It is easier to respond to the proposition that economic growth alone is unlikely to persuade political parties that would rather keep their populations poor than abandon their anti-India politics. This is rational from their perspective because they see it as politically advantageous. For precisely this reason, New Delhi must back pro-India parties and chip away at the perceived political advantage of being anti-India.

The issue of building a normative consensus is harder to crack. It is a challenge at the best of times to balance respect for sovereignty and a particular domestic political order at the same time. It is easier if the attempt to balance these is discarded: ASEAN, for instance, solved this dilemma by placing sovereignty over democracy (or authoritarianism) by enshrining the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. India cannot take this escape route: a large democracy constitutionally and popularly committed to human rights and pluralism cannot be completely oblivious to the state of its neighbourhood. This is so even when New Delhi might prefer dealing with assorted despots and authoritarians. There has always been a strong constituency in parts of Indian society that stands up for democracy and human rights in neighbouring countries. (Admittedly, this constituency has been inconspicuous recent months.This is very likely due to the unusually high level of preoccupation with India’s domestic politics and economy.)

Even if New Delhi somehow manages to walk the tightrope, its ability to enshrine and enforce norms is an altogether different matter. K Subrahmanyam expounds realism when he notes that “norms can have power despite being marked by organised hypocrisy”. That said, states usually use the language of values on three occasions: when they are too weak to employ power; when they want to mask the employment of power; and when they are too strong and would rather not use power.

So a weak, newly-independent India championed liberal internationalism; during the Cold War, the United States cloaked its use of power by invoking the language of freedom and in the proximate post-Cold War era, the West hopes that enshrining norms will reduce the need for it to take the expensive route of employing hard power.

Where does India stand today in the context of its subcontinental neighbourhood? It is certainly not so weak that it has to rely on moral platitudes alone. On the other extreme, at current levels of national income and given the increasing openness of the region to external powers, it cannot be said that India can enshrine and enforce norms relatively easily.

At the risk of leaving idealists and other well-meaning people aghast, this leaves New Delhi with the middle option: use norms to cloak the use of power, participate and even lead the organised hypocrisy.

Therefore, I agree with Mr Mehta that India must build a new normative consensus as part of its neighbourhood policy doctrine—although I suspect it is for different reasons.

Related Posts: The paradox of proximity — my paper on why neighbourhood policy is difficult and a short, quirky look at the power-principle matrix.

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