On the government’s decision to block some social media content

On free speech and extraordinary circumstances

Here’s a segment from yesterday’s NDTV’s Nine ‘o Clock News

You can catch the entire programme here. For more details and an analysis of the blocked sites, see Pranesh Prakash’s post at CIS.

Comments { 0 }

Three thoughts on Independence Day

We and our politics

For contemplation in Independence Day—V’s question, on a law that takes away our freedom and on the reality of our political spectrum.

The Three Thoughts Archive:
Three thoughts on Independence Day 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004;
and on Republic Day 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005.

Comments { 1 }

The migration problem unpacked

Without a pragmatic approach to migration, instability will only increase.

The surge in communal clashes in parts of Assam—between Bodos and Muslim migrants—earlier this month was serious enough to require the army to be called out to subdue the violence. Such violence is a clear indicator of failure of governance at various levels. Good intelligence, sensitive local governance and astute political tactics should have kicked in long before violence escalated to riot levels. This didn’t happen. It is important to ask why it didn’t happen and hold the state government to account.

That shouldn’t blind us to the big underlying problem—an inability to evolve a workable policy towards migrations into India’s north-eastern region from the regions around it. This problem is more than a century old. The British couldn’t deal with it satisfactorily and ended up sowing the seeds of discord that exist to this day. The Indian republic’s record is no better. As Sanjoy Hazarika points out in his Strangers of the Mist (or Sudeep Chakravarti in a recent Mint article), while the issue of migration (of which illegal immigration from Bangladesh is an important subset) has been exploited politically, there has been no serious attempt to evolve a national policy response.

Yes, it requires a national policy response, for two reasons. First, while border fencing and patrolling can work to some extent, migration can be managed by reducing people’s incentive to migrate. People move in search of greener pastures. Second, the heart of the problem is not the flow of migrants, but their concentration in some areas. 10,000 Bengali-speaking Muslim people from Bangladesh arriving in India is not as much a problem as the same people settling in one village in Assam. [See this editorial in the Assam Sentinel]

Therefore it’s important for Bangladeshi economy to grow at a rate that will reduce incentives for Bangladeshis to want to migrate to India. It is in India’s interests to ease demographic pressure by supporting Bangladesh’s development. Proximity geopolitics is not easy. One of two mainstream Bangladeshi political parties is plainly hostile towards India. Even so, it is meaningless to think India can address the problems of illegal immigration if Bangladesh fails to keep pace with India’s own development.

More importantly, as this blogger has argued elsewhere, the focus of India’s national approach to migration must be to manage the flows in a manner that does not undermine the already weak social capital across the country, and especially in ‘remote’ regions. A work permit system that allows Bangladeshis and others to legally work in India and travel back to their homeland is necessary. This might not be a popular idea—but it is a better alternative to both pretending that there are no illegal immigrants and to hyperventilating that there are too many of them. Issuing work permits and allowing state and local governments to assign limits on the number of work permit holders in their communities will be an improvement on the status quo.

What about the politics, you ask? There is something in the idea for either side of the political spectrum. The Congress party’s fortunes in Assam will brighten once the illegal migration issue is settled. It can claim to have protected the rights of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims who no longer face the risk of harassment. The BJP, for its part, can credibly call for the repatriation of all illegal immigrants.

Work permits for Bangladeshis offers absolute gains for most political parties. Their own calculations, however, are on the basis of relative gains — “does it benefit our party more than the other party.” Both great leaders and good politicians would smell a political opportunity here. We do have some of the latter.[How to fix illegal Bangladeshi immigration]

Comments { 7 }

Should Pakistani TV channels be allowed in India?

A debate on NDTV

Comments { 0 }

Return and reforms

Will Manmohan Singh’s return to the finance ministry result in some reforms?

Pranab Mukherjee, an over-rated, over-respected and over-portfolioed cabinet minister presided over the finance ministry at a time when the results of UPA government’s gross mismanagement of the Indian economy began to show. His remedies worsened the malaise—not only has the economy slowed down, domestic and foreign investors have been given reason to believe that India’s economic managers are not only unserious, but also nearly banana. Retrospective taxation—Mr Mukherjee’s gift to economic policymaking—is an abomination and exemplifies how awfully perverted the UPA government’s thinking has been.

So, with Mr Mukherjee out of the cabinet (and undeservingly heading for Rashtrapati Bhavan) and Manmohan Singh taking over the finance portfolio, what are the prospects for reforms? None at all, argues the astute Swaminathan Anklesaria-Aiyar. Quite a lot, contends Sanjaya Baru. The truth may be in the middle, but despite Mr Baru’s valiant cheerleading, the odds are stacked up in favour of Mr Aiyar’s prognosis.

Samanth Subramanian sought my views for his report in The National. Here is my full response to his questions:

Q. Do you think the PM has the political capital he needs to make bold changes? Do you think, for that matter, that the government will risk making possibly unpopulist changes with the elections less than two years away?

Whether or not there will be any reforms depends on how much Manmohan Singh is willing to face down the Congress party establishment in order to secure his own place in history. It’s not so much about political capital but as he said in his 1991 speech “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai/Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qatil mein hai.” Does he have Sarfaroshi ki tamanna?

Q. How much can any possible economic reforms redeem Manmohan Singh’s otherwise awful leadership of this UPA government?

What Manmohan Singh can do at this stage is revive the narrative of reforms, by setting out a long-term road map and by implementing the ones he can. The signal this will send will help set the economy back on track and hopefully redeem his own record.

Q. If you had to make a short, three-item wish list of reforms you hope he could enact, what would that list be?

Liberalise education, liberalise labour laws and start fixing land acquisition. Toying with fuel subsidies, reversing GAAR etc is mere signaling…the fundamental strengths of the economy can be reinforced only by liberalising education, labour and land acquisition. Playing around with financial markets and FIIs is mere tinkering. He must do what is necessary to revive direct investment, both domestic and foreign.

Comments { 0 }

TAPI’s confused objectives, risky implications

India should not invest in making itself vulnerable to geopolitical blackmail

Kabir Taneja quotes me in an article in the Sunday Guardian on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project. Here are my views in greater detail.

What is your general consensus on TAPI? Does it benefit India geo-politically?

It is unclear what India’s primary purpose is with respect to the TAPI and the IPI gas pipelines. If it is energy security, then clearly placing an important source of fuel in the hands of a hostile actor like the Pakistani military-jihadi complex defeats the purpose. If it is geopolitics, it raises the question if energy security is being sacrificed at the altar of wishful thinking about potential geopolitical gains.

India would do well to invest in LNG terminals and infrastructure, enabling it to purchase gas from anywhere in the world, including from Iran and Russia. Energy security lies in trying to make the international natural gas market as competitive as possible.

What are your main reservations on the project?

Any project that relies on Pakistan is fundamentally risky.

First, even before the resurgence of the Baloch insurgency, pipelines were routinely targeted in inter-tribal political violence. Now with a full-blown insurgency, the extent of which is unclear, but where Pakistani air power and armour is being employed, the political risk rules out any pipeline investment.

Second, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex has entirely different incentives compared to the the putative Pakistani state. It’s tendency to pursue actions that undermine Pakistan are well-known: it conducted nuclear tests in 1998 despite knowing that this will cripple the economy. More pertinently, it has blocked the transit routes for US & NATO forces since Dec 2011 even at the cost of more than $1.2 billion in coalition support fund payments that it is owed. The transit route business is highly profitable to the army and its business empire. A conservative estimate is that the Pakistani military establishment collected around $360 million in different forms of rent, over the last five years.

This puts paid to the assertion that the Pakistani army will permit transit if it benefits financially. Clearly, its behaviour shows that is not the case. The Pakistani army is likely to use the gas pipelines as leverage against India and Afghanistan, regardless of the economic consequences to itself.

Supporters of TAPI suggest that it will help tame the populations of troubled regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan by creating mass employment. Thoughts?

This is a dubious suggestion. In fact, it would be terrible to impose a “resource curse” on a population wracked by radicalism and violence. What the region needs is investment in human capital and political stability that allows normal economic activity to take off. Putting gas fields and pipelines in regions of turmoil will create political economies that might worsen the conflict by providing more funds to warlords. Unless the fundamental security problem is tackled, gas revenues, like drug revenues, flow into the war chests of militant groups.

Comments { 5 }

Everyone loves a good outrage

The reform agenda must be defended from Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s attackers

As far as op-eds go, this one marks a new low from P Sainath. It is not uncommon for him to frame grave issues in a divisive manner by conflating them with unrelated matters—like, for instance, agrarian crises and beauty pageants. This technique seeks to arbitrage outrage, as if decent people cannot be anguished at a tragedy without having to contrast it with an unrelated celebration. But when Mr Sainath links the poverty line, expenses incurred by the Planning Commission chief while traveling on official business overseas, the lavishness with which some tycoons spend their private funds and dubious dealings of crony capitalism, it can’t merely be his usual, unfortunate and misguided conflation.

Make no mistake: Mr Sainath’s hatchet job on Montek Singh Ahluwalia is part of an internal campaign against reform-minded individuals within the UPA government. This week’s manufactured controversy over renovation expenses of toilets in the Planning Commission’s headquarters is another manifestation of the same campaign.

Let us examine Mr Sainath’s cleverly framed allegations. His case is that at Mr Ahluwalia’s travel expenses are exorbitant, at an average of $4000 per day abroad. You would think he would give you some comparable data to prove Mr Ahluwalia has been unusually proliferate in spending public funds. Say, for instance, the average daily expenditure when cabinet-ranked Indian officials travel abroad on official business. Or for instance, the average daily expenditure incurred by Mr Ahluwalia’s counterparts from other countries. These would be like-for-like comparisons. Mr Sainath, however, does not do that. He compares these to a income of a person on India’s poverty line. All this proves is that $4000 is much higher than Rs 28. It does not even come close to proving that public funds were misspent, nor does it show that Mr Ahluwalia was unusually liberal with his expense budget. The onus of doing this research is on Mr Sainath, the person making the argument.

How Mukesh Ambani spends his personal wealth is irrelevant to the argument—he is free to spend his money as he pleases, even if it does not suit our tastes—, so is a discussion on cronyism and corruption in IPL. You don’t need to read the Planning Commission’s response to conclude that Mr Sainath’s allegations are sensationalistic nonsense.

But why choose Mr Ahluwalia at all? Mr Sainath’s arguments against profligacy would have been worthy of respect if he had compared the travel expenses of the top officials of government—from President Patil to the lowest ranking minister of state. How much, for instance, does Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, spend on her foreign trips? Whatever her political role, she’s an official of equivalent rank. How much do the members of the National Advisory Council spend on their foreign and domestic trips? Unless we have some numbers to compare with, we can’t say anything about Mr Ahluwalia’s trips.

What we do know is that Mr Ahluwalia is among the few people known to be advocating economic reforms in the UPA government. Singling him out with a view to making him the lightning rod for public outrage has all the signs of a political hatchet job. The objective is to discredit the reformist agenda by associating it with imaginary wrongdoing. After running the Indian economy to the ground, the socialists that haunt the UPA government’s policymaking are now trying to bury the narrative of reform, liberalisation and markets through subterfuge and intellectual dishonesty.

It’s no different with the renovation expenses of public toilets in Yojana Bhavan, the Planning Commission’s headquarters. One of the earliest reports on this, in the Times of India, again compared toilet renovation expenses with the the poverty line. Few in the mainstream or social media bothered to ascertain the scope of the renovations and compare it with similar renovations conducted in New Delhi’s public and private buildings. The purpose of the revelations was to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of Mr Ahluwalia, rather than to establish whether there was any wrongdoing at all.

Mr Ahluwalia is guilty: of not throwing his credibility on the line to compel the UPA government to launch the second-generation reforms, and to prevent it from engaging in monumental fiscal irresponsibility that has put India’s future at risk. Like his mentor Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, he becomes complicit in the UPA’s misgovernance. He will have to answer these charges both to the nation and to history. This does not mean he’s lavishing public funds on unnecessary foreign excursions, building gold-plated toilets or taking a cut from the renovation contractor.

It is fair for the Opposition parties to politically exploit the situation to their advantage. However, it is in the national interest not to allow a campaign of unfair personal calumny to discredit the reform agenda—or indeed, to prevent Mr Ahluwalia from a chance to redeem his reformist record—to succeed. The Acorn completely agrees with Mint’s editorial defence of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Mr Ahluwalia has “done far more for the poor than the busybodies and peddlers of poverty porn who are now attacking him.”

Comments { 13 }

Examining the US-Pakistan standoff

The Pakistani establishment is grappling with the consequences of underestimating the United States

There is a lot of commentary on how US-Pakistan relations are in crisis and “hitting new lows” each day. Much of this is indeed true—not because of what the Obama administration says or does not say, but because of how the US Congress perceives the situation. If US politicians, across party lines, have turned hostile towards Pakistan, it is because they are sensitive to public opinion. Until the public mood changes, it will be much more difficult for any US president to paper over Pakistan’s shenanigans for reasons of foreign policy expediency. Washington’s ‘South Asian’ commentariat is slowly coming to realise that both the Obama administration and public opinion has left their old Pakistan narrative behind.

The current standoff has come about due to two reasons: first, General Kayani overplaying his cards; and second, the Zardari government giving up manoeuvring room by passing the buck to the parliament.

The Pakistani army thought it had a trump card in choking the supply lines and played it. It didn’t work, not least because similar acts and threats in the past had caused US military planners to work out alternatives. Shutting down the supply routes backfired on Pakistan: it has been frozen out of the diplomatic scene, US Congress has cut financial assistance and it has ended up back in the doghouse of international public opinion. The Pakistani military establishment still doesn’t get it. Judging from views expressed by pro-establishment opinion makers, they still seem to believe that US and NATO desperately need the supply routes to get out of Afghanistan. They do not consider the possibility of an exit strategy involving a combination of airlifts, passage through the Northern Distribution Network, asset transfers to the Afghan security forces and destruction of the rest. Speed matters when troops are getting in. It matters less when they are going back home. However, the Pakistani military establishment’s blinkered smugness is bolstering intransigence. (Munir Akram, a former Pakistani diplomat, even advocated showing nuclear teeth to the US.)

Under attack from a stridently anti-American media, a populist Imran Khan and the galvanisation of militant politics, the Zardari government handed over the hot potato of US-Pakistan relations to Parliament. This was clever, because it passed the buck to parliament and diffused responsibility. However, it has tied down the government’s hands now, because it requires a lot more political capital for Mr Zardari to “give and take” on anything unless the US delivers on Pakistan’s maximalist claims—an official apology for the Shalala encounter and a complete cessation of drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

The United States is in no mood to yield on either of this. An official apology would not only weaken President Obama during his re-election campaign but will be very unpopular among the US military rank-and-file. For all the diplomatic contortions Washington has engaged in over the last ten years, it is the US military that has suffered the ground reality of Pakistan’s duplicity. So an apology is unlikely until after the US election season is over. Ending drone strikes is even less likely, as they remain the most important instrument the US has to combat the international threat to its national security.

This standoff will be hard to resolve. Even so, both parties have subtly changed the framing of the issue to enable a resolution. Note Washington’s public statements tend to be about supply routes—suggesting that if Pakistan offers a reasonable compromise on this issue, the process of rebuilding the relationship can start. Similarly, while Pakistan’s sentencing of the doctor who assisted the CIA in identifying bin Laden is surely a tit-for-tat response to President Obama’s snub at Chicago, it has done so in a manner that allows compromise. Trying him under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) allows the Pakistani government to arbitrarily change the sentence or acquit him without involving the judiciary. It is willing to trade.

Despite this negotiating room, the Zardari government is unlikely to be capable of grabbing the negotiating lifeline and arriving at a deal on the supply routes. Getting Sherry Rehman, its US ambassador and Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, the party co-chairman to reinforce the demand for a US apology was a mistake if they didn’t already know that the US was likely to yield. It has now only made it harder for Mr Zardari to compromise. Similarly, while the US is concerned about the fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, it is unlikely to yield to a prisoner-swap deal.

Neither side is likely to blink. But one side is bleeding.

Comments { 3 }

Why Pakistan interferes in Afghanistan

A strong, independent Afghanistan is perceived as an existential threat to Pakistan

Just why is Pakistan interested in installing a friendly regime in Afghanistan? If you read books and articles written over the last couple of decades, you will come across arguments such as the need for “strategic depth” to counter India, to prevent a pro-India regime in Kabul that will result in the Indian encircling of Pakistan and, even more grandly, to create an Islamic centre of power that stretches from the shores of the Arabian Sea to the Caucasus mountains. Going by the statements of members of the Pakistani establishment and some of its commentators, these are indeed the reasons why Pakistan wants to dominate Afghanistan.

Yet, to a large extent, the ambition and the paranoia that motivates these goals are in the realm of fantasy. Important people might believe in these fantasies, which means they must be taken seriously, because those important people do act on the basis of their delusions. However, there is also an argument to be made that these fantasies, paranoias and strategic sophistries are used to mask the real motive.

Pakistan’s real motive in seeking to dominate Afghanistan is the fear of its own dismemberment. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamabad’s main agenda was to prevent Kabul-supported Pashtun and Baloch nationalism from escalating into full-blown movements for independence. The strength of Pashtun nationalism and Kabul’s rejection of the Durand Line (which continues to this day) create deep insecurities in Islamabad, causing it both to bolster Islamism as an ideological counter, sponsor political instability in Afghanistan and attempt to install a friendly regime there.

It is a matter of historical fact that Pakistan—under President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—began training Islamist militants in 1973, long before the Soviet invasion. Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud received training in Pakistani camps so that Bhutto could counter Kabul ‘forward policy’ towards Pakistan. Kabul’s policies over the Durand Line had caused Pakistan to close its borders with Afghanistan in 1961. When the Baloch insurgency erupted in the early 1970s, Kabul (under the Daoud regime) supported it. Bhutto’s response was to nurture proxies in the form of Islamist militants—an old trick for the Pakistani establishment—under the leadership of the then Brigadier Naseerullah Babar, who as Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps, set up training camps in North and South Waziristan. More than 5000 militants were thus trained between 1973-1977. Again, it must be stressed, before the Soviets invaded. The narrative that most people accept—that Pakistan’s sponsorship of the mujahideen was a response to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—is factually incorrect. [Rizwan Hussain's Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan has a good account of this]

The Pakistani establishment fears that a strong independent Afghanistan—like the one that existed up to the mid-1970s—will pursue an irredentist agenda, claiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. People in the tribal regions of Pakistan have only a tenuous association with the Pakistani state, and even for people in the so-called ‘settled areas’ of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, age-old Pashtun solidarity is often stronger than allegiance to a geopolitical entity called Pakistan. Afghanistan can well decide to support the insurgency in Balochistan to weaken Pakistan enough. Therefore, Pakistani strategists can see an existential threat in a strong, independent Afghanistan.

They can’t, however, state this as the official reason, because to do so would be admit the hollowness of the idea of Pakistan. That’s why fantastic notions of strategic depth, pre-empting strategic encirclement or building a Central Asian caliphate come in useful. “Strategic depth” is a plausible justification to convince patriotic Pakistanis of why their military is interfering in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s case appears a lot more ‘understandable’ to international opinion if it cites the fear of Indian encirclement rather than fear of Pashtun and Baloch self-determination as the reasons for its actions. Domestic and foreign Islamists will be enthused by the idea of flying the green flag of Islam all the way to the borders of Russia.

Theoretically, Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex might be persuaded to stop destabilising Afghanistan if it were convinced that Kabul will not lay claim to Pashtun lands east of the Durand Line. In practice that would be nearly impossible, not least because Afghan nationalism will not accept it. Even Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime didn’t.

Some matters will be decided by the force of arms. If at all.

Comments { 5 }

Let the Buzkashi begin!

The implications of Barack Obama’s policy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barack Obama has executed a very smart policy change—he has effectively dehyphenated Af-Pak by extricating the United States from the long-running Afghan civil war and focusing Washington’s attention on Pakistan. The United States will put in a genuine effort to mitigate the risk of a Taliban take-over in Afghanistan but will essentially leave Afghans to fight out their own affairs. It will, instead, maintain a security presence in the region tasked with keeping military pressure on jihadi militants that pose a threat to its own security.

What does this imply?

First, as far as the United States is concerned, not only Hamid Karzai but the post-2002 Afghan state is dispensable. If the Afghan state cannot secure itself against Taliban revolutionaries or other factions that seek to destroy it, Washington will not be concerned beyond a point. This message, as we will see, has (predictable) consequences.

Second, although the United States will withdraw its troops in 2014, it is not in a form that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex expected. Pakistani generals had long assumed that US withdrawal from Afghanistan automatically implied that they could take over the place the next day through a combination of Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis. They had also assumed that they held the cards because international forces depended on their goodwill to make a face-saving exit. President Obama has delivered the Pakistani generals a nasty surprise—the residual US presence on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and drone strikes on Pakistani soil will calibrate how much Pakistan can influence the security and stability of Afghanistan. We have not reached the point yet, but it may well be that international forces need not rely on Pakistani routes on their way out.

Third, as a consequence of Washington extricating itself from Afghanistan, we are bound to see political factions emerge around tribal and ethnic lines, fighting and allying among themselves and seeking external support. This process will strengthen if the Taliban were either to take or share power. Let’s not forget that the mujahideen separated into factions after the Soviets left in 1989 and fought each other. Let’s also not forget that there was no ‘Northern Alliance’ before the Taliban became a dominant political force. So just because there isn’t visible opposition to the Taliban today, it doesn’t follow that there won’t be one if they come to power. Just because Messrs Omar, Hekmatyar and Haqqani are Pakistan’s proxies today, it doesn’t follow that they won’t reach for each others’ throats tomorrow. Of course this means “civil war”, if only because the Afghan civil war has been ongoing for a couple of decades now.

Fourth, if and when the “civil war” does take place, the United States will become the swing power between the China-Pakistan-Saudi and the India-Russia-Iran alignments. It has so far been engaged in the self-weakening business of preventing India, Russia and Iran from cooperating over Afghanistan. Washington will have to decide which side it intends to back. The smart thing for it to do would be to back neither permanently, rather to back them selectively, while retaining for itself the power and influence that comes from its role as the balancer. For this, though, it will need to have better relations with each of these alignments than they have with each other. Therefore, its ability to swing will depend on whether it can get over its Iran dogma and work out a modus vivendi, at least in Afghanistan.

Fifth, if Pakistan need not keep appearances of being an ally in the war on terror, the military establishment might well prefer to install in power a regime that it is to its liking. To the extent that Pakistani army’s needs for an ‘acceptable civilian face’ to extract money from the United States is diminished, Imran Khan’s—and Hafiz Saeed’s—political fortunes are set to improve.

Finally, India will need to remain open to support political factions in Afghanistan that seek it, even while robustly backing the legitimate leadership of the Afghan state. The most important risk to India’s national security comes from the spillover of veteran Afghan militants. In the early 1990s, Pakistan solved two problems at one go by diverting the surplus militant manpower to Jammu & Kashmir. Given that it has been unable to even begin address the problem of deradicalising its militant manpower base, its leaders—both military and civilian—will be tempted to do the same now. The longer these militants have reason to fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the better it is for India. This should be one of New Delhi’s policy goals.

It’s time to dust off histories of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Comments { 0 }