What lies to the right of centre in India?

The cohabitation of traditionalists and market liberals

Ever since India’s 2009 general election, it has become fashionable for many politically-minded people in the country to style themselves as being “right of centre”, “centre-right” and other terms where “right” and something else is joined together with a hyphen.

It is clear what people who label themselves thus are against — the Congress party, and especially the family that constitutes its apex leadership. Mostly, they oppose its “appeasement” of minorities, especially Muslims. They oppose its propensity to create “entitlements” in the form of reservations, quotas, subsidies and special treatment. They oppose the cronyism in the economy and political corruption in governance. They oppose its pusillanimity in foreign policy. There are many more, but these strike me as the big ones.

It is less clear what they stand for. Many of our self-styled right-of-centrists are strident opponents of liberalism. Many have deep misgivings, if not outright opposition to markets and free trade. The most coherent “right” in India is the Hindu right, which is clear about its commitment to Hindu nationalism, broad or narrow. However, even the Hindu right does not have an economic agenda that is consistent with its political ideology: should the Hindu nation rely on individual liberty and free markets, or should it construct a strong state that draws lines on individual freedom and controls the levers of economic power? During and after the 2014 election campaign, market liberals and social illiberals found themselves in the same “right of centre” camp, often having to pretend to be each other in order to fit in.

This ideological confusion and political tension within the segment that calls itself right-of-centre in India comes because our political context and historical development is different from that of the West, where the Right and Left first came into existence. I’ve written about this in my Niti-Mandala post, constructing India’s political spectrum. I was reminded of it last week as I read Jonah Goldberg’s statement of the Conservative position in the United States: which connects tradition and markets and forms the basic worldview of the American Right that the Republicans used to champion before Donald Trump, er, shook things up.

As a Chestertonian at heart, I like and respect old things. I like it when stuff beats the law of averages for reasons we cannot easily fathom. The Hayekian in me thinks old things that last often do so for good reasons we just don’t — and sometimes can’t — know. Unfortunately, we live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how. [National Review, emphasis added]

The same argument would be self-contradicting in India: where there are inhuman inequities embedded in caste discrimination and social practices. You can either defend the traditional Indian social order or individual liberty (and markets and so on). You can’t defend both, because the former is constructed without regard to, and often in suppression of the latter. This explains the confusion and tension among our “right of centre” compatriots, who are at best, — to turn a phrase from a best-selling novelist — Half Right. No pun intended.

They can either be traditionalists who seek to defend the old order from social revolution, and therefore come into tension with the Constitution that demands it. Or they can be liberals who pursue individual liberty and free markets, and thereby come into tension with everyone else who opposes either individualism or markets or both. They can’t be both.

Logical consistency apart, the practical question is to what extent can the two Half Right constituencies come together in politics. Is the tension between them bridgeable? Well, that’s hard to say, but the side with greater political clout will force the other into submission. Market liberals are not driving policy in the Modi government today.

The arrangement will hold to the extent that their dislike for the Left outweighs their dislike for each other. If the Congress party sheds its baggage — and that’s a big, big if — or another party takes up its Centrist space, it is likely that the the more liberal of the liberal Half Right will gravitate towards it. Until that time, the liberal Half Right will cohabit with the traditionalist Half Right, because most who seek the security of an ideological label are likely to lack the courage and commitment to stand apart, because that means standing alone.

Why have one Afghanistan

…when you can have two?

The call for the partitioning of Afghanistan is not new. In December 2003, for instance, Randall Parker of the ParaPundit blog argued that “(it) would be less trouble in the long run if Afghanistan was just split up with the Pashtuns getting their own country while the other groups either form a single country for a few separate countries. The other groups could even take pieces of Afghanistan and merge them with their ethnic brothers who speak the same languages and have much the same cultures in bordering northern countries.”

Yet, despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.

So what should we make of the recent debate that started after Robert Blackwill, one of the most astute American strategists, called for a de facto partition of Afghanistan?

The least worst option for the United States, Mr Blackwill contends, is to give the south to the Taliban, and concentrate on holding and building the north and the east of Afghanistan. This will not only turn the Pakistani military establishment’s dream of “strategic depth” into the nightmare of Pashtun nationalism, but also upset the tenuous ethnic balance in Pakistan by weakening Punjabi dominance. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is to prevent the collapse of Pakistan, this is heretical. However, since this is also a time when the Obama administration is looking for ways out of the mess it is in—not least in terms of domestic politics—heresies might stand the best chance of gaining acceptance.

Mr Blackwill has already succeeded in exposing the weaknesses in the arguments of his critics. Ahmed Rashid points out that partition won’t be popular with Afghans (as if a Taliban takeover will be) and otherwise points to the bloodiness that accompanies a redrawing of borders (as if the status quo is bloodless). The “only solution” according to him, “is dialogue between the genuine Taliban leadership, Kabul and Washington for a power-sharing deal at both the centre and in the provinces.” This, from the man who wrote the book about the genuine Taliban leadership!

Chimaya Gharekhan and Karl Inderfurth reject the partition proposal and propose, instead, that “the solution lies in less or zero interference, not more, and certainly not military intervention, in Afghanistan’s affairs.” That is a very good idea. The question is how? The authors propose “that someone, preferably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus, however defined, on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.”

Now this might sound convincing if you are an optimist with faith in the United Nations, but the authors are silent about just why the Pakistani military establishment will play along? Pakistan might even sign such a treaty if the price is right, but if the force of US arms didn’t prevent the Pakistani army from interfering in Afghanistan, a piece of paper and the UN Secretary General’s platitudes are, to put it mildly, less likely to.

Perhaps the best critique of Mr Blackwill’s proposal comes from Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He charges the strategic establishments with hubris where “the relations between intention and action, ends and means, instruments and goals, costs and benefits seem to all be obscured by the self-satisfaction that we are at least making a next move.” His case for caution is well-made: that India “should not be tempted into actions whose consequences it cannot control.”

However, this injunction must be balanced against the concern that India should not be lulled into inactions whose consequences, likewise, it cannot control. What ultimately is likely decide the issue is the nature of the strategic cultures. Washington, with its action bias, ends up suffering the consequences of its action. New Delhi, with its (in)action bias, ends up suffering not only the consequences of its own inaction, but also the consequences of the actions of others.

For now, the call for the partition of Afghanistan, as both K Subrahmanyam and Mr Mehta note, is likely a shot across the bow, a warning for General Ashfaq Kayani. Even so, New Delhi would do well to prepare for such an outcome too.

Cultivating authority, evading responsibility

“Those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta

You should read his piece in the Indian Express in full. Excerpts:

The prime minister will take you only up to a point. The Centre does not carry any credibility, because there it has no genuine interlocutors. There is no other leader who can carry the imprimatur that they are acting on behalf of the nation, who can provide a healing touch when needed. More and more of our conflicts will require this kind of constant political engagement. Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, in political terms, carry that mantle as much as anyone does; but they steadfastly refuse to risk it on anything other than politically easy welfare schemes. The scandal of Indian politics is not simply that the prime minister is politically weak; it is that those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility.

And it has sent a message: the purpose of politics is not solving problems; it is the evasion of responsibility. [IE]

God save the US from its pundits

Don’t they read the news?

A certain Nirav Patel from the Center for New American Security—a newish think-tank—argues that “President Bush should quickly dispatch the necessary high-level authorities to mediate and resolve the current Kashmir crisis before it becomes a reason for war” leveraging its “economic and military co-operation with both countries”. (linkthanks Pragmatic)

Mr Patel is not reading the daily news. It turns out that the economic and military co-operation—the tens of billions of dollars of it—is not even allowing the United States the leverage to prevent the Pakistani military establishment from using the Taliban to shoot at American soldiers in Afghanistan. That apart, Mr Bush’s envoys have too many things on their hands in Pakistan to expend what little leverage they have out there on defusing the situation in Kashmir.

But it’s clear Mr Patel is not referring to Pakistan. He is more concerned about what India might do. “Nationalist sentiment in India”, according to him, “is quickly transforming pragmatic policies toward Pakistan into hard-line and reactionary approaches. India is unlikely to sit on the sidelines much longer.” Now, how did Mr Patel arrive at that conclusion? Without supporting facts, such conclusions can only be described as fanciful.

That’s not all, actually. He actually fears a breakdown in nuclear deterrence. Because “Rational leaders in both countries have thus far successfully managed ethno-nationalist impulses. However, as India continues to feel cornered by and vulnerable to terrorist threats originating in Pakistan, it will find it increasingly difficult to ignore the impulse to attack.”

Perhaps Mr Patel could point to a single credible voice from any part of India’s strategic establishment or indeed from a political party, that is advocating a military attack on Pakistan. So his opinion is nothing more than mere presumption. And if he would only begin to read the daily news, he will notice that it is the Pakistani army that is routinely violating the ceasefire. What can the United States do about this? Precious little.