Should liberals relax when populists are democratically elected?

Eternal nervousness might well be the price of democracy

Rohit Pradhan usually has interesting things to say and minces no words. Especially on Friday evenings. As he inaugurated last weekend, he decided to take liberals to the cleaners.

“But of course democracy is awesome till it elects people I don’t like. Then I want to rescind democracy & elect the government by the elite.”[@Retributions]

Let me deliberately take this statement out of its context, to try and escape the hangover of the politics of the previous week.

In conditions of “business as usual”, Rohit would be right. Supporters of liberal politicians and parties sometimes do engage in the dubious sport of blaming democracy for their electoral reverses. It would be appropriate to call out such behaviour as self-serving and hypocritical.

However, sometimes the sourness of the grapes is an early sign of bitter poisonousness. Communists, Fascists, Populists and authoritarians-sans-ideology can use democratic process to acquire power, and then systematically undermine the institutions and values that enabled them to do so. Like burning the ladder after you’ve climbed it, there are many instances in world history where this has occurred (even without invoking Godwin’s Law). The fear of “one man, one vote, one time” can be ignored at our peril. This is neither an argument for excessive, unwarranted fear nor for disenfranchisement based on political ideologies. Rather, it is a case for greater vigilance.

In the introductory chapter of a new book on populism, Jan-Werner Muller argues populism is “an exclusionary form of identity politics (that) tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but irreducibly diverse citizens.” Read his essay in the London Review of Books.

Mr Pradhan ought to be kinder on those are scared by what they happening around the world.

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.

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.

NRI voting should not be made too easy

How to raise political engagement without raising moral hazards

The connectedness of the Information Age made the issue of political rights of expatriate citizens more salient. The question of “should Non-Resident Indians get the right to vote?” was the topic of endless university canteen discussions, Usenet flame wars and online discussion forums before the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill, 2010 was passed to allow Non-Resident Indians to come back and vote in their constituencies. Many NRIs came back to vote in the May 2014 elections, and many others worked in the campaigns.

There are demands for more—that NRIs should be allowed an absentee ballot, to vote from their foreign domicile. This is sometimes coupled with the demand for internet-voting, a feature request that is common to both resident and non-resident Indians. While both these demands enjoy a certain degree of popularity, few have taken a hard look at the implications of doing so.

NRIs are citizens of India, many of who have retained their citizenship despite the lure and the attraction of a foreign passport. They have ideas, knowledge, skills, perspectives, capital and human resources that add to the quality of India’s politics, policy and industry. Leaving them out of the political process is unfair and wasteful. They must have a political voice.

The Election Commission has cited logistical challenges as the reason for not setting up polling booths in foreign countries. However, the real problem is more than just logistics. Absentee ballots have a moral hazard: the absentee voter is not around in the constituency to directly benefit from or suffer the consequences of his political decision. This insulation from the direct effects of one’s own voting decision weakens both the representativeness and accountability of the democratic process. The NRI has insurance too: if he does not like the outcomes in India, he can choose to continue foreign residency or take foreign citizenship. Of course, resident Indians can emigrate too, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Empirically, Diaspora politics tends to focus on the emotional and the ideological, and is often hardline and uncompromising. [Devesh Kapur’s latest paper on the political effects of international migration puts this in perspective]. The resident population has a greater need to balance the emotional with the quotidian and the ideological with the practical, so it makes a lot of pragmatic compromises.

The 2010 amendment to election rules balances, to a certain extent, the electoral inclusion of NRIs and managing the moral hazard arising from it. In economic terms, only those NRIs whose expected value of the benefit of voting exceeds the cost of a return trip to their polling booth will vote. The height of this hurdle protects the resident electorate from the political choices of their expatriate compatriots. It also means that richer NRIs are more capable of crossing this hurdle, and therefore, more likely to affect electoral outcomes in India. This is a price that must be paid to address the moral hazard of allowing NRIs to vote.

Allowing NRIs to vote in Indian embassies and consulates abroad lowers the hurdle. Internet voting reduces the hurdle almost to zero. The moral hazard problem gets worse with overseas polling stations and very acute with internet voting. Therefore, given the nature of dynamic compromises that characterise the politics of a highly diverse, plural India, it is prudent not to consciously stir up the pot by reducing the economic cost of voting.

That’s why internet voting, even for resident voters, is a bad idea. The inconvenience of standing in a queue for the time that it takes to cast a vote ensures that only those who value their vote more than that will turn up to do so. Yes, this system disproportionately favours those who put a low value on their time (in other words, those with lower incomes), but it is fair in that there is nothing to prevent anyone who values the subjective political outcome more than his subjective cost of voting to turn up and vote.

Another problem with absentee ballots is the question of constituency. Which constituency should an Indian citizen who’s lived in New York for 10 years belong to? She might have friends and relatives in one constituency—but putting her on the voters list of that constituency is against the principle of domicile-based voting. Many resident Indians live in one constituency but have family links in other constituencies, but they get on the electoral rolls of the constituency they are resident in. (Some resident voters do prefer to vote in their native constituencies, which the electoral system currently ignores.) Domicile-based electoral rolls are important for representation and accountability, and our New York-based voter might not know (or care) how bad public services are in her Indian native town are for her to hold the elected representative accountable.

Current electoral rules do not address the constituency question. One way would be to create a NRI constituency in the Rajya Sabha and the upper houses of state legislatures, and allow all NRIs to pick a representative who will voice their interests. We might need several NRI seats because different NRI populations have different needs. For a half-serious take on what might result, see why the sun does’t set on the Indian Republic.

It is important that all Indian citizens are included in India’s political system. After the 2010 amendment, a better balance has been struck. Further easing of the rules of voting is not advisable. Hurdles that impose economic costs on voters are not a bad thing—voting should not be made cheap.

To escape the tyranny of the ignorant

Why education must outpace population growth

How do societies become enlightened? If they are under authoritarian rule, a small elite can impose values of the broader population. Sometimes authoritarians—or leaders with personal charisma and political power—promote enlightenment values: Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for instance, used political power to push liberal values into their societies. Indian nationalists like Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar did the same, although they took a more democratic approach and constitutional methods to do so. The Constitution of India was an elite enterprise and was (is?) far ahead of its time in terms of the values it sought to enshrine in the genetic code of the new republic. Whether in Russia, Turkey or India, what we can see is that while it is relatively easy for the state to inject enlightenment values into society, it is by no means a given that society will completely adopt the package.

The challenge of promoting enlightenment values becomes much harder in a democratic societies that are under the grip of tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, ignorance or lack of education. Here the principal channel for promoting enlightenment is education (again, in the sense of open-mindedness and critical reasoning). Yet it is not uncommon for the education system to be controlled by the very sections of society that oppose enlightenment values. Democracy empowers everyone alike—the liberal and the bigot, the enlightened and the ignorant, the reasoner and the dogmatist. Ignorant majorities can democratically decide to expunge Reason. In the absence of an educated population, democracy ends up as the tyranny of the ignorant. [See this post on dogma, reason and democracy]

For democratic societies to become enlightened the pace of education (E) must be higher than the rate of population growth (P). If E > P long enough for a majority of the population to be educated, then enlightenment is likely to prevail in a democratic society. If E < P, then that society is likely to ultimately reject enlightenment. It becomes impossible to endogenously and democratically reform the education system (in the broadest sense of the term) once it crosses a point of no return. The existence of countries like this in the contemporary world should serve as a signal warning against complacence on the E/P ratio. One important argument that contests reaching the conclusion we have arrived at concerns the role of institutions. Institutions where they exist, the argument goes, will defend enlightenment values. Well, yes, but institutions are comprised of mortal individuals. The individuals that constitute institutions are prisoners of the same narratives as the rest of society. The 'doctrine of necessity' will cause them to side with the popular. No institution can escape the hard social arithmetic of the E/P ration. The strongest constitutional institution, the most influential liberal social institutions are subject to education prevailing over ignorance. Tamasoma jyotirgamaya.

Tailpiece: The term “education” is used here not in the narrow technical sense of literacy rates, graduation rates and so on. It is possible to acquire post-graduate degrees while remaining uneducated. Similarly, it is possible to be well-educated without ever having to go to school. Education is the ability to acquire and use knowledge and most importantly, employ reason in decision-making.

Dogma, Reason and Democracy

To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma

Democracy is popular. Other than self-serving polemic promoted by authoritarian regimes or by dispossessed elite, it is rare to find anyone criticising democracy. For thoughtful people, democracy is, as that Churchill cliché goes, “the worst form of government except for all the others.” Yet some—perhaps even a lot of—scepticism is warranted in terms of democracy’s role in the long war between Dogma and Reason that has been in progress for much of human history.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that most—if not all—big political debates are essentially different forms of the fundamental conflict: should humans follow some form of dogma, or use knowledge, reason & critical reasoning in making decisions. What individuals do in their private lives is less of a concern. How they decide on public issues matters a lot more. Should slavery be banned? Should abortion be declared criminal? Should women be allowed to willingly immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands? Should cloning be allowed? Should we allow foreign direct investment in retail? Should voting rights belong to citizens or to all people living in the country? The most vexing questions of politics are essentially dogma vs reason, playing out in different contexts.

So what role does democracy play in this conflict? Do democratic states always tend to push the moral envelope towards greater reason? For instance, aren’t democracies more liberal than non-democracies? Perhaps yes. But this might merely be a temporary correlation: are they liberal because they are democracies, or democracies because they are liberal? We can’t say for sure, as there are other factors at play that might have made societies more liberal, democratic or both.

Bryan Caplan has a compelling argument on why democracies fail:

“In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality. An irrational voter does not hurt only himself. He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies. Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external—paid for by other people—why not indulge? If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.[The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies]

Mr Caplan’s argument is that people have systematic biases that, unlike random biases, do not cancel each other out. In other words, if biases towards colour of shirts were random in the electorate, then they would cancel each other out and no particular colour would be more likely to win. However, if people had a systematic bias towards purple even to a small degree, the electoral verdict is quite likely to go purple. (Read the book to understand more deeply how this happens)

This argument, in itself, is a powerful indictment of democracy. It explains why democratic governments choose policies that are bad for them. If we factor in “education” (in the sense of reasoning, critical thinking and open-mindedness) then democracies can amplify dogma, in extreme cases, into a vicious cycle where society surrenders to dogma.

Consider a democracy where a simple majority of the people have an unshakeable dogmatic belief that Everyone Must Wear Purple Shirts. The rest of the people have a shakeable belief in everything and make up their minds based on available facts. Since the facts do not point to any advantage of purple shirts, they disagree with the Dogmatists who insist on purple shirts. Let’s assume everyone votes. It is quite likely that the politician who runs on a “Wear Purple” ticket is likely to defeat her competitors. And once she acquires political power, depending on her political strength, she is likely to change public policies to promote the wearing of purple. She is likely to focus on the education system, introducing purple into the curriculum so that she has an inherent advantage against the Reasoning politicians. In the future, politics will be about the shade of purple that people must wear.

In this highly simplified example, Democracy worked, the majority got what they wanted, but Reason lost. The real world is more complex, but the fundamental argument remains valid. To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

Mr Caplan sees democracies failings as an argument for governments to let the market determine economic outcomes (his book consciously limits itself to economics). Given the risk democracy poses to Reason*, and therefore, to itself we should go further. The zeroth requirement is for democracies to be constrained by a republican constitution that affirms fundamental rights.

First, those who prefer a slightly more reasoning society than a slightly more dogmatic one must unequivocally defend freedom of speech and expression. Unpopular and dissenting voices must not only be tolerated but enjoy absolute protection. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted during a recent conversation on this topic, actors in ancient India enjoyed total freedom and protection for what they said on stage. Likewise, court jesters. Such freedoms are protected in many democracies, but your mileage varies depending on which democracy you are speaking out in. Freedom of speech and expression must be protected in law and in practice.

Second, those who believe minds should not surrender to dogma must hold up the freedom of education. This means that while the government can pursue uniform standards, syllabi and curricula in its role of delivering a public good, it should not be allowed to monopolise the curriculum. People should be free to start and send their children to schools of their choice, teach and learn curricula of their choice, with no interference by the government or self-appointed custodians of public values. If this means some parents send their children to religious schools, nature schools or witchcraft & wizardry schools, so be it. It would be a small price to pay in the defence of Reason.

Third, the separation of powers into the legislature, executive and judiciary is not only for the purpose of ensuring that no single entity is too powerful. It charges the judiciary with the duty to defend the constitution and dispense justice without reference to what is popular. Here again, your mileage varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time. In recent years we have had the US Supreme Court under John Roberts declaring it is not the job of the Supreme Court to “protect people from the consequences of their political decisions”. In India, while courts have been criticised for judicial activism and overreach, cases of judicial populism have received lesser attention. Trials by jury suffer from the defect that they subject questions of guilt and innocence to popular mores. This doesn’t mean trials by judges escapes the defect completely: judges are cut from the same cloth as jurors, and both from that of their compatriots. One way to reduce such risks might be for judges to come from other jurisdictions—rotate them more frequently across states, and bring in foreign judges from similar jurisdictions.

* Disclaimer: In a contest between Dogma and Reason, The Acorn stands on the side of the latter. Hence the implied value judgement.

Book chapter: On humanitarian intervention & democracy promotion

India’s middle path

shapingtheemergingworld2x3_2x3I have contributed one chapter in “Shaping the Emerging World – India and the Multilateral Order“, a book edited by WPS Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Bruce Jones, and published by Brookings. According to the promotional material, it is, for “…anyone interested in the future of India’s burgeoning economy, twenty-two scholars have developed one of the most comprehensive volumes to date on India…” The list of authors has such stars as Shyam Saran, C Raja Mohan, Sanjaya Baru, Devesh Kapur, David Malone, Christophe Jaffrelot, Srinath Raghavan and Kanti Bajpai.

I’m sure the editors must have had something in mind when they tapped me to write a chapter on India and international norms: Responsibility to Protect (R2P), genocide prevention, human rights and democracy, as they must surely have been aware of my scepticism towards such norms and value promotion agendas. I wrote the chapter at an interesting time, when India had been on the UN Security Council and a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East went into a wave of political transformation. Given that I was a critic of some of India’s positions at the UNSC during that period, the result is a chapter that is almost entirely devoid of romance. (That’s a good thing, in case you were thinking otherwise).

Here are a couple of excerpts from my chapter:

INTRODUCTION
The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations declared in speech in October 2012, “is the most important challenge that the international community, anchored in the United Nations, is going to face.”1 Arguing that the initial suspicion of many developing countries towards the newest norm in international relations was misplaced, he supported the need for a “collective response by the international community to ensure that mass atrocities like genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity do not take place.” Explaining why India had abstained in a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorising military intervention in the Libyan civil war of 2011, he judged the implementation of the doctrine “gives R2P a bad name.”

The Indian diplomat’s arguments are a good example of India’s attitude towards international norms infringing on state sovereignty in furtherance of human security, human rights or liberal democratic goals. This chapter argues that India takes a middle path, supporting the evolution of human rights and democratic norms, but exercising caution in the manner of their implementation. It delves into the foundations of India’s policy approach towards two sets of norms: those concerning human security and those pertaining to liberal democracy. It interrogates these norms as they have evolved and examines them from an Indian perspective. It concludes by exploring how Indian foreign policy in the context of these norms might change as it emerges into a more powerful player in international politics.

THE MIDDLE PATH
Constitutional values, a democratic political culture and a diverse, plural society make India generally supportive of defending the world’s people from oppression, promoting human rights and democracy. New Delhi’s foreign policy orientation is at the very least consistent with a rules-based international order and is underpinned by liberal democratic values. The Indian republic’s subscription of liberal international norms, however, has been tempered both by competing norms and by reservations on the nature of international interventions. The result is a foreign policy that treads a middle path.

CONCLUSION
Even as Indian foreign policy made the transition from Nehru’s utopianism to the pragmatic realism of the post-Cold War governments, it never abandoned commitment to values. Normatively, New Delhi strikes a middle path. India is committed to genocide prevention, R2P, human rights and liberal democracy in principle, but has serious reservations regarding their practical implementation. The commitment is born out of its own national values. The reservations are borne out by its experience too.

India has been supporting multilateral efforts – or has acted unilaterally, on occasion – in response to international emergencies. It has been less enthusiastic in enterprises promoting liberal democratic norms, for it is a state primarily concerned with maintaining its own national unity, social transformation and economic development.

To what extent will India deviate from the middle path if it comes a bigger power in the international system? This chapter contends that the answer depends on whether the UN reforms itself to better reflect contemporary global balance of power, on the nature of India’s geopolitical footprint and on the extent of internationalism in Indian civil society. Broad trends indicate that it is likely that the Indian nation will become increasingly global-minded and internationalist, even if at a pace that is sometimes frustrating and other other times exhilarating. So the chances of the Indian republic becoming a rule-taker in the international system will improve to the extent that it is better accommodating into the rule-making circles of a reformed UN. A richer, more powerful India may yet be a stronger defender of human security around the world, if not simultaneously a champion of liberal democracy. [Shaping the Emerging World]

The Asian Balance: Myanmar’s Narasimha Rao moment?

A pleasant surprise from the east

This is the unedited draft of today’s column in the Business Standard:

In a matter of months, Myanmar’s infamous junta diluted itself out of power, a new ‘elected’ government took office, duly freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, lifted some curbs on the local media, unblocked YouTube, declared that censorship ought to go, announced the intention to introduce economic reforms and — hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen — bowed to public pressure and suspended construction on a huge hydro-electric dam that Chinese companies were building on the Irrawaddy river.

So far, so remarkable and so quiet have these developments been that even seasoned observers are in a state of surprise. It seems impossible that a country which appeared so utterly hopeless even twelve months ago — with a closed-minded, curmudgeonly junta presiding over the destruction of generations of human capital — has turned around even to this extent. Then again, this is 2011, the year of geopolitical surprises, where the unexpected is a daily occurrence. Myanmar is unique because the changes happened without ceremony, without round-the-clock television coverage, without foreign fighter aircraft flying sorties over the capital, even without that symbol of early twenty-first century revolution — the twitter hashtag. And so far, at least, it has been good news.

The country may be at its own Narasimha Rao moment. President Thein Sein, who was in India last week, was a top-rung general in the previous military regime and had served as prime minister. Like Rao, he is an unlikely figure to open his country to the world. And like Rao, he might well be the most appropriate. It is way too early to declare that Myanmar has climbed out of the pit its generals dug for it. The new government’s moves are tentative, but they are in the right direction. What happens next depends as much on how the world responds to Thein Sein’s overtures as on his ability to carry his country’s armed forces along.

Because some of Thein Sein’s key decisions preceded or coincided with his trip to New Delhi, some have portrayed them as a vindication of New Delhi’s approach of engaging the erstwhile junta despite its odious human rights record. Such an argument, however, must be tempered with the fact that the Myanmarese foreign minister visited Washington, which had shunned and sanctioned the junta, two weeks prior to Thein Sein’s arrival in India.

Others have cast the developments within Myanmar in the context of a grand contest between India and China, with reformist-democratic forces gravitating towards New Delhi just as conservative-authoritarians are aligned to Beijing. This is misleading.

Take for instance the halting of construction of the Myitsone dam that angered the Chinese government. Given the enormity of public opposition to the dam which mainly benefits China while causing environmental damage in Myanmar, the Thein Sein government confronted a choice between antagonising its own people and angering China. That it chose the latter is a credible signal of its approach to governance. That said, the geopolitical consequences of rubbing a powerful neighbour on the wrong side had to be managed, which explain the overtures to India and the United States. This does not mean that Myanmar will now start favouring India over China in commercial dealings. Rather, it will seek greater policy autonomy for itself by balancing its relationships with regional and world powers. This is still a positive for India, but only to the extent that the playing field will be more level that it was earlier.

So it is up to the Indian government and Indian industry to capitalise on the opening promised by the Thein Sein government. China’s success in South East Asia over the past decade has been due to a combination of money and speed. India’s announcement of a $500 million line-of-credit for development projects in Myanmar can make a meaningful different, but the our government is unlikely — for good reason — to be able to match its Chinese counterpart in the spreading of largesse. We should not get into a spending race. But we should not make excuses for the glacial pace at which India’s developmental projects move forward.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which connects India’s eastern seaboard to its north-eastern states through Myanmar, is of strategic importance. You should be properly horrified to hear that it is proceeding “slowly”. Also, last week, when one of Thein Sein’s cabinet colleagues broached the idea of re-opening the World War II-era Stillwell Road (which connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar) our minister of development of the north-eastern region’s reply was: “We have told them that Government of India would consider the proposal after it is formally submitted.” In triplicate, he might have added.

We cannot say for sure that the Thein Sein government will sustain its current course. It may only be aiming at gaining greater international legitimacy and foreign investment while only marginally transforming the nature of the regime. In such circumstances, a tit-for-tat strategy — rewarding desirable movement and punishing backsliding — is called for. New Delhi should work in cooperation with the United States, Japan and key South East Asian countries to put Myanmar on an irreversible course towards freedom, democracy and development.

Copyright © 2011. Business Standard. All rights reserved.