Middle India’s political game-changer

Why the Annawalas must endorse individual candidates in the coming elections

This is the original draft of today’s DNA column.

Anna’s candidates

It’s the season for game-changers. Everyone is proposing one. Here’s mine.

After ending his fast at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan last month, Anna Hazare announced that “electoral reforms would be next on his agenda, followed by issues of decentralisation of power, education reforms, labour and farmers’ issues.” If that sounds like a political manifesto, it is. For that reason it must be pursued politically.

Now, Hazare said he can’t afford to stand in elections because he can’t buy votes. Whatever that says about his attitude towards electoral democracy and whatever it says about the claim that the whole nation is behind him, he is entitled to stay outside the ring. His new colleagues, the leaders of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, say that they do not intend for it to become a political party. Which too is fine, for there is value in a non-partisan nationwide movement that eschews identity politics and demands good governance. Will they perhaps endorse a political party? After all, with the UPA government brazening it over a series of huge corruption scandals, will they say “let’s give the BJP a chance”? It is unclear if the IAC or its leaders intend to endorse any political party, but we should not be surprised if they decide not to. Perhaps some of the people on the stage at Ramlila Maidan will contest elections but that’s not going to make a big difference.

The real game changer is this: the IAC should announce that it will endorse one candidate in every single Lok Sabha and state assembly constituency. Not on the basis of party affiliations, but on the basis of its assessment of who among all the candidates is the best choice. Continue reading “Middle India’s political game-changer”

The Asian Balance: What if China becomes a democracy?

Business as usual, with some relative advantage and why we need Reforms 2.0

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

It is extremely unlikely, but let’s say the fragrance of Jasmine flowers wafts across the Great Wall and perfumes China’s Han heartlands. A post-revolution China could take many forms, but let’s say that it turns into a democracy while retaining its existing international boundaries. Let’s set aside these two big “if’s” for a moment and ask what such a scenario would mean for India.

There are three fundamental questions. Will democratic China change its outlook, positions and policies with respect to India? Will it be any easier to deal with? And therefore, is a democratic China in our interests?

…it is likely that democratic China, like the People’s Republic, will see itself as the successor to the glorious empires of history (and its) geopolitical interests will not be too different from the People’s Republic’s.

There is also nothing to suggest that China will stop using Pakistan and other countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood as proxies and surrogates. Even the methods might not change. After all, if the US and France sell arms to the Pakistani army why can’t democratic China do the same? Let’s not forget that the US was very much a democracy when it abetted Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Will democracy make it be any easier to deal with the northern neighbour? Again, unlikely. Democracy in the eastern, western and southern neighbours has done little to transform their relations with India. Why should it be any different with China?

None of this implies that a democratic China is not in our interest. From a foreign policy perspective, the main reason to prefer a democratic China is to be able to mutualise the democratic disadvantage.

It is harder for democracies to doggedly pursue the quest for power. (See this post from 2006). Democracies are also more transparent. To the extent that we are familiar with Democratic China’s domestic political landscape it will be an improvement over the current situation, where we know little about the way the cards are stacked. Transparency will also make China’s politics more manipulable, and thus neutralise an asymmetric advantage that it has over India today.

Preference is one thing, capability another. A democratic, coalition-run India does not have any serious means of promoting democracy across the Himalayas. It does, however, have the power of example. The Communist Party of China contends that prosperity can only be achieved by suspending freedom. We can prove it wrong. The Beijing Consensus can be challenged, in China and outside, by fully dismantling the Delhi straitjacket, and implementing second-generation economic reforms. [Business Standard]

Pakistan has nothing to do with Indian democracy

And why it’s absurd to ignore the pachyderm in the tent

It is not hard to see why there is an enormous amount of pablum in the Western circles when it comes to figuring out what to do about the mess that is Pakistan. [See recent posts by Dhruva Jaishankar & Rohan Joshi fisking one such case]. One part is that mindsets are not keeping pace with geopolitical realities. The second part is that the reality itself is so terrible that it is far easier to avoid confronting it. This situation is possible and inexpensively maintained when you are a few thousand miles away from the reach of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles.

Take Christophe Jaffrelot’s review essay in Foreign Affairs on why India is a democracy and Pakistan is not. It is a commentary on Philip K Oldenburg’s “India, Pakistan and Democracy – Solving the puzzle of divergent paths”. Both book and review devote themselves to debunking the “reductionist and not particularly productive approach” of attributing these difference to religion. To author and reviewer, it is almost an article of faith—ironically—that Pakistan’s being on intensive care and India’s longstanding democracy and recent development have nothing to do with the former being beholden to Islam and the latter driven by its Hindu civilisational ethos. So they spend a lot of time, energy and ink splitting hairs and teasing out minor variables that might have instead contributed to these starkly different outcomes.

Even the two examples Mr Jaffrelot cites to argue religion is secondary in explaining political trajectories—Indonesian democracy and Sri Lanka’s ‘march to dictatorship’—are weak. He ignores the fact that Indonesian Islam is constructed on a still palpable (but fast declining) bedrock of Hindu-Buddhist civilisational values. As for Sri Lanka, he ignores the possibility that his presumptuousness might receive a slap at the hustings of the next election. But what about Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Libya and so on? To reject the notion that states that organise themselves around Islam have serious problems may be politically correct, but is certainly empirically wrong. [See Deepak Lal’s argument on the issue of “settled rule”]

It is not a coincidence that India is the only robust democracy in Asia. Both Mr Oldenburg and Mr Jaffrelot confuse Hinduism as a narrow denomination of faith, and Hinduism as a source of values that underpin Indian civilisation. You don’t need to be a Hindu nationalist to realise that the pluralism, tolerance, moderation and secularism that underpin Indian civilisation and are consistent across its many denominational faiths are the very same values that sustain its democracy. [See “Who says nationalism must be intolerant?“]

It is a good thing to examine the second- and lower-order variables that might affect political trajectories. But it is intellectually unsound to ignore the obvious. Worse, it leads to hideously grotesque policy recommendations. Mr Jaffrelot writes:

To overcome (Pakistan remaining in a limbo between dictatorship and democracy-Ed), the relationship between India and Pakistan — not just the comparison between them — must be addressed. [Foreign Affairs]

This argument, to put it mildly, is bunkum. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why the Pakistani government can’t collect taxes and electricity bills from its elite. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why Salmaan Taseer’s assassin is celebrated as a national hero. The mess that is Pakistan is the creation of the Pakistani people. Pakistan can’t be fixed by changing its ‘relationship’ with India any more than North Korea can be transformed by tweaking US-South Korea relations.

India, a growing economic power, resents being grouped with a quasi-failed state. Indian leaders were quite happy, for example, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited India but not Pakistan during his last Asian tour. But decoupling is not only bad for U.S.-Pakistani relations — Pakistan longs to be recognized as on par with India and could be easier to work with if it is, even if only symbolically — it is not really in India’s interest, either. China, India’s real rival, could take advantage of a Pakistan alienated from the West. [FA]

This is theoretically a good argument. It would have merited attention had it been made in 1950. However, given that the China-Pakistan alliance is more than five decades old and continues to be robust, it is unclear what more India has to fear from that front. On the contrary, a Pakistan alienated from the West—like North Korea—might actually be strategically less useful to China.

And if Pakistan falls apart, democracy in India might be affected as well. Already, routinized terrorist violence has taken its toll on Indian civil liberties. And communal harmony in India, which has always been tenuous, has become increasingly strained thanks to terrorist attacks and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies.[FA]

This is precisely the kind of conclusion you’ll arrive at if you ignore the obvious and focus on lower-order variables. Mr Jaffrelot fails to mention how democracy in India will be affected if–and that is a big if—Pakistan falls apart. Nothing bad happened to the United States and Western Europe after the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc collapsed. In fact, it can just easily be argued that Indian democracy will be stronger if the security threats from Pakistan diminish. Mr Jaffrelot’s comment on communal harmony might have been taken as merely gratuitous if he had not left out the adjective describing “terrorist attacks”. As for BJP’s ‘Hindu nationalist policies’, we might be able to assess their their impact on communal harmony once they occur, because right now, there is scarcely one policy that can be described as ‘Hindu nationalist’. What are ‘Hindu nationalist policies’ anyway?

If there is a reason why communal harmony is threatened, it is because of entitlements and identity politics that breeds competitive intolerance. We do have plenty of those policies.

The best way forward will be for both countries, with the support of the international community, to launch a new round of dialogue. Without such attention to Indian-Pakistani relations, India’s democracy will not prosper and Pakistan’s generals will never unclench their fists.[FA]

People who make such recommendations should be forced to put their money where their mouth is. Perhaps a charge of $1000 every time they repeat this formula will sufficiently deter analysts from offering the same, ineffective prescription. Double that if they prescribe it when “dialogue” is not only in progress but the stated policy of the Indian government. This might help reduce India’s fiscal deficit.

Neither Indian democracy nor India’s development is contingent on Pakistan, its generals and their fists. It is pointless talking to Pakistan. It would make more sense talking to the powers that pay to keep Pakistan in intensive care. Unlike Mr Oldenburg & Mr Jaffrelot, we do not have the luxury of pretending that what makes us feel good is actually what is real.

The legitimate state of the Middle East

Does the absence of a culture of “settled rule” imply continued instability?

At a time when political unrest is spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East, here’s a passage from Deepak Lal’s In Praise of Empires.

In his enthralling history of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern Middle East, David Fromkin concludes that [the unfulfilled Allied hope that they were installing permanent successors to the Ottoman sultans in the new states they had created] was due to “a characteristic feature of the region’s politics: that in the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on the rules of the game—and no universally shared belief in the region that, within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.” This is part of a deep crisis of social and political identity, similar to one faced by Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire.

In this search for a political identity, Muslims are not helped by an age-old cultural trait. The empire which the Arabs created was a conquest society, and subsequent Islamic polities have never lost their militaristic nature. The great fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw the medieval Islamic polity he observed as consisting of a settled, nonpolitical society and a tribal state, either imported or imposed by conquest. Whereas the Chinese, for instance, in their cyclical view of history saw settled rule as the norm and a change of dynasties as the result of a loss of virtue of an old tired dynasty, the Islamic polity never accepted the notion of settled rule. Ibn Khaldun considered it effeminate. This has been the black hole of the Islamic policy from its inception.

The social ethos of the political culture of Islam (according to Shlomo Avineri) “is imbued with martial values and the spirit of the army” unlike any other existing culture. “In the Arab world, military rule is political legitimacy; it is the only authentic form of government which has ever emerged in the Arab world.” It makes “glory, honor, pride, form—the virtues of chivalry—into the prime motors of the social ethos.” The democratic constitutions imposed by the West in Egypt, Syria and Iraq were quickly overturned once the West’s representatives departed, and the traditional military form of government clothed in various new civilian hues and ideologies was reestablished. In the Middle East “the question ‘what is the army doing in politics?’ is never raised. Of course the army is in politics; this has been its business since Mohammed, so to speak.” No better example of the continuance of this cultural trait in Islamic countries is provided by the fate of the successor states of the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent—India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Their respective armies had a common heritage and training as part of the imperial Indian army. All three countries had similar Westminster-style constitutions at their independence. But only the two non-Islamic polities—India and Sri Lanka—have succeeded in maintaining them and keeping the army out of politics. [Lal, In Praise of Empires, pp88-89]

The public protests in the Middle East are essentially anti-Establishment. It remains to be seen whether the resulting political transformations will prove Professor Lal wrong.

Note: An earlier version of this post wrongly attributed the Avineri quote to Walter Russell Mead. The error is regretted. (It arose due to the ghastly practice of endnotes by chapter. It must be abolished.)

Regarding Egypt’s political transformation

Managing risks is better than trying to predict the future

So what should the Indian government do about the ongoing political transformation in Egypt?

First, ensure that Indian citizens and their interests are protected during and after the crisis. New Delhi has done well on this account, with the Indian embassy in Cairo putting out a statement on the safety of the Indian community there, establishing hotlines and organising special flights to evacuate citizens from Egypt.

Second, it is both premature and arrogant to presume that certain outcomes of the political transformation are desirable merely on account that they are either democratic or that they will prevent destabilising the entire region. It is too early to tell how the transformation will proceed, less to determine whether tomorrow’s political dispensation will be pro- or anti-India. A democratic Egypt—whether or not in the hands of moderate or extremist Islamists—can still pursue anti-India policies, just as an authoritarian regime can. We might prefer a secular, democratic Egyptian republic, but that’s really projecting our own values and biases on them.

New Delhi would do well to avoid taking sides in this conflict—leaving it to the likes of the United States and Europe to pay up for dishes they ordered. At the same time, the Indian government must signal that it will do business with whoever remains or comes to power.

Third, India must prepare to deal with the consequences of the Egyptian transformation, both in Egypt and in the wider Middle East. Much of this is contingency planning: how would India be affected if the reigning despots are replaced by politically elected governments, which might be Islamist? Would we see a shift in the Middle Eastern balance of power, weakening Saudi Arabia and strengthening Turkey? Should anti-American regimes come to power, will they attempt to rely on China to sustain their confrontation with the United States? What will the United States demand of India? These are just some of the questions that need deeper thinking and something that the Ministry of External Affairs’ policy planning department should be working on.

Update: Chimaya Gharekhan in The Hindu & C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express on the subject. (linkthanks Pragmatic_D)

Post-deluge Pakistan

An assessment

At the risk of being entirely wrong, here is an assessment of the political implications of floods in Pakistan.

1. Fears of Pakistan ending up as a “failed state with nuclear weapons” are overblown. The disaster is unprecedented and the response understandably inadequate but it does not set off an explosive dynamic along political faultlines.

2. Political changes are unlikely. The disaster has further cemented the army’s popularity, allowing it to claim credit for the government’s successes (for it is a part of the government) but avoid the blame for the failures (which accrue to the civilian political leadership). Given the immense challenge of rehabilitation and reconstruction that lies ahead, General Ashfaq Kayani would have to be a conceited fool–which so far at least, he has shown no signs of being–to want to countenance a change in the political set-up. A weak, powerless and unpopular President Asif Zardari is just what he needs. Nawaz Sharif’s hopes to become the prime minister are unlikely to fructify before the next election because he is popular, has political weight and could challenge General Kayani’s hold on power.

3. Pakistan will not only receive debt waivers but also see a relaxation of conditions relating to financial assistance. While this will come as a relief for the government and the elite, it will weaken the endogenous factors that will aid recovery by delaying the implementation of important macro-economic reforms. It will also ensure the perpetuation of the current political setup because debt waivers and unconditional assistance will come much easier if there’s a facade of a democratic government. Furthermore, given that a significant part of the international assistance will be routed through international agencies and NGOs, it will not strengthen the Pakistani government’s civilian capacity.

4. Jihadi militant organisations will become more powerful but will not be allowed to increase their political profiles. This disaster, like the 2005 earthquake, is being used by organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to bolster their credentials as a providers of social services. However, to the extent that the Pakistani government will be dependent on international assistance–and it will become more so in the immediate future—the military establishment will not allow such organisations to make a direct play for power. Let’s not forget that the LeT is a surrogate of the Pakistani military establishment, which, if it wants to, can directly seize power in a coup.

5. The military establishment will use the disaster as an alibi for downgrading its war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan in North Waziristan and elsewhere. Engaging in disaster relief will draw on military resources from the battle against the taliban, but there are deeper reasons for the army’s unwillingness to sustain battle against them. How quickly and to what extent it will resume the fight depends almost entirely on how much the United States can coerce the army.

6. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will not be interrupted. The US will find it difficult in the coming months to press the Pakistan army to cooperate in counter-insurgency operations because of the alibi. The direction of the war in Afghanistan will therefore depend on the Obama administration’s political will and determination.

7. Pakistan’s domestic stability is set to worsen. In the short-term, resettlement of internally displaced persons will complicate the ethnic and sectarian tensions in cities like Karachi, Hyderabad and Quetta. While this is likely to result in greater violence, it is unlikely to lead to collapse of the state. Instability will place an economic cost on Pakistan, damaging endogenous factors that can aid recovery.

8. The insurgency in Balochistan is likely to be contained. To the extent that the army is willing to use brute force and targeted killings to keep the lid on the conflict, and to the extent that the Baloch lack outright political support internationally, the prospects of secession are dim.

9. While radioactivity-leakage risks are low there is some risk to the security of nuclear plants, equipment and material. Such facilities are likely to have been built to withstand such contingencies. However, in the confusion that accompanies such events, there is a higher chance that physical security of nuclear installations can be breached. So far, there are no media reports flood waters affecting nuclear installations.

10.Disaster relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation will be decently funded. Despite the slow start in fundraising, despite concerns over aid distribution, the international community is unlikely to ignore humanitarian needs during the relief phase. However, it is unclear if the Pakistani government has the inclination and capacity to use the funds and goodwill to sustain its efforts beyond the short-term relief phase into the medium-term rehabilitation & reconstruction phase.

11. The US will make only small gains in popularity despite playing a leading role in relief and reconstruction. China and Saudi Arabia are likely to make disproportionately large gains. (In the short-term though, the situation is likely to be the opposite, because the narrative will be factual.)

Tailpiece: Pakistani officials and commentators would do well to avoid using the “unless the world gives money Pakistan will become a nuclear-armed failed state” bogey as it has been used so many times by so many people that it reeks of a shakedown. The humanitarian tragedy is serious enough a reason for well-meaning people and governments around the world to help.

Pax Indica: Playing the energy game with China

Why India must promote democracy abroad & private enterprise at home

An interesting conversation with Rajeev Mantri & Yogesh Mokashi last week led to the writing of this piece: how might India compete against China in the global quest for energy (and other) resources:

Moreover, the “game” is not one-off. It is a continuous ongoing game that will be played for generations. Nor is it entirely “zero-sum”. It is possible to envision a world where both China and India have access to the energy resources they need. Such a world is possible even when, perhaps only when, the two countries are competing (in a free market) for those resources. Such a world, however, will cer-tainly not come into being merely by wishing for it. It has to evolve, under the tender loving care of nuclear weapons.

The Indian government is trying to improve its score. It has set overseas acquisition targets for state-owned corporations and permitted them to spend $1.1 billion ‘without government approval’. This might yet produce some results—especially if it is backed by political support. It is unlikely, though, that bidding wars with companies that have parents with the world’s deepest pockets are winnable. That’s not all. As India found out in Kazakhstan in August 2005, the kid whose dad drives a Merc can get the goalposts shifted after the game begins.

Clearly, India’s strategy must be different. It must be one that plays to India’s strong points. It must also be one that undermines China’s advantages. The greatest asymmetries that are in India’s favour are democracy and private enterprise.

Consider. It would be much harder for China to move goalposts by coddling the dictator if there were no dictator to coddle. It would be much easier for Indian companies to compete against Chinese ones if the former didn’t have the Government of India as the single largest shareholder. In other words, in the long term, it is in India’s interests for resource-rich countries to be democracies. It is also in India’s interests to facilitate its private sector to expand globally. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing at Yahoo!

The BJP must elect its next leader

Only intra-party democracy will help the party bounce back

They are writing the BJP’s political obituary. And unless the BJP shows the vision, wisdom and determination that it has been lacking for the last several years, that obituary will be called for. Yet Indian politics will be adrift without a strong national counter-force to the Congress Party. A ‘New BJP’ and a ‘New NDA’, therefore, is necessary not only for its partisans, but for everyone else too.

Yesterday, a Friend of the BJP was wondering aloud which leader was capable of assuming the reins of the party leadership at this lowest of points and rebuild it into a viable national platform. While this is a fair concern, it presumes the business-as-usual method of selecting the leader—backroom parleys and discussions with the RSS leadership—will somehow suffice. Well, this might suffice for the BJP’s partisans, many of who were responsible for its ending up in the sorry state in the first place, but it is unlikely to guarantee a genuine national centre-right party with mass appeal.

For that the BJP’s card-carrying members must allowed to elect their own national leader in an intra-party election. The election will not only throw up a political leader with the necessary legitimacy to carry out the much needed rejuvenation, it might even attract mere friends of the BJP to become card-carrying members. In fact, this is an excellent opportunity to elect the party’s entire national executive though a nationwide election.

For the BJP, intra-party democracy is not only a nice-to-have, it is one of the best ways of ensuring its own survival. It’s time India demanded this of an important national political institution.

Rejecting Rebiya Kadeer’s visa application

…was a prudent and astute move by New Delhi

Rebiya Kadeer is indeed a remarkable woman. In recent weeks—not least due to China’s propaganda campaign to demonise her—she has emerged internationally as the best known symbol of Uighur separatism in China’s Xinjiang province. She has unequivocally advocated a non-violent political struggle, claimed that she is inspired by the Dalai Lama’s principles and is almost surely sustained by US government funding.

The Calcutta Telegraph reports that India has denied her a visa (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony via twitter). That is both prudent and astute. Whatever the merits of the Uighur cause, it is not in India’s interests to further escalate the level of direct antagonism with Beijing. Doing so would almost certainly draw attention away from the real faultline: between China and Turkic-Islamic world.

The ethnic riots in Xinjiang have caused a major rift in China’s relations with Turkey, after Receb Tayyib Erdogan, the popular Turkish prime minister, accused Beijing of conducting genocide and suggesting that it be taken up at the UN Security Council. China-Turkey bilateral relations are at a low. The Central Asian republics are also likely to be re-examining their own positions with respect to relations with China.

In contrast, the ‘Muslim world’ of popular imagination—the one that President Barack Obama spoke to in Cairo—has been conspicuously silent. Apart from a threat by a North African ‘affiliate’ of al-Qaeda, even the tapeworm and his traveling videographic studio has been silent about Chinese atrocities on Xinjiang’s Muslims. It is understandable that the regimes of such representatives of the ‘Muslim world’ as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are beholden to Beijing but even the civil society in these countries has given China the pass. But if the Uighur unrest continues, it is likely that Islamabad, Riyadh and Tehran will be put in an uncomfortable but well-deserved position. [Update: Rohit Pradhan notes that “Death to China” chants were heard at Rafsanjani’s rally in Tehran]

India should let the issue play out among the direct and self-appointed stakeholders. Intervening in a way that China sees as unfriendly will only draw the heat away and give the megaphone-wielding, concern-expressing capitals of the ‘Muslim world’ an undeserved reprieve.

The issue of an Indian visa for Ms Kadeer is only of symbolic importance. If she wants to meet the Dalai Lama, she could catch up with him on his travels abroad.

Voter registration is online

First register to vote. Then make sure you vote

Register to Vote

General elections have been announced. If you are not on the voters list, or are not sure that you are, just go over to Jaago Re and register online as soon as possible. Spread the word. Bug your friends, family, colleagues and neighbours. Nag them until they sign up.

And on polling day, make sure you vote.