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.

And he’s doing it before even winning the Booker prize

Chetan Bhagat uses sophisms to advance an argument for surrender

So how many cliched sophisms can you squeeze into one 900-word op-ed piece? Chetan Bhagat manages to do five. More than a defence of the prime minister as it announces itself to be, his op-ed in Hindustan Times (linkthanks Rohit Pradhan) is merely a series of lazy arguments and an intellectual superficiality that is more suited to a discussion of Hindi films, cricket matches and cafeteria-gossip, not the grave issues surrounding geopolitics, foreign policy and national security.

Mr Bhagat begins with a profound misunderstanding of “our attitude”. Instead of reconciling with Pakistan, he says, Indians want to “teach Pakistan a lesson” and put them in their place. Now assuming this is true, does Mr Bhagat pause to examine why? Is it perhaps because Pakistan has devoted itself to damaging India right from the word go? Reconciliation is not a rational response towards Pakistan until the time it unequivocally transforms itself into a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbour. Yet, the story since 1998 at least is one where India has made repeated attempts to reconcile—at political and popular levels—and on each occasion received a dagger in its flesh in return. So yes, bashing Pakistan might be considered patriotic and make good politics, but for good reason. Mr Bhagat doesn’t get into these reasons, of course, because they wouldn’t lend themselves to his conclusions.

The second sophism that Mr Bhagat uses is that ‘every Indian’s future is inextricably linked to Pakistan…because of what India spends on defence.’ This is not the (flawed) “we can’t change our neighbours” argument, it’s not even the (flawed) “guns vs butter” argument. It is a (flawed) “let’s submit to our neighbour’s blackmail” argument. It is disguised as (or confused for, if you want to be charitable) a guns-vs-butter argument by pointing to the opportunity costs of defence expenditure. But it sounds plausible for only as long as it takes you to realise that there are opportunity costs of non-defence too. Ask the Morioris, if there are any left to tell the tale.

A reasonable case can perhaps be made around the concept of a peace dividend—that giving Pakistan something would result in a lower defence expenditure that would in turn allow India to channel the ‘savings’ for development. That depends on what is the “something” that would satisfy Pakistan, and whether the act of giving that something away will actually result in a net positive dividend. Instead, Mr Bhagat asks “how badly do we want Kashmir?” As if giving away Kashmir would automatically lead to the building of colleges, irrigation projects, roads and power plants. This is the third sophism—the plausibility of which lasts only as long as it takes for you to listen to a Hafiz Mohammed Saeed’s speech. Giving in to Kashmir fatigue is a terrible idea. Mr Bhagat doesn’t bother to explain just conceding on Kashmir will lead to lower defence expenditure, less more colleges and roads. It’s a double sophism, actually, because Mr Bhagat presumes that government expenditure is required to build colleges, irrigation projects, roads and power plants. You know, just like it was government expenditure that put phones in almost everyone’s hands.

You should really put up your hands when you see India described as the land of Buddha and Gandhi which has somehow lost its peace goals, the fourth sophism. India’s national symbol is not The Other Cheek. As much as Buddha and Gandhi, this is also the land of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Arthashastra—treatises that reveal a sophisticated approach to statecraft. These books do not advocate peace at any cost. Even Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita.

When you don’t have to support your argument with evidence, you can just about say anything you like. Like, for instance, “we need to have peace…because we can’t afford to fight or stay prepared to fight for the next 20 years.” How does Mr Bhagat arrive at this extraordinary conclusion? If India struggling at economic growth rates of 5% or lower could afford to fight and stay prepared for the last 20 years and yet achieve over 8% growth today, surely, it can more easily afford it now? To use Mr Bhagat’s own analogy, if you could afford a security guard when you were poorer, you certainly can afford him now when you are richer.

The byline identifies Mr Bhagat as the author of The Three Mistakes of My Life. With this op-ed he’s made one more.

Enter the hatchet man

The Hindu returns to mislead, obfuscate and yes, bat for Beijing

As expected, the The Hindu has published an entirely one-sided editorial supporting Beijing and condemning the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. Why it took so long to come might not even be a mystery, in this age of instantaneous international communications, considering that Beijing decided to go on the media offensive after an initial period of censorship and silence. Now that The Hindu should take a pro-Beijing editorial line is acceptable, even if it is extremely disagreeable.

What is especially flagrant about the newspaper’s recent coverage is an insidious, misleading and grossly flawed attempt to cast China’s repression of Tibet favourably in comparison to various political conflicts in India.

If you go by western media reports, the propaganda of the so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’…Tibet is in the throes of a mass democratic uprising against Han Chinese communist rule…The reality is that the riot that broke out in Lhasa on March 14 and claimed a confirmed toll of 22 lives involved violent, ransacking mobs, including 300 militant monks from the Drepung Monastery, who marched in tandem with a foiled ‘March to Tibet’ by groups of monks across the border in India…There was violence also in Tibetan ethnic areas in the adjacent provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, which, according to official estimates, took an injury toll of more than 700. [The Hindu]

There’s intellectual dishonesty right from the start. The editorial begins by conflating the uprising with non-violent protests and implies that because there was violence, reports of an uprising are mere propaganda. The earliest international media reports, filed by The Economist’s James Miles, who ‘just happened to be in Lhasa‘ reported violence. Acknowledging this, the Dalai Lama himself has gone to the extreme of threatening to step down if violence continued. The fact that the protests turned violent is not disputed. What the The Hindu needs to explain is that if the Tibetan protests were not for freedom then what were they for? Surely, the violent, ransacking mobs were not out on the streets protesting against inflation!
Continue reading Enter the hatchet man

Don’t leave the army alone

War is too important a business to leave to the generals alone (notwithstanding Nehru-Krishna Menon)

In an editorial earlier this month The Pioneer called for the Army to be left alone, for there ‘are other ways to save money’. It is an excellent example of good intentions but poor policy thinking.

For some time now strategic affairs ‘experts’ and their political mentors, known for their proximity to the Washington establishment, have been peddling the theory that India needs a technology-intensive ‘lean-and-mean’ Army, not a large force of 11 lakh soldiers and officers.[via Bharat-Rakshak Forum]

The Pioneer gets off the mark on a very wrong note. It is presumptuous for it to not only cast aspersions on the expertise of those who have a different point of view but question their motives. We may be experts-in-quotes, but to the best of our knowledge Sushant Singh and I—who have argued for a more technology-intensive Armed Forces—are rather far away from Washington. The larger point here is that a sensible debate over making the Armed Forces more effective is impossible if one begins by questioning the other’s patriotism. Continue reading Don’t leave the army alone