INILive Pilot: Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India

A live, online interactive programme on strategic affairs, public policy and governance

Here’s the recording of today’s INILive pilot.

Update: Edited transcript of the initial remarks:

In today’s programme I will analyse the issues related to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan last week. I will also try to address some of your questions and comments. Today, you can interact with me over twitter, using the hashtag #inilive

Now, there can be very little doubt over whether the Pakistani military leadership, Generals Ashfaq Kayani and Shuja Pasha were aware of Osama bin Laden’s location. The ISI is competent enough for this. Usually, top leaders have “plausible deniability”, they can claim that they didn’t know what their organisations were up to. In this case, General Kayani was ISI chief at the time bin Laden supposedly moved to Abbottabad. His denials are not plausible.

But what about the operation to get bin Laden? What role might the Pakistani military have played here? There can be many explanations. Let’s talk about the three most interesting ones:

One, it was, as the Obama Adm claims, carried out unilaterally by the United States, without informing the Pakistanis. Two, it was orchestrated by the Pakistani military establishment as a card in the endgame of the war in Afghanistan. Three, and it was an outcome of an ongoing power struggle among various sections of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. Continue reading “INILive Pilot: Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India”

The Asian Balance: The case for military diplomacy

The men in uniform can play a useful role in foreign policy

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

India does not engage in military diplomacy in any meaningful form.

This is part of the reason why India finds itself in a bind with respect to Pakistan, where it needs to engage the real power centre but finds itself with no means to. It is not a matter of matching protocol, for it is not purely military matters that we wish to discuss with General Kayani. Washington, in comparison, handles this a lot better through Admiral Mullen and General David Petraeus, the Af-Pak theatre commander, who are the primary interlocutors with the Pakistan army. Given that these admirals and generals are engaged in diplomatic activities of serious importance to India, can we afford to stay out of the military diplomatic loop?

This is not to say that New Delhi must set its generals and admirals off on diplomatic missions next week. Rather, India must make military diplomacy part of its foreign policy toolbox and create the capacities, structures and processes necessary to put it into action.

Diplomacy must enter the syllabuses of our military academies. Trained military officers must be deputed to Indian embassies and missions around the world, both to add to the numbers of defence attaches as well as to perform non-military functions. Not only will this expose military officers to the conduct of diplomacy but also address another problem — the inability of the Indian Foreign Service to ramp up its numbers fast enough to meet the growing demand. Furthermore, the socialisation of defence and foreign service officers through such postings will create benefits in the long term, in terms of greater understanding and policy coordination.

What about structures? As the late K Subrahmanyam consistently argued, India must restructure its armed forces along the lines of the US, with a joint chiefs of staff and tri-service theatre commands. Like it has done for the US, such a structure will lend itself to the conduct of military diplomacy.

However, while we wait for the political and defence establishments to develop an appetite for major reforms, it is possible to make adjustments to the existing structures to get some mileage. Why not make a senior defence officer the National Security Advisor? Why doesn’t the National Security Council have senior military officers in top leadership positions? Indeed, a general in the NSC can well be the point person to engage the Pakistani army establishment. [Read the whole piece at Business Standard]

To be a real power

On the real challenges facing India’s foreign policy

Here’s a video of my opening remarks at a roundtable a few days ago at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It dealt with India in a globalised world and was organised by Vivek Dehejia, featuring Ashutosh Varshney (professor of political science at Brown University) and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (journalist and documentary film-maker) in addition to me. You can watch the entire 90 minute programme on Mr Dehejia’s Vimeo page, of which the following is a short excerpt.

Note: In the talk I state that Singapore has more diplomats that India. This is an exaggeration, but only just. According to Daniel Markey, Singapore has 487 professional foreign service officers while India has 669. However, not all of India’s foreign service officers are engaged shaping foreign policy or conducting diplomacy. Some of them, for instance, are passport officers.

Three thoughts for the Republic

Organising our republic, keeping it united and improving its lot

For reflection on Republic day: Pragati’s inaugural editorial; on the grand strategy of uniting India and why we urgently need Reforms 2.0.

The three thought archive:
Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;
and on Independence Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

The rise of Netions

My talk at MEA’s International Conference on Public Diplomacy 2010

Last week I spoke at a conference in New Delhi on how the proliferation of social networks is creating new imagined communities—that I call Netions—and how they are profoundly changing international politics.

Video recordings of all the sessions are available at the conference website.

Pax Indica: Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Five neighbourhood paradoxes

You might have noticed that, relatively speaking, India’s policy towards the United States or Japan is far more coherent than towards, say, Nepal. Over the last few years, New Delhi was able to challenge the age-old dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), strike a favourable bargain with Washington and break into the international nuclear mainstream. Contrast that with the Indian government’s inability to play any palpable role in the political upheavals taking place in all the countries across its borders. The consensus, confidence and coherence that is increasingly visible in India’s dealings with the world’s powers is conspicuously missing in its dealings with its immediate neighbours. Why? Because neighbourhood policy is trapped in five paradoxes.

The paradox of proximity: While a peaceful and stable neighbourhood is conducive to India’s growth and development, domestic politics circumscribes New Delhi’s ability to intervene coherently. Look no further than the way the UPA government handled the Sri Lankan civil war. A government that names every fixed object built with public funds after Rajiv Gandhi could still not bring itself to unequivocally oppose the terrorist organisation that killed him. It’s not as if the LTTE enjoyed massive support in Tamil Nadu — it’s popularity waned after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — but such was the political calculus that untrammeled support for the Sri Lankan government became impossible. This opened the gates for China to make inroads into India’s southern neighbour, the implications of which will unfold over the next few years.

It’s a similar story with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and not always political. S D Muni, one of India’s leading authorities on international relations, says that the PWD engineers in the Indian districts adjoining Nepal have a say in New Delhi’s policy towards its Himalayan neighbour, because water-sharing is a key bilateral issue.

The paradox of power: as India’s geopolitical power has grown so has its fear of overreach. In a way, this is a reversal of the 1980s when the Rajiv Gandhi government’s ambitions were not always matched by adequate economic and military capacity. Like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi understood and was unhesitant to project power where necessary. Sending paratroopers to the Maldives to foil a coup by armed mercenaries, getting the Indian Air Force to drop relief supplies over Jaffna in defiance of the Sri Lankan government and ordering military exercises that implicitly threatened Pakistan were bold uses of power. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi had severely damaged the domestic economic engines necessary to generate and sustain that power, ultimately resulting in the overreach in Sri Lanka. That experience so scarred India’s politicians and policymakers that the use of military force outside India’s borders has been practically renounced as a tool of statecraft.

Instead of a careful projection of power within India’s (much greater) capacity today, we have strategy by bureaucracy. When you hear policy-makers say ”we will only send troops under the UN flag” you wonder whether our armed forces exist to serve our interests or those of the United Nations. This is not an argument for a trigger-happy policy. Rather, that India is incapable of protecting its interests without rethinking its policy on overseas military deployments.

The paradox of engagement: New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we.

It’s somewhat similar in Nepal, where we don’t properly talk to the Maoists. It’s the opposite in Myanmar, where we speak only to the generals and have so ignored the beleagured democratic opposition that, in the event that there is a change in circumstances in that benighted country, New Delhi will find itself needing to make new friends fast. Yes, circumstances are unlikely to change, but that’s no excuse to not hedge your bets.

The paradox of process: we are relying on processes that are only feasible when they achieve the outcomes they seek. In simple English, that’s called putting the cart before the horse. That absurd game of dossiers & lawsuits with Pakistan is a case in point. It would have been meaningful to use legal processes if India and Pakistan enjoyed the kind of normal relations that exist, say, between Malaysia and Thailand. But since they don’t, and Pakistan’s legal system is a joke (I’m not being charitable this time) dossiers & lawsuits is not only ridiculous. It is counterproductive, because anyone who reads newspapers will be put off by Islamabad’s shifty, brazen, too-clever-by-half attitude.

And finally, there’s the paradox of neighbourhood—we can’t choose our neighbours, but we have. For centuries, Gujaratis have been neighbours with East Africans. Keralites are neighbours of the Gulf Arabs, Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore. New Delhi doesn’t consider these countries neighbours. Yet they are. Treating them as if they are not has trapped us into a mindset of living in a troubled, unstable neighbourhood. This is one unfortunate fallout of the faulty conceptualisation of “South Asia” as being limited to the countries of the subcontinent. Once you see the neighbourhood as what it is, and includes East Africa, the Gulf, and South East Asia, you’ll find it full of opportunities, not vexed problems.

The first of these paradoxes might well be structural — foreign policy problems are more difficult to solve when entangled with domestic politics. But the other paradoxes are those of agency — we might be able to escape them if we want to. If we want to.

(This is the unedited version of my column in Yahoo! India)

Double talk on double-digit

India doesn’t need to buy peace from its neighbours to sustain economic growth

At a talk I gave recently, one person asked if the numerous crises in India’s immediate neighbourhood limit India’s growth. This was some time after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a press conference in May, asserted that “India would be unable to realise its full economic potential if it couldn’t reduce tensions with its neighbours, especially Pakistan”.

“Not at the moment, and not for the foreseeable future” I replied, “because the biggest bottlenecks to sustainable economic growth are domestic.” Only after the most important reforms—creating a national common market, unshackling agriculture, liberalising labour laws and fixing the education system—run their course might the situation in the neighbourhood begin to matter.

In a recent paper demographics and India’s labour force, Tushar Poddar and Pragyan Deb of Goldman Sachs estimate that they see the Indian economy growing at a base rate of 8% per annum. With the required reforms, the growth rate will increase to 9%. With wrong policies, there is a risk that the growth rate will fall to 6.5%. [See recent articles by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha & V Anantha Nageswaran for a discussion on sustaining high growth rates].

The neighbourhood doesn’t register much in these assessments. In fact, Dr Singh himself concedes as much. “A number of inherent strengths in the country’s economy,” he said this month “can contribute to rapid growth in the future and they should be harnessed to push up economic growth to double digits.” In other words, Dr Singh the economist contradicts Dr Singh the geopolitical strategist.

The prime minister’s concession underlines the simple fact the most brazen of Pakistan’s skulduggeries are but a pimple on the posterior of the India economy. You don’t need to have grand “composite dialogues” with Pakistan’s impotent politicians to sustain India’s economic growth.

On the contrary, the question for India’s neighbours is whether or not they want to benefit from India’s growth process? It’s their decision. Sri Lanka and now Bangladesh appear to have embarked on trajectories that make the most out of opportunities provided by both India and China. Pakistan—perhaps because its unaccountable elite are buttressed by liberal Western aid—is unconcerned with improving the lot of its own people. That is its own problem. This does not mean it is not in India’s interests to improve trade with its crisis-ridden neighbour. It only means that it won’t hurt the Indian economy much if it doesn’t happen.

Once the Indian economy exhausts all the potential from the necessary next wave of reforms the condition of the neighbourhood might begin to impose constraints on its further growth. That point is at least two decades away. And it is by no means certain that it’ll matter even then, for it is possible that the neighbourhood will matter even less.

The Sonia Gandhi-led Congress Party is equivocal (okay, very unwilling) on using its political capital to carry out the reforms that are necessary for sustainable double-digit growth. Dr Singh is committed to losing his political capital on pursuing talks with Pakistan that are unnecessary for that purpose. Don’t be fooled.

From the archives: The Reagan Parallel, June 2004

We are entitled to fish!

Of fishermen and foreign policy analysts

Photo: Steve Weaver

Two Indian fishermen went out to sea in a little boat. Matta was a very good man. He was a good son, a good husband and a good father to his two children. He was not given to the alcoholism that characterised the fishing communities along the coast. He didn’t even smoke beedis. He was frugal in his habits but not miserly. Yet such was his lot that he couldn’t put away any money by way of savings. Life, literally, was a day-to-day affair. The well-being of his entire family depended on his ability to catch fish.

Kutty, his childhood friend, was his inseparable companion. While not brimming with virtue, and even after accounting for his tendency to become cynical, Kutty was also a decent man. He had only his own mouth to feed so he didn’t need to catch all that many fish.

The sea off their village was not teeming with fish, but it had long sustained the dozen or so hamlets that dotted the bay. Winters were more bountiful than summers and there would be days in spring where the fish would very nearly jump out of the sea and into the boats. But there would also be days when it would be hard to spot so much as one seer fish for hours of trying.

The two fishermen were unhappy: Matta, because he couldn’t catch too many fish at all, and Kutty because he knew others could.

Matta would not attach a bait to the end of his fishing line. And he wouldn’t take his boat into the waters beyond his own village because he believed that would be wrong. The fact that boats from other villages entered his own waters didn’t change his mind, for he argued, two wrongs don’t make a right. He held to his steadfast conviction that he deserved the fish because not only because he needed them, but also because he was a virtuous person. He was, he firmly believed, entitled to the fish.

So he would be surprised when he came home in the evening with a few small fish or none, while that Beoda next door hired half-a-dozen hamals to offload his catch. And he would be surprised frequently, sometimes as many as seven times in a week.

Kutty, who left the actual fishing to Matta, lamented that their boat was old, the fishing rod was not long enough and their nets let the fish slip out. He complained, often to Matta but mostly to himself, that they were too busy to repair their boat and too poor to buy a new one. One of Kutty’s favourite hypotheses—and he had many of these—was that people who lived to the south of the big mango tree were bad at catching fish. Kutty also blamed the village panchayat and the fishermen’s union for a variety of reasons, including being comprised of several people who lived south of the said mango tree. “Something has to be done about all this” he would say often, always in the passive voice.

The two fishermen were unhappy: Matta, because he couldn’t catch too many fish at all, and Kutty because he knew others could.

Related Posts: Santa Singh on Train Number 2627; Esky and the Penguins

Engaged neutrality in Sri Lanka

India should refrain from taking sides in Colombo

Sri Lanka, as the Indian Express put it, “seems to be on the brink of a new political fracture.” It is unclear why Mahinda Rajapaksa had to resort to highly draconian measures after his electoral victory. Putting his defeated challenger under arrest and on trial on ostensibly flimsy legalistic grounds appears to be wholly unnecessary and a grossly perverse calculation of priorities—the urgent task of reconciling a post-LTTE Sri Lanka needs political magnanimity and high statesmanship, not petty authoritarianism. [See Dayan Jayatilleka’s post in Groundviews] President Rajapaksa has made a big mistake.

Even so, India would do well to allow the Sri Lankan political processes and constitutional machinery to run their course. It is not unusual for Sri Lankan politicians to call for an Indian intervention when their own chips are down, but New Delhi should keep its distance from the goings-on in Colombo. Even as it maintains overall neutrality, it is important that India deeply engage all segments of Sri Lankan politics through multiple, parallel channels. It is possible that such a position, by itself, will result in a calming influence that will restore political stability. If it does not, it will place New Delhi in a much better position to intervene should the need arise.

And no, engaged does not mean passivity. It means the opposite.