The Second Delusion

The nation has charged far ahead of its foreign policy establishment’s mindset

A perspicacious piece by Ashok Malik on how the foreign policy establishment is yet to come to terms with India’s new reality (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran). First, there is a capacity problem. Second, there is the systemic incapacity to undertake a fundamental re-imagination of India’s role in the emerging world. Finally, there is the incessant feel-good “Bollywood gives us global influence” fodder that lulls everyone into the Second Delusion. (The first was when the Indian government believed that it was a leader of the “bloc of developing countries”).

Mr Malik’s antidote, therefore, is all too necessary.

In his inaugural speech, the Commerce and Industry Minister began by saying that he found the reference to India as a ‘rising great power’ very “uncomfortable” and proceeded to use that word five times. Two days later, the National Security Adviser was asked to speak on India’s equation with other great powers and said this was a “delicate subject”. He then explained how India wanted good relations with everybody from SAARC to the European Union, Japan to West Asia, without really revealing much at all.

It led to one British delegate being quite frank in suggesting that India’s intellectual contribution to the conference was below expectation. Another delegate pointed out that the world had heard of great powers, superpowers and hyperpowers, but now faced the prospect of a “nervous power”. Actually, what India is burdened with is an establishment nervous at the idea of power.

When asked to enunciate specific national goals and responses to well-defined challenges, Indian foreign policy interlocutors speak in platitudes without giving away anything. Actually, there is precious little to give away. Indian grand strategy is marked by its absence. In place of clarity, one is left with generalities.

At the IISS meeting, for instance, the Foreign Secretary spoke of India’s “civilisational engagement” with ASEAN. The following day, the NSA spoke of Iran being an “ancient civilisation”. Almost as a pattern, a few days later an article in a newspaper sought to date the India-Iran strategic partnership to the 16th century, when the ruler in Tehran lent his troops to Humayun to displace the successors of Sher Shah Suri.

This is plain humbug. In terms of hard power, India’s so-called civilisational engagement with a bewildering array of countries and regions has won it very little genuine influence. It is one thing to boast that Hindi films are watched halfway across the world and that Indian culture and soft power are geographically expansive. It is another to suggest that these can replace hard diplomacy, anchored in military and economy muscle and a trenchant security doctrine. [The Pioneer]

Related Links: The June 2007 issue of Pragati injected some new perspectives on India’s role in the coming decades. Read the piece on Soft Power, Hard Reality. Also see Rohit Pradhan’s pithy post on India’s attitude towards hard power.

The Indian difference in Africa

It’s about 53 countries, not one continent

It is, no doubt, a convenient shorthand to refer to “Africa policy”. But it is really about developing relations with over 50 countries that make up the African continent. There are signs that India is recognising this relatively better than other countries.

In an op-ed in Mint, Mukul Asher and Sushant Singh argue that the India and African countries should build “a long-haul developmental partnership, based on application of knowledge economy, development of human resources and deeper domestic linkages…(that will diversify) their global risks (and increase) their leverage in the global affairs.”

Excerpts:

India’s economic and strategic diplomacy towards Africa has been consistent. Many initiatives launched in the final years of the National Democratic Alliance government have not only continued but also flourished during the United Progressive Alliance regime.

India’s academic and research institutions, however, need to develop much greater understanding of individual African countries and broaden linkages with their counterparts in Africa. There is also an urgent need to create a larger pool of Indians in all spheres with familiarities with languages spoken in Africa. Such familiarity and empathy for Africa’s challenges can provide India with valuable competitive edge.

India’s economic model and its approach to engaging Africa is consistent with what former World Bank economist William Easterly, in his 2006 book The White Man’s Burden, called “searchers”. They, unlike “planners”, eschew global blueprints and seek to meet the demand of customers in a way that uses decentralized and customized approaches, while applying an existing stock of knowledge in a practical way to reduce resource costs and improve efficiency. [Mint]

Related Links: Wages of hyphenation; India in West Africa

A few hundred good men

Can India’s foreign policy get anywhere with fewer than 600 men and women running the show?

Two op-eds, one by Stanley Weiss in the International Herald-Tribune (linkthanks Adityanjee) and another by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express (linkthanks Sameer Wagle) deal with India’s lacklustre foreign policy. Mr Weiss writes about India’s neighbouring countries, for the international audience and has nothing really for those who are aware of Lax Indica. Dr Mehta’s piece, on the other hand, presents an important—often overlooked angle—to the discourse over why India’s foreign policy is the way it is.

It’s got to do with capacity. The Indian Foreign Service has only around 600 officers in total—and they not only man the foreign ministry desks in New Delhi and over 162 missions and embassies around the world, but also handle such administrative tasks such issuing passports at regional passport offices. India’s engagement with the external world has intensified manifold over the last 20 years: yet the primary task of shaping this engagement is left to such a small number of people.

But merely increasing the cadre strength of the IFS is not the solution. The bigger point is that foreign policy is too important (and certainly too big) to be left to professional diplomats alone. In Dr Mehta’s words India lacks the ability to “draw in from a wider pool that would allow it to think strategically rather than merely diplomatically.” And it lacks this ability because of a certain hollowness in the academia and the intellectual space. Apart from a handful of ‘premier’ think tanks, there are few institutions that produce thought leadership on foreign policy issues.

While analysing India’s foreign policy, most commentators—including this one—are guilty of focussing only on intentions. It is common enough to complain that India could have done better in this case or shown more backbone in that one. That’s the flashy end of foreign policy analysis. Worrying about organisation structure, staff strength, training and collaboration with minds outside government looks mundane in comparison. Dr Mehta does well to remind us of the importance of the latter. Just why is it important? In Essence of Decision, a seminal work on explaining how governments make decisions, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow describe three models of analysis. Their “Organisational Process” model suggests that government policies are primarly the result of bureaucratic output (and not the unmodulated action of a unitary actor).

To the extent that foreign policy is determined by the people in the foreign ministry (and their interactions with those outside it) restructuring the bureaucracy is likely to yield better results. It must, though, be accompanied by a change in the organisational culture—one that seeks, respects and uses outside expertise. This much is for the government to do. But raising think-tanks and academic departments is something that civil society is arguably better placed to accomplish. The government will remain the main actor, but there is something Indian citizens and corporates can do to make India’s foreign policy more credible. Mr Weiss, the author of the IHT article, heads an impressive organisation called Business Executives for National Security, a “a nationwide (US), non-partisan organization, is the primary channel through which senior business executives can help enhance the nation’s security.”

There’s nothing like it in India.

Niall Ferguson’s review of Terror and Consent

Fight hard, but according to the rules

Niall Ferguson has an excellent review of Phillip Bobbitt’s new book, Terror and Consent in the New York Times. Readers will find Bobbitt’s arguments on the need for a constitution-circumscribed but aggressive counter-terrorism strategy similar to The Acorn’s:

Bush’s instinct was not wrong. In this war, we do need pre-emptive detention of suspected terrorists; we do need a significant increase of surveillance, particularly of electronic communications; we do need, in some circumstances, to use coercive techniques (short of torture) to elicit information from terrorists. The administration’s fatal mistake was its failure to understand that these things could be achieved by appropriate modifications of the law. By doing what indeed was needed, but doing it outside the law, the administration undermined the legitimacy of American policy at home as well as abroad. Bobbitt is emphatic: all branches of government must act in conformity with the Constitution and the law.

To summarize: Bobbitt believes that there is a real war against terror; that civil liberties as previously understood may need to be curtailed to win it; that we must nevertheless fight it without violating our commitment to the rule of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone. This is certainly not a combination of positions calculated to endear Bobbitt either to the left or the right in the United States today. [NYT]

Bobbitt’s context is US foreign policy. But these arguments are largely applicable to constitutional democracies faced with having to fight wars against “networks” of terrorists and insurgents. The state cannot allow its legitimacy to erode even as it takes its fight to the “terrorists”.

Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?

Why proponents of a friendly relations with China undermine their case

M K Bhadrakumar is at it again. He asks if India’s “strategic alliance” (huh? which one?) with the United States

helped to discourage farmers in Vidharbha from taking their own lives in sheer despair, reduce the profound alienation of the people of Jammu & Kashmir or bring the neglected northeast into the national mainstream. Would “Malabar exercises” or the Indo-U.S. defence agreement or the envisaged “inter-operability” of the armed forces of the two countries make the South Asian security environment any less complicated? Would they help to ease India’s troubled relations with its neighbours? Do they tackle energy security or the looming food security crisis or the appalling illiteracy and malnutrition stalking the outer rings of our shining metros?[The Hindu]

Let’s indulge him and ignore for a moment that the India-US civilian nuclear power deal actually addresses energy security. Let’s assume that the answer is negative.

The question is: is foreign policy the relevant framework to address distressed farmers, disgruntled Kashmiris and neglected North-easterners? Or are these unhappy people victims of India’s inability to deliver effective governance? In his bid to attack India’s post-cold war foreign policy, Mr Bhadrakumar absurdly argues that foreign policy is somehow a cure for the rot in domestic governance.

His article, as before, is yet another attempt to argue why India should be pro-China and anti-America. But he fails by his own yardstick—will a pro-China and anti-America policy help people in Vidarbha, Kashmir and the North East?

Now pragmatic people will accept that India must maintain stable, hopefully friendly relations, with China. But pragmatic people will fail to understand Mr Bhadrakumar’s assertions that India’s foreign policy must necessarily antagonise the United States. Amusingly, he asserts that ” the nation got alienated from its foreign policy”. It is Mr Bhadrakumar who is alienated from the nation.

Here are some results of a nationally representative survey conducted in 2005-6 over 212,000 households:

First, there is a clear relationship between socio-economic status and the ability to respond to questions on foreign policy. The more elite (defined both by education and occupation), the more likely Indians will have an opinion on foreign policy issues. For the large number of rural landless, 69.7 percent “don’t know” while another 24.3 percent have “no response”. At the other extreme – educated urban professionals – the figures are 21 and 6 percent respectively, an almost four-fold difference. High non-response rates among the weaker socio-economic groups indicate that they may be “efficiently” ignorant i.e. they are not interested in putting in the effort on an issue that has low salience for them.
Continue reading “Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?”

Sunday Levity: The Bappi Lahiri doctrine

Understand India’s foreign policy through its music

A grand popular narrative of Indian foreign policy has not yet been written. Here, offered entirely without such niceties as empirical evidence, is an attempt to reconcile two glorious traditions: Indian foreign policy and Hindi film music.

While scholars have tried to explain Indian foreign policy through an examination of the personalities of prime ministers, priorities of ruling political parties and the exigencies of coalition politics, a cursory glance at the history of post-independence India—say through a thorough study of the dust jacket of Ramachandra Guha’s tome under the stimulating influence of IMFL—will reveal that it is through the music of the times that we can best understand it.

The state-owned broadcaster’s decision, in the 1950s, not to play O P Nayyar’s trendy melodies already gave an indication that the foreign policy course adopted by the Nehru government was not quite consistent with popular opinion. Throughout the 50s and the 60s, foreign policy—like film music—was beautiful and elegant, hopeful in general but well below potential. Like S D Burman’s music, non-alignment was almost designed to inspire nostalgia in future generations.

It was in the early 70s—under the R D Burman doctrine—that Indian foreign policy came into its own. It was a burst of energy: the power of which had global appeal, yet was a product of indigenous improvisation blending well with foreign technology. It was the music to win wars by.

By the late 1970s and 1980s the Alokesh “Bappi” Lahiri revolution had India in its grasp. Here was a doctrine that was amoral in the true sense of the word: it did not matter where something came from. What mattered was where it went. What mattered was how something could be used to hold the audience in thrall. The confidence and innovation of India’s foreign policy in the 1980s was wrongly attributed to the Rajiv Gandhi age. In reality, Mr Gandhi and his team were heavily inspired by the Bappi Lahiri doctrine—they were undaunted by the “not invented here” syndrome at a time when it was perhaps at its strongest. In a sense the Rajiv Gandhi team, like Mr Lahiri himself, was comprised of people with a solid pedigree in the classical, yet with a pulse on the modern. Like Mr Lahiri, they were often ahead of their times. [The Ilaiyaraja doctrine, meanwhile, quietly and unthreateningly expanded Indian influence in the Indian Ocean region.]

Isolated Anand-Milind’s and Raam-Laxman’s couldn’t rescue Indian foreign policy from the backlash against the Bappi Lahiri doctrine in the final years of the 80s. The murky Nadeem-Shravan business exposed the inroads organised crime-terrorism nexus had made into the country. Until A R Rahman arrived on the scene with a doctrine for the post-cold war world, there was generally a sense of drift. It was Mr Rahman who inspired a new confidence, bolstered by an India shedding many of its shibboleths—the economic and the political. The Rahman doctrine pointed towards new possibilities arising from globalisation; that not only could India hold its own, it could even shape—albeit in a limited sense—global developments. The zenith of the Rahman doctrine was India’s emergence as a nuclear power.

While the Rahman doctrine still animates much of Indian foreign policy, it also empowered several innovative doctrines: from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s sophisticated coalitional cosmopolitanism, to the popularisation of Indian folk music through the specialist device of item numbers, and to the dogmatic, relentless nasality of Himesh Reshammiya. The definitive post-Rahman doctrine is still a work in progress: but it is abundantly clear that all these schools both advocate and reflect an India spreading its influence far from its own shores. If Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is about embracing globalisation and expanding India’s soft power, it is Himesh Reshammiya that stands for a more than minimum credible deterrence. Between the two they allow a thousand home-grown item numbers to flourish.

The attitude towards item numbers, perhaps, best demonstrates the attitudes towards realism. At one time item numbers were almost solely picturised on Helen, an actress who was always The Vamp. Today item numbers are picturised on the hottest stars, and doing an item number well is often a ticket to fame and fortune. In Helen’s days, the item number was seen as a necessary evil and projected as immoral. Today it is mostly celebrated. Yet, even today, item numbers constitute only five minutes of the entire 30 minute album, suggesting that there are limits to the acceptance of realist prescriptions in the foreign policy mix. That may well be the lesson for students of foreign policy.

Pragati April 2008: Give them their freedom

Issue 13 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

The unkindest cut Salil Tripathi
The loan waiver keeps poor farmers where they are

Waiver of mass debt Vijay Mahajan
How that money could have been used to really change lives

Concerning senior citizens Mukul G Asher &? Deepa Vasudevan
Budget 2008-09 and the implications for a greying population

Waiting for modernisation Sushant K Singh & Nitin Pai
The dismal state of long term defence procurement planning

Letters
On the arms race in outer space

FILTER

Foreign aid to Afghanistan; Water and climate change

IN DEPTH

Dealing with China’s power projection Harsh V Pant
A rising China will not tolerate a rising India as a peer competitor

ROUNDUP

It matters what generals say K S Madhu Shankar
The army chief’s worrying remarks on the India-China border

Options in Sri Lanka T S Gopi Rethinaraj
And the risk of Sri Lanka falling sway to outside powers

New language formulas Sujay Rao Mandavilli
From an unsatisfactory compromise to a liberal decentralisation

BOOKS

Tagore in China Stephen S Hay
Edited excerpts from Asian Ideas of East and West

Subscribe | Download

John 8:7 does not apply to international relations

Perfection is not a pre-requisite for expressing concerns over China’s treatment of Tibetans

M K Bhadrakumar’s op-ed in The Hindu criticising India’s response to China’s handling of the Tibetan protests is bizarre. It is bizarre because despite being a former diplomat, he appears to argue that foreign policies ought to be free of double (or multiple) standards, and only perfect states can criticise others.

One does not have to be a practitioner of diplomacy to comprehend that the UPA government was advising China one or two things about how to set its house in order in Tibet. Evidently, our government is highly experienced in tackling political violence that regularly rocks our country and the Chinese government could learn a few useful things from the UPA. After all, in something like 150 districts in India, the writ of the Indian state no longer runs. Yet Beijing could see, our leadership calls the problem a mere “virus.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar’s implies that India has no right to criticise China’s handling of Tibetan protests because of its own failure to tackle Maoist political violence in the country. This argument is flawed at many levels. For one, India has never used violence against any political movement that is non-violent. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should equate the Maoists (for whom armed struggle is an article of faith) with the Tibetans (for whom non-violence is the article of faith). It defies imagination that he should equate India, a democracy with universal suffrage with China, a dictatorship where Tibetans (and non-Tibetans) do not have political rights.

It defies imagination that he should equate India, which still accords special statuses and prevents demographic change in states suffering from separatist violence with China, where transmigration is official policy and a ground reality. And it defies imagination that he should equate India, whose constitution protects religious minorities and whose governments go out of the way to pander to them, with China, which sees them as ‘primitive’ and in need of ‘modernisation’. In a world of imperfect states and imperfect governments, if there is a country that has moral right to speak to China, it is India. Ask Pallavi Aiyar.

Matt. 7:1 doesn’t apply either

The problem is that such vacuity and double standards can easily boomerang. Curiously, just as South Block was pontificating on how China should govern Tibet, a cable was landing in our foreign policy establishment informing it that the 60-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) at its summit meeting in Dakar, Senegal, adopted a devastatingly critical resolution on Jammu & Kashmir. Of course, this is not the first time that the OIC has done this. But the latest condemnation calling for the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people has been unusually strong. Among others, Foreign Ministers of friendly countries such as Turkey, Tajikistan, and Saudi Arabia expressed their anguish over the “plight” of Kashmiris in “Indian-occupied Kashmir.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar then points to the OIC’s recent escalation of rhetoric on Jammu & Kashmir and cites it as an example of such ‘double standards’ boomeranging. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should think that the OIC’s criticism of India over Jammu & Kashmir was influenced by India’s position over Tibet. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should believe that the OIC would pipe down its criticism if only India would remain silent on Tibet. It defies imagination that he should think that India should take the OIC more seriously merely because the Russia and the United States are doing so. It defies imagination the yardsticks he uses to define countries as ‘friendly’.

Now there is a reasonable argument—and one that The Acorn subscribes to—that India must refrain from going overboard in its support for the Tibetan protests lest this issue upset broader relations with China. But Mr Bhadrakumar defies imagination by holding the Indian government guilty of doing too much already. That’s really being holier than the Pope, for China itself has not registered even displeasure at India’s positions. Well, not through its official channels, at least.

Allow them to March to Tibet

India should have allowed Tibetan refugees to approach the border

Over a hundred Tibetan refugees, led by the indefatigable Tenzin Tsundue wanted to March to Tibet this week. Indian authorities stopped them at Dehra Bridge, not too far away from Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. The only reason for this was to save the Chinese government from the embarassment of having to deal with the situation (most likely, having to turn them back).

This was a bad move.

Not because it prevented a bunch of peaceful demonstrators from protesting. But because it should not have spared the Chinese government from potential embarrassment. Legally, there’s no reason to prevent refugees from going back to their home country. It should have been up to the Chinese government to allow them to enter, and march to Lhasa, or to turn them back. Such a move would not have violated any of India’s stated positions on the issue of Tibet’s independence.

The Indian government is probably under the impression that stopping the march will be interpreted as a favour by China. Calling it back, though, is totally another story. Moreover, to prevent a favour from being seen as an entitlement, it is necessary sometimes not to do the favour.

Related Link: A saffron revolution of sorts has begun, inside Tibet.

India’s foreign aid budget

More for Bhutan and Afghanistan, less for ‘other developing countries’

Here is a chart showing outlays for ‘technical and economic cooperation with other countries and advances to foreign governments’, allocated to the foreign ministry.

There are new allocations for Afghanistan, and an increase in allocations for Bhutan. There’s a modest increase for Sri Lanka and Africa. But allocations for ‘other developing countries’ (ODC in the chart above) have been cut. India appeared to have disbursed less that what was budgeted for Myanmar, and this year’s allocations are lower. There was an unplanned increase in assistance to Bangladesh last year—quite likely due to emergency assistance for flood relief—but the outlay this year is almost the same.