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.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On engagement in public affairs and on happiness

For contemplation in Independence Day—So where are you? Where are you? And should the government make you happy?

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

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

My op-ed in Mint: Indifferent India

“Failure of governance is as much a failure of the government as it is of the governed to be engaged”

In today’s Mint V Anantha Nageswaran and I renew our call for citizens to set aside civic apathy.

That leaves the middle class as the key catalyst for change. But it is focused on inflation in goods and services, in property prices and in the stock market. It needs to display sufficient grasp of the common thread between price rise, budget deficit and security threat. All three are marked by a failure of governance. Failure of governance is as much a failure of the government as it is a failure of the governed to be engaged.

Sadanand Dhume wrote in a Wall Street Journal article carried by this newspaper on 29 January that, over time, Indians would start demanding the same intellectual sophistication from their intellectuals that they do from their mobile phone service providers. Whether or not they demand that of the intellectuals, Indians need to demand integrity in governance and sophistication in public policy. After 26/11, there was a flurry of initiatives for active citizen engagement in governance. They died down as the stock market and property prices recovered in 2009.

Although United Progressive Alliance II is yet to get into a governance overdrive, it has opened up some avenues for us to demand better governance. They remain under-appreciated and under-utilized. [Mint]

On legalising prostitution

Social respectability shouldn’t get in the way of legality

Madhu Kishwar takes an eminently sensible comment by the Supreme Court—that the government ought to consider legalising prostitution—and engages in a tangential polemic on the social respectability of the oldest profession. “While there is need to decriminalise this activity and free sex workers from the terror and the extortionist grip of the police,” she writes “to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanising circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies.”

The fundamental flaw in her argument is that the mere fact that an activity is legal doesn’t make that activity socially respectable. In fact, ‘social respectability’ is itself subjective—depending the time, place and people concerned. It is an unfortunate fact that in many places in twenty-first century India, working as a public sanitation professional is not considered socially respectable. Yet no one argues that sewage cleaning ought to be illegal. Governments might try, but they are largely powerless in trying to change the social mores.

Even while Ms Kishwar’s questions on legalising prostitution appear rhetorical, it is useful and educative to answer them—not least because they help conceptualise how the prostitution industry might be governed.

What does the term “legalise” actually imply?

It would imply that consensual trade in sexual services between adult citizens is permitted.

Does it mean that a prostitute can open a sexshop anywhere she likes and advertise her services? Does it mean men or women supplying call girls should be able to set up an office in any neighborhood they like, just as doctors set up their clinics, proclaiming that call girls are available between such and such hours?

No. Zoning laws have existed in India for a long time and prostitution can be subject to it. Merely because leather tanning is legal doesn’t mean you can open a tannery anywhere you like. So too for brothels. Just because selling cigarettes and beer is legal doesn’t mean you can put up beer and cigarette advertisements anywhere you please. So too for brothels.

How many of us are willing to let our young children grow up amidst an atmosphere where renting a woman’s body for sex is considered a perfectly legitimate activity?

It’s not as if our young children are growing in an atmosphere where they are oblivious to the realities of the world they live in. But should the need to retain the pretence of innocence of our children outweigh the benefits—from exploitation by the mafia and by the police—to the hundreds of thousands of people in the sex industry today? Is Ms Kishwar suggesting that it is okay to allow hundreds of thousands of women and men to be exploited by criminal gangs and corrupt policemen so that we can tell our children, in the relative comfort of our middle-class homes, that prostitution is morally wrong?

If people come to know that a mafia don has set up a call-girl racket in their neighbourhood, do they have the right to seek its removal or does it mean other citizens have to suffer the presence of such activities in the name of “respecting” the rights of sex workers to an occupation of their choice and thereby endanger their own lives?

One major advantage of legalising prostitution is that it will be less susceptible to be a mafia-run business, with all the criminal political economy that is associated with an underground business. But Ms Kishwar has a point—how does one balance the rights of the prostitutes against the rights of the community they live in. It is a political question—and ought to be decided by the same political processes that govern other decisions. Democratic politics is noisy, messy and imperfect. It is, however, a very good way to answer questions involving such trade-offs. (See an earlier post from Amsterdam)

Those who demand that sex work be given the same “respect” as any other profession, need to explain whose duty it is to give or ensure “respect” for prostitutes and pimps? Is the government expected to enact a law requiring people not to shun prostitutes, as for instance it did to ban the practice of untouchability? One can prove that one does not practice untouchability by freely intermixing and inter-dining with castes condemned as untouchables. How does one prove one’s “respect” for a prostitute?

Governments can’t force anyone to respect anyone else. But as discussed earlier, this is largely irrelevant to the issue of whether it makes sense to legalise the sex industry. Ms Kishwar appears to come out against legalising prostitution because she is against according it social respectability. She is entitled to her view on what ought to be socially respectable, but it would be sad if that subjective judgement should be allowed to get in the way of de-illegalising prostitution.

In fact, there is a great danger in a society where only the socially respectable is legal, for such a society has closed its doors to progress.

Why fixing drains will help counter terrorism

India cannot be competent in internal security without being competent in overall governance

“If 26/11 is not to become another one in an endless series of fatalities,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes “we need to keep asking the question: how can a people who have much to be proud of, be endowed with a state that has much to be embarrassed about?” The answer is in a guest post I wrote on Dilip D’Souza’s blog last year. Here is the post, in full:

Since those Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in the last week of November, I received innumerable emails and phone calls from nice people expressing righteous anger against two targets: the incorrigible Pakistan and our own arrogant, self-serving and incompetent politicians. Shouldn’t we just bomb that place Muridke, where the ISI trains jihadis? Shouldn’t we punish politicians and bureaucrats who failed to prevent these attacks from happening? It was difficult to reason with them: no, we can’t just bomb Muridke, because, you know, that would start a war with a wretched, broken country that has nothing to lose. And besides, that’s exactly what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex wants us to do. Now, I didn’t think that I would have to defend myself against the charge of being a “dove”. But let that be for now.

What about our politicians and our security agencies? Shouldn’t they be punished for ignoring the terrorist threat until it was too late? Sure. But first, let’s ask when was it that we gave them a credible signal that we think this was important. And let’s ask ourselves why it should be surprising that our intelligence and security apparatus failed to prevent a sophisticated amphibious assault mounted by both the might of a powerful intelligence agency and a well-organised organised crime network.

South Mumbai is one of India’s richest constituencies. It also has the lowest voter turnouts. The Maharashtra state government routinely fails to protect its citizens from the ravages of the monsoon. Mumbai didn’t complain. The Maharashtra government failed to put uppity political goondas in their place. Mumbai didn’t complain. The state government shelved plans to invest Rs 2000 billion to modernise the city. Mumbai didn’t complain. Plans to transform it into an international financial centre disappeared into another black hole. Mumbai didn’t complain. The good citizens of India in general, and Mumbai in particular had seceded from the nation—choosing to provide for themselves the basic public goods that the government ought to have.

It is unreasonable to expect competent policemen and intelligence agencies when the public works, healthcare, education and environment departments are characterised by non-performance, corruption and worse. Unless the overall quality of governance improves, one cannot expect India to battle terrorism and other lesser threats to human security. And you can’t expect law enforcement to comply to the civilised norms we expect. In this context, it is just as unreasonable to expect the Indian state to be effective against terrorism as it is to expect it to show regard for human rights of suspects. The upshot is that overall governance must improve. How?

By voting. By giving money, legitimately, to politicians to support their election campaigns. And by holding them to account. I’m stopped at this point by people who say it won’t work, and we need to do something “stronger” to change politics. I find this amazing. Because despite being one of the simplest instruments available to Indians, it is dismissed as being ineffective by people who have not even tried it. If the vote is empowering the historically downtrodden segments of the Indian population, won’t it empower the middle class too? No, it’s not a quick fix, but our politicians are a smart lot—they are bound to notice a bank of votes and notes when they see one.

It doesn’t matter if the choice on the ballot is between a criminal and a person who has broken the law, between a former and current member of the same party, between a candidate of this party or that. Voting is the most credible signal we can send to our politicians—both to fix the drains and to secure us from terrorists. It’s time we send it loud and clear, above all the noise we make.

My op-ed in Indian Express: Challenges for India’s anti-Naxalite campaign

Making Operation Green Hunt succeed

In today’s Indian Express Sushant and I call for the Indian government to address two big issues that appear to be missing from its strategy to fight the Naxalite insurgency. Excerpts:

First, the Naxalites and their sympathisers will launch a psychological counter-offensive to weaken the political commitment to the campaign by trying to delegitimise it in the public mind. Security forces will be accused of human rights violations, and a dubious moral equivalence drawn between the damage chemotherapy causes and the cancer it treats. Celebrity activists will find a new cause to express their outrage in prize-worthy eloquence. Even genuine human-rights activists will become the Naxalites’ unwitting instruments — to the extent that criticism of the government’s conduct will be projected as an implicit vindication of the Maoist agenda….

To get out of this hole, the government must release accurate and factual information to the public with unprecedented timeliness. In this age of inexpensive technology and connectivity, there is no excuse for the home ministry to be unable to release reports, photographs and video footage from the field. Paying for advertisements in the national media will only take it so far—-unless the UPA government implements a sophisticated public communication strategy, it will find its political will sapped by the Naxalite propaganda machine.

This brings up the second challenge: India does not have the capacity to conduct the vital endgame of counter-insurgencies…

After any serious surgery, there is usually a brief period of convalescence in the hospital before the patient is discharged into the care of the general practitioner. India does not have the capacity to take an area that has been cleared of insurgents, build institutions of governance before discharging it to the state government. Unless this capacity is built, the successes of Operation Green Hunt will remain ephemeral.

Delivering governance in the immediate aftermath of conflict requires hybrid civil-military capacity. A new organisation must be raised by the Central government, under a restructured home ministry, to lay foundations for the rule of law, economic freedom and property rights in areas cleared of Naxalites. We call this the CIMPCOR or Civilian Military Partnership for Conflict Resolution model…

The alchemy of Naxalism lies in the transformation of millions of quotidian grievances into disaffection and rebellion against the Indian state. Green Hunt rightly focuses on security first; but it will only be complete when good governance eliminates those quotidian grievances. [Indian Express]

We flesh out the CIMPCOR model in our in-depth piece in Pragati that was reproduced by The Pioneer as a two part series.

Pragati October 2009: Targeting Naxalism

Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s characterisation of the Naxalite movement as the biggest threat to India’s internal security, for years, the Indian government showed little imagination and resolve in earnestly confronting it. While the Naxalite movement consolidated across the country, moving cadre, arms and funds across state and international borders, the Indian government’s response was inefficient and lacked coordination. Not only did this result in Naxalites gaining strength unchecked, it also resulted in dubious and poorly-conceived responses like raising tribal militias and ham-fisted police action against rural and tribal populations in the worst-affected areas.

In its second term, the UPA government has demonstrated more seriousness in tackling what it calls Left Wing Extremism. Most of this month’s issue of Pragati deals with the nature of the Naxalite threat and the ways to address it. We argue that Naxalism is a manifestation of poor or absent governance but establishing good governance in Naxalite-affected areas, after successful security operations, requires the Indian government to invest in hybrid civil-military capacity that it does not yet have at the present time.

In addition: we have essays on the flux in Afghanistan, the UPA government’s much-publicised austerity drive; a parliamentary brief that examines MPs’ voting record; and other regular features.

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Absent Indian Voter Syndrome

Urban India’s failure to vote requires greater study

The Acorn has previously invited the ire of the citizens of Mumbai and Bangalore by blaming their neglect of voting for the sorry state of their cities’ (and India’s) governance.

Now, you would have thought that the series of terrorist attacks over the last few years—in commuter trains, places of worship, markets and finally, on Mumbai on November 26th last year—would have sensitised the urban voters of the need for all round improvement in governance. There were also reasonably well-publicised campaigns exhorting citizens to vote.

Yet, the turnout remained in the 40-45% range: more than one in two voters, it turns out, still didn’t turn up at the polling station. (Yes, there were some misguided initiatives that might have confused voters, but still…)

It’s terrible news. It confirms the belief among party political strategists that the urban middle class is merely a self-righteous, noisy segment that is electorally irrelevant. Sure, it’ll send undergarments to lumpen troglodytes, express eloquent outrage when a film is banned, take to the streets against politicians after terrorists attack and keep the candle industry in business, but it will not make a difference in terms of the composition of state legislatures and the national parliament. Why should they care?

That’s all very well for political parties and their strategists, but it means that it is unlikely that Indian politics—and governance—will see much of a break from the past. This is unacceptable.

Those individuals and organisations who are interested in improving governance need to study the Absent Indian Voter Syndrome in greater detail. It is clear that simple explanations of why eligible voters don’t vote are insufficient to explain AIVS phenomenon. Better analysis is required.

My op-ed in Mint: The lines of nuclear succession

the nuclear factor thus calls for both the declaration of a line of succession as well as ensuring that key cabinet portfolios are entrusted to separate individuals. It renders unacceptable practices that have either become norms or are compulsions of coalition politics. Parties preparing for the coming general election, therefore, would do well to go beyond announcing their prime ministerial candidates. They should announce their leadership succession strategy and the line-up for key cabinet positions.

The nuclear factor renders unacceptable practices that stem from the compulsions of coalition politics

In today’s Mint, I argue that “the nuclear factor thus calls for both the declaration of a line of succession as well as ensuring that key cabinet portfolios are entrusted to separate individuals. It renders unacceptable practices that have either become norms or are compulsions of coalition politics. Parties preparing for the coming general election, therefore, would do well to go beyond announcing their prime ministerial candidates. They should announce their leadership succession strategy and the line-up for key cabinet positions.”

Read the entire article over at LiveMint.