Tag Archives | India

India’s position on Crimea

Don’t rush to take sides.

This was my response to a journalist’s question on what I thought of India’s position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

India neither has important interests nor the capability to be a useful player over Ukraine and Crimea. It is therefore sensible for New Delhi to let those with interests & capabilities play it out and deal with the outcomes. In any case, the Crimean case conclusively shows that the UN Security Council cannot be relied upon to uphold and enforce the UN Charter.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea leads to a wider armed conflict then New Delhi will have to review its position.

The Acorn's Power Principle Matrix

Power & Principle Matrix

For context, see this post on the Power & Principle Matrix. Taking gratuitous moral positions is not a good way to conduct foreign policy. Let’s not forget that the principle of territorial integrity that the United States and European Union are invoking over Crimea was overlooked with respect to Kosovo a few years ago. A different principle—mass atrocities against the population—was invoked then. Clearly, interests determine which principle is evoked in international relations.

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This needs diplomacy

Going overboard on local law enforcement is not the way to go

There have been two broad sets of reactions in India and among Indians to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on underpaying the domestic helper.

First, there has been a fierce nationalistic response, supporting retaliatory measures against US diplomats in India. This has not only staunchly backed the Indian government’s surprisingly swift actions in suspending import clearances for the US embassy’s liquor supplies and removing traffic barriers that the embassy installed outside its premises. There is a clamour among such quarters for even more.

Now, while it is important that New Delhi send strong signals to the Washington that India will not tolerate its diplomats—albeit one accused of an offence—being treated as dangerous criminals, the reactionary perspective ignores the risks to the painstakingly built bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Second, there are those who argue that Ms Khobragade is in the wrong and her absconding domestic helper is the one who is truly wronged. Some have argued that the Indian bureaucracy is too used to privilege at home and should not expect such perquisites as domestic helpers abroad, that they should “do their own dishes, like everyone else.” Furthermore, they contend, would the foreign service act with such alacrity if an ordinary citizen had been arrested?

Going by media reports there are grounds to accept that the authorities have a case against Ms Khobragade. Whether or not she enjoys diplomatic immunity, if it is established she has committed an offence, it is right that consequences should follow. NRIs and Indians might reasonably resent what they see as privilege and less reasonably use stereotypes to pronounce judgement on Ms Khobragade, but these are peripheral to the issue. The Indian government is obliged to take care of its employees abroad—not least a consular officer charged with the responsibility of taking care of citizens’ interests abroad!—just like any other employer.

Between liberal democratic rule-of-law countries like India and the United States, such matters are best handled in courts of law (see an earlier post on the case of the Italian marines). This is complicated in Ms Khobragade’s case, as both Indian and US courts are involved. Even so, letting the legal process determine a solution would have been and is still probably the best course of action. What complicated matters is the manner in which Ms Khobragade was arrested and treated by US authorities. She is a diplomat, the nature of her alleged offence is more in the nature of a breach of contract than a violent crime, and despite what is popularly claimed, the US authorities do treat different people differently (ask Prince Bandar for details).

The bigger problem with the “US enforces its laws seriously” argument is that Indian authorities can do it too. That would make things ugly indeed because there are quite a few statutes in our books whose strict interpretation could place more than a few foreign diplomats in prison, and ordinary treatment in Indian prisons is not, to put it mildly, pleasant. For instance, a senior BJP leader has demanded that the government invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—that renders illegal many quotidian sexual acts between consenting adults—against US diplomats. Even if it sounds over the top, it demonstrates that riding the legalistic high-horse won’t help. [We strongly disagree with Section 377, just as many Americans disagree with minimum wage laws.]

Therefore, diplomacy needs to kick in to make the situation conducive to a legal solution. Unless this happens, legalistic processes can escalate the matter into a situation where it becomes difficult for either side to give in or back off. Foreign relations are too important to be left to district attorneys, traffic policemen and customs officers. We can say with some confidence that no serious person in Washington or New Delhi wants Ms Khobragade’s case to undermine bilateral relations. Now that both sides have made their points, it is time for the political leaders to intervene and arrest the process.

My colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted that the speed and force with which New Delhi acted against the United States on a minor issue like this stands out against the reluctance the Indian government demonstrates while handling Chinese or Pakistani transgressions. Of course, grandstanding against the West comes naturally to New Delhi but could it also be that the bilateral relationship is on such a footing today that our foreign policy establishment presumes that this won’t affect the big picture?

Even so, the UPA government and the Obama administration will be jointly responsible if this incident is any more than a temporary irritant in the bilateral relationship.

Related Link: An ugly diplomatic exchange — My storified comments on Twitter.

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Rackets, threats and good sense

Handling the Nigerian kerfuffle in Goa

Only the credulous will be surprised that there are a number of organised criminal groups involved in the drug trafficking business in Goa. Russian, Israeli, Nigerian, Chinese and presumably local syndicates have carved out the market geographically, in terms of the drugs peddled and so on. Again, only the credulous will believe that this state of affairs can exist without connivance of the local politicians and law enforcement authorities. As Mayabhushan Nagvenkar reported in FirstPost last month, a report tabled in the state legislative assembly says as much.

It is in this context that we must see the murder of a Nigerian and the subsequent events it triggered. To be sure, not all Nigerians in Goa are involved in drug smuggling, just as not all Goans are anti-Nigerian racists. Yet the existence of Nigerian criminals, crooked cops, corrupt politicians and racist Goans is undeniable in this case.

On Thursday, a mob of over 200 irate Nigerians, who police allege are part of a narcotics gang, blocked a national highway for several hours and attacked locals and policemen, protesting the murder of their compatriot, allegedly by a local rival gang operating from Chapora, a coastal village and “hub” for the drug trade.

What followed the blockade was a bloody and sordid episode where one Nigerian was nearly beaten to death in police presence and a sustained outpouring of racist tripe against the ebony-skinned Africans on the social media network, the mainstream media as well as the public at-large.[Nagvenkar/DNA]

Policing in India is not known for its sensitivity or, well, discrimination. After the state government ordered a ‘crackdown’, police have been out and about the place looking for foreigners and verifying their papers. Now, because there are a number of foreigners — of several nationalities — in Goa without proper documentation, the business of police verification has caused, as of now, something bigger than a kerfuffle and smaller than an upheaval.

It is a diplomat’s job to be concerned about the well-being of a country’s citizens in foreign lands. Given the consular problems concerning Nigerians in India — from undertrials to deportees –, accusations of maltreatment by Indian authorities and further accusations of racist attitudes, it is fair for the Nigerian consular officials to take a proactive role in managing the tensions in Goa.

What Jacob Nwadidia, reportedly a Nigerian consular attache in India, said transgresses all norms of civilised diplomacy. If the Goa state government’s crackdown does not stop in 24 hours, he threatened, “that hundreds of thousands of Indians will be thrown out on the streets in Nigeria.”

If you have heard of the order of the authorities, especially Michael Lobo who is the MLA of Calangute, I am giving him 24 hours from tonight to cancel his ‘order’ that Nigerians should be thrown out on to the streets. If he does not cancel (it), I am telling you that hundreds of thousands of Indians will be thrown out on the streets in Nigeria. And I’m serious about it. India is five hours ahead of Nigeria. There is still enough time to reach my headquarters and tell the Nigerian government that Nigerians in Goa have been thrown out on the street,” he said.

“If Michael Lobo does not cancel that ‘order’ I am telling you that news will come that Indians in Nigeria have been thrown out on the street. That’s what I’m telling you and I mean what I’ve said,” he told Herald. Referring to the ongoing police verification drive in Parra and surrounding areas, he added: “Police should stop from going house to house to eject and evict Nigerians. If that does not stop in 24 hours then Indians should bear responsibility for what happens in Nigeria,” he said.

“There are only 50,000 Nigerians in India but over one million Indians live in Nigeria. Several thousand Indians will be on the streets if forcible eviction of Nigerians in Goa does not stop,” Jacob Nwadidia is reported to have said.[Herald]

If Mr Nwadidia indeed made the threats as several media reports indicate, New Delhi should declare him persona non grata and expel him. Diplomats don’t threaten mass violence against innocent people. Thugs do. The Nigerian High Commission in New Delhi would do well to repudiate the comments made by one of its officials.

Mr Nwadidia was not only wrong in form but also wrong on facts. According to the Indian High Commission in Abuja, the size of the Indian community in Nigeria is around 35,000 persons, of which 25,000 are Indian citizens and the remaining persons of Indian origin. India has demonstrated that it can evacuate such numbers of its nationals if the need arises.

The threat is especially dangerous because of Nigeria’s deteriorating security situation. In January this year, the Indian mission issued a security advisory noting that “Indians living in Nigeria came under unprecedented level of insecurity and were, occasionally, unfortunate victims” and calling upon nationals to take precautions.

In a subsequent advisory issued in May it said

“(in the recent past), security situation in some parts of Nigeria has deteriorated. There have been violent incidents in the north, north-centre and north-east of the country. A sharp increase in cases of kidnappings in coastal belt, particularly by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, has also been noted. These instances of insecurity have occasionally involved Indian nationals as unfortunate victims. While in most cases they were passive victims of a situation or a criminal conspiracy, there are cases when they were specifically targeted for kidnapping or physical harm.”[IHC Abuja]

India is among Nigeria’s top trading partners, not least due to oil and gas imports. Indian companies are increasing their investments in West Africa and Nigeria is a big recipient of Indian investment. Last year, 40,000 Nigerians received visas to visit India. The nature of bilateral relations indicates that there is a lot that the two countries have to lose if irresponsible talk leads to violence on the ground. If memories of Idi Amin’s actions against ethnic Indians are brought up to scare the Indian government, the Nigerian government can’t be unaware of the more proximate example of Robert Mugabe’s ruinous policies in Zimbabwe.

It is unclear if the Goa government is committed to a clean-up of the criminal activity in the state. If so, expect more such kerfuffles involving other foreigners. Given the international effects, the government ought to employ a lot more sophistication in its law enforcement activities. Beyond that, it would be out of place for one of India’s most open-minded and cosmopolitan states to allow racist sentiments to dominate the public discourse over this issue.

For New Delhi’s part, action against the errant Mr Nwadidia ought to signal its rejection of the suggestion that Nigeria is holding Indian nationals hostage. That should get saner heads into the equation.

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The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

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How the government will keep its entitlement commitments

You won’t like any of them

No one really knows how much the Food Security Bill (or Act, if it becomes law) will cost the exchequer. Given the way the legislation is framed, it is impossible to make an accurate assessment of its costs. That doesn’t mean we are short of proponents who argue that it should be (or, worse, normatively must be) affordable. We also have a few opponents who argue that it’s more expensive that what the proponents suggest. We’re talking about numbers whose order of magnitude is in the range of single-digit percentages of GDP.

The scheme is open-ended: there’s no expiry date, no sunset clause. It covers around two-thirds of the population—even those who are not really needy. This means that the outlays will have to increase as the population grows.

Obviously, finding the money to keep this scheme going year after year will be a big problem. There’s worse news though—this programme is over and above other open-ended spending commitments like the NREGA, fuel and fertiliser subsidies which are in the vicinity of 2%-3% of GDP. These are the explicit subsidies. We will not even attempt to calculate the implicit subsidies and opportunity costs in this post.

Many of these schemes work such that the subsidy load will increase when growth slows down. In other words, at such times, subsidies as a fraction of GDP will increase—tightening the government’s budget constraints and reducing its fiscal space.

The nature of these schemes is such that governments will be scared to cut them during times of distress, forget ending them altogether. So how will the Indian government finance the gargantuan entitlement economy and what might be the consequences?

First, through new and higher taxes. This has already happened. Didn’t you notice the ‘education cess’? Didn’t you notice the higher marginal taxes on high income earners? Expect more of the ‘Good Cause Cesses/Surcharges’, a fiscal sleight of hand to raise new taxes by citing a plausible good cause. (See this post on education cess for more). As the economic and fiscal situation gets worse, expect higher tax rates lower down the income pyramid. Corporate profits are also an easy target—so they too will be taxed in increasingly creative and extortionary ways.

The consequence of higher taxes are lower investments and higher tax evasion. Lower investment means lower growth. Higher taxes when you are already in a low growth phase is a recipe to stay in the low growth phase longer than otherwise.

The second way for the government to raise resources is through borrowing. It can borrow money abroad (and incur foreign debt) and borrow money from the domestic market. The former puts the Indian government at the mercy of its foreign lenders to the extent of its borrowings. If you do not recall the days of the 1960s-80s, when India was mired in foreign debt, ask someone who does.

The Indian government can borrow from Indian citizens and corporates through the bond market and other instruments (a new -Vikas Patra can be invented quite easily). While it transfers money into the government’s budget, it crowds out the private sector. Interest rates will rise because of the large government demand for funds, making it harder for entrepreneurs and businesses to raise funds to expand their economic activity. This too puts the brakes on economic growth. Higher interest rates during an economic slowdown will prolong it.

The third way for the government to raise resources is to get the Reserve Bank of India to print more money. This has the effect of increasing inflation and depreciating the value of the rupee vis-a-vis other currencies. Higher inflation makes people poorer. It makes poorer people even more poorer (because they do not own assets like real estate, shares or foreign exchange that can weather inflation). A drop in the value of the rupee will make it tougher to service foreign debt, both for the government and for private firms. If the rise in exports on the account of a cheaper currency does not outpace the higher cost of imports, the current account deficit will grow. It could even result in a balance of payments crisis, like the one seen in 1991.

The fourth way is what is termed an “austerity drive”—for the government to cut expenses. Because politics will not allow cutting back on salaries, pensions, subsidies and entitlements, the government will cut two things: office expenses and capital expenditure. So you’ll probably get to see ministers photographed coming to work on bicycles and civil servants working without air-conditioning. Other than schadenfreude, these measures achieve nothing substantial. Cutting down on capital expenditure—roads, power plants, defence equipment—does create fiscal space, but at the cost of future growth.

Where does this leave us? Well, at the edge of a vicious cycle of low growth, high inflation, low investment, higher unemployment, higher taxes, greater evasion and higher out-migration of talented individuals and firms. We’ve been there before. It’s unconscionable that we are being taken there again.

The only way to avoid this vicious cycle is to suspend entitlements and rekindle growth. It is unlikely that growth can be rekindled without sustained pro-growth measures: greater liberalisation, simpler taxation and coherent economic governance. The Delhi Straitjacket must be dismantled.

Related: INI9 Conversation with V Anantha Nageswaran on the falling Indian Rupee.

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Book chapter: On humanitarian intervention & democracy promotion

India’s middle path

shapingtheemergingworld2x3_2x3I have contributed one chapter in “Shaping the Emerging World - India and the Multilateral Order“, a book edited by WPS Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Bruce Jones, and published by Brookings. According to the promotional material, it is, for “…anyone interested in the future of India’s burgeoning economy, twenty-two scholars have developed one of the most comprehensive volumes to date on India…” The list of authors has such stars as Shyam Saran, C Raja Mohan, Sanjaya Baru, Devesh Kapur, David Malone, Christophe Jaffrelot, Srinath Raghavan and Kanti Bajpai.

I’m sure the editors must have had something in mind when they tapped me to write a chapter on India and international norms: Responsibility to Protect (R2P), genocide prevention, human rights and democracy, as they must surely have been aware of my scepticism towards such norms and value promotion agendas. I wrote the chapter at an interesting time, when India had been on the UN Security Council and a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East went into a wave of political transformation. Given that I was a critic of some of India’s positions at the UNSC during that period, the result is a chapter that is almost entirely devoid of romance. (That’s a good thing, in case you were thinking otherwise).

Here are a couple of excerpts from my chapter:

INTRODUCTION
The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations declared in speech in October 2012, “is the most important challenge that the international community, anchored in the United Nations, is going to face.”1 Arguing that the initial suspicion of many developing countries towards the newest norm in international relations was misplaced, he supported the need for a “collective response by the international community to ensure that mass atrocities like genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity do not take place.” Explaining why India had abstained in a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorising military intervention in the Libyan civil war of 2011, he judged the implementation of the doctrine “gives R2P a bad name.”

The Indian diplomat’s arguments are a good example of India’s attitude towards international norms infringing on state sovereignty in furtherance of human security, human rights or liberal democratic goals. This chapter argues that India takes a middle path, supporting the evolution of human rights and democratic norms, but exercising caution in the manner of their implementation. It delves into the foundations of India’s policy approach towards two sets of norms: those concerning human security and those pertaining to liberal democracy. It interrogates these norms as they have evolved and examines them from an Indian perspective. It concludes by exploring how Indian foreign policy in the context of these norms might change as it emerges into a more powerful player in international politics.

THE MIDDLE PATH
Constitutional values, a democratic political culture and a diverse, plural society make India generally supportive of defending the world’s people from oppression, promoting human rights and democracy. New Delhi’s foreign policy orientation is at the very least consistent with a rules-based international order and is underpinned by liberal democratic values. The Indian republic’s subscription of liberal international norms, however, has been tempered both by competing norms and by reservations on the nature of international interventions. The result is a foreign policy that treads a middle path.

CONCLUSION
Even as Indian foreign policy made the transition from Nehru’s utopianism to the pragmatic realism of the post-Cold War governments, it never abandoned commitment to values. Normatively, New Delhi strikes a middle path. India is committed to genocide prevention, R2P, human rights and liberal democracy in principle, but has serious reservations regarding their practical implementation. The commitment is born out of its own national values. The reservations are borne out by its experience too.

India has been supporting multilateral efforts – or has acted unilaterally, on occasion – in response to international emergencies. It has been less enthusiastic in enterprises promoting liberal democratic norms, for it is a state primarily concerned with maintaining its own national unity, social transformation and economic development.

To what extent will India deviate from the middle path if it comes a bigger power in the international system? This chapter contends that the answer depends on whether the UN reforms itself to better reflect contemporary global balance of power, on the nature of India’s geopolitical footprint and on the extent of internationalism in Indian civil society. Broad trends indicate that it is likely that the Indian nation will become increasingly global-minded and internationalist, even if at a pace that is sometimes frustrating and other other times exhilarating. So the chances of the Indian republic becoming a rule-taker in the international system will improve to the extent that it is better accommodating into the rule-making circles of a reformed UN. A richer, more powerful India may yet be a stronger defender of human security around the world, if not simultaneously a champion of liberal democracy. [Shaping the Emerging World]

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Three thoughts on Independence Day

On social trust, on leaving welfare to society and on the problem of identity-based parochialism

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day—how distrusting fellow Indians and institutions is costing us; why a welfare state is not suited to India; and why parochialism based on identity is our big problem.

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Independence Day 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

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Would you like your own new state?

The complicated business of India’s internal boundaries

At least two generations of Indians have grown up taking India’s internal boundaries—drawn based on linguistic logic—for granted. As a colleague pointed out in an email exchange last week, the linguistic organisation of Indian states pre-dates the States Reorganisation Commission of 1955. The Hindi-speaking province of Bihar was carved out of the Bengal presidency in March 1912 by the British colonial government. After independence it was the agitation by the Telugu-speaking people spread across three political units that galvanised the process that ultimately led to the states as we have come to know them.

The logic of language was most salient in the non-Hindi speaking regions. Unlike in linguistic states, the Hindi-speaking people were not organised into one single state, but spread across several states. Their boundaries didn’t seem to evoke much of a controversy then, nor do they do now. Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarkhand were carved out of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh without fuss, and the proposed further divisions of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh do not arouse a lot of public emotion.

It is the demand for and the decision to create a new Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh that challenges the logic of linguistic organisations, for both states have a majority of Telugu-speaking people. To a large extent, they share the same culture. History—Telangana being part of the Hyderabad Nizam’s dominion while Andhra was under British rule—created differences in the political economies that underpin the disgruntlement accompanying their merger into one state as well as the demand for separation. Telugu solidarity was trumped by other factors.

In contrast, Tamilians, Kannadigas, Malayalees, Marathis, Gujaratis and others do not currently have issues that divide them to an extent that they demand a division of their states. Even so, there are significant linguistic minorities in many states who could—and some have—raise a demand for their own linguistic state. So even as Telangana challenges the logic of linguistic organisation, it could spur demands based on that very principle elsewhere in India.

What should we make of India’s internal political boundaries? First, there is a degree of merit in linguistic/ethnic organisation of a highly diverse polity like India’s. This allows a diverse population to be part of a larger nation-state with a reasonable degree of security over preserving its language and cultural heritage. This does come at a cost of creating linguistic-ethnic minorities who are considered too small (or too weak) to have their own states. It also comes at the cost of ignoring other factors like governability and physical geography.

Second, while it does appear that bigger and more populous states are less likely to be better governed, the solution does not automatically lie in smaller states. Despite the setting up of governmental structures at the municipal and panchayat levels, the devolution of power is choked at the level of states. State governments have a stranglehold on financial and administrative power, which leaves us with a disempowered, emaciated local government structure. (See Shankkar Aiyar’s op-ed essay). Further decentralisation to the local government level is an alternative to smaller states, at least as far as better governance is concerned. Such decentralisation is necessary even if we create smaller states.

Third, there is a case for incorporating physical geography into the logic of state boundaries. This could, for instance, turning inter-state disputes over river water sharing into intra-state policy issues. India’s abysmal record on environment management is in part due to ecosystems straddling political boundaries. Reorganising state boundaries to better align with physical features can create the conditions for better environmental governance. While this might be a difficult proposition where linguistic and ethnic emotions are running high, it might be possible in the Hindi-speaking regions.

Finally, however states are organised, there must be greater emphasis on the representation ratio. Just how can one Member of Parliament represent over 3 million people, as the MP for Outer Delhi does? A Lok Sabha MP, on an average, represents 1.3 million voters. A legislator in Karnataka, on an average, represents around 200,000 voters. While it is impractical to raise the number of seats in parliament and legislatures in accordance to population growth, it is dangerous to let the representation ratio get out of hand. Smaller states can, but not necessarily will, address this problem.

Unfortunately, the demand for political reorganisation tends to arise only from cultural insecurity and grievance, causing the political system to respond accordingly. Respecting linguistic diversity at the sub-state level, empowering local governments, managing representation ratios and respecting ecological zones—factors that are likely to lead to better governance outcomes—just don’t arouse the same passions.

Let’s not forget that decades after Independence, India is still not a common market. It is important that the enthusiasm for smaller states should not undermine progress towards one.

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Redistribution as theft

Alleviating poverty requires economic growth alone.

It is not often that Indian public discourse seriously discusses big ideas. So it was nice to see, a few days ago, a debate in large sections of the mainstream and social media on economic growth vs redistribution. This debate received wider public attention because it was conflated with a personality clash between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen, because it became entangled with the hottest political topic of our times and because it came at a time when the issue itself is important.

When faced with two sharply different points of view, it is common—not least in India—to insist that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This is celebrated as being reasonable, as representing the compromise that is the hallmark of democratic practice and as being the mystic middle path. So when some economists insist that growth is the best way out of poverty while other champion redistribution of wealth, it is to be expected that there will be reasonable people who will say “we need both more growth and more redistribution”. This is a good way to end the debate amicably and drink to reasonability and democratic compromise.

Unfortunately, there’s a difference between appearing reasonable and being right. “We need more growth and more redistribution” is not a reasonable middle position. It is essentially an argument for redistribution but stated in a different form.

Without growth, redistribution is at best a transfer and at worst, theft. If a community earns the same amount of money (or produces goods of the same value) every year, then redistribution takes from Preetam to pay Palani. If Preetam consents to the arrangement, it is a transfer. If he doesn’t, it is theft. Over a period of time, it will make the community more equal, but it doesn’t necessarily make the community less poor, for even after achieving income equality, the average income can be below what is required to subsist.

Growth is the only way to increase the overall income of a community. It can raise the respective incomes of both Preetam and Palani, although Preetam’s income might rise faster than Palani’s. Inequality will rise in such a community—perhaps because Preetam was born into a better endowed family, perhaps because Preetam works harder or perhaps because Palani faces greater social hurdles—but because both Preetam’s and Palani’s incomes rise, the whole community can climb out of poverty. There is vast empirical evidence for this, and growth is the best antidote to poverty. It’s the most effective anti-poverty scheme known to humankind.

Here’s the best thing: in such a society, there is no inherent need to take from Preetam to pay Palani on the grounds of poverty alleviation. There might be other issues—for instance, progressive taxation to finance public goods based on the ability to pay, but not to help a poor Palani out of poverty.

Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t inequality rising? Isn’t that a bad thing? Aren’t Palani’s prospects not handicapped by historical social hurdles? Aren’t Preetam’s disproportionate gains coming from exploiting Palani? The reasonable people who argue that “we need both more growth and more distribution” usually raise these questions to argue for more redistribution. (There are unreasonable people who raise these questions for other reasons, but let’s stick with responding to the reasonable).

Yes, inequality will rise, especially during periods of high growth. But inequality is a social problem only if it is permanent and ossified. However, growth is the best way to ensure that it is not—with growth comes mobility, and the expectation that one can improve one’s life allows societies to thrive despite the inequalities. Ask migrants to New York or Mumbai. Many also see a moral problem with inequality, but why expect the state to solve moral problems? Let the moral conscience of society address its moral problems.

Shouldn’t we account for historical social hurdles that hobble some citizens? Yes, but these are addressed by creating equality of opportunity, not by insisting on equality of outcomes (where Preetam and Palani end up earning the same income). You can achieve equality of opportunity without redistribution—affirmative action and reservations (without subsidies) are ways to address this challenge.

Isn’t Preetam exploiting Palani? This blog post will not attempt a comprehensive critique of Marxist thought. However, the ideas of economic freedom, property rights, voluntary exchange and comparative advantage together prove that Preetam’s gain is not at Palani’s cost. Although the sort of people who argue that Preetam exploits Palani will seldom acknowledge that redistribution, by definition, means that Palani’s gains come at Preetam’s cost. Unlike redistribution, growth creates non-zero-sum or win-win situations. Only growth creates such situations.

From this alone, we should conclude that “we need growth, not redistribution”. But reasonable people will go to great extents to be reasonable. It’s about sequencing, they’ll say, and contend that some redistribution is necessary for growth. It’s unclear why this is called a reasonable argument—if we accept that both Preetam and Palani will be better off with growth, then the decision to take some from one and give it to the other is unnecessary, whimsical and entirely arbitrary. Instead, why not spend extra effort to ensure that there are no constraints to growth in areas that benefit Palani?

Ergo, what appears reasonable is not quite reasonable: we need growth, not redistribution. The state can ensure growth by getting out of the way of private enterprise, ensuring public goods are provided, acting as an impartial referee, ensuring equality of opportunity and a level playing field. Governments are not good at redistribution: it involves taking money from people who don’t want to give it up and passing it through a system where everyone wants to grab as much as they can get. That is why redistribution is attractive to politicians who are keen to listen to intellectuals who say it is necessary.

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It didn’t start in 1988

A brief review of Praveen Swami’s “India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947-2004“, first published in the November 2008 issue of Pragati

A retired senior police officer complained to Bahukutumbi Raman, a former intelligence officer and prolific commentator, that intelligence agencies and police show a greater readiness to share their information with Praveen Swami, than with each other. And that “we all wait for his columns in The Hindu to know what information other agencies and the police of other States have.” That is as much an indictment of the internal security set-up as it is a compliment to Mr Swami. Those familiar with Mr Swami’s reportage will know that some of India’s best writings on terrorism and internal security come from his MacBook.

So it is a mystery why the publishers of India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The covert war in Kashmir, 1947-2004, a book Mr Swami wrote in 2006 did not adequately market it in India at a price that ordinary readers could afford. The paperback edition is now available in bookstores, but you won’t know it until you ask for it. (Update: It’s a little more widely available now). That’s a real shame because Secret Jihad is the one book on the issue in Jammu & Kashmir that everyone should read.

If it reads like a spy thriller, it is because it is one. In just over 200 pages of engaging prose, Mr Swami demonstrates that contrary to what most people think (and India’s median age is around twenty-five) the troubles in Jammu & Kashmir didn’t start in the late 1980s, after an infamously rigged election. Rather, as the introduction to the book says “a welter of jihadist groups waged a sustained campaign against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir from the outset, after the Partition of India.” Mr Swami’s narrative takes the reader back to the days of the Master Cell and Al- Fatah—entities that appear quaint by today’s standards—and their subsequent evolution into and inspiration of terrorist organisations that exist in contemporary times.

Similarly, Mr Swami reveals the now-in, now-out relationship of the state’s major political parties with Islamist and Kashmiri-nationalist ideologies, and the reader arrives at the inevitable conclusion that for all the paeans celebrating Kashmiriyat, secularism has always been less than skin-deep in Kashmiri separatist politics.
To the extent Secret Jihad relies on sources from within India’s internal security establishment, it largely illuminates only one side of the war. Mr Swami admits this himself, conceding that Pakistan’s secret archives, if they exist at all, are necessary to improve the completeness of the account. But even so, Mr Swami’s book joins Chandrashekar Dasgupta’s War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48 as an indispensable book for anyone seeking a well-researched and readable account of the Kashmir issue. Secret Jihad ends in 2004 but the secret jihad continues. An updated edition, or better still, a sequel, is in order.

Related Link: Saurabh Chandra has a brief history of events, in today’s DNA. 

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