Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

Indian knickers, Chinese twist

China, Arunachal Pradesh and the politics of an ADB loan

And now it is at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). A few days ago Financial Times reported that China had used procedure to delay the approval of ADB’s new multi-year financing plan for India. Because a small part of it, around $60 million, is for “flood management, water supply and sanitation” in Arunachal Pradesh (read ‘disputed territory of South Tibet’ in Chinese). This twisted the usual knickers: some commentators pointing out that China’s upstream damming of the waters of the Brahmaputra is one reason contributing to Arunachal Pradesh’s need for the water management project. Thanks to the elections, the politicians’ knickers remain untwisted. But what should you make of it?

First, it’s important to recognise that China’s actions are both pro forma and theatre. It is to be expected that China will signal the existence of the territorial dispute at every opportunity. At the ADB while it postponed a board meeting that was to have approved the financing package for India, it is highly unlikely that it will go to the extent of completely sabotaging it (expect the plan to be approved at the next meeting). To wreck it would be too direct, too brazen a signal that it puts politics before economics at multilateral fora. It can’t afford that at a time when the G-8 is making way for the G-20 and increasing China’s clout in global economic governance.

It is unclear if China’s neurotic reaction to the word Arunachal Pradesh was due to its ADB delegation playing safe, or indeed a well-considered position approved by the higher authorities in Beijing. If it is the latter, then it stands to reason that India, and the rest of the world, must recognise—and respond—to the politicisation of multilateral institutions like the ADB.

Second, for its part, the ADB must realise that it is, in the end, a bank. And a bank that bases its lending policy on the basis on non-prudential considerations—not least with its largest and best customer—is asking for trouble. This is something that the ADB’s governors must keep in mind at their future meetings.

Finally, there is the question why the Indian government needs the ADB to borrow $3 billion for development projects? One explanation is that borrowing comes at relatively easier terms. Fair enough: but to the extent that such terms act as crutches, weaken or rule out market discipline and crowd the private sector out, such financing is a curse in the longer term. Herein lies the tragedy—the UPA government not only frittered away five years of unprecedented opportunity, but actually crippled India’s public finances. If it had not done so, India would be less reliant on multilateral loans…and better resist unfriendly actions like the one by China.

Preparing for global warming wars

The Indian National Interest community launches its first policy brief

Climate Change and National Security: Preparing India for New Conflict Scenarios

Policy Brief No 1 - CoverThe global debate on whether there is indeed a process of anthropogenic climate change in progress has been for the most part settled by the international scientific consensus surrounding the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The trajectory of global warming is expected to have a major impact on human society as a whole: calling for a co-ordinated international response towards mitigation and adaptation to a warmer planet.

This policy brief analyses how climate change will affect regional security in the Indian subcontinent and implications for India’s national security. It argues that glacial melt, rising sea levels and extreme weather will exacerbate ongoing conflicts and will require India to develop military capabilities to address a range of new strategic scenarios: from supporting international co-operation, to managing a ‘hot peace’, to outright military conflict.

Get the document from the INI Policy Briefs section.