Pax Indica: Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Five neighbourhood paradoxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax Indica: Why India must swing

Strategy in a triangular predicament

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue “that despite an alignment of interests, (India) must not always side with the United States. It must swing.”

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves “our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other.” Isn’t this—by design or by default—what we’re already doing? Not really. That’s because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing. Coincidentally, this piece has the answer to the question that Dan Drezner poses on his blog today, though the question itself is posed from a quintessentially American frame of reference.

Introducing Pax Indica

Of Vijay Chauhan, Voldemort and the Realist perspective

Over at Yahoo! India columns I introduce Pax Indica, my fortnightly column.
Excerpts:

The underlying point is that countries operate in an anarchy, an environment where there is no overarching authority that can constrain their actions. Here, as the charismatic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vividly explains to Commissioner Gaitonde in Agneepath, the law of the jungle operates. The strong survive by killing the weak. Similarly, when Lord Voldemort tries to entice the young Harry Potter to join him, he declares that “there is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.”

Both Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and Voldemort would have been astute geopolitical strategists, but went tragically wrong when they applied their logic of power to domestic affairs, where the law of the jungle does not apply. For sovereign states though, the message is clear: their very survival depends on having adequate power to ensure it. But how much power is adequate? That’s hard to say, so the prudent answer is “as much as possible”

Read the rest at Yahoo! India and subscribe to its RSS feed.

On Yahoo! India columns, every fortnight

Pax Indica

“Nitin Pai,” writes Amit Varma, “known for his sharp analysis of foreign affairs, will set out every alternate Tuesday to demystify international relations for you in a column named Pax Indica. Rather than just comment from on high about current affairs, he will explain the different schools of thought in the field, and talk about the prism through which he views geopolitics. Whether or not you agree with him, it will at least be clear to you what his belief system is, and which first principles he draws them from.”

What this means is that I will summarily dismiss liberal internationalism, constructivism, post-modernism and all other schools of international relations in the very first sentence, and then hold forth on realism in every column. Okay, not in the first sentence. But I might argue that it’s really all about alcohol. Or declare that Indian foreign policymakers need to frequently ask themselves “What would Mukeshbhai do in this situation”. Or demand that Shah Rukh Khan be appointed as India’s special representative to Afghanistan. Or, or…anything you, the regular readers of The Acorn, suggest.

What will interest you is the company Pax Indica finds itself in. Anything That Moves, Minority of One, Corner Plot, Atlas Invested, Viewfinder, Dead Tree Diaries, Persistence of Vision, Stereotypist and even a Mirth Vader. More from Amit on his blog and his introductory piece at Yahoo! India.

My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border

Let’s call Pakistan’s bluff with Operation Markarap

In today’s Mint, Sushant and I argue that moving our troops back will compel the Pakistan army to act against the Taliban; and because it is incapable of doing so, will cause the United States to realise that there is no alternative to dismantling the military-jihadi complex.

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat—in the form of acceptance of a radical Islamist state with a well-developed nuclear weapons capability. It is in India’s interests that this point comes sooner rather than later. Needless to say, it is in India’s interests that the United States dismantle the military-jihadi complex. Clearly, this is far more important than merely putting some Lashkar-e-Taiba leader behind bars for carrying out the 26/11 attack on Mumbai.

Already, the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States to stop sponsoring jihadi militant groups on the one hand, and to actually join the fight against them on the other. Now, even in the unlikely event that the ISI decides to dismantle its jihadi connections, the army will still find it impossible to purposefully prosecute a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban. Why? Because the dominant belief among Pakistani military personnel—across the ranks—is that it is the United States that is the real enemy and the Taliban are righteous fighters for the Islamic cause. One only has to imagine what a brigade commander would say to his troops to motivate them to fight their compatriots to realise that the Pakistani army is incapable of fighting the Taliban. In a way, those who argue that the Pakistan army lacks the capacity to fight this war are right: but this is a lack of capacity that no amount of night-vision goggles and helicopter gunships can ameliorate. This unpalatable reality is obfuscated behind the India bogey—the pretence that the Pakistani army could do much better against the Taliban if only it didn’t have to defend itself from its much stronger adversary to its east.

If the ‘India threat’ were to recede, Pakistan—and for that matter the United States—will have no more excuses left to avoid having to do what is necessary. New Delhi should, therefore, call Pakistan’s bluff by mounting what we propose to call Operation Markarap.
Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border”

My op-ed in Mail Today: Vengeance of the red complaint box

On the Naxalite threat

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen. The Supreme Court has turned down his bail application, yet sections of the media have been projecting him as an innocent being victimised by the state. Quizzed about the affair, (Sudeep) Chakravarti contends that Dr Sen is a soft target for the state. “Having him in jail” he argues “allows the state government and police a victory in the face of organisational and security disasters on the ground. But this is a pyrrhic victory. It stifles a moderate voice, and has done nothing whatsoever to curtail or solve in any way either the raging Maoist rebellion in Chattisgarh or issues of development”

Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and Dr Sen has unfettered access to them). But the media coverage of the affair is playing into the hands of the Naxalites. In the absence of a nation-wide anti-insurgency strategy, will critical media coverage compel Chattisgarh and other weak states to take a more enlightened, sophisticated route? Given the situation on the ground, that’s unlikely. The interests of freedom and rights will be better served if the central government is compelled to really fight and defeat the Naxalites.

And then there is the non-security aspect of the anti-Naxalite strategy, wrongly characterised as the need for “development”. It misses the point because people don’t resort to violence because they lack development. They do so when there is a lack of governance. [MailToday JPG/Get the entire article in PDF]

Discuss this on the recent post on Naxalites and human rights activists

My op-ed in Mint: Clarity in defence expenditure

Time to stop putting the defence rupee in so many different pigeonholes

In our op-ed in Mint, Sushant and I argue that to convert defence outlays into outcomes, it is necessary to consolidate defence expenditure under one head.

Read on…

The guns and butter trade-off
It’s time for India to review its outdated practice of obfuscating the true defence expenditure

Finance minister P. Chidambaram’s Budget speech on 29 February will be more than two hours long, but an expense item of more than Rs1 trillion will be covered in a couple of minutes. Defence expenditure is the second largest item of non-planned expenditure. It was covered in 34 words last year. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Clarity in defence expenditure”

My op-ed in Mint: Conscription is not the solution

The solution to officer shortages is military modernisation and liberalisation of education

In our op-ed in Mint, Sushant Singh and I argue that the shortage of officers in the armed forces is not an anomaly, and merely raising take-home salaries isn’t going to solve the problem. First, India needs a capital-intensive army and must allocate more resources to military modernisation. Second, the armed forces need to deepen their officer training programmes and build what they can’t readymade. Ultimately, India needs to increase the supply of employable graduates—for that, setting education free from government control is a must.

Read on…

Rough diamonds into leaders
Talented graduates are increasingly scarce and the search for ‘officer-like’ qualities will be increasingly futile. It’s time for other, harder strategies

What does the Indian Army have in common with the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council? Answer: They are all complaining of a shortage of employable graduates. The army is short of more than 11,000 officers. In 2005, a Nasscom-McKinsey report projected that the IT industry would face a potential shortage of 500,000 people by 2010.

The army may be looking for young people with “officer-like qualities”, while the private sector is looking for people of “management calibre”, but they are essentially fishing in the same pond. India produces three million graduates each year. But as Satyam’s B. Ramalinga Raju noted, “most of these are uncut diamonds that have to go through polishing factories, as the trade requires only polished stones”.

It is more than a coincidence that the Armed Forces were unable to fill available seats at the Indian Military Academy since the early 1990s—just after the P.V. Narasimha Rao government’s reforms dismantled the licence raj. Steady economic growth over the last two decades and the emergence of globally competitive IT, financial and manufacturing industries has increased the opportunity costs of joining the Armed Forces. Furthermore, productivity growth in these sectors is increasing wages: A young Indian will have to give up even more to join the Armed Forces, which offer relatively lower take-home salaries.

It is tempting to believe that merely raising military pay will address the issue of officer “shortages”. To do so would be to ignore the fundamental changes to the relative abundance of capital and labour in India’s growing economy. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Conscription is not the solution”

My op-ed in Mail Today: Pakistan’s food crisis

The food crisis might push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge

The headline writers at Mail Today were certainly creative. What was originally “Anger over atta” (based on this post) became “Pakistan could now be hit by a food bomb”, in yesterday’s edition. Some excerpts:

Frequent power cuts affected flour mills, disrupting the production of wheat flour. By end November 2007, queues started forming outside provision shops across many Pakistani cities. Political violence, after the attack on Benazir Bhutto’s Karachi rally in October and after her assassination in December made the supply situation worse. The government decided to import wheat from the international market, but prices had risen by this time. It has had to subsidise wheat in order to keep the prices low enough. But as is expected in such situations, traders and sellers have found ways to divert the subsidised wheat into the open market, where it sells at a almost double the price. The government now hopes that paramilitary troops will be able to prevent millers and traders from hoarding and ‘smuggling’.

The crisis also reveals why the Pakistani establishment is opposed to granting India most-favoured nation (MFN) trading status. Beyond the hang-up over Kashmir, freer trade with India is inimical to the interests of the feudal and business elite. The current arrangement suits them better: they have access to the Indian market through indirect routes which allows them to export goods if world prices are higher. Blocking imports works to their advantage by strengthening their stranglehold over the supply, even if ordinary Pakistanis have to suffer for it. Little wonder that a free-trade agreement with Pakistan remains elusive.

The Musharraf regime is mistaken in thinking that deploying troops around warehouses and flour mills will solve the problem. Yet that might be the best it can do. That is bad news, because a hungry population is an angry population. And anger, unfortunately, is one commodity that the Pakistan is not short of. While lawyers, civil society groups and opposition party supporters have led public protests over the last year, ordinary Pakistanis by and large, have refrained from taking to the streets. A persistent shortage of food and other essential commodities might just push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge. [Mail Today JPG PDF]

Thanks to Amit Varma for introducing me to Mail Today, a partnership between the India Today group and the UK’s Daily Mail.

Update: A great post by Fatima Shakeel over at Metroblogging Islamabad.