Blame it on Lax Indica

Where India yields, China will step in.

Quite often, the alarm and indignation comes from a sense of entitlement. Surely, the argument goes, India’s size and geographical location entitles it to a pre-eminent maritime status in the Indian Ocean, so how dare China intrude and construct a “string of pearls” around India?

To be sure, the emergence of China as a regional maritime power is the big story of our times. Over the past two decades, China has methodically developed basing arrangements (the ‘string of pearls’), invested in a submarine fleet designed to counter the US Navy’s aircraft carrier groups and, is now working on a surface fleet (including six aircraft carriers) whose purpose is to project power. This worries Indian strategists, because some of China’s accretion of power will come at India’s expense. While China certainly seeks to contain the expansion of Indian power, the object of its grand strategy is to counter the United States. And it is getting there: not by matching renminbi-for-dollar and getting into an arms race, but largely by developing capabilities that exploit United States’ weak points.

So at a time when China seeks to play in the same league as the superpower of the day, it is to be expected that it will try to extract advantageous positions in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense. The big scandal is not that China is securing bases in India’s neighbourhood by shoring up nasty regimes and abetting their outrageous policies; but rather, India does not even show any sign of doing what is necessary to protect its interests.

So Home Minister P Chidambaram criticised China for fishing in troubled waters by backing the Sri Lankan government to the hilt in its war against the LTTE. So what else does Mr Chidambaram expect it to do? If the UPA government couldn’t find the resolve to shape a bold Sri Lanka policy that would promote India’s interests, why should he hold it against China for doing so? Similarly, if the UPA government found itself immobilised over its Nepal policy, why should China be blamed for promoting what it sees as its own interests? (See Lax Indica). Surely, the likes of Pranab Mukherjee and A K Anthony didn’t think that China should be held to the statements they made about there being enough space in Asia for two powers to rise simultaneously? (Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Chidambaram did gruesome damage to the pace at which India could rise in the first place).

Let’s face it: unless the next government—regardless of whether it is the UPA, NDA or a Ghastly Numbered Front that comes to power—firmly resolves to ensure that India’s strategic frontiers are not rolled inwards, strategic containment is assured. Those who take recourse to fatalism and declare that coalition politics doesn’t allow an assertive foreign policy, especially in India’s neighbourhood, better not express indignation when they spot a Chinese aircraft carrier group a few hundred nautical miles from Kochi or Mumbai. Actually, coalition politics has been offered as an excuse for gross mismanagement of neighbourhood policy—other than during the election season, coalition partners limit their foreign policy demands to largely to rhetoric. It stands to reason, therefore, that a central government that can’t stand up to pressure from its coalition partners can’t stand up to pressure from Beijing.

Robert Kaplan continues to miss the plot

It’s not about “lines of communication”

Q: What do you get when you take Realist doctrine and apply it without regard to ground realities? A: This article by Robert Kaplan (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony). He writes:

No matter how much leverage you hold over a country, it is rare that you can get it to act against its core self-interest…

The U.S. demands that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its spy agency, sever relations with the Taliban. Based on Pakistan’s own geography, this makes no sense from a Pakistani point of view. First of all, maintaining lines of communications and back channels with the enemy is what intelligence agencies do. What kind of a spy service would ISI be if it had no contacts with one of the key players that will help determine its neighbor’s future?

Of course, we can and should demand that Pakistan cease helping the Taliban to plan and carry out operations. But cutting links to the Taliban altogether is something the Pakistanis simply cannot do, and trying to insist upon it only worsens tensions between our two countries.[The Atlantic]

Mr Kaplan arrives at these conclusions because he fundamentally misunderstands both the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban, and the threat they pose to the interests of the Pakistani state.

There is a huge difference between “lines of communications and back channels” that all intelligence agencies have, and the cat-and-paw relationship between the Pakistani military establishment and the global jihadi groups. To use Mr Kaplan’s analogy, while the US used the “back channels” of the PLO to help evacuate American families from Beirut, the CIA—to our knowledge—does not use Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. What needs severing is not the ISI’s lines of communications, but its use of the Taliban as a strategic proxy.

But Mr Kaplan’s greater mistake is the acceptance of the notion—that even some Pakistanis reject—that the ISI’s cat-paw relationship with the Taliban is in Pakistan’s interests. It is not. The Taliban pose the most serious threat to the survival and security of the Pakistani state. This fact is dawning on more and more Pakistanis. Yet, it escapes Mr Kaplan. The interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex are not quite the same as that of the Pakistani state. Mr Kaplan, however, conflates the two, and, unfortunately, ends up with a conclusion that could not be more wrong.

Actually, the relationship between the military establishment and jihadi groups has gone even beyond that of patron and client. It is now appropriate to consider them a military-jihadi complex. It is this complex that the United States must seek to dismantle. To equate the problem to mere lines of “lines of communications” is laughable.

Related Post: Robert Kaplan misses the plot: his earlier piece arguing that the ISI’s insecurities must be assuaged.

Unjust conquests

On India’s strategic frontiers

In ancient Indian political philosophy, the establishment of the state is seen as an instrument to impose dharma, or the moral code, through dandaniti or the rule of law. It not only recognises plurality by enjoining the king to respect and conserve the culture and traditions of the country he annexes but also circumscribes annexation itself, limiting it to the Indian subcontinent.

Arthashastra has a twofold aim. First, it seeks to show how the ruler must protect his territory. Secondly it shows how territory should be acquired.

It may be remarked in passing that the rulership of ‘the earth’ contemplated in the shastra does not necessarily imply the conquest of the whole world. The field open for the operations of the would-be-conqueror (vijigisu) appears restricted to the region between the Himalayas and the sea. Territories beyond the borders of India are not included in ‘the territory of the Sovereign Ruler’. [Arthashastra 9.1.17-18]

One of the reasons for this may be that the conqueror, according to the shastra, is expected to establish a social order based on the varna and the ashrama system in the conquered territories and the establishment of such a social order outside the limits of India was perhaps considered impracticable or even undesirable. It may also be that such a conquest beyond the borders of India was regarded as unjust.

Arrian, the Greek historian, has remarked, “On the other hand, a sense of justice, they say, prevented any Indian king from attempting conquest beyond the limits of India” [R P Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthashastra, Part III, pp2-3]

Related Posts: The reading the Arthashastra series archive

It’s not Spider-man

With great power comes a Great Power

It warms the cockles of The Acorn’s cotyledons when people say things like “India’s unflinching defence of its narrow interest is cause for deep frustration among its interlocutors in the corridors of international power” and that it must “embrace a sharing of the burdens as well as the rewards of collective security.” So when Anantha Nageswaran of The Gold Standard drew attention (via email) to Philip Stephens’ piece in FT, it felt like a good time to inject some, well, realism into the proceedings.

But first—let there be no doubt: The Acorn and many of its fellows on INI strongly advocate that India needs to get on the front foot in its foreign policy. But this is because it is in India’s interests and not out of some heartwarming but fuzzy notion of shouldering burdens of collective security. By the way, what collective security? Surely Mr Stephens can’t be referring to NATO’s half-hearted, caveat-filled and now one-step-out-of-the-door presence in Afghanistan? The kind that rests on the implicit belief that the Taliban can be tolerated as long as they don’t target Europe. Or the kind that sabotaged international efforts to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s or in East Pakistan in 1971? Or the kind that came to India’s assistance after terrorists went on a shooting spree in Mumbai last November?

Mr Stephens makes two main arguments in his piece. Of these he gets two wrong. First, he claims that admission to the club of great powers requires a state to adopt a foreign policy that goes beyond “narrow definitions of national interest” and provides public goods. The other part of the admission fee, he contends, is that “others claim a say in your internal affairs”. Second, he argues that the fact that being a democracy exposes India to less international criticism as compared to China. Both these arguments are flawed in their premise. But even if we were to accept the premise, the facts don’t bear out Mr Stephens’ conclusions.

Continue reading “It’s not Spider-man”

My op-ed in Mint: Who wants to be good Taliban?

US counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, Pakistan army’s choices and implications for India

In today’s Mint. Sushant & I argue that General Kayani’s political decisions will depend on the course and outcomes of US negotiations with ‘moderate’ Taliban. We suggest that while moderate Taliban is an oxymoron it is also “a label of convenience, using moral connotations to render realpolitik-driven compromises acceptable” and will be applied to whoever the US negotiates with. Excerpts:

So who might end up as the ‘good’ Taliban in the coming months? Mid-level commanders of the militias fighting Western forces are one likely set of contenders—a combination of political accommodation, financial rewards and astute exploitation of inter-tribal rivalries might help distance them from their top leaders. Another set of contenders are the warlords (now called Taliban commanders) who might not share deep loyalties to the al-Qaeda leadership and the Pakistani establishment. How all this will fare is difficult to say, though the cards are heavily stacked against its success. Nevertheless, its course and outcome will determine General Kayani’s political moves in Pakistan.

If the United States decides to engage the type of individuals and groups that are backed by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, General Kayani is likely to want to quickly arrest Pakistan’s political unravelling. The army can then expand its own bargains with the Pakistan Taliban, and relieved of pressure, go back to being its usual self: wielding power, cornering economic opportunities and fighting India.

If, on the other hand, the designation of ‘good’ Taliban does not square with the interests of the military-jihadi complex, then General Kayani has every reason to wait and allow matters to worsen. For the ‘bad’ Taliban will continue to hurt US forces in Afghanistan until Washington folds or quits. Pakistan’s military leadership very likely believes that the United States cannot simultaneously accept the failure of a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the triumph of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

What does this mean for India? There is an urgent need for India to protect itself from the fallout of Pakistan’s Talibanisation. This involves, first, ensuring that the Omar Abdullah government succeeds in ending the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. The new central government will have to imaginatively wind down the visible security presence in Kashmiri towns and villages even as it strengthens vigilance along the LoC and within the state. Second, the internal security lessons of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai must be learnt. And finally, India simply cannot continue the unserious approach to political violence: there must be zero tolerance of vandals, rioters, “sainiks” of one form or another and terrorists.

On the external front, the only way to save Pakistan is to put it under international management. The United States, to paraphrase old Winston, can be trusted to do the right thing after it has exhausted all other options. It is in India’s interests to see that it exhausts them fast enough. [Mint]

Read the rest at LiveMint. (Thanks to Swami Iyer for asking the right question)

Reading the Arthashastra: R P Kangle’s magnificent work

Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)
Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)

R P Kangle’s three volume compilation, translation and commentary on Kautilya’s Arthashastra is actually in print and available from the venerable Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. (Well, the flaky website requires you to create an order, then email it to the publisher with your credit card information, but it worked).

Leafing through the text, you realise that they don’t make scholars like Professor Kangle anymore. For this is not merely a translation of an old Sanskrit manuscript, but a veritable product of scholarly detective work, attention to detail, reverence of the classical language, mastery of it and of English, and, not least, a labour of love. As M V Rajadhyaksha writes in a volume commemorating Professor Kangle’s birth centenary:

He was a single-minded perfectionist, and not a scholar in a hurry. And he worked on his project silently. He would not make the solemn and self-complacent noises a publicity – hunting, ambitious scholar would make…

The Kautiliya Arthashastra, in three volumes, was first published by the University of Bombay in 1955. The second edition followed soon. The work sold well but the royalty Kangle received from the University was pitifully small. Motilal Banarasidass, the Delhi publishing house famous for its publication of books in the field, offered to publish the next edition. The third edition (really a reprint of the earlier edition) brought Kangle the handsome royalty of sixteen thousand rupees, a princely amount in those days. And Kangle donated the entire amount to the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in grateful acknowledgment of what he had derived from the library, which had been like a second home to him, particularly after his retirement from the Educational Service. That he did this when the pension on which he had to subsist was quite meagre—and when his family responsibilities had not lessened appreciably—speaks much of his selflessness and of his unwillingness to translate his scholarship into easy money. [M V Rajadhyaksha/Perceptions on Kautiliya Arthashastra]

The first volume is an authoritative compilation (in Sanskrit) of Kautilya’s Arthashastra from a number of manuscripts and fragments. The second is an annotated English translation. The final volume is a scholarly discussion on the text and the debate and controversies regarding the book and its famous author.

The text of Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 English translation is readily available on the internet; but R P Kangle’s work is newer, deeper, more thorough and the ultimate resource for those who want to understand the roots of Indian statecraft.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

On proof and its credibility

International relations is not a courtroom battle

Here’s a post from the archives on the matter of proof in international relations, written in August 2006 after a previous round of terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Things remain so much the same that there’s no need at all to write a new post.

An all-American dogma the size of Iran

The solution is staring at Barack Obama’s face—if he has the audacity to grasp it

It is good to hear General Petraeus acknowledge that Iran “had common interests with the United States and other nations in a secure Afghanistan.” Although he hinted that such interests might make talks with Iran feasible, he said he would leave the topic to diplomats and policy makers.

“I don’t want to get completely going down that road because it’s a very hot topic,” General Petraeus told a conference…Nonetheless, he said, “there are some common objectives and no one I think would disagree.”

Like the United States, Iran is concerned about the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and the resurgence of extremists there, he said. “It doesn’t want to see Sunni extremists or certainly ultrafundamentalist extremists running Afghanistan any more than other folks do,” he said, while acknowledging that the United States and Iran have “some pretty substantial points of conflict out there as well.” [NYT]

And the most substantial point of conflict is Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Yet, it may well be that the best way to convince Iran to temper its quest for nuclear weapons might well be for the United States to engage it politically. After all, hostility with the United States and Israel is one key reason why Iran seeks those weapons (the Saudi Arabia-Pakistan nuclear nexus is another).

In fact, it is amazing how the US foreign policy establishment is thinking up options and throwing up names for special envoys without questioning whether the holy cow, or rather the holy taboo, of not engaging Iran is a position that has run its course (if it was ever tenable in the first place). If intellectual blinkers and dogma prevent US policymakers from considering the merits of engaging Iran, what prevents countries like India that would benefit from a US-Iran rapprochement from lubricating it? There is a need for strong, credible voices to support the likes of General Petraeus in helping the United States break the ice with Iran.

Aside: The word “ultrafundamentalist” now enters the lexicon thanks to General Petraeus. As for “ultrafundamentalist extremists”, now, there’s way too much redundancy built into that phrase.

Why not just put the IPI pipeline to rest?

It’s a bad idea to interlock India’s energy supplies with Pakistan. Period.

It was a stupid idea right from the start. Of course, it looks a lot more stupid now. Swaminathan Aiyar points out why the IPI gas pipeline project should now be officially declared dead. But you don’t have to read Mr Aiyar’s article at all if you had been reading The Acorn during the halcyon days of the ‘peace process’ when it was unfashionable to point out that ideas such as “creating mutual dependencies” with Pakistan are masochistic and that the risk premium will junk the business case in any case.

After explaining why involving Pakistan in a gas purchase deal with Iran is such a bad idea, Mr Aiyar inexplicably proposes a shallow undersea pipeline with a different architecture. It might be better than the overland pipeline but it still carries the risk of a Pakistan hurting itself to hurt India.

It makes far more sense to invest in LNG. This calls for investing in the technology, processing and domestic distribution infrastructure required to handle the imports. This calls for developing a maritime strategy that ensures that India’s LNG supply routes are secure, around the world. And it calls for foreign policy that ensures that LNG becomes the predominant way to ship the world’s natural gas, and the global market becomes competitive.

Of course all this is tall order. But let’s face it—its better than letting Pakistan hold us by the…you know what.

US presence in Afghanistan is good for India

And it’s got nothing to do with the jihadi war against us

Sudheendra Kulkarni makes an astonishing argument in his Indian Express column today. India’s acquiescence to the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan, he argues, “avoidably intensifies anti-American Islamists’ ideological hostility towards India. Our silent approval of America’s war on Afghanistan is interpreted by them as India being a part of the US-UK-Israel axis. We lose much from joining this axis, just as we lose greatly by being blind to the threat posed by global Islamism.”

Now Mr Kulkarni is a member of the BJP’s brain trust, not a card-carrying member of India’s loony Left. Surely, it cannot be Mr Kulkarni’s case that the Islamist war against India began after India ‘joined’ the so-called axis? If anything, the purported fear of ‘alienating the Muslim community’, a milder variant of the provoking-the-jihadis argument that Mr Kulkarni now makes, has been with us for a long time: leading India to indiscriminately side with the Arab-Palestinian side even as it was abundantly clear that a partnership with Israel was necessary for India’s very survival (no, that’s not an overstatement). The fact is that, as any history book will reveal, the jihad against India predates a closer alignment between India, Israel and the United States.

Mr Kulkarni also contends that India is “repeating the mistake by not asking the United States to end its military occupation of Afghanistan.” Whatever might be the assessment of the US military role in Afghanistan over the last seven years, it defies reason to suggest that a US exit is somehow in India’s interests, for two wrongs do not make a right. Mr Kulkarni makes it sound as if the 1990s never happened. Perhaps he would have been on firmer ground if he had recommended that the United States rely on tribal proxies to fight the Taliban—a tenuous proposition at best, due to the complete evisceration of traditional Afghan society by three decades of radical Islamism. But India asking the US to vacate Afghanistan is not repeating an old mistake, but creating an entirely new one.

It is all very well to argue that India is ultimately on its own. Yet it would be foolhardy and counterproductive not to align with countries at times and places where interests coincide. For the second time—the first was over the India-US nuclear deal—the BJP’s foreign policy sounds like it came from the Left. While it should not abandon the quest for innovative foreign policy thinking, it should not come at the cost of abandoning realism.