The Pakistan stop of the SAARC yatra

Dispute management, not resolution

This is the gist of the points I made in a brief interview on Channel NewsAsia at 6:40pm IST yesterday. This was in the context of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan as part of his SAARC Yaatra.

Q. Amid an aggressive growth agenda, how much of a priority is being placed by Mr Modi on resolving disputes with Pakistan, according to you?

Mr Modi has been keen on improving relations with India’s neighbours right from the word go. I think it reveals something about his mindset — the need for India to carry along its neighbours and its region — because strictly speaking, the neighbourhood does not matter a lot for India’s growth and development.

India’s linkages are to the West to the US and Europe and to East Asia. The subcontinental neighbourhood does not matter much for now. A lot of constraints to growth are domestic.

Q. There have been over 600 ceasefire violations in the past eight months. How much of an impact can high-level talks have on ground reality and actions?

The ceasefire has held for over a decade, so there is abundant evidence that the armed forces can hold their fire if there are top level instructions. A ceasefire is in the interests of both countries: Pakistan can focus on managing its own domestic violence. So too for India.

Q. This is all ostensibly a part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ by the Indian government. How much has the India-Pakistan problem impaired SAARC’s development?

The problem with SAARC is not merely India-Pakistan relations, although they share part of the blame. The ethos of SAARC is more a collective bargaining forum for India’s neighbours against New Delhi. So countries focus more on what they can achieve vis-a-vis India, than what they can achieve as a group.

India’s growth and development will propel SAARC by presenting an opportunity to neighbours to benefit from the process.

On NDTV: On the draconian cyber law

The draconian Information Technology Rules have created an environment that threatens our freedom

What about free speech, which makes it possible for me to disparage the IT rules as being poorly considered? Under the new rules, users cannot post material online that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwiseunlawful in any manner”.

And who gets to decide what constitutes any of the above? No, not a magistrate or even a government officer. Anyone can send a notice to the owner of a website giving notice of a violation under any of the loose, subjective criteria. It then must be taken down within 36 hours.

Complain about bad service from an airline on your blog, and they can send a take down notice claiming it is defamatory, libellous or disparaging. In the hands of the easily outraged, aggressively hypersensitive and competitively intolerant sections of our population this will have the effect of further chilling freedom of expression. Moreover, the inclusion of the word blasphemy in that list makes you wonder which country we are in.

Actually, we don’t need these new rules to protect us from libel, paedophiles or incitement to violence. There are existing laws for that. A libel is a libel whether committed on paper or in ether. These rules, though, have the unacceptable consequence of stifling free speech. They weaken the ordinary citizen and put another coercive tool in the hands of the powerful and the intolerant. They must be reviewed. [Nitin Pai/DNA]

On NDTV: How should we appoint top military leaders?

The real issue is not legal or administrative. It’s about how we appoint our top military ranks

(Watch the whole show on NDTV’s website)

In a previous post I argued that there is too little in the public domain on the matter of General V K Singh’s date of birth issue. Given this, the only point I made in the show was that we can no longer accept a system where the senior-most lieutenant-general automatically becomes the army chief. That the ‘seniority principle’ is not only flawed in itself, but, as this episode shows, can be manipulated. In closing I draw attention to the need to update and implement the recommendations of the Kargil Committee Report.

On NDTV: All icing, no cake

The Prime Minister’s Office is on Twitter. Good. But what about the rest?

On NDTV’s Trending This Week show Shashi Tharoor, L Rajagopalan and I spoke to Sunetra Choudhry about the Prime Minister’ Office entering the fray on Twitter (as @PMOIndia). The points I made (or tried to):

1. This is the Prime Minister’s Office that is tweeting and not Manmohan Singh the person.

2. We should welcome it for two reasons: First, the PMO is not ceding or absenting itself from an important space in public discourse. Second, that it sets a precedent for the rest of government—across all levels, across the country—that Twitter is a legitimate place for it to put out information. “Don’t wait for an RTI application before you release information, you can do it proactively on a timely basis.”

3. However, Twitter is only a part of an overall information strategy and complements media appearances, press conferences, public speeches, online content and blog posts. Since Prime Minister Singh has been conspicuous by is absence on this front, merely being on Twitter is the icing without the cake.

4. You can’t govern a country of a billion people by remaining silent.

5. The median age of an Indian is less than 29 years, which means half the population is below this age. It is important for the government to engage them. If the tweets are boring, rehashes of press releases (or worse, approved by a committee,) the PMO might look like a middle-aged uncle turning up at a teenagers’ party pretending to be cool.

Related Links:
My on the “rise of netions” at MEA’s Public Diplomacy Conference 2010; my Shala talk on radically networked societies; and Business Standard column.

On NDTV: The consequences of Hazaremania

A crossroads, not a victory

(You can also view it on NDTV’s website)

The points I made (or wanted to):

1. The conclusion of Anna Hazare’s fast after a compromise is not a victory for anyone. It’s a crossroads. In fact, there are two crossroads here. First, whether we will pursue political agenda by restoring and strengthening faith in constitutional methods or by taking recourse to street protests. Second, whether we will proceed along the path of economic freedom, openness and reform, or retreat into a new form of socialism that has so utterly failed us.

2. Parliamentarians behave the way they do not because they are idiots but because of incentives. The anti-defection law has made them automatons controlled by the party leadership. When they can’t debate substantive issues they choose to raise their volume or engage in disruptive behaviour.

3. Anna Hazare and his colleagues managed to galvanise the disappointment, outrage and exasperation that has built over the last 8 years. The fundamental cause of this is the stalling of the economic reform process. Political parties failed to understand and capitalise on Middle India’s growing but silent dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. We must not conflate Middle India’s sentiment with an endorsement of Lok Pal or indeed of Anna Hazare and his colleagues. The latter are at best trustees and custodians of public sentiment—they must not see this as license to pursue their own ideological and political agenda.

4. Because the moment is so extraordinary, it behoves Anna Hazare and the leaders of the India Against Corruption movement to act with humility, responsibility and good sense. Here they have fallen short.

5. The second freedom struggle is not about a bill. It’s not about a Lok Pal. It’s not even about making India corruption-free. It is about a quest for economic freedom to be pursued using constitutional methods.

Brains and Thapar

Who in India really cares what they say on TV anyway?

Karan Thapar is terribly impressed with Pervez Musharraf. “We may not agree with (General Musharraf’s) arguments and often we disapprove of his tough language”, he writes, “but it’s impossible not to admire his courage and be impressed by his performance.” And “you may walk away from a Musharraf encounter put off by his personality but, despite that, you also know you’ve just met a very special man. That’s why Musharraf has fans in India and not just foes.”

Well, at least one Musharraf fan has come out of the closet and declared himself.

Mr Thapar makes two arguments: that General Musharraf is better than Indian politicians because the latter “are not prepared to pit their arguments against challenges.” And second, that Pakistani leaders open themselves to the Indian media but their Indian counterparts do not reciprocate. Therefore, Mr Thapar implies, the Pakistani leaders are better.

(Those of you who want to wipe the coffee off your shirts or keyboards can do so now. Sorry.)

It the rarefied world of TV studios where Mr Thapar resides, a telegenic personality might suffice as a quality for being a good leader. But in the reality of India’s democratic politics and constitutional governance, it is insufficient. And perhaps even irrelevant, for there has hardly been a telegenic prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi, and lot of nice things seem to have happened in India since then. As General Musharraf proves, regardless of his actual record, anyone can defend himself on television—provided he has a nice suit, decent wit and good English. It’s quite another thing to convince, cajole, compromise, threaten and force through a political agenda democratically and constitutionally. Guess why General Musharraf retired?

This is not to say that Indian politicians shouldn’t be more media savvy. They should. But that being articulate on TV and delivering good governance are two very different things. And the comparison with Pakistani political leaders is absurd. For all his failings, the least of which is appearing as text-to-speech converter on television, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is infinitely a better leader than General Pervez Musharraf. At least Dr Singh didn’t silence a rape victim so that his TV interviews would go well.

As for Pakistani leaders being generous in giving interviews to Indian journalists, well, isn’t that what you would do if you and your country were in an international doghouse? Pakistani politicians crave international legitimacy: speaking to the Indian media or getting lobbyists to place op-eds in major US newspapers are attempts to attain it.

Mr Thapar forgets that it was an act of great loftiness—and according to this blog, poor judgement on the part of the organisers—to invite a devious and malicious ex-military dictator to India and give him a soapbox. Let’s not forget that Pakistan has been responsible for a proxy-war against India, a war that is ongoing, and General Musharraf was personally responsible for some of the worst bits of it. Instead of calling for his trial as a war criminal, the Indian media dignified him with a place on the podium. Unfortunately, some, like Mr Thapar, are even his fans.