No apologies expected

The discomfort with reapolitik

Gurcharan Das came back to New Delhi from a lecture tour of East Asia with some astute observations about how countries in that part of the world perceive India (via Shehjar & Pragmatic). They look forward to India playing a more assertive role in East Asia because “they fear China and desperately want a countervailing power (and) they don’t trust Japan.” Mr Das correctly points out that India does not realise that East Asian countries might actually want a stronger Indian role in the region in order to balance China.

It might be that India’s approach to East Asia suffers from a the legacy of its approach to the countries in the subcontinent, several of who resent Indian dominance.

While Mr Das caught the point made by his East Asian audiences, his own conclusions reveal that he was less comfortable with realpolitik than his interlocutors.

On my way home, I asked myself that if it is true that the Indian state is genuinely less aggressive, then that is in fact the right answer to the original question about why India’s rise does not threaten the world. I, for one, do not want an intimidating India which seeks military greatness.

He conflates the projection of geopolitical power with military greatness as an end in itself. As Mr Das heard, projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development through trade and culture. This projection of power —whether aggressive or not—is bound to threaten some countries more than others. As a corollary, it is impossible to project power without being seen as a threat by one or another country.

India’s accumulation of power and influence in Asia will be perceived as a threat by China to the extent that it relatively diminishes Beijing’s own influence. And vice versa. There’s no reason to feel apologetic about this. Aggression and intimidation, like diplomacy and negotiations are parts of a composite toolkit. An offhand rejection of one or more of them is not prudent.

Pragati May 2008: Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

Liberals, culture and nationalism Ravikiran S Rao
An opportunity exists for a new politics

Changing the broken wheel Raj Cherubal
The secular-right must champion economic freedom

Towards “that heaven of freedom” Gautam Bastian
A free nation of free citizens

Out of court Rohit Pradhan, Shashi Shekhar & Mukul Asher
Carry on the battle, but respect the court’s verdict

FILTER

India as a rising great power; climate change and national security; India-Iran relations; to the brink; and trade across the Line of Control

IN DEPTH

The new currency of power Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs
A discussion on strategic affairs with K Subrahmanyam

ROUNDUP

Use the Tibet card Zorawar Daulet Singh
To settle the India-China dispute

Consensus must endure Dinesh Wagle
Maoists have the upper hand in the construction of the republic

Bottom-up dynamics Sushant K Singh
What attracts Africa to India and how it can be strengthened

Pressed by inflation Gulzar Natarajan
Easing supply bottlenecks is the right way to go

BOOKS

Memories of 1971 Amardeep Singh
A review of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Read excerpts | Download

Weekday Squib: Chinese professors in Zimbabwe

Why there are always innocent explanations

Excerpt from Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu’s Regular Press Conference on April 22, 2008:

Q: According to reports, China is selling weapons to Zimbabwe. Could you confirm? If it’s true, why is China doing so? It is also reported that Chinese soldiers are seen on the streets of Zimbabwe. Could you give us more details about this?

A: According to my knowledge, COSCO was contracted by a Chinese company to deliver some weapons to Zimbabwe, which are part of the normal arms trade between China and Zimbabwe. The relevant contract was signed last year and has nothing to do with the latest developments inside Zimbabwe. As far as I know, it is universal practice to deliver goods to inland South African countries through the Port of Durban in South Africa. Since the Zimbabwe side could not receive the goods as scheduled, COSCO could not unload at Durban Port and is considering shipping back the goods.

I’d like to stress that the Chinese Government always adopts a prudent and responsible attitude towards arms export and one of the important principles it adheres to is non-interference in the internal affairs of recipient countries. We hope relevant side not to politicize this issue.

On your second question, according to my knowledge, several Chinese professors are teaching at Zimbabwean military schools. What you mentioned might be some teaching activities conducted by the schools. [FMPRC]

So the presence of Chinese soldiers “in their full military regalia and armed with pistols” in Mutare has an innocent explanation. It was a bunch of professors and their students on a field project, for their course on M401 Advanced Crowd Control.

But were an uppity journalist ask Mr Jiang what the professors were teaching, he’d perhaps say “agriculture”. Before you roll your eyes, dear readers, do note that he wouldn’t be wrong. Good agricultural techniques require farmers to, well, farm. Putting errant farmers in their place is an area of agricultural studies routinely ignored by scholars outside China.

And now, the Pope talks human rights at the UN

Intervention and sovereignty

Benedict XVI probably gets to address the United Nations by virtue of being the head of the Vatican state. Not because he is a Pope. But when he speaks of “the action of the international community and its institutions . . . should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty” he sure is voicing the opinion of the leader of an international religious institution. For the history of Europe for over a millennium has been one of a contest between an ‘international institution’ and the sovereign state. So you would expect him to say what he did.

But the Pope is wrong. Foreign intervention is always a violation of sovereignty. Now, under the UN charter and international law, it is legitimate to violate sovereignty if authorised by the Security Council. The question of interpretation does not arise with respect to the violation, but arises with respect to its legitimacy. The Pope is right to criticise the UN Security Council for its failure to intervene to protect human rights. But to seek to justify foreign intervention while arguing that sovereignty is not being violated is like arguing that an omelette can be made without breaking the egg.

The Pope would have a perfectly sound moral argument if he had said that violating sovereignty is acceptable if basic human rights are at stake. But then he would have sounded like the leader of an international religious institution and not a head of the Vatican state. But such an argument is not too practical. The international community that the Pope puts so much faith in (if you pardon the pun) can’t possibly be counted on to even define what those human rights are.

The rogue UN Human Rights Council has already made insulting religion a violation of human rights. If the Pope’s argument is stretched to the extreme—as it will probably be—it will never be an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty for the international community to intervene to protect people’s religious sensibilities from being hurt. That’s not a recipe for good things.

Guns for Mugabe

China sends some help

The An Yue Jiang, a ship belonging to China’s state-owned shipping company, has docked in the South African port city of Durban. It is carrying a cargo of “77 tonnes of small arms, including more than 3m rounds of ammunition, AK47 assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades”.

The cargo is bound for Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is insisting on remaining president despite not winning the election. Violence has already broken out, and could get worse.

The Chinese foreign ministry has ducked for cover. The South African authorities have thrown up their hands saying—quite reasonably—that they can’t legally stop the shipment over land into Zimbabwe. But the South African transport workers union has refused to unload or move the containers.

Now Chinese soldiers have been reportedly been spotted in Zimbabwe (well, they were spotted in New Delhi too this week). It remains to be seen whether the next ship from China will arrive with enough trucks, truck-drivers and porters to deliver the arms shipment to Mr Mugabe.

Now there’s probably nothing illegitimate about selling arms to the Zimbabwean government. Just like there was probably nothing illegitimate in China selling the Rwandan government US$750,000 worth of machetes in 1993. Machetes, of course, didn’t carry out the subsequent genocide. Extremist Hutus did.

Surely you’re joking, Mr Mukherjee! (Beijing’s thanks edition)

China called in the Indian ambassador to say thank you…at 2 am

Replying to a question in parliament, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee stated that that business of the Chinese government waking up Ms Nirupama Rao at an ungodly hour was to express its “appreciation at the prompt action taken by the (Indian) government” in apprehending Tibetan protestors who had tried to enter the Chinese embassy in New Delhi.

Diplomats lie for their country in foreign capitals. Mr Mukherjee lies for another country in his own capital. No amount of concern for maintaining good relations with China demands this kind of cravenness.

Prachanda’s learning curve

New dogs, old tricks

Some commentators have characterised the electoral performance of the Maoists in Nepal’s constituent assembly elections as catching India by surprise. That’s not entirely incorrect. Though polls have a tendency to get pundits wrong, election results surprised most people, including the Maoists themselves.

Does this mean India should be more worried about its relations with Nepal?

Not quite. Once Comrade Prachanda becomes President or Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal and comes to grips with the reality of running a state—as opposed to running a revolution—he will realise that he has about as much policy flexibility as his predecessors.

He has already declared that Nepal would maintain “equal distance from India and China”. He also uttered phrases like “historical relationship with India”, “open borders” and developing “closer ties”. The phrases might well have been uttered for diplomatic purposes…but it might well be that the Maoists have come to understand that “equal distance” on a two-dimensional map is quite different from equal distance in three dimensional reality. High Himalayas are very three-dimensional.

For India, the main issue is having to handle a new government in Kathmandu that must learn the ropes of governance while coming to terms with the gap between a revolutionary Communism and mundane reality. In the domain of international relations, it is quite possible that the new government would do things to show that there is a new show in town, and that it has other friends, and pose for its domestic constituency. While it might well be necessary to indulge them a little, Indian and Nepali interests will both be best served if Messrs Dahal & Co’s learning curve is short.

Using Bollywood for regime change

Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power

The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.

Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.

Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]

There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.

Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.

Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.

Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.

There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.

Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?

Why proponents of a friendly relations with China undermine their case

M K Bhadrakumar is at it again. He asks if India’s “strategic alliance” (huh? which one?) with the United States

helped to discourage farmers in Vidharbha from taking their own lives in sheer despair, reduce the profound alienation of the people of Jammu & Kashmir or bring the neglected northeast into the national mainstream. Would “Malabar exercises” or the Indo-U.S. defence agreement or the envisaged “inter-operability” of the armed forces of the two countries make the South Asian security environment any less complicated? Would they help to ease India’s troubled relations with its neighbours? Do they tackle energy security or the looming food security crisis or the appalling illiteracy and malnutrition stalking the outer rings of our shining metros?[The Hindu]

Let’s indulge him and ignore for a moment that the India-US civilian nuclear power deal actually addresses energy security. Let’s assume that the answer is negative.

The question is: is foreign policy the relevant framework to address distressed farmers, disgruntled Kashmiris and neglected North-easterners? Or are these unhappy people victims of India’s inability to deliver effective governance? In his bid to attack India’s post-cold war foreign policy, Mr Bhadrakumar absurdly argues that foreign policy is somehow a cure for the rot in domestic governance.

His article, as before, is yet another attempt to argue why India should be pro-China and anti-America. But he fails by his own yardstick—will a pro-China and anti-America policy help people in Vidarbha, Kashmir and the North East?

Now pragmatic people will accept that India must maintain stable, hopefully friendly relations, with China. But pragmatic people will fail to understand Mr Bhadrakumar’s assertions that India’s foreign policy must necessarily antagonise the United States. Amusingly, he asserts that ” the nation got alienated from its foreign policy”. It is Mr Bhadrakumar who is alienated from the nation.

Here are some results of a nationally representative survey conducted in 2005-6 over 212,000 households:

First, there is a clear relationship between socio-economic status and the ability to respond to questions on foreign policy. The more elite (defined both by education and occupation), the more likely Indians will have an opinion on foreign policy issues. For the large number of rural landless, 69.7 percent “don’t know” while another 24.3 percent have “no response”. At the other extreme – educated urban professionals – the figures are 21 and 6 percent respectively, an almost four-fold difference. High non-response rates among the weaker socio-economic groups indicate that they may be “efficiently” ignorant i.e. they are not interested in putting in the effort on an issue that has low salience for them.
Continue reading “Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?”

Sunday Levity: The Bappi Lahiri doctrine

Understand India’s foreign policy through its music

A grand popular narrative of Indian foreign policy has not yet been written. Here, offered entirely without such niceties as empirical evidence, is an attempt to reconcile two glorious traditions: Indian foreign policy and Hindi film music.

While scholars have tried to explain Indian foreign policy through an examination of the personalities of prime ministers, priorities of ruling political parties and the exigencies of coalition politics, a cursory glance at the history of post-independence India—say through a thorough study of the dust jacket of Ramachandra Guha’s tome under the stimulating influence of IMFL—will reveal that it is through the music of the times that we can best understand it.

The state-owned broadcaster’s decision, in the 1950s, not to play O P Nayyar’s trendy melodies already gave an indication that the foreign policy course adopted by the Nehru government was not quite consistent with popular opinion. Throughout the 50s and the 60s, foreign policy—like film music—was beautiful and elegant, hopeful in general but well below potential. Like S D Burman’s music, non-alignment was almost designed to inspire nostalgia in future generations.

It was in the early 70s—under the R D Burman doctrine—that Indian foreign policy came into its own. It was a burst of energy: the power of which had global appeal, yet was a product of indigenous improvisation blending well with foreign technology. It was the music to win wars by.

By the late 1970s and 1980s the Alokesh “Bappi” Lahiri revolution had India in its grasp. Here was a doctrine that was amoral in the true sense of the word: it did not matter where something came from. What mattered was where it went. What mattered was how something could be used to hold the audience in thrall. The confidence and innovation of India’s foreign policy in the 1980s was wrongly attributed to the Rajiv Gandhi age. In reality, Mr Gandhi and his team were heavily inspired by the Bappi Lahiri doctrine—they were undaunted by the “not invented here” syndrome at a time when it was perhaps at its strongest. In a sense the Rajiv Gandhi team, like Mr Lahiri himself, was comprised of people with a solid pedigree in the classical, yet with a pulse on the modern. Like Mr Lahiri, they were often ahead of their times. [The Ilaiyaraja doctrine, meanwhile, quietly and unthreateningly expanded Indian influence in the Indian Ocean region.]

Isolated Anand-Milind’s and Raam-Laxman’s couldn’t rescue Indian foreign policy from the backlash against the Bappi Lahiri doctrine in the final years of the 80s. The murky Nadeem-Shravan business exposed the inroads organised crime-terrorism nexus had made into the country. Until A R Rahman arrived on the scene with a doctrine for the post-cold war world, there was generally a sense of drift. It was Mr Rahman who inspired a new confidence, bolstered by an India shedding many of its shibboleths—the economic and the political. The Rahman doctrine pointed towards new possibilities arising from globalisation; that not only could India hold its own, it could even shape—albeit in a limited sense—global developments. The zenith of the Rahman doctrine was India’s emergence as a nuclear power.

While the Rahman doctrine still animates much of Indian foreign policy, it also empowered several innovative doctrines: from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s sophisticated coalitional cosmopolitanism, to the popularisation of Indian folk music through the specialist device of item numbers, and to the dogmatic, relentless nasality of Himesh Reshammiya. The definitive post-Rahman doctrine is still a work in progress: but it is abundantly clear that all these schools both advocate and reflect an India spreading its influence far from its own shores. If Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is about embracing globalisation and expanding India’s soft power, it is Himesh Reshammiya that stands for a more than minimum credible deterrence. Between the two they allow a thousand home-grown item numbers to flourish.

The attitude towards item numbers, perhaps, best demonstrates the attitudes towards realism. At one time item numbers were almost solely picturised on Helen, an actress who was always The Vamp. Today item numbers are picturised on the hottest stars, and doing an item number well is often a ticket to fame and fortune. In Helen’s days, the item number was seen as a necessary evil and projected as immoral. Today it is mostly celebrated. Yet, even today, item numbers constitute only five minutes of the entire 30 minute album, suggesting that there are limits to the acceptance of realist prescriptions in the foreign policy mix. That may well be the lesson for students of foreign policy.