Delhi, its honest rulers and their foolish gambles

The strategic consequences of Manmohan Singh’s vulnerability

So he stood his ground, and didn’t make use of the lifelines that were created for him by the foreign ministry.

Whether he intended it or not, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made himself personally vulnerable. Whether he intended it or not, his Sharm-el-Sheikh lollipop is a gamble: if there is another Pakistan-originated terrorist attack during his tenure, Dr Singh will be thrown to the dogs by his own party; if there isn’t one, as the phrase goes, Singh is King. Since the only people who can prevent a Pakistan-originated terrorist attack are the powers that be in Pakistan—whether it is Asif Ali Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gilani or the military-jihadi complex—Dr Singh’s fate is effectively in the hands of his Pakistani adversaries. Another terrorist attack during the UPA government’s second innings will certainly hurt India; but it will (okay, okay, it might) end Dr Singh’s prime ministerial career.

And just what will Messrs Zardari, Gilani and Kayani do when they realise that they have Dr Singh by the, well, jugular? In addition to using the Balochistan reference to obfuscate their culpability in the Talibanisation of Pakistani society, first they’ll rub their hands in glee: they suddenly have more than just ‘mutual interdependency’ without even having to build a gas pipeline and then blackmail India over it.

Second, they can—with genuine or faux sincerity—suggest that unless India makes concessions over Jammu & Kashmir and a number of other bilateral issues, it will be very hard to rein in the jihadis. Dr Singh’s gamble leaves him ever more vulnerable to this old blackmail. It does not matter if Messrs Zardari & Gilani can or cannot actually do anything about the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and it does not matter if they do anything about it or not, they will still be able to ask India to make progress on the composite dialogue to keep the ‘peace process’ moving.

Third, should another terrorist attack occur, Messrs Zardari & Gilani can first deny, then offer to investigate, then admit that it originated in Pakistan. And anyway, what’s a little terrorism between dialogue partners? In New Delhi, like they sacked the incompetent Shivraj Patil after too much damage had already occurred, the Congress Party might be compelled to seek Dr Singh’s resignation.

The only way Singh can be King is when there is no major terrorist attack. Only major concessions by India might prevent those attacks from happening. Marammat muqaddar ki kar do Maula, mere Maula!

Manmohan Singh’s costly lollipop giveway

Reinforcing the Denial in Pakistani society is setback for India

Mirror-imaging is not uncommon in popular conceptions that Indians and Pakistanis have of each other. You hear it from Indian lofty-softies when they declare that Pakistanis are “people like us”. But while Indian mirror-imaging generally stops with an innocent notion of the nature of Pakistani society, Pakistani mirror-imaging extends to the nature of the state and its organs.

Nowhere is this most manifested than in the belief that India’s intelligence agencies play the same role their Pakistani counterparts. Accusing India’s RAW of involvement in any number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan—however illogical it might be—need not concern the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s propaganda/psychological operations units anymore: for it is part of the Pakistani nation’s denial mechanism. It is far easier to believe that those devious Hindu-Bania-Indians did it rather than to go through the emotionally draining process of uncovering just why are jihadis killing their compatriots and co-religionists.

Even so reading the editorial in today’s Dawn should bring the coffee onto your clothes. On the matter of the dossier on RAW’s covert operations in Pakistan that Yusuf Raza Gilani supposedly handed over to Manmohan Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh, it notes that “if they are rogue elements within RAW who are acting independently, they must be taken to task forthwith.” The good people on the editorial board of Dawn are generously—possibly sincerely—providing the Indian prime minister with the same escape route that US officials often provide the Pakistani government.

During a week when it was Pakistan which submitted a dossier of Indian misdeeds, and the Indian foreign ministry used the word “baseless”, Dawn’s editorial just completes the picture. As Coomi Kapoor puts it, India went to the “NAM summit as the (victim) of terror and came back with a document which seems to suggest that both countries are on a level playing field when it comes to sponsoring terror in the other’s backyard.”

Allowing Pakistan to insert the words that it “has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas” in a joint statement has reinforced popular Pakistani perceptions that Indian intelligence agencies are responsible for high-profile acts of terrorism like that attack on the police academy and the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. To the extent that these attacks had galvanised people against the Taliban, the “badly drafted” joint statement damaged the developing resolve against jihadi culture in Pakistani civil society.

The real implication of agreeing to the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement is its impact on Pakistani politics and society, and in turn, the effect this will have on India’s security. (And not so much the handle it gives Islamabad in bilateral negotiations, or indeed, casting itself as a victim of Indian covert operations. More on this in another post, here).

One man—and only one man—is responsible for this setback: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Blaming the foreign secretary and other underlings for the “bad drafting” is pointless. No one but the prime minister himself could have agreed to that reference. He should be held personally accountable for this decision.

Handing Mr Gilani (not even Asif Ali Zardari, and there’s a difference) this lollipop has already had perverse effects: in addition to damaging the prospects of Pakistani society turning against its Talibanisation, it has increased Mr Gilani’s stature vis-à-vis President Zardari. If at all a lollipop had to be given, it should have been to Mr Zardari who had been sounding conciliatory, and not to Mr Gilani who is trying to mask his insignificance as a popular leader by taking hardline positions against India. The decision to reward Mr Gilani and punish Mr Zardari is astonishing: it is either an act of strategic wisdom that ordinary mortals cannot fathom or a clearly discernible act of folly.

The acid test is the next Pakistan-originated terrorist attack: if there is one, Dr Singh must resign. If there isn’t one, or a major attack is averted with the assistance of the Pakistani government, then he deserves our praise.

Update: In his op-ed on July 31st, Pratap Bhanu Mehta echoes these arguments (in greater detail and style)

In defence of Bibek Debroy’s purported defence of the UPA’s budget

Out of context

To draw attention to Bibek Debroy’s commentary on the second UPA government’s first budget, I wrote, on Twitter:

Bibek Debroy in IE: “If con is antithesis of pro, Congress is the antithesis of Progress.” [@acorn]

In response, Zahan Malkani writes (via email):

This is regarding your Tweet about the IE opinion piece ‘Read Between the Lines’ posted on @acorn approximately three hour ago. I’m replying via email as my account is a protected one and I’ve realised that my replies never reach you.

The Tweet in question is, in my opinion, a blatant misrepresentation of the spirit and overall tone of the article by Mr. Debroy.

Sure, you did quote him verbatim, but thoroughly out of context. Not unlike the legions who quote Marx as having once said ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, which completely misses the point.

Not to sound pretentious, but in an era defined by 140-character-or-less, it becomes all the more important for you to represent other’s work in an unbiased manner that captures the spirit of the piece.

As I see it, Mr. Debroy was rather upbeat on the new budget and its ramifications. The thesis, if you can call it that, seemed to be that this budget was rather a good sign, given the circumstances.

Indeed to draw from Mr. Debroy’s last paragraph,

“I am glad the Budget isn’t flashy and spectacular. It seems pedestrian. But given the constraints, it isn’t quite that… Despite public expenditure and the doubtful efficacy of Central universities in every state, there is nothing to kill green shoots.”

I would appreciate it if you posted an update reflecting the context of the article that you extracted the quote from. This government has a hard enough time ahead impressing critics like yourself (whom I readily admire for your work) without misrepresentations.

Yours sincerely,
Zahan Malkani

Now, whether or not the Indian government cares about twittering critics, whether or not its twittering critics matter, and whether or not the ball was inside or outside the line, Mr Malkani’s email is worth bringing to the attention of this blog’s readers.

All poor, all backward

When the not-so-poor label themselves poor, the really poor suffer

“If numbers are anything to go by,” Mint says in today’s editorial, “the second incarnation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is likely to notch an unenviable record: an upward march in the number of poor in India.” Why? Because an “expert” committee appointed by the ministry of rural development “felt” that the actual number of rural poor are much higher than the 28.3% that the Planning Commission claims. Based on this “feeling” they upped it to 50%. One gets the feeling that they were feeling a little too ungenerous, for surely, there are people who feel that more than one in two people that they meet in villages are abjectly poor.

This cannot be mere statistical quibbling: A big increase in the number of poor in any country is a political matter. It raises interesting questions. Was the UPA-I’s record so unenviable that five years of its rule has made more people poor than any recent interval of our history? More remarkably, how did the UPA succeed at the hustings with such a disastrous record? [Mint]

Not only is the feeling-based poverty rate setting dubious, the methodology to identify the poor is more so.

Anyone who doesn’t spend large sums of taxpayer’s money based on feeling will know that if the expert committee’s recommendations are accepted, a whole lot of people will claim to be below the poverty line. Many will figure out ways to declare themselves abjectly poor, thereby increasing corruption at local government levels. (Look what happened in Karnataka). Political entrepreneurs will quickly figure out how to secure votes by promising to make their voters poorer. Just as more and more communities aspire to become backward or scheduled castes, more and more communities will aspire to become poor. Oh, their social standing, political empowerment and economic wealth will have nothing to do with these labels, of course.

So what? Well, without accurate measures of how many really poor people there are in India, it is very hard to devise policies to actually help them. Properly targeted policy measures will become harder, if not impossible. Besides, those who genuinely need government assistance will find themselves in competition with better-connected opportunists. Raising the poverty line wrongly is a good way to trample those who are really below it.

What they asked Mr Krishna

He ducked the question, but a point was made in the asking

This was the second question the new foreign minister had to answer:

Question: This is on Pakistan. Do you think it is a good time for India to pull back troops from the border? What do you think about America increasing aid for Pakistan without making it conditional on stopping cross border terrorism against India?

SM Krishna: We can change our friends, but not our neighbours. In general, we desire to live with all our neighbours in peace and to create a tension free situation with all our neighbours. We stand ready to extend our hand of partnership to Pakistan, if they take determined and credible action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism operating from there territory. [MEA emphasis added]

See C Raja Mohan’s rather optimistic take on the prospects for Indian foreign policy under S M Krishna’s stewardship. More than ideological certitude or “expertise” a good, sensible head—and Mr Krishna is known to have one—is what a good minister is made of. So let’s hope Raja-Mandala is right on this one.

Update: According to knowledgeable sources, the journalist who asked this question was CNN-IBN’s Parul Malhotra.

No excuses left, Dr Singh

Can Manmohan Singh redeem himself?

Dr Manmohan Singh has an altogether more difficult job this time. When he become prime minister in 2004, it was after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government had begun the strategic tango with the United States, galvanised the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan and arrived at a positive bilateral relationship with China. The neighbourhood was also relatively stable. The external environment that Dr Manmohan Singh inherits from Dr Manmohan Singh is significantly worse in some places, and in crisis mode in many others.

The Obama administration is determined to be in the “not-Bush” mode as much out of ideological conviction as out of antipathy for George W Bush and his policies. The ‘peace process’ with Pakistan has proven to be a disaster and after 26/11, the UPA government has put its Pakistan strategy on auto-pilot mode. China is off the great power launchpad and is flexing its muscles. The neighbourhood is in crisis. Dr Manmohan Singh could not have left a worse legacy for Dr Manmohan Singh. (And we’re not even talking about the economy)

The good news is that the old millstones are gone: the new UPA government won’t have to depend on Prakash Karat and his comrades and might even be free of the Congress Party’s own albatrosses like Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar. So Dr Manmohan Singh will have greater freedom to—and fewer excuses not to—push the kind of foreign policy that India needs. The presence of the DMK in the UPA might complicate Sri Lanka policy, but otherwise, there’s little to constrain Dr Singh.

The Acorn does not subscribe to the Manmohan Singh fan club (okay, that’s an understatement) but it has strongly supported the UPA government on the India-US nuclear deal. We now challenge him to use the current crises and set right the course of Indian foreign policy right.

Mr Chawla must go

He should not have been appointed to the Election Commission in the first place

Let’s be clear: if the institution of the Election Commission is becoming politicised, and if the controversy over Navin Chawla’s continuance in that office leads to a constitutional crisis, the entire blame lies unambiguously at the door of the Congress Party.

Just how hard would it have been to find a decent, uncontroversial, experienced serving or former bureaucrat to occupy the office that acts as the most respected guardian of India’s electoral politics?

Why choose a person who the Shah Commission declared “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others”?

So let’s not lose a sense of perspective amid all the sanctimonious sophistry about whether it was “proper” for Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswamy to have recommended Mr Chawla’s sacking. Appointing Mr Chawla to the Election Commission was an unpardonable act of cynicism by a party that has so totally run the country to the ground.

The only honourable course is the for UPA government to accept Mr Gopalaswamy’s recommendation and proceed to remove Mr Chawla. Or, perhaps, persuade him to ‘resign in order not to drag the office into controversy’.

Ill-conceived dialogue

…played into the Hurriyat’s hands

Praveen Swami’s indictment is damning: “New Delhi’s well-meaning but ill-conceived dialogue process communalised Jammu and Kashmir and laid the ground for the ongoing crisis”

Experts have been telling New Delhi that the solution to this Islamist upsurge lies in negotiations which will give power—if not independence—to secessionists. Both the premise of this received-wisdom and the prescriptions it lends itself to are false. In fact, the crisis now unfolding in Jammu and Kashmir can also be read as the consequence of New Delhi’s peace process. In its effort to make peace with the Islamist-led secessionist movement in Kashmir, this counter-intuitive argument suggests, India ended up fuelling competitive communalism in each of the State’s three regions.

New Delhi deferred the (round table conference) dialogue process until after the Assembly elections scheduled for October. Islamists in Kashmir, though, feared that the elections would lead to their annihilation, and began sharpening their knives. To anyone other than Prime Minister Singh’s house-intellectuals, whose eyes seemed to have been paper-clipped shut, the brewing crisis was evident. [The Hindu emphasis added]

The dialogue process in Jammu & Kashmir was in piece with the UPA government’s policy DNA: entitlements based on communal socialism, accepting competitive intolerance and yielding to the resulting political violence.