New Perspectives for Independence Day

Last week, India celebrated more than seventy years of being independent. This is a fact that Indians should be proud of and we are, judging by the articles and news segments that are common during this time of the year. At the same time, it is useful to not look at the country’s independence and its progress in isolation. Taking a step back and looking at the experiences of other countries can provide an interesting perspective on our own journey and offer some lessons for the future. I thought of this as I came across some literature about Kenya over the past few weeks.

First was the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, set during the time Kenya became independent in the sixties as well as the long period of emergency that preceded it. While the book illuminates much about how Kenya gained independence and how ordinary Kenyans approached it, what took me by surprise were the multiple references to India. India, by then, had already been an independent nation for the better part of two decades and was a model of resistance for people still struggling against colonialism elsewhere. One of the characters in the book makes repeated references to Gandhi and the spirit of non-violence that contributed to India’s liberation. There are also less charitable references to Indians vying with the Europeans to seize local markets at the cost of the indigenous population.

The second was about the prosecution service in Kenya which is, on paper, an excellent and well thought out mechanism. It provides for the Director of Public Prosecutions to be a Constitutional position answerable to the Parliament with adequate safeguards against executive interference. It is also a relatively recent system, with the current version of the Kenyan Constitution having been in force for less than ten years. It shows the advantage of learning from the mistakes of other countries. For instance, as was pointed out to me, it would be difficult for India, without a Presidential form of government and with the anti-defection rule in place, to adopt a similar model even if it guarantees to be an upgrade on our existing system.

So, to recap the lessons learnt: one, we should be mindful of our influence and our power in being role models for other countries. And two, wherever possible, we should take advantage of being late to the party by adopting systems and institutions that do not carry the heavy burden of legacy while being best-suited for our unique needs.

Australia and the Logic of Strategy

Edward Luttwak wrote presciently in 2012 that:

Other things being equal, when a state of China’s magnitude pursues rapid military growth, unless the resulting shift in the power balance passes the culminating point of resistance inducing the acceptance of some form of subjection, it causes a general realignment of forces against it, as former allies retreat into a watchful neutrality, former neutrals become adversaries, and adversaries old and new coalesce in formal or informal alliances against the excessively risen power.

Perhaps, this logic of strategy is most apparent in Australia’s recent foreign policy conduct. The setting up of a highly classified inquiry on Beijing’s clandestine influence over Australian politics by PM Malcom Turnbull in 2016 was the first sign that Australia is realigning its forces against China. This eventually resulted in a legislation in June 2018 that raises the costs for Australians found to be guilty of batting for foreign powers.

The second visible sign was Australia’s changed perception over the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, Australia had withdrawn from discussions in 2008. In 2017, they were strongly back.

Signs three and four are specific to Australia’s engagement with India. Over the past couple of years, Australian federal and state governments have infused new vigour in their India connections. This multi-pronged approach has meant that Australia has even managed to create favourable stakeholders outside the Old New Delhi region. The frequency of visits by Australian state government legislators and policy experts to other cities in India has certainly increased. For example, Bengaluru alone is home to trade offices of Victoria and Queensland. New South Wales and Western Australia have trade offices in Mumbai. And the federal government’s Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) has its presence in 10 Indian cities.

The fourth and the latest sign is an India Economic Strategy 2035 document that was released by the Australian government earlier this month. Commissioned by the Turnbull government, the document identifies 90 specific recommendations for increasing Australian presence in India. Not only does it identify the priority sectors, it also identifies the ten states in India that Australian federal and state governments must focus on. The document illustrates both:  foresight of the Australian foreign policy establishment and Luttwak’s logic of strategy.

 

Of Football and Nationalism

One of the first classes in my public policy course is to help students distinguish between the concepts of nations, states and governments. These concepts are interesting simply because they play out in every other political discourse. Take Trevor Noah’s coverage of the French victory of the 2018 Fifa World Cup:

Noah congratulated the French team with a jubiliant cheer,

Africa won the world cup! Africa won the world cup!

The French Ambassador sent a letter to Noah, accusing him of racism to which Noah responded,

When I’m saying “African” I’m not saying it to exclude them from their French-ness, I’m saying it to include them in my African-ness.

Noah has come under criticism for his views. And while he is beholden to them, the fundamental problem is that the two nationalisms that we speak of are very different. As this article in the Quartz points out,

That’s where the difference between multiculturalist states like the US and assimilationist states like France really comes in. The Jacobin universalist definition of the French national identity promises to allow people freedom from differences; if everyone is French first, then everyone is equal. The “melting-pot,” multiculturalist American model allows people the freedom to be different, but still be American.

If you’ve read classics like the Scarlet Pimpernal or the Count of Monte Cristo, you will see how easily the French Revolution was dismissed as a crazy political project that professed to place reason above all else. So while, ban on the burkini is heavily criticised outside France, the French see it as a reflection of their nationalism.

Noah, who appreciates American multiculturalism professes admiration for a nationalism that accomodates and promotes (to a certain extent) differences. But it is also the French Revolution that provided the clarion call for liberal nationalism (Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!) to which American, and even modern Indian nationalism can trace its roots back to.

The problem is not nationalism but the way the nation is built. India has attempted to assimilate minorities into a single Indian nation from the time of British India. Assimilation projects based on language have failed in the past but continue to dominate politics and identity. Over the last few years, fingers increasingly point to ‘anti-nationals’ who flout the perceived idea of the nation. As the French mull over what it is to be French, perhaps, it is a good time for us, as Indians, to revisit what ‘Indian-ness’ means as Independence Day draws closer.

Meanwhile, Mesut Ozil has resigned from the German foot ball team citing discrimination over his meeting with Turkish President Recep Erdogan — proving that nationalisms will always be at play in the sporting arena, long after stadium lights are dimmed. 

Quotable Quotes from Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is an intellectual tour de force. While there are enough ideas in the book to write a full-blown thesis, I will restrict this post to highlighting two quotes that are reflective of the state of the country today, in the light of the recent spate of mob lynching.

The first quote goes thus:

Coercion is the least efficient means of obtaining order.

And the second one:

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them.

What do these passages tell us about tackling mob lynching?

First, is a new law, as the Supreme Court recommended in its order last week, the best way forward? A law is a blunt instrument and is coercive more often than not. Amit Varma has already written about this in a recent post, where he mentions the lack of a rule of law as being of more concern than the absence of a legal provision.

Second, are there more subtle solutions for addressing the rumours that spark a lynching than restrictions on services like WhatsApp or a blanket shutdown of internet in a region? The second passage might hold the key here. However, I would argue that the ignoring that is mentioned there cannot be passive. This is a case where there might be merit in fighting fire with fire, instead of being a firefighter.

Why Bangladesh Matters: Yet Another Illustration

I have argued earlier that the vacillating nature of India’s neighbours need not overly worry Indian foreign policy makers.

beyond the security domain, there is very little that small states in India’s neighbourhood can do in India’s pursuit of prosperity for its citizens in the immediate future. As we enter a world economy that is getting increasingly protectionist in nature, international trade will become increasingly difficult. Fortunately, India’s big, relatively young, and diverse population means that greater domestic consumption alone can help us maintain high economic growth for the next 10 years or so. Barring Bangladesh, no other Indian neighbour has economic prowess that India cannot substitute domestically. So, in the short run, the economic benefits accruing from small states in the neighbourhood will continue to be marginal. [INI, April 7 2017]

A news report in Business Standard today gives an example for why Bangladesh is an exception.

The value of two-wheeler exports from India to Bangladesh jumped 50 per cent in FY18 to $277 million (Rs 19 billion), making it India’s biggest export market, ahead of Sri Lanka. The value of shipments to Bangladesh has more than doubled since FY16, when it was just $128 million…

Bangladesh is estimated to have exported readymade garments worth $29 billion in the calendar year of 2017. Riding on robust economic growth, the nation’s demand for motorcycles soared 50 per cent in 2017 to an estimated 360,000 units. The high double-digit growth continues in 2018 as well. [Business Standard, 20 Jul 2018]

In essence, India’s relationship with Bangladesh is strategic for multiple reasons. It can directly impact the peace and prosperity of a large number of Indians. The opportunity costs of not having Bangladesh on your side are far higher compared to our other neighbours.

Anticipating the Unintended Consequences of Regulating Cinema Halls

Movie-watching in Indian cinema halls has become a highly politicised commodity. First, a few state governments capped movie price tickets. An unintended yet easily anticipated consequence followed. The prices of complementary goods —  popcorns, soft-drinks, and snacks — rose.

And now, the Maharashtra government has gone one-step ahead. IT also wants to tackle the rise in prices of these complementary goods. The Food and Civil Supplies Minister said this on the floor of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly:

There is no ban on patrons carrying outside food to multiplexes and if the multiplex authorities prohibit it, they could face action.

Not to be outdone, the Karnataka government has said that it will soon follow suit.

I’ll leave the discussion on entitlement and endowment effects for another post. For now, let’s anticipate the unintended consequence of this latest move.

  1. The movie-watching experience can be expected to be less than satisfactory. Movie halls will be littered with homemade food. There will be fights over dietary habits. If the governments go further and cap food and beverages prices as well, theatres will have even lesser avenues to run profitably.
  2. Demand for substitute goods will increase. At the margin, people will decide to choose something else over watching movies at cinema halls. This works well for the likes of Netflix, video pirates, and theatre plays.
  3. Prices of other complementary goods will rise. One can expect an increase in the parking charges at movie theatres or a charge (instead of a refundable return) for the 3D glasses.

In short, I’m not going near a cinema hall anytime soon.

 

 

Xi Jinping’s foreign policy pivot

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs recently, with his speech offering important insights into Chinese foreign policy philosophy, objectives and approaches. Xi defined his philosophical program as “diplomacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” outlining 10 key aspects of this thought.

Examining these, it isn’t surprising that Xi’s first and foremost priority in foreign affairs is to uphold the “authority of the CPC Central Committee” and strengthen “its centralised, unified leadership on external work.” This has a domestic and international component. Domestically, it refers to the emergence and role of a diverse set of actors in Chinese foreign affairs – from the top leadership, diplomatic corps, representatives at international institutions, party members in the judiciary, the trade and commerce bureaucracy, local governments, the military to financial institutions and state-owned enterprises. Externally, it implies an expansion in the role of party organs and ensuring that events outside do not jeopardise the Communist Party’s rule.

Analysing the state media readout of the speech, one can identify that the fundamental objective of Xi’s foreign policy is to “facilitate a favourable external environment for realising the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” This is an expression of Xi’s shift from Deng Xiaoping’s tao guang yang hui (roughly translated to hide your strengths and bide your time) in favour of the strategy of fen fa you wei (roughly translated to striving for achievement.)

What this implies is that one can expect China to continue with an assertive foreign policy to actively shape events, attitudes and institutions in order to achieve its objectives. However, this round of assertion will be different from the nationalistic kind that has been witnessed since 2008, say in the South China Sea or with regard to Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute since 2012.

For starters, Xi acknowledges that China’s rise is “intertwined” and interacts with “the most profound and unprecedented changes (that the world is currently undergoing) in a century.” In such an environment, he is placing priority on developing “global partnerships while advancing diplomatic agenda.” This ranks two spaces above “national core interests as the bottom line” in the list of ten aspects of the new diplomatic thought. Also, ranking higher than core interests are the goals of “building of a community with a shared future for humanity” and “reform of the global governance system with the concept of fairness and justice.”

This indicates that Beijing is keen to actively “advance major country diplomacy” to reduce friction and work with partners, particularly developing countries, to expand its global influence and play a greater role in norm setting. For potential partners, this signifies an important window of opportunity, as China is likely be more amenable to addressing sources of tensions and flexible towards accommodating their concerns. One can view events like December’s South-South Human Rights Forum, Beijing’s outreach to New Delhi and Tokyo over the past few months, its deepening ties with Moscow, its attempts at negotiating a new South China Sea Code of Conduct with ASEAN and its efforts to gather support against Donald Trump’s protectionist policies in this context. This subtle change does not imply an infusion of universalistic or idealistic notions in Chinese foreign policy but is rather driven by pragmatism.

A final noteworthy aspect of Xi’s speech was the constant reference to history. The repeated emphasis on having “an accurate understanding of history,” the need to “review the past, summarise historical laws,” understand “the trend of history” and the identification of present times as a particularly significant “historical juncture” operate at multiple levels. First, it signifies a sense of manifest destiny that has characterised Xi’s leadership. Second, it is an example of personal narrative building, whereby Xi has appropriated for himself the goal of making China strong, after it has stood up and grown rich. This once again places Xi in the league of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, above his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And third, it is a nudge to the party rank and file to maintain “strategic confidence” and not be disoriented by “ever-changing international chaos.”

Effectively what Xi appears to be telling Party cadres and the world at large is that while the tide of realpolitik may ebb and flow, China is here to play the long game, “keeping in mind both internal and international imperatives.”

Vulnerability in jobs in India

India has been infamous for the magnitude of informal jobs in the country. Though a significant issue, informality is just a part of the bigger issue, i.e, the increase in the number of highly vulnerable jobs. Vulnerable jobs usually include own-account workers and family members working informally. Basically anyone who does not have a stable contract or flow of income, and are open to exploitation. All informal workers are vulnerable to an extent since they aren’t on any payroll or have a formal contract.

This long standing problem has become significant as the number of vulnerable employees has been increasing in the past few years. As per International Labour Organisation (ILO), 77 per cent of workers in India will have vulnerable employment by 2019. In a country where 92 per cent of the employed population is in informal sector, it is a concern if the ratio of vulnerable jobs increase.

 

Source: World Employment Social Outlook2018, International Labour Organisation

The ILO report also pointed out that

“a significant portion of the jobs created (in India) in the services sector over the past couple of decades have been in traditional low value added services, where informality and vulnerable forms of employment are often dominant.

It is no solace that the problem is global in nature,

Globally, the significant progress achieved in the past in reducing vulnerable employment has essentially stalled since 2012. In 2017, around 42 per cent of workers (or 1.4 billion) worldwide are estimated to be in vulnerable forms of employment, while this share is expected to remain particularly high in developing and emerging countries, at above 76 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively. Worryingly, the current projection suggests that the trend is set to reverse, with the number of people in vulnerable employment projected to increase by 17 million per year in 2018 and 2019.

This is not a surprise as 80 per cent of the casual workers and 31 per cent of the regular/salaried workers in 2016 earned less than the national minimum wage of Rs 66 / day. If looked at on the basis of gender, 95 per cent of women working as casual labour got less than the minimal wage as against 74 per cent men. Lower wages make workers more susceptible to being caught in the low income trap. With income not enough to save and invest, people earning low wages are unable to earn or multiply their money and get stuck at living at basic sustenance levels. The only way to move from the equilibrium is by earning a higher amount and saving it.

With low income levels in the country and substantial number of informal workers, India needs to look at vulnerability within jobs as a criterion in itself while assessing jobs problem. In order improve the conditions, the jobs created in the country need to assure a certain level of stability and redressal mechanisms. More than skilling, the government needs to create avenues for job creation. A good starting point would be to modify the labour laws and reduce the cost of doing business in the country.

There’s a New Great Game in Afghanistan. It’s Called Cricket.

— By Retd Lt Gen Namaloom Afraad

There’s a new Great Game in Afghanistan and it is hurting Pakistan badly. This week saw Afghanistan’s entry into test cricket. While we welcome the move, we strongly protest the way in which this was done. India, after surreptitiously granting a ‘home ground’ for the Afghanistan cricket team in Dehradun, is trying to pose itself as a state genuinely interested in Afghanistan’s well-being. What is being forgotten is that the team would have not taken shape at all but for Pakistan graciously allowing Afghan youngsters to play cricket in refugee camps.

The world is well aware of Pakistan’s commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has sacrificed many lives to ensure that a true Afghan-led solution can be brought about. That’s the only reason why we are supporting the Afghan Taliban even though it incurs a huge cost to the Pakistani state and society. But while we were busy doing that, India is sabotaging Pakistan’s national interests by providing cricket training to the people of Afghanistan.

We are always asked for proofs of Indian interference in Afghanistan. We don’t need to provide them any longer because India’s role is out in the open. But let me provide a few pieces of evidence in any case.

One, the Afghanistan cricket team couldn’t have been trained without the extensive support provided by R&AW. Grounds and stadia in Afghanistan have been constructed by India. This bolsters the case we have argued for long — India’s four consulates in Afghanistan are actively undermining Pakistani interests in the region.

Two, India is spreading false propaganda in American newspapers on the rise of Afghanistan’s cricket team while whitewashing the role played by Pakistan in the team’s rise.

Three, reliable sources have informed us that Afghanistan T-20 jerseys were being freely sold in India during the match. India even got many Afghanistan supporters into the spectator stands and made them carry flags and banners symbolising India-Afghanistan friendship. The BCCI (not our BCCI, that’s long dead) twitter handle also posted provocative videos like the one below where they got Afghan players to pose with the trophy. All these instances are deliberate acts of provocation on India’s part to destabilise Pakistan’s own efforts in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Pakistan has always shown active interest in finding a settlement of the Afghan issue. In the recent past, we proposed a string of formations including the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). In the QCG, Pakistan even took the initiative of inviting the cricketing teams of US and China so that Afghanistan and Pakistan could be in the finals. But the plan failed because India scuttled it and offered cricketing facilities to Afghanistan in India.

We must launch a strong protest against Indian role in Afghanistan cricket and raise the issue in the next UN General Assembly meeting. After all, what are we waiting for? Will we now have to put up with the ignominy of playing a test match against Afghanistan in India? It’s time that Pakistan stood up for its interests and exposed India’s commencement of the new Great Game in Afghanistan.

I watched the Afghanistan cricket team’s test match live from the spectator stands in Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. As Ratan Malli mentioned on Twitter, someone from Pakistan will soon write about how this new engagement is reflective of “India’s meddling in Afghanistan” and “how India is using Afghanistan to foment unrest against Pakistan”. This article has been written to help elements from the Pakistani military-jihadi complex in their endeavours. They can freely copy-paste from here. No citation needed. Only use #satire.

 

Hope for the Future

The NFL (the National Football League) in the US has approved a policy that requires players to stand while the national anthem is played before matches. This effectively prevents the act of kneeling that some players, beginning with Colin Kaepernick, used to draw attention to racial tensions within the country. I found a fantastic headline in the Politico on this:

The Arc of History Bends a Knee Toward Kaepernick

This is, of course, a tribute to the iconic lines uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the march to Montgomery. Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends towards justice. These lines, borrowed from a nineteenth century preacher named Theodore Parker, are a cause for optimism. They emphasise that if you are on the path of righteousness, the world will eventually come around to your way of thinking, even if the odds seem stacked against you in the present.

Ta-Nehisi Coates highlighted this in a piece last year when he drew a parallel between the anthem protests and the civil rights movement. He said that the point of such protests and movements is not so much to convince your contemporaries, who are likely to have set opinions, but to reach out to future generations and make them understand what is right.

This is an idea worth holding close in the field of public policy. When a lot of what you advocate for goes against the grain of conventional thinking, it is reassuring to believe that things will take a turn for the better in the future.

Advantage China after Trump-Kim summit

For all the talk about China being insecure with regard to potential Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un bonhomie, Beijing is likely to be rather pleased with the events that transpired in Singapore today.

First, soon after the early reports of the agreement came from Singapore, China called for easing sanctions and “establishing a peace mechanism.” The US-DPRK statement also envisions something similar, i.e., the “building of a lasting and robust peace regime.”

Such a framework places Beijing directly at the negotiating table. Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored this today, saying China had and continues to play a “unique and important role” in the Korean Peninsula issue. The fact that Kim flew on an Air China jet shows Beijing’s continuing influence over Pyongyang.

Second, the formulation of the DPRK committing to work towards complete denuclearisation, while Trump describes US-South Korea drills as “provocative” and talks about ending US force presence in South Korea also works for Beijing in more ways than one. This is essentially what Beijing had been seeking for months, via its double freeze proposal. Moreover, Trump’s characterisation of US force presence in the region isn’t likely to have gone unnoticed in other regional capitals.

For one, the South Korean administration appeared to have been caught off guard with Trump offering the drills as a bargaining chip. The presidency and military both issued statements saying that clarity was needed on “the meaning and intention” of Trump’s remarks.

But more broadly, if US-South Korea military ties and exercises are “provocative,” would Washington under Trump be a reliable partner for states involved in the South China Sea dispute or even Taiwan, irrespective of the Indo-Pacific strategy and Defence Secretary James Mattis’ tough words at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Also, Trump’s remarks about the cost of military exercises are very damaging. It’s one thing to want allies to carry their weight. But the repeated counting of costs is incredibly short-sighted and likely to raise questions about the costs that the US will be willing to incur to challenge an assertive China in the region.

After today, it appears that for all the rhetoric, Trump is uninterested in incurring those costs. Trump might have sought history in Singapore. But today’s developments mean it’s advantage Beijing.

US Congress should bring in legislation on Taiwan Issue!

The naming issue of Taiwan is heating up between the US and Chinese governments as the deadline approaches in China for airline companies to comply. The Chinese government has asked airlines to remove any reference to Taiwan as an independent country and address it as Taiwan, China. Many international airline companies have already made the change, and US-based airline carriers are the only major holdouts, as they seek clarity from the US government. The US government has already called it ‘Orwellian nonsense’ and is in consultation with its allies such as Australia and UK on the issue.

The solution for this is for the US Congress to bring in legislation on the issue, and debar the US-based airlines from changing the name by law. This issue has blown up way beyond China’s regular diktats against private companies, and should be challenged by the United States and its allies.

Not only that, the US Congress should force by law, the Chinese airline carriers to list Taiwan as a separate country on their international websites in a tit for tat measure.

Obviously, there will be economic consequences for US airlines for not toeing the Chinese diktats, but by bringing in US laws on the naming issue, Chinese airlines will also suffer. Furthermore, if Chinese airlines do cave into the naming of Taiwan as a separate country on their US and international websites, it will be tacit acceptance of the status quo by the Chinese government since most of them are state-owned enterprises!

This kind of retaliatory measure will hopefully put some sense into China to steer clear of the naming issue in future.