Chanakya is not a synonym for amoral politics

The name “Chanakya” is a favourite with political enthusiasts, who appropriate it as a nickname for themselves, and with political commentators who anoint the latest big fish in the political arena as “Chanakya”. The modern history of the use of the term perhaps dates back to Jawaharlal Nehru who adopted the pseudonym in a 1937 essay criticising himself. Today it is being used to describe the current BJP president, Amit Shah, for his leave-no-prisoners style of politics.

It is wrong to confuse Chanakya with amoral domestic politics. Not because ancient Indian political philosophy is irrelevant to contemporary politics — it is not — but because there is a difference between international and domestic politics. To read Chanakya out of context would be to arrive at erroneous conclusions. All politics may be about power but there are important moral differences between its use in international relations and domestic politics.

Chanakya’s proposals for amoral politics properly applies to international relations: to relations among sovereigns in his time, and among sovereign states today. Because there is no overarching world government, it is consistent with raja dharma to take the amoral route to power. Maximising one’s own power with respect to other (sovereigns) is the ultimate goal, because that is the surest way to protect one’s own independence, values and way of life. This is similar to what modern-day realists believe and practice.

However, when it comes to politics within a country, use of power is circumscribed by morality. Even in Chanakya’s days, a king could not violate raja dharma, nor could his subjects violate their common and specific dharmas. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata — where Bhishma does an AMA with the Pandavas while lying on his deathbed of arrows— goes into great detail on raja dharma, and how a king must rule. There was no written constitution then, but constitutional morality existed and bound the king (and his government) in the form of raja dharma and the dharma shastras.

We should not expect twenty-first century moral values in ancient moral codes, but the point is that moral codes existed and placed normative bounds on the actions of the king and government. In other words, in the domestic context, Chanakya’s prescriptions were and must be read within the constraints of a constitutional morality. Furthermore, to apply Chanakya’s strategies in business management and interpersonal relations would be wrong except where the law of the jungle prevails.

Raja dharma today is to be found in the written Constitution of India and the legal framework it has created.

People who breach this dharma cannot be called Chanakya. To do so would be to profoundly misunderstand a very sophisticated political philosophy.

Aftertaste. Both Voldemort and Vijay Dinanath Chauhan make the same mistake, as I wrote in my Pax Indica column some years ago. My Reading the Arthashastra archive has a few posts on how to relate Chanakya’s philosophy to modern times.

Delhi government bans recorded music in bars

Yet another example of the capricious nature of doing business in India is the Delhi government announcement today that all restaurants serving alcohol should stop playing “recorded music”. They are only allowed to have “live singing” or “instrumental music”. What sense does this make? Probably not much to us, but the Excise commissioner has this enlightening explanation:

When asked how live music was less noisy than recorded music, Delhi’s excise commissioner Amjad Tak said that live performances were “softer” and “controlled”, without giving reasons or data for how he had arrived at the conclusion.

Of course, this makes no sense. Music volume is easily controlled in the 21st century, and we have sound mixing technology that can reduce deep bass if that’s a problem. But the important part of this is just how difficult running a business in India can be, especially in the hospitality sector given that “without giving reasons or data” is often the standard operating procedure for government diktats.

This new rule was introduced in a circular only on 16 May 2018, so it was not even the case that anyone who acquired a liquor licence earlier knew this was going to happen. Which bar owner would have thought recorded music would be outlawed? Similarly, in 2016, the Delhi government halted issuing of fresh liquor licences, even to those who had already paid for it. Imagine being a bar owner who had invested eight figure sums to set up a bar, paid for a licence, who then got told it wasn’t forthcoming.

(If you’re interested in more such fun facts about the restaurant business, check out my podcast with Amit Varma in The Seen and the Unseen on Pragati, where we talk about the unseen effects of regulations.)

It’s possible that this could go to court and be ultimately resolved in favour of the pubs, but like most such cases, businesses suffer both in terms of lost revenue as well as the cost of litigation. How many restaurants and pubs can afford to have live bands playing every night? Would you go to a dead pub without any music?

There are better alternatives to this “hammer, not scalpel” approach to problems. The government could have involved bars in a discussion to come up with options. Or it could have implemented a rule specifying the maximum sound level in decibels for music inside a restaurant. I’m no fan of government regulation in general, but given our current situation, either of these is more reasonable than “no data for how he had arrived at the conclusion”.

If India needs to stimulate its economy, it needs to make doing business easier. And a big part of that is having a stable business environment where disruptive rules are not introduced on a whim without industry consultation. Unfortunately, that’s just daily life for most businesses in our country.

PS: Did you know that you cannot have more than 9 litres of booze in your house as per Delhi Excise law?  Most states have similar limits. Don’t believe me? It’s right there on the Delhi Excise portal. So if you have more than a few bottles of the good stuff, you should drink it all ASAP to stay legally compliant.

Delhi excise personal alcohol possession limits

How effective is China’s media management abroad?

Over the past year, there has been increasing reportage on China’s efforts at influencing public discourse in other countries. The so-called sharp power debate has been most acute in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and parts of western Europe.

A key component of discourse management for Beijing is influencing media coverage in different countries in order to shape favourable attitudes towards China. Two recent reports offer fresh insight into this.

The first is a study led by the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, which outlines media coverage concerning China in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary from mid-2010 to 2017.

The study finds that the coverage in each country differs based on interests and domestic political and economic landscape. For instance, while media in the Czech Republic is “often openly critical” of China, this is not the case in Hungary and Slovakia.

Moreover, the sustainability of critical coverage is doubtful, given that cultivation of political elite, expanding economic linkages and Chinese investment in local media coincide with positive coverage. The study also finds that primarily it is economics that dominates the coverage of China, with issues of security, domestic politics in China, social issues and human rights taking a backseat.

Another interesting point to note is that generally the public in Hungary and Slovakia “is relegated to information mostly imported from foreign news agencies or English-speaking media sources.” This is deeply problematic in that it tends to lead to half-baked and potentially prejudiced coverage, which is unlikely to resonate with local concerns or facilitate informed debate.

The other study along similar lines assesses the media discourse around China in Canada over a 16-year period, starting from 2000. The authors find that over the years, print media coverage of China has turned slightly positive.

However, what’s fascinating about this paper is that it reveals the divergence between the Canadian public’s perception of China and media coverage. For instance, it cites polls, which indicate that the Canadian public remains deeply skeptical of the economic and political relationship with China.

Canadians apparently view the political rights situation in China as having deteriorated over the years and have grown more pessimistic about the benefits of deepening economic cooperation. And this, while the media coverage has focussed on economic relations with rights issues being marginalised.

Behold Turkeynomics

Turkey’s election is certainly one to watch. It’s got a host of colourful characters with dark pasts and interesting nicknames, from Gollum to She-Wolf. Especially interesting, though, are the fascinating new economic theories being bandied about.

Now, inflation is a problem that is usually left to central banks to deal with independently. Central banks raise interest rates to reduce money supply and rein in inflation, and lower interest rates to increase money supply. But apparently, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, incumbent President, has different ideas. Erdogan’s masterstroke to deal with money flow problems isn’t demonetization (phew) but it’s something equaly counterintuitive.

How do you reduce inflation? Reduce interest rates, says Erdogan. And give me more control over the central bank.

Concerned investors reacted with a truly heartening show of support, immediately panic-selling the Turkish lira and sending it into a spiral. Perhaps Erdogan thought that this would help him gain some political capital – after all, blaming foreign entities has proven to be a great tool to keep dictators in power. Unfortunately, Meral Aksener, one of the frontrunners for the upcoming June election, has a solution: comedy.

Here’s one of her zingers, paraphrased: “Everything Erdogan touches turns to dust. He once called (Syrian President) Bashar Al-Assad ‘Brother Assad’. Well, I hope he never calls me ‘Brother Meral’.”

Her reaction to Erdogan’s brilliant plans for the economy? “Our country’s situation is like a bus on the edge of a cliff. And unfortunately, in the driver’s seat of this bus, there is a tired driver. It is irresponsible for this driver to insist on sitting in that seat.”

Oh, snap!

That said, Aksener isn’t nearly the frontrunner for the race, despite all the attention she’s received from Western media outlets amazed by the fact that a woman is running for office in increasingly conservative Turkey. Aksener’s history of overseeing deep state atrocities has led to a split in opposition unity, with the Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, the second-largest party in the current Parliament, refusing to vote for her. The nationalist, anti-Erdogan alliance still has many obstacles to clear before it can get into the driver’s seat.

Kowtowing to Chinese Maritime Power Is Not a Good Strategy

I came across an essay titled China is Not Alone in Adding to the Indian Ocean Woes in the Economic & Political Weekly’s 28th April edition.

The article makes three points regarding maritime power in the Indian Ocean region. Each of the three points deserve closer scrutiny and hence this post.

The first point is that maritime power rests not just on managing the maximum number of ships and submarines but also on the control over maritime finance and particularly on maritime services. In the author’s words:

War vessels and merchantmen are the two most visible elements of power at sea. However, the marine service industry, the most important arm of maritime power generally remains obscured. The marine service sector regulates and organises the diverse maritime cluster. This silent force operates in the realm of marine manufacturing, marine legal services, engineering, and technology, and supports the charter, insurance, sale, and purchase of maritime assets. It also determines freight and cargo rates. It is this sector that helped Britain sustain its empire for another 75 years, after the US had become the centre of international manufacturing by the 1870s.

This is a point well made. Given that India’s current approach does not factor in the significance of maritime service industry, effectiveness of India’s exercise of maritime power will continue to be limited in the short-term.

The second point is that India should not solely be focused on China’s maritime expansion in the Indian Ocean:

We are afraid of the Chinese empire-in-the-making while being oblivious to the dangers that the existing American empire poses to the Indian Ocean region. We are so bothered about the Chinese developing a base in Djibouti, but have been oblivious of the fact that France and the US already have a base over there… We do not know how Chinese hegemony will work in the future, but we know the exploitative and heinous character of the French and the British Empires. The question is, why are we not as afraid of the West as we are of the Chinese?

From a realist perspective, this argument makes sense. Increase in power of the other states affects India’s ability to achieve its own objectives. The law of the jungle is indeed the nature of international relations but even so — and this is what the article misses — a bigger animal eats the smaller animal only when it is hungry. And as things stand, there’s only one state with the hunger for expansion in Indian Ocean. So, India must swing on this issue with the US and other powers to restrict the most imminent threat. This collaboration is also necessary to address the first point — building a maritime ecosystem (including a maritime services industry) of its own.

The third point the article makes is:

We cannot move ahead on the presumption that the Chinese empire will be bad. Who knows, it may be a little better and more peaceful than the wretched, iniquitous world that Anglo-American capital has created. The Indian navalists must be a little more judicious and not allow the Indian Navy to be used as a projectile to counter China.

Now this argument is far removed from reality. There is enough evidence to suggest that a Sinocentric world order will not align with India’s quest for yogakshema — peace and prosperity for all Indians. For a start, look at the way China has alienated — simultaneously and purposively — a new generation of peoples in all of its neighbouring countries. Then look at how the Chinese Communist Party has imposed one language on a diverse set of its own peoples. And finally, just glance at its social credit system to see the Chinese vision for the future.

Of course, the US conduct on the liberal international order that it carried forward from Europe has hardly been untainted. But the failings of the US cannot not be used to give a free pass to China.The reason is that irrespective of what the US does, India is fundamentally aligned with the norm of a liberal international order, for its own national interests. We must question the US when it deviates from this norm. But in a Sinocentric world, this norm itself will cease to exist.

This is what I wrote in Pragati a few days ago:

Legitimacy for the Chinese way of reordering the world is constrained by an essentially hierarchical Chinese worldview — one that divides the world between ‘civilisation’ and ‘non-civilisation’ depending on the extent of sinicisation a region has gone through. This makes the idea of a Pax Sinica a repulsive proposition to most states, let alone illegitimate. So, even if China were to become the most powerful state in the world, it is unlikely that it will become the most authoritative actor.

 

 

How you Could Have Made Money From the Karnataka Election Coverage

Elections throw up a dizzying number of possible coalitions and outcomes. In the recently concluded Karnataka assembly elections, many newspapers, TV channels and political analysts learnt it to their dismay. Based on the initial leads, they declared BJP the winner, only to realise later that the political script was unfolding in a very different way.

Around 10:30 AM yesterday, there was a strong consensus on my twitter timeline that BJP had ‘bagged’ Karnataka. Convinced of the ‘verdict’, commentators moved on to ‘explain’, ‘analyze’ and ‘draw lessons’ from the verdict! It puzzled me to the extent that I put out the following tweet:

Wrong to call Karnataka right now. If BJP doesn’t cross halfway mark, a Congress/JDS alliance may not be ruled out.

Why one should have anticipated the possibility of Congress and JD(S) coming together? To see the logic, begin with a basic tautology: a politician covets political power. Politicians, while forming a coalition, wish to form government. This is partially correct; but, not the whole story. Otherwise, what prevents the whole legislative assembly from coming together and forming a ‘super alliance’?

Such an alliance is guaranteed to rule forever.

The reason why such ‘super alliances’ never get formed is not because they are unethical or ideologically incongruous. The real reason is that politicians worry about ‘intra-alliance’ power too. They dislike being a small player in a large coalition. That is why a ‘typical’ political coalition is medium-sized: big enough to cross the halfway mark, but not big enough to make each slice of the pie too small.

Following this general principle, it was obvious from the initial leads that Congress and JD(S) combine was the most natural post-poll alliance. A BJP-JD(S) combine would have been too big to be stable, given the numbers. In a way, the initial bounty of MLAs that BJP harvested also diminished the probability of BJP-JD(S) coming together! BJP had to cross the halfway mark on it’s own, possibly aided by independents and/or poaching.

Looking at the election this way totally changed the interpretation of the emerging scoreboard. Except may be for a brief period, BJP never crossed halfway mark on it’s own. And from 1.15 PM onward, they were firmly trailing behind the combined strength of the Congress and JD(S). And then around 2.00 PM came the bombshell announcement: Congress had offered unconditional support to JD(S) which wasted no time in accepting it.

And this was not merely an academic speculation. Since stock market was bullish on the BJP victory, there was a narrow window in which you could have capitalized on the misleading headlines: you could have shorted NSE benchmark index and made some quick bucks.

I am still regretting the missed opportunity.

The Rising Spectre of Populism

The Guardian ran this headline last week:

‘He’s not a populist, he’s popular’: Nikol Pashinyan becomes Armenian PM.

For some context, the article is about the change of leadership in Armenia and the quote within the headline comes from one of the new PM’s allies.

Notice the defensive edge to the declaration. Would such a statement have made it to the headlines a few years ago? I’m not so sure. It would have been safe to assume that a person elected to lead a country enjoyed significant support from the general populace. This is no longer the case. Perhaps we have Donald Trump to thank for this. After all, he managed to get elected despite riding a wave of divisive politics and losing the popular vote.

The more pertinent question would be to ask if this trend is here to stay. If, going forward, being popular would no longer be enough for politicians to stake a claim to widespread support and legitimacy; they would also have to dissociate themselves from the spectre of populism.

Another Iron Lady Rises

It seems that every other day, some or the other elderly authoritarian strongman strengthens his grip on power. A particularly egregious example is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or as some sections of the Internet might call him, Gollum.

Gollum Erdogan has come a long way – from footballer to moderate democrat to neo-Ottoman and world-famous misogynist. He has overseen an increasingly hardline and nationalist foreign policy, shifting from pro-EU and pro-Kurdish peace to notably combative stances with both. He has also turned from Bashar Al-Assad’s “brother” to a deadly rival, supporting rebel forces in the Syrian Civil War. Finally, under his watch, Turkey has adopted a much more belligerent attitude towards Greece, with vessels clashing in the Aegean Sea and no peace deal in sight for Cyprus.

Domestically, Erdogan has crushed dissent and the free press, shifted Turkey from a parliamentary to a Presidential style of government, and adopted rather conservative social policies. He’s also made a name for himself internationally with a string of misogynistic statements, claiming that working women are “deficient” and insisting (on International Women’s Day, no less) that a woman is “above all else a mother“.

It’s quite interesting, therefore, that one of his rivals in the June 24 snap election is Meral Aksener, a veteran politician whose supporters describe her as a “she-wolf” and “iron lady”. Aksener has pulled no punches in her campaign, lampooning Erdogan for his misadventures in Syria, and has sworn to restore Turkey’s “malfunctioning democracy”.

Aksener, however, also has somewhat of a dark past. In the late 90s, as Interior Minister, she presided over a string of deep-state atrocities. She also comes from an unabashedly hard-right background, but is expected to attract secularist votes from parties disgruntled with the relatively Islamist Erdogan.

In order for Aksener to win, Erdogan will need to fail to capture an absolute majority in the first round of elections, in which six candidates are in the fray. If she gets through to the runoff, a consolidation of opposition voters could push her over the top and end his 15-year grip on power.

Whether that will result in Turkey becoming more liberal or democratic, however, remains to be seen.

Who’s More Powerful in Asia: US or China?

The Lowy Institute’s new Asia Power Index makes for intriguing reading. For starters, it offers a good definition of power.

“Power is defined as the capacity of a state or territory to direct or influence the behaviour of other states, non-state actors, and the course of international events. It is the capacity to impose costs and confer benefits that shape the choices of others.”

The authors then assess the overall power of 25 key Asian states based on their weighted average across eight specific measures of power. These are:

  • Economic resources
  • Military capability
  • Resilience
  • Future trends
  • Diplomatic influence
  • Economic relationships
  • Defence networks
  • Cultural influence

The findings offer much food for thought. For instance, while the US and China are neck-and-neck on the measure of economic resources, there is a serious gulf between them with regard to military capability. Add to that the fact that while the US tops the defence networks measure, China ranks a low eighth. This is indicative that despite China’s rapid military upgradation and attempts at projection of might, Beijing is a long way off from catching up with Washington.

The two surprising areas where China trumps (pun intended) the US, however, are diplomatic influence and economic relationships. While the latter in Asia is understandable, one wonders whether the former is merely about Donald Trump’s America First approach or is a systemic change underway.

China also does rather well on the measure of resilience, which includes threats to internal stability, scoring 85.9 to the US’s 91.4. In the short-term, I’d agree with the authors on that. But I’d contend that Xi Jinping’s personalised control over the Party-state structure poses a serious threat to long-term stability.

India, meanwhile, ranks 4th in the overall assessment, just a shade behind Japan. And there’s some very good advice being offered for New Delhi to rise up the table, i.e. focus on converting its sizeable resources base into strategic gains and improving defence networks.

Light-touch Regulation for Social Media

There’s suddenly a lot of talk about how governments need to regulate social media. From a public policy perspective, the immediate cause underlying this policy change is an egregious case of misuse of social media. Policy changes that arise out of crises can often go overboard in the policy instrument deployed.

Using the simple threefold classification of carrots, sticks, and sermons, it means that governments are more likely to use sticks rather than carrots or sermons in such cases. Under the garb of user protection, governments will use the ‘need for regulating the conniving social media‘ narrative to suppress dissent. So, assuming that at least a few governments will choose to intervene, which instrument should be used?

I would advocate for a sermons approach: the government can instruct social media companies to carry a user login banner which explicitly states that

the opinions on your timeline are not be verified and may not be reflective of the truth. User discretion is advised.

Think of the banner that appeared in the beginning of the World Wrestling Entertainment telecasts:

fights are performed by professionals solely for the purpose of entertainment. Any attempt by our fans to emulate our Superstars physicality is extremely dangerous and irresponsible.

The result was that there was no ambiguity in the minds of the viewer that WWE was an entertainment show and not a gladiator fight. Perhaps, a regulation of this kind has some lessons that are relevant now.

India-China Collaboration on Railway Line in Afghanistan?

After the Xi-Modi Wuhan summit, there is a lot of buzz around the possibility that India and China might take up a joint economic project in Afghanistan.

This prospect has got many people excited. All prominent news agencies have reported this and yet there is little clarity on what exactly this project is all about. The MEA’s press release on the Wuhan summit in fact does not mention Afghanistan at all. The MEA spokesperson has been quoted in Times of India saying that the identification of this project is still in progress. The Hindu’s report vaguely mentions the possibility of a road link to Chabahar from Aynak via Hajigak.

But Praveen Swami in Business Standard has the most clear view about what this project might be. He writes:

Earlier this week, President and Prime Minister agreed to explore joint China-India work on a railway line in Afghanistan, with one spur carrying Mes Aynak’s ore to Torkham, and over the into Pakistan; the other in a great north-western arc, into Hairatan.

I created this google map to understand how this railway line might look like. Please note that this is only an illustration – I have no more details other than the above article.

Based on the May 4, 2018 report in the Business Standard [Click to expand]

Won’t such a project pass through Taliban-controlled areas? What is the security situation like in the areas that this railway line might pass through. To check that out, I overlaid the Jan 2018 BBC illustration showing areas under Taliban/government control over the route map. That looks as follows.

The speculated railway line pass through areas with Taliban presence [Click to expand]

The areas marked in brown are under full-Taliban control. Areas in grey are in full government control. The orange areas are government-controlled areas having open Taliban presence. The darker shade indicates higher risk (attacked at least twice a week). Lightest shade of orange represents areas that are attacked once in three months on an average.

As is clear from this graphic, India, China, and the Afghan governments have a tough challenge ahead of them if they are serious about this project.