Pashtun Protection Movement: A Radically Networked Society in Action

If you have been trawling the internet in search of reliable news and opinion about the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), there’s some good news. Beena Sarwar has an excellent backgrounder in Scroll.in. 

What caught my attention was the social media’s role in mobilising widespread support given that there is a blanket censure  of PTM by all major media houses in Pakistan. Sarwar describes this role as follows:

Their (PTM’s) demand for constitutional rights directly challenging Pakistan’s powerful security establishment was blatantly censored from the mainstream media. The pattern has continued with subsequent rallies.

But in this digital age, news of the Swat demonstration could not be suppressed. The social media activists or citizen journalists who trended the hashtag #PashtunLongMarch2Swat included gender studies lecturer Tooba Syed from Islamabad. Making the four-hour journey to Swat by road, she movingly documented her experiences on Twitter.

Without social media, “the movement would not be possible”, said one of its leaders, 34-year-old lawyer Mohsin Dawar, a former student activist associated with Left politics.

The rapid rise of social media in Pakistan (17% internet penetration, growing fast) and mobile phone subscribers (over 70%) makes television coverage (73%) less crucial than before. But censorship still violates the people’s right to know, as a statement endorsed by over 100 journalists in April emphasises. [Scroll.in, 6 May 2018]

So, the PTM is a textbook example of what we call a Radically Networked Society (RNS) — a web of hyper connected individuals, possessing an identity (imagined or real), and motivated by a common immediate cause.

In PTM’s case, the Pashtun ethnicity provided the common identity, Naqeebullah Mehsud’s cold blooded murder by the Karachi Police became the immediate cause, and Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal, and Facebook enabled the movement to scale. 

The oppressive and all-powerful Pakistani State has ensured that media houses have no reportage of the protests. And yet, it has been unsuccessful in stopping the spread of information via the RNS route. This typifies the nature of information flows — information propagates rapidly in networked societies, at a pace too fast for hierarchical states to arrest.

From past instances of RNS mobilisations, we know that governments tend to use excessive force in desperation if extended internet shutdowns do not work. And Pakistan Army has a long history of using force on its non-Pakistani citizens. Unfortunately, looks like this is likely to be the next step. Watch out for the Karachi rally that the PTM has called for on May 13th.

 

Trade Policy as a Tool for Coercion

The ongoing trade war between the US and China has highlighted, once again, how trade policy can be deployed as a tool of coercion. Whether it will be effective is not something that I know enough about. But what interests me is this: what are the conditions under which bilateral trade policy can be used as a tool for coercion?

The zeroth condition is that there must be a substantial trade relationship between the to-be-coercive state and the to-be-coerced state. Failing this condition, trade can at best be used as a tool for inducement but not coercion. For example, India cannot use trade as a tool for coercion with Pakistan because there is barely any trading relationship between the two states.

The next condition is that the coercive state must be an overwhelmingly large market compared to the coerced state. Product bans and raising tariffs can be potent tools only if the losses incurred to the coerced state are significant. It is precisely because of this condition that helped imperial China intimidate many of its small neighbours. The message to all its tributary states was clear and consistent across centuries: we have everything in abundance here. It is you who needs access to our market. So, pay tributes and kowtow to the Emperor or you shall never have trading rights.

Robert Blackwill & Jennifer Harris have earlier described how Russia has repeatedly used trade as a tool for coercion against its smaller neighbours.

In the recent past, Georgian wines, Ukrainian chocolates, Tajik nuts, Lithuanian and even American dairy products, and McDonald’s have all fallen afoul of sudden injunctions… While dealing a significant blow to the Ukrainian economy, Moscow’s geoeconomic moves served, first, to remind Ukraine— and others in the region— of the consequences of decreasing ties to Russia in favour of the European Union; second, to reinforce Russia’s role as an economic regional hegemon; and third, to prevent the continued expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to Russia’s borders. Facing Russian threats on countless levels, Ukraine halted its plans to sign deals with the EU at the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. [War by Other Means, Blackwill & Harris]

The third condition is that the coercive state should have a bilateral trade deficit with the coerced state. This is counterintuitive — most people regard trade deficit as a liability rather than an asset. But it is this deficit which lends a dimension of intimidation to trade policy. This is precisely the reason why the US could use this tool in the first place against China. There are a range of goods on which the US runs a bilateral deficit with China.

My contention is that the presence of all three conditions is necessary for the use of trade policy as a tool for coercion. Seen from this lens, the US trade war against China satisfies conditions one and three but does not meet condition two. Hence, its effect on China is likely to be limited.

In general, trade policy’s effectiveness as a coercive tool additionally depends on what is being demanded from the coerced state. It also depends on the ability of the coercing state to incur the losses resulting from retaliatory actions by the coerced state. 

PS: Read Anupam’s piece that warns about the economic losses emerging out of protectionist policies.

Of Saints and Humans

I know I’m late by many decades but I finally read Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi today. I’m jotting down a few key lines from this essay.

But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt, or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice. In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed.

Here, Orwell says that the mark of a saint is the standards used to judge him/her.

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

Here, Orwell brilliantly argues that it is a fallacy to see a human as a failed saint. May be a saint is a failed human too. Or that both of these streams are fundamentally incompatible.

Another brilliant section is on the limit of Gandhian morality in the conduct of international relations. It highlights that in an amoral world, morality can be a handicap, much less a weapon.

It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary [..] But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? Gandhi’s various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?

 

Closure of Bars on Election Day Reflects Failure of Democracy

The Election Commission in Karnataka has been overzealous in enforcing the model code of conduct, with special regard to sale of alcohol. Election times are generally a pain for owners of liquor stores and bars, but this year seems to be a whole lot worse.

The EC has issued directives and guidelines for owners of bars and other establishments selling liquor. They must maintain diligent accounts of every sale of alcohol. The specific order that has many bar owners worried states: “If there is more than 10 per cent difference in sales compared to the previous year, such outlets will have to face inquiry”. This is ridiculous.

The 20th of April in 2018 was a Friday, when sales generally tend to be high and in 2017, the date fell on a Thursday. The discrepancy could easily be 10 percent.

There will also be a flying squad constituted by the excise department which will patrol the city. It can visit any shop at any time and ask the owners to produce the accounts and sale details. This makes it ripe for rent seeking and discretionary abuse of power. Consider this:

Till Tuesday afternoon, 303 excise licenses have been temporarily suspended in the city alone, and a total of 793 establishments have been temporarily shut till the polling day for various violations across the state.

Further, there has been a lot of seizure of alcohol stock by the excise department, the flying squads and the Election Commission’s vigilance units. In less than a month, these entities together have managed to seize a total of 3,65,388 litres of alcohol seized since March 27.

There are also restrictions on how much alcohol a retail store can sell to an individual: no individual can be sold more than 2.2 litres of beer, or 750 ml of hard liquor. Again, these limits are ridiculous. Is it impossible to imagine a person buying two full bottles of alcohol for a private party he is hosting at home?

Finally, the biggest problem I have with all of this is that it curbs economic freedom. How is it fair to restrict the business of one type of commercial establishment? How is it fair to close down bars and disrupt business on election days? The election day closures are a feeble compensation for state failure and on a larger scale, failure of our democracy. If people vote based on liquor they receive, the problem is not with whether bars are open or not. Finally, I would argue that it is on the election day and the day of results that I could really use a drink.

Enemies With Benefits

The Times of India reports:

Congress on Thursday alleged conspiracy and lodged a complaint with the Karnataka police over what it called “unexplained malfunctioning” of the 10-seater Dassault Falcon 2000 aircraft (VT-AVH) carrying party president Rahul Gandhi to Hubballi from New Delhi.

According to the complaint, filed by Rahul’s close aide Kaushal K Vidyarthee, who was travelling with him, the aircraft suddenly tilted heavily on the left side and the altitude dipped steeply, combined with violent shuddering of the plane’s body, during the course of the flight.

Apparently Narendra Modi called up Gandhi after the incident. I imagine his concern was genuine. These two men should love each other, because they need each other. Modi needs Gandhi because he wants to destroy the Congress, and a weak leader like Gandhi is helping the process along. Gandhi needs Modi because he does not have the skills to come to power on the basis of his own personality, but an anti-Modi wave could get him there.

Basically, the relationship between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi should have BFF-status. You think they send each other cat videos?

No sermons, no carrots, only sticks

The Reserve Bank of India on April 6th prohibited banks from:

dealing in Virtual Currencies or from providing services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling Virtual Currencies.

This is not strictly a ban on people from mining bitcoins or possessing them. Perhaps, it’s not even possible for RBI to enforce that ban given the decentralised nature of cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless, prohibiting banks from dealing with any cryptocurrency is symptomatic of how quickly governments resort to blunt policy instruments in India.

Carrots, Sticks, and Sermons has a wonderful classification of policy instruments. It argues that any government primarily has three policy instruments available to it: information (moral suasion, transfer of knowledge, communication of reasoned argument, advice, and persuasion etc), economic instruments (grants, subsidies, charges, fees etc), and regulation (absolute bans, prohibition with exemptions, obligation to notify etc).

Now, which of these three policy instruments should governments choose? The book has this to say:

All other things being equal, in most cultures at least, the use of coercive power is more alienating to those subject to it than is the use of economic power, and the use of economic power is more alienating than the use of information and exhortation. Or, to put it the other way around, exhortation and information tend to generate more commitment than economic instruments, and economic instruments more than regulatory instruments.

The book says that even politically, it is rewarding if these three instruments are applied in a sequence:

politicians have a strong tendency to respond to policy issues (any issue) by moving successively from the least coercive governing instrument to the most coercive. The idea is that over time a policy problem is tackled in three different ways: first by the provision of information such as uttering a broad statement of intent, subsequently by the application of selective incentives, and lastly by the establishment of regulations accompanied by the threat of sanction. The underlying notion is that in solving social problems the authorities employ instruments of increasing strength in successive stages.

But is this order followed in India?

It would take a thorough study to investigate this. But if the regularity of prohibitions is taken as an indicator, it appears that even if this order is adhered to, the predilection in Indian policymakers is to pick the coercive option fairly quickly. And this says a lot about India. It can be taken as a proxy for how liberal political philosophy is stillborn in India. A liberal society would default to a minimal constraint principle – cause as less trouble to the populace as possible. Policy instruments are ends in themselves as they determine the style of policymaking in a polity. So, a high number of bans and prohibitions indicates that at the margin, greater government control is the default in India. Seen through this lens, the RBI note does not surprise.

The Real Parliament Washout

It is a national shame that our parliament is not functioning. But does it make a difference when it was made irrelevant in 1985?

The anti-defection law in 1985 made it impossible to vote across party lines. That meant that parliamentary debate was moot, and the quality of our discourse dipped. Why should MPs even be physically present, when one could conduct the vote as per an excel sheet?

That is the case my friend Barun Mitra made in a conversation with me on an old episode of The Seen and the Unseen. Listen in!

Déjà vu

India’s Aadhar is often compared to the Social Security Number system of the United States. Most of these comparisons are about how they are in use today.

The US SSN is necessary for you to draw a salary, open a bank account, it’s linked to your credit history, it’s linked to your taxes, tax waivers and a lot more. In India, it’s a similar set of linkages that is up for question at the Supreme court today.

But how did the SSN come into being in the first place?

The story is fascinating. NPR’s Planet Money podcast has an excellent episode on the Social Security Number:

A few things that jumped out:

The Social Security Number came into play in 1935, with the Social Security Act getting signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt. The original aim of the number was to track workers’ earnings through their career, such that they could receive appropriate social security benefits on retirement.

Europe said that it couldn’t be done. (Europe’s current extreme stances on data protection today are eerily reflective of similar sentiments)

The Americans decided to not use a fingerprint, because fingerprints had a criminal connotation, and the optics of hauling all workers in to get their fingerprints taken were… bad, to say the least.

The Number 666 is never used in the SSN!

Initially, people did not fully understand the need for secrecy with the SSN. Giant printed versions of social security cards, with the numbers intact, would be used in TV shows.

The SSN’s ambit gets expanded, starting 1943. The US Federal government started telling its other departments to not invent a new ID for any purpose, but use the SSN instead.

  • In 1962, it starts getting used for people to pay taxes.
  • Around the same time, it starts getting used for enrollment into Medicaid, a large healthcare programme.
  • In 1977, it’s used for distributing food stamps, or food subsidy.
  • In parallel, the number is being used by the Federal government and the military as personnel ID numbers.
  • In 1982, for loans from the federal government… and the list goes on. Driving license, Marriage registration, everywhere. And eventually, credit ratings.

The Social Security Administation did not have the legal authority to stop people from using the number for other purposes.

…and then these numbers got hacked.

History, it seems, often repeats itself.

Reservations don’t affect bureaucratic performance

Bhavnani and Lee have a counterintuitive insight.

the performance of bureaucrats hired through affirmative action is similar to those who were not, is striking within the context of the polemical debate on affirmative action, in which strong claims are often made for the positive or negative effects of affirmative action. We find that reservations have neither led to hiring of officers unable to perform their jobs or led to a dramatic change in institutional output, at least for one important government program.

They use the provisioning of MGNREGA at the district level as a proxy for bureaucratic performance. Their major finding is that MGNREGA provisioning does not worsen in districts where the IAS officer is a beneficiary of reservation.

Two possibilities arise if this result is reflective of the reality. One, UPSC exam performance does not reflect aptitude for governance. Or two, getting into the IAS is so competitive that despite reservations, efficiency of those with lower ranks is not compromised.

 

Cute Cats Are Good for Online Activism

Ever wondered how social media has helped activism in your country? Ethan Zuckerman, an American scholar and activist, coined the “Cute Cat Theory“. This helps make sense of why online movements succeed, especially once they are banished from the web by unhappy governments.

According to this theory, social media is the best stage for activists to rally the masses for a political cause – exactly because the people who visit these websites are there to browse mindless content and not to rage against the system. Digital activists can use these platforms to have easy access to generate mass awareness, and also not be targeted by the government for posting unwelcome content.

And so, although a majority of us who visit Facebook do so to stay connected with our friends or to browse cute cat videos, digital activism is likely to get more traction on these platforms than anywhere else on the web.

Story time!

In the early 2000s, dissatisfaction in Tunisia against its President (Ben Ali) had escalated to a boiling point. Various activist groups started chronicling the shortcomings of the Ali government online. This was also a way of rebelling against the highly authoritarian Tunisian government, which would often censor the internet and online speech. In 2009, when certain dissidents called “Astrubal” posted a video concerning the President on Dailymotion, the government took down the site almost immediately. As knee-jerk reactions go, this is classic – the Tunisian government responded defensively to an action as soon as it could so that any hint of dissent is curbed.

However, this plan backfired because of – you guessed it – the Cute Cat Theory.

Although Astrubal’s footage had received only a few thousand views before the site went under, the abrupt, arbitrary unavailability of Dailymotion to the other millions of residents of Tunisia only ended up creating more publicity for this footage and ultimately, sufficient traction to end Tunisia’s regime under Ali.

The Cute Cat Theory shows that it is actually detrimental for a government to ban entire websites to curb dissent – especially social media. What’s better, because of this entire Dailymotion ban debacle, the number of people protesting against the Ben Ali regime on the streets shot up rapidly. If anything, the attempt to shut the digital vigilantes up ended up backfiring badly for the government.

India’s China Reset ≠ China’s India Reset

Global Times carried an op-ed on 12th April applauding India’s reported China Reset policy.

With regard to their ties in the past three years, many Indian media outlets and scholars believe New Delhi has gone astray with its China policy. Following a misjudgment of China’s development and the international landscape, the Indian government chose to confront China and consequently damaged India’s own development.

In typical Global Times style, the op-ed didn’t miss a chance to take a dig at India:

The rise of China actually constitutes an opportunity for India instead of posing a threat. China’s GDP is nearly five times that of India, so the two are at different levels of economic development. New Delhi can hardly expect to exert powerful leverage against China. The primary priority for India is mulling over how to take a ride on China’s development and realize its dream of national rejuvenation.

The bluster aside, what should be clear to us is that a China Reset in New Delhi does not imply an India Reset in Beijing. In fact, China’s recent foreign policy conduct shows that the reverse is likely to be true. With every Indian acquiescence to China’s aggression, China will escalate provocations.

Ask Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, if you are still in doubt.