The new Congress president must not remain tethered to past ways and beliefs.
This columnist was fortunate enough to have played an admittedly tiny role in Rajiv Gandhi’s initiation into politics, occasionally operating alongside the self-effacing Vijay Dhar at 1 Akbar Road, who was an effective sounding board and implementer of Rajiv’s futuristic vision, expressed among other ways through Rajiv’s harnessing of Chicagoan Satyen Pitroda to begin the telecom revolution in India. C-DAC, C-DOT, instant long-distance telephony and other innovations flowed from Satyen’s mind and got speedily translated into reality by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, after whose time in office, both Pitroda as well as his plans and projects got jettisoned, to the detriment of national interest. Among other such harmful decisions that V.P. Singh took as Prime Minister was to mothball for an indefinite period all Airbus A-320 Indian Airlines aircraft because of the crash in Bangalore of such an aircraft in 1990. The cause was pilot error. However, in order to tar Rajiv Gandhi, Singh ordered Civil Aviation Minister Arif M. Khan to ground the entire (and new) A-320 fleet, among the first of several decisions that across two decades led to the present state of Air India. In 1986, listening to advisors who ought to have known better, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched a new era of competitive communalism in India by passing the Muslim Women’s Bill. In a show of moral courage rare in politics, Arif M. Khan resigned his ministership in protest at the government pandering to the extremist fringe within the overwhelmingly moderate Muslim community in India. The bill deprived Muslim women of the rights that their sisters from other faiths had. Not that this was a surprise. For by the close of 1983, Rajiv Gandhi had convinced himself to go slow on comprehensive reform and rely instead on the usual policy and political matrix. Vijay Dhar got replaced as Rajiv’s top aide by Arun Nehru, whose knowledge of paints was as profound as his understanding of politics was shaky. Sadly for his legacy, nearly a year before he became Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi entered the comfortable bubble of traditional machine politics and policy, in the process creating during his five-year term in office a disillusionment so widespread among voters that even a shaky coalition led by the flaky V.P. Singh trounced his party in 1989.
Elections in India are not won, but lost, and Narendra Modi’s 2016 demonetisation of the rupee has opened the way for the probable replacement of the NDA with an Opposition coalition in 2019 that will include the former ruling party. Should Congress president (CP) Rahul Gandhi learn from the errors made by both his parents, the presence of his party and he himself in such a government may ensure for it a five-year term. Conversely, should the new Congress president remain tethered to past ways and beliefs, the new government would most probably last less than two years. It would be a government where economic policy is incoherent, and where extremists within the minority community once again gain a veto over social policy. Yet again, preachers from the US former slaveholding south (assisted by hangers-on in India) will spew abuse on Hindu deities. Wahhabi extremists, emboldened by the return of the ancien regime, would launch terror attacks while preventing a modernisation of practices within a great religion. During the inevitable midterm Lok Sabha elections facing a government that repeats the very practices that A.K. Antony warned had led to the 2014 Congress collapse in the Lok Sabha, some hitherto obscure leader would emerge within the BJP who makes Yogi Adityanath seem moderate. Sonia Gandhi was responsible for Narendra Modi and Mulayam Singh Yadav for Yogi Adityanath. This cycle of action and inevitable reaction would get repeated once again. That is, unless Rahul Gandhi does what Rajiv Gandhi did not, and remain true to the 48-year old’s oft-expressed desire to ensure the transfer of 21st century values and best practices into the governance mechanism in India, of which Opposition parties play a big part. Instead, should Rahul repeat the UPA-2 team and policies, the fate of his party will be the same as was in 2014. For someone such as this columnist, who had the privilege of studying Rajiv Gandhi up close, there are worrisome signs (this time from afar) that Rahul may be getting persuaded by UPA-era grandees in his party that the old medicine is still effective, if delivered in a more presentable package. They are wrong. Such people may not have learnt much during the past 15 years, but the rest of the country has, especially the young. They seek a 21st century India, where practices such as killing or jailing people for reasons of diet, dress, speech or lifestyle are stamped out. They want a business environment of low taxes and regulation to replace the growth-stunting mixture of high tax rates and multiplying regulations that a self-described “minimum government” has carried forward from the UPA days.
Both the entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala as well as the abolition of triple talaq (or indeed any form of divorce that is one-sided) should be supported by the Rahul-led Congress, rather than opposed. Rahul should demand legislation to outlaw criminal defamation and to better protect freedom of speech. A sharp lowering of direct tax rates, as well as a single-slab GST of preferably 12% or 15% maximum, should be his priority, with low-income consumer goods exempted. The declaring through legislation as terrorists those who kill in the name of diet, dress or lifestyle is what is expected of a New Congress that has learnt not to repeat past errors. Not to mention seeking to salve the wounded psyches of hundreds of millions through calling for the Ram Janmabhumi, the Krishna Janmasthan and the Gyan Vapi restoration. This trio of restorations would keep moderate the multitudes who would otherwise join the fringe and convert that toxic force into the mainstream. Is this too big an ask of Rahul Gandhi? The still unknown individual waiting within the BJP to get sworn in as PM well before 2024 on the debris of a fresh electoral debacle of an unreconstructed Congress and equally tethered-to-the-past allies will be wishing so.
By M D Nalapat Indians, who are becoming aware of the rights that have thus far been denied to them, are showing intolerance for those who seek to control their lives.
There are more than a few frontline politicians in India who yearn to be known as the new mahatmas or saints among the people of India. Nitish Kumar, the restless Chief Minister of Bihar, is among these. He went ahead with a law against liquor that makes the term “draconian” seem tame, giving the police the power of arrest and the courts of incarceration at the merest whiff of a whisky and soda inside the home of a citizen. That such restrictions on citizens are against what may be termed the basic structure of democracy seem to be of little consequence to Nitish Kumar, who incidentally was enthusiastically congratulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself on his saintly ways. It may be assumed that Nitish Kumar himself is abstemious, but not all the people of Bihar are, and the consequence of the absurd, ill-advised and contra-democratic law banning liquor consumption has been an expansion of the mafia-run trade in illicit liquor as well as in the smuggling of spirits from states run by “unsaintly” Chief Ministers into Bihar. In common with other saintly moves such as the effort by the Prime Minister to do away with paper currency and adopt the barter system favoured by Mahatma Gandhi, any electoral benefits of such dramatic measures have been transient. Nitish Kumar has steadily become a less viable political leader by the month, making even Lalu Prasad Yadav seem a better choice, especially since the country’s renowned expert on cattle fodder was embraced by Sant Nitish himself in an electoral alliance that succeeded in besting the BJP and coming to office before the Sant’s inner voice course corrected by returning from the RJD to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the very leader the Sant had sought to block from nomination as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate by threatening to withdraw from the NDA were such a decision to get taken. The BJP chose Modi over Nitish, and the latter left, though not for long. Given the unpredictability of Nitish Kumar, it is unlikely that the once-bitten Lalu Yadav will allot the JDU a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats in 2019, which means that the party has no option but to remain in the NDA. Under the Modi government, that formation has devoted considerable effort towards seeking to convert the people of India into abstemious souls, among other ways by using the judicial process to block a number of pornographic sites, including those that invite subscriptions from those interested in such fare. Just as in the case of liquor, such a move has already had the effect of generating gateways designed to leap over the firewalls created by the government. Worse, by diverting traffic to sites that have till now been obscure, but which contain material even more repellent than the banned sites. Although Victorians will explode in anger at this, it needs to be pointed out that it is preferable for the young to find sublimation in watching risqué video clips than in frequenting houses of ill fame. The second may lead to disease, while the first will not. Overall, India remains a democracy where the different branches of government compete in lowering the space for free choice of the Indian people, following what may be termed the “Classic Saudi” model, where too numerous internet sites are banned. If there is too much control over too great a field, finally the population will shrug off such restrictions. Fewer laws better enforced is the answer to a regulatory and legal system in India that has become so complex that it causes either a paralysis of the will to act in a productive way or results in a contempt for the commands given by the many branches of the octopus that is the governance system in India. Matters involving the freedom of the individual to choose should get tackled not through laws and use of the police, but by campaigns designed to change lifestyles and perceptions without reliance on the law and the police. The latter is the preferred way of a colonial or a quasi-colonial state and should be a rare and last rather option rather than the first.
It is striking how the institutions of governance in India are still (after seven decades of the Republic) allergic to handing over control of their lives back to the people. Victorian reflexes would be welcomed in Saudi Arabia, a country where multiple codes of behaviour have been prescribed for the citizen on pain of punishment if ignored. Societies such as the US give far more leeway to the individual citizen, and overall do not seek to forcibly constrict choice through governmental orders. In a democracy, the judiciary needs to be on the side of citizens’ rights and freedoms rather than their prohibition. It is therefore a sign of better times that the Supreme Court has in some of its judgements expanded the extent of freedom in individual lifestyles. Hopefully, just as freedom of choice in relationships has been affirmed, so will freedom of speech. For example, locking up individuals for expressing of views that may be unpleasant to hear but which do not contain any active incitement to violence is the mark of a dictatorship, not a free society, and it is a blow against democracy that multiple political parties in India are guilty of, including those vociferously accusing the Modi government of an authoritarian streak. Every year sees more prohibitions and greater controls over the lives and activities of the citizen in a combination of Victorian values and Classic Saudi social engineering methods. Classic because Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has these days been trying to de-Wahhabise the Kingdom, a move that hopefully will not be slowed down by the orchestrated din over the circumstances of Jamal Khashoggi’s death.
Now that the Congress Party is scenting high office, its spokespersons are becoming more and more the way BJP spokespersons became in the days when it seemed a done deal that Narendra Modi would occupy 7 RCR for at least ten years, if not more. The good news is that the people of India, who are increasingly becoming aware of the rights that ought to be their due but have thus far been denied to them, are showing a rising level of intolerance for those who seek to continue to control their lives. Unless the Victorian state morphs into an avatar which respects the right of the people to choose rather than be dictated to, it will find that its ability to enforce its will on the populace will diminish to a level such that they will be made irrelevant. If government does not bring in Minimum Government, the people will.
By M D Nalapat Kurds in Syria and Ghani government in Kabul will be the immediate victims of President Trump’s decision to pay heed to the wishes of Erdogan in Turkey and GHQ Rawalpindi in Pakistan.
WASHINGTON: Energised by his success in weakening the influence of his archrival, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia, President R.T. Erdogan of what was once a secular Turkey is now seeking to destroy once and for all the Kurdish militias that he has long considered his most deadly foe. So far as the numerous ultra-Wahhabi armed formations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are concerned, from around 2007 onwards, President Erdogan sought to follow the Pakistan example in Afghanistan (which involved the backing of the Taliban in order for GHQ Rawalpindi to ensure primacy over that country) in conflict zones within the Middle East. This took place through Turkey joining hands, together with elements of the ruling establishment in Qatar as well as anti-MbS elites in Saudi Arabia, in assisting ultra-Wahhabi fighters throughout the region to take on their secular and moderate foes, a list that includes the Turkish President’s three hates: moderate Sunnis, Kurds, and the Shias. President Erdogan, who makes no secret of his adoption of the Wahhabi ideology, has used ultra fighters to harry and wherever possible destroy moderate Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria, Shia armed groups in Syria, and Kurdish militia wherever he finds them. Through a brilliant set of tactics that have made leading newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Guardian his PR outlets, Erdogan has used the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to geo-strategic advantage. The Saudi dissident, who dabbled as a columnist for the Washington Post, was working energetically and expensively on behalf of a particular (and largely excluded from power) branch of the Saudi royal family. Their plan was to bring down Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the first Al Saud to openly confront the Wahhabi cancer that hitherto spread across the world from its base in Saudi Arabia. Through selective leaks based on illegal interception of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the President of Turkey has weakened the hand of his key geopolitical rival, a Saudi Arabia effectively led by MbS. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is now, with trademark clumsiness, confronting an expertly-orchestrated campaign led by the Wahhabi International and its dupes and agents across North America and Europe to dethrone the chosen heir to King Salman. As a consequence of the well-orchestrated global outcry against the Saudi Crown Prince, the Kingdom is unable to challenge Turkish designs in the region as effectively as was the case prior to Khashoggi’s demise.
TRUMP SUCCUMBS TO ERDOGAN
President Donald J. Trump of the United States, despite his aversion to Wahhabism—a creed that all his predecessors in effect backed, some with kinetic force—seems to have succumbed to pressure from Erdogan in the 19 December decision to withdraw the 2,000-odd US troops in Syria. These are presently in the path of Turkish forces primed to battle lightly armed Kurdish militia in Syria and Iraq. Many of the relatively small US forces in Syria are Special Forces assisting the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish people in their battle with elements of the ISIS, much of which comprises those assisted by the anti-Kemalist regime in Turkey over the years, especially since 2013, the period when ISIS accelerated its military campaigns in both Iraq as well as Syria and captured substantial territory in both countries soon afterwards. That push was mainly funded by donors in the Middle East whose identities are known to US authorities. However, as yet, neither the Barack Obama nor the successor Trump administration has sought to hold to account those within HNI (high net-worth individuals) within the Middle East who facilitated through cash and weaponry the expansion of ISIS in the region and beyond. Officials privately say that the reason for such forbearance is because the Middle Eastern ruling establishments fuelling the drive by ISIS against the Kurds, moderate Sunnis and Shias persuaded the security setups in France, the UK and the US to join in the process, as a consequence of which Atlanticist governments are hesitant to expose those Middle Eastern groups and individuals who funded and armed ISIS “because much of that operation was carried out jointly with certain western governments”, who were, in this recital, “fooled” into helping ISIS after being given the impression that the beneficiaries of the funding, arming and training of Wahhabi extremists were “only fighting to overturn the Bashar Assad regime in Syria”, which has been an overt NATO priority since 2011. Incidentally, President Erdogan has ritually mouthed the vow to “destroy ISIS” even while several of the fighters backed by him are indistinguishable from the group.
The unknown in President Trump’s hugely consequential decision (which led to the resignation of the capable US Defense Secretary, James Mattis) will be the approach taken towards the US retreat in Syria by the Damascus-Teheran-Moscow alliance. Should they brush aside bluster from President Erdogan and reach out to the Kurdish formations, the latter may well be in a mood to join hands with them as a consequence of what is clearly a gross and unmerited betrayal of Kurdish interests by the Trump administration. In exchange for accepting a high degree of Kurdish autonomy in select enclaves of Syria, the combined forces of Russia, Iran and the legal government in Syria would get an incalculably large boost in their strength were the Kurdish YPG to switch from the US side to the coalition led by Moscow. Should Turkish forces seek to move in on a Moscow-Teheran backed YPG, they would be sure to get a bloody nose in the encounter, thereby substantially weakening the domestic support base of Erdogan. A prize such as a Kurdish switch from Washington to Moscow would more than compensate Vladimir Putin for the meagre benefits he is getting from the fickle goodwill of R.T. Erdogan, whose backing for extremist groups even while remaining a member of NATO has established him as a high-wire trapeze artist par excellence of diplomacy. A rapprochement between the Kurds and the Moscow-led coalition in Syria would immediately translate into substantial strategic gains for Iran and Russia in a crucial theatre of operations, that too in a context where NATO member-countries are openly seeking regime change in Moscow.
THE DAMASCUS, TEHERAN, MOSCOW FACTOR
Although the media in NATO capitals places the credit for the rollback of ISIS enclaves since 2016 at the door of the US and other alliance forces in Syria, the battle formations responsible for the destruction of ISIS forts were the combined armed forces of President Bashar Assad of Syria, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran. The other effective formation behind the setbacks suffered by ISIS during the past three years in both Iraq as well as Syria has been the Kurdish YPG, which despite its effectiveness and its sacrifices has consistently been denied adequate frontline equipment by the US and its NATO allies for fear of angering President Erdogan, who in effect has long backed ISIS, in its war against the Shias and the Kurds. The latter is an ethnicity Erdogan detests for its refusal to comply with the “Creeping Wahhabisation” program of the Turkish Head of State and to accept his overlordship. The Kurds have, in their entirety, resisted the lure of Wahhabisation and are far and away the most socially moderate group in the Middle East. Another is the Alawite sect in Syria, which, however, is allied with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran and with other groups whose social vision is much more hardline than those of the Alawites. The Kurds have backed the US consistently since the days when Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, despite being serially short-changed by Washington. Consequently, they have earned the ire of Russian supremo Vladimir Putin, who has in some ways joined hands with Turkey’s Wahhabi leadership to constrict the Kurds and thereby punish them for their loyalty to Washington. Similarly, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) sees the Kurds as potential foes, given the presence of large numbers of them in particular regions of Iran. Interestingly, President Assad of Syria (a partner of the Iranians and the Russians) has a much more nuanced position on the Kurds, and has largely left them unmolested in their battle against ISIS and other Wahhabi militias, many of which are being assisted by NATO at the same time as some relatively meagre assistance is being provided to Kurdish YPG units to do battle against those ISIS elements as are still active in Syria and Iraq. President Trump’s unexpected acceptance of Erdogan’s condition that the US should withdraw forces that are stationed between Turkish and YPG formations may result in a re-ordering of regional alliances. Doing a deal with the Kurds would have far more value to the Moscow-Damascus-Teheran alliance than reliance on the mercurial Erdogan, whose failures in economic policy is inexorably leading to a loss of public support within Turkey, despite NATO dancing to his tune.
As of now, Turkey, Iran and Russia have come together in their antipathy towards the till now US-aligned Kurdish forces, although neither Moscow nor Teheran share Ankara’s partiality for extremist Wahhabi fighters, and have indeed wreaked substantial damage on such forces through air and ground operations since the closing months of 2016. Given that the Kurds are moderate, only their decades-long loyalty to the Pentagon and its sister agencies within the US has made Bashar Assad acquiesce thus far in some of Ankara’s stands that go against Kurdish interests. Where Syrian territory is concerned, the immediate priority of Damascus is to free from Wahhabi militia control the few zones where the latter still dominate. Rather than go by his natural instinct and fight against an Assad backed by Teheran and Moscow, the aim of President Erdogan will be to empower ultra-Wahhabi armed groups to take back territory from the Kurds, a scenario that would lead to a bloodbath on the Yazidi model, were Turkish-backed fighters to succeed against the Kurds. In contrast to the skimpy assistance in terms of money and weaponry provided to the Kurds by the US (a miserliness similar to the scanty provisioning thus far of military equipment by the US to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan), ultra-Wahhabi fighters have been given lavish funding and supplies of weaponry by their regional patrons, all of whom are either allied to NATO or form part of that organisation. As there is no firewall between non-ISIS and ISIS fighters within such groups, the flow of funds and equipment to them has resulted in a replenishment of stocks with ISIS that may be sufficient to enable the group to launch a new round of offensives in Syria and Iraq before mid-2019, besides strengthening the enclaves they hold in Libya. The Patron-in-Chief of such groups is Erdogan, and he has lately found a surprise backer in President Trump, who has downscaled assistance to Kurdish forces over the past year in deference to the demand from Ankara that all such help by the US to the Kurds be discontinued. As for any goodwill with Turkey, any moves in support of Erdogan pit Washington against the growing number of Turks who are uneasy with the creeping advance of Wahhabism that they are seeing in their country over the past decade.
U.S. AS AN UNREALIABLE ALLY
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US forces still embedded with the YPG will result in the latter becoming immediately vulnerable to an assault by much better-equipped Turkish regular forces assisted by Erdogan-backed militias that include elements of ISIS. This second major abandonment of the Kurds by Washington (the first being during the 1990s when Saddam Hussein battered them unobstructed by nearby US forces posted in the region after Operation Desert Storm) is serving to convince the entire Middle East that reliance on US material support (as a reward for faithfully going along with the suggestions of the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA) would be an act of folly. The US dance with Erdogan against Kurdish interests contrasts Washington’s unreliability in the matter of standing by their partners in the Middle East, with the muscular manner in which Moscow has backed the Assad regime in Damascus, save for a few occasions in which President Putin was tempted into making their Syrian allies make concessions in the expectation (that never materialised) of US-EU sanctions on the Russian Federation being removed or at the least, substantially diluted. Instead, each concession led to more demands that were asked to be met by Moscow before the matter of sanctions could even be considered. Leaving the consistently loyal Kurds to the non-existent mercies of President Erdogan would show the US up as a partner with zero reliability, a country that will abandon its most faithful regional supporters as a consequence of short-term adjustments and agreements entered into by the White House and its subsidiary agencies with other players.
THE AFGHAN THEATRE
Turkey is to the ultra-Wahhabi fighters in the Middle East what Pakistan is to the Taliban and other groups (including elements of Al Qaeda) in Afghanistan. It should not therefore come as a surprise that President Trump, after seemingly turning his back on the Kurds on behalf of Turkey, seems on the cusp of announcing a similar withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan as another Christmas gift, this time to GHQ Rawalpindi. Both Russia and China are known to be assisting the Pakistan military in its operations involving the Taliban, and during the past two years, lethal assistance provided to that force has increased substantially, lubricated by record revenues from the narcotics trade in the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle. Despite his record of always following the dictates of the US (a habit presumably acquired during his World Bank days), President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan will find the security of his country severely compromised as a consequence of an abrupt US troop withdrawal from a country where ultra-Wahhabi radicals have regained complete control of 40% of the territory and are working towards securing the same dominance that they had during the period before 9/11 and its immediate aftermath during 2001-03. China, in particular, will benefit from this show of US fickleness towards its allies, given that Beijing and Washington are increasingly on opposite sides of a conflict, the way Moscow and Washington have become as a consequence of the Atlanticists getting the upper hand over Trump in policy towards Russia as a consequence of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s witch-hunt against the Trump family.
INDIA MUST STEP IN
The double withdrawal of US forces from both the Kurdish enclaves of Syria as well as from Afghanistan transparently reflect the fact that the US has lost the wars it has conducted in the Middle East and in South Asia since the dawn of the 21st century, despite initial victories on the (conventional) battlefield in locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In Syria, even such short-run successes proved impossible as a consequence of the backing given by Teheran and Moscow to the Assad regime. The cutting and running by US forces in two major theatres will have its impact in India, a country that under Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi has begun the process of entering into a defence partnership with Washington. Given the size and scale of both countries, this is still an idea whose time has come. However, the US withdrawal may mean that Delhi will have to step into the role of providing security for the lawful government in Kabul against the Taliban, possibly in alliance with Teheran and Moscow so far as this theatre is concerned. Should Beijing reconsider its 100% (i.e., in all circumstances, even in those instances where backing Islamabad goes against Beijing’s interests). The experience of the Kurds and others has shown that relying exclusively on Washington as a security partner would be a risk too far for the interests of the 1.26 billion citizens of India.
The Kurds in Syria and the Ghani government in Kabul will be the immediate victims of the decision by President Trump to heed the wishes of President Erdogan in Turkey and GHQ Rawalpindi in Pakistan. However, the fallout from the implicit and effective backing given to these two neo-Wahhabi establishments will generate a situation such that Washington will be compelled to step back into the mess it has substantially helped to create, possibly within the present term of President Trump. However, this time around, whatever allies the US has left in the region will be wary about Washington’s demonstrated propensity to cut and run from theatres of conflict despite in the process betraying those who have stood by the US, sometimes for decades. Both New Delhi as well as Seoul (which is on the cusp of declaring independence from Washington in order to move forward jointly with Pyongyang towards the coming together of the Korean peninsula) will be re-doing their calculations on the extent of a security partnership with the US, given the unreliability of the US as a security partner after what is a surrender by the Trump administration to the dictates of Ankara and GHQ Rawalpindi. A surrender that has the potential to give a second life to ISIS and its modules across the globe, unless Moscow, Teheran and Damascus rework their sums to prevent R.T. Erdogan from giving a boost to the Wahhabi International and its extremist brigades in Syria. In an Afghanistan denuded of US troops, China will need to be talked to by India to accept that GHQ Rawalpindi is a security threat and not a suitable partner, and that Beijing will need to work with Delhi to ensure that the Kabul government not fall once again to the Taliban. President Xi Jinping will also have to stop the efforts of the PLA to get Moscow to support GHQ Rawalpindi the way the Central Military Commission in Beijing has been doing for decades, often at the cost of not just money, but vital Chinese interests. While the US, as the world’s other huge democracy, will obviously be the Partner of Choice for India in matters of security. In specific theatres, secondary alliances will need to be established by Delhi, given the frequent propensity of Washington to cut and run from major theatres of conflict on the most transient of grounds, much of which relate to domestic politics rather than to global geopolitics. The least President Trump can do to re-assure loyal allies would be to ensure that adequate supplies of essential weaponry are made available to the Kurds and Afghans before US forces depart, and ensure that the Kurds and moderate Afghans are kept resupplied in what will soon be an existential battle for Kurds and moderate Afghans against a cruel and ruthless foe that has been plentifully stocked by allies of the very NATO alliance that claims to be fighting extremists across the globe.
By M D Nalapat Donald Trump’s backers warn that Washington Beltway’s Plan A is to secure his removal or resignation. In case that fails, Plan B is to ensure he withdraws from the 2020 contest.
New York: Many, if not most, genuine loyalists of the 45th President of the United States are in the world’s most famous metropolis. They are clustered within Manhattan, the location where the worldwide Trump Organisation is headquartered, and which has been home to four generations of what since 20 January 2017 is the First Family of the world’s most powerful country. While some of the few who are personally close to Donald J. Trump outed themselves to the media, the blowback from such exposure (including stealthy efforts to implicate them in the unfolding “Get Trump” campaign) have ensured that genuine, usually long-term, Trump confidants keep a low public profile in these days of incessant persecution of Number 45 (the 45th President of the United States). However, in private, they say with pride in their friend that the manner in which President Trump has remained unbowed in the face of the most vicious attack ever attempted during more than a century on a sitting President, has made their faith in the man grow stronger. Those who know Trump say that he is “no quitter”, and that he has “come safely out of disasters that could have destroyed the career, if not the life, of another man”. They add unanimously that the Trump response to smears and innuendo is to “ignore them and press forward on the course he believes in” and finally succeed, as indeed became clear during the 2016 contest for the US Presidency. Those who know and believe in the man are certain that the Washington Beltway, the US equivalent of India’s Lutyens Zone, will fail in its 24/7 efforts at forcing President Donald John Trump to resign on his own as a consequence of the barrage of abuse and attempted legal jeopardy that the 45th US President has been subjected to since he contested against and bested the Empress of the Beltway, Hillary R. Clinton, on 8 November 2016.
THERE IS NO CASE
According to a key insider, the Beltway’s Trump traducers are by now aware that “there is no sustainable (impeachment) case” against the President. This, plus his stubborn refusal to get cowed down by the hourly fusillade of accusations, has resulted in “the focus shifting to getting President Trump to agree to a single full term in office” through declining—well before 2020—to stand for re-election in that year’s contest. In the scenario scripted by the Washington Beltway, “should Trump not do a Nixon and resign, the next best outcome is for him to do a Lyndon Johnson and rule himself out of standing for a second term”. Within the Congressional Republican leadership, “there are several who are hoping—some indeed expecting—such a development”. In the meantime, the effort of both his closet and open detractors is to “paralyse the President from doing his duty”, despite the harmful effects of such a “Scorch the President” strategy on overall US interests. Although the direct cost of the various “Oust Trump” probes has been calculated last week at $29 million, a Trump loyalist, who spends much of each week in Washington, claimed that the actual cost to the US taxpayer “exceeded $280 million” if the value gets calculated of the manhours lost in numerous agencies as a consequence of the frenetic Beltway effort to bring to a premature close the Trump administration.
THE HILLARY CONNECTION
Capitals across the world had taken as foreordained during 2016 that Hillary Clinton would prevail over Donald Trump, a businessperson and billionaire whom Bill and Hillary Clinton themselves regarded as a “dream candidate” to run against in the Presidential race. But for the revulsion caused among numerous Democratic Party voters at the manner in which the party’s nomination had been stolen by the Clinton-loaded Democratic Party machine from the idealistic Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, the Washington Beltway would have had its own dream candidate, Hillary Clinton, ensconced in the White House once again, this time not as First Lady but as First Citizen, the President of the United States. Although Sanders himself (even after being cheated of the Democratic Party nomination) sought to follow the example of “Number 44”, President Barack Obama—who together with his photogenic and brainy spouse Michelle switched from the role of the nation’s Commander-in Chief to being, for four months in the second half of 2016, the Campaigner-in-Chief for his former Secretary of State—several of both Sanders as well as Obama supporters witnessed in themselves a decline in motivation at the prospect of a Hillary Rodham Clinton Presidency. This pervasive mood affected the Democratic Party campaign and prevented enough of the party faithful from first campaigning for and afterwards casting their ballots in the numbers needed to ensure a victory for the Empress of the Beltway. A factor in such a development was the fact that almost the entire top layer of the Clinton campaign was composed of long-term loyalists of the Clinton family, with almost no substantive representation given to operatives from the Obama and Sanders camp. Across the US, more than 600 top-level policymakers were preparing to take up important positions in what they were certain would be the third term of a Clinton administration. Nearly 200 of them had already been interviewed by the Clinton (loyalist) staff or by the candidate herself for the major roles being assigned to them, and they were livid at the electoral verdict for being deprived of the opportunity to “serve the people” through occupying high office. Several Republican Beltway denizens (in the manner of the Lutyens Lok who are prominent in the BJP) were equally unhappy, given that the incoming President declined to select as key staff those who had publicly cast doubts not just on his intellect, but on his very sanity, a ridiculous charge against an internationally known success who has managed a huge business for four decades. Meanwhile, then FBI director Robert Mueller and other Clinton-leaning Beltway notables in the government had over their years in office “wilfully ignored” the manner of functioning of institutions such as the Clinton Foundation, several of whose real donors were from the Middle East and the Far East.
THE MISTAKE TRUMP MADE
The starting misstep made by the incoming President of the US was to accept advice from some within his advisors to extend a hand of friendship to the sizeable anti-Trump Republican cohort within the Beltway, as a consequence of which several of them got chosen by Trump to occupy sensitive positions that previous incumbents (who had far greater experience of politics than the newbie politician) had avoided. Son-in-law Jared Kushner was among those who advised the President-elect to “reach out to his foes”, even to those Beltway grandees who had not done anything to support the Trump campaign, but had instead disparaged it, albeit privately. Even the super-sensitive Chief of Staff position got filled by Reince Priebus, an individual with zero personal loyalty to Trump. Priebus looked not to President Trump, but to the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party for validation and guidance, and many of these party leaders focused on ensuring that their own personal agendas got fulfilled in the new administration, irrespective of whether these damaged the President or not. The new Chief of Staff succeeded in filling several key slots with loyalists not of Donald J. Trump, but of the Republican Congressional leadership, many of whom had worked openly to deny Trump the party’s nomination for the 2016 Presidential contest. Among the most consequential “closet Trump-phobic individuals” selected was Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, who wasted little time in persuading Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe, so as to bring in a close friend, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, as the Special Counsel to investigate accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections. A team overtly hostile to the Trump Presidency was quickly assembled by Mueller at taxpayer expense, and they have since embarked on a mission to try and locate actions by “Number 45” during previous years that could result in a process of impeachment sufficient to force President Trump’s resignation from the world’s most consequential office. However, the 45th President of the United States has refused to be “shocked and awed into submission by the Mueller witch-hunt”. The Special Counsel is carrying out a transparent effort to indict those close to the US President on charges often wholly unrelated to the Trump campaign. Those familiar with the developing situation claim that those former and current Trump aides who are under the Special Counsel’s scanner are being given the choice to “either assist in creating a made-up dossier on Trump or face jail time”. Not surprisingly, most have succumbed and are now “reading mechanically from the script prepared for them” by the visibly Trump-phobic Mueller team of investigators. A long-term Trump admirer claimed that partial acceptance of the (Special Counsel) script results in “only a partial lowering of possible prison time”, and that “only those who march 100% to Mueller’s tune are to be given full exemption from prison”. However, it must be said that several of those who know and have worked with Special Counsel Robert Mueller say that he is not a hatchet man, but a professional who does not allow personal opinions to affect his investigations. Given that Mueller’s true task is to find out something in Trump’s past that can be leveraged into an impeachment or enforced resignation of the President of the United States, the length of time he is taking to complete his report indicates that the Washington Beltway, despite its efforts, is finding it difficult to conjure up an impeachable case against Trump. Meanwhile, Beltway media are allowing themselves to be saturated by stories about how Number 45 “acted criminally” by, among other such presumed misdeeds, paying too much attention to details about his own Inauguration on 20 January 2017 or preferring loyalists to traducers within his staff and broader White House team. Or even running his own business. Such presentations ignore the fact that almost every US President has given personal attention to his inauguration ceremonies, or that the costs of the same are largely borne by private contributions, rather than by the exchequer. And that almost all politicians prefer their loyalists to occupy key slots.
‘TRUMP MUST WITHDRAW FROM 2020 RACE’
Trump’s backers say that Plan A of the Washington Beltway is to “secure the removal or resignation of the President through digging up enough from the past to ensure his downfall”. In case that fails, Plan B is to “ensure that he is unable to bear the strain of further rounds of 24/7 campaign of calumny against not only himself but close family” and therefore withdraws from the 2020 contest, immediately converting himself into a lame duck. It is not a surprise that there is such visceral antipathy towards the New York businessperson turned politician. Several actions taken by Trump Presidency have put at risk several Beltway careers. For example, what may be termed the Wahhabi International has since the 1980s funded a large number of former officials and academics in the US, besides helping set up think-tanks that would “independently” promote the Wahhabi viewpoint and leadership. This group has swung into action against Trump on the issue of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which the Wahhabi International is using to fuel a global campaign designed to oust Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) from office. MbS is the first Saudi royal in the history of the Kingdom to seek to replace the hitherto dominant Wahhabi tint in policy with a more moderate Islam that is more in tune with the sublime message of the Holy Quran. The Wahhabis are enraged at Trump’s refusal to sever friendly ties with the 34-year-old, who is in line to take over the governance of the Islamic world’s most consequential country. The continuance of MbS in office threatens the lavish bounty that the Wahhabi-funded lobby in the US has grown accustomed to, as does the US President’s open war on a system of belief that has spawned misery and terrorism across the globe, till now with US official backing
In much the same way, the sizeable number of Beltway charter members, who have over the years developed lucrative ties to China, are at risk of having such largesse reduced if not eliminated altogether, given that they have been useless in preventing President Trump from being more tough on the People’s Republic of China than any—repeat, any—of his predecessors. They too have, therefore, joined the lists against President Trump. The still dominant Atlanticist lobby within the Beltway also seeks to do away with the Trump Presidency out of fear that they will be rendered marginal in policymaking circles should Donald J. Trump revert to his campaign promises of a better relationship with Russia, a switch in policy that would be detrimental to the standing of Berlin, Paris and even London within a US-led alliance. The most toxic strand in Trump’s policies where the Washington Beltway is concerned is the White House effort to replace a greatly diminished Moscow with a resurgent Beijing as Foe Number One of US global interests. Such a shift would reduce to a much lowlier position an Atlanticist establishment that has fattened itself on the Europe-centred foreign policy of the US since the 1939-45 global conflict between the Axis and the Allied combatants. Those close to President Trump are clear that he will “ensure that the US remains Number One and China a permanent Number Two throughout the 21st century, if not longer”, a forecast that would have been regarded as fanciful before Trump began his series of moves to weaken the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party
MUELLER’S NEXT TARGET
Given that it is proving unexpectedly difficult for the Special Counsel to fashion a sufficiently strong case against President Trump himself, the President’s backers worry that Mueller’s next best course would be to attempt to shake Trump’s confidence and longevity in office by seeking to indict one of the President’s sons or son-in-law Jared Kushner. Such a development would deepen the atmosphere of crisis in Washington, and is designed to lead to a paralysis of the Presidential will, such that “the Administration will be on auto pilot mode”, incapable of grand initiatives and sinking ever lower in public standing. Even as President Trump fights off his detractors by ramping up his policy initiatives, including against the Wahhabi International and on the danger of the US being overtaken by China, the Beltway elite that has been thwarted by him of the spoils of high office is boosting its efforts at ensuring the downfall of the current President of the US, including through Beltway moles inserted within Team Trump. Given that a still feisty and resilient Donald Trump is holding on to the Presidency and to much of the policy framework favoured by him (and which he had promised voters in 2016 that he would implement) , the Washington Beltway has accelerated 24/7 efforts to ensure that the US Administration over the next two years “retreats into a shell because the President would be rendered paralysed” for the remainder of his term in office. Rather than anything done by President Trump, it is such relentless hammering away at the effectiveness and resolve of an elected President of the US that constitutes a hostile act against US interests. Those backing President Trump say that this unprecedented battle focussed on regime change to avoid new 21st century policies favoured by Donald Trump “will fail the way such moves have all his life”.
By M D Nalapat The guiding principle of the IAS Plus must change from the belief that control by them of all key sectors of national endeavour is essential for the future of India.
During the time when the Nehru family was in control of both the Congress Party as well as the Government of India, which was four decades (or five if the UPA period is included), the civil service was regarded as an implementor rather than as a driver of policy. This was the situation under Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and substantively, by their successor Sonia Gandhi. While Narasimha Rao introduced reforms that the overwhelmingly Fabian Socialist administrative services were not comfortable with, he was too politically weak to prevent entrusting the implementation of policy to what is far and away the most powerful tribe in India. The Indian Administrative Service Plus (the Plus referring to the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Police Service) regards itself in the same manner as the ICS did in the past, as the sole “Guardians” of the interests of the state, which is regarded by them as wholly separate from, and superior to, the people. The administrative leadership regard themselves as being ordained by merit and knowledge to know what the people need, even if this be different from what the population itself seeks. The core doctrine of the ICS and afterwards the IAS Plus was the primacy of the state apparatus over all comers, a tilt that led after 1947 to the creation of a gargantuan machinery of governance that swallows up more of the country’s resources than the share of the Pakistan army within that neighbouring state. Members of the IAS Plus often express belief in the “free market”, in “freedom of speech” and in several other desirables. However, their invisible caveat is that it is they who must determine the contours and type of such “freedoms”. Because the civil service (including the IAS Plus) was both deferential as well as attentive to the wishes of the Nehru family, no necessity was seen by the family to make changes in the administrative structure as would reduce the role of the “Guardians” in matters relating to the population. And so in 2018, in almost every sector, members of the IAS have a chokehold on the system such that they can allow matters to either proceed or get blocked, depending on what the Brothers (and as yet, too few Sisters) decide.
Until the guiding principle of the IAS Plus changes from the belief that control by them of all key sectors of national endeavour is essential for the stability and indeed the future of India, actual policy outcomes will not change from the shambles and disappointments that many have been. Policy will continue to get formulated through a process in which outside consultation is absent (save with a few hangers-on whose views are known to the Brotherhood and are non-threatening to the dominance of the IAS Plus). The process is continuing where all gateways are manned by officials, including those gateways that efficiency in operations dictate should be handed over to civil society rather that retained by the civil service, such as (among numerous examples) the RTI infrastructure. There have only been two periods when substantive change looked possible. The first was during the Morarji Desai period and the next after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister. The Janata Party was expected to chop into firewood legal and regulatory restrictions on the freedom of the citizen. But no consequential reforms took place even in education, much less in the overall governance mechanism, perhaps because Prime Minister Desai had himself been a bureaucrat in his youth, and shared with Sardar Patel an affinity for that tribe. As for his ministers, they were too busy fighting each other (and Desai) to be bothered about the promises JP made to the nation after the 1977 victory. The other Prime Minister who could have effected substantive change was Narendra Modi, but very soon he went the way of both Mahatma Gandhi as well as Sardar Patel, two great sons of Gujarat. Modi followed the Mahatma in seeking to improve the morality of his 1.26 billion fellow citizens through measures such as avoiding the eating of some types of meat or drink, and the banning of pornographic websites. Modi trod the path of the Sardar in entrusting to the civil service the levers of governance. Expectations that the new Prime Minister would enforce “minimum government” were dismissed by insiders such as Swapan Dasgupta, who wrote soon after Modi took office of what he saw as the absurdity of seeking a reduced role for the government in the lives of the people in the name of “minimum government”.
This column is being written from New York, which was reached via Abu Dhabi in order to take advantage of the pre-clearance facility for the US that is available at the airport there. This very facility was offered to India by the US soon after Modi took charge in 2014, but was rejected by the IAS Plus on the grounds that it was an “intolerable infringement on Indian sovereignty” to have US customs and immigration officials functioning from Indian territory. What they meant was that it was intolerable to the “Guardians” to have officials functioning in India who were outside their control, despite the fact that their being there would be of assistance to Indian citizens going to the US or intending to. Prime Minister Modi is indeed interested in reform of the governance mechanism, but has entrusted this task to the IAS Plus, the very group that the country most needs to be reformed. Should Modi get a second term in the job, hopefully Swapan Dasgupta will be proved wrong and those who in May 2014 expected the PM to institute systemic governance reforms will finally find their hopes fulfilled. That is, if the BJP overcomes the Hindi-heartland Grand Alliance of the Rahul-led Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Even at this final stage of the government’s term, sincerely prosecuted cases need to get started against not only central but also some state satraps.
When voters chose Narendra Modi to be the Prime Minister of India by voting in the BJP in 2014, they did so to better ensure the double digit growth that stability and social justice in the country needs. Thus far, this expectation has gone unrealised. For starters, the BJP allowed a full ten days (16-26 May 2014) to the outgoing UPA administration to tidy up records, make last-minute adjustments, do last-minute favours, and almost certainly collate and collect whatever material was available in the files on incoming BJP luminaries as would serve as a deterrent to action against the outgoing UPA ministers and their remote control switches. Of course, the NDA claim is that the reason why even UPA-era VVIPs have evaded jail time (or even prosecution) till now is because incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not want to be vindictive. It gets added that the Charan Singh example of arresting Indira Gandhi, Anna Hazare or even the recent the Lalu Yadav incarceration only boosted the popularity of those proceeded against. But Charan Singh sought to incarcerate the defeated Prime Minister on charges that were derisory in nature, while Anna Hazare was not a corrupt politician, but an anti-corruption activist. As for Lalu Yadav, he has been jailed on the basis of a case that goes back over two decades, one in which he was jailed in the past, even while individuals such as the “high caste” Jagannath Mishra were judged by the agencies to be innocent. To use blowback from such examples to justify the lack of action by the present government against UPA-era VVIP wrongdoing is to mock the intelligence of the voter. Even at this final stage of the government’s term, sincerely prosecuted cases need to get started against not only central but also some state satraps. However, these should not, as so often happens, be based on the “Quattrocchi Standard” (where the quality of the evidence presented by the agencies was so designed and presented as to enable the guilty to escape). Such moves would show that India does have a chowkidar in charge who is determined to enforce accountability on VVIPs who have swindled the people of billions, not of rapidly depreciating rupees, but of dollars. Even the extradition of an Agusta middleman will be of no value unless Christian Michel reveals the VVIPs who swung the deal in favour of the company. Should there be perpetrators who were active in a BJP administration, they too should be exposed, rather than the others be allowed to get away for fear of revealing a possible Vajpayee-era hand in the transaction. The way institutions such as the CBI, the ED and SEBI have allowed mega wrongdoers to remain free is a commentary on the rot that has eaten away at any effectiveness they may once have had as a check against corruption.
The Indian Express published on its 3 December front page how an income-tax report on Nirav Modi was not circulated to other authorities so that the man could have been apprehended before fleeing the country eight months later. If no action has been taken on those responsible for concealing such a report (or in promoting and rewarding the authors of it), this is a dereliction of duty, a lapse that the “Chowkidar-in-Chief” needs to punish. Lakhs of crores have been written off as NPAs. A success story has been the recovery of loans given to Essar Steel. The promoters have now bid nearly a billion dollars more than Arcelor-Mittal for their own steel plants. Either Arcelor-Mittal should match the higher bid, or the plants should go back to Essar. In the same way, should Vijay Mallya pay back not just the principal, but half the interest owed to banks, he ought to be allowed a settlement. The public needs the money more than a bon vivant shifting residence from a UK mansion to a Tihar cell block. Indeed, the Essar example of getting back moneys lent should be the norm, as there are at least four other mega defaulters who have the wherewithal to meet most of their obligations out of the wealth they possess, mostly overseas. These should not be allowed to escape, the way SEBI and other agencies are allowing some brokers to evade paying back what they owe in the NSEL imbroglio, where the UPA and now the NDA seems to have concentrated its fire on only a single individual and a company run by him, rather than to those who have actually left a clear money trail. Judging by actions taken or avoided during the past 54 months, it would appear that while South Block has indeed changed from 2014 onwards, North Block seems not to have. Tax rates remain high, absurdly so in the case of a GST architecture that is so complex as to serve as a disincentive to investment, growth and revenue. Unless a full budget gets presented on 1 February 2019 that breaks from the UPA mould and lowers direct and indirect tax rates to boost the confidence of both the common man as well as the risk taker, double digit growth will remain unattainable.
The BJP organisation needs to understand that a growth-oriented policy must prevail over the poll-driven strategy that it is making the Prime Minister follow. Rather than policy being the byproduct of poll strategies, poll results should be the byproduct of sound policies. In the meantime, if opposition parties, including the Congress, focus on issues of corruption, that too is welcome. Let there be a competition to expose rather than to cover-up, as has been the Lutyens norm.
Academic and columnist M.D. Nalapat, in this interview with Manjeet Kripalani, speaks of how a tardy bureaucracy has brought about “a too-cautious” policy towards the U.S. and China as opposed to the former Gujarat chief minister’s greater openness in consulting people before handing over policy implementation to the bureaucracy. He also discusses the prime minister’s shrewd approach to South Asia, the dependable warmth of the Japanese and a range of other topics.
Manjeet Kripalani: Welcome back, Professor Nalapat, to the Gateway House monthly video podcast. Four years ago, you gave us an insider’s view of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy would be, should he become the prime minister. He won the election and we are now at the end of his first term.
If you put a perfect location pin on his plans, which you did the last time, what would you say has defined his foreign policy?
M.D.Nalapat: The problem that Modi has faced has been self-created: the man has been far too reliant on the bureaucracy; way too much of the input he has been receiving on various issues comes from within it. This has been a problem because he looks only at a much narrower range of options than he would have had he looked at a broader segment of society to consult. Modi as chief minister used to get inputs from a variety of people, form policy conclusions and tell the bureaucracy to implement them. For Modi as prime minister, many of the policy formulations go through the bureaucracy matrix.
M.K.: And this has had an impact on his choice of chief guest for Republic Day?
M.D.N.: I’m hearing, for example, that he is going to get South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. I still want Vice President Mike Pence to come.
(Disclaimer: This interview was recorded before the official confirmation of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade in 2019.)
M.K.: In place of President Donald Trump, who turned down the invitation?
M.D.N.: Exactly – and for a simple reason. If you are looking at the Indo-Pacific, which is a very significant body of water, or if you’re looking at space, which is a very significant area of competition in the future, India by itself cannot really hope to dominate even the Indian Ocean. The U.S. cannot hope to remain ahead entirely by itself. But primacy can be established through an alliance of the U.S., India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, the entire body of the Indo-Pacific. So why Mike Pence? To take the example of an Indian embassy abroad: you may have a political appointee as the ambassador, who does much of the diplomatic work. He creates a lot of goodwill. But the deputy chief of mission does much of the day-to-day work. In my view, Mike Pence is the deputy chief of mission of the Trump administration. He’s an extremely influential figure; and from his Hudson Institute speech, it’s very clear that he is also a significant geopolitical thinker.
The bureaucrats will say, ‘Oh, but he is only vice president’. But then they invited the crown prince of the UAE as the Republic Day chief guest in 2017, creating a precedent of inviting the second in command. It was a brilliant choice – and entirely the prime minister’s. I hope the prime minister will shake himself free of bureaucratic tentacles, and invite Mike Pence to come as the chief guest.
M.K.: Four years ago, you had also said that Mr. Modi would focus on four countries for India’s strategic investment: the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. So continuing friends, rivals, old allies and new allies. Has he done so, and how has that worked for India?
M.D.N.: Modi has had a certain direction in foreign policy and we have seen a Modi doctrine taking shape. The only problem with it, once again, is that he has handed over its actual operation to the bureaucracy.
It’s like this. You have a strong relationship with the U.S., which is security-based. With China, you have a strong commercial relationship: Modi has made it much easier for Chinese business to operate in India and for visas to be given, much more than any prime minister since the 1960s.
But as far as the U.S. is concerned, the prime minister has not been able to get all the U.S. foundation agreements signed. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), for example, is still awaiting signature. Some bureaucrat, somewhere, must have inserted a comment, ‘don’t sign this’ or ‘sign it under this’ or sought an adjustment elsewhere.
So on the security front with the U.S., India should aspire to be one of the Six Eyes. The Five Eyes (FVEY) should be expanded and India should be the sixth.
The commercial relationship with China is going very slow. Chinese 5G technology is state-of-the-art. Huawei. If Chinese technology comes into India, it can compete with American players and others, and, as a result, consumers will have greater competition.
M.K.: They’re already here, Alibaba is.
M.D.N.: They’re not here for 5G.
M.K.: They’re here with e-commerce.
M.D.N.: Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Google or Amazon, we are a digital colony of two states in the U.S. – Washington state and California. The fact is that the only country that can compete with it is China. So if they come in and these two giants compete, maybe there’ll be enough space for Indian players to expand. This needs to be done.
Both in the commercial relationship with China and the security relationship with the U.S., Prime Minister Modi has a correct perspective, but implementation has been slow, hyper cautious, because the prime minister has given too much power to the bureaucracy to implement his doctrine. I’m not sure that they even understand or fully appreciate it. Therefore, we have a too-cautious U.S. policy and also a too-cautious China policy.
M.K.: What about Japan and Russia?
M.D.N.: The Japanese are very important for the Indo-Pacific. In my view, India, the U.S., Japan, principally, Australia, etc., we should have primacy in the waters of the Indo-Pacific. India should have the same policy that Britain had in continental Europe, viz. that no one country be allowed to dominate continental Europe. The British alliance system was accordingly structured. Likewise, we should have a security alliance system whereby no one country is allowed to dominate the Eurasian continent. Once it does, in a matter of 15 years, that country will dominate the world. And we don’t need a unipolar world anymore. A unipolar world is an extremely insecure, unstable world. We need a multipolar world. The U.S. is a declining power. But some others are advancing.
M.D.N.: I’m not going to name countries. We have to ensure that no country can dominate the Eurasian landmass, which is where the security architecture comes in.
M.K.: And Japan and Russia?
M.D.N.: Japan is very important, and so is Russia.
M.K.: Prime Minister Modi and Mr Abe are almost the best of personal friends. How has that played out? Japan has given India a lot of money in low-cost loans for India’s infrastructure build-out. We have never seen Japan participate in India like this.
M.D.N.: It was in 1992 or thereabouts that the Narasimha Rao government reached out to Taiwan and Japan for money because it was in a bad way. The Taiwanese president at that time, Lee Teng Hui, said, ‘Where/who is India? ‘Get lost’! But the Japanese helped.
Today, the Prime Minister went to Abe san, his old friend, who delivered big time. From $50 billion, that special facility has been extended to $75 billion. That’s not pocket change.
The Japanese have always been good friends of India’s, but Abe san, especially, likes to meet foreigners. Many Japanese hate meeting even other Japanese. But here’s a man who loves foreigners, Indians. So yes, the relationship is strong.
As far as Russia is concerned, we made a mistake signing the S-400 deal. I am not sure that we’re going to get a waiver from the U.S. on it. I was in Tokyo recently; an India-Japan-U.S. discussion was held by the Hudson Institute. I argued very strongly for India and Iran to maintain normal relations. I didn’t make an argument for the India-Russia defence relationship because you can’t have a situation which is good and strong for India, coexisting with a stronger and stronger security relationship with the U.S., with more and more arms and defence equipment being bought from Russia. We should have tried for THAAD, for Patriot, not the S-400.
M.K.: Doesn’t that make us very dependent on one country?
M.D.N.: We have been dependent on Russia for quite some time, and eventually, if the Lockheed guys tell us, ‘Transfer the entire production line to India’, we’ll help develop our own. We have the Mahindras, Tatas, Birlas, Reliance. L&T is a good company. There are so many companies that can be big in the defence space. We have had this ridiculous policy of depending only on the public sector in the defence space. The result is, we are crucially dependent on foreign countries. But India and the U.S. have to move together in defence, which is not possible as long as we have an outsized dependence on Moscow. A strong defence relationship with the U.S. and continued dependence on Russia, are contradictory boats: we cannot ride in both.
We don’t have to cut Moscow down. If we spend $10 billion every year on Russian items, we can transfer that money from defence equipment to, say, oil or nuclear reactors. We give the $10 billion – through a high level of purchases – to Russia every year, but not in defence. I want us to eventually reduce defence purchases from Russia to zero.
As far as Iran is concerned, I defend totally our decision to buy its oil. I’m sorry that some private companies in India are so scared of the U.S. that they immediately stopped buying Iran oil. The Americans didn’t even say ‘boo’ before these companies ran away from Iran. I’m glad that our public sector companies are still buying from Iran. I want us to buy as much Iranian crude as possible and for as long as possible.
M.K.: South Asia has been a central theme for Mr. Modi during his term. How have relationships with our neighbours progressed? And how do you think things are going to look now that Pakistan has a new prime minister, Imran Khan? Is this going to change the complexion of the past four years of keeping Pakistan out and progressing with the rest of South Asia? What is the Modi doctrine, in your view?
M.D.N.: Prime Minister Modi has a very good policy towards South Asia. The Modi doctrine is: every South Asian country, even if they are dealing with another country, like China, must respect India’s core concerns, and we will respect you, in turn. Whether the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, the prime minister has silently and subtly ensured that this message is communicated. President Rajapaksa, the former president of Sri Lanka, came to India about two months ago. He was made aware of India’s core concerns, and we about Sri Lankan concerns.
Today in South Asia, every South Asian leader is aware of India’s core concerns, and except for one country – Pakistan – they will ensure that these are not neglected. Even K.P. Oli of Nepal is not anti-Indian. I’m sure he respects India’s core concerns.
As for Imran Khan – we call such people ‘coconuts’: brown on the outside, white on the inside. Imran is an Englishman, like Jawaharlal Nehru, who was technically an Indian, but actually, an Englishman. Imran, the Nehru of Pakistan, is still good friends with his ex-brother-in-law, Zac Goldsmith – Zac is one of the most outstanding politicians, who can be the second Jewish prime minister of Britain after Disraeli. Imran’s heart is still somewhere in Britain, nowhere else.
M.K.: But what does that mean?
M.D.N.: It means that Imran is just a face for the Army and the ISI. He will say all these sweet things, and he sincerely believes it when he talks sweetness and light about India. But the poor man has no power at all.
M.K.: He’s a puppet, as everybody says.
M.D.N.: I wouldn’t call him a puppet – a puppet too has some strings. Imran is completely helpless. So to expect him to make any paradigm shift is to chase an illusion. As far as security is concerned, the India policy, terror, Kashmir or the nuclear button, he has no role at all. So it doesn’t really matter. He is the beautiful face of Pakistan foreign policy. He will try and convince the government of India: ‘Mr. Modi, Inder Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh – these people trusted us’. ‘Us’ means the ISI, and the military speaking through the civilian government. ‘They gave us so many concessions. Why don’t you be like them? And look at me, Imran Khan. What a wonderful person I am. I love India, I love Sidhu’. He has several good reasons, according to his ex-wife’s book, to be friendly with India.
M.K.: Let’s switch to economics. India has done better at 7.5% growth, four-and-a-half years after Mr. Modi came in. He came in at 4.5% growth. You had talked about a 15% GDP for India over the next 15 to 20 years before Mr. Modi came in. Are the structural changes now in place to achieve that goal, and will we become that middle-income country that we ought to be?
M.D.N.: Narendra Modi is brilliant, visionary and far-seeing. The problem is that the instruments he has at hand are not. He has not paid enough attention to ensuring he has a good team. His ministry is filled with Vajpayee’s people, his administration with Manmohan Singh’s. The proof of the pudding is 2004 – politically, the BJP failed. Manmohan Singh – again, the proof of the pudding is there, in the extreme unpopularity of his government. They failed.
Demonetisation was a brilliant idea – changing the currency so that everybody puts money in the bank. You have a better tracking system. But at the same time, the cash economy is crucial to India, the Indian economy will slow down without cash. So he should have ensured that the Reserve Bank and the finance ministry kept liquidity high. Vast stocks of cash should have been kept ready. We had nothing! Even the ATMs could not work, they had to be recalibrated because the size of the note was wrong. We were starved of liquidity and it was a disaster. It was a brilliant measure that was very poorly implemented by the RBI and the finance ministry.
Since demonetisation, though, I have been wondering whether Narendra Modi will come back as prime minister. Now again, GST: having a single low rate, exempting up to five crore people from GST would have been a brilliant idea, but you made such a complex system that it’s almost unworkable, and now, you have to make it workable as it goes along. Why? Because both in demonetisation and in GST, the bureaucracy, front and centre, has been given charge of the process. So you have a brilliant idea by the Prime Minister, he hands it to the bureaucracy and by the time the results finally come out, they are very different from what the prime minister intended.
You’re saying 7% is a great rate of growth. I’m disappointed. I never expected Modi’s rate of growth to be anywhere below 9%. I expected by now it would be 12%. The fact that we’re talking about 7.5% is because Prime Minister Modi has the wrong tools with which to implement his ideas. The brilliance of his ideas is matched by the lack of brilliance and ability of those whom he entrusted with the execution. And the sad fact is, there is no accountability. Every one of those involved in demonetisation has been promoted. The people responsible for the GST disaster have all been either retained in government or promoted. Prime Minister Modi is too soft, too lacking in ruthlessness.
M.K.: Which brings us to our last question. Should Mr. Modi get a second term? If you were to look at the planetary charts, what would be your forecast for India? What do you foresee?
M.D.N: I hope he gets a better, more efficient team, and goes back to what he was doing as chief minister of Gujarat – consulting a large number of people, from across society, in framing policies. Now that kind of consultation frankly, is pro forma. Take for example, the consultations on tax and business. Everybody is so terrified of a tax today, of an inquiry, that nobody wants to speak the truth, the truth being that some of these ideas are absolutely unworkable.
I was among the few people skeptical about demonetisation and about the way GST was implemented. People who said it was a brilliant idea on television used to tell me privately that they thought the way I did. They were scared.
The reality is that you have to have minimum government. You have to bring down the power of government. The more powerful government is, the less progress we make. The less powerful government is, the more progress we make. Here is a group of entrepreneurs who rely on their control of government, politicians, officials, to get things done and grow. Then there is a group of mostly younger people, who rely on brains and competence to get things done, and are the ones who are happy with Modi because he has done a lot to ensure the system is cleaned up, individual initiative gets recognised, regulatory roadblocks get cleared – though some remain. These are the people we should encourage. And for that, government must be pushed back.
The prime minister of India has 15% power, the president of China 60%, the president of the U.S. 10%. Instead of trying to take the power of the prime minister from 15% to 25%, he should bring it down to 10%. And he should be true to his image of minimum government, maximum governance.
Millions of young people in India can create Amazons, Yahoos, Microsofts, all these treasures of the industrial landscape. You can have 20 Jack Mas coming up in India. You don’t need to go through government. But the entire class of entrepreneurs who are succeeding is because they have got politicians in their pockets, politician in one pocket, officials in the other. This class deserves to be extinct, or run away to London or New York or Miami…
M.K.: As they are doing.
M.D.N.: And good riddance to them. The people who remain are the people who will depend on themselves. Prime Minister Modi has to be more like Chief Minister Modi if he gets a second term.
M.K.: Thank you very much. So we are sort of back-to-the-future in some sense.
M.K.: Mr Modi as prime minister should be more like Mr. Modi as chief minister, and if he gets a second term, about which you worry, then he should go back to being what he was.
M.D.N.: I was supporting Narendra Modi since 2006. My problem with him is not that there’s too much of him, but too little in what is called the Modi government.
M.K.: Thank you very much.
This is a transcript of a video interview conducted with Professor Nalapat on 30 November 2018 and has been edited for this format.
Professor Madhav Nalapat is Director of Geopolitics, Manipal University
Manjeet Kripalani is Executive Director, Gateway House
Click here to view the preceding interview with Professor Nalapat at the start of Mr. Modi’s first term as prime minister.
This interview/video/podcast was exclusively created/recorded by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.