Sunday 31 January 2021

Keeping reform in abeyance is not a option (Sunday Guardian)



Instead states need to be given the power to decide whether they will continue with the old system or switch to the new farm laws.

The ultimate test of good governance is the standard of life of an ordinary citizen. Improvements in healthcare, housing, education, income and security need to take place during the term of a government. Not just China but several other countries have galloped ahead of India in per capita terms during the decades since the country became free. This shows that in a country where several codes (such as that governing the police) are well over a century old, reforms in administrative procedures and policies is essential. No such reform will be perfect, and especially at the start, there will be more than a few glitches. The rollout of the Goods & Services Tax is an example. This is a welcome reform, but the model initially adopted was far too complicated for many to comply with. As for rates, they were plentiful and much higher than what ought to have been the case in order to stimulate growth. The tax net was pegged at much too low a level of gross income, and for quite some time, compliance became a nightmare, made worse by the use of severe punishment despite the reality that most of the errors that were subject to such harshness would have been caused by lack of comprehension rather than by deliberate design. Some of these avoidable features have been removed while others still remain. The difficulty in India has been the relative lack of civil society in the designing of policies by the civil service that affect them. The implicit assumption made in the design of several such measures is that there is nothing the matter if an entrepreneur is forced to spend more than a third of his working day on matters of compliance rather than in ensuring more efficient production of goods and services. The problem is that the less time the entrepreneur has for the latter, the worse it is for the economy. The other assumption made in policy formulation is that all the officers tasked with their implementation are efficient and honest. Many are either one or the other, but not too many are both. And at least a few are not in a manner so blatant that they discredit their service through the impact of the skewed decisions they take. It is such officials who usually insist on the table of punishments being unnaturally severe, as their own capacity for extracting a bribe grows with every turn of the screw.

Just as the GST had in the beginning and to a lesser extent still has, the three farm bills converted into law by Parliament last year have their weak points, as for example a blanket exemption from courts or from any legal consequences of hoarding even on a scale that may lead to an artificial scarcity of some produce. Medicines and food items are essential to life, and should not be treated the way toothpaste or shampoo is. However, just as has taken place with GST, the correct way forward would be to implement the laws (and remove glitches as they arise during the rollout, of course ensuring that features such as granting licence to uncontrolled hoarding or exemption from any judicial procedure get removed). The manner in which the Government of India agreed to keep the three laws in suspended animation for 18 months has conveyed the unfortunate impression in India and outside that it is not willing to stay the course where reform is concerned, but will back down when it meets resistance. Especially given the motivations of some of those behind the “farmer protests” that have been taking place on the outskirts of Delhi and which moved into the city in a chaotic manner on 26 January. It was clear from the start of the protest that several of its more prominent backers were not looking for a settlement but wished to humiliate the government by forcing it to completely withdraw the three farm laws. Even the loss of face suffered by the government by its decision to keep the laws in abeyance for 18 months did not satiate this hunger for the humiliation of the Modi government. In a way, the worst of both the worlds was the outcome of not having acted at the very start of the protest in the way they finally did a few days ago. Instead, the police were made to behave as though they were sarvodaya volunteers from the start of the protests, a change in role that boosted the confidence and the efforts of those interested in inflicting humiliation. The violence which erupted on 26 January needs to be met with the reversal of the proposal that the three laws be kept in abeyance. Instead, states need to be given the power to decide whether they will continue with the old system or switch to the new laws. Should the farm laws be helpful to the farmer, as seems the case, within a couple of years, those state governments that refused the reform would reverse course. At the same time, a continuous process of review and improvement is needed in the laws and their implementation, in the way there has been in the treatment of Covid-19 cases over the year just past.

Modi 1.0 had several pluses, which is why the BJP returned to power with an increased majority in 2019. Modi 2.0 must go further and faster in reform and not keep these in abeyance because of opposition from those who would benefit politically in 2024 should the Modi government drastically fail in its $5 trillion mission. They would gain but the country would lose if reforms were kept in abeyance rather than implemented and continuously improved during the process of implementation.

Saturday 30 January 2021

Alien links to domestic power ignored in President Biden's Political Focus (Sunday Guardian)

The problem facing Biden is that several of the political veterans who have long been active behind the scenes believe that a concentration of public focus on what may be described as ‘White Terror’ will keep the moderate white as well as black and brown votes on their side.



New Delhi: Although the most experienced politician ever to become President of the United States, sometimes moving away from what he did in the past, rather than repeating them, may be the way in which President Joseph R. Biden avoids the fate of his friend, President Barack H. Obama. The Democratic Party lost control of the US House of Representatives and almost lost control of the Senate in the 2010 midterms, with the Republicans winning 63 additional House seats, seven in the Senate, 6 additional Gubernatorial seats as well as 20 more state legislatures. As a consequence, they were able to gerrymander electoral districts in a mannenot even attempted by the Democratic Party under the control of the gentlemanly Obama-Biden duo. Despite these manoeuvres, Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, perhaps because the latter was of the same genteel mould of Obama-Biden or George H.W. Bush, rather than the “red meat” dispensing type that much of the Republican base was hungering for. The base found their candidate in Donald J. Trump in the 2016 Presidential polls, after the Republicans retained the majority they had gained in the US Senate in the 2014 midterms, using that power to try and prevent President Obama from carrying out the policies he was elected to implement. Had President Obama and Vice-President Biden been less focused on being even-handed rather than partisan, the way the other side was, the Democratic Party may not have needed to wait until 2020 to regain its control over the White House as well as both houses of the US Congress.

Both during Obama’s term in the White House and during the Trump presidency, the stridency of the attack on the former President and his Vice-President was so severe that even the quintessentially gentlemanly Joe Biden behaved on occasion with vehemence, while Barack Obama showed flashes of anger in public that had been almost completely absent in previous years. Apart from his relatively simple lifestyle and absence of bile and prejudice, among the reasons why the coolly analytical Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate was a belief in the latter’s ability to fashion a bipartisan coalition in the US Congress around signature policies such as healthcare. Vice-President Biden worked hard at this, but failed in the task. Now as the 46th President of the US, Biden has again indicated his willingness to embark on the path trodden by him during 2009 until 2016, of seeking consensus with a Republican Party implacably opposed to any of the initiatives of the Democrat-controlled White House. Fortunately for him, in a country where the majority of voters had turned off its earlier acceptance of the “fire and fury” of the Trump years, Biden as Trump contra reaped his electoral reward in 2020 through a party wise enough to nominate him as its standard bearer rather than a candidate with more “razzle dazzle”.


Much more than anything that the Democratic Party did, it was Donald Trump as President who ensured the success of Joe Biden and his telegenic running mate Kamala Harris. While Vice-President Mike Pence remained a reassuring face, his sheen had worn off among independent voters by the obsessive manner in which Pence acted the way UK Prime Minister Tony Blair did to US President George W. Bush, which was that of a tail-wagging poodle. It was clear that Pence failed to read the tea leaves, and believed along with most of the others in his party that Trump would repeat his 2016 success four years later. Pence wanted to remain Vice-President for another term before striking out on his own, and exhibiting the qualities that endeared Blair to Bush was part of this effort to retain his position as running mate to the “fire and fury” President. Only on rare occasions did the Vice-President come across as himself, as a leader in his own right, as for example in his 2018 speech at the Hudson Institute on China, and his refusal to join Trump at the infamous episode during the 2020 election campaign outside St John’s Church close to the White House, unlike some other individuals in the administration. Unfortunately for President Trump, he forgot to pray inside the church for his victory, an oversight that was repeatedly pointed out and which annoyed some of his supporters enough to stop them from voting for him. The problem facing President Biden is that some in his team act as though they believe that the election was won by them, rather than lost by Trump, with the result that they are urging the 46th President to repeat the follies of the early years of Obama-Biden by giving a long rope to the Republican Party, rather than accept that bipartisanship is a mirage in a political culture where open incitement to sedition from within the White House goes unpunished in the Senate, as it almost certainly will. The first impeachment drama of Donald Trump was a farce, the second is turning out to be a tragedy for democracy in the US. In effect, the “destined to fail” first impeachment of Trump was a windfall for the PRC, as it weakened the latter’s hand at a time when he had swerved away from the Obama doctrine during his first six years in office of showing patience and kindness rather than firmness to Beijing. Unlike the first, the second impeachment is valid on the merits, although its failure will embolden those on the Right who believe that the wrong side lost the US Civil War in 1865.Joe Biden’s historical record from Iraq to Pakistan to China does not appear encouraging, but times have changed, and so as this quintessentially decent Irish-American family man. Fortunately for the 46th US President, there are two clear-thinking and strong women by his side: Vice-President Kamala Devi Harris and First Lady Jill Biden. Neither is likely to want Biden to repeat what Obama and Biden did in 2009, which was to waste irreplaceable time on trying to get the Republican Party on their side at least on some issues. The sooner Biden uses the majority his party enjoys in the House of Representatives and in the Senate to pass his stimulus package in full rather than compromise to seek for a bipartisanship that does not exist in 2021 just as it did not in 2009 and 2010. The sooner the $1.9 trillion wish list of the Democratic Party is made into law, the better will be the performance of the party in the 2022 midterms. This is precisely why Republican “good cops” such as Mitt Romney will seek to prolong the period before the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package and other measures favoured by the Democratic base get enacted into law. Romney would like to be his party’s standard bearer in the 2024 polls. Which is why he will try and get President Biden to delay the inevitable in a hunt for compromise, aware that every month that passes before such laws get passed will reduce the number of voters inclined to cast their votes for the Democratic Party.

The unexpected aggression shown by Barack Obama to his Republican tormentors during the final months of the Trump presidency helped get Biden into the White House. The 45th President focused only on his base, forgetting that they were less fickle than the independent and moderate voters that the “red meat” he kept throwing at his base turned away from. Trump ignored the obvious electoral advantages of choosing a second Latina judge to the US Supreme Court, Barbara Lagoa, a move that would have given him a substantial number of votes in Latina-dominated districts in several states, unlike his obeying the preferences of his base and selecting Amy Coney Barrett, whose views on abortion and labour laws turned away several of the women and lower income voters who had flocked to Trump in 2016. Barrett appealed to a white, right-wing base that was already in the bag. Hardly any of the individuals holding her views would have voted for Biden in place of Trump. Despite the electoral advantages that would have come from the Lagoa appointment, once again Trump indulged those who were close to his standard rather than those who needed to be persuaded to come over to his side. Trump operated in the belief that there was no way that enough white US voters would choose Biden over him as to cause his defeat.


The problem facing Joe Biden is that several of the political veterans who have long been active behind the scenes believe that a concentration of public focus on what may be described as “White Terror” will keep the moderate white as well as black and brown votes on their side. There has indeed been “White Terror” but although not to the same degree of virulence, there has also been a campaign of “Red Terror”. The justified cause of ensuring systemic justice for African-Americans through the Black Lives Matter movement was in some locations taken over by elements who had little compunction in fomenting violence in the guise of protecting the rights of the underprivileged. The chaos which sometimes accompanied Black Lives Matter protests in several US cities helped Trump to amass more votes than any candidate for the US presidency, except Joe Biden, had secured till then. Such violence made mincemeat of the emphasis on non-violence of Martin Luther King, the tribune of justice for the African-American community, and who remains the lodestar for the long and dignified battle for equality under the law waged by the African-American community. The BLM movement was justified in the interests of justice for a community that has long been deprived of its rightful place within US society, but the manner in which a few elements infiltrated several gatherings and caused mayhem is indicative of the success of efforts by some (infiltrated) radical groups to turn the movement away from Dr King’s precepts into a violent mob of looters. Those visuals further diminished the respect commanded by the US across the world, as did the right-wing radical violence that gave the excuse of countering the left as justifications for its misdeeds. Since the time Barack Obama was sworn in as US President in 2009, a sophisticated external actor has been active in the US widening and broadening faultlines between the Right and Left fringe. This power was joined by a still more capable force in 2017, once Donald Trump settled into the White House. The alliance of this force with radical Wahhabi groups gave it an additional prong to inflame and influence opinion. In recent months, neither in Russia nor in China has it been hidden that there is anticipation of a meltdown in the US. In the case of the PRC, a similar forecast has long been made about India. What is recent is the addition of the US to this list. Few within the security establishments of either India or the US appear to have taken seriously enough the consequences of external input into social media conversations designed to increase tension and hatred for the Other across both sides of the spectrum. The Trump administration ignored external infiltration altogether and focused only on the Left fringe. The Biden administration is making the same misstep, only the concentration is now on the Right fringe almost to the exclusion of the Left. Both hands are clapping, and both need attention, if the US and the other large democracy, India, is to prevail over those who are seeking to make their own forecasts (now public in the case of one of the partners of the Sino-Russian alliance, as evidenced by President Vladimir Putin’s carefully constructed speech at the 2021 Davos WEF meeting) of an impending meltdown in the US and India come true. It needs to be added that in the case of India, Russia and its leadership have not subscribed, at least in public, to the PRC’s hostility towards the upward trajectory of the world’s largest democracy. In the case of the US, Pakistan, the PRC and Russia are together. In the case of India, Pakistan and the PRC are together, including in several special projects.

Just as in India, the other large democracy on the other side of the Indo-Pacific, it is not just domestic but external players as well who have been active in the use of social media platforms to help build a narrative of exclusion and hate on both extremes of the spectrum of opinion, the Right and the Left. The intention behind this effort has been to (a) pull in as many of those still in the moderate middle into the vortex of either of the two extremes, (b) widen the faultlines dividing them, so as to (c) create a climate favourable to the eruption of violence. Lessons have been learnt from the activities of Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton in their regime change crusades while in office. In the US, the country which is the principal geopolitical rival of the US, need not use for purposes of boosting toxicity through social media via any of the multiple channels it has developed within the world’s most powerful country. Instead, lobbies linked to Russia and Pakistan have been pressed into service. In the case of India, the Russian lobby has been inactive except where matters such as the perpetuation of the weapons trade are concerned. Or its efforts at ensuring that such trade does not get affected by India forming a close defence and security alliance with the US. The effort at causing greater societal toxicity through empowerment of extremes has been undertaken by the PRC lobby as well as the Pakistan lobby in the country. These lobbies are also active in the capitals of key NATO member-states, denigrating the image of the Narendra Modi government in an effort to wean public opinion away from backing a strong alliance with India. In India, the effort is to sow suspicion about the intentions or the capabilities of the US. Stopping a US-India defence alliance from forming is an imperative for the Sino-Russian alliance as well as Pakistan.


Thus far, both in India as well as in the US, investigative agencies have concentrated their attention on “domestic” causes of the eruptions of violence that have taken place, most recently in the capital of the US on 6 January and in the national capital of the Republic of India on 26 January. The honeycombing of social media handles with those controlled from outside the country has been carried out with finesse. As a consequence, the actual instigators (and remote controllers) of the creation through social media and in other ways of an increase in the climate of hatred and refusal to agree to any of the compromises usual in a democracy seem to have thus far escaped detection. This has also been the case in the US, given the effort of the present administration to keep the spotlight on the domestic angle, in order to ensure a continuing political dividend from the mayhem caused by the toxic nature of some of the faultlines in the political discourse. There is indeed a substantial component in both countries that is entirely home-grown, but to this needs to be added the external implants.

What is taking place within the US and India is a war on their governance and societal systems. It may seem out of place to refer to Afghanistan, a country where two superpowers, the USSR and later the US, failed to quell the groups fighting their militaries. The reason in both cases was that the umbilical cord linking such insurgencies to sources of support and replenishment was left unmolested by both Moscow as well as Washington. In the 1980s, not a single revolver bullet, much less an artillery shell or a bomb, was expended by the Soviet military in Pakistan, with the result that the insurgents that they were battling in Afghanistan recuperated at speed and launched fresh attacks, thereby finally exhausting the morale and capability of the Soviet troops and their political masters in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the case of the US, the very power that was facilitating attacks on US forces and their Afghan allies was embedded in the strategies and resources mobilised by the US government to fight the insurgency. This was especially marked during the George W. Bush presidency, almost all of which was consumed in the war in Afghanistan as well as that in Iraq that was launched amidst almost complete acclamation by the entire political elite of the time in 2003. President Obama did make some moves towards holding GHQ Rawalpindi for its acts of sabotage, but as was often the case in his administration, such moves were tentative rather than decisive. Effective action, such as dismantling facilitation centres within GHQ-controlled territory for those fighting US and partner forces in Afghanistan was not seriously attempted, nor measures such as sanctioning the army generals responsible for such sabotage. As for the Trump administration, in the case of Pakistan, there was again no “bite”, while even the “bark” was uncharacteristically mild. Trump had clearly signed on to those in the military and the intelligence agencies who still believed in the failed measures of the past that were designed to alter the behaviour of GHQ Rawalpindi through the threat (but seldom more) of a small stick and the liberal dispensation of large carrots of assistance and diplomatic support.


While a US Senator, Joseph R. Biden Jr was an enthusiastic backer of Cold War 1.0, which was a geopolitical necessity at the time, and the prosecution of which improved the standing of the US vis-a-vis its only competitor during that period, the USSR. There are those in his administration who take seriously the honeyed words coming from the leadership of the other superpower. These call for “mutual respect and cooperation” and “win-win” solutions. Of course, the precondition for all this would be acceptance by Washington of Beijing’s claim on Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Himalayan massif, all of which have been repeatedly declared as “non-negotiable”. Securing any of the three by the PRC would be a disaster for the US and its partners. Any serious investigation into the origins of a significant portion of the toxic atmosphere of hate and exclusion that led to 6 January and earlier to riots during the “Black Lives Matter” movement would interfere with the plans of those who seek to deny the reality that the US is already in the midst of Cold War 2.0, together with several of its allies and partner countries, including India. However, stepping away from the error of ignoring the umbilical cord is essential to success. As is the placing of responsibility where it needs to vest. Cold War 2.0 is a contest that is proving far more difficult for Washington to handle than the earlier joust with the USSR was. The technological and organisational capabilities of the Sino-Russian alliance, especially when combined with the asymmetric capabilities of extremism as practised by allies such as GHQ Rawalpindi, is developing at speed and in ways that are often difficult to discern, much less counter. So far as the PRC is concerned, Republican Party strategists are aware that his apparently muscular approach to Beijing was among the factors that helped Trump to amass such a large number of votes. The misrepresentation that Joe Biden was “soft” on China was not countered effectively enough to prevent several voters from supporting Trump or not voting at all out of worry that a Biden administration would press the brakes on the robust moves that Trump was perceived as making against the efforts of the PRC to gain primacy in the Indo-Pacific before moving on (together with the Russian Federation) to achieving the same result in the Atlantic. Any perceived lowering of the guard by the White House could lead to the Republican Party securing a majority in both Houses of Congress in 2022, thereby making it easier for them to cripple the Biden presidency enough to result in a Republican sweep of the White House, the US Senate and the House of Representatives in the 2024 polls. However, the lessons he picked up during the Obama White House years make it unlikely that President Biden will walk into the trap of having his policies on security shaped by illusions about the intentions of the principal adversaries of the US. The reality is that the US now led by Biden is once again engaged in a war of systems that over the next decade will decide the future of global geopolitics over several generations. This time around, India is facing the same foes as Washington, and both will share either success or failure in this existential battle of systems.

Saturday 23 January 2021

Direct Benefit of Experience can create good policy ( Sunday Guardian)



A day of DBE every month needs to be brought into the calendar of VVIPs holding positions that involve financial remuneration from the exchequer.

The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was a saint who refused comfort in his lifestyle or any special benefits to his family caused through his prominence in the struggle against British rule. Far from any special benefits, his family members often did not get any benefits at all, an example that few politicians have followed since his time. Narendra Modi is among that few, with his family not in the slightest taking advantage of the PM’s celebrity and authority. It has been correctly said that Direct Benefit Transfer, the transmission of financial benefits from the state to needy citizens without any intermediation, has been a boon. It has been, as much would be the boon of Direct Benefit of Experience (DBE) of our VVIPs in the lives of ordinary people. There have been occasions when political leaders have stayed for a night in the spartan homes of the less privileged. They have almost without exception brought their own mineral water supplies, food, air purifiers and portable toilets besides diesel generators, all of which of course remain hidden from curiously incurious television cameras. Such play acting is why such performances do not bring with it any resonance among the public. Such actions are not DBE but DBI, Direct Benefit (of) Illusion. The nation keeps its elected leaders in style. Those in office are given furnished and equipped houses to stay in, as well as staff, transportation and vehicles, besides a small salary. Once an individual enters into the lifestyles linked to high public office, she or he often changes into a different type of person. Carrying one’s own bag becomes difficult if not impossible. Going on foot from appointment to nearby appointment is torture, avoided by the fleet of vehicles at the command of the VVIP. Somehow a financial alchemy appears to be at work, which ensures that stints out of positions of authority are almost as comfortable as the period spent in office. The family and friends of the politician (by a process that has yet remained indistinct) become financial wizards, although not always does the formal record bear out the full benefits of such advances in learning.

It would be unjust perhaps to subject the sensitive nature of the VVIP to experiencing a Direct Benefit of Experience (DBE) for a day every week, when she or he must move into the home of a citizen of straitened means for 24 hours. This temporary sacrifice of comfort should be recorded for posterity through being streamed live on the internet. Of course, rather than further bankrupt an individual of less than what is normally defined as lesser means, compensation on a generous scale ought to be given for the experience of sharing the same roof as a VVIP for some hours. In fact, supporters of the VVIP should ensure that such individuals be given sufficient means to move into better accommodation or substantially improve their existing quarters. Such VVIP visits ought to be a life changing experience, and not in any other than a pleasant way. It is among the features of a democracy that those elected to office often carry out acts of generosity to those already well endowed with the means to lead lives as comfortable as those of their benefactor. Ensuring a benefit to the needy would naturally be on a much smaller scale than the “ask and get ” of a billionaire. This itself would be different from that of a small farmer, although the latter needs to be treated with the same standard of generosity shown to the former by the political class across the world. It is after all the votes of the poor more than the money billionaires that ensures the continued success of a politician at the hustings. Not weekly but certainly monthly, a day of DBE needs to be brought into the calendar of VVIPs holding positions that involve financial remuneration from the exchequer. Indeed, such DBEs should ideally be for three days at the end of every six months, and last a week once every year. The Mahatma is often remembered in word. Such a move would ensure that the Father of the Nation gets remembered in deed.

Despite their voluble concern for the poor, especially the very poor, VVIPs almost entirely confine their social interactions with family members (who in almost all cases would have jumped miraculously up the income chain) or friends who are even more well heeled. They need to understand at first hand the experiences of less privileged citizens, such as the fall in income and effect on lifestyles on tens of millions (including many in the middle class) as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tens of thousands of families have had their entire savings wiped out because of the cost of private treatment in a hospital of a member of a family coming down with a severe case of Covid-19. Others in the middle class have been forced to delay the purchase even of necessities, so as to have a reserve available in case of illness. This in a situation where the cost of private insurance is rising in a manner so severe as to call for the implementation of the insurance aspects of Obamacare in the world’s most populous democracy. A healthy society needs to have its middle class steadily growing out of upward mobility by those lower down, and whose members are in sizeable numbers migrating to the upper economic strata. Policies that privilege large insurers over their customers need a relook, as do dilutions of the restrictions that foreign drug companies have faced in India. This is to ensure that the price gouging carried out by Big Pharma in the US and in the EU remains toned down in India. Contact of those in high position with everyday people need to be personal and direct, not just through rallies or television appearances. Hence the need for VVIPs to adopt Direct Benefit of Experience (DBE), an innovation which builds on the example of Mahatma Gandhi.

Friday 22 January 2021

Prof M D Nalapat on the impending US sanctions on India on S-400 and how India should respond (PGurus)

 China already has S-400s trained against India in Ladakh, which will severely constrain India's Air strategy in the event of a conflict. Plus S-400 has Chinese technology that can possibly snoop or disable when the S-400 is needed the most. Is India aware of these concerns? Prof M D Nalapat discusses these and more on how nasty emails about him and his character are being spread by some malcontents. A must watch!

Saturday 16 January 2021

Settle differences in conference rooms, not on the streets (Sunday Guardian)



Would not keeping in abeyance a law on the reported ground that there are protests against it give an impetus for more such protests?

The Supreme Court of India may have had periods in its history where some of its verdicts were problematic when judged by the standard of safeguarding the rights of citizens. These protections are given in the written word and intent of the framers of the Constitution, that foundational document of our democracy. Overall, however, the Supreme Court has been a supportive and indeed comforting presence for the citizen. Not too long ago, the Court did away with such obscenities in a democracy as the criminalisation of same-sex relationships and even removed some of the toxic provisions of India’s Information Technology laws. Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the law have had their occasional moments of bewilderment, as for example happened when a Special Court (which is presumably subordinate to the apex court) declared innocent those who had been held culpable by the Supreme Court in its 2G judgement. That was among the most consequential of rulings from an economic standpoint, in that the effect was to eliminate all but a few players from the telecom industry. This was as a consequence of discovering malpractice in the grant of licences to them. The country would be better off were laws passed which ensure that such transgressions be punished not with the elimination of entire companies from a line of activity, but the imposition of financial penalties on them. Such is the practice in the UK or the US, although in India, successive governments have clung on to British-era laws that prescribe jail for a variety of offences that are compoundable or ignored by most democracies. Some laws have been taken off the statute books and some regulations de-criminalised under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Much more of such pruning needs to take place to ensure that India emerges as an irresistible magnet for external and internal investment. The range of ways in which an unscrupulous business rival or a politician, official or even a non-official of sufficient means and intent, can send a citizen to prison is way too large for what ought to be an enabling and not fear-filled environment for investment and enterprise. Not that such laws are deterrents to the well-connected, who for long have led a charmed lives at the expense of the banking system and to silence from the regulatory matrix. What such colonial-era laws and regulations do is to get misused by the minority of officials who are corrupt to threaten their targets with prosecution even for non-existent, trivial or technical offences. Or to cripple with imprisonment those who are the target of the businesspersons who give the politicians and officials bribes so as to eliminate their competitors, actual and potential.

Across the decades, the judiciary has served as the final refuge for victims of such persecution, with the Supreme Court giving the lead in the dispensation of justice. Given the scholarship of the Justices and the comprehensive understanding that each has about the laws and the Constitution, it is understandable that the judgements given reflect the state of the law at a point in time and the duty of the Court to ensure that laws be obeyed. It may be less than satisfactory to base one’s understanding of something as complex as decisions handed down by the highest court in the country solely from watching news on television. With this caveat, let it be said that it was a surprise when the Supreme Court kept in abeyance the three farm laws recently passed, reportedly on the ground that there were many protesting against the laws, and hence they should be kept from becoming operational so that another effort was made towards conciliation. Would not keeping in abeyance a law on the reported ground that there are protests against it give an impetus for more such protests? Again judging by news reports, the Supreme Court has not said that the three farm laws are illegal or unconstitutional. What has been done by the Court is to halt their operation for a while so as to provide time for attempts at reconciliation between the protestors and the Central government. As yet, the former are standing by their single demand at the start of the agitation, which is that the three laws should be immediately withdrawn. More than a few are concerned that government doing so may embolden multiple groups to launch their own agitations so as to pressure the government to roll back several of its actions. In a democracy on the Westminster model, the government of the day, should it have a majority in the Lower House of Parliament, has the right to get passed the policies it favours. If these become unpopular, the nuclear option remains of voting in such a manner that the party in power loses the next polls, as has happened so often in the past. Judging by news reports, those at the forefront of the agitation have not agreed to seize the opportunity that the apex court has provided to them to settle the manner through dialogue, and are insisting of full withdrawal first. In other words, concede our demand and then we will talk.

The farmers of India are a national treasure, and the farmers of the Punjab and Haryana in particular deserve the gratitude of every citizen for the way in which they have kept starvation at bay even in the poorest households in India. The Supreme Court is correct in saying that farmers need to be consulted and convinced about policies being made that affect them. Hopefully, the protestors will accept the Supreme Court’s advice and resolve their differences with the government not on the streets but in the conference room. The laws could be made optional for each state to implement or not. Those states not doing so should be given support to continue with the old ways. It will soon be clear whether the laws are good for the farmers or not, for if they are, farmers in states adopting them would do better than those in states rejecting them. Changing policies and decisions through resort to the street is never a good idea in a democracy. More than half the population of India are in their 30s or younger, and need the economic growth that comes only with stability, and which will ensure they lead productive lives. In case the farm laws get proved in implementation to not be beneficial, that would be the time for the Government of India to replace them, and not because the streets around Delhi have for nearly two months been choked by those opposing the three farm laws recently passed in Parliament.

Capitolgate: Trump made into the A. Q. Khan of US ( Sunday Guardian)


The flames of hate were fanned by the 45th President of the US. However, other players may be active as well, including a few countries that look upon the US as an impediment to their goals.

NEW DELHI: By concentrating all their attention on Donald J. Trump and his more unruly supporters, law enforcement agencies may be missing out on some of the deadly players who encouraged the toxicity which caused the mayhem that erupted inside the US Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January. Certainly President Trump showed by his reaction to the victory of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, that niece Mary Trump’s analysis of his personality traits was accurate. The flames of hate and the unreasonable, often uncontrollable, rage that often accompanies it was indeed fanned by the 45th President of the US, and recent manifestations are partly the consequence of his refusal to accept defeat in the Presidential election. However, other players may be active as well, including a few countries that look upon the US as an impediment to their goals. The role played by them especially since 2013 in using social media, much as it has been used by US administrations against suspect targets, appears to have been given hardly any priority in the investigations into the violence that was on display on 6 January. The effort is to make Donald J. Trump bear the full responsibility for an armed effort by an irregular militia to overawe, if not overthrow, the elected legislature of the United States by coercion. A narrow focus on a single individual as the perpetrator resembles the conclusion that GHQ Rawalpindi’s nuclear and missile bazaar was the sole creation of a scientist gone rogue, A.Q. Khan. A host of “Cold War 2.0 deniers” has sprung up that refuse to acknowledge that the US and some other major democracies (including India) are under attack by a group of countries that are sophisticated enough to utilise more than obviously kinetic methods (such as those seen in conventional warfare) in their special operations against countries they have made their targets, such as India and the US. Unless the Biden-Harris administration rids itself of the complacency that such a refusal to face facts brings, the security of the US is in danger. While the dagger striking at stability in the US may be the hordes of rioters seen in several US cities recently (both from the Left and from the Right), the hands wielding the weapon or sharpening and aiming it may be much farther away.


John McCain had his faults, including total faith in some of the nostrums of those generals who were unable to comprehend the chemistry of the shadowy foes that they were battling against in theatres such as Iraq or Afghanistan. But he was an “officer and a gentleman”, an example not all his peers within the Republican Party have emulated. Although there were shows of bad temper by the opposition party during the Clinton period, it was during the Obama presidency that the brakes were removed on behaviour towards a sitting President. Ugly untruths were manufactured and repeated about President Obama, especially through social media platforms. The use of such platforms and methods in like fashion is what select countries that are not at all in synchronisation with US or allied interests have learnt to master and have begun to use. This has especially been the case from around 2013 onwards, when the effect of manipulation of messaging in social media on mass sentiment and mobilisation became apparent in the Middle East and in parts of Europe. Cold War 2.0 involves hardly any conventional battlefields (although this is likely in coming years). Rather, it involves the use of social media platforms to multiply the cacophony of hate and prejudice across different extremes of the ideological spectrum. It involves the nibbling away of the dominant position of the US dollar in global commercial exchanges. The harvesting of immense amounts of metadata about the social habits and personality traits of millions of individuals, so as to identify the buttons that need to be pressed to motivate their anxieties and prejudices. Those who look at war in conventional terms are out of date. Chinese civilisation, for example, has for millennia regarded war as the domination of the enemy, preferably by methods that are non-kinetic, but if need be, ruthlessly kinetic and that too in overwhelming force. It has been argued that the PRC will turn from its “communist with Peoples Chinese characteristics” governance system into a social democracy on the European model. That this is inevitable once a certain level of growth of per capita income takes place. When the growth of gross national product and hence income is dependent on the authoritarian nature of the system, such an expectation is unreal. While for most economies the price of a product hinges on the cost of the factors of production, in the PRC the governance system ensures that such costs generate the price that is most likely to overcome competition in foreign markets for products of the PR.


The battle between the USSR and the US was a contest between dissimilar systems. So is that between the US and the PRC. Cold War 2.0 is an ongoing conflict long understood in Beijing but still regarded as fanciful and alarmist in some of the key elements of the incoming Biden administration. However, predictions of Biden turning out to be a disappointment where standing up to US and allied interests is concerned may prove to be as erroneous as were predictions that the mild-mannered, hesitant, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of India would be a failure. It was Rao who put the country on a faster track to growth. The splitting of the Congress Party by the instrumentality of Sonia Gandhi and the vicious diatribe peddled about him from acolytes of hers succeeded in defeating Narasimha Rao during the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, but before that, the PM had not just placed the country on a track towards faster growth but had dealt skilfully with challenges in Kashmir and Punjab. Incoming President Biden has already made history by being joined by the first woman to become Vice-President of the world’s most powerful democracy, Kamala Devi Harris. The incoming President served two terms by the side of the first black President of the US, Barack H. Obama. He owes his victory to the surge in confidence in communities in which too many had resigned themselves to a lowly role and a miserable fate. Once Obama carried the almost completely white state of Iowa in the Democratic primaries and after he went on to win the nomination for the Presidency from the Democratic Party and actually succeed in the polls, it was impossible for any African-American citizen of the US to argue that the system in that country was so rigged against them that efforts at upward mobility were futile. Had Mahatma Gandhi (after having offered the job more than once to M.A. Jinnah in the period before Partition) chosen Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar rather than Jawaharlal Nehru to be the first Prime Minister of the Republic of India, the community that Ambedkar was born in would have from the start of freedom got the encouragement, hope and impetus for improving their lot, instead of such a mass awakening occurring much later, partly as a consequence of the rise to power in UP of the BSP. In the month prior to the 1989 parliamentary elections, Kanshi Ram spent several hours in the wee hours of a cold morning at 7 Race Course Road. He had gone there with a long-time friend. Had Rajiv Gandhi not spurned the offer of an alliance with the BSP in UP and perhaps elsewhere, not only would the Congress Party almost certainly have emerged from the 1989 polls elections with a seat tally that either crossed the majority mark or was close enough to it to enable a second innings for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Union Cabinet would then probably have included a representative of the BSP, an induction that would have energized a vibrant and talented community in need of a booster dose of belief in its own capabilities and in its future. Had Hillary Clinton, and not Obama, won the Democratic Party nomination, the historicity and impact of the Obama presidency would have been lost for perhaps decades to come. That Kamala Harris is not just the first woman Vice-President but also the first non-white to take over that job is testimony to the revolution in US society that brought the Obamas to the White House. It is such a transformation as will almost surely ensure that the (ideological) fringes of society will not succeed in melting down the US in the manner so many other countries have, including in the present century. The election of Biden and Harris ought to succeed in reversing the damage caused by another fringe, that of the mega rich, who have gained exponential wealth at the expense of those who are less even than millionaires. The poor, in particular, have been hardest hit, and it is expected that Senators Warren and Sanders will, among others, ensure that societal “justice for all” returns to reality from being a catchphrase ignored by policymakers.

William Jefferson Clinton has long been advertised as supportive of the African-American community, despite the penal laws introduced by him as well as the dismantling of guardrails to prevent the epidemic of risky decisions that led to the 2008 crash after his successor George W. Bush dismantled such barriers to greed by speculators rather than re-instating them. Barack Obama, who was often tentative in his approach to the errors perpetrated in the past, failed to perform this necessary function, and well-wishers of the Biden-Harris team expect that they will at least try to go back to the pre-Clinton matrix of guardrails against greed by asking a US Congress heavily influenced by money to pass the necessary laws.


What took place at the US Capitol on 6 January had its proximate origins not during the Trump administration (as it has now become convenient to claim) but from the start of the tenure of Barack Obama in the White House. Easily identifiable mega donors spent hundreds of millions of dollars in boosting organisations and individuals whose sole purpose was to harass, intimidate and discredit the previous Democratic administration in the US. Just as those donors in the Middle East who funded ISIS in Iraq so that the terror organisation could purchase the loyalty of Iraqi commanders and give them a walkover have remained not just unpunished but unknown to the general public, the same may happen to those who fuelled a network of organisations and individuals who combined to create a toxic climate of hate within the United States. They succeeded in that those who believed the worst that they were told about a country run by an African-American President turned out in force to get Donald J. Trump elected in 2016. Trump was part of this climate of hate against those who sought some curbs on greed and on righting or at the least ameliorating some of the wrongs done to those who for more than a century after the Civil War had been given second-hand or even lower grades of justice by the US establishment. Trump was not so much the cause of the epidemic of hate that was ravaging the US, as much as he was a beneficiary. Both before and after he entered the White House, Trump was a fellow traveller of those who sought to subvert the Idea of America in the manner that they (at substantial financial cost) did.

Such a climate has assisted in changing the complexion of the US Supreme Court, which seems in danger of becoming almost the polar opposite of what it was under Earl Warren, who began a process of using the Supreme Court to try and ensure some justice and balance in US business and society. Guardrail after guardrail (that prevented the pursuit of wealth by a few suffused with greed from subverting the interests of the people as a whole) has been removed by the White House and the courts, such that the American Dream now will remain inaccessible that for any citizen not born to millionaire parents. Opportunities have become concentrated in fewer and fewer people as has wealth. Social stability is provided by an expanding middle class that takes in those moving up from lower income groups, and this has stagnated in the US for much too long. Such a situation has caused the clouds of toxicity to affect the standing of those seen as responsible for the skewing of the system in a manner contrary to earlier Supreme Court directives or to path-breaking domestic policies such as those carried out during the shortened tenure of Lyndon Johnson. The holdovers from the Kennedy period saw to it that the tenure of Johnson (1963-69) was cut short of another term thanks to the policy errors they made on Vietnam to a graduate of a Texas state teachers’ college who lacked the confidence to challenge the verdicts of those who had graduated from Yale or Harvard in the manner that Kennedy almost certainly would have.


As was written about even during the time of Alfred Marshall, who in “Principles of Economics” called for the “Residuum” to be taken care of through measures such as a minimum wage, an underclass that is not deprived of proper education, housing and healthcare is as important as a middle class growing in number through accretions of the less privileged classes in ensuring societal stability. From President Reagan onwards, US Presidents have believed that shovelling gains to the upper echelons of the income chain would ensure that enough flows downwards to meet the (naturally rising) needs of the middle and lower classes. Were money to make goods and services, this may to an extent have been true, but not  when the biggest financial gains accrue to those who use money only to make more money, without the intermediation of providing goods and services. The consequence of the domination of Wall Street over politicians and the consequent smothering of Main Street created tensions that were fed in many by the toxic hate fuelled paradoxically by those who were responsible for the steady de-greening of the US. In the process, lightning rods were created to divert anger away from themselves and towards the politicians who may in future seek to champion Main Street over Wall Street. Ethno-centrism was whipped up as a component of the hate whipped up against an administration run by an African-American, who ironically did far less for Main Street during his stint in the White House than for Wall Street. The primary political beneficiary of this was Donald J. Trump, who rode the waves of prejudice and discontent to win the Presidency in 2016. It ought to have been clear that the billionaire’s barbs at Wall Street would endear him to much of Main Street, but was not. Once he became President of the US, had Trump understood that he needed to feed his base with something more substantial than hate for his predecessor and his policies. This did not happen. The gestures towards Main Street were cosmetic, those towards Wall Street real. This is what caused the backlash that led to the defeat of Trump by Biden last year.


There has been over several decades a systemic lack of balance and justice in the manner in which several institutions have functioned in the US, and unless President Biden acts to remedy the situation, he will have a difficult time in office. Although the focus of the Democratic Party remains Trump and those who believe in him, the reality is that the insurrection against US lawmakers that took place on 6 January may have had a cathartic effect. This could change the trajectory of street violence in the future, for broad swathes of society have understood the danger to themselves of the fanning of ethno-fuelled hate in the manner that has been done by motivated groups since the start of the Obama presidency. Rather than discouraging such elements as ought to have happened, the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump sought to legitimize them. The furies he nurtured throughout his term has come back to ensure that the coming years will witness substantial interaction between Trump and lawyers and prosecutors, much of it caused by his obsession with getting a second term and what he regarded as needed for such an outcome. The faultlines expanded during the term in office of President Trump have provided a fertile field for external foes of the US to intervene through social media to make the polarisation greater and greater, such that societal turmoil becomes the norm. It will take considerable action by President Biden to ensure that policies reflecting the need for a government for the people get actualised in practice, so as to heal societal pain and rifts which cause eruptions such as what has been seen across the past year in the US, again not entirely because of domestic reasons.


Hillary Clinton had once warned that those who nurtured snakes may find themselves bitten by them. This sage advice seems to have been forgotten by her when interventions took place in multiple locations to affect the fortunes of regimes with which the Obama administration had serious differences. Those assisted to challenge such regimes, usually through violence, were extremists who did not bother to cover up their views, including in social media posts and in other literature churned out by them before they were discovered and put to work on regime change by Secretary of State Clinton. Several of the interventions were against governments close to the PRC or Russia or both. The two countries have a level of sophistication in the use and manipulation of social media that is approaching that of the US. Because of the manner in which social media posts have the potential to alter public opinion in a manner adverse to those in power, the PRC and Russia have placed substantial restrictions on platforms hosted in countries which are on the other side in this era of Cold War 2.0, the PRC having banned such platforms from its own territory and Russia monitoring their usage and where necessary, inflicting consequences. If it occurred to the former Secretary of State that countries that have far greater capabilities than Libya or Syria may decide to give the US a taste of its own medicine by (mis)using social media, that has not been made public. What is clear is that there has been an acceleration since 2017 and an even steeper rise since 2019 of posts that target both extremes of the political divide, seeking to turn them white-hot in fury against each other. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA seems to have been caught unawares of the consequences of such polarisation, possibly because rants on the right were certified as kosher by the White House, and those in charge of the agencies quickly passed word down the line not to look upon such activities as strenuously was what was needed. In the case of the Democratic Party, its leadership appears to have convinced itself that the entire cauldron is home grown, and is the consequence of the social media and other public interventions of the 45th President of the US. Those investigating the 9/11 debacle in security avoided placing responsibility on state structures in the Middle East that fed terror groups with funds, making believe that only a handful of small-time facilitators and perpetrators of the attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. In the case of the 6 January outrage against the US Congress and the Vice-President, the focus of attention has been on the home front, without as yet any serious effort at ascertaining outside actors who have a vested interest in causing further societal discord and a law and order crisis in the US, particularly at a time when the US Congress has been active in calling out such external threats. It is a given that such interventions will only rise during the term in office of Joe Biden, given that a situation of constant crisis would distract the incoming administration enough to pay far less attention to the steadily developing external threat. Given the chemistry and mechanics of politics in the US. During the past four years, the Democrats confined the blame game to the Republicans, primarily the President, with only Russia and Iran being identified out of a list of likely suspects in this destructive mode of irregular conflict. It is likely that they too will not spend time looking outwards but focus only on the Democratic Party and its standard bearers, incoming President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. Just as warnings had been given that the Arab Spring that was being cheered on and fanned by Hillary Clinton, caution was expressed by a few that the manner in which social media was utilised in several such efforts at regime change through the instrumentality of making the streets seethe, may prompt equally sophisticated powers to giving the US a taste of its own medicine, and this is what seems to have been happening since at least the second term of Barack Obama.


The question uppermost in the minds of those within key chancelleries is whether the Cold War 2.0 deniers are set to prevail over those who recognize reality in the Biden administration. India in the 1950s is an example of a country that ignored external reality and paid a heavy price. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden will go the same way. In Kamala Harris and in several of his other key personnel picks, there are a comforting number who understand that the US is at war of a nature that it has not experienced before, and compared to which Cold War 1.0 was a walk in the park. Whether they can prevail over the Cold War 2.0 deniers within the Biden administration remains to be seen, as the last word will be with the 46th President of the US, assisted by Vice-President Kamala Harris and strengthened in his resolve by First Lady Jill Biden.

Saturday 9 January 2021

Boris Johnson resembles Heath, not Churchill (Sunday Guardian)


Even if he had come and left the day after arrival, symbolism of the potential for an enhanced relationship between London and Delhi would have been immense.


This is not 1921 but 2021, and the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of India has evolved since that time in a manner not foreseen by those holding power in that country a century ago. Those were days when the sun never set on the Empire, and nor would the calendar run out (or so was the received wisdom). The refusal of the British establishment to grant India the same freedoms as were enjoyed by Australia and Canada gave fuel to anti-British sentiment and finally to the Quit India resolution of the Congress Party in 1942. This was a time when it was not certain that the Allies would prevail over the Axis, or that Japan could be prevented from repeating in India the victories secured by Tokyo over European colonies in Southeast Asia. Whether because of conviction or calculation, M.A. Jinnah offered the complete support of the Muslim League to the British war effort at a time when the attitude of several Congress leaders was ambiguous when not hostile to the Allied cause. Much of the responsibility for this needs to be placed at the door of the then occupant of 10 Downing Street. Churchill was voluble both privately and publicly that only European countries would gain the rights offered in the Atlantic Charter, and not any of the colonies (as distinct from Dominions). During the 1939-45 war and afterwards, Churchill made a typist in his office conduct a correspondence with Jinnah. The purpose was to guide the latter in what needed to be done to help persuade Whitehall to accept Jinnah’s call for partition. Given the impact that this exchange of information and perspectives had on the future of India, it is a surprise that more historians have not examined this particular correspondence. By the close of 1943, opinion in groups connected with matters of UK defence got solidified that the Congress Party would never be a reliable partner. Only a new and separate country that included territory abutting the USSR, China Afghanistan and Central Asia would, if that country were ruled by the Muslim League. Partition became seen as a security imperative for the UK, a fantasy kept alive after 1947 by Pakistan joining both CENTO and SEATO, while at the same time privately assuring the leaders of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China that the only country that Pakistan would go to war against was India. This must have been known to London and Washington, but they seethed are the foreign policy of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who abandoned the KMT almost as soon as Mao Zedong established the rule of the Chinese Communist Party over China. The KMT and its leader Chiang Kai-shek had consistently given its backing to the freedom movement in India (to anger from Churchill). This support took place during a period when Joseph Stalin sided with Churchill rather than with the Mahatma where India was concerned, and Mao Zedong was transparent in his contempt for the Congress leadership.This did not stop Nehru from shunning Chiang and being the biggest international backer of the PRC during the 1950s The British judged themselves to be acting in their own best interests when they divided India, causing wounds that still fester. Mao acted in what he understood to be the interests of the PRC when he occupied Tibet, thereby making his country India’s most consequential neighbour. Nehru ignored the security implications of the occupation of PoK by Pakistan and that of Tibet by the PRC. Or in his refusal to accept the offer by the King of Nepal to make that country a part of India. The isolation of India within the non-aligned community during the 1962 conflict with the PRC highlighted the lack of substance behind the policy. “Mera Bharat Mahan” is an attractive catchphrase, but it can be brought to life only by appropriate action. In 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee rejected the request by President George W. Bush that a division of soldiers be sent to the Kurdish zone in Iraq. That was, and remains, among the most peaceful parts of the country, but the excuse of the risk of casualties was used to reject a request favoured by L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh. Sometimes adopting what seems the least risky strategy may be less beneficial to the national interest than going ahead with a bolder course of action. When Boris Johnson took over as the Prime Minister of Britain, it was assumed that he was in the mould of Winston Churchill or at the least Margaret Thatcher, but he seems to be following in the footsteps of Ted Heath. Being the Guest of Honour at the Republic Day parade would have brought the chance for a reset between UK-India relations. Both are part of the 21st century Anglosphere, a construct whose reach and advantages have never been taken advantage of by successive governments in India. Even if he had come and left the day after arrival, the symbolism of the potential for an enhanced relationship between London and Delhi would have been immense. Why the physical presence of Boris Johnson in the UK is needed to battle a pandemic that has devastated several of the peers and possible competitors of the PRC is unclear in a world of seamless and reasonably secure communications. Presumably his spin doctors briefed him that his absence in a faraway land would annoy voters. What seems to be bothering the British people is, instead, a lack of courage and resolve in taking decisions. Boris Johnson seems to be making decisions based on the most recent private polls he reads about public attitudes, and this narrow focus on politics of the day rather than statecraft anchored by a clear strategy was not expected by those who believe in the brilliant essayist turned politician.

The cancellation by Boris Johnson of his visit to India and the boost for India-UK relations attached to his being present at the ceremonial of the Republic Day parade has by his backtracking dissolved into a footnote in public discourse in India. As has the image of Britain itself. Such are the consequences of the UK Prime Minister’s vacillation and obsessive focus on the politics of the day rather than the needs of the age.

Saturday 2 January 2021

A Cautionary Tale for India From the 1950s (Sunday Guardian)


The Korean War offered an opportunity for the US to open a second front in Tibet, but India rejected any such plans, and later during the war took a line that favoured the USSR, PRC and North Korea.

In the US, tens of millions believe that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump, and some of them may decide to register their opposition to (what they believe to be) such a coup in ways that would accentuate rather than douse emotions that are not congruent with the tolerance to opposing views that is essential in a democracy. Or should be. There is, of course, the growing realisation within an increasing band of individuals concerned with policymaking in Washington that their country has been in a battle over primacy with a power whose leadership has from 1949 been focused on replacing the US as the lead power on the globe. Given such a situation, even  a superficially fractured US Congress has lately been coming together to pass legislation on Tibet that backtracks from the earlier acceptance of permanent control by Beijing of that ancient monastic land. The US wanted to assist Tibetan resistance movements through supplies of weapons, but could not do so because Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to permit such items from being transported through India. It was believed by Nehru that the blank cheque he handed over to Chairman Mao on Tibet in 1950 would be repaid by the latter’s formal acceptance of the McMahon  Line as the frontier between India and China. Amazingly, the entry of the PLA into Aksai Chin was not even mentioned by the Indian side but neither was the implicit offer of Premier Zhou accepted that Aksai Chin would remain with the PRC but the line in the rest of the frontier would become the agreed boundary. Getting the worst and not the best of both worlds – in this case the US and China – became an art form in the 1950s. The Korean War offered an opportunity to the US to open a second front in Tibet, but India rejected any such plans, and during the Korean war took a line that favoured the USSR, PRC and North Korea over the US and South Korea. This was done in the expectation by Nehru that the reward for such good behaviour would come in the form of a settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, which remains unresolved even while disputes between Beijing and Moscow (not to mention Rangoon) have been settled long back. These were concluded by China on terms that created an atmosphere for good relations rather than continuing tensions with the other two countries. As the Government of India was making more than its expected share of concessions to Beijing without any sweetener in exchange, it was no surprise that the Chinese Communist Party leadership did not see any reason to make any concessions to India, a stance that has continued. Adopting the Mao-Zhou playbook of concentrating on PRC interests to the exclusion of the needs of the other party may have been the best course for India to follow. Nehru delighted in the belief that his government was the successor to the British raj, an illusion aided by the government’s occupation of the stately buildings left behind by the departing colonial power. Unfortunately, none of the rights and privileges that British-ruled India had in other (even nearby) parts of the world remained with the government which took office on 15 August 1947. The manner in which substantive concession upon concession was handed out by Nehru to other countries was continued by his successors, usually for nothing more tangible than a few flattering words. Z.A. Bhutto won the peace in Shimla soon after the 1971 war while armed with nothing more than generous whiffs of his favourite perfume, Shalimar. The Prime Minister of Pakistan was repaid for this by the Pakistan Army by being hanged soon afterwards.

Collateral (i.e. unintended) damage appears to be a concept unfamiliar to several Prime Ministers in India. Jawaharlal Nehru believed in championing the PRC’s case on Tibet and in the United Nations and later, taking the side of China in the Korean war and in much else, a stance continued with little change until recently. The expectation of each PM was that such an accommodative stance would ensure the consent of Beijing to a boundary settlement generous to India. This failed to happen. What did take place in the 1950s was a sharp deterioration in relations with Washington and a consequent fillip in the US arming of the Pakistan military and reinforced diplomatic support to that country at the cost of India. An example of the manner in which relations with an important partner may be affected by deals with another is the purchase of S-400 systems by India. In the 1950s, Nehru saw the PRC as a country that would never go to battle with India, and the USSR as being the guarantor of adherence to such non-violence, rather than as the facilitator of the PLA, which was the actual situation. This was evident during the 1950s, a period when US-created alliance systems designed to militarily constrain Beijing were not simply shunned but sought to be sabotaged by Nehru. In retaliation, the US further intensified its largesse to Pakistan, even though aware that the target of the military of that state was neither the PRC nor the USSR, but India, something that the authorities in Rawalpindi constantly reminded their contacts in Moscow and Beijing to silence from Washington. It was not that there were no misgivings about such a policy within South Block. It was just that the Prime Minister believed he alone had the wisdom to discern the truth about the future. In Nehru’s view, a grateful Beijing would agree to the border settlement suggested by the PM and in any event, would not precipitate a war with India. Neither of these forecasts were accurate. As a consequence of the line favoured by Nehru, the Indian Army faced the PLA alone in 1962. In the 1950s, there was an acceptance in Washington and among several of its allies that future kinetic conflict with the USSR and the PRC was very likely. These days a similar view has begun to elbow out the perceptions of those within the Democratic Party who share the Nehruvian faith that war with these powers is not just unlikely but impossible. The neo-Nehruvians in Washington believe that the effects of the energy and ambition that are becoming more and more visibly demonstrated by Beijing are susceptible to rollback through commerce and diplomacy alone. The expectation, and not merely in Moscow or Beijing, is that the incoming Biden administration may repeat the prime-time television tactics of past US Presidents and generate substantial sound, fury and smoke on the China front without any actual fire. Should India stand aside from efforts at forming a coalition capable of challenging the steady takeover of vast geopolitical spaces by the Sino-Russian alliance as it did in the 1950s? There is no way to secure the Indo-Pacific except through a partnership between the US and India, that should be made explicit through an Indo-Pacific Charter. Not just the US but Australia and Japan have been pointing to the need for leadership by India in efforts at maintaining primacy in the Indo-Pacific. Whether this takes place or the events of the 1950s get repeated (leading to results similar to those of the 1960s) is a question that several world capitals believe does not as yet have a clear answer. Should India repeat history and choose to opt out of evolving alliance systems focused on the Sino-Russian alliance, General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Vladimir V Putin will have cause to celebrate.