Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

April Fools

The silly season for Af-Pak policy is still upon us.

What would happen if I were to make the following argument to members of the U.S. strategic community, including those advising the Obama administration on South Asia and counter-terrorism policy:

Pakistan has become more insecure following the 9/11 attacks and the United States’ consequent military presence in Afghanistan, seeing  forces it deems inimical to its legitimate interests on both its eastern and western frontiers. Pakistan’s insecurity has resulted in its support for anti-Indian jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which conducted the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. To assuage Pakistani concerns, India must insist on the United States’ immediate withdrawal from Bagram and Kandahar air bases in Afghanistan. Not that the United States is doing anything wrong in either place, or acting against Indian interests. In fact, quite the opposite. But Pakistani insecurities run so deep that Pakistan will not rein in LeT or other such groups until such a strategic withdrawal occurs.

Upon completing this brief exposition, I would most likely be summarily laughed out of the room. And with good reason. For one thing, India asking the United States to compromise what it deems to be its vital security interests is ludicrous enough. But beyond that, it’s clear that any such U.S. withdrawal would hardly assuage Pakistani concerns, let alone alter its behavior. Instead, it would provide an incentive for Pakistan to increase its support for terrorist organizations, since they successfully helped it achieve its regional political goals.

It is really, truly worrisome that this line of reasoning appears to be lost on some of the best and brightest in the American strategic firmament. We have been hearing arguments by Americans against greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan for years (sometimes with little regard for the facts on the ground), but they are continuously dusted off, recycled, and presented as examples of fresh thinking on the subject.  The latest example can be found in a guest post on The Best Defense, at the end of a review of recent books on Pakistan by Bruce Riedel and by Teresita and Howard Schaffer:

The books are fascinating. They are fairly easy reads. And taken individually or even more so when taken together, they point the way towards some new policy ideas. I for one would be more likely, as a result of these books and some recent conversations in Kabul, to encourage Afghanistan to ask New Delhi to shut down the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. This is not because India is doing anything wrong in either place, but because Pakistan’s phobias on India matters are so deep-rooted and real that Islamabad will probably not rein in the Afghan Taliban until such measures are taken. [foreignpolicy.com]

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Don’t Follow Leaders (Watch the Parkin’ Meters)

04.04.2011 · Posted in China, Indian foreign policy, Music

What Bob Dylan and Indian foreign policy have in common.

There have been many remarkable developments over the past few weeks deserving of commentary: the U.S. and European military intervention in Libya, the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis in Japan, prime ministerial talks between India and Pakistan, further protests across the Arab world, the release by the Hindu of cables sent by the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, the eruption of a bloody civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, violent protests in Afghanistan resulting in the terrible death of several UN employees, and, last but not least, India’s remarkable victory in the Cricket World Cup final. By comparison, Bob Dylan playing two gigs in mainland China later this week seems hardly worthy of attention. Except for this detail:

Getting permission for the US musician to play in China was not easy. The authorities have been wary of foreign performers, particularly since the Icelandic singer Bjork signalled her support for Tibetan independence at a concert in Shanghai in 2008. Since then officials appear to have tightened the rules surrounding performances by foreign artists. Bob Dylan’s two gigs – the other will be in Shanghai – had to be approved by the national ministry of culture. Officials said the singer would have to strictly abide by an agreed playlist. [BBC]

Leave aside the imperatives of profit. Here is an artist who famously rebelled at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 by having his band play electric instruments. He came out of a folk movement closely associated in the United States with civil rights and freedom of expression, speaking out against the Vietnam War, mandatory draft, and media censorship. So the news that a symbol of youthful rebellion in his home country is willing to tolerate stringent guidelines on what music he is and is not able to play somewhere else strikes a somewhat discordant note. Not insignificantly, his performances come the same week that prominent Chinese artist and civil society activist Ai Weiwei—who helped design Beijing’s magnificent Olympic Stadium—was detained by Chinese authorities while boarding a flight to Hong Kong.

This inclination of Dylan’s towards vociferously defending cardinal values at home while displaying a different standard elsewhere is not all that unique, and many in India are guilty of much the same. In fact, this closely mirrors the tendency of many Indians to proudly celebrate the country’s independence movement, its outspoken position on decolonisation in the immediate post-Independence era, and its willingness to use military force to liberate Goa and Bangladesh, while decrying the efforts of others to do the same.

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India’s Acute Abstinence Syndrome

03.19.2011 · Posted in Indian foreign policy, Libya, United Nations

What explains India’s approach to multilateral decisionmaking?

With the passage by the UN Security Council of a resolution sanctioning a no-fly-zone over Libya, and its enforcement now by French aircraft, India’s role in this episode deserves greater scrutiny. After all, this is the first important resolution passed by the UNSC after India’s election to the body as a non-permanent member. In the final vote two days ago, 10 countries chose to support the resolution, one more than was needed for its passage. Five countries—Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany—opted to abstain. The rationale given for India’s decision was that there was not enough information available, according to India’s permanent representative in New York. “This resolution calls for far-reaching measures, but we never got answers to very basic questions,” he said. “This entire exercise has been based on less than complete information.”

That may or may not have been the case, but regardless, the Indian statement did not address what India’s interests were with regards to Libya. At the crudest level of analysis, there are two eventualities India must consider going forward. The first is that Col. Gaddafi triumphs over rebel forces. But even then his leadership would hardly by comparable to his position prior to the uprising. He would have to continue suppressing opposition domestically, the large community of Libyan political exiles would be actively campaigning for his ouster, his regime would be a pariah internationally, and the UN Security Council will most certainly continue to condemn his rule. A full normalisation is decidedly unlikely. The second possibility is that with the imposition of a no-fly-zone and sanctions, the rebels manage to turn the tide and Gaddafi is eventually ousted.

In neither scenario does India come out on top by abstaining. Any successor regime is likely to begrudge India’s decision, while Gaddafi, even if he intends on rewarding India’s behaviour, may be unable to deliver upon his promises. And promises have certainly been made. In interviews with the Russian and German media, Gaddafi stated explicitly: “Our oil contracts are going to Russian, Chinese and Indian firms. The West is to be forgotten.” Similar messages appear to have been passed privately.

But if we ignore the more sinister aspects of India’s decision to abstain, what are possible other reasons for doing so? India’s longstanding policy of non-interference might be credited, and while that may makes sense in cases of ethnic or religious separatism given India’s own concerns, it is certainly not applicable to Libya. Meanwhile, charges that a vote in favour of the UNSC resolution would have been tantamount to selling out to the West reflect both insecurity about India’s independent position and skew rational discussions about the merits of the move for Indian national interests. An abstention, by the same token, means succumbing to Russian or Chinese—or, worse, Libyan—pressure. If the latter was indeed the case given Gaddafi’s public and private offers of favourable oil contracts, it reflects poorly on India’s aspirations as a great power if it can indeed be bought off so easily.

One characteristic, although not necessarily a cause, of India’s decision-making at the UN Security Council is simple policy schizophrenia, a product of diverging philosophies and objectives between New Delhi and New York. In a recent issue of Pragati, David Malone and Rohan Mukherjee make somewhat the same point: India’s bilateral successes does not always appear to match or mirror its multilateral diplomatic efforts. The release by WikiLeaks of a cable sent from the U.S. embassy in New Delhi by then-Ambassador David Mulford to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to justify this observation, although in relation to another matter, UN reform:

Unhelpful positions on UN reform issues emanating from Indian officials in New York and their sympathizers in New Delhi are at odds with assurances from senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials that India enjoys large areas of agreement with the US vision.  During high-level meetings with Washington visitors, our MEA interlocutors have asserted their support for management reform, their backing for a credible Human Rights Council, and their recognition that UNSC expansion is just one element of the reform mix. Our contacts have insisted that the Indian delegation in New York was largely deciding its own positions on these issues while New Delhi remained preoccupied with planning the PM’s agenda. [WikiLeaks]

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MAD: Mutually Asinine Discussion

The road to South Asian nuclear disarmament is paved with fallacies.

To get a sense of everything that is misleading, ill-informed, illogical, and outdated about discourse in U.S. policy circles on nuclear weapons in South Asia, I would highly recommend this post on the blog of veteran American defense journalist Tom Ricks (h/t Pragmatic Euphony). To be fair, the post—which summarizes the discussion at an event at the Hudson Institute—is not by Ricks himself, who is one of the best in the business, but by one of his interns. Still, the high-profile venue means the content of the post is deserving of a careful critique.

The point that all three panelists expressed was simple but important: U.S. fears of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, while valid, overlook the greater threat of a nuclear conflict with India. The fuse to ignite a war has been lit before – at Kargil in 1999, after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and most recently, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 – but a nuclear exchange has been prevented each time. With each of these incidents, though, the fuse has been cut shorter.

There are three problems with this consensus view, nicely and pithily rendered. First, the discussants appear to be underestimating the threat of nuclear terrorism by deeming it less important than regional nuclear conflict. Second, note the passive voice—”been prevented”—in the discussion of India-Pakistan crises, because it conveniently sidesteps the question of who exactly ensured that these crises did not escalate to the nuclear level. Finally, there is the last point about the likelihood of nuclear exchange being greater as a result of previous crises. The consensus narrative therefore is that India and Pakistan are on hair-trigger alert, that they consider nuclear weapons as a means of war-fighting, that both sides have been pulled back from the brink of nuclear conflict (implicitly by third parties, i.e. the United States), and that past lessons about crisis management have not been learned by either side. All of this is simply not true. There is little to suggest that India and Pakistan have been any more or less responsible about their nuclear command and control than the United States and Soviet Union, something the discussants seem to acknowledge later on in the discussion. India, for its part, has never considered nuclear weapons as a means of waging war and has therefore adopted a nuclear doctrine that includes a commitment to minimalism and no-first-use. Although the United States interceded during each crisis, there is no evidence that India was seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons to begin with, so there was no need for it to be dissuaded from using them. Finally, just as the United States and Soviet Union underwent learning experiences (Berlin, Cuba), so have India and Pakistan, and in fact India’s response to Kargil and the Mumbai attacks suggest far greater maturity in its handling of crisis scenarios than the Western powers are often willing to concede.

The greatest risk for nuclear war in our time is the scenario in which a Pakistan-based terror group with ties to Inter-Services Intelligence launches another attack on India (“another Mumbai” is the catchphrase, but it won’t necessarily have to be of that scale or spectacle and is widely considered a matter of when, not if) and this touches off a sequence of escalation that results in a nuclear strike and response. It’s nearly happened before. Aparna Pande, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, described the strong pro-nuclear strike faction in Indian politics after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the common sentiment of, “if Pakistan can cross the border and hit us, why can’t we hit back?” The answer is: because it’s a short fuse. That simple fact, and the peril it implies, has been enough in the past, but it might not be good enough next time.

There is no guarantee that India’s “hitting back”—even if it chooses to do so—will be in the form of a military attack, conventional or nuclear. Further, if the risk of escalation—the “short fuse”—has been enough to deter India in the past and mitigate escalation, why will it be any different next time? What exactly has changed? Specific answers are required here if this argument is to have any credibility.

The bad news is that Pakistan’s nuclear program is expanding – it’s set to become the fourth largest nuclear power, it is developing smaller, more mobile bombs, and it is building more nuclear reactors to churn out bulk supplies of weapons-grade uranium. The good news, though, is that (as far as we can tell) Pakistan has an effective security program in place. The bombs are under the purview of the military, the most stable and competent institution in the country. They are kept disassembled with the components kept in separate buildings, at secret facilities that both India and the United States would be hard-pressed to find. The sites are guarded by thousands of troops being watched by a meticulous internal affairs bureau to screen out extremists. It might be sufficient if Pakistan were not one of the most threatening and most threatened countries in the world.

Infiltration remains the greatest tactical threat to Pakistan’s nuclear security. There will always be a way to slip through a screening process – in 2009, members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan attacked the Pakistani Army headquarters in military uniforms carrying forged IDs, and previously at least two men affiliated with al Qaeda infiltrated then-president Pervez Musharraf’s security detail and attempted to assassinate him. The insider threat remains, but as Bunn pointed out, there are only so many security measures that can be put in place that will actually improve Pakistan’s already thorough security.

Ultimately, it’s the threat – both in Pakistan’s domestic terror threats and in Indo-Pakistani relations – that needs to be reduced.

The nuclear issue is only going to become more important as greater emphasis, both here in Washington and in South Asia, is placed on the threat posed by Pakistani militant groups. A journalist for the Pakistani Spectator, in worried and urgent tones, told the panel that, with the prevailing popular opinion in Pakistan, the United States is “pushing Pakistan in the corner, and they are depending more on the weapon because Pakistan is literally collapsing.” It will be up to the international community, and largely the United States, to help buttress Pakistan’s faltering democracy. The success or failure of stabilization efforts in the next several years will determine which cliché the Pakistani bomb will become: common ground, bargaining chip, or loose cannon.

Wait. Is the United States’ lack of knowledge about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons really “good news”? Tsk tsk. But I digress.

What does Pakistan’s nuclear security have to do with a nuclear exchange with India? If anything, by bringing it up, the discussants seem to suggest that deterrence holds as long as India is not tempted into a preventive first strike. Meanwhile, the fact that the main reason for worry is that Pakistan is “one of the most threatening and most threatened countries in the world” suggests that attention should be focused on nuclear terrorism, which the discussants downplayed at the outset.  Finally, how does the feeling that the United States is pushing Pakistan into a corner, and that it is failing to buttress Pakistan’s democracy, tie into the possibility of Indo-Pakistani nuclear conflict? Clearly there are collective analytical gaps here. As I have written before, it’s time to overcome groupthink and begin to imaginatively analyse South Asia’s nuclear dynamics.

Further Reading: Rohan Joshi adds some excellent points about the same blog post over at The Filter Coffee. Worth reading.

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In Washington, a Partition

03.03.2011 · Posted in India, Pakistan, U.S. Foreign Policy

The split between “Af-Pak” and India-focused South Asianists is beginning to have detrimental effects for Washington’s regional policy.

There’s a growing divergence taking place in Washington, a rift that has been widening for almost a decade. When once there was a small but lively group of South Asianists who observed India and Pakistan, both within government and outside (in the media, academia and think tanks), there are now two very distinct policy communities emerging that interact less and less with one another. The interests, expertise and focus of the two groups fall on the two sides of the Radcliffe Line.

One group—the “Af-Pak” South Asianists—observe the region primarily through an operational lens focused on Islamist radicalism, terrorism and insurgency. Their assessments center on mitigating specific security threats. By contrast, the new breed of India-focused South Asianists approach the region very differently, adopting a longer-term outlook that involves economic opportunities and partnerships, international institutional cooperation, and continental and global balances of power.

This divide is among the most important, and perhaps the least remarked upon, outgrowths of almost a decade of “de-hyphenation” in U.S. policy towards South Asia. That term merits some discussion, as it is frequently but inconsistently applied. Dehyphenation is often used interchangeably with decoupling (suggesting separate but coequal relations), while in other instances it is used to connote differentiation (suggesting separate but unequal relations). A Rand Corporation report that advanced the concept argued that, in essence, dehyphenation meant that each state was to be assessed independently by the United States, rather than in relation to one another. This, in turn, meant that U.S. engagement with India had to be enhanced, while economic and social crises needed to be averted in Pakistan, based on the two countries’ differing trajectories.

Given the conscious differences in U.S. approaches to India and Pakistan over the past decade, the creation of separate policy communities should probably have been anticipated. But this divide also speaks to the downsides of dehyphenation, at least how it is often interpreted.  Addressing cross-border terrorism, for example, has become unduly complicated, as have U.S. approaches to the two countries’ activities in Afghanistan. Conversations on regional nuclear or conventional arms races, or their absence, become easily distorted.

Rehyphenation is certainly not desirable, so the only solution is to have greater engagement and dialogue between the two communities, particularly those elements outside of government.  Due to the high profile recently accorded Afghanistan and Pakistan in the United States’ national security calculus, the India-focused South Asianists have to a considerable degree retained an appreciation of the challenges Washington faces in the northwest subcontinent. The same sensitivities are not necessarily reciprocated by their “Af-Pak”-focused counterparts; just peruse Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel to get a sense of the willingness by many contributors to compromise U.S. relations with India for marginal (and tenuous) gains in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Treating India and Pakistan on their own terms is fine, but the bottom line is that neither policy can continue to be formulated much longer in isolation.

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A Value-Added Foreign Policy

What happens when realists get mugged by ideology?

Work the strategic circuit in New Delhi—between the Central Secretariat, the India International Centre, and the editorial board rooms on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg—and it is common to hear the refrain that India, while proud of its own traditions of secularism, liberalism and democracy, sees it unnecessary (and sometimes dangerous) to actively promote these values externally. This conforms broadly with widely-held conceptions of realpolitik: India’s objectives should involve advancing its interests devoid of sentiment and value judgments. Proponents of this view, who may today constitute a majority in India’s strategic community, point to the United States’ mishandling of Iraq, its frosty relations with Russia and Iran, its unnecessary alienation of Sudan and Burma, and the double-standards in its complex relations with various Arab leaders as evidence to support their case, and these arguments are certainly merited.

But at various points—not least, during the past several weeks’ protests across the Arab world, North Africa and Iran—this line of reasoning by Indian policymakers appears to reach its limitations. By remaining silent on democracy in other countries, India is caught awkwardly straddling the fence, limiting its ability to influence the final outcome in its favour as it continues to cautiously support regimes whose times have clearly come. Sanjaya Baru, editor of the Business Standard, makes some compelling arguments in favour of establishing the promotion of ‘the idea of India’—characterised by secular pluralism and inclusive growth—as a central pillar of its foreign policy, but I would add a few more reasons for India to take the promotion of values more seriously.

First, realpolitik is a means, not a goal. And in fact, an interest-based foreign policy cannot be carried out over a lengthy duration if a satisfactory end-state is not clearly identified. Take the oft-used example of Burma (Myanmar). India’s defence of its cooperation with the Burmese junta is three-fold: it seeks to balance Chinese influence, it desires energy and other natural resources, and it needs the junta’s cooperation in facing security threats along India’s frontier. But is the existence of an unstable, volatile, and opaque regime on India’s border a satisfactory end-state? While New Delhi must continue to engage Naypyidaw fruitfully in the short-term, it can also try to use its influence to persuade the junta to  transition successfully into a stable and inclusive democracy, for its own sake. No one wants to see the country implode, and India could be directly affected by refugee inflows and insurgencies by the numerous unrepresented minority ethnic groups.

Second, India gains through the advancement of an Indian model of successful democratic development that counters the notion that Chinese-style  autocracy is a prerequisite for successful development. China’s closest friends are a rogue’s gallery of unsavory regimes, and India can reap many advantages by engaging more productively with the larger community of countries that are transparent about governance and feel that they benefit from empowering their citizens, not just economically but also politically. If India actively presents itself as a model that other developing states can aspire towards, its voice will have much greater resonance.

Third, we are entering an era where interests and values are possibly more closely aligned than any time in history, including the Cold War. The new currencies of power necessitate domestic political stability, open information systems, transparent governance, the security of global public goods, and recourse to justice. Those states that fail to live up to these objectives threaten the viability of the very international system that benefits India and the rest of the world. For concrete examples, consider the Rio Tinto spying case, the violation of Raymond Davis’s diplomatic immunity, and the cyber attack on Estonia.

Fourth, India has a rich legacy of ideological leadership, having been at the vanguard of decolonisation, that can—and should—be preserved. India inspired countries across the developing world to free themselves from external rule and second-class citizenship. So ideology is at one level hardwired into India’s foreign policy DNA,  the staleness of non-alignment notwithstanding.

The discussion of what to do about values and democracy is often considered binary—take, for example, this recent piece on dealing with dictators’ foreign assets—but it need not be that way. Certainly, the zealous pursuit of values at the expense of short-term interests is not advisable. But that does not preclude Indian foreign policy practitioners and thought leaders from becoming bolder about India’s desire to see a global order undergirded by liberal, secular, and democratic principles.

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K. Subrahmanyam (1929-2011)

02.03.2011 · Posted in Personal History

In many ways, and for many people, he left an indelible impression.

To those who met him—and to thousands who came to know him through his prolific newspaper columns and regular television appearances—K. Subrahmanyam was an extraordinary individual. Growing up in a peripatetic household in provincial Madras—his father was a school teacher and administrator—Subrahmanyam was known as “Ambi” or “Mani” to his family. Later, friends and colleagues in Delhi referred to him as “Subbu” or “KS”. To us grandchildren, he was simply “Thatha”. My earliest memory of him was not at a seminar at IISS, a discussion in the India International Centre lounge, or a visit to his former office in Sapru House. It was in a basement of our home in suburban Washington one December in the mid-1980s, when he came bearing bounteous gifts for his young grandchildren.  “Who needs Santa Claus,” I remember thinking as I observed the tall man with a shock of white hair taking considerable interest in helping me assemble my new toys. “I have my very own.”

KS brought that same sense of generosity to his professional life, displaying a kindness that was not always discernible to those whose first impressions were often overshadowed by his stern demeanor and intimidating reserves of knowledge. At the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), which he directed for many years, he supported the efforts of many individuals outside the traditional hierarchy, including young academics with controversial political views and government employees considered too junior to write. A good idea deserved to be heard, he felt, no matter who came up with it. The same spirit was evident later in his career too: a number of promising young scholars, many of them doctoral candidates, have told me how impressed they were that he would make the effort to attend, and actively participate in, their research presentations. The large number of people who consider him a mentor, and their wide age range, is a telling sign of his remarkable willingness to encourage individuals, regardless of their age or background.

KS was also frustrated by that same sense of rigidity that he sought to overcome. Although he attempted to incorporate IDSA more closely with Jawaharlal Nehru University, he was prevented from teaching there on the grounds that he did not have a doctorate, or a higher education in political science or a related field (his highest degree was an M.Sc. in chemistry). He was the first to appreciate the irony that Cambridge—where he was later made a professor—had no such qualms about his being appointed.

While he was controversial, and his views often polarizing, KS rarely—if ever—engaged in personal criticism in public discourse, although he was occasionally the object of heated invective. Two years ago, he wrote a pointedly reproachful note to me related to some posts on this blog, where I had mentioned individuals by name whose arguments I disagreed with. Although he couched it in terms that he thought I would find more appealing—that certain people may not be accustomed to personal criticism—his view was that even mentioning individuals in policy discussions risked personalizing debates and eroded a sense of collegiality within the strategic community. That sense of collegiality at a time when criticism and debate have become more personal on blogs,  Twitter and television talk shows was upheld almost to a fault: it explained the sometimes roundabout and passive beginnings to his articles—”It has been said that…”—before he proceeded to systematically demolish a certain viewpoint.

KS may never have used Twitter and did not have a blog, but for someone who grew up in a household without electricity or a transistor radio, he took surprisingly well to new forms of media and mass communication. During the Bangladesh war, he made appearances on All India Radio and later featured on television, both on Doordarshan and subsequently on the many cable news channels that sprung up. The move from think tank scholar to newspaper columnist was considered unusual when he made that transition, and the present host of regular columnists on strategic affairs in India have followed a trail that he was among the earliest to blaze. Although he continued to write his columns in long-hand, never being much of a typist, he became a prolific online reader, signing up to a large number of mailing lists, which he followed assiduously. A number of people were surprised when he, an eminence grise now in his late 70s or early 80s, would approach them and  discuss some article they had written in an obscure publication and circulated only on a private listserv.

But perhaps the most remarkable characteristic that marked KS was his ability to tailor his views to the times, often against prevailing orthodoxy. This was seen most markedly in his calls for an Indian nuclear deterrent, but his advocacy of a minimal deterrent once India had achieved a nuclear capability, as well as his defense of a close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War followed by ardent support for the U.S.-India relationship in the post-Cold War era. He understood, earlier than most, the importance of liberal economic reforms for national security, and more recently made impassioned pleas for changes in Indian governance and political culture.  Again, his understanding of the need for change was reflected in his personal life as much as his professional one.  The product of a traditional household, KS was no rebel. He went to Presidency College in Madras, took the civil services exam and joined the Indian Administrative Service, becoming a family breadwinner at an early age while staying near his aging parents.  But although he remained an avowed vegetarian and was well-versed in Hindu religious texts, he was also an atheist. When many of his generation remained wedded to orthodox traditions such as arranged marriage and urging their children to pursue educational and professional opportunities in traditional fields such as engineering and business, his views on these subjects was extraordinarily liberal. He found it a source of pride, rather than embarrassment, that his children and grandchildren were civil servants, diplomats, economists, historians, architects, filmmakers and lawyers and that they were married to individuals who were American, French, Dutch and Japanese.

But while there are many lessons one can draw from his life and work, my colleague at Pragmatic Euphony may have articulated the most important one (on Twitter, where else?):  “The best tribute to K Subrahmanyam would be to not fossilise his thoughts or propagate his views as a dogma. We Indians are masters at both.” KS would  have been the first to agree.

Further Reading

Poor is Less

01.26.2011 · Posted in Development, Global Economy

Why do policymakers ignore rapid decreases in poverty?

If there is one article to read today, I would recommend Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz’s op-ed in the Washington Post on measuring global poverty:

Our sense of [global poverty] remains firmly rooted in the year 2005 – the last year for which the World Bank has produced data on the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day. Thus we are routinely told that “today,” 1.37 billion people around the world are poor, including 456 million in India and 208 million in China, but such figures are six years out of date.

A lot has changed in the past six years. The economies of the developing world have expanded 50 percent in real terms, despite the Great Recession. Moreover, growth has been particularly high in countries with large numbers of poor people. India and China, of course, but also Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Uganda, Mozambique and Uzbekistan – nine countries that were collectively home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s poor in 2005 – are all experiencing phenomenal economic advances.

In the new Brookings Institution report “Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015,” we updated the World Bank’s official $1.25-a-day figures to reveal how the global poverty landscape has changed with the emergence of developing countries. We estimate that between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world’s poor fell to 878 million people. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals established the target of halving the rate of global poverty between 1990 and 2015; this was probably achieved by 2008, some seven years ahead of schedule. Moreover, using forecasts of per capita consumption growth, we predict that by 2015, fewer than 600 million people will remain poor. At that point, the 1990 poverty rate will have been halved and then halved again.

The decline in poverty is happening in all the world’s regions and most of its countries, though at varying speeds. The emerging markets of Asia are recording the greatest successes; the two regional giants, China and India, are likely to account for three-quarters of the global reduction between 2005 and 2015. Over this period, Asia’s share of the world’s poor is anticipated to fall from two-thirds to one-third, while Africa’s share is expected to rise to nearly 60 percent. Yet Africa, too, is making advances; we estimate that in 2008 its poverty rate dropped below the 50 percent mark for the first time. By 2015, African poverty is projected to fall below 40 percent, a feat China did not achieve until the mid-1990s. [Washington Post]

There are reasons to think the authors are being overly bullish. The full report – available here – suggests, among other things, that the number of poor in South Asia is expected to half from 318m to 145m between 2010 and 2015, a tall order even if India (home to most of those people) does manage to sustain 8 percent growth over that period.  In fact, by their calculations, India will have pulled more people out of poverty between 2005 and 2010 than even China (although, China naturally has a lower starting point). Overall, their calculations suggest that only 7% of Indians will be poor by 2015, well under the World Bank estimate of 23.6%.

But even if Chandy and Gertz’s estimates exaggerate the picture, what is almost undoubtedly true is that the rapid poverty reduction in the developing world has not been fairly captured by popular discourse in developed countries. Needless to say, this has important implications for national policy. At the very least, the driving forces behind poverty reduction will have to be fundamentally reassessed: if the Millennium Development Goals’ target 1(A) of halving the proportion of people living under $1.00 a day was met on – or shortly after – 2008, it was not a result of ambitious aid programs by western donors. As such, the increased emphasis on development aid by such countries as the United States and United Kingdom, while well-intentioned, may be completely misplaced.

Second, if the West is completely missing out on this amazing global growth story, it has severe implications for the ideologies and policies that have enabled it. At a time when the dominant ‘Great Recession’ narrative has led to a widespread questioning of free market liberalism, it is data such as these which serves as an affirmation of those very principles. Again, Chandy and Gertz may be overstating the case (and it would require someone with much more familiarity with the subject than I to confirm or discredit their findings) but at the same time it is amazing how frequently policy elites the world over forget that since 1991 we have  witnessed—and continue to witness—the greatest reduction of poverty in global history.

Beyond the Misleading Headline (Polaris Edition)

01.18.2011 · Posted in India, Pakistan, U.S. Foreign Policy

Is India’s risky fatalism simply a lack of viable alternatives?

This appears to be a week of misleading headlines. First, as Pragmatic Euphony helpfully pointed out, the international media mischaracterised a speech by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai on troop withdrawals from Jammu and Kashmir. Now, the web editors at the Washington Post have done one better. Columnist David Ignatius’s piece datelined New Delhi on the India-Pakistan relationship appears online under the headline “India and Pakistan on the Brink.” What is strange about this is that the content of the article is neither  dire in its pronouncements, nor is it really about brinkmanship. Furthermore, the headline in the print edition—which I happen to subscribe to—is “A Risky Fatalism in India,” which more accurately captures the thrust of the piece.

But, moving beyond the headline, there is still a lot in the article deserving of discussion. Ignatius traveled to India to participate in the biannual Track II dialogue hosted by the Aspen Institute and Confederation of Indian Industry (full disclosure: I’ve worked on past editions of the dialogue), and he was left with the impression that Indians were fatalistic, if not secretly pleased, by Pakistan’s negative political and economic trajectory. Ignatius is a careful observer, but is by no means a regional specialist, so he should be excused for overlooking some important aspects of the India-Pakistan equation. That said, given the venue and timing, it might be useful to point out some of the shortcomings of his analysis:

Everything is going right these days for India, except for one big problem: It is living next to a Pakistan that is coming apart politically, and Indian leaders insist with a tone of resignation that there’s nothing they can do about it.

As I’ve pointed out before, the problems posed by Pakistan cannot be brushed under the table, but it is by no means certain that Pakistan will hold back India’s prospects of economic growth and success. North Korea hasn’t constrained South Korea, nor has Iran done the same to, say, Israel or Dubai.

Starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, top Indian officials know that their booming democracy is endangered by the growing chaos across the border. They say that they’re willing to revive back-channel negotiations with Islamabad to resolve the long-festering problem of Kashmir. They favor confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of war between these two nuclear-armed nations.

This acknowledgment is interesting given that both the (print) headline and the thrust of the piece itself are that Indians are not taking Pakistan’s failure seriously enough.

And then, in the next breath, Indian officials insist that such positive steps won’t make any difference. The Pakistani military doesn’t want any reduction in tensions, they argue. The civilian government is crumbling and incapable of making a deal. Even Singh, long an advocate of better relations with Pakistan, is said to have concluded that hopes for better relations are “wishful thinking.”

This is spot on. Much like the Obama administration and Iran, or successive U.S. administrations and North Korea, India finds itself in a dilemma negotiating with a party that does not want negotiations to succeed.

A few hundred miles away in Islamabad, you’d hear the same bleak message from Pakistani military and political leaders. Yes, they know that the immediate threat to Pakistan is from Islamic militants, not India. Yes, they know that restoring a back-channel dialogue with New Delhi might ease tensions. But no, they don’t see any way to step back from the brink. The Indians, in their view, are conspiring to undermine Pakistan.

This is not spot on. The Pakistani military, including Army Chief Kayani, openly admits its single-minded focus on India. It is also unclear whether Pakistan is at all desirable of restoring the back-channel dialogue, which in large part explains its limitations. Finally, Indians can point to acts such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks as a Pakistani conspiracy to harm their country; conspiracy theories aside, what exactly is India doing to Pakistan of comparable severity? The analysis falls prey, as many do, to false symmetry.

This is a problem that might seem ripe for U.S. mediation. Washington has close ties with both countries, after all, and it could act as an honest broker on issues such as Kashmir, which is ruled by India but claimed by both countries. But Indians say that American intervention could just make matters worse – poisoning public opinion against any deal that emerged.

This is a poor articulation of Indian concerns by his interlocutors. Public opinion is only one aspect of why U.S. mediation is undesirable from India’s standpoint. Here are a few more reasons.

U.S. diplomats are walking on eggshells: The Kashmir problem is so sensitive that American officials sometimes refer to it as “the K word,” as if the very subject were unmentionable. Washington has gently encouraged dialogue between the two countries, but two meetings last year between their foreign ministers collapsed amid mutual recriminations. They will have another chance next month at a regional gathering in Bhutan, but nobody seems very hopeful.

Why exactly did talks collapse? “Mutual recriminations” blurs some important details, and also reinforces a deceptive equality of action and intention. This certainly merits a deeper explanation.

The Indians watch Pakistan’s political instability with grim resignation. The root problem, they argue, is that the Pakistani military is unwilling to sever its links with Islamic terrorists. Until the Pakistanis break this insurgency, they will be at its mercy. Dialogue with India won’t make any difference, they insist.

“The last thing we want to see is Pakistan slide into instability,” says one top Indian official, but he cautions that there is little that India or America can do. “It’s Pakistan’s internal problem. And that, we can’t fix.”

It is unclear who this official might be, but there is certainly a lot more that the United States can do, as India has been advocating for some time.

As India celebrates its own economic success, there is a slight tone of South Asian schadenfreude about Pakistan’s troubles. “There is one school of thought that says, ‘If they [the Pakistanis] are committing suicide, then you don’t have to murder them,’” the top official concedes. “But the consequences of that are horrible.”

I came away from these discussions feeling that Indian leaders are being shortsighted: If Pakistan descends further into violence and chaos, India will suffer from the fallout. And with these two bitter rivals, there is always the risk of nuclear war. If I were a newly prosperous Indian, I’d want to help my ailing neighbor as a matter of self-protection.

But try making that argument to Indian officials. “You have to recognize that some problems can’t be solved,” counsels one prominent Indian. Officials here don’t want American mediation, and they think outreach to Pakistan won’t do any good. Meanwhile, the South Asian tinderbox keeps on getting hotter.

The prescriptions contradict the observations made at the outset and throughout: that Indian officials want to offer an olive branch to Pakistan, that they realize that the consequences of a failing Pakistan are not in India’s interests, but that there is nothing they can do about it as the Pakistanis have simply not been receptive to any overtures.

Integrating South Asia

South Asian economic integration should not be held hostage to India-Pakistan relations.

A commonly-heard truism is that South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. True, trade figures are nothing to call home about and there are literal and figurative roadblocks due to the absence of adequate infrastructure across the region. At another level, however, the lack of integration may be overstated. Nepal and Bangladesh are two countries whose futures are closely intertwined with India’s. That Indian FDI flows into Bangladesh, to use that example, were a paltry $8 million in the first three quarters of 2009-2010, (behind $479 million from Saudi Arabia, $33 million from South Korea, and $21 million from China) is clearly insufficient, but only part of the story. According to 2001 census data, 260,000 Nepalis legally migrated to India in the ten years preceding, while 280,000 immigrated from Bangladesh. And that figure does not include illegal migrants, who are estimated to be several hundred thousand, if not in the millions. And is in any case the number of legal and illegal migrants is likely to have grown significantly over the past decade, although we would have to wait for census data to get a better sense of that. India, it should be recalled, also has a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka, even if only a “quick and dirty” one.

Where formal economic integration appears particularly difficult is across the Indo-Pakistani frontier, and as the two largest South Asian states, overcoming political problems in that relationship is necessary, if insufficient, to bring about the vision of a common South Asian market, as attempted with SAARC’s South Asian Free Trade Association (SAFTA). But there is no reason why India cannot get a head start by focusing on six-country integration involving India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. All of the smaller countries can benefit and help sustain the Indian growth story with their human and material resources and markets. Further economic integration also serves a political purpose, consolidating Indian influence in these countries at the expense of  extra-regional powers, while helping to stabilize all those countries.

Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had both articulated a vision of a fully integrated South Asia. But in the absence of meaningful movement on India-Pakistan talks, there is no reason for India to hold its relations with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka hostage. Keep the door open for Pakistan to join at a later date, but

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