The Afghan mess

The flurry of recent high level visits in the region and the impending US pullout no doubt has put Afghanistan on the front burner at least from a regional perspective. There is apprehension that India’s role in Afghanistan would diminish and India would be asked to ‘take a hike’ now that big boys are coming together to play a game that is in a different league.

Is India’s Afghan policy doomed?

Commentaries of this nature have appeared in local media. C. Raja Mohan writing for Indian Express doesn’t sound too optimistic. Of course, commentators like M K Bhadrakumar play up this doomsday scenario, primarily to scare Indian Government into ‘accommodating’ Pakistan’s demands. Bhadrakumar for one, has been prophesying about the grand and imminent victory for Pakistan’s Afghan strategy for a few years now. The victory has always been around the corner and is likely to remain so.

Much of the hand wringing and breast beating (we seem to be experts in this) over India’s ‘diminished role’ or even a strategic nightmare unfolding in the coming months may be unwarranted.

The mistrust

Afghan Pakistan mistrust is a result of years of Pakistani double dealing and it would be insulting Afghan intelligence to attribute it entirely to some deep Indian conspiracy. Even the Taliban fighters have been quoted bad mouthing Pakistan and its Army. Ahmed Rashid’s recent BBC article is but one example.  They probably alternate between being used and using the ISI to further their own agenda. Their reluctance, even while in power, to accept the Durand line as the official Afghan Pakistan border has often been cited as an example of this mistrust and independent agenda. What is also surprising is the level of hostility towards Pakistan amongst ordinary Afghans be they villagers or educated elite. What this means is that even if Ashraf Ghani has entirely signed up for the Pakistani plan, given his own fractured verdict and shaky hold on power in a country full of ethnic and other fault lines, he is not going to wave a magic wand and transform Pakistan’s image problem in Afghanistan.

His rival Abdullah, who is “CEO” under the power sharing system worked out after last elections is much more friendlier towards India.

Ghani’s gambit

That brings us to the new President, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani obviously will have Afghan interests as his bottom line. He may be convinced, rightly or wrongly that being friendly to Pakistan will further that interest. He has certainly kept India at a safe distance, avoiding a visit. He even cancelled long pending arms request which India was reluctant to provide anyway. Sooner or later he may have to change tunes. This is because Pakistan will continue to play games and expect a one sided relationship where its own demands take precedence and offer nothing in return. Pakistan’s generals are in cocky mood, congratulating themselves for hoodwinking the Americans for decades. They were successful in bilking billions of dollars even as they actively sabotage American interests and lives in the region. It is likely they continue to believe this can be done for many more years profitably. If the mighty Americans can be fooled for so long, it would be even easier to do so with the Afghans who can’t even hit back.

However, not having any results to show after several months of bending over backwards to Pakistan’s demands would destroy whatever little credibility Ashraf Ghani enjoys now.

The Taliban

But if one were to assume that the Pakistani Army has turned a corner and is now a truly anti-jihad (which incidentally is their official motif) that makes things even more interesting and complicated. Ahmed Rashid, a well known Pakistani author and commentator is sceptical about Pakistan Army’s clout over the Taliban. They may have been stooges or useful idiots in the past, but have their own plans. They are not going to accompany Gen. Sharif to the slaughterhouse like a lamb. With support from sections of the radicalised Pakistani public, elements in the army itself and sectarian terror gangs like TTP and Al Qaeda/ISIL they may even become openly hostile to Pakistan. If anything, effort by Pakistan to bulldoze Taliban into some ‘settlement’ not entirely to their liking will only confirm Taliban’s suspicion. Getting the Taliban to agree to a compromise that also satisfies Tajik and other Afghan tribal interests would not be easy particularly for a bunch of generals trusted by no one.

Any strong arm tactic to please the Americans or soften up the Talibs for talks would probably end up making matters worse. Yet this may become the unintended collateral consequence of the airstrikes and bombings as well as hangings that have followed the Peshawar school massacre.

Although Obama administration has recently started calling the Taliban ‘armed insurgents’ and not terrorists, they are not another Indian or African National Congress simply fighting for their country’s independence. Their goals and agenda go much further. In fact pressure from even greener Islamist groups like IS would force them to adopt increasingly tough line, simply to keep their flock from defecting. Any defeat at the negotiating table, when they feel they have pretty much driven away the Americans and “won” in the battlefield, is not only unlikely but unrealistic to expect. On the contrary a victory for Taliban would not only be unacceptable to large sections of Afghan public including Pashtuns, it will have long term consequences for Pakistan’s own western provinces as well as its core interests. Islamist forces would see that as a template worthy of implementing in Pakistan itself.

America’s endless generosity?

America’s vital interests in the region have been overestimated. Unlike dictatorships like China, frequent regime changes in America makes it easy for any President to disown and walk away from the mess his predecessor has created and trumpet that as an achievement in of itself. That is exactly what Obama has been promising to voters and doing as well. Unlike George Bush, President Obama has very little ‘face’ to lose because it was simply not his war. A new President even if from the same Democratic party, assuming power after elections next year would be even more distant from the mess and would not want to invest a dollar more.

Frankly, America is least bothered as its oil dependence has dropped considerably. It’s reliance on Middle East oil is insignificant and declining by the year. It’s strategic priorities lie much further to the East and West. In other words, the Pakistani generals and their fan club members like Bhadrakumar that are expecting huge dowries and ransom in exchange for facilitating some sort of grand bargain, are simply day dreaming.

American eagerness to drop this can of worms on China’s lap is seen by some as a great victory for China and a ‘proof’ of its rise, but it is more like American companies getting rid of some dirty or dangerous assembly business to the Chinese because it makes sense.

The China hand

That brings us to China! It should be obvious that China lacks the money to spend the tens of billions of dollars Americans could spend in the Af-Pak theatre each year. It wants to make money, not throw it in a bottomless pit. It’s interests are entirely commercial and self centered. It has two main concerns – the Xinjiang issue and long term economic interests. China has never given big bucks even to its most trusted slave Pakistan, mostly confining itself to flowery words and empty promises. Commercial deals, if any, have been on terms massively in its favor.

China has been enjoying Pakistan’s ‘services’ pretty much free of charge with Uncle Sam footing the bill. It may not have any interest in funding the Afghan economy or much worse, its Army. The trillions of dollars of mineral wealth supposedly waiting to be tapped are worth a lot less for its economy given the price crash of most commodities and the global glut. It may announce a few grandiose projects, more flowery words and poetry and fund some of these projects to some extent and rapidly cut losses and get out if the going gets tough as it did in Africa. For example, its much hyped copper mining project in Aynak have not seen any investments and is simply announcement-ware.

Net Net

All said, Pakistan army is nowhere close to getting what it wants and the only ‘victory’ it scores are in the political arena when it plays games with its own elected civilian leaders. In fact more than India, it is Pakistan that faces the risk of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’ scenario unfolding in Afghanistan.

As far as India is concerned, its legitimate interests merely lie in ensuring Afghanistan does not become a backyard for anti-Indian terrorists or a ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan. This is achievable in all but the most pessimistic of scenarios, even if Taliban were to share power.

In fact, it may make a lot of sense to just lie low, open a large bag of pop corns and watch the fun from a distance as Pakistan slowly finds its goose cooked to perfection in a mess of its own making.


Book Review: Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen’s “An uncertain glory”

The ‘debate’

In the recent past two renowned economists who are generally all but unknown to the ‘aam aadmi’ rose to prominence in the main stream media. One of them was Dr Amartya Sen and the other was Dr. Jagdish Bhagwati. The issue was economic policy and its focus. Sen is widely seen as advocating a left of centre, welfare oriented state that provides basic social services like education, health etc. Whereas Bhagwati is seen as a right winger advocating “growth first” policy. Given the political divide in India, that too in the context of the 2014 Parliament elections, they were seen as favoring either Modi (Bhagwati) or Rahul Gandhi (Sen). Sen openly stated he doesn’t want to see Narendra Modi as ‘his’ PM. On the other hand Bhagwati has been described as ‘unabashedly pro Modi’

I did not follow that debate closely but recently came across a book written by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen titled “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions“. This article is about this book.

Interestingly one of the authors is a foreigner who lives in India and has been living here for decades and the other is an Indian who spent bulk of his career abroad.

The Book and its case

The essential takeaway from the book is that the authors are not ideologically dogmatic or incorrigibly biased and it is stupid to see them as communist economists and hence dismiss their entire argument.

Personally I find a lot of the goals and objectives espoused by Sen and Dreze quite sensible and essential. After all, can you argue with the logic of “expansion of human freedom and capability” as the key goal of a nation’s government? And economic growth as a means to achieve that goal?

One can also hardly find fault with the strong arguments in favor of universal access to basic healthcare, primary education and facilities like water, sewage treatment and toilets. Although the authors cite copious statistics and references to show how backward India is on these (and other) primary amenities, they are somewhat unnecessary to anyone that has even visited India briefly.  One has to barely get on a taxi and move out of the airport to see slums, people urinating (or worse) on the airport compound wall or darkness in the streets and markets because of ‘load shedding’.

Thanks to the statistics and facts highlighted by the authors we also learn that India was relatively prosperous before the British landed and economic growth during the colonial era was close to zero. For example, GDP growth from 1901-1947 was barely 0.9% per year! It will be music to the ears of nationalistic Indians to hear that Adam Smith had, in his 1776 book ‘Wealth of Nations’, described India as prosperous.  Nalanda University which had students from all over Asia, was 600 years older than Europe’s oldest, Bologna. Of course, in the same breath the authors could not help taking a sarcastic swipe at Indians going back to their mythical past to look for golden era. That plus repeated condescending references to people dreaming of India as ‘economic superpower’ make clear the ideological as well as political leanings of the authors.

BJP and its friends who are not great fans of Jawaharlal Nehru will also find it interesting to read that there was no decline in rural poverty after 3 decades of planned growth (1951-81). They also blame him for neglecting universal primary education. They are also open minded enough to acknowledge and appreciate the sensible advise given to Nehru by American economist Milton Friedman (a free market advocate) to invest in human capital, advise which fell on deaf ears. This is where India’s early years of state planning was different from the approach taken by communist states, although people often describe India of 50s and 60s as following the Soviet model.  .

The authors are also not great fans of Indira Gandhi and her years of socialism. They quote Dr. Bimal Jalan – “politics was driving Indira Gandhi’s economics”. They are happy to acknowledge the constructive role that markets can play even as they advocate a strong constructive role by the state something India has failed to do. They also question many subsidies such as fertilizer and electricity where they are poorly targeted or simply wasteful. This again should please readers who are sympathetic to the ‘other’ camp.

In fact folks that see them as commie economists will be shocked to read the authors negative remarks about high teachers salaries that have come in the way of universal primary education. They even argue high salaries turn teaching into a plum position that attracts people who see it as a job, not interested in teaching! The authors lament about wage increases given by successive Pay commissions, which as they rightly point out, are by babus that benefit from their own recommendations, and are also not bothered about financial implications and funding requirements of their recommendations.

Given their well known political leanings, they also defend programs like MNREGA which have attracted a lot of negative publicity recently for being bottomless pits. They also defend amounts spent on food security comparing that with revenue forgone on “gold and diamonds”, repeatedly citing that example to buttress their arguments. The often heard conflict between development and environment is also argued as unnecessary if one were to take a wider view of the meaning of development. The blue eyed boy of all left wing and liberal economists, renewable energy also finds support. In all of these, we find the authors’ sentiments and objectives are hard to fault though one may question some of their examples and conclusions.

Although some right wing commentators and media may see Dr. Sen as a typical left wing liberal biased against Modi & Co, this book itself has remarkably stayed clear of any overt political propaganda. Copious praise is reserved for states like Tamil Nadu, (primary healthcare, mid day meals etc) which was never ruled by Congress or communists for decades. Even BJP ruled states come in for praise when they do things the authors see as positive. Raman Singh’s Chhattisgarh is one. If the communist ruled states like Kerala are praise at all, it is for specific achievements backed up by facts.

This brings us to the next point..

If I were Prime Minister Narendra Modi

If one were to completely ignore the acrimonious debates and entrenched right versus left arguments and look at India’s problems, prospects and potential with an open mind, there are numerous bullet points that one can take away from this excellent book. We would argue this is precisely what PM Modi or anyone in a public position of influence should do.

  1. Investment in primary education and healthcare can have enormous positive implications for long term growth. This is by no means waste of money or populist splurging of tax money.
  2. India has made impressive progress but lacks basic stuff that even other poor countries take for granted – water, electricity, sewage, clean cities etc. Government has to take a lead role in these. This is a huge failing that needs urgent correction.
  3. Environment protection can go hand in hand with development and should not be seen as zero sum game. We are lucky that solar, wind and other renewable sources that are getting cheaper by the day, provide excellent alternatives that can be pursued today.

In many ways, the new NDA government is on the right track although admirers of Dr. Sen invariably would question this.





Bottomline on Delhi Elections

The exit polls are out but results are awaited. Despite the vagaries of opinion polls in India and their patchy track record, every bird in every branch of every tree in Delhi seem to sing only one tune, that is of the BJP’s defeat. Let’s take that as correct for now.

In every democracy, each major or minor party has a certain number of core, die-hard voters. This percentage varies with time, but the core nevertheless exists. These are the sort of voters, who would vote for a donkey (to quote MG Ramachandran or was it NTR?) if their party fields one.

But then there are also voters that shift their allegiances depending on a variety of factors, some of which may make sense to us, some don’t. Charismatic leadership, anti-incumbency, fatigue, non performance, sympathy for underdog, populist promises, caste or religion and a whole host of other factors can swing the choice of these transient voters. Needless to say, parties go after these voters as they make a difference.

Although one cannot agree with voters switching loyalties lured by populist promises and other such ‘negative’ factors, we have to respect these ‘neutral’ voters. Because in their own way, they don’t care for a particular party or ideology, but care for themselves and their families and indirectly and effectively for the country.  It is voters like this that build an effective and powerful democracy, even if they make a few wrong moves along the way. Voters that mechanically vote for one party or leader, come what may, do not add value to the system.  They encourage corruption, inefficiency and non performance. And we have had lots of that.

Coming back to Delhi, it is clear that the voters of the sort mentioned here are the ones that are going to make or destroy BJP’s fortunes. If BJP lost (and/or AAP gained) 10% or more voters in barely 7 months, it is because these voters are not hardcore Sanghis or Hindutva fans. They simply felt Narendra Modi was a better choice for leading the country out of the mess UPA2 had landed it in.  They were hoping for a better future for themselves, and as we mentioned earlier, indirectly for the country.

Similarly, now they feel Kejriwal is the best bet for Delhi. Firstly he is seen as better than anything BJP was able to throw at him, Bedi included. Secondly, some of them also perhaps feel it is ‘fair’ to give Delhi to AAP since Modi already has won a  much bigger prize.

The “Bhagoda” factor exploited by Congress and BJP clearly did not matter even in May 2014 since AAP managed to improve its vote tally even as it lost all seats. It would matter even less now.

It is also these transient voters that hold out the best hope for BJP going forward. Obviously, being a new party, AAP does not have a dedicated committed voter base. Every single vote it gets is because of Kejriwal, his image of being ‘different’ and his promise of improving their daily lives. If he fails to do much, these voters will simply walk away.

AAP will encounter entrenched forces that will resist its push to end corruption and improve public services. A lot of petty corruption is by lower ranks of civil services that can easily hold up the red flag and cause chaos, as other greenhorn Chief Ministers have found to their dismay. Many a new CM cracks down on small crimes like late coming or absenteeism, only to give up after a while because it is much easier to immediately pander to a group of well organized employees than chase the mirage of being rewarded in the distant future by disparate groups of people affected by corruption and sloth.

Lessons for BJP to learn

It is stupid for it to conclude that May 2014 was about voters suddenly becoming Hindutva fans or hardcore nationalists. Just as it is crazy for the professional seculars to conclude voters ‘reject divisive politics’ because BJP lost or were swayed by ‘communal polarisation’ if it wins. A vast majority of voters are simply insulted by such conclusions.

Endemic corruption has been tolerated by too many for too long. Same is the case with pathetic, insensitive, arrogant public servants and services including electricity, water, hospitals, schools etc. It is a problem everywhere in India. Delhi seems to show the way in terms of letting the widely held sense of revulsion with state of affairs become the No. 1 factor overriding all other factors such as religion, caste, region, language, film star appeal etc. Obviously BJP, while seen better than Congress for now, but is still seen as part of the problem and not the solution when a clean new alternative crops up. This has to be fixed ASAP.  As mentioned earlier, this is not going to be easy, but this has to be done.

Public services in India are so under funded, badly run and are in most cases simply non existent that there are several low hanging fruits for any sensitive and sensible CM or PM to pick. To take a simple example, state run primary schools or hospitals that provide basic healthcare. Narendra Modi may have to launch, at Central level as well as in states ruled by BJP a program on war footing to improve them visibly and quickly.

Above all, BJP should learn to take it easy and not come across as “My way or highway, take no prisoners” sort of political player. This has to be obviously done carefully without giving up the competitive spirit and the killer instinct that has served it well. This will help defuse tense situations and take the sting out of defeats that are bound to come along its path, given India’s divisive politics.







AAP Funding scam

It’s interesting to see yet another instance of ex-AAP folks turning against it. There is sure something wrong with Kejriwal and his leadership style or agenda for so many to shun him after getting close. The ones that don’t know him seem to be the ones admiring him!

Coming to the ‘scam’ itself, the matter is straightforward. Donations of Rs.2 cr (at least) – huge amount for any party, particularly for AAP, were received from front companies that have no business or profit. And a party that claims anything over Rs.10 lakhs require special approval by its boss, now claims they didn’t know who it was and don’t care!

Whole bunch of media friends of AAP have jumped to their rescue, raising all sort of silly questions and focusing on semantics (can it be ‘hawala’ if paid by cheque?).  Leftist media ‘intellectuals’ like Nikhil Wagle and S. Varadarajan have been tweeting their way to carpel tunnel syndrome in support of AAP. The argument goes like this – How is BJP entitled to question AAP? Why should AAP care who is funding them if it is received by cheque?

Therein lies the rub! The whole point is AAP was supposed to bring a new style, a new set of ethics,  a code of conduct to Indian politics.  It has been shouting from roof tops about this, calling all and sundry as corrupt and projecting themselves as angels. Now it appears they have nothing better to say than ‘You are no better!’

That is a big problem that no amount of crazy conspiracy theories, helpful media commentators is going to solve.