Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pranab Mukherjee’s primary job in Beijing was to smooth over a ruffled India-China relationship

Viewed from Beijing, the recent past of Sino-Indian relations has been somewhat disconcerting. In January 2015 in New Delhi, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed on a “Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean” that now has the two sides discussing basing protocols and joint naval patrols.
Later, the Indian PM visited China and publicly called out Beijing “to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership”, bluntly pinning the blame for the state of Sino-Indian relations on China. In recent months, New Delhi demanded that Beijing end its hold on declaring Masood Azhar a global terrorist. Then, it insistently urged China to support its application for full membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
The ultimate poke-in-the-eye was the international conference, subsequently called off, involving a cross-section of Chinese dissidents, convened in, of all places, Dharamshala, the seat of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government-in-exile.
It is not surprising, then, that the primary objective of President Pranab Mukherjee’s four day visit to China last week was to calm the roiled atmosphere and reassure Beijing that New Delhi not only values its relationship with China but seeks to enhance them. In the parlance of modern international relations this is called “strategic communications”, and it is something the seasoned Mukherjee excels in.
The key to Mukherjee’s visit were his several conversations on Thursday afternoon with Chinese supremo Xi Jinping, whose powers vie with those of the emperors of yore. It was just last month, that Xi appeared in military fatigues and added the title of Supreme Commander of the PLA to his existing ones as the general secretary of the Communist Party, head of state and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Not all issues can be taken up frontally in diplomacy. Some meet a straight bat, others are cut through the slips or swept through to fine leg or simply blocked; shrewd diplomacy means you don’t slog the ball to the boundary. So some of the more tangled issues were discussed directly by foreign secretary Jaishankar in his call-on the foreign minister Wang Yi.
In the official readout the old perennial, the border dispute, was treated with the routine promise of fair and equitable resolution. But the key was the reiteration by both sides in the official talks of their decision to keep a firm hold on their respective militaries and prevent border confrontations such as those that occurred in Depsang in 2013 and Chumur in 2014.
Mukherjee did not pitch his Masood Azhar ball straight; he spun it by seeking Chinese support in the context of the bilateral and global cooperation between the two countries in the fight against terrorism. And so, the Chinese agreed that terrorism was indeed a global menace and expressed their willingness to “enhance cooperation, including in the UN”.
On the NSG issue, where China can blackball the Indian application of membership, Mukherjee did not kowtow. Instead, he sought Chinese cooperation in the context of India and China’s developmental partnership and climate change. India faced an acute energy shortage and nuclear energy had a key role in Indian plans. But this required a “predictable environment” in which civil nuclear trade could take place and so, New Delhi expected Beijing to play a “positive and facilitative role”.
Our ties with China involve four c’s – competition, cooperation, conflict and containment. We need to become more competitive and cooperative and less inclined to conflict or put up containment strategies against each other. India needs to carefully strategise ways and means of tapping Chinese investments and linking up to their supply chains to promote our manufacturing ambitions. At the same time we need to be able to deter China from acting against our interests.
Times of India May 31, 2016

The BJP Wants to Erase Nehru. Let’s See What India Would Have Been Without Him

Writing in the Sunday Times of India, Amulya Gopalakrishnan recently brought out the huge Nehru vilification industry that exists across cyberspace. In Rajasthan, India’s first prime minister is being wiped out from schools since it is more easy to fiddle with textbooks than write academic tomes based on verifiable facts, footnotes and peer-review.
But what would India have been minus Nehru ?
It is very difficult to separate one or the other of the towering individuals who fought for India’s freedom. But there are specific issues in which the personality of the leader played a distinct role. And so it is with Nehru. A counterfactual on India minus Nehru emerges from the consideration of the following eight points.
First, in 1927, he attended the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels and gave the freedom movement an international outlook. His anti-imperialist  cosmopolitanism certainly gave a modern patina to India’s freedom struggle.
Second, in 1928, Gandhi proposed dominion status for India, but Nehru is the one who demanded complete independence. In line with this, he opposed the Government of India Act of 1935, demanding a popularly chosen Constituent Assembly. Keeping with his views was the decision to move the historic Objectives Resolution of December 13, 1946 which categorically declared India’s decision to become an independent sovereign republic, notwithstanding the British desire to keep the country as a dominion.
Third, and this is perhaps the most intriguing example, in May 1947, Lord Mountbatten sent a plan for devolving power in India to the provinces – Bombay, Madras, UP, Bengal, etc. – allowing them to create confederations and only then transferring power.  In other words, opening up the possibility of the emergence of several successor states in British India. This was the plan the British Cabinet approved and sent back to Mountbatten in May of 1947. On the eve of a meeting of Indian leaders announcing  the plan, Mountbatten showed it to Nehru who was his house guest in Simla. Nehru was stunned and told Mountbatten that the Congress would under no circumstances accept this and wrote a long note to the Viceroy  saying that this would be tantamount to the Balkanisation of India. Indeed, in this note he attacked a number of proposals, including one for the self-determination of Balochistan. Mountbatten postponed his announcement and, subsequently, the plan prepared by V.P. Menon to partition India and transfer power to two dominions was announced. There can be little doubt about Nehru’s role, detailed in Menon’s Transfer of Power, in compelling Mountbatten to stay his hand on a course that could have been disastrous for India.

Strengthening the Union
Fourth, as prime minister it was not possible for him to play a major role in drafting the Constitution, yet his chairmanship of the Union constitution committee and the Union powers committee was a crucial determinant in determining the balance between the powers of the states and the Union government which has managed to maintain the unity of this extremely diverse country. But there can be little doubt that his political outlook and philosophy, primarily his supreme faith in democracy, was reflected in the document which did not have to mention the word “secularism” to make its point because by making the individual citizen the focus of the constitution it bypassed the tangled issue of caste, community and religion.
Fifth, there are many who criticise Nehru for his handling of Jammu and Kashmir. What the critics don’t realise is that but for Nehru and his relationship with Sheikh Abdullah, at least till 1952, it would have been difficult to keep Kashmir in the Indian Union.
Sixth, he advocated the pattern of the economy which balanced the private and public sector. Indeed, this was in line with what Indian industrialists had put forward in the Bombay Plan. The critique of his socialistic leanings must be weighed against the fact that militant communism was the major opposition in the country, at least till the mid-1950s. By adopting a socialistic line, he helped encourage the split in the communist movement and outflanked their appeal.
Seventh, Nehru played a key role in passing four Hindu code bills which carried out the most progressive and far-reaching reform of the community. These had been originally mooted in the constituent assembly but were vehemently opposed by the conservatives and Hindu nationalists. Though the man behind the reform was a man who rejected Hinduism – B.R. Ambedkar –  it was Nehru’s key support that ensured their passage in the first parliament. This modernisation, which removed the most oppressive aspects of Hindu society, was vehemently opposed by the RSS and its sister organisations. Among other things, the bills outlawed polygamy, enabled inter-caste marriages, simplified divorce procedures, placed daughters on the same footing as  sons on the issue of inheritance of property.
Eighth, Nehru’s personal imprint is also visible in India’s nuclear and space programmes. The father of Indian nuclear science, Homi Bhabha, met Nehru on a voyage back from the UK in 1939 and began a life-long association. Nehru gave him the charge of India’s nuclear programme and he was answerable only to the prime minister. He actually piloted the Atomic Energy Act in the constituent assembly which gave rise to the Atomic Energy Commission chaired by the PM.

Negatives too

Of course, there are also negatives in the Nehru ledger. For example, sending the Kashmir issue to the UN, and his handling of the border dispute with China. Perhaps, minus Nehru, there might have been a different outcome, though it is not easy to discern what it could have been. However, on China it would most certainly not have been a military option. Nehru is on record asking General Cariappa whether India had the capacity to intervene in Tibet and he was told in writing that it was not possible given the weakness of the Indian military and the hostile terrain.
Another negative is the handling of the military itself. Nehru’s pacifist leanings and idealism made him a poor leader of the military. He allowed an important instrument of state power to run down and did not pay the kind of attention that was needed. And his final fault here was to overlook the impact of Krishna Menon’s abrasive personality on the military.
That said, it is clear that trying to erase Nehru’s imprint on the country is a tall order because he is part of modern India’s DNA. Throw Nehru out of the equation and you end up undermining India.
The Wire May 24, 2016

Catching up on time lost in Iran

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran is part of India’s complex West Asian initiative that seeks to balance ties between a quadrilateral of four poles — UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. Given mutual antipathies and subterranean divides, India has to step carefully to ensure maximum gain for itself, even while avoiding the numerous political minefields there.
But the payoffs are many. Sixty per cent of India’s oil needs are fulfilled by this region and this will only increase in the coming decades. A significant percentage of our liquified natural gas also comes from here, mainly from Qatar.

The oil-rich states of the region have created vast sovereign wealth funds and are keen to shift their economies away from dependence on oil. India is looking for investments to develop its own infrastructure and manufacturing industries, and its companies are also looking for business opportunities of the kind that may be available in the region.

PM Narendra Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, during a trilateral meeting in Tehran yesterday. Pic/PTI

India is well-positioned to take advantage of this in terms of proximity and by virtue of the Indian diaspora, 7 million strong, which is already positioned in the region and which comprises businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals, as well as workers.
Given the complex security needs of the region, India also has the potential of upgrading its ties with regional states to form security coalitions and partnerships, both, with a view of stabilising the region and protecting its important sea lines of communications. Another aspect of this is the partnership with Israel in the area of agriculture, Information Technology and military technology.
Iran, where Modi has gone, offers a vast range of geopolitical and economic opportunities. Hit by US-led sanctions for the past decade, until they were lifted recently, Iran is looking for companies to invest in its development. The Tatas, Essar, Cipla, Hero, Bajaj and TVS are already brand names, but they have been on a waiting mode till the sanctions were withdrawn. Chinese companies have been around and, following the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in January, the two countries signed a wide range of agreements for development and connectivity under the One Belt One Road initiative of China. Earlier this year, the first train from China reached Tehran, cutting 14 days from the time taken to ship goods through a port.
India’s most important venture is in the area of connectivity as well, one that will promote development in Iran’s poorer south-eastern regions, as well as give a fillip to India’s ability to link up with Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is the two-phase plan to develop Chah Bahar port and the railway lines radiating north to Zahedan and Mashad. This plan has been hanging fire since the 2000s and only now, after the Chinese put in their bid to develop Chah Bahar, did New Delhi get its act together.
Multimodal connectivity from Indian ports like Mumbai and Kandla with Iran through Chah Bahar and Iran’s main port Bandar Abbas can connect to Russia’s ambitious North-South Transport Corridor reaching up to Russia’s Baltic ports. Of course, this will require much higher level of investment in upgrading the Iranian infrastructure leading from Bandar Abbas or Chah Bahar north towards Central Asia and Russia. Calculations are that multimodal transport can reduce the cost of moving a 40-foot container to $3000, as compared to $4,000 by the sea route that also takes twice the time. A lot of this presumes a sharp uptick in the economic growth of the entire hinterland of Iran and Russia.
In turn, access to Afghanistan and Central Asia — through Chah Bahar, bypassing Pakistan — can provide the necessary impetus to Islamabad to ease up on its blockade of Indian trade to Afghanistan. An unintended consequence of this could be closer South Asian integration.
There is another level of Indian participation in the Iranian economy — in its oil sector. Again, the Indians, in the form of ONGC Videsh have been around for a while, but have not been able to do much because of the sanctions. But now, the openings are there, provided the wily Iranians give the Indians viable options.
However, the bottom line here is project execution. The experience of India’s other external connectivity project — the Kaladan multimodal scheme in Myanmar has not been a happy one. The key to this is to create a well-managed and viable project management organisation. Currently, the government intends to deal with this through a special purpose entity involving Bombay and Kandla Port Trusts, but this is not good enough. There is need for some apex management directly supervised by the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure that the timelines are met. India may not be able to compete with China in the area of project investment, but it should ensure that what it chooses to do, it does well. A lot of time has been lost in Iran, and there is need to redouble our efforts to make up for it.

Mid Day May 24, 2016

India, US and an eastward tilt

On an ordinary globe, India and the United States cannot be seen together, so far apart are they that when it’s daylight here it is night there. Yet, preachy, noisy democracies have a strange pull for each other. They now say that they are in the process of establishing a strategic relationship, which the cheerleaders declare will be the defining partnership of the 21st century. The facts on the ground suggest, however, that both sides continue to hedge and the framework of the relationship remains somewhat rickety.
The US is pressing India to sign a number of what it calls “foundational agreements” to operationalise India’s military commitments implicit in the Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean arrived at during President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi in January 2015. Following the recent visit of US defence secretary Ashton Carter, it was announced that the two sides were close to signing a logistics support MoU, one of a raft of technical agreements aimed at bringing the militaries of the two sides to the point where they can operate together seamlessly.
There is, clearly, in the case of the US, a disconnect between the almost brash Pentagon wooing of India and the more sophisticated approach of the US Department of State, which says that the very existence of a stronger and economically vibrant India will serve US interests.
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From the Indian point of view, there is another disconnect — between US eagerness for Indian participation in action in the South China Sea, and its lukewarm approach to an Indian connection in Afghanistan or, for that matter, the Persian Gulf and the Saudi peninsula.
Technically, the Joint Strategic Vision ought to cover the region, but the reality is that India is dealt with in the US politico-military system by the Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii, and whose responsibilities extend up to Diego Garcia. Beyond that, the Central Command, headquartered in Florida, “looks after” the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When we do military cooperation, the Indian Ocean does not quite include the northern Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
However, both from the geo-economic and geo-strategic view, this is the most important external region for India’s security. We source 70 per cent of our oil from there, and 7 million Indian citizens working there send back $30 billion in remittances. As our energy needs increase, this area will only become more important. In the past, we have had to carry out large-scale evacuations of our nationals because of war-like situations in this region, most recently from Yemen in 2015.
The prognosis for the stability of the whole region is not particularly good. Yet, somehow, there are no drills, joint exercises or planning between the US, which is the dominant power, with a fleet headquartered in Bahrain, and India for conflict contingencies. It is a bit odd that all the exercises and activities take place in the east, which is largely stable and peaceful and none in the area may actually require cooperative military action. Whereas in East Asia, we are building trilateral partnerships with the US and its other partners like Japan, Australia and South Korea, in the Persian Gulf and Saudi peninsula, we appear to be ploughing a lonely furrow.

 Given the rapid rise of China and our own considerable difficulties with Beijing, having the US as a security partner is useful. With its million-man army and nuclear weapons, India does not really need the US for its existential security, certainly not from any direct threat from China. But we do need partnerships and coalitions to enable us to maintain a secure periphery that includes a region which will literally provide the fuel for it.
The US, for its part, wants India to play a role in creating a balance of power to keep China in check in East Asia. China may be well ahead of India in almost all measures of what is called comprehensive national power. But, India is the only country in Asia that can offset the massive gravitational pull of China. Yet, beyond the need to have open sea lanes in the South China Sea, India has little or no interest in facing off with Beijing in the area. Given its huge external trade, the biggest loser from any disruption would be China itself.
The success of a sound India-US partnership is to clearly think through some of these issues. The trick is not to be overwhelmed by rhetoric and keep national interest firmly in mind. The US, let’s be clear, is seeking Indian friendship to maintain its primacy in the world system. India, in turn, needs the US as a guarantor of a secure and stable world system, but especially as a security provider in the Persian Gulf region, where we have no military capacity.
So while the overall tenor of our relationship is excellent and we have growing convergence in East Asia, there is need to focus on the huge gap that exists in relation to the most vital area of our external interest.
Indian Express May 23, 2016

All eyes are on President Mukherjee's China trip

On Tuesday morning, President Pranab Mukherjee leaves for a four-day visit to China, the first by a President since 2010. At one level, the visit is a protocol response to that of President Xi Jinping to India in 2014. At another, it seeks to convey the intention of the two countries to maintain the tempo of high-level visits to each other’s countries. 
In 2014, Vice-President Ansari also visited China, and in 2015, the Chinese Vice-President Liu Yuanchao came to India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to China. Later this year, Modi will visit Hangzhou for the G-20 summit and Xi will come to Goa for the BRICS meet. 

The President of India is a largely ceremonially figure who must by law conduct himself at the advice of the government of the day. So, he is unlikely to undertake any negotiation or initiative on his own. But, as a seasoned politician, the President is not just an elder statesman, but an experienced hand in government who is fully cognisant of the issues of the Sino-Indian relations. 
In line with this, the government is using his visit to convey to Beijing that notwithstanding recent glitches relating to the Uighur visas, the Masood Azhar controversy, and the NSG contretemps, India attaches great importance to its relations with China and seeks a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship at all times. 
The President will be prepared to take up a range of subjects with Beijing, but he will also wait for cues from the other side before taking up some of the issues. In other words, he will not want to put across that India is defensive about some policy measures, even while being ready to discuss any concerns the hosts may have. 
Another aspect of the visit will be to enhance the Sino-Indian business relationship - and to this end, in Guangzhou, Pranab will meet with Indian and Chinese business leaders and reinforce India’s commitment to better trade and investment relations with China. 
His message will be that India is open for business and warmly welcomes Chinese investment in all sectors of our economy, where it will find a level playing field. 
At a more practical level, in his talks with Premier Li Keqiang he will, no doubt, raise the important issue of righting the current imbalance of trade in favour of Chinese exports to India which is hurtful for the overall relationship. 
At the strategic level, he is expected to put across India’s policy perspectives, in particular its relationships with the US and Japan. India, he will convey, has no intention of being part of any “containment” of China.  
On the South China Sea, India does not take sides, it stands for the freedom of navigation and the right of overflight, and believes in the peaceful settlement of disputes. 

India would like to cooperate with China on all aspects of counter-terrorism and expects action on issues like the naming of Masood Azhar by the UN sanctions committee. 
India wants Chinese support for its membership of the NSG without being being bracketed with Pakistan. 
India would like to work together with China on Afghanistan, but would like greater clarity on Beijing’s policy. 
Beyond the visit, lies New Delhi’s efforts to find an equilibrium in its relations with China. Recent events have revealed a strange gaucheness. The decision to invite a cross-section of Chinese dissidents, Uighur nationalists and Falung Gong members for an aborted event at Dharamsala, the abode of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government- in-exile, seemed aimed at poking Beijing in the eye. 
So was the decision (now rescinded) to send two representatives for the inaugural of Tsai Ing-Wen, the new President of Taiwan. 

China has not been very comfortable with the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean that India has declared with the US. While it made its unhapiness known to the US, India, Australia and Japan over quadrilateral naval exercises iin 2007, it has not protested the Malabar trilateral exercises that India, US and Japan conduct. 
In fact even as the President is in China, Indian naval ships will be in a two-and-a-half-month deployment in the South China Sea and the North West Pacific. 
They will make several port calls and participate in the latest iteration of the Malabar Exercise off Okinawa. India’s desire to get even with China is understandable. Beijing has used Pakistan for the offshore balancing of India and broken some of the greatest taboos of the international system by supplying nuclear weapons and missile designs and materials. 
In the name of non-interference in other’s politics, China has given cover to Pakistan to abandon the state sponsorship of terrorism. 
India fears that in the next phase China will supply ballistic and cruise missile capable submarines to Islamabad. 
India by itself lacks the military and economic muscle to deal with China, hence its outreach to Washington and Tokyo. But both these countries have a many-layered and denser relationship with China than we have. So there is need to exercise a degree of caution. 
Mail Today May 22, 2016

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mending fences with our neighbour

For a moment in 2014, it appeared that India had reset its relationship with Nepal. During his visit, the first by an Indian PM in 17 years, Narendra Modi put himself across as an Indian leader who had no desire to interfere in the country’s complicated political affairs. He said as much in his speech to the Constituent Assembly. This was music to the ears of the Nepalese, who are ever sensitive to signs of overweening conduct of the Indians.

Two years later, the relationship seems to be in a meltdown phase. Nepal recently called off a visit of its President Bidya Devi Bhandari and sacked its ambassador to New Delhi. Modi has cancelled his planned visit to attend the Buddha Purnia celebrations at Lumbini on May 21. These actions are in response to a revolt against Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who heads a coalition comprising his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninst) and that of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) headed by Pushp Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda.’
The hallmark of a regional power is the ability to shape the policies of countries in your neighbourhood in your own favour. By this measure, we are not doing too well. We have already had difficult relations with China, Pakistan and the Maldives, and now we have Nepal. Sri Lanka remains on the brink and, as for Bangladesh, our ties there depend on who runs the government.
Because it takes two hands to clap, New Delhi cannot be blamed for all the problems. The issue is not culpability, but the consequences that India must face. In each country of our neighbourhood, barring Bhutan, we are challenged by the rising power of China, which has the drive and the money, and is determined to shape the policies of the countries in its neighbourhood to our detriment.
Geography has locked Nepal into India and, given the asymmetry of size, the former is always apprehensive of the latter’s power. Given this situation, it is New Delhi’s responsibility to manage the relationship with its prickly neighbour. Anti-Indianism is a staple of Nepali politics, but effective handling can make it go away, just as it did in the period 2006-2014.
The current problem has its origins in the political chicanery by Nepal’s mainstream political parties who got together to introduce a Constitution in 2015 that was weighted against the Madhesi people of the Terai region, many of whom have ties of consanguinity with India. The Madhesis thereafter launched an agitation, supported by India, to blockade Nepal.
Uncharacteristically, India woke up to this constitutional sleight of hand too late and rushed foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Kathmandu to urge the Nepalese parties to rethink but it was just too late.
CPN (UML) leader KP Sharma Oli, who became the prime minister of the country, took a hardline against the agitation and accused India of fomenting it. Only after efforts to rope in China to aid Nepal failed, did Oli and his associates agree to make a deal with the Madhesis on the issue of provincial boundaries and proportional participation of the plains people in the life of the country.
Oli’s six-day visit to New Delhi in the end of February to remove the “misunderstandings” did not go too well. Though various agreements were arrived at, especially for reconstruction assistance relating to the 2015 earthquake, both sides remained suspicious of each other. Their assessment was based on the plank of ultra-nationalism that Oli was adopting, depicting the Madhesis as agents of India.
Circumstantially, a case can be made out to see New Delhi’s hand in the effort to replace the troublesome Oli with a friendlier face, even if it was that of Prachanda (fierce), the Maoist leader. After a week-long visit to New Delhi in mid-April, the leader of the pro-India Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba went back and offered to support a coalition led by Prachanda, if he agreed to walk out of the coalition with Oli.
Initially, Prachanda ageed and threatened to withdraw support from Oli, but later he backed off when he realised he didn’t have support within his own party. In exchange, Oli agreed to give amnesty for Maoists for crimes committed during the insurgency.
India-Nepal relations now seem to be in a freefall. Being joined at the hip, they cannot afford this situation. As the bigger party, New Delhi needs to act to retrieve the situation without necessarily pandering to Oli. In supporting the rights of Madhesis, New Delhi occupies the moral high ground, as well as serves its own interests of cementing its support among people who look to New Delhi for succor. But what is needed is effective political leadership in management of what has always been a difficult relationship.
Mid Day May 10, 2016