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Archive | April, 2011

On Indo-US ties

India needs to do its share of heavy-lifting too.

News trickled in yesterday that New Delhi shorlisted two European fighter aircraft — Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon as prospective candidates for the highly publicized $10 billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRA) competition.  My Takshashila colleagues Nitin Pai and Dhruva Jaishankar have two excellent posts on India’s MMCRA decision.  Significantly, this decision meant the downlisting of two American firms competing for the MMRCA contract — Boeing’s F/A-18 and Lockheed’s F-16.

It is not everyday that countries sign $10 billion contracts for fighter aircraft.  The sheer scale, value and nature of the MMRCA competition meant that geo-strategic considerations ought to have outweighed purely technical determinants.  And while very valid concerns about U.S. fine-print have been raised, India has faced similar difficulties with less transparent suppliers, and that too, after signing substantial contracts (lest we forget the small matter about us having to pay $3 billion for an antiquated ship that we were initially supposed to receive for free).  The truth is that India’s severely shackled defense industry necessitates entering into contracts for arms and equipment with foreign suppliers under conditions not entirely ideal.  But deriving benefits from domestic defense industry liberalization — if and when this happens — will take several years.  How does India fulfill its defense requirements in the interim?

U.S. ambassador to India Timothy Roemer was quoted as saying that he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome.   The downlisting of Boeing and Lockheed is but the latest evidence of ties between the world’s two largest democracies being somewhat adrift after Mr. Obama’s visit to India last year.

The civil nuclear deal between India and the U.S. was meant to be the cornerstone of a new age of Indo-U.S. ties, leaving behind decades of mutual mistrust, lecturing and moral posturing.  The deal offered benefits to both India and the U.S. — for India, it meant international recognition as a de facto nuclear power, and for the U.S. it meant nuclear commerce with an emerging economy. It took the U.S. exercising its political clout to see that a waver based on Indian exceptionalism was granted at the NSG, which also required a last-minute call by George W. Bush to Hu Jintao to prevent China from stonewalling the vote.

However, today, U.S. firms are effectively non-participants in nuclear trade with India because of supplier liability imposed by India’s Nuclear Liability Bill.  Globally, suppliers are unable to obtain insurance coverage for nuclear trade.  Both Russian and French firms compete in India’ s nuclear market because they are essentially underwritten by their respective governments.  And even then, the Russians have apparently made it clear to New Delhi that nuclear commerce with India is unsustainable in the long run under such circumstances.

Today India aspires for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council; but reforming the UNSC remains a distant dream. Even so, during Mr. Obama’s visit last year, India joined a select group of nations whose candidature the U.S. endorses.  In its current stint as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, India must make its voice heard and break from a tradition that encourages prevarication and moral posturing.  As I pointed out in a previous blogpost, it’s no use saying India deserves a permanent seat at the UNSC because it represents 1/6th of humanity, if that 1/6th of humanity seldom expresses an opinion.

Undoubtedly, there are bound to be differences in opinion between India and the U.S.  Indeed, it is easy to focus on contentious areas (and there are several) — David Headley, climate change, Pakistan, Iran,  Burma, to name a few.  We need not agree on every aspect of global affairs, but as two large and pluralistic democracies, we share common values and interests, and ought to build our relationship on these shared ideals.  And while it is important not to put undue focus on transactional aspects of our strategic partnership with the U.S., the MMRCA deal will have an impact on the trajectory of this relationship.  And this we knew well before a decision on the shortlist was made.  Indeed, Ambassador Roemer’s resignation hours after India’s announcement of the MMRCA shortlist is probably not a coincidence.

It is certainly conceivable that some of the momentum towards expanding this partnership will be tempered.  Worse, when considered alongside the Nuclear Liability Bill, U.S. companies might soon conclude that the attractiveness of the Indian market is significantly less than the bandwidth they dedicate to it.  After all, interest in India cannot be sustained merely by the “promise” of the Indian market, if none of those promises are materialized.  We have always been eager to deliver our litany of demands to the U.S. — from Afghanistan, to pressuring Pakistan on terror.  But how much are we willing to give in return?  We need to ask ourselves if India is doing its share of the heavy-lifting in  this bilateral relationship.


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On Pakistan’s Hatf-IX tests

Should you buy what Pakistan is selling?

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations organization has been trying to sell its citizens, and more importantly, India, on the implications of the country’s successful testing of Hatf-IX/NASR, a nuclear-capable battlefield range ballistic missile.  Dr. Shireen Mazari, formerly Director-General, Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, proclaimed that the reality of a tactical weapons capability in Pakistan has effectively check-mated India’s so-called “Cold Start” doctrine.

The argument is that the threat of employing low-yield nuclear weapons against the army will be sufficient to deter India from a conventional military attack.  The Pakistanis are apparently betting that their use of tactical nuclear weapons against advancing Indian forces — possibly, even on Pakistani soil — will not lead to a rapid escalation nor result in massive nuclear retaliation by India because of the relative magnitude and damage caused by the attack.  These are both absurd assumptions.

Under such a scenario, the very fact that the Indian army chose to attack Pakistan, despite its large nuclear arsenal, means that India was calling Pakistan’s bluff and that deterrence had failed.  What is the point of threatening the Indian army with tactical nuclear weapons at such a juncture?  Further, India’s Nuclear Doctrine specifically calls for a “punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor” in the event of “any nuclear attack against India and its forces” (emphasis added).  The Pakistanis, of course, are welcome to interpret the phrase “punitive retaliation” any way they see fit, but I doubt that their curiosity for greater clarity on the term would lead them to provoke India into giving a practical demonstration.

On Hatf-IX/NASR,  a brilliant op-ed by Ejaz Haider in today’s The Express Tribune (LT @d_jaishankar):

In our case, will we be using this weapon system for war fighting against an attacking Indian force on our soil? There can be no other use for such a weapon. If it does come to that, our deterrence would already have failed and I cannot see how use of TNWs will constitute a climb on the escalatory ladder to resurrect it. We are, of course, not even considering how our own troops and population would be exposed to the fallout from a TNW. Neither am I even touching upon the hair-raising issue of command and control of this system dispersed right down to the units and sub-units by the very logic of its deployment and employment.

Meanwhile, why would an adversary not raise the bar after its force is struck with a TNW? This was precisely the folly of strategies that led to the development of sophisticated and more accurate missiles. It was thought that striking and degrading only the enemy’s hard targets would prevent him from an all-out nuclear strike. Someone realised that it was stupid to determine the enemy’s response for him!

Moreover, our deterrence is pegged on NOT fighting a war, i.e., ensuring prevention of war by denying India its conventional advantage. This weapon system is about fighting a war, or supposed employment in case hostilities break out. That makes a mockery of our basic strategic requirement. Are we now going to frame and put the old deterrence on a wall in a drawing room? At the minimum, going for this kind of system reflects a mindset, one of paranoia, which ends up signalling to the adversary the exact opposite of what needs to be signalled — ie we are confident of our deterrent. Instead, we are happily embarked on diluting our deterrent and consider it an outstanding achievement.

But this is not all. There are other troubling questions related to the civil-military imbalance and flawed decision-making to which I shall return in the follow-up. [The Express Tribune]


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In Pragati: Bringing our citizens home

A very belated blogpost: in this month’s Pragati, I review India’s evacuation efforts as uprisings raged in Egypt and Libya.  While the government can indeed be pleased about the overall effectiveness of its response, there are lessons to be learned from the experience:

India is no stranger to security uncertainties in the Middle East. At the time of the first Gulf War, India had about 180,000 citizens living in Kuwait and 20,000 in Iraq. Over the course of the war, India dispatched ferries to Dubai and chartered Air India flights to Amman, Jordan to evacuate citizens from the region. Direct evacuation from Kuwait was impossible because of air and sea blockades by the US-led coalition, a point that drew repeated protests from Inder Kumar Gujral, then foreign minister. India incurred costs exceeding $1 billion, having evacuated over 100,000 citizens via 500 flights from Amman to Mumbai. Again, in 2006, when conflict broke out between Israel and Hizbullah in South Lebanon, India dispatched four warships of Task Force 54 (INS Mumbai, INS Brahmaputra, INS Betwa and INS Shakti) to rescue not only the 2,000 Indian citizens but also Sri Lankans and Nepalis, as part of Operation Sukoon.

[T]he bulk of India’s evacuation efforts were concentrated on Libya, where over 18,000 Indian citizens lived and worked. As anti-Gaddafi forces gained momentum in Benghazi, the MEA launched Operation Safe Homecoming on February 28, its largest evacuation exercise since the Gulf War. The initial focus of New Delhi’s efforts was Scotia Prince, a passenger ferry with a capacity of 1,200, chartered to evacuate its citizens from Benghazi and Eastern Libya to Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, four special flights (including one Indian Air Force IL-76 transporter) operated to fly evacuees back to India. The Indian government also chartered MV Red Star One, which evacuated citizens to Malta, from where they were flown back to India via flights operated by Kingfisher and Jet Airways. [Pragati]

Read the article in its entirety in April 2011’s Pragati (webpage, pdf).

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Float a political party, Mr. Hazare!

Yadha Praja, Tatha Rajya!

Mr. Hazare’s protests at Jantar Mantar and the subsequent caving in of a supine government have set a dangerous precedent.  A lakshman rekha was crossed, but the transgression was roundly praised by our citizens, the government and the opposition.  During his hunger strike, Mr. Hazare ensured that the “movement” remained insulated from India’s political class.  A line was being drawn in the sand.  We were told that this was a movement by “civil society.” The implication there being that politicians weren’t of the society.  In some of my interactions, I’ve been told by citizens that the politicians did not represent them.

So I inquire — these politicians just sort of descended from the heavens and onto their respective thrones in New Delhi, did they?

Today, the most corrupt and incompetent government in this country’s history holds office at a time when political apathy among citizens is at an all time high.  When cases of mismanagement and malgovernance are highlighted — most tellingly after 26/11 — the first reaction of our citizens is to disengage from governance, when they should have been re-engaging. Shamefully, after innumerable candle-light vigils and endless poetry, 60% of Mumbai didn’t bother to turn up to cast their votes in the general elections held five months after the most heinous crime was orchestrated against the city’s citizens.  In India today, we vote on reality shows, not general elections.

Mr. Hazare may have succeeded in inducing a raucous, but misguided group of individuals into joining his movement, but what does that really mean in the context of the world’s largest democracy? In an interview, Mr. Hazare stated that he didn’t even think he could save his security deposit, let alone win, if he contested elections. And they say he represents India!  Further, Mr. Hazare seemed to blame the likelihood of his loss on bribes offered to voters by potential political opponents in exchange for their votes.

But for this concatenation of circumstances to materialize, there has to be an equal and opposite bribe accepted for every bribe offered.  And if India’s voters — members of our “civil society” — are themselves willing participants in the institution of political graft, then why is Mr. Hazare’s rage directed entirely at India’s political establishment? Does our civil society bear no responsibility?  Our ancient texts tell us — yadha raja, tatha praja (as a leader, so his people).  But in our representative democracy, our country and its leaders are of the people.  Yadha praja, tatha rajya!

Mr. Hazare’s credentials as an “anti-corruption crusader” are known to all.  But the most important education he can impart to India’s restless populace is that sustainable change for the better can only be the product of engagement — not disengagement — with the governance of the country.  Participating in electing India’s representatives is a part, but not the full extent, of this engagement.  Building and empowering institutions that make a democracy work requires patience, perseverance, and above all, a belief in the system of government that we have chosen for ourselves.

To that end, we must call upon Mr. Hazare to engage in the governance of the country by floating a political party (or joining one, if he believes that the barriers to entry are prohibitive).  Mr. Hazare must give India’s electorate the benefit of deciding for itself whether or not and to what extent it believes in his message.  If what his followers say is indeed true — that he “represents” India — it should follow that he will be able to address the many social and economic ills that plague India when he is empowered with the people’s mandate.

But attempting to hijack legislative due process by inserting himself into the equation without representation undermines our way of life.  And those of us that believe in the sanctity of our democratic republic must unabashedly stand up to voice our opposition to it, even as we haul up this government’s ambivalence towards corruption and malgovernance.

Related reading: Nitin Pai: Against Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes; Amba Salelkar: The Jan Lokpal Bill: Good intentions and the road to hell; Indian Express editorial: Rs 100, a sari, a bottle.


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