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A new Sharif in town

What does Nawaz Sharif’s victory mean for India?

The Pakistan Muslim League (N) has emerged as a decisive winner in Pakistan’s general elections held on May 11.  The embattled incumbent, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was routed in Punjab, and save for Sindh (which accounted for 29 of 32 seats won by the PPP) failed to make an impact in any other province.  Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) succeeded in bringing out first-time voters, but managed to win a majority only in Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The religious jamaats Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI(F)) failed to make an impact.  And while the elections themselves were largely successful, voter turnout in Balochistan was between 15-20 less than 3 per cent, further accentuating the troubled province’s security situation and disenchantment with the Pakistani state.

But what does all this mean to India?

Nawaz Sharif, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal days before the election, indicated that he wanted to improve ties with India and the U.S.  In this regard, it is quite possible that the long-delayed granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India will be approved within Mr. Sharif’s first few months in office.  However, it is important that policy makers in India not read too much into what is essentially a symbolic gesture of little real consequence to India.

For India, it is important to remember that the height of the Kashmir insurgency flourished during Pakistan’s most “democratic” decade — the 1990s.  Pakistan test-fired its “Islamic” nuclear bomb and waged an undeclared war on India in Kargil during democratic regimes.  Indeed, it proliferated nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya during periods of democracy. So much for those who say a democratic Pakistan is in India’s interests.

In the larger context of India-Pakistan relations, Mr. Sharif’s ascent to the position of prime minister is of minimal consequence.  Indeed, more important transitions in power lie ahead in the next couple of years that will impact the India-Pakistan relationship.

The most important of these transitions on the Pakistani side is the end of Gen. Kayani’s tenure as COAS on October 31, 2013.  The Pakistani army has had monopoly over relations with India since the 1958 coup d’état.  This has been true regardless of whether the army or a civilian government was in charge of Pakistan.

The frontrunners for the position of COAS have among them Kayani-loyalists, American favorites, and Kargil veterans alike.  The eventual winner will have a greater say in Pakistan’s relations with India than Mr. Sharif, regardless of the decisiveness of the PML(N)’s democratic mandate.

On this side of the barbed-wire fence, India goes to poll in mid-2014.  This leaves the UPA with very little capital for grand, unilateral gestures that might ultimately impair India’s national interests.  There are too many imponderables at play for conclusive assessments on how the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will play out.  Can the UPA and the Congress retain power, mired as they are in scandals?  If they do, what role will prime minister Manmohan Singh play in a future government?  If strong anti-incumbency trends emerge, what position vis-a-vis Pakistan will a BJP-led coalition take?

Both prime ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have dealt with Pakistan-perpetrated attacks (the Kandahar hijacking, 13/12, 26/11, among others).  Both inevitably came around to rapprochement with Pakistan.  But if provocations remain abetted, shouldn’t the quality of our response change?

A third, and equally important transition, involves Afghanistan. U.S.-led coalition forces are scheduled to withdraw from a decade-long war in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.  While unresolved quarrels with Afghanistan persist, Pakistan sees the withdrawal of U.S. forces as largely benefiting its cause.  But a U.S. retreat could see the return of thousands of unemployed jihadis whose “talents” are better engaged elsewhere than in Pakistan.  That elsewhere might be Jammu & Kashmir.

An increase in terror-related violence in India, leading up to, and accelerating after U.S. withdrawal in 2014 will indicate that the Pakistani establishment’s animosity towards India remains intact and is about to enter a new phase.  What someone like Nawaz Sharif can do in such a scenario, regardless of honorable intentions, will remain a question mark.  Those in charge of India’s foreign policy, ought to be considering policy options on Pakistan, expecting worst-case scenarios, given lessons learned from history. Democracy or no democracy.

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Dancing in the dark

From darkness, can there be light?

Three arterial power lines in northern India failed and plunged approximately 700 million people from 21 states and UTs into total darkness.  Rail and air services were disrupted, miners from Jharkhand and Bengal were trapped in coal mines, and the common man was slow-roasted under an unforgiving July sun.  And as this catastrophe unfolded, Union Minister for Power, Sushilkumar Shinde, moved out of office and took over as India’s new Home Minister.  It was business unusual.

Congress spokesman Manish Tewari attempted to assuage public anxiety by claiming that there was no power crisis in India.  He’s right, of course.  There wasn’t a power crisis in India, there just wasn’t any power.  Here, it would be unfair to blame the state of affairs only on Mr. Shinde.  He has, after all, only done what his predecessors have been doing since Independence.  Which is nothing.

But the massive power outage not only accentuates (if any accentuation was necessary) the dilapidated state of infrastructure in India, but also highlights its impact on India’s national security.  How would we, for example, be able to deal with military conflict on our western border, or an unfolding terror attack in New Delhi in such a situation?

To be sure, grid failures are not an uncommon phenomenon.  Massive power outages have after all, affected the U.S.’s East Coast and Southern California in the recent past.  What is unique here is not so much the crisis, but the UPA’s mishandling of the response.

Simply, the crisis is reflective of the UPA and the state of governance (or lack thereof) in India. Yes, Mr. Shinde’s transition to the Home Ministry had already been made public a few days ago. But surely a calamity of this proportion demands the resolute commitment of the incumbent minister to see the country out of the catastrophe.  In almost any other country in the world, political transition would have been deferred in order to resolve the crisis.  But not in ours, apparently.  Exit stage right, Mr. Shinde. Enter stage left, Mr. Moily.

It is quite remarkable that the UPA leadership felt no compelling need to ask the incumbent Minister of Power to stay on and resolve what is now being referred to as the “world’s worst power outage.” National interests are, after all, subordinate to party interests in this day and age.  It is even more remarkable that the UPA appears to be disinterested in even projecting an illusion of leadership to the people of India.

As is the UPA’s wont, they have said nothing about the crisis, their plans to resolve it, or the political transition in its midst.  The Prime Minister himself has had nothing to say about this, or any other crisis affecting the nation under his watch.

The French philosopher Tocqueville famously remarked that in democracy, we get the government we deserve.  It would be worth remembering this when general elections come a-calling in 2014.

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On Anna Hazare’s fast

“Something is rotten in the state, but…”

Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death campaign against corruption has inspired commentary and discussion in mainstream media and on social media platforms.  NDTV has wholeheartedly thrown its weight behind Mr. Hazare’s campaign.  RTI activist and Magsaysay Award winner Arvind Kejriwal vowed to turn Jantar Mantar into Tahrir Square.  And film actress Priyanka Chopra called the campaign “an uprising.” Jantar Mantar has metamorphosed into a celebrity congregation, just like Wankhede Stadium had on April 2.  But how many have actually read the draft of the Lokpal Bill?  How many really understand what the Lokpal is, and what such an institution means to our democratic republic?

But away from all the demagoguery and rhetoric, writers and bloggers are asking the tough questions that those on the bandwagon have found too inconvenient to address.  Of these, articles and blogposts by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Offstumped and Reality Check India deserve special mention (as does Mr. Mehta’s 2010 essay, “What is Constitutional Morality?”)

The intellectual bedrock to some of this discussion can also be found in Alexander Hamilton’s treatise on the Constitution and the Republic. Below is an excerpt from his writings in 1794:

But, without entering into so wide a field, it is sufficient to present to your view a more simple and a more obvious truth, which is this: that a sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government.

Government is frequently and aptly classed under two descriptions—a government of Force, and a government of Laws; the first is the definition of despotism—the last, of liberty. But how can a government of laws exist when the laws are disrespected and disobeyed? Government supposes control. It is that Power by which individuals in society are kept from doing injury to each other, and are brought to co-operate to a common end. The instruments by which it must act are either the Authority of the laws or Force. If the first be destroyed, the last must be substituted; and where this becomes the ordinary instrument of government, there is an end to liberty!

Those, therefore, who preach doctrines, or set examples which undermine or subvert the authority of the laws, lead us from freedom to slavery; they incapacitate us for a Government of Laws, and consequently prepare the way for one of Force, for mankind must have Government Of One Sort Or Another. There are, indeed, great and urgent cases where the bounds of the Constitution are manifestly transgressed, or its constitutional authorities so exercised as to produce unequivocal oppression on the community, and to render resistance justifiable. But such cases can give no color to the resistance by a comparatively inconsiderable part of a community, of constitutional laws distinguished by no extraordinary features of rigor or oppression, and acquiesced in by the body of the community.

Such a resistance is treason against society, against liberty, against every thing that ought to be dear to a free, enlightened, and prudent people. To tolerate it, were to abandon your most precious interests. Not to subdue it, were to tolerate it. Those who openly or covertly dissuade you from exertions adequate to the occasion, are your worst enemies. They treat you either as fools or cowards, too weak to perceive your interest or your duty, or too dastardly to pursue them. They, therefore, merit and will, no doubt, meet your contempt. To the plausible but hollow harangue of such conspirators you cannot fail to reply, How long, ye Catilines, will ye abuse our patience?  [Alexander Hamilton, "Tully Papers, III." August 28, 1794]

Unquestionably, something is rotten in the state.  That corruption is rampant is undeniable.  The debate here though isn’t whether or not we must fight against corruption, but how we should address it.  It is time for us to step back and reflect on what such an unabated encouragement of moral chauvinism means for the current and future state of our democratic republic.

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“If India can’t even build a bridge…”

If the world can’t even feed its children, can it send people to the moon?

Sadanand Dhume’s article entitled “Debacle in New Delhi” was published in Foreign Policy recently.  In the context of the fracas of the Commonwealth Games about to held in the Capital, Mr. Dhume’s article asks, “[h]ow can India be a superpower if it can’t build a bridge?” (an apparent reference to the collapse of a bridge near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium).

A couple of days ago, Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione questioned the safety of India’s nuclear plants, again, against the backdrop of “India’s” apparent inability to build safe bridges (though, to be fair to Mr. Cirincione, he later apologized for making the comment, having been roundly pilloried by one and all).

The Games are a complete and utter mess.  This is true.  Anyone and their brother will hurl at you figures showing how much India has spent over and beyond its original budget.  Stray animals roam the streets.  Trees are being cut like they went out of fashion two years ago. Roofs collapse,  so do beds.  And Mani Shankar Aiyar is running out of people to attack.

But is this India’s fault?  Did the same entity that built the bridge that collapsed also make India a power?  Many writers on the subject are painting with very broad strokes.

India is a power today not because of its government, but because of its private enterprise.   In fact, one of the unfortunate repercussions of the meteoric rise of India’s private sector is the singular incapability of the government to keep pace with the fillip provided to India’s global profile by its private enterprise.  India, many say, grows not because of its government, but despite it.  True, were it not for economic reforms instituted by the Congress, beginning in 1991, India’s private enterprise would not have succeeded like it has. But the government of the day chose to liberalize the economy only when faced with the possibility of bankruptcy.

These are issues that India — and the rest of the world — have always been well aware of.  India’s government is severely challenged to govern an India of 2010.   The inefficiencies in government are well known — a bloated cabinet,  archaic civil services, decrepit police services, lack of adequate parliamentary oversight, the list is endless — add in corruption and large levels of public apathy, and you have a recipe for disaster. To a large extent, when “public” governance was unable to affect its citizens, “private” governance stepped in.  Had a consortium of India’s companies been entrusted with managing, building and delivering the Commonwealth Games project, perhaps the situation might have been different.  This is all water under the bridge now.

Dileep Premachandran’s article in The Guardian argues that the Commonwealth Games fiasco shows all that is wrong with sport in India.  Actually, it shows all that is wrong with government in India.  The question that needs to be asked is, what will happen after the games conclude (by some miracle, without incident).  Heads will roll, no doubt, but not of those that matter.  Temporary public outrage will subside, and return to its default position of apathy — we’ve seen this script before.

Even if public anger didn’t subside, by some miracle, and is reflected in subsequent elections, is there a national party in India that can replace the UPA?  And even if such a party existed and was voted into power, would it have the courage and political will to institute the kinds of sweeping reforms necessary to bring governance in India into the 21st century?  And if it didn’t, would India’s citizens even care?  There are no easy answers.

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