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Posts tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Will the Indian “Malalas” please stand up

saarah-ahmed-indian-pilot-8-march-15-513x239

Photo: Sarah Ahmed: Indian. Pilot.

July 4, 1995 — America’s Independence Day — Islamist militants take six tourists hostage in Kashmir. They decapitate a Norwegian and kill the rest, including two Americans. There has been no letup in the orgy of violence since. But now Islamists — Sunni and Shia militants — are eliminating each other in West Asia. Glee that the “enemy” is disintegrating is inevitable in both Christian and Hindu right-wing camps. But as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly stated, albeit with scarce substantive effect, terror has no loyalties beyond the willingness to kill and maim.

The political economy of terror

Islamic terror, like terror anywhere, comes heavily loaded with political and economic objectives. The Taliban was created by the US to oust the Russians from Afghanistan in the 1980s. They and the Army are the only credible political actors in Pakistan today. Even China engages directly with them to protect its infrastructure investments and workers in Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia funds Sunni Iraqi militants to dominate the Shias of Southern Iraq and to undermine Syria’s Shia regime — all because Shias are perceived to be universally aligned with Saudi arch-rival Iran. Conversely, Russia and Iran support Shia militants in Iraq and the Shia regime in Syria. It is not inconceivable that in future Shia militants may be used to neutralise the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani — the technocratic President of Afghanistan — would probably welcome a dilution of Taliban power so that he can get on with implementing the development agenda.

Endemic warlordism and militant factionalism in North Africa and West Asia was constrained during the Cold War (1960-1990) by authoritarian regimes supported either by the US or the Soviets. Ironically both the democratic US and the Communist Soviet Union had no qualms about imposing authoritarian regimes as the norm in the region. It helped that till 1990, even the metric of development ignored politics as a factor and focused primarily on enhancing per capita income levels.

Democracy as a metric of development

The change came with the surprisingly sudden collapse of the seemingly well-off Soviet Union, a middle income country in 1990. Soviet unsustainability was ascribed to the absence of Western-style institutions — elective democracy, rule of law, small governments, markets, competition and choice.

Post 2001 (9/11), this development mantra acquired evangelical fervour, as an instrument to “civilise” the “arc of Islamic terror” stretching from Afghanistan in the east, through Egypt and Sudan to Mauritania in western Africa. The Arab Spring (2011) was hailed as the blossoming of democracy in time-warped North Africa. Once invincible, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia bit the dust and the people won. This was the expected upside.

The unintended consequences of Democracy: strengthening traditional fault lines

But two unanticipated downsides were less palatable. First, democracy became uncontainable — like a nuclear explosion. Democratic contagion travelled south and shook the gilded birdcage lives of the Sunni sheikhs of the Gulf states and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen via tribal bloodletting which rode on the aftershocks of the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution”.

Second, democracy in Egypt empowered the Muslim Brotherhood — a transnational Islamic party pushed underground by Mr Mubarak. For the G7, “Islamists” ruling Egypt was a horrific replay of the deposition of the “modernist” Shah of Iran in 1979 and the subsequent rise of a “renegade” nuclear, Islamic Iran. The Egyptian “Brothers” — beneficiaries of Islamic democracy — were presented as role models for disenfranchised commoners across the region. This questioning of the elite order was not what the sheikhs or the G7 had bargained for, or desired.

The G7 were comfortable with a “managed democracy” — the bare-bones institutions of a democracy, never mind if the

democratic spirit was non-existent. What they got was an unruly explosion of the democratic spirit — a magnified version of rumbustious, Indian style democracy, where rights trump responsibilities.

Libya disintegrated into armed militias and cost the US the life of its young, well-liked ambassador Chris Stevens. Yemen remains a cauldron of tribal militias. This democratic disorder is much like the persistent clan and tribe-based militancy in Manipur and Nagaland in India’s Northeast, funded by the drugs and arms trade with “wink-nod” support from China.

The recent bomb blast in Tunisia, which killed several British tourists, is similar in intent to the blasts in Mumbai in 1993 and the terror attacks in 2008. The former, managed by smuggler and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, rode on the back of Muslim anguish at the unlawful destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu right-wing groups. The 2008 strike is credited to the Inter-Services Intelligence — Pakistan’s dirty-tricks entity. Both aimed at hitting where it hurts the most — the economy.

Tackle Islamic terror with targeted incentives for peace and development

Can we really expect Indian Muslims to remain unmoved by the global trends in Islamist terror? A few misguided young men have already joined Islamist groups in Iraq and paid the final price. But most Indian Muslims look inwards to a domestic solution to break out of the downward spiral that events drag them into. This is where government intervention can help.

First, reducing poverty helps all marginalized groups. There is a broad congruence between Muslims and poverty in India even today. Focusing on  poverty reduction more vigorously also reverses the marginalization of poor Muslims in Independent India.

Second, a more visible signal is also needed. Positive discrimination like reservations is unhealthy. It pits Muslims against the existing beneficiaries — dalits and backward castes by generating a scrabble for a fixed pie. Far better to instead to empower young Muslims to work productively in the modern economy. Modernizing the curricula of the madrasas is a long-term, sensitive but powerful option. Indian Muslims shine in private enterprises where success is meritocratic and not dependent on connections, networks or preferential access to education or progress at work. They are the core of Bollywood, handicrafts, the arts and our cricket team.  Ashwini Kumar’s Inshallah, Football is a touching film about how a dedicated Brazilian coach uses football leagues to meet the needs of aspirational youth in strife-torn Kashmir. They must be directly supported to do be better prepared for private enterprise which, is in any case, is the growing sector. Indian Muslims must also be assured that being part of the modern economy does not and should not, mean having to abandon traditional beliefs or culture. India is not France. We are a plural society.

Third, politics must lead by example.  Religion is deeply embedded in India. Politics must learn to live with religion as a political force rather than pretend to work within an a-religious framework. In this context, the new government in Jammu and Kashmir which federates the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party of Jammu with the Kashmiri Muslim’s People’s Democratic Party in the governance of the state, is a progressive model which explicitly recognises that religion, like caste, is a legitimate basis for political action. True secularism is recognizing the right of citizens to organize themselves politically on any basis which provides a legitimate common cause.  Better to reflect traditional fault lines honestly rather than paper them over with the Band-Aid of pseudo-secular, socialist gibberish.

Fourth, women are the prime movers of social change, particularly in South Asia. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Mayawati, the Dalit leader of Uttar Pradesh, and the young Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai are examples. Leveraging potential Malalas in India via expanded and targeted education and health is what the government should be doing, if one-third of our population — Muslims and Dalits — are to make common cause with the rest of India.

Adapted from the authors column in Asian Age July 2, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/terror-s-echoes-home-748

Socializing the Dragon

dragon

(photo credit; http://www.mrwallpaper.com)

China has “bested” its way onto the big boys table through three critical initiatives which bore fruit since President Xi took over as China’s numero uno in 2013.

The first was the founding of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), headquartered at Shanghai. Symbols speak louder than words. The logo of the NDB is eerily reminiscent of Chinese communist logos of yester-years encased in two encircling stalks of wheat or maybe olive branches, as in the UN logo. At its center is a round blob with geometric shapes embedded- a suitably vague and nondescript statement of intent, possibly illustrating that the Bank can go any which way and has endless opportunities.

Whilst the first President of the Bank is an Indian corporate guru -K. V. Kamath, no one is under any doubt that it is China which will call the shots, exactly as the US does in the World Bank or Japan in the Asian Development Bank. This is fair since she who pays the bills gets to call the tune.

The second success was to get thirty eight regional and twenty non-regional countries, including members of the G8 except the US, Japan and Canada who kept away, to sign up as Prospective Founding Members of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank which is to be based in Beijing. The candidature of North Korea and Taiwan was refused by China. The former because it is a renegade and the latter because China does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country.

The third success completes the trilogy of China’s financial hegemony. China has offered to fund the European Infrastructure Fund at a time when Europe’s powerhouse- Germany and the European Union are engrossed in managing the financial bog of a potential “Greek exit” from the Euro and the likely ensuing turmoil. Massive investments in infrastructure are viewed as one way to kick starting growth in Europe, which has lagged recovery post the 2008 crisis. With Europe agonizing over how much more pain it can take, China’s generous offer of financial support is well timed.

China gets it fiscal muscle from its foreign exchange reserves of over US$ 3.7 trillion. These are down from their peak last year of nearly US$4 billion but remain the largest reserve ever. The annual trade surplus is a healthy US$300 billion plus. Its budget deficit, albeit increasing is still low, though off-balance sheet borrowing by state owned enterprises and the iffy quality of bank assets could cloak an incipient problem.

Its diplomatic and economic muscle is evident from its success in cowing down the meek protests by the Philippines and Japan against its assertive claims over small islands in the South and East China Sea. Far-off South Africa, the continents most developed economy, has repeatedly refused to give a visa to the Dalai Lama since 2009, reportedly out of deference to Chinese sentiments. The Dalai Lama, who is resident in the gorgeous Indian mountain paradise of DharamshaIa, is not recognized by China as the titular head of the Tibetans. China promotes an alternative in the Panchen Lama who is resident in Tibet.

Only the feisty Mrs. Merkel, Chancellor of Germany has had the gumption to ignore China’s ire and met formally with the Dalai Lama. Now with China bailing out Germany-till now the primary “money bag” for the reconstruction of Europe – the jury is out whether Mrs. Merkel would be inclined to repeat this diplomatic equivalent of thumbing her nose at China.

There are two jewels China still seeks. First is to implement President Xi’s vision of reviving the ancient silk route from Western China to Europe. The second is to develop a maritime silk route in the Indo-Pacific region from Myanmar via Bangladesh to India and Sri Lanka. Possibilities exist of extending this further West to Pakistan (where China is already developing the Gwadar port) and Iran where India is tentatively engaged in a similar venture at Charbahar.

These Chinese financed beltways will straddle Asia physically. If China pulls it off they are sure benefit the economies of the continent by reducing transit cost and linking local markets better. But the key issue spoiling the party is sovereign doubts about China’s true intentions in proposing these extravagant infrastructure plans.

Action speaks louder than words. Chinese overseas investment, particularly in Africa, is perceived to be driven too narrowly by self-interest. Its muscular approach to safeguarding what it considers its justified claims in the South and East China Sea give rise to fears of territorial expansionism.  Despite the fact that the India-China border has been peaceful for the last forty years the fear of conflict is ever present.

China needs to demonstrate that it has crossed the hump of middle-income prickly aggression into the beneficent altruism of a self-confident, high income country. It needs to take on an international commitment which demonstrates its resolve to make the world a better place.

It has already taken the first step by voluntarily capping carbon emission by 2030 including by increasing the share of clean energy to 20%. The voluntarism is praise worthy. But a bird in hand is always more credible than two in the bush by 2030.

Stabilizing Afghanistan presents an existential challenge which China can use to establish its credentials as an international force of substance. This single initiative can start a virtuous cycle of development in the “roundabout of Asia”- as president Ghani of Afghanistan, terms his country- with spill over benefits across the region.

China is well placed to substitute the US in leading this effort. It has a close relationship with the Pakistani army and civil leadership which are crucial to contain the Taliban. It has the resources. The US is reported to have spent around US$ 800 billion in Afghanistan, over the thirteen year from 2001 to 2014. This is not a scary number for China, especially since there are spin off benefits- bringing to the international market the huge copper and iron ore deposits in Afghanistan; honing the experience for the Chinese army and equipment in the field and creating a stable buffer in Afghanistan which can sever the existing arc of terror and violence that extends today through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The real question is will President Xi bite this bait to flex muscle productively or shall transactional engagements remain the order of the day for China.

1061 words

Will Ashraf Ghani be Afghanistan’s Manmohan Singh?

ashraf

(photocredit: dnaindia.com)

It is unlikely that the national coalition in Afghanistan, which the US has stitched together, will last. More likely, the Unity Government provides a convenient cover of artificially generated “peace” allowing the US to withdraw, with “honour”, from the “graveyard of invaders”.

Once it leaves, the US shall make all efforts to secure a working relationship between the Taliban and the Afghan Unity Government. The US has already started distinguishing between the palatable, if misguided, Taliban, with whom business is possible and the utterly untouchable Al Qaida.

The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani seems comfortable with cutting a deal with the Taliban to include them too, in the fullness of time, in the power sharing structure. This approach also fits well with the traditional “big tent” approach of the US which also includes decentralizing power and thereby enhancing inclusion of hitherto marginalized segments. This option is worth a try, but is likely to fail just as surely, as the existing Unity Government.

Mr. Ghani is a knowledgeable, well-meaning and committed, if somewhat unbending, politician-international bureaucrat-academic. His main problem will be similar to what Manmohan Singh faced in India. How does a personally honest leader turn a blind eye to massive corruption and yet retain control over the government?

Mr. Ghani says his first priority will be to make it difficult to be corrupt by improving governance systems. The conundrum is that “power sharing”, almost by definition, means allowing warlords a long rope. Manmohan Singh called it the “dharma of coalition politics”. Once executive control is loosened to avoid the personal association of the leader with the expectedly bad decisions of the warlords, stopping the system from unravelling is tough.

In his last political assignment (2002 to 2004) Mr. Ghani was Finance Minister in Afghanistan and was very successful in introducing some order and economic sense into governance. The parallels are ominous. Mr. Singh too was outstanding as Finance Minister in India before he got the top job. It doesn’t end there. Like Manmohan Singh in 1999, Ashraf Ghani lost his first election in 2009. The question then is: will Mr. Ghani be Afghanistan’s Manmohan Singh; a good man heading a bad outfit? Only time can tell.

For India, the current situation is impossible. There is little to distinguish the Pashtun dominated Taliban from Pakistan’s military de-facto rulers. This is why, traditionally, India cozied up, during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan (1980s), to the “Northern Alliance” comprising the Hazara, who are determinedly opposed to Pashtun rule; the Tajiks who are today represented by Abdullah Abdullah, the number two leader in the Unity Government and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the indomitable Uzbek leader- who is currently allied with the Pashtun, President-Ashraf Ghani.

Any talk of an Afghan government, propped up by the Taliban, cannot be music to either India’s ears or acceptable to Abdullah Abdullah. This is especially so because China does business with Pakistan quite happily and is unlikely to have any qualms about doing the same with the Taliban. In this calculus any gain for the Taliban, is a gain for Pakistan and for China and a loss for India.

In the shadows is Putin’s Great Bear which is constantly sniffing about for a pot of honey in the great game. India and the Soviets have a long association of friendship which can become the basis for a coalition of the “underdogs” in Afghanistan. India is also friends with Iran, which it uses to trade with Afghanistan. The Russia, Iran, India (RII) axis will become India’s fallback option if the US continues to duck its responsibilities in South Asia. The result will be the “RII axis” playing “spoilers’ with consequential instability and strife in Afghanistan.

The silver lining is that India’s PM Modi has already signaled a preference for a more positive strategy of alignment with the set of countries which represent the shared ideals of democracy, markets and private sector led equitable growth. This approach advocates caution and restraint in committing our scarce resources to secure our near-abroad, whilst we still face enormous challenges of dealing with domestic infrastructure and poverty.

PM Modi stressed during his recent US visit that there can be no “good terror (read Taliban) and bad terror (read IS and Al Qaida). The networks of terror and the resources available to them are fungible and transmute constantly to escape identification. In simple language, a Leopard cannot change its spots. The only option is to isolate and confine it once it turns man eater.

What is unknown is whether President Obama has his ears tuned to South Asia or will the IS and the Middle East pre-occupations distract him completely. Will he be forced to soften his currently anti-Sunni terror stance by turning a blind eye to the Sunni-Taliban in Afghanistan? Great powers have to choose their battles and prioritise across options.

If the choice is between completely browning-off Saudi Arabia and its cohort of Sunni Middle Eastern countries by pursuing Sunni-Terror doggedly, on the one hand and worrying about how this approach could impact India’s interest, we know which way he will jump; and who can blame him for that.

If India is actually part of the “big boys club” we must mobilize pressure from constituencies who have similar interests in containing terror to force the US to not “step off the plate”. If this fails, as it probably shall, the option is to build a coalition against terror with China, which is similarly affected by it. Testing times loom for India’s diplomats.

“Tweak” the process transparently to deliver PM Modi’s “Big Things to Small People”

Obama Modi

(photo credit: article.wn.com)

Charismatic leaders can mould crowds like putty. Bill Clinton’s March, 2000 “US and India are natural allies” address to the Indian Parliament; Barrack Obama’s University of Cairo “New Beginnings” address to the Muslim world, June, 2009 unleashed a Tsunami of optimism and “feel good”. In much the same way, PM Modi-the man with an agenda of Big things for Small people- in his recent Madison Square address, won over the hearts and minds of a “massive” (by US standards) crowd of 18,000 Indian-Americans in New York and an even larger audience back home in India.

For many Indian expatriates, including us in India, it is a relief to have a Prime Minister who radiates strength, speaks extempore and from his heart. It also helps that he is a consummate performer, who draws energy from the crowd and returns it to them magnified many-fold.

Those looking for suave wit and a sophisticated exposition of geo-political gyan were sorely disappointed. Modi was deliberately folksy and simplistic. He capitalized on his strengths magnificently, just as Indira Gandhi, the last Indian PM with an international stature, used to do more than three decades ago.

Of course, it helps if one can live on water endlessly and still have the physical ability and mind space to go through a deliberately, whirl-wind program. By doing so Modi has become a live bill-board for the low carbon footprint potential of solar energy. His eschewing food altogether, through the trip, was akin to the Mahatma wandering through the London chill in his sparse loin cloth, protected only by the churning energy generator in his mind.

Till now the West has been wowed by India’s IT skills, thanks to our Silicon Valley diaspora. Next, we are likely to be branded as Yoga maestros all and expected to perform never-before feats of physical endurance.

But it was not all plain sailing.

Three areas where plain speaking-PM Modi’s forte, would have helped, are listed below.

First, what exactly is our stand on joining the fight against Islamic Terror and the linked approach to Afghanistan? The message coming through till now is fuzzy. It seems India is likely to carry on in much the same muddled way we have done till now; remaining visible in Afghanistan, but primarily as well wishers, bringing development to the people of Afghanistan. This is clearly dissatisfactory and unrealistic in the context of the impeding US withdrawal and the likely security turmoil courtesy the unresolved political contestation between the Ashraf Ghani and Abudullah Abdullah groups. National governments are prone to fail. Similar recent experiments in Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Sudan illustrate the illusive nature of such options for “externally enforced” stability in the face of unresolved local contestation.

Our interest lies in clearly establishing that we view the Taliban, the Pakistan Army and Militant Kashmiri jihadi groups as part of the same set of Islamic Terrorists, which are a direct and existential threat to us and our secular, plural democratic system. We must be willing and able to take the most effective action in our near abroad to crush Islamic Terror. But where Islamic Terror is not a direct threat to us (as for example the ISIL) whilst any UN endorsed initiative will have our support, we do not have the resources to join a plurilateral initiative against global terror. This is strictly for the big boys; the US, its NATO allies and China.

PM Modi has been at pains to explain that on this trip that whilst he has been trying for more than the last two decades to get the US to recognize the global consequences of Islamic terror, they took cognizance only after 9/11, when it hurt them directly. The fact is we must be similarly discriminating in unbundling Islamic Terror into immediate and distant threats and not be distracted by the enormity of global threats and ignore focusing on managing immediate threats, closer home.

Plain speaking about our threat perceptions, our limitations and our determination not to be cowed down by terror would have helped.

Second, the message on trade and investment needs to be distilled better. The economic opportunities in India are well known. The demographics; the steady economic growth and resultant demand and our democratic architecture.

Unfortunately most foreign investors live in the present. No international manager has a business perspective beyond a decade-even if they draw up beautiful thirty year perspectives. What big business looks for is leadership level facilitation to get their specific project up and running quickest with commercial and political risk minimized.

Tardy environmental clearances; tax opacity; poor infrastructure and most recently, the extended ambit of judicial review of contracts are big dampeners. Many of these constraints are institutional and require structural change, which is long term. What we need are near tern solutions, of the fire-fighting kind, to establish the enabling business environment. Selective but transparent tweaking of dilatory process is an obvious option but there are challenges even here.

At the leadership level, “successful tweaking of process” requires political credibility that the selective attention is in national interest and not another manifestation of crony capitalism. Consensus building between the executive and the judiciary of the acceptable envelop of “process tweaking”, in national interest, is key for retaining the credibility of the executive and the independence of the judiciary, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the judiciary does not get drawn into settling political scores.

PM Modi is best placed to manage the optics on this score. At the operational level, he will need the support of a highly skilled and empowered team of state government officials working with counterparts from the Union Government, to pilot the tweaking process towards accelerated launch of projects.

What should constitute the government’s decision matrix for determining the “hurdle rate” for projects to be eligible for tweaking the “way we do business”? In such circumstances it always helps to have narrow objectives. “Employment and poverty reduction”, both of which are urgent near term investment related goals, present themselves as excellent “filters” for evaluating and identifying proposals which merit the highest level of facilitation.

50 projects; 5 million jobs; US$15 billion investment can be the rolling target with automatic replenishment by new proposals as projects get launched. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to generate the frisson of excitement which the project based approach generates.

Third, plain speaking on our environmental and energy policy would have helped. It is clearly in India’s interest to clean its water bodies and rivers; reduce air pollution and reverse the denudation of forests and degradation of land. Degradation of these natural assets has immediate economic and social outcomes usually with adverse poverty consequences. It is the poor who are impacted negatively when water bodies and rivers become polluted because they use them directly for personal needs and business. The poor similarly suffer the most from atmospheric pollution because they are incapable of insulating themselves and their children, from such ambient pollution. Unregulated deforestation robs the poor of their eco-system and their livelihoods. Combating land degradation, like increased salinity often caused by unsustainable use of ground water and poorly managed large irrigation schemes, is a costly undertaking, which is often beyond the financial ability of the poor.

On energy our big concern is energy security. The use of coal is likely to remain a staple component of our energy profile. Similarly, more aggressive utilization of the hydro potential in India and in South Asia is an efficient option. Embedding passive energy efficiency building design is another significant option. Urbansiation levels are relatively low but there is a big stimulus in the offing under the PMs target of a house for all by 2022.

More generically, India is committed to technology choices which are congruent with our two, often conflicting, goals of reversing the degradation of natural resources whilst ensuring energy security. An increasing share of wind and solar energy is one such technology choice. Increasing the share of public transportation by railways relative to roads is another which the government is pursuing. But capping India’s carbon footprint at an unrealistic level is similar to capping food subsidy at historical prices which India has already rejected.

The mantra for plain speaking on the Indian strategy for managing terrorism; enlarging trade and safeguarding the environment is to rely on the simple rule of first reserving the fiscal and the physical space for the developing world to “catch up”, before providing breathing room for the developed world, who have abetted and often perpetrated all three global problems, by agreeing to hold them harmless.

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