Tag Archives | Congress

Start with simple steps

To counter the danger of increasing contempt for politics

The parliament hasn’t functioned for the eighth consecutive day today. Here is how the events transpired in the Lok Sabha today.

In the Lok Sabha, trouble erupted soon after Speaker Meira Kumar made obituary reference to former member Harish Kumar Gangawar of the Congress and read out a message on World AIDS Day. But that peace was short-lived.

The government has refused to withdraw its cabinet decision to allow 51 percent FDI in multi-brand retail and 100 percent in single-brand retail and the opposition is equally unblinking, asking it to reverse the policy or face continuing disruptions. The Prime Minister is believed to have told allies again that the government won’t roll back its decision.

Trinamool Congress MPs were seen standing in the aisles protesting the FDI decision. Buoyed by the cracks in the ruling combine, BJP members, some of them smiling, were also up on their feet, raising slogans and demanding an adjournment motion on the issue.

Left members, ideologically opposed to any market reforms, also demanded that the policy needed to be reversed.

There were other issues as well.

Congress members from Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh raised the decibel level demanding a separate state of Telangana.

MPs from Kerala also walked towards Meira Kumar’s podium demanding a new dam downstream of the leaking Mullaperiyar dam. They say the leakage has threatened the safety of more than three million people living in five districts of the state.

AIADMK members from Tamil Nadu were on the other side of the podium seeking implementation of the Supreme Court order on raising the storage level of the Mullaperiyar dam to 142 feet.

Meira Kumar tried to take the Question Hour but the din led her to adjourn the house till noon. When the ruckus continued after the house met again, she adjourned it for the day.[HT]

On top of such behaviour, when members of parliament ask for an increase in their official status, including a right to have red light atop their cars, it doesn’t go down well with the masses. While calls in the media for instituting a ‘No work, no pay’ rule for the MPs may be meaningless, it does point to a greater danger — an increasing contempt for politics in this country. Even while everyone will continue to swear by democracy and publicly hold it in high esteem, he or she has an equal amount of disdain for politics and politicians.

Is it possible to be a firm believer in democracy while having contempt for politics? Let me quote Pratap Bhanu Mehta (The Burden of Democracy; Page 21):

A contempt for politics will be worse than the corruption of politics; a search for an answer to our discontent is doomed unless it goes through the dangerous process of politics itself. This is something I firmly believe in, and for me, to be a democrat and express contempt for politics, even with its sordid horse-trading, opportunism and feverishness, is almost an oxymoron.(The Burden of Democracy)

The answer to restoring faith in politics lies in radical social change. This is a big project which can take generations to accomplish. But there is something which can be done in the short-term to get the stalled parliament to start functioning.

C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS Legislative Research, argues that the parliamentary rules of engagement need an overhaul. He suggests that India could take a leaf out of the rule book of its former colonial ruler, Britain, where the opposition is allotted 20 days per year when it can set the agenda.[NYT]

We need more of such simple, and sensible solutions to break the stalemate in the parliament. Dum spiro, spero [While I breath, I hope].

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Requirements of our democracy

To get a responsive government.

Hartosh Bal in the Open magazine:

The Congress has over time developed what can be best described as an optimal approach in such a democracy. It is a party designed to lurch in any possible direction, depending on voter expectation, unhindered by ideas or ideology. It is no surprise that the longer a party survives and bids for power, the more it tends to resemble the Congress—take the BJP or for that matter the DMK or the Akali Dal or even the Left. There may be legacies difficult to shed but in practice the shape each party takes is very similar. If the Congress has lost the huge appeal it once had, it is not because it has deviated from some ideal, it is because other parties have learnt to conduct their politics from the Congress.

This has not been a conscious process; it is the result of responding to the requirements of our democracy.[Open]

It is simplistic to blame the requirements of Indian democracy for lack of ideas and ideologies among Indian political parties. Political parties in India respond not to the requirements of democracy but to the requirements of electoral politics. Electoral politics is an essential democratic process but not sufficient by itself to sustain a robust liberal representative democracy.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has often stated, elections are an inherently blunt instrument of control. Despite heavy anti-incumbent voting, elections seem to discipline politicians less than we would like. Their effectiveness as mechanisms of accountability are contingent, fraught with unintended consequences and the incentives they impose upon policy makers need to be understood in more precise ways.

If these “requirements of democracy” have eroded the various parties of their ideas and ideologies, it is something to be worried about. Firstly, as one party or candidate becomes indistinguishable from the other, the cost of elections rises and electoral malpractices increase. As the distinguishing characteristics of parties and individual candidates — based on policies, ideas and ideologies — matter less and less to elections, what increasingly differentiates one party from another, is the fund raising capacity and ‘winnability’ of candidates, not ideology or ideas.

Secondly, it gives rise to the crassest form of identity politics to mobilise support, usually based on religious, caste and sectarian considerations. Exacerbating social tensions provide the best opportunity for the political parties to mobilise support by creating vote-banks. Failing which, parties are liable to resort to cheap populism and short-term promises (loan waivers, free electricity, caste-based reservations etc) which harm the state and the society in the long run.

Even within the Indian context of an ill-formed democracy, these “requirements of democracy” can not be a justification for intellectual bankruptcy of our political parties and the electoral malpractices pervading our system. Unfortunately, what it takes to win elections is not necessarily what it takes to respond to the requirements of the citizens, even of the core supporters who voted that party in to power. A representative government is not always a responsive government.

The real requirement of our democracy is to ensure that a responsive party metamorphoses into a responsive government. Responsive government, which in Birch’s words, is a government that is responsive to public opinion, that pursues policies that are prudent and mutually consistent, and that is accountable to the representatives of the electors.

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Independence Day – an afterthought

Differentiating between the Independence Day and the Republic Day.

Having read the usual fare — a plethora of outstanding, standard and sub-standard pieces in the media — this Independence Day, one is left wondering if there is anything left to differentiate between the  Independence Day and the Republic Day. The two national days may be similar, but they are not the same. What is the difference between the two then?

Independence day is a day of the past, of celebrating what we have inherited from our previous generations. The Republic Day, in contrast, is about the present and the future — about pledging and working towards making the Indian Republic stronger.

My fellow blogger Dhruva Jaishankar reminded me today that August 15 was a date set by the British, and was not of our own choosing (not coincidentally, it also marks the date, two years earlier, of the Japanese announcement of surrender during the War). January 26 was however selected because it was the day the Purna Swaraj declaration (Declaration of the Independence of India) was promulgated by the Indian National Congress at Lahore in 1930. In fact, the Congress had then asked the people of India to observe January 26 as Independence Day. Moreover, Republic Day is also about the Indian constitution, which was a wholly Indian enterprise.

So, Independence Day should ideally be about symbolism, pageantry and celebrations of a date, a date not of our own choosing but a hugely significant historical date nevertheless. Whereas Republic Day, on a date we ourselves chose, ought to be the more solemn occasion  — a day of promises to make and pledges to keep. Independence Day is about the legacy bequeathed to us while Republic Day is not an occasion for the legacy — positive or negative — of past generations to either be lauded or condemned. If Independence Day is about the remembrances and retrospection, Republic Day ought to signify how we can preserve and improve the fate of the country, and how that task falls upon us, each one of us.

Finally, we have come a long way since 1947. India’s independence is not in danger today; it is the Republic that is being threatened every single day. If we can strengthen the Republic, we will automatically safeguard our independence.

Let us take care of the Republic so that we can continue to celebrate our independence.

Post Script: This blogpost at Swaraj on whether India is a Democratic Republic or a Republican Democracy is a good primer on the subject.

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The sinews of separatist strands

Making sense of the internal contradictions of separatist politics undermining prospective peace talks in Kashmir.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is trying to reassert a role for himself in the peace process, which he believes is rightfully, and solely his in Kashmir. The statements by and the stance of Mirwaiz since his return from the US — and after the declaration of a new OIC envoy for Kashmir — betray his keenness to appropriate the role of the internationally acceptable face of Kashmiri separatism. This impression has been further reinforced by his statement which emphasised that China is a stakeholder in Kashmir. His public declaration of intent to visit China is another ploy to further this aim.

Mirwaiz really has no serious competitors among his fellow separatists for that position, bar Yasin Malik to a certain extent. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, with his public support for al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, and calls for imposition of the Shariah, is and will remain an anathema for all liberal, western democracies. Others like Shabbir Shah and Professor Abdul Gani Bhat lack the suavity and communication skills to impress an international audience while Yasin Malik — despite his romantic militant-turned-peacenik tale — doesn’t have the lineage and the socio-religious authority of the Mirwaiz.

However, it is this very quest for an internationally acceptable role that puts Mirwaiz in a very uncomfortable position internally. Other separatist leaders, who have no desire to be sidelined by the Mirwaiz, continue to hit at his credibility by invoking unreasonable preconditions for commencing any peace talks with India. And Mirwaiz soon follows suit in this game of competitive separatist populism, making it inconceivably difficult for the Indian government to initiate any talks with him — quiet or otherwise.

Other separatist leaders also grudge the fact that the Mirwaiz has little political base in Kashmir. Syed Ali Shah Geelani can boast of the support of the Jamaiti cadre in the Valley, and he certainly continues to hold sway over Sopore. Mirwaiz’s influence on the other hand, does not extend beyond certain sections of urban Srinagar, more owed to his hereditary position at the religious seat of the Jama Masjid than to any substantive political activity. Other separatist leaders also suffer from a similar disadvantage vis-à-vis Geelani and are thus willing to defer to Geelani — as seen during the Amarnath agitation last year — rather than accept Mirwaiz as the first among equals.

The situation is further complicated by the role of the two mainstream political parties in the Valley — National Conference[NC] and the People’s Democratic Party[PDP]. Most observers believe that NC would be happy to see Mirwaiz being accepted as the spokesperson of the Kashmiri separatists. While some people assume that it is due to the superficial similarities in age, lifestyle and personal world-view between Omar Abdullah and the Mirwaiz, there are more substantive political reasons for this support. PDP, a rather new party on the Kashmiri political firmament, has drawn its strength from the Jamaiti cadre during the elections. Thus it owes Geelani a favour, which is reflected in the incessant demand by the Muftis to involve Geelani in the peace talks. Moreover, if some kind of agreement leading to participation of the separatists in elections were to come through, Mirwaiz and his band of moderate separatists would be in direct competition with the PDP and its soft-separatist plank for the same electoral base. The recent statement by PDP’s Muzaffar Baig condemning Mirwaiz for his statement on China is further proof of who the PDP considers to be its real enemy among the separatists.

As far as the Congress party is concerned, it has been reduced to a marginal player in Kashmir valley where it seems to have accepted the role of a junior partner to the NC. The grassroots membership of the Congress party in Kashmir — with the tacit support of their ambitious state-level leaders — are thus not very keen on seeing Omar Abdullah succeed. If Omar Abdullah were to succeed as CM — leading to a strengthening of the NC-Congress alliance in the state — it would sound a deathknell for the political ambitions of these local workers and the state leaders of the Congress party. Many have observed the subversive role of the local Congress workers in belittling the state government, in which their own party is a partner, during the recent Shopian incident. This reaction from the Congress workers is likely to be replicated in the future as the peace talks progress and the separatists’ involvement in the electoral process becomes a real possibility.

Although it sounds counterintuitively passive, New Delhi’s silence on the current developments in Kashmir is the most prudent course of the action by the Indian government. It is a period of churning among the separatists. While the government continues with its back-channel engagement of the separatist leadership, it must continue to keep a ear to the ground to quickly identify the leaders being thrown up during this churning.

Meanwhile, New Delhi needs to continue with its investment in infrastructure in border regions of the state, even though it may be ostensibly for the purpose of promoting tourism. And the proposal to allow foreigners to visit Turtuk is a welcome step which signals normalcy and helps build favourable international opinion. Whatever may be the fate of the talks with the separatists, the state and the central government must come up with more such welcome initiatives.

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India’s lobbyists in Washington

From the Afghan ambassador’s memo.

Cribbing to Kabul about inadequate funding for hiring lobbyists in Washington to further Afghan interests in the US Congress and administration, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Said Tayeb Jawad gives out the details of his competitors, embassies of Pakistan and India. Here is the list of India’s lobbyists in Washington from that confidential memo (pdf) [courtesy: MJ]–

1. Barbour, Griffith & Rogers (Republican leaning)
2. Westin Rinehart
3. Patton Boggs (Democrat leaning)
4. Venable (Democrat leaning)

Well, the memo has more lurid details on Pakistan, with specifics about “two firms that alone represent and promote President Asif Ali Zardari’s interests in Washington” and previous details of Musharraf’s and Benazir’s lobbyists. In all, as per Jawad, Pakistan employs nine lobbying firms in Washington while China employs nineteen.

What I value in life is quality rather then quantity. ~Albert Einstein

Update – Here is an update from a friend in Washington D.C.:

The contracts for some of the lobbyists in the Afghan memo are now over. BGR is no longer retained. Most were hired simply for the nuclear deal. The guys working at BGR on India have all left, now that the deal is done. The Indian government was also very reluctant to hire lobbyists in the first place, only going in after the Indian-American community and CII hired some.

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Chasing reforms

Some will say I am too focused on the wars we are in and not enough on future threats. But, it is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-insure against a remote or diminishing risk – or, in effect, to ‘run up the score’ in a capability where the United States is already dominant – is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in, and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk I will not take.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has taken the tough line with his budget proposals. He has taken on the interests of the individual services, cut down many ambitious programmes and his proposals will be heavily resisted by the politicians in the Congress. But this is only the first step in the reform process that Gates has initiated. The QDR and the next year’s budget, based on the QDR, will take this reform process even further. One can agree or disagree with Gates’ proposals, but no one can fault him for his clarity of thought and singularity of purpose in reforming the US defence establishment.

Compare this to the directionless proposals on national security contained in the manifestos of the Congress party and BJP here in India. Caught in a wave of announcing short-term populist measures, Indian political class — across the complete spectrum — lacks the vision, the knowledge and the will to initiate and force a holistic reformprocess for the Indian defence establishment. The defence services, DRDO and the civil bureaucracy will have their own parochial interests but it is the politicial leadership that has to uphold the national interest. Where is that political leadership in this country?

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Only paying lip service

Congress party’s manifesto is wispy on national security.

The Congress party’s manifesto released today has three points concerning national and internal security. Those looking for specifics will be disappointed as it barely goes beyond homilies and banalities on the subject.

We will guarantee the maximum possible security to each and every citizen.

We will ensure the highest level of defence preparedness and also take further steps for the welfare of the defence forces and their families.

We will accelerate the process of police reforms.

So much from the ruling party. If previous experience is anything to go by, one fears that the main opposition party, BJP, will be equally vague and declamatory on national and internal security in its manifesto. And therein lies the tragedy of this nation and its security apparatus. Who cares?

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Congress should support the National Conference

PDP, in the opposition, will push the Hurriyat for influence in the same political space. The BJP emerges as the voice of the Jammu region while the two parties with a statewide presence — NC and Congress — should ideally govern it as a single state of Jammu AND Kashmir.

The elections for the Jammu & Kashmir assembly were over last week and the results have started coming in. The final results are not out yet but it is clear that no political party will get a clear majority in the polls. The NC is likely to be the single largest party but both NC and PDP, the second largest party, will need the support of the Congress party and a few indpendents to form the government. The BJP has already declared its intention to sit in the opposition and it will not be solicited for a power-sharing arrangement either by the NC or the PDP.

The choice now rests with the Congress party to select the partner it wishes to form a government with. It had shared power with the PDP for last six years while the NC had been part of the NDA at Delhi. The Congress party will weigh its options and then take a decision. This blogger feels that the Congress party should support the NC in forming the next government in J&K.

Firstly, the PDP is exclusively a party of the valley, similar to the BJP, which is exclusively a party of the Jammu region. The need of the hour is to have a state government that bridges the two parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. A political party with an exclusive base in only certain portions of the state is not the right prescription to govern the state now.

Moreover, the PDP is a party that has been tacitly supported by the Jamaitis and other separatists in Southern Kashmir.  It occupies a political space that is closest to the agenda of the separatists. There is a strong probability that the PDP will be able to pursue its brand of agitational politics with greater success if it is in the opposition. It will be pushing the discredited Hurriyat under greater pressure for the same political space. It will be in greater national interest to have a mainstream political party like the PDP push the Hurriyat and other separatists in opposing the state government.

Finally, the NC has been out of power for six years now and another spell out of power may actually sound its deathknell in the state. Kashmir valley needs two mainstream political parties in the fray and bringing NC to power may actually allow two serious political parties to be present there. The NC has a state wide presence in all the three regions and it has be provided all support to maintain that presence.

The final results may actually play out as per this script and bode well for India and the state of Jammu & Kashmir. The BJP and the PDP, which draw their representatives solely from the Jammu region and the Kashmir valley respectively, will sit in the opposition voicing the concerns of their constituents. The two parties with a statewide presence, the NC and the Congress, will share power. They should, hopefully, have a stake in bridging the different regions of the state and govern the state of J&K truly as the state of Jammu AND Kashmir.

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Buying out the Pakistani nukes

…is one way of denuclearising Pakistan.

This blogger had ended one of the earlier posts with a question to ponder over.

Denuclearising Pakistan would be, perhaps, a good idea to begin with. But how?

Bret Stephens, writing  in the Wall Street Journal, comes up with a possible answer.

President Asif Ali Zardari was recently in the U.S. asking for $100 billion to stave off economic collapse. So far, the international community has ponied up about $15 billion. That puts Mr. Zardari $85 billion shy of his fund-raising target. Meantime, the average Taliban foot soldier brings home monthly wages that are 30% higher than uniformed Pakistani security personnel.

Preventing the disintegration of Pakistan, perhaps in the wake of a war with India (how much restraint will New Delhi show after the next Mumbai-style atrocity?), will be the Obama administration’s most urgent foreign-policy challenge. Since Mr. Obama has already committed a trillion or so in new domestic spending, what’s $100 billion in the cause of saving the world?

This is the deal I have in mind. The government of Pakistan would verifiably eliminate its entire nuclear stockpile and the industrial base that sustains it. In exchange, the U.S. and other Western donors would agree to a $100 billion economic package, administered by an independent authority and disbursed over 10 years, on condition that Pakistan remain a democratic and secular state (no military rulers; no Sharia law). It would supplement that package with military aid similar to what the U.S. provides Israel: F-35 fighters, M-1 tanks, Apache helicopters. The U.S. would also extend its nuclear umbrella to Pakistan, just as Hillary Clinton now proposes to do for Israel.

A pipe dream? Not necessarily. People forget that the world has subtracted more nuclear powers over the past two decades than it has added: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and South Africa all voluntarily relinquished their stockpiles in the 1990s. Libya did away with its program in 2003 when Moammar Gadhafi concluded that a bomb would be a net liability, and that he had more to gain by coming to terms with the West.

There’s no compelling reason Mr. Zardari and his military brass shouldn’t reach the same conclusion, assuming excellent terms and desperate circumstances. Sure, a large segment of Pakistanis will never agree. Others, who have subsisted on a diet of leaves and grass so Pakistan could have its bomb, might take a more pragmatic view.

The tragedy of Pakistan is that it remains a country that can’t do the basics, like make a bicycle chain. If what its leaders want is prestige, prosperity and lasting security, they could start by creating an economy that can make one — while unlearning how to make the bomb.

The US Congress authorised Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism has a Chapter titled “Pakistan: The Intersection of Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism“. It goes on to say that–

Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan. It has nuclear weapons and a history of unstable governments, and parts of its territory are currently a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists.

[This]Commission has singled out Pakistan for special attention in this report, as we believe it poses a serious challenge to America’s short-term and medium-term national security interests. …In terms of the nexus of proliferation and terrorism, Pakistan must top the list of priorities for the next President and Congress.

If that be true, then what is a few billion dollars for the US to neutralise this grave threat emanating from Pakistan. Obama must endavour to make the world a safer place.

And yes, Indians certainly won’t mind. Maybe, they would even pitch in with a contribution of their own to meet any shorfalls in the US largesse.

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More considered, decisive and significant action against Pakistan

These results of assembly elections bring us to a fork in the road. Either the UPA government can go back to its old policy of pontification and inaction against terrorism. Or free of the fears of an electoral backlash, it can undertake more considered, concerted and decisive action against Pakistan.

So the results to the assembly elections in five states are nearly there. Amidst large-scale expectations of a Congress rout after the terror attacks in Mumbai, Congress manages to retain Delhi, wrests Rajasthan from BJP and wins in Mizoram. The BJP retains MP and Chattisgarh. Political pundits will dissect and analyse these results while apologists masquerading as journalists will justify the results to suit each of these political formations.

The significance of these results lies not only in the internal politics of the nation but also in determining the external response to the terror attacks. The hyperventilating electronic media, the Page Three crowd and the chattering classes had created a public perception that after the terror attacks, it was all over for the Congress and its Prime Minister. The Congress seemed to be in a defeatist mode and its leadership was meeting to face these results with a lot of trepidation. The fear of getting wiped out in the assembly polls and the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls and desperate hopes of some damage control dictated its approach towards Pakistan after the terror attacks.

Political expediency dictates that undue emphasis is placed on immediate targets and short-term goals in a democracy. The immediate aim of the government was to show some visible action to quell public anger; the ultimatum to Pakistan to handover Indian fugitives and the strident tone by many government functionaries was a step in that direction. Most perspicacious observers agreed that an Indian military action against Pakistan was an imprudent option, that would play straight into the hands of the planners of this attacks. While diplomatic tools — pressure by the US — have led to some action by the Pakistani authorities, there have been calls for exploring other options available on the strategic landscape. These suggestions include surgical air aids and covert action against the perpetrators of these attacks. These are devised to signal strong action, intended with half an eye on influencing the electorate.

These assembly results, however, are likely to release the pressure on the government to be seen to act quickly and decisively against the backers, planners and executors of Mumbai terror attacks. There is a genuine fear that emboldened by these assembly results, which were errouneously portrayed to be heavily influenced by the public response to terror attacks, Congress party is likely to fall back to its usual approach — too much pontification and too little action.

It is too much to hope for but eternal optimists like this blogger can still hope for something better to emerge out of this. Relieved of the electoral pressure to deliver immediately, the Indian strategic and diplomatic establishment could calibrate its response to achieve maximum results from Pakistan. This would include going beyond these immediate goals of getting the Indian fugitives back or bringing the masterminds of these terror attacks to justice. The short-term goal of preventing another terrorist attack on India emanating from Pakistani soil should be met by actions of the Indian state.

Most importantly, this would give the Indian government the leverage to act in a manner that discredits the Pakistani army and ISI in the eyes of the common Pakistani. Recent pronouncements by the Indian media have tended to further strengthen the hands of these two institutions and reinforced their image as the custodians of Pakistani nationhhod. The media diatribe is likely to temper down now, disabusing the notion held in many government quarters that an agressive and emotional media is unduly influencing state policy.

This is not a call for inaction or maintaining the status quo. It is, instead, a call for more considered, decisive and significant actions by the Indian state — free of the pressure to show immediate results — that will enhance the security of the common man and defeat the designs of the terrorists and their backers. It would be a travesty if India misses this opportunity to unravel the truth about the elements inimical to India inside Pakistan to the international community. With huge pressure coming on to Pakistan from various quarters, this is an opportune moment for India to exterminate the non-state actors like the Taliban, LeT or JeM and simultnaeoulsy undermine the credibility and legitimacy of rogue institutions like the Pakistan army and the ISI.

The government can start by doing the groundwork on two options endorsed by the bloggers at the INI: getting a significant number of Indian troops inside Afghanistan and putting swathes of ungoverned Pakistani territory under international custodianship.

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