Tag Archives | Manmohan Singh

A win for Suu Kyi in Myanmar

 But it’s not a loss for India

Recent events in Egypt should warn us of premature euphoria about the victory of people power in countries under authoritarian regimes. But the images of iconic pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest until November 2010 running for elections in a country that till an a year ago was a quiet, fearful military dictatorship are bound to leave most observers intoxicated. In any case, Myanmar is not Egypt, although the military junta still holds power in that country.

First the facts. Myanmar’s Lower House of parliament has 440 seats (of which 330 are elected) while the Upper House has 224 seats (of which 168 are elected). Before the bye-elections, the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) dominated with 348 seats while serving soldiers had 166 seats. By-elections have been held for 45 seats to fill vacancies of those elected in 2010 polls who became ministers and deputy ministers in the government. These by-elections have been contested by 176 candidates from 17 parties and eight independents. The most famous candidate running in these by-elections is Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) has put up candidates in 44 seats.

Although the official results are not yet out, NLD is expected to win 40 of those seats. Suu Kyi herself has reportedly got 99% of the vote and won at 128 out of 129 polling booths in Kawmhu, the seat where she contested from. More surprisingly, NLD is claiming to have won 3 out of 4 seats in the new capital city of Naypyidaw, which is populated largely by government employees believed to be sympathetic to USDP.

These by-elections have been largely free and fair, with few reports of rigging or electoral irregularities. The one rather interesting complaint has been about the use of wax in the NLD box of the ballot paper.

…reports from all around the country that wax had been fixed on the NLD box on the ballot paper, making it hard for voters to put a clear tick in the box. The idea being, presumably, that a lot of scratching to write a tick would disfigure, and thus invalidate, the ballot paper. Certainly, a couple of furious people whom I spoke to at polling stations complained of this, and said that when they asked for a new ballot paper they were told there were none spare.[Banyan]

Notwithstanding this allegation, even if the NLD wins most of the seats, Suu Kyi is not going to be in power: the army and the USDP will still hold about 80% of seats in parliament. Let us also not forget that when Suu Kyi’s NLD had won the multi-party elections in 1990 (winning 392 of the 492 seats), those results were never accepted by the army. Those elections were not meant to form a parliamentary government, but only to form a parliament sized constitutional committee to draft a new constitution for Myanmar. How different could it be now?

Understanding the situation fully, Suu Kyi has promised to use her voice to push for further reforms. But she will need to continue her engagement with the President, Thein Sein. Both have taken big risks over the last year to get to this stage and the response from the international community should encourage them to go further.

What is in this for India? Unlike the Chinese or the Americans — and despite tremendous pressure from the US, India has maintained a working relationship with both the sides: Suu Kyi and the army. This will keep India in good stead in that country in the foreseeable future. India has three goals in Myanmar. One, to deny insurgents from India’s Northeastern states a sanctuary in Myanmar, and deny the Maoists access to arms smuggled via Kachin rebels in Myanmar. Two, to prevent China from gaining complete control in Myanmar, thereby countering China’s growing regional influence. Three, to use Myanmar as a gateway for furthering its relationship with other South-East Asian countries, as part of its Look East policy.

Of course, India can also help nurture Myanmar on to a path of full democracy. Peace and stability in Myanmar will allow India to focus on the development of Northeastern states. For once, India seems to be playing its cards right with a neighbouring country. It has been announced that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will soon visit Myanmar — the first visit to that country by an Indian PM in 25 years. This is one move which will allow the two countries to further strengthen their relationship. From here, it will take something out of the ordinary for India to mess it up with Myanmar. That’s some solace. Because anything out of the ordinary is beyond the current government in Delhi.

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A rule-generation process let loose

Three examples

#1 – Two Prime Ministers – Manmohan Singh and Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago – were among the guests who enjoyed the hearty meal during the just concluded Pravasi Bharatiya conference in Jaipur. Now it has emerged that the catering firm – Sky Feast – has no food licence, a mandatory requirement under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. Interestingly, the state health department had deputed two food inspectors to check the food supplied for the two PMs. It now appears that they cleared the food without bothering to check whether the firm had the clearance to supply it.[India Today]

#2 – The Co-ordinating Committee of Secretaries (CCoS), headed by cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth, is a follow-up to the policy for acquisition of assets abroad by PSUs to ensure adequate raw-material, crucial for growth of the manufacturing sector and the economy as a whole, an official statement said. The CCoS will consider proposals which are beyond the powers of board of CPSEs and require a budgetary support.[First Post]

#3 – The Government has allowed MS-Office Software as per DGS&D rate contract, to Government and Government Aided Educational Institutions, including training comprising 24-48 working hours of learning period, on the above software to two teachers per school. MPs may recommend an amount up to Rs.22 lakh in all per annum from their MPLADS fund, to purchase books for schools, colleges and public libraries belonging to Central, States/UTs and Local Self Government as per break up given in recent circular. These institutes will not be entitled for recommendation of books in the subsequent year, but will be eligible in the 3rd year again. The recommendations made in this context will be examined/approved by a Committee chaired by District Education Officer.[PIB]

The conclusion is simple. We suffer from ridiculous rules that rule us. The above examples remind me of Gary North’s Law of Bureaucracy:

Some bureaucrat will enforce a written rule in such a way as to make the rule and the bureaucracy seem either ridiculous, tyrannical, or both.

Related Post: The burden of too many laws

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Politics and democracy

The narrative matters

Even though he has been in active politics for over two decades now, Dr. Manmohan Singh was — at least before 2009 — usually described as an economist or a technocrat. That description has since been replaced by the bon mot: “Dr. Singh is an over-rated economist and an under-rated politician.” As his image suffered, he came to be seen as more of a politician than an economist.

Even this description doesn’t capture the truth. Dr. Singh is a politician. Period. Anyone who is in top-level politics, has been a union minister and leader of the opposition, and is the prime minister is nothing but a politician. What Dr. Singh is not is a mass politician like most others. He can’t perhaps even today win a Lok Sabha seat for himself, or help his party’s candidates by campaigning during elections.

If Dr. Singh is to be referred as an economist, then Arun Jaitley could also be called a lawyer. After all, he is a distinguished lawyer, and he hasn’t contested elections for the Lok Sabha. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Mr. Jaitley has spent all his professional life being a politician whereas Dr. Singh came into politics much later in life. But that is besides the point. Whatever might be your primary vocation, once you are in politics, you are a politician.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. This narrative betrays a lack of trust in our politics and politicians — an economist is better than a politician. In a democracy, there is no way of bypassing politics; politicians should and must matter. It is dangerous to assume that a non-politician can fix the system. Yesterday it was an economist, today it can be a civil society leader but if we continue to go down this path, tomorrow it can be a General like Pakistan.

We can’t use politician as a pejorative term, be cynical about politics as a process and place our hopes on non-politicians to lead and fix our democracy. The romance of democracy has to be underpinned by the rough and tumble of politics, which in Max Weber’s words is like  “the strong and slow boring of hard boards”. We should be careful that our distaste for corruption of politics doesn’t end up as contempt for politics.

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When MTNL helped India ‘jump’

Dr Manmohan Singh went ahead with the Rupee devaluation in 1991 after PM Rao developed cold feet

Twenty years after the economic reforms took place, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s record as the Prime Minister, particularly in UPA-2, seems to be impinging upon his track-record as the finance minister who turned around India’s fortunes in 1991. Dr. Singh is now dismissed as not being a committed reformer, and the then PM PV Narasimha Rao being the real architect of the economic reforms of the early 1990s.

If one were to go by the anecdote recounted by Dr. Sanjaya Baru (and mentioned by then RBI governor, C Rangarajan in 2001 in the Financial Express and Bibek Debroy in Economic Times), this modern view about Dr Singh and PM Rao might not be completely true.

In June 1991, the RBI’s foreign currency assets stood at $1.12 billion, equivalent to less than three weeks of imports at the time. India was on the verge of default as a new government, under the leadership of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, took charge. The first and the most important policy step that India took to regain credibility with its creditors and rating agencies was to go in for a massive devaluation of the rupee.

In a two-stage operation code named “hop, skip and jump” by the architects of the move – then finance minister Manmohan Singh and RBI’s C Rangarajan – the rupee was devalued by 9 per cent on July 1, 1991 and by another 11 per cent on July 3. The “hop” on July 1 was meant to test the waters. The political reaction at home was strongly negative. Congress party leaders rushed to Prime Minister Rao and warned him that devaluation had cost even the mighty Indira Gandhi dearly in June 1966, and it would unseat him. Barely a month in office, Mr Rao panicked. He called Dr Singh and asked him to stop further action.

Both Dr Singh and Dr Rangarajan knew that a half-hearted move would make matters worse. Global financial markets and the IMF expected more. Dr Singh pretended to get in touch with the deputy governor in Mumbai and claimed he was unable to get him. Mercifully, those were not the days of cell phones and SMS. Good old MTNL could be depended upon not to put a call through! A night of failed communication between North Block and Mint Road enabled the “jump” after the intervening “skip”.[BS]

Additional Reading: The 1991 budget speech (pdf) of the then Finance Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

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Did Pakistan cooperate?

Whether Pakistan cooperated with the US or not, India must accept the dark reality.

Osama Bin Laden is dead. The Americans got him inside Pakistan. The official US version says that Pakistan was neither involved nor informed about the raid on the house at Abbotabad. Many others say that Pakistan was involved and it helped out in the military operation but is maintaining silence because of “a possible backlash from Islamist insurgents or Pakistan’s strongly anti-American public”.

Either way, it should be a salutary warning for the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh who would only consider his job “well done” if ties with Pakistan return to normal before he leaves the office. Despite any lack of movement by Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attack to book, Dr Singh has pushed his government back to the pre-2008 composite dialogue with Pakistan, albeit without specifically christening it so.

So how does Pakistan’s role in the US military operation to get Bin Laden matter for India?

If Pakistan was not even informed of the operation by the US, it shows US’ complete lack of trust in Pakistan army and intelligence agencies when it comes to fighting jehadi terror. In effect, it conveys that the Pakistan army is hand-in-glove with the jehadis. As Pakistan army is the sole repository of that nation’s policy towards India — with its strategy against India predicated on using terror as an instrument of state policy — India can not expect to see any change of heart from Pakistan. The status quo shall thus prevail.

If Pakistan was actually a party to this operation and is unwilling to acknowledge its role, its doesn’t make things any better for India. It means that a large section of Pakistani  society, and perhaps even the rank-and-file of its military, do not consider jehadi terror to be a menace that the Pakistani state should confront. And the Pakistani political and military leadership do not have the courage to tell their people even this truth, let alone convince them. Talking about peace with such a weak state and a duplicitous military will not save India from the wrath of jehadi terror emanating from Pakistan.

This may sound harsh but it is a reality that Indian political leadership needs to confront. There is no glory in pursuing a course of action which is doomed for failure.

Where does the answer lie for India then? To quote Carl Jung, “All the greatest and most important problems are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.” India needs to learn to outgrow the problem called Pakistan.

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From RCR to Rawalpindi

Did they? Or didn’t they? And does it really matter?

As per media reports, this is what The Times reported about the Indian PM, Dr Manmohan Singh establishing unofficial direct contact with the Pakistan Army Chief, General Kayani.

The Times reported, “‘The Prime Minister of India has opened secret talks with the head of Pakistan’s military to build on the cricket-inspired diplomatic thaw between the rivals.

“Manmohan Singh appointed an unofficial envoy to make contact with Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of the army staff who exercises de facto control over foreign policy, about 10 months ago.”[HT]

And here is what the PM’s Media Adviser has denied:

“We have seen media reports quoting a British newspaper saying that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh contacted Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani before the Mohali meeting between the two Prime Ministers. The report is false,” PM’s media adviser Harish Khare said in a statement.[ToI]

Read the two statements again — The Times report and the PMO’s denial. Now, let us move on an even more interesting reaction from the Pakistan Army’s official spokesperson.

Asked to comment on the media report by a group of Indian journalists visiting the country on the invitation of the Pakistan Government, the Director-General of Inter Services Public Relations Athar Abbas said on Saturday: “I decline to comment.” To a specific question whether he was denying the veracity of the report, Maj. Gen. Abbas repeated: “I decline to comment.”[The Hindu]

Intelligent readers of the blog are encouraged to draw their own conclusions from the above.

Around the same time this “unofficial envoy” is supposed to have been appointed by the Prime Minister, this blog had clearly stated (here) : “It doesn’t matter whether India talks directly to GHQ in Pakistan or not; because India doesn’t have the capacity to make the other side listen.” That is the crux of the matter.

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What did the PM say?

Deconstructing the major themes in his speech.

The Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament on the Indo-Pak Joint Declaration did little to resolve the contradictions and remove the confusion in everyone’s mind about Pakistan policy of the UPA government. The UPA chairperson, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has further muddied the waters by suggesting that “till Pakistan shows concrete steps on anti-terror front there is no point of dialogue”. Such minor quibbles apart, Siddharth Varadarajan has gone ahead and predicted that history will see the Prime Minister’s response “as a potential game changer in India’s official discourse on Pakistan”. Siddharth has based his prediction on the four basic themes put forth by the Prime Minister in defence of his actions. Let us deconstruct them one by one.

#1 …his emphasis on the inevitability of engagement…

Engagement might be inevitable, but it is certainly not a fait accompli. This actually translates into a situation of helplessness where irrespective of whatever Pakistan does to us, we have to engage with that country. After all, it is inevitable. But what about a time, place and situation of our choice while taking that decision to engage (and with whom in Pakistan).

#2 …his clarity on the fact that the alternative to dialogue was war…

No one wants a war, unless it is absolutely thrust upon you. But having dialogue just because we are afraid to wage a war — or of its consequences — is not what strong nations indulge in. While the Prime Minister harped many time on Ronald Reagan’s favourite phrase — Trust, but verify — during his speech, he’d do well to remember the words of another former US President, Theodore Roosevelt: Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.

More importantly, the choice isn’t really that stark — dialogue or war — without having exhausted all the other instruments of state power: diplomatic, economic and military. The main diplomatic instruments available to any country are negotiations, public diploma­cy (including informational, cultural and exchange programmes), international law and organisation, and alliances.  Economic instruments include foreign aid (both economic and military), financial and trade policy, and sanc­tions.  And even the military instrument can be used for persuasive purposes (usually short of combat) before going in for outright warfare.

#3 …his fear that the absence of direct talks with Pakistan would allow foreign powers to get involved in the region to India’s detriment…

Which foreign power is the Prime Minister referring to? Obviously, the United States of America. It won’t be an Haiti or a Congo that would dare to get involved between India and Pakistan. While foreign intervention in the region is not welcome, it is something that could only work to India’s advantage. The examples of withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Kargil or Musharraf’s concessions after Operation Parakram — undertaken by Pakistan at the behest of the United States — demonstrate the advantage that India holds in such negotiations. Some one like Manmohan Singh, who has so adroitly negotiated the Indo-US Nuclear deal and the defence EUMA with the United States, ought to be confident that any foreign involvement would certainly not be to India’s detriment.

#4 …his recognition of the need to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian leaders…

Pakistan army and the ISI continue to be the makers of foreign and defence policy in Pakistan. Manmohan Singh would do well to remember the fate of Nawaz Sharif, merely a few months after signing the Lahore declaration with PM Vajpayee. More dangerously, as The Acorn has pointed out, PM Singh has unwittingly strengthened the hands of a rather hawkish Gilani vis-à-vis a more India-friendly Zardari.

Strengthening the hands of Pakistan’s civilian leaders or bringing democracy to that Islamic Republic is none of our business. We should not try and change the cards we are dealt with but make the best use of our hand. If that means negotiating with — or pressing — the Pakistan army and the ISI over dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in that country, then we should not hesitate to do so. Talking to an ineffectual democratically elected leadership makes little sense when the levers of diplomatic and military power are controlled by those in uniform.

# 5 …Balochistan [Something that Siddharth forgot to mention in his piece.]

The Acorn has already expounded on the Balochistan factor in the joint statement. There is an additional point about Pakistan’s gloating over Indian ‘support’ to ‘freedom-fighters’ in Balochistan. It allows Pakistani state and intelligentsia to avoid the real debate about the role of Islam in Pakistan and how Islamic the state should be. If the militants fighting the Pakistani state are not warriors of ‘real’ Islam but merely Indian agents, it is far easier for the state to justify the fight. And this even helps a Brigade Commander in Pakistan army to easily motivate his troops to join the battle against the Taliban. Lest we forget, it doesn’t help India — even in a counter-intuitive manner — because it only reinforces the image of India as an arch enemy of Pakistan and its citizens.

Manmohan Singh is a mild-mannered, patriarchal figure with a professorial demeanour. His track record as a Finance Minister, and as a Prime Minister on the Indo-US nuclear deal, has earned him this nation’s trust. This trust — along with the backing of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi — has probably given him the confidence to go for the jugular here. He would do well to remember that more illustrious leaders in India, before him, have foolishly trusted India’s neighbours and realised, to their chagrin, that history doesn’t remember them all that kindly now. Nehru, with his China policy, is a case  in point. By any stretch of imagination, this is a huge leap of faith by the Prime Minister. The consequences of its failure will be borne not only by him, but also by this nation.

Thus there is only one thing that the nation can do when it comes to Manmohan Singh (and his Pakistan policy): Trust[him], but verify[his actions].

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Apathy to internal security

Along with the politicians, the media must take the blame.

“Dead upon the field of glory,”
Hero fit for song and story. ~John Randolph Thompason

Forget the song and the story, this was not deemed fit even to make the news headlines. Of the national dailies that this blogger checked — The Hindu, Indian Express, The Times of India, Hindustan Times — none of them had the story of 15 CRPF men kiled since yesterday in internal security duties displayed anywhere prominently. The various news channel websites fared no better, for obvious reasons. CRPF men dying in Chattisgarh or Jharkhand do not make a sexy story; Modi, Varun Gandhi, Advani and Manmohan Singh’s verbal duels do.

So what was the story that didn’t feature anywhere or were only featured on the margins of popular reportage.

Ten CRPF soldiers, including a Deputy Commandant and a sub-inspector, were killed in an ambush by over 125 Maoists wielding AK-47 rifles in Chattisgarh day before yesterday. Eight other CPRF mean were injured in the attack in Bastar region. This was followed by another attack by naxals where five more CRPF men were killed in Jharkhand.

Why is it important that these stories are featured prominently? They are important not for emotional reasons as most people make them out to be — to remember and celebrate uniformed men who lay their lives fighting for the nation. That is a reasonably important function of the media. But there is a more important reason: to highlight and focus the debate on the vexed issue of internal security in this country.

Two political formations are indulged in a verbal slugfest over internal security — a discourse that begins and ends with POTA, Afzal Guru and Mumbai 26-11 — when the more substantive issues of maoists and naxals rarely get discussed. In fact, when neither of the political formations has anything concrete to offer on tackling this arduous problem, it suits them to the tee to have a media — insouciant to the pressing national issues of the day — that is only interested in Modi versus Priyanka or Advani versus MMS soundbytes. And not to forget some shoe throwing incidents.

The politicians have to take their share of the blame for avoiding the real issues during the election campaign. But the greater blame lies on the media, which is shirking from its primary duty in a democracy — of initiating and facilitating an informed debate on issues of gravest importance.

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Political executive is answerable for national policy

Neither the armed forces, nor the diplomats have a right to veto policy making.

C Raja Mohan, in his column for the Indian Express, blames Manmohan Singh and the Congress government for not doing enough to achieve a major breakthrough on India-Pakistan relations. He makes a few important observations as he lambasts the bureaucratic approach of the Congress led government which compares unfavourably with the political approach of the BJP-led administration.

Part of the problem has been his [Manmohan Singh's] ceding a veto to various sections of the security establishment on what are essentially high political decisions.

If he had allowed the foreign office and security agencies the last word, Vajpayee would never have been able to make any moves towards Pakistan. Given the emotive relationship with Pakistan, our diplomacy must necessarily be driven by the instinct and judgment of the political leadership.

It is true that the prime minister has been ill-served by the do-nothing approach of his key Congress cabinet colleagues in the home and defence ministries who have a major say in the making of Pakistan policy.

There are not many analysts in India who would openly say that the defence services and the foreign office have held the Indian foreign policy towards its neighbours hostage to the parochial interests of their respective institutions. While soldiers and diplomats have a right to express their opinion and provide inputs to the government in a democracy, the final decision on any policy matter is always that of the political executive. All the instruments of the state — whether it be the bureaucrats, soldiers or diplomats — have to operate within the political framework of the policy decided by the government.

In a democracy, it is the political executive that has to either reap the rewards or pay the price for formulating a policy and overseeing its implementation. It is imperative, therefore, for the political executive to ensure that the bureaucrats, diplomats and soldiers are not allowed any vetoes on matters of national policy. While the record of his other cabinet colleagues has not been something to write home about, a pusillanimous defence minister has been the biggest culprit in condoning a public display of confrontation by the defence services.

In the remaining months of his tenure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do well to assert the  authority of the political executive over the bureaucrats, diplomats and soldiers in policy formulation. He can be politically pugnacious as evident earlier with his pushing of economic reforms in the early 90s and the nuclear deal earlier this year. In both the cases, however, he displayed that ruthlessness when the situation was on the edge of a precipice.

One hopes that in asserting the primacy of political executive in framing national policy, especially in the India-Pakistan context, Manmohan Singh will make an exception to his earlier record — to be proactive even when the situation is not dire. Else it will consume a lot of political goodwill, time and resources of his successor government next year to undo the damage done to institutionalised policy making by this pliant Prime Minister and his ignoble cabinet colleagues.

It might already be too late to change. But better late than never.

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