Tag Archives | narrative

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 That description has since been replaced by the bon mot: “Dr.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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What is broken and what are we fixing?

India’s blunt instruments of governance can not deliver the change we want.

The India Shining story is finally over. Or so it seems, if you follow the mainstream media — international or national — and social media outlets. Although the India Shining slogan had run its course in 2004 parliamentary elections, the message lasted far longer, for almost another six years.

In the India Shining period, there was a surfeit of good news from and about India. And it made the average, english-speaking Indian feel good. She didn’t belong to the land of elephants, snake-charmers and Maharajas any more. The West was afraid of India’s growth — the westerners feared for their jobs being gobbled by the Indians. It felt great to hear that India would overtake the United States as the world’s second largest economy by 2040 (or was it 2025?).

It was India Unstoppable. Of course, India didn’t miraculously become perfect in 2004 (or in 1998). There was enough of the downside — poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, underemployment and unemployment, low agricultural growth, urban squalor, infrastructure deficit, terror strikes and yes, even corruption. But they did not dominate the narrative in the minds of the average middle-class Indian. The perception was that India would somehow overcome all these pinpricks and march ahead fearlessly.

Then something happened in 2010. The story of corruption in the Commonwealth Games was perhaps the turning point. A scintillating Opening Ceremony did spawn some patriotic fervour but that elation was short-lived as stories of one scam after another continued to be highlighted in the media. By the middle of 2011, situation has come to such a pass that people are struggling to find positive news, leading some of them to create hashtags on twitter marking good news. Despondency, cynicism and outrage are the predominant emotions in op-eds, TV discussions and on social media platforms today.

It is India Horrible. Of course, everything hasn’t fallen apart in this country in the last nine months. Kashmir has been peaceful, purposeful negotiations with insurgent groups in the North East have delivered results, terror strikes on the Indian mainland have been conspicuous by their absence, FDI inflows have picked up, Aadhar unique identity numbers have been issued to many Indians, peaceful elections have been held in many states and India has even won the cricket world cup. But the narrative is distinctly negative — it is not only feared but many Indians believe that the India story is unravelling now.

Interestingly, those charged with corruption in the recent months — and this includes some very powerful people — are behind bars. New laws are being promised to tackle corruption in high places. But the mood doesn’t seem to change.

What has brought us here?

India’s archaic governance system — policing, judicial, political and administrative —  just couldn’t keep pace with the rapid rate of social and economic change in the country. A proverbial fuel-guzzling, high maintenance, constantly under repair, outdated vehicle of governance could be run inefficiently by pouring in more resources provided by India’s high growth rate. Even then, like a spluttering vehicle, it barely managed to pull through up to a point and seems to have finally broken down now.

The political class, by the nature of electoral politics and accountability to the people, has been the hardest hit by this crisis of credibility. Its reaction has been to shrivel, yielding its legitimate space to the judiciary, media and the civil society. The judiciary, media and the civil society have further targeted the political class, often for their own selfish reasons, and prescribed solutions based on its misdiagnosis of the problem.

The Supreme Court, in one judgement after another, blames the economic reforms of the early 1990s, neo-liberal policies, big-bad business houses for the state of the country. It quotes extensively from Leftist literature, and left to its own devices, it seems that the Supreme Court would want India to embrace communism of the Soviet variety. Of course, that would mean more power to the Indian State.

The civil society isn’t far behind. Various types of civil society — from the NAC to Team Anna — want a greater role for the Indian state. And in various fields, be it the Jan Lokpal or the Right to Education or the  Right to Food or to end communal violence, the Civil Society wants the Indian government to do everything, and more of everything in everything.

Media needs a Black and White narrative, a hero and a villain. Politicians are the villains; the Supreme Court and the Civil Society the heroes that will slay the villains. And their weapon of choice seems to be the Indian government.

But there is a problem. India’s instruments of governance may have been sharp half a century ago but they are blunt for today’s era. Their failure to reform, reinvent and modernise themselves means that they are unsuited to today’s social, political and cultural mores. When these blunt instruments are hastily applied to the problems — whether under directions of the judiciary, or under pressure from the civil society and the media — they end up causing more grief instead of solving the problems. Applying more force to these blunt instruments only tends to worsen the situation, after the initial applause for boldly using the instrument has subsided.

It is a crisis of governance. Unless the Indian state is able to undertake large-scale reforms — administrative, electoral, parliamentary, judicial, police, tax, labour, regulatory, and military — to sharpen its edge, applying greater force is not going to make a difference. In an inverse of the American saying, if it is broken, damn well fix it.

It is not that the UPA government doesn’t understand this reality. The Prime Minister had identified administrative reforms as the need of the hour in 2004. Mr Veerappa Moily has produced many volumes of reports under the ambit of the Administrative Reforms Commission. The road-map for police reforms lies unused for many years now. The state of reforms in other sectors is no different. There is just no political will to undertake these reforms. While the focus of the people remains on the symptoms like corruption, the malaise remains unattended and untreated.

But why the surprise over this situation when the conditions for this narrative of despondency existed for some time? Yes, there was a failure to predict these events. In a way, it was like trying to predict when an earthquake will occur. You know that the tectonic conditions are in place for an earthquake, but you do not know with any precision when the earthquake will occur. Accordingly, while most observers were surprised in one sense — by the timing, by the rapidity of the spread of despondency and outrage — many of us were not surprised in another sense that the situation so developed.

Notwithstanding the rapidity of spread of pessimism, the depth of the change that this emotion produces is far more important. It is clear that India is not going back to the status quo ante. This is the start of a long, uncertain path toward change in India, in politics and in governance. The consequent change must be structural, progressive and forward-looking.

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The cross-LoC CBMs

Welcome the proposed CBMs in Kashmir but do not overstate their significance.

The recently concluded meeting of foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan had one complete session dedicated to Kashmir. Although there were expectations about some cross-LoC CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) being announced at Islamabad — increasing the frequency of existing Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, a new bus service between Kargil and Skardu, a banking mechanism to replace the existing barter system, and increasing the number of trading days across the LoC from two to four every week — the joint statement resulted in only the announcement of a working group to study these issues.

Both sides agreed to convene a meeting of the Working Group on Cross-LoC CBMs to recommend measures for strengthening and streamlining the existing trade and travel arrangements across the LoC and propose modalities for introducing additional Cross-LoC CBMs. The Working Group will meet in July 2011.[Link]

In all likelihood, these additional cross-LoC CBMs will be adopted by both sides and would probably be announced with great fanfare when the foreign ministers of two countries meet in Delhi next month. Just because these CBMs are low-hanging fruits on Kashmir that can be picked up by the two countries, it would be imprudent to dismiss these as meaningless. They will bring solace to some people on both sides of the LoC, however few in number, and should be welcome solely for that reason itself. It is precisely for this reason that the Chief Minister of J&K, Omar Abdullah has been vocal in welcoming these CBMs — they help some of the residents of his state.

However, to expect these limited initiatives to provide a springboard for a permanent solution of the Kashmir “problem” would be delving into flights of fancy.

Let me digress here a bit. Do you remember the first woman US Secretary of State, Madeleine Korbel Albright? Her father, Joseph Korbel was the chairman of the United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan (UNCIP) until 1949. In his book Danger in Kashmir, he argued nearly 57 years ago that:

…the real cause of all the bitterness and bloodshed, all the venomed speech, recalcitrance and the suspicion that have characterized the Kashmir dispute is the uncompromising and perhaps uncompromisable struggle of two ways of life, two concepts of political organization, two scales of values, two spiritual attitudes, that find themselves locked in deadly conflict, a conflict in which Kashmir has become both symbol and battleground.[Book]

This means that while the character of the conflict between India and Pakistan may have changed over the last 63 years, its essential nature persists. And those intractable differences are now deeply ingrained in the DNA of the two nations, the two states and their respective societies.

A couple of other points on Kashmir. Pakistan’s strategy towards India, particularly on Kashmir, has been the composite of hostility, chance and purpose. In contrast, there is a dissonance between the national narrative and national actions on the Indian side. The Indian political leadership has never made any attempt to sell its narrative to the world, or even to its own public. Often this is an ongoing process and as fatigue and distraction sets in, it demands that the national narrative on Kashmir be refined, redefined, or at least re-explained to all the stakeholders.

The Indian failure can also be phrased differently. A nation with a surplus of strategic resources can be sloppy or inefficient in its strategy and India has been a victim of this strategy-resource paradigm on Kashmir. India thus needs a coherent strategy to maximise the results from any expenditure of strategic resources. It must apply its power resources where they will have the greatest impact.

To start with, India can begin by not only focusing on good work done in Jammu & Kashmir but also by contrasting it with the abysmal state of political, social, religious, economic and human rights in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, including the Northern Areas (now called Gilgit-Baltistan).

Finally, those who hope to bring the Kashmir “problem” to a final and sustainable conclusion in a few months or a few years are sadly mistaken; largely because they have misunderstood the character of this conflict and have thus attempted to impose a convenient framework rather than the one which reflects reality.

The bottomline is simple. Let us continue to undertake the cross-LoC CBMs that help some sections of the population in Jammu & Kashmir. But let us neither overstate their significance nor bank on them to miraculously solve the Kashmir “problem”.

We are in it for a long haul. Modern public policy wonks would probably phrase it as a cause that warrants Strategic Patience.

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Mislaid narrative

The danger of a misplaced portrayal of even the tiniest trouble in Kashmir in 2011.

An interesting piece by ANI’s Smita Prakash warns us that the summer of 2011 could be tricky for Kashmir. While social networking tools may not have succeeded during the protests in 2010, it would be unwise to dismiss them now based on the previous year’s experience. The piece was interesting not only for what it said but for what it left unsaid. Here is this blogger’s interpretation of the unsaid bit:

Kashmir has seen trouble for the last two decades now. The militancy-related violence peaked in 2001, and the violence has dipped in the last two years to pre-1990 levels. There have been two major non-militancy protests — not non-violent though, mind you — in the Kashmir Valley: in 2008 over the Amarnath Land Transfer issue, and then the summer protests of 2010. In 2009, there were protests in some parts of Kashmir over the Shopian incident. It means that the decline  in militancy has been matched by the rise in these new means of protests in the Valley.

Despite the best intentions of the state government, supported by political moves from the Centre, it is possible that some protests — whether localised and sporadic incidents, or a sustained Valley-wide movement — may still occur in the Valley in summer of 2011. It is also possible that social networking may be used as a tool to organise these protests. While that may or may not be the most important factor in organising the protests, the separatists and the political opposition in the state would be more interested in conveying the message that even the smallest of protests are part of the larger narrative of twitter “revolution” sweeping the Middle East.

The reason for that is simple. Indian security forces have defeated the militancy in the state. Politically, the state seems to be moving towards normalcy with the announcement of the panchayat polls later this year. The separatists stand discredited after their failed antics of last year. The best they can then hope for is to latch on to a larger populist narrative to enhance their own credibility and show to the outside world that they continue to be relevant in today’s Kashmir.

Protests may or may not happen in the Kashmir Valley in the summer of 2011. One fervently hopes that they don’t. But if they do occur, then remember that protests were happening in Kashmir even in 2008, 2009 and 2010, before the “Twitter Revolution” overthrew dictators. Let us not unnecessarily start crediting Tunisia or Libya or Egypt for them. The blame would still rest on the loony separatist Kashmiri leadership, and their benefactors on the other side of the Line of Control.

Lest some think that the fear of the wrong narrative is overblown, one of the national dailies has already started building up the story. Perhaps this newspaper has never heard of OMPP, Oldest Mistake in Public Policy — mistaking correlation for causation. Or as they say, what we see depends mainly on what we are looking for.

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The Benaras bomb

The terrorists are not succeeding. But why are we publicising their narrative?

The IED blast at Varanasi last evening, claimed by the Indian Mujahideen [IM], was both a success and a failure. The terrorists failed to inflict any real and substantive physical damage at the site or cause major casualties with the blast. People were injured mainly in the stampede caused after the blast. Every single death is despicable — more so when it is of a two-year old child — but measured on the yardstick of major terror strikes, it was but a minor blip on the radar. But the terrorists succeeded in their other aim — of garnering publicity. The IM email claiming the “credit” for the terror strike was all over the media — on television, at the web and in the newspapers. Stories about the renewed terror threat from IM followed soon after.

It is nobody’s case that the government censor the coverage of the terrorists or their purported claims. But those who cover the event — on television and social media — have a responsibility to be objective and contextual. They cannot — even if only inadvertently — create an impression that the terrorists who did the blasts in Varanasi were “ten-feet tall supermen”. Even if this terror attack was a success, albeit a very limited one, there is a need to eschew the temptation to treat it as a greater disaster than its destructive power warrants. The country will help define the success of any terror attack by its reaction to that attack.The terrorists want to leverage the terror-strike to build their brand equity and the media must not strengthen their hands by hyping and publicising their narrative.

This is different from what the state must do. The state machinery must be ruthless in targeting and eliminating terrorists and their supporters. While the state must kill the terrorist, the media can too lend a helping hand by killing his narrative. These have to be the two prongs of a successful counter-terror strategy now.

The blast must have been obviously planned well, and the IM has a track-record to boast of that capability. But the execution failed. What succeeded was the publicity it got by the broadcast of its email. IM’s core competence seems to have shifted from successfully executing deadly terror strikes to drafting more coherent emails.

Furthermore, there were reports to suggest that the IM had deliberately triggered a low-intensity blast at Varanasi , as if these terrorists were humane and wanted to avoid casualties. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These terrorists are brutal murderers who don’t flinch in slaughtering innocent men, women and children. Let us not blame on strategy what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

In the aftermath of the blast, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s public reaction to the media about the supposed laxity of UP police at Varanasi was unwarranted; and so was the gross public over-reaction by the UP government thereafter. Union Home Minister should have conveyed his observations about the lapses in security or intelligence sharing in an official fora. Having done a decent job in the last two years, especially in countering Islamist terror threat on the Indian mainland, Mr Chidambaram must be careful enough to not spoil his record by trying to score political points now.

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Catch the drift in Kashmir

Amidst the noise over Commonwealth games and Ayodhya verdict, the government must stay focused on Kashmir.

The Indian government has really got its hands full these days. The media is full of stories about how the Commonwealth Games are a national disaster in the making and the Prime Minister has had to now himself take charge of the situation. Then, there is the much-awaited court verdict on the Ayodhya Ram temple-Babri mosque issue which is expected next week now. The Union home ministry has been gearing up for the verdict to prevent any flare-up in communal tension, post-verdict. As the government hops from managing or preventing one crisis from another, it is also confronted with the small matter of preparing for the much-hyped visit to India by President Obama. And then there are the assembly elections in Bihar where the Congress party is trying to seek its revival in the state. Even by India’s standards, this is an unusually packed schedule of events which will attract a lot of — warranted and unwarranted — media attention.

Amidst all this, there is a real danger that there is one situation which will again be allowed to drift due to government’s preoccupation with other things — and that is Kashmir. The recent visit of the All Party Delegation to Kashmir, with its unilateral initiative to reach out to and engage the separatist leadership has evened out the distorted anti-India narrative about Kashmir in the national media. Notwithstanding the public display of bravado by the separatists, their intransigence has placed them under greater public pressure from the Kashmiri awam which wants an early return to normalcy. This quest for normalcy can be gauged by the reported movement of Kashmiri Muslims to Jammu to seek a normal life. Meanwhile, the state government has also stepped-up to the plate by refusing to adhere to, and actively countering, Hurriyat’s calendar of protests and shutdowns in the Valley. This has, for the first time in three months, led Syed Ali Shah Geelani to announce a suspension of his shutdown calendar for two days.

Evidently, the government has finally got its act in place in Kashmir. While this is welcome news, it is merely a good beginning, a foot in the door so to speak. It can not afford to rest over its laurels of winning a small, but significant battle when there is a whole war to be won. The government has to follow it up — continuously and consistently — with more simultaneous action on both the fronts: political and security. The process of political engagement must continue in the Valley as the security forces try to restore law and order in the affected districts.  It must also control the media narrative of building up expectations about some major announcements on Kashmir after every CCS meeting by a better public diplomacy campaign.  They unnecessarily raise hopes and thus create a sense of disappointment in Kashmir, which the separatists then exploit to their advantage.

In the last five years, India has repeatedly failed to avail of the opportunities presented to it in Kashmir by allowing the situation to drift. A similar opportunity has again presented itself in Kashmir now. The cacophony of sounds over Commonwealth games and Ayodhya verdict must not distract the government from staying focused on the challenge in Kashmir. Rather than allow the situation to drift, it better catch the drift…the drift of turning a tricky situation around in Kashmir.

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Dump the trust deficit

Pakistan isn’t trustworthy enough for India to attempt the process of bridging the trust deficit.

When it comes to India-Pakistan relations, the buzz-word that has appropriated the narrative of both the governments to explain the need for peace talks is “trust-deficit”. Does it actually connote something?

Trust is a bilateral relationship—one trusts, and the other is the trusted. While the two are related, they’re not the same thing. The second part, about who should be trusted — which is relevant in the India-Pakistan context — is about trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is “keeping one’s word and being worthy of another’s confidence. It connotes being sound in principles, full of integrity, reliable, capable, credible and dependable.”

This means that an attempt at bridging the trust deficit can only be made if one finds the other party trustworthy.  The real question that Delhi should then ask is: is Pakistan trustworthy — reliable, capable, credible and dependable — enough to even talk about trust?

The answer is crystal-clear if one goes by the weight of evidence put forth by the London School of Economics report [pdf] and The Times investigative newsreport on the relationship of Pakistani state agencies, including the civilian leadership, with the Afghan Taliban. If this is the situation when the interests of Pakistan’s biggest lender and strategic partner, the United States are involved, which includes the lives of US-NATO soldiers being lost in Afghanistan due to Pakistani machinations, imagine the situation when it comes to Pakistan’s arch-enemy, India.

Enough said. It is time India junked this ugly buzzword called “trust deficit” along with the process being defined by it.

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Maoist menace: Random thoughts

From Kishenji to JFK.

  • Has it ever occurred to you that we gloat over the US getting its Baradar and Haqqani in Pakistan but can’t get one stupid Kishenji in our own country? While Kishenji isn’t the military supremo of the Maoists, getting him is important to correct the distorted media narrative of LWE menace in this country.
  • After Congress in Andhra Pradesh and Shibu Soren in Jharkhand, Nitish Kumar is now trying out the time-tested formula of electoral success with Maoist collusion. The tacit support of Maoists sought by Nitish Kumar is reminiscent of PDP’s soft-separatist anti-India stand in Kashmir valley to get the votes of the Jamaitis and of Akalis in Punjab in the 1980s to get electoral patronage of the supporters of the Khalistan movement.
  • While anti-Maoist operations in Orissa and West Bengal suffer due to lack of capacity,  it is the lack of political will that is stalling anti-Maoist operations in Jharkhand and Bihar. Anti-Maoist operations have been most successful in Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh due to a combination of political will and capacity accretion in the security infrastructure in those states.
  • Finally, let us paraphrase JF Kennedy and remember it. We should not be afraid to negotiate with the Maoists, but let us never negotiate out of fear.

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Strategic leaders

Tactically brilliant doesn’t always evolve into brilliant strategic military leadership.

From Abu Muqawama’s brilliant interview with author Greg Jaffe:

Petraeus is a very effective strategic leader. What bugs me is the narrative that he was somehow birthed atop Mount Olympus as the brilliant four star who saved the Army. In reality, his career is a bizarre departure from the norm. He does four tours at the elbow of top generals – Galvin (twice), Vuono and Shelton. He spends relatively little time in the field actually leading soldiers (especially compared to Casey). Petraeus’ career path doesn’t win him a lot of admirers among his peers, who whisper that he’s a palace general or a bit of a suck-up. But it makes Petraeus a much better general and probably a less adept battalion and brigade commander. This is a guy who starts preparing for a strategic leadership role as a captain. I don’t think Casey was as effective. But it is a huge mistake to write him off as not bright, intransigent, lazy or stuck in the Cold War as many in the COIN crowd tend to do. He is a smart person. He works incredibly hard. He was a great soldier and quite possibly a better battalion and brigade commander than Petraeus. So David and I tried really hard to understand why Casey makes the decisions that he makes. He is a product of these experiences that he has growing up in the Army.[AM]

Greg makes a very interesting point here. This blogger has always held a strong belief that tactically brilliant commanders may not eventually progress to be equally brilliant strategic leaders. While the defence services — not only in India but the world over — promote a tactically brilliant guy hoping that he’d deliver strategically as well, at times not-so-brilliant tactical commanders surprise people with their performance as strategic leaders.

In the Indian context, many would care to remember that Sam Manekshaw never commanded a battalion and his rise up till the rank of a Brigadier was a real struggle. And he remains independent India’s most successful, if not arguably the most brilliant, strategic military commander.

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