On Net(work) Neutrality in India

Summer reading list on the Indian media, law and international politics

1. City Room - Arthur Gelb (Putnam Adult, 2003)

2. Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy - Rahul Sagar (Princeton UP, 2014)

3. The Global War for Internet Governance - Laura DeNardis (Yale UP, 2014)

4. Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal - Prashant Jha (Aleph/Hurst, 2014)

5. No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - Glenn Greenwald (Metropolitan, 2014)

6. Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis - Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, with Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmay Chaudhary (Feel Books, 2014)

7. The Indian Media Business - Vandita Khandekar-Kohli (Sage, 2013)

8. The Informal Constitution - Abhinav Chandrachud (OUP, 2014)

9. The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra - Manoj Mitta (Harper India, 2014)

10. The Future of International Law - Joel Trachtman (Cambridge UP, 2013)

Modi and the making of foreign policy

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Any attempt at crystal gazing the process by which the Modi government will articulate its foreign policy must defer to three developments: the appointment of Sushma Swaraj as foreign minister, Ajit K. Doval as National Security Advisor, and the unambiguous signals rising from the PM’s office that it will be the final arbiter of India’s foreign policy. What will be the role of the MEA, and how will the Ministry lend itself to the conduct of foreign policy in the backdrop of a powerful PMO?

The MEA v. PMO narrative — that hot button issues have been taken away from the Ministry in recent years, relegating it to less important functions – is misplaced. As one official who worked closely with Dr. Manmohan Singh told me recently, it is unrealistic to expect the Prime Minister in any modern government to delegate decision-making in foreign policy. Indeed, Modi’s first few days in government have been heavily weighted towards FP, what with his reaching out to SAARC leaders. Given the enormous interest and curiosity globally to engage with Modi, it is only fair and legitimate that the PMO has the last word on international relations. Where does that leave the MEA?

The appointment of a senior minister – third ranking in the Cabinet – is a welcome sign. For starters, Swaraj’s appointment will foster a robust dialogue on foreign policy in Cabinet meetings, not least because she is an outspoken politician. In fact, having two heavyweights occupy the post of MEA and PMO facilitates the evolution of an organic decision-making process.  There are two separate tracks here: political and bureaucratic. The political dialogue on foreign policy will by no means be confined to Modi and Swaraj, but as I’ve written, may enjoy a pride of place in Cabinet meetings.

The primary interlocutors in bureaucratic engagement will likely be the Foreign Secretary and the National Security Advisor. Ajit Doval’s appointment is significant not just because he is an internal security expert (the PMO is on the hunt for a Dy. NSA who fits the diplomatic/ external affairs profile - Amb. Jaishankar has reportedly declined the offer). In this regard at least, there will be no difference from the Shiv Shankar Menon/Nehchal Sandhu jugalbandi (Menon cut his teeth as a diplomat, while Sandhu was an IB guy). But unlike his predecessors Brajesh Mishra, M.K. Narayanan, J.N. Dixit, and Shiv Shankar Menon, Doval does not enjoy the personal confidence of his political masters yet. In this respect, Doval’s an out and out “professional” appointment, the first to that office.

As a result, I do not see cliques forming in the PMO, which may be inclined to “hijack” the foreign policy discourse entirely. Hawk/dove differences may still persist, but that is only natural within government. If anything, appointing two bureaucrats unfamiliar with Modi’s ways to the NSA provides ample opportunity for the MEA to be the go-to ministry on key foreign policy issues. I’ll stick my neck out and predict continuity in areas like climate change negotiations, international trade and internet governance, and the MEA continues to be the nodal ministry on these matters. Structurally, the decision-making process may move towards the PMO (a key departure from the MMS era) but the NSA’s office is likely to be a co-ordinator and liaison with the Ministries of External Affairs, Defence and Finance, rather than a super-diplomat. 

(Cartoon from The Atlantic. I own no rights)

Modi sarkaar, West Asia and Iran

Why the PM-in-waiting must engage Iran

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Perceptibly absent from the list of congratulatory exchanges India’s PM-in-waiting Narendra Modi has had with world leaders, are those from the Gulf states (at the time of writing)*. These are early days, but it is not too difficult to imagine why: West Asian governments will likely monitor PM Modi’s initial utterances before engaging him as a head of state. It is now clear from electoral data that the Muslim vote share for the Congress this time has dramatically increased, busting the notion that the BJP won on an inclusive platform. The number of Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha will be a measly 22, and all 7 of BJP’s 482 candidates failed at the ballot. The message from these numbers will not be lost on the embassies of the Gulf states in Delhi, who will duly communicate the goings-on to their political leadership.

(Note: West Asia, for the most part, has pursued pragmatic relations with New Delhi — independent of Muslim attitudes in India — but since Modi is an unknown variable, you can be sure they’ll have their ears to the ground.)

That, however, should not dissuade Modi himself from reaching out to the Arab states, and Iran in particular, even before he formally takes charge as PM. In fact, cutting so through diplomatic protocol will reassure West Asia of the NDA government’s commitment to continuity in India’s defining foreign policy principles. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has already seized the initiative, losing not a moment in congratulating Modi after the votes were counted. Even as the European Union and US line up with invites for him, Modi’s first act of statesmanship can be extending his hand to West Asia, where India’s relations continue to be rock solid.

Of special significance would be Modi’s engagement with Iran, which is going through a critical phase of resurgence in the comity of nations. For starters, Modi would do well to assuage Tehran’s concerns that his government may take sides in the Iran-Israel detente (in which India is a bit player with nothing to gain from choosing camps). Second, he should re-affirm the Indian position on Iran’s nuclear programme, which is that the Islamic Republic is fully entitled to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Above all, the Modi government must back the ongoing Geneva process to the hilt, in line with India’s welcoming the interim agreement of November and generally of resolving the nuclear crisis through dialogue.

(Note: the BJP has a legacy of reaching out to Iran, with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s highly symbolic and successful visit to Iran in 2001, which was reciprocated by President Mohammed Khatami a couple years later. In fact, the Tehran and Delhi declarations can be treated as the founding basis of strategic Indo-Iran ties.)

Instrumentalist as our relationship with Iran has become – I have written about this here – Modi’s platform of development fits nicely with warmer Indo-Iran ties. I’m personally not too optimistic about an Iran-P5+1 agreement this July, but it is certain the interim agreement will be extended for a finite period. Iran’s economy will, in the process, open up, and Rouhani and co will leave no stone unturned to do business with emerging markets. With the US drawdown in Afghanistan imminent, the importance of the Persian Gulf to Indian interests cannot be exaggerated. A cap on crude sales may not be lifted soon, but it would be eminently advisable for the NDA to do what it can to reduce the political risk associated in commercial transactions with the region, oil and otherwise. Modi’s embrace of Iran is a good first step.

(Clarification: After publishing this post, I received word that the leadership of Qatar did indeed contact Modi after the elections)

India won’t back move for sanctions on South Sudan

The Indian Express

India will not support ongoing US efforts at the United Nations to impose sanctions against South Sudan, The Sunday Express has learnt.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced — for the first time since conflict broke out in the world’s newest republic last year — economic sanctions against key parties on both sides of the conflict. Subsequently, US representative to the UN Samantha Powers suggested the US will seek “targeted sanctions on those who undermine South Sudan’s stability”.

The Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Mission to the UN are yet to comment formally on Powers’s statement, but sources suggest India will be reluctant to join US efforts to introduce such punitive measures, “irrespective of their purpose”. South Sudan is experiencing a civil war drawn along ethnic lines after Vice-President Riek Machar’s purported attempt to seize power from President Salva Kiir in December 2013.

India has significant commercial stakes in the region, with oil from Sudan and South Sudan contributing about eight per cent of ONGC Videsh Ltd’s overall production in the previous financial year. ONGC has invested $2.5 billion in South Sudan’s oil economy, but was forced to shelve operations after the onset of civil war. India is concerned its “legitimate trade interests” will be affected by the sanctions, sources told The Sunday Express. India has retained essential embassy personnel in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.

US-led efforts to impose sanctions on South Sudan have gained momentum at the UN. The UN Mission in South Sudan submitted a report last week to the UN Secretary General on rights violations, concluding that “crimes against humanity” had been committed. It recommended a “special tribunal”  to probe the crimes.

India to stall Internet reform proposal at Brazil meet

With a view to assert the “sovereign right” of governments to “regulate and manage” the internet, India will oppose the proposal to “reform” the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the principal body that manages the web’s domain name system — at the ongoing Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NETmundial) in Brazil.

In fact, the Indian position is so divergent from the NETmundial’s stated goals that Delhi has sought to relegate its “outcome document” to the status of a “discussion paper”. India’s response to the draft outcome document categorically rejects the ICANN’s proposal to “transition” from a US-controlled model to a “multi-stakeholder” approach to internet governance.

The Indian Express accessed New Delhi’s response to the draft “outcome document” that was deliberated by the NETMundial High Level Committee. Here's what it said.

Sahara and the Super Cops

The Indian Express

Growing up as I did reading The Hindu’s sports pages, I was taken by the phrase “pyrrhic victory”. Clearly, the paper’s sports desk was too: it made the headlines an impressive number of times, usually to describe dead rubber Ranji matches. Since then, it has been among my unstated goals as a writer to ­deploy the phrase without sounding a cliché. This has been an unfulfilling enterprise in these minimalist times, where victories are hard to come by, let alone those laced with failure.

Until now. Last week, when Seemanto Roy, scion of the Sahara Parivar, read out a message from his father Subrata describing his recent arrest as “the Best ­Honour My Country Could Give Me”, I knew I had my phrase.

On why Subrata Roy’s arrest is no consolation for SEBI and the many regulators the UPA has thrown under the bus, here.

'The government wanted to use my name and standing as a defence against outcry over Kunan Poshpora'

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The Indian Express

Wajahat Habibullah, who as divisional commissioner of Kashmir investigated allegations of mass rape by the Army, speaks to Arun Mohan Sukumar about the incident, subsequent inquiry and why the govt deleted portions of his report.

The Indian Express story on the Kunan Poshpora rapes investigation suggests…

There was a cover up.

The story quotes the then deputy commissioner (Kupwara) S M Yasin as having received both threats and promises of promotion during his investigation. Were you similarly approached to turn in a favourable report?

No. Though my report left a number of questions unanswered, inquiry by me was only a preliminary one. But nothing further was done and the case was closed. It is quite improbable that a crime of that magnitude took place as alleged. I would not go so far as to agree with Yasin when he says “it is the biggest blot on the face of democratic India”. Yasin was carried away by emotion, he is a Kashmiri himself. I did not tell him I had not given the government my report yet they have “published” it. It is true that I had submitted it but the government only published part of my report — a critical portion of it was excised.

Why do you think the government did that?

Well, obviously, the government wanted to use my name and standing as a defence against what it saw as an international outcry against the alleged incident.

Full text of the Q&A, here