Will the real Mujahideen please stand up?

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During the 1950s, the American network CBS hosted a prime-time game show called “To Tell the Truth.” The show’s panel had to correctly identify a reclusive celebrity from a group of three. They could question the group — rules of the game required the impostors to fabricate their response and the real character to tell nothing but the truth. The identity of the person was finally revealed when the game show host asked, rather dramatically, “Will the real ‘X’ please stand up?”

Ashish Khetan would have us believe the Indian Mujahideen has simply stood up in response to police interrogation.

In fact, the IM has been crying itself hoarse to be identified, he says. But the police always picked the wrong “contestants”, i.e. innocent Muslims, to blame for last decade’s terror attacks. Now that they have committed this grievous and embarrassing error, enforcement agencies have sought to brush the IM’s existence under the carpet, writes Mr. Khetan. He wants the Muslim community to “confront” the fact that the IM is for real, and possibly at large.

I’m not Muslim — thus not among Mr. Khetan’s target audience (“Why Muslims should confront the IM”, July 31) — but I have no problems confronting this “reality”. On the one hand, it shocks my liberal sensitivities that State Anti-Terrorism Squads, barking up the wrong tree, have relied on confessions extracted under coercion. On the other, I can rest assured there are some rotten apples out there intent on waging war against the Indian state — after all, bombs don’t go off by themselves. If the debate on Indian Mujahideen is between those who seem cocksure of its operations and those who question its very existence, Mr. Khetan’s version lets me choose the best of both worlds.

Ashish Khetan rightly called out IM-skeptics for their denial of the Mujahideen’s existence. I meet him half-way here.

(Image via pbs.org. I own no rights)

The shaky geopolitics of India’s food security

The last time I began an essay with the words “in this era of globalisation,” in high school, even my teacher winced at the cliché. In junking the phrase, however, we may have forgotten its import too. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) certainly seems to have, because it has pushed through a major food security initiative without so much as a murmur on how it will operate with respect to India’s international commitments.

Whatever the disagreement on the Food Security Ordinance (FSO), either on the political expediency which drove it, the size of the fiscal burden the government has to shoulder, or the criteria used to identify its beneficiaries, one aspect is beyond question: to fulfil the Ordinance’s mandate, governments would need to procure a lot more food grain than they do currently from Indian farmers and perhaps, through imports. If India intends to be self-sufficient in meeting food security requirements, our farmers must have an incentive to produce more, reflected in higher procurement prices and access to better farming inputs. At the same time, the Rangarajan Committee — constituted by the Prime Minister’s Office to “review” the National Advisory Council’s version of the law — has suggested India should procure only 30 per cent of the country’s total production from farmers. Anything more, the committee has warned, will result in a “distortion of food prices in the open market.” But unless our food production capacity somehow dramatically improves in the next few years, procuring 30 per cent from farmers alone will not meet the FSO’s requirements. In the interim, therefore, food imports are a reality.

During this period, the government needs to compensate farmers well, support the domestic agricultural sector and gain access to cheap food imports. If it fails in these objectives, the FSO will not only ratchet up India’s trade and fiscal deficit, but also fail to boost our own production capacity. This vicious cycle will eventually render the ordinance (by then a law, presumably) unsustainable.

On the geopolitics of the Food Security Bill, here.

A hatchet job, NEETly done

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The Supreme Court has struck down the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges as unconstitutional, dispelling any doubt as to who calls the shots in India’s higher education sector — private educational institutions that fleece students for capitation fees; private coaching institutes that profit from “customised” State entrance exams lacking uniformity; private banks that provide education loans at exorbitant rates to poor students; and finally, State governments that shore up their vote banks in the guise of protecting minority educational institutions. The Court’s verdict also reminds us who may not have their way in higher education — students who cannot afford to travel to different parts of the country to write entrance exams; students who cannot afford to pay tuition stipulated under management quotas; students who cannot afford to meet the rates charged by coaching institutes; and students from backward socioeconomic classes who cannot compete financially with their peers in the “creamy layer.” The Medical Council of India (MCI), a regulatory body, tried to even the scales by introducing an entrance test to streamline admission procedures, offer seats to meritorious and needy students, and circumvent the nexus between State governments and wealthy, private educators. The Supreme Court, by outlawing NEET, has blown its plan out of the water.

On the Supreme Court’s disappointing verdict to quash the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, here.

Image from blogs.lawyers.com. I own no rights.

A climate plan that changes nothing

The Hindu

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Last week, United States President Barack Obama laid out his administration’s first blueprint on the domestic and international initiatives it will pursue to tackle climate change. As with most speeches of the Obama presidency, this too was based on the catchy rhetoric of humanism, but driven by the narrative of instrumentalism. This style-over-substance approach to climate change, intended primarily for a U.S.-based audience — and by initial reaction, well-received across the board — would have been palatable had it not been for the troubling implications it holds for both multilateral climate change negotiations and the economic policies of developing countries, India in particular. Mr. Obama’s speech effectively allows developed countries to abandon their end of the equity bargain — i.e. to provide technology transfer and financial support to developing and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) — in return for their promise of sustainable growth. The discourse has now turned to market-oriented approaches to foreign investment and de-regulation that emerging economies must welcome to “green” their development, if they want to be seen as responsible stakeholders.

On why there’s nothing clean about Obama’s clean energy drive, and what it means for India, here.

Change the climate for India’s poor

The Hindu

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If the great Scott Fitzgerald were to have walked into the grand plenary hall of the Durban climate conference in 2011 to announce once again, “show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” all fingers would have pointed to the tiny Indian contingent in the room. There, Fitzgerald would have caught a glimpse of the feisty Jayanthi Natarajan, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, holding the fort against attempts by developed countries to impose binding emission cuts on the global South. The “greatest tragedy of all time,” Ms Natarajan would herself acknowledge, would be for negotiators to abandon the principles of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Two years later, this tragedy is imminent — only India’s heroism remains.

On India’s reactive climate diplomacy here.

A Waltz in the world of power

The Hindu

I spent nearly a year as a student at a pre-eminent school of international relations before I realised I had come across little of Kenneth Waltz’s scholarship. In fact, I had studiously avoided being exposed to it. To me, this was a fair bargain since Professor Waltz had, for the most part of his life, steered clear of research in international law and organisations, which I was interested in. But in keeping away, I had merely reinforced a worrying trend in the graduate study of political science, where the application of theoretical concepts has been neatly stored in silos. I was more than happy to perpetuate this division because my indifference to Waltz was borne out of righteous self-indignation, and more importantly, fear.

I pay obeisance to the late, great Ken Waltz here.

(Image via The National Interest/ theory-talks.org/Peer Schouten. I hold no rights)

The perils of grand narrative

The Hindu

Samudra Manthan superimposes a paradigm that articulates developments from a Western perspective

In 2004, the Office of Net Assessment — a think-tank affiliated to the U.S. Department of Defence that specialises in “unlikely scenarios” — commissioned a consulting firm to study energy security in Asia. Analysts on the job, mostly 20-somethings just out of college, realised China was building several ports along the Indian Ocean coastline. They literally connected these dots on the map, suggesting them to be a “string of pearls” with which China would encircle and expand its presence in the region. Within months, the phrase became a buzzword. Never mind some of these “pearls” were cargo ship docks and civilian facilities: here was a term the ‘strategic community’ could put its finger on, while talking up China’s belligerent schemes on the world.

More dignified in its lineage but equally fanciful in scope is another phrase currently doing the rounds — the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ In one fell swoop, it brings together the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and with it the maritime strategies of India, China, the United States, Australia and the ASEAN littoral states among others — countries which have vastly different blue-water orientations, objectives and not least, naval capabilities. C. Raja Mohan’s Samudra Manthan fashions the Indo-Pacific into an important “geopolitical theater” which will soon witness fierce maritime rivalry between India and China. Why so? Because, well, you know, both are rising powers and also, you see, globalisation is bringing countries in the region closer, and what’s more — here it comes — the seas are connected! Throw in the United States’ announced Asia “pivot”, a term that the Obama administration is yet to flesh out clearly and the stage is set for a grand tale about Great Power oceanic tussle, replete with nuclear deterrents in the high seas and the possibility of space warfare between India and China.

My review of C. Raja Mohan’s Samudra Manthan, for The Hindu is here.

Rites of Passage

Caravan Magazine

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A hundred years ago, anthropologists,led by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, began documenting ceremonies that marked transitions in the social status of people or groups. These ceremonies, which van Gennep called “rites of passage”, usually represented the transformation of individuals from one status to another—from adolescent to adult, maiden to mother, or living to dead. In van Gennep’s classification, these rituals had three distinct phases: separation, transition and incorporation. First, the individual would break away from her group, by shedding its collective psychosocial characteristics. Then, a series of elaborate rituals would test her “worthiness” to join the destination-group. The final cycle of rites would completely assimilate her identity with that of a new and distinct collective.

Van Gennep’s rites of passage offer a useful analogy to understand the significance of India’s two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, which comes to an end this month. Between 1992, when India last served as a non-permanent member of the Council, and the beginning of the present term in 2011, the country’s rise as an influential voice in international politics presented an opportunity to break with the past.

My essay for Caravan Magazine, evaluating India’s tenure in the UNSC, is here.