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.

Pushing Africa aside in Mali

French jets are zipping past northern Mali, bombing the region and with it, a participatory framework that had thus far allowed African states to troubleshoot what is first and foremost a regional political crisis. France’s aerial assault and imminent deployment of ground troops is a volte face from its original plan to offer “logistical aid” to African peacekeepers in Mali. For all of French President François Hollande’s promises to treat Africa as a partner and friend, his government’s military intervention in the Sahel is proof that Françafrique is alive and well. Its monopoly over the rapid deployment of military force allows France to sustain a relationship of dependency with the continent, at a time when governments in North, West and Central Africa are struggling to control armed rebels.

The oped, written for The Hindu, is here

India and the autumn of the African Patriarch

I have an essay in the current edition of the EPW

What may follow the exit of the African patriarch may seem like a dystopic narrative but it is a plausible scenario within a decade or two, for most ‘stable’ sub-Saharan economies. It is verily a contingency that India’s business and foreign policy establishments must prepare for. I outline here a few steps that India-based MNCs and the government could adopt to buffer unpredictable developments in the political economy of Africa.

India’s UNGA vote and initial thoughts

The draft that Saudi Arabia introduced on the floor of the UN General Assembly today is here. The voting record - 133 Y, 12 N, 31 A. India abstained.

The UN’s Webcast of GA proceedings is here. India’s EoV, offered by Hardeep Puri begins at 1:00:41. The resolution adopted by the Arab League on 22 July 2012 - the UNGA draft’s reference to which is cited by India as the primary reason for abstaining - is here

This is essentially a throwback to India’s position circa February 2012, when the first draft on Syria this year was presented at the UN Security Council. Props to our Mission for negotiating a watered down draft - going by reports, the initial text explicitly endorsed regime change and sanctions, which invariably would have led to Ch. VII measures under Art. 42 at the Council.

That said, the Indian position now has become quite fuzzy, to put it mildly. I’m not sure what we were gunning for when endorsing the last UNSC draft; that resolution backed Article 41 measures which may include the severance of diplomatic relations. Yet, in the GA India claimed today that “unilateral” actions which call for cutting off such ties are not warranted.

Rather than restating its known position at the GA, India should have invested its time in explaining this abstention specifically.

I’m on the fly now, more on this in detail later.

EoV of the Day goes to Guyana (A) -  ”primary responsibility falls on Syrian authorities for cessation of violence and attacks against civilians […] but the international community cannot turn a blind eye to armed attacks by opposition groups and terrorist elements […]” this resolution raises the concern of “undue partiality to an amorphous and unknown opposition.”

When interests and principles collide

The Hindu

Pax IndicaFor the student based abroad, independent research on India’s foreign policy involves a seasonal pilgrimage to New Delhi’s temples of intelligentsia. The pursuit of reticent bureaucrats, both serving and retired, to the far-corners of the city in sub-Saharan weather can be a near-religious experience. Few emerge from this ritual unaffected — the cost of “field” research is usually sunstroke, dehydration, and if you are lucky, weight-loss. In need of inspiration, therefore, I reached out to a venerable alumnus who had not only survived this ordeal, but in the process also churned out a magisterial dissertation that still tops the list of required readings on post-Nehruvian foreign policy.

Shashi Tharoor responded graciously (and promptly, it must be said) to my request for an interview, but upon one condition: that I read the relevant chapter of Pax Indica first, for it “might answer most of my questions.” I am evaluating India’s current tenure in the United Nations Security Council, and in particular, how some decisions made by New Delhi in this period reflect upon its status as a superpower-in-waiting. Pax Indica, from a veteran commentator, seemed a timely publication that could outline contemporary India’s rules of engagement as a model for the world at large. The book itself was so accessible that I read it cover-to-cover in the course of a train journey. Yet, sadly, it seems I may have to schedule that interview with Mr. Tharoor after all.

I review Shashi Tharoor’s latest offering here

Reality check for Trinamool populism

(The Hindu, June 25, 2012)

The Calcutta High Court’s decision to annul the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act has been billed as a major victory for the Tata group. It is not. For the conglomerate, which had already sought greener pastures in Gujarat to produce its Nano car, this is only a triumph on paper. Relocating its factory back to Singur is neither profitable for Tata Motors nor is it likely to risk taking on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, favourable court verdict or not.

Instead, the High Court has struck at the heart of the Trinamool Congress’ populist politics. To see how, let’s trace the history of the Singur Act. The principle of “eminent domain” allowed the Left Front government in 2008 to acquire land in Singur. But the acquisition was made under central legislation, since West Bengal’s own law had lapsed back in 1993. The TMC, sitting in opposition then, took upon itself the cause of farmers who had lost their land and led agitations to recover the same. Ms Banerjee promised to return the land if she were voted to power in the next State elections. Once in government, however, the Trinamool Congress realised that returning the land would make the party seem opposed to industrialisation in the State — hardly the vaunted alternative to Marxian policy. So Ms. Banerjee’s government sought to create legislation from scratch for this purpose.

Recourse to legislative action offered three main benefits. For one, legislation could be expected to withstand shifts in political fortunes better than executive acts, which may last only till the next decisive by-election. Second, Trinamool representatives tied their own hands with a Supreme Court order prohibiting the return of land acquired for a public purpose, except by auction. Third, and more importantly, passing a law in the State legislature would be more “democratic” than an executive decision by the government. The TMC could wash its hands off any anti-liberalisation blame by touting the bipartisan character of legislation. And so the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act was born. But the TMC’s populism stood contrary to correct and mandated constitutional procedure. Once the land had been acquired under central legislation, West Bengal’s legislators lost all capacity to make unilateral modifications subsequently. Any law passed to return the land had to receive Presidential assent, since land acquisition belongs to the Concurrent List of the Constitution. As for the Supreme Court ruling in question, its fine print suggests auction to be the correct method of return when the public purpose of acquisition has been “achieved” and there remains no other use — a bhoomi pooja and breaking of ground, as was the case with Singur, cannot meet this qualification.

The Singur Act sought to mask its true character by calling for a “takeover” of the acquired land — essentially, and as the Calcutta High Court has rightly observed, an acquisition of the land already “leased” to the Tatas. The Court’s decision is a welcome reminder that seemingly welfarist measures designed to overcome crises in the short-run cannot evade healthy democratic checks and balances.

Almost a month in Rwanda, my dietary intake can be neatly classified thus:

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