The BJP Needs a History Lesson on Pakistan Policy

An earlier post on India’s new get-tough approach toward Pakistan quoted M.J. Akbar, the national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political home, as saying that New Delhi has no interest in engaging Pakistan diplomatically until Islamabad proves its credibility as a negotiating partner by lifting the shadow of terrorism.  In a discussion at the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last week, Mr. Akbar elaborated on this stance by saying, “There was 10 years of unrelenting goodwill” by Mr. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, toward Pakistan “but it achieved nothing in return.” (An audio recording of the full discussion is available here.)

There is no doubt that Pakistan is a vexatious and duplicitous neighbor to all countries sharing borders with it.  In particular, as the new books by C. Christine Fair and Carlotta Gall remind us, it must surely hold the patent on the use of non-state proxies to inflict injury on adjoining nations.

But is the specific claim advanced by Akbar – that Indian diplomacy toward Pakistan over the last decade was futile – accurate?  Two huge pieces of contradictory evidence come to mind on this count. Continue reading

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Reform is a Dirty Word in India: An Update

A previous post made the case that India’s difficulty in advancing serious economic reforms is ultimately due to the lack of a home-grown intellectual tradition that can undergird them.  As business leader turned public intellectual Gurcharan Das notes, the country is bereft of “a liberal party that openly trusts markets and focuses on economic and institutional reform.”

So does the likelihood of Narendra Modi becoming the next prime minister render this argument void? Continue reading

Reform is a Dirty Word in India

India’s difficulty in advancing serious economic reforms is ultimately due to the lack of a home-grown intellectual tradition that can underpin them.  The Congress Party, long a bastion of statist thinking, is proof of this proposition.  But fresh evidence comes courtesy of the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) party, the rising anti-establishment movement that oddly combines an emphasis on clean government with backward economic views.

In far too many quarters, the reforms adopted during the 1991 economic calamity are regarded as the modern equivalent of the British East India Company, something imposed on the country by overwhelming external forces.  Thus, no political leader of any note embraces reform as a concept and when it occurs nonetheless, it is usually the product of technocratic subterfuge.  As business leader turned public intellectual Gurcharan Das noted the other week, India is bereft of “a liberal party that openly trusts markets and focuses on economic and institutional reform.”

Read the rest of the article in The Diplomat.

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U.S.-India Relations: The Overshadowed Summit

The U.S.-India relationship is enveloped these days by grand rhetoric.  But for a reality check on the state of bilateral affairs, look no further than the summit meeting between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two weeks ago.  The get-together was designed to inject new energy into a partnership that just a few years ago looked so promising but which is now roundly seen as going flat.  Yet even before Mr. Singh journeyed to Washington, the trip promised to be a ho-hum visit at best.

Noticeably gone was the excitement and pomp of Singh’s state visit four years ago, when President Obama put on an extravagant state dinner on the White House South Lawn honoring him.  It was the hottest ticket in town, attracting party crashers to boot, and even the rainy weather did not dim an event the Washington Post likened to a Hollywood production.  Back then, both leaders were fresh off impressive electoral victories and, with expectations raised by the recently-codified civilian nuclear agreement, they spoke augustly about a “future that beckons all of us.”

Their latest meeting, however, was in sharp contrast. Continue reading

India Needs to Revisit 1991

Let’s hope that the specter of 1991 lingers around long enough to galvanize New Delhi elites – especially Congress Party leaders who are now in populist election mode – with the courage to implement game-changing reforms.  Taking a cue from the ADB, they can start with dismantling the anarchic laws governing labor markets and the acquisition of land for industrial projects which have stifled the growth of labor-intensive manufacturing.  This should be a huge comparative advantage though worrying signs are emerging of Indian manufacturers shifting to other countries.  But until some hard measures are enacted, all of New Delhi’s talk about building the country into a global manufacturing hub will continue to ring hollow.

Read the rest of the article at The Diplomat.

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Time for Nawaz Sharif to Put Up or Shut Up

Nawaz SharifMy last post argued that the Indian government should ignore the influential voices urging it to stiff-arm efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to restart the bilateral détente process.  Now is the time, I emphasized, for New Delhi to assay energetically the depths of his seriousness as well as his capacity to deliver on promises.

That said, it is also incumbent on Sharif to start proving his good faith.  So far, he has been long on sweet-sounding rhetoric about deeper economic engagement but has failed to provide any concrete sign he is willing to take political risks to give it concrete meaning.  A depressing case in point concerns the granting of “most favored nation” trading privileges to India, something that New Delhi extended to Pakistan nearly two decades ago.  The previous government in Islamabad made a good deal of noise about doing this, a politically difficult act that convinced skeptics in the Indian government last year that Pakistani leaders were earnest about seeking better ties.  But Sharif’s predecessor ultimately could not pull the trigger, and now comes news that Sharif’s government is likewise deferring the issue “for the time being.”

Islamabad has reportedly refrained from doing this because of fears that Pakistani companies would be overwhelmed by cheaper Indian goods.  But these businesses have already weathered the commercial competition brought about by the 2006 free trade agreement with China.  Moreover, a World Bank report released just days ago underscores the value of stronger trade links with India.  It notes that:

Completing the trade normalization process with India and granting it MFN status would help Pakistan benefit quickly from the fast growth and large markets. Conservative estimates suggest that bilateral trade flows could multiply at least three times, and most observers agree that the growth-enhancing dynamics that this process would unleash would be even more significant for foreign direct investment (especially information technology and manufacturing), services (including financial and tourism), integrated value chains in manufacturing, and power projects.

Discouraging too is that elements in the Pakistani security establishment have reportedly derailed plans to build cross-border energy connections.  With the country in a severe energy crunch (here and here), Sharif’s government had considered importing electricity from India and an Indian delegation visited Islamabad in June with a concrete offer in hand.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have judged, correctly in my view, that the peculiar state of civil-military relations in Pakistan does not allow Sharif to put a halt to renewed military tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir that are now roiling relations.  But at this point, New Delhi has every right to question why Sharif has not yet used his strong political position to back up his nice words with specific actions.  So when he meets Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual conclave later this month, it would be good if Sharif arrives with something more than continued rhetoric.

Sharif can begin proving his bonafides by giving a definitive promise on MFN implementation.  He could couple this with a proposal to set up a joint commission of prominent business leaders and distinguished private citizens to develop further recommendations about expanding cross-border trade and transportation links.  This group could also serve as a useful mechanism for mobilizing political support on both sides for forward movement in the bilateral agenda.

And Sharif would do well to enunciate a new policy on the treatment of Indian fishermen apprehended in disputed territorial waters.  In recent months, Islamabad has been repatriating hundreds of Indian fishermen but only after they have served out their full sentences.  But a better policy would take a page from the U.S. practice on its border with Mexico: After having their photographs and fingerprints taken, and warned that second-time offenders will face stiff penalties, apprehended fishermen should be quickly sent back to India.  (Indians who are still serving their sentences would have their terms immediately commuted.)

This gesture, which should be reciprocated by New Delhi, would earn Islamabad some much-needed goodwill in India, as well as conserve resources that are needed for other budgetary priorities.  And since many of the fishermen are arrested in and around Sir Creek, a disputed 60 mile-long patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh, it might even give new impetus to efforts to resolve this impasse.  Prime Minister Singh has called an agreement on the issue “doable” and many observers believe it is easiest to solve among the territorial contestations bedeviling India-Pakistan relations.

As I’ve noted before, bilateral relations are in for a rough spell in the coming year.  So if Sharif wants his rhetoric to count for something, he needs to move quickly and decisively.

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India Should Not Leave Nawaz Sharif Hanging

Renewed military tensions in the disputed Kashmir region are once again underscoring how even localized incidents there can subvert important diplomatic initiatives between India and Pakistan.  Skirmishes this past January put the brakes on the détente process that picked up steam last year.  The current round of fighting has led to a rising chorus in India demanding that New Delhi rebuff efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to put the process back on track.  These calls are understandable enough – indeed they have a parallel in the running U.S. debate about whether to get tough with Pakistan over its behavior in Afghanistan (examples hereherehere, here and here).  But they are nonetheless misguided. Continue reading