Dialogue Through Strength, Not Panic

March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009

Almost all of India’s historians owe their project contracts and salaries to state-funded institutions, hence their collective expressions of admiration at the way in which the country’s national leaders have performed since the British flag was lowered in New Delhi on August 15,1947. Decades of patronage have resulted in the curious case of school and college history texts extolling the virtues of the very individuals under whose tenure India grew at a laggard pace until the 1990s, and thus remained the country with the largest number of desperately poor and illiterate people in the world – some 280 million and counting.

Sycophancy has become a self-serving and protective sheath. For example, according to former UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor, the very “idea of India” was the personal invention of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, served from 1947 to 1964. Nehru was the personal choice of Mahatma (an honorific title) Gandhi to lead the newly independent country. Nehru’s father, Motilal Nehru, was the leader of the Indian National Congress and had actively promoted his son to Mahatma Gandhi. Later, Jawaharlal Nehru oversaw the grooming of his daughter, Indira, for high office. Indira Gandhi served as prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to her assassination in 1984. She, in turn, smoothed the way for her son Rajiv, who served as prime minister from 1984 to 1989. He was assassinated in 1991 while campaigning to return to politics. Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Maino Gandhi, regained control of the Congress Party for the Nehru-Gandhi clan in 1997 and saw control of parliament return to the Congress Party in 2004. Sonia Gandhi is now following the Nehru family tradition by steering her son Rahul toward the country’s highest office.

The Nehru family (widely and wrongly assumed to be related Mahatma Gandhi, because of the same surname) has a substantial number of admiring historians and commentators including distinguished writers Sunil Khilnani and Amartya Sen. The reality may be judged from the fact that none of the Nehrus nor, to be fair, their successors made any attempt to change the authoritarian laws and procedures that were being used during the colonial period to ensure that the local population remain subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and other forms of governmental control. In India at least, experience shows that each addition to the discretionary powers wielded by an eager bureaucracy stunts both civil liberties as well as growth.

In India, the (official) Dharma Vira Commission three decades ago found that 65 percent of all police arrests were made without a warrant, a figure that has remained about the same since then. Several such warrant-less detentions were carried out as a result of bribes paid by those seeking to intimidate rivals. Small wonder that fewer than six percent of the cases registered under such flimsy pretexts resulted in convictions even in India’s police-friendly lower judiciary system. Despite several attempts by civil society to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to remove its arbitrary procedures, this was not attempted until December 28, 2008 when an amended Criminal Procedure Code was sent for approval to the President of India after a gap of 140 years. Despite such consent having been given two months ago, the amended Criminal Procedure Code is yet to get notified. Clearly, sections within the bureaucracy, and their political patrons, are uncomfortable with even the meager expansion proposed by the amended Criminal Procedure Code in the rights of the ordinary citizen vis-à-vis the state, and would like to delay if not block these changes. As for the laws in India, these claim to be modeled on the UK pattern. What is omitted in such a recital is that these were indeed British laws, but laws intended for colonial subjects, which were and are very different in intent and effect from the laws applied to British citizens – the standard that India’s “democratic” leaders have been reluctant to adopt. Clearly, India’s political-bureaucratic axis is comfortable with legislation and procedures that reduce to near-nullity the legal ability of a citizen to challenge hostile actions by state machinery frequently infected with bias.

Since 1947, there have only been two brief periods in India’s history when there has been some effort to roll back the dense web of governmental regulations that have stifled everyday life (as well as business life) in India since colonial times. These were from 1992 to 1994 and from 1999 to 2002. In both time periods, the government halted the liberalization drive after a few years because of the negative reaction from the bureaucracy, which saw their bribe income disappearing as a result of the reforms.

This is why reform has been so slow in India, a “software giant” where even the latest innovations in mobile telephony have yet to be legalized because existing players do not want to make the expensive shift to better technologies. India is one of the few democracies where official reports that cast a less than flattering light on government leadership (such as the still-secret Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 defeat in the Sino-Indian conflict) have remained buried under secrecy laws dating from two centuries ago. A Right to Information Act has been made into law yet but it is uneven and limited in coverage being far less inclusive then similar laws and procedures in more developed democracies, although it compares favorably with “jihadizing” states such as Bangladesh and Pakistan

The intent behind such laws is to make normal operations impossible thus needing permissions, whether formal or implied, from the state structure – a process that almost always entails the payment of a bribe. An example is the scheme for ensuring employment to the weaker sections of society, which has already consumed funds in excess 10 billion U.S. dollars, more than 70 percent of which is estimated to have gone into the pockets of middlemen rather than to the intended beneficiaries.

While the government proposes to ensure that each citizen be given an identity card to be used in the distribution of doles among other uses, it has not thus far been possible to convince decision-makers to ensure that these be smart cards that can record and store information as well as be receptacles for state assistance. Much corruption could have been eliminated had the government implemented a proposal to provide smart cards to each citizen so that doles could be provided directly rather than pass through numerous super-sticky hands. In this manner, computerized reservations have reduced the incidence of bribes in the purchase of air and rail tickets.

Efforts to computerize tax payments, such as the levy payable upon the purchase of property, has been blocked by officials who refuse to accept online applications on grounds that “technical errors have been made in the application” the remedy for which is usually an envelope stuffed with cash. Although basking in the image of a reformer thus far Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been unwilling or unable to try and reduce the corruption levels in the government including in departments that have been handled by him personally for long stretches of time such as coal.

Since 2004, the government has presided over an increase in tax rates and collections that have not been seen since the British (always expert at squeezing revenue out of the Indian people) departed. This high-tax regime has been complemented by a policy of high interest rates as well as checks on Indian companies all of which snuffed out the “feel-good” factor in Indian industry well before the global recession hit during the latter half of 2008.

India’s central bank is functioning, in effect, as a trade union for the banking industry, implementing policies designed to ensure healthy bottom lines for the country’s (mostly state-owned) banking sector rather than taking measures that would promote overall development and per capita income growth. Even in a situation when the global economy appears to be sputtering to a stop India’s central bank has been quarter-hearted in reducing interest rates, behaving much as the U.S. Federal Reserve did in the four years preceding the Great Depression.

According to conservative estimates, Indian nationals have placed some 800 billion U.S. dollars in financial havens abroad. Governments in India have been singularly non-inquisitive in tracing such funds, however, even when there are data breakouts as, for example, happened in the case of the German government expose of the Lichtenstein tax haven last year. The government of India has thus far refrained from seeking information from the German authorities about the accounts held by its own nationals in banks there, the same reticence that has been demonstrated towards every offshore tax haven.

Indeed, were the state to announce an amnesty for foreign funds held by Indian nationals, conservative estimates are that this would yield (at a tax rate of 35 percent) about 18 billion U.S. dollars in revenue to the Government of India thus wiping out much of its deficit. Neither will the politician-bureaucrat axis countenance a vigorous drive against such bank deposits, nor will they then do what Deng Xiaoping achieved in China in the 1980s, creating productive routes for the re-entry of funds held by Chinese nationals in external banks into the China’s economy.

Those whose geopolitical future hinges on a modernized India need to prod the authorities towards greater transparency, accountability and modernized education and procedures. There is a silent civil war in India between two groups and unless one of them is given encouragement, the country may within 15 years enter the trajectory now being orbited by Pakistan.

In today’s India, these two groups are moving at an accelerating pace. Much of the huge (220 million people) middle class is modernizing, in mindset as well as in material comforts. A substantial chunk of the population, however – including some from the middle class – are as rapidly “medievalizing” by seeking a return to a mythical “pre-western” age. Had the two groups been moving in the same direction albeit at different speeds, the forecast for the future would have been rosy. The fact that they are moving in opposite directions, however, is a cause for concern especially in the context of a failing Pakistan and a jihadizing Bangladesh.

Unless economic growth in India expands to well above 10 percent, the modernizers may yet find themselves checkmated by the medievalists, who may seek to further roll back economic and social reform, hence cutting at the base of their opponents.

Sadly, we live in a world where the “experts” talk of accommodation with extremist factions, thus ensuring the death of the moderate tendency in several countries. It was the full-throated support for human rights in the USSR that ensured a desired outcome in the Cold War, not a Kissingerian embrace of Communism Lite.

Modern society needs to stand with its allies in India and in the rest of South Asia – the modernizers – and punish with visa denials, bank sanctions and other measures those that seek to take the region back towards the medieval period. These latter need to be sanctioned and not coddled, for society is not static but dynamic and in the ongoing war to preserve the civilized world, we need to be unequivocal in our defense of those on the side of moderation and civil liberties, rather than empower through opportunistic alliances those seeking our subversion.

Support to the “soft” Taliban can only give oxygen to the “hard,” so that the former morph into the latter and not the other way around. Yes, the time for dialogue will come but only after the eventual victory of the other side will have been shown to be impossible the way the Indian army ensured in Kashmir in the 1990s, when it exhausted the domestic jihadists and made the bulk of them cross over to the side of those seeking conciliation.

A strategy of dialogue and neutralization can only succeed on the heels of allied strength not on the doleful tides of panic that seem to be enveloping NATO in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Should NATO fail to ensure that the moderate Sufis in Pakistan prevail over the Wahabbists, the next domino to be affected might well be Bangladesh followed later by India.

M.D. Nalapat became India’s first professor of geopolitics in 1999 at Manipal University in India’s Karnataka state. Since 1992,he has held that Wahabbism-Khomeinism and authoritarianism are the twin threats faced by the international community and that the “unified field” of terrorism mandates a similar response. In 2003, he partnered with JINSA in organizing the first of four annual India-Israel-U.S. Conferences. Professor Nalapat, who first put forward the idea of forming an “Asian NATO,” believes that Israel, India, Turkey and Singapore form part of the “Extended West”, rather than an “extended Middle East”, and that the countries in this group need to work in concert to promote prosperity, democracy and freedom from terror.


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