China and the Taliban

Introduction

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a nine-member delegation of the Taliban on July 28, 2021. The delegation was led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Doha. In July 2021, the Taliban had visited Russia and the Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, had met with the delegation. Kabulov said that the Taliban had assured him that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against Russia or any of its allies in Central Asia.

The meeting between Yi and the Taliban delegation is the first high level public meeting after the Taliban has managed to gain control over a significant portion of Afghanistan’s territory, including Badakshan province, which shares a border with China’s western Xinjiang region (given the changing geopolitical dynamics, Beijing had of course opened its back channels earlier with the Taliban). It would be pertinent to point out that China has previously hosted Taliban delegations in 2015 (Urumqi, Xinjiang) and in 2019 (Beijing).

Significance of meeting

Wang Yi’s meeting with the Taliban delegation is significant for more than one reason; it comes days after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had undertaken a two-day visit to China (July 23-July 24, 2021) for a strategic dialogue. During this meeting, both sides had agreed to work jointly to address the security challenges posed by the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from supporting peace talks and reconciliation, China had also made it clear that action needed to be taken against terror groups, which pose a security threat to Beijing, and both Islamabad and Beijing need to work jointly in this direction. In a press release posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi said:

We will work together to combat terrorism and push all major forces in Afghanistan to draw a clear line against terrorism, firmly combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces, and resolutely stop Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism.

China believes that the recent terror attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK province), which had resulted in the killing of 13 individuals (including 9 Chinese nationals) in a bus explosion (engineers and staff working on the Dasu Project were in the bus), was a possible handiwork of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Beijing also sent a delegation to Pakistan to be part of an enquiry being conducted by Islamabad into the attack.

Finally, the meeting between Wang Yi and the Taliban delegation took place at a time when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in India, and during his discussions with the Indian side Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Blinken had expressed concern about the rise in atrocities committed by the Taliban, and also said that the Taliban could not gain legitimacy by such steps and ultimately:

There’s only one path. And that’s at the negotiating table to resolve the conflicts peacefully, and to have an Afghanistan emerge that is governed in a genuinely inclusive way, and that is representative of all its people.

Beijing’s recognition of Taliban’s importance

At the same time, Wang Yi was unequivocal in flagging the threat to China from ETIM, and asked the Taliban to ‘completely sever ties’ with the group. The Taliban, on its part, assured Wang Yi that Taliban will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China. Wang Yi’s meeting send outs a strong message that Beijing clearly recognizes the role of the Taliban in resolving the current situation. The Taliban had also assured China earlier that it would ensure the safety of Chinese investments. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen had, in a media interview in July 2021, stated:

China is a friendly country and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan…if [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.

Difference between China-Russia and the US

The US approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been different from that of Beijing. While flagging its concerns, Beijing, realizing the ground realities, has sent out a clear message that it is willing to do business with the Taliban; the statements of Blinken, on the other hand, indicate US hesitancy vis-à-vis the Taliban. What is extremely interesting, however, are Blinken’s remarks during his visit to India stating that China’s involvement in Afghanistan could be positive. Given the fact that numerous commentators have been arguing that China and the US need to find common ground and that a zero-sum approach will not benefit anyone, this is a very interesting remark and should be welcomed since all stakeholders will need to work jointly in order to find a solution.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the situation in Afghanistan is perpetually evolving and requires all stakeholders in the region and outside to adopt a nuanced approach. The priority in the short run is to navigate the turbulence. In the midst of strained ties between Washington and Beijing, the US Secretary of State’s remarks regarding Beijing’s role in Afghanistan need to be welcomed.

Iran, the US, nuclear deals, and South Asia

In the coming months, US-Iran relations will be watched closely in South Asia (the region’s geopolitical landscape will be significantly impacted as it is by the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan).

India’s ties with Iran are economic and strategic. It has, for example, invested in the Chabahar Port project (during PM Modi’s Iran visit in 2016, India had committed $500 million for development of the port), and in December 2018, India had taken over a part of Phase 1 of the Chabahar Port (Shahid Beheshti). New Delhi has, however, stopped oil imports in 2019 after the US ended the waiver which it had provided to India and other countries for import of oil from Iran.

After India’s decision to stop importing oil from Iran, ties deteriorated and the Chabahar Project also suffered. Iran expressed its displeasure with New Delhi for stopping oil imports and also complained that development of the Chabahar Port had slowed down. This in spite of the fact that the Trump Administration had stated that Chabahar Project would be free from US sanctions on Iran. A State Department spokesperson, while commenting on Chabahar Port, said:

The exception for reconstruction assistance and economic development for Afghanistan, which includes the development and operation of Chabahar Port, is a separate exception, and is not affected by yesterday’s announcement

New Delhi and Tehran have been working towards improving ties ever since the end of 2019.  With the change of guard in Washington DC, however, India sensed a reduction in Iran-US tensions and also a US return to the JCPOA. As a result, it has been paying greater attention to the Chabahar Project, which has been dubbed as its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia (India has already used the port on more than one occasion for sending consignments to Afghanistan and relief materials during the Covid19 pandemic). Soon after the victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election, India began to pay greater attention to the Chabahar Port and work on it has accelerated since the beginning of 2021.

It would be pertinent to point out that Indian PM Narendra Modi also sent a congratulatory tweet to Raisi stating that he looked forward to ‘working with him to further strengthen the warm ties between India and Iran.’

While the Tehran-New Delhi relationship seems to have improved in recent months, Tehran kept India out of the development of the Farzad B gas field (this field had been discovered by ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of Oil PSU, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation). The Iranian oil ministry, in a statement, said:

The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) has signed a contract worth $1.78 billion with Petropars Group for the development of Farzad B Gas Field in the Persian Gulf

New Delhi responded by saying that Iran would involve India at a later stage in the development of Farzad B.

Iran-Pakistan ties and CPEC

It is also important to bear in mind the fact that Pakistan-Iran ties have witnessed a significant improvement in recent years.

First, there has been a downward slope in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE (though in recent months Islamabad’s ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia have improved).

Second, the Iran-China 25-year strategic agreement signed earlier this year is also likely to result in the expansion of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Project towards Iran. (Tehran has expressed its willingness to be part of CPEC project). In recent months, China has already been focusing on Afghanistan as an important component of the CPEC. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian, in May 2021, said, ‘China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are discussing issues related to extending roads and expressways in Pakistan to Afghanistan.’

Conclusion

In conclusion, revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal is likely to take time. The US-Iran relationship is important not just in the context of the bilateral relationship, but is likely to have an impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as important connectivity initiatives of both India and China.

From the Comments: India and misunderstanding socialism

This is from Jacques, who is responding to Tridivesh’s recent piece on vaccine apartheid:

I don’t like your title. US firms and other firms based in the West have managed to produce enough vaccines to vaccinate all of the citizens of their respective countries. Governments (democratically elected governments) have decided that the vaccines should be reserved for their own citizens first. That decision might be attacked because it’s a form of govt seizure but it’s not apartheid. India has one of the largest pharmaceutical industries in the world. That its government has not been able to provide vaccines even minimally for the Indian people is the Indian government’s fault and more broadly, traceable to the fact that Indian society is a mess. As anyone a little observant who lives in the US can tell, there is no shortage of intelligent and energetic Indians ( I live near Silicone Valley myself). India is a mess largely because of a systemic issues of its own making. My former Silicone Valley Indian colleagues are mostly complicit. The central problem is Indians’ addiction to what they think is socialism, in reality, mostly crony capitalism and a stupefying government bureaucracy. I would like that, I am hoping that, this dreadful crisis will prompt many Indians to reconsider. I am not optimistic though. No, I didn’t read your essay because of its offensive and mendacious title. PS I am married to an Indian woman. I spent more time in India than the average casual visitor. I like India.

Vaccine Apartheid and Intellectual Property

Introduction

In recent weeks there has been a growing clamor with regard to addressing the issue of vaccine ‘apartheid’, or the inequity in access to vaccines (as of April 2021, the more affluent countries, which account for less than 20% of the global population, had bought 60% of confirmed orders – well over 4.6 billion doses).

African leaders have red-flagged the issue of lack of access to vaccinations and also how, due to poor access, rate of vaccination is slow. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has commented

…no one is safe until everyone is safe, so all of us must be treated equally across the world and vaccines must be treated as a public good, available at affordable prices right across the board.

The rise in daily cases (more than 20 million Indians have been infected) and mortalities (in the month of April itself, there have been an estimated 40,000 casualties) as a result of COVID-19 in recent weeks in India has further brought this issue to center stage. Apart from the government being ill-prepared for the second wave, and the virtual collapse of the health system (even in the national capital there has been a shortage of beds and oxygen), the third wave is being attributed to the slow rate of vaccination: only 2% of the population has been fully inoculated with both doses, while less than 10% has received one dose. One of the reasons cited for the slow rate of vaccination has been India’s inability to ramp up its vaccine production which could be eased out if the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides an intellectual property waiver.  

During an online address, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai underscored the point that addressing the issue of vaccine inequity is important not just from the point of public health but also from an economic standpoint.

One of the ways for increasing vaccination, as discussed earlier, is increasing the production and for this an Intellectual Property (IP) Waiver is essential. Both the Chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, as well as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have repeatedly made this point. Both Brown and Tedros said that removing a waiver during an emergency situation was essential and this should be on the agenda of the G7 Summit to be held in June in the UK.

South Africa and India have, since October 2020, been seeking a waiver on certain provisions of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).   

Pressure on the US to provide Intellectual Property waivers

There has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to address the issue of vaccine apartheid and this has grown in recent days and weeks. 

More than 170 heads of state and several Nobel Laureates wrote to US President Biden in favour of removing US IP rules for production of vaccines. This includes former French President Francois Hollande, Former British PM Gordon Brown, and Nobel Laureates Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Francoise Barre-Sinoussi.

10 Democratic Senators have also written to Biden to support the temporary TRIPS waiver.

Biden administration assistance to India and possibility of intellectual property waiver 

In recent weeks, with the increasing number of cases in India, the Biden administration has unequivocally stated that it will assist India in dealing with the COVID-19 threat. Apart from President Biden and other senior officials from his administration who have assured all necessary help, Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, has asked pharmaceutical companies to help out either by ramping up their production or by transferring their technologies. Said Fauci:

You can’t have people throughout the world dying because they don’t have access to a product that rich people have access to.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a media interview, also stated:  

We believe that the pharmaceutical companies should be supplying at scale and at cost to the entire world so that there is no barrier to everyone getting vaccinated.

On Wednesday, May 6, 2021, the Biden administration announced that it supported the waiver on Intellectual Property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in a statement, said:

This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

Why this announcement is important 

The announcement is a significant development, given the pressure from numerous quarters, especially pharmaceutical lobbies. Founder of Microsoft and philanthropist Bill Gates, in a media interview, spoke against waiving patents. Said Gates:

It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines.

Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sponsored Gavi: the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health partnership which seeks to increase low-income countries’ access to immunization. Gavi, alongside WHO, runs the COVAX to improve access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

A trade group, PhRMA, has also warned against an IP waiver, and a number of Republicans have argued against such a step and wrote a letter to US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the Biden administration’s decision on May 6, 2021, needs to be hailed; it is important to address all issues which are obstructing the ramping up of global manufacturing of vaccines and preventing a faster rate of vaccination in less affluent countries. All stakeholders need to act fast to prevent the pandemic from spreading and taking more lives. Globalization, multilateralism, and talk of liberal values are of no use if the issue of vaccine apartheid is not addressed on a war footing.

Health policy is a less mature field in India

The raging second wave of Covid-19 hasn’t just collapsed the Indian healthcare, it has devastatingly uncovered preexisting public health policy deficits and healthcare frailties.

[As of May 3, 2021]
[As of May 3, 2021]

In India, there is a need to revive a serious conversation around public health policy, along with upgrading healthcare. But wait, isn’t the term ‘public health’ interchangeable with healthcare? Actually, no. ‘Public health’ is the population-scale program concerned with prevention and not cure. In contrast, healthcare essentially involves a private good and not public good. Most public health experts point out, the weaker the healthcare system (such as in India), the greater the gains from implementing public health prevention strategies.

India focused its energies on preventing malaria by fighting mosquitoes in the 1970s and then regressed to treating patients who have malaria, dengue or Zika ineffectively. A developing public health policy got sidelined for a more visible, vote-grabbing, yet inadequate healthcare program. Why? Indian elites tend to transfer concepts and priorities, from the health policy debates of advanced economies, into Indian thinking about health policy without much thought. As a result, there is considerable confusion around terminologies. There is a need for a sharp delineation between: ‘public good,’ ‘public health’ and ‘healthcare.’ The phrase ‘public health’ is frequently misinterpreted to imply ‘healthcare.’ On the contrary, ‘healthcare’ is repeatedly assumed as a ‘public good.’ In official Indian directives, the phrase ‘public health expenditure’ is often applied for government expenditures on healthcare. It is confusing because it contains the term ‘public health,’ which is the antonym of ‘healthcare.’

Many of the advanced economies of today have been engaged in public health for a very long time. As an example, the UK began work on clean water in 1858 and on clean air in 1952. For over forty-five years the Clean Air Act in the U.S. has cut pollution as the economy has grown. Therefore, the elites in the UK and US can worry about the nuances of healthcare policy. On the other hand, the focus of health policy in India must be upon prevention, as it is not a solved problem. Problems such as air quality has become worse today in India. Can the Ministry of Health do something about it? Not much, because plenty of public health-related issues lie outside the administrative boundaries of the Ministry of Health. Air quality—that afflicts North India—lies in the Ministry of Environment and internal bureaucracy—“officials love the rule of officials”—deters the two departments from interacting and working out such problems productively. Economist Ajay Shah points out, Indian politicians who concern themselves with health policy take the path of least resistance—to use public money to buy insurance (frequently from private health insurance companies) for individuals who would obtain healthcare services from private healthcare providers. This is an inefficient path because a fragile public health policy bestows a high disease burden, which induces a market failure in the private healthcare industry, followed by a market failure in the health insurance industry.

In other words, Ajay Shah implies that the Indian public sector is not effective at translating expenditures into healthcare services. Privately produced healthcare is plagued with market failure. Health insurance companies suffer from poor financial regulation and from dealing with a malfunctioning healthcare system. No matter the amount of money one assigns into government healthcare facilities or health insurance companies, both these routes work poorly. As a consequence, increased welfare investment by the government on healthcare, under the present paradigm of the Indian healthcare, is likely to be under par.

The long-term lessons from the second wave of COVID-19 is that inter-departmental inefficiencies cannot be tolerated anymore. Public health considerations and economic progress need to shape future elections and the working of many Indian ministries in equal measure. India deserves improved intellectual capacity in shaping public health policy and upgrading healthcare to obtain a complete translation of higher GDP into improved health outcomes. This implies that health policy capabilities—data sets, researchers, think tanks, local government—will need to match the heterogeneity of Indian states. What applies to the state of Karnataka will not necessarily apply to the state of Bihar. The devastating second wave is not arguing for imposing more centralized uniformity in the working of healthcare and public health policy proposals across India, as it will inevitably reduce the quality of executing these proposals in its diverse states with various hurdles. Instead, Indian elites need to place ‘funds, functions and functionaries’ at the local level for better health outcomes. After all, large cities in India match the population of many countries. They deserve localized public health and healthcare policy proposals.

The need to address the foundations of public health and healthcare in India around the problems of market failure and low state capacity has never been greater.

Nightcap

  1. Driving alone, listening to talk radio Addison del Mastro, New Urbs
  2. My history of manual labor Tyler Cowen, MR
  3. My first year in the Covid lockdown Maria Farrell, Crooked Timber
  4. Biden finally called up Netanyahu Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  5. The Strastnoy of Ayn Rand Roderick T. Long, Policy of Truth
  6. Brand India Ravinder Kaur, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. Fascinating piece on Ming China’s censorial system Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  2. On the farmer’s protests Jeet Singh, Time
  3. Understanding the rise of socialism Brad Delong, Grasping Reality
  4. Understanding middlebrow Scott Sumner, Money Illusion

The unyielding middlemen: A timeline of 2020-2021 Indian farmers’ protest

What’s the first question in the field of public policy? According to the Indian Economist Ajay Shah, “What should the state do?” is the first question. He says, “A great deal of good policy reform can be obtained by putting an end to certain government activities and by initiating new areas of work that better fit into the tasks of government.

This question is especially essential for a weak state like India. But what if people prefer government subsidies, assertive intermediaries and a weak state? I don’t know the answer to this question. The story of the Indian farm protest is an illustrative example; it is a rebellion to stay bound to the old status quo, fearful of free choice.

Protest Timeline

04 June 2020: Union Cabinet clears three ordinances meant for reforms in the Indian Agricultural sector. These reforms upgrade farmers from being just producers to free-market traders. Agriculture is a state subject in India, but state governments have had no political will to usher in these reforms. China reformed its agriculture sector first, followed by other industries. India is doing it the other way round and thirty years late. So, the union government followed constitutional means to usher in the reforms.

04-05 June 2020: Leader of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Rakesh Tikait, welcomes the ordinances.

09 August 2020: Two months after the cabinet’s ordinance, voices of dissent emerge in Punjab, Haryana, and U.P. because a minority of well-off farmers in these states are associated with APMC—the post-green revolution status-quo— that makes them comfortable middlemen.

14-20 September 2020: All the three bills cleared in the two houses of the parliament. But a party member from Punjab pulls out as a symbolic protest.

25 September 2020: Protest gets a ‘Bharat Bandh’ (India Shutdown) tag even though farmer unions in only three states oppose the reforms. The Union Govt opens a communication channel and holds several talks with these farmer associations over their concerns.

04 December 2020: The Union Govt offers a work-around the dilution of MSP. By the way, MSP sets an unnaturally high price and cuts out the competition, so the middlemen club in the farmer’s association of Punjab, Haryana, and U.P. want nothing less than the scraping of these reforms.

21 December 2020: Farmer associations boycott Jio and Reliance products unrelated to the farmer bills.

08 January 2021: Greta Thunberg’s online toolkit for a planned Twitter campaign against the Indian government is launched to invoke human rights violations; it confirms a hashtag.

10 January 2021: Online narrative set and future social media posts finalized.

12 January 2021: The supreme court of India makes a committee to examine the laws.

21 January 2021: The Union Govt offers to stay the laws for 18 months for a consultation, but it gets rejected.

26 January 2020: The farmers, during their Tractor Rally protests, breach the Red Fort, leads to a scuffle with the police. They hoist a religious flag at the Red Fort, thereby giving this arcane legal issue an unwanted sectarian color.

Bottom line: A) The Ordinances aim to liberalize Agri trade and increase the number of buyers for farmers. B) de-regulation alone may not be sufficient to attract more buyers.

Almost every economist worth his salt acknowledges the merit in point A) and welcomes these essential reforms that are thirty years late but better late than never. Ajay Shah says, “We [Indians] suffer from the cycle of boom and bust in Indian agriculture because the state has disrupted all these four forces of stabilization—warehousing, futures trading, domestic trade and international trade. The state makes things worse by having tools like MSP and applying these tools in the wrong way. Better intuition into the working of the price system would go a long way in shifting the stance of policy.”

However, the middlemen argue on point B), that acts as a broad cover for their real fears of squandering their upper-hand in the current APMC/MSP system. Although nobody denies that a sudden opening of the field for competition will threaten the income of these middlemen, such uncertainties should not justify violent protests, slandering campaigns, that look to derail the entire process of upgrading the lives of a great majority of poor farmers in the country.

Even worse, these events get branded in broad strokes as state violence and human rights abuses by pre-planned Twitter and street campaigns and unnecessary road blockades. Everybody questions internet outages during these protests but no one questions the ethics of protesters blocking essential roads in the city. A section of the Indian society and diaspora hates Prime Minister Modi for sure. I have no qualms with this, but the reckless hate shouldn’t negate all nuances in analyzing perfectly sane reforms. Social justice warriors legitimize the vicious cycle of dissent without nuance because they don’t take the trouble of even reading the farm bill but make it a virtue to reason from their “bleeding hearts.”

Talking about social justice warriors, the sane voice of Sadanand Dhume, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the few left-leaning voices from India I respect writes, “What do Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece, Meena Harris, have in common? They’re all rallying support for India’s farmer protests, which are morphing from an arcane domestic dispute into an emotive international cause. And they’re all mostly wrong in their thinking.

Ordinarily, the Indian state works inadequately, experiences confusion when faced with a crisis. It comes out with a communication of a policy package that attempts to address the problem in a short-term way and retreats into indifference. So, there are two aspects to its incompetence, one, there is a lack of political will because special interest groups persuade the government towards the wrong objectives. And two, the state capacity is so weak that it fails to achieve the goal. The farm protest is a hideous third kind of difficulty: a special interest group of assertive, influential middlemen want the strong-willed, long-term thinking Indian government policy—a rare entity— to sway towards short-termism under the pretext of human rights abuse. The hard left is actually supporting the Indian state to remain weak. They will also be the first to blame the state when it comes off as weak in the next debacle.

The story never ends.

The 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh: 50 years later

2021 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the 13-day Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which also resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. In 2011, I co-edited a book titled Warriors after War which consists of interviews with retired Army officials from India and Pakistan. Here is an excerpt:

Tridivesh Singh Maini recalls that part of the inspiration for this book arose from the history of this incident, and the fact that the original impetus for change had arisen not from politicians but from ex-military figures in Pakistan and India. Subsequently, he carried out the interviews with all the Indian ex-military figures for this volume, while his colleague in Pakistan, Tahir Malik, carried out all but one of the interviews with Pakistani ex-military figures (Brigadier Shaukat Qadir was interviewed by Richard Bonney).

It is difficult to emphasize sufficiently the uniqueness, importance and timeliness of this volume. Relations between Pakistan and India were strained from the outset as a result of the events of Partition in 1947, when the mass migration of the populations in opposite directions and the slaughter that occurred on both sides led to mutual recrimination. (pgs 34-35)

Here is a link to the book on Amazon. Here is a pdf of the entire book.

Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

On 26 January 1950, India’s Constitution came into effect amidst severe apprehensions about India’s balkanization. So, seventy-one years later, the Indian democratic republic may still appear to be a historical accident, but it is not. Here is why:

India has always been a fertile territory for experiments in governance, but surprisingly, there is no more than a casual reference to the ideas underlying non-western civilizations in Political Science courses or History of Political Thought. The neglect of Indian polity is particularly striking, for apart from Western political thought, Indic political ideas comprise the most extensive and most crucial body of political philosophy. Moreover, these political ideas are integral to Indic civilization—one of the only surviving non-western civilizations. Today, we know that Western ideas have clearly impacted Indian political thought. Still, what is generally not realized is that India has also contributed to Western political thinking in all probability. 

The problem of scant attention given to Indic political thought compared to Indic religion and philosophy was partly remedied with the re-discovery of Kautilya’s Arthashastra —the Indic equivalent of the Machiavellian, The Prince. However, other great works like Kamandaki’s Nitisara— Elements of Polity, the Raj Dharma (administrative ethics) section of the epic, Mahabharata, the epic Ramayana, Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses), and to some extent antiquated Hitopadesha (Beneficial Advice) also deal with an Indian way of thinking about the state-society relationship. 

Drawing from these essential texts and Indic political thinkers, the king’s role is viewed mainly as an administrator—the ruler is not an agent of social change. This view is radically different from its counterparts in the West. In Western political theory—Rousseau, Locke, and Hegel—political order means the subjugation of society to the state. In Indian tradition, the society and culture are always supreme, and the ruler is accountable to dharma (Indic ethics—a common internal bond) and society. Therefore, the conception of the “state of nature” in Hobbes and Rousseau is irrelevant to Indic tradition because ethics and civilization preceded the state’s development in India. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata’s grand narratives, an esoteric reading accounts for personal ethics and the path to profound spiritual freedom. But an exoteric view informs us of political power, administrative ethics, and the limits of provisional freedom. According to these epics, the state is created to protect against the disintegration of social order, and the state is given only those powers required to do so. Thus, a ruler’s powers are not like those of the Leviathan conceptualized in Hobbes.

Despite these radical Indic political concepts, the popular view on ancient and early medieval India is that it was merely a region invested in despotism with no knowledge of Freedom or Liberty. Hegel assumed that only one tribe of men were free in Asia, and others were their slaves. It is worth noting that for almost thousand eight hundred years after the Greek republics collapsed, the Western world also lived through monarchical despotism and tyranny. Likewise, apart from ancient Greece and Rome, in India too, there existed republics and proto democracies. A fair study of Indic history informs you that ancient Indian republics were not only in existence from the 8th century B.C. to 4th century A.D., but they were doing some fascinating experiments in state-society relations. With time, at least four different forms of constitutions emerged. 

  1. Arajya: A political community without a king. These communities self-governed using Dharma texts (Indic ethics).
  2. Ganarajya: A state or a political community ruled by a ‘gana’ or an assembly of people.
  3. Youvarajya: A political community ruled by a crown prince.
  4. Dvairajya: A political community ruled by two kings.

For various reasons, Ganarajya and Youvarajya systems thrived much more than the other two. 

The ‘Gana‘ seems to be the earliest Indic political forum of the entire community (Jana). The Jana’s formulation of political policies rested with the Samiti (Sanskrit for Committee) and the Sabha (an assembly of elders). Over time, these Ganarajya states developed into Janapada—a self-sufficing political and cultural unit. Every Janapada had its peculiar dialect and customs developed from regional interpretations of Indic Dharma (ethics). Several of these Janapada states even joined hands to form a federation of Mahajanapada (mega-Janapada). Over time, however, powerful Indic monarchies who performed the state’s integrative functions better than the assemblies of Gana overwhelmed them. Fortunately, imperial states incorporated these republics into their fold; republics were not entirely stamped out, even after repeated invasions by the Turks, Mongols, Portuguese, French, and the British. 

The Gana-Sabha system emerged from the shadow as soon as these imperial powers became weak. The Sabha system was active in the village setting as Panchayat (village associations) that included both notable big men and peasants, in contestation with each other and in opposition to the state. Here, different qualities of people and opinions were tested, rather than the scene of a pronunciamento by elders. Even the British acknowledged this system. Henry Maine, who was influenced by J. S. Mill, was sent to India in the 1860s to advise the British government on legal matters. He came across several accounts of thriving indigenous systems of autonomous village governments, whose structure and practice shared many characteristics of participatory democracy. Later, Maine articulated a theory of the village community as an alternative to the centralized state. In the Panchayat system, De Tocqueville saw an ideal model of a society with a limited state. He planned to study it, comparable to Democracy in America but overwhelmed by his political duties, he never managed a trip. So, while Indian electoral democracy was only instituted in the first half of the twentieth century, the practice of public reasoning, deliberation, and toleration of a plurality of ideas is a much older phenomenon, dating back to ancient Indic traditions. 

During the 1947 Constituent Assembly Debates of post-colonial India, there was an Alexander Hamilton vs. Thomas Jefferson sort of debate between Gandhi’s idea of Indic village-style, decentralized administration vs. B. R. Ambedkar’s —the principal architect of the Indian constitution—healthy centralized state. Although Ambedkar’s view prevailed, the village democracy did not entirely disappear from the Indian constitution. India officially called itself Bhārat Gaṇarājya, and the first two words of the Indian national anthem honor Jana and Gana. Hence, the constitutional democracy of the Indian republic was not an accident; it is a sui generis phenomenon reflecting the plural character and age-old but essential values of Indic civilization. Therefore, modern-day India is a Civilization-State. The West can only describe it from the outside, but it is for India to interpret herself from within—an ongoing process.  

Finally, it merits mentioning that Professor of international history Arnold J. Toynbee reminded the world, “India is a whole world in herself; she is a society of the same magnitude as our Western society.”

To know more about India’s constitutional debates, check this excellent ten-episode series. Subtitles are available in English.

Nightcap

  1. Must the president be a moral leader? Michael Blake, Conversation
  2. Why I am not a moderate Jacob Levy, Open Society
  3. Afraid to be free (pdf) James Buchanan, Public Choice
  4. Is India’s federal order doomed? Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Indian Express

A criticism of Indian Americans by an Indian national in the US

This Atlantic article got me thinking. As an Indian national in the U.S., I would like to make a limited point about some (definitely not all) Indian Americans. In my interactions with some Indian Americans, the topic of India induces, if you will, a conflicting worldview. India —the developing political state—is often belittled in some very crude ways, using some out-of-context recent western parallels by mostly uninformed but emboldened Indian Americans.

Just mention Indian current affairs, and some of these well-assimilated Indian Americans quickly toss out their culturally informed, empathetic, anti-racist, historically contingent-privilege rhetoric to conveniently take on a sophisticated “self-made” persona, implying a person who ticked all the right boxes in life by making it in the U.S. This reflexive attitude reversal comes in handy to patronize Indians living in India. They often stereotype us as somehow lower in status or at least less competent owing to the lack of an advanced political state or an ”American” experience—therefore deficient in better ways of living and a higher form of ”humanistic” thinking.

This possibly unintentional but ultimately patronizing competence-downshift by a section of Indian Americans results in pejorative language to sketch generalizations about Indian society even as they recognize the same language as racist when attributed to American colored minorities.

In the last decade, I have learned that one must always take those who openly profess to be do-gooders, culturally conscious, anti-racist, and aware of their privileged Indian American status as a contingency of history with a bucket load of salt. Never take these self-congratulatory labels at face value. Discuss the topic of India with them to check if Indian contexts are easily overlooked. If they do, then obviously, these spectacular self-congratulatory labels are just that — skin-deep tags to fit into the dominant cultural narrative in the U.S.

Words of the economist Pranab Bardhan are worth highlighting: “Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. And if you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their current economic environment.”

Nightcap

  1. Mormonism and the culture war McKay Coppins, Atlantic
  2. Europe outspends Russia on defense Barry Posen, Survival
  3. The onion bomb and Hindu nationalism Rohit Inani, Newlines
  4. The revolt of the baristas Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Nightcap

  1. The self-made British working class Helene Guldberg, spiked!
  2. India and the Mughal Empire William Dalrymple, Literary Hub
  3. On decolonization in Africa Sindre Bangstad, Africa is a Country
  4. Federalism in Europe, America, and Africa (pdf) Jörg Broschek, F&D

A short note on Iran and India

Introduction

Ever since the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), or the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018, Iran-India economic linkages have taken a hit. The impact on the bilateral economic relationship between New Delhi and Tehran became even more pronounced after India stopped purchasing oil from Tehran in 2019. The US had ended the waiver from sanctions, which had provided to India and a number of other countries, the continued ability to import oil from Iran.

In 2018-2019, bilateral trade between India and Iran was estimated at over $17 billion (mineral oil and fuel imports accounted for a significant percentage of the $17 billion). In 2019-2020, for the period from April-November, bilateral trade was estimated at $3.5 billion. There was a significant drop in Iran’s imports to India, owing to the reduction of Iranian petroleum imports by India to zero.

Downward trajectory in the bilateral relationship

2019 witnessed a downward trajectory as far as New Delhi-Tehran ties were concerned, with Iran expressing its disappointment with New Delhi for not taking a firm stance against Washington. Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in 2019, while making the above point in an interaction with Indian journalists, also stated that ‘if you can’t lift oil from us, we won’t be able to buy Indian rice.’

Chabahar Port and the India-Iran relationship

The US on its part has exempted the strategically important Chabahar Port Project, India’s gateway to Afghanistan, from sanctions. The Port was earlier touted by many as India’s counter to the Gwadar Port (Balochistan Province, Pakistan), which is at a distance of 70 kilometres and an important component of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Government of India had taken over Phase 1 of the Shahid Beheshti Port in December 2018 (according to an agreement India was to operate two berths within Phase 1 of the project). During the Covid-19 pandemic, India had used the Chabahar Port to deliver relief materials to Afghanistan.

After India’s decision to stop the purchase of oil from Iran, and the souring of ties between both countries, Iran has given indicators that it is keen to get Pakistan (Iran had proposed to connect the Chabahar Port with Gwadar Port) and China on board. Iran has also complained that progress on the Chabahar Port was slow due to India’s cautious attitude towards the project, (as a result of both American pressure and delays in funding).

In the aftermath of the Iran-China 25-year agreement, India has been paying greater attention to ties with Iran in general, and the Chabahar Project in particular, a point strongly reiterated by the back-to-back visits of India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, to Tehran respectively. Connectivity, economic linkages, and issues of regional security (specifically Afghanistan) were discussed during both visits.

There were reports that India had been elbowed out of the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project, an important component of the Chabahar Project, but Iran has categorically dismissed this claim.

Indian exports of Basmati to Iran hit by sanctions

While the India-Iran bilateral relationship is often viewed from the prism of the Chabahar Port and Oil, Iran also accounts for a large percentage of India’s Basmati (an aromatic long grain rice) exports – 34%. There is likely to be a dip this year, due to sanctions, and Iran is already substituting Indian Basmati with Pakistani basmati.

The North Indian states of Punjab and Haryana account for 75 percent of Basmati exports. Indian Basmati exporters and growers have expressed their concern over the likely fall in exports to Iran (which is an important market).

Conclusion

The impact of US sanctions on Iran’s economic ties with India, with Basmati exports being an important example, reiterate the point that the Iran-India relationship is far deeper and multifaceted than is often perceived. While the thrust is on connectivity and geopolitics, the economic links are often overlooked. It is important for New Delhi to seek the views of all domestic stakeholders as far as economic ties with Iran are concerned.

New Delhi should also take a cue from the UK, France, and Germany – also referred to as the E3 – which set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV), known as Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), in 2019, to circumvent US sanctions. (During the Covid-19 pandemic, INSTEX was used to provide relief materials to Iran). New Delhi clearly needs to think out of the box, and accord its ties with Iran greater priority given the economic, historical, and political context. The visits of India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Tehran in the month of September clearly emphasize the point that India is doing a re-think with regard to its Iran policy, factoring its strategic and economic importance. There is also a realization that Washington’s approach towards Tehran may witness a significant shift if there is a change of guard in November 2020 (which can not be ruled out).