The populist right in India, and the US

All eyes in India have understandably been on some important political developments over the past few days.

First, the by-election results of 3 parliamentary seats and 2 legislative seats were made more interesting by fact that BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, and India’s largest) had to face a surprising rout in the strongholds (Gorakhpur, Phulpur) of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister (Yogi Adityanath) and Deputy Chief Minister (Keshav Prasad Maurya).

Second, there has been talk of other regional parties joining hands and forming an Anti-Congress Front. Two days after the election results, the exit of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its decision to pass a no confidence motion (which BJP is likely to win) has certainly made the fight for 2019 more interesting.

While it remains to be seen whether the opposition parties in 2019 can give the BJP a run for its money, those interested in US politics will have closely followed the result of a Congressional by-election (18th District) where Democrat candidate Connor Lamb (a 33 year old Marine) defeated Republican Candidate Rick Saccone in a close contest. This is a significant win after the triumph of Senator Douglas Jones in Alabama. Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate Seat in Alabama (a Republican stronghold referred to as “Ruby Red”) since 1997.

The US President, who is quick to comment on virtually every issue, on Twitter, remained silent on the result of the 18th District.

The US President did state, at a private fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley, that the Democrat candidate’s stance on key economic issues was akin to that of Trump:

The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis, Trump said. He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican?’ He sounds like a Republican to me.

Lamb conservative on social and economic issues?

Trump’s views were echoed by a number of other Republicans. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Lamb a “pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.”

While Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York said that he doesn’t “think you’ll see another candidate like Lamb,” another representative from the state of Pennsylvania, Mike Kelly, argued that Lamb was “more like a Republican.”

There is some truth in the President’s assertions, because Lamb did support the President’s imposition of tariffs on aluminium and steel imports. Said Lamb: “we have to take some action to level the playing field.” Even on issues like gun control and abortion, his views were to the right of conventional Democrats, though not absolutely in sync with the Republicans.

Why Trump can not ignore this defeat

Irrespective of what US President Donald Trump may say, the fact is that he had won the state by 20 points in the US Presidential election of 2016, and his economic agenda had found strong resonance. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had also campaigned for Saccone.

Significantly, in the last two Congressional elections, Democrats had not even bothered to field candidates in PA 18.

The announcement to impose tariffs on aluminium and steel had been made one week before the election, clearly with an eye on reaching out to large sections of ‘blue collar workers’. The US President calculated that he would be able to regain his popularity, but the results clearly show that Trump’s ‘ultra nationalism’ and economically inward looking policies by themselves will not suffice. He will also need to change his style of functioning and not continuously sack individuals.

Republican Speaker Paul Ryan himself had dubbed this verdict as a ‘wake up call’. Other Republicans have been forthright in their analysis of the defeat and blame Trump’s approval ratings for the same.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said:

There is a very real problem facing Republicans in the months ahead and that problem is Donald Trump’s approval rating.

What does Lamb’s win mean for the Democrats

Lamb’s victory may also result in some changes within the Democrats. Lamb has been pitching for a change in leadership and does not get along particularly well with Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives:

I have said, and I continue to say, that I think we need new leadership at the top of both parties in the House.

Pelosi however was quick to deny that Lamb’s criticism of her had anything to do with the outcome:

I don’t think that that really had that much impact on the race […] He won. If we hadn’t won, you might have a question, but we won — the ‘D’ next to his name was very significant.

The electoral verdicts in India and US have one common message: ‘economic insularity’,  and the whipping up of ultra-nationalist emotions can not make up for vacuous policies.

There are messages for the opposition in both the US and India; in spite of right wing nationalism having failed to address substantive issues, the voter is looking for new options — leaders with imaginative ideas outside of the cozy club .

If one were to specifically look at India, the fence sitters may not be particularly happy with the existing order, but does that imply that they will automatically tilt towards the opposition? The politics of doles and sops will not work. A progressive social agenda, which is in sync with the diverse ethos of this country, has to be complemented by a pro-reform economic agenda (which is of course inclusive, and sensitive to the concerns of the poorest).


What is clear however is that Trump’s re-election in 2020 and Modi’s in 2019, are not a done deal. One would have to say though, that in spite of the recent UP verdict, there is a higher probability of Modi being re-elected than Trump.

It remains to be seen whether the current populist right narrative, which is a lethal cocktail of inward looking economic thinking and conservative social policies, can be countered effectively, and defeated at the hustings, by a progressive, forward looking agenda. Will India and the US take the lead in challenging this narrative?


3 key problems with Trump’s style of functioning

The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning: First, his inability to get along with members of his team; second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders; and, finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.

Tillerson, who had differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) to the handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked are, amongst others, Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) to exit hurriedly. Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.

The US President tweeted this decision:

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!

The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from his own (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues).

Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members, including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.

The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:

Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!

While Chung stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.

There is absolutely no doubt that, at times, bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature, however – refusing to go into the depth of things or seeking expert opinion – does not make for good diplomacy.

In fact, a number of politicians and journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where North Korean negotiations may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, stated that Trump “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column:

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit, for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.

Finally, while Trump, like many global leaders, has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO and multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. The United States has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships; it has not been one way traffic.

It remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal will affect relations with key US allies. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.

Japan on its part would want its concerns regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago, to not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea. (13 Japanese individuals were abducted in 2002, 5 have returned but the fate of the others remains unknown.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the return of the abductees a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and his low approval ratings due to a domestic scandal could use the boost that is usually associated with the plight of those abductees.

The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has gotten used to the US President’s style of functioning and will closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table.

Quad: The way ahead and the key challenges

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the US has been pitching in favor of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’ ever since the first meeting between representatives of member states in November 2017.

Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan, actually proposed this arrangement about a decade ago. Diplomatic engagement began, and joint military exercises were even held, but a change in guard in Australia, as well as Chinese complaints to member states, resulted in the end of the arrangement. Given the increasing focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region and the strengthening of strategic ties between all four countries, reticence was finally shed and representatives of the four countries met in November 2017, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila. The main aim of the alliance, thus in other ways, has been to check China’s assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, and democracy has been one of the key binding factors between the Quad. The U.S. State Department, after the meeting in November 2017, issued a statement that the United States is “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

More recently, the joint statement issued after the meeting between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February 2018, reiterated the point about a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Said the joint statement between both countries: Continue reading

In foreign affairs, don’t ignore “soft power”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his 6 day visit to India (January 14-19, 2018), made some interesting points. While arguing in favor of the advantages of hard power over soft power, Netanyahu stated:

I like soft power, but hard power is usually better. You need F-35s (fighter jets), cyber, a lot of intelligence… Where does the power for hard power come from? It comes from economic power.

Interestingly, India in recent years, under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been focusing on promoting its Soft Power through a number of ways such as popularizing Yoga (The United Nations declared June 21st as International Yoga Day), Ayurveda, reaching out to its Diaspora, and rekindling Buddhist linkages with neighbours in South Asia as well as South East Asian and East Asian countries including China.

Modi has reiterated the relevance of “soft power” on more than one occasion. Even in the context of India-Israel relations, soft power has played a key role. There have been efforts toward renovating historical sites of Jews in India, and there has been an outreach towards Jews of Indian origin now settled in Israel. There have been efforts to strengthen educational linkages between both countries. During the visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in November 2016, MOU’s were signed between the Hafia University of Israel and the Welingkar Institute of Management (WeSchool), and IDC Herzliya, Israel with the SP Jain School of High Technology. The joint statement issued during Netanyahu’s visit to India also made references to the importance of people-to-people linkages, the opening of an Indian cultural centre in Israel in 2018, and an MOU in film co-production.

The point made by Netanyahu has been made by a number of realists. Joseph Nye, who first put forward the concept of “soft power” as being the ability to influence outcomes without the use of force, later on argued in favour of the right blend of “hard power” and “soft power,” dubbing it as “smart power”. Along with Richard Armitage, Nye even set up a Commission on Smart Power. The concept was of course popularized by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at the confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, stated:

We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.

While there is absolutely no doubt that economic and hard power does give an impetus to soft power, it is also a bit of a stretch to totally dismiss “soft power.” Many would argue for instance that apart from geopolitical factors, soft power did give an edge to the US over the USSR, and later on over China, for a very long time. In recent years, China has been trying to focus on “soft power,” so much so that in the past decade, a large number of Confucius Institutes have come up in different parts of the world (over 500 in around 140 countries) including roughly 100 in the US. Apart from this, China has been trying to attract foreign students, and also tourists from across the world. Even its ambitious connectivity project, One Belt One Road, which has clear economic motives, is being packaged as part of its “soft power.”

In conclusion, “soft power” cannot be a determining factor, but it does play a significant role in strengthening bilateral relations, as well as building a positive image for countries. While we live in an age where being transactional is confused with being a pragmatist/realist. US President Trump too has been dismissive of “soft power,” and by his insular approach towards immigration, and indifference towards democratic values he has given up on two of the essential components of American Soft Power. Dismissing “soft power” because it does not help in achieving any tangible outcomes is one of the shortcomings of such transactionalism, and is an excessively simplistic view of a very complex debate.

Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.

India needs to work harder, both in its own backyard and in its near-abroad

While there is absolutely no doubt that Donald Trump has on more than one occasion sent harsh warnings to Islamabad – calling upon Pakistan to give up its support for terrorist groups or face the consequences – Trump’s predecessors had begun to reduce aid to Pakistan. During the Obama years, for example, American aid to Pakistan dropped from over 2 Billion USD in 2014, to a little over 1.1 Billion USD in 2016.

In his latest tweet, Trump minced no words, saying that Pakistan had fooled the US all these years, and that US will not take this lying down:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump tweeted early morning on New Year’s Day.

Earlier in the year, during his August speech pertaining to Afghanistan, Trump had categorically stated that it no longer could be business as usual, and that Pakistan needed to stop extending support to the Haqqani network and other groups. Said the US President:

We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.

A number of senior officials in the Trump Administration, such as the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence have hinted that harsh steps for Islamabad are a real possibility, some of which include not just withdrawal of aid to Pakistan, but also the removal of Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status.

During his recent visit to Afghanistan, Pence stated that President had put Pakistan on notice. Said Pence: “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the President said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

In an oped written for the New York TimesTillerson stated:

Pakistan must contribute by combating terrorist groups on its own soil. We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terror organisations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.

China – which has strategic and economic interests in Pakistan, with the primary one being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – has stood by Pakistan. While reacting to Trump’s August 2017 address, State Councillor Yang Jiechi said:

“We should attach importance to Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.”

India’s reactions

New Delhi has understandably been closely observing these events. Trump’s warnings to Pakistan are viewed as positive news for India, and the Trump Administration has also pleased New Delhi by speaking against violent groups that are targeting India. The US, for example, has lent support to India’s demand for declaring Jaish-E-Muhammed (JEM) Chief, Masood Azhar, a designated terrorist by the UN (this move has of course been stalled by China).

Realists in New Delhi will however be keeping an eye on the following issues.

First, sections of the political class in Pakistan, as well as old hands in the American administration will not allow things between Islamabad and Washington to go downhill. A number of Pakistani politicians, such as Sherry Rehman, have already stated that while Pakistan should have its own independent policy, and it should not be submissive, it need not be excessively aggressive. While such politicians may not publicly say so, the fact is that there is a large swath of the Pakistani population which may not be very comfortable with the US, but is even more uncomfortable with the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan as a consequence of CPEC.

In the US too, there are sections in the State Department which follow the approach of engaging with moderate forces in Pakistan given the country’s strategic importance. There is a section of the US establishment which does not want Pakistan to totally drift away from Washington’s orbit, mostly because China is beginning to take a larger role in the whole of South Asia, including Afghanistan. One of the declarations of the first Foreign Minister-level trilateral dialogue between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was the extension of (CPEC) into Afghanistan.

Said the Chinese Foreign Minister:

So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend CPEC to Afghanistan.

Both New Delhi and Washington will closely watch this development.

Apart from Beijing, Pakistan will rely on Saudi Arabia to soften Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Pakistan. The Sharif brothers, both Nawaz and Shahbaz, have strong connections in Saudi Arabia and while there were speculations that the Saudis were trying to broker a deal between the Pakistani military and the Sharifs, there is also a view that there’s an understanding between the Pakistani army and the Sharifs, and that the latter would use their links in the Saudi establishment to soften the Trump Administration, which has strong ties with Riyadh.

In conclusion, there is an increasing awareness with regard to the nexus between the Pakistani army and terror groups targeting India. Yet New Delhi should be more realistic in its calculations, and it needs to not just bank on Washington. Instead, India should also leverage its economic ties with Riyadh and Beijing to put more pressure on Pakistan. While there is no doubt that strategic convergence with Washington has increased phenomenally, Trump’s harsh words against Pakistan are not just driven by any conviction, but also by simple transactionalism. This very transactionalism has also created space for China to become more pro-active in South East Asia and South Asia. New Delhi thus needs to be pragmatic, deft, and leverage its economic rise more effectively.