Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Dangerous liaisons: The story behind Indian think tanks

Think tanks in India are in the midst of a controversy. They are accused of being agents of foreign powers, of being personal fiefdoms of a few individuals and of being run like Masonic cults. Is there any real truth in these charges? If so, should the government take action against these think tanks? What place, if any, should think tanks have in pluralistic democracy?
As in most vibrant democracies, India has a huge number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in almost every sector. For a country that has aspirations of becoming a great power, however, there are just a few organizations that could be loosely termed think tanks. While the number of NGOs all over the country would run into hundreds of thousands, the number of think tanks would probably not touch even 100. This is in keeping with the definition of a think tank, in the Oxford dictionary, as a "body of experts providing advice and ideas on specific national and commercial problems."
Think tanks in India fall into four categories. First are those organizations that are autonomous in their functioning, but are dependent almost completely on government funding for their survival. Then there are the thinks tanks that are identified with specific political parties. Unlike in Germany where foundations sponsored by political parties are extremely influential and well funded, think tanks closely associated with Indian political parties, with the odd exception, are rarely high profile and their influence is limited to the party they are linked with. In this sense, they resemble a caucus or a pressure group within the political party.
There are also the "umbrella" organizations that focus on the whole gamut of policy issues, ranging from economics to ecology, science and technology to security. There are not many bodies like this, and the few that exist are also now seeking to carve out a particular niche. Finally, there are think tanks devoted to specific issues. These usually work on economic problems or themes related to governance, security or defense.
Economic think tanks usually work on macro issues. These are probably the most influential of think tanks. They are generally supportive of liberalization and view globalization as a challenge and opportunity for the country. There are of course a few that are still supportive of 'swadeshi' and autarkic economic policies, but these are closely connected with tendencies within political parties. The former are often accused of supporting a World Bank-IMF driven policy agenda.
Think tanks working on governance usually focus on Center-State relations, the possibilities of decentralization and devolution including the merits of the 'Panchayati Raj' system, and the problems of specific regions such as the North East or Kashmir. In addition, some may also examine the problems posed by corruption, criminalization of politics, human rights abuses and the need for constitutional and electoral reform. Again, these think tanks are charged with strengthening centrifugal and separatist tendencies.
Finally, we have think tanks working on security issues, and, these are seen as being the most controversial. Many of them were set up during the 1990s, though there are a few that have been working on foreign policy issues since the 1960s. Researchers from within these bodies have often taken positions that go against the country's existing policy on the nuclear issue, relations with Pakistan or China. Not surprisingly, they are often openly accused of being American agents.
Many think tanks do take positions that go against government policy and the existing order. Does that make them anti-national? In a democracy, are individuals and organizations expected to conform to the government line? Isn't debate essential to true democratic functioning?
Consider first how these bodies are set up. A think tank cannot be started without registering as an NGO with the Registrar of Societies, who has to establish whether it will promote public interest. The think tank has to have properly codified byelaws that have to be consistent with democratic norms of functioning. There needs to be a governing board of at least seven members, whose interests are related to the aims of the think tank. All accounts have to verified and certified as correct by a registered chartered accountant at the end of every year.
Many independent think tanks also depend on the government for projects, or on government-sponsored funding agencies like the Indian Council for Social Science Research. They cannot get foreign funding unless the project and the funding is cleared by the Department of Economic Affairs, which one presumes also gets clearance from the Intelligence Bureau and the Ministry of External Affairs. No seminar can be organized, in which there is foreign participation, unless prior permission is obtained from the Ministry of External Affairs, the Home Ministry and the ministry directly concerned with the subject being discussed.
Admittedly, a sophisticated operation run by a foreign intelligence agency can still circumvent the lengthy bureaucratic procedure, and there may well be think tanks run by agents of foreign powers. But to what end? It would mostly mean a waste of huge resources, even if funded by intelligence agencies. Indeed, a systematic survey reveals that Indian think tanks have rarely changed policy on any issue of substance. Security think tanks, especially if run by analysts who are seen as dissenters, are rarely taken seriously even by officialdom.
An easier way for foreign intelligence agencies is to secure the services of those directly working within the government. This will buy them both information not publicly available and influence, neither of which any think tank can provide them. In other words, think tanks are a red herring; the real enemy is probably somewhere no one suspects it to be.

(Source: indiainfo.com)

Monday, October 23, 2000

Notes From A Diplomat

An Afghan Diary: Zahir Shah To Taliban, J.N.Dixit, Konark
MOST of us academics imagine that diplomats, especially ambassadors, do little more than party, sleep, scribble a few lines to headquarters (a telegram if you have a hangover, a longer dispatch if you are sober), and then party again.
Dixit's Afghan Diary proves how wrong this stereotype is. The former foreign secretary's study is largely a reproduction of a political diary he kept when he was Indian ambassador in Kabul from 1982 to 1985. The book chronicles events during that critical period and as such will be valuable source material for future historians and foreign policy analysts.
If you are, however, looking for a narrative history of Afghanistan, this is not your book. In that sense, the book title is misleading; there's just a brief summary of events from Zahir Shah's reign, through the coup by his cousin Daud in 1973, to the so-called Saur socialist revolution accompanied by the Soviet intervention in 1979. Nor is there much on events following the Soviet withdrawal, or on the Taliban's rise.
Yet, despite the limited scope, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the Afghan conundrum or the making of India's foreign policy during those difficult years. It was obvious even by 1983 that the socialist revolution had not found roots. Consider this passage written by Dixit in November 1982: "The more I live here the more I feel that the Saur Revolution was and is the result of non-Pushtoon tribes and nationalities against the Pushtoons and the feudal Farsiwan who have dominated this country since 1737.... Another aspect I discern is that the revolution has been brought about essentially by a group of middle and lower middle-class educated urban radicals."
Why then did India continue with the policy of supporting the Moscow-sponsored Afghan government, despite repeated warnings even by Badshah Khan? Why did we have to put all our eggs in the Soviet basket? Are we not reaping today the follies of our Afghan policy, left as we are without any influence or leverage there? Does Afghanistan not represent the greatest failure of our foreign policy, and Pakistan's greatest triumph, as it successfully continues the virtual conquest of its traditionally difficult neighbour? There are no easy answers, although Dixit attempts at providing some, but there was at least one diplomat, who, as India's permanent representative at the UN in 1980, disagreed with India's official stance and was forced, as a result, to move to Africa. That officer was Brajesh Mishra!
Dixit's book is not, however, just about dry politics. The encounters, anecdotes and asides alone make it a good read. Take Dr Anahita Ratebzad, the "heavy, high-breasted, heavy-thighed" politburo member, who described Pakistan as an "abortion bred by colonialism and imperialism"; or the Anand Marg swamiji who arrived from Cyprus wanting to teach the Afghans yoga; or Afghan premier Keshtamand's belief that only the Indian hair tonic Pantene could cure his baldness.

(Source: Outlook, 23/10/00)

Monday, October 16, 2000

The Jerusalem syndrome

Jerusalem is a city of stark contradictions. There is no other city in the world that is more fascinating, that has as much faith, culture and civilization associated with it. And yet, there are few cities that are in such dispute, have as much bitterness and violence associated with them.
On a first visit to Jerusalem, in relatively peaceful times, you initially notice only the serenity of the old city. Within its walls you discover the holiest Jewish site, the Western Wall, which is part of the structure built by Herod the Great in 20 B.C. and which was subsequently destroyed by the Romans. You encounter the third holiest Muslim site, the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, from where Prophet Mohammed rose to heaven. And you see the Christian sites, where Jesus was tried, crucified, buried and from where he finally resurrected.
But even as you begin to be overwhelmed by the intense spiritual experience, you begin to notice the tension, the conflict, the bitterness and the deep division among the people.
These two contradictory experiences can violently shake you up. In fact, every year hundreds of visitors have to be taken to the Kfar Shaul hospital, the state psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of western Jerusalem. There is also a phrase to describe the illness that affects visitors whose minds are torn between these two contradictory experiences: the Jerusalem syndrome.
Imagine then what it must be to live in the city permanently. Imagine then how reckless was the decision by the Israeli government to allow the opposition leader of the right-wing Likud Party, Ariel Sharon, to visit Muslim religious sites in East Jerusalem, including the third holiest Islamic shrine. The protests by the Palestinians, which led to the violence, were provoked by this visit. Only one motive could have inspired Sharon, a known hardliner who even supported the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the early 1980s, to make this provocative gesture: To demonstrate Israel's continued sovereignty over the Muslim sites in East Jerusalem.
Palestinian protests erupted as a direct consequence of Sharon's visit. They were limited not just to the West Bank and Gaza, as had been the case during the "intifada," but included Arabs living within the territory of Israel. What is unpardonable, however, is the use of force by the Israeli government that was totally out of proportion to the scale of the protests. It is believed that helicopter gunships, tanks and anti-tanks missiles were used to crush the protests.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's attempts to demonstrate that he was not soft on the Palestinians backfired. Not only has Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian National Authority, regained the moral high ground that he lost after he was blamed for the collapse of the Camp David Summit earlier this year, but also has Barak lost considerable support in the international community -- even among traditional supporters of Israel.
In the circumstances, the Palestinians are perfectly justified in demanding an international commission of inquiry into the incidents and have rightly rejected the deadline to arrive at a ceasefire, sought to be imposed by Barak.
It is, however, important for Arafat to also realize that sustainable peace in the region can be achieved only if all the leaders of the region have the vision to go beyond tactical considerations. The continuing tragedy of the Palestinians demonstrates that there is no alternative to a dialogue and only in a strategy of forgiveness, reconciliation and compromise is there a way out.
The frightening violence that has been witnessed in Israel and the West Bank, over the last two weeks, threatens to derail the peace process to such an extent that it will be extremely difficult to put it back on track again. It is critical, therefore, for all those who have influence and leverage over the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, especially the United States, to exercise maximum pressure to ensure a return to the negotiating table.
It must, however, be clear that the responsibility for the present crisis lies firmly on the shoulders of the Israeli government, and they must be persuaded to provide the healing touch. More than a hundred people have been killed during the violence, and - apart from a few - all of them were Arabs.
The summit in Saudi Arabia, which U.S. President Bill Clinton will attend, is only one way forward. The real summit must be between the people, who must organize themselves in such a way that politicians will not seek to divide them further.
For India the challenge is equally acute. On the one hand, it must develop a policy consistent with its traditional support for the Palestinians. On the other, it must ensure that its policies do not damage its new engagement with Israel. In other words, a balance must be struck, and that can only happen when New Delhi is seen to be speaking with honesty and integrity and not being dictated purely by tactical considerations.

(Source: indiainfo.com)

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

India looks east

If there is one region that promises to become vital to India's national interests in the years to come, it is South East Asia. Historically, South East Asia has been part of India's civilizational frontiers. Even today, there are several versions of the Indian epic Ramayana that are performed in various countries of the region.
But during the Cold War years, most of the prosperous countries from the South East that had formed the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were closely aligned to the United States, while India had a special relationship with the Soviet Union. Hence, India and the ASEAN countries drifted apart.
With the end of the Cold War, however, there has been some effort by New Delhi to look afresh at the region. The 'Look East' policy was part of this new vision. ASEAN made India its Sectoral Dialogue Partner in 1992 and its Full Dialogue Partner in 1996. Subsequently, India was invited to join the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the "ASEAN-driven multilateral, security dialogue platform." With the inclusion of Myanmar, India and ASEAN are more than just maritime neighbors, they also share an over 1,600 kms. land boundary.
This engagement with ASEAN is part of a clear recognition -- on part of India's elite -- of the strategic and economic importance of the region to India's national interests. However, there remains a disjunction between thought and practice and New Delhi's engagement has still not acquired the thrust, or indeed the institutional requirements, to be able to pursue its interests in the region in a systematic and purposeful manner. India's efforts to engage ASEAN must become more determined in the years to come.
Instead of a single image of ASEAN that prevails in India, there is plurality of inter-connected images through which the Indian elite has constructed ASEAN. Four images are the most popular: as a pivot in India's 'grand strategy'; as a zone of economic opportunity; as a role model; and as a region of cultural and civilizational confluence. It is the first two images, however, which are of vital importance.
ASEAN is slowly emerging as central pivot in the Indian view of Asia and its future, and essential to the construction of a security order that will be in India's interests. This is not only because the view of the Asia-Pacific as a zone of increased threats, potential turbulence and unbridled great power rivalries, is gaining increasing currency in India, but also because ASEAN potentially shares a range of common military and non-military threats and concerns, including those related to issues as diverse as energy, economics and sustainable development.
Quite obviously, deeply concerned about the uncertainties of the future, including but not only over China's role, India is beginning to recognize the limits to which New Delhi can unilaterally "contain" a potentially belligerent Beijing and other security challenges. It would like to fashion a multilateral security order in the Asia Pacific in partnership with ASEAN.
In other words, India is not just deeply concerned about potential instability in Asia, but also willing to adopt a more active role in the future.
Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's speech in Singapore in June this year is particularly revealing and illustrative. Jaswant Singh went on to specifically focus on Indian and Indian-ASEAN security concerns. He said: "India's parameters of security concerns clearly extend beyond confines of the convenient albeit questionable geographical definition of South Asia. South Asia was always a dubious framework for situating the Indian security paradigm. Given its size, geographical location, trade links and the Exclusive Economic Zone, India's security environment and therefore potential concerns range from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca in the West, South & East, Central Asia in the North-West, China in the North-East and South East Asia."
India's involvement in ARF, its increasing defense co-operation with individual ASEAN countries (including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand), and particularly the co-operation between the coast guards and the navy will grow, but it is the larger element of a comprehensive strategic dialogue and a broader strategic understanding that may fashion itself in the future.
The image of ASEAN as a zone of economic opportunity is also still a strong one, despite the ups and downs in the economic relationship since 1991, the financial crisis that affected most of the ASEAN countries and India's own sluggish pace of economic reform.
India is cooperating with ASEAN countries in various fields including trade and investment, science and technology, tourism, human resources and infrastructure development. Such linkages are expected to intensify in the coming years. According to sources, "through the institution of dialogue partnership, attempts are being made to identify areas for focused interaction, including formulation of work programs and action plans."
In sum, India's engagement with ASEAN will grow steadily. While there is an obvious and growing potential within the economic arena, New Delhi will seek to cultivate the ASEAN countries, politically and strategically, more than ever before. India's presence and contribution in the ARF and Track II forums will be more regular and deeper than before.
Concern about China obviously provides an impetus, but engagement with ASEAN will be driven by larger considerations about stability in Asia and the belief that ASEAN and India share a range of common military and non-military threats, as well as largely similar perceptions of order in the region.
Bureaucratic inertia and the conservative mandarins of India's Ministry of External Affairs may not always show the energy and enthusiasm needed, but ultimately the obvious convergence of ideas and interests will ensure that India-and ASEAN will relate closely to each other in the future

(Source: indiainfo.com)