Mar 21, 2021 • 19M

#116 India's rajamandala

Rethinking 'matsyanyaaya' in international relations

Open in playerListen on);
Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy. Audio narrations by Ad Auris.
Episode details
1 comment

This newsletter is really a public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

PS: If you enjoy listening instead of reading, we have this edition available as an audio narration on all podcasting platforms courtesy the good folks at Ad-Auris. If you have any feedback, please send it to us.

India Policy Watch #1: Choose Your Nationalism Wisely

Insights on burning policy issues in India


A short note on nationalism to think about for this edition.

There was the usual brouhaha in media last week over a few international agencies downgrading India on some kind of global ‘freedom index’. The usual reactions have followed.

For some, it is a validation of all they see happening around them. Our freedoms are being eroded and we watch silently, they claim. As Majrooh wrote (in that Guru Dutt romcom ‘Mr & Mrs 55’):

“मेरी दुनिया लुट रही थी, और मैं खामोश था”

On the other hand, the establishment and its supporters view this as another ‘left-liberal-woke’ attempt to malign a new, confident India. To them, there is freedom in India to freely express your dissent and criticise anyone. The old order of the privileged elite who feel left out in the present order is keen to paint India in poor light. They have been discredited and rejected by the masses, yet they persist. This is the argument made by the ‘nationalists’ (or atleast that’s what their Twitter handles claim).

The Counter

This was following the usual script on social media. We took interest, however, when the Minister of External Affairs (MEA) was asked about these ‘freedom’ reports. He dismissed the basis for their conclusions and questioned their intentions. More importantly, he gave two interesting counters to the usual ‘Hindu nationalist’ branding of the current dispensation in large sections of global media and among thinktanks.

The first was factual - they call us nationalists but we are leading the efforts in donating vaccines to countries around the world. We have already shipped over 40-50 million vaccine doses taking a humanitarian view instead of keeping them for ourselves. Tell us which western democracy is doing so? Then the second point - in these countries almost every elected official takes the oath of office with their hand on a holy religious book (America and the Bible were possibly what he meant). Do we do so in India?

Social media was abuzz with this clip. This is the ‘new, confident India’ was the usual comment among the partisans.

Well, maybe it is. Who knows?

To me, this incident is another useful lens to view nationalism. There are two things to parse here. One, is ‘vaccine diplomacy’ the antithesis of nationalism? Two, is the taking of an oath of office on a holy book blurring the lines between the church and the state?

A Masterstroke

Let’s tackle 'vaccine diplomacy’. We go on in these pages about international relations being guided by matsyanyaaya - big fish eating small fish. This is realism at play. All morality stops at the boundary of a nation-state. Beyond that is Hobbesian chaos. Going by this, donating millions of vaccines to other nations while you haven’t vaccinated your own would seem insane.

But that would be taking a narrow view of matsyanyaya. International relations is a long game with a clear understanding of your adversaries and their strengths. Vaccine diplomacy for India is a perfect counter to China in the post-pandemic world. China’s conduct in suppressing information during the initial phase of the pandemic and its bullying behaviour around the region later are open flanks for India to exploit. Donating vaccines at an early stage of their mass production checks all the boxes of being a reliable friend in international relations - it is relevant and timely, and it involves sacrificing self-interest to help others. That it provides a counter to the view in global media about this being a nationalistic dispensation is an added bonus. This act isn’t one of those false masterstrokes. This is the real thing.

What Kind Of Nationalism?

Now on to the oath and the holy book business. What’s the core issue here? If you peel the layers, there are two questions to be tackled.

  1. How important is the role of ethnocultural nationalism in the building of a modern nation-state?

  2. If it is important then what kind of ethnocultural nationalism should a state strive for to achieve its objectives of peace and prosperity for its citizens?

On the first question, it is hard to argue against the advantages of solidarity and a communitarian outlook that ethnonationalism engenders among the members of a nation. Universal brotherhood is great in the abstract but all kinship is real and very specific. The idea of a free individual owing allegiance to higher human ideals while being aloof from the emotions and instincts of his immediate surrounding is bizarre. It isn’t sustainable and it motivates no real action. It can never help in the project of nation-building. Nationalism might be seen as ‘false consciousness’ to the liberal but it is a tangible driver of change among its adherents. It can move mountains.

Ethno-cultural examples of nation-building abound in modern history. From the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who built America, the ethnic chauvinism that welded modern Germany during the pre-WW1 period or the cultural renaissance that motivated imperial Japan between the wars. Even the rise of China in the past quarter-century is an ethnocultural project.

Now if that’s true, what about the second question? What kind of ethnocultural nationalism should the state strive for? There’s always the danger of an ethnocultural movement ascribing a core moral or cultural value to a nation that excludes a significant minority from it. This is almost certain if the ethnocultural value is derived from a glorious past (real or imagined) which is lost today because of reasons beyond the control of the majority that believes in the value. The notion of Aryan supremacy and its undermining by Jews in the past or the belief in the supremacy of the Japanese subjects of Sun God and its imperial project thereafter are examples of this.

The momentum of a nationalist movement is beyond the control of those who start it. History has shown it destroys a lot before it builds something. And what it builds is rarely sustainable. It is never easy to balance liberal-democratic values and nationalistic attitudes. A middle ground is often sought but rarely achieved. This was the project that faced the leaders of modern India at its founding moment in 1947. They chose a modern conception of the Indian nation - liberal, tolerant and statist - and promoted cultural and historical artefacts that supported this ethnocultural nationalism. That was the middle ground they chose to build a modern India.

This is what they thought worked for successful liberal, democratic nation-states they saw around the world. It was bold and it was a clear break from the past. And let’s be clear. It was also the only option that wouldn’t have plunged the nation into anarchy. This project of building ethnocultural nationalism caught the imagination of people in the early years. However, as recent years have shown, it didn’t grow deep roots. Why? It’s a whole different story and we have covered a few of the reasons on these pages.

In any case, India is back at that moment in its history. What kind of ethnocultural nationalism must it choose for the current project of nation-building? That’s at the heart of the debate these days. The democratic mandate seems to suggest upending the consensus of its founding moment.

There’s always the lure of learning the wrong lessons from history. Did India choose unwisely then or did it get the execution wrong over the last 70 years? It is hard to build and easy to destroy as Amit Varma says in his newsletter. There’s a lot to think over here. Choose your nationalism wisely.

Lastly, the American Presidents take the oath of office placing their palms on the Bible. Sure.

But they don’t open it to run the country.

There’s a balance.

Leave a comment

Matsyanyaaya #1: Quad Not Being Square Anymore

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

It’s amazing how often and quickly a common, powerful, and abrasive adversary can make States bury their mutual differences. China as an adversary has reliably displayed all the three attributes, and in the process, created a new geopolitical formation — the Quad.

This formation, of course, is not new. It has hummed and hawed for nearly fifteen years. But it is China’s rapid growth and arrogant conduct that has breathed life into this idea. And finally, last week was the first time when the four heads of State met and proudly declared to the world that the Quad is here to stay and act. This reminded me of Edward Luttwak’s prescient analysis from his 2012 book The Rise of China vs The Logic of Strategy:

“Other things being equal, when a state of China’s magnitude pursues rapid military growth, unless the resulting shift in the power balance passes the culminating point of resistance inducing the acceptance of some form of subjection, it causes a general realignment of forces against it, as former allies retreat into a watchful neutrality, former neutrals become adversaries, and adversaries old and new coalesce in formal or informal alliances against the excessively risen power.”

In other words, for China, with great power came great adversaries.

This Quad summit meeting is significant at two levels: procedural and substantive.

By procedural significance, I mean that for the four States to meet and release a joint statement is itself a big deal. Usually, different countries have different readouts on major issues. The joint statement was followed up by a joint opinion piece under the names of the four heads of state. In diplomacy, where words are everything, the willingness to agree on terminologies, definitions, policy proposals, and actions with not one but three other differently placed partners, is major progress. Think of these joint statements as the diplomatic equivalents of conducting joint military exercises. Extrinsically, it is an exercise in signalling to the adversary. Intrinsically, it helps develop some comfort working in unison.

By substantive significance, I mean the creation of three working groups on vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, and climate change. While China is a glue that can hold these countries together, it can’t be a fuel that propels the Quad forward. That requires a positive agenda of action items, which these three working groups do.

Of the three areas, the vaccine partnership seems to be the most well-thought-out. In short, all four countries have agreed to expand the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines at facilities in India and give these vaccines to countries in the Indo-Pacific. Sanjaya Baru describes the geoeconomic significance of this move thus:

“What Quad has already achieved in geo-economic terms is to use the Asian demand for Covid-19 vaccines as an opportunity to create a four-way economic relationship that combines the benefits of American research, Japanese funding, Indian manufacturing capacity and Australian marketing network to supply vaccines to Asian developing countries. This is without doubt a smart idea and one that can ensure its equal ownership by all four partner countries.”

From the Indian perspective, Quad giving an impetus to vaccine investment in India pours cold water on the usual doubts that prevent collaboration with western countries.

The second working group on critical and emerging technologies seems to be the most undercooked. For starters, there isn’t an agreement on the definition of critical and emerging technologies. The Trump administration did label 20 technologies as critical and emerging but to expect multilateral cooperation on all twenty would be a high cost, low returns approach.

We have argued earlier that a better approach would be to secure semiconductor supply chains first for three reasons:

“one, the semiconductor industry underlies all critical technologies. Two, it is perhaps the most globalised high-value supply chain and no country can become entirely self-resilient. And three, all four countries have complementary strengths in the semiconductor supply chain.”

Better if the four countries can demonstrate measurable success on less controversial technologies such as semiconductors before dealing with the more vexing questions of cyber governance, data privacy, and AI governance.

Finally, this Quad meeting was initiated by the US president, putting all doubts to rest that the Biden administration might soften its stance against China. In fact, the US now seems to have a more concerted strategy to contain China. That they have a leader who is not abrasive is itself a big relief for the other partners.

Matsyanyaaya #2: Nayaa Pakistan Again?

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

Pakistan is back in the headlines these days. Surprisingly though, for good reasons. First came the much-needed Line of Control ceasefire agreement earlier this month. Since then, no ceasefire violations have been reported. And last week came a couple of conciliatory statements by the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff and PM Imran Khan.

Gen Bajwa had this to say:

.. let me say profoundly that we are ready to improve our environment by resolving all our outstanding issues with our neighbours through dialogue in a dignified and peaceful manner.

However, it is important to state that, this choice is deliberate and based on rationality and not as a result of any pressure. It is our sincere desire to re-cast Pakistan's image as a peace-loving nation and a useful member of international community. Our leadership's vision is Alhamdullilah transformational in this regard. We have learned from the past to evolve and are willing to move ahead towards a new future, however, all this is contingent upon reciprocity.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan echoed:

“Pakistan could not fully exploit its geo-economic potential unless it improved its ties with neighbours by strengthening trading connection and establishing peace in the region.”

The ceasefire agreement and these two statements mean that the marginally hopeful types are again entertaining these two questions: has Pakistan turned a corner finally? Will we see a sustained improvement in India-Pakistan relations?

On the first question, it’s too early to conclude. However, there are a few signs. Pakistan did not ratchet up tensions on the western border all through 2020, at a time when India was busy dealing with the China threat. Two, from Pakistan’s standpoint, India’s changing of Jammu & Kashmir’s constitutional status provided it with a potential casus belli to escalate terrorism. It hasn’t yet done so.

What explains this change in strategy? Probably a mix of new drivers and constraints. The major drivers are a dawning realisation that deploying terrorism as state policy has done more harm than good and the need to impress the new US administration. The major constraint, and one that’s hurting them most, is a flagging economy with declining external benefactors.

To answer the second question, let’s revisit the theory of constructivism in international relations. Constructivism contests the realist worldview that anarchy in international relations immutably leads to a security dilemma. Constructivist theorists argue that while amassing power remains the most important priority in a state of anarchy, this competition doesn't imply permanent confrontation. In Alexander Wendt’s now-famous “construction”: Anarchy is what states make of it. In other words, while all states pursue power, their identities and interests are socially constructed — it is not impossible to reimagine enemies as adversaries, adversaries as neutrals, and neutrals as friends. Big fish do eat small fish but only when they’re hungry.

Seen from a constructivist lens, we can now ask if elites in India and Pakistan view each others’ states differently. If yes, we could well say that relations between the two countries are on the right path.

I doubt if that’s the case. Constructivism itself acknowledges that once state identities and interests get institutionalised over time, constructing new identities and interests becomes exceedingly difficult. This is precisely the case with Pakistan and India. Moreover, on the Pakistani side, there’s an irreconcilable actor — the military-jihadi complex (MJC) — whose dominance of the affairs in Pakistan rests on being anti-India. Constructivism hasn’t hit the MJC yet. Many attempts to redefine state interests and identities have been cut short by terrorist attacks engineered by the MJC.

On the Indian side, new state identities and interests are being constructed, but not in a direction that leads towards peace between the two countries. For example, the recurring rhetoric of taking back Gilgit Baltistan, and viewing partition as unfinished business prevent a reset in ties.

Finally, reconstructing interests and identities would require consistent positive actions. Pakistan allowing India-Afghanistan trade over its land and India making J&K a full state again might be two good starts.

Leave a comment


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Article] Book review of Yael Tamir’s Why Nationalism by Nick Cohen in The Guardian: “The rise of nationalism – a product of the left’s embrace of globalism – can be a benevolent force, according to this ‘wine-bar’ polemic. Nick Cohen begs to differ”.

  2. [Podcast] A Puliyabaazi on the Quad with Times of India Diplomatic Editor, Indrani Bagchi.

  3. [Report] The University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action is a must-read given what’s happening in India. Raghuram Rajan mentions this report in his note on Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation.

Share Anticipating The Unintended