#141 Pakistan, Afghanistan....Hindustan: The Akhanda Bharat Edition 🎧

Curl up to a really long Sunday newsletter: Af-Pak, Our History & Hindu Civilisation, A Policy Framework, On Credibility


Matsyanyaaya #1: What Does Pakistan’s Cadmean Victory in Afghanistan Mean for India

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

(This is a draft of my article which appeared first in Times of India’s Tuesday, August 23rd edition.)

Taliban's takeover of Kabul is forcing India to reassess its aims and objectives concerning Afghanistan. Of primary interest is the impact of this development on Pakistan. On this question, two views have come to light over the last few days.

The first view cautions against the increase in terrorism from Pakistan. The recommendation arising from this view is that India needs to coalesce anti-Pakistan factions in Afghanistan. The counter-view focuses on the inevitability of a split between the Taliban and Pakistan. The assumption being that once the Taliban assumes political control over Afghanistan, it is bound to take some stances that will go against the interests of its sponsor. The recommendation arising from this view is that India should sit back. It should let things unfold because Pakistan's victory is a Cadmean one — it comes with massive costs for Pakistan's economy, society, and politics.

Which of these two divergent views is likely to play out?  

To understand what the Taliban's victory means for Pakistan — and hence India — it is useful to model Pakistan as two geopolitical entities, not one. The first entity is a seemingly normal Pakistani state, presumably concerned first and foremost with the peace and prosperity of its citizens. The second entity is what my colleague Nitin Pai has named the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC). Comprising the military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic nodes, the MJC pursues domestic and foreign policies to ensure its survival and dominance. For the MJC, positioning and defeating the existential enemy — India — is key to ensure its hold over the other Pakistan.

Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan will be perceived differently by these two Pakistani entities. The non-MJC Pakistan would be worried about the Taliban's march to power. It would fear the spillover of terrorism inside its borders, orchestrated by groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Politically, a powerful Taliban would pose the threat of breathing new life in the Durand Line question. On the economic front, the prospect of a dependent Taliban government further draining Pakistan's dwindling resources would be another cause of concern. In short, if this entity were in charge of Pakistan's foreign policy, it wouldn't have doggedly invested in the Taliban.

That's quite clearly not the case. Taliban's takeover, on the other hand, is a strategic victory for the MJC. Over the last two decades, it has played a risky game sheltering and guiding the Taliban's actions while also supporting the US in its Afghanistan campaign. When things went wrong, the MJC was able to pass the blame to the other, weaker Pakistan. Recently, it played a role in steering the Afghan Taliban to sign the Doha agreement. It worked over the last two decades to reduce the Indian economic and political footprint in Afghanistan. Given the efforts it has put in, the MJC is sure to perceive the Taliban's comeback as an indisputable victory. This success would bolster the MJC's strategy of long-term commitment to terrorist groups. More importantly, it consolidates its relative dominance over the other Pakistan.  

How does this affect India?

As the MJC's domestic position strengthens, its anti-India aims will grow stronger. There is a possibility of the MJC moving its terror outfits to Loya Paktika in eastern Afghanistan, a hotbed of anti-India activities in the past. This scenario would allow the MJC to use terrorism against India while claiming it has no control over these elements.

Many commentators have argued that the world in 2021 will not let off perpetrators of terrorism easily. But they seem to forget that the return of the Taliban illustrates that the opposite is true. As long as terrorism is portrayed as an instrument of a domestic insurgency, the world will continue to look away. For instance, the Taliban continued terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan even as it was negotiating with the US at Doha. And yet, the US, UK, Russia, and China chose to bring the group back in power.  

Second, to see the MJC threat from the issue of terrorism alone is to miss the bigger picture. By demonstrating the success of its policies in Afghanistan, the MJC would be energised to use other methods of asymmetric warfare against India. More than the means, the Taliban's victory is the reaffirmation of its objectives.    

What should India do?

First and foremost, India must prepare for a reduced economic and diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan. Given the positive role India has played there over the last two decades, a sunk cost fallacy might drive India to make overtures to the Taliban. Such a policy is unlikely to pay dividends. The MJC will ensure that India's presence is severely restricted. In Afghanistan, it would be better to wait for the tide to change.  

Second, India would need to raise its guard on the Pakistan border. With the perceived threat of Indian presence close to Balochistan going away, the MJC is likely to be more adventurous in using conventional and non-conventional warfare against India. Domestically, it means returning Jammu & Kashmir to near-normalcy becomes all the more urgent. More the discontent there, the easier it would be for the MJC to exploit the situation.  

Third, strengthen the partnership with the US. The MJC has always been dependent on external benefactors for its survival. While China is playing that role today, it alone is insufficient to bear the burden. The MJC will be desperate to get the US to finance its ambitions based on its credentials to influence outcomes in Afghanistan. Hence, it's vital that India's relationship with the US must remain stronger than the relationship that MJC has with the US. Finally, amidst the current focus on US failures in Afghanistan, it shouldn't be forgotten that both India and the US need each other to confront the bigger strategic challenge: China.

Regardless of the turn that Taliban-Pakistan relations take, an ideological victory for the MJC is bound to have repercussions in India. India must prepare to face the renewed challenge. 

(This is a draft of my article which appeared first in Times of India’s Tuesday, August 23rd edition.)

India Policy Watch: Our Past, Our Future

Insights on burning policy issues in India


A topic we often like to explore here is the history of thought. We cover a fair amount of western philosophy and we have tried gamely to include Indic thought while writing about current issues. In fact, a recurring section on international relations in this newsletter is called ‘matsyanyaya’. I’m no expert but I suspect writing here has helped me with a point of view on the Indian state and its relation to the history of Indian thought. Broadly, I have made three points on this over multiple editions:

  1. A nation is an imagined community and any newly independent State had to work on constructing this imagination. This meant they had to make three moves. One, they had to have a modern conception of themselves which was distinct from their past. Two, to make this ‘modernity’ acceptable, they had to present this conception as a ‘reawakening’ of their community. This gave them a link to their past. This past was a living truth for the members of this community and it couldn’t simply be erased. Three, historians were then called in to rewrite the past which served this narrative. This is the classic Benedict Anderson recipe and India is a fine example of using it in 1947. (Edition # 62)

  2. The Indian state formed post-independence was based on a radical act of forgetting the past. The Indian constitution wasn’t merely a legal framework to run the state. It was also a tool for social revolution. Society wasn’t trusted to reform itself with the speed that was necessary for India to modernise. It had to be induced from the outside by the state. (Edition #28)

  3. The hope was the liberal state would change the society before it could catch up. This hasn’t turned out to be true. Now the society looks likely to change the state in its image. And what’s the society like today? Like Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, once put it: ‘jab dil bhara ho aur dimaag khali hai’. Its heart is full of emotional torment but its mind is devoid of imagination. The society has somewhat vague notions of its ancient glory and civilisational sense of superiority because of it. But it’s not sure of what to make of it in today’s world. (Edition # 118 and Edition #128)

So, I was happy to pick up Pavan K. Varma’s new book The Great Hindu Civilisation: Achievement, Neglect, Bias and the Way Forwardwhich as the name suggests covers these grounds. Varma is a former civil servant and a prolific writer whose works I have found tremendously engaging. Over the years he has written on a wide range of subjects - the great Indian epics, Ghalib and Gulzar, the Indian middle class, Kamasutra, Krishna and Draupadi. His last book was a well-researched biography of Adi Shankaracharya that also doubled up as a short introduction to various schools of Hindu philosophy with a special emphasis on Vedanta.

Suppressing A Great Civilisation

In The Great Hindu Civilisation (‘TGHC’), Varma makes three arguments based on his deep understanding of ancient Indian texts and his scholarship on Indian history:

Argument 1: India is a civilisational state. The achievements of ancient India in philosophy, metaphysics, arts, statecraft and science are unparalleled. These have been lost to us. We must reclaim their wisdom and apply it to our lives. Varma writes:

Above all, it is my premise that this Hindu civilisation has few parallels in terms of the cerebral energy invested in it…. It was sustained by the unrelenting application of mind, in every field—metaphysics, philosophy, art, creativity, polity, society, science and economics. Nothing in it was random or happenstance.

… When people are ruptured from their heritage, they are essentially rootless, not always lacking proficiency in their specific area of work, but essentially deracinated, mimic people, inured to another’s culture more than their own. Hindu civilisation was based on moulik soch or original thought, where each aspect of creativity was studied, examined, interrogated, discussed and experimented upon in the search for excellence. But when this great legacy was summarily devalued and looked upon as a liability to modernity, it left an entire people adrift from their cultural moorings, lacking authenticity and becoming a derivative people.

Argument 2: Marxist historians, western Hinduphobic intellectuals, deracinated Indians and a self-serving Indian elite have long played a charade that there’s hardly anything real as a Hindu civilisation. This has given us a distorted picture of our past, about the impact of Islamic invaders and British colonialism on our culture and has prevented any honest inquiry into the real achievements of our civilisation. A false fear of Hindu aggrandisement is repeatedly stoked up at any such pursuit. The usual cast of deracinated suspects is named - Macaulay, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Amartya Sen, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Wendy Doniger and, of course, Nehru. Though Varma cushions the jabs on Nehru a bit by blaming it on his associates or his naiveté. As he argues:

Marxist historians devalue the civilisational tag of ancient India by analysing it exclusively in class and economic terms. Certainly, this is also one way of studying the past, but the problem is twofold. Firstly, this approach excludes all other dimensions, and insists that this is the only way to evaluate history. Secondly, the tools used are highly derivative, an almost complete transplant of Marx’s outdated, uninformed and stereotypical analytical framework in the Indian context.

There is, of course, a basic irony in Hinduism’s derogation by some ‘liberals’. One would have thought that liberal opinion would be appreciative of a religion that relies less on dogma and more on debate. It would make a virtue of the fact that Hinduism enables diversity to thrive when many other faiths are prescriptive and rely on diktat. However, instead of lauding this eclecticism, they conclude that Hinduism is only about diversity ad infinitum. 

Argument 3: Since the Hindu society has been systematically denied its real history, reactionary and lumpen elements have appropriated the task of peddling their version of history. This is the price to pay for distorting history instead of facing up to the truth. If we have to counter the thugs who have political and state patronage today, we have to make the ordinary Indians truly aware of their real Hindu heritage. This knowledge of the liberal, encompassing nature of Hindu philosophy is the best antidote to any fundamentalist ideology. He writes:

The prescriptive element that the new, so-called evangelists of Hinduism are bringing in is anathema for most Hindus. Hinduism has always been a way of life. Hindus don’t like to be told what to do and what not to do, what to eat and what to drink, what to wear and how to behave, what to watch and what to read, who to meet and who not to, how to practise their religion and how to be good Hindus.

The real danger is that we are witnessing the emergence of a lumpen leadership that believes that it has a monopoly to interpret Hinduism and Hindu civilisation. Since time immemorial, Hindus have faced many travails and setbacks but have survived them by drawing upon the great strengths of their culture: tradition and faith. Even in the greatest adversity, Hinduism have never allowed its core cerebration and idealism to be compromised.

So What?

My reaction while reading the book ranged from vigorous nods of approval to what is colloquially referred to as ‘abey yaar’. I will elaborate further here.

Firstly, I agree with Varma about India being a civilisational state and Hinduism or sanatanadharma being a common cultural thread that runs through the length and breadth of this land. This is a lived experience for all of us and Varma quotes many examples of common rituals and practices that have been around for centuries to back this assertion. Denying this is an exercise in futility and serves no useful purpose except alienating a large section of Indians.

Secondly, I’m happy to concede Varma’s contention that ancient Hindu civilisation was the pinnacle of human achievement during its time.

“There was a holistic interconnectedness that informed it, and this unified vision permeated all aspects of its highly complex intellectual construct.”  

Fair enough. A bit over the top but that’s fine.

My question is what do we do with such an ancient but highly complex intellectual construct now?

Almost every text Varma refers to was written hundreds of years before CE. Many of these are metatexts unmoored from their context or what formed the basis for such scholarship. One could read the hymns of Rig Veda on the conception of the universe today but what does that do to our understanding of science. To merely say it is similar to what quantum physics postulates today has limited meaning. It is the equivalent of saying Da Vinci designed all sorts of futuristic machines so let’s study him for scientific insights today.

Even Arthashastra can be read to appreciate the philosophy of statecraft and economics of ancient India but beyond a concept or two that might be relevant today, what purpose will it serve? The problem here is there has been no reinterpretation or updates on these texts over two thousand years. I come from a town that houses one of the four mathas (seats) of Shankaracharya. I always wondered what stopped the scholars of the matha to do more to make their knowledge accessible. Resources? Scholarship? Interest? My personal experience suggests even they do not know what to do with this knowledge in the modern world.

To draw a parallel, the reason a few texts of Greek philosophers are still taught selectively in western universities is because many philosophers of the renaissance and enlightenment used them to build further on their thoughts on ethics, politics and the state . Nobody reads their views on science, for instance, anymore. That’s because later philosophers falsified it. Similarly, there’s an unbroken chain of thinking from Adam Smith to a Piketty or a Sowell (choose your poison) today. So, it makes sense to selectively read Smith to get a basic understanding of how economic thought has evolved and then apply it further today. This is missing with the great ancient texts that hold Varma in raptures. How will reading texts of Aryabhatta and Bhaskara help mathematics students of today? Knowing about them could be useful to impress others about our great mathematical tradition but what beyond that? Will our rank on PISA change because of it? I suspect not. I will be keen to hear from readers on this.

Varma also goes overboard at places and loses objectivity. Natya Shastra was probably a great achievement as a treatise on arts and theatre. But to imagine that western thought on aesthetics began from a series of articles on ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’, a 1712 piece by Joseph Addison in the Spectator, as he writes, is to ignore the entire history of ancient Greek playwrights or even Shakespeare whose plays were running in London almost a hundred years before Addison’s articles. Here Varma possibly betrays the same flaws he accuses the likes of Doniger or Romila Thapar through the book. Anyway, I find no convincing answer from Varma on how a deeper understanding of these texts will help us today. Some kind of pride and a sense of identity is alluded to as the benefits through the book but I failed to appreciate its material manifestation.

Thirdly, Varma talks about caste and patriarchy in Hindu civilisation but almost in passing. There are possibly 15 pages (if that) on this topic across the book. Even in them, Varma talks about the usual tropes first. That the original Hindu texts were suffused with liberal doctrine, how Shankara came across a Chandala in Kashi and placed him at par with the Brahmin or the usual list of women of ancient India - Gargi, Maitreyi or even the fictional Draupadi - to suggest how open Hinduism in its original version was. Only after this does Varma go on for a few pages on how things went bad over time. Finally, he writes:

However, in spite of such high-minded protestations, there is no denying that the working of caste in actual social practice was a pervasive evil. It was—and is—an indelible blot on the civilisational legacy of India; it kept large parts of the populace institutionally cut-off from the many achievements of Hindu India, and also unleashed inhuman suffering for no other reason than the accident of birth.

Yet, in spite of such unforgiveable failings, the overall achievements of this period of our history are truly remarkable, and are crying out for a much delayed recognition. What we need to realise is that across the length and breadth of Bharatvarsha, there evolved, over millennia, a civilisation that showed a profound application of mind to every aspect of organised as well as abstract human behaviour. It demonstrated the capacity of great and courageous divergent thinking, refusing to restrict itself to simplistic certitudes, and a willingness to wade deep into concepts and constructs that challenged conventional thought.

Varma thinks of caste as an unforgivable failing.

Is it a mere failing? Or, is it, as it has been often argued, the inevitable outcome of our civilisational construct? Who can tell? If after all these centuries, the one pervasive cultural reality that has prevailed in our society is caste, how should we think about it? The same argument holds for patriarchy and the place of women in our society. The reclaiming of the wisdom of the texts that Varma advocates - can it be done without facing up to the ‘material’ reality of caste and patriarchy that will accompany it? At abstract, Varma may be right. But the act of reclaiming won’t restrict itself to the realm of the abstract. I will come back to this at the end of the piece.

Fourthly, is Varma the first scholar to question the version of our history that has been fed to us by the colonialist academia? Is he the first to lament the state of the culturally unmoored Indian elite and educated class who need to be brought home to the glory of our ancient civilisation?

If not, what happened to previous such attempts?

This is an area that has held my interest for a few years. And I’d like to highlight two 20th century intellectuals who spent their lifetime studying ancient Indian texts, translating them and looking to find their relevance in the modern context - Shri Aurobindo and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi. These are no ordinary names. They were first-rate intellectuals with rare felicity in both western and eastern philosophies. Varma quotes Aurobindo a few times in the book.

So, what did they conclude?

I’m going to stick my neck out and make some broad generalisation here. Aurobindo started this pursuit with an aim to find the modern relevance of our ancient texts and to spread it far and wide. What did he end up with? A very personal journey into the self that was mystical and detached from the material. Anything else couldn’t be transferred. That’s what he concluded. Dwivedi translated some of the great works of our past and wrote on our literary history in Hindi. But, in the end, he had to contend with the reality of the present. If we were such a great civilisation, why is our present the way it is? And he wasn’t content blaming the colonial rule or our lack of appreciation of our past. There was something else that was missing.

Now you could persuade me to believe it was the ‘foreign’ invaders for over thousand years that’s responsible for our present. Maybe it is true. But that rupture is a reality and that discontinuity is so large that any attempt to bridge it through a modern reinterpretation of ancient texts can only be an academic ‘feel good’ exercise. Not a way forward to the future.

Separately, it is worth pointing out here another area where I think Varma had a weak argument. How did Hinduism survive the Islamic or Turkish onslaught and the Mughal hegemony while other countries like Indonesia or Malaysia turned Muslim under the sword. This is a question that’s often asked in many debates of this kind. Varma’s answer is below:

The Bhakti movement was Hinduism’s response to the violent and proselytising Islamic invasion. In this sense, it was as much about renewal as it was about self-preservation. If Hinduism had not shown the suppleness and energy to reinvent itself, and had remained brittle and fossilised as in earlier structures without the mass support enabled by the Bhakti movement, it may have suffered the same fate that befell it (and Buddhism) in Indonesia with the advent of Islam.  

There are two problems with this thesis.

One, the Bhakti movement in many areas of India predate the Islamic conquest of those areas. Between the 10th-12th centuries, large parts of West, South and East India where the Bhakti movement gained strength were still under Hindu (or Jain) kings. Two, what do a cursory look at the Bhakti movement and its output reveal? Women and those from the bottom of the social pyramid often led the way. Their songs spoke of their desire to be one with God without an intermediary in between. Those who opposed them were mostly upper-caste Hindu men. The Bhakti movement was indeed a rupture in Indian cultural history. But, to me, it appears it was more an internal response of the most exploited section of Hinduism to its entrenched caste establishment. Not to Islam.

Fifthly, Varma is sincere in his defence of real Hinduism against what he calls the “illiterate bigotry of the self-anointed new ‘protectors’ of Hinduism.” He writes:

Knowledge is a great enabler. Anyone who has studied Hinduism, or acquired even a basic familiarity about its lofty eclecticism and deep cerebration, would laugh out of the room those who seek to conflate this great faith only with violence and exclusion.

Varma almost thinks the ‘lumpenisation’ of Hinduism (as he calls it) is a phenomenon in the abstract that has arisen because people don’t know real Hinduism. It might be true but empirical evidence goes against it. Any ‘nationalist’ exercise of reclaiming the past after the advent of modern nation-states runs the risk of ‘instrumentalising’ this past for political gains in the present. This holds true everywhere - in pre-WW2 Germany or Japan, in current-day Turkey and in communist China. For instance, there’s nothing that the Party in China learns from Confucius or some ancient Han dynasty view of the Middle Kingdom that it sincerely wants to apply today. It is a mere ‘instrument’ to homogenise its people, perpetuate the party supremacy or use it for diplomatic parleys with other nations.

Varma believes one can ‘thread the needle’ by taking the great and the good from the past while avoiding the instrumental use of it which manifests in form of bigotry and minority persecution. But it is a difficult task.

So here’s the thing. How should I think of Nehru, Ambedkar and other ‘liberals’? Those who decided to use the Constitution to rid India of the ‘deadwood of the past’. One way to think of them is as intellectuals who appreciated the glory of our ancient past but realised any kind of reclaiming of that past in the modern conception of the state will bring along with it all the baggage and the ‘deadwood’. They feared the good of that past will be buried soon under the ‘unforgivable failings’ that accompany it. So, they let it be. And decided to begin afresh.

Varma is in a different reality today. He sees the hijacking of Hinduism, as he would put it, in front of his eyes. The ‘instrumental’ use of religion for narrow purposes by those who don’t understand it at all. Yet, he hopes it is possible to thread the needle between the good and the bad of the past. The likes of Nehru feared this would happen and tried to avoid it. Varma finds it around him and yet wants to go down that path.

Maybe because he’s a good man and an optimist. Having read him over the years, I’d like to believe so.


A Framework a Week: How to Analyse an Analysis

Tools for thinking public policy

— Pranay Kotasthane

If I were given the power to change one subject in school syllabi, I would introduce analytical thinking. In the Information Age, we are exposed to several opinions on any given topic. Impactful analogies and powerful metaphors can change our thinking about a topic. Sometimes, our views end up being a regurgitation of the last good opinion piece we’ve come across. Hence, wouldn’t it be great if we have a framework to analyse opinions, whether in the form of papers, articles, or books?

That’s where Analytical Thinking comes in. To systematically think about how we think can help us deeply reflect on an opinion instead of being swayed by the fast brain into outrage or vehement agreement.

Last week, I revisited this eightfold path for analysing the logic of a book/article/paper in the book The Thinker's Guide to Analytic Thinking by Linda Elder and Richard Paul. The framework forces us to reflect on eight dimensions:

  1. The main purpose of this article is ____. (Here you are trying to state, as accurately as possible, the author’s intent in writing the article. What was the author trying to accomplish?)

  2. The key question that the author is addressing is ____. (Your goal is to figure out the key question that was in the mind of the author when he/she wrote the article. What was the key question addressed in the article?)

  3. The most important information in this article is ____. (You want to identify the key information the author used, or presupposed, in the article to support his/her main arguments. Here you are looking for facts, experiences, and/or data the author is using to support his/her conclusions.)

  4. The main inferences in this article are ___ (You want to identify the most important conclusions the author comes to and presents in the article).

  5. The key concept(s) we need to understand in this article is (are) __. By these concepts the author means __. (To identify these ideas, ask yourself: What are the most important ideas that you would have to know to understand the author’s line of reasoning? Then briefly elaborate what the author means by these ideas.)

  6. The main assumption(s) underlying the author’s thinking is (are) _ (Ask yourself: What is the author taking for granted that might be questioned? The assumptions are generalizations that the author does not think he/she has to defend in the context of writing the article, and they are usually unstated. This is where the author’s thinking logically begins.)

  7. If we accept this line of reasoning (completely or partially), the implications are ___. (What consequences are likely to follow if people take the author’s line of reasoning seriously? Here you are to pursue the logical implications of the author’s position. You should include implications that the author states, and also those that the author does not state.) If we fail to accept this line of reasoning, the implications are __. (What consequences are likely to follow if people ignore the author’s reasoning?)

  8. The main point(s) of view presented in this article is (are) _. (The main question you are trying to answer here is: What is the author looking at, and how is he/she seeing it? For example, in this mini-guide we are looking at “analysis” and seeing it “as requiring one to understand” and routinely apply the elements of reasoning when thinking through problems, issues, subjects, etc.).

[Elder, Linda; Paul, Richard. The Thinker's Guide to Analytic Thinking (Kindle Locations 353-365). Foundation for Critical Thinking. Kindle Edition]

The framework is intense but is super helpful in analysing topics you want to master. It shares similarities with the Indian debating tradition called the purva paksha — representing your opponent’s view faithfully before criticising it.

Matsyanyaaya #2: US Credibility and India’s Options

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

The humanitarian crisis triggered by a botched US withdrawal has sparked an old debate on reliability in international relations. In several countries which count themselves as US partners, the question being posed is: will the US prove to be a fickle partner, like it did in Afghanistan?

For a long time, I have wondered if using terms such as reliability or reputation is a case of category error. Trust, reliability, all-weather friendship apply to human relationships. Transplanting these ideas to an amoral domain such as international relations does not make sense, is what I believed. The current debate surrounding US credibility helped me update my priors.

First up, if you want to read the literature on reliability and reputation in international relations, Paul Poast has a typically useful Twitter thread compiling important works on this topic. Out of these articles, Don Casler’s post stands out in its clarity. He writes in Duck of Minerva:

“One major issue in discourse about credibility is that policy and media elites often conflate a group of interrelated but distinct concepts: credibility, reputation, and resolve.

Credibility is the perceived likelihood that an actor will follow through on her threats or promises. Reputation is a belief about an actor’s persistent characteristics or tendencies based on her past behavior. Resolve is the willingness to stand firm and pay costs in the face of pressure to back down.

In theory, an actor’s reputation for resolve — along with her capabilities and interests — contributes to her credibility by shaping observers’ estimates whether she is likely to follow through on her commitments.

However, reputation and credibility are ultimately beliefs held by others. If we want to predict how foreign governments will react to U.S. foreign policy decisions, then we need to understand their theories about how the world works.” 

The last line is important from the Indian perspective. The sense of being wronged by the west is a continuing strand in India’s conception of the world. Specifically, the US’ anti-India stance in the 1971 war continues to cast a long shadow over India-US relations. The cohort that already holds these views will use the US withdrawal to reaffirm its scepticism.

Even so, I would argue that this perceived lack of US credibility is not the most important determinant of India-US relations for three reasons:

One, the younger cohort of millennials and post-millennials perceive the US differently. Their imagination about the US is shaped by the India-US civil nuclear deal, a decline in US-Pakistan bonhomie, and perhaps most importantly, the deep connections between the markets and societies in the two countries.

Two, a common strategic adversary — China — reduces the salience of the reputation question. In an amoral setting, interests trump reputational concerns. When facing a powerful common adversary, you don’t get to pick or change your partners. Seen this way, China’s aggressive and arrogant approach further cements the India-US relationship. Perhaps, this would be a good time for the Quad to make a few major announcements on trade and technology to douse the reputation question.

Three, the US backing of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex is less of a problem than it was a decade ago. The US administration’s statements on Kashmir and Balakot airstrikes are vastly different from what the older cohort of policymakers in India is used to. The US would do well to continue this strategy instead of empowering the military-jihadi complex with the false hope that it would make the Taliban behave.

So, what do you think? In a world with just two options, should India choose a less reliable, more powerful partner or a more reliable, less powerful partner?

Leave a comment


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Video] Pavan K. Varma talks about his book The Great Hindu Civilisation at HLF with Advaita Kala. I might have been a tad unfair about some arguments of Varma. So, it is best to read the book or listen to him directly.

  2. [Podcast] Ghazala Wahab was on Puliyabaazi discussing Indian Islam and its variants. In times when Hindu-Muslim bayaanbaazi is far more prevalent, we believe conversations such as these can help dismantle false notions the two communities hold.

  3. [Survey] Takshashila has put out India’s Global Outlook Survey. The survey is an effort to bridge the knowledge gap around how Indian policymakers, the strategic affairs community and ordinary citizens view India’s role in the world. Do take the survey.