the following text was edited somewhat (and as usual with copywriters, garbled a bit), and a wholly inappropriate subclause (“why we shouldn’t care”) was added to the title by firstpost, who published that version on july 24th, 2014, at http://www.firstpost.com/world/eyeless-gaza-clueless-india-shouldnt-care-1632867.html

here’s my original copy:

Eyeless in Gaza, clueless in India

 

Rajeev Srinivasan on why India’s astonishing vote in the UN HRC against Israel was wrong

 

After the robust (and in my opinion, correct) refusal to discuss the Gaza issue in Parliament, it was shocking that the Indian government voted for a Pakistani-drafted resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission condemning Israel (alone). Among other things, by calling on some old UN resolutions against Israel, it damages India’s case regarding the spurious (Pakistani-inspired and Arab-supported) resolutions on Kashmir.

 

Maybe it was a result of the Old Guard in the Indian Foreign Service sabotaging the NDA government’s positions: for, after all, as a former diplomat told me, “Israel is used to India voting against them, and don’t mind; they are aware of the compulsions India faces”. Nevertheless, abstention would have been much wiser.

 

It is true that Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from the Israeli bombardment of their territory. Nevertheless, India voting against Israel, or Indian politicians wasting taxpayer money by disrupting Parliament over Gaza, are nonsensical for several reasons. It is evident that the Congress, in particular, is doing the shouting in Parliament just as an excuse to disrupt it yet again and to get some brownie points with militant Muslims as a fringe-benefit.

 

First, the current Palestinian troubles are self-inflicted, as there is no point in provoking Israel and then complaining about their reaction. Second, the refugee status and grievances of Palestinians can easily be solved by wealthy Arabs themselves if only they were willing to resettle them in their vast territories. Third, there is the specious argument that Indians have in the past supported Palestine, and therefore they must do so now.

 

Fourth, the prevailing mythology about Palestinians suggest that they are somehow uniquely downtrodden and worthy of support. Fifth, by implying that the Palestinian cause is supported ipso facto by all Muslim Indians, the latter are stereotyped and ghettoized. Sixth, there are no major Indian interests at play in the Israel-Gaza conflict, and therefore India should only give it the attention it deserves.

 

At its root, the problem is the Arab refusal to grant Israel the very right to exist, and their insistence that Israel and Jews must vacate the land. This stand does not allow for any compromise, and causes all the bloodshed and violence. Clearly, Israel is the aggrieved party on this front.

 

It is also easy to forget what caused the current round of bloodletting. It was the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by the militant Palestinian group Hamas. They could have anticipated that this would lead to harsh Israeli reprisals (that is Israel’s habit); and in fact they  probably did. They wanted large civilian casualties in Gaza as a stick to beat Israel with, and presumably a means to generate more jihadis against Israel.

 

Moreover, it is evident that Hamas intended to cause as many civilian casualties as possible. To this end, they hid rocket batteries in civilian areas, using civilians as a human shield and daring the Israelis to shoot back; which the Israelis did, in the interest of protecting Israeli civilians. Furthermore, a large number of the rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza fell inside Gaza itself, and one of them knocked out power lines supplying Gaza.

 

So it’s fair to say that Hamas, if its goal was to protect the lives and property of Palestinian civilians, actually shot itself in the foot. Of course, that likely was not its goal, and it may well have intended to create a cause célèbre and the usual outrage among the thinly-veiled anti-Jew types, especially in parts of Europe: we have seen the usual anti-Jew riots in Paris.

 

In a way, the incident is reminiscent of the Godhra train outrage: the intent was to create riots that would hurt Muslims, preferably all over India. And just as then, the habitual rage-boys have forgotten the root cause (the burning alive of 59 pilgrims then or the murder of three teens now), and all that remains is the ritualistic chant of “Muslims being victimized”, which of course they milked dry for 12 years in Gujarat.

 

The entire issue of Palestinian victimhood is a travesty in that Palestinians, traditionally the best-educated of the Arabs, could easily have been absorbed into the empty and rich oil kingdoms of West Asia without much trouble. Indeed, much of the original Palestine is now in the kingdom of Jordan (which admittedly doesn’t have any oil, but is fairly peaceful, as the Alawite monarchs keep a leash on Palestinians). If the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, et al had wanted to emancipate the Palestinians, they could have re-settled them in their own countries and helped them to prosper.

 

Incidentally, that is exactly what has been expected of Kashmiri Pundits ethnically cleansed from Jammu and Kashmir. It is assumed that over time they will get absorbed into Indian territory where they are living in refugee camps – despite noises being made about sending them back, Muslim militants and even the government of J&K suggest that there is no right to return for the Pundits. So why is there some sacrosanct right to return for Palestinians?

 

And let us also note that this is not theoretical. Just when the Gaza outrage was reaching its crescendo in India, the Amarnath Yatra was attacked, 300 tents set on fire, and a number of people killed. How come there is no outrage about this in either the Indian media or in Parliament? Do Hindu pilgrims have any rights in Jammu and Kashmir?

 

I was amused by the notion, attributed by the Hindustan Times to Shashi Tharoor, that since India had, from the time of Nehru, always supported the Palestinians, it should continue to do so (and presumably strongly condemn the Israelis). Apart from the dubious value of an Indian resolution condemning anybody – no one outside India pays the slightest attention to whatever the Indian Parliament says – I find this line of reasoning hilarious.

 

This is like saying, “We’ve been defecating in public since Nehru’s days, and therefore we must continue to do so, QED”. Really? Most people in the world have discovered sanitation, and the question to ask would be why we haven’t, the answer to which is uncomfortable for the Congress. To digress for a moment, Indians are far and away the world’s greatest public defecators, according to a grim chart in The Economist. Not to say that The Economist is the last word, but still, this is a record that we don’t need.

 

The notion that the Palestinians are the only, or even the most, oppressed people in the world, is downright ridiculous. The total number of Palestininans is only a few millions, not much more than the 400,000 terrorized, ethnically cleansed Kashmiri Pundits rotting away in refugee camps for 25 years. But from the oceans of ink spilled on the Palestinians, you’d think they were uniquely subject to oppression.

 

Think of the Tibetans, for that matter: victims of genocide by forced sterilization and abortions, and the systematic destruction of their civilization. Or, if you want something current, Iraq’s Assyrian Christians, given an ultimatum a few days ago by ISIS: convert, flee or die. Their houses are marked with a curlicued Arabic “N” for “Nazarene”. Why is there no debate in Parliament about this, or the mayhem in Libya, or the virtual partition of Syria? Yes, that’s right, it’s none of our business. Well, similarly, Gaza isn’t, either.

 

It is convenient for some in India to make noise about Palestine. I found it amusing when the local Communists once came to my dad’s doorstep in Kerala demanding donations for the Palestinians. On the one hand, I knew, and they knew I knew, that any money I gave them would flow not to some Arabs, but to the local tavern. On the other hand, I asked them, when exactly the Palestinians did stand with India, for instance in our disputes with Pakistan, so that we were morally obligated to reciprocate? The comrades didn’t have a convincing answer.

 

The Congress are using the Palestinians as a proxy to demonstrate to Muslim Indians how much they care about Muslims. This should be exposed as hogwash by Muslim Indians. Far more than the emancipation of Arabs, it is their own progess that Muslim Indians should be worried about: if we are to believe the Sachar Commission (which is by the way dubious), Muslim Indians are in bad shape. So when the Congress cries about Palestinians, the Muslim Indian should remind them that charity begins at home: what has the Congress done for Muslims in India?

 

In fact, more Indians of all religions probably die avoidable deaths from disease, malnutrition, lack of sanitation, and poverty every year than all those who have died in all wars in West Asia in fifty years. This is what the Congress and Communists (their partners in UPA-1) should be embarrassed about, not Gaza.

 

But the clinching argument about Gaza is that no large Indian interests are at stake. Whether or not the Israelis and Gazans are nasty to each other, life goes on pretty much the same for most Indians. India could issue some nice bromides about how in the global interests of peace and goodwill and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, we would be delighted if both parties came to the negotiating table and settled their differences amicably.

 

That sort of a resolution would be unexceptionable. Nothing more: No condemnation, no moralistic rhetoric. We ain’t got no dog in this fight, as my colorful friends from the American South would say. Thus, the UNHRC vote, by an avowedly nationalist government, suggests either cluelessness, or sabotage by bureaucrats with ancien regime connections.

 

Anything other than platitudes and abstention by India makes no sense. Aldous Huxley in Eyeless in Gaza referred to John Milton’s poem about the biblical myth of the giant Samson being blinded by Philistines (Palestinians?) and yoked to an oil mill. Today the smug philistines of India want to blind India and yoke it to some pointless mill of Third-World indignation. They are, of course, hostile to the very idea of India.

 

The vote appeared to be a throwback to the bad old days of India as the chief cheerleader of the banana republics of the Non-Aligned Movement, and of V K Krishna Menon filibustering at the United Nations with a marathon speech. We were the moralizing laughing-stock of the world. We just didn’t know it then. In 2014, we ought to know better.

 

1750 words, 20 July 2014

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a slightly edited version of the following appeared on rediff.com on aug 1, 2014 at http://www.rediff.com/news/column/is-brics-a-folly-for-india-to-embrace/20140801.htm

Is BRIC the new NAM, a folly for India to embrace?

 

Rajeev Srinivasan on the dubious pleasures of pushing a BRICS identity

 

I have been generally positive to the idea of the BRICS, or more precisely the original idea of BRIC as articulated by Goldman Sachs analysts Jim O’Neill and Roopa Purushothaman some years ago. I quite liked the two papers they brought out, for they pointed out plausibly how the lack of economic leadership had doomed India to failure – which fit in with my hypothesis about the Nehruvian consensus, as I articulated in “The Nehruvian Penalty” some years ago.

 

However, in its present incarnation as BRICS (with the addition of South Africa), I am beginning to wonder if the organization serves a truly useful function so far as India is concerned. In the worst case, I worry that this will turn out to be another NAM (Non-Aligned Movement): India gained nothing from being a member.

 

To be more charitable, maybe it will be like membership in the British Commonwealth, which doesn’t help India, but merely serves to give someone else (Britain) an importance that it doesn’t deserve given its straitened circumstances (as a shrinking kingdom vulnerable to the secession of Scotland in September: not so ‘Great’ anymore?).

 

What triggered off this concern were two recent events: one, the BRICS shindig in Brazil recently, and then the curiously uniform vote at the UNHRC regarding Israel and Gaza, wherein the BRICS all voted as one (against Israel), when many others (Germany, Japan, Britain) wisely chose to abstain (“a pox on both your houses”). Let us analyze that vote further.

 

In general, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are a diverse bunch, and it is startling that they managed to speak with one voice on this contentious issue. For instance, Russia has a fraught relationship with Israel, partly because of sustained Jewish pressure on the Soviet Union to “let my people go”, as the slogan went, and partly because many Arab countries were client states of the Soviet Union.

 

India, in its incarnation as the leader of the banana republics of the NAM, has usually voted against Israel, but with the new Narendra Modi government in power, it had been expected to abstain, as a measure of realpolitik. South Africa and Brazil have had fairly good relations with Israel, and so could have been expected to oppose or abstain.

 

China was the real surprise, as they have a consistent, and wise, habit of never poking their noses into other peoples’ business. They almost never take a stand on anything that doesn’t have a significant impact on their national interests. In this case, it is hard to see what Chinese national interest is served by going with the motion, other than the fact that it was authored by “all-weather friend” Pakistan.

 

This leads me to wonder whether this UNHRC vote was discussed and decided upon at the BRICS Summit in Brazil. If it was, that sets a bad precedent and also doesn’t make any sense. If these are the big countries that will decide the future of the world, as the Atlantic fades and the Indo-Pacific theater comes into its own, then it is truly astonishing that they should act as so many sheep. It also doesn’t fit in with the characters of their leaders: Dilma Roussef and Vladimir Putin, for instance, are not known to be meek.

 

Thus, the question arises as to what else was discussed at the BRICS Summit and what its fallout is on India. The worst case scenario is that the BRICS is becoming a fan club of the Chinese (sort of like the British Commonwealth is of the British or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is of the Chinese). This is the last thing India needs to do: support its biggest enemy, China. I repeat that, going one step further than George Fernandes, who was crucified for saying China was India’s biggest potential enemy.

 

Admittedly, India did gain some things from the BRICS jamboree in Brazil. It was a good opportunity for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to arrive on the global scene and look statesmanlike. It was a pleasure to see his body language – as an equal with other leaders – as compared to Manmohan Singh’s “I don’t deserve to be in the same room with these big people” diffidence.

 

Besides, the announcement of the BRICS Bank (known as the New Development Bank) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (roughly equivalent to the World Bank and the IMF) are a way of letting the Americans know that the Bretton Woods agreement and the Washington Consensus are now a bit long in the tooth. These have been very convenient for the US as they eventually made the dollar the reserve currency of the world, and Americans could (and do) export inflation and other troubles by simply printing dollars. The fact that Richard Nixon unilaterally removed the gold standard in 1971 has helped the US happily run deficits, duly funded by the Chinese and others.

 

Now we don’t want to be party to actions that end up setting up the Chinese yuan as a new reserve currency, from which China would derive all the benefits. So India needs to be careful about its enthusiasm for the BRICS Bank.

 

The West didn’t really appreciate the setting up of the new institutions, and their analysts were skeptical, if not scathing. Which means it makes them a little nervous, and therefore is a good thing.

 

From India’s point of view, the only tangible benefit from the BRICS Bank is the chance that some of China’s excess capital may be borrowed by India via the bank, thus avoiding direct, likely onerous, interference from the Chinese government. Besides, in future, other non-BRIC emerging countries will be able to get loans: when India has an investible surplus, that can be channeled through this entity.

 

However, it is not clear how well this may work, given that there are several other multilateral banks around, such as the Asian Development Bank, IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) and Mercosur Bank (for Latin America). The imminent default by Argentina is an indicator of the pitfalls on the way.

 

Nevertheless the wake-up to the Americans is real. I write this on the day John Kerry visits India, and I am sure this is a matter of concern to him, although the visit is pro forma and meaningless: given his preference for Pakistan, and Obama’s reported statement regarding Modi (KP Nayar’s piece in The Telegraph) India is viewed by them as a menace.

 

But there is a bigger and more subtle issue of strategic intent here: neither should India be satisfied with an American-dominated system (not so great for India as the current WTO tussle over the grossly obscene subsidies from the US Farm Bill – some $50 billion-worth a year for five crops – shows); and nor should it desire a Chinese-dominated system (which, based on past form, would be infinitely worse).

 

India’s goal should be to establish itself as a third pole, rather than submit to a G2 of the US and China. Just about now, China would have become the biggest economy in the world at PPP (purchasing power parity – admittedly a somewhat notional measure); in another 30 years, India’s goal should be overtake both and become Number 1 compared to Number 3 today. That is a stretch goal, but not an absurd goal – few remember how China was in bad shape before Deng Xiaoping, just 35 years ago.

 

Consider the other contenders for Number 1: Russia is a waning power (its demographic implosion – it has fewer people than Pakistan, a country 1/13th its size — makes it vulnerable to Chinese invasions); South Africa has serious problems with race and crime; Brazil has always been the “country with great potential”, but as demonstrated by its World Cup loss, it often falls short. Thus the only BRICS member that could possibly be the Number 1 power is India, if it does things right. Which basically means having good leadership (as Deng provided for China).

 

Can India pull this off? There is one major problem in its economic affairs – the syndrome of under-preparedness that dogs much Indian endeavor. There is the touching belief that not preparing, and then pulling an all-nighter, can solve most problems. This is strictly untrue – because the people on the other side are equally smart, and they are systematic. They plan. We need to, too.

 

It is clear that a Chinese Dhritirashtra-alinganam will not do India any good. The BRICS direction can be used to keep both the Americans and the Chinese at arms-length, while planning all the while to play them off against each other, and to form India’s own club of admirers, perhaps in the Indian Ocean Rim, including the market of the future, Africa.

 

In the meantime, making some polite noises about BRICS is appropriate. Unfortunately, India’s politicians tend to start believing their own propaganda; but to consider BRICS anything more than a temporary club with some common interests would be folly. The goal should be to induce others (eg Japan, ASEAN, South Africa) to align with us – a non-threatening, democratic nation, rather than with malevolent China or waning America. For us to consider aligning with either China or the US would be absurd. India is just too big to be a sidekick.

 

1550 words, July 30, 2014

a slightly edited version of the following appeared on firstpost on aug 3, 2014, at http://firstbiz.firstpost.com/corporate/international/wto-india-really-villain-another-rap-knuckles-americans-92583.html

WTO: India is not really the villain, and it’s another rap on the knuckles to the Americans

Rajeev Srinivasan on why the WTO stand by India is justified

The fact that the Narendra Modi government stood firm in the wake of arm-twisting by the Americans, and refused to back down from its position on food subsidies, is generally a good thing – although on a given day, one could argue the opposite, too. The reason to agree with the Indian government is that, despite the idiocy of the UPA’s Food Security Bill, the subsidies provided by the West to their own farmers are far more obscene than India’s, and distort trade far more.

The charge against the Modi government, and in particular against its Commerce Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, is that a general agreement on cost reduction was blocked because of India’s objections on the unrelated area of subsidies. By not allowing the easing of trade through a Trade Facilitation Agreement, the West suggests, India has prevented the saving of up to $1 trillion in trade-related costs, and may even have mortally wounded the World Trade Organization (WTO).

That last charge demands scrutiny. The WTO, the successor to the GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade), has been beneficial to India – it is under its aegis, for instance, that India is able to win cases against such habitual offenders as China and the US. The former is prone to ‘dumping’, ie. selling goods below cost through invisible subsidies; the latter is prone to unfair non-tariff barriers to protect its own manufacturers. So it is not in India’s interests for WTO to fade away, and missing the July 31 deadline for the TFA will not cause it to do so.

However, the WTO has found it particularly hard to get the consensus required under its charter. The consensus requirement is the reason that a single member like India is able to hold it up.  The WTO’s so-called Doha Round has been going for 14 years with no discernible progress, and it is not necessarily because of India’s obstinacy: trade agreement is hard to get. That is the reason a number of regional groupings, for instance Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic, have also risen.

It is true that reducing the cost of trade would help India improve its trade position (although at the moment it is a relatively minor player in world trade). But it would also have the undesirable  effect of further opening India’s growing markets to efficient Western suppliers and their products as Ajit Ranade suggests in “Why India is not WTO villain” (Mumbai Mirror, Aug 2) (and with no corresponding benefit to India in the movement of its people to Western markets, as they are getting increasingly tight on visas).

So it must have been a hard decision, which required hard negotiation from Nirmala Sitharaman. I am reminded of another Indian negotiator, Arundhati Ghose, similarly holding firm to her position in the view of sustained Western pressure, in the nuclear arena some years ago. Kudos to these strong ladies!

The issue with agriculture is that Europe has a ‘wine lake’ and a ‘butter mountain’ from over-production based on farm subsidies. The US’s 2014  Farm Bill allocates $956 billion over 10 years, and that includes some $20 billion in subsidies every year to five crops: wheat, rice, soy, corn and cotton. The resultant output is sometimes dumped in world markets, leading directly, for example, to the suicides of cotton farmers in India whose costs are greater than the heavily-subsidized costs to American farmers.

Other rich countries do the same thing. It is said that each Japanese cow is subsidized to the tune of $7/day. Thus, many countries treat their (often rich, corporate) farmers as so many sacred cows, and provide pork-barrel monies to them. India’s effort to subsidize food for its poor (India has something like half the world’s desperately poor people) is no more wicked than these subsidies, so there’s a moral argument in there somewhere: it is more justifiable.

Lost in the fuss is also a small fact: it is not as if the July 31 deadline is the end of the TFA matter. The negotiations will resume in September, hardly a month away, and the issue can be revisited.  Given the inordinate delays in the Doha Round, this matter of a month is minor, not as though an opportunity has been lost for ever, as some in the West pretend.

Besides, I think there’s something else at play here. There have been three big international events in which the Modi government has been involved, and in each of them, India has acted against the interests of the US. I imagine this means Narendra Modi has not forgotten the shabby treatment meted out to him by the US under the guise of ‘religious freedom’.  

For, consider: the BRICS Bank announcement in effect suggested that the Bretton Woods agreement, the Washington Consensus, and thereby America’s free ride as the owner of the world’s reserve currency, were on the way out.

The Indian vote at the UNHRC against Israel, an American ally, was in effect pushback against the US, which, incidentally, cast the only vote supporting Israel.

Then, finally, comes this WTO imbroglio.

In all three of these, Modi has paid scant attention American interests. I hope this was deliberate: instead of the traditional empty bravado, this Prime Minister takes action. That is one of his trademarks: decisive action, not talk.

It was particularly sweet in the WTO vote, because just a day or two before John Kerry arrived in India to attempt to browbeat the Indians into acceding to the Western line, the US tried it usual tactic: it released a report by the US Council on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that paints India as a veritable hell for non-Hindus. (This reminds me of China invading Vietnam exactly when the Indian foreign minister was visiting China: a clear signal of contempt).

This was an insult: the USCIRF is infamous for being a biased entity driven by Christian fundamentalists and their conversion agendas, but in the past, India has caved in, ashamed. But this time that nice little recipe did not work. Instead, Kerry had to return empty-handed, after enduring a lecture regarding  US snooping on India, about which Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj wagged an admonishing finger at him.

I think the tea leaves are pretty clear. Narendra Modi is telling the Americans that they are not as important to him as they think they are, and that in any case, he is not going to be taken in by either bluster or honeyed words, which worked so well with previous Prime Ministers.

1100 words, 2 aug 2014