Saturday, January 3, 2015

What Should Mr. Obama know before taking a Republic Day Salute at New Delhi on January 26th 2015?

The global outreach heralding the ‘might and right’ of India by Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi seems to have halted momentarily, although the grand finale event is Mr. Barak Obama’s salute at the Delhi Republic Day celebrations of  26th January, 2015.  In the scheme of power equations USA still holds the prime position in India.  Although symbolic this is a welcome event and a lot of behind-the-scene operations are heating up.

The US-India bilateral activities have increased - not only that the executive-jets are shuttling but also that the first and business class tickets are getting filled up fast. Those gearing up are the bureaucrats and the business house representatives to kick-up the bilateral trade, business and investments many folds. There is meek state level focus, a new and cut-to-size Andhra Pradesh making all the noise while the Bengaluru-Scare still continues, remember Mr. Obama shunned a visit as it was cited as the city that snatched the American jobs through the migration of back-office and IT enabled employment. West Bengal is in the news for wrong reasons as the investment climate especially with respect to property rights have not settled in that state. 

The following essay has two distinct focuses – firstly the economic/trade related issues relevant for the President Obama’s visit and the other social policy perspectives which are essential background for defining the quality of democracy and rule of law within India.

Economic/Trade Related
Under a continued diversification and strategic alignment policy of the previous government – remember the ‘nuclear deal-123’, the USA hopes to build a massive market for its defence equipments to India. Although ongoing crossover helicopter deals between ‘India and US’ and ‘Pakistan and Russia’ are indications of winds of change; there are other impediments to overcome. India’s current inventory is dominantly Russian while Pakistan’s is dominantly American; a good example is the fighter jet brands they both own. US will continue to face difficulty in pushing its defence inventory so long as it continues to supply same or similar inventory to Pakistan. After all no country would like to face a possibility that enemy country reuses the war-booty against itself.  Further, India’s longstanding policy that mega defence deals always comes with technology transfers continues; the French multi-role fighter jets and Israel’s air-defence and anti-tank guided missiles systems deals are the most recent examples. Although previous technological transfer deals have yielded little for India, for example the British-Jaguar and French-Mirages etc, yet the policy is expected to continue in future. The US has so far shown little interest in such riders.

Another caveat; it is difficult for India to entirely come out of the erstwhile, now defunct ‘non-aligned’ policy even when US intends to support India’s stake of permanent member at the UN- Security Council. It is also in India’s interest that a ‘triple-bhai’ or ‘three-brothers’- policy of ‘India-USA-China’ is pursued, given new geo-political scenario and a rising Eastern Star namely China.  After all China is the biggest business and investment partner of the USA as well (imported about $440 billion worth from China during 2013, compare this to only $42 billion from India. India imported about $50 billion worth from China in 2013).

There are issues with respect to intellectual property rights (IPRs) especially in pharmaceuticals that is another contentious issues between the US and India. To be realistic, this issue is not likely to be settled any time soon. A compromise on IPRs can only be reached with a comprehensive understanding of the health care market in India. This sector has been the worst and most abused in India; one cannot expect a breakthrough especially when the international negotiations are geared towards pricing and cost of medicines with little or no concern to morbidity and sickness profile and affordability issues.

Agriculture is in the domain of tripartite negotiations - the world trade organization being the intermediary. A recent announcement by foreign minister that India-favourable agreement has been worked out is not convincing. There are 90 million farming and another 28 million agricultural labor households in India. The average farm-holding is less than one hectare, most with meagre cultivable lands barely yielding food sufficient for survival. Given this state of agriculture, prudent policy has to ensure safety and sustenance of farming households across India. The US-India partnership in agriculture must therefore focus on mechanism to mitigate rampant and high incidence of malnutrition amongst the children and reproductive aged women. Investments in food processing, packaging and trade in food products will benefit both the businesses and people within India. Technological breakthrough of ‘no till farming’ as well as policy agreements to improve agricultural productivity through the use of genetically modified process are niche areas the need of the hour.

The Principles of Social Engagement:
The President’s visit to India has multiple dimensions to it. It is not entirely business, defence, money and national pride. There are a number of other issues to be confronted during such occasions. Right now, US is reeling under the accusations of police excesses and indiscriminate killings of black men and men across many states. As a champion of human rights, Mr. Obama comes out in public expressing grief and anguish and even pledging federal policy response to contain such events.

On the other hand while Mr. Modi carries a baggage of extreme human rights violations of the past; he seems to procrastinate when a prompt policy protection is needed to protect millions of minorities especially the Muslims and Christians of India. In India one do not come across engagement of the PM on situations and events which are crudest form of human rights violations - undertaken by a set of well organized groups against other groups of people who are historically identified as the minority religions of India. The fringe groups often receive tactical support from the police and security agencies on the one hand and political system itself on the other. Such events occur so very frequently and often in proximity to the watchful Delhi administration – the nations capital. A number of communal riot like situation have happened right in Delhi and immediate surroundings and the PM is quite as if nothing is happening. Or is it a way to communicate the characteristics of the newly elected NDA government policy that such events will continue to happen in times to come.

No one can accurately gauge the limits of tolerance and perseverance of the minority communities especially the Muslims and Christens of India. It would be in the interest of India and also the larger world - the US and neighbouring countries that the NDA regime over come the historical baggage of misunderstood history and shun the proxy-cultural revolution that is being unleashed. Note that similar cultural revolutions in Russia and more recently in China have not shown positive and people friendly impacts.

Mr. Modi’s expression of solidarity with Pakistan is gesture to be appreciated; but this does not compensate for the pain, agony and psychological submission of over 200 million strong minorities of India. Two main processes through which the subjugation of minorities who have their ideological origins from out of India namely the Muslims and Christians are: a) The extreme rightwing groups such as the BHP, Bhajrang Dal and many others initiate hate crimes such as abuse, physical threat including denying residential spaces and more recently inter-mixing of youth through the concept of ‘love jihad’ and so on; which get tactical support from the Hindu cultural bodies such as the RSS.  At the political level the BJP the ruling party and its associates in the NDA besides providing tactical support to the right wing extremism, they also initiate rudimentary policy changes which can at best be described as mixing politics with religion in such as way that the religious minorities gets marginalized and over a period excludes them from many mainstream public programs including public education system. b) While such complex group specific strategies take effect often situation turns violent including extra judicial executions of members of minority communities. The local police and the security apparatus either ignores completely or extends nominal support in a manner not to displease and often support the cause of the extreme right-wingers as well the cultural hegemony of the RSS not to speak of the ruling class. The behaviour of the police only differs marginally when the political party orientation or the government changes at the national level and when the rulings parties differ at the national and state level administration. One of the largest fallout of such a partial and partisan behaviour of the policy has been illegal arrests of a large number of Muslim youth all over the country who are languishing in police stations, remand homes, judicial confinements and prisons with no bails and even rudimentary enquiries. Practically all those overnight arrests termed as ‘protective detentions’ are innocent men who are incapable of arranging huge funds needed to get bails and judicial redress.  

The most recent contentious issue has been the one of religious conversions. While both the Muslim and Christian faiths have been based on the principle of conversions, there are technical reasons as to why it is difficult for someone to become a Hindu as there is no such thing as a Hindu unless one also chooses a caste. Should the Hindu conversions happen, choice must be given to for example to either become a Brahmin or a Dalit with appropriate legal certifications and documentation.

However, a number of socially contentious issues must be left to the people at large to discuss debate and articulate appropriate legally supported solutions. In doing so the government of the day and especially the police and security system must be non-partisan and out of the picture. A durable institutional solution to such problems is to establish an independent ‘equal opportunity commission’ at the national as well at the state levels across India. The EOC would release the elected government and its large policy and security apparatus the trouble of dealing with situations which can be effectively handled by the EOC itself. Note that two of the highly matured and respected democracies of the world – the USA and the UK have established these institutions and with fair amount of successes.

This is an opportunity when Mr. Modi can turn a leaf in history book of Independent India to begin a new chapter in which he delegates the power to build cohesive, diverse and peaceful society. The minorities are not seeking handouts; all they wish is equal access to education, employment, housing, healthcare, development finance and entrepreneurial opportunities. Institutional facilitation by establishing the national level Equal Opportunity Commission and a series of EOCs at the State levels is the need of the hour. 

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