Friday, 9 June 2017

Choices (Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy ) - Shivshankar Menon

s book presents  five specific scenarios, in which India had to make choices with regards to  decisions, during Menon's long illustrious career as a diplomat. In each of these situations Menon shows that deciding factor was the minmax strategy - minimising the damage and maximising the advantage, a concept borrowed from game theory, since there are no right or wrong answers at the time of taking decisions in matters of  International politics, and the advantages and disadvantages of  the decisions become more visible years later. 

There is a certain part in the introduction, upon which no non-partisan reader cannot help but  congratulate India, given their vast development over the last twenty five years or so, not with standing their poverty issues.
"India itself was very different from the India that had gained independence in 1947, when the average life expectancy was twenty-six years, only about one-seventh of the population was literate, and there had been half a century of near zero growth in the economy under empire." Menon attributes India's success to three of their prime-ministers, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, who implemented strong policies which resulted in the country's growth and stuck to them, irrespective of which side of the political divide they were from. Here's a good lesson to our politicians, which essentially means that a country can be turned back around within two decades if the political will so desires it.

The First chapter in this book, is on the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993, with China. The decision here was the willingness of India to settle for "both Chinese and Indian purposes to try to impose peace along the border while leaving to the future the more politically difficult task of settling the boundary." The challenge was that Ind
ia still carried the scars of the 1962 conflict, in which the victor was China.It was a question of permitting bilateral relations in other areas while the boundary question remained unsettled.
"The process of LAC clarification has effectively has effectively stalled since 2002. India therefore does not have an agreed-upon delineation of the LAC with China."
"Bilateral trade between expanded sixty-seven times between 1998 and 2012, and China is India's largest trading partner in goods... And there are more than 11,000 Indian students in China." 
"Finding the balance between rivalry and incentives for good behaviour, between competition and cooperation, is among the hardest tasks in strategy."
Menon credits Indian PMs Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee of the hard work they put in, and their actions for the "greater good than immediate party political advantage."
Since then, with China's aim of becoming the number one in the world the situation is changing, says Menon, and more nationalistic inclination is hinted as the reason for the current situation in flux.
"..a leadership that increasingly relies on nationalism for its legitimacy find it easy to make the compromises necessary for a boundary settlement ( This is equally true of India)." To me it appears that Menon hints at Narendra Modi too, here.

The Second chapter titled Natural Partners, is how the Civil Nuclear Initiative with the United States materialised. India advanced in Nuclear and Space technology, while they were under sanctions from the U.S. after their first experiment in 1974. The gist of the Indian argument is presented at the start.
"That India was still making progress in nuclear and space technology and was moving toward becoming a player in this arena internationally had only strengthened the voices of those in India who thought that anything worthwhile in the Indian economy had to be done autonomously and indigenously, and further, that the world would only with India, as an equal once the country had developed its capacities on its own."
Seven years after India declared itself a NWS (Nuclear Weapons State), she was ready to work with the United States to get the NSG (Nuclear Supplies Groups ) to permit civil Nuclear commerce with India, given that she was afflicted by an energy crisis. This chapter explains why it was a race against time as India was working with president Bush, whose term was drawing to a close. Besides this PM Manmohan Singh's advisors were cautioning about how the U.S. has been an unreliable partner in the past. All the necessary international legal framework, including the consensus of the NSG and IAEA board was needed before the end of Bush' second term. To aggravate matters the Left has withdrawn support for the government and a vote of no confidence was scheduled in the Lok Sabha on July 22nd, 2008.Manmohan Singh's resolve in seeing all through  to success is commended.
" was Singh's dogged but quite persistence that sustained the initiative at every stage and ultimately made all the difference. Personalities matter."( page 78)
While Menon has succeeded in showing the challenges and how they were overcome, he sometimes tends to go out on a limb to give character certificates, to people of whom the public opinion is not so glowering. George W. Bush is one such individual. Here's what Menon says of him.
"In all our meetings with Bush I found him focused, clear on the issues, well prepared, and willing to listen. I can only speculate that this son of privilege, born to the blue-blooded in the US establishment, went to great pains to appear ordinary, and succeeded. But the image concealed a sharp mind and a genuine ability to connect with other people, as shown by his close and productive relationships with Manmohan Singh ...When Bush and Singh were together, they were relaxed to the point of laughing and joking with each other. On the US side as well, personalities mattered."

The most troubling chapter in this volume has to be the third which deals with cross border terrorism from Pakistan and the Mumbai Attack. While it is a pleasure to read  about the calculated diplomacy which made India not to retaliate for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai ( Menon differed with this decision at the time, he admits ), Menon concedes in a veiled threat that it is unlikely that India would tolerate any further such attacks as not only the circumstances has changed but even decision makers. Menon goes on to say that where Pakistan is concerned there are multiple centers of power and the Army is one such, with their nuclear arsenal under the military, the only NWS to have it so. While personally I am not sympathetic towards India given their overly Big-brother attitude in the region, they cannot be envied for their prospects of prolonged intractable conflict with nonstate actors. Thus Menon finds the method that of the Israelists, described as "mowing the grass" is useful for India too. Menon concedes that their relations with Pakistan is an utter failure and the best that can be done is managing the problem. One important sentence needs highlighting here before I move to the next chapter. To Quote:
"The Saudis and Qataris had successfully used this tactic for years, exporting their radicals to the rest of the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan" (page 105), "this" being a design to move Jihadi violence from domestic soil to another country,  from Pakistan to India as is being speculated here by Menon, as he discusses motives for this attack. 

The fourth chapter is obviously the main reason for me to purchase this book, since it is about our efforts to eradicate the LTTE terrorism, and I wanted to hear the account from a third party, yet involved sufficiently to qualify commenting with minimum prejudice. First thing I noted was that India's uninvited forceful intervention is mentioned in typical diplomatic language.
"The population of jaffna was under siege and without supplies and food. on June 5 (1987), the Indian Air Force air-dropped 25 tons of medicine and food in Jaffna, informing the Sri Lankan government only just before the action. The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and India's relations with this strategically located neighbor were at considerable risk" (Page 130)

I quote below a few notable sentences which need to be heard from him, as he writes it here. 

* "It could be argued that India's action in 2009, which made Prabhakaran's end inevitable and inspired the hands-off attitude of the international community were a direct result of that one act by Prabhakaran, whose involvement in the assassination was conclusively proved." (Page 132)
* "Norway came closest to success in 2001, when the LTTE for the first time suggested it might be willing to settle for less than a fully independent Eelam. Cynics attribute this development to the success of the long-range reconnaissance patrols of the SLA, which took down several LTTE commanders in 2000-2001. Optimists attribute it to fatigue with the war and a strong civil cociety peace movement. Both are right. (page 136)
*"Particularly memorable were midnight visits to Colombo with Pranab Mukherjee when we flew into Colombo at 8 p.m., went straight to the Presidential Palace for a military briefing by Fonseka and a political one by President Rajapakse, and had a long conversation exploring options..." (page 140)
*"To their credit, while the Rajapaksas negotiated hard to avoid limitations on their ability to wage war against their mortal enemy, they did agree to allow safe passage corridors and o create safe zones for civilians in January and February (2009). Later in March they also agreed not to use heavy-caliber weapons when the LTTE had trapped a large number of civilians with them in a tiny area along the coast in the final stages of the war. More significantly, the Rajapaksas implemented these commitments in practice"( page 140 )
   True that this statements suggest that these measures on behalf of the civilians were taken only at the behest of the Indians. This has to be taken with due consideration for the fact the Indian career diplomat would need to highlight what he would like to portray as his achievements. I am more inclined to believe that the Sri Lankan government didn't have designs to inflict untoward damages on the civilians, bu not adopting whatever safety mechanisms possible, but would've held a high bar to negotiate, given that a low bar or a wavering one would be detrimental to their military goals.  Negotiating with the Rajapaksa's wouldn't have been an easy affair. When reading this essay I felt that while their was no love lost between the Indians and President Rajapakse, there is plenty of  backhand compliments to suggest that,  from a Sri Lankan perspective that him being in India's good books was not what was most important to us.
*"...Norway and the United States were attempting to secure a cease-fire, to negotiate exile for Prabhakaran, and to explore other exit strategies that would effectively keep the LTTE alive to fight another day, Politically or Militarily. For politicians and leaders in India, whether in Tamilnadu or in Delhi, this was not an acceptable stance or outcome." (page 141)
The biggest criticism against President Rajapake is this:
*"While he facilitated India's reconstruction and relief work, Rajapaksa could not bring himself to be politically magnanimous in victory. To some extent he was correct in telling us that there was no one he could work with on the Tamil side. Such Tamil politicians as had survived the war in the Tamil National Alliance were either complicit with or indebted to the LTTE and the most radical elements in the diaspora. But Rajapaksa did not use his effective and overwhelming power to promote a moderate Tami leadership" (page 149)
   While this allegation is difficult quantify, personally the more pertinent question would be whether a majority of this State believes that a political solution is needed. This is visible every time that this matters gains currency, and such a solution to date can only be forced upon the majority of the population. Whether it will change in time to come is another matter. I am afraid that India is not sensitive to this aspect of the issue.

To conclude I cite the following quotes:
*"The Sri Lankan civil war is one of the few instances I can think of where terrorism ( but not separatism ) was successfully eradicated by purely military means." ( Page 151)
  And I couldn't help but recalling the ridiculing  our self styled think tank Nalin de Silva had to undergo when he said this is his own inimitable way.

*"I found that as defense secretary, Gothabaya had a clear view of the Sri Lanka's interests, one that was compatible with ours.....At no stage was exclusivity sought or promised. And realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity. For  Sri Lanka, as for India's other smaller neighbors, using China to get India's attention and invest in the relationship and using India to get Chinese investment and support is a productive  strategy, empirically proven in the past. For India not to recognize and deal with this fact of international life would be foolish." ( pages 150--151)

"Why India pledges No First Use of Nuclear Weapons" is the fifth chapter is in this book. It elaborates the doctrine that National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government adopted, upon testing nuclear weapons publicly in 1998.
"[T]he fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces. India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail;
.       .. India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers."
This is a position that is hard to disagree in my honest opinion, especially given that it has to contain a country in constant turmoil such as Pakistan  as its neighour. There is a section titled "India-Pakistan Deterrence" which clearly elaborates the unenviable position that India finds itself with regards to Pakistan.

This excellent book with a few pages dedicated to "a final word" in which he hopes that "If these extended essay have left readers with some sense of the complexity and joys of foreign policy decision making, of the balancing interests that it requires, and of minimizing harm and maximizing gain, in situations where not all considerations are entirely synchronized, then this book has served its purpose". To me it has, in its entirety.

Monday, 5 June 2017

The Castle - Franz Kafka

I read Kafka's "Trial" seven or eight years ago, borrowing it from the Colombo Public Library, at the time. I think I bought my copy of "The Castle", round about the same time. The Trial which was  a shorter book ( compared with The Castle), was also comparatively a more engrossing read, albeit it being within a confusing labyrinth of a policing system, where the accused cannot comprehend his charge - and the success of Kafka's creation was that without understanding the charge, we the reader too felt that K was guilty ( of an undisclosed charge ). I recall reading a Goodreads review, and the many comments under the review, which agreed that Joseph was "guilty has hell". The fact that we readers felt that K was guilty, not knowing what the charge was tantamount to admission of a totalitarian  government's success in its ways of policing. Besides the stuffy rooms, the tables of officials with stacks of paper spilling over, K's escapades, his endless efforts to find a clearance of himself from the charge, which he too was subtly beginning to admit, not withstanding the fact charge was never spelt out, all made  The Trial a compelling Read. These two books are not sequels.

Why I made this summary on Trial was to base it as a platform to write a bit about The Castle, which I completed reading recently. In "The Castle", K. has been hired as a surveyor, by the authorities of the Castle as a land surveyor. Yet, once the authorities concede that he was indeed officially called upon for his duties, he enters a labyrinth of laws, decisions, denials which make him confused and literally seek without success, an audience with the powers that be, to comprehend clearly his role in the village. He tries to settle down in the village not withstanding the discouragement and the sense of him being rejected.

It is usually considered that The Castle was an unfinished work. The Vintage Classics edition  translated by Willa and Edwin Muir contain 58 pages of "Additional Material", which were "found among Kafka's papers after the publication of the first edition." As the original publication nears its end, we find that it is not only K who is a victim  of the labyrinth of authority, which dictate the lives of its inhabitants, but almost all of the village. The villagers have agreed upon a tacit admission of agreement to the unwritten laws of the authorities and who ever contests that, becomes outcasts instantly.  Consider the following: Barnabas' family has fallen from grace in the eyes of the village due to no fault of their own, and when Barnabas manages to get a position of some ambiguity as a messenger to the castle, the family has some respite and possibly a slim chance of regaining their due place in the village. Barnabas is the messenger who brings out correspondence from the Castle to K, and although these messages do not grant any assurance for K's supposed employment terms, it is the only slim hope he has, in an environment which rejects him in total, otherwise. The following part is  Barnabas' sister's admission of the true nature of Barnabas' role as a messenger as well as the messages  itself. While K was depending on the messages, Barnabas' family has given undue importance to his role and the messages, since they too need these to rebuild themselves.
"More, in doing that we might depreciate the value of the letter itself in your eyes and so disappoint you sore against our will. But if we didn't lay much stress on the letters we should lay ourselves equally under suspicion, for why in that case should we have taken the trouble of delivering such an unimportant letter, why should our actions and our words be in such clear contradiction, why should we in this way disappoint not only you, the addressee, but also the sender of the letter, who certainly hadn't handed the letter to us so that we should belittle it to the addressee by our explanations? And to hold the mean, without exaggeration on either side, in other words to estimate the just value of those letters, is impossible, they themselves change in value perpetually, the reflections they give rise to are endless, and chance determines where one stops reflecting, and so even our estimate of them is a matter of chance."
I think the above extract is a fair sample of the confusion which emanates with each passing page, a confusion of intent,  immersed in a labyrinth. The explanation given by each of the characters other than K. are lengthy, which being comprehensible at one level, does nothing to rid the miasma of confusion at a macro layer. One could argue that a good portion of this book needs to be edited out - but it is this miasma of confusion which is the work of Art, and editing it is counter productive. The copy I have has praise from Kundera in the front page ("Thanks to him that the very notion of the novel is not the same as it was before" - Kafka's influence on Kundera is apparent, although the latter's work is more refined ), and the back page has Nabakov claiming that Kafka was "the greatest German writer of our time".

But be forewarned that this is a stuffy, cold book, which emanates the despair of a relentless German winter across its breadth. It is not an easy book to go on reading, although a sense of admiration of the author cannot be helped seeping through to the reader upon completion. The stuffiness of the work makes one gasp for breath, and I clearly recall thinking that it will be a while before I touch "The Castle" upon completing "The Trial". True to that sentiment it took seven or eight years for me to start on The Castle. I am not sure if I will ever read The Metamorphosis or America, but I can comprehend the awe that the man has instilled in the Nabakovs, the Kunderas, the Nawagattegamas and the Piyal Kariyawasams ( more closer to home ) in this world.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Vegetarian - Han Kang

( Man Booker International Award, 2016 )

The Vegetarian is, at a superficial level, is rather a painful read. It paints, page after page of loneliness, lots of rain, and distance between what should ideally be close relations in a post-modern  recently industrialised, oriental world. It is set in an era,  in which one’s profession is at least as important as his or her personal life. It is set in era, in which cultures which lived as extended families have segmented into smaller families in its modern era and economy , selecting their partners  to meet their life’s journey with minimum hassle than any deeper feeling. We come across a few families here are at best going through the motions in life – spending their evenings, having dinner and sleeping – with a person who is tolerable. It is set in an environment that the despair accumulated over the years as one toiled, comes back to haunt and ask oneself, whether what he or she did was correct ?
“Now, with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role that she had adopted back then of the hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice. It had been a survival tactic.”
 While those who endured the dull monotony and reached some success in the eyes of the world have their world’s falling apart within them, those who had the courage to challenge the system, challenge the sheer lunacy of adopting to another’s world are brimming with confidence, even when they prepare to make a final jump. They have totally removed themselves from the real world. We find both J and Yeong-Hye, sure of what they want in life. The extreme that J goes to fulfil his artistic ambition, and the vehemence and the utter conviction with which Yeong-Hye she sticks to, initially abstinence from meat and from food altogether, hint at their attempts to make meaning out of a life that has moved beyond simple comprehensibility.  In this sense this novella has anything but a promising end – adopt, endure and live as per convention, but with despair – or live as per your conviction, escaping the monotony  and boredom, labelled as an eccentric or institutionalized for mental instability.
If In-hye’s life is considered, it is only in her son, that she sees some hope, some promise and some reason to make her endurance worthwhile. It suggested to me that even in this new life, in which people spend more than half their day on work, it is these light but highly cherished  moments which make life worthwhile.  Maybe Sri Lankan metropolitan  life hasn’t quite crossed the perimeter to be quite similar to that of a recent industrialised one, as Korea, but the traits can be seen in at least some of the those whose lives and routines are more guided by their professional demands, if they are not conscious of the toll it has on them.