Once more, with feeling: Hillary Clinton visits Chennai

July 20, 2011


Chennai’s shiny new Anna Centenary Library auditorium was packed. We assembled early, from noon onwards, for Secretary of State Clinton’s speech. The speech was scheduled for 3 p.m. but we were told 2:30 p.m. And so we filed in with small purses, no water—the high and might, rich and famous, bold and beautiful, and students of Chennai and some of us besides—and lunch becoming a past-life memory, and waited.

I know why I was willing to wait. It was my way of showing appreciation to a politician who has put in her time on issues of real concern and who may well be remembered for placing gender justice on the State Department agenda with a minimum of opportunism attached.

And so when she came in at exactly 3, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. The very brief welcome by the Librarian was much nicer than the usual ceremonial welcome with soporific speeches. And Ms. Clinton led the applause when the Librarian said this was Asia’s largest public library. Since most of us haven’t been inside yet, we joined more sceptically.

Ms. Clinton’s speech was very much in the same mode as President Obama’s Parliament speech (see my post on this). As she checked off her hat-tips and tut-tuts, I could have sworn the speech had the same structure—which is not really an issue. Diplomatic speeches are not cutting-edge policy statements. So what were these?

She opened with a “vanakkam” which got her a round of appreciative applause. Then she talked about how happy she was to come to Tamil Nadu and Chennai, and said nice things about culture and history and contemporary American connections to this town (which in the past includes the Ice House and the fortune that founded the Secretary of State’s alma mater).

Why was India so important to the US? Because the Obama administration believes that much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia, she said. And then elucidating “how to inject content” into the Indo-US relationship, she tipped her hat to democracy, pluralism, opportunity and innovation as “bedrock beliefs” that the two countries share.

Reiterating the US’ support for India becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in a reformed UN system (whatever that means, whenever that happens!), the Secretary of State said that the US welcomed India assuming a global leadership role. But she asked: What does global leadership mean and what does it mean for Indo-US relations? In that moment, I thought we were back in November 2010, listening to President Obama.

And after a little while, came the little nudge about Burma. Yes, India has interests and investments in Burma, so the US was happy to see the Foreign Secretary meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The words left unspoken: But really you can do more if you decide to, and if you want to assert your position as a leader, you should. If this annoys Indians because it sounds like a lecture, it is also not untrue—power comes at a price. President Obama reminded Indians of this in several ways through his visit but never as explicitly as in his Parliamentary address. And both he and Secretary of State Clinton subtly pointed out that US support for India’s claim to such leadership would depend on India’s willingness to shoulder its costs and responsibilities.

Of course, this nasty medicine was served with plenty of sugar: India had so much to offer in support of the democratic transitions in West Asia; Ms. Clinton described India’s Election Commission as the ‘gold standard.’ Apart from democracy, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and sustainable development (especially agriculture in arid areas) were three areas where India had something to offer, in her view.

The Secretary of State identified the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia as two regions where the US and India could work together. Chennai, she suggested, was a very good location from which to speak about these, since it was a reminder of India’s old connections to this region and its maritime history. The main point to this cooperation was trade; open markets and freer trade would make everyone prosperous. But the language of Ms. Clinton’s speech was colourful and evocative; she recalled the Silk Road and called for the creation of a web of Silk Roads that an entrepreneur in Chennai might use to get her products to a customer in Central Asia.

In this part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said Tamil Nadu was an example of what was possible when everyone enjoyed equal rights in a society, and then used that as a way to introduce Sri Lanka into her speech. When she said, every citizen deserved the same hope, there was a buzz of approval. But this was also the one place where she made a very strong statement that peace is not possible when the peace process ignores women’s rights and minority rights. But in spite of the passion with which she spoke these words, the audience in Chennai did not really react. It must have been as disappointing to the speaker as it was to this blogger.

In fact, after her ‘vanakkam,’ the only real response Ms. Clinton got came when she quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wish that he should be able to travel so freely across the subcontinent that he could eat breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Interesting, when you consider how much criticism he currently receives. The applause was so great that she paused to say, applause is not enough.

Anyway, having spoken about Sri Lanka in Chennai—acknowledging the city’s interest in that country’s affairs—she made sure to talk about India’s assistance to the Maldives and the need for a regional solution to flooding problems in Bangladesh.

The end of Ms. Clinton’s speech was written to be rousing and inspiring but the audience remained cold.

Anti-Americanism comes very easily to Indian audiences, but I want to ask those gathered in that room why they were there. They were never going to hobnob with the Secretary of State; so that cannot be the motivation. They were not moved by the content and seemed largely disinterested in it. They were just not there; and as I have written this post and reflected on it, the watery applause they gave Ms. Clinton makes me wonder. What brought them to that room? Interactions (even non-interactive ones like this!) are a two-way street and both parties go under the scanner.

So my question to those who planned this event is: what was the point of having so many people—many very busy—gather in a room for so long just to listen to Ms. Clinton breeze in, speak and breeze out? You could have screened this and had a discussion. Or had her take some questions.

What was in this event for Ms. Clinton or the gathered Chennaiites? It’s not so clear at all. She got a tired, somewhat dehydrated and restless audience for a speech that didn’t need them to be there. They got an afternoon away from work (nice for some, including me) and a chance to meet friends they have no time for otherwise, but really this can’t have been the objective of the US Consulate. Might Ms. Clinton have done better to visit another social service organization, working in the area of child rights, perhaps? Would a town-hall in a college which is off the Consulate’s radar otherwise, have opened new connections?

Other notes:

• Ms. Clinton mentioned “Passport to India,” a programme to encourage American undergraduates to study in India in larger numbers and build connections with India.
• She also used the feminine gender everytime she had an example to narrate in the third person singular… very, very nice, and noted with great approval!

Last question for academics: Analyses of speeches like this one either start with a checklist of desirable mentions and omissions and then scan minutely and critically, or like this one, they are readings of style and structure. As a foreign policy scholar, I wonder, does the first miss the woods for the trees, and does the second fail to appreciate the work on each tree in its emphasis on the woods as a whole?

PS: The State Department’s account is here. Full text of the speech is here.

Truth, Justice and Protocol

January 20, 2011


This long post disentangles the web of questions raised about gender and international relations following the allegations of domestic violence made against a diplomat.


A quiet afternoon in a quiet London neighbourhood is shattered by the sounds of a scuffle and screams. A woman seems to be in distress, and when she emerges, neighbours see that she is bruised and bleeding. The police investigates but they run up against a wall built to protect the messenger from the arbitrary actions of her/his host: diplomatic immunity.

This incident which occurred on December 11, 2010 but which made news headlines more than a month later has once more pointed to the murky equation between gender justice and international relations.

The British authorities requested that the Indian diplomat’s immunity be revoked. The Indian government refused. The High Commission spokesperson was quoted as saying: “We are carefully looking into the incident. It involves sensitive and personal issues pertaining to individuals. It is premature to make any further comment at this stage. It is now expected that this matter will be resolved between husband and wife It is to their mutual satisfaction.” It took a month but the diplomat has finally been recalled, along with his family. The catch is that in the interim, his wife has disappeared along with their son.

Binay Singh & Pervez Iqbal Siddiqui, Diplomat Verma’s parents swear by his innocence, Times News Network, January 20, 2011.

The particulars of this story are less important than the issues it raises, and this post tries to disentangle each of these from the knotty discussion that is taking place.

Is domestic violence a lesser offence?

In one of the television discussions last week, a former diplomat kept citing other instances, primarily drunk and reckless driving, where immunity had not been waived so an alleged offender could be tried locally. He went on to say that the incident which has triggered this controversy was just about a Christmas tree, thereby infuriating other panelists. He conceded that had the diplomat been a serial rapist or killer, a waiver of immunity might be considered.

Is domestic violence a lesser offence than all of these? The answer really is no. A drunken driving incident could be an aberration; battery and assault within the family seldom are. There is always a long-term pattern of abuse, and it stems from power-play and the need to control. It does not happen because of a Christmas tree. Or any of the other violence triggers that researchers have found—delayed meals, perceived laziness of the spouse, too much salt, too little salt, etc. In fact, even the Christmas tree story would raise a red flag to those who work in this area: the issue reportedly was that the wife had refused the husband’s offer to buy a tree for reasons of economy but accepted a gift from her relatives, and this offended him. Enough said.

And because domestic violence is seldom a one-off occurrence, chances are the record of abuse and violence would equal that of a serial rapist or killer even though the number of victims is much smaller. So if the number of instances of violence is the threshold that decides whether something is a greater or lesser offence, wouldn’t most domestic violence perpetrators qualify?

How many reported (and unreported) incidents of domestic violence, or other gender violence, are to be tolerated before they attain the threshold required for immunity to be considered?

Is diplomatic immunity never to be waived?

This is not the first time local law enforcement has rued diplomatic immunity. It is actually a regular grievance for police in any city with a large diplomatic presence. The army of UN-accredited diplomats in New York park anywhere and don’t pay fines for it, and it doesn’t take a long stay in the city or any research to hear about it! Abuse of domestic workers who are brought in by diplomats is another issue that human rights activists have been highlighting. This can hardly be the first-ever case of domestic violence reported in the history of diplomacy.

What is diplomatic immunity? International law exempts select officials and representatives of foreign governments from the jurisdiction of local governments and laws; this is called “diplomatic immunity.” The idea was really to protect the messenger: “the channels of diplomatic communication by exempting diplomats from local jurisdiction so that they can perform their duties with freedom, independence, and security.” (See E-Diplomat) The rules for how diplomatic immunity works are set up by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963. The foreign government may waive immunity and the host government may declare a diplomat ‘persona non grata’ without explanation, so a diplomat really cannot take that status for granted.
Where the conflict arises in this case is actually in the reading of the offence. What we can surmise from the conflict over waiving the Indian diplomat’s immunity, is that while British authorities appear to regard the allegation of domestic violence as a serious enough offence to warrant a waiver, the Indian response has been paternalistic and dismissive. This raises questions about what would happen if the couple returned home to an Indian investigation.

Salil Tripathi, Immunity from Justice, LiveMint.com, January 19, 2011.
IANS, Indian UN diplomat recalled after incident on flight, Economic Times, January 19, 2011.

An Indian investigation

There are two questions that stare us in the face on this count. First, how will the case be tried in India if the evidence and witnesses are elsewhere? Second, what is the track record of gender violence trials in India?

There are probably ways around the first, such as travelling investigation officers who can interview witnesses. Perhaps the British police who visited the site initially can share their evidence and reports.

The harder question is really the second; it’s also an embarrassing question. The number of cases registered under the relevant section of the Indian Penal Code has risen steadily between 2005 and 2009, from 58,319 to 89,546, but when you search for the conviction rate, the numbers vary but there is consensus that the rate is very, very low.

National Crime Records Bureau, “Crimes against Women,” Crimes in India 2009, Delhi, 2010.
Madhu Kishwar, Laws against domestic violence: Underused or Abused? Manushi, Issue 120, September-October 2000.
Rashme Sehgal, Delays do not bode well for Domestic Violence Bill, InfoChange India, March 2006.

The reasons are many—from the reluctance of a family to pursue and press charges even if they filed a complaint in the first instance, to the pressure of the extended family and community to come to a mediated solution, to the lack of evidence. In spite of this very low conviction rate, there are many in India who complain that those provisions of the law that deal with different kinds of domestic violence are actually mostly misused by women to discredit their husbands and marital families.

Furthermore, in recent years, very high-profile cases of sexual assault have had obstacle-ridden investigations, protracted trials and where there has been conviction and sentencing, the handing out of bail so that the perpetrator more or less walks free. A paternalistic streak in many Indian courtrooms has also sought conciliatory and conservative solutions to the uncomfortable reality of gender violence rather than justice. Rape victims are thus advised to marry the person who raped them. Domestic violence victims are apt to be advised to adjust or consider the family or the children.

It is no wonder that even the most nationalistic Indians find it hard to express confidence in the way this system would respond to domestic violence in the diplomatic enclave. Would the bureaucracy bat for one of its boys? Would the weight of the establishment be on the side of ‘adjusting’ and making peace—not for family, not for the kids, but in the national interest?

The inconvenience of taking women’s rights into consideration

Feminists make a lot of people uncomfortable not because they are wrong but because it is so inconvenient to acknowledge that they are right. So much of international order depends on private-public, inside-outside, domestic-international being posited as binaries. Feminist thinking rejects all these binaries. To take issues of gender justice and women’s rights into account, would force a re-imagining of many of the axiomatic premises of world order.

Female genital mutilation and honour killings are not ‘nice’ issues to raise because they reflect a judgment on the traditional practices of other societies. Human rights standards stop short of others’ cultural practices, whoever defines them and however they are defined. The practices that most communities are very sensitive about are, unsurprisingly, the ones that affect women—FGM, sati, honour killings. The material and ideological origins of the practices are never examined in a reverse kind of orientalism because that sort of rationality can neither be expected of the “other” nor is it comfortable for a liberal to grant. It’s just easier to adopt a cultural relativist stand.

It’s easier to pretend that sexual violence and exploitation do not occur in conflict zones, because facing up to that would show that the best-intentioned military training and socialization do not stop the brutality from spilling over into the interpersonal arena. The words of the intelligence officer who once told me that rape was part of the ‘spoils of war’ have never left me. If you face up to the reality of conflict rape, then you have to look closely at the ethics of this and the morality of that and the many definitions of that particular context.

In this instance, if we affirm that violence against women is wrong, then at least while the allegations against the diplomat are being investigated, it must be clear that this person cannot represent India. If he did, what would that say to the world about the status of women in this country? Not something any country would want said.

Acknowledging that violence occurs within more homes than we know and acknowledging that a life free of violence is an inalienable human right, both simplify and complicate the diplomatic universe. Decision-making is simplified because then immunity waiver or recall, investigation and action must follow. But everything else is complicated because when you blur the line between private and public and say that a diplomat—any person—is as responsible to society for what they do in private as for what they do in public, other boundaries blur as well. Why should local jurisdiction not extend to certain people for what they do in their private lives? Should the dependents of those protected by immunity be deprived of the protection to which others in their situation are entitled, both in home and host countries? Should we now look for ways in which to standardize our laws on these problems so that the victim’s rights are not lost in the “we are better than you” tug-of-war between home and host country’s legal systems?

S Kalyana Ramanathan, Britain forced India’s hand to take back diplomat, Business Standard, January 20, 2011.

In 1989, when Cynthia Enloe first published “Bananas, Beaches and Bases” she wrote about the women in garment factories, sex-workers around bases, migrant domestic workers and diplomatic wives as the invisible characters in the stories about international politics. Zooming in further, twenty-two years later, we see not just the characters we first overlooked but the little complications—domestic violence, exploitation, sexual harassment—that were not earlier visible. When we do, we have to make choices: to ignore these realities and pretend the world still looks like our theories or to rewrite the theories to look like the world we now see; to overlook the things our laws do not account for or to change the law to account for them. What choices will we make?

The simplest possible reading

For all this greyness and complexity, the most important question is a very simple one, I think: Is domestic violence a grave human rights issue? I think it is, and all my positions and response follow from this answer. You?

Looking back on a Presidential Visit: Obama in India, 2010

January 16, 2011


Notes from November 2010, belatedly blogged, reflect briefly on the three concerns that underpin Indo-US relations, the price of power and human rights as a marker of global ascendance.

It’s been more than two months since President Obama’s visit to India, and my notes remain “unblogged.” The three-days of the visit were good for both sides, arguably, while on either side of the weekend, both sides faced challenges, defeats, controversy and scandal. It’s been a while and the mood of the weekend has dissipated almost totally, but I would like to blog those of my observations that have interest beyond the context of the visit.

A formulaic representation of Indo-US relations

From the itinerary and speeches made during the visit, it would seem that Indo-US relations are underpinned by interface over three elements: democracy, economics and security. Obama’s Parliament speech flagged prosperity, security and democracy as three dimensions of an emerging partnership between the two countries, but it would seem that really two of these still lie in the realm of aspiration.

Democracy is the most stable element of this relationship. In the worst of times, democracy is a shared value (let’s not dispute how well this value is realized in either country, for the moment). “The two largest democracies of the world” is a club to which both India and the US are very happy to belong. Consistent commitment to democratic procedures and values is an important element of both countries’ soft power. The difference between the two is the extent to which the US and India are willing to put their muscle-power behind the promotion of this value. Promotion of democracy is an important element of US foreign policy rhetoric, whereas it is much more muted in India. On the other hand, those whom the US supports in its promotion of democratic often have shady credentials—the subject of other posts and discussions, and India too makes some questionable choices in this regard.

The quest for economic benefit, preferably mutual, is gaining ground in the relationship. There is a growing mutuality of interests between Indian companies seeking to expand and invest in the US or seeking US investment and contracts on the one hand, and US companies who need outside investment to help recover from the recession. The influence these groups wield on either side appears for the moment to outweigh the protests of protectionists on the US side and Indian critics who point out that global capitalism often shortchanges the already disadvantaged. But it does not silence them, and that makes economics a shakier leg than democracy—ironically, because democracy creates space for this opposition and protest.

Security is the weakest of the three elements in this relationship; indeed, security issues often drive a wedge between the US and India. At a very abstract level, there is a great deal of commonality of interest between India and the US: fighting terrorism, keeping parts of the world free of nuclear weapons and supporting international institutions, for instance. However, how each of these interests is perceived and interpreted, and in policy detail, there are significant divergences. On the question of terrorism for instance, it took a 9/11 for the US to acknowledge a problem that India had been speaking about for over a decade, but this has hardly led to shared strategies or learning (or even information). A habit of instinctive distrust characterizes Indian elites’ reading of US strategic policy and impatience with perceived Indian intransigence characterizes the American administration’s dealings with India. Trust and understanding have been growing but at a slow, unsteady pace.

The foundation that democracy provides and the impetus that mutual economic benefit adds are both undermined by differences in strategic views.

The price of power

During President Obama’s visit, three issues—two closely related—became touchstones of the distance between the two countries on strategic matters: Kashmir, terrorism and India’s aspiration to Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council. For two and half days, commentators monitored Obama’s every utterance to see what he would say—would if favour India or would it not?

The President’s formal speeches held no clue. However, at the Mumbai town-hall, in response to student questions, he spoke about jihad and Islam, why Pakistan was important to the US and about US strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was finally at the press conference with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that President Obama finally spoke directly about Kashmir. Obama stated that it was up to India and Pakistan to work on reducing tensions, and that, “The United States cannot impose a solution to these problems.” In response, Singh asserted, “We are committed to engage Pakistan.  We are committed to resolve all outstanding issues between our two countries, including the word “K”—we’re not afraid of that.  But it is our request that you cannot simultaneously be talking and at the same time the terror machine is as active as ever before.  Once Pakistan moves away from this terror-induced coercion, we will be very happy to engage productively with Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues.”

The Indian commentariat had to wait until President Obama’s address to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament, and in the main, he did not disappoint. He reiterated the fact that terrorism now threatens Pakistan and that a stable Pakistan was in everyone’s interests, but he went on to say, “And we’ll continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks must be brought to justice.” The applause on this statement had barely faded when, after a few more remarks encouraging India-Pakistan dialogue, he said, “That is why I can say today, in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

The President was quick to point out, and this was not missed, that power comes at a price. The cues were scattered across his Parliament speech. The reference to the UN Security Council seat tucked within an important rider: Council reform. There was a reference to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Iran (“We can make it clear that even as every nation has the right to peaceful nuclear energy, every nation must also meet its international obligations —- and that includes the Islamic Republic of Iran.”). Obama enlisted India as an ally in the US’ proactive approach to democracy protection: “As the world’s two largest democracies, we must never forget that the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” He explicitly stated, speaking about Burma, “And if I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues.”

There should have been no surprise here; leadership always comes with responsibility. The space that the non-aligned movement provided for moral leadership without commitment of resources has not just become irrelevant but also ceased to be an option for India as it basks in its gently swelling clout. However, as India braces to make more and more difficult decisions in the face of the new status it claims, what decision-makers need is a more open, more informed and livelier debate in the public sphere. The consensual, legacy, template style of Indian foreign policy decision-making—arguably already changing—is probably going to reach the limits of its efficacy in this new world.

Silence and pecking order

Last year, when I blogged about Hillary Clinton’s feminist foreign policy, I took note of her making gender violence central to human rights-related rhetoric. In Congo, on Sri Lanka, by setting up a special mission on women’s rights, etc., Clinton and the State Department made talking about women’s rights and empowerment an important foreign policy issue.

But during the Presidential visit to India, references to human rights were used to point to shared values and gender was curiously absent from the discussion. Since this is obviously not because these are not live political concerns in India, we can only assume that concern about gender equity assumes greater and lesser gravity along a global pecking order!

To my ever-sensitive Indian readers: No, I am not advocating American sermons to India on this issue, but just pointing out this little anomaly. As Twitter would have us indicate, #justsaying that perhaps the absence of human rights homilies was the true sign of Indian arrival on the global centre-stage.

Great Expectations, Or The Limits Of Summit Diplomacy

November 7, 2010


President Obama is spending the weekend in India. What can we realistically expect from summit meetings?


India celebrates Diwali with the Obamas this weekend. Among the commentariat, expectations have risen like Diwali expenditure and fallen like bank balances!

Will the American President lend support to India’s claim for permanent membership of the UN Security Council? Will he condemn Pakistan for its part in facilitating this environment of insecurity in South Asia? Will he stand on Indian soil and criticize outsourcing? The touchy Indian political class took anticipatory umbrage, so that when the President arrived, they could hit the ground running with their critiques.

President Obama’s election campaign and victory captured the imagination of people all over the world. That would have been reason enough to look forward to his visit. Place it in the context of an interdependence that has deepened in the last three decades through the movement of people, goods, ideas and popular culture, and it acquires even greater interest.

That India and the US have been groping their way through the dark to a closer friendship is not news to anyone reading this blog. This, however, has been the most obstacle-ridden track of a multi-dimensional relationship. The obstacles have been rooted in distrust that is decades old, in different political and decision-making styles and in different readings of the world. If India is anxious about the US’ relationship with Pakistan and about being (seen as) as a pushover, the US is concerned that nothing should interfere with its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and that the growing constituency of the unemployed should find satisfaction in all policy spheres. Because neither side fully appreciates the other’s concerns, they are even harder to overcome, except through a sustained, prolonged engagement.

No democratic leader can overturn the direction of her country’s foreign policy unilaterally; without a popular or institutional base of support, no such u-turn is likely to be lasting. So why do we pay so much attention to Presidential and Prime Ministerial visits? Why do we debate whether our high expectations are justified or should be lowered?

This is being written on the second morning of the Obama visit to India. President Obama began his visit with a stop at the 26/11 memorial at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Speaking to survivors briefly, he spoke of their courage and humanity, nodded to the rescue forces and said that the US and India were united in their quest to secure their citizens. He did not mention Pakistan. He did not list counter-terrorism measures. He did not specify punitive action. But it was the presidential equivalent of a condolence visit. Was it the time and place for any of these topics?

After a lingering stop at Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s former residence, President Obama addressed a conference of Indian and American businesspersons. He articulated American concerns even as he made a positive assessment of the prospects and benefits of Indo-US trade and collaboration. He spoke about mutual perceptions and misperceptions as well, and made announcements of deals that would benefit the US economy and also of measures that would benefit Indian companies. But the fact that he spoke about outsourcing as a concern to Americans, rankled.

The question is: What should we expect from visiting Presidents and Prime Ministers? An eminent retired Indian diplomat once mocked the scholarly tendency to give a great deal of importance to joint declarations and summit statements. He regaled us with tales that underscored the cosmetic quality of these speeches. The point he was making was that summit visits are icing, not cake.

The luggage of the visiting leader includes the concerns of the people that she represents—and it should. In the age of instant communication and simultaneous broadcasts, the audience for any speech made abroad is in large part the audience at home. It is that part of the audience that votes and to which the leader is accountable. Inevitable, even desirable, that the visitor’s speeches should reflect their mandate to her.

Travelling heads of government move along a tightly scripted itinerary—of destinations, interactions, speeches and agreements—from which they cannot depart. This script is a product of processes that are internal to their country’s political and administrative systems and that reflect the history of the two (or more) countries’ interactions. Yes, they occasionally flout protocol and court accidentally-on-purpose photo opportunities, but that simply reinforces the existence of a script. The same holds true of the host country’s leadership.

So if everyone at the summit is really a puppet on multiple strings, then what is the point of the meeting? What has genuine impact on foreign policy? Perhaps it is simply communication. “I will come over and tell you what’s on my mind, and you can tell me what’s on yours.” And in settings created especially for such conversations, we will pretend to listen to each other.

For the rest of us, what makes the difference between a run-of-the-mill, ritual summit and a summit we remember for years? It’s what the state department now labels “public diplomacy.” On the second morning of the Obama visit, it’s easy to predict the images that will linger: the Obamas at the 26/11 memorial; signing the guest book at Mani Bhavan, and at a Diwali celebration with school kids. It’s the president leading a professorial interaction with college students. It’s not going to be the business conference or even his speech in Parliament. Once the commentariat class moves on, we will likely forget those. The moments in which the elected representatives of one people reach out to befriend another people, leave abiding memories. That’s the lesson for diplomats and journalists alike.

Oslo Notes: North by northwest, but where’s the rest?

September 19, 2010


What makes a country matter to another?


The conference in Oslo was part of a large and important collaborative research project between IFS, Norway and IDSA, India on strategic thinking in India. Unusual for security studies conferences, the focus in this one was on philosophy and thought that underpin policy and behaviour relating to security. The historical overview began with the Indian epics and finished up with surveys of perceptions and writing in the post-colonial period with regard to particular relationships.

Nothing new about it, but the most striking fact about discussions over two and a half days was that India’s northern neighbours and the U.S. had a complete stranglehold on the worldview reflected in the discussions. Coming from Chennai, sitting in the city where many rounds of Sri Lankan talks have taken place, Sri Lanka’s invisibility was striking.

What accounts for the dominance of the northwestern neighbourhood, China and the United States in Indian thinking? One can suggest some explanations.

Relative proximity to the Indian capital and its resident security elite is one possible reason. Another might well be history—the Khyber Pass has been gateway to migration and invasion alike, and the unsettled border with China holds innumerable potential gateways to which the Indian media has been drawing attention recently. Moreover, the postcolonial history of India’s foreign relations has been centered on unresolved ideational and territorial national identity issues, and their focus has been the Indian northwest.

The nation-building process in India has also created a historical narrative of India that emphasises and valorises periods when pan-Indian polities were created, over those when regional powers were dominant and mutually competitive. The latter were usually centered around the coasts and the Deccan, while pan-Indian polities found their centre in the Gangetic plain, first in Pataliputra (Patna today) and then in Kanauj, Delhi and Agra. The periods where regional kingdoms dominated were often periods when oceanic trade, colonisation and conquest were the norm rather than large land expeditions—the Pala and Chola kingdoms are prime instances. They were focused on Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and even East Africa as opposed to the Hindukush-Himalayan neighbourhoods.

More discomfiting is the possibility that as foundations, universities and think-tanks in the west commission more and more work in the area of studies, their own interests are reflected in the work of people they engage with or employ. The likelihood of media attention directing academic attention is just as disconcerting.

One interesting conversation I found myself having was about the need for a history of maritime activity in India. To this research wishlist, I would add the need for a critical intellectual history that asked why some regions dominate strategic thinking in India, more than others do. Realpolitik cannot be answer enough, can it?

At the end of two and a half days of deliberation, our Norwegian hosts raised the question: Where does Norway figure in India’s strategic horizon? That’s a very hard question to answer when the line of strategic vision does not quite move 360 degrees but stays fixated on a particular geopolitical zone.

The Indus Floods and “disaster diplomacy”

August 29, 2010


Disasters have been viewed as an opportunity to let humanitarian considerations forge détente in hostile environments. The opportunity is seldom utilized optimally, although assistance is often offered and taken. This post reflects on the mutual impact of the Indus floods and international relations in SouthAsia.


The Indian subcontinent, now South Asia, derives its name and its definition from the Indus basin. Inevitable then, that the 2010 Indus floods that are devastating Pakistan should spill over into (and reflect) the region’s international relations.

Disasters have been viewed as an opportunity to let humanitarian considerations forge détente and breakthroughs in hostile environments. The opportunity is seldom utilized optimally, although assistance is often offered and taken. The examples are legion: the 1988 Armenian earthquake, the fire haze in Southeast Asia in 1997, the 2004 tsunami and 2005 Kashmir earthquakes, to start with.

Pakistan floods-a timeline, Dawn.com, August 12, 2010.

At the end of July, an unusually heavy monsoon led to floods in the Indus in Baluchistan, and within weeks, the rivers of the Indus system were flooding across the length of Pakistan . The situation is very grave as Pakistan grapples with what the UN Secretary-General described as a “slow-motion tsunami” and the worst disaster he had ever seen ().

Some reports that capture the scale of the disaster:

UN reports more Pakistanis in need of help as unrelenting floods spread, UN News Centre, August 27, 2010.
Adil Najam, Number of the day: 175,000,000, All Things Pakistan, August 17, 2010.
Beth Buczynski, Five shocking facts about the Pakistan floods, care2.com, August 29, 2010
Huma Imtiaz, Aisha and the millions without an umbrella, The New Indian Express, August 29, 2010.
Sonya Rehman, ‘Stench of dead bodies was overpowering’, The New Indian Express, August 29, 2010.

Humanitarian agencies, Pakistani and global, have swung into action. However, in spite of the scale of the disaster, governmental responses have been slow and muted.  This has been attributed to many factors: the public perception of Pakistan around the world, donor fatigue after Haiti, poor media coverage.

Simon Tisdall and Maseeh Rahman, Pakistan flood toll rises but international aid fails to flow, guardian.co.uk, August 10, 2010.
Pakistan’s ‘image deficit’ hurting aid funds flow: UN, Indian Express, August 16, 2010.
Jude Sheerin, Who cares about Pakistan? BBC News, August 21, 2010.
Donald G. Mcneil Jr., Disaster Strategy: The Soft Heart and the Hard Sell, New York Times, August 21, 2010.
Mira Veda,  Lack of Media Coverage for Pakistan Floods = Lack of Aid, Huffington Post, August 25, 2010.
Ayesha Siddiqa, Delivery of flood relief, Express Tribune, August 29, 2010.

India, facing floods in the north on a smaller scale and drought in the east, was slow to offer assistance. It took a week for Pakistan to accept the offer, controversially. The USD 5 million package will be routed through the United Nations, in deference to Pakistani wishes.

After dithering, India offers flood aid to Pak, Deccan Herald News Service, August 13, 2010.
IANS, Reject India’s flood aid: Pak newspaper, IBNLive, August, 15, 2010.
Pak thanks India for aid, sends mangoes for PM, NDTV.com, August 20, 2010.
Press Trust of India, Pakistan accepts flood aid, India offers more, rediff.com, August 20, 2010.
Sean Maroney, Pakistani Analysts Respond to Indian Flood Aid with Caution, VOANews, August 21, 2010.

Two positive developments can be seen at the civil society level, both of which overcome political barriers to facilitate the flow of information and assistance across otherwise impassable borders.

The first is the use of the Internet, especially Twitter, to communicate the nature and the scale of the problem. Apart from the usual tweeting of headlines and retweeting of appeals for help, Pakistanis have used Twitter to describe first-hand the devastation that they are seeing. They have been writing in from relief camps and from flood sites. In a climate of skepticism, they have pointed out local NGOs with a reputation for integrity and grassroots work.

Here is a sampling from the last few days:

@marvi_memon, August 29, 2010: “THose families who hav tents hav ration-others dont-so they were requestin-i told them relief suk in kchi due2loot on way)
@ RumaisaM, August 29, 2010: More deaths feared in Pakistan as flood waters recede // http://is.gd/eIvyn #CNN.
@AdilNajam, August 28, 2010: Preparing Your Relief Contribution for Flood Victims: Some Helpful Tips pakistaniat.com/2010/08/28/pre… about 13 hours ago
@sanasaleem, August 28, 2010: Tents,Clean water,ORS, needed besides ration. Dire need of tents! #pkfloods
@mosharrafzaidi, August 26, 2010: @aasif_mandvi list of UN agencies, International NGOs & Pakistani NGOs that have good cred at this link http://bit.ly/cQciTH – Tks again.

South Asian NGOs have also tried to create channels through which Indians can donate to Pakistani NGOs, working around political barriers. The best example is from Himal Southasian, which featured on this blogger’s New Year list of “SouthAsian of the Decade.”

Himal Southasian Indus Flood Relief Fund Collection Drive

It would seem that the ability of governments to move quickly in the face of disasters is limited by policy precedent and public opinion, but sections of the same public move just as quickly to get around constraints placed by government policy. These channels and initiatives contribute to changing the environment in which diplomatic relations work and in the long run to mitigating the constraints that limit government action. “Disaster diplomacy” is then, public diplomacy in the best sense: outreach by the public in the larger public interest.

Postscript: Looking for a fight is a hard habit to surrender. After writing this post, I saw this article: “India, Pak now squabble over water,” MSN News, August 29, 2010.  Bookmark this issue for observation!

Other writing by me on disasters and international relations:
Security lessons amid disaster ruins, InfoChange India, December 2008.
Silver Linings: Natural Disasters, International Relations and Political Change in South Asia, 2004-5,  Defense & Security Analysis, Volume 22, Issue 4 December 2006 , pages 451 – 468.
Post-Tsunami International Relations: A Sea Change? (94 kb in PDF), Chaitanya Brief, Volume I, Number 2, June 2005.

Multi-track diplomacy in South Asia: Recent dialogues

February 11, 2010


Indian Express reports that there has been a spurt in dialogues and meetings recently, even as the official India-Pakistan dialogue has been stalled. Although this reporter suggests there is something dubious about this, it is actually an important development. Keeping channels of communication, official or non-official, open is really useful.

The point is made that many of these dialogues are funded by non-regional foundations. The question is: where is the funding for these initiatives in South Asia? There is plenty of money, but there is no will to fund anything remotely political. Many of these dialogues also involve South Asians resident abroad, with varying degrees of connection to their countries of origin. Where dialogue itself is a sensitive issue, the presence of foreigners (no matter their origin) who are identified with other governments creates greater resistance.