Op-eds and Articles

Op-eds and Articles

The Definition of Insanity Is U.S. AfPak Strategy


The following article originally appeared online at Foreign Policy on October 1, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.

The central problem confronting the United States in the region is no longer al Qaeda or the Taliban. It’s the Pakistan Army, which has always pursued its own objectives over those of the country it is meant to defend. The Army has a 40-year history of supporting terrorists against Afghanistan, India, and (more recently) Americans. Even in the absence of a smoking gun, there is little doubt that the Army and its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, sheltered Osama bin Laden and protected Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This policy of supporting terrorism has been driven by a warped ideology, political imperatives, and corporate interests. The Army has long used Islamism and imagined foreign threats to consolidate its political primacy and shore up its commercial interests, which range from cement to telecommunications.

Op-eds and Articles

The Definition of Insanity Is U.S. AfPak Strategy

The following article originally appeared online at Foreign Policy on October 1, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.

The central problem confronting the United States in the region is no longer al Qaeda or the Taliban. It’s the Pakistan Army, which has always pursued its own objectives over those of the country it is meant to defend. The Army has a 40-year history of supporting terrorists against Afghanistan, India, and (more recently) Americans. Even in the absence of a smoking gun, there is little doubt that the Army and its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, sheltered Osama bin Laden and protected Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This policy of supporting terrorism has been driven by a warped ideology, political imperatives, and corporate interests. The Army has long used Islamism and imagined foreign threats to consolidate its political primacy and shore up its commercial interests, which range from cement to telecommunications.

Op-eds and Articles

Digital India vs Net Neutrality

The following article appeared in The Indian Express on September 30, 2015. The full text is below.

Today, when you start up your computer or iPhone and open a web browser such as Chrome or Safari, you can access over 100 million domain names with a few clicks. Your data costs do not change depending on whether you go to Rediff or Flipkart, or whether you download an app to order pizza or post on Twitter or watch a YouTube video. Your data provider — be it Airtel or Reliance or BSNL — does not discriminate between different kinds of content, only how much data you use. This is the benefit of a neutral net, a system that has worked to the advantage of both internet users (who have enjoyed greater choice of content) and numerous start-ups (which have enjoyed unparalleled market access).

But a shift is underway. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited California to drum up support for his Digital India initiative, he effectively endorsed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of expanded access to a pared down internet. Expanded access is, after all, one of the three pillars of Digital India (the other two being e-governance and electronics manufacturing). Why not shift costs to content providers (such as babajobs.com), who enter into exclusive contracts with data providers (such as Reliance), all enabled by Facebook’s Free Basics app? Such an arrangement could expand internet use rapidly in a country where some 80 per cent of the population does not have access, benefiting crores of people. It would also, naturally, benefit Facebook.

Advocates of net neutrality — a vocal minority linked to NGOs and internet start-ups — are unhappy with such an arrangement, which they feel will disadvantage consumers by limiting choice. It could also discriminate against smaller content providers struggling to compete with established internet companies. Net neutrality advocates have argued that there are other ways to expand access and lower costs, such as subsidising data plans or through advertising.

But this line of argument, too, has its critics. Some believe implicitly that net neutrality is an elitist concern, echoing Zuckerberg’s view that “It’s not an equal internet if the majority of people can’t participate.” Others contend that net neutrality requires unnecessary government intervention, a forcible levelling of the playing field. Why should the government prevent Facebook, Reliance and certain websites from entering into exclusive arrangements, particularly if it helps to expand access and deflect costs from consumers? The arguments against net neutrality, rather bizarrely, offer one area in which populists and free-market enthusiasts might find common cause.

Both sides of this debate bring certain compelling arguments to the table. In the United States, the government eventually came out decisively in favour of net neutrality. This made sense in an economy where the vast majority can afford access to the internet, and where monopolistic data providers were effectively price gouging. Consumer choice advocates and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were overwhelmingly pleased.

India’s circumstances are, however, radically different. Broadband infrastructure is weak. Spectrum is expensive. Power is still in short supply. Digital access is now linked to the basics: Subsidies and rations, identification, financial inclusion and political participation. Expanding access today is therefore a top priority, which is why most of the big announcements during Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley were in this domain — not just Facebook, but also public commitments made by Microsoft and Google to connect villages and railway stations.

The prime minister has made it clear that access is his top priority, but net neutrality advocates need not completely despair. The relentless drive to expand digital access in India may be necessary in the short term, but may make less sense once the Indian internet market becomes more saturated. That is another way of saying that the access vs neutrality dilemma could resolve itself organically. As incomes rise, consumers may gradually opt for data plans that give them greater access, foregoing more restrictive but free data services. Facebook’s Free Basics would, in that event, simply be a stepping stone that contributes in time to its own irrelevance.

Op-eds and Articles

Digital India vs Net Neutrality

The following article appeared in The Indian Express on September 30, 2015. The full text is below.

Today, when you start up your computer or iPhone and open a web browser such as Chrome or Safari, you can access over 100 million domain names with a few clicks. Your data costs do not change depending on whether you go to Rediff or Flipkart, or whether you download an app to order pizza or post on Twitter or watch a YouTube video. Your data provider — be it Airtel or Reliance or BSNL — does not discriminate between different kinds of content, only how much data you use. This is the benefit of a neutral net, a system that has worked to the advantage of both internet users (who have enjoyed greater choice of content) and numerous start-ups (which have enjoyed unparalleled market access).

But a shift is underway. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited California to drum up support for his Digital India initiative, he effectively endorsed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of expanded access to a pared down internet. Expanded access is, after all, one of the three pillars of Digital India (the other two being e-governance and electronics manufacturing). Why not shift costs to content providers (such as babajobs.com), who enter into exclusive contracts with data providers (such as Reliance), all enabled by Facebook’s Free Basics app? Such an arrangement could expand internet use rapidly in a country where some 80 per cent of the population does not have access, benefiting crores of people. It would also, naturally, benefit Facebook.

Advocates of net neutrality — a vocal minority linked to NGOs and internet start-ups — are unhappy with such an arrangement, which they feel will disadvantage consumers by limiting choice. It could also discriminate against smaller content providers struggling to compete with established internet companies. Net neutrality advocates have argued that there are other ways to expand access and lower costs, such as subsidising data plans or through advertising.

But this line of argument, too, has its critics. Some believe implicitly that net neutrality is an elitist concern, echoing Zuckerberg’s view that “It’s not an equal internet if the majority of people can’t participate.” Others contend that net neutrality requires unnecessary government intervention, a forcible levelling of the playing field. Why should the government prevent Facebook, Reliance and certain websites from entering into exclusive arrangements, particularly if it helps to expand access and deflect costs from consumers? The arguments against net neutrality, rather bizarrely, offer one area in which populists and free-market enthusiasts might find common cause.

Both sides of this debate bring certain compelling arguments to the table. In the United States, the government eventually came out decisively in favour of net neutrality. This made sense in an economy where the vast majority can afford access to the internet, and where monopolistic data providers were effectively price gouging. Consumer choice advocates and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were overwhelmingly pleased.

India’s circumstances are, however, radically different. Broadband infrastructure is weak. Spectrum is expensive. Power is still in short supply. Digital access is now linked to the basics: Subsidies and rations, identification, financial inclusion and political participation. Expanding access today is therefore a top priority, which is why most of the big announcements during Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley were in this domain — not just Facebook, but also public commitments made by Microsoft and Google to connect villages and railway stations.

The prime minister has made it clear that access is his top priority, but net neutrality advocates need not completely despair. The relentless drive to expand digital access in India may be necessary in the short term, but may make less sense once the Indian internet market becomes more saturated. That is another way of saying that the access vs neutrality dilemma could resolve itself organically. As incomes rise, consumers may gradually opt for data plans that give them greater access, foregoing more restrictive but free data services. Facebook’s Free Basics would, in that event, simply be a stepping stone that contributes in time to its own irrelevance.

Op-eds and Articles

An App Won’t Solve India’s Bloated Bureaucracy Problem

The following article appeared on Foreign Policy on September 26, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here

Technology offers considerable hope in overcoming many of India’s challenges, given the rapid rate of change. At about 19 percent, India has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates among major economies. That said, some 30 million users, or roughly 2.5 percent of India’s population, are coming online annually, and that figure is set to accelerate. Facebook wants to tap into that market, in part with its Free Basics app, which allows users access to pared-down Internet services at no cost. But for India’s poor, the difficulties in getting online — including language barriers, illiteracy, and poor infrastructure — are more complicated than just affording the price of a phone or computer.

The implications of expanded Internet access for media dissemination, education, and entertainment are self-evident. It’s not just about enabling Indians to watch more cat videos. Digital access is critical to integrating India’s citizens — particularly the poor — into the economy. For example, efforts underway toward financial inclusion, biometric identification, and digital access have the potential to overhaul India’s massive and wasteful subsidy regime. Better identification, more bank accounts, and expanded online access can cut out middlemen and corruption and can ensure that the poor receive what they are owed by the state. There has been significant progress: So far, some 900 million people, or roughly 72 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people, have signed up for a national biometric identification scheme begun under Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh. And Jan-Dhan Yojana, Modi’s signature effort to enable access to banking, credit lines, and insurance, has resulted in the creation of more than 180 million bank accounts (though critics have noted that many are left unused). While basic mobile services are widespread and cheap in India, enabling access to cost-effective broadband will be necessary to tap the full potential of these efforts. [Read the full article.]

Op-eds and Articles

An App Won’t Solve India’s Bloated Bureaucracy Problem


The following article appeared on Foreign Policy on September 26, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here

Technology offers considerable hope in overcoming many of India’s challenges, given the rapid rate of change. At about 19 percent, India has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates among major economies. That said, some 30 million users, or roughly 2.5 percent of India’s population, are coming online annually, and that figure is set to accelerate. Facebook wants to tap into that market, in part with its Free Basics app, which allows users access to pared-down Internet services at no cost. But for India’s poor, the difficulties in getting online — including language barriers, illiteracy, and poor infrastructure — are more complicated than just affording the price of a phone or computer.

The implications of expanded Internet access for media dissemination, education, and entertainment are self-evident. It’s not just about enabling Indians to watch more cat videos. Digital access is critical to integrating India’s citizens — particularly the poor — into the economy. For example, efforts underway toward financial inclusion, biometric identification, and digital access have the potential to overhaul India’s massive and wasteful subsidy regime. Better identification, more bank accounts, and expanded online access can cut out middlemen and corruption and can ensure that the poor receive what they are owed by the state. There has been significant progress: So far, some 900 million people, or roughly 72 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people, have signed up for a national biometric identification scheme begun under Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh. And Jan-Dhan Yojana, Modi’s signature effort to enable access to banking, credit lines, and insurance, has resulted in the creation of more than 180 million bank accounts (though critics have noted that many are left unused). While basic mobile services are widespread and cheap in India, enabling access to cost-effective broadband will be necessary to tap the full potential of these efforts. [Read the full article.]

Op-eds and Articles

Book Review: India's Rise as an Asian Power


My review of India's Rise as an Asian Power appeared in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2015). An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

The underlying presumption of many critiques of contemporary India is that Indian policymakers are somehow unaware of the challenges facing their own country. But India’s leaders, whether politicians, bureaucrats or public intellectuals, are more aware than most that India is, in Gordon’s words, “a vast polity with enormous problems to overcome” (pp. 168–69). Gordon’s study presents a useful, and perhaps necessary, reality check to those willing to overlook or wish away many of India’s complications and contradictions. Yet it may have been a more useful exercise for him to have focused on the underlying structural causes of policy inertia and poor implementation, many of which — as Modi is finding out — may indeed prove difficult for India’s leadership to overcome. [Full text.]

Op-eds and Articles

Book Review: India's Rise as an Asian Power

My review of India's Rise as an Asian Power appeared in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2015). An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

The underlying presumption of many critiques of contemporary India is that Indian policymakers are somehow unaware of the challenges facing their own country. But India’s leaders, whether politicians, bureaucrats or public intellectuals, are more aware than most that India is, in Gordon’s words, “a vast polity with enormous problems to overcome” (pp. 168–69). Gordon’s study presents a useful, and perhaps necessary, reality check to those willing to overlook or wish away many of India’s complications and contradictions. Yet it may have been a more useful exercise for him to have focused on the underlying structural causes of policy inertia and poor implementation, many of which — as Modi is finding out — may indeed prove difficult for India’s leadership to overcome. [Full text.]

Op-eds and Articles

Missed Connections


The following article originally appeared on the website of the Berlin Policy Journal on July 1, 2015. An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

Narendra Modi’s tenure as India’s prime minister has been marked by incredibly active diplomatic efforts. In his first twelve months in office he visited 18 countries – including the United States, China, Brazil, Japan, and Australia – and hosted the presidents of the United States, China, and Russia.

But amid this flurry of foreign policy activity, Brussels was conspicuous in its absence. On Modi’s first trip to Europe this April, he visited Berlin and Hanover, Paris and Toulouse – indications of where India’s strategic and commercial priorities lie in Europe. Although the prospect of a one-day stopover in Brussels was floated, it did not come to pass. Three years have now elapsed since the European Union and India – the world’s two largest democratic polities – held a summit meeting.

The reasons for the latest missed connection vary depending on whom one asks. [Read more.]

Op-eds and Articles

Missed Connections

The following article originally appeared on the website of the Berlin Policy Journal on July 1, 2015. An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

Narendra Modi’s tenure as India’s prime minister has been marked by incredibly active diplomatic efforts. In his first twelve months in office he visited 18 countries – including the United States, China, Brazil, Japan, and Australia – and hosted the presidents of the United States, China, and Russia.

But amid this flurry of foreign policy activity, Brussels was conspicuous in its absence. On Modi’s first trip to Europe this April, he visited Berlin and Hanover, Paris and Toulouse – indications of where India’s strategic and commercial priorities lie in Europe. Although the prospect of a one-day stopover in Brussels was floated, it did not come to pass. Three years have now elapsed since the European Union and India – the world’s two largest democratic polities – held a summit meeting.

The reasons for the latest missed connection vary depending on whom one asks. [Read more.]

Op-eds and Articles

Grexit and the Melian Dialogue

The following article originally appeared in E!Sharp on June 1, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.

The Melian Dialogue – the dramatization of a meeting between delegates from the city-state Athens and the island of Melos in 415 BCE – is one of the most famous passages of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. It has long been a favourite of students of politics and rhetoric and, more recently, of game theorists. Greece’s finance minister, the economist Yanis Varoufakis, is well-versed in the text, and even offered his own translation in a 1997 game theoretical discussion. It is all the more reason that the Melian Dialogue – with its ruminations on power, morality, and rational choice – should be required reading for European policymakers seeking a resolution to the Greek debt crisis, particularly given the failure of the recent round of dialogue between Greece and its creditors. Below is an abridged version, liberally updated for contemporary relevance:

The Greeks, who were increasingly friendly with Russia, would not submit to Brussels like the other Europeans, and had assumed an attitude of open hostility. Upon receiving the Europeans, led by three known as the Troika, the Greek representatives said: ‘These talks, in and of themselves, are unobjectionable. But your calls for austerity and structural reforms are too far advanced, as if you have already made up your minds. All we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is conflict or servitude.’

‘There is certainly no need to repeat how we got into this mess, nor harp upon your past follies,’ replied the Europeans. ‘But let us focus on what is now feasible. You know as well as we do that right and wrong are only in question between equals in power. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ [Read more]

Op-eds and Articles

Grexit and the Melian Dialogue

The following article originally appeared in E!Sharp on June 1, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.

The Melian Dialogue – the dramatization of a meeting between delegates from the city-state Athens and the island of Melos in 415 BCE – is one of the most famous passages of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. It has long been a favourite of students of politics and rhetoric and, more recently, of game theorists. Greece’s finance minister, the economist Yanis Varoufakis, is well-versed in the text, and even offered his own translation in a 1997 game theoretical discussion. It is all the more reason that the Melian Dialogue – with its ruminations on power, morality, and rational choice – should be required reading for European policymakers seeking a resolution to the Greek debt crisis, particularly given the failure of the recent round of dialogue between Greece and its creditors. Below is an abridged version, liberally updated for contemporary relevance:

The Greeks, who were increasingly friendly with Russia, would not submit to Brussels like the other Europeans, and had assumed an attitude of open hostility. Upon receiving the Europeans, led by three known as the Troika, the Greek representatives said: ‘These talks, in and of themselves, are unobjectionable. But your calls for austerity and structural reforms are too far advanced, as if you have already made up your minds. All we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is conflict or servitude.’

‘There is certainly no need to repeat how we got into this mess, nor harp upon your past follies,’ replied the Europeans. ‘But let us focus on what is now feasible. You know as well as we do that right and wrong are only in question between equals in power. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ [Read more]

Op-eds and Articles

Myanmar Is Pivoting Away from China

The following article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on June 15, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here

Beijing’s effort at currying favour with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is borne partly of desperation, and indicates how swiftly Beijing’s stock in Myanmar is falling. China was Myanmar’s main backer and largest investor during its years of international seclusion, supporting strategic infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, ports, and dams. Between 1988 and 2013, China accounted for a whopping 42 percent of the $33.67 billion in foreign investment that flowed into Myanmar. But the nature of these projects — including concerns about forcibly-relocated populations, land confiscation, environmental hazards, and the inflow of cheap goods and labor — made China unpopular with the Burmese public (the extent of such sentiments is impossible to determine, in the absence of reliable public-opinion surveys.)

Myanmar’s military was even more reliant on China: Almost 60 percent of the country’s arms imports during that same period came from the Middle Kingdom. And until recently, the military remained favorably disposed to their northern neighbor. Yet Beijing appears to have ruined the one good relationship it had going in the country. The suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in 2011 — a project initially agreed between Myanmar’s military junta and the state-owned China Power Investment Corp. in 2005 — hurt ties. But it was the killing of five Chinese citizens by Myanmar’s air force in March, while conducting raids on rebels along the border, and China’s response, that has significantly widened the rift with the military. Although Naypyidaw offered a grovelling apology, Beijing’s provocative decision to stage live-fire military exercises along the border in early June further tarnished relations with its one real constituency in Myanmar. [Read more.]

Op-eds and Articles

Myanmar Is Pivoting Away from China


The following article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on June 15, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here

Beijing’s effort at currying favour with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is borne partly of desperation, and indicates how swiftly Beijing’s stock in Myanmar is falling. China was Myanmar’s main backer and largest investor during its years of international seclusion, supporting strategic infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, ports, and dams. Between 1988 and 2013, China accounted for a whopping 42 percent of the $33.67 billion in foreign investment that flowed into Myanmar. But the nature of these projects — including concerns about forcibly-relocated populations, land confiscation, environmental hazards, and the inflow of cheap goods and labor — made China unpopular with the Burmese public (the extent of such sentiments is impossible to determine, in the absence of reliable public-opinion surveys.)

Myanmar’s military was even more reliant on China: Almost 60 percent of the country’s arms imports during that same period came from the Middle Kingdom. And until recently, the military remained favorably disposed to their northern neighbor. Yet Beijing appears to have ruined the one good relationship it had going in the country. The suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in 2011 — a project initially agreed between Myanmar’s military junta and the state-owned China Power Investment Corp. in 2005 — hurt ties. But it was the killing of five Chinese citizens by Myanmar’s air force in March, while conducting raids on rebels along the border, and China’s response, that has significantly widened the rift with the military. Although Naypyidaw offered a grovelling apology, Beijing’s provocative decision to stage live-fire military exercises along the border in early June further tarnished relations with its one real constituency in Myanmar. [Read more.]