Malabar Exercise: India's deferential approach towards China

Malabar exercise is an annual trilateral navy exercise between India-US-Japan in the Bay of Bengal. Its significance has grown in the context of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. India has repeatedly rejected Australia’s request to be part of the exercise. Some perceive this as a deferential approach towards China as India is concerned that China might get threatened if Australia is included. Including Australia will add a defence angle to the Quad.

At the same time, others argue that disproportionate focus is being given to this one metric. While Tanvi Madan argues that India’s decision on Huawei is a more important metric, Dhruva Jaishankar cites India’s other engagements in the IOR region to suggest that India is not being deferential.

While it is true that India has undertaken several other initiatives in IOR to balance Chinese threat, the Malabar exercise has special significance.

India’s all other initiatives are only diplomatic efforts and operational (like collection information) at best. None of these initiatives does anything concrete militarily and hence does not pose any concrete deterrence. Besides, India has a history of non-confrontational approach towards China in the IOR. For instance, India refused US’s offer for joint patrols in the South China Sea in 2016.

India’s rejection of Australia’s request should be seen in this context. Counting the “number of initiatives” is not an appropriate metric because all of them do not pose the same threat to Chinese and hence do not send the same message. It is confusing quantity for quality.

It is true that India has done air exercises with Australia but Malabar exercise is different because of the involvement of 4 Quad nations giving it a more credible deterrence signalling capability.

In other words, if we look at the initiatives that pose a concrete threat to Chinese, there’s hardly any, and India has been backing out of all such opportunities.

One might argue that the decision to reject Australia’s membership in Malabar should be seen in the light of Post-Wuhan spirit. But, one must not forget that the Chinese temporary lull is tactical. It is just pausing its aggression as it is tied with trade war and does not want to aggravate it. Once the US-China tensions subside, China can be back.

In long term, India cannot compete with China economically. In that scenario, in the Indian Ocean, increasing the maritime threat in IOR is often advocated as a strategy to contain Chinese threat at India’s land border. With this deferential approach, there’s no hope that India would pursue such an approach.

While China has taken every opportunity to push India to the wall (Doklam, NSG, Azhar Masood, CPEC), India hesitates to take even small steps. China openly violates India’s sovereignty in PoK, but India is afraid to even include another country in naval exercises.

US and others gave a benefit of doubt to China hoping that prosperous China would become more democratic and less aggressive. Clearly, it has not happened, in fact, the reverse happened. It would only be detrimental to India’s interest to give any such benefit of doubt to China. India should pursue all opportunities to contain China!

Is trump upending the current liberal world order or inadvertently correcting it?

Laying down rules for co-existence and means to enforce them has been a perennial problem in human history. The concept of social contract and the state address this issue at a territorial level. The international equivalent of this is what's called the world order. World order simply is the "concept held by a region or civilisation about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world" (Henry Kissinger).

The ingredients of the current world order evolved post-WW-II, mainly as an attempt to prevent the mistakes of the past. This broadly includes sovereign equality, non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states, and promoting values of liberty, democracy, fostering free trade, protecting human rights etc. This is sought to be achieved through a range of institutions and agreements such as UN, IMF, NATO, World Bank etc. The US played a major role in instituting this world order through its support to war-affected countries (Marshal Plan), extending security cover to its allies and so on. Hence, the current world order is often termed as "US-led liberal international order".

Owing to the recent events in international relations, there is a debate on the status of the current liberal international order. While some scholars like Graham Allison argue that there was never such liberal order, to begin with, a vast majority argue that there is a threat to the liberal world order. 

Some attribute the cause of threat to the rising assertion of China, while some attribute it to the US's actions under President Trump. While Chinese aggression does certainly pose a challenge, in this post, I focus on Trump's actions. In short, I am going to argue that Trump's actions are not upending the liberal international order to the extent claimed, instead they are inadvertently correcting the aberrations in the current order that were posing threat to the ideal of liberal international order.

To examine this, let's consider the concept of world order, the way US's actions are posing threat to this, and suggestions by scholars to correct this. In the end, I point out that Trump's actions are exactly same as the suggestions by the scholars to correct issues of the current world order, albeit it's not a result of grand strategy but a mere coincidence or a side effect of his America First policies.

New threats to India's social and economic order

A great social churning is going on in India, some of it publicly and some of it underground. Apart from the much talked about the factor of religion, there are other undercurrents in the social order.

1. Meritocratic hubris due to the increasing middle class: Standard economic and political theories suggest that as the size of the middle class grows in a country, it leads to increase in tax collection, more focus on public goods, and political maturity that focuses less on identity politics.

There's a downside to it too. The increasing size of the middle class leads to meritocratic hubris.  Michael Sandel describes meritocratic hubris as the belief of "I came to this better position in life because of my hard work alone. It is me and only me that made it possible." The implication being, those who are poor are in that state because they are not hard working.

This line of reasoning ignores the huge role of socio-economic constraints in people's lives. It emphasises merit over other social factors. Hence, there will be increasing pressure to reduce spending on social welfare programmes, as such programmes are seen as a waste of money spent on lazy people who are just living off the government. Any social welfare programme is now seen with contempt. The middle class thus delegitimizes the social welfare architecture. It attacks the fundamental morality of redistribution.

Added to this, the Indian middle class has found its own solutions for education, health and security in the private sector. They thus don't make any efforts to improve the public services in these sectors, which are the only available option for the poor.

If this delegitimization of morality of social welfare programmes and neglect of the public sector in critical areas like education, health etc. is seen along with the jobless growth and rising inequality, it's hard to say that it's not dangerous for India.

2. The proliferation of "tech-education" leading to insensitivity on social issues: India witnessed an IT revolution in the 1990s and 2000s. It resulted in a proliferation of engineering colleges and an increased emphasis on technical education.

We now have a large section of youth, graduates in technology, with no exposure to social sciences. Their worldview is simplistic and technocratic with no sensitivity and appreciation of social issues, and social factors that play a role in one's life. Any discussion on social injustices is met with scorn.  It is amplified by the fact that this tech zombies are the early adopters and often the influencers in social media, shaping the discourse.

A large section of population insensitive to the social context leads to a situation where even the deep-rooted social problems are not even recognized, much less addressed. When left unaddressed, the discontentment can explode in unpredictable ways.

The rising desire for authoritarianism as reported by several surveys and the emerging anti-reservation undercurrent are a manifestation of the simplistic and technocratic view of the tech zombies.

3.  The assertion of the upper castes against the so-called lower castes: The agrarian distress weakened the economic situation of the traditional upper caste feudal landlords giving them a sense of loss of power and identity. This, along with the economic progress of the so-called lower castes, might lead to a form of violent assertion of their traditional power, over the rest. 

4. Politics no more an avenue to assert equality: The typical urban elite has contempt for caste politics. They see it as a disease to be cured.

Such a view discounts the underlying reasons for the emergence of such politics. In a hierarchical society with deep social inequalities, where an individual is not seen as a social equal, the oppressed perceive politics as an arena to assert their equality. A person of their caste in a position of power gives them a sense of pride and confidence, to push back against the daily inequalities they face in the society. It is a strive for dignity.

However, two things happened in the past few decades.

One, caste politics have turned into caste-ist politics. Leaders used the issue of caste only for transactional purposes, the purpose of elections, leading to loss of their legitimacy.

Two, the emergence of the middle class, the tech zombies, and a narrative of "growth as the only purpose of politics", is deemphasizing the role of identity and more broadly the sociological role of politics. Politics is drifting away from being an avenue to seek refuge from the humiliation in social life. Politics is assuming a mere technocratic role.

When the sociological role of politics is diminished, with the social inequalities and daily humiliation intact, it removes an important avenue to vent out the steam of anger. The simmering anger can burst out in any form.

Ideas for solutions to these requires another post but some pointers below:

1. Social science-liberal arts education to make people more sensitive to the Indian social context so as to preserve the morality of redistribution and affirmative action.

2. Improving the policing and service delivery - the two important avenues where citizens face the most humiliation. This reduces the burden on politics to assume a sociological role.

3. Improving the quality of education and health. It must be emphasized that apart from improving the quality of education in schools and universities, university education should be made affordable. I explained it in a previous post here on the need to expand the definition of "basic education" from school education to university education.

Why does Indian foreign policy not reflect vengeance against its invaders and colonizers?

Francis Fukuyama in his new book “Identity” talks about the emergence of identity as the locus of many movements worldwide. As per Fukuyama, the issue of identity also explains the behaviour of states like China and RussiaThe NYT review summarizes it as
"Fukuyama suggests that we are living in an era in which the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the locomotive of human affairs. The rulers of Russia, Hungary and China are driven by past national humiliations. Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has been driven by the fatal disrespect of the police. And a large swath of the American right, which claims to loathe identity politics, is driven by its own perception of being dissed." (emphasis mine)
This brings us to the question — Why does Indian foreign not reflect the desire to seek vengeance against its invaders and colonizers? (Or Does it?) The vengeance here necessarily needn’t be against particular countries. It’s more about a desire, in general, to assert and dominate the world, and to feel confident so as to heal the troublesome past wounds.
Consider this:
India was also once one of the prosperous nations. It was also attacked and destructed. colonized and humiliated.
The revival of the feeling of “we were a great once upon a time” took a turn of reviving ancient achievements, often exaggerated and false ones, but it did not turn into a desire to again become prosperous and seek vengeance.
The experience of colonization and thereby humiliation led to scepticism towards anything western in the early days of independence but it did not turn into vengeance against other states.
Memories of violent invasions took a communal turn but it’s not manifested in foreign policy in form of vengeance against those other states.
Why? What explains this? Some hypotheses on the top of my mind
  1. Is it due to the different nature of humiliation?
  2. Is it because the former humiliator, Britain is no more great, unlike the case of Russia whose rival is still in a position of power? Because, after all, what’s the use of vengeance against someone not great?
  3. Because of our inability to do so considering our economic state?
  4. Because we are too caught up with other problems that we did not find bandwidth for this?
  5. Because of leaders of the independence movement and early independence who did not promote hatred?
  6. Maybe we reacted but it took a different shape — nostalgia turning into religious rejuvenation etc?
  7. The generations that felt the humiliation has passed and new generations don’t remember?
  8. Is it because different regions of India had different experiences hence can’t articulate a unified version?
  9. Is the practice vengeance because of the autocratic nature in Russia and China? Or autocracy is the result of the need to become great?
  10. Maybe, is it because of the historical roots of India that makes it not look at the world in a hierarchical manner? As former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran says, India is comfortable with a cosmopolitan world and have no issues coexisting alongside multiple powers?

Misinterpretation of farmer suicide data

Shamika Ravi has published an article on farm suicides using NCRB data. She makes four important claims.
1. The number of farmer suicides has actually been falling in recent years; fewer such deaths were recorded in 2016 than at any time in the previous 16 years. Nearly twice as many Indian housewives commit suicide as farmers do. 
2. Suicide mortality rates are higher in the relatively wealthy states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh than in poorer Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 
3. Nearly twice as many Indian housewives commit suicide as farmers do. 
4. India’s farmers are doing far better than many realize. One way to gauge the well-being of rural households is to look at how much they’re buying: they now account for 45% of the fast-moving consumer goods sector in India. This is remarkable given the vast disparity in disposable incomes between urban and rural households, and it implies that improvements in rural infrastructure, connectivity and digitization are translating into higher demand. Over the last three years, rural sales grew significantly faster than urban sales in both volume and value; consumption growth currently stands at a robust 9.7%.
It has been published by Indian Express, Business Standard, The Print, Bloomberg, and Mint. This has been commended by many others using terms like "hard data", "evidence-based", "logic based" and so on.

In reality, this article is exactly opposite to what it is claimed to be. It does a data abuse of serious proportions and logically incoherent for the following reasons.

One of the first sanity checks done in any data analysis before reaching such far-reaching conclusions, of the kind that the article does, is to first understand the data. The article shows no hints of this, even remotely.

NCRB data methodology changed post-2014. Hence, the fall of suicides witnessed in 2016 is not comparable with the data till 2014. This has been pointed out numerous times earlier by many people and in particular P Sainath (herehere, and here). In brief, the issues are 

  1. Lack of training of the who collect the data, who are unaware of the change in the categories in NCRB data.
  2. States started reporting zero suicides from around 2011. For instance, as P Sainath points out, Chattisgarh and West Bengal started reporting zero suicides from 2011. But the three year average of the number of suicides for these states before 2011 was 1,567 and 951. This is not to deny that farmer suicides can decrease. But, it is only absurd to think that a yearly average of 1500 and 1000 came down suddenly to 0 just within a single year. So, in these states with 0 suicides, the number of farmer suicides is less than that of other categories like young, housewives etc. Surely, the farmers must be living in a paradise in comparison to other professions!
  3. Police put "tenant farmer" suicides in "agriculture labourers" field because many tenant farmers do not have pattas. In 2014, farmer suicides fall by 50% accompanied by an increase in agriculture labour suicides.
  4. Increase in "Others" category of suicides. For five states accounting for 70% of suicides, "others" column went up by several hundred percent, along with the decrease in the farmer suicides. It's because states started categorizing farmer suicides in Others.
  5. Women farmers are put under "housewives" category because of patriarchal reasons and also that they don't have their names on pattas. It explains the high number of housewive suicide as compared to "farmers".

For all these reasons, the claims of the decrease in farm suicides in 2016, poor states having zero suicides, and suicides being higher in other categories of people are absurd.

One can debate about the solutions to farmer suicides - loan waiver or input subsidies - but it is criminal to deny even the existence of the problem, that too with intellectual dishonest acts of data dressing.

It is expected of a serious researcher to do basic data sanity checks before making such far-reaching claims. Unfortunately, neither did the researcher nor the numerous publications that published the article and those who sang praises for it bothered not to. More importantly, this is not the first time that Shamika Ravi has resorted to such data dressing. In my memory, this is at least the third such instance, the previous instances being her analysis of Odd-Even policy and demonetisation, which I had pointed out earlier.

No wonder that Dr Arvind Subramaniam once expressed concern over the sycophancy of Indian economists.

Prerequisites for lateral entry into bureaucracy

If you get an eye infection or if you want a cataract surgery, you go to an ophthalmologist, if you need a neurosurgery, you go to a neurosurgeon. But what if the General Medicine doctors end up dealing with all these cases requiring specialist requirement? It would be a disaster. It's the reason generalist doctors dread giving a medical prescription for issues that require special attention. 

Turn to policymaking, it's not the case, in fact, it's even worse. Generalists, who are not even generalists in policy analysis, but primarily implementers, design policies. We all are being operated by general medicine doctors for every ailment! It is definitely not a desirable scenario. For this simple reason, there have been demands for incorporating specialists in policymaking. 

There's been a wide debate and several commentaries on the pros and cons of lateral entry into bureaucracy. I am not going to discuss all that. In this post, I would like to touch upon an aspect which seems to be missing in the debates, the nature of responsibilities of a policymaking bureaucrat in India.

The lateral entry of specialists at higher levels of bureaucracy presumes that bureaucrats at that level are only into policymaking. It's not true in the case of India. Bureaucrats at such level deal with both the implementation and policymaking aspects. For instance, a sanitation secretary would also be monitoring the implementation of the toilet construct and be accountable for those numbers, while thinking about broader policy issues at the same time.

In such cases, if an outside specialist with no experience in Indian public administration is brought into this role, it would be a disaster. Getting things done in India's system needs a good knowledge of inner dynamics of administration, for which the bureaucrats are trained for years on the ground. The traditional bureaucrats have definitely an edge here.

So, if we are to bring external specialists to higher level policymaking, separating these executive and policymaking rules should be the pre-requisite. Lateral entry would be ineffective without doing such reform.

Again, this is not a unique insight. Even 2nd Administrative Commission recommends separation of executive and policymaking responsibilities of the senior bureaucrats, on the lines of UK.

In summary, lateral entry into policymaking levels of bureaucracy is highly needed but should be preceded by an administrative reform that separates the execution and design roles of senior-level bureaucrats.

Unfair criticism of RCTs

Commenting on the cynicism I noticed in policy circles about other's ideas, I wrote: "An established policy is judged by where it works, while a new policy is judged by where it does not work". I meant to say that often a new policy is dismissed for not addressing "all problems" but the status quo problems are continued and accepted despite addressing a lesser number of problems than the proposed one.

One of my friends read this and commented that it's not just the case with policies but it applies in general to organizations and humans too. Historically under-represented sections of people need to work "extra hard" to receive the same level of praise or recognition the dominant people in status quo get.

Unfortunately, it is true in the case of the criticisms on RCTs. Consider the following criticisms of RCTs

1. Show one RCT that resulted in a policy change. 
2. Only certain kinds of questions can be answered with RCTs.
3. RCTs displaced other studies

Each of these criticisms has the status-quo bias. To make it evident, ask the same questions on any other form of study.

1. "Show one qualitative study about the resource constraints in bureaucracy that resulted in direct policy change". Despite the availability of numerous such studies, why does this problem remain unaddressed? Does this mean that qualitative studies are useless?

2. Is there any one particular method of study that is universally applicable to all types of problems? Why is this question asked only in case of RCTs? Why don't people ask the same about other forms of research? 

3. The criticism of RCT displacing other studies sees research as a zero-sum game. Esther Duflo has, in fact, demonstrated that RCTs did not displace other studies. Instead, they only added to the existing number of studies.

The underlying reason for these criticisms is the lack of appreciation of the nature of research, misrepresentation of RCT researchers, and non-questioning of the existing state of policymaking. 

1. The nature of research in social science is that the attributable change doesn't often happen due to a single study. A series of studies shape an alternative narrative that results in change given the right conditions. Somehow, people miss this while criticizing RCTs.

2. No serious RCT researcher ever says that RCTs are the only necessary and sufficient evidence, and input for policymaking. For instance, consider this policy paper by Prof. Karthik Muralidharan where he clearly says "Policy formulation needs to consider technical, administrative, ethical, as well as political factors and even the best technical studies can only provide inputs into one dimension of policymaking." But people criticize as if RCT researchers profess that only RCT evidence is the necessary and sufficient one!

3. In their criticism of the RCTs, especially the bureaucrats don't question the existing state of policymaking. They need to question if the so-called irrelevance of RCTs is due to lack of relevance or inability to incorporate it in policymaking. I suspect that it's the latter because - forget about RCTs - policymakers often don't even use the other forms of existing research. Worse, a recent survey suggests that the top bureaucrats of the country can't do a simple and basic data analysis. Interpreting and incorporating evidence is a long shot in such case.

Further, on the criticism that "foreign researchers" don't research on relevant problems, the critical constraint, in fact, is the bureaucratic maze around getting necessary data. A prominent India-based researcher had once commented that the only way to do good macroeconomic research in India is to be in good books of RBI because it provides access to research data. This is, in fact, true of the nature of research in social sciences. Change doesn't often happen due to a single study. A series of studies shape an alternative narrative that results in change given the right conditions. Somehow, people miss this while criticizing RCTs.

In such situations, we would be better off throwing open the access to research. I am sure the gates will be flooded because research is where data is.

Overall, the criticism of RCTs being irrelevant, displacing other studies, and not resulting in direct policy change are unfair because every other form of research fails if subjected to these criteria. If other forms of research are not subjected to these criteria, why should only RCTs be?

The most important concern is the lack of access to quality data for the researchers. We would be better off if we focus on addressing this problem instead of debating on the merits of different methods on research.

Reducing corruption across sectors is the only way to fund education reform

Education reform needs a significant amount of money. Governments' lack of seriousness in reforming education is definitely an issue that prevents them from going the extra step to allocate necessary funds. But, there is another important issue as well - we simply don't have enough funds for education, even if a committed government comes to power and desires to allocate funds.

In some states, the money required to fill up vacant posts itself would amount to significant part of the current budgets. If one were to calculate the total money required for all the reform and presume that it should come only from the annual budget, it would hardly leave anything to spend on other sectors.

Politicians and bureaucrats commonly cite this as the reason for the State's inability to increase its expenditure on education. Such arguments seem reasonable but one should note that such arguments consider the status quo of inefficiencies and corruption as default, which needn't be the case.

A significant amount of money can be saved by reducing inefficiencies and corruption in expenditure across all departments, not just education, and also collect additional money by reducing inefficiencies and corruption in tax collection. It requires administrative reforms of massive scale accompanied by political reforms that correct the political economy incentives.

For instance, it requires reducing corruption and delays in infrastructure construction, which is interlinked to political funding because many contractors are funders of political parties. It means that political parties should reduce their dependence on such people for funding. It further requires a transparent electoral funding and a break to the practice of distributing money and liquor in elections, which puts a huge burden on the parties. Reducing inefficiencies is thus interlinked to political reforms.

Given that the scope to raise money through additional taxes is limited, saving money by reducing inefficiencies and corruption across government departments is the only way to make enough money available for education and related sectors.

The education reform is thus invariably linked to broader governance and political reforms. It would be great if education policy advocates realise this aspect and thus contribute their voice to the broader reforms as well, along with the education.


People have taken up #March4Education demanding more financial support to higher education institutions, of which more universities is also an implicit demand.
The popular counter-argument is that only the school education should be fully funded, while the undergraduate and postgraduate education shouldn’t be funded and be left to market forces.
Merely reiterating that public funding should be restricted only till school education, and fund higher education in this day and age is a classic example of lazy thinking, intellectual hollowness and the lack of thinking beyond 101 textbook ideas. It perfectly fits what Hirschman once said that he hated:
“I always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it’s necessary to have an “empirical lantern” or a “visit with the patient” before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case” Albert O. Hirschman
I had earlier blogged saying that it’s time to retire the idea of restricting the definition of basic education to only school education, and expand it to higher education too.
In the context of the #March4Education and its demands, I summarize my arguments in support of the protest and response to the criticisms to the protest.

Response to the argument that extent of funding should be based on externalities

Flimsy defense of National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS)

Livemint has an op-ed on National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS), otherwise known as Aayushmaan Bharat. The article argues that NHPS is a good idea and suggests ways to ensure smooth implementation. It is a flimsy defense of NHPS.

The article concludes that NHPS is a good idea based on the following arguments.

1. "Out-of-pocket payments for healthcare services are very high in our country (about 70%, according to the National Sample Survey Office, 2014), which causes impoverishment to nearly 7% of our population."

2. Evidence from Karnataka's Vajpayee Aarogyashree programme lowered mortality for covered diseases and erased rich-poor disparities in concerned mortality rates. It also lowered out of pocket expenditure.

3. "Existing evidence shows that providing insurance to the poor not only saves lives but is also “cost-effective.

The above three points are either inappropriate or incomplete arguments in defence of NHPS, far from terming it as a step in the right direction.

1. There is no debate on the fact that the out-of-pocket expenditure on health care is huge in India. But, National Health Accounts data points out that 42% of the total out-of-pocket spending (OOP) is used towards buying medicines.

Given this scenario, a simple and significant step to reduce OOP would be to make all medicines free. Expenditure on NHPS with no coverage for medicines, while still requiring people to buy medicines for other conditions too, may not be of much use.

It is, in fact, pointed out in one of the author's own paper.

"people who had health insurance coverage did not see any significant difference in their total real OOP health expenditures, relative to people without any health insurance"

2. While the authors agree that not every insurance programme has been successful, the cited programme VAS is not a representative example. A host of other programmes have failed but one can give a benefit of the doubt regarding the implementation quality. It thus brings us to the next aspect - the range of conditions and cost-effectiveness.

3. Surprisingly, the article claims the existence of evidence which shows that insurance programmes are cost-effective. The evidence on the same is to the contrary. Insurance programmes are anything but cost-effective. Starting from the US where they spend 18% of GDP but still don't get timely and quality care to the Indian data, insurance programmes are known for NOT being cost-effective, as Gulzar Natarajan points out. 

4. The argument for primary and secondary healthcare as a prerequisite for good public health system is well taken but the budget allocation to the same is not proportional to its importance. The right question to ask is - assuming that there is an increased spending on health care, where should the increased funding go? Of course, if it ends up being the case that the overall expenditure on health care is NOT increased but money is rearranged towards NHPS, its a lost battle.

Overall, with no increased funding for primary and secondary care, with no coverage for medicines (42% of OOP), and with our existing weak state capacity, the defence for NHPS is flimsy.

The way out is to retain private insurance coverage for terminal illnesses with expensive treatments like cancer, but increase the spending significantly and use a bulk of it towards primary and secondary health care.