‘There is a kind of deep state in India’

“Some of the change since the period of liberalisation was due to pressure from the emerging middle class for a more open relationship with the world economy.” Picture shows jewellery advertisements in Bengaluru. Photo: G. Sampath Kumar  

Steve Coll, one of the foremost foreign correspondents and investigative reporters from the U.S., has won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the Dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA , Afghanistan , and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004), The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008) and Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2012). Before all that he wrote On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia (1994), a mixture of top-notch reporting and analysis based on his time as the Washington Post Bureau Chief for South Asia based in New Delhi. On a recent visit to India, Mr. Coll revisited the book and talked about India’s past, present and future.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q) You reported from India as the Washington Post Bureau Chief in the early 1990s—the time when Nehruvian state was staggering with bankruptcy. From that particular time to now, how much change has taken place?

It’s been dramatic and you are right, I was there at the beginning and some of it was the end of the cold war, the collapse of the soviet union, some of it was internal pressure from emerging middle class for more normal and open relationship with the world economy, and some of it was business class pushing for liberalisation and then you had leadership by Manmohan Singh who at that time was finance minister and started to articulate the way to describe reform without being trapped in the rhetoric of the past. It started from there and changes have been profound in a lot of ways, mostly involving economic world and the change in peoples incomes and mobility and then also in the infrastructure, not as much as the physical infrastructure as the technological infrastructure. And then the other thing on the dark side of development is traffic and the air is much worse.

I was at an event on this trip and someone pulled out that book [On the Grand Trunk Road] from 1994 and read a paragraph at the end of the book that was sort of about this question of reform and the future. It was a description of what I thought the middle class of India was looking for by way of leaving the Nehruvian state behind. And afterwards we were all reflecting on how that statement of what needs to change is still unfulfilled in important ways even though the country has changed profoundly. It’s almost half empty, half full.

Q) You write in The Grand Trunk Road that Indian middle class aspire for a forward looking political party that could lead them to economic progress, eradicate corruption and make things smooth. Two decades later, we saw Arvind Kejriwal led Aam Aadmi Party emerging from an anti-corruption movement…what kind of future does the AAP-style of politics has in India?

Well, it’s interesting because you have seen these movements, sort of middle class led, urban based, outside of reform movements spring up in number of countries. I think their record is pretty mixed. On the one hand they definitely have influence, they force the incumbent parties to shift and they can take office as Kejriwal has in Delhi. But there aren’t too many examples of those parties going all the way to national power building and entirely new organization because I think the incumbent parties can figure out how to co-opt their message and sort of take their agenda but hold on to power to some extent. One of the reasons why that’s the pattern is because the political parties and organizing require to compete in national elections even if they win state elections. It’s not something you can build overnight, it’s a real infrastructure, and it’s not always pretty, but it’s there, it’s permanent, and at voting time you can mobilize it, use it in ways that it’s hard for a new comer to replicate. In Pakistan for example, Imran Khan had a moment of sweeping the power from just the same kind of aspiration of urban middle class, especially in Lahore. I watched his party secretariat trying to come to terms with their own moment of opportunity and all of the administration associated with that moment of excitement choosing candidates all the way down to the provincial legislative district, figuring out how to choose candidates who would be aligned with their values and not be seen as the same old order switching parties. It is a kind of self limiting process. I suppose if you stick with it for long enough and you are good at it BJP is an example of you-can-come-out-of-the-wilderness with a fairly small and marginalized political organization, you can systematically build your way back, but it takes 10-20 years at least and you have to have a sustainable vision.

Q) In the 1970s, we have seen how public resentment against corruption morphed into what’s famously known as JP movement, which produced a new generation of politicians. Unfortunately, after serving various ministerial positions, most of them faced serious charges of corruption. You think the sustenance of political vision is subservient to how much money one can spend? Does that mean if business tycoons like Ambanis are on your side, you have a better chance to succeed?

Having Ambanis on your side is not necessary. It sort of depends on what aspect of the aspiration of urban middle class is you are talking about as the most important one. So let’s list a few: one is corruption, another is equal opportunity in education and economy. Corruption is a subject that politicians are not likely to solve because it is not in their interest to solve it. Otherwise, holding office would just be the same kind of a job as being a teacher; it might be stable, it might be a decent salary but it’s not that exciting, other than the opportunity to hold power and influence others. The people who have an interest in solving the corruption problem by and large are consumers and citizens and to some extent businesses, depending on which kind, small businesses, new businesses. The big ones can figure out how to work the system, they are part of the system. The way corruption usually falls in these kinds of settings, it never goes away, but if you look at the global indexes for perceived corruption around the world and you relate the clean countries to income; you could ask the question which countries are the least corrupt per income. I think you usually need some kind of pressure from outside that involves national laws and rules that force people into compliance and provide a reason why companies can resist demands for bribery and so forth. The more your economy becomes integrated in the international system, more dependent on international legitimacy it is, more corruption goes down.

On the subject of equal opportunity with efficient services there I think the citizens can have more impact faster because you see this in china as well the demands are for clean exams, fair exams standards, clean admission standards, therefore, health, therefore, clean air, clean water. And when you have an open society with a freedom of information laws like India you are empowering this agenda in a way that makes it harder to resist. There the incumbent parties are willing to change, that helps them stay in power if they deliver. I think corruption debate and struggle will probably go on longer than people would like but the politics of middle class can be advanced around government’s performance.

Q)To have that kind of ecosystem I think it’s important to increase peoples participation in governance, empower grassroots administrative systems so that development plans are made bottom up, rather than top down, and that needs a smooth devolution of power. Do you see that happening in India?

That’s a very sophisticated question. I think the particular structure of administrative districts and empowerment of district administrators and so on, that inheritance is a colonial inheritance adopted by the Nehruvian state. It is clearly not an efficient design either from the perspective of corruption or the delivery of services. That aspiration to work around that system through direct delivery of services accountability from the government to citizens through mobile payments, through verification, through other kinds of technological solutions that make it harder for the Nehruvian break off to incur without being nearly breaking on some electronic board. In principle that seems central because there is no constitutional design that’s easy to implement, that is going to get you very fast down that road, whereas transparency and direct contact between consumers and government around service delivery and that has the potential to make it necessary for government to respond to things that they otherwise would not. And India is in a position because it has advanced information technology and very powerful mobile phone network in a relatively dense population, coherent geography compared to certain places. All of these experiments around direct governance, they have potential. Everyone learns how to game systems and so forth. There is no perfect system. Putting citizens in a position to government directly through kind of a contract that connects them through technology to services they require. It is not just subsidies, like distribution of rations, but also things like air pollution….. You have in all over the world lots of models springing up that make it very difficult for governments to ignore. Or annoyances like holes in the roads that should have been fixed momentarily and haven’t been. So then if you put the citizens in a position to kind of have transparent oversight over at least some of the functions of government. Then the structure of the government, constitutional design matters a lot because whoever is in the government will be forced to respond to those demands otherwise they are going to have trouble at election time.

Q)You are suggesting a technology based solution. India is already debating net neutrality because internet freedom will be important for upward mobility as service delivery here is fast becoming IT-driven, which demands easing of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and which still faces a lot of political opposition. The fear is if we rely on technology that is corporate controlled, there is no guarantee poor people will get access to it…how do you look at that dynamic?

It’s always been the case in India’s independence movement, there has been this between the very deep rooted values of freedom and openness and democratic competition and very powerful static forces, incumbent political parties, other kinds of embedded groups. That’s the distinctive feature of Indian history because of the imperial inheritance but it is also India’s bottom up, sort of checks and balances and its aspirational grassroots attitudes that struggle with the state and the ability to do that without being mowed down by machine guns. That’s part of the history too.

France is another example. They built this system out of the chaos of the 18th century and the inheritance of the feudal system, quasi feudal system. Unlike in Britain and America, they still have that state; it’s still there… Those kinds of structures that come down from centuries they don’t go away that easily. But there has also been an evolution and a kind of a struggle with that state, to try to find an equilibrium that’s good for France, that’s French in character, that’s modern and connected with international economy. You can’t hide from international norms, over time you are going to have to adapt, you are going to have to adapt as far as American advice would wish you to go, and you are going to have to keep responding to these norms and rules.

Here is the thing I would say about the last 25 years. The balance of power in that struggle has clearly shifted away from the state and on the foreign side the ideas of reform are much more fully established, much more broadly based. In 1991, when Manmohan first started making speeches about liberalization which at the time was a very modest opening compared to the ideas that are on the table today. He had to stop in his speech after a few paragraphs and say ‘no we are not surrendering into the neo-colonialism.” This is a different discourse even though the incumbents are still strong and they still fight with some of that language.

Q) I wonder where that power has shifted now?

If I were here, I would have a richer sense of that. But I think the problem is that it has shifted to nifty fifty and their networks more than it has shifted to empower citizens. If you count the largest economic actors in the state as one complex then what’s really shifted is a lot of power has moved out of the bureaucracy and over to the international private sector and of course their agenda is different than the Nehruvian civil service bureaucracy. But it’s still not answering adequately to the demands of urban middle classes. The agenda of that sort of conglomerates is what the law the shareholders apply, which is they want to make money, they want to grow, they want to perform to international standards. And all of that creates good knock on effects but who is going to demand that government action deliver in shortest possible time transitions in the energy economy,

Q) Before coming into power, BJP’s election campaign was based on the idea that development is an idiom of nationalism, which I wonder whether it is a borrowing from China. But Unlike China, the model of rapid development has often triggered social tensions, slowing down the progress…how do you see that parallel?

The cliché about India and China is true. China had a commanding heights-led political economy that force marched transformation of physical structure even though they displaced tens of thousands of villagers and grabbed land, there was corruption, there was over building but they were able to, in the same way that Stalin forced Soviet industrialization, they were able to create a first class physical infrastructure—roads, airports, air traffic control, ports in a remarkably short period of time. We know from economics that investments in physical infrastructure of that type, no matter who makes them, no matter what their motivation is, they bring economical returns, they stimulate growth, so that is their advantage. On India’s side, because it’s an open competitive political system, you can’t just grab things, and land is the most difficult thing to work thing. So a rapid priority of physical infrastructure development was always difficult here and yet the country did find a way to be into virtual infrastructure, through telecom and software and knowledge and at that kind of a global level. That provided solvent for the economy that is comparable to that China experience. But it has left India in a strange place where they have this clear confident strategy for knowledge economy for the 21ist century whereas they don’t have anything for the late 20th century physical infrastructure. That problem was much more glaring in the early 2000s. When you went to china in early 2000s you’d say ‘My God they have separated from India.’

Q) With India’s changing political economy, do you see any foreign policy shifts? Has that middle path of Nehruvian state moved to any side?

Nehru’s foreign policy was born of the need to balance the superpowers of cold war and so it’s the post-cold war foreign policy which still is work in progress….on the region, I see more continuity the way India manages its strength vis-à-vis small neighbours, which is that it does seek to integrate those small neighbours into its political and economical spheres but it is also not aggressive, it’s not going to invade, it uses soft-power to try to create coherent sphere of influence with the big naughty problem of Pakistan stuck in the middle of that. Now, you have Pakistan as a proxy for the 50 year question of China. I think the most important problem in Indian foreign policy is the same one that is the most important problem in American foreign policy, which is how do you assess China’s rise, how do you manage it, how do you prepare for multiple scenarios without somehow making things worse by provoking, giving a sense that you are headed for conflict, or into passive, setting yourself up vulnerable. I think India and US share this dilemma. I think both elites are driven by a belief, a tentative qualified belief that engagement and integration through economic integration can succeed, that the history of rising great powers provoking wars can be avoided. I think a majority of both countries’ elites prefer the optimistic engagement strategy, but I think both countries recognize especially partly based on China’s nationalism they can’t take that for granted so they are going to have to prepare a long-term defensive containment strategy to make sure that if China does become expansionist or radicalized in some way, it can be restrained.

Q) You think the nature of India’s foreign policy changes with the changing governments? When NDA-I was in power the country started off a healthy looking dialogue with Pakistan but when UPA-I replaced the engagement fell apart. Now BJP is in power again, and Prime Minister Narendara Modi recently surprised us with his impromptu visit to Lahore. You think BJP can make significant changes via-a-vis its policy toward its neighbours; or, there is some secret state within India that controls everything from behind and the political actors at the front keep changing?

Well, there is a kind of deep state in India but it is really more than Indian foreign service than it is the intelligence agencies or the military. I think there is such complexity in Indian foreign policymaking system. There is no, in that way similar to the US, you have a lot of constituencies around the decisions. My own thinking is that Pakistani nationalism will always require hedging about India, it will always require relationship with China as a counter to the threat of Indian invasion, or destruction of Pakistani state. In a strategic sense, having a relationship with China is always going to make sense to Pakistan. But it needs to change in order for India and Pakistan to realise their potential even in that framework is for civilian leadership to emerge in Pakistan and to finally as happened in Indonesia, as happened in Argentina, as happened in Brazil, in Turkey; you have countries with long periods of military rule but where eventually because of internal forces and external forces it flips and you get genuine or at least a substantial civilian control over the military. It doesn’t usually lead to sharp departures in foreign policy but it leads to significant ones and in the case of India-Pakistan, if you had civilian leadership in Pakistan that truly had control of the activities of the military and intelligence services you could imagine a much more normal balancing policy and politics that didn’t involve proxy groups and violence and your relationship between Pakistan and China could evolve, and the relationship between Pakistan and India could evolve, you could resolve some of the territorial conflicts, you could start to cooperate on economic and infrastructure issues, you could start to cooperate on energy and water and a lot of shared interests there they have but it would require a different government.

Q) What we are seeing that the civilian government in India is run by a rightwing political party, which has promised to people in the past that if they come to power they will retaliate against Pakistan. Do you see BJP led India heading toward provoking war in future?

I think there is two things—one is the fever about retaliation and the frustrations that people generally have with persistence of terrorism, especially coming out of groups the Pakistani state may or may not control but it’s often collaborating with. The second thing some of it is media age, some of it is frustration about persistence of these attacks but really in the Pakistani relations, unfortunately, a fairly stable in a low burn, you know a mild burn, but there is just enough potential for escalation because of the persistence of these groups and because of the politics in India that requires some response depending on the scale of the attack. I am sure this government will figure out some kind of symbolic response. If you had a Mumbai or something like that then it would be a whole different scale. I mean because deterrence makes the land invasion impossible, because the last two big crises—the parliament attack and the mobilization it followed, the establishment knows that mobilizing for a land that is not going to fight is not a very smart strategy. But they haven’t had a military capability to do something lighter but effective. I think over 20 years, the kinds of territorial responses you would expect to see will be the kinds of the Americans have in such a situation, some kind of special forces helicopter raid against headquarters of Jaish or Lashkar, try to make some arrests, pull the guys away in helicopters, maybe some targeted drone strikes, that sort of thing, and challenge Pakistan…we have been asking you do this for so long and we had no choice but to defend our people by taking these measures. Americans have already established that model but the problem is that it has turned into a PR disaster.

I imagine India will develop that kind of multifaceted capacity because that’s how this challenge of semi-state sponsored jihadi terrorism will present itself probably for 20 or 30 years.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 2:19:17 PM |

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