The curious case of two Asian giants

The burgeoning interest in India-China relations from around the world is to be expected considering the two giants of Asia are the growth engines of not only the Asian economy, but they also form a crucial cog in the wheel that is driving the world economy forward. The two most populous nuclear neighbors with the fastest growing economies in the world are poised to be the key drivers of what promises to be an “Asian Century”.

The trade between China and India is expected to reach USD 100 billion by 2015, but economics and trade tend to occupy the back pages of the media, which for some reason, basks in the hype news around troop movement and test of ballistic missiles creates in both countries, not to mention the interest it stirs up across the world.

It has been seen more often than not that the media and analysts go into a real frenzy concerning any developments surrounding India and China. It seems to be in a delirious rush to fulfill the perennial appetite for news relating to countries that sustains approximately 40% of the world population – and surprisingly one of them, India, doesn’t even have a seat in the Security Council of the United Nations, which is a travesty in itself for some, and something that many Indians feel strongly about. They argue that it is not surprising that the Council is squabbling over what to do with Syria where there seems to be more vetoes than agreement, made all the worse by the fact that innocents are being killed every day.

However, in essence, and many media practitioners have made this point time and again, that the media isn’t wrong in its entirety as the relationship between the behemoths hasn’t been hunky-dory at the best of times with contentions ranging from respective country’s stance on Kashmir and Tibet; India’s claim to Aksai Chin, which is reciprocated by China’s claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, that China prefers to call, South Tibet – much to the ire of India; India’s asylum to Tibetans and the Dalai Lama; China’s all-weather support to Pakistan; increasing competition in scouting for energy sources around the world, deep-rooted suspicions of expansionism, military coercion and strategic containment on both sides, apart from the stake that the two countries have on international politics and world affairs, which go off on a tangent on many issues, are only some of the factors that dominate proceedings as far as India-China relationship goes.

The latest disputation is arising from India’s presence in the disputed water of the South China Sea with China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei being parties to the dispute. This dispute was the focal point at the recent ASEAN Summit 2012 held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which unfortunately didn’t yield any tangible results. In fact things seems to have deteriorated recently with China clearly expressing its intention on the matter by sending troops to disputed islands in South China Sea, which gives credence to the thought of an armed skirmish in the region.

China also views the rise in arms sales to India by the U.S. is part of a larger plan to counteract its dominance in the region. China has also taken cognizance of the development of a powerful three-dimensional Navy by India to increase its capabilities in the Indian Ocean and beyond, which could also be used to protect its asset in the South China Sea which China lays claims to if such a situation becomes ineluctable.

The South China Sea dispute has the potential to morph into a major military flashpoint if current political powwow for a peaceful resolution doesn’t bear fruit soon, and India’s presence in the region hasn’t gone down well with the Chinese with repeated veiled warnings emanating from China’s official sources for foreign countries, particular India and the US, to stay away, with India refusing to budge as it strives to fulfill the needs of a power hungry nation that is largely depended on external sources to fuel its growth.

All these factors make the relationship between the two countries inordinately complicated and something that the next President of the United States has to carefully manage and no doubt will be one of his top priorities in the Oval Office. It will also be one of the fundamental criterions that will determine the success of his tenure as far as foreign affairs goes – and therefore the Presidential Election of 2012 attains all the more significance as it will determine the dynamics that will shape the future of the relationship between the three great nations. This leaves the role of the U.S. President rendered increasingly non-envious with the mistrust that China has for the U.S. which sees it as trying to position India as a credible alternative in a policy of perceived containment, all part of grand scheme under a geopolitical balancing act that aims to thwart its march to the top.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would do well to have a well thought out plan on how to manage its relationship with India, which is actually flourishing, while trudging a thin line vis-à-vis its delicate yet crucial relationship with China. The U.S. has to make sure that it doesn’t antagonize China and push it to the brink as we are in a world where we need partnerships and not one-upmanship. It will be a tightrope trick that the President of the United States will be expected to play to perfection as the world needs a strong and stable troika of the United States, China, and India.

As things stand now, it is difficult to predict what the future holds for the India-China relationship, but it won’t be surprising if these two countries with one of the oldest civilizations in the world and a shared history of thousands of years were to share a prospering history for a long time to come yet. You wouldn’t find many who will bet against that eventuality, and I for one definitely won’t, as a strong and prosperous neighbor does more good than harm, with Pakistan being a case in point.

Presidential Polls: The Journey to the White House and Rashtrapati Bhavan

Guest post by Madhu Nair

Just a day ago the elected representatives of the Republic of India cast their vote to elect the 13th President of the country. While Presidential polls have so far been a low key affair, the recent showdown between the ruling Congress party and the self-declared Presidential nominee PA Sangma has taken the whole process to an all new level. The government’s nominee and Ex-Finance Minister Mr. Pranab Mukherjee has won hands down, Ex-Speaker Mr. Sangma had put up a very brave front. The Presidential polls have never been such a talked about issue as the chair was usually seen as a rubber stamp post until Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam changed the face of Presidency. His reservations in the Office of Profit bill had the government see red and since then all political parties have been actively involved in the process.

While the Indians take to the button, the stage is set for a heated showdown in the United States between President Barack Obama, the Democrat nominee and Mitt Romney, Former Governor of Massachusetts and the Republican candidate. With the Supreme Court giving thumbs up to the ambitious healthcare reform or Obamacare, the President is beaming with confidence which has left the Republicans fuming. Issues like immigration, economy, foreign policy, energy and environmental affairs have become the burning topics where both Obama and Romney have been trying to score points one over the other. While Romney had given Obama a run for his money initially, recent polls indicate the needle to be slightly in favor of President Obama. But that can never cast a shadow over the fight between the two most powerful people in the country. Finally, it will all come down to November when they slug it out in the fight round.

Though both India and America share being the largest democracies in the world, the chair of the President has a lot of difference. While the American President controls the government and has a greater role in governance, the President of India has limited powers when it comes to having a say in the governance of the country. As both the countries get ready to welcome their new President, here is a brief comparison between the Presidents of the two countries.


President of India

President of the United States

He is a figurehead. The real executive power is vested in the Prime Minister.

He is the real head of the executive.

Appoints the Prime Minister and other ministers based on the PM’s recommendation.

The members of the cabinet are nominated by the President.

Bound to follow the advice of the cabinet.

Not bound to follow the advice of the cabinet.

Has no vote power.

Has veto power.

Has a term of 5 years.

Has a term of 4 years.

Indian President represents Parliamentary Democracy.

American President represents Presidential Democracy.

Elected by indirect election by a special process known as “Electoral College”.

Elected practically by direct elections.

May be re-elected as many times as possible.

Can function for only two terms.


America’s Bollywood Style Election

Elections have a way of reminding us that the gap between India and America is not quite as big as we sometimes perceive.  American Presidential candidates don’t wear white kurthas and Indian Parliamentary candidates don’t need to bother with primaries—but that is where the main differences end.  Both spend an unhealthy amount of time trying to out-demagogue their opponents, powerful vote banks grapple for influence, sloganeering is heavy while vision is frequently light, film stars have far more clout than they ought to, candidates will try to paint opponents as elitist, and in the end the outcome is determined by a few strategic geographic regions.

Stateside the mudslinging is starting to exaggerate itself to ludicrous extremes, looking almost like a Bollywood movie where party proxies trip over each other to get before cameras and pontificate, melodramatic speeches at the ready, lacking only background musical score.  What’s troubling about this scenario is that it leaves us with no sense of how either candidate will approach South Asian affairs over the next four years, at a time in which subcontinental politics are having an increasing effect on American domestic prosperity.  India has borne considerable collateral fire in the President’s attacks against his opponent, who, has not made much inroad in demonstrating he has a tangible India policy.

Continual belligerency has been the de-facto if not de-jure policy of Pakistan for well over a decade, and the cost to NATO of governments in Islamabad and Kabul being controlled by an ISI cadre, either overtly or through a parade of civilian paper tigers is immeasurable.  The Pakistan issue, directly linked to matters of nuclear security, Chinese military development and industrial espionage, terrorism and narco-trafficking, has unfortunately been lost in a fruitless, counterproductive election battle over outsourcing where emotion and rhetoric have outweighed reason and facts at every possible level.

In defense matters India, still a key player in geopolitical outcomes in Iran and Russia, has been slowly moving away from the Russian camp and showing increasing favor towards the United States and its major allies such as Israel and Great Britain.  This means not only billions of dollars in export orders and thousands of American jobs, now and for the future, but a major American foreign policy coup left unfulfilled during the cold war.  The fate of major geostrategic issues cannot be left to chance over sophomoric electioneering tactics.  That is truly un-presidential.

Each candidate and their respective party ought to take the high road, get beyond slogans and platitudes and do what the American people truly want them to do: outline a real vision for the future, inclusive of America’s key geo-strategic priorities around the world.  In the heat to win an election it is easy to remember that indifference or insensitive campaigning can do real harm to America’s important relationships overseas, who are becoming more intra-linked to American prosperity at home.

India and the US: The partnership that could define our age

The US Presidential Election is right around the corner, and it is not surprising that the interest within India and amongst the Indian expats living in the U.S. and also right around the globe has seen a drastic upswing. This interest is expected to reach a crescendo by the time we get to the crucial final stages and everyone from school children to political bigwigs in India are following the race to the White House with doting eyes, and the curiosity and anxiety around being palpable indeed. The Indian media has given the election coverage its due space, voice, time, and ink, and has done a commendable job covering it thus far.

This heightened sense of anticipation comes as no surprise to many of the analysts who have often elucidated that the strength of this flourishing partnership between these two great countries is not just driven by political convenience and economic sense, but by popular consensus of its people, fuelled by a firm conviction that they share a common geopolitical destiny.

Many opinion-makers, along with other social and political commentators, have already christened the Indo-US partnership as one of the, if not, the partnership that will shape the world around us for years to come, with Democracy proving to be the mortar that binds it strongly together, seamlessly.

Although the result of the Presidential Election will be crucial as it will be the fulcrum around which all the policies and programs will be implemented with the result one way or the other having serious repercussions on how things will shape out for many, including us; the fact remains that be it Obama or Romney that ultimately prevail, it is not expected to dramatically impact the relation with India. The basic rationale behind this premonition is the fact that the fundamental reasoning and the practical logic behind the Indo-US friendship far outweigh the narrow sighted political concerns or compulsions that might sway things towards the negative and the deplorable.

Despite reports coming out of the U.S. relating to outsourcing and the recent statement on the investment climate and economic reforms in India, often hyped by the media covering the campaign, the grapevine in India suggests that no one is losing sleep over the issue and the popular sentiment in India is largely pragmatic as a strong America is considered best for India – and that outsourcing was always about making things efficient and ultimately better, wasn’t it? At least India still believes so, despite what the naysayers might say.

Obama is by and large still highly regarded in India and his visit to India is remembered fondly even today. However, in contrast, Mitt Romney remains a relative unknown in India, although his name has been associated with India; which unfortunately for him hasn’t been all that positive to say the least. Nevertheless, he does enjoy the backing of someone whose name many Indians might recognize – Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Indian-American governor who lambasted Obama in a tirade and labeled him the most incompetent president since Jimmy Carter. Having said that, the question still remains, does that speak to the majority of the Indian-American or for those having links with India? Probably not! But the jury is still out and many in India favor Romney to topple Obama with the majority expecting a close race too close to call just yet.

No matter what rhetoric gets thrown around, which is to be expected during the peak of campaign season, the underlying prognosis still leaves room for a guarded sense of optimism and excitement for the relationship’s future. This talks volumes to the speed at which the Indo-US relationship has developed, which has naturally attracted a lot of attention from nations with their own prejudices, biases, concerns, stake or involvement in this partnership.

India and U.S are seen as natural allies and have common values and ultimate goal, and the popular analogy used to describe the two has been that of a rising elephant and a slumbering giant, with both expected to thrive in the long-term, and more importantly, seen to be better off together. Both are all set to be key architects of change, not only for their own citizens, but for million and billions the world over who are counting on their leadership.

The partnership assumes even more significance under the economic environment that we live in today – a case in point being, “Dr. Doom”, the Economist Nouriel Roubini reiterating his predication for a, ‘perfect storm,’ among many others, and the world looking to the United States, the European Union, along with prominent countries like India and China, for a way through or over the dark clouds that loom on the horizon – too menacingly for comfort.

In India the United States has a partner it can rely on through the thick and thin, and the upcoming U.S. elections will be a significant milestone in a journey that although has many travails strewn across the anvil of time, but promises destined prosperity for both countries, its people, and the world therein. Although this partnership has had a checkered time thus far, I won’t be sullied for saying that the best is yet to come from the two greatest democracies on Earth.

Good Indian Boys Go to Harvard, Sort of

As a younger man, I was not a good Indian boy.  I did not study Engineering, or graduate from MIT or Harvard. However now I can easily atone for those errors.

Recently, Harvard, MIT, NYU, The University of Pennsylvania, and other top-tier universities have begun to offer comprehensive online courses, free of charge, and open to all who wish to apply.  In some cases Universities are offering entire curricula of study online, formally, complete with offline learning tools, coursework supplements, and collaborations with private education companies.  What began as an experiment is clearly an opportunity not just to shake up the antiquated system of traditional university education, but a new means of delivering education to millions without access to meaningful schooling.

In India a toxic cocktail of poverty, poor infrastructure, weak administration, and mismanagement often mean millions of students lack access to basic education.  As universities and educational institutions offer online courses, students will be less dependent on public infrastructure and rent seeking officials to acquire basic skills. Formal degrees will still be bound to the onsite, admissions based system, but in many subjects the advantage that a formal degree offers will be minimal.  As a means of delivering basic education and post-graduate skill-sets, in literacy or language studies, clearly the future in India must lay in some hybrid-model of online and onsite learning.

Regardless of whether this immense opportunity is seized and developed upon, the University system itself will undoubtedly be shaken up in the next several years. In certain areas like medicine or aerospace engineering, online courses would be an interesting supplement but not a path to a career or true skill-building–although innovative universities could still enhance the knowledge and skills of working doctors and space engineers through well-designed courses.  However in Liberal Arts fields where expensive equipment or hands-on training is not required, there might be little difference between a campus student and an intelligent and motivated online student. Just as newspapers discovered, someone else may offer for cheaper what they will not.

In recent times, students in Indian Universities have had the privilege of watching MIT or Stanford professors teach physics, computer science or electronics engineering and compare their teaching with that of their own professors. In the humanities and basic sciences Indian students could supplement their lectures with the extraordinarily rich set of courses from Yale University. Skeptics could check these videos and see the chasm that separates the Indian classroom and a Harvard or Yale classroom. Now students can not only watch these lectures passively but also participate in them like an overseas student would, discussing the topics and performing the exercises. The biggest impact of the online education revolution will be on India. India has millions of students itching to learn, and this ought to be a new area of extensive co-operation between India and the United States.