The beginning of Brain Drain 2.0?

There has been a lot of sound and fury over the introduction, or rather the re-introduction of the proposed Startup Visa  by Sen. Kerry and Lugar in the Senate. Much of the commentary coming out of India (including mine) almost pre-supposes that the legislation will be passed shortly though this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the prior version of the Bill expired in Congress in 2010 since it couldn’t gain enough momentum. Even the most ardent supporters of the legislation only give it a 1% chance of success and predict it will go the way of the previous legislation unless sufficient political momentum is built up through lobbying and community mobilization.  Nonetheless, the introduction of the Bill provides an opportunity to discuss the basic premises underlying the Bill, and their possible impact.

That this Bill is being introduced in a country which has always been highly conflicted about migration and at a time when the economy is in the relative doldrums speaks volumes in itself. Senator  John Kerry, while talking up the Bill, described it as one that was meant to keep America’s leadership in the innovation sphere. In his words, “Global competition for talent and investment grows more intense daily and the United States must step up or be left behind.”  Other countries such as the United Kingdom are also coming out with versions of their own, indicating that these words go beyond mere hyperbole.  The emphasis of immigration policies seems to have shifted from attracting new talent to retaining the foreign talent trained in the United States that is already at hand. It is with this intent that H1B visa holders and foreign students have been included within the ambit of the Visa for the first time.

Going by the numbers, there will be many takers for this Visa if and when it comes into fruition. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Indians make up 46 per cent of all H1B visa holders, the numbers of which range between 650,000 to 1 million.  Similarly, there are over 100,000 Indian students in the United States. According to a Brookings Institution Study,  between 1994 and 2005, 10,836 doctorates or  11% of all Doctorates awarded in the Science and Engineering streams, went to students  from India.

Whatever discussion there is in India is around the impact of the proposed Bill on the nascent startup ecosystem in India which was gathering steam partly on the back of the reverse migration phenomenon. One blog post even goes as far as to use the title “Startup Visa And The Impact on Indian Startup Ecosystem [BrainDrain 2.0].” Another post wonders why the Indian government doesn’t come out with a Startup Visa of its own to attract Indian and other entrepreneurial talent to india.  However, the bottomline remains that none of this will help unless it becomes easier for businesses to set up shop in India.  Till then, any wannabe entrepreneur, given a chance, will wing his way to Silicon Valley, considering it better to be a participant in the brain drain than have his brain in the drain. If the competition for talent and skills gets any tougher, the Indian government could consider the easy way out and did what it once did in 1964 when it restricted the issuance of passports to medical personnel  “to check their exodus in the national interest.”

Building up on the rubble of Japan’s nuclear disaster

Japan was struck by a massive earthquake on March 11, followed by a devastating tsunami that deluged many parts of Japan. Not only was the disaster colossal in terms of the human casualties (more than 10000 at last count), but it also damaged Japan’s nuclear reactors causing radiation leakage. As of this writing, the Fukushima nuclear facility was emitting radiation and warnings about tap-water and certain other foods contamination were being issued.

The nuclear disaster in Japan, led analysts and policy experts across the world to contemplate the safety and disaster preparedness of other nuclear installations in countries such as the US, India, China, Pakistan etc. The radiation leakage prompted some to question the benefits of nuclear energy and if the world would be better off without it. However, the disaster in Japan was also a case in point that the correct design, security mechanisms and emergency preparedness can contain and even avert a nuclear catastrophe when natural disasters strike. Radiation fears are valid, but their actual levels and impact might be exaggerated.

In India, it did not take long for doubts to be raised about the US-India nuclear deal (the U.S. clarified that Japan’s disaster would not affect the deal, and it would continue) and India’s plans to maximize the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation. Though India’s disaster relief and emergency preparedness leaves a lot to be desired, India has so far displayed a disaster-free record when it comes to its nuclear facilities. Expect for minor instances of accidents at such facilities, India’s nuclear program has been disaster-free. The Indian nuclear program and the US-India nuclear deal are also in compliance with the IAEA and NSG safeguards and guidelines. Nothing in India’s nuclear history suggests that India might not be able to deal with a disaster as the one that struck Japan. In fact, during the 2001 and 2004 earthquakes in Gujarat and the Indian Ocean, the nuclear reactors in the vicinity had been successfully shut down.

In 2009, India’s National Disaster Management Authority issued a researched set for guidelines for management of nuclear and radiological emergencies. The report lays down exhaustive guidelines for natural as well as man-made nuclear disasters, and reading it instills confidence that India can effectively deal with and control a nuclear disaster. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also asked for a security review of all nuclear installations in the country following the Japan earthquake.

While accounting and preparing for a worst-case scenario is essential when it comes to sensitive issues such as nuclear disasters, it is also important to remember that such instances are rare. Earthquakes and tsunamis of the magnitude of that in Japan do not occur regularly. And even when they do, adequate preparations and an efficient people (such as the Japanese) can effectively tame any situation. At a time when global energy needs are expanding and non-renewable resources depleting rapidly, nuclear energy is an important and efficient resource for us to consider. Instead of scurrying to shut down nuclear plants and scrapping nuclear deals out of fear, it is important to build even better reactor designs and safety mechanisms that attempt to nullify the effects of any potential disaster.

The Nuclear Liability Bill (2010) passed recently by the Indian Parliament (as part of the long-drawn process of implementing the US-India nuclear deal) could have been integrated completely into this safety mechanism. However, the bill leaves out liability for the operator in case of “grave natural disasters.” The Japanese earthquake and tsunami combo is definitely a grave natural disaster. While it can be argued that the operator cannot predict natural disasters, and therefore cannot be held accountable for damages caused by forces beyond his control; it also cannot be argued that a company and/or operator is totally without responsibility for ensuring maximum safety standards, including for natural disasters. In fact, attributing accountability would force operators to ensure maximum safeguards at nuclear facilities out of fear of potential monetary losses in case of nuclear disasters. Because such disasters are rare, the probability of them losing money by having to pay compensation is very little.

Along with continuing their commitment to nuclear energy, the U.S. and India should look at the Japanese nuclear disaster as an opportunity to increase collaboration in nuclear research and development, disaster management and emergency preparedness. Nuclear technology has developed significantly since the Fukushima nuclear reactor was installed, but its reaction to the earthquake and subsequent disaster should be studied to make reactors even better equipped to deal with crisis situations. Both India and the U.S. have a big pool of skilled nuclear scientists and engineers, and it is time to increase collaboration between them.

Humanitarian Intervention: Should the international community intervene in Libya?

The ongoing struggle of people across the Arab world to get rid of military dictators and tyrannical monarchies has led to a new debate about the efficacy of the emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention. A UN Security Council resolution approved the imposition of a no fly zone on March 17 but ruled out the deployment of a “foreign occupation force.” The Western Alliance has launched air and missile strikes on Libya – ostensibly to protect the population against attacks from Gaddafi’s forces. However, the strikes are clearly designed to bring about a regime change.

Credit: d.yimg.comJohn Mackinlay of King’s College, London, has argued that in the “complex emergencies which increasingly threaten security in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa, international response mechanisms have failed from the outset to take a realistic approach that reflected the needs of the crisis… due to vested interest, conservatism and a lack of vision beyond the narrow limitations of national and professional interest.” With some exceptions, most nations today agree to join an international intervention effort only when their own national interests are served by intervening and rarely so where the cause is humanitarian. The world had failed to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

John Hillen, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a U.S. think tank, has suggested the following criteria for future U.S. military interventions: should defend national security interests; should not jeopardise the ability of the U.S. to meet more important security commitments; should strive to achieve military goals that are clearly defined, decisive, attainable and sustainable; should enjoy Congressional and public support; and, the armed forces must be allowed to create the conditions for success.

Justifications of the right to intervene militarily, which are being increasingly propagated and are finding reluctant acceptance among some countries forming part of the Western alliance, include: defence of democracy and the prevention of the excessive curtailment of a people’s right to participate in decision making; prevention of severe violation of human rights of a people by a totalitarian regime; protection of minority groups from severe repression; prevention of acute environmental degradation; and, prevention of possible attempts to acquire or develop weapons of mass destruction.

Regardless of the contours of the emerging doctrine of intervention, it must remain a cardinal principle of international relations that the territorial integrity of each member state of the UN must be collectively guaranteed by all the other member states. The non-observance of this collective security imperative can only lead to anarchy and the rule of the jungle where might is right. This can be done only by strengthening the UN system to emerge as the sole arbiter of the need for intervention. Individual nation-states must not be permitted to assemble “coalitions of the willing” to intervene anywhere in the world to further their own necessarily narrow national interests.

As Gaddafi’s forces were clearly targeting civilians along with the rebel forces, the ongoing military intervention is justified. Surgically precise air and missile strikes should continue to be employed to achieve limited military objectives. Emphasis should be laid on the minimum use of force. However, all out efforts must be made to prevent collateral damage, with particular reference to civilian casualties and property.

Middle East: Wolves in Sheeps’ Clothing

Sometimes, foes get identified as friends, something that India has been enduring since the 1980s, the period when Pakistan began its assymetric battle for Kashmir. To this day, the jihad in Kashmir has around it a protective shield of Western NGOs, diplomats, conflict resolution specialists and a miscellany of do-gooders who back them in their violent war against the unity of modern Asia’s first democracy. Uncritical distribution takes place of video footage of jihadi elements in military fatigues molesting women and other innocents, elements that they cull from the pool of those they consider too moderate for their cause. These are transmitted as “evidence” of “atrocities by the Indian army”. Unverified repetition of claims of torture and intentional killings of the Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley by the armed forces get made by such well-meaning but misguided citizens of countries not otherwise known for tolerance to jihad and its numerous violent manifestations. In the many teary accounts of the travails of jihad elements in Kashmir that regularly appear in Western publications, few correspondents seem to have understood that the purpose of the Kashmir jihad is to set up a Wahabbi emirate in that state, one where minorities would be either driven out or exterminated ( as indeed, most have been in the Valley) and where women would enjoy the exalted status they had in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

What may be termed the hard core of the Wahabbi movement is a mass of individuals united in their belief in the supremacy of their 300-year old faith. This core is distributed throughout the Middle East as well as in locations such as Turkey, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and it has taken a lesson from the Saudi Arabian and ISI playbook of professing fealty to western interests and values while clandestinely undermining both. These days, the coverage of channels such as CNN across the Middle East would be laughable, were it not so tragic. An Arwa Damon goes breathlessly around the east of Libya with a collection of youths who come from the same tribal and other groups that have ensured a steady flow of Libyan citizens to the ranks of the jihadists. These have understood the fact that the only bait that they need to throw in the direction of western correspondents are fuzzy words about democracy, interspersed with cries against dictatorship.

Like Pavlov’s canines, correspondents leap at such titbits, fashioning a narrative that ignores the reality that much of the current ferment in the Middle East is driven not by a yearning for western-style democracy, but for a Wahabbi emirate. In such reporting, they resemble the many western journalists who have taken the side of the jihad in Kashmir, and in the 1990s, wrote much romantic twaddle about the Taliban in Afghanistan. As indeed, they have about the Pakistan army, the only substantial military force in the world that has jihad as its official motto. After the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that established the French and the British zones of influence in the Middle east, arbitrarily drawing boundaries that made little geopolitical or historical sense, UNSC 1973 has opened the door to a 2011 version of Sykes-Picot, with France and the U.K. once again in the lead. However,the Middle East is not Eastern Europe, nor is it the former Yugoslavia. The current chemistries and future societal trajectories there are entirely different. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi surrendered to the West in 2003, giving up his nuclear program and disarming himself of WMD. In a previous post, it had been warned that the treatment given to him would discourage other despots- notably in Iran and North Korea – from agreeing to surrender their nuclear weapon programs. The North Koreans have already expressed the view that the self-disarmament of Muammar Gaddafi – who acted on the advice of his spoilt and nincompoop sons, the way any doting father would – is the reason why he seems to be on the same path that Saddam Hussein, heading towards capture and execution.

Since the heady days of the 1980s,after Brezezinski-Casey ensured U.S. muscle to the more extreme elements of the Wahabbi faith in their obsession with a moribund USSR, several misguided elements in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait who mistake Wahabbism for Islam have been funding groups of ultra-Wahabbis,especially in non-monarchical Arab states such as Egypt, Syria and Libya. It is these groups that have formed the core of the so-called “democracy movements” in these countries. In contrast,in East Europe,it was the Christian churches who formed the base of the ideological resistance to Communism, a set of beliefs somewhat at variance with Wahabbism and its practitioners. In countries across the region, through the use of catchwords that they know will ensnare western journalists and policymakers, Wahabbi groups are seeking to replace regimes that came down hard on the faith. Not that they have been secretive about this, or at least not until they saw the need to taolir their message so as to appeal to the sensibilities of the populations of the NATO powers that are helping to install them in power. Even a cursory perusal of the literature churned out by the very elements now posing as liberal democrats would reveal that the basis of their opposition to Gaddafi is the fact that in Libya, women are permitted to go about without the veil and – even more horrifying – actually work alongside males. If this is not degeneracy,what is? There are few calls for democracy in the numerous tracts against Gaddafi, if we exclude those brought out by Libyan and other expats living in the West, who are proving to be about as accurate about ground reality in their country as were the Iraqi expats so dear to Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. By taking sides in what is in essence in part a tribal war where the primary faultline dividing regime elements from their foes is not democracy but fealty to Wahabbism, Sykes-Picot circa 2011 is likely to create a fresh round of boundary change in the Middle East, with the effective partition of several states and the spillage of unrest into the monarchies (this time because of the groups funded by the mullahs of Iran). The Wahabbi wolves have dressed themselves as sheep,and are prancing before a gullible international audience. Once victory gets assured through NATO arms, the disguise will come off.

WikiLeaks and US-India Relations

Whatever else it says about the propriety of India’s political class, the latest tranche of WikiLeaks cables now being dispensed by The Hindu newspaper contains a sobering lesson for US-India relations. The revelations about the parliamentary chicanery surrounding the 2008 civilian nuclear accord, intended to be a launching pad for a new era of bilateral dynamism, can only reinforce lingering doubts in Washington about whether India’s political institutions are even capable of acting on the ubiquitous rhetoric one now hears about taking relations to a higher plane.

PhotoIt came as a shock to U.S. officials that the nuclear agreement, which garnered strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, provoked extraordinary melodrama on Raisina Hill.  As the Washington Post noted in amazement at the time, “if New Delhi’s politicians cannot find a way to say yes to such a clearly advantageous agreement with a natural ally, the next U.S. administration no doubt will think twice before trying anything like it.”  Of course, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally did manage to push the accord through the Indian parliament, but only after an extended and acrimonious debate. It was especially disconcerting that the debate devolved into an unprecedented parliamentary vote of confidence regarding a foreign policy issue. Singh’s narrowly-won victory was possible only through resort to some exceptional measures, including the furloughing from jail of members of parliament who had been convicted of murder and other serious crimes.

As part of the debate, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused – in rather theatrical fashion – the Congress Party and its allies of paying hefty bribes in exchange for votes. A subsequent inquiry concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim. But now the WikiLeaks cables give renewed credence to the allegation. In a dispatch sent a few days before the crucial confidence vote, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi noted that the Congress Party machine was “working overtime” to ensure victory, including assembling cash-filled war chests “lying around the house for use as pay-offs.” The cable reports that members of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a small party based in Uttar Pradesh, had already agreed to trade their votes in exchange for $2.5 million bribes and that an unsuccessful attempt had been made to inveigle members of the Akali Dal, a small Punjab-based party. Kamal Nath, a Congress Party veteran then serving as Minister of Commerce & Industry, was described as “helping spread largesse.” According to the cable, a Congress Party insider told an Embassy official that “formerly [Nath] could only offer small planes as bribes” but “now he can pay for votes with jets.”

These are serious – albeit unverified – allegations that only add to the thickening taint of corruption now engulfing Prime Minister Singh’s government. Of course, log-rolling and intrigue are nothing new in Indian politics, and those implicated in the cables have denied their veracity. But to policymakers looking on in Washington, what must be most dismaying is that, in order to secure passage of an agreement so obviously favorable to India, the Congress Party had to engage in such extraordinary steps. Apparently, the “normal” rules of parliamentary bargaining do not apply to significant foreign policy issues involving the United States.  For those, the Congress Party has to up the ante – from small planes to jet aircraft.

The WikiLeaks cables also do nothing to strengthen the BJP’s credentials for principled leadership. During the debate over the agreement, Jaswant Singh insisted that the party’s opposition was not about tawdry partisanship but rather involved solemn issues of national sovereignty and military preparedness. But the opposite now appears true. In a March 2009 conversation with the U.S. chargé d’affaires, BJP supremo L.K. Advani connected the party’s stance to “domestic political developments then at play in India” and downplayed previous declarations that a future BJP government would “reexamine” the accord.

The WikiLeaks dispatches hardly inspire confidence in New Delhi’s credibility as a serious strategic partner.  Prime Minister Singh deserves kudos for the political resolve he displayed during the tumult over the nuclear agreement. But his victory was also pyrrhic, revealing just how isolated he is inside the corridors of power. And if there is any substance to the latest accusations of political shenanigans, his reputation for probity will be further dented. For their part, BJP grandees stand exposed as petty partisans rather than stalwart champions of the national interest.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the Obama administration’s approach to bilateral relations. But the next time the Indian commentariat is tempted to indulge in the “Obama disses India” narrative, one might first inquire into New Delhi’s own capacity for far-sighted statesmanship.