The greatest foreign policy difference between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh has been Pakistan. Singh believed in dialogue with Pakistan at almost any cost. Modi’s views were more akin to those of an earlier prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao: dealing with Pakistan was high risk, low return and not worth the investment.

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Same Boat Brother

Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi are crudely in the same boat when it comes to their economies: investment rates are not what they would like. In India, the private sector, burdened by debts and spooked by tax terrorism, is holding back on investment. In China, the government’s own attempts to get away from decades of overinvestment in physical infrastructure has led analysts to trim growth forecasts to just above 7% for the year.

Beijing accepts that its reforms will mean shifting the economy to a lower gear. But it wants the transition to go as socially smoothly as possible. It is trying divert the overcapacity in generators, cement and so on to overseas markets. Hence the multibillion-dollar One Belt, One Road and its component Silk Routes. A modern-day Lenin would claim this is imperialism with Chinese characteristics.

But with some unofficial estimates putting growth as low as 5.2%, China is also backpedalling on other issues. It is softening its stance regarding archrival Japan because, as foreign observers in Beijing note, it is alarmed that Japanese FDI to China has fallen over 40% the past year.


All Your Base Belong To Us

This doesn’t mean Beijing has retracted its claws when it comes to its territorial disputes with neighbours. It has upped the stakes in the South China Sea, its most ey-popping example of snatch and grab, by building airstrips on contested atolls and coral reefs. But it has deliberately lowered the temperature when it comes to the Senkaku Islands (Daiyu Islands in China) dispute with Japan.

Chinese officials and academics insist that the easiest dispute they have is with India. The border is relatively peaceful, no one has died violently since the mid-1980s and the two countries now have “strong leaders,” the Chinese say, who can resolve the border dispute. They carefully differentiate the Indian border dispute from the South China Sea, arguing the former is a colonial leftover while the latter is about territory that is “indisputably Chinese” going back “to ancient times.” Given that India, Japan and Southeast Asia experienced an almost simultaneous assertiveness in their territorial disputes with China in the roughly 2008 to 2011 period, it will take a lot more to get Indians to buy that is true.


Cyber Modi

Narendra Modi’s visit, and especially his decision to open an account on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo, have generally gone down well in China. His number of followers tripled during his state visit and his selfie with Chinese premier Li Kejiang received 35 million hits. “It went viral,” said an Indian official.

Modi get a fair amount of abuse, largely by Chinese demanding India return “South Tibet”, their name for Arunachal Pradesh. Interestingly comments on the Weibo account now appear only in select times in the evening and morning which everyone assumes is by Chinese censors – removing the more egregious insults against Modi.

But Modi gets credit for wading into the wild dog world of social media. Tea Leaf Nation, a website that analyses Chinese social media, noted only five world leaders have dared to reach out to Chinese via cyberspace. In large part because of a fear of similar hypernationalistic abuse. It doesn’t help that Facebook and Twitter, where a more global audience could have balanced the Chinese commentary, are banned in the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese commentators across the board say the image of both India and knowledge of Modi has increased positively as a consequence.

And, yes, at least part of the crowd of 3000 who waved at Modi when he exited a Xian temple was spontaneous: the Indian prime minister had made the decision to take a walkabout on the spot, much to the horror of his security.


One Belt One Voice

Everything in China, one sometimes feels, ends up going back to One Belt, One Road – Xi Jinping’s grand plan to build a global infrastructure network with China at the centre. Everyone in China somehow connects what he is doing with One Belt, One Road – no matter how tenuous the link. I fully expected a noodle chef to say, “My noodle look like Maritime Silk Route.”

Chinese express sorrow that Modi rejected Indian endorsement of this project, saying New Delhi would selectively choose those bits that converged with its own interests. Sensible enough as the only two parts of One Belt, One Road announced for South Asia are a $ 46 billion transport corridor running through Pakistan and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor that would effect India’s sensitive Northeast. As one Western diplomat noted, “The BCIM would make your Northeast more connected to south China than it would to the rest of India. Exactly what the Chinese did in Myanmar, almost detaching Upper Burma from Lower Burma.”

Not that India can stop One Belt, One Road. But an Indian yes would have opened the door for almost all the smaller South Asian states to jump on the bandwagon. And India will indirectly end up funding it as one of the key funding bodies for building it will be China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – of which India is the second largest contributor.

Just in case you wondered: the “road” part is confusingly a reference to the maritime part of the project while the “belt” is the two land Silk Routes.


Chindia Statistics

The latest statistic that the Chinese are bandying around to show the need for greater civil society engagement is that only 500,000 people travel each year between the two countries who have a combined population of 2.6 billion. “South Korea sends 8 million people to China every year,” said one Chinese think tank type. And most of that half-million is Indian. Only 180,000 Chinese come to India. There are no shortage of reasons why: a lack of Chinese speaking tourist guides in India, a Chinese vision of India as dirty, polluted and full of rapists, and a lot of difficulties getting Indian visas.

Modi is reportedly equally concerned about this lack of civil society engagement, one of the reasons he overruled India’s security agencies and unilaterally granted online visa applications to Chinese visitors to India.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour of northeast Asia was a geopolitical mood setter. Neither Indian nor Chinese officials expected major breakthroughs. The problems between New Delhi and Beijing were too difficult to be solved in a few days of back and forth. The real goal was to set an environment for future resolutions. Read more

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The world’s only territorial terror state, the Islamic State, has stopped expanding in Iraq and is battling to hold onto to the city of Tikrit from a combined Iraqi-Iranian army. Read more

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Why is the Land Acquisition Bill so important? And why should its amendment be supported?

There are two tales regarding the poor Indian farmer and his land. One is cited by those who support the dilution of the original bill. The other is cited by opponents who claim small farmers need greater rights regarding their land.

The problem is that both these narratives are correct. One is a macro story and long-term. The other is a micro story and immediate.

The first story is that farm employment in India is in a crisis that it can never get out of. Never. Millions of agricultural workers must be moved off the land and into factories if they are to survive. But these factories – or cities and towns in general – will never come about if their builders are not provided land.

Consider the numbers.

Between 2000 and 2005, Indians farms hired or employed 21 million more people. Then the numbers began to drop. Between 2004/05 and 2009/10 the number of farm jobs fell 14 million and even in the short period of 2009/10 to 2011/12 an additional 13 million agricultural jobs were lost.

Why is this happening? Because India has simply run out of land.

The number of farms in India is now almost 140 million, a figure nearly double what it was a few decades ago. These land-ownings have shrunk to the point that the average farm-holding size in the country is only 1.6 hectares — barely enough for subsistence living for a family whose average size is five. In densely populated states like West Bengal and Bihar farm sizes are only marginally larger than those of big apartments. And being divided with each subsequent generation.

Polls show that 42 per cent of Indian farmers say they would like to quit their professions..

Various farm subsidies have kept the sector staggering along. And there are pockets of success but largely in large, cash crop farms whose size only aggravates the land problem.

Where, in effect, are these dispossessed farmers or farm labourers going to find jobs?

The answer seems to be a large boom in rural construction and, to a lesser extent, rural manufacturing.

A well-regarded study by Hans Binswanger-Mkhize in Economic and Political Weekly argued the rural non-farm sector was absorbing the workers being shed by the farms. “This has emerged as the largest source of jobs in the Indian economy,” argues Binswanger-Mkhize. Construction alone has seen its share of the total workforce double to 19 per cent since the 1980s and much of this is in rural India.

But construction is arguably the worst and lowest-paid variety of non-farming work and dependent on boom-and-bust cycles in the real estate business.

As had happened in other societies, these farmers should be moving to the cities, working in factories and earning the skills and money to push their families into the next income bracket. That is simply not happening in India because it has an abnormally small manufacturing sector and unusually slow urbanization rates. Among the BRICS countries, India has the smallest manufacturing sector by almost any index.

The second story is the one of Indian farmers being pushed off their land with minimal compensation.

This tale is as truthful as the earlier one. And it is more immediate.

In a practice that goes back to the British Raj and was continued by independent India, particularly virulently during the socialist years, Indian rural land-holders were regularly pushed off the land for infrastructure projects and industrial factories. They were given absurdly low amounts of compensation. Often they were offered alternative land – and were then cheated of this.

While much of the present focus is on the private real estate and highway builders of today, the statistics are pretty clear that the worst perpetrators of this sort of thing were the Indian public-sector firms and the Indian government. West Bengal under communist rule had a remarkably pathetic record in forcible land grabbing.

Unsurprisingly, all this triggered a backlash in a democratic polity like India. And it coincided, also not surprisingly, with the larger land crisis in Indian agriculture. A farmer with a one hectare farmer is already living on the edge. The land is his last asset and he is reluctant to give it up. But here’s the rub, if he sticks to his farm, he will go over the edge anyway as his farm is subdivided by his children or its soil is leached by fertilizers.

In other words, the small Indian farmer needs to be moved from his land into the cities in a manner that reassures him that the transition will actually take place in a manner that will benefit him. As noted, many farmers are ready to leave their fields – they can see there is no future in what they are doing – but they are rightly suspicious given the past 60 years of banditry that was carried out.

Forging this social contract is what the political class in India needs to be working on. If successful, India will make a necessary and inevitable social transformation but in a manner that will avoid enormous social unrest and trauma.

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Narendra Modi has been roaming the planet and has proven to have a real gift for international showmanship. But one part of the world that has, so far, been missing from his itinerary has been Europe.

Joao Cravinho, the European Union ambassador, held a press briefing this week and underlined the degree of neglect Brussels has experienced from the new Modi government.

The India-European Union free trade agreement, almost 95 per cent done, is awaiting the last mile of negotiations. Three quarters of a year in office, however, the new Indian government has not held a single meeting with the EU about whether they want to animate or bury the talks. Cravinho said he hoped that the EU would get word sometime in the next few weeks about what New Delhi wanted to do.

Somewhat strange given that, as he noted, the EU remains India’s single largest source of foreign investment, single largest trade partner and probably largest recipient of outward Indian foreign investment. Mind you, New Delhi had some reason to delay as the entire Brussels leadership was recently changed. Modi did meet the outgoing President of the European Council, Herman von Rompuy, at the G-20 summit long enough to master the pronunciation of each other’s names.

Of course, if you subtract the United Kingdom from this equation, the number for the rest of Europe plummets. Take out Germany as well and it is just a few billions here and there.

The lack of Indian engagement on climate change, the Holy Grail of European diplomacy, with Brussels is telling as well. Japan and the United States figure more in India’s climate change policy than Europe does. On Ukraine the two sides don’t even waste time talking to each other. Cravinho did say India could tell Russia that it was doing bad things in Ukraine, but it was for form’s sake.

One measure of the importance that Europe in the Modi worldview is the Indian foreign ministry’s recent 116-page e-book on the new government’s foreign policy, “Breakthrough Diplomacy

which gives all of two pages to Europe as a whole (with Minister of State V.K. Singh’s visit to Slovenia as one of the high points), plus two pages each to the UK and Germany. The Indian diaspora gets 12 pages and Africa, which Modi has also yet to visit, 14 pages in comparison.

Of course this will change to some extent. Modi will go to Germany and probably France in April. The UK will get a place on the itinerary in the later half of this year.

Cravinho was also certain that the Indo-EU summit would also be held sometime this year. Hopefully.

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The new US ambassador to India, Rich Verma, speaking at the Vivekananda Foundation, noted how India and the US now even have a joint working group on carrier technology. Read more

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first budget was a disappointment, his first winter session of Parliament was an embarrassment, his passage of a slew of ordinances was touched by a hint of panic, and it’s still unclear if key economic legislation like insurance FDI and the general services tax will even get past his second budget.

Yet, foreign capital continues to flow. Greenfield foreign investment remains low, though it has at least rebounded from the bottom-scraping levels it reached last fiscal. Once you took out the usual end-of-the-year profit taking, the FII flow into India has been remarkable. And it continues to come in.

The Indian investor remains cautious about the stockmarket. The Indian corporate investor is even more wary. Having been burnt by the previous six or seven years by the last government, they are all waiting for concrete evidence of policy change before they put more money into expanding factories and plants.

Yet the foreigners keep coming.

One reason for this is that there aren’t too many places a foreign emerging market fund manager can put his money. As one equity player in London once told me,” There are a billion pounds in floating emerging market funds that have almost only India to go to these days now that Turkey, Brazil, Russia and a few others are belly-up. The FIIs, he told me, were buying and selling to each other so the Indian investor didn’t really matter.

Two, many overseas investors understand the damage done to the Indian economy by the United Progressive Alliance regime, especially the last five years of the Manmohan singh government. The fiscal deficit remains out of control. Bad loans are clogging up the banking system. The energy sector remains paralysed.

If anything, many of the institutional investors see how this would take a long time to unwind.

What worries them more is the tomtomming of calls for interest rate cuts by various senior government officials. This unnerves long-term financial investors, like pension funds, who focus on the broad parameters of the economy and policy and not short-term measures to get a quick burst of growth. For them, cutting interest rates prematurely is a sign of bad policy, that Modi wants to suborn an independent central bank, and means inflation would come back sooner than later.

They thus applaud Raghuram Rajan’s stance. As a Citibank study noted, India was a good place to be because of three things 1) Rajan, 2) the fall in global commodity prices and 3) Modi’s absolute majority in the lower house. No mention of Arun Jaitley or the key personnel in government.

In other words, Modi’s seeming “haste makes waste” method of governance gets him applaud with foreign investors who seen in this exactly the sort of long-term, stable policy mindset that they want.

Even on foreign policy, New Delhi is working on an ad hoc, ultra-pragmatic approach to diplomacy – and this is earning him points. This lack of geopolitical vision is actually acceptable now because there are no major government to government threats in the region. Sparring on the borders yes, but the chance of even a Kargil type situation is minimal. Modi is doing exactly what a Wall Street investor would want him to do in foreign policy.

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As the rouble careens southward in value and, more importantly, capital flees Russia’s bleak economic future, the likelihood of capital controls being re-imposed by the Kremlin increases geometrically. Once that happens, the rouble will have isolated itself in a manner that belies Vladimir Putin’s 2009 claim that the “Rouble can claim for the role of a reserve currency.”

The present crisis aside, the future trajectory of the Russian economy looks so bleak – for reasons of demography if nothing else – that the future of the rouble is one of retreat, slowly returning to the Soviet shell it had emerged from post-Cold War. And this in turn will reflect an increasingly inward looking worldview of Moscow’s leadership.

It is interesting to speculate as to the trajectory of the rupee, the currency of an economy about the same size as Russia’s. The answer seems to be that the rupee is following a slow but steady path to the internationalisation that Putin alluded to. But New Delhi will do it in a manner far less outspoken than Moscow. Which is why it may succeed.

I am pretty certain no Indian prime minister and possibly finance minister has publicly spoke of the rupee as being a global reserve currency like the dollar or euro. Such musings are left to the Reserve Bank and central bankers are extremely wary of such an Idea.

G Padmanabhan, deputy central banker of India, in a 2013 speech spoke at length about the rupee becoming a currency of the world. “The Indian rupee is a natural candidate for being considered for greater internationalisation.” But this should be largely in the area of “trade invoicing”, he said, and generally in a “careful and gradual manner.” But most of his speech was about the reasons why the rupee had a long way to go: India’s economy was too small, too prone to current account deficits, too dependent on foreign hot money, too inflation prone and so on. Ultimately, no one was using the rupee overseas.

None of this is a surprise. A macro-economically challenged India, rightly, is cautious to a fault about the health of its currency. What is surprising is, when one looks closer at the figures, despite the lack of enthusiasm of New Delhi – and the opposite sentiment in Moscow – the rupee has become nearly as internationalised as the rouble in recent times. And the economic future of India is much better. The rupee worldview is one of greater integration and, possibly, reserve currency status. We should “aspire” to see the rupee as an “international currency” said Padmanabhan.

The latest Triennial Central Bank Survey of the Bank of International Settlements throws up some interesting numbers regarding rupee versus rouble use in the international markets. One, despite the lack of enthusiasm for such activity by New Delhi, the rupee has been bandied around the international currency markets in a manner comparable to the rouble. Two, the rupee’s rise in the international system has a more stable upward trajectory. And this will be greatly enhanced after the Crimean bust-up between Russia and the West.

Example A: the rouble percentage of global foreign exchange market turnover has gone from 0.3% in 1998 to 0.9 in 2010. The rupee went from 0.1 to 1.0 percent in the same period. By 2013, however, the rouble had jumped to 1.6% while the rupee had stayed at 1.0 – reflecting presumably the halving of India’s economic growth rate in the intervening period. One suspects these trends will reverse for both currencies in the next few years.

Example B: When the global foreign exchange market is divied up by currency and by instrument, the rupee fares surprisingly well. The rouble is much more used: daily average in April 2013 the rouble turnover in such markets was $ 85 billion. The rupee figure was $ 53 billion. But the rouble was used much more heavily in spot transactions while the rupee led the way in outright forwards: $ 24 billion compared to $ 9 billion. Since outright forwards lock a buyer of that currency for a set time at a set exchange rate, the greater rupee figure would seem to be a vote of confidence in the stability of the currency – at least over the rouble.

India’s greatest challenge will be to persuade other countries to consider invoicing their trade in rupees. The currency is still too unstable – it just escaped a meltdown last fall. But compared to the rouble who’s present collapse is just a reminder that it went through the same, only worse, in 1993, the rupee looks like its backed by gold. Over 90% of India’s trade is dollar invoiced and even Bangladesh has rejected the use of the rupee for such purposes.

The recent issuance of rupee bonds by the World Bank slowly helps deepen the pool of instruments that are rupee backed – and financial market depth is a crucial criteria for a reserve currency. But the simple lack of full convertibility and the simple size of the Indian economy means the rupee will go global over a longer time frame. However, one prediction that can be made: the rupee will get a seat at the global high table before the rouble.

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Vladimir Putin, nine years ago, described the Soviet Union’s collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. While one argue whether that was much of a catastrophe given how dysfunctional the Soviet Union had become in its last few decades, from a Russian perspective that might make sense. Read more

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