Interview with Arpit Chaturvedi

Mr. Chaturvedi is an author and strategic management professional with a Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.) focused in Government, Politics and Policy Studies from Cornell University and an MBA in HR from Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development. He is an experienced development consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the public policy domain and is the co-founder and CEO of Global Policy Insights (GPI), a multi-national thinktank working on democracy and governance, policy innovation, and international political economy.


1. What do you think will be India’s role in the current Afghanistan crisis?


Mr. Chaturvedi: Recently, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken from the United States visited foreign minister, Jay Shanker. There were a lot of talks regarding India's role in the Southeast region and what are the likely consequences for India when the U S withdraws out of Afghanistan. If you take a simple balance of power perspective, then what you can see is that unfortunately, India will be heavily damaged by the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. India has in many ways put all its eggs in the baskets of the legitimate Afghani government.


The problem over here is that, unlike what India expected originally, that the US is a country that will never negotiate with the Taliban after all that has happened. But the way things have turned out to be is that both, the United States and Russia have negotiated with the Taliban. It was about two weeks back when Beijing even hosted a visiting Talibani delegation. So you see that gradually the strategic position has turned out to be that India was betting against the Taliban taking the whole of the reins of Afghanistan. And unfortunately, the situation is that the Taliban claims that 85% of the Afghani territory, especially the more important provinces, and cities is under the Taliban's control, although nobody in the international security community believes that 85% is the number.


But what is true is that the Taliban is going to emerge as the dominant player. There's going to be a race to Kabul and India is still hoping that Kabul will not fall to the Taliban, it will still remain under the legitimate Afghani government. Even in Afghanistan, there are a number of other splinter groups, which are working against the Taliban. And I think one focus of India could be to promote such splinter groups to serve as a counterbalance to the Taliban. However, what has happened recently is that New Delhi has attempted to open formal communication channels with the Taliban for the first time. India has grown an attitude to speak and engage with the Taliban and broad base their engagement with the whole Afghani political class, so far India was just dealing with the legitimate government over there, which was assisted by the United States.


Now as we know, the problem for India is that Afghanistan will now increasingly see more Chinese intrusions. We'll see more management at the hands of Pakistan. It's probably going to be Pakistan's backyard, especially for all of the nefarious terrorist training camps, et cetera, and to hide all of the terrorists that Pakistan has. Afghanistan is going to be that buffer zone for it. I think India will try to engage with the Taliban as much as it can. The Taliban certainly has become a focus of attention where Russia, China, Pakistan, the United States, even India will be courting for influence with the Taliban. India will also support other splinter groups in Afghanistan and will probably also follow some of the recommendations that have been given by the US government. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official mentioned recently in an article that India should provide more air force and technical support to the legitimate Afghani government. Currently, all of the legitimate Afghani government depends on the Americans, and India could fill in some of that space. You'll see India playing a mixed strategy. If you look at the geopolitical structural situation, India to a great extent has lost the plot, unfortunately. We, as a country, have spent about $3 billion in assistance since 2001 to Afghanistan. Now, that place is going to be Pakistan's backyard, a high dominance of China and some bit of Russia. Russia is no longer as close an ally of India as it used to be earlier. India is clearly pivoted towards the United States. So it's going to be a really challenging situation where India had put a lot of bets on cultivating Afghanistan as a counterweight to Pakistan. But then on that ground, from a purely structural strategic level, we have lost the plot, but then strategically it is not a loss, in reality, we can still play various tactics. We can still counterbalance by playing these mixed strategies and hope for something good to come out of it, maybe Iran will be a good support system. Iran typically counterbalances Afghanistan, and Iran has no relations with the US. One of Secretary Blinken's recommendations to the Indian government has been to make India's presence felt in Afghanistan by engaging with Iran. The US cannot do it directly, but India can certainly do that. But, as to how effective these tactics will turn out to be, the time has to tell. At least now, we are in a position where we need to manage things a lot and are on a strategic back foot rather than being on a strategic advantage with Afghanistan.


We'll have to understand the security mentality of the United States. The security community of the United States still compartmentalizes issues. So, it means that if we are not friends on one issue does not mean that we cannot be friends on the other. If you look at it geopolitically, there is no reason for the United States to either increase or reduce any sort of military support to India because of their withdrawal from Afghanistan. I was talking to some, uh, people in the US government recently, and the biggest issue of the US government for India is that it buys certain kinds of aircrafts from Russia. Since it buys certain kinds of aircraft from Russia, the US government would not give its high-end fighters to India and that's the reason we have to go to France and we have to go to Israel for some of those high-end technologies. Right. I think the impact of Afghanistan on the India-US relation would be that the US is saying that no, you manage this on your own, we will cooperate with you on other aspects, we will try to balance this loss that you've had. I don't know how they're going to do that, but then the idea over there is that nothing on the defense contracting would change. There will probably be closer posturing, the closer alliance between the United States and India.


The only challenge for India would be that we are in that precarious situation where we are at a higher risk and a higher reward, sort of a game in this great power competition between China and the US. If we play our cards right then, just like the United States made its money during the first and the second world war. India, if it plays its cards right it'll be able to come out as a much stronger country in this great power competition between the US and China. However, if India does not play its cards right, then India will be a country that will be squashed and which will be used and exploited. Right now, from what it seems, India is not in a super-strong position, at least regionally, because if you see, you have Pakistan on one side, you have China on the other, both not friendly states to us. Afghanistan, we have lost considerable influence. Iran, we are still in the name standing with, but because of the relations between the United States and Iran, we are not super comfortable in getting way too collaborative with them. There are practical constraints because there's a lot of conflict with Iran on the issue of terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir. If you look at other states in South Asia, we share neutral goodwill with Sri Lanka, it's already in shambles with Burma. If you look at the great powers in South Asia, then India seems isolated in its own region.


Now, globally is another matter, India is considered a friend of the United States or the European regions generally, but India does not have any security treaty unlike other quad countries like Japan, Australia. India does not have any security treaty with the United States or Japan or Australia. So, the way that India can play cards, right, is that India needs to grow strong internally and fundamentally change its approach with bureaucratic reforms, broad-based trade reforms and reforms for the MSME sector, and balancing Russia with the United States more effectively because Russia has performed on behalf of India earlier in 1971. Balancing those relationships and if we are pivoting towards the United States, then ensuring that we have certain security commitments on both ends. So those are certain things that India will seriously have to look at. I personally have a lot of hope. I think that India's foreign policy is still stronger than any South Asian country, stronger than China. We are on very fragile ground and we need to take every step after a lot of concentration and we need to think 50 years down the line, we need to have some foresight when we are planning and we need to figure out what our current capabilities are and how should we develop and who should be cultivated as friends and who should not be cultivated as friends.


2. Keeping in mind the current Pegasus scandal, how do you think India's policies on data privacy and security should be reshaped or changed in order to ensure the privacy of persons and no potential breaches?


Mr. Chaturvedi: Let me give you an arch-realist answer first, and then we’ll get into the discussion. The first thing is that Pegasus or any form of snooping is absolutely unacceptable, immoral, and threatens the core of any democratic institution. Now let me come to the arch-realist bit, Governments have been doing this forever. It's nothing new. The Indian government, for all we know, has been snooping on its citizens for decades and decades. Other governments have enlisted the help of Pegasus and I’m telling you, governments such as Mexico, back in 2011, there was a huge thing about Mexican federal agencies giving as much as USD 80 million to buy pegasus. There are a number of other governments also that deal with Pegasus and mostly these dealings are on a company-to-government level. Mostly it's the Federal agencies who are utilizing this software. Now, the problem is “whom are you listening to?”, “Whom are you snooping on?” This is really the problem here. If you’re snooping on journalists, if you’re snooping on Opposition leaders, if you are snooping on people who are a part of the civil society, then there is a problem. Because if you look at Freedom of Speech, in our Constitution, this runs quite counter to that. If you look at the original version of the IT Act that we had, the earlier version of the IT Act, you’d only be able to tap somebody else’s calls or listen in on others’ conversations or messages, when as a government you think that there is a threat to the interest and sovereignty or the integrity of the nation, there is a threat to the security of the nation, there is a threat in terms of jeopardizing your country’s foreign relations or if you have friendly nations and if because of this your relations with them are gonna be threatened, then you could snoop in and for preventing incitement to the commission of an offense in general. With the new IT Act, of 2009, all electronic transmissions, all electronic data can be legally intercepted. So we really need to think, and I think the way out of this whole mess is through the courts. It's going to be the judicial system that is eventually going to have a say because there haven’t been so many cases that have really asked the questions and challenged the government on “who are you listening to” and “what are my data privacy rights” and so on. I think fundamental changes (are needed), because the Act says that you can intercept all of these communications. Now, unless the Supreme Court unequivocally says that this Act is against the spirit of the Constitution, we would not be able to do much. However, I do feel that Civil society also has a great role to play because at least the problem has been highlighted, and now that the problem is out there, there will be various policy solutions that we’ll be hearing of in times to come. Some people, like me, would say that the Supreme Court should outright say that this Act, in its current form, is against the spirit of the Constitution. Other folks may call for some smaller amendments in the act, even the Supreme Court may call for smaller amendments, maybe we'll have an autonomous body that would require some amount of government reporting on the data collection practices of the government. The integrity of such an autonomous body would obviously always be in question. If I were to tell you honestly, it's eventually going to be a case of whether people in the government are honest and responsible enough, whether the civil society is vigilant enough to call the government out when there are transgressions, investigative journalists obviously have a great role to play. The third thing you need to realize is who actually got this news out, that pegasus has been snooping on various Indian citizens. It was Whatsapp. Some investigative journalists as well, all due credit to them. But you should also note the underlying, growing conflict between big tech firms and the government. With WhatsApp there have already been a number of privacy conflicts and disagreements with the government. We’ve seen the government coming into conflict with Amazon and various eCommerce firms with the new e-commerce act they had come out with and with the demand for storing data nationally from the government’s side. The fact is that on most of these things the government may not be wrong, it may be well within its right to demand that all of the data collected from Indian citizens need to be stored in Indian territory. The fact is that these issues are coming up now because there is a greater underlying conflict between tech giants and the government, not just in India but across the world. We saw proceedings in the USA as well. It is essentially the tech giants asserting their power saying “ if you don't do XYZ for us, or if you don't guard our back, then we, who know so much about your people, can call you out on things you are not doing in the right manner.” This sort of conflict is also worth looking into when considering such an issue. So it’s not just a technical question, not just a pure policy question of amending the act, there’s a lot of politics behind it as well.


Nicole: Sir those were some interesting aspects you covered and we absolutely agree with you on the point regarding the role of civil society, as well as the equation between tech giants and governments. I think this is more important given that we're slowly moving into a digitalized world, the privacy aspect is crucial.


Mr. Chaturvedo: One of my favorite books, The Three Faces of Power by Steven Lukes. I recently got a call from somebody who was doing a master's level project in Columbia and she was talking to me about Data Colonialism. For a moment, I scratched my head, and thought I haven’t heard much about that. So I asked her to explain it to me and she broke it down for me. As I just mentioned, most of the data is stored with these tech giants who are mostly in the United States( of America) or the developed parts of the world. We know now that data is more precious than gold, with it you can hack human behavior. Now if there are certain countries that have more data on you than you have on them or your people, then they can change your preferences and that's where the three faces of power become important in two ways: The first, “Why don’t we hear about data colonialism or why don’t we talk about it?” The reason is that data privacy, etc. are some of the things that Google, Uber, Whatsapp, etc. have been talking about for a long time. I did a design jam with Whatsapp before this fiasco(Pegasus scandal) back in 2019. Data privacy is an easy thing to talk about. The first face of power is that you have some aspects, some policy questions which are out there in the public and there is one party who will win, one party who will lose. Just like the Farm Laws, one group of people who support it, one group opposes it, everyone knows about it. We’ll eventually have them either updated, as it seems, or there will be amendments, we’ll see about that. One party wins or loses. That's the first, very visible face of power. The second face of power is the Power of Agenda control. “What are the things that I will not even allow to enter into general discourse?” There are certain things, for example, mental health issues, nobody is talking about that, no bill that is being discussed. There might be a bill now, but there are so many issues that are bothering people which are not even discussed in the media, they are never put up in the parliament. That power to remain silent or to not let an issue even become important enough to be contested in the political array, that is the second face of power. This is a huge power that tech companies possess. They can certainly block a lot of data or restrict some sorts of content over others, as we have seen for good reasons as well as bad. The third face of power is the more problematic one. In the second face of power, you have a problem but you cannot articulate it or get it put into the discourse. The third face operates on the level of ideology or mental ‘hacking’ where you don’t even know what your true preferences are. Your true preferences have been messed with. A good example that Steven Lukes gives is women in the Victorian age. They thought that confining themselves to the house, wearing tight corsets which caused various health issues, were virtues. There are things that go against your benefits, but if you are propagating them, there are people who believe they are good. I was talking to someone from Lithuania who supports the democratic movement in Belarus, she was telling me that there are people in Belarus who defend the dictatorship, even though they are living in shambles. When such a thing happens we know the third face of power is in play. The tech companies have a lot of power to exercise this third face because they can literally change preferences. That's the political power dynamic we need to understand. We, frankly, do not have an effective policy, not in India, not across the world, to prevent tech companies from exercising this kind of power.


3. What is your take on the recent Population control bill in UP?


Mr. Chaturvedi: My take is really simple on this. Firstly, on a more ideological level, the government has no place to enter people’s bedrooms. It is the people’s individual decision on how many kids they want to have or what they want to do in their personal lives. Even if the people make a decision, the Government will have to face the consequences. If people decide to have 10 kids instead of 2, there will be greater competition for resources and there will be greater management required on the part of the government. I think that in a democracy, the government can educate but the government cannot put restrictions on people’s personal lives and I think that it is quite problematic when a government gets to do that. The other thing is that India’s fertility rate and replacement rate, which is how many people are born and how many people die in a given year, is pretty healthy if we look in the long run. Don’t quote me on this, there has been a study from Oxfam and Shekhar Gupta has covered it in great detail in the earlier _____(?) where he’s talking about the fact that India’s population will rise for the next decade or so, then it will plateau and then by 2050 or thereabouts, even though India probably will have the largest or second largest population in the world, the population will be on a downward trend. The thing is that demography is such a thing where natural trends work well in a longer period of time. India’s replacement rate is pretty healthy, 2.1 if I’m not wrong, which essentially means that we are not super high in population. All of that conversation on “we’ll run out of sources” and population issues, yes population is a problem but these are complex adaptive systems and you cannot take rash actions like China did, with the 1 child policy and now it has gone over to a 2 child policy, the 1 child policy was giving them many problems because in the long run, they will have more older people in the country and will have a higher dependency ratio and the younger people will have to earn per person and will have more older people to support. There are these challenges that emerge when you play with the natural course of the demographic. I think that now China is in that sort of a spiral in which it will have to artificially manage its population. They will have a 2 child policy, later on, they might come to the 3,4,5 child policy and again come back to a 1-child policy. Once you get into this, there is no getting out of it. Once the government starts managing the equilibrium, then it's always up to the government’s management and we’ll almost never be able to restore the natural course, which is more evolutionarily stable. I frankly think that it might look like a thing that will help, but if you look at data and trends, you would not want to mess up with the fundamental roles. I’m not trying to get political by saying that so and so MLA of so and so party have two children, all of those are secondary arguments that you see in mainstream media. All I'm trying to say is that there is a certain equilibrium in complex adaptive systems, and once you start managing the equilibrium, you’ll always have to keep managing it and it’ll never take its natural course, and cause economic, social, and political problems in the future.

The population is a problem, not a crisis. Crisis is cooperation in society. I teach this course in Comparative Public Administration at the GPODS fellowship, and previously taught it at the San Francisco State University and I always start with the problem of cooperation, this is something we were also taught at Cornell. Societies where there is greater cooperation, are able to allocate their resources more optimally where there are able to utilize and grow their resources more optimally. And societies where there is a problem of cooperation, then even smaller populations - Africa, Latin America, etc. despite great natural resources, are not able to do great because of a lack of cooperation in these countries. They allocate their resources sub-optimally and also destroy their resources so subsequently their resource pool shrinks. I think the crisis is of cooperation and not of population.



4.Tesla CEO, Elon Musk has recently vocalized his opinions regarding the high import duties preventing Tesla and other automakers from entering the Indian market. Assuming the duties don’t change, what incentives could persuade such companies to set up shop in India.


Mr. Chaturvedi: I personally like Elon Musk a lot. But let me answer the question in this manner. There is a lot of politics behind it and I will come to that quickly but the first thing that we need to understand in addition to the politics is that tariffs certainly are one thing but there are other problems and other reasons why a number of companies are always hesitant. Now we know that Tesla has registered itself in India but then companies are still a little hesitant in committing immensely in India and the reason is that we still have a problem with enforcing contracts. If you look at our ease of doing business rankings, we are pretty good on a number of parameters. If I’m not wrong, we are 63rd overall now and we have jumped up 14 positions over the past few years. The problem in India is judicial pendency- that is huge. If you are my supplier, you give me something and I don’t pay you, then there’s a problem. Your cash to cash cycle is in a mess and if I raise a dispute on that and if my case is pending in the court for several years, even decades, then I have incurred a huge loss and I was talking to one of GPUBS that even for the government of India there should be a study on how delayed government payments are, to even private sector consultants and private sector contractors. The payments are often delayed-crores and crores of rupees over the years. A number of ministers have spoken about it and I appreciate that at least this thing has come out from the second phase of power to the first phase of power, it has at least become a part of the agenda. But, enforcing contracts in India is a big problem. That certainly is an issue.

Now, coming to the whole question of tariffs in India, one might remember that Donald Trump called India the “Tariff State'' and that in 2009 March he ended the general system of preferences as the favored nation status for India. Now that was essentially an indication that India has high tariffs and if you don’t lower your tariffs on a number of things, Harley Davidson is a case in point, we are going to retaliate and do the same. Now the thing with India and the US is this: India has a large enough domestic market and the US has a great global presence in terms of foreign trade to GDP ratios. In India, the foreign trade to GDP ratios is much lower, which means that India is a lot less invested in the global political economy or global economy, let’s say. The challenge is that India wants to be there, India wants to have a 3% share of the global economy which currently it doesn’t. It hovers around 1%. How is India going to do it? If we have too many tariffs, if we put too many trade barriers, then it is going to be a problem where you have high barriers for others and others have high barriers for you. If you look at it game- theoretically, you are defecting rather than cooperating and as a result, the others will defect as well. So you will be stuck in a Nash equilibrium prisoner's dilemma. The solution to getting out of this is that India will have to figure out a rational way to liberalize a number of its sectors which may not need as many tariffs like I can imagine handicraft products being given some protection or I can imagine the MSME sector, in general, being given some protection. But, for things such as automobiles, sectors which are fairly developed in India, we will have to figure out a way to gradually phase out protection while ensuring that there are no job losses. It is a tricky problem because the moment you say that we will let Tesla etc come in here then suddenly you will have all these companies including companies from abroad such as Hyundai, Mitsubishi, etc who are producing in India say that if our products become uncompetitive and if we are employing thousands and thousands of people of your country, then will all lose their jobs just because you are importing some fancy Lamborghinis or Teslas from outside. So it is a tricky situation for India but then to answer the question, I think one is that we will have to figure out a way to avoid job loss while at the same time removing protection from certain sectors. We will also have to negotiate with the United States because they have huge tariffs on steel and aluminum and a number of countries have objected to it. We will also have to improve our intellectual property rights because that is one reason in addition to tariffs why countries or a number of companies are hesitant to come into India. In fact, for the United States India is still on the priority watch list of countries that do not protect intellectual property adequately. The issue is that Tesla or any other company comes into India and they run the risk of their intellectual property being stolen and some other indigenous company coming up with the same thing at a cheaper model, they would not want to waste their money and investments doing that. If you are saying let us not touch tariffs at all and keep them high, I personally feel that that in itself needs to be questioned reasonably but if you are saying that let's keep tariffs high but lets still figure out a way for Tesla to come in, we will have to guarantee better intellectual property rights, better enforcement of contracts in India which also means that we will have to expand the personnel in the judicial services because there is a lot of understaffing in the Indian Judiciary as a result of which cases remain pending.

We will have to look at developing alternative dispute redressal mechanisms, mediation, arbitration, etc to a much greater degree especially for corporate matters in India than they are right now. We will have to do a bunch of things and at the same time, we will also have to rationalize our trade policy a little.