Monday, February 13

American Raj

MICHAEL WRIGHT: You wrote in one of your recent essays that Americans shouldn't try to help Pakistan, that they're the wrong people to try and help, and that Indians are the only people who could really help because they're family. You know that nobody in Washington is going to listen to your advice. So is there any insight you could give Americans on how to do the least harm in their relations with Pakistan? I know you've given lots of insights and recommendations over the years but if you could get across only one thing what would it be?

PUNDITA: Try and look at things on the Indian subcontinent from the top down, from the viewpoint of the rulers, during the British Raj at the height of its power. From that view, the Indians weren't living in subjugation to a foreign power, a colonialist power, they were an integral reason for the success of the British Raj -- they were the Raj, co-ruling with the British a vast swath of humanity. They sat at the right hand of the most powerful ruler on earth, in a manner of speaking, and that's how they saw themselves.

The British sought their help and advice, and in tribute to the Indian rulers they built and maintained roads, railroads, postal and telegraph systems, flood management systems, and many other infrastructure modernizations and improvements.

Then the unthinkable happened; it all came to an abrupt end. The British could no longer afford to keep up appearances on the subcontinent. They could no longer afford to maintain the infrastructures they built.

Then came Independence. The rulers who stayed on the Indian side, even though soon stripped of the legal power to rule, were better able for a variety of reasons to adjust to the death of the British Raj than the rulers who were on the Pakistan side at the time of Partition.

It's very hard to convey even to today's young generation of Indians, let alone Americans, how traumatic the situation was because Indians tend to focus on the trauma and horror of Partition -- and as with Americans, Indians are steeped in the harshly critical postcolonial views of the subcontinent's rulers, which are mixed with views on democracy and a rejection of monarchism. But the Pakistani rulers had assumed the British Raj would go on forever and that their special relationship with the British would also go on. Then it was all swept away.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: You once mentioned the flooded ballroom in Cameron's Titanic when you were trying to get across what it was like, with all those bodies in evening finery floating in the ocean waters.

PUNDITA: It was the best analogy I could think of at the time. But the point for Americans is that a big part of the special relationship was that the British paid what the Indian rulers considered tribute, in exchange for help from the rulers, and that the tribute included maintaining the subcontinent's infrastructure systems. That's the way things were done, that's the way they were always done. That was the way of the world.

If left to their own devices, as the Indians were after Independence, the Pakistani rulers might have gotten away from the idea of tribute and adjusted to the fact that nobody was going maintain their nation's infrastructures unless they did it.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: I get it; then along came the American Raj.

PUNDITA: Yup. The British maharaja was dead, long live the American maharaja.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: But the American Raj didn't perform to expectations.

PUNDITA: Yes and no. The great difference was that instead of wanting to rule over a vast swath of humanity the American Raj wanted to beat the Soviets. So the Pakistani rulers adjusted the kind of help they gave to this new raj. The trouble was that American aims meant that tribute -- what the Pakistani rulers considered tribute -- flowed more and more to Pakistan's military, which gave the military more and more power. This left the country's traditional rulers, who were soon demoted to the status of feudal landlords by the thinking of the West, in an increasingly desperate position.

And who was going to maintain the infrastructures built by the British Raj? Who was going to finance the building of new infrastructure systems while the rulers were busy with their traditional role of getting a decent day's work out of people who oversaw the laborers and settling the endless disputes that arose between them?

Then, just when it seemed the world was going to end -- drumroll, please.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: [laughing] Along came the World Bank.

PUNDITA: Yup. The Bank was already in existence by then but along came its International Development Association and the accounting practices that for some bizarre reason, from the viewpoint of Pakistan's rulers, the Americans considered corrupt. What corruption? It was simply the modern way for the American Raj to keep up tribute payments.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: [laughing] So much for development philosophy.

PUNDITA: Heck, the Pakistanis practically invented development philosophy. But Americans and Pakistanis had two very different interpretations of what development meant. Americans looked at development as a stepwise process toward modernization: we loan you the money to develop, then you build on that development and progress to more and more development, until voilĂ ! you reach self sufficiency.

From the Pakistani view, the view of the rulers, the point of development was toward closer and closer relations with the American Raj with commensurate increases in tributes.

Fast forward to the present era, which sees Washington tearing its hair out over all the development aid and loans that the West poured into the bottomless hole of Pakistan, and asking what the Pakistanis did with all that money. Everywhere Washington looks, it sees infrastructures built more than a century ago by the British, and left to fall into disrepair.

There's the Pakistani flood management crisis, the water crisis -- which is largely a water management crisis -- education crisis, energy crisis, roads and bridges crises, and on and on.

Whose fault is that? The fault of the American Raj for not keeping things in better repair.

A secondary problem with this attitude is that it trickled down in the society, so people who don't earn any kind of tribute still have the sense of entitlement that goes with earning it.

When Pakistan's mango growers wanted a larger share of the global market, they expected someone else, the Americans it turned out, to build them modern facilities for processing the mangos and giving them training in getting the mangos ready for markets that wanted cleaner mangos.

It's like that with everything. If you want us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps you make the bootstraps, put us in them, then pull. That attitude drives the Chinese up a wall, I might add.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: The really crazy part is that while we were pouring aid into underdeveloped countries, our own infrastructures fell into despair.

PUNDITA: The American Raj turned out to ignore its flanks as much as the British did theirs. But so much of the aid and loans got misused in Pakistan because it actually was a form of tribute. Americans were buying help in fighting the Soviets so if the aid money and IDA loans weren't used correctly, well, there was always more where that came from.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: That view wasn't limited to dealing with Pakistan. But to put it in one sentence, what Washington needs to know is that what it considers to be aid, Pakistani's ruling class still thinks of as tribute.

PUNDITA: I don't like putting things in one sentence but that's close enough, except I'd say that they prefer to think of it as tribute. They're not primitives, Michael. They know the way the modern world works.

But the end of the British Raj was relatively abrupt and so traumatic for Pakistan's leaders that another analogy is an amputation made on the battlefield. The legs are there one minute and then they're gone. Even under the best of conditions, where the person has had some time to adjust to the idea of amputation, there can be the 'ghost limb' phenomenon, where the amputee still thinks he can feel the lost limb.

In the same manner, a way of life was unceremoniously uprooted and with it a sense of order that the American Raj was not able to restore. This sense that 'something is missing but should still be there' percolates down through all levels of the society.

For a time the Pakistani military was able to backfill some of the lost order but at a very high price -- a debilitating cold war with India that exploded into hot war a few times with humiliating defeats. And a brutally enforced military rule that further eroded the sense of order. Neither could Pakistan's place in the world as an Islamic state restore the sense of order.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: Because the sense of order isn't rooted in Islam.

PUNDITA: Right. The Muslims who conquered parts of India took on the traditions they found on the subcontinent, where rulers were seen as living gods and expected in act in that manner.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: Do you think it would help if Pakistanis confronted more about their eras of kings?

PUNDITA: Well in many ways they've never stopped thinking of their kings. But by the mid-twentieth century the democracy advocates, socialists and anti-colonialist philosophers had demonized those eras. In doing so, they stripped away the pride that the peoples of the subcontinent should have about being part of those eras. It's like the British, who've spent the modern era beating themselves up about their colonial rules, whereas in fact there's much to be proud of about those.

You can't demonize or reject a big part of your past without incurring a big psychological cost. So, yes, at some point in the future it might be a help if they confronted the fact that the British Raj was a pretty glorious affair and that they were a big part of that. Seen from up close, the raj had an awful aspect, a very cruel one, but so did all other rules. It was just the way things were.

But you see I don't like to use the word 'help' anymore within earshot of Washington. There are times to attempt to be helpful and times to pull back, and this is one of those times when Washington needs to pull back.

If Washington wants to help, help itself. Going back my entire lifetime, it's misread one situation after another around the globe because it was always blind to how a monarchist past influences many crises.

I understand why the blindness exists. But if you want a better informed foreign policy and even defense policy, you've got to set aside your theories and try to overcome your blind spots, so you can see the way things are and how they were.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: It was never really about the money, was it?

PUNDITA: In British India? Of course not. Many of the subcontinent's rulers were fabulously wealthy. It was about what the tributes meant.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: An acknowledgment from the lord of the modern era, in that time, that the rulers had tremendous importance.

PUNDITA: An important place in that era. And, they thought, an important place in this era with the American Raj.

Recently State had to inform Pakistan that it couldn't have a Most Favored Nation trade agreement with the United States because those were only for major economies. The Pakistanis knew that, but still they wanted special treatment. And yet Pakistan's leaders had been talking for months about putting their relationship with the USA on a purely transactional basis.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: Old attitudes die hard. Maybe more of Pakistan's ruling class should read Gone with the Wind. But as long as they keep spawning terrorism we can't leave them alone to work out their present.

PUNDITA: With all due respect, that is the typical view of the enabler.


bdoran said...

I've been wondering why Americans didn't understand the siphoning of aid wasn't a bug, it's a feature. It's understandable the people wouldn't appreciate it, it's incredible the American leadership didn't.

Madhu said...

Very nice :)

I still think the British - or parts of the foriegn policy establishment - seem pretty colonial about Pakistan. A strange kind of love and fascination with the Army and all that....No post colonial guilt there.

And Washington cannot bear to lose a client....