Trends in Insurgency in South Asia

I have a long-ish analytical piece up over at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (where I became a nonresident scholar in the South Asia program earlier this year). Here’s a summary of the basic claim:

“Governments have established greater control of previously contested territories, deployed new technologies of surveillance, and, in some cases, fused party rule with state coercive power. New forms of state and non-state coercion have become more politically prominent, especially localized mob and vigilante violence, which are often linked to, rather than aimed at, the state and ruling parties. These changes are neither universal nor irreversible: important conflicts persist and continue to exact a severe human cost. Nevertheless, the landscape of political violence in much of the region is strikingly different in 2020 than in years like 2004 or 2010.”

Indian public opinion and China

A recent India Today Mood of the Nation poll suggests a strong turn against China in Indian public opinion:

“This month, an overwhelming 84 per cent of MOTN respondents believed Xi Jinping has betrayed Modi. Ninety one per cent believe that the government’s banning of Chinese apps and denying contracts to Chinese companies was the right approach to countering Chinese aggression; and 67 per cent say they are ready to pay more for goods not made in China. The distrust of China has never been this high. Even in the first MOTN, after the 72-day Doklam stand-off between India and China in 2017, 42 per cent of the respondents in the January 2018 poll believed that relations with China had improved.”

What do we know about Indian public opinion toward China over time? In this post I examine two sets of data to lay out some historical background.

First we have a Cold War series, from Indian Institute of Public Opinion surveys of urban India (covering 1957-1988). The IIOPO ran regular surveys in urban India, many of which centered on foreign affairs. You can find an initial paper using these data here, which was supposed to be revised his spring but has languished for covid-19 reasons, with Aidan Milliff (the lead author and driving force) and Vipin Narang. An exceptional team of RA’s – Noa Levin, A’ndre Gonawela, and Rashmi Muraleedhar – have created a dataset of all of the foreign policy questions that we will eventually make publicly available. There are huge caveats with the data (sampling above all: urban, heavily educated and literate) so take with grains of salt.

This is the time trend in net favorability of China; we see exceptionally low net favorability for China in the 1960s that took decades to improve:

These are fascinating results of a survey specifically on China in August 1962, in the run-up to the 1962 war:

General questions on China 1973:

1978 on the China border dispute:

1982 on China border dispute:

We can then examine recent trends. Below are figures from Gallup World Poll in India from 2006-2019. This is just one of a large number of quality polls, but useful for its regular time series.

First we see a steady increase in recent years in Disapproval of China’s Leadership.

We see a sharp decrease in Don’t Know, suggesting a greater proportion of the population has an opinion on the matter:

Approval remains fairly steady, so net unfavorable has gone way up.

These aren’t outliers – in the 2014 Pew survey, for instance, China gets poor marks (it wasn’t asked about in the 2019 survey unfortunately):

I’m not an India-China scholar (check out the work of Srinath Raghavan, Tanvi Madan, John Garver, Taylor Fravel, and various others). I have generalized extreme skepticism of government-friendly claims by governments and government-friendly media, but otherwise don’t have expertise on what very precisely has gone down in recent months.

More broadly, though, what might we say has and hasn’t changed as a result of the still-unfolding China crisis? I’ve kept my opinion on one thing and changed it on another. Continuity first – this all reinforces my not-overly-effusive assessment from two years ago:

“India is a hard-pressed power, facing deep domestic challenges and tightly constrained by powerful adversaries on its borders . . .  India is in many ways now a defensive power in its own region, facing a resolute and risk-tolerant Pakistan Army to its west and, to its north, a truly formidable China that is aligned with Pakistan and expanding its influence throughout the region”

The issues I identified in that piece – guns vs. butter trade-offs in the face of a slowing economy, the rise of China, challenges of reaching beyond the region in a serious way, domestic instability fueled by the government’s political project (this even more so in the last year), and the persistence of Pakistan as a problem for Indian foreign policy are all very much still recurring themes in 2020.

But I am changing on mind on both the general place of foreign policy in India’s domestic politics and, potentially, China’s place within that. The data back in 2009 was pretty clear that most of the Indian public, most of the time, was not very focused on foreign policy (which is not say it wasn’t important in particular elections or via public pressure in some crises). But it’s become politicized as part of electoral campaigning under Modi, and in general there is greater access to information (social media, cell phones, rising literacy, urbanization, etc). So we might be seeing a change in the electorate, or at least party strategy, in general when it comes to foreign policy.

If there was a foreign policy issue with potential domestic salience, Narang and I argued in 2018 that it is Pakistan, because of its deep embeddedness in a key domestic political cleavage within India. As we saw in 2019’s general election campaign, the BJP linked Pakistan to Muslims and allegedly anti-national elements, while using the Balakot air strike to bolster perceptions of toughness and resolve (leaving aside the actual truth of what happened at Balakot, whether an F-16 actually went down, etc: see above my generalized skepticism of all happy claims from authorities/friends of authorities). This has been less successful in state elections but remains in the BJP’s quiver.

It’s not yet clear that China will rival Pakistan as a domestic issue (it doesn’t tap into the same cleavages in the same way, for instance), but the opinion data is certainly showing a clear shift that *may* have future implications for the domestic politics of Indian foreign policy. This is something to look out for, especially when you think about how domestic politics influenced Nehru’s constraints from 1959 until the 1962 war.

Regime trends in South Asia

Freedom House and Polity are well-known measures of a country’s regime type (though see Ben Ansell for very important caveats). A newer initiative is the V-Dem Institute, which aims to transparently and rigorously examine various facets of democracy rather than set on a single “correct” way of thinking about the variation across regimes. For an introduction and application to the contemporary world, see their Democracy Report 2020. I particularly like that V-Dem provides easy ways to graph and compare different variables within and across countries; I also appreciate that they try to represent uncertainty (the confidence interval shadings around the lines below – wider means more uncertain). For a discussion of methods, look here (in other words, before getting angry that your country is being unfairly maligned, check out why it is getting scored in the ways it is).

Below are the Liberal Democracy Index scores of set of South Asian countries, from 1947-2019. The basic story is of the decline and then (perhaps short-lived) revival of Sri Lankan liberal democracy, a long period of Indian exceptionalism that has notably declined over the last decade, the democratization of Nepal, and consistently low levels of liberal democracy (though with variation) in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Pakistan has experienced large-scale military influence even when the army did not directly rule, and Bangladeshi democracy has been undermined by both military rule and competitive authoritarianism, despite formal elections.

By comparison, here are the same countries’ Electoral Democracy Index scores, which is one part of the Liberal Democracy Index but excludes the components centered on individual liberty/equality before the law and judicial and legislative constraints on executives. Many of the trends are similar, but we can see how a focus on elections alone helps out Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan relative to their liberal democracy scores, and somewhat attenuates Indian exceptionalism during the 1980-2010 period. If just look at elections, matters are much more muddled than if we bring in key characteristics commonly associated with liberal democracy.

I discussed some of these dynamics in this Foreign Affairs article last year, and 2019 seems to have largely borne its basic claims out: elections occur, and are definitely meaningful and important, but the broader infrastructure of limits on state power and equal application of the rule of law remains quite weak in much of the subcontinent. In Pakistan, the military’s deep ongoing influence is impossible to ignore. In India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, we see a combination of dominant, majoritarian (in the broad sense) political parties and politicized state apparatuses. This is a matter of pride for some in the region, who herald a new era of strong states, “tough” measures to maintain sovereignty, and resurgent nationalism. For those less excited about what accompanies this trend, there is plenty of cause for concern despite ongoing elections. Regardless of your views, V-Dem’s data and visualization tools are well worth checking out.

Public Opinion in and on Jammu and Kashmir

The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ Lokniti program runs the incredibly valuable National Election Studies surveys. I’ve been going through them as part of a nascent project on public opinion toward security issues. I thought I’d collect here some NES responses from both nation-wide and J&K-specific surveys. They are not restricted to the Kashmir Valley and cover the entire erstwhile state: this may account for highly polarized pattern of responses to some questions in the 2019 J&K-specific postpoll, for instance (for a deeper analysis with fine-grained data I don’t currently have access to, see this important article in the Hindu).

There are obviously numerous really crucial caveats about how interpret survey responses, especially on politically sensitive topics (for instance, Q9 in the 2014 State Assembly postpoll sees almost 50% refuse to answer a question about the “best solution”). I make no major claims about them and advise enormous caution in offering inferences or policy conclusions, but haven’t seen them collected like this before. So, purely FYI:

1996 NES Postpoll:

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2004 NES postpoll:

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2009 NES postpoll:

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2019 NES postpoll in Jammu and Kashmir (questions beginning with JKQ):

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The 2014 State Assembly Election Postpoll has so many interesting questions I just suggest you check it out (with huge caveats about survey non-response and biases – there are some wildly high non-response rates in some questions). Methods notes for all of these surveys are available on the CSDS NES or State Election Studies pages.

Reading List on Civil War and Political Violence

I’ve been reworking my syllabus for Winter 2020’s Civil War seminar. But explosion of research over the last two decades has made it impossible to even try to survey the field (especially since the quarter system at Chicago means we have a grand total of nine class sessions). So I went ahead and created a recommended reading list on civil war and political violence. It’s still wildly incomplete still (I know there is a ton of important missing research), but hopefully can give a more representative picture of the field than the syllabus. It will be permanently linked to on the Students page of my site. I will update it as I remember or see work to include. I hope it’s useful.

US public opinion toward India

India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status has triggered substantial concern among Democrats in Congress, leading to a heated committee hearing in the House on October 22, 2019. In addition to House Democrats like Pramila Jayapal, several Senate Democrats, especially Chris Van Hollen (as well as Republican Lindsey Graham), have been vocally skeptical of post-August 5 Indian policies. Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have similarly criticized the human rights situation in the Kashmir Valley.

This made me wonder what the landscape of US public opinion toward India is, especially the party politics at play.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs runs excellent polling on US opinion toward foreign policy. Their 2019 report (p. 33) shows overall quite positive views of the US-India relationship among Americans (and very negative views of the US relationship with Pakistan):

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This overall favorability is borne out in data from Gallup (image from this article), asking about Americans’ views of India since 2000:

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With the bulk of criticisms on Kashmir coming from Democrats, what can we say about partisan divisions in US opinion?

The figure below is from the Chicago Council’s 2017 report (page 15), comparing confidence in countries to “deal responsibly with world problems”:

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In this measure, we see a partisan divide – Democrats are more pro-India than Republicans by 14-16 percentage points, with “Core Trump Supporters” similar to Republicans. There are similar partisan splits with regard to Russia (notice the striking shift in Republicans’ views from 2015 to 2017!), China (Democrats +12 in 2017), the EU ( Democrats +19 in 2017, and +25 vs. Trumpists), and Germany (Democrats +15). Japan doesn’t get that treatment.

The Council in 2017 also asked respondents what they think about countries’ global influence, from 0 to 10, with 10 being the greatest influence (p. 31):

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The differences are not massive, so we wouldn’t want to put too much weight on them, but here again we see evidence that Democrats are generally more pro-India than Republicans at the level of mass opinion. The variability by country is striking: Trump supporters are substantially more likely to view the US and Russia as more influential than Democrats and independents, while the pattern is reversed for the EU, Germany, South Korea, and India. There aren’t noticeable differences in views of China and the UK. The difference between Democrats and Trump supporters in views of India is .6, around the difference between Democrats and Republicans (but not Trump core backers, which is .8) in views of Russia; Democrat/Republican splits in views of India are similar to Democrat/Republican splits in views of Germany.

In her analysis of the 2015 Chicago Council poll, which asked about the desirability of countries’ leadership in global politics, Alyssa Ayres noted a Democratic tilt toward India (small, but larger than that on the EU or Russia).

In turn, there is evidence from Pew in 2018 that Indians join Russians and Germans as being “much more likely to say their country is playing a bigger role in world affairs than are people in other countries.” It does not bode well for mutual understanding if Americans think of India as somewhat important but not massively so, while Indians believe Americans do – or should – think India is more important than Americans actually do.

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While the House hearings have had minimal media impact in the US – the spiraling political crisis in Washington has sucked up all the attention, among various other pressing disasters – this is an interesting time for the politics of US-India relations. With all the caveats that come with these kinds of data, it does appear to be the case that Democrats have been more pro-India in recent years. Some of this may be due to Indian-Americans tending toward the Democrats, but they remain only 1% of voters, so it not simply due to that alone.

How might we make sense of this potential change? Put simply, the rise of the BJP as India’s dominant party is not something that most Democrats are likely to view with great enthusiasm, nor any kind of Indian embrace of the staggeringly-unpopular Donald Trump (one can imagine reactions when PM Modi said in Houston that “I admire him [Trump] for something more: his sense of leadership, a passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in American future, and a strong resolve to make America great again”). India’s justifications for its actions in Kashmir have clearly not persuaded a chunk of Democratic lawmakers, despite Indian diplomatic efforts. The globalized media environment makes other countries’ political systems more legible than in decades past: every campaign speech by Amit Shah is immediately visible to a global audience, as is every report about conditions in the Kashmir Valley.

Blaming the “liberal media” is a standard Republican line that will not get much traction among those Democrats already inclined toward skepticism. Ambassador Shringla arguing that the American media has been peddling “half-truths, untruths, factually incorrect information” similarly may not have been wildly compelling.

As Ashley Tellis has recently argued, Trump’s foreign policy toward India has been “transactional” and characterized by “capriciousness”; the dominant Trumpist wing of the Republican party should not be seen as a source of consistent comfort. In turn, with Democrats putting a greater emphasis on values and human rights in the Trump era, and identifying the spread of global illiberalism as a threat to American democracy (see, for instance, Sitaraman, Wright, Sanders, and Magsamen et al.; it’s worth noting that none of them prominently mention India one way or another), India’s favorable domestic coalition in the US may be facing new strains in the coming years.

Media appearances on Kashmir and more

  1. I wrote a skeptical op-ed in the Hindustan Times about the government’s move on Article 370. As I note, I could easily be wrong, but my judgment is that this is a much riskier and less straightforward policy shift than much of the hyperbolic, government-line-backing discussion in India (to a lesser extent, the US) suggests: “Kashmir: A bold strategy isn’t always wise”
  2. I participated in podcasts on the topic: Deep Dish with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and The World Unpacked by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  3. Drew Stommes and I published a piece in The Print summarizing some data we have gathered on the demography of India’s main paramilitary forces (the Central Reserve Police Force and Border Security Force) and Army. The academic version, with way more stuff, is here, and the dataset is available here.
  4. Austin Carson and I went on the Thank You for Your Service podcast to discuss civil-military relations around the world and in the US, as well as a huge variety of other topics.

Asia and foreign policy podcasts

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts while doing dishes, mowing the lawn, etc. When not listening to photography shows (i.e. the Classic Lenses Podcast), I focus on Asia and foreign policy podcasts. Here are a few recommendations, in no order (I listen to all of them on iTunes, but links are to whatever pops up most easily when I googled):

The Diplomat/Asia Geopolitics – a very granular, background-to-the-news podcast ably hosted by Ankit Panda. Covers all of Asia, including places/topics that tend not to get much attention in US media.

National Security Conversations with Happymon Jacob. Jacob, a JNU academic with a broad public profile in India’s security debates, interviews a guest on a specific topic each week. Excellent for giving a wide variety of perspectives on India’s security and foreign policy from prominent Indian journalists, scholars, analysts, and former policymakers.

Bombshell. A now-classic War on the Rocks podcast, often with a female NatSec-focused guest. Mostly built around the insights and personalities of Erin Simpson, Radha Iyengar, and Loren DeJonge Schulman. Very enjoyable and covers a wide range of US and international topics; manages to stay fresh.

Three Things from the Indian Express. I listen to this news summary show when I want to immerse in day-to-day happenings in Indian politics. It’s too much to keep up with otherwise, but was invaluable in the aftermath of Pulwama and through the 2019 general election, and when I was teaching my IR of South Asia class.

Grand Tamasha. Milan Vaishnav’s show blends interviews with summaries of what’s been happening in Indian politics. It does a really nice job bringing in journalists and academics to provide analysis.

Ganatantra. A primarily-academic show on Indian politics and society – based on interviews with scholars of particular topics; good for selected deep-dives.

Tea Leaves. Kurt Campbell and Rich Verma’s interview-based show. More a celebration of the guests than back-and-forth analytical, but still often insightful.

Asia Chessboard. Hosted by Mike Green at CSIS, a new interview-based focus on Asia strategy and geopolitics. Similar to Tea Leaves, in ways good and bad.

Jaw Jaw. Another War on the Rocks podcast; Brad Carson does a great job pushing interviewees hard on their views of the rise of China – lots of willingness to get into debates and push back on guests’ arguments. The first season was on China and is now finished; not sure what will come next but the China interviews were diverse and fascinating.

Power Problems. I’m not a Cato Institute person in my general politics, but their views of foreign policy are often thought-provoking. Hosted by Emma Ashford and Trevor Thrall.