Research Blog

Approval of Chinese and American leadership in South Asia

I’ve been crashing on a whole variety of things: teaching a new IR of South Asia lecture class, finishing the first full draft of my Armed Politics book manuscript for a late May book workshop, keeping up with the news and new research, and trying, and mostly failing, to not catastrophically fall behind on absolutely everything. So I am basically accomplishing almost nothing beyond frantically building Powerpoint slides and triaging my email.

That said, a project I am *thinking* about as my next book is the domestic politics of foreign policy in South Asia. I have several data collection projects of various forms going on regarding India, and am finding various interesting pieces of quantitative data and case studies to explore in the rest of the region.

I’ve been particularly interested in tracking down public opinion data, which seems like a potentially under-explored area. The internal breakdowns are of greater theoretical interest (what explains variation within each country in views of China?), but here’s an aggregate comparison of “Approval of China’s Leadership” from the Gallup World Poll, 2006-18 (the chart can also be found here if you have trouble reading it embedded in this post):

Pakistan (red) is by far the highest approval overall, and has increased a good bit in the last decade, at 73% in 2018, with 55% the lowest in 2009 and 82% the highest in 2016. Nepal follows up (light blue), hitting 52% in 2018, up from a low point of 29% in 2012.

Sri Lanka (yellow) and Bangladesh (green) sit in the middle – both have bounced around a bit, but broadly in the 30-40% approval range over time. India brings up the rear, from 8%-24% depending on the year.

Now here’s the equivalent for the United States (link to chart here):

There’s a substantially lower spread – Nepal brings up the top at 55% in 2018 (low point 28% in 2011), followed by a clustering of India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka at 39-41%, and Pakistan the lowest at 14%. Pakistan has ranged from 7% (2006) to 26% (2011), India is currently at its highest approval (lowest in 2011 at 16%), Sri Lanka has bounced from 48% (2002) to 14% (2012) back up to 39% in 2018. Bangladesh’s low was 19% in 2007 and its high was 48% in 2013.

Obviously there are massive caveats with this kind of work, but I thought these were interesting patterns across countries and time.

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Indian foreign policy & domestic politics

Vipin Narang and I published an article in Security Studies last year. It’s currently free and ungated here. We’ve been thrilled to see the article engaged by three excellent young scholars and analysts:
1. Rohan Mukherjee reviewed it for H-Diplo/ISSF.

2. Kunal Singh (heading off to MIT for a Political Science PhD next year) used it in this article on why Pakistan attracts so much more attention in Indian politics than China, which poses an objectively much bigger challenge.

3. Neelanjan Sircar explores what the Kargil war can, and cannot, tell us about the links between international security and electoral outcomes.

Two Kashmiri narratives

With the attack on the CRPF at Pulwama and ongoing India-Pakistan tension, it’s important to understand some of the politics at stake here. While most, understandably, emphasize 1947 and the battles over partition and accession, I want to suggest to readers two memoirs that provide insight into contending narratives about the origins of the insurgency and the evolution of the conflict since. These matter both for Kashmir and for the broader battles over nationalism in contemporary India and Pakistan. The point of this post is not to judge their relative quality or accuracy, either of the books (there are plenty of reviews out there) or of the narratives (which do not seamlessly overlap with either author, to be clear), but instead to provide a little context to the political contest over history.

The first book is Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night. Peer grew up as a Muslim Kashmiri and his book can be seen as one approach to understanding the lived experience of Indian counterinsurgency (Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator is fictional but conveys similar themes). For many in Kashmir, the 1990s were a period of brutal, heavy-handed state repression – the systematic use of torture, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, rape and sexual humiliation, disregard of human rights by the security forces, and a deep, hypocritical gap between the self-regarding Indian narrative about democracy and the actual behavior of the forces. This is a world of BSF interrogation centers, arrogant and unaccountable officers, stacks of dead bodies, an Indian population fundamentally disinterested in how its security forces rule “restive” peripheries, at best, and jingoistically cheering on indiscriminate violence, at worst, and a long history of political manipulation and mis-governance. I have a vivid memory of an auto driver in downtown Srinagar telling me that he was ruled by a “government of the stick.”

This has broader implications. One could imagine how the attack at Pulwama would not be seen as a terrorist attack but instead a clean hit on an armed convoy of security forces in a war zone, and far less of a moral outrage than Gawkadal or Bijbehara. Talk about “winning hearts and minds” or the “healing touch” would seem superficial and meaningless. Development as a pathway to peace would seem to be sidestepping the core political issues at stake. Kashmir is seen as a historically distinctive and particular place, not a stand-in for either Pakistan or Muslims in general; it is a small and marginal population facing the wrath of a massive India.

Many Muslim Kashmiris would accept that militants committed atrocities and excesses (including, to some extent, toward Pandits), but would argue that India’s security forces committed vastly more killings, tortures, and general acts of coercion and violence. In the background lies a long history of Hindu minority rule in Jammu and Kashmir – Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects – and the numerous interventions from Delhi.

The second book is Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, which explores the experience of Kashmiri Pandits as they fled the Valley early in the insurgency. Pandita argues that the Muslim population often was complicit in often-vicious violence against Pandits, that the insurgents were not idealistic nationalists but instead driven by a clear Islamist agenda, and that the Pandit exodus must be a central part of any narrative of the 1990s. The misery of the Pandit refugee population and its erasure in favor of an inaccurate portrayal of a victimized, passive Muslim Kashmiri population are the key injustices to be righted.

Kashmir, and the Pandit question, in the eyes of the Hindu right were on my mind when I wrote this post about threat perception among Hindu and Buddhist nationalists in South Asia:
“Christianity and Islam are seen as offensive, aggressive forces that tend to take and seize land that once belonged to indigenous religions. They then demand an unearned indigeneity, asserting their total claim to the conquered territory. Non-proselytizing religions like Hinduism and Buddhism find themselves ever more squeezed and restricted, unable to take back what was rightfully theirs. This is, for instance, part of the Hindu right’s narrative on Kashmir – rather than a Muslim territory that needs to be in some way accommodated as special and different, they frame it as a formerly Hindu territory seized and colonized by Islam.”

In this narrative, Islam is on the march in Kashmir and beyond (see, for instance, the skepticism of Rohingya claims and opposition to providing them sanctuary among many on the Hindu right). Liberal elites tie themselves up in knots trying to justify double standards and so-called “minority appeasement,” but the truth must be faced by true nationalists: Kashmir is where a line must be drawn, with force when needed and with vigorous support and empathy for the security forces facing down hardened, implacable jihadist foes. There is little sympathy for Kashmiris – they throw stones at security forces, celebrate radical Islamists from groups like Jaish and Lashkar at militants’ funerals, encourage their children to martyrdom, live on land bloodily stolen from indigenous Hindus, extract money from the Indian taxpayer despite holding that taxpayer in contempt, and then have the temerity to complain about human rights abuses.

This has bled in recent years into the claim that even pro-Delhi/mainstream Kashmiri political parties are functionally secessionist and treasonous. Kashmir is particular only in the intensity of its rebellion – more broadly, however, it represents a chauvinistic and expansionistic Islam backed by Pakistani guns and money. The narrative also is instrumentally useful, both within the state (Jammu) and in the broader national electoral showdowns that face a powerful but still embattled Hindu nationalism.

These battle lines are visible in today’s political debates, and even once this particular escalation dies down, they will remain fundamental to the political cleavages defining the politics of India and South Asia.

I also want to recommend this sobering Human Rights Watch report from 1996 for anyone interested in the conflict in the 1990s: India’s Secret Army in Kashmir.

India’s deterrence dilemma

This is a really fascinating piece by Yogesh Joshi in War on the Rocks on the new INS Arihant, India’s first SSBN. A couple passages that jumped out at me:

“With China and Pakistan as nuclear adversaries, India confronts a unique challenge. It has to build up its nuclear capability enough to ensure that Chinese decision-makers fear it, without sending Islamabad into panic and undermining regional stability. This “Goldilocks dilemma” will be difficult to resolve, and India should not leave it to chance — especially as the United States, once South Asia’s chief crisis manager, loses both interest and influence in the region. India should reassure Pakistan by reaffirming its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and a retaliation-only nuclear doctrine. More importantly, India should rethink its deterrence requirements vis-à-vis China.”

” Indian decision-makers must accept the reality of this modest enterprise. Rather than engaging in premature triumphalism over Arihant, India should take a page from the Chinese playbook to hide its capacities and bide its time.”

“Even after nuclear weapons have been mated with missile tubes, the military will not be in command of nuclear weapons. Any ballistic missile launch requires a two-step authorization, in which civilian authority plays a key role. Even in situations where an imminent enemy strike may be about to take out the submarine’s ballistic missiles, civilian authority will remain the sole custodian of India’s sea-based nuclear forces.”


What to read on Assam

Assam has been in the news recently, as well as the broader Northeast, as a site of protest against the recent citizenship bill passed in the Lok Sabha. These are a few works that can help situate the politics of Assam in a broader historical perspective:


Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself and Durable Disorder

Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back

BG Verghese, India’s Northeast Resurgent

Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist

Myron Weiner, Sons of the Soil

Monirul Hussain, The Assam Movement

Deeka Meeta, Student Movements in Assam

Nani Mahanta, Confronting the State

S.K. Chaube, Hill Politics in Northeast India