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Insights about public policy and international affairs by Shivam Shankar Singh



Shivam Shankar Singh is a data analyst, campaign consultant and author of the bestsellers, The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities (HarperCollins, 2021) and How to Win an Indian Election (Penguin, 2019). He started out in politics as a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow and went on to witness the process of conjuring political realities while managing data analytics for some of India’s largest political parties.

He is a panelist on national television and writes for several news publications on data and politics. He graduated from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and is a 2021-22 Schwarzman Scholar.

Can you tell us more about your experience at the LAMP fellowship?

The LAMP Fellowship is one of the best opportunities in India to learn about the world of policy and politics available to a young person. I credit a lot of my early learning about how policies are made in the country to the fellowship. It places you directly at the heart of India’s parliamentary processes by attaching you with a Member of Parliament for 11 months. At my MPs office I was responsible for drafting parliamentary interventions and keeping my MP informed on all proceedings of the house. I drafted parliamentary questions, wrote drafts for raising matters of public importance within the house and summarized bills for the MP. I was also involved in initiatives outside parliament, working with NGOs and organizations on diverse issues like population stabilization, sustainable development, organic agriculture and many other areas that my MP was interested in. This broad based introduction to the world of policy, and just learning from an MP about how India’s politics works is invaluable.

What is the book – “The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities” about?

The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities at its heart is about how power in the modern world is determined by an entity’s ability to shape your information environment. Your perception of what the world is like is dependent in large part on the information you receive, and if I can control that, then I can in essence control your thoughts and actions. The book details the techniques that are used by politicians, scammers, intelligence agencies and other entities to shape your thoughts using information warfare techniques. My co-author on the book, Anand V., is a cybersecurity expert, and while discussing the techniques politicians were using in India to shape political narratives we realised that a lot of these techniques were actually sophisticated information warfare concepts used by intelligence agencies globally – and that was when we decided to write the book – detailing the techniques, and providing a roadmap for countering them.

What role can India play in the Russia – Ukraine crisis towards peace building?

There’s a very limited role for India to play here at this late stage. The crisis likely will be solved by a bilateral peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, and the best India can hope to do is to hasten this process by increasing the cost on Russia for delaying negotiations. India is a major buyer of Russian military equipment and buys some of its petroleum from Russia, it can in theory use both to pressure Russia into an early resolution, but it harms India’s own interests too with very limited gains for the nation. That basically means that India will remain neutral in the conflict, and continue to maintain the status-quo with all sides. 

Do you think the US and Russia are treated differently by global media while reporting? How?

The US and Russia definitely get different treatments in global media reportage, with the US getting a lot less criticism for the foreign interventions it has engaged in. This isn’t solely a consequence of media bias though, the US has a much stronger information campaign before it has engaged in many of its foreign interventions, like the prevalence of the narrative that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) before US forces landed in Iraq. The media definitely amplifies US narratives, but it at least in part seems to do so because the US is good at crafting them for its intended audience. Russia on the other hand does win over the information space in some regions, but pro-Russian narratives rarely get traction and support in much of the western world. This is especially true of the current Ukraine crisis since Ukraine itself is seen as a western nation, thus garnering greater sympathy from the media and from western audiences than say the victims of conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Your book “How to Win an Indian Election” was a huge success. Can you tell us five key takeaway points for readers of the book?

Yes, the book became an instant bestseller and got a lot of support from people. I largely credit that to the stories and information in the book really resonating with readers. Many people observe or feel things about politics, but they rarely get an inside peek into why political parties make certain choices or why campaigns are run a specific way, I think the book helped many people make sense of things that they were already experiencing but couldn’t fully understand. My 5 big broad takeaways would be:

(i) Insights into the role and mechanics of branding and narrative building in shaping people’s opinions of a politician or party.

(ii) The increasing use of data to micro target voter groups, and getting different demographics to see entirely different campaign messages.

(iii) The huge role that money plays in electoral politics, and how that ties in to corruption, caste based voting blocs and crony capitalism.

(iv) How party spokespersons, politicians and TV commentators often take a stance on TV while not really believing it themselves off camera.

(v) Why most new parties and electoral experiments fail in India, with Aam Aadmi Party being an exception that I’ve delved into to understand why it succeeded.

What is the next book you are working on about?

Nothing concrete is in the works yet, but I suspect it’ll have something to do with information warfare at a global level, specifically as it relates to the great power rivalry forming between the United States and China. These days I’m researching that rivalry as part of my capstone for Schwarzman Scholars too, and it’s fascinating how large of a role information and narratives play in such geopolitical relationships. 

What’s your opinion on AAP winning Punjab elections? What is the future for state parties which want to transform into national parties in India?

It’s an absolutely historic win for AAP. Within a short span of 10 years of its existence, AAP has now formed the government in two states. No regional party has managed to do this even after existing for decades. Before this, only INC, BJP and Left parties have formed governments in multiple states while all regional parties have only had a footprint big enough to form the government in one state. I believe AAP will continue to do well in many of the states going to polls over the next two years, making it an important player in the national elections. Very few regional parties have actually put in the effort to become national ones in the past, and most will continue to be happy with winning in their own states, but the decline of Congress has opened up space at the national level and we could see regional parties trying to expand more aggressively. AAP’s success is currently without parallel though.  

Tell us more about your experiences at the Schwarzman Scholars Program.

The Schwarzman Scholars Program is an absolutely unbelievable experience to get to understand China and get a global perspective on how the world operates from people who are experts in their domains. The phenomenal faculty and guest speakers that the Schwarzman Scholars team is able to get for the program is impressive on paper, but to get to experience it is another thing entirely. In the past few months, I’ve gotten writing tips from New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman, life lessons from General Karl Eikenberry, insights on China from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and many other renowned global experts who’ve been kind enough to share their insights. Such an experience is beyond what I could have imagined, and the program truly is one of its kind.

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.

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South Asia

Bulldozing Dissent in India



State brutality and hostility have emerged as the defining factors in BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party)  policy toward Indian Muslims. From mob lynching and punishment on beef consumption to imposing a ban on the ‘hijab’ in universities, BJP continues to find novel ways and means to target Muslim society and enforce the concept of Hindu supremacy in India. While deliberate marginalisation of Indian Muslims is not new and remains an important part of India’s policy towards its minorities, the intensity of this campaign is soaring with every passing day. 

Recently, two senior BJP members made disparaging remarks against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), brushing aside the sentiments of the state’s largest minority. The comments drew criticism from around the world, creating a diplomatic row for India.While PM Modi decided to remain silent on the issue, the concerned BJP members had to be suspended from the party given the intense backlash from several countries, especially the Gulf states.

On the other hand, the remarks also sparked a wave of anger in the Indian Muslim communities, who registered their grievances by holding protests on the streets in various parts of the state.  However, to deal with its own citizens, India resorted to using force and refused to let the Muslims protest peacefully, depriving them of their fundamental democratic rights. Amidst the demonstrations after Friday prayers, clashes between protesters and police broke out in several parts, the most notable one occurred in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Two teenagers lost their lives, and several were injured. The Indian police also arrested approximately 300 individuals taking part in the protests.  

The most concerning event that followed afterwards was bulldozing the houses of Muslim activists who were either present at the demonstrations or were apparently the organisers. The demolitions were justified on the pretext that they were illegal establishments. In reality, these criminal activities were done on the behest of the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, who is an ardent RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) follower – the most projected political figure in BJP (after Narendra Modi) and a torchbearer of Hindutva politics.  

It has been observed that the frequency of the use of bulldozers to demolish personal property is increasing in Muslim-majority areas in India. CM Adityanath himself is considered the pioneer and advocate of this ‘bulldozer strategy’, which is now frequently being executed throughout India by other BJP leaders. His ardency with the idea of demolishing Muslim houses can be sensed from the fact that bulldozers are displayed at BJP rallies to demonstrate them as a symbol of state power. Mrityunjay Kumar,  Adityanath’s media advisor later tweeted a photo of a bulldozer with the caption, ‘Remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday,’ which conveys the government’s unapologetic stance on its actions and the intent to use such equipment without hesitation. 

Whats worse, the state machinery deliberately orchestrates the scenes of Muslim houses being turned to rubble to instil a fearful impact. Its purpose is to deter the Muslim communities from protesting against the ‘saffronized’ state. Such images are meant to signal that the state will not tolerate such kind of opposition in the BJP-led India and will not hesitate to exercise the use of force against such segments. The prime objective is to bulldoze their courage to stand against oppression in the future. 

Another way to look at this violence is the long-term dynamics of Indian politics. While it is apparent that Narendra Modi will contest the next Indian elections for BJP, it is fairly evident that an alternative leadership is preparing to succeed him in the future. The potential candidates are replicating his past machinations to strengthen their personal and political statures. Akin to Modi’s Gujarat massacre, his party members are recreating events that can bear similar impacts in order to emerge as radical leaders in accordance with BJP’s vision.  This includes intense and targeted verbal and physical attacks on Muslims. Hence, the use of force against Muslims will likely be a prominent factor for capitalising on the majoritarian Hindu vote bank.  

Lack of accountability, persistent silence of key leadership and the embedded political objectives are fanning dangerous flames in an already fraught environment for Muslims in India. The repressive attitude toward Indian Muslims has now been institutionalised at the state level and suggests that life will only worsen for them. India’s belligerent policy and confrontational actions will fuel further divisions in a society that has become extremely polarised along religious lines. Political interests are overshadowing national interests and the trend is likely to continue.

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South Asia

This week’s deadly earthquake is a reminder of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan



Damage is seen in the Spera district, in Khost province after a devastating earthquake hit eastern Afghanistan in the early morning of 22 June 2022. © UNICEF Afghanistan

Afghanistan can’t catch a break. This week’s deadly earthquake is the latest chapter in a worsening humanitarian crisis. It has also shone a light on the shortcomings of the Taliban’s ability to deal with the myriad of problems in the poverty stricken country. This represents an opportunity for the international community to play a larger role in helping Afghanistan to recover and rebuild.

This comes as a magnitude six earthquake hit Afghanistan’s remote Paktika province on Wednesday. The Taliban have claimed that at least 1,000 people have died, with over 1,500 injured. The number of casualties is expected to rise over the coming days. The remoteness of the province and heavy rain has hampered rescue efforts in what is the deadliest earthquake in two decades.

For Afghans this is the latest in a line of tragic events that are causing untold suffering. Since the Taliban takeover in August last year, Afghanistan has endured a worsening humanitarian crisis. Decades of conflict, natural disasters, poverty, drought and the coronavirus pandemic have meant that most Afghans are now facing a rapidly deteriorating situation under the Taliban.

The United Nations Development Program has stated that Afghanistan is facing ‘universal poverty’, with 97 per cent of Afghans living below the international poverty line. Acute malnutrition has risen dramatically across the country, with 95 per cent of Afghans now experiencing food insecurity. Well over 80 per cent of families are facing high unemployment, creating a situation where they cannot feed their children and where those children are either sold for money to buy food or forced to work or beg for pitiful sums. The healthcare system has also collapsed, with doctors and nurses not being paid and with medicine in short supply.

The Taliban rightly deserves criticism for this situation through poor governance and the mismanagement of what government funds are available. It has become quickly apparent that the Taliban are incapable of dealing with either the humanitarian crisis or effectively responding to the earthquake in Paktika. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah has pleaded with the international community to “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort”.

The situation in Afghanistan also raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the international community in causing the current crisis. The country has long been heavily reliant on foreign aid, and this was no different under the NATO-led occupation. The chaotic withdrawal of both international forces and humanitarian aid agencies resulted in much needed funds leaving with them.

Additionally, the implementation of harsh sanctions and the freezing of remaining Afghan assets by the United States has effectively hamstrung the Taliban’s ability to help those most affected by the crisis and to respond to disasters such as the recent earthquake. For these reasons, the Taliban’s claim that international sanctions and the freezing of Afghan assets is acting as a collective punishment on all Afghans has some merit.

In a positive development, the United Nations and aid agencies are on the ground providing support to those affected by the earthquake and have been undertaking operations to tackle the humanitarian crisis for some time.  This includes providing tonnes of medical supplies and teams of medical professionals, and the roll out of food and tents for starving and displaced Afghans.

But more needs to be done. The international community, particularly countries who withdrew from Afghanistan last year, can provide much needed equipment and supplies so recovery operations can continue in Paktika. If these country’s still do not wish to recognise the Taliban, then these funds can be provided to UN aid agencies at ground-level.

Furthermore, the international community needs to play a larger role in alleviating the humanitarian crisis. This can be achieved by unfreezing frozen government assets, which belongs to Afghans, so development projects can continue, and civil servants, teachers and healthcare workers can be paid.

Through this funding, the international community can attempt to leverage the Taliban to adequately fund the education, financial and health sectors so people are paid and so these sectors can strengthen to reliably assist those in need. This leverage can also convince the Taliban to allow women to re-enter the workforce and participate in social life, something that will go a long way to ensuring that families earn enough to feed themselves.

The recent earthquake has highlighted the dire humanitarian and economic situation Afghanistan is in and it is up to both the Taliban and the international community to fix it.

While the international community doesn’t have to recognise the Taliban, it is equally responsible in ensuring that the crisis ends so innocent Afghans can rebuild their lives with dignity.

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South Asia

Pakistan: World Refugee Day



photo: UNIC Mexico/ Luis Arroyo

World Refugee Day is an international day designated by the United Nations to honor refugees around the globe. It falls each year on June 20 and celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. World Refugee Day is an occasion to build empathy and understanding for their plight and to recognize their resilience in rebuilding their lives.

Taking refuge is an old phenomenon, and even during WWI and WWII, the refugee crisis became very serious. In the last few decades, the geopolitics has deteriorated, and once again the people were forced to take refuge in the safer part of the world. Unfortunately, the Muslim world was the victim and most of the refugees were Muslims. However, the Ukraine war is the first-ever war in Europe after several decades, and the refugee crisis in Europe seems a new one. There are around 6 million Ukrainian refugees, and there are 44 European countries, or 27 EU member countries, sharing this burden collectively. Whereas, Pakistan hosted up to 5 million (at peak) Afghan refugees alone.

Pakistan joins the international community in commemorating World Refugee Day. While observing this Day, we express our solidarity with refugees all around the world. This Day behaves us to reflect on the drivers of forced displacements and to reaffirm our commitment to finding sustainable solutions for refugee situations, including through conflict prevention and resolution. This Day is also an occasion to reiterate our collective resolve for refugee protection under the principle of international burden- and responsibility-sharing.

Pakistan has shouldered the responsibility of one of the largest and most protracted refugee situations in the world for over four decades. Pakistan continues to host more than 3 million Afghans. Another 0.4 million Rohingyas have also found refuge in Pakistan. There are refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and etc. The people of Pakistan have demonstrated exemplary generosity, hospitality, and compassion towards the refugees in the country, showcased in Pakistan’s inclusive policies on health, education, and livelihoods, including during the COVID-19 response.

As new situations emerge around the globe, the long-standing Afghan refugee situation must not be forgotten by the international community. There is a need for renewed international commitment, especially in the context of COVID-compounded socio-economic and health challenges, through regular, predictable, and adequate financing for Afghan refugees including their safe and dignified return. It is equally important to undertake necessary measures for the stability and sustainable socio-economic development of Afghanistan, in order to avert the possibility of any future refugee exodus from the country.

On this Day, Pakistan pays special tribute to UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – for its commendable work in support of refugees and host communities throughout the world. Pakistan looks forward to further strengthening its valuable partnership with UNHCR. We call on the international community to support the Organization in its efforts toward durable solutions for refugees worldwide.

Genetically, Pakistan is an open-minded society and due to its own diversity, can accommodate all races, cultures, and religions, and can be integrated with others conveniently. Pakistan has been hosting refugees from various parts of the world and has integrated them perfectly. Pakistan hosts the world’s second-largest number of refugees in its territory. However, the economic burden is beyond Pakistan’s capacity, the international community is urged to generously extend a helping hand in sharing the burdens with Pakistan. Instability in the region imposed wars, and natural disasters are growing in this part of the world, which may cause more unrest in the neighboring countries and force more people to take refuge in Pakistan. Europe and America have strict policies, but, Pakistan is still a more flexible and convenient destination for international refugees. The constitution of Pakistan is more friendly and accommodative. The visa regime and border controls are also rather flexible and friendly.

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