Wisdom of the Crowd

What 1.2 billion Indians think about democracy, America, and the world. 

With 1.2 billion people and counting, India is projected to become the most populous country on the planet by 2030. Amazingly, we have long known very little about what the citizens of this democratic behemoth think about their future in the world. For decades, the country's foreign and security policies have been defined and driven by the preferences of a tiny elite -- notably, a professional diplomatic service numbering in the mere hundreds. Now, a comprehensive new opinion survey sheds light on the worldview of Indians from all levels of society -- urban and rural; educated and illiterate; young and old; rich, poor, and aspirational.

So what do Indians like? Among other things, most like America, their military, and their democratic rights. What do they fear? Pakistan, China, and scarcity of energy, food, and water. What do they want? For starters, they want their government to do something about the country's myriad problems -- from advancing India's interests abroad to maintaining social harmony and fighting corruption at home.

The poll provides stark and sometimes startling insights into Indians' hopes and fears at a time when the narrative of the country's unstoppable rise has been called into question ahead of national elections next year. It also illustrates the depth of Indian mistrust towards Asia's other giant: China. Eighty-three percent of respondents consider China a threat to India's security. But the poll also reveals Indians' desire for that to change. Sixty-three percent of respondents would like to see relations with China improve, as opposed to just 9 percent who think ties are too close already and appear resolutely opposed to rapprochement. This, at least, should be good news for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who was in India this week to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The survey, carried out by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent Australian think tank, in partnership with the Australia India Institute, is based on face-to-face interviews conducted in late 2012 with 1233 adults in seven languages across 11 of India's 28 states. Like all such surveys, it's not perfect; its statistical margin of error is calculated to be 3.6 percent.

Even so, the results throw up some striking patterns, and not a few surprises. Forget stereotypes about Indians having an excess of national pride. It turns out that many instead have a sense of perspective, realism, and even humility about their country and its reputation. Only 23 percent of the poll respondents say they think India receives less respect from other countries than it deserves -- while 36 percent think it receives too much.

Still, there is a surprising level of confidence in India's economy, at least over the medium term. Despite a marked slowing in the country's growth rate, 74 percent of respondents are optimistic about their economic prospects over the next five years. But Indians are divided about whether the fruits of growth are being justly distributed: While a narrow majority (56 percent) of Indians see themselves as economically better off than five years ago, about 18 percent feel worse off and 27 percent do not think their economic situation has changed.

And most Indians see major problems looming on the horizon. Shortages of energy, water and food -- along with climate change -- register as the country's most important challenges, with 80-85 percent of respondents rating these issues as "big threats" to India's security. Other issues rated as "big threats" by large majorities include possible war with Pakistan (77 percent), home-grown terrorism (74 percent), foreign jihadist attacks (74 percent), possible war with China (73 percent), and a continuing Maoist insurgency (71 percent).

The data also show how Indians feel about other countries -- and the results are surprising. Indians are better disposed towards the United States than towards any other foreign country. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the U.S.-India partnership is stuck on a permanent plateau, this is good news for America.

Asked to rate their feelings toward 22 other countries, Indians rank the United States first, then Singapore, Japan, and Australia. Indians feel warmer towards these countries than toward the other members of the so-called BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa), with which India supposedly shares diplomatic and economic interests.

In fact, 78 percent of respondents think it would be better if India's government and society  "worked more like" the United States -- an intriguing result in this age of sequestration, policy deadlock, and bitter partisanship in Washington. Another 60 percent, give or take, think the same about Australia, Japan, and Singapore -- well ahead of other countries.

But it goes beyond the desire to simply mimic American institutions: Eighty-three percent of Indians think relations with the United States are strong, and 75 percent want to see them grow stronger still -- even though at the same time 31 percent say they think America poses a threat to the security of India over the next 10 years. (Only 9 percent, however, see America as a major threat.)

Indians also have strong opinions when it comes to the instruments of statecraft and power.  

In the nation of Gandhi and Nehru, 95 percent of respondents see the possession of a strong military as "very important to achieve foreign policy goals," while only 68 percent feel the same way about the country's external affairs ministry, responsible for carrying out the country's diplomacy. Other issues that Indians rate as "very important" include the country's image in the world (78 percent), wise political leadership (78 percent), strong political leadership (75 percent), and nuclear weapons (79 percent). Abandon thoughts of India banning the bomb any time soon.

And think twice, too, about New Delhi's tradition of non-alignment and strategic autonomy: Seventy-two percent of survey respondents attach great importance to India having strong countries as partners.

Still, some things don't ever change: An overwhelming majority (94 percent) of respondents see Pakistan as a security threat over the next ten years, citing terrorism as a major reason. Other reasons identified include a belief that the Pakistani army sees India as its enemy, that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and that it claims sovereignty over Kashmir.

Even so, 89 percent of respondents agree that ordinary people in both countries want peace, 87 percent agree that a big improvement in India-Pakistan relations requires courageous leadership on both sides, and 76 percent think that India should take the initiative in repairing relations since it is the larger country. This result may send a timely signal to the Indian government about opportunities afforded by Pakistan's recent civilian leadership transition.

But what of the relationship between India and China? The poll suggests that China faces a publicly diplomacy challenge of Himalayan proportions -- no doubt worsened by recent tensions on the contested border between the two countries.

Most of the 83 percent of respondents who see China as a security threat over the next ten years indicate multiple reasons for this mistrust. The most significant include China's possession of nuclear weapons, competition for resources in third countries, China's efforts to strengthen relations with other countries in the Indian Ocean region (where 94 percent of respondents want India to have the strongest navy), and the border dispute between the two countries. Although China has become India's largest trading partner, only 31 percent of respondents agree that China's rise has been good for India.

In responding to China's rise, however, most Indians are hedging their bets: Sixty-five percent of respondents agree that India should join other countries to limit China's influence, yet a similar number (64 percent) agree that India should cooperate with China to play a leading role in the world.

But don't expect greater cooperation with Beijing to rub off on India's domestic political system. For all its faults, 70 percent of respondents consider democracy preferable to any other kind of government, and at least 95 percent support the right to a fair trial, the right to free expression, and the right to vote, while 87 percent support the right to a media free from censorship.

Still, Indians do seem to agree with the Chinese about at least one thing: corruption. An overwhelming 96 percent of respondents think corruption is holding India back, while 94 percent think corruption has worsened in the past five years and that reducing it should be a government priority. Maybe Manmohan Singh and Li Keqiang have something to agree on after all.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images


Burma's Web-Savvy Rebels

How Burmese insurgent groups are using China's version of Twitter to fight their war.

When Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited Burma in late March, he lamented that only about 1 percent of Burmese are connected to the Internet, and urged the government to increase connectivity. "The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices," he told students at a technical university in Rangoon, the country's largest city. "If you are a political leader you get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about."

But to find out what one group of Burmese are thinking, the government would do better to turn to the Chinese Internet. Tens of thousands of militants who live along the Chinese border, occasionally skirmishing with troops aligned with the central government, are surprisingly web savvy. And they're not using Google or Twitter to spread their message.

The United Wa State Army, Burma's largest ethnic militia group, with an estimated force of 30,000, communicates with the outside world using Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter. Their account, titled the Wa State News Bureau, has more than 55,000 followers, and is verified by Sina. Besides the Wa Army, several paramilitary groups along Burma's restive border use Sina Weibo to build support from Chinese sympathizers and to tell their side of the story. (None of the groups mentioned in this story agreed to be interviewed.)

Unlike Somalia's al-Shabab militia, which often uses its Twitter account to take responsibility for assassinations, the Wa Army portrays itself in a more wholesome manner: as a supporter of ethnic autonomy in Burma's border region, and as an opponent of poppy planting across the roughly 6,600 square miles area under their command. "They mostly use microblogs for propaganda, but also for their business actives and to communicate socially," says Yin Hongwei, a journalist for the Chinese newspaper Time Weekly, who has been in close contact with Burma's ethnic border militias for more than a decade.

Weibo is a powerful platform for the rebels, for two main reasons: They speak Chinese, and that's where their pool of potential supporters hangs out. Worldwide, there are more than 500 million Sina Weibo users, the vast majority in China. There are no good statistics for Sina Weibo users in Burma. And because Burma's telecommunications network is unreliable, militants often use Chinese IP addresses, further obfuscating the picture. (This also means Twitter, blocked in China, is more difficult for them to access.) Among the militants, Yin estimates, "there are about a thousand users regularly publishing articles and comments online," and added that roughly 100 are directly linked to the leadership circles of these armed groups.

Earlier this year, a Chinese-language microblog affiliated with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, a militia Yin estimates has 200-300 soldiers, had been thanking "online friends" for their donations. The army "has added two new primary schools," read one post. Along came photos of recruits training in the newly built camp and photos of commander Peng Deren, the son of the group's octogenarian leader Peng Jiasheng, distributing Chinese currency.

For almost two decades, the Peng clan ruled the Kokang Region, an autonomous zone with roughly 140,000 people that shares a 107-mile border with China. In August 2009, a Burmese offensive ousted the Peng clan and installed a replacement; Peng and his army have since been hiding in Wa-controlled territory, according to Yin and a foreign diplomat in Burma, who asked to speak off the record. Dong Rubin, a Chinese IT specialist who frequently travels through the border areas, says that the ouster of the Peng clan was the first instance when Burmese militia power struggles appeared on Chinese microblogs.

The second jump in users occurred in October 2011, when a militia group executed 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River, said Dong. "When the Mekong massacres happened, microblogs in Shan State's Wa territory started showing a high degree of activity," he added. A Chinese investigative unit hunted down the killers; they were executed on March 1.

The Wa Army used its Sina Weibo account to refute accusations over its involvement in the killings. But members have also used the service to boast about its armaments. Photos of Wa military parades have circulated in Chinese military forums, showing armored troop carriers along with Wa carrying crossbows. A January report on Chinese support for the rebels prompted a terse denial by the Chinese embassy in Burma, saying allegations of providing military equipment to ethnic militias were "misguided."

The Wa don't mind if photos of their armaments appear in China, said Yin, who added that they share footage of their parades to show how close they are to China. The relationship between the Chinese and the border rebels stretch back at least half a century, when the Burmese Communist Party skirmished with the central government, often with Chinese support. When the Burmese Communist Party splintered into militias in the early 1990s, China maintained its relationship -- and a porous border allowed the smuggling of supplies to the beleaguered rebels. In September 2011, the Wa reached a peace treaty with the Burmese government, but in January the Wa Army used Weibo to threaten a return to the decades-long "civil war period" where thousands died, and tens of thousands fled to neighboring countries.

During the Burmese army's 2012 Christmas offensive against the roughly 8,000-strong Kachin militia, its largest military operation in two decades, Chinese-speaking Kachin soldiers microblogged troop movements, overflight routes, and information regarding casualties. "Around 6:30pm today, the Burmese artillery fired two 105mm grenades at the KIA headquarters in Laja Yang, one of them exploded on a mountain slope in Laiza and did not cause any casualties," one ethnic Chinese soldier who gives his surname as Su wrote on Sina Weibo during the early days of the offensive. At the time, messages like Su's were the only source of information for outside observers on an important and little understood conflict.

"China doesn't censor their microblogs, because they haven't affected Chinese internal security yet," said Dong. "But relevant departments are closely monitoring their activities." And the Burmese government is probably taking Schmidt's advice and doing the same.

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