India initiated an economic evolution in the 1990s, which gathered sufficient momentum to become a revolution that propelled India into the thick of international power play. The geo-politics and circumstances of international power balance are ever-changing and have their own ways of creating ups and downs that in turn revamp the equilibrium of global order. India’s move towards becoming an important entity on the world stage has been cynically defined by some analysts as having been achieved ‘despite’ the Government. However, in the past few years, the Indian government has also made efforts at being pro-active to the growing stature of the nation.
There is no doubt that India has grown in confidence when dealing with other nations, both within the region and in the international scene. This new-found confidence has resulted in the nation starting to search for its legitimate place, perceived to be somewhere near the head of the table, within the global community of nations. There is an inherent belief in the nation that the most populous democracy in the world should no longer be ignored or sidelined when matters of international importance are being discussed and decided. No doubt, there is merit in this implicit conviction that has led to a concerted push to be accorded regional power status and accepted as a global actor of significance. India considers these to be long overdue credits that the nation deserves.
There are three fundamental factors that determine the ‘power’ of a nation—its diplomatic influence based on a strong and far-sighted foreign policy; demonstrated military power projection capabilities; and a stable economic strength with very clearly marked future prospects. Further, these three power elements should be comprehensively enveloped within a cohesive information age governance paradigm. The concerted application of all elements of national power to successfully achieve unambiguous national objectives is the only way to establish the stature and status of a nation in the international geo-political environment. India currently is in the process of attempting this difficult task in order to give credence to its ambitions.
India’s Foreign Policy – Need for a reality Check
The current government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is at the half-way mark of its mandated rule. Very early in his term, the Prime Minister had indicated that foreign policy would be a focus area for the government and signalled this priority by inviting leaders of eight neighbouring nations to attend his inauguration. At best the government will now have another 18 months to pursue the agenda that it had set for itself in a focused manner, before it will have to, per force, go into election mode along with the nation. The outcomes of foreign policy initiatives of the past two years have been a mixed bag and India needs a reality check on its achievements and failures in order to take stock and recalibrate where necessary.
Prime Minster Modi had very limited previous experience in matters of foreign policy. However, he has displayed a pragmatic understanding of the role of national power in global affairs and has not been averse to pursuing avenues in international relations that he instinctively feels would deliver the right results for India. In the pursuit of presenting India’s strengths to the world, the Prime Minister has embarked on an outreach program to create positive relationships. At times these overtures seem to have unleashed the power of a blitzkrieg. The Prime Minister has visited and also hosted the leaders of all the top nations of the world. In all these interactions, the attempt to replace Nehruvian idealism of non-alignment, which has been the cornerstone of Indian diplomacy for over sixty years, with realistic pragmatism is clearly evident. There is tacit acceptance of the need to improve relations with global powers.
Even though a series of initiatives have been instituted, there is evidently a lack of long-term vision and a coherent strategy in dealing with the important aspects that matter most to the Indian polity. This is clearly visible in India’s inability to protect its own position as an emerging regional power; in its failure-prone attempts at dealing with China and even Pakistan; and its inability to have a credible counter-narrative to the moves being made by the China-Pakistan combine. It is very obvious that a well-meaning and energetic Prime Minister alone cannot reinvent, rewrite and rescript Indian foreign policy.
India suffers from the capricious nature of an entrenched foreign policy establishment that is reluctant to change direction and seems to pay only token attention to political directions. The ‘Foreign Service’ is a seventy-year old elitist edifice, built on arrogant disdain for the elected representatives who are considered to be transient in nature. The service is adept at playing the waiting game in order to gauge the political swings and the on-going game of thrones in parliament. The end result is an inherent lethargy that does not serve the interests of the country in a volatile international environment. This is evident in the dawdling follow ups that have taken place in converting the diplomatic initiatives, which the Prime Minister seems to be able to conjure up, into tangible foreign policy successes. Only a foundational shake up of the bureaucratic set up of the Foreign Service will ensure that India’s foreign policy starts to mirror the basic interests of the country.
India currently lacks a strategic blue print that is capable of bringing conceptual developments, national interests and demonstrated action into a synergistically aligned foreign policy. Even so, an analysis of the foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives of the previous few years provides a list of priorities that the government seems to be pursuing. The common factor in these initiatives is that they are all oriented towards moving India into a position of regional power. That is as it should be, since a nation’s foreign policy must always be focused on furthering national interests. These priorities also resonate with India’s longstanding foreign policy initiatives, even though the impetus to pursue these priorities may have altered.
The first priority is to ensure that its immediate neighbourhood is inclined to be supportive of India’s initiatives. The smaller neighbours in South Asia had become wary of India’s perceived ‘bullying’ ways. The current government uses the term ‘Neighbourhood First’, as one of a number of catch phrases that have been coined in the past two years or so, to indicate this priority. The new initiative is meant to improve India’s reputation in the region. The aim is to support to the smaller neighbours through providing resources, training and material for development activities; and facilitate greater regional integration through improvements in trade and commerce. It is expected that these overtures will create the appropriate environment for India to assume a leadership role without seeming to be overbearing and will lead to regional consensus on its role.
With these new initiatives India hopes to concentrate on capacity building amongst the neighbours, while avoiding suspicion and creating a positive harmony in its immediate region of interest. By simultaneously improving connectivity, it is hoped to achieve a gradual extension of its influence throughout the region. So far these initiatives seem to have created a mixed bag of results. The fact is that the smaller nations of the region zealously guard their sovereignty and therefore need to be handled with the proverbial kid gloves, especially since anti-Indian sentiments are very easily drummed up and spreads rapidly. Smooth and only positive relations are unlikely to be the norm in a region where for long India-baiting by the smaller nations has been common. However, India does not need to adopt a permanent defensive crouch when dealing with its immediate neighbours, as it was wont to do in the past. It definitely needs to be balanced in its initiatives in the region and could even be selectively offensive when needed.
The second priority is a logical extension of sorting out the immediate neighbourhood and focuses on South-East Asia as China becomes increasingly and belligerently assertive in the region. For nearly two decades, India has been advocating a ‘look-east’ policy that has remained primarily aspirational and not transformed into reality. Prime Minister Modi has renamed this policy, ‘Act East’, which could be indicative of the government’s intention to engage more pro-actively with the South-East Asian nations. Two factors make China’s actions of concern to India—the relative superiority of the Chinese economy vis-à-vis India; and the concerted attempts by China to obtain strategic primacy in the broader Indo-Pacific region. While India accepts that the economic disparity cannot be bridged, it is looking for other means to achieve strategic parity in the region.
India understands the need to balance Chinese initiatives, but is currently only reactive to China’s moves. This has to be gradually changed to become proactive so that the initiative can wrested from China in the Indo-Pacific. China too is aware of this situation and continually initiates actions that keep India off-balance. For example, the long Sino-Indian border is, for the most part, relatively stable with no large scale issues. However, China escalates border tensions at times and places of its choosing. India seems to be at a loss to contain these sporadic border issues. The preponderance of the Chinese military forces in relation to India further compounds the problem. India does not know how to be on the front foot in dealing with these border challenges.
India aspires to improve its trade relations with South-East Asia, which can only be done through building well-integrated relations with the existing regional forums. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), when and if it comes into force, will affect India directly. However, there has been no cohesive response from India so far, giving credence to the belief that it has adopted an ostrich-like attitude to the challenge. India seems to be wanting to make it ‘go away’, an unbelievably naïve approach to deal with a developing situation. The need is to carry out an incisive analysis of the long-term implication of the TPPA and institute remedial measures. On the positive side, India is much better attuned to multi-lateral political and security consultations in the Indo-Pacific region, whereas China favours bilateral negotiations. Further, India’s deepening security partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia are proactive steps.
The third priority is containing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism that destabilises the entire nation. The ebb and flow of these terrorist related activities are directly linked to the Pakistan-China nexus aimed at keeping India unstable. The concept is to keep India pre-occupied with a continuous but minor stream of pinpricks that could be escalated at will. India has neither formulated a definitive and winning strategy to defeat this state-sponsored terrorism that is directed at its body politic, nor has it started to develop long-term policy initiatives. The current situation of tit-for-tat military actions across the line of control is at the lowest tactical level of reactions and is not a long-term solution. The solution will only be lasting if it is political in nature and the current status of Indo-Pakistan relations vitiates any such initiative.
India is aware of Pakistan’s nefarious activities, but the fear of nuclear escalation seems to be constraining its response options. However, Pakistan is also destabilising itself with an out-of-control home-grown terrorism, which could spill over into India with its large Muslim population. However, Pakistan continues with its terrorist activities against India relying on the predictable and assured passive reaction from India. Unless this situation changes dramatically India can expect further Pakistan-fomented terrorist activities on its soil.
The new government has rejuvenated a flagging foreign policy by engaging proactively with its regional neighbours, with a clear aim of isolating Pakistan. This has borne fruit and Pakistan has not been able to circumvent the growing isolation as easily as in the past. Further, it has also exposed Pakistan in the eyes of the international community. The only reason that sanctions have not been imposed on this maverick nation is because of the veto power being exercised by China. India has also stepped up its initiatives to improve relations with the Gulf countries with the aim of focusing on the activities of Pakistan. Currently the Indo-Pakistan relations are in the same quagmire that it has been for a number of decades. However, a subtle change can be observed and India is gradually being able to seize the initiative rather than being on the back foot. The question of whether the same focus and offensive diplomatic stance will be continued, only time will answer. However, containing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is the single most important factor in India’s foreign policy and continues to consume an inordinately high amount of time and resources. If this challenge is not adequately addressed, it has the potential to hold India back from becoming a regional power, a situation that China wants to perpetuate.
The fourth priority is the culmination of the first three, which will lead to India emerging as a regional power and a global player of accepted significance. The current international system is conducive to India’s rise. Although India realises this, it is unsure about how to capitalise on this situation as it is not yet in a position to unilaterally assume the lead even in regional initiatives. The efforts towards achieving regional power status is very obvious in its actions. India is geographically big and demographically the largest democracy in the world. It boasts of a fast-growing economy; is a member of the G-20, East Asia Summit, and the BRICS Coalition; and aspires to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. India is also lobbying for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime. These initiatives have not been successful and it is possible that a slight amount of frustration is setting in within the policy-making circles of the nation.
In order to start taking a leadership role, it has taken the lead in establishing relief efforts in Yemen and Libya and had earlier coordinated the relief effort in Nepal after a massive earthquake devastated large parts of the country. It is also attempting to create institutions like the recently established Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the success of which is too early to gauge. It is quite clear that India has not been a ‘leader’ in any meaningful way till now. It will require a radical change in the mind-set of the nation as a whole and particularly in the foreign policy establishment to achieve an acclaimed leadership position.
Diplomacy, Trade and Development – The Connection
India needs to concentrate in improving its relations with more developed nations with an eye to capitalising the better relations to achieve technology transfer and to attract foreign capital investment. India is also extending lines of credit to African nations and to Iran. This is likely to increase business opportunities for Indian companies. At the same time the government has laid down an ambitious agenda for change in the domestic economy. However, optimally combining foreign agreements with the domestic agenda will pose some complex challenges. For example, in the defence industry sector, the government is struggling to balance its aspiration to indigenise manufacture and obtain technology transfer while also having to ensure that the underperforming public sector industries are not made redundant. Flexibility in policy implementation will have to become the essence of development. Trade policies also need dedicated attempts at revamping to make them competitive enough since they have a direct impact on manufacture. The path to be followed is steep and uncertain, especially since India needs to balance complex domestic compulsions and an ambitious international agenda.
There are sufficient indicators that point towards the fact that India’s trade is underperforming. It was stated that the October 2016 value of exports, including goods and services grew by nine and one-half percent compared to the value in October 2015. However, this glosses over some detailed statistics and does not capture the bigger picture. Goods constitute 62 percent of overall exports and has shown a downward trend in 18 of the past 21 months. When combined with the fact that the value of merchandise export fell six percent in 2014 and 17 percent in 2015, this is bad news for the Indian economy. The reduced global demand for commodities is only one factor that contributes to this worrying trend.
The major reason for this verifiable downward slide is the many challenges to manufacturing. The complex and inefficient tariff structure constraints export. The high logistical cost, accounting for 14 percent of GDP, adds directly to the price of Indian exports and makes them less competitive in the international market. The transportation infrastructure is under-developed and poorly maintained. It has been estimated that $ 1.5 trillion would have to spend over the next decade to improve the situation. This large amount of resources will require private investment, which in turn will be difficult to attract because of various challenges such as the lengthy and litigious process of land acquisition. The logistical cost is further increased by the outdated technology used in Indian ports. Of the total 344 ports, only 124 use Electronic Data Interchange. The rest use a manual tracking system wherein the lag can be as much as a month long. Most of the ports also suffer from challenges to existing infrastructure. The government lacks the funds to improve it, but is also reluctant to permit an increase in tariff for the ports to undertake the necessary build up individually. Private investors are reluctant to be sucked into the mire—the mix is noxious.
The existing tax structure for exporting goods is inefficient. They are state-determined, which translates directly to delays in transportation across state borders. The current government has introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in an attempt to unify the nation as one market, but this bill is unlikely to pass in the Parliament. Further, the tariff structure is skewed in favour of import of manufactured goods rather than indigenous manufacture, a legacy situation that has not yet been addressed even after nearly 70 years of independence.
India’s Military Might
The third pillar of national power is the potency of its military forces. Till about a decade ago, the Indian military forces were almost totally oriented towards a Pakistan-centric stance. However, lately the military establishment has accepted the necessity to plan for a ‘two-front’ war as the strategic base for force structure development. The power and potency of a military force is based on two fundamental factors—the demonstrated capability of the force; and the national will to employ the force in the pursuit of national objectives. The second factor depends further on a number of elements—the people’s connection to the concept of national security, the functioning of the strategic decision-making process and a bipartisan political consensus.
India has long suffered from a lack in the sufficiency of all the three elements. The general population has a less than clear understanding of what national security entails and is only peripherally interested. This could be attributed to the background of long colonial rule, where the debate on national security was not the purview of the ‘common man’, but that of the foreign ruling elite. Further, during the colonial rule, national security was defined as the security of the home country and not the colony per se. The second element, strategic-decision making, should in ideal conditions be bipartisan. Unfortunately it is not so in India. National pride, itself an opportunistic and transitory entity, somehow does not manifest as a necessary support for national security. In addition, the inherent divisions of religion, caste, race, language and ethnicity makes it extremely difficult to create an ‘Indian’ ethos.
It will not be an exaggeration to state that narrow political expediency clouds the judgement of decision-makers. India is perhaps the only democratic nation where there is almost no military input into the national security grid and strategic decision-making. This stems from the paranoia of a military take-over, displayed by successive governments. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. This political paranoia is used as an excuse by the civilian bureaucracy to sideline the military forces from assuming any meaningful role in national security. There is also the prevalence of an unfortunate and incorrect perception that translates the idea of ‘civilian control’ of the armed forces as civilian bureaucratic control instead of control exercised through the elected parliament that it actually means. The systemic attempt to lower the status of the military forces by the bureaucrat-politician nexus is clearly visible in modern India, which directly and detrimentally impacts national security.
In India, national security has developed into a political ballgame that is touted at even the basest of political debates. The politicians have also started the process of politicisation of an avowedly apolitical military force; a process that if not consciously checked will rapidly erode military proficiency and directly affect national security. It is hard to imagine any other nation taking this path of studied neglect of national security. This political apathy percolates into the development process of appropriate military capabilities. In turn, it will be one of the fundamental reasons that will finally bring the Indian military forces to its knees. There does not seem to be any attempt at understanding, let alone remedying, the continual erosion to the holistic capability of the military force because of petty bureaucratic delays in the procurement of necessary equipment. The situation is compounded by the long-standing government attempt to foist underperforming indigenous equipment on the military with no calculation or even thought to the degradation of overall capability that this entails. The recent case of the Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas—delivered years too late, underperforming, and over-priced—which has been ‘inducted’ into the Indian Air Force as a ‘squadron’ of just two aircraft, is a case in point.
The military acquisition process needs an immediate and complete overhaul if the military forces are to deliver national security in a tangible manner. The scandal-ridden bureaucracy is incapable of speeding up the process or looking out for the betterment of the military forces in an altruistic manner. At least for now there does not seem to be any sense of urgency to address this glaring challenge and no connection being made between military capabilities and national security within the civilian bureaucracy. This attitude is mind boggling and apparent to even the most casual observer. That otherwise astute politicians seem to be unaware of this glaring flaw defies understanding. The same lackadaisical approach is reflected in the somewhat arbitrary financial allocations made to the military forces, which in effect has the military making do with what is given. The Indian military forces have per force perfected the ‘art of the possible’ instead of being able to cater for emerging requirements.
The military forces have long suffered from, and continues to be battered by, decades of government neglect. The visible degradation of the military forces—in stature, status and benefits—is perhaps responsible for the shortage in personnel. The Indian army suffers from a personnel shortage of 17.4 percent and the navy by 13.3 percent. In an all voluntary force of a nation of teeming millions this is a statement of truth of the common perception regarding the status of the military forces that cannot be denied. The current structure of defence administration is not designed to instil confidence between the political leadership and the military hierarchy, leading to a growing perception gap between the two. The need to integrate the higher defence command structure has become an inescapable reality for India, one that can be ignored only at its own peril.
Currently the Indian military forces is functioning at a distinct and definitive disadvantage. To start with, the concept that the military forces of a nation is at the vanguard as the first line of defence that ensures national security is being questioned by the entrenched civilian bureaucracy. Sadly the political leadership is either unaware, unable or unwilling to remedy the situation. ‘Unwilling’, for a variety of facetious reasons, would be the correct analysis if the demonstrated apathy to the needs of the military forces is any indicator.
The Indian military forces today lacks the wherewithal to be fully prepared to meet the full-spectrum of possible eventualities that could directly challenge the nation’s sovereignty. This is an unenviable situation for any military force, let alone for a country aspiring to regional power and global significance—a situation not even partially of its own making.
Containing Pakistan – A Security Imperative
Containing the anti-India activities of Pakistan is an inescapable necessity and a national security imperative for India. This cannot be postponed any longer. The increasing possibility of a military confrontation between the two nations is one of India’s own making. It emanates from India’s decades-long policy of ‘engagement’ rather than proactive action at all levels of national power. India has for most of its independent history laboured under a strategy of ‘risk-aversion’ that touts strategic restraint as a virtue. Over the years, risk aversion has rightly been perceived as a sign of inherent weakness in India’s body politic, making it easy for an adversary to act in a belligerent manner. More than 60 years of self-imposed ‘restraint’ hangs around India’s neck like a millstone. The fact is that ‘restraint’ is only appreciated after a concerted display of strength and determination, which India has not done so far.
Pakistan and India have so far resorted to very different strategies to achieve their objectives. Pakistan adopts a decidedly anti-India stance and resorts to conflict escalation tactics to destabilise India. India on the other hand has so far been reactive to Pakistan’s military activities, preferring to pursue a strategy of reconciliation in the vain hope of ushering in peace. From the current situation it is clear that India’s strategy has not worked and is unlikely to achieve any long-term stability. It is clear that the Pakistan military forces have to be defeated categorically before any political dialogue can be moved forward. If this is to be achieved, the Indian military would have to reconstitute their strategy since both China and Pakistan have a common anti-India bias in their security stance. Further, Pakistan is unlikely have any restraint placed on its anti-India activities. In the past decade or so China has subtly, but noticeably changed the manner in which it deals with India—it has resorted to the use of the Pakistan army as a proxy tool to discomfit India. This has restricted India’s attempts at concentrating on economic growth and social development. This process lets China resort to conflict escalation at will without direct involvement, which would otherwise carry with it unsavoury geo-strategic and political implications.
From recent actions it is clear that Pakistan is pushing towards a limited war with India. This adventurism is based on the belief that China will come to its aid, both militarily and diplomatically in the international arena. India, with its short-sighted appreciation of security, does not seem to fathom this concerted move by the China-Pakistan combine. It has to wake up to the fact that military containment of Pakistan has now become a strategic imperative rather than a ‘good to have’ option. India’s national security imperatives currently do not have the priority in the government that they deserve. A sad commentary on the nation’s long march through nearly 70 years of ‘freedom’.
There is no doubt that India aspires to regional power and a status of global significance. If there is serious consideration to achieving this, rather than as mere verbal platitudes, containment of Pakistan is critical. India must consciously adopt the following three initiatives if it is to fulfil its ambition. First, it must call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff, which inhibits the concept of freedom of action in Indian strategic thinking. Pakistan has, for a long time, employed a strategy of brinksmanship explicitly touting the nuclear threat at periodic intervals. These threats are meant to magnify the fears of the international community, which would then bring pressure to bear on India to not use its military might and exercise its famous ‘restraint’.
The international fear of a nuclear exchange is the single strand on which Pakistan is building its anti-India rhetoric. The fact is that Pakistan will not survive a nuclear exchange, whereas India’s geographic depth will let it continue as a nation, post a nuclear exchange. India needs to call Pakistan’s bluff on this. Once that has been done, the military equation will change rapidly.
Second, India should boldly dismantle the terrorist training camps in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir that are used as the launch pads for conflict escalation across the Line of Control and the international border. India has the military preponderance to achieve this but not the political will. Third, India must actively support the separatist movement in Baluchistan in a direct and overt manner. The threat of a further dismemberment, like the separation of erstwhile East Pakistan into an independent Bangladesh in 1971, must be made directly to the Pakistan establishment led by the military forces. However, all the three initiatives require bipartisan political consensus, which will in turn require a sense of nationalism within the political class that transcends petty politically motivated ideological debate. Unfortunately India has not grown any statesmen in the past decades but created only politically self-serving men and women of limited vision. In India today, political consensus even in matters of national sovereignty, is like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, an unachievable dream.
India needs the courage of conviction to enforce the three initiatives that will contain Pakistan and make it realise that India means to become a regional power irrespective of the actions of misguided neighbours. However, these actions will be difficult for India to enforce not only because of its fragmented political establishment, but also because of the current international attitude towards Pakistan. The US still adopts an ambiguous and confused attitude towards Pakistan and both China and Russia seem to be unwilling to address the issues that emanate from Pakistan. China actively supports them, and Russia is maintaining a studied silence. The reasons for Russia’s silence in this matter is involved and merits another analysis. The end-result is that India needs to move on its own. This will need to be a signal lesson in international diplomacy, a demonstration of the nation coming of age and knocking on the door for entry into the club of the powerful. This has to be done, for only containment of Pakistan will bring lasting peace to South Asia.
Whether the neglected military forces of India is up to this hard task or not is matter for another discussion.
Viewed holistically, a strategic vision for the future is gradually emerging in India and there is also noticeable progress being made towards achieving most national objectives. However, India faces myriad challenges in achieving its aspirations to be a regional power of global significance. The inherent difficulties are topped by the visible gap between the nation’s international aspirations, domestic reality and the actual implementation of well-meaning initiatives. India’s difficult relations with a recalcitrant Pakistan and the Chinese inroads into its sphere of influence also form a combined challenge that India needs to negotiate. These and outstanding issues with its smaller neighbours have highlighted India’s inexperience in a broad leadership role. Taking cognisance of this, India has devoted the past three years to proactively dealing with the neighbourhood and containing domestic fallouts of the necessary policy changes.
India has articulated an anti-hegemonic and pro-multipolar stance in international affairs, while favouring bilateral dealings at the regional level. However, any and all diplomatic initiatives are only taken seriously by other nations when they are backed by strong military capabilities and the demonstrated national will to employ them. India is yet to display this combination in a coherent manner. Its diplomatic initiatives therefore lack credibility. India is functioning in an immensely hostile neighbourhood within the context of global instability and facing increasingly overlapping geo-strategic, political, social, economic, environmental and technological challenges. Under these extremely complex conditions, India has not been able to articulate a visionary strategic path to be followed in order to claim its appropriate place in the sun that it seeks.