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Will Modi realise his superpower aspirations?

  • Published at 06:31 pm February 18th, 2015
Will Modi realise his superpower aspirations?

The Congress’s overt and explicit regime-specific acclamation in favour of the AL was on show during the January 05, 2014 national elections in Bangladesh, which was boycotted by the leading opposition party BNP. The rather one-sided support from the Indian establishment alienated the remaining major political parties and fuelled anti-Indian resentment to a considerable degree. The AL government, on its part, has temporarily cracked down on extremists with ties to Pakistan or India’s home-grown terrorist groups.

However, the sustainability of this “delivery of security” has become questionable given the government’s lack of success in resolving the current political turmoil in Bangladesh, or in reducing the ongoing indefinite violence in the country.

Attempts to label the opposition political parties as terrorist groups are likely to add more salt to injury. The government has also come down hard on Islamist parties or groups which are professedly anti-Indian. At the risk of alienating a segment of the populace, the Bangladeshi government had boldly established a secular polity.

However, it has got painfully little from the UPA regime. It failed to deliver on the Mujib-Indira Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 or signing the Teesta River water sharing accord (in the face of implacable opposition from chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee) or putting a stop to unprovoked BSF killing of Bangladeshi civilians on the border.

It is no surprise that a breakthrough could not be reached on issues that are on top of India’s wish list – the issue of Dhaka formally granting New Delhi transit facilities to northeast India and cross-border coordination in reducing illegal immigration. The rise in political instability in Bangladesh may in turn lead to radical Islamic outfits and organisations filling in the vacuum and even spill over into east and northeast India.

The Modi government, in its wider national interests, may adopt a more cautious, even-handed policy than the partisan approach of its UPA predecessor. This in turn may encourage and facilitate a move towards a meaningful, substantive, multiparty democracy in Bangladesh that would usher in political stability and policy continuity.

A closer Indian involvement may come about in Afghanistan with the regime change in New Delhi. India had closely worked with Russia and Iran in arming the Northern Alliance in its fight with the Pakistani-backed Taliban in Afghanistan. The warming of ties with Kabul during Karzai’s regime acted as a deterrent to the Pakistani military establishment’s desire for strategic depth in Central Asia. Indian companies could well vie with the Chinese in mining and extracting the trillion-dollar deposit mineral reserve in Afghanistan.

There may also be greater Indian involvement in infrastructural development and reconstruction in war-torn Afghanistan. There are also talks about modernising the Chabahar port in Iran to reduce the Afghan government’s dependence on Karachi port for transit facilities (however, one should bear in mind the millions of dollars of cross-border smuggling across the vast and porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border and third country exports from Dubai).

Besides, Afghanistan could well act as a transit for oil and gas from Central Asia and Iran to satisfy India’s growing energy demands. However, India is wary of instability in the region after the withdrawal of ISAF and US forces from Afghanistan. Afghan Mujahedeen forces have frequently infiltrated the Indian side of Kashmir and South Block would do all in its power in reducing this potential threat to its security. To this end, it will continue cooperating with Iran, China, and Russia.

To do all of this, it has to take into account the Pakistan factor. Long-term stability in Afghanistan would not be possible without Pakistan’s goodwill and cooperation. The attack on the Indian mission in Herat was a sad testament of this fact.

South Block would do well to resist the temptation of getting sucked into an unprofitable 21st century Great Game that would place greater demand on its resources than it can afford to dedicate at the present moment. On a passing note, it must be mentioned that the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, is working hard to mend their relationship with Pakistan. He recently suspended his predecessor’s request to India to supply the Afghan army with heavy weaponry.

This brings us to Pakistan – the most important piece of the South Asian puzzle for Indian policy-makers. There was initial hype in the Indian media regarding Nawaz Sharif’s coming to power and his avowed intentions of mending relations with India. His presence in the swearing-in ceremony was an indication of his goodwill and willingness to work more closely with Modi to deliver results. However, the Azadi March by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the religious cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik party nearly paralysed Islamabad.

Interestingly, both these leaders are seen to be close to the Pakistani defence establishment. It seemed that the mighty Pakistani army was still calling the shots, or at least pulling the strings. Border incursions in Kashmir were also stepped up, thereby eroding the goodwill and sympathy generated amongst the Indian populace after the horrific Peshawar school massacre by the terrorists from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Countering the existential threat posed by India still seems to preoccupy the top brass and policy-planners of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Pakistan reminds one of Prussia – that of being an army with a state as opposed to a state with an army. The ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, have long been accustomed to their role as kingmakers – almost similar to the elite Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire who used to crown and depose Sultans at the Sublime Porte and were responsible partially for the decay of the mighty Turkish empire.

India will not be able to reach a breakthrough with Pakistan until real civilian control is established firmly over the army (as the Kargil incident of 1999 amply demonstrates). In the worst-case scenario, South Block would like to have an internally weakened emasculated Pakistan to deal with.

However, it is pertinent to point out that pursuing that policy could be detrimental to India’s long-term security interests as there could be risk of contagion of instability in India itself. One only needs to see how the mighty Mughal Empire of Aurangzeb was enervated by constant raids by bands of Maratha warriors led by different chieftains.

It was ironically facilitated by the defeat of the original Maratha Kingdom at the hands of the Mughals. This eventually contributed to the rapid demise of the Mughal Empire in the early 18th century.

In terms of initiating change in policy in South Block, Modi had sent a strong signal by sacking Sujatha Singh. The lack of progress on economic diplomacy and souring of relations with the major powers (read USA) were cited by insiders as key reasons for Modi’s ire.

Her close family connections to the Congress and mishandling of relations within South Asia could not have helped matters. The man chosen to replace her (a week before his retirement) Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is a diplomat who is equally respected in Washington and Beijing. Mr Jaishankar was a key negotiator in facilitating the 2008 civilian nuclear agreement between India and the United States and President Obama’s recent visit to New Delhi.

Modi has entrusted him with the near Herculean task of strengthening ties with the Americans without ruffling the feathers of the Chinese. It is said that he was the preferred candidate of Manmohan Singh as Foreign Secretary before he bowed in to political pressure to appoint Sujatha Singh on the basis of seniority. Jaishankar has an impressive pedigree to boot – his father, K Subrahmanyam, was the prominent Indian strategic affairs analyst, commentator, and civil servant (who is considered to be the Modern Chanakya by the Indian diplomatic community).

Another portent of the change in direction of South Block was the appointment of Ajit Doval, a former chief of India’s domestic intelligence agency, as the new National Security advisor. Doval’s appointment as NSA, rather than that of a retired diplomat, as has generally been the case in the past, could well signal a tactical change in India’s neighbourhood relations. Doval’s primary interests and strengths are counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, as well as the immediate neighbourhood.

Doval’s exploits as an intelligence operative could well match that of Ian Fleming’s legendary creation, agent 007. He had spied in Pakistan for seven years; been actively involved in counter-insurgency operations in Mizoram, Punjab, and Kashmir. He also possesses the rare distinction of being involved in the termination of all 15 hijackings of Indian Airlines aircraft from 1971-1999.

Incidentally, post-retirement, he was the founding director of the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank which is closely affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The unique blend of extensive hands on experience in countering insurgency and fighting terrorism and a soft spot for Hindutva made him Modi’s  favored candidate.

What do these selections say about South Block’s tentative course in the future? It will probably encompass a bit of the Gujral Doctrine, Manmohan Singh’s initial focus on economic diplomacy, and Sarder Patel’s belief in projecting Indian dominance across South Asia. India’s relations with South Asia would depend on which component of these three policies Modi would choose to focus on more.

Time will tell how Modi manages to balance the two cornerstones of his vision of Indian foreign policy – Shanti and Shakti. Summing up, Modi’s coming to power would induce a more pragmatic, levelheaded approach in its foreign policy (commensurate with its inherent strengths and weaknesses) and a jettisoning of the abrasive alienating approach taken during the previous UPA regime.

The trio of Swaraj, Jaishankar, and Doval would be pivotal in ensuring even-handed dealings with the various South Asian nations to ensure greater political stability, security and trade ties which would be essential in realising Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy. A lot rests on the changes that Modi wants to make in South Block’s policy framework and direction. It may very well decide the future course of South Asia in the 21st century.