Gazing at a longer horizon

New Delhi’s decision to get back at Pakistan by raking up Balochistan in various global fora goes to demonstrate how tactical considerations continue to trump strategic thinking in India. New Delhi, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stewardship, has displayed an exceptional, often admirable, amount of enthusiasm for foreign and security policy, and yet the country’s strategic thinking continues to be guided by bureaucratic ad hocism, tactical considerations, and political expediency.

Mr. Modi’s ‘energetic’ foreign policy has not gone significantly beyond catchy rhetoric and fanfare. Take, for instance, some of the early objectives of this government: neighbourhood first, selling India’s growth story globally, and getting Sino-Indian relations on track. Half-way through its term, most of these objectives lay in tatters. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership continues to argue that having completed over 50 foreign trips in this period, Mr. Modi has energised India’s foreign policy. But how does “energising” become a foreign policy achievement if policy and strategy are to be judged on the basis of outcomes, consistency and follow-up? Beyond these obvious issues, there is, however, a fundamental lacuna inherent in the country’s strategic behaviour and choices today: it functions without a grand strategic blueprint.

Boxed up in South Asia

Despite its stated global ambitions, India behaves like a country confined to its South Asian geopolitical space. By enhancing our involvement in a never-ending battle with Pakistan and directing diplomatic and political energy towards fighting it, we have effectively withdrawn ourselves into our little favourite box called South Asia. Increasing Sino-Indian disaffection would further prompt Beijing to do what it can to confine India to where the former thinks it belongs.

New Delhi’s >new-found outrage about human rights violations in Balochistan is suggestive of misplaced priorities. Not only that, doing so is invariably running a fool’s errand but more importantly, it is a sheer waste of India’s diplomatic energy, limited as it is due to the acute lack of diplomats in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Yet, ‘human rights violations in Balochistan’ was Mr. Modi’s profoundest policy announcement from the ramparts of the Red Fort this year.

Paradoxically, even as India is increasingly getting boxed up in the limited geo-strategic sphere of South Asia, its influence within it is steadily weakened by Chinese economic and military power. The diminishing of American power and consequent strategic realignments in the region are bound to frustrate India’s influence in the region furthermore.

Terror-fixated foreign policy

New Delhi’s diplomatic efforts increasingly seem to revolve around the issue of Pakistan-backed terrorism, and it leaves no stone unturned to talk about it at every major international forum. Getting the U.S. to say something about Pakistan-based terror seems to be an ego-trip for New Delhi. It is a different matter that the Americans unhesitatingly make well-rehearsed statements about terrorism from Pakistan and then go back to doing business with Rawalpindi. But then, all we ask for is a statement!

Notwithstanding the fact that India’s foreign and security policy concerns are far more than just terrorism, reducing India’s foreign policy focus to terrorism to such an extent demonstrates how tactical we are in our approach. While this unrelenting focus on terror might benefit the BJP’s political agenda at home, it is not in keeping with the country’s long-term national interest: terrorism, let’s face it, is not India’s most pressing strategic or existential challenge.

Second, New Delhi’s disproportionate focus on terrorism has >compromised India’s strategic relationship with China. China’s unwillingness to agree to India’s line on Pakistan-based terror has made Sino-Indian relations thornier than ever. Is it smart to damage an important, though complicated, relationship with China because Beijing is unwilling to buy our line on Pakistan?

Third, the undue focus on Pakistan-based terror has also damaged Mr. Modi’s global image as a leader focussed on governance, trade and growth. All attention has suddenly shifted to self-generated tactical concerns, instead of larger issues such as foreign direct investment, global partnerships, institutional reforms, economic diplomacy, etc. Much of the latter set of goals has, of course, remained merely well-worded rhetoric. Consider, for instance, the fact that India is still ranked 130 in the World Bank Group's annual report on the ease of doing business. To think that growth and development are possible without institutional reforms is to daydream.

Fourth, by going on about Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, New Delhi has managed to facilitate what it has traditionally cared to avoid: internationalising the Kashmir issue. Finally, and most importantly, making terrorism the mainstay of the country’s foreign policy can hardly ever lead to any tangible outcomes, except of course, in domestic politics.

Messy alliance behaviour

New Delhi’s foreign policy engagements in general and alliance choices in particular continue to suffer from a certain degree of ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’. It began by reaching out to China (with which it continues to have a strategic partnership) and then the focus shifted to China’s rivals, namely the U.S. and Japan. Over the past two and a half years, it sure covered a lot of ground, but much of it seems impulsive than well-thought-out.

New Delhi’s relationship with Washington, especially the signing of the ‘Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement’ (LEMOA) in August this year allowing the two militaries to work closely with each other and use each other’s bases for repair and supplies, is a clear departure from its traditional policy of not getting into military alliances. While LEMOA, technically speaking, is not a military alliance, it’s pretty close. What is New Delhi’s grand strategic rationale behind it, and does it in anyway compromise India’s traditional desire to maintain strategic autonomy? This question deserves to be asked especially because such a close military relationship with a declining power should not undermine India’s ability to navigate the rough waters of the region’s shifting balances of power. Even if New Delhi overlooks China’s concerns, it can’t afford to dismiss Russian apprehensions at a time when Moscow is opening its doors to Islamabad. Shouldn’t India develop its own grand strategy, rather than become a cog in the U.S. one?

India’s recent efforts at counterbalancing China, especially through Vietnam, may also prove to be pointless. While India’s interests in the Indian Ocean region should be articulated with more vigour, it should rethink the strategic rationale of its forays into the South China Sea. Even Vietnam might not want to get into an open squabble with China. In short, it is wise to avoid alliance-games when charting strategic partnerships: fidelity is not a time-tested virtue in international politics.

New Delhi also needs more diplomatic subtlety when aiming to play a major role in the international system. Sustained and mature negotiations, for instance, are necessary for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership: public spats with countries like China won’t help.

Absence of long-term vision

Long-term strategic thinking requires intellectual depth and an ability to look beyond the tactical considerations of everyday security policymaking so as to simulate alternative futures and potential responses. Besides, there needs to be institutional coordination and follow-up action on the government’s key initiatives. This, of course, is easier said than done in an atmosphere where next State Assembly election, or the latest ceasefire violation, matters more than the next quarter century.

In New Delhi, despite the Prime Minister’s Office’s monopolisation of all strategic-security decision-making, there are hardly any attempts at intellectual investment in long view strategic planning. Generalist defence ministry bureaucrats and an understaffed MEA are clearly not in a position to do so.

This shortage of clarity on fundamentals has led to a lack of focus and prioritisation of the government’s goals and objectives. Looking at the many things that the government is engaged in, one wonders whether there is actually a sense of purpose to them at all. Previous governments, including the earlier BJP-led regime, regularly set up highly specialised groups to generate policy reports and perspective planning for policymakers. Successive governments recognised the importance of such intellectual inputs, and actively sought them. Not any more. This government revels in blitzkrieg tactics than strategic planning.

There don’t appear to be any carefully put-together structures within the government (over and above the regular bureaucratic apparatuses) tasked with grand strategic thinking in a purposeful manner, whose inputs are then taken on board. India also does not have a comprehensive national security doctrine which could help pacify insurgencies, manage borders better or fight cross-border terror.

Sure, governments have a host of daily security related issues and crisis management to worry about, but in the absence of overarching strategic guidance they stick to ad hoc measures and firefighting, habitually missing the big picture. On the other hand, if there are well-articulated strategic doctrines or a grand strategic vision in place, institutions will learn to refer to them and adjust their policies accordingly, leading to a lot more coherence in the country’s strategic behaviour. Sometimes, however, governments find it useful not to have any well-articulated grand strategy as it would be helpful when acting out of political expediency.

A national security doctrine would require a great deal of political consultation, careful scenario building, and net assessment by experts. Such a carefully articulated national security doctrine, if generated by political consensus, can prevent the unnecessary politicisation of national security issues as we have seen in the recent past: but then would the government want depoliticisation of security, especially when it knows it can derive parochial benefits out of such politicisation?

The incumbent regime in New Delhi lacks “the art of the long view”, to borrow Peter Schwartz’s phrase. If it is serious about the long-term stability and security of the country, it needs to think beyond the wisdom generated by the ‘specialised desks’ in the ministries, and invest in grand strategic thinking. Such thinking can only flourish if and when the political class commits to institutional reform, intellectual investment and consensus building.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 3:38:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Gazing-at-a-longer-horizon/article16438377.ece

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