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India in a corner: Beneath the foreign policy bluster is a great floundering

The vigour of PM Narendra Modi’s travels can barely disguise the fact that in terms of India’s security objectives, he is looking very weak indeed.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: February 15, 2018 9:56 am
Defence expenditures in real terms have been falling. (Express Photo By Shuaib Masoodi)

India finds itself increasingly cornered into a strategic cul-de-sac. Even as its diplomacy expands, its political options seem to decrease; even as it reaches out to look east and look west, the strategic space to address its core concerns does not seem to be expanding; and even as its bluster about a strong state grows, doubts about its military capabilities are growing equally louder. So, paradoxically, India finds itself in this position that even as it is globally recognised, it looks more helpless in its own backyard.

These are days where strong propaganda obscures the most basic of common sense. To begin with a simple question. A hallmark of the strategic success of any government is whether it expands the options available that can help you achieve your core objectives. Have the options available to India expanded?

The first core component of having options is raw capability. One would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that India’s capabilities, on any dimension of hard power, have significantly changed for the better over the last four years. The military modernisation programme seems to be still in the phase of arming without aiming; all the grand talk of defence production in the private sector has not taken off. As Vipin Narang has pointed out, a central element of our deterrence capability, Arihant, is still out of commission.

Defence expenditures in real terms have been falling. It is only in the fourth year in office that Cabinet has finally approved a panic buying of assault and sniper rifles. The one element on our strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan is fortifying our bases so that they are not easy targets of terrorist attacks. As the situation in Jammu and Kashmir has shown, we do not seem to have made much success of this. The sophistication in the political establishment on understanding military matters is scarcely more evident. India’s raw hard power capabilities still constrain options.

The second component of having more options is new partnerships and alliances. India has been forthright enough to deepen its partnerships with Japan, Australia and other countries concerned about China. Its engagement with West Asia is impressive. It has announced greater maritime ambitions. These might be worthwhile initiatives in their own right. But these initiatives do not, for the most part, help mitigate India’s core vulnerabilities. It is not clear that these initiatives are enough to get Pakistan to change its behaviour, or secure our long-term objectives in relation to China. It tells you something about the unreality gripping public strategic discourse that our hearts flutter with joy at a term like “Indo-Pacific”. This term may have some nominal rhetorical value.

But the idea that merely by creating a new maritime nomenclature that flatters us, we will somehow outgrow the real strategic dilemmas that face us vis-a-vis China and Pakistan, is wishful thinking. It is good India is deepening its engagement from Seychelles to Oman, acquiring new docking capabilities and logistical support. But with what wars and what interventions, what military objectives will these achieve? It is almost like we will acquire these facilities without any clear sense of the uses to which we will put them. They signal our global intent but do not add much to our capabilities.

This expansive outreach has also, in some strategic circles, created this illusion that India can outgrow its region; it does not have to be tied down to its geography. From Doklam to Kashmir, from the Maldives to Nepal, India has been rudely reminded about how easy it is to put it in a helpless position in its own neighbourhood. The idea that India can do a great power projection without being able to manage its own neighbourhood was a pipe dream in any case. In relation to almost all our neighbours, with the possible exception of Bangladesh, India’s diplomatic, moral and coercive authority stands diminished. In Nepal, it ended up with the worst of both worlds — it did not have the power to follow up its implicit promises to the Madhesis, and no matter how one dresses it up, it has had to eat humble pie and accommodate Oli. India could not exercise any leadership in the Rohingya crisis. In the Maldives, it is looking increasingly more helpless.

To put it politely, our Pakistan strategy is in tatters. The fact that the Americans might be willing to sanction Pakistan is a double-edged sword. For one thing, in the short run it will lead to Pakistan turning the heat on India in the hope that ratcheting up the tensions, and provoking an Indian response, will once again put the spotlight on the risks of the Kashmir crisis. We trumpeted the fact that surgical strikes would be a deterrent; they turned out to be a virtually useless instrument. Worse, the fact that we trumpeted them so loudly has created a domestic expectation of retaliation, every time more Indian soldiers are killed. So we are caught in a political trap on engagement with Pakistan. On the one hand, the NSAs are apparently talking. On the other hand, you have created a public discourse where a chief minister has to explain that she is not being anti-national in calling for talks with Pakistan. There is a simple point: Even if you intend to exercise military options, they have to be embedded in a political strategy. Is there a political strategy on Pakistan at all, or is it all bluster covering up a great floundering?

China’s aggressive posture has to make India wary. But surely the idea of deft diplomacy is that you do not reach a point where literally every single line of engagement becomes a zero-sum game, and you convert a hard-nosed contest of interests into a more publicly-charged, ideologically potent contest of self-esteem. Perhaps we do not have any other options. But the net result is that we are more cornered by China than we were a few years ago.

Add to this the atrocious deterioration of public discourse in India, where Mohan Bhagwat can openly taunt the army, and you have to wonder: Have India’s strategic options in dealing with its core challenges expanded or have they diminished? On any measure, hard power, diplomacy, alliances, political framing, and consistency of domestic resolve, we seem to have fewer not more options. The vigour of Modi’s travels can barely disguise the fact that in terms of India’s security objectives, he is looking very weak indeed. Any other prime minister would have been hauled over the coals if India had been backed into the corner it is now.

The author is vice chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal

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More From Pratap Bhanu Mehta
  1. Mang Tungnung
    Feb 19, 2018 at 12:07 pm
    As has become the vogue, a bunch of people will jump in to defend PM Modi, denounce the author of the article as a leftist, or press ute, or even as a congresswala or an anti-national! And most of them undoubtedly have not even understood the outline of what the article is all about. Sadly, this is the very nature of the lop-sided and vitriolic nature of discourse in our country today. A never ending flurry of trips by the PM outside the country does not mean a successful foreign policy. I am sure we have heard the adages, 'empty vessels make much noise', 'a single swallow doth not make a summer', 'counting your chicken before they hatch' etc etc. No nation in human history has attained any measure of greatness that which has not secured or pacified its frontiers. I challenge anyone to find any example to the contrary( are the bhakts listening?). Let's not run away from the fact that today the state of India's relationship with her immediate neighbours is at an all time low.
    1. J
      Jay Ravi
      Feb 17, 2018 at 1:56 am
      Nehru and Indira sold India to the USSR and China -- they lived like monarchs - check your history.
      1. Shreyas Krishna
        Feb 19, 2018 at 9:29 pm
        How exactly does this comment fit in with the narrative discussed by the author? Unless, of course, you're alluding to the oft repeated state of affairs wherein the BJP seeks an unspecified amount of time to undo the '60 years worth of damage by the Congress'. Moreover, if you're just trying to entangle the debate in a web of shrill arguments, one could possibly retort by saying that India's foreign engagement did not come to a standstill after Indira there was a long line of leaders after her, including the venerable A.B.Vajpayee.
      2. rishi
        Feb 16, 2018 at 9:08 pm
        the writer a congressi-stooge at best is exposing his own desperate wish to see India's cur PM as weak.... his arrogance, it does not bother him that crores of people draw their inspiration from this PM who has a trackrecord of bold-decisions and strengthening international relations unprecedented in Indian history. AND , I THOUGHT MEEKMOHANSINGH THE CROOK was the one who performed the "jee hujoori" ritual as greed-and-corruption-driven-congressis shivered at the site of an italian-housewife ......The cur PM has nothing to fear....that is the problem of congressi-stooges writing as dimwits stuck up in 19th-century colonial-st-u-p-i-d-i-t-i-e-s !
        1. rishi
          Feb 16, 2018 at 9:11 pm
          2nd line...."India's cur-r-e-n-t PM as weak.... i-n his(writer's) arrogance , it does not....."
          1. Mark S
            Feb 16, 2018 at 9:31 pm
            you can't even write properly. Typical Modi stooge, just as uneducated as your master. Glad, you found in the bjp contact centre.
            1. rishi
              Feb 16, 2018 at 10:51 pm
              M-A-R-K....afterall ....feeling shaken...... never mind the PM, it is time for you to do yoga to strengthen yourself....a billion-plus well-wishers of the Nation have embraced saffron as easily as fish swim in water....their reason lies in the never-ending scams of UPA and the earlier crooked-congressi regimes ! BJP is honest and therefore growing stronger with every blink of your eyes !
            2. rishi
              Feb 16, 2018 at 9:14 pm
              2nd line...."India's cur-r-e-n-t PM as weak.... i-n his(writer's) arrogance , it does not....." Also 3rd last line, read...."cur PM" as cur-r-e-n-t PM
              1. rishi
                Feb 16, 2018 at 9:33 pm
                2nd line...."India's cur-r-e-n-t PM as weak.... i-n his(writer's) arrogance , it does not....." Also 3rd last line, read...."cur PM" as cur-r-e-n-t PM
              2. K
                Feb 16, 2018 at 8:55 pm
                Narendra Modi is failing as a strategical thinker. He is street smart politician. Can speak lies without blinking an eye intentionally. He acts impulsively. Being vindictive all his ministers and advisors do not suggest any alternative to what Modi suggests in meeting. every one want to complete 5 years in cozy chairs they are occupying. in the end go home even if BJP looses next general election in 2019 which it deserves to loose the way Pakistan has bleeded india badly in last 45 months since BJP came to power at the center. His 56" Chest has not frightened them. it was hollow threats and as Shah describes them to be Jumlas to win elections. Nepal is rapidly moving in chinas lap, Bangladesh got 50 Billion dollar aid over 10 years. Constructed a port in Sri Lanka for Chinese ships, occupied 17 island in Maldives. Modi ji wanted Manmohan singh to show red eyes to Chinese leaders when he was in opposition. Modi ji is laying red Carpet to Chinese President Xi. Constructed a port in Pak
                1. K
                  Feb 16, 2018 at 9:04 pm
                  Modi ji has no foreign policy. he can go to foreign land to air crafts, reactors, weapons and guns and favor their companies to set up business in collaboration with gujarat industrialist. He wants to be praised by them. since they get business they do apply fan his in e alter ego. i reality he has no robust and dependable following. India is encircled by the Dragon. Only time will tell when it attacks India. Beware!!! Modi miserably failed in his flip flop foreign policy. One of the weakest PM as far as Foreign policy is concerned.
                  1. C
                    Christian Terrorism Buster
                    Feb 17, 2018 at 12:56 am
                    Khush, you can try to find fault that is your god right but everyone knows that in foregn policy Modi has done a wonderful . Out of all the PM's where Nehru miserably failed, Indira was a failure, Rao and Vajpayee did a decent and Rajiv Gandhi and MMS brought India to a worlstage where no one even noticed India. MMS was a bigger failer as we all had high expectations from this bureaucrat turned PM who turned out to be his Misterss VOice (or Maun). But, on the other hand Modi has done what no PM can do in 10 or 20 years. You can spit hot air as much as you want but the facts are clear.
                2. M
                  Feb 16, 2018 at 7:31 pm
                  Please somebody supply some coal to PBMehta from ManMohan Singh's house. PBM would like to haul Narendra Modi over it. You may well say, "But PBM has been doing it for the last four years, no" ?? You have anything new to say to us PBMehta ?? If not, observe Maun Vrath., ask ManMohan Singh, your friend on how to do it.
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