The astounding mandate secured by Narendra Modi has led scholars and commentators alike to focus on what more the U.S. can do to win India’s favor. Whilst some argue that the Obama administration ought to “modi-fy” its advance, others recommend changing the playing field and developing “a new relationship with India.” In most instances, punditry appears focused on the immediate future, and perhaps for good reasons.
Foreign Policy & Security
In February 2014, India managed a rare diplomatic coup de force when it hosted, in the same week, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif. The timing of these visits is hardly fortuitous; over the past two decades, India has adroitly managed to develop relations with diverse Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Some see this balancing act as indicative of a broader new approach to the region, defined as India’s “Look Middle East” Policy.
The outbreak of conflict in South Sudan last December led to the shut down of India’s multi-billion dollar oil project in the young country. The instability sent Indian diplomats scrambling to play damage control as ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), the international arm of India’s national oil company, was forced to evacuate its personnel from the region. Competition from China is often regarded as the biggest challenge for India in acquiring global oil resources.
The Indian Army has lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons. General VK Singh’s controversy-laden tenure, reports of officer-men clashes, corruption allegations and stories of soldiers sleeping while on operations along the Line of Control have all led to unwelcome media attention. Interestingly, out of all these issues, the Prime Minister chose to highlight the issue of officer-men relations and while addressing his senior most military commanders, put it with uncharacteristic bluntness: “You are responsible for the lives and welfare of your men and women in uniform.
Three months ago, India’s former foreign secretary and current coordinator of the National Security Council Advisory Board, Shyam Saran took the unusual step of publicly taking on critics of India’s operational nuclear capabilities. These critics have long cited the inability of successive governments to address the many technical and organizational lacunae in India’s operational capabilities as a reason why they believe that India’s nuclear foray is a prestige-driven enterprise. Contra such claims, Saran maintained that Delhi’s operational nuclear capabilities are robust.
Despite its best attempts and some very creative thinking, the Indian government’s efforts to chart an independent course in cyberspace have met with consistent failures and frustrations. Its Cybersecurity Policy, published last month, is a case in point. Released amidst the growing controversy over revelations regarding the American electronic eavesdropping program, this policy document is the culmination of deliberations that the Indian security establishment has been carrying out with various stakeholders for the past three years.
Seeing oneself through others’ eyes is an important act of introspection. There is much a nation can learn about the content and impact of its external policies by studying how it is perceived by the world. Public opinion can be a reliable indicator of trends in bilateral relations, and analysts frequently measure a country’s attractiveness (soft power) by the opinions of other societies. The perceptions of others, therefore, can act as a heuristic device for a nation's foreign policy if not a metric of its success.
In 1992, in a much cited essay, George Tanham unleashed an enduring, even if incorrect, geopolitical meme – that Indians uniquely lacked a strategic culture. Tanham’s dismissal of all of modern India’s statecraft infuriated some of his Indian counterparts, while others quickly embraced this argument. In a recent cover story, The Economist undid an otherwise good analysis of the myriad challenges in India’s quest to be a great power when it inexplicably settled upon an intellectually lazy explanation of strategic culture.
If the historic trend line in Sino-Indian relations holds, the recent India-China military stand-off in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir will soon be followed by predictable hype in Delhi about the impending transformation of bilateral relations and how it might change the world. The three week intrusion by the Chinese security forces into territory claimed by India came to an end in early May after India persuaded Beijing that a failure to restore the status quo ante could severely set back the bilateral relationship.
Despite favorable geopolitical conditions such as concern over the nature of China’s rise, the relationship between India and Japan remains one of unfulfilled potential. The persistence of a “perception gap” between the two is preventing deeper engagement.