Barack Hussein Obama is about to become the sixth American president to visit India and the third in a row. He is going in the first half of his first term; only Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon did so before him. Presidential visits are carefully planned and scripted, but events invariably have a way of intruding onto the agenda and the stage. This Presidential visit takes place against the backdrop of America’s longest war ever in Afghanistan and a natural disaster in neighboring Pakistan where Obama has invested a huge effort in trying to stabilize a deeply wounded state.
Foreign Policy & Security
In light of India’s 64th Independence Day, I am compelled to think about the idea of the country to which I am committed: a sovereign, secular, democratic republic, where what would separate independent India from the colonized nation would be the ethos of democratic constitutionalism; governance that would be according to procedure established by law, overseen by the people’s representatives in Parliament, adjudicated by an independent judiciary, and implemented by an accountable Executive.
Indian policy towards Afghanistan is struggling to respond to the rapidly evolving strategic environment in the region. Amidst the approaching endgame in Afghanistan, India is finding itself increasingly vulnerable, and more damagingly, unable to preserve its vital interests in Af-Pak. Despite its best attempts to keep a low profile in Afghanistan, India and its nationals are increasingly becoming the target of the Taliban.
The creation of the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) and the appointment of Mr. Nandan Nilekani (former CEO of Infosys) as its Chairperson, have generated a great deal of excitement around the Unique Identity Numbers (UIN) project. The Authority’s commitment to produce the first batch of UINs within a period of two years has prompted a celebratory round of applause in the media. It would certainly be a significant technological and logistical feat to meet this self imposed target.
“India’s problem is that we have never imposed a price on any nation for action taken against us,” former Deputy National Security Adviser Satish Chandra said back in September. “We keep silent and accept whatever comes our way.” Chandra is echoing a feeling that is widespread among the Indian elite and even general public.
In the Medium-range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) sweepstakes, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is confronted with many choices, all of them bad. Whatever the IAF’s reasons for wanting a new aircraft, the Indian government means to use the deal to make international political capital, gain leverage in bilateral relations, and cement a strategic partnership. The Air Staff Quality Requirements – insofar as these can be deduced – are opaque.
As India’s new foreign minister settles into office, a major issue demanding his attention will be the boundary negotiations with China. These negotiations began with the appointment of Special Representatives in 2003 and two years later, the two sides agreed on “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles” for settling the dispute. Despite thirteen rounds of discussions, an agreement seems as elusive as ever. The key point of contention is China’s claim to the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh.
Once the rhetoric of electioneering dies down, the ruling coalition will have to confront a number of security related problems. The possibility of any one of the Pakistan-based groups initiating another diversionary attack on India remains high. If as expected, the incoming government will be a loose coalition of vested interests, the possibility of major policy reforms and strong determination to deal with the perpetuators is going to be negligible. The principal challenge placed before the new government will thus be to prepare for a dramatic strike.
Foreign policy has never been a major electoral issue in India because a vast majority of the electorate has more pressing domestic economic and social concerns. While events in the sub-continent may have some impact on domestic politics they have so far proved to be marginal.
If India becomes one of the leading powers of the 21st century, as is widely predicted, how will it exercise its power and influence? The answer to this question is being shaped by four competing visions of India’s place in the international system. The oldest of these can be traced to India’s struggle for freedom, when homage was paid to the notion that India ought to serve as a counterexample to the West’s role in international affairs.