In the immediate wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s departure from India following his visit as chief guest at its Republic Day, India got itself a new foreign secretary, retiring the previous one prematurely. The new foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was instrumental not only in arranging Obama’s visit, but also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful trip to Washington last year, a visit that included the famous rock-star reception given to Modi by the Indian expatriate community at Madison Square Garden.
However, Jaishankar’s move has less to do with his ability to arrange diplomatic jamborees than it does with his well regarded experience and strategic skills, which stretch back to his days minding India’s political initiatives surrounding its peacekeeping presence in Sri Lanka.
What this appointment does is to redress the balance in India’s apex strategic establishment, which had become dangerously skewed towards an ideologically inspired strategic doctrine. India’s right-wing government began well, springing a surprise in reaching out to Pakistan and inviting its prime minister – and other South Asian leaders – over for Modi’s swearing-in. However, under National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, known for his tactical capabilities in the intelligence field and for his rightist ideological slant in his previous role as head of a think tank, India started to become decidedly hawkish, suggestive of an ideologically driven strategic doctrine.
Indian grand strategy aims at creating the strategic space and regional stability needed for its economic rise. However, as with foreign policy in general, there are domestic determinants and constraints. In India, this is principally the arrival in power of a right-wing government, one with a clear majority for the first time. The optics from a flurry of high-profile visits by the prime minister abroad and a reverse flow of dignitaries to Delhi fails to blur concerns stemming from India’s tryst with a majoritarian ideology.
The internal effect of this was best summed up in Obama’s town hall speech subtly reminding India of the risk to its religious equilibrium of Hindutva triumphalism, much in evidence since Modi’s convincing victory last year. Understandable apprehensions exist among India’s Muslims, who constitute the nation’s largest minority, according to figures released last month accounting for 14.2 percent of its population, or 172 million people. Modi’s apparent refusal to check his over-zealous followers has led to the middle class worrying that developmentalism, the reason why they cast their lot with Modi, may not be the only item on his agenda.
The socio-cultural agenda of Hindutva, which Modi has never disavowed and which his supporters espouse, appears more significant. Economic gains from developmentalism will serve to legitimize the Modi regime, giving it the time it needs for its pet project. If this is taken as the lodestar of the regime, externally, it is manifest in the rather heavy-handed approach India has adopted to Pakistan since it backed off from a promising beginning by aborting the resumption of talks last August.
Admittedly, strategic sense is not altogether absent. India keeps Pakistan from being too venturesome in Afghanistan, and meets the expectations of a higher regional profile the U.S., its strategic partner, has of it. When it is itself terrorism-infested, Pakistan cannot possibly rekindle the problem in Kashmir. Former U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel once alluded to the Indian backing of Pakistani insurgents, including possibly Baloch insurgents, who caused a nationwide blackout in Pakistan even as Obama was in Delhi. This hardline approach could conceivably permit a tradeoff in which Indian aims of a moderate Pakistan are met by India turning off the pressure.
However, an ideologically driven strategy would not stop at this. Its aims go beyond taming Pakistan. The ideological roots lie a hundred years ago in the Hindu-Muslim rivalry that led to Partition. Modi admitted as much when in his maiden speech in parliament he included the period Muslims have been on the subcontinent as one of Indian (read Hindu) slavery. Scores are to be settled. In that sense, while the middle classes want the economic rise of India as an end in itself, to India’s right-wing now in the saddle, power is also instrumental. It facilitates a strategy of compellence that, against a nuclear armed state, may not be in India’s best interests. It requires realists who, unlike hyper-nationalists and cultural nationalists, are sensitive to the limits of power, to balance out the right-wing influence on national security policy.
Within the Indian strategic establishment, the Prime Minister’s Office has had primacy at least since the mid sixties. Although the national security adviser has acquired stature over the last decade and a half, in this administration the reported convergence of minds between the prime minister and his adviser, Ajit Doval, has resulted reportedly in a centralization of national security decision making.
This cannot help with checks and balances. Since its formation at the turn of the century and despite credible people at its helm, the National Security Council Secretariat has not yet given any indication that it is an institution to reckon with. Acting as an ideological sieve by running ideas through a reality check may prove beyond it. The last deputy, Nehchal Sandhu, resigned soon after the changing of the guard in Delhi. The sacking of India’s defense research head and home secretary will only serve to further cow the upper ranks. Recall during the Emergency when bureaucrats were asked only to bend, but were inclined to crawl instead. The arrival of a realist such as Jaishankar is therefore welcome.
To rise to the occasion, he will need to turn his statement on learning of his new appointment – “Government’s priorities are my priorities” – on its head. What he must do is mellow the government’s ideologically driven priorities to conform, into a strategically sustainable realism. The parting advice of his predecessor on her departure from office is worth recalling: “It’s not about individuals … it’s about my Ministry as an institution.” Institutional checks and balances must return for the benefit of India’s national security.
Ali Ahmed, author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014), blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in. The views here are personal.