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Monday, May 20, 2024

National Security Strategy or strategic autonomy? Congress’s foreign policy manifesto suffers from major contradictions

As the world’s fastest-growing large economy, India is on the rise. It is poised to become the world’s third-largest economy. As more and more Indians are pulled out of poverty, as the middle class expands, we are seeing a commensurate increase in India’s aspirations, national composite power and interests. And in accord with India’s growing aggregate power, the necessity to safeguard those interests and the need to project power is also on the rise.

When countries grow in wealth – provided they have adequate human resources and stability – they quickly convert economic heft into military power. This is certainly true of India, which has the world’s fourth-biggest defence budget and is the world’s most populous nation with a young demography to boot.

India is not just perceived as a major power, it is starting to think of itself as one. The country is emerging from a reflexive post-colonial insularity, becoming more interested in the world and willing to understand how the world is interested in India. More and more Indians are travelling abroad, consuming global news, taking part in animated discussions on foreign policy, shaping India’s perspectives and perspectives on India.

With the expansion of India’s global role, India’s ambitions are growing and with it, mass interest in international relations. Foreign policy is no longer the esoteric preserve of boring bureaucrats and empowered elites but an animated talking point for people at large who are convinced that India is rapidly gaining global influence.

As professor Rohan Mukherjee has pointed out in Foreign Affairs, led by Narendra Modi, the BJP has “infused diplomacy with a sense of national purpose and transformed it into one of the key dimensions on which citizens evaluate their government.”

It is disappointing to note that the Opposition has completely bypassed any debate on foreign policy in the campaign season for the upcoming general elections. It is true that be it the G20 presidency, Voice of Global South Summit, promotion of millets, yoga, or deft navigation of the tricky geopolitical terrain amid twin wars and a once-in-a-century pandemic, Modi has given an impressive account of his handling of foreign policy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Opposition will give the government a walkover in an issue that is perceived as increasingly vital to India’s interests.

To C Raja Mohan in Indian Express, “The lack of a foreign policy debate today is less about a genuine consensus than declining interest in world affairs within the demoralised Opposition.”

Thankfully, the Congress has dedicated an entire page on foreign policy in its recently published Nyay Patra , the manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections. It allows us to take a glance into the policy prescriptions and plans of the grand old party and also its views on national security.

Straight off the bat, it is encouraging to see Congress pledging to “significantly increase the size of the Indian Foreign Service” and “open more missions abroad.” India urgently needs to widen its diplomatic cadre to secure its widening interests, ambitions and influence, given the fact that its diplomatic workforce is lesser than many smaller economies.

The BJP government is taking much-needed steps in this direction. India has the fastest-growing diplomatic network admittedly from a low base and is restructuring the Indian Foreign Service to add more than 200 additional posts over a span of five years.

Minister-level visits to countries around the world, many of these for the first time, have seen a significant uptick with the prime minister leading the way. Africa has been in special focus with 16 of the 21 new missions opened in the continent. In a new development, New Delhi is posting defence attaches to several new countries and the majority of them in African nations such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Djibouti.

Still, Congress’s focus in this area is welcome.

Overall, however, Congress’s manifesto reflects inherent confusion, lack of focus, virtue-signalling and worringly, planned reversal of strategic postures that have served India well. The foreign policy chapter of the manifesto seems more of an afterthought than a measured document.

For example, Congress has declared that it will issue a comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS), which is a welcome move, but that declaration sits at odds with its renewed pledge to affirm “strategic autonomy in thought and action”. This is intrinsically contradictory. Let me explain.

The BJP government at long last has embarked on an exhaustive process to issue India’s first NSS document, a move that was reported last year but it needs to be understood why Indian strategy planners had refrained from doing so despite years of debates and deliberations within the policy, military and strategic communities, and also why India feels that it is finally ready to put together its first definitive security document.

Though India’s policymaking is shaped by internal guidelines, not publishing a definitive paper had its advantages for an emerging power in a tough neighbourhood. It maximized India’s strategic nimbleness and allowed for a greater manoeuvring space for India’s diplomacy that is incumbent on a policy of keeping relationships well-oiled with all major power nodes for abundant policy space and options.

For a diplomatic culture ingrained with ambiguity of strategic, calibrated, tactical or deliberate kind, a dogmatic approach to diplomacy may serve to tie India’s hands in identifying adversaries and red lines and force the government to act in a specific way in case these are breached. In other words, the absence of an NSS was a defensive strategy. Which suited a middle power struggling to maintain its growth and a stable geopolitical environment.

However, as India’s aggregate power has grown, so has its ambitions and the need to define the traditional, non-traditional threats and opportunities that present themselves. Hierarchical gains in the international system come with its own set of duties and responsibilities. For reference, observe India’s naval proactiveness in tackling piracy and providing net security in securing the sea lanes and providing public goods as a first responder by deploying 21 ships to address threats in the maritime domain .

If India perceives itself increasingly as a great power-in-waiting, its role in maintaining the global order that best secures its interests will grow, and that will need a clear defining of threats and strategies to deal with those threats. This will explain why an increasingly confident India has finally kickstarted the process of formulating a national security document.

Conversely, however, that signals a shift away from the defensive, post-colonial mindset towards the role of rule-shaper than a rule-taker. That obviates the need for reflexive ambiguity in policies and actions. Evidently, a major power that sees a greater role for itself in the global comity of nations and wants a seat at the UN high table cannot remain tied to the apron strings of ‘strategic autonomy.’

Raja Mohan describes this contradiction well in Indian Express where he writes, “Strategic autonomy was never about setting goals; it was about abstract claims on retaining freedom of action. Once you are a power of reasonable size with assured autonomy, you must set concrete goals and objectives. For too long, the pursuit of strategic autonomy seemed to become an end in itself. That prevented the Indian political classes from articulating specific external goals.”

It is my contention that Congress’s simultaneous declaration of publishing a national security strategy and a doctrinaire approach towards ‘strategic autonomy’ is incongruous and indicative of a thematic confusion that runs through the manifesto document.

Take, for instance, Congress’s claim that “foreign policy under the BJP/NDA government has witnessed marked departures from this (foreign policy since Independence) consensus, notably on the ongoing Gaza conflict.” This is inexplicable. Since the Hamas atrocities on 7 October, 2023, and the subsequent war in West Asia, India has been very clear on two points. One, that Hamas’s attack against Israel was a “big act of terrorism”. Two, while any act of terrorism is “unacceptable”, a solution to the problems faced by the Palestinian people must be found and that answer lies in a ‘two-state solution’.

As a fellow sufferer for decades from radical Islamist terror, India has expressed its solidarity with Israel, but Prime Minister Modi also rang up Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and reiterated support for a two-state solution, indicating a nuanced and balanced approach. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in a recent visit to Malaysia, stated that “On one hand, what happened on October 7 was terrorism. On the other hand, nobody would countenance the death of innocent civilians.”

It is unclear, therefore, what Congress means by India’s “departure” on the Gaza issue. Should India not condemn terrorism, or abandon its position that there can be no double standards on terrorism? And since India has already reaffirmed support for a two-state solution, should that be reversed?

The more obvious explanation is that ahead of elections, Congress found in Gaza yet another chance to dog whistle on Muslim votes without adequately thinking through its statement.

Congress doesn’t name Pakistan, but states in the manifesto that it will “work with other countries to eliminate terrorist groups, terrorist acts and cross-border terrorism.” The reference to Pakistan is clear. What isn’t clear is the ambiguity in the policy that suggests that it wants to reopen “talks” with Pakistan. This would be a self-defeating reversal of strategy. The BJP government has successfully isolated Pakistan diplomatically and made it an international pariah.

Pakistan’s agency in fomenting trouble in Kashmir has been drastically reduced, and as the neighbouring country sinks deeper into an economic and socio-political morass, India sees no reason why it should consider Pakistan as a stakeholder in internal matters such as Kashmir or give it any opening at all.

Pakistan is not a normal, rational state. To expect it to behave rationally is to be delusional. India has suffered enough under that delusion, and there is no need to repeat past mistakes.

Foreign media outlets are claiming that Indian intelligence agency sleeper cells are reportedly eliminating India’s most wanted terrorist on Pakistani soil, and though India has formally denied such policies, defence minister Rajnath Singh has told News18 that “If he [terrorist] flees to Pakistan, we will follow him and take him down on Pakistani soil. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken the truth… India has the capability and Pakistan has also started understanding that.”

New Delhi has Pakistan exactly where it wants to be, and any reversal of this policy would be counterproductive.

Another mystifying statement is made with reference to Maldives and Myanmar where the manifesto says, “We will repair relations with the Maldives and work with Myanmar to protect the political and human rights of the people of Myanmar.”

India has hardly anything to do with the turn of events in Maldives where a pro-China government has risen to power. It can be said, however, that New Delhi has acted with maturity and prudence despite provocations from the Mohamed Muizzu government. That strategic patience seems to be paying off.

India has lifted the curb on essential commodities despite escalating tensions, earning goodwill and thanks from an adversarial government and support from ordinary Maldivians who have criticised their own government for antagonising India.

One Maldivian ex-minister, a repeat offender, has recently apologized after facing massive backlash at home for disrespecting the Indian Tricolour. In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Mariya Didi, the former defence minister of Maldives called President Muizzu “immature” who cannot harm the India-Maldives bond. It is once again not clear, therefore, what Congress means by “repairing relations”.

Pragmatism and realism are the core ideological moorings of India’s foreign policy under the Modi government. Nothing less would serve India’s interests, certainly not woolly-headed virtue-signalling on “human rights” or “dissent”. A party that believes it can shoulder the responsibilities of nation-building at an epochal moment in India’s rise must be more clear-headed in approach and firm in conviction. Congress’s manifesto indicates that it is unprepared for such a role.

(The article was published on on April 13, 2024 and has been reproduced here)

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