While psephology in India today is more voodoo and less science, it seems a fair assumption that the BJP under Narendra Modi would be coming to power sometime in May 2014. Obviously this begs the question as to what India’s direction would be under a new government. There are huge opportunities in the foreign policy front, the potential for utter calamity on the security front, and looming structural factors that inhibit change on the grand-strategy front.
In many ways the current situation in India is much like Israel, where the left cannot make peace and the right cannot make war. If anything the BJP probably took the peace process with Pakistan much further than any other government before it. Prime Minister Vajpayee for example, overcame the bitter acrimony that arose from the 1998 nuclear tests to make his now infamous trip to Lahore. In the wake of what was deemed a “betrayal” – the short but fierce Kargil war, Vajpayee again went onto to a second round of intensive peacemaking with President Musharraf, something Manmohan Singh has been unable to do since the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
Contrast this with the Congress approach – largely owing to the disconnect between political and executive power within the party as exercised by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh respectively. When the Manmohan Singh came to power, he felt the need to slow down the pace of negotiations with Pakistan – preferring to focus on bottom-up confidence building rather than the Vajpayee approach of top down grand-bargain striking. In a way his hands were tied because the Congress leadership felt the political need to downplay the “Victory” in Kargil. While claims of victory in 1999 are highly dubious from a military point of view – the more apt description being a pyrrhic victory, it was important as a diplomatic tool. In much the same way Anwar Sadat converted a defeat in 1973 into a “moral victory” to summon the courage to make peace with Israel, Kargil was the “victory” that India needed to gain the confidence to make peace with Pakistan. Some have argued that the BJP’s refusal to support a consensus foreign policy reeks of opportunism on part of the BJP, the reality is that like any other country, internal politics has a disproportionate impact on foreign policy. This is not opportunism, this is politics. The BJP out of power is a different beast from the BJP in power.
Coming to Modi then, we have a party structure that carried out the most sustained effort at peacemaking we have known. Combined with his alleged micromanaging tendencies, this gives hope. India as I have argued earlier here, suffers from a systemic bipolarity – a foreign service that is petrified by its fear of China, arrogant and dismissive of most of the rest of the world and a dysfunctional, dangerous and gung-ho military. Micromanaging could mean an end to policy schizophrenia.
But on the security front one has much to worry about. For starters, everyone except the Pakistanis agree that the dangerous cold start doctrine has failed. By itself the death of such a dangerous idea is a good thing. The problem however is that India does not have a replacement doctrine. Which means in case of a crisis (and a cross border terror attack is long overdue, possibly imminent) when the prime minister asks for retaliation options; the military in probability will present an un-debated, un-tested, ad-hoc option. Moreover when one asks the question “who advises Modi on security and foreign policy issues?” the answer is – nobody knows. The inclusion of dangerous loose cannons like former army chief V K Singh, (an alleged megalomaniac, who tested civilian authority in India, and is responsible for the ill-considered and escalatory mountain strike divisions) can only raise eyebrows, when such a paucity of information exists.
Irrespective, the structural factors that limit greater India-US cooperation are bound to get stronger, especially in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. The sad part is India and the US have always shared the same policy with regards to Asia – that no single power or bloc should be able to dominate the Asian landmass. For a powerful America this meant playing the role of offshore balancer, for a weak and impoverished India, it meant bandwagoning with the intent of splitting the Sino-Soviet bloc. The net result of the growing estrangement of Russia from the west, and India’s inability to catch up with China anytime in the near future can only mean a reversion to bandwagoning.
Welcoming in the new government on the 16th of May 2014 therefore one should expect some permutation of Euphoria, Alarm and Exasperation.
Image: Behrouz Mehri-AFP, Getty