India’s Defence Sector is Looking for a Visionary Modi

A Chinese commentator scornfully, or in praise (it is not clear which), called Narendra Modi “a pragmatist, not a visionary”. Pragmatism in the context of the over-bureaucratized Indian state translates into the Prime Minister being led by his nose by the babus. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, whose IIT engineering credentials led many to expect a problem-solver, is proving himself neither a pragmatist nor a visionary, only a ‘please-all’ politician, seemingly approving every military hardware procurement proposal sent his way — the unmet demands of the armed services easily exceed rupees fifteen lakh crore. In the financially straitened circumstances the government finds itself in, the treasury has funds enough for only a few of the goods our uniformed services have indented for. Given the vagaries of the system, no service can be sure it will get what it wants.

Prioritising Expenditures -The Way Ahead

The reasonable way out in this situation is to prioritize expenditure programmes, something apparently beyond Parrikar or, even his boss, Modi (to wit, the latter’s off-the-cuff decision whilst in Paris to buy 36 French Rafale combat aircraft. It will keep the French aviation sector in the clover at the cost of competitive bidding, transfer of technology — to help his own “Make in India” policy, and of choosing the most economical Su-30MKI option that Parrikar, incidentally, was partial to).

The transactions for the US-made C-17 and C-130J airlifters and the P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and for the Rafale fighter showed foreign arms companies and governments how to crack the frustrating puzzle of India’s defence procurement system: approach (earlier Manmohan Singh, now) Modi for multi-billion dollar government-to-government (G2G) contracts.

No problems, no hassles, happy customer, happier suppliers. This method works because, in the absence of a mechanism in the Government of India for inter se prioritization, all defence acquisitions decisions are essentially ad hoc any way, and made by the prime minister and/or finance minister and/or defence minister, using metrics of their choice.

But the G2G route still being an exception, the outcome in terms of actual armaments materializing normally from the procurement pipeline today is no different from when Parrikar’s Congress party predecessor A.K. Antony held court. Antony refused to make any decision attended by the slightest whiff of corruption. Given the nature of the international arms trade and the commission-baksheesh-good times habituated Indian system managers, this was akin to seeking a virgin in a bordello.

So, Antony stayed out of the cat-house, cut no deals and, by the end of his term, had reduced the armed services chiefs to a bunch of blithering hand-wringers. But, in his seven years, at least, he made no howlers.

The Please-all Mr Manohar Parrikar

Parrikar, on the other hand, has proved he is no Solomon. Called on to decide which of two women was mother of a child claimed by both he would probably have cleaved the baby down the middle! That is what he did with the new 17 (Mountain Strike) Corps under raising.

Saying the fund crunch mandated it he halved its strength to 35,000 troops and saved Rs 32,000 crore. It, presumably, is another example of “wise use of money” that he said led to the purchase of only 36 Rafales (as against the requirement of 126 aircraft). For all the good the two Rafale squadrons and the truncated Mountain Corps will do, he might as well trash them both.

What it reveals about Parrikar and the BJP government is that, like Antony and the Congress regime before them, they are not applying their mind, perhaps, because it requires a broader perspective and a threat-reorienting political decision they are fearful of making. China is emerging, finally (whew!), as the consensual main-threat.

Hence, rationally speaking, the army’s three strike corps for the Pakistan front absorbing 17%-22% of the annual defence budget should be rationally reconfigured to one composite armour-mechanized corps for contingencies in the west, with the funds and manpower thus freed up switched to form three offensive mountain corps for operations in Tibet to keep the Chinese forces there honest.

Why is this so difficult for Messrs Modi and Parrikar to understand and act on? As I have been arguing for over two decades, it is not the scarcity of resources but their misuse, owing to a complicit Indian government and military that is the problem.

Time for an Overhaul

The mismatch between resources and requirements will only grow especially in the face of demands by powerful legacy combat arms, such as the plains/desert-limited armoured and mechanized formations, including a massive self-propelled artillery element, that are irrelevant to 21st Century warfare transitioning to network-centred, robotic, remotely-controlled, long range, precision munitions. Then again, the Indian armed forces are pretty antique, as is their thinking and, in that, they are in sync with the government.

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Published in The Quint, May 16, 2015 at http://www.thequint.com/2015/may/16/driving-defence-into-the-ground-time-for-a-check-modi-govt

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In Earthquake Zone, Jaitapur Nuclear Plant Could Be Courting Calamity

One disaster is terrible enough, but two are truly catastrophic. There are two types of disasters that strike in us an elemental fear.

One is when the earth shakes violently. Buildings, bridges, and built-up structures sway before toppling, roads crack open, electric poles snap, gas lines erupt into flames, oceans erupt with killer tidal waves, and whole cities are decimated as in the case of Nepal most recently. We can do nothing but ponder our insignificance, scramble to a safe place if we can, and watch helplessly as the world as we know it is lost or reduced to rubble.

The other fear is of a nuclear explosion or mishap, when the dreaded imagery of Hiroshima after “Little Boy” had done its 15 kiloton job looms. Of a city reduced to a smouldering ruin, with people far from ground zero hit by the thermal shock wave and finding their skin hanging in shreds from their bones. An atom bomb is a man-made device and use of it a man-made calamity.

A nuclear power plant is a controlled atom bomb. But it can blow because of a natural disaster, design fault or errors in operating it. An earthquake, by unsettling its foundations, can lead reactors to malfunction, to uncontrolled fission, release of immense heat, a meltdown of the reactor core, and the spread of lethal radioactivity ending, perhaps, in less physical destruction but in dangerous radiation poisoning of the surrounding air, land and water bodies.

Nothing can be done to prevent earthquakes, considering that the Indian subcontinent is on a moving tectonic plate that is constantly crashing into the Himalayan range and pushing under the Eurasian plate at the rate of 5cm per year. Some areas are thus seriously earthquake-prone owing to aggravated faultlines and fissures in the earth.

Mixing earthquakes and nuclear power plants, therefore, would seem like courting a nightmare, which is what Jaitapur may be facing. This town, located on the unspoilt Ratnagiri coast of Maharashtra, is at the confluence of seismic zones 3 and 4, the latter the penultimate category in the national system for assessing earthquake-sensitive areas and identified as a “High Damage Risk Zone”. It is also the site prospectively for the largest nuclear power complex in the world, expected to pump 9,900 MW of electricity into the national grid.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., the eventual operator of this plant, is perhaps persuaded by its favourable features — namely, stable hard rock for a solid foundation, a low population density area and access to seawater as coolant for the reactor core — and insists the plant site is in the lower-risk seismic zone 3. But on the basis of computer simulation, geological experts Roger Bilham and Vinod Gaur in 2011 claimed that the Jaitapur region lies in “a compressional downwarp”. This, apparently, is why so far 93 earthquakes/major tremor incidents have been recorded, most recently the 1993 6.2 Richter scale catastrophe in nearby Latur.

A quake triggers earth motion with vertical and horizontal acceleration — the latter side-to-side movement bringing down most structures. Areva, a French company contracted to put up this gigantic power station offers reassurances. It is also pointed out that in France, nuclear plants are designed to withstand earthquakes “twice as strong as the 1,000 year event calculated for each site” and that 20% of nuclear reactors worldwide operate in regions of “significant seismic activity”. Besides fortified construction, this plant, like the power reactors in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea — also in active earthquake zones — will be fitted with seismic detectors to automatically and safely shut down the plant once ground motion reaches a certain tripping level.

Mother Nature, however, always musters nasty surprises. An earthquake and a tsunami — an unforeseen combination the designers had not planned for — downed Fukushima! Why tempt Nature and take chances? Move the nuclear power units to a safer place at little cost as no construction work has yet begun. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also pacify the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s coalition partner in the state – the Shiv Sena– that has joined the local people in clamouring for the termination of the Jaitapur project.
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Published in the Huffington Post (India) May 18, 2015, at http://www.huffingtonpost.in/bharat-karnad-/post_9370_b_7303336.html

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Electric Modi decision & short circuit in China

At the end of the formal meeting between PM Modi and Premier Li Keqiang, the FS K. Jaishankar held a press conference and informed reporters that there was no decision on e-visas for Chinese nationals. Less than two hours later, speaking to students at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Modi announced that e-visas would be available to all Chinese visitors. There’s either insufficient communication between the PM and MEA, or Modi took it on himself, on th spur of the moment, to shove aside whatever Home Ministry objections may have held up a decision, and to announce it as done deal. Just a few weeks earlier he had made an end-run around Defmin Manohar Parrikar when he announced, again apparently off the cuff, the G2G deal for 36 Rafale combat aircraft, when Parrikar himself was leaning on the side of the more economical option of the Su-30MKI already being produced at HAL, Nasik. Parrikar had to scramble to now hail Modi’s decision as a big breakthrough. Not sure what this means other than wondering if this is to be the pattern for the Modi tenure, and if so, what the policy implications are or will be?

Curiously, Modi at Tsinghua mentioned “mutual and equal security” — a formulation that finds no mention in the Joint Statement issued by the two govts at the end of Modi’s time in Beijing, nor does the notion of “shared neighbourhood”. Considering there’s only the mention in it of “peace and tranquility” on the border — a construction from the 1996 agreement signed when Jiang Zemin visited Delhi, it suggests the two countries are not in synch, which”s the strategic reality. Especially because Modi also said at the Tsinghua event that without resolution of the border issue “neither side knows where the border is” and hence that military tensions will occasionally occur. But this is apparently acceptable to the Chinese because they have not as Jaishankar informed the media, agreed to direct links at the military “command” level but only at the unit level. In other words, Beijing has reduced the differences over the undelineated border to a tactical, field level, military problem!

The Chinese have, however, extended the idea of a “new relationship between major powers”, originally used to describe China-US relations in the new Century, to include India to now talk about “new relationships between major countries”. There’s however less to this than meets the eye.

There’s a laughable lapse on MEA’s part when it agreed to the language re: nuclear nonproliferation. The point #39 in the Joint Statement states that the two sides noted “the commonalities in their approach to global arms control and non-proliferation”, come again!! This is ridiculous that China has, with MEA’s help, elevated itself to the too scrupulous status of India where nonproliferation is concerned when, in reality, China has been the most brazen proliferator of nuclear weapons and missile expertise and materials in the last three decades to Pakistan (with, and we should not forget it, the US complicity), and North Korea and, more recently, Iran!!!! Why did MEA allow this?? Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval will have to answer for this quite extraordinary giveaway — permitting China to equate itself to India as an ardent nonproliferator!!! Sheerest fiction and nonsense! Did Modi expressly approve this? In that case, a black mark against him and his PMO.

And, finally, with India outsourcing its infrastructure development to China — telecommunications, high-speed railways, highways, won’t China have an inside track on Indian security as well (logistics — rail movement, and cyber penetration through telecom network, and Xiaomi, Huawei mobile telephony sets)? Is anybody in GOI worried?

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Flinching on Japan in Malabar

Some of us were hoping against hope that Prime Minister would gird up his courage and formally invite Japan to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise involving the Indian and the US Navies to be conducted later this year, and to join in its planning. It was not to be, he buckled under pressure from MEA, which has always been extraordinarily careful not give offence to China, even as the Zhongnanhai (the Chinese policy complex) has never cared about India’s concerns and interests when announcing a slate of military aid and development assistance projects, in the Northern Areas — Gilgit, Hunza, and Baltistan, part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir occupied by Pakistan since 1947 and hence very much a territory India has claimed, but as I repeatedly said, never made a fuss about.

This is a repeat occurrence because the Congress party coalition govt had similarly invited Japanese naval planners some years back to partake of the Malabar Exercise planning, thought better of it, and at the last possible moment rescinded the entire planning exercise, after the US and Japanese naval officers were already in town! That such lily-livered decision would ensue from Narendra Modi as well, is something of a shock.

But by now it is clear Modi heeds bureaucratic advice even when it goes against the national interest. On this occasion, rather than exercise his own judgement and sense of realpolitik, and over-rule the MEA and make a big show of welcoming Japan into the grouping of Malabar naval powers, a day before flying off to Xian, which would have sent a powerful message to Xi that this is not anymore the India of Manmohan Singh. Instead, Modi has once again proved that he simply doesn’t have the gumption to stand up to Beijing. He will undoubtedly receive a warmer embrace from Xi and a noisier welcome.

The MEA’s action of calling in the Chinese ambassador yesterday to protest Chinese Karakoram Highway project passing through the Northern Areas, was obviously an afterthought to still the expected criticism of the decision to keep Japan out of Malabar. Japanese Admirals who, uncharacteristically, have often publicly voiced their frustration with India in various forums during their visits to New Delhi, will now have an extra reason to feel let down. The Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, who has invested much political capital in courting India will begin to worry about this investment turning bad. Modi may well permit the Japanese navy officers to join in the tripartite Malabar planning scheduled for sometime in July. But by then, India and Modi will have missed the stage and the occasion to make a strong statement. Besides, such restraint will confirm India’s standing to ASEAN states, and even Australia, as a country that cannot be relied on when the going gets tough.

As stated in the preceding blog, weak geostrategics and the strategic vision deficiency of the country is a deadly combination. It will keep India tethered to smallness of endeavor and aspiration, and provide proof of India as a fairly inconsequential power.

The odds-on bet is that Modi will return, as his predecessors did after their sessions of kowtow in Beijing, with nothing much to show for his forbearance and supposed tactfulness in not upsetting China, except some small favours that the Chinese Emperor has always bestowed on weak states that accept China’s supremacy.

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Bad Policy, Geostrategics Will Go against India

Prime minister Narendra Modi goes to China weighed down by traditionally bad geostrategics and even worse policy.

Consider the underway Chinese initiatives in India’s neighbourhood—the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to access the warm water port at Gwadar, submarines and combat aircraft to Pakistan, the Qinghai-Lhasa railway with a loop-line to Xigatze on the Nepal border, the “maritime silk route” and the “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, the old silk route connecting China with Central Asia and Russia majorly through Kazakhstan, investment in infrastructure and extractive industry in Afghanistan, and the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) scheme worked out of Kunming to provide the fast industrialising western provinces an opening on the Bay of Bengal. These developments are enveloping India in a geostrategic mesh—the essence of Wei-qi, an ancient Chinese board game and template for Chinese statecraft.

In Wei-qi, the objective is to fill as many of the squares on the board with one’s pieces, the corners inwards, to crowd the adversary and leave him little manoeuvring space and freedom of action. Using trade, aid, military assistance, and cultural exchanges with countries around India and farther afield, China means to influence India’s policies by influencing these states that otherwise fall naturally within the Indian strategic penumbra.

What is the Indian geostrategic model to compete with Wei-qi? From ancient times the Hindu sense of the subcontinental space bounded by the mountains, deserts, and the seas is that of Jambudwipa—the great big island state. It is hardly surprising that its outlook has been insular, and friends and foes conceived on the basis of geometric determinism dictated on the basis of a simplistic formulation of the mandala, codified in the Arthashastra. The mandala concept of concentric circles—the inner-most circle comprising adversaries, followed by a tier of friends, the next outer circle again of enemies, and so on has ensured maximally-riled neighbours. Whatever its utility in pre-historical India of perpetually warring kingdoms, the mandala scheme virtually disabled rulers from envisaging distant threats, because vast intervening spaces made perceiving nations far from the homeland as friendly or adversarial difficult, whence the preoccupation with smaller, weaker, adjoining states—a foreign policy affliction to this day. Wei-qi obviously scores over the less engaged mandala-infused approach (non-alignment, strategic autonomy).

Against a more equal rival such as the United States, however, Wei-qi turns, in effect, into a classical balance-of-power game, with moves countered by corresponding moves to deny the opponent spatial domination. Against a strategic vision deficient-India that, for instance, did not respond with alacrity to China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan by prompt transfers of nuclear and conventionally warheaded missiles and major armaments to Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries on the Chinese periphery, Beijing will always have the upper hand.

The new thing Modi brings to the table is his boundless confidence and ready wittedness. An impactful incident of Modi’s diplomacy that few know about occurred during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit last September. With the intrusion of an armed unit of the People’s Liberation Army in the Chumar sector of the disputed Aksai China region as backdrop, Modi asked Xi if the PLA in China dominated the political leadership in the manner the army does the government in Pakistan. Cut to the quick Xi professed ignorance of the intrusion, but PLA troops pulled back the next day.

This little episode no doubt induced in Xi respect for Modi, particularly for the manner in which the message was conveyed, complete with the derisory allusion, and in light of the history of PLA provocations as accompaniment to high-level meetings. Recall that China invaded Vietnam in February 1979 on the day external affairs minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reached Beijing, a symbolic slap and a warning to India that it may be next! But can the personal regard Xi has for Modi be converted into real benefits for India? Doubtful, because Chinese leaders, pickled in the brine of China’s centrality in the world, are not swayed by flummery. For them the strategic end-state matters, not small profit from marginal attributes.

The larger picture is still more worrisome. Deng Xiaoping’s 1991 guideline—“hide your capability, bide your time”—has been given the heave-ho. Xi has apparently determined that China’s economic and military capability is sufficiently muscled to flex it and that now’s the time to begin challenging the United States for supremacy in Asia. This is evident in the growingly aggressive military measures—naval patrolling in far-off waters, announcement of the air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, embedding of sonar buoys around the disputed Senkaku Islands to monitor Japanese and US warship traffic, and by rendering potential partners of the US, such as India, less effective once Beijing starts acting decisively in Asia-Pacific.

This is the reason why despite Modi prioritising the resolution of the border dispute, the 18th meeting in late March this year of the Special Representatives—National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and the former Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi—achieved nothing. This outcome was preordained, because keeping a border solution dangling keeps New Delhi in check. Then again Beijing has had to do little for Indian governments to unilaterally cede ground on the Tibet issue—surrendering of inherited Indian rights in Lhasa, recognition of Chinese suzerainty, then sovereignty, “One-China” policy, stapled visas, in return for zilch (unless Beijing’s infirm acceptance of Sikkim as part of India is considered a big deal). But this is the recessive China policy the ministry of external affairs has flogged, and Modi has not retracted.

Modi will get investment but only if India stays with the Chinese line on Tibet, and the lopsided, neo-colonial, $75 billion trade—Indian minerals for Chinese finished goods—and a skewed balance-of-payments problem that cost this country $37 billion last year. This imbalance will not be dented by increased Indian exports of vegetables, fruit and, ironically, in the face of the brouhaha over cow slaughter, of beef. The fact is the China-assisted infrastructure build-up, a rousing welcome for Modi in Xian, and a hall full of screaming Indians in Shanghai do not compensate for India’s strategic reduction.
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Published in New Indian Express, May 13, 2015 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Bad-Policy-Geostrategics-Will-Go-against-India/2015/05/13/article2811089.ece

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Save Maldives from the Gayooms

The Maldives — an archepelagic island chain in the south-western Indian Ocean — and of strategic importance to India that cannot be under-estimated, is under terrific strain from the continued rule by President Yameen Gayoom, who means to consolidate the Gayoom Family hold on this island country mostly by crook, and now needs to be visited by the Indian High Commissioner in Male and informed that unless the democratic order is restored and the former President and head of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohammaed Nasheed, released forthwith from prison on trumped up charges alongwith his defence minister who is similarly incarcerated, that he may find an Indian army’s Special Forces unit dropping by his presidential palace for a little bit of gentle persuasion. New Delhi did no react strongly enough in Feb this year when Nasheed was sentenced for 13 years (and his defence minister drawing a 10 year sentence) by a Kangaroo Court masquerading as the Maldivian judiciary on the charge of ïntending to kidnap a judge during his presidency. While the act was never carried out and intention is hard to prove, these factors have not swayed the existing Maldivian judiciary, which is known for its links to the Gayoom order, from doing the dirty political work of removing the only democratic threat extant to Yameen. There is every danger that if the Modi government fails to act now, Yameen will feel emboldened by Delhi’s traditional passivity to ask Beijing for a permanent military presence on the island territories to preempt India from strong arming him and proving any threat to his rule.How was Nasheed brought down within 2 years of being voted to power? By the police and the small Maldivian military with vested interests in the Gayoom dispensation, rebelling against the newly installed president, That should have been the event to trigger an Indian intervention, even though Nasheed prematurely resigned. It was little over 2 years ago, that Yameen was on the point of leasing the northern-most Maldivian island, just 19 kms off the southern-most Lakshdweep island, to China. Only a timely visit and advice by the Flag Officer commanding-in-chief, Western Naval Command, VADM Shekhar Sinha, prevented this deal from going through. Yameen’s older half-brother Maumoon, is the one whose hide was saved by the Indian airborne operation (Op Cactus) ordered by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 from a coup d’ état by some LTTE adventurers.But once Yameen gets the Chinese in, it’ll be direct confrontation with Beijing. To preempt such a possibility is why India needs to act forcefully and NOT as some MEA types appearing on TV have suggested that India should bide its time, let the Maldivan people get sick of the Gayooms as the Sri Lankan people were of the Rajpaksas, and otherwise be part of a multilateral effort to pressure Male, etc. If India does not secure Maldives, no one else will do it for us. Gunboat diplomacy still works wonders. Time Modi used it, because Yameen is unlikely to become more democratic just by the PM cancelling his visit. The Gayooms have been adept at radicalizing the peaceful Maldivian society with extremist Wahabbi Islamists and cultivating China, whence that country is becoming a growing source of IS fighters and another pearl in the Chinese chain heralding the Chinese maritime silk route. They also have a thick skin and they need to be treated with prejudice, with extreme prejudice if Yameen acts tough. Act now Mr Prime Minister.

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No Time to Lose for Modi to Arrest Slide after Promises

Recall this time last year. The country was in the throes of a general election the electorate instinctively accepted as a game-changer. The nation was agog with the prospects of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi storming the central bastion and transforming the Indian state from a slow-paced elephant into a pouncing tiger.

The story of Modi’s spectacular rise from selling tea on trains to commanding India has in it something of Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. His ascent signalling to the poor, the weak and the youth the importance of working for a better tomorrow by relying on one’s self rather than on the handouts from an abomination of a “mai-baap sarkar”. It represented an ideology of self-help and an antidote to the stale socialism of family outfits masquerading as political parties grown rich by suckling at the teats of a nanny state. It reached absurd levels with Sonia Gandhi during the election campaign declaring Marie Antoinette-like—“We gave you Rights”—as if paper rights confer material benefits or are a substitute for them!

Recall too the worried hubbub within the ranks of the bureaucracy, the so-called permanent secretariat in the government of India. They apprehended a ruthless slashing of the public payroll, elimination of countless government agencies and departments, and introduction of accountability. Modi’s personal rectitude and reputation as hard taskmaster who wrenched good governance out of the Gujarat state apparatus, moreover, sent shivers down the spines of babus everywhere. The Modi hammer was expected to fall on red tape, the slovenly ways of the government, and the unproductive and wasteful public sector. None of this has happened but Modi has shown an unusual appetite for foreign trips.

Perhaps consumed by the pomp and novelty of tours abroad—16 in the last 11 months—Modi sought promises of billions of investment dollars and help for “Make in India” schemes. But neither the dollars nor the schemes have materialised because he hasn’t called a joint session of Parliament to remove unfriendly land acquisition laws or retroactive tax regimes. Modi has also had embarrassing missteps. His initiation of the Rafale combat aircraft deal on government-to-government basis without competitive bidding and genuine technology transfer, for instance, is a throwback to the bad old system of scams, scandals, and corruption that characterised Congress party rule.

Modi could have taken the most radical measures to remake the government, overturn the system, and build anew, but he didn’t. He played safe and has achieved little. Not only has there been no organisational overhaul, but there has also been no evidence of rewriting of the “rules of business” within the government or streamlining of its functioning. The irony is, as one of Modi’s ministers confided to me, instead of imposing himself on the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has imposed itself on Modi, imprinting its views, values, and methods on a prime minister who was expected to show apparatchiks their place. So, it is the taming of Modi by the babus that is at the heart of why things are going wrong.

There are two other factors to explain the slide in Modi’s fortunes. One pertains to the usual outcome of any electoral victory in India—unruly elements within the new ruling dispensation or its support base flexing their muscles, going on a violent binge. In the BJP’s case, the Hindu fringe lit fires of “love jihad”, attacked churches and, the newly elected BJP Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, by banning beef, even legislated what people can eat. It has frazzled the middle class and lowered the PM’s stock, showing up Modi’s powerlessness. If he cannot check indiscipline in his own party, the possibility of his bringing order to the country is remote.

The other factor has to do with the centralisation of power with almost all (presumably major) decisions requiring the prime minister’s approval, according to my ministerial acquaintance. For a PM-centric system to work, however, requires a large Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with an array of specialists mustering comprehensive expertise that Modi can call on to assess the policy choices forwarded by ministries, suggest new options, and to shape his decisions. But Modi is handicapped because while the PMO is numerically large it is not very capable, manned as it is by hordes of civil servants. Besides, the oversight that should be exercised especially over strategic economic and foreign and military policies by the National Security Adviser, according to this insider, is missing because the competence of the present incumbent, Ajit Doval, doesn’t cover more than the intelligence field and his attention doesn’t stray beyond Pakistan.

It is a pity that when Modi had the intellectual wealth of the country to draw upon to engineer more creative policies and programmes, he chose to stick with the babus and the institutional status quo. But this system is of Modi’s contrivance. And its performance in the past year signposts what the country can expect in the future—steady under-performance, legacy programmes dressed in new rhetoric, and shoddy implementation, unless there is radical improvement. In the past year 178 infrastructure projects worth six lakh crore rupees have been cleared with nothing to show for it on the ground.

The insider also cannily observed that Gujarat is not India and managing the show in Gandhinagar is small preparation for running the government of India. In any case, the default position of any PM who finds himself in over his head, he said, is to leave it to the permanent secretariat to do the job. Modi promised much but seems to have lost his nerve for doing big things. The voter has every reason to feel cheated.

This slide can be arrested. Modi has four more years to prove he is not a political shooting star. The PM should remember that the people mandated him to realise his new vision, which the existing civil servant-shackled order cannot translate into imaginative ideas and policies for transformative change. He has so far wasted his political capital in system-tinkering. He can expend what remains of it in reconfiguring the policy-making process by calling in outside experts to intellectually revitalise a government in doldrums. There is no time to lose.
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Published in New Indian Express, May 1, 2015 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/No-Time-to-Lose-for-Modi-to-Arrest-Slide-after-Promises/2015/05/01/article2791405.ece

Posted in Asian geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, society, South Asia | 20 Comments