(Modi and Putin at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St Petersburg)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi May 21 in a “mini summit” sought by Delhi. There are a whole bunch of streams making up the background.
Modi is beginning to realize, in the penultimate year of his term, that all his foreign trips and jaw-jawing with the good and the mighty have produced little, and that his foreign policy achievements cupboard is pretty bare. More specifically, he is realizing how wrong he has been, and that as this analyst has long stressed by way of a reality check, that his US-centered policy is a near disaster. The realization has dawned that (1) he may have keeled over too much to one side and that his America slanted foreign policy according pride of place to the US for whom India is less important than it is for Russia, has curtailed India’s options and freedom of choice, a conclusion reached after seeing that Trump has dumped on precisely the issues that Modi has attached his ego to — H1B visas, increased exports to the US, etc., (2) this over-tilt prompted a strong Russian reaction that India cannot afford — Moscow cooled off, began backing out of some critical projects (the hypersonic variant of the Brahmos cruise missile, the deal for the second Akula-II SSN, etc) while courting Pakistan, but not so seriously, with talk of arms sales at “friendship prices”, (3) with Washington acting up and India moving into the crosshairs of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) aimed at Russia but indirectly targeting India owing to its arms supply tie-ups with Russian defence companies, Delhi suddenly finds it needs to renew a strong association with Moscow as leverage against the Trump Administration’s pettiness and bumptious attitude, (4) with the termination of the Iran nuclear deal and Tehran facing growing pressure, India finds itself confronting possible sanctions from yet another end of US policy, which imperils Delhi’s geostrategic design for Afghanistan and Central Asia centered on the Chahbahar port on the Arabian Sea just 70kms up the coast and outflanking the potential Chinese naval presence in Gwadar, whence the sudden appreciation of Russia providing political cover, just in case relations with the US and/or China go south, and finally (5) with Trump out-footsie-ing Modi where Xi Jinping is concerned, the imperative to have Putin and Russia on India’s side against a China that shows no sign of slowing down.
These worries animating Modi’s outreach to Putin also have a domestic context: Modi, Amit Shah & Co., knew well before May 15 that they would have to contend with a hung assembly in Karnataka, and that BJP is on its way to handily losing Rajasthan in April 2019, just a month before the general elections are due, and that despite hard slogging BJP may retain Madhya Pradesh with the greatest difficulty but Chattisgarh more easily. The loss of 2 states after a middling performance in Karnataka in the period preceding the big elections would sour the electoral landscape for Modi and BJP. In other words, just as Modi’s dream of “Congress-mukt” Bharat was becoming a reality, BJP and Modi’s slippage will find a rejuvenated Rahul Congress instead.
This needn’t have been the case had Modi concentrated on his agenda of economic growth and empowerment that got him victory at the hustings in 2014. So while all the Hindu fringe groups will vote for Modi — because without him in the PM’s chair, they would not dare unloose mayhem and violence that they are prone to, but lose large chunks of the urban middle class vote for sure besides whatever caste coalitions find themselves in adverse situation.
But that’s water under the bridge and time is nigh to marshal and mobilize the scarce financial resources for development and social welfare programmes to power a last sprint back to the gaddi a year hence. But here’s the rub. It means there are absolutely no additional monies to spare for “defence forces modernization”.
The trick therefore is to find and fund small bore military expenditure programmes — like the Rs 15,000 crore outlay to replenish depleted ammo stocks — to ensure the army in particular can deal with whatever small crises and contingencies may be precipitated on the LOC and LAC by Islamabad and Beijing respectively in the year ahead, and a successful Chinese or worse a Pakistani military operation doesn’t in this intervening time sink Modi’s chances altogether. The result of such inter se prioritization is that the big ticket items are off the table. Rafale combat aircraft deal with France, for instance, is no go in the foreseeable future and, may be, trashed because Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party are up for making this the big corruption issue to tie around Modi’s neck in the runup to the 2019 elections which is as I long predicted. This truth is something ACM BS Dhanoa and his cohort at Air Hqrs are beginning to reconcile to. The Navy meanwhile has accepted without demurring the government’s decision that there will be no third indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-3) and hence no American EMALS (electro-magnetic aircraft launch system) that costs the proverbial arm and leg.
This is a stunning denouement to add to Modi’s other political woes, because his nationalist rhetoric and implementation of OROP had created a potentially huge vote base. This has eroded because the discontent in the armed forces due to a pitiful defence budget that cannot be increased because the economy hasn’t grown because Modi didn’t undertake the kind of system transformation of less government, more free market and entrepreneurship, he promised, will percolate down to the vast military family support and pensioner base in the countryside, and that the blame for this mess too will be laid at Modi’s door.
Modi has a real huge problem and it may be a bit late, but his foreign policy worries and attached security concerns can still be worked out to an extent but only if he begins to regain for India the balance in its policy as between the US and Russia, Russia and China, and China and the US.
Whether Modi, and his sidekick NSA Ajit Doval, have the strategic nous for managing such an intricate power game is another matter. Their record to-date suggests they don’t.