Is India still sovereign?


Image result for pics of pompeo and mattis in delhi

[US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defence Secretary James Mattis on the PM’s two flanks]

A nation can lose its sovereignty, defined as the ability independently to make decisions in its own interest, in a rush or incrementally. The signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement with the United States this past week is the latest such increment in a series that began with the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott “strategic dialogue” and Next Steps in Strategic Partnership under the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that prevented India from developing a genuine 12,000 mile intercontinental ballistic missile,and the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal negotiated by the Congress party regime of Manmohan Singh which with “voluntary test moratorium” as the basic predicate, capped the Indian nuclear weapons capability at the boosted-fission level and well short of the tested and proven high-yield two-stage thermonuclear armament – the ultimate adjudicator of differences between countries.

The BJP government of NarendraModi, has done its bit in eroding India’s sovereignty by signing in 2016 the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that will permit America to stage military operations from India air, naval, and army bases in the Indian Ocean region, and by following up last week in the ‘2+2 Talks’ with the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) – that will leave no part of the country’s most secret communications grid within the government and the military unexposed to US control. The 2+2 Meet involving the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries – SushmaSwaraj and NirmalaSitharaman clearly overmatched by Mike Pompeo and General James Mattis.

Thus, in a span of 18 years India has lost its sovereign policy space, wrecked its pretense of strategic autonomy, and consolidated its growing status as a comprehensive security dependency of America. Hardly to be wondered then that India has garnered the status of a treaty ally of the US in Asia akin to Japan, South Korea and Philippines. Ironically, it is at a time when European states, fed up with the record of American unreliability and arm-twisting, are planning a NATO of their own minus the United States.That the so-called “nationalist” BJP and the more “internationalist” opposition Congress party are equally responsible for bringing this country to this pass, tells its own sad story.

But why is COMCASA significant? It will allow the US to comprehensively penetrate the secure Indian communications network, including all command and control links not excluding the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). It means that with the US listening in on the most secret communications traffic within the government and between the Indian government and other governments, it can take measures to preempt decisions and shape policies to ensure Delhi doesn’t depart from the US line. It will also be in a position to hinder military communications between senior field commanders and frontline units, between theatre commands and Services Headquarters and the Indian government, and between the Prime Minister and the SFC in a nuclear crisis and, potentially, to over-ride the authority to fire nuclear weapons.

This potentially fatal vulnerability was the reason the Indian military initially opposed COMCASA. But when have the armed services really mattered, or even really been in the national security decision loop? Washington has always banked on the malleability of the Indian government and its functionaries, to get its way. This owes not little to the eco-system that’s in place in Delhi to promote and progress the US tilt in India’s stance,led by the Indian chapters of Washington think tanks peopled by senior Indian diplomats and the like – Brookings and Carnegie funded, incidentally, by Indian corporates.

The eco-system,more tellingly, works because of serving senior Indian civil servants and military officers suborned, in the main, by offers of “green cards”, work visas, and “scholarships” for their progeny. It constitutes the new set of inducements to sell the national interest down the drain; secret offshore bank accounts are passe’. (The entire eco-system is detailed in a section in my new book that’s just out — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’.)

The provisions in COMCASA prohibiting Washington from doing any of the bad things, including the sharing of information and data with adversary states, are but paper assurances reflecting the credulity of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of External Affairs. In reality, however, there is absolutely no enforceable guarantee that Washington won’t violate them. Worse, with the P-8Is, and antique platforms, like F-16s and the Sea Guardian dronethat Delhi is beingpressed to buy fitted with communications gear linked to a “blinking” US Global Positioning System and, more generally, to all platforms and guided ordnance in Indian employ,the entire Indian arsenalwill be exposed to technical misdirection. The second test of the Agni missile in the 1990s had to be aborted, for instance, because the US GPS it was plugged into blinked. India cannot prevent such mischief because it lacks the technical means to monitor and shut down COMCASA misuse.

For giving up so much, what has India got in return? It has lost its policy latitude and freedom. The waiver from sanctions for the Indian buy of the Russian S-400 air defence system under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act as Washington has made clear is only a one-off thing, not a blanket waiver. In other words, CAATSA sanctions are, in effect, a cocked pistol held to India’s head. It is a sign of things to come that the day this accord was signed Trump threatened India with denial of trade concessions, and the departing Pompeo advised Delhi to meet the November 3 deadline for the cutoff of Iranian oil flow to India, lest CAATSA sanctions get activated.

India would have been strategically empowered had a deal been negotiated to string the US along by approving contingent hookups by Indian forces utilizing the jerry-rigged-system facilitating short-term interoperability of the kind that has enabled the Malabar naval exercises, and case-by-case access to Indian military facilities, to match the CAATSA waiver mode. That way India would have furthered the principle of strict reciprocity and retained its own counter-leverage and leeway,and high-level cooperation with Russia and Iran.

With a fairly integrated Indian military communications network, however,Moscow will be fearful of the US’ reach into America-sourced aircraft compromising Russian-supplied Su-30MKI fighter planes in the IAF, and especially the Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarine with the Indian Navy. Small wonder the talks for leasing the second Akula are stuck. Does Modi expect the US to make up for this critical capability void? Remember, US companies are not willing to part with the upgraded avionics technology of even the 50 year-old F-16 fighter plane! And, even more,how does Delhi propose to manage the evolving Russia-China-Pakistan concert that Moscow has begun giving substance to with the first batch of Pakistan military officers heading for stints at the higher military training institutions in Russia, when it has failed miserably to handle the lesser Pakistan-China nexus?

The trouble is Modi’s tilt is less strategic than aspirational. His apparently unconditional love and admiration for America and his subaltern thinking have together imposed a low ceiling on India’s ambition. This explains why he has tolerated personal slights, from denial of US visa when he was Gujarat chief minister to, as the New York Times reported on 2 September, President Donald Trump making fun of him by frequently mimicking his accent in internal White House discussions.

That Modi is willing to swallow such insults is his business. Preventing the erosion of India’s sovereignty, national interest and security are the Indian people’s concerns.


[A denatured version of the above article published in the online Open magazine, September 11, 2018, with the title “A bad deal” at



About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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28 Responses to Is India still sovereign?

  1. Shankara says:

    All modi followers start abusing online when you tell thm plain truth..
    That modi surrendered soverignity..

    By nov 2018 when iran oil and s400 are rejected by usa then people will realize what strategic mistake …modi govt has realy done with a knee jerk team and weak negotiations

    • San Mann says:

      It’s not Trump Whitehouse who are rejecting, it’s the US congress and their vote banks. India will have to lobby them. As long as India can keep growing its economic might, that’s the true path to sovereignty, since all other power stems from economic power. Congress kept us away from economic growth for so long, because they simply didn’t have the brains to know better.

      • A says:

        It is this low grade bania thinking that made Hindu India a slave for 800 years.
        It is military power which determines economic prosperity otherwise Japan and Saudi Arabia would have been great powers by now.

  2. AD says:

    Modi has lost whatever extra public goodwill he had in many parts of India since 2014 election because of a series of blunders from poor implementation of demonetization and GST in addition to an inability to do anything worthwhile about religious extremism in Kashmir. Compound that with their tone deaf attitude towards problems of burgeoning youth unemployment and high gasoline/diesel prices- and you have a recipe for electoral disaster in 2019.

    China and/or Pakistan will most certainly create a particularly humiliating situation for him just before the electoral season. Also, there is a very good chance they will do it in such a manner that it will drag on for weeks or months without serious military escalation but tons of humiliation for India. And you know what.. Modi had over four years of majority at central level to do major reform and he, for the lack of a better word, blew it.

    • San Mann says:

      Nationalists are the only answer to solve the challenges India faces. There are none more nationalistic than the current governing party, unless you want to count Subramanian Swamy and Swatantra. The bottom line is that more consolidation of support around nationalists will enable more political latitude to take tougher decisions.

  3. Aban says:

    And so it continues. India slowly becoming a Client state of US. And increasingly helpless when dealing with China. Infact India deals with China exactly the way The Indian Native states ruled by Rajas & Maharajas dealt with the British.
    India today is not just incapable of making its own Military-strategic policies but it is unable to frame an economic policy that suits India’s interests. Look how India has bow down infront of American Corporations and allow them market access in return for nothing. How our IT industry & other big Corporates (coopted by US) are pushing for more & more pro -US policies. Our trade deficit & our dependency on China is increasing all thanks to certain Lobbies who have been coopted by China. BJP/CONG/Left/Big corporates/Babudom all played a role in this.

  4. vivek says:

    Bharat,is it possible for US or other country to influence lok sabha election if any government go against them??

    • History tells us that the US and USSR interfered in Indian elections from the start, usually by financially propping up this or that party. The Soviet Union famously channeled monies into Indira Gandhi’s Congress coffers and the US has likewise been supporting sympathetic parties and politicians. Two new factors one has to reckon with are (1) the manipulation of the social media for electoral purposes, and (2) the use of cyber means to get a drop on the other side’s plans and strategy. For this last purpose, the ruling party always has the help of the Intelligence Bureau whose task in the colonial times was to gather intel on rebellious Indian kingdoms under the British Raj and, post-WW-I, political parties agitating for freedom.

    • Shankara says:

      Did you check about apco branded modi

      Cambridge branded rahul gandhi..

      What about evms core components imported from japan and usa no code level black box checking done on chips imported by election commision..

      Indian aadhar project handed over to usa firms….for security

      India does not have anything called soverignity

      • AD says:


        See.. to have national sovereignty, one has to first have something called self-respect and belief in your own abilities. Now tell me, when was the last time you saw someone who was pragmatic, objective, self-respecting and satisfied being himself or herself occupy a position of significant power in the Indian political or administrative systems? Anyone?

      • Vishnugupt says:

        we lost it in the 60s itself.

        Indians(both politicians and Faujis in general) decided to part with sovereignty when they decided to shelve indigenous development of weapons starting with Marut fighter and buy Soviet Migs(in a display of solidarity with a fellow Socialist country).

        What we see today is its shameful legacy.

        Unless we write the much deserving obituary for Socialism in India and privatize defense industrial complexes(by giving it to wholly owned Indian companies) and start firing “tenured” bureaucrats in MEA and MOD for their incompetency,complacency and failure in doing their job, there is no hope.

        Make no mistake: Arms imports is the ultimate anti-thesis of sovereignty. Be it from the “affectionate soviets” or the “crooked Uncle Sam”.

  5. Vishnugupt@ — Under international law, any accord, treaty, agreement can be disavowed at any time by a sovereign country in its national interest. Of course, it has to be prepared to face the consequences of sanctions, etc. It is the vaguest threat of this that has everybody in GOI hyperventilating, with the civil servants and diplomats in particular stoking the hysteria of unbearable sanctions, etc. — which last is a load of nonsense.

    • I suppose COMCASA has a provision of 6 month’s notice for abrogation. Also it’s valid for 10 years after which it has to be signed again. But I don’t understand why the text of the agreement is classified. It should be out in public domain what GOI has signed.

  6. PRITHVI PATIL says:

    I have been an ardent supporter of Modi, and saw his rise to 7RCR as the best thing that could have happened to India. However I am now deeply disappointed with this government’s strategic blunders as regards to COMCASA and other agreements. But what is even more disappointing is the total disregard the Indian masses/voters have towards issues of strategic importance . There has been no debates on COMCASA whatsoever in MSM, even on channels like Ndtv who are sworn enemies of this govt. We have debates on issues like Vijay Mallya and some comment by some bjp local leader somewhere, all of which are pitifully inconsequential compared to an issue such as COMCASA.
    I also happen to oppose the Indian left with the same fervour that i support the BJP, but ironically i think had a left supported UPA been in power this deal would never have happened. It’s a shame the left is busy baiting the BJP on issues like a few “human right activist” arrests rather than attacking the government on these issues.

    Mr Bharat is right. We Indians are not strategic minded at all. That explains and perhaps justifies what happened in history. The weak are condemned to defeat and ignominy.

    • Vishnugupt says:

      @PRITHVI PATIL There is a fine yet important difference between critical evaluation and self loathing.

      Unfortunately we Indians have scholarship in the latter.( The British had a role in this before independence and Leftist academia furthered it after independence, remember the “Hindu rate of Growth” argument.)

      • Shankara says:

        If india is proper democracy with balance and checks, each deal/agreement would have under gone scrutiny in Parliament. We are “sheeples” — what ever jumlebazi our leaders say do…we follow like sheep.
        Canada backed off from the shabby F-35 deal; the Australian parliament is scrutinizing F-35 deal in the middle of procurement to save taxpayers money. See


    Dear Mr. Bharat Karnad

    I believe when the Pakistanis were made “Major Non-NATO ally” by the US in 2005, then they too probably had signed the same COMCASA as well as LEMOA.

    Now I would love to know how do you think the Pakistanis managed to maintain their strategic autonomy ? Did they opt out of COMCASA and LEMOA later ?

    I would love to know this from an expert like you.

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

    • Debanjan@ — Pakistan in fact long ago signed the LSA and CISMOA (from which LEMOA and COMCASA are derived). It hasn’t managed in the least to retain its strategic autonomy. It is only now with the US unwilling to reimburse Pakistan for the costs of Pak military support for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan that there are mutterings about separating from the US and concerting with China and Russia. But the US has its claws so deep into the Pak establishment (which may soon be the case in this country as well) it is unlikely any govt in Islamabad will have the guts for doing a clean break.


        Dear Mr. Karnad

        Thanks for your prompt and extremely informative reply.

        Well the US had begun reducing defense material exports to Pakistan from 2010. Currently I believe China has completed the gap that the US has left. Russia too is beginning to export defense equipment to Pakistan.

        The US just abruptly stopped training Pakistani military officers this year.

        Pro-US commentators who are on CIA-payroles like Hussain Haqqani have been lambasting Pakistani military for at least last 3-4 years.

        I wonder whether all these are pointing that there are now deep frictions between Pakistan and US. Do you think the US has been punishing Pakistan because the US suspects that the Pakistani military is thinking about making some independent moves vis a vis China and Russia (and Iran) ?

        The Iranian military Chief and Iranian foreign minister visited Islamabad much before secretary Pompeo visited.

        Does it mean that Pakistan may actually be looking for some strategic autonomy/space vis a vis US ? What could be the reason behind the same ?

        Finally from an Indian perspective do you think that it will be better if Pakistan can manage to have some strategic autonomy vis a vis US ?

        I would be eagerly awaiting your expert opinion on these questions sir.

        Thanks and regards with best wishes

      • Vishnugupt says:

        @ Prof. Karnad.
        “Pakistan hasn’t managed in the least to retain its strategic autonomy.”

        And yet they successfully kept Osama Bin Laden hidden in their backyard, quite literally.

        So, clearly there is some scope for out maneuvering Uncle SAM.

  8. devraj says:

    Vajpaye ko vajpaye ne khud haraya.Advani ko jinna ne haraya.Modi ko st sc act or petrol disel ki badhti keemat haraegi.than Pappu can dance as next prime minister of Bharat unfortunately. Yeh teeno aise neta rahe hain jinka tod congress ke pass sadiyon mein nahi tha par ye haare apni ghamandi soch se. Modi bhi harega

  9. devraj says:

    Sir, why cannot Congress free itself from the Gandhi family? Is it true that the Italian mafia has strong support for the Gandhi Family, the reason why honest Congress leaders fear a manifestly weak Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and do not revolt against them.

  10. A says:

    For the last 25 years( after Rajiv Gandhi) Indian PMs have reduced themselves to be just like Governor of a state in the old days while the US embassy in Delhi acts as viceroy. Modi is no different.

  11. devraj says:

    There should be revolution in India like 1917 russian revolution but not communist but capitalist one where tallent is more reservation in government jobs.privatise all dpsu’s and give job on merit base.equal chances for all.then India become strong.about article 370.ram mandir and common civil code these are national issues not bjp private assets.average muslim of india only give birth to 2 childs .muslim will satisfy by court logical order on ram mandir and article 370 has no issue for indian muslims .they support indian laws.but bjp fooled each one.all indians support modi for development but he failed

  12. devraj says:

    Modi ji plz plz samhal jao nahi tau election haar jaoge aur Pappu desh ka pm ban k desh ka post mortem kar dega

    • devraj says:

      Every one crying russia is closing to pak and usa is closing to india. Truth is India has not forgeton usa 7th fleet in 1971 war and russian ferocius reaction to 7th fleet.india mostly mention usa as strategic partner to contain china and get usa cutting edge technology and on russian relation cleverly gets silent to prevent usa intervention.india call usa strategic partner and russia as ally .now you can judge by this who has what role

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