It is by now a historic habit for India to miss opportunities, avoid contestation and, when absolutely pushed, lose from a winning position, in the main, because we can’t seem to keep our heads or our wits about us. This is as true for cricket as international affairs. At Old Trafford the supposedly famed top batting order collapsed with, on paper, a doable run chase to realize. In the external realm the Indian government for over two decades now, and helmed in the last five years by Narendra Modi, has likewise shown negligible strategic sense and intent, not appreciated the country’s many strengths nor leveraged them, and finds itself in reality collared by both Washington and Beijing, confused only about which side to appease at any given time and with what (making capital buys here, compromising on trade there, or offering some other concession.
Those who claim and believe that all this tilting, bowing, scraping and fawning is for show and that the alleged masters of the strategic game, namely, the firm of Modi, Jaishankar & Doval, is manipulating all comers to India’s advantage ought to be alerted to the fact that this Indian trio has fared worse on the realpolitik scale than the two predecessor regimes in the new Century, and have proved themselves amateurs going up against US and China — the most prominent and ruthless practitioners of hard realpolitik with a long record of success. Indeed, there’s not a single instance of an Indian foreign policy feint, initiative, measure or move of Modi’s in the last half decade and counting that surprised, offended, or pushed Washington and/or Beijing on the defensive– a simple metric to judge whether Delhi is doing something right by upsetting everybody equally. In fact, far from racking up any noticeable positives or substantive gains for the country, the Modi regime’s attitude, performance, and policies have smacked of gullibility laced with unwarranted complacency that it is doing great, and that persisting with whatever line it has been following so far is best.
Look at the recent record. Delhi countenanced a year of US tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum before responding weakly in kind, and then softened the blow by cleaving in half the perfectly legal imposts under WTO provisions on Harley-Davidson motorcycles coming into India only because every time Trump opens his mouth he raises this issue, making it some sort of benchmark for bilateral trade. Elsewhere, the US International Commission on Religious Freedom socks it to India, the terrorism-funding Sikhs for Justice Forum is permitted to indulge in activities in the US to reignite the Khalistan cause in Indian Punjab, India is frozen out of the Afghanistan peace talks at Pakistan’s behest, and the visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns India, as Kipling had the tommies tell Ganga Din, to “put some juldee” in de-friending Iran and severing its arms supply links to Russia lest the boom of economic sanctions under the 2006 Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) and the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) respectively, be lowered. He made it clear that the waiver of sanctions was temporary, meant to afford time to Delhi to zero out imports of oil from Iran, and of armaments from Russia. And on Delhi’s push-for issue — the H1B visa, Trump has decisively shut this channel down!
But knowing how much Indian leaders crave a shabash from Westerners, Pompeo interspersed his fingerwagging with praise for the Modi-Jaishankar duo for turning off the Iranian oil spigot in India and, flushed with the US success in achieving this outcome, which is completely unfair to India and antithetical to its larger geostrategic interests of accessing Russia-Europe, Afghanistan and Central Asia to balance the spreading Chinese influence via Chabahar port, he urged Delhi to sign on to an equally inequitable “fair trade” as the US sees it, which will do in the Indian economy. It entails, among other things, an eased up flow of US agricultural commodities into India at the expense of the Indian farmer, allow US companies generating consumer data to retain it in servers abroad, stricter intellectual property rights enforcement to cripple, say, the Indian pharmaceutical companies specializing in reverse-engineering cheaper formulations of expensive drugs marketed by Western pharma majors which has proved a boon for affordable healthcare the world over, including America, blocking Huawei and China out of the Indian market for 5G systems for the sake of “security stability”, without any Indian official refering to just about every bit of telecom and computer hardware and software purchased from the US and the West being similarly packed with as many, if not more, electronic bugs, back doors and Trojan Horses.
However, the safest, most secure, option of relying fully and comprehensively on locally designed and produced 5G systems which Indian companies with advanced technological capabilities (such as Sankhya Labs) can easily design and develop in- country, but which capability remains unused because, ironically, the BJP government headed by Modi that bills itself as “nationalist” does not trust anything Indian! Just as the Indian armed services want to have nothing to do with home-designed goods even though the 5th generation Tejas light combat aircraft out-performed the Rafale for mountain ops (in so basic a thing as a cold start at the Leh air base, for instance), and the Arjun main battle tank beat the Russian T-90 hollow in all the rigorous test trials conducted in different terrains and altitudes. What more do India-produced weapons systems have to do to prove their mettle? Oh, yes, they cannot generate commissions for middlemen and funds for the party in power!
It is in this socio-cultural context, that Delhi entertains a constant stream of, when it is not senior American officials from the Pentagon and US Commerce Department, then American and Western defence industry representatives and arms salesmen, all of them stressing the virtues of India switching from the hardy Russian military equipment to the delicate American and European hardware that require kid treatment to operate at even reduced efficiency levels. To wit, French Mirage 2000 and Rafale combat aircraft and their requirement of airconditioned hangars. The US with much less need of Indian custom but able to muster lot more pressure on the Modi government is determined to sell the 1960s vintage F-16 hung out with bells and whistles to impress a Third Wold military and a new and alarmingly bulbous midriff that makes nonsense of its stealth claims. Even if the IAF resists, will Jaishankar, who came straight to the foreign minister’s chair from canvassing for this aircraft as an employee of Tata Corp keen to manufacture this plane under license, do other than counsel Modi to green-signal this project? And, in the event, will the current CAS, BS Dhanoa, or his successor (Nambiar, AOC-in-C, Western Air Command or some one else) have it in him to offer his resignation to stall such procurement?
It is another matter, that this ‘Make in India’ F-16 project mocks the very purpose of the PM’s ídea to make India self-reliant in arms with what — a fourth generation minus fighting platform long past its sell-by date? But this is precisely the arms imports path charted by Nirmala Sitharaman, who as Finance Minister has continued from where she left off as defence minister, by making provisions in the 2019-2020 budget for the military services to obtain foreign armaments at will on the specious basis that the armed forces need quality weapons. Implicit in this view is the belief that anything designed, developed and produced in India is second rate. She never applied her mind, and neither has the PM or anyone else in the Modi government, to setting up the private sector as a competing supplier of arms by compelling DRDO to share the source codes for the Tejas warplane and the Arjun tank, for a start, with firms like L&T, Bharat Forge, and Mahindra Aerospace, et al with the will and the wherewithal to produce world-class military goods for the Indian services and for export from the get-go in order to provide the scale and to attract massive investments and ensure quality products. That’s the surefire way, pradhan mantriji, to set up employment and economic value multipliers, and to rejuvenate the slovenly defence public sector units and ordnance factories. Stories of just how bad DPSU products are, are legion. Just one example: Newly assembled Jaguars coming out of HAL sport leaking fuel lines!
But India’s reliance on imported guns, etc has a long history. As pointed out in my book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498, and some of his gunsmiths jumped ship and set up a foundry to sell guns to the Zamorin — they sold 400 of guns within a year but no indigenous industry ever developed in Calicut or anywhere else. But the same Portugese reached Canton in 1521, started the same arms trade, but within a period of 2 year the Chinese began designing and forging guns. A similar pattern emerged in Japan in 1654 where the Portugese arrived and sold guns and within 20 years Japanese guns exceeded European guns in quality. It also reveals why India remains poor and technologically backward and China and Japan are superior economies and powers.
Then again, when forced to rely on oneself India has produced the goods in the strategic sphere, ranging from nuclear weapons, accurate long range missile and even the Arihant-class “boomer” — a longrange ballistic and cruise missile firing nuclear powered submarine, for God’s sake, and the Indian Navy still thinks it needs to go in for yet another conventional submarine from abroad that will decant even more of the national wealth into foreign pockets and defence industries with its Project 75I, and the IAF still hungers for an augmented Rafale fleet and even antique American aircraft when from the Tejas template can be derived all manner of differently missioned combat aircraft.
All that is required is for Modi, Rajnath Singh and Sitharaman to sit down, think clearly, generate some slight foresight to see that imports will only keep India an arms and technological dependency, and that now’s the time for them to make the hard decision of banning all arms imports, getting the private sector into the defence business, and changing the parameters of the game so long skewed against the national interest. Because there’s nothing well-heeled foreign countries are more grateful for to the shortsighted Indian government and military than that they keep buying weapons systems, telecom equipment, etc from them even though India is eminently capable of making them all at home.