Not too long ago in Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s National Security Adviser, Dr Moeed Yusuf, did something unexpected. On the occasion of the Margalla Dialogue 21, he confessed that the Pakistan government lacked the capacity to digest all information and data and provide useful inputs to the making of national security policy. In the last couple of years in harness, having acquainted himself with the weaknesses of the policymaking process, he has sought to strengthen it. Yusuf’s solution: Attach the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) — a leading government-funded thinktank to the NSA ‘s office and then connect it on a secure and realtime comunications link with other select thinktanks in the country to ensure both the widest possible base of disparate expert views on a range of policy issues, and then to ensure the policy products that accrue are institutionally accessible to the NSA, and other decisionmakers in the various ministries and agencies of Pakistan government, presumably, including the Pakistan Army. IPRI and other orgs, in this scheme of things, appear most significantly to have available for their analyses classified material accessed by line officers in the Foreign Office and elsewhere in government.
Owning up to this institutional debility was the great hump Yusuf pushed the Pakistan government over. He was an outsider who had the PM’s confidence; he could do it. It could be the beginning of a continuous stream of research papers distilled into ‘executive summaries’ for dissemination within the concerned agencies and the Pakistan government at-large. Yusuf is trying to replicate in Islamabad the policy-wise live intellectual milieu of Washington, DC, of which he has vast experience. Before taking up his present post, he headed the South Asia programme at the US Congress-funded US Institute for Peace. (The mark against him is that as an American ‘Green card’-holder it was problematic for Imran to appoint him his NSA and, in any case, that his advice will always be suspect for leaning US-wards.) Except, Imran hoisted him on to the chair anyway, seemingly tired of the same old, same old, foreign and military policy line fed him by the entrenched policy elite.
That’s the hump India will make no effort to cross because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a votary of the policy Establishment as-is, having moulded it into his handmaiden. So the country will continue to be handicapped by the manifest shortfalls in India’s foreign and military policy-making process, with his two prime advisers — the NSA Ajit Doval and external affairs minister S Jaishankar only too happy to do the PM’s bidding. The result over the last seven-odd years are policies dawdling in the ‘comme ci comme ca’ (French for neither good nor bad)-realm. This is fine by Modi. And also, for obvious reasons, by Messrs Doval and Jaishankar — because they don’t have to mentally exert themselves much, if at all.
An example: The only refreshing departure from the old foreign policy is the cultivation of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. It is fetching huge geostrategic gains — and was Modi’s idea. He instinctively understood that it is not the IT professionals pining for the US H1B visa who will produce recurring and longterm benefits for the country but the masses of carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, janitors and clerks in the UAE and elsewhere and, at a higher level, financial and business managers , engineers and and medical doctors and technicians running the Gulf economies and health and engineering systems who, clockwork-fashion, send back remittances and are the economic pillars requiring solidification. They keep homes and hearths in India warm, kitchen stoves, now gassified, lit up, and their children in “English-medium” schools — such and other activities collaterally pumping state and regional economies. Last year, the remittances were worth US$ 83 billion and this in a “flat year”, courtesy the vagaries of the COVID pandemic! Thanks to this Modi policy the majority Hindus in this expat workforce now even have their own temple in UAE to propitiate their Gods in. And there are yoga classes for those interested in attending them in Riyadh and other Saudi cities where, until the other year, women were not permitted to walk around/shop unescorted by men of the family and, horror of horrors, drive cars! The “feel good” sentiment of this Gulf diaspora translates into votes at home, positively affecting even Muslims in the Indian workforce in the Gulf and their dependents back home.
The assorted sheiks and emirs and the King-in-waiting of Saudi Arabia — MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) are no chumps. (The Saudi ambassador to the US in the 1980s with similar name triggered much mirth for South Asians — Bandar bin Sultan or, was it Sultan bin Bandar, in either case everyone asked about the monkey?!) Sharing native cunning with Modi, they are only too aware that the sandy parcels they lord over are living on borrowed time. Saudi Arabia with 17% of the world’s remaining oil reserves of some 260 billion barrels — second largest after Venezuela, pumps out 10.2 million barrels every day amounting to 3.7 billion barrels extracted annually. Meaning, these keffiyeh-sporting monarchs can expect to live high on the hog for as little as another 60 years but for no more than 70 years on the outside. Then what? A return to the Bedouin paradise in the desert, desultory grazing of camels, what?! Appalled at this prospect, they are weighing investment destinations to guarantee large incomes into the oil-less future and see the emerging economies, with India in the van, as their best bet. Hence, the Saudi ambassador in Delhi promised in December 2020 that $100 billion investment was “on track”, and the Gulf emirs are financing malls in Srinagar Valley (sending shivers in Islamabad which fears this will bury Articles 370 and 35A for good, formalising for the world Modi’s absorption of Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir into the Indian Union).
Could Jaishankar or Doval ever have summoned such bravura political instincts to suggest this turn in India’s policy? It is because the PM knows they are career babus incapable of any new policy ideas, but that’s why he hired them. They are there not to think but to implement whatever the boss comes up with. You still need the heavers of policy wood! It has reinforced Modi’s view of himself as his own best thinktank, even if there’s much less to show for it in other policy areas! And, zero movement on a critical strategic issue — resumption of thermonuclear testing to inject credibility into an Indian arsenal filled with unproven and, therefore, useless simulation-designed hydrogen weapons. And this despite being offered every possible provocation and justification for open-ended nuclear testing — the Chinese proxy North Korea’s relentless nuclear and missile testing regimes, and the unhindered transfer of the resulting technological advances to the third member of this rogue triad — Pakistan, and US’, Russia’s, and China’s ongoing nuclear modernization programmes to obtain, among other things, more usable low yield thermonuclear weapons by minimizing radio active fallout. But Delhi’s priority remains to keep Washington placated and pacified, its nonproliferation policy objectives of freezing India’s weapons technology at the 20KT threshold, safely achieved.
To return to Yusuf’s IPRI initiative, is there any possibility of a counterpart development here? Of course, not. Why not? Firstly, because of the secrecy phobia. In an age where there’s very little worth classifying — almost all of the material involved in crafting policy finds its way, one way or another, to the open global information commons, the Official Secrets Act, etc are an anomaly and are, perhaps, retained just so the top people in government feel important! Only 3%-5% of information coursing through Indian official channels deserve the “secret” or “top secret” label and less than 1% of it merits the highest classification status for extremely sensitive information. Secondly, because the IFS officers manning the MEA, like their fellow generalists in the other civil services, especially the shortsighted IAS honchos manning the Defence Ministry, and Departments of Space, Atomic Energy, et al, are loath to share any information with thinktankers — information being power, etc. This attitude in the information age is laughable. More perspicacious analysis can be penned by analysts sitting in Delhi, say, than by staffers in distant embassies churning out turgid despatches. Those habiting MEA are disadvantaged further by another fact once revealed to me by an ex-IFS appointed foreign minister, Natwar Singh, according to whom the last “book” most MEA officers are likely to have read was when cramming for the UPSC! So much for keeping professionally abreast of new thought currents and trends to inform Indian foreign policy-making!
The MEA-subsidised Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses now prefixed with the late defence minister’s moniker to become Manohar ParrikarIDSA, for its part is marking time, remaining right where it was at its founding in the mid-1960s — a bunch of academics with wings clipped. Denied access to any worthwhile technical or other policy-related information, the bulk of the faculty comprise researchers of JNU-type, making-do fulltime by embroidering the policies of the government of the day. There’s no published evidence of any original thinking being done. Whole lifetimes in MPIDSA are wasted by its staffers producing very little that’s new or novel. Further, to guarantee this remains so is installed a retired diplomat as “Director General”, whose brief seems to be to not let disruptive ideas-persons rile the Institute’s “unndata” — MEA/MOD.
Much of why IDSA is what it is can be laid at the door of the late K. Subrahmanyam — the Institute’s long-serving second Director (the first, it is usually forgotten, being retired Major General Som Dutt). KS made no effort to bring IDSA institutionally into the policymaking process in MEA and MOD, despite his unique standing, in the words of his son, external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, as the ultimate “insider-outsider”. He was centrally involved, not the IDSA he headed, in influencing policy. Many senior staffers in the Institute during his stewardship of it complained that Subrahmanyam was like “a Bunyan tree” — letting nothing grow underneath it. But KS’ was a wonderfully fertile intellect yoked, unfortunately, to policies hurtful of the national interest. He argued forcefully for India’s going weapons nuclear in the early 1970s but, post-1998, hurt the natural development of India’s nuclear deterrent by his advocacy of “minimum deterrence”. Likewise, his case for getting in thick with the US post-Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992 terminated in the 2008 US-India civilian nuclear deal, and the foundational accords (LEMOA, COMCASA, BECA), which other than restricting Indian nuclear weapons development, has curtailed India’s policy latitude and strategic choices, and shrunk India’s international profile to a Western dependency.
Jaishankar explained his father’s policy journey from steadfast friendship with Russia to wanting India to climb into America’s lap in the new Century, for instance, as adjusting to the changes in international reality. That’s one way of putting it. Jaishankar was speaking at the conclusion of IDSA’s virtual K Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture on 3rd February. The eminence who delivered this year’s lecture was Edward Luttwak, a longtime fixture on the strategic policy scene in Washington, who in his talk on an intriguing subject — “Applying the K. Subrahmanyam method today”, rationalised KS’ counterproductive policy slants in terms of, what he called, “linear logic”. I failed to understand what Subrahmanyam’s logic that Luttwak was expounding on, was about. It seems to me that logic linearly applied better fits a simpler international system of the early Cold War era — a duopoly with defined blocs and lots of room for manuever by third parties. It is less pertinent, however, in a world in electric flux in the new millennium and why, in the event, riding US’ strategic coattails is a big mistake.
Luttwak said “Americans would be outmatched by the Chinese numbers”, whence his fairly banal “antidote” conforming to KS’ view, of India and the US needing to “align” to deal with China — the common threat. Luttwak thereafter recommended an “organic alliance” of India, Japan and the US, and argued, among other things, why aircraft carriers in the Indian Navy would be easily sunk, but nuclear attack submarines would lend an edge.
Listening to Luttwak, some of his ideas sounded familiar. It occurred to me that I had been propounding the notion of an “organic security” system in Asia in all my books starting with in my first one in 1994 –‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’. And I have been crying myself hoarse about carriers being a naval liability for India for as long (most recently in a detailed analysis in my 2015 book – ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, pages 349-351!
But because, as Imran Khan said in his opening address at the Margalla Dialogue, Pakistanis (and Indians too) are partial to everything offered up by Westerners, may be the Indian government/MEA/MOD will now incorporate the “organic security” system notion in their policy rhetoric and considerations and the Indian Navy will begin stressing SSNs for its order-of-battle!!