[Lt Gen Naravane, Admiral Karambir and VCAS Air Marshal Arora on Navy Day]]
There’s a lot of head-banging going on in PMO over the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) issue. With the economy plummeting and bad news marching in in battalions with another self-inflicted wound — the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo decided is worth the short term costs — escalating turmoil, including unrest in Delhi, because it would beget perennial political payoffs in terms of polarizing the electorate along religious lines every time general elections and major state level polls come into view. There’s, however, a felt need to take the people’s eye off the extant troubles and on to some “achievements” the BJP government can showcase.
One such issue on the platter is CDS, a decision that’s acquired a certain urgency if the first person to hold this post, the current army chief General Bipin Rawat, who retires end of December, is to be the man. So there’s not much time. Rawat’s “elevation” has been rumoured for a while now. This appointment would be least disruptive because he is the senior most among the current serving chiefs anyway, even though a four star CDS isn’t much of an elevation and will not prevent the coming functional friction with the three services chiefs, including the successor army chief.
There are other options the PMO may be considering that military circles are agog about. Among these is appointing the Vice Chief of the Army Staff Lieutenant General Manoj Mukund Naravane, who is the presumptive COAS, as the first CDS. It will bring the next senior army man, Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh, Northern Army Commander, into the succession picture. Except the navy head Admiral Karambir Singh and Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria may baulk at serving under a junior — Naravane, as the “first among equals”. So, this too is problematic.
If the Modi regime shies away from making Rawat the first CDS, it may be politic, say many senior military officers, to appoint Admiral Karambir to the position as single source military adviser to the government. The present Chief of Naval Staff is a thorough professional, and a straight arrow. Especially helpful is the fact that Karambir is a naval aviator (helicopter pilot) and an air force brat to boot, his father being a retired Wing Commander. And so he’s a person who absolutely appreciates air power and will not shortchange the Indian Air Force, the fear of which motivated its 40-year rear-guard action against the establishment of the CDS system.
In fact, the IAF’s opposition to CDS is the cover behind which the government has advanced the idea of a 4-star CDS, and not a genuinely senior person as a (5-star) Field Marshal, something the civil bureaucracy has violently opposed and which development the political class too has felt queasy about (owing to the old fear about an all-powerful military officer staging a coup).
It will be interesting to see if Modi prefers a non-Rawat choice for CDS and who it will be.
According to NASA, space junk is a serious problem, and the figures (below) are daunting. To-date there are (1) some 500,000 pieces of space debris between 1 and 10 cm, (2) more than 21,000 pieces larger than 10 cm, and (3) more than 100 million pieces below 1 cm. Moreover, most orbital debris is within 2,000 km of the Earth’s surface, and the biggest concentrations of debris are found at 750-800 km. Only 7% of space junk is functional, and all debris is hurtling at speeds reaching 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph), putting in peril thousands of low and high orbiting satellites that are critical to the modern world. Satellites map, spot natural resources, collect weather and agriculture-related information, transmit all manner of data, and facilitate global telecommunications, not to mention their military uses (surveillance, target tracking, and weapon guidance over long distances).
There have so far been over 5,000 satellite launches, with decrepit satellites long past their use-by date orbiting uselessly and adding to the debris. “Atmospheric drag” naturally pulls the junk, like decommissioned low earth orbit satellites, into the earth’s atmosphere and burns them up on re-entry but this takes time and cannot be relied on to clear the debris fast. Other means have to be used to achieve this aim. Such as boosting the old geosynchronous satellites into higher “space graveyard” orbits in the 36,000 km belt above the earth.
Space debris problem needs addressing by all countries. So, why does an agreement on space junk that the Narendra Modi government is eager to sign with the United States dangerous for India’s national security interest?
Let’s consider the “Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices” executive order that President Trump signed in 2018, which was updated this year. It is the likely template for the accord that the Indian government is about to sign with the US. Trump’s order has 5 objectives. The first one is to control debris larger than 5mm released “during normal operations” over 25 years — with normal nowhere defined — and require spacecraft/upper stages to be designed such as to “minimize”, preferably, “eliminate”, such release. The 2nd objective to reduce debris from”accidental explosions” and mandates engineering and probability assessment methods to judge a spacecraft’s propensity for such explosions,which figure will have to be less than 1 in 1000. Moreover, energy sources within spacecraft would have to be depleted, and propellant burns and compressed gas releases designed to avoid collision and consequent explosion. The 3rd goal is to select safe flight profiles and operational configuration to prevent these from adding to the debris. The spacecraft will, in the event, have to be designed to ensure the probability of collision with debris 10 cms and larger to be no more than 1 in 1000, and that it can survive hits by microastroids and 1 cm sized debris without hurting its post-mission disposal prospects.
The 4th objective is to mitigate post-mission disposal of satellites/space structures by, in the main, enabling direct re-entry, atmospheric drag enhancement measures, maneuvering to different orbits, and by direct retrieval within 5 years of mission completion, with these disposal measures attaining 0.9 level probability. The 5th objective is regarding “constellations” of 100 or more tiny spacecraft, with each needing to have a high disposal rate (of 0.99). Further, small LEO satellites and cubesats will have to be engineered for a lifetime of 25 years.
Some of these concerns are being taken up by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) but the bulk of the problems and solutions are as the US has stated them. If it was an entirely UN initiative, there’d be some merit in joining the talks. But what negotiation exactly have ISRO’s Space Situational Awareness & Management Centre (SSAMC) and MEA conducted outside of, and within the, 2+2 context, with the counterpart US agencies before the Modi government decided to sign this agreement? As far as one can make out, there may have been an exchange of notes and some perfunctory discussion, but no real interaction between technical experts of the two countries. This would mean that India has accepted the US standards in toto. The question to then ask is whether ISRO has the advanced technological and design competence to develop upper stages/spacecraft which meet American performance criteria? And if ISRO can’t meet them, America will, presumably, wield its favourite stick to beat India with — sanctions, as an agreement violator!
Such space debris agreement may well require India to share the engineering parameters of its spacecraft as well as their mission profiles (“operational configuration”, etc. — 2nd and 3rd objectives) with Washington. That would make ISRO products and missions an open book and preemptively close off even informal cooperation with DRDO to produce heavy lift ICBMs with larger payload carrying capacity of single weapons and MIRV-ed warheads.
The more troubling aspect is why sign a bilateral agreement that limits what India can and cannot do in space, when over 50 odd countries have satellites and will not be bound by any of its strictures? India can choose to be responsible on its own account and take care to design spaceware that does not exacerbate the space debris problem, even adhering to the US norms. But there was simply no need to sign an accord that binds India hand and foot. Compare China’s pattern of international behaviour. It never signs any bilateral or multilateral agreement until almost all other nations have signed it, and then uses its reluctance to sign as diplomatic leverage to get what it wants. India is invariably the first to get on the wagon and gets screwed in terms of the lost freedom of action and space for diplomatic maneuver. But trust Delhi to never learn from the past and to keep repeating the same mistakes.
T’is winter-time and all the established media houses and media wannabees schedule their elite outreach programmes to try and make themselves relevant to policymaking and policymakers, to wit the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, etc. Just got back from a shindig arranged by WION TV network on “World Order: Talking Diplomacy” where the keynote speaker Ram Madhav, BJP General Secretary and in-house expert on foreign policy and presumably also strategy, dilated on the topic “Strategically Decisive India 2020”, which was a good reason to attend it.
Narendra Modi, he said, has added several “new dimensions” to India’s foreign policy. Elaborating further, Madhav said that the prime minister had (1) “shed romanticism” and the institutional “resistance” to engaging with other countries, which is judged by the number of visits by the PM and foreign minister; (2) adopted “practicalness”and proactiveness”; (3) de-hyphenated India and Pakistan, and compelled the countries of the world to take a “stand alone approach” to India; and, most importantly, (4) to the 5 panchamrit principles, he added, few more, namely, samman (respect and honour for Indians and India), samvad — “greater engagement with “people [abroad] who matter” that helped reshape the country’s image in the world and also involved effective “diaspora diplomacy”, “suraksha” (security for Indians and India) and “”samriddhi” — the cultural angle. As regärds the last, Madhav said Modi does not hesitate to to use Indian culture as a diplomatic tool, or as he put it, he “does not mind wearing culture on his sleeve”.
He then said — and this is a very ambitious formulation — that in the strategic realm, “India needs to have its own club”, that India’s leadership has to be asserted before it is accepted, and that the defunct SAARC and BIMSTEC type orgs won’t do because India cannot lead them. This club, he added, will have to “turn east” and India will have “to rise as leader in the Indo-Pacific”. The current international institutions, he averred, by way of filling in the background, cater to Europe and the West and not to Asia and the East. This fact, he implied, is what offered Delhi the opportunity to conceive of this club. Further, he attributed this new nomenclature of the Indo-Pacific, as replacement for Asia-Pacific, to Modi’s efforts during the Obama Administration. The question is, he observed, “How to make India central in the Indo-Pacific region”.
All these things are expected, per Madhav, to turn India into a strategically decisive country by next year!
In this region, moreover, managing China will, according the Madhav, require “skill” and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) won’t be “comprehensive without India”and hence that Delhi can afford to wait until its conditions (in the main, insistence on the 35% value add in products sourced from the RCEP member states to prevent China channeling exports of finished consumer and capital goods to India via third countries) are met. RCEP being “äll about markets” it cannot do without the vast Indian market, he maintained.
Replying to a question about the religion-based Citizens (Amendment) Bill (CAB), he made the cogent point that it was based on the 1950 Assam Expulsion Act (AEA) that Jawaharlal Nehru promulgated which addressed the problems caused by Muslims from the then East Pakistan streaming across the border into India and upsetting the local ethnic composition and disturbing the peace, which pattern continued after 1971. And that CAB, like AEA, was necessitated by Partition of India along religious lines. Whence these Bills eased/will ease the absorption of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians expelled from, or pressured to leave, Pakistan, Bangladesh, but deny citizenship status to incoming Muslims, including the Rohingyas from Myanmar.
Finally, Madhav blamed the prevailing “market sentiment and climate” for the economic downturn in the country.
This is a full slate of issues on which Madhav voiced his opinions. The points he has made helps us understand the way the Modi regime perceives the world, crafts Indian foreign policy, and sees its own successes. Let us broadly but briefly assess these claims.
With respect to the supposedly new dimensions of foreign policy introduced by Modi, one can take issue with many of them. It is easy to contend, for example, that eliminating policy resistance to engaging with the West was, in truth, originated by the Manmohan Singh government with its disastrous nuclear deal with the US and its drumbeat of pleas for admission into such tech cartels as the Nuclear Suppliers Group — both policy streams Modi has persisted with. However, Modi did pioneer the opening up to Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, until now when these countries have for the first time and in their national interest set aside religion as a factor to see a stable India as a long term market for their energy and as a safe investment destination. That it has thus marginalized Pakistan’s hitherto consequential role in this sub-region is a dividend that may or may not have been anticipated. And more, it is here in the Gulf area that the claim of de-hyphenation packs credibility with the Arab states closing in with India at the expense of Pakistan. Elsewhere though, Europe, US, and the rest of Asia faced with India’s reflexively anti-Pakistan attitude at every turn has only forced these countries to junk the standalone approach to India they may have adopted during the Manmohan Singh era when Delhi strove for the easing of relations, to naturally react by re-hyphenating these terribly squabbling South Asian states, much to India’s detriment.
Ridding Indian foreign policy of romanticism is fine but where’s the evidence of proactive measures? There has been a lot of tall talk about security cooperation with Indian Ocean states, countries of the Southeast Asian littoral, and with Japan but little that is concrete, unless one counts the Shinkansen 5E series high-speed Mumbai-Ahmedabad link that’s run into rough weather with the new Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray withdrawing permission for its construction in that state, thereby grounding this flagship Indo-Japanese venture. Modi has not disturbed even little the old normal of the Indian government and MEA working at a maddeningly slow pace, reducing this government to all promise and no delivery on projects Modi has offered the host states on his frequent travels. The Kaladan connectivity project that was to plug Myanmar into the Indian economy is nowhere near completion some 20 years after it was initiated. The Development Assistance Programmes (DPAs) I & II in MEA with a brief to oversee timely and within cost delivery of Indian funded projects are a scandal, and has generated more ill will, doubt and distrust of India over the years in Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean area and Central Asia than any good they might have done. This perfectly deplorable state of affairs hasn’t changed an iota during Modi’s tenure. In this context it is hard really to see even a glimmer of success of Indian foreign policy vis a vis the developing world.
The panchamrit + 4 principles are fine on paper, but have created problems. For instance, the successful diaspora diplomacy is the spawn of samvaad. But in asking diasporic Indians to be national assets for their new countries it may have reinforced NRIs to become wielders of foreign influence in India, which in any case they were inclined to do. This is most evident in the India-origin Americans working to get Indian national interests more in sync with US policies.
The India-led club is a mite too ambitious a concept for Modi because his policy stance has so far oscillated between compromising with China and accommodating the US, something that makes nonsense about India’s pretend autonomy while making Asian states of the Indo-Pacific wary because it mirrors what they themselves are doing. In which case, what benefits do they gain from joining India’s club? Had India stood its ground and not surrendered leverage and turf on virtually every issue of contention with US and China, had Modi not backpedaled on the radical economic reforms he had promised in 2014, removed the dead hand of government from the economic sphere with rapid privatization of the public sector, incentivized skilling programmes and employment generation schemes on a war footing and otherwise propelled the growth rate instead of doing nothing and seeing the economy now tank, India presently a 2.73 trillion economy despite all the systemic restraints and constraints, would have achieved double digit growth, ensured the PM another two terms in office for certain, and set India up as a coming power.
It isn’t at all clear how absent any administrative reforms and radical economic overhaul, a strategically decisive India will emerge, much as all of us might want earnestly to believe that it would somehow do so even without any course correction.
If Modi carries on as he has done to-date, BJP will be lucky if it can put a lid on the growing discontent of the masses inevitably spilling out on to the streets. In this situation, BJP may not survive the 2024 general elections and Modi’s reputation is unlikely to remain untarnished. Madhav’s claims about an India club may then come back to mock Modi. I mean which nation would want to emulate India, or be led by it? And why?
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar skirted around the truth with his professional diplomatic flummery in the Rajya Sabha yesterday. Asked about India’s chances about securing a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, he said ” “Well, I will hope soon.” But then realizing he had gone too far in raising hopes, quickly corrected himself in the very next sentence. “I am realistic enough to know”, he added, “that it is a long and patient effort. We are not lacking in patience and not lacking in our perseverance and we are not lacking in our aspirations. We will get that one day. I am very confident and it is progressing step by step.” Ah,”one day”. He should have been honest and replied “never”, certainly not if India under Modi (persisting with the policy of his predecessors) continues enthusiastically to subscribe to and support the current world order.
Why? Because it is mightily inconvenient to slice up the international power pie six ways, when the existing 5 powers have each a fifth of the pie. Which country among the present permanent five members — US, Russia, China, UK and France — is idiot enough to want diminution of its power and authority that the permanent UNSC status endows them with? Pleading pitifully for the sixth seat in the UNSC — a glorified talk shop, displaying “patience” and “perseverance” and seeking “to progress step by step” in this regard, won’t do it, and hurts India’s self-respect and amor propre, not that the Indian government seems to care, won’t do it.
What will, I have argued, is if India becomes so excessively disruptive of international norms and the extant system that the P-5 are compelled to accommodate it in their ranks,or face a breakdown in their carefully constructed global power edifice. The example to follow is Maozedong who simply ran roughshod over the UN and its “rule-based international order, repeatedly cocked a snook at it, drove the US-led UN forces south of the 38th parallel, fought General Douglas MacArthur’s army to an impasse on the Korean Peninsula, and then enjoyed the great fortune of having a Third World chump in Jawaharlal Nehru surrender a Permanent seat offered India to China, just so that country took its rightful place at the global apex!!
India, as a non-signatory, could have made a beginning by upsetting the global nuclear apple cart that the P-5 had cobbled together by ignoring the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty and responded with alacrity to China’s clandestine transfers of nuclear materials, expertise, bomb designs and missile systems to Pakistan starting in the mid-1970s by shipping whole N-bombs to Vietnam and, in time, to other states on China’s borders who expressed a desire for such armaments. Recall that China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and got a bloody nose for its troubles, the aggressor PLA Group Army leading the charge actually being defeated by the Vietnamese irregulars who took to the field before the Vietnamese army could see action. Given its security context, wouldn’t Hanoi have appreciated such a gesture and permanently put the Chinese dragon’s tail in a twist in a way the Pakistani nuclear deterrent has done to India? And consider the strong message that Indian action would have sent Beijing, and the absolute parity in geomilitary terms that would have subsequently achieved for India. Instead, under Manmohan Singh, India finally succumbed to the NPT and signed the civilian nuclear deal negotiated by, who else, our truly — S Jaishankar, then a relative small fry — Joint Secretary (Americas) in MEA, and now the country’s foreign minister, no less. As a result of the N-deal the possibility of India ever securing credible thermonuclear weapons to match China was thus dashed.
The fact is it is still not too late for Delhi to activate this option. But then Narendra Modi, as he has shown, would rather be patted on his back by the West and China for showing restraint when anything nuclear and to do with Beijing are concerned, and be celebrated for India’s “responsible behaviour” than serve the hard Indian national interest.
Jaishankar said one other important thing in Parliament — this regarding the Russian S-400 air defence system. It is “very clear” to everybody, he declaimed that India took decisions on merits. “We will not be influenced”, he observed,”by other countries on what we do in terms of our national security and defence. If we have committed to the S-400 agreement, which we have, then other countries need to respect that decision.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it though? One little problem. He talked of the “merits” of weapon systems India buys from a slew of foreign countries as an explanatory variable.
Doesn’t this open up the matter of the Modi regime and F-21 — the venerable 50 year old “museum ready” F-16 fighter aircraft by another name which Jaishankar, in his capacity, incidentally, as head of the Tata Group’s global operations (or some such designation) pushed the BJP government to buy? Would Jaishankar in the cabinet when the decision comes up tout this aircraft’s “merits”, which other than permitting Tata — a haloed Indian company that has gone down the wrong path under Ratan Tata, to assemble it and rake in the money in cahoots with Lockheed Martin, has no real benefits. Unless you count the dubious gains from India from plugging into the US global value and production chain.
Jaishankar single-handedly negotiated the nuclear deal that finished off India’s nuclear ambitions. Who is to to say he, as foreign minister, won’t be equally persuasive — considering the direction in which prime minister Modi is leaning, in getting the Country to plonk for this perfectly inappropriate F-16 buy and kill off the indigenous Tejas LCA and its AMCA derivatives and what remains of the Indian Air Force’s fighting capability? When he does, we will be left pondering the “merits” of the F-16 in IAF colours he will no doubt reveal.
Narendra Modi practices realpolitik at home but gets cold feet and displays a flagging will against an overweaning adversary such as China to a point where it is not unreasonable to conclude he shows no understanding of it, leave alone knowing when to turn the screws on an adversary and to not so subtly discomfit it, and rally international pressure against it.
Beijing, in like situation, showed no hesitation in joining Pakistan to raise alarms in the wake of the abrogation of Constitution Article 370 about India’s mistreatment of, and human rights violations against, the supposedly hapless Kashmiris. This while its ambassador in Delhi proclaimed the need for both countries to be mindful of each other’s “sensitivities”. This policy of double-dealing double talk is normal for China, something Beijing has masterfully executed against a fear-wracked Indian government apparently so apprehensive of crossing Beijing that whatever the scale of provocation, it has chosen to ignore it and generally to subside gently into doing as China wishes.
What is also increasingly normal for Delhi is the shameful wagging of its tail at Xi’s China, which contrasts sharply with the Modi regime’s almost malevolent reaction to even the littlest burp from Islamabad. It shows up this country to the world – to use Mao’s favourite words for Nehru’s India — as “an imperialst running dog”, except that empire is now Chinese!
India and China are ideological rivals, and as such cannot, in theory, abide each other’;s political systems and ideologies. Nothing should be more distasteful to Delhi in this context than the open and systemic victimization of a whole people by a country with an authoritarian Communist dispensation. And yet, in the last 40 years and more India has not officially raised the issue of the cultural genocide in Tibet (referred to by Beijing as Xizang) against its Lamaist Buddhist population, and now against the Uyghur Muslims in the area traditionally known as East Turkestan (that China calls Xinjiang). It is another matter that both these territories — one forcefully annexed by the PLA in 1949, the other transferred by Stalin to Mao in the 1950s, were only tenuously connected to China, their historical linkages to the Yellow Emperor more Chinese pretence than actual historical fact.
Until the new millennium, Beijing was happy to let Xinjiang remain an economic and social backwater because it was strategically critical. Its vast arid expanse providing the perfect location for China’s nuclear weapons development and underground explosive testing complex at Lop Nor. But with 9/11 and the rise of radical Islam, which was manifested in stray incidents of Uyghurs knifing Chinese settlers, Beijing acted preemptively to nip the Islamic terrorist threat in the bud.
First it moved in a huge PLA presence with severe surveillance and policing measures and followed up some five years ago with an official campaign to eliminate this latent threat altogether by re-educating the Uyghur youth — the most likely recruits for Islamist causes. Over time this programme of re-education has taken the shape of a series of barbed wire-laced, high walled, high-tech detention centres in which over a million young men are presently incarcerated, undergoing what Beijing quaintly refers to as “vocational training”.
These “camps” using modern and heinous brain-washing techniques perfected during the Korean War of the early Fifties are supposed to help mainstream the Uyghurs into Chinese national life, but in reality divests them of their separate Muslim and ethnic identity. The so-called “China cables” recently leaked to the West are the first view of Beijing’s how-to manual for non-Uyghuring the Uyghurs by means that China successfully tested and used against the Tibetans in Tibet — a sustained programme of alienating the natives of these lands from their cultural roots, religion and traditions. Indeed, these concentration camps are a follow-on to Chinese laws that have made illegal even the vestiges of Islam in East Turkestan, including beards, worry beads, and Muslim names for children.
In July this year, 22 EU states wrote formally to Beijing to permit UN officials to inspect these crowded internment centres and to prevent the ill-treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese state. The methods Beijing has adopted to rub out Uyghurian sensibilities are so extreme, egregious and Orwellian, the UK Foreign Office has demanded in diplomatically acceptable language “an end to the indiscriminate and disproportionate restrictions on the cultural and religious freedoms of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.”
It is the right time for Delhi to dig the spurs into China’s flank and demand that Uyghurs be treated humanely and their rights respected by Beijing. It would be the right sort of action to take at this time because it would mean diplomatically piggybacking on the pro-Uyghur UK and EU sentiment and initiatives. It will also be payback for Beijing’s complaining about Kashmiris being hounded by Indian security forces. There’s moreover no hypocrisy here. It is one thing to ask the Srinagar Valley Muslims to stay indoors in their own homes, quite another thing for an entire generation of Uyghurs and Tibetans to be locked up in vast prisons.
The Question is will Prime Minister Modi show some slight stomach, at a minimum, for a diplomatic fight with China? Will he muster the gumption to stick it to Xi on the human rights issue and mirror the Chinese ploy by simultaneously having his mouthpiece, Jaishankar, go against his grain and voice concern for the well being of Uyghurs and Tibetans who have suffered the historic misfortune of their countries taken over by a dastardly China, and instruct our ambassador in Beijing to speak unctuously of cooperation for the greater good of mankind or some such nonsense. Shouldn’t India, for once, stand up and be counted with other countries as supporters of minorities and their absent human rights in China?
Alas, as on so many other previous occasions, Modi will show no such enterprise for fear of diplomatically ruffling China’s feathers. He will thus miss out on an historic opportunity to do the right thing — mobilize international opinion against Beijing and shove China into a corner. More importantly, he will forfeit the chance to make the point that if the Uyghur populated Xinjiang is an internal security matter for China, Kashmir is even more so for India, and thereby publicly put Beijing on notice that two can play at this game. It may even win Modi some respect from Xi Jinping.
Spent the last fortnight in New York lazing around doing nothing much. But couldn’t escape the newspaper coverage and press commentaries regarding India. Unfortunately for the Narendra Modi government 3-4 issues blew up at the same time — the dense, pea soup, pollution engulfing Delhi, the Indo-Pakistani novelist Aatish Taseer’s getting kicked out of India,which got conflated with the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya Ram temple verdict favouring the Hindu majoritarian point of view, and the gloom over India’s economic slowdown.
Each issue in its own way has marked Modi’s signal failure separately on the environmental, social, and economic fronts. Modi’s troubles, in fact, eerily parallel Donald Trump’s in the US. Cut from the same populist and nativist broad cloth, and sporting like psyches, the two find themselves in a rut of their own making. Trump because he successfully whittled away the power of the bureaucracy in Washington, DC, and now finds himself facing impeachment in no small measure because the bureaucrats have turned on him at his impeachment hearings for essentially ignoring them, and bucking the procedures and the laid down process. And Modi because he did just the opposite, trusted the permanent secretariat — the careerist babus to deliver on his agenda which requires a massive reordering of the apparatus of state and the government system, something he obviously has no stomach for and is simply beyond the ken of generalist administrators who are like canaries being asked to pull a plow. In other words, Trump is being dumped on for doing too much, being too disruptive, and Modi finds himself in doldrums for owing allegiance to the status quo and doing too little to reform the government system he presides over.
The two are also similar in their petty politicking for personal and partisan gains. This aspect is evident in Trump’s case in his ceaselessly vilifying his opponents, and in Modi’s for demonizing Indian Muslims and, by extension, Pakistan and adopting political postures injurious respectively to social harmony and peace prospects in South Asia. The two strongmen, moreover, are known generally to run their own brand of personalized diplomacy that at times seem quixotic and geared to making international splash than achieving anything tangible, leave alone lasting. Both of them in their psychological makeup are, as analyzed in my book ‘Staggering Forward’ narcissistic bullies, picking inevitably on weak nations abroad and weaker sections in their own societies (Muslims, immigrants) to make political capital. If Trump has his fortified border on Mexico, Modi has his National Register of Citizens in Assam and elsewhere.
Trump has strong views on environment and is in denial of the underway effects of climate change. He has followed through by simply pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord and pretty much writing finis to this global effort. So Trump acts as he believes. Modi, on the other hand, has taken up the cudgels and is championing a global consensus on climate change. But between doing something to actually clean up the air, water and environment and keeping a domestic vote bank happy, he has opted to do the latter. Hence, with pollution assuming killer proportions the Indian PM has done less than nothing to pressure the state governments of Punjab and Haryana — the latter under BJP coalition rule into taking punitive action against stubble-burning farmers fanning the fires and the smoke that poison the air around Delhi. He has opted instead to have his cabinet colleagues scapegoat the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for the persisting fatally dense smog. This is pretty rich! In other words, Modi is less a man of his convictions than is Trump.
And on the economic front, Trump has not shied away from using market access to hammer out skewed trade pacts to narrowly benefit the US and, at home, has thrown overboard the raft of confusing rules and regulations hindering the growth of commerce, trade and the economy. Meanwhile, Modi ballyhoos every small uptick in the country’s rank order on the “ease of doing business”-scale as his own special accomplishment even as the Indian economy is in reality taking a decisive turn for the worse, with decreasing exports, investments, and FDI flows, higher fiscal deficits, and a decelerating growth rate. Overseeing this mess is Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman whose idea of doing something meaningful is to call in corporate honchos to her office for advice without bothering to take notes or instruct her ministry officials to record the points made. Unless she has mimetic memory –which she doesn’t — all this valuable communication and advice from industrialists and senior corporate managers is reduced to so much prattle she pays no attention to. But she seems more intent on these occasions to have official photographers click away, producing pics for the media showing her beaming in the company of these experts and wealth producers while learning absolutely nothing from them.
Modi and Trump also have in common the fact that they are played for suckers by dictators. Trump hangs on every little word and friendly gesture by the North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un. Likewise, far from being skeptical about Chinese President Xi Jinping and his promises, Modi keeps extolling the Mamallapuram spirit (presumably a distillate of the ephemeral Wuhan spirit!) and cutting unfavourable deals with the US even as Trump treats him with disdain (as he does most foreign dignitaries), peremptorily rejecting the Indian leader’s invitation to be the chief guest at the 2020 Republic Day parade, and forcing Modi to make do with Jair Bolsonaro, the rightwing authoritarian Brazilian President who, like himself, has come to power on a wave of big promises and public adulation.
In democracies, successful politicians reward their financiers, the money bags who helped them on their way up. This is a different type of beneficiary than the one who opens up his purse to fill the coffers after the ruling party is ensconced. The former kind comprises in some sense visionaries who espy the potential in select politicians and are willing to back their hunch. They are risk-takers, because what they do involves possibly alienating the political competition not so favoured by them. But should the bet come good, it doesn’t just rain goodies, it pours.
The Adani Family is headed by Gautam, who vaulted from a small-time polyvinyl plastics importer in the 1980s to head a $12 billion global conglomerate with diverse interests ranging from mining, energy, to infrastructure today. The Adani Group is in this happy position because of Gautam’s knack for political talent spotting. He got close to Narendra Modi whose rapid ascent from RSS pracharak to BJP apparatchik in Gujarat to chief minister and now Prime Minister paralleled the Adani family’s rocketing prosperity until now when Gautam Adani is Modi’s go-to person in the world of finance and industry.
Being Modi’s mascot has helped Gautam A to speedily and vastly diversify his business and industrial interests and the Adani Group to have a sudden but solid international presence. The latter’s closeness to the source of power has lubricated the growth of the Adani Group in far-off lands. Its controlling interest in the massive Carmichael coalmine project in Queensland that will involve the erection of 9-10 thermal power plants fructified 3 months ago in the teeth of environmental resistance. This may be owed in part to Gautam’s backing Scott Morrison to become the Australian Premier, but equally important was the perception in Canberra that helping the Adanis would win the Australian government the attention of Modi and India. It is no secret that the only other person in the room when Modi met his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott during the former’s state visit in November 2014 was Gautam A, and that the Comprehensive Economic Partnership accord the two countries signed on that occasion pivoted at least partially on the Adani investment in the extractive industry down under being realized.
A go-getter politician’s link up with a go-getting financier is always a paying proposition for the latter. The Birlas and the Bajajs converted their assistance and proximity to Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party in the pre-independence era into lucrative licenses and permits Jawaharlal Nehru’s quasi-socialist state bestowed on their one-time benefactors post-1947. Their political investment payed-off handsomely. Little has changed, except the dramatis personae. Dhirubhai Ambani (and now his son Mukesh) and Gautam Adani are the latter day Birlas and the Bajajs. What they want they by and large manage to get from the Modi government. The usually obdurate Indian bureaucracy manned by generalist nincompoops is in this situation rendered a willing handmaiden. (The story of just how Mukesh Ambani’s Jio venture has so quickly become a virtual telecommunications monopoly is illustrative of the state of affairs. Refer Daniel Block, “How government decisions are helping Reliance Jio monopolise the telecom sector”, Caravan, 01 February 2019, at https://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/government-helping-reliance-jio-monopolise-telecom )
Infrastructure is Modi’s priority and also it seems of the Adani Group. Other than ports and Special Economic Zones where this conglomerate has invested heavily, Gautam A desires to have an impact in the civil aviation sphere. And so, as India Today (of Aug 26, 2019) noted, the Airport Authority of India, disregarding the Union Finance Ministry’s criteria, swung into action to ensure his Group, with zero experience in airport management, took control of the Thiruvananthapuram airport. Other airports may in like fashion fall into the Adani lap. Concluding along the lines of an intrepid Filipino entrepreneur who with regard to doing business in India observed that “It is not ‘know how’ but ‘know who’ that matters”, a fortnight back the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), joined with the chemical majors — the German BASF and the European firm Borealis, to partner the Adanis in setting up a $4 billion chemical complex — where else? — in Mundra, Gujarat, a state that boasts the maximum number of Adani investments and projects. (See “Adani partners UAE’s Adnoc, Germany’s BASF for $4 billion chemical venture”, PTI, Economic Times, Oct 17, 2019).
Adanis and Ambanis not too long ago decided to enter the even more lucrative defence business — the fact that weapon system costs increase exponentially every couple of years may have been the big attraction. Their decision to dive into the deep end meant for instance tie-ups with foreign companies in the combat aircraft and submarine categories. Larsen & Toubro in on the technically complicated nuclear powered ballistic missile firing submarine (SSBN) programme from its initiation in the 1980s is now in a position easily to handle a conventional diesel-electric submarine. For these reasons it was a shoo-in to bag the contract for the navy’s Project 75i. i.e., until Anil Ambani’s Reliance Naval and Engineering Ltd (RNEL) entered the scene as a spoiler by throwing a monkey wrench into the procurement process. RNEL that bought off the Pipavav shipyard and just like that set itself up as a submarine producer, contended the navy’s tilt was due to a son of a Rear Admiral in the procurement loop being employed by L&T. This charge brought the entire 75i project to a juddering halt as the Defence Ministry began its slow, spirit-sapping inquiry. This at a time when the most worrisome aspect of national security is not the decline in the fighter squadron strength as IAF makes out but the sheer falloff in the sea denial capability of the Indian navy with a fast attriting submarine fleet in the face of an expanding Chinese surface combatant presence in what should be India’s lake — the Indian Ocean.
With RNEL playing interference against and essentially seeking to sideline L&T, the Adanis stepped in smartly for what it believes will be easy pickings. Literally out of nowhere and at the proverbial last minute, the Adani-Group bid for the Rs 45,000 cr 75i project to build six conventional submersibles. The other bidders — the wasteful and laggardly defence public sector unit (DFSU) Mazgaon Shipyard Ltd (MDL), L&T, and RNEL all own shipyards. Adani Group’s chutzpah was in bidding with no shipyard of its own but with a prospective tie-up on paper with another equally hapless DPSU, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL), which has one in Vishakhapatnam. HSL is infamous for taking over a decade to merely refit the navy’s EKM Kilo-class subs! By which standard, the first Adani-HSL diesel sub can be expected to take to water in what, 20-25 years from now even with a chosen foreign (Russian, Swedish, French, or German) partner?!!
But the Adanis are nothing if not politically agile. Couple this fact to a politically fleet of foot Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and what the nation gets is, for example, a facility to assemble. in collaboration with Elbit Systems of Israel. the dated Hermes 450-class drones, rather than the up-to-date Hermes 900 series. All such projects, including the 75i, promoted under cover and rubric of ‘Make in India’ furthers the aim of full armaments indigenization not a whit.
Indeed, in the case of 75i submarine, as I have repeatedly pointed out in my writings, the scam is bigger and deeper. Barring such technologies, such as mast optronics and silencing, the country — thanks to the SSBN production capability — has most technologies and wherewithal to wholly design and build conventional subs. In this situation, the reasonable thing for a self-respecting, resource-scarce, country to do would be to just buy a submarine design along with certain technologies from one of the vendors, rather than the whole boat which will leave the onus with the OEM to decide what technologies to transfer to the Indian partner, eventuating in no worthwhile technologies being transferred. This last is what happened with the Project 75 Scorpene where MDL is contracted to import “black box” technologies for the duration of the production run of this submarine from the French firm, DCNS. And this pattern will definitely be repeated were a new company entirely innocent of any sub production experience, like RNEL or the Adani Group, to be gifted the contract — however this is managed — by the navy at the prompting of the Modi government. Consider moreover the hard currency outgo at the point of first acquisition, i.e., a down payment: Instead of $500 million or Rs 4,000 crore — which is all that a foreign submarine design will cost, the country will be forking out in excess of Rs 50,000 crore — or over ten times as much money. The humungous lifetime costs over 30 years in the latter case will be multiples of this amount!
With defence industry burdened with and suffering from such spurious ‘Make in India’ projects and programmes, India cannot ever hope to be really self-reliant in arms, and hence be really sovereign. This to say that with the Adanis and Ambanis cashing in on their political connections, the national interest gets cashed out.