Don’t expect anything very different from Modi in his 2nd term

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Narendra Modi has been returned to power with a bang by the people. Despite a record of tepid success in the domestic and economic spheres at home and timidity abroad, except when it comes to Pakistan where he has roared like a lion mainly because he faced a mouse, the Indian voters apparently selected him as the default option. This was a wise thing to do considering the opposition that when not promising chaos and family-driven corruption, complacently relied on the caste arithmetic to hoist them into power only to discover that the negatives attending on the likes of Mayawati,  Mamata, Rahul-Priyanka Gandhi, and Akhilesh Yadav far outweighed in the mind of the electorate any real good they said they’d deliver.

However, the thing in the prime minister’s victory speech about Indian politics, besides contending that the election results had written finis to the caste-based and dynastic dynamic,  would hereafter be propelled by two concerns — the fairly high proportion of society that is still poor and by measures to alleviate  their condition, may be the harbinger of more populist policies and giveaway schemes that don’t and can’t pay for themselves. In other words, the new Modi government may actually strengthen and reinforce the nanny-state tendencies of the “socialist” state bequeathed the country by the Nehru-Gandhi’s, where the principle of lifting oneself up by one’s own bootstraps embodied in the ongoing programme of disbursing small loans to the youth to start their own small businesses, is discarded. It will confront Modi with the impossible task of finding gainful “white collar” employment for tens of millions of ill-educated, unemployable, youth (many of them flashing 90% plus marks in school-leaving exams) when accommodating them in government jobs will mean expanding the government and its role in the lives of the citizenry — which’d be the reverse of his 2014 promise of “minimum government, maximum governance”, or is this trashed as well?

In this scenario, radical departures of policy in any realm seem unlikely. Thus, land and labour reforms — the two hurdles that economic liberalization drive of the Manmohan Singh and the successor Modi regimes have stumbled on, will remain unaddressed. Consequently, the rapid growth of industry and the manufacturing sector dependent on the easy availability of land and mobility of labour that comes from disposing off the hoary socialist rule of “once hired, never fired”, will never happen, the dream of India replacing China as the workshop of the world  will never materialize. And the opportunity of India exploiting the current economic rift between the US and China to attract Taiwanese, American and European capital and manufacturing companies to set up alternate production sites in this country, will be lost. And Modi and the BJP will lose a once in a lifetime chance of setting India on the course for accelerated economic development, will be wasted. The small door now open to India will inevitably close because the US and China are too invested in each other not to drawback from a mutually ruinous all-out trade war, unless India wedges a big Indian economic foot in it, forces it open by incentivizing global investors and manufacturers with the prospect of selling their wares in the vast Indian market and to produce for the international market.  This will require as prerequisite massive skilling programmes to get ready a skilled workforce — something that only the private sector can produce if it is induced to invest in such enterprise with attractive tax holidays and tax-writeoffs. The skilling endeavour in the first Modi government merely amounted to a lot of paper circulating  sluggishly through the endless bureaucratic corridors of the government.

Which brings us to the question of whether Modi will affect any real efficiency in the government’s functioning and to what extent and scale? As I detailed in my book ‘Staggering Forward’, this is not what Modi is inclined to do. So, India will remain stuck in the economic never-never land of glib rhetoric and, absent the will to change, an over-sized under-performing government ostensibly to service myriad populist, money guzzling, programmes launched  by Modi.

And abroad, the country will stay on the same old track — frequent foreign tripping and summiting by the PM, the careful massaging of Modi’s ego by foreign leaders whom he has hugged and embraced only to provide a bigger market for Chinese goods, and generate more arms sales for defence industries in Israel, Russia, France, UK, and the US, even as indigenous armament R&D and production by the  private industry is actively discouraged while wasteful DPSUs continue to binge on the taxpayer’s rupee but now with  licensed production deals for dated military hardware — F-21 (the antiquated F-16 with bells and whistles) and the like, in the name of ‘Make in India’.

And Modi will carry on tilting towards the US — do as Trump bids Delhi do whether on cornering Iran, reducing arms purchases from Russia, permitting US military to stage out of Indian bases, or going slow on building external bases on the Indian Ocean island nations and the rim. Much of this activity will be supported by the powerful policy eco-system working in Delhi comprising Indian origin thinktankers and academics in the US, former Indian ambassadors to America and US envoys to Delhi and such-like diplomats, and a whole bunch of poo-bahs in Indian officialdom hankering for, and rewarded by a canny Washington,  with green cards and scholarships, resident and H1B visas for progeny and family. Support for this tilt is vociferous in the media, and more subtly with appropriate notings on files. This is so  notwithstanding the fact that those urging such a policy line admit that the Indian government faces a “fickle” and unreliable US.

Meanwhile, Russia forges close economic, military and technological bonds with China and Pakistan, and Modi, starry-eyed about his budding relationship with the “extremely stable genius” residing in the White House, as  President Donald Trump unabashedly described himself on TV yesterday, ignores both the diplomatic-economic-political-military leverage India has in dealing with big powers, and the more obvious geostrategic moves he can make to sock it to China — the only substantial econo-military threat confronting India. By, for instance, freely transferring strategic impact missiles to states on China’s periphery,  formalizing ties with Taiwan, coordinating closely with Taipei to discomfit Beijing, mounting international campaigns, also in the UN, on behalf of the oppressed Tibetans  and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and generally being disruptive like hell in India’s foreign relations.

But for this sort of disruptive policy Mr Modi has shown no stomach at all. He’d rather MEA mumble niceties about the “Wuhan spirit”, let Beijing kick us in the shins, and do nothing to stall the Chinese advances in Afghanistan and Central Asia by establishing India as security provider there and in Southeast Asia or rile Beijing by ramping up defence cooperation with Japan and symbolizing it by immediately approving the project for Indian production of the Shinmaywa US-2 flying boat for the international market that Tokyo would be happy fully to fund! So much for Modi’s strategic foresight.

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Big Carriers Are a Bad Idea

 | Point of View

The big carrier is a big mistake. In a milieu bristling with proliferating supersonic, and soon hypersonic, anti-ship missiles, aircraft carriers don’t stand a chance.

Importing wrong weapons platforms has consequences beyond stretching the scarce defence rupee. Besides kicking the indigenous R&D and defence industry in the gut and being a perennial financial drain with lifetime costs many times the initial acquisition price, it locks the country into an inappropriate force structure whose frailties are quickly shown up in war. Securing them also leaves little money to obtain less glitzy but more appropriate and necessary fighting assets.

The Indian Air Force, with the cost-effective option of the upgraded Su-30MKI produced at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) on the table, opted for the manifestly redundant Rafale fighter plane worth Rs 69,000 crore. Four hundred and sixty T-90 tanks valued at nearly Rs 14,000 crore are sought by the army for its armoured formations that are unlikely, under the nuclear overhang, to ever see major action. The T-90, incidentally, got beat by the indigenous Arjun main battle tank in all field tests. Not to be outdone, the Indian Navy, as per the British press, is plonking for an Indian dockyard-built 65,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth (QE)-class air­craft carrier. Given its colonial antecedents, the Indian Navy follows the Royal Navy in eve­ry­thing, including apparently repeating the latter’s mistakes.

And the big carrier is a very big mistake. In a milieu bristling with proliferating supersonic, and soon hypersonic, anti-ship missiles, aircraft carriers don’t stand a chance. A broadside of four supersonic Brahmos-type missiles, for instance, can sink this carrier, along with its complement of 36 combat aircraft, and two each of anti-submarine warfare and early warning helicopters. So an air or sea-launched cruise missile salvo costing Rs 40 crore can take out the QE carrier and its aircraft. Some ‘exchange ratio’! It is not just speedy cruise missiles but any combination of these and swarms of remotely controlled air, surface and underwater-launched drones and, where China is concerned, anti-ship ballistic missiles, will do in such a ship. No wonder a former chief of the United Kingdom Defence Staff reportedly called this vessel a “vulnerable metal can” and military historian Max Hastings has dubbed it the “HMS White Elephant”.

Worse, protecting the high-cost, symbolically high-value big aircraft carriers will operationally strain the relatively small Indian Navy that may have 50-odd major warships by 2040. The esc­ort for each carrier­-two destroyers, two anti-submarine frigates, a submarine, a tanker and a replenishment ship-will soon result in more of the Indian fleet deployed for aircraft carrier protection than on sea control and sea-denial missions, eventuating in a dangerously thinned-out Indian naval presence in the wide expanses of the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. Indian admirals, who have attended the US Naval War College, imbibed the big carrier ideology, and pushed for the QE-ships, cannot, however, trot out the same justification for them as the 500-ship strong US Navy does.

Then there’s the cost aspect. Given the profligacy of the Indian defence public sector units, the cost of, say, a Mazagon Dockyard-made QE-class ship will be double that of the Royal Navy carrier, or £12 billion. And if, as the navy desires, the unproven, exorbitantly priced US-sourced electro-magnetic aircraft launch system is incorporated into the design, and the Boeing F/A-18E is chosen as its combat aircraft, the total cost of a fully loaded single carrier will be upwards of £18 billion or Rs 1,440 billion. This sum can buy an augmented force of nuclear-powered attack submarines and several missile destroyers and multi-purpose frigates. Spent on the unsurvivable QE-class ships of dubious utility, it will be a humongous waste of national wealth. But when have such considerations stopped the Indian government from making damn-fool decisions?

Still, one hopes the new government will be sensible, order a full cost and capability review-something never done by any Indian government at any time-and instruct the navy to stick with small carriers it has experience of, that cost a lot less and, because more expendable, can be used offensively in war.

Published in India Today, May 27, 2019,


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Why is India’s national interest hostage to US’ Iran policy?

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The fears I have long voiced are coming true. The US is ramping up its combative rhetoric, talking up the non-existent Iran threat to the region, coercing its friends into  complying with its demand to zero out oil/gas imports from Iran and otherwise insisting that everybody  join in applying “maximum pressure” in the hope that this will, if not lead to a regime change — wishful American thinking than, at a minimum, to Tehran renegotiating the 2015 nuclear  deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) to secure an indefinite extension of the Iranian nuclear  weapons-related inactivity limited by JCPOA to just a 15 year- time frame.

The “bazaari” tilt of the mindset of the ruling ayatollahs means Iran and the US will eventually reach a compromise. But during this testing time, Tehran will discover who its friends are. So, while Tehran’s economic ties with the US will rapidly mend because, well, the US is the proverbial 600-pound economic gorilla that all countries have to come to terms with, links with states, such as India, that left Iran in the lurch, could be downgraded. This will, as I keep warning, imperil India’s grand geopolitical design for Afghanistan and Central Asia and for outflanking China (and, minorly, Pakistan) seawards  pivoting on connectivity ex-Chabahar, the Iranian port on the North Arabian Sea, and 75 kms up the coast from Gwadar.

I mean how forgiving can we expect Tehran to be as Delhi, despite having the political-military leverage has consistently shown it lacks the will to say NO to Washington, and always seems over-eager to please America. To wit, its undue haste in reducing the inflow of Iranian oil — from 14+% to 10% in just the last year as dictated by the Trump Admin.

The deficit is to be made up by increased buys of Saudi oil, in line with Trump’s promise that Saudi Arabia can replace Iran. But Riyadh’s prospective energy stranglehold on the Indian economy may not be a good thing. Oil, offers of investment, etc are all very well but it may come at a steep price. The strong wahabbi element in that country has always seen ‘al Hind’ as the great prize and pursued its agenda of spreading the tenets of harsh desert Islam in the subcontinent. A Saudi oil dependent India will be less able to resist the wahabbi ingress or to take forceful measures, like strict policing of Arab charitable funds channeled into this country to set up a supportive eco-system of mosques and mullahs propagating an alien ideology — wahabbism.

While External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was right in telling her visiting Iranian counterpart, Javad  Zarif, seeking some reassurance,  that the new government, come May 24, will take the call on how much oil to import from Iran and how to pay for it, a cleverer move would have been for the Indian government to issue a statement asking both the US and Iran to not disturb the peace in the region. Delhi should also be more active in establishing an alternative non-US dollar financial regime for energy transactions that Russia and China are considering and even some European states are interested in, and which Zarif has said Tehran is agreeable to.  Swaraj should also have indicated that big power coercive diplomacy  has its limits, that alternatives exist, and that India will retain its policy of freedom of action.  The Modi regime didn’t do any of this and lost the chance of gaining Iranian goodwill and consolidating India’s traditionally strong links.

Notwithstanding the talk of Trump backing up the two carrier task force deployment in the Gulf by sending an additional 120,000 troops to the region, the reigning Ayatollah, Ali Khamanei, remains unintimidated. He has stated that there will be no war, a refrain repeated by Pompeo, especially after his visit to Brussels to confer with European allies who told him clearly that Iran had offered no cause for Trump to shred the nuclear deal and that US belligerence may lead to war in which they will not join. Russian president Putin also must have advised Pompeo not to precipitate hostilities  — a Reuters report mentioned that Putin talked of the need to maintain “stability” of global oil supply — a code word for not tolerating any disruption that US military intervention may create.

Except, just such intervention is, perhaps, sought to be engineered with reports of oil tankers being hit, off Fujeira, by sabotage attacks. Who carried out such strikes assuming they actually occurred, is a mystery. But whether Saudi Arabia and Israel are involved in covertly managing them or not, they certainly hope the US will somehow be offered the provocation for American forces to swing into action against Iran.  Except, attacking Iran will likely embroil the US in a real fight with no guarantees that Russia and China won’t assist the Iranian military spearheaded by the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) with a view to embarrassing the US military.

A sobered up Pompeo said “We’re looking for Iran to behave like a normal country”. This was strange coming from the chief diplomat of a state that’s behaving so abnormally as to emerge as a menace to international order. After all, how many countries have acted as the US has done since Donald Trump became President — ripping up international treaties at will (Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty), shredding specific country-deals   (JCPOA), decimating economic arrangements (Trans-Pacific Partnership), abusing allies and weakening NATO, and hurting its “strategic partners” by, for instance, relentlessly hounding India — undermining its economic and geo-strategic interests. In contrast, the “bad ass” antics of Kim Jong-un are excused even though he loses no opportunity to mock Trump and thumb his nose at the US, and does exactly what Washington doesn’t want North Korea to do. Like shoot off ballistic missiles, leaving the US President to make excuses for it (“They were short range missiles”!).

The tactics North Korea has used to stymie the US and tame Trump is an object lesson in how to handle America. But that requires a ballsy leader.

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What’s in store

Here’s all you need to know about Indian elections

The bulk of the general elections involving most of the country is over; the votes sealed in the EVMs as well as the fates of the contestants  Delhi area votes tomorrow. The thoughtful among the citizenry must have wracked their brains about which political party to favour and  whom to elect to office.  The fact is there are no good options — this being plainly a referendum on Narendra Modi. Indeed, the prime minister has said so that a vote for the “kamal” is an endorsement of him personally and his tenure in office. But are we all aware of the gravity of the situation and what’s at stake?

Modi has disappointed, failing to achieve a radical makeover of the government that he had promised in 2014. Further, he has been less the hard nationalist that we had every right to expect than the believer in the fuzzy-wuzzy “Wuhan spirit” he actually turned out to be. He also showed a tactician’s skill in  beating up on Pakistan at every turn rather than a strategist’s foresight. In this same vein, he revealed not so much the right instinct or strategic clear headedness — a prerequisite for a successful foreign and military policy — as a cloying deferential attitude to those he felt were his superiors. This was reflected in the hunched shoulders, the diffident, eager to please-smile when getting into his characteristic clinch with a Trump or a Xi. It was an embarrassing spectacle, and pulled down India’s stock in the world.

Naturally what followed in the case of the US was not a surprise — letting  Trump trample on India’s interests without so much as a squeak from Delhi. In the face of unrelenting pressure — the repeated Trump hectoring and harangues on India’s supposedly oppressive tariff structure, punitive imposts on Indian steel and other imports, and the deliberate measures to seal the Iranian oil supply line that will come at enormous cost to this country, and India’s being fingered by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom — the Modi regime made much of the crumbs thrown Delhi’s way — getting the UN to declare Masood Azhar a “global terrorist”. Washington expects the Indian government to, as a result, fall behind the US on everything, specifically in the targeting of Iran.

For the same small give  on China’s part (re: Masood), Xi, hopes he will be able to extract from the Indian government (1) a soft-pedaling of its opposition to the belt and road initiative, (2) staying with the present trading order in which India ships natural resources to China in return for finished consumer goods — the classical neo-colonial pattern that India was subjected to 150-200 years ago of Indian cotton shipped to Manchester in return for finished mill cloth, and a horrendous trade deficit; and (3) keeping quiet when Beijing appoints its own Dalai Lama which the Xi cohort is planning on doing to preempt his HH in Dharamshala preemptively installing his reincarnation discovered from among the Tibetan exiles in India and elsewhere, and thereby screwing things up for Beijing for another generation.

In short, in the external realm Modi has been more a failure than success.

So, what’s the problem? Why not vote for the mahagatbandhan and the alternative parties in the fray? Consider the prospective PMs — Mayawati, Mamata Bannerji, and Rahul Gandhi. It makes one’s blood run cold contemplating what they may have in mind to do in the external realm because both of the strongest PM aspirants Mayawati and Mamata have between them not voiced a single idea — good or bad — pertaining to foreign policy. The Congress party’s agenda, like the BJP’s, reveals lot less than what may transpire should Rahul G emerge as consensus candidate of the disparate opposition after the announcement of the election results on May 23.

However harshly one may judge Modi, there’s no question about his personal integrity. This is simply not the case with Mayawati or even Mamata — both provincial politicians of limited vision, with the former in particular having dark big corruption stains on her escutcheon. Rahul is being shovelled under his father Rajiv’s sins of accommodating his wife Sonia and her retinue of Italian relatives and carpetbaggers, such as the middleman and commission monger, the late Quattrochi (whose son supposedly  maintains an active office in the Meridian Hotel’s commercial complex and waits for the good times to once again roll around). Between the revival of these Italian connections and the unscrupulous antics of his brother-in-law, Robert Vadra, whom his sister, Priyanka, cannot or will not disown (unlike Indira Gandhi who separated from her husband Feroze G owing in part at least to the latter’s sustained criticism inside and outside Parliament of her father and PM, Jawaharlal Nehru), Rahul will have a hard time keeping his thieving home-grown and foreign relatives away from the Indian treasury’s cookie jar.

This is the sort of stark contrasts the voter is faced with, and it is no small problem to weigh the pros and cons, and the merits-demerits of this or that party and candidate, considering that a Lok Sabha seat here and there could decide who gets to run the show for the next five years or less, and who gets to play the chowkidar to keep away the grasping hands from the till. So, who should one vote for?

All things considered, a damned difficult decision. But it is Modi by default.

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Asia Society, New York: Q&A: Bharat Karnad on India’s ‘Inept’ Foreign Policy

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[This piece by Anubhav Gupta, Assistant Director, Asia Society Policy Institute, New York, uploaded to the Asia Society website on May 7, 2019, at ]

With India in the throes of the world’s largest exercise in democracy, Indians and the international community are assessing the performance of its incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The conventional wisdom about Modi’s first term in office has generally been: disappointing on the economic and social fronts; generally successful on foreign affairs. Some analysts have even credited Modi for ushering a bolder and more engaged foreign policy.

A recent book throws cold water on such assessments. In the opening pages of Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, author and Indian national security expert Bharat Karnad describes Modi’s foreign policy as “inept” and “short-sighted.” The book makes the case that Modi has been anything but bold on the international stage. While Modi’s efforts may have garnered small successes, Karnad believes he has failed in the grander ambition to propel India toward great power status. Instead, Karnad sees Modi’s India as “great power lite,” being stuck for the past five years in “neutral gear.”

The book’s critique of Modi comes from an unexpected angle. While Modi is maligned by the left (in India and abroad) for his Hindu nationalist, strong-man approach, Staggering Forward is a takedown from the other side of the political spectrum. Karnad, a research professor at the Center for Policy Research who describes himself as “India’s foremost conservative strategist,” faults Modi not for being hawkish but for being diffident.

I asked Karnad some questions about what disappointed him about Modi’s first term. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The book is called Staggering Forward, which suggests progress, though of the uneven kind. How would you grade Modi’s foreign policy performance?

The “staggering” in the title is meant to denote a certain diffidence evidenced in Modi’s foreign policy, which boasts, in substance, of no unique feature nor approach, being a continuation of policies pursued by the previous governments in the new millennium.

Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition by Bharat Karnad.

You characterize Indian leaders as being too afraid to enact “proactive, offensive, pre-emptive policies” for fear of upsetting China. What policies would you want the next Indian government to adopt toward China?

Based on the long history of the factors that command the respect of China’s rulers, I have been advocating for some two decades now and also in this book that India adopt a tit-for-tat approach. For instance, the most obvious way to react to Beijing’s very successful initiative to arm Pakistan with nuclear missiles and use that country to contain India would have been for Delhi to transfer like armaments to many more small adversarial states on China’s borders to equalize the strategic context. It would have signaled India’s intent to respond in kind and equal measure and would have quickly sobered up Beijing and telegraphed to all Asian states India’s ability to take on an ambitious and oppressive China. It would have crystallized India as a competing power node to China in Asia. A similar attitude to inform India’s trade policy would have prevented the skewed trade and severe balance-of-payments problem India now faces.

The recent India-Pakistan crisis following the Pulwama terrorist attack became a major political battleground in India ahead of the election. Politically, Modi seemed to come out on top. How did India come out vis-à-vis Pakistan and its security going forward?

Pakistan, I believe, is Modi’s greatest failure. Rather than resorting to covert warfare methods to discreetly drive home the message to Islamabad that two can play at the terrorism game, Modi has sought to make political capital out of forcefully countering actions by Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organizations, such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, that are active in Indian Kashmir. This has a dual purpose of also communally polarizing the Indian society, which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to benefit from. This is base tactical thinking.

At the start of the book, you declare that Modi’s extensive “personalized diplomacy” has “produced no signal departure from the policies of previous governments, nor any stellar results.” You do point to one exception: strengthened ties with the Gulf States. Why has this been a priority for Modi?

If all politics is local, then Modi has been sensitive about actions that fetch him domestic political dividends. A large section of Indian society gains from the remittances, estimated by the World Bank in 2018 as some $80 billion annually; sent home by skilled and unskilled Indian labor employed [primarily] in the Gulf countries. These remittances make for India’s healthy hard currency reserves and help sustain the economies of several Indian states, chief among them Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. The remittance beneficiaries also constitute a large voter base, which Modi has kept pleased by cultivating, in the main, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Intimacy with these Sunni majority states also balances India’s ties with the Shia majority Iran, giving India a role in the ongoing Shia-Sunni tussle in West Asia. More generally, close ties with Islamic nations symbolizes the fact that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia), and is a counterpoise to India’s deep relations with Israel, on the one hand, and on the other hand, limits Pakistan’s influence in the Islamic world.

The book is about India’s place in the world, but you also write about how Modi’s tenure has exacerbated “tensions in society along caste and religious lines.” Why are these domestic divisions a problem when it comes to India’s global ambitions?

India has long projected itself, successfully, as an inclusive democratic country suffused with liberal values and exemplifying secular ideals. This image cannot but be hurt when domestic politics are communalized. India’s recent downgrading by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for instance, will have repercussions in that many countries may be influenced by its findings, and the Modi government’s desire for India to be seen as a bastion of liberal thought and democratic action will take a hit. Further, anti-Muslim rhetoric will begin to impact India’s interactions with the Islamic world, alienate Muslim states, and cumulatively affect India’s quest for great power.

Lastly, any bold predictions about the elections?

Modi’s use of technology for development and in social welfare schemes has buffed up his credentials as a modernizer and a leader who means well and does good by the people. Moreover, his record of personal rectitude in office has left an impression on the average voter, as has his party’s performance in government. These attributes position Modi in good stead in the general elections underway.

My assessment is that Modi will be re-elected, but that his government, the BJP-led NDA coalition, will be returned to power with a much-reduced majority. However, if the majority is quite thin, Modi could be replaced as PM by someone like the Transportation Minister Nitin Gadkari, who has distinguished himself as a conciliator. Gadkari has warm relations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — the social service organization associated with pushing the Hindu nationalist agenda that is the power behind the BJP — but also with many leaders in the opposition. The belief is that he will be better able than Modi to draw support from small parties in the opposition, and thus beef up the BJP coalition.

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Azhar — high point of Modi’s foreign policy, at what cost?

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[Sushma Swaraj, Iranian oil, and Mike Pompeo]

The collaring of Azhar Masood is being hailed as the high point of its foreign policy by the Modi government. Masood is small change for the US and China. Delhi’s endowing the mere UN labeling of this man as ‘global terrorist’ and sanctioning of his outfit —  Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), with needlessly high diplomatic value, however, has allowed the transactional-minded Trump Administration and the Xi regime to get a lot out of the Modi dispensation for little.  Who can resist such one-sided deals?

It reflects, as I detail in my book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’, the working of a small mind for small stake in a small game, and permitting  the US and China to advance their agendas at India’s expense. Newsreports describe the tradeoffs negotiated by the Modi regime thus: Washington helps push the Masood issue and expects India will fall in line and cut off oil imports from Iran. The external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj calls US Defence Secretary Mike Pompeo and asks that India be given more time to find alternative sources for the 10% of its energy requirements (or 23.5 million tonnes of oil) met by Iran, Pompeo says nothing doing. Indeed, US officials point to the quid pro quo of Azhar bashing in return for an Indian cutoff of Iranian oil.

Likewise, the exchange is that for Beijing’s removing its technical hold on the terrorist label for Masood India would hold off saying anything bad about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) even as a 2nd BRI summit of reps from some 150 countries was underway. The trouble here is that while this is a one-off exchange, Beijing may arm twist MEA into making India’s silence a permanent thing, which would be disastrous, because India’s opposition to BRI is a rallying point for a rethink in the region about the costs and consequences, especially in light of the Sri Lankan port of Humbantota passing into Chinese hands, of succumbing to the lure of the easy yuan infrastructure credit and falling headlong into a well-laid debt trap or surrendering strategic territory and assets. In fact, states such as Myanmar, Malayasia, Indonesia, Maldives, et al, that had previously jumped on the BRI bandwagon, are using Indian resistance to BRI as a shield to pullback on their commitments, with some countries (such as Ethiopia) even handing over BRI projects to Indian companies to run as economy measures!

Between Indian ambassadors in the US and the West and whole sections in MEA pushing Trump’s line and an equally powerful raft of China friendlies — Indian Foreign Service stalwarts in service and retired but scheming from the sidelines, and Indian PM Modi who doesn’t seem to understand, even less appreciate, just how leaning towards America or towards China undermines India’s standing and hurts its prospects as great power, blithely extols his supposedly intimate personal ties with Trump and the so-called ‘Wuhan spirit’ with Xi Jinping in striking compromises with the US and Chinese governments, ends up driving India’s national interest into the ground. And all for the dubious success of, and distinctly small returns in, branding Azhar an international terrorist and discomfiting Pakistan, which changes the situation on the ground not a whit. The Pakistan army’s ISI will continue nursing the same terrorists gangs under a different guise, and helping them to sustain their activity in J&K.

But it will hugely complicate, as this analyst has been warning for years, our relations with Tehran and the great oil deal India has been benefiting from for years. Which other oil supplier will provide terms that Iran does of deferred payment, barter arrangements to pay for oil in kind, and free shipping? And what will happen to India’s ambitious strategic plans for developing Chabahar, the Iranian port, as India’s economic gateway to landlocked Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics,  and as foundation for a strategic approach to outflank China (and Pakistan) both on land and sea? Perhaps, these objectives don’t count any more.

The irony is this: The US will ultimately cut a deal with Iran and will have no qualms about making its allies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and economic partners (China, India) who rely on Iranian oil stranded, suffer the sting of US sanctions for continued offtake of Iranian oil, while also pressuring the more weak-willed among them, such as India, to zero out their oil imports, which of course, will seed anger  for India and Indians in Tehran, and waste away the store of goodwill India has collected over the years, and motivate Tehran to chip away at India’s foothold in Chabahar with a spate of restrictions, even as the more strongwilled China who, in the final analysis, will cock a snook at Washington than give up Iranian oil, will be rewarded with greater  opportunity to make inroads in Iran by boosting its economic and other presence there. Nice going, Mr Modi.


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Endgame Tidbits re: two mascots; and Yeti(?)

Image result for pics of jaitley and parrikar together

[the late Parrikar and Jaitley in healthier times]

Returned from a 3 week sojourn abroad. Picked up small but telling bits of information on the end-state of two leading political personalities and personal mascots of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the former Defence Minister, the late Mahohar Parrikar, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, both afflicted with cancer.

According to a doctor at Sloan-Kettering in New York — a leading cancer treatment hospital, who attended on both Parrikar and Jaitley, the former was in a very bad way but insisted that he be moved to Goa in the terminal stage, which required some very elaborate arrangements to ensure he didn’t succumb to the rigours of the journey inherent in moving a very sick and weak man half way across the globe. What was unusual, according to this oncologist, was Parrikar’s emphatic insistence that he not die in a foreign land, far away from home.

Jaitley too suffers from an irremediable form of stomach cancer. Indeed, the disease is apparently so far advanced the Sloan-Kettering doctors do not give him more than a few more months. For all that, Jaitley has been in the electoral forefront, refuting Rahul Gandhi’s contentions on the Rafale acquisition controversy, etc.

The point to make here is that Modi’s government lost a lot of its sheen of rectitude when between his differences with the PM on the Rafale issue and his desire to return to his state, Parrikar was eased out of the Defence Ministry. Not listening to the considered views of Parrikar on the French combat aircraft led the PM into the inextricable political jam he is in now. Whether he returns to head the next government or not, Modi will ever be mindful of Parrikar’s ghost at the banquet, always rueing the fact that he did not heed the advice the good engineer-cum-politician gave him.

Should Modi have a 2nd term as prime minister, he will also not have the reliable Jaitley around him. Jaitley’s, in many respects,  will be the greater loss because it is his mastery of political forensics and his lawyer’s erudition that time and again kept the political waters from bursting the dam, like on the demonetization and GST decisions, and the Modi regime’s head above water. It will be interesting to see who replaces Jaitley as Modi’s go-to man in the cabinet, and whether he will be half as effective. This despite Jaitley’s great fault as confidant that more often than not, and unlike Parrikar, he sought to be in Modi’s good books than say and do the right thing.


And then there’s the Indian Army’s emergence on the social media scene as supporter of the myth of the Yeti — an over-large man-like animal supposedly slinking around in the Himalayan uplands, whose big footprints (42″ x 15″ or some such dimensions) and vast stride a mountaineering Indian army team  supposedly recorded with, what else, a conveniently available mobile telephone. There are two aspects about this curious little development. That the army really believes that its team comprising officers and ORs of sound mind has (1) recorded the presence of a Yeti, and (2) actually proved that such a creature exists — how else to explain the footprints in plain sight in the snow?

The Indian Army is, however, treading on ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’-territory. Assuming this is not some elaborate hoax imaginatively staged by a bunch of fun-seeking army men, the Yeti recording raises a pertinent question: How is a modern armed service to respond when faced with evidence of the para-normal, of a completely alien phenomenon it did not set out to discover but rather sort of lucked out with tell-tale signs?

The main aim when facing such situations is to record the evidence in as thorough a fashion as the situation permits, wait around or stalk such a beast —  assuming it is perambulating in the high mountains — in the expectation of finding other marks of its existence. In any case, did the army men in question not follow the track left by the giant footprints, and if they did, where did the footprints end, and where, or did they at some point simply disappear? And did the team officially record and document its findings and pass them on to the theatre command HQ. If the team members did not do this, but simply rushed to broadcast it on social media, should they be shielded from ridicule that is already beginning to pour in? And why did Army HQ not put a lid on this “evidence of Yeti” the army team seemed intent on putting out?

There may or may not be a Yeti. Just as the jury is out on whether strange spaceships from distant galaxies transiting our small and fairly insignificant solar system and have been sighted by combat fighter pilots and airline pilots, are for real. The US Air Force since the 1950s, for instance, has a cell that records all such chance sightings without ever publicly commenting on them.  More and more, astronomers, astrophysicists and astrobiologists are convinced that life and civilizations far more technologically advanced than on earth exist, and that, with deep space travel on the anvil, we are on the doorstep of interacting with such alien life-forces. Nevertheless, all these agencies and scientists have been cautious in saying anything about such sporadic interactions with the other worlds.

Yeti is of the earth and therefore far greater skepticism should have been applied by the Indian Army before it publicized “footprint” photos as some sort of breakthrough event. It would have been better to open a small office in army HQ to file such recordings and evidence, and of debriefs of the army mountaineering team members. All science is cumulative. And this should have been treated as another scientific venture. Proving or disproving the existence of the Yeti will require more sightings and more substantive proof collected over years. And the army will need to draw up protocols based on the experience of this mountaineering team of just what army men should do when next they encounter, or think they have encountered, evidence of the primal snowman.

An interesting aside on this topic is that pilots and aviators in the US who have seen and experienced ‘flying saucers’ and the like pulling improbable aerial manuevers in close proximity, last week petitioned the US government to disclose the collected evidence of alien spacecraft in its official archives.

Posted in civil-military relations, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, domestic politics, Europe, Indian Army, Indian democracy, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, society, United States, US. | 6 Comments