VIEWERS addicted to watching Indo-Pakistan’s unending soap opera should read a report released in India recently. Titled India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift, it has been compiled by a group of senior Indian savants associated with Ashoka University in Sonipat, India. They include two former Indian foreign secretaries — Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon.
Shri Menon served as India’s ambassador to China (2000-2003), then as India’s high commissioner in Islamabad (2003-06), as its foreign secretary (2006-9), and finally as India’s NSA (2009-14).
His credentials are reinforced by his patrimony. His father was India’s ambassador to Yugoslavia; his grandfather K.P.S. Menon, India’s first foreign secretary; his uncle K.P.S. Menon (junior), India’s ambassador to China and later foreign secretary; and his great-grandfather Sir C. Sankaran Nair a president of the Congress in 1897. His interest in India’s future is genetic. His fatherhood of this report is thus especially significant.
India’s Path to Power comes 10 years after its predecessor titled Non Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-First Century. That had defined the steps India needed to take “to enhance its strategic autonomy in global circumstances”.
A daring report by Indian savants could have been written here.
The 2021 report identifies “the tectonic shifts” in global politics and suggests recalibrating India’s strategies. It is so blunt of India’s governance that it might almost have been written by a think tank in Islamabad.
It begins: “The electoral success of the BJP has not only meant a change in the party system and the nature of political power, but has also brought about a transformation in India’s constitutional order.”
The report continues: “India’s democracy is being disembedded from its founding constitutional norms. The majoritarian vision of democracy is increasingly accompanied by an autocratic conception of power. Institutional checks and balances enshrined in the constitution are largely inoperative.”
It charges: “Parliament barely performs its deliberative functions; the judiciary is increasingly coy about protecting individual rights and freedoms; independent agencies bend to the whim of the executive; and the powers of the states … are draining towards the central government. India risks bearing out the old adage that the forms of free government can all too easily be combined with the ends of arbitrary government.”
The report discusses the looming clash between the US and China and its meaning for India. Of the regional disequilibrium, the report admits that India’s “foreign policy towards its neighbours is increasingly being overlaid by domestic political and ideological considerations. This is most evident in the policy towards Pakistan, which has become a potent and … toxic brush with which to tar the political opposition”. It warns that in moribund Saarc, “there is a distinct danger that other countries may remain committed to it and move ahead without India”.
The report recommends that, despite the risks, “as long as our objectives of policy towards Pakistan are modest, resumption of dialogue and a gradual revival of trade, transport and other links are worth pursuing [.] A continuing freeze in relations will only enhance India’s external vulnerability to other actors, in particular China. [ie CPEC]”.
Daringly, it questions why India’s “military leadership, especially the army, has found it difficult to jettison the ideas of waging the ‘big fight’ to impose our will — never mind that under the nuclear shadow, the role of military force can only be to create the desired conditions for political and diplomatic efforts”. It advises an alternative: OLTW — Operations Less Than War, particularly in the Indian Ocean being churned by China.
Intriguingly, it bemoans “an increasing trend of identifying the armed forces with political ideologies, a phenomenon evident during the 2019 elections that leveraged the Balakot strike for electoral purposes. Demonstrating loyalty to the government and even prefacing public speeches by a reference to the vision of the prime minister are now not uncommon among senior leadership. There is a danger of a pliable military leadership being used for narrow party-political purposes at the cost of national interests. This issue is a matter for the military leadership to introspect and rectify”.
The report also considers the strategies India should follow in a cyber age and ways to combat the ecology crisis, Covid and growing social inequality.
After 52 pages of such a radial, radical overview, the authors then inexplicably bury their heads in the sand with: “India is the only country which in terms of its area and population, its inheritance of a long-standing and brilliant civilisation, its significant pool of skilled manpower and scientific and technological capabilities, can not only match but even surpass China.”
Someone ought to apply this report to PM Modi’s eyes. It might dilate his pupils.
The writer is an author.