Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Not all may agree with the analysis and recommendations, but the document does challenge one to define differences and suggest alternative hypotheses. Hopefully, it will provoke national debate and consensus-building.

A 21st Century Strategic Policy for India

India can play a significant balancing role as a democratic power somewhere between China and the US. But it needs to craft ideas and devise steps to execute them.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 4 March, 2012

Every nation needs a strategic policy – not just a vision. India lacks one, though it seeks permanent membership of the Security Council. The Nehruvian consensus has long disappeared. There is nothing in the public domain with Parliament having long ceased to debate and formulate national strategy.

It is therefore a welcome initiative on the part of a group of leading thinkers to have put their heads together to produce “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-first Century”. The 63 page document, authored by Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Lt. Gen, (Retd) Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran and Siddharth Varrdarajan, was unveiled in Delhi last week and discussed by Brijesh Mishra and M.K. Narayanan, earlier National Security Advisers, and the current incumbent, Shiv Shankar Menon.

Any attempt to identify the basic principles of an all-encompassing foreign and security policy can only broadly indicate priorities and guidelines. Not all may agree with the analysis and recommendations, but the document does challenge one to define differences and suggest alternative hypotheses. Hopefully, it will provoke national debate and consensus-building.

The basic theme is that opportunity beckons India to lift itself out of poverty and play its role as an emerging great power not merely by virtue of its growing economic and military muscle but by the power of its democratic and civilizational example, as a balancer between the United States and China in concert with other major players and regional hubs. There is a timely warning against losing the present window of opportunity or of falling into a “middle-income trap” for lack of will, vision and leadership. Choices made now will shape the long-term future. We have much to gain from a globalising world order provided we build the strategic autonomy to shape it. Like a chess grandmaster, we must think many steps ahead and watch all the pieces and spaces as relationships keep constantly changing.

The Document states that we will require a grand strategy with military power that shifts from a continental to a maritime orientation. This will bestow greater freedom of action to dominate the Indian Ocean than is possible along our contested land borders with China and Pakistan. Even so, we will need to develop instruments and options that enable us to raise the cost of cross-border interventions by both these neighbours. This will require restructuring our higher defence management under a CDS and a Maritime Commission, a leap in technology and defence production, a high rate of economic growth, better governance, administrative reform, and development of a vibrant knowledge society. It will also call for new approaches to deal with discontents in J&K and the Northeast, Left Wing Extremism, ethnic unrest and resentments as a result of exclusion and disparities. Enhanced State capability and state legitimacy must both be assured.

Doing this requires partners, not allies, especially in South Asia, which remains our soft underbelly. The so-called “Gujral doctrine” of not seeking immediate reciprocity from smaller neighbours must be our guide. The US too can be a potent partner on more than a regional basis.

The Document nevertheless raises many questions. Why the reference to Non-Alignment? This seems an unfortunate throwback and goes beyond having an independent foreign policy that looks at issues case by case, free from inflexible alliance-related responses.

Next, how does one base policies on geo-political and geo-strategic considerations when India’s school curriculum teaches a very warped Aryavarta-Delhi based “continental” history to the almost complete exclusion of our maritime, littoral and peninsular history and that of our outer marches? Further, geography is all but forgotten after Class 10, maps are taboo and archives remain closed.

The country has not paid heed to Dr Ambedkar’s wise caution that “liberty” and even economic progress might be defeated for lack of Fraternity and Equality. These social contradictions remain entrenched. The Naxal movement basically stems from the repudiation of the social contract promised Tribal India through the Fifth Schedule. Far from being addressed, it is simply not understood.

The Northeast has many problems. But the administrative apparatus designed to tackle them through a weak North East Council driven from the back seat by Delhi through the Department for Development of the North East Region (DoNER), is misplaced. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is largely unnecessary but is today applicable in only a small part of Manipur. It is not the prime source of alienation in the Northeast or J&K, despite a certain symbolic significance. Development and opportunity remain the key.

Local and sub-regional nationalism and identity issues can be best resolved through decentralised governance through a further empowered panchayati raj. Non-conventional security issues are by and large well addressed in the Document. Energy security requires less structural dependence on oil, de-nationalisation of coal and intensified efforts to promote clean and renewable energy. The current impasse over fast progressing the Koodankulam and Jaitapur nuclear plants is illustrative of a malaise. Ideological opposition and exaggerated safety fears regarding Fukushima-like dangers even after such issues have been addressed is holding back progress. Tamil Nadu today faces power cuts when Koodankulam-I and II were poised to deliver 2000 MW of energy by now.

Rash interventions such as the Supreme Court’s peremptorily re-ordering the Union Government to implement inter-basin water transfers from “surplus” to “deficit” basins over space and time (unhappily labelled Inter-Linking of Rivers) suggest judicial overreach, especially as we are dealing with trans-boundary rivers. Our co-riparian neighbours need to be immediately assured that nothing is being done or will be done without proper and timely consultation with them. Secondly, fragmented jurisdictions over water, energy and transport must be subject to appropriate mechanisms of overall coordination. Old fashioned Ministries need to be completely overhauled in terms of mandate and personnel if they are to deliver.

Meanwhile, all new infrastructure projects and innovation is being delayed or negated by nostalgia and neo-Ludditism in the name of the rights of some but at compounded cost to all the people as a result of freezing employment, income generation and the multiplier effect. There is a very high opportunity cost of delay at a time when the country needs to add 10-12 million jobs net per annum to keep pace with the fast growing labour force, apart from coping with current unemployment and under-employment. Around 30 million distress migrants are on the move annually. Agriculture can no longer sustain the numbers crowding farms; yet programmes and investments designed to divert them to productive non-farm rural occupations in local manufacture or services are also challenged. This is creating an explosive situation and constitutes India’s greatest internal security threat.

Finally, reference is made in the Document to “strategic communications”. But India has no communication policy and inadequate instrumentalities for delivering information for empowerment, participation, dialogue and informed decision-making. Disinformation triumphs in the absence of prompt and accurate information. Having truly autonomous public service broadcasting and independent newspapers is imperative when public opinion, national and international, have become hyper-powers. Satyameve Jayate.

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