India’s community of strategic analysts is dominated by those nurtured in think-tanks and universities in the US and the UK. Unsurprisingly, although often dressed up differently from presentations made “back home”, the policy conclusions they reach are similar to those urged on India by external think-tanks. Across the decades, those who form part of “Lutyens Delhi” have woven close links with institutions in the US and the UK. Small wonder that in committees, placements and commissions, those with a trans-Atlantic patina get preferred over homegrown products, although far fewer in number than those who have spent their working lives in the colonial governance system of India. An example of such inbreeding is the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which got freshly constituted a few weeks ago. Rather than have within the NSAB those who could be expected to have views different from those already ensconced in the national security silos of the government, the new NSAB follows the Lutyens’ format of being headed by a former official, and this time around, having even less representation from those who have not had the privilege of drawing a government salary throughout their working lives than was the case with previous incarnations. A Brahma Chellaney, a Bharat Karnad or Ajai Shukla may not facilitate cosy exchanges of largely similar views, and certainly they lack the diplomatic skills of a Raja Mohan or a Raja Menon, but precisely for that reason, such contrarians need to be represented in bodies involved in policy formulation, so that these do not become echo chambers reflecting back the very voices (and views) of those they are presumed to advise by giving alternative policy prescriptions. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, over the course of his first term, ensured a paradigm shift in the way governance was carried out in Gujarat, and it is hoped by his admirers that a similar transformation will take place at the Central level before the close of Modi’s Prime Ministerial term in 2019.
Among those within our strategic community who are into “home-grown” solutions, there are several who believe that India must follow the dictum of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Ekla Chalo Re”, by walking alone. Others seek a closer alignment with either the US or China, and some with Russia. The reality is that India is big enough and its needs complex enough to justify a close embrace of all three of these present and future superpowers. Hence, the need for the docking of one set of interests with the US as well as others with China. Stability in the Indo-Pacific will get enhanced with increasing military collaboration between Washington and New Delhi. Of course, while having the same core objectives (such as preventing terror groups based on religious extremism to proliferate, or allowing a single power to dominate the Eurasian landmass), it will become necessary for India to adopt methods and form partnerships that are sometimes very different from those favoured by the US. In Syria, for example, rather than link with a “moderate opposition” that in reality comprises entirely of either Al Qaeda or Kurdish fighters, the only effective fighting machine against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria is the military led by Bashar Assad, who (being an Alawite) is being sought to be replaced by regional powers that have within them deep and sometimes decisive pockets of Wahhabi influence masquerading as Sunni opinion. The US strategic establishment cannot bring itself to admit that it has been wrong for decades, and hence continues to pursue failed policies. The strategic ends of the US and India may converge, but the means used to achieve them need to diverge, sometimes substantially.
And what of China? Those who argue for a Cold War between Delhi and Beijing are in danger of missing out on opportunity in a manner similar to what took place in many of the decades of the previous century, when strategic relations between Delhi and Washington were in many particulars frosty in a context where better ties with the US were essential for economic health. This was understood by the then Chinese leadership, who cast aside dogma to embrace Washington, thereby beginning the spurt in growth that has made 2016 China five times the economic size of India. In the present, good economic and commercial relations with Beijing are vital to ensure double digit growth of the Indian economy. If we leave aside the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is unviable both commercially as well as from a security perspective, the rest of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative proposed by Xi Jinping is as visionary now as the Roman canals or the Great Wall of China were in their time. OBOR has the potential to link Europe and Asia together in a manner less one-sided than what took place during the centuries of European colonialisation of Asia. Rather than stand aloof from it, India needs to be at the core of its creation. If China has $24 billion of investment opportunity in Bangladesh, then there is at least $124 billion of even better investment opportunities in India, and this is what both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi need to actualise. A way of doing that would be to open OBOR to BRICS, thereby giving commercial entities within other BRICS countries privileged access to the gargantuan project.
India in particular has several firms that could play an effective and relatively inexpensive (as compared to entities in developed countries) role in ensuring that OBOR becomes a success. Indeed, there ought to be an India China Economic Corridor (ICEC), a construct that would make much more geopolitical and financial sense than the CPEC, which seems to have been decided upon by the Chinese out of sentiment rather than logic. Ultimately, the terror of unemployment and the pain of poverty are worse than any dart thrown at civilised people by forces such as ISIS. Both unemployment and poverty can be reduced significantly, were Xi Jinping to ensure that his history-altering project be flung open for privileged participation by China’s other BRICS partners.