Losing Chabahar would be a major strategic setback for India and the US as well.
The Government of India would have been best advised to continue to purchase oil from Iran despite the sanctions imposed on that country after the Donald Trump administration tore up the Iran nuclear deal signed by the United States and other key power. By its decision to trot along behind Washington in this matter, India is on the way to losing the Chabahar port to China, which has continued to purchase Iranian crude oil together with Turkey, ignoring US threats of sanctions. Losing Chabahar would be a major strategic setback not merely for India, but for its ally the US as well. In a context where a robust security relationship with Washington is essential to ensure that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objectives in the Indo-Pacific (including the recovery of PoK) get actualised, another policy misstep was to rush into an agreement in October 2018 for purchasing S-400 missile systems from Russia. Their installation would inevitably constrict the future trajectory of Indo-US defence cooperation from banyan to bonsai size. From the train of policy disasters caused after the passing away of Deputy PM Sardar Patel in 1950 to securing an effective majority by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992, an avalanche of geopolitical opportunities was ignored or mishandled by India’s early rulers, in much the same way as the Congress leadership had made choices in the 1930s that led to the 1947 vivisection of the Indian subcontinent. The 1950s in particular could have been a period of opportunity, were India to have leveraged its geopolitical standing and its relatively large private sector industrial base to become a middle income country by the 1980s. Instead, unwise policy choices ensured that we remained close to the bottom of the per capita income table. From the period when oil prices began to slide in 2014 and continuing into the China-US trade war unleashed in 2018, opportunities on the scale of the 1950s have been created for an India that has twice chosen Narendra Modi as its leader. What he needs to escape from is a repeat of the Nehruvian legacy urged on him of the Lutyens Zone, where greed and emotion, rather than logic and national interest, are the primary drivers of policy.
During Narasimha Rao’s transformational premiership, the global geopolitical situation was adverse to India, but in the Modi era, headwinds have largely been replaced by tailwinds. More than the Minister of Finance or indeed the entire Union Council of Ministers, the most important individual who can ensure the success of India in leveraging the geopolitical opportunities created as a result of the current global situation will be Prime Minister Modi. He will need to do the reverse of what Nehru did, which was to “miss no opportunity to miss an opportunity” for taking advantage of global circumstances. Modi will need to use his governance skills to identify and utilise (through requisite policy) each of the opportunities presently available to India. After independence from Britain, and despite the carnage of the 1947 Partition that the Congress leadership accepted without protest, there was an upwelling of optimism that India would soon regain the resilience and economic strength that the land had been drained of during the long period when the country was not free. Bread and circuses were what Roman emperors bestowed on the citizens they ruled, and while there were plenty of circuses from the 1950s to the close of the 1970s, bread remained scarce. Famine continued to stalk the land, especially in the 1960s, and public health, literacy and housing standards remained abysmal. The economy limped along at the “Nehruvian rate of growth”, which was around 3% annually, with corruption growing in step with the rigour of the many “anti-corruption” laws and regulations introduced by successive governments. Each such Kafkaesque and draconian measure was justified on the ground that they would reduce graft, but in fact ensured that corrupt officials and their political accomplices extorted still more as bribes.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, opportunities were presented to India that ranged from control over Gwadar; a permanent UN Security Council seat; a border settlement with China; as well as membership of ASEAN. Each was spurned. Today, once again there are a flood of opportunities that have become available to the country, including the possibility of relocating within India several of the industrial and other units from the US, the EU and Taiwan that have begun moving out of China. Aware that an alliance with India is core to the retention of its global primacy, the Trump administration is ready to transfer entire lines of production of defence equipment to India, besides military readiness boosters such as the transfer of air and naval platforms. At present, the Indian Navy is the smallest of the three Services, when future needs mandate that it should be almost as large in manpower terms as the Army, and certainly more than the Air Force in this era of drones and missiles. At the same time, there are areas where the interests of the US and India diverge, Iran being among them. Rather than stopping oil purchases from Iran and going ahead with the S-400, what needs to be done is the reverse: cancel the S-400 purchase and begin the strategically necessary shift from Russian to US defence platforms, while rapidly expanding indigenous defense capability. Also, India should resume oil purchases from Iran so that the immense advantages provided by the Iranian port of Chabahar is not lost to China, which is the closest military ally of both Russia and Pakistan. Home Minister Amit Shah’s promise (made in Parliament) that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir will get integrated into the Union of India needs to be carried out within the period in office of Prime Minister Modi, which may, if the economy does well, stretch beyond 2024. China’s closest ally Russia will not assist in winning back PoK, but the US is likely to, now that President Trump has shown moral courage in casting aside the advice given to surrender Afghanistan to the Taliban by those in his administration beholden to the Wahhabi lobby. However, such US support can happen only when India steps forward as a reliable ally, the way Russia is to China. India needs shoulders its fair share of responsibility in ensuring that (a) access to the Indo-Pacific gets protected, (b) the two democracies concert to remain first on the frontiers of space and cyberspace, (c) friendly countries across Asia be protected from subversion, and (d) terror groups and their sponsors get eliminated. Any alliance that includes Pakistan would seek to block rather than ensure that (c) and (d) take place. It is because of the China-Russia-Pakistan triangle that both India as well as the US need to have a defence and security alliance, of course with a few points of disagreement, such as over Iran. Rather than viewing issues in a segmented fashion, a 360-degree view needs to get taken during Modi 2.0, so that the errors of the past—caused by not seizing the opportunities available for an expansion of the geopolitical footprint and economic health of India—get avoided. It is success in avoiding a repeat of past missteps while creating a new history through smart policy that will define the legacy of Narendra Damodardas Modi, who has come from amongst the people to lead a country sorely in need of smart choices in high policy.