As the dust of the hotly contested general elections begins to settle and memories of acid rhetoric begin to recede, India’s new leadership will have to grapple with a host of major problems.
Undoubtedly the domestic economy, security of its citizens and effective delivery of social security and health services must be priority. These challenges will be accentuated by the young voters, who constitute almost 21% of the electorate and have high aspirations, a low threshold of tolerance and demand visibly different policies from what they have witnessed over the years.
This makes it imperative for any new government to ensure that impactful and visible delivery begins within the first six months. Failure to do so will subject it to trenchant, persistent and possibly debilitating criticism.
A few immediate foreign and strategic policy challenges will, however, have to be tackled equally promptly if India is not to be marginalised even in its own strategic neighbourhood.
Most immediate are the developments unfolding in Afghanistan and the threat from Pakistan. As US troops prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan and hitherto effective CIA-trained specialist forces begin to go home, the Taliban will regain lost ground in the Afghan countryside.
Attacks against the Afghan and international security forces have already intensified. This will simultaneously relieve pressure on Pakistan’s borders. India will have to find ways to retain meaningful influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s establishment has in the past few weeks signalled its readiness to allow terrorist actions against India by increasing the incidence of firing along the LoC, attempting to push in terrorists, and permitting free movement by leaders of jihadi terrorist groups like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar. India’s new leadership will need to keep carefully calibrated ripostes ready for prompt implementation against imminent terrorist attacks.
More significant, but longer-term, is the challenge posed by China’s recently unveiled policy of ‘Peripheral Diplomacy’ (zhoubian), which brings India’s strategically sensitive borders and neighbourhood within the ambit of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy.
This policy for the first time ever categorises neighbouring countries as ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ and warns those obstructing China’s quest for pre-eminence in the region to be prepared for punitive measures over a sustained period.
It seeks to co-opt neighbours into supporting its regional ambitions through either outright financial largesse or economic dependency, supplemented by a network of bilateral and regional security alliances. The latter raises the spectre of India being ringed by China-led, or China-dominated, security alliances.
‘Friends’ supporting China’s efforts are already being promised large sums of economic assistance. This is intended to facilitate implementation of the ‘new Silk Road economic belt’ — which Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken personal charge of — and the Beijing-initiated Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, or erstwhile ‘Kunming Initiative’.
Both economic manoeuvres emanate out of China’s southern Yunnan province and thrust across Myanmar, Bangladesh, India’s north-eastern states with their fragile economies, Bhutan, Nepal and go onward.
Beijing’s new policy promises huge economic benefits for countries and regions along the routes that support it. These proposals, fuelled by China’s vast economic reserves reinforced by military might, will appreciably boost China’s political and economic influence in these regions. India will have to quickly fashion robust policies to safeguard its influence, territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Insidious is the definitive role assigned to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP can be expected to appreciably step up activities in China’s neighbourhood and in India. The objective would be to ‘win over’ and consolidate relations with political parties other than ‘fraternal’ ones, enhance interaction with ‘sympathetic’ entities and seek out a role in the religious and cultural spheres.
The new government will additionally have to tackle the complexities of the emerging global environment where the US and the West are trying to rearrange the extant international trade and economic regime together with bilateral equations to ensure global pre-eminence.
The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) considerably raise labour and tariff standards and will dilute the competitiveness of developing economies and disadvantage countries like China and India.
India’s exports will immediately be adversely affected and, combined with its poor manufacturing capacity, its large market and agriculture sector could become more vulnerable. As the target date of end 2014 approaches, India will need to quickly decide whether to opt for the TPP/TTIP. Beijing, despite continuing to view the proposed regimes with suspicion, is revising its position and thinking of applying to join.
Simultaneously, in addition to accelerating domestic economic reforms and military modernisation, China has initiated measures to rival the economic influence of the US and international organisations in Asia and floated the concept of a China-led regional development bank.
It has announced plans to earmark around $3 billion towards its fund, which, in course of time, will rival the Asian Development Bank.
India’s new leadership will have to formulate a set of policies to safeguard national interests and address these challenges.
It will need to unambiguously advise neighbours, like Nepal and Pakistan, of its ‘Red lines’ and willingness to enforce them against infringements.
Bold initiatives that bridge India’s economic and strategic requirements should be contemplated such as allowing direct investment on liberalised terms in sectors like housing, hi-tech manufacturing, dual-use civilian and defence industry, etc, by countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Investment by China in select sectors should also be considered.
Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is also president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. The views expressed by the author are personal.