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Narendra Modi’s agenda must be well defined

The demands of each section will require individual treatment. A broadbrush approach won’t work

analysis Updated: Jun 20, 2019 19:46 IST
M K Narayanan
M K Narayanan
One of the first acts of the new government should hence be to take a closer look at the entire edifice of India’s diversified, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural entity, to ensure that no serious cracks have developed(Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)

It is a truth, one that is generally acknowledged, that when a government comes into office with a very decisive majority, it tends to be less than willing to recognise the pitfalls and dangers that exist. The 2019 election has given Prime Minister Modi one of the most decisive mandates ever, and the new government should heed this warning, and not waste the opportunity. This is not the latest hymn from sections inclined to perpetually worry about the next big political tsumani, but a realistic warning worth accepting.

The new government would do well, for instance, to worry about the polarised atmosphere generated during the election. One of the first acts of the new government should hence be to take a closer look at the entire edifice of India’s diversified, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural entity, to ensure that no serious cracks have developed.

There are any number of other issues that will demand the urgent attention of the new government. Prioritisation is critical. Prime Minister Modi had, over the past five years, devoted a great deal of his attention to foreign affairs, but it is important to recognise that it is domestic politics that helps shape a stable forward looking foreign policy. Domestic affairs should receive greater attention this time.

While there has been remarkable consistency as far as India’s foreign policy is concerned, we are entering a phase in which the US is no longer the unchallenged global power. Instead, we are faced with the relative rise of China and the unexpected emergence of a China-Russia strategic axis. Uncertainties inherent in current US policies, US hostility towards Russia and Iran, Saudi-Iran rivalry in West Asia, all affect India today. South Asia, with the exception of Afghanistan, may appear less volatile, but is in the grip of many new threats. There are again problems stemming from the retreat of globalisation, and the incipient threat of an all out US–China trade war, which are likely to envelop several nations, including India.

In the coming five years, India’s foreign policy hence needs to be still more nuanced. In the near term, it will have to steer a policy between the Scylla of the US and the Charybdis of Russia and Iran, so that India’s relations with all three countries are not adversely affected. India will also need to achieve better relations with China, notwithstanding constant talk of the “Wuhan spirit”. India needs a strategy to keep in check China’s aggressive moves in South Asia where it competes for influence with India. Apart from the Maldives today, most other countries in the regions, including Bhutan, appear to be hedging their bets.

On the domestic front, strengthening the economy and creating jobs must have highest priority. Economic issues were relegated to the background during the election, but need to be pursued vigorously hereafter. Recently published statistics about the state of the economy hardly inspire confidence, even though the GDP growth figures have been contested by some. Attaining a growth rate of 9 to 10% should be the target during the coming years. Economic planning consequently needs to be refurbished. Several of the new institutions such as the NITI Aayog, may require a fresh look. The going will not be easy considering that the world is facing an economic slowdown and protectionism rather than globalisation is the prevailing mood.

Ensuring the availability of jobs for the 10 million young people entering the job market, will also be a critical factor. The demand would be mainly for skilled jobs, in keeping with the rising expectations of educated young people across the country. A wide gap exists at present between the actual situation and promises that have been made.

National security was the leitmotif of the recently held election. Achieving still higher levels of security will need to figure prominently in the agenda of the new government. Peace, however, is not at hand, if events taking place in our immediate and extended neighbourhood are any index.

The demonisation of Pakistan during the election campaign, and the hostile atmosphere generated, would suggest that the India-Pakistan stand-off will continue. Pakistan can be expected to continue with its terror attacks — Balakot and international opprobrium notwithstanding — possibly with still greater intensity. Recent terror attacks in Kashmir are an indication of what might be expected.

The Kashmir conundrum is likely to continue, unless fresh thinking emerges from within the new administration. The battle lines are firmly drawn at present, leaving little scope for any meeting of minds. A radical overhaul of the current Kashmir strategy is called for, if any improvement is to take place. Allowing Kashmir to fester, and avoiding any new option, can lead to grave consequences, more so if issues such as Article 370 of the Constitution come to the fore. Another five years of violence in Kashmir without a solution, will have deleterious consequences for India’s image as a democratic nation.

Terrorism, specially of the radical Islamist variety, will continue to be a potent threat in the coming five years, given that both the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda are becoming more firmly entrenched in the region. South Asia has become a vast cauldron of radical Islamist beliefs. India will hence have to contend with not merely indigenous radical Islamist terror outfits, but also with similar pressures emanating from the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, apart from Pakistan.

Attention will also need to be bestowed upon two other important security threats. The danger from Left Wing Extremism will remain even though its geographic spread might have reduced. Naxalite ideology may incidentally attract many more urban and semi-urban segments, especially in the universities and similar forums, coinciding with the decline in influence of the CPI and the CPM.

Peripheral regions of the country, specially the North-East, may need closer attention as there are signs of a revival of militant activity across these regions. Special attention will need to be paid to the activities of the NSCN(K), the NSCN(I/M), the Ulfa(I) and several of the extremist tribal outfits in the different states of the North-East.

It is unlikely that the Sino-Indian border will see a major confrontation in the coming five years. The Sino-Indian border is not China’s priority at present, even as it sets out to achieve its economic targets listed for 2025. The uneasy calm on the border will, in all likelihood, continue.

The country has perhaps more to worry over growing subnational, linguistic and regional tensions, which had remained dormant all these years. A number of groups have lately emerged demanding special treatment for their regions and for the regional languages, which are couched in militant terms. Handling such issues and protests will demand both dexterity and firmness.

Finally, and notwithstanding the sops offered by the new government to farmers, Dalits, the Economically Weaker Sections and the minorities, it is important for Delhi to recognise that there still exist strong undercurrents of hostility among these sections. The demands of each section will require individual treatment, and cannot be achieved through a broadbrush approach.

(This is part of a series of articles on India’s priorities as we head towards 75 years of Independence)
MK Narayanan is former National Security Adviser and former governor of West Bengal
The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 20, 2019 19:43 IST