It is by now a historic habit for India to miss opportunities, avoid contestation and, when absolutely pushed, lose from a winning position, in the main, because we can’t seem to keep our heads or our wits about us. This holds as true for the cricket field or international affairs. At Old Trafford a supposedly famed top batting top order collapsed with, on paper, a doable run chase on order. In the external realm the Indian government for over two decades now, and helmed in the last five years by Narendra Modi, has likewise shown negligible strategic sense and intent, neither appreciated the country’s many strengths nor leveraged them, and finds itself in reality collared by both Washington and Beijing, confused only about which side to appease and when, but generally leaning towards America.
Those who claim and believe that all this tilting, bowing, scraping and fawning is for show and that the alleged masters of the strategic game, namely, the firm of Modi, Jaishankar & Doval, is manipulating all comers to India’s advantage ought to be alerted to the fact that this Indian trio has fared worse on the realpolitik scale than the two predecessor regimes in the new Century, and have proved themselves as amateurs going up against the US and China — the most prominent and ruthless practitioners of hard realpolitik with a long record of success. Indeed, there’s not a single instance of an Indian foreign policy feint, initiative, measure or move of Modi’s in the last five years and counting that surprised, offended, or pushed Washington and/or Beijing on the defensive– an indication of Delhi doing something right if everybody is equally upset. In fact, far from racking up any noticeable positives or substantive gains for the country, the Modi regime’s attitude, performance, and policies have smacked of gullibility laced with unwarranted complacency that it is doing great, and persisting with whatever line it has been following so far is best.
Look at the recent record. Delhi countenanced a year of US tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum before responding weakly in kind, and then softened the blow by cleaving in half the perfectly legal imposts under WTO provisions on Harley-Davidson motorcycles coming into India only because every time Trump opens his mouth he raises this issue, making it some sort of benchmark for bilateral trade. Elsewhere, the US International Commission on Religious Freedom socks it to India, the terrorism-funding Sikhs for Justice Forum is permitted to indulge in activities in the US to reignite the Khalistan cause in Indian Punjab, India is frozen out of the Afghanistan peace talks at Pakistan’s behest, and the visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns India, as Kipling had the tommies tell Ganga Din, to “put some juldee” in de-friending Iran and severing its arms supply links to Russia lest the boom of economic sanctions under the 2006 Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) and the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) respectively, be lowered. He made it clear that the waiver of sanctions was temporary, meant to afford time to Delhi to zero out imports of oil from Iran, and of armaments from Russia. And on Delhi’s push-for issue — the H1B visa, Trump has decisively shut this channel down!
But knowing how much Indian leaders crave a shabash from Westerners, Pompeo interspersed his fingerwagging with praise for the Modi-Jaishankar duo for turning off the Iranian oil spigot in India, and flushed with the US success in achieving this outcome completely that is unfair to India and antithetical to its larger geostrategic interests of accessing Russia-Europe, Afghanistan and Central Asia to balance the spreading Chinese influence, he urged Delhi to sign on to an equally inequitable “fair trade” as the US sees it, which do in the Indian economy. It entails, among other things, a tariff flow of agricultural commodities into India, allow US companies generating consumer data to retain it in servers abroad, stricter intellectual property rights enforcement, particularly to cripple Indian pharmaceutical companies specializing in reverse-engineering cheaper formulations of expensive drugs marketed by Western pharma majors which has proved a boon for affordable healthcare the world over, including America, blocking Huawei and China out of 5G and hence the telecom market in India for the sake of “security stability”, naturally not mentioning that just about every bit of telecom and computer hardware and software India purchases from the US and the West is packed with just as many, if not more, electronic bugs, back doors and Trojan Horses.
However, the safest, most secure, option of relying fully and comprehensively on locally designed and produced 5G systems which Indian companies with advanced technological capabilities (such as Sankhya Labs) can easily design and develop in- country, but which capability remains unused because, ironically, the BJP government headed by Modi that bills itself as “nationalist” does not trust anything Indian! Just as the Indian armed services want to have nothing to do with home-designed goods even though the 5th generation Tejas light combat aircraft out-performed the Rafale for mountain ops (in cold start at the Leh air base, for instance), and the Arjun main battle tank beat the Russian T-90 hollow in all the rigorous test trials conducted in different terrains and altitudes. What more do India-produced weapons systems have to do to prove their mettle? Oh, yes, they cannot generate commissions for middlemen and funds for the party in power!
It is in this socio-cultural context, that Delhi entertains a constant stream of, when not senior American officials from the Pentagon and US Commerce Department, then American and Western defence industry representatives, all of them stressing the virtues of India switching from the hardy Russian military equipment to the delicate American and European hardware that require kid treatment to operate at even reduced efficiency levels. To wit, French Mirage 2000 and Rafale combat aircraft and their requirement of airconditioned hangars. The US with much less need of Indian custom but able to muster lot more pressure on the Modi government in selling the 1960s vintage F-16 hung out with bells and whistles to impress a Third Wold military and a new and alarmingly bulbous midriff that makes nonsense of its stealth claims. Even if the IAF resists, will Jaishankar, who came straight to the foreign minister’s chair from canvassing for this aircraft as an employee of Tata Corp keen to manufacture this plane under license, do other than counsel Modi to green-signal this project? And, in the event, will the current CAS, BS Dhanoa, and his successor (Nambiar, AOC-in-C, Western Air Command?) have it in them to offer their resignation in defiance to stall this sale?
It is another matter, that this ‘Make in India’ F-16 project mocks the very purpose of the PM’s ídea to make India self-reliant in arms with what — a fourth generation minus fighting platform long past its sell-by date? But this is precisely the arms imports path charted by Nirmala Sitharaman, who as Finance Minister has continued from where she left off as defence minister, by making provisions in the 2019-2020 budget for the military services to obtain foreign armaments on the specious basis that the armed forces need quality weapons. Implicit in this view is the belief that anything designed, developed and produced in India is second rate. She never applied her mind, and neither has the Modi government, to setting up the private sector as a competing supplier of arms by compelling DRDO to share the source codes for the Tejas warplane and the Arjun tank with firms like L&T, Bharat Forge, and Mahindra Aerospace, et al with the will and the wherewithal to produce world-class military goods for the Indian services and for export from the get-go in order to provide the scale to attract massive investment and as incentive to ensure quality products. That’s the surefire way, pradhan mantriji, to set up employment and economic value multipliers, and to rejuvenate the slovenly defence public sector units and ordnance factories. Newly assembled Jaguars coming out of HAL production lines routinely had fuel lines that sprouted leaks! (But such horror stories are legion!)
But India’s reliance on imported guns, etc has a long history. As pointed out in my book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498, and some of his gunsmiths jumped ship and set up a foundry to sell guns to the Zamorin — they sold 400 of guns within a year but no indigenous industry ever developed in Calicut or anywhere else. But the same Portugese reached Canton in 1521, started the same arms trade, but within a period of 2 year the Chinese began designing and forging guns. A similar pattern emerged in Japan in 1654 where the Portugese arrived and sold guns and within 20 years Japanese guns exceeded European guns in quality. It also reveals why India remains poor and technologically backward and China and Japan are superior economies and powers.
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Author: Bharat Karnad