The electorate has spoken in favour of the Congress (I). This could be taken as an endorsement of the previous Congress (I)-led UPA government’s policies. Therefore, these can reasonably be expected to continue, bringing about the much desired continuity in times rendered unstable by the recession and the expanding conflict next door. In continuity, change must also be built in for the polity to stay abreast with if not ahead of foreign and security developments. Even as policymaking paused for elections, events in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan came to a head. With the new government more firmly in saddle than before, it is an opportune time for India to make its weight count as never before. What then could form its agenda?
Prioritising the internal sphere makes for long term strategic sense. India’s credibility continues to be hobbled by its human development indices. Any comparison to China, its strategic peer, on this score is to India’s disadvantage. An introspective India would require concentrating on improving social cohesion, development and resolving internal conflicts. Over the long term these then would not be distractions but assets. Inimical states would not get a handle for interference. Besides, India’s inclusive model and credence to human security would place it in a morally and politically strong position to demand the same of its neighbours in particular; reconciling the genius of South Asia with its chief characteristic of diversity.
In particular the aspects that need addressing are those that have repeatedly been emphasised by the Prime Minister in his earlier tenure as the primary threats, namely left-wing extremism and hinterland terrorism. Central India requires deploying of an Indian ‘peace corps.’ Collaboration of volunteer IAS cadre, ex-servicemen and NGOs and cooptation of the extremists through appropriate ceasefires, dialogues and resettlement programs are possible answers. A federal solution emulating the NEC and DONER mechanisms of the North East may require to be emplaced. In respect of the Northeast, an aggressive peace agenda under credible mediators, and bringing Bangladesh onboard, needs to be launched with a time horizon of five years for fruition. This would bring an urgency to tackling the region that it presently sorely lacks.
With respect to hinterland terrorism, piecemeal investigations have revealed that the activity of extremist Hindu groups has inflated the threat posed by extremist Muslim groups. There appears to have been a dialogue through violence between these two to influence a wider audience. Elections have put paid to any hidden agendas. A strong Centre must progress prosecutions towards their logical conclusion. The resulting deterrent would ensure that such groups do not in future contest the monopoly of the state over violence . Progressing the SIT reopened cases in Gujarat would undercut the logic of precedence that provides seeming impunity to irresponsible governance. Ensuing social cohesion would buoy India’s great power credentials.
Attention to this internal agenda would be gravely challenged by the apparent immediacy of unfolding events in the region. India is still vulnerable to being violently embroiled into these by some future cataclysmic event. A strong government is in a better position to withstand pressures against hasty action. The post-Mumbai stance of restraint appears to have met the electorate’s endorsement. Thus elections have strengthened India’s hand. The issue is how then should this hand be played?
The recession and resulting US interest in winding down its commitment in the GWOT on favourable terms is a principle factor. Pakistani ownership of the anti-extremist agenda is next. India’s agenda must therefore be supportive of these two states, given that long-term stability of Pakistan is in Indian national interest. Currently, perhaps due to electoral compulsions brought on by 26/11, India was pressurising the US on Pakistan. The peace process had also been placed on hold. The role of a ‘spoiler’ does not befit a strong India. The contention here is that a strong government can afford to actively initiate a push for peace. This may involve responding to Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan. India’s growing economic and soft power is of an order that no government in Afghanistan, even one with Pakistani proclivities, can ignore. With that self-confidence India should be accommodative. Its concerns of Taliban as ‘threat’ need moderation accordingly.
Potential for an overarching strategic understanding between the two neighbours exists if the reports on the progress in talks made by the back channel are to be believed. The government, as part of the resumption of the peace process already having the Kashmir issue in the basket, needs to institutionalise a strategic dialogue with Pakistan discussing approaches to concerns as Afghanistan, Kashmir, pipelines from Central Asia and Iran, mutual reining in of intelligence agencies and conventional and strategic restraint. The current ‘mediation’ by the US can be dispensed with.
The greatest advantage of a strong government is the initiative and energy it can bring to bear to foreign and security policy without constantly watching its vulnerabilities. Seizing the opportunity by appropriate balancing of the internal and external would catapult India into the big league.