India’s Decade Of Regression And Squandered Opportunities

India’s old friends with historic ties have been given the heave-ho, disrespected, and even discarded on Washington’s say so.
T90 Bhishma tanks during rehearsals for the Republic Day parade, at Rajpath in New Delhi, on Jan. 21, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
T90 Bhishma tanks during rehearsals for the Republic Day parade, at Rajpath in New Delhi, on Jan. 21, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

India finds itself in December 2019 staggering into the future instead of striding confidently into the third decade of the new century. Most of India’s woes have been self-inflicted. The Bharatiya Janata Party government that came to power in 2014 promising a world of real and radical change – recall the rousing slogans “India First”, “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, and “Government has no business to be in business”, has well into its second term delivered on none of them. What it has produced is a country emerging as America’s poodle and as an appeaser of China. The latter remains India’s primary security threat and strategic, ideological, and economic rival in Asia.

At home, there has been a relentless drive to polarise India along communal and religious lines for petty political gain—that bids fair to rent the social fabric and engender lasting turmoil—as the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed by Parliament, setting off deep social tremors all over the country. If the political situation is on the boil, India’s economic plight is alarming too. This slide in India’s political and economic fortunes is mirrored by the Modi government’s failures in the external realm.

As it is, by staying with a policy sourced from Narasimha Rao’s time, and continued by subsequent Prime Ministers – Manmohan Singh and now Modi, of getting close to the United States at any cost, India’s freedom of diplomatic action and ability to leverage its contingent or ‘issue-based’ support has eroded markedly.

Playing off the U.S. against Russia, Russia against China, and U.S. against China to benefit India, is not easy when Delhi has already revealed its cards, namely, intimacy with Washington, estranged partnership with Moscow, and wary accommodation of China.

What Has India Gained From Being Pally With Washington?

With America, when Manmohan Singh chanted the mantra “20,000 megawatts by 2020”, he pretty much surrendered the country’s nuclear sovereignty by signing a civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. that barred India from conducting new thermonuclear tests. 2020 is nigh, there’s no sign of the promised nuclear energy surge, but there’s the Indian strategic deterrent limited to proven fission bombs. It has put India in no position to ever challenge China’s proto-hegemony in Asia. The only way India can throw off these shackles is to resume hydrogen bomb testing and leaving it to Washington to call off the deal. This the U.S. cannot do because geo-strategically it has no other friendly state that is also hefty and can help contain China striving to displace the U.S. as the predominant power. Indian leaders, it would appear, have no sense of the country’s inherent strengths or the leverage it can wield if it has a mind to.

Modi has proved that he is not the one to unshackle India. His innovation—if you can call it that—is unrestrained embracing and his deployment of arms purchases to achieve goals. Global leaders may have gotten used to his hugs and learned gamely to reciprocate. But their seeming effusiveness has not translated into enduring gains for India.

Modi’s bonhomie with U.S. President Donald Trump has led to no give whatsoever on Washington’s part on any of the issues Modi has flagged.

So while every time Modi meets with Trump he signs up for more P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and transport planes – C-17, C-130, the staple buys. In return for enriching the U.S. defence industry, Modi asked for small things that boomeranged. He lobbied hard for a loosened H-1B visa scheme to benefit Indian techies. It fetched a tightened immigration regime instead. This forced Indian companies—on the pain of a loss of market—to invest in the U.S., resulting in the reverse flow of capital and employment gain for America. Supplicating for easier entry for its manufactured export goods, Delhi was pressed to ease restrictions on imports of American dairy and meat products.

All the talk of advanced military technology collaboration and transfers from Vajpayee’s time have begotten nothing except first Barack Obama’s and now Trump’s pressuring India to deal for the antiquated F-16 fighter plane decked out with shiny bells and whistles and a new moniker—F-21—and for its production line as well to service, other than the aircraft in Indian service, a non-existent market. It is a project that’s likely to be furthered under the ‘Make in India’ programme that the Indian Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has called a sham. It will add to the $14 billion worth of military hardware purchases Modi has already committed to.

Letting Russia Drift Away

India’s relationship with America, however one-sided, has complicated its ties to Moscow. A once steady friend is now openly flirting with Pakistan, promising the latest armaments, and handing over Mi-35 attack helicopters. At the other end, Russia is also forging strong military technology and manufacturing links with China. India is hit with a double whammy. Desperate to keep President Vladimir Putin in good humour, Delhi contracted for the S-400 anti-aircraft air defence system it didn’t really want but bought anyway as a gap-filler in India’s layered ballistic missile defence. This won’t work because there’s no technology anywhere that can guard against salvo firings by enemy states of missiles and rockets.

India desperately wants the second Akula-class nuclear powered hunter-killer submarine. But Putin has tied it to other capital military deals such as for the Amur-class diesel submarine for the navy’s Project 75i and, the more commendable T-14 light tank for the army’s mountain offensive corps. With both the U.S. and Russia angling to monopolise the Indian arms market at the expense of the indigenous weapons design, development, and manufacture programmes (such as the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, its derivative Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, Arjuna main battle tank) India’s national interest is gutted.

Imbalance With China Remains

In bilateral trade with China of some $100 billion, India’s deficit is some $65 billion. Seduced by Xi Jinping’s promises of investment in infrastructure and of imminent resolution of the long-simmering border dispute, Modi has played footsie with Beijing. During his nearly six years in office, there has been no Chinese investment nor a border accord, but there has been frequent summiting and partaking of the ‘Wuhan spirit’ and, lately, the ‘Mamallapuram spirit’ which appear to be merely exchanges of vaporous rhetoric and nothing substantive on the ground to show for it.

But Beijing has no complaints. It gets to keep its beneficial trade imbalance intact, and notwithstanding every assessment claiming the PLA-funded Huawei Company’s 5-G technology as cyber Trojan Horse, it remains in the running to outfit the Indian telecommunications system. Talk of being taken for a ride! But that’s not the half of it.

China is Pakistan’s sheet anchor and makes no bones about it.

Besides financing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Beijing is the champion of Islamabad’s causes and protector of its interests at the United Nations and other international fora. On Dec. 16, in the latest such initiative, it moved a resolution in the Security Council to discuss the Kashmir issue, and has prevented the Financial Assistance Task Force from sanctioning Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism. Despite China’s manifest antipathy to India, Modi has refrained from using market access to trip up the Chinese economy, or in a belated response to Beijing’s dastardly proliferation of nuclear missiles to Pakistan, from arming the states on China’s periphery and in the South China Sea with nuclear and long-range weapons to strategically straighten out Beijing.

In this decade of diplomatic shuffle, old friends with historic ties have been given the heave-ho, disrespected, and even discarded on Washington’s say so.

Iran Abandoned, Japan Ignored

Though central to India’s strategic plans for a presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia via the rail and road grid radiating northwards from Chabahar port that Delhi said it would fund, Iran has been treated as a pariah. India has drastically scaled back the flow of Iranian oil, cut its energy reliance on Tehran from 13 percent to less than 2 percent in three years, and shutting down the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline for good. So cheap energy has been sacrificed for the pricey nuclear power that Manmohan Singh and Modi are determined to buy, by procuring exorbitantly priced reactors form the U.S., Russia, and France, courtesy the 2008 nuclear deal.

In a similar fit of strategic short-sightedness, India has gone slow on intense military cooperation with Japan – the one country China is apprehensive about. It has even turned down Tokyo’s offer to transfer the production line of the US-2, the finest maritime multi-role aircraft in the world.

In the last ten years, India has done little of note other than beef up its image as a foolish giant of a nation, at once gullible, exploitable, spendthrift and self-abnegating, fulfilling every big power’s wish as a friend or, as China would happily attest, as an adversary.

Bharat Karnad is Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author, most recently of, ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’. He blogs at Security Wise,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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