Narendra Modi’s return to power with a stunning majority reflects the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. Contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s nationalist plank with the opposing forces’ lack of ideological conviction or a clear national agenda. Most Indian parties, including the BJP’s own allies, are controlled by single families, which run them like family-owned businesses. The state-level election success of a few notwithstanding, the humiliating rout of many such parties shows that politics guided by families, not principles or national vision, is out of sync with the new India.
Indians not only want their country to stop punching below its weight but also to emerge truly as a great power. But without ameliorating its security challenges and investing in human capital, India has little hope of becoming a major power with a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability.
Modi’s re-election represents a fresh mandate for change. The new government’s most pressing challenges relate to internal and external security, including a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an ascendant great power and an implacably hostile neighbour. New Delhi also needs to effectively counter Chinese inroads in its maritime backyard and in countries long symbiotically tied to India.
The recent Sri Lankan bombings, oddly, have helped underscore India’s own jihadist threat. The Sri Lankan investigations have helped shine a spotlight on the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The situations in West Bengal and Assam also appear fraught with similar danger.
Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds — a concern reinforced by the Pulwama terrorist massacre, which led to a retaliatory Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s lair in Balakot. However, when Pakistan daringly responded by crossing a red line — its February 27 aerial blitz targeted Indian military sites — Modi surprisingly held back Indian forces from wreaking punishment.
Yet Pakistan still fears Indian punishment, which explains why its airspace has remained closed to most east-west overflights for the past three months, even though this action has also cut off Pakistan’s air connections with Southeast Asia and resulted in its loss of overflight fees. Significantly, since Pulwama, Pakistan’s military has not staged any cross-border tactical or terrorist strike in India. This shows that keeping Pakistan under sustained military and non-military pressure holds the key.
China’s muscular revisionism, of course, poses a bigger national security challenge. India’s lagging defence modernisation has compounded the challenge from the world’s largest, strongest and technologically most advanced autocracy. Unlike a short-focused India, China plays the long game, with the aim to advance its interests step by step. However, the ongoing paradigm shift in US policy on China under President Donald Trump is putting growing pressure on Beijing, constricting its space against India.
An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration, to be sure, is also adding to India’s diplomatic challenges, as underscored by the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. Although the Modi government said last year that “India follows only UN sanctions, not unilateral sanctions of any country”, it has been compelled to comply with the recent, Trump-imposed ban on Iranian oil exports.
More broadly, Modi’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. Shorn of ideology, his foreign policy has prudently sought to revitalise the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.
Modi, however, must develop a credible counterterrorism strategy. Sri Lanka, since the Easter bombings, is seeking to proactively root out violent jihadism. Emulating the Singaporean policy of zero tolerance of jihad-extolling sermons, it has deported or arrested more than 200 mullahs and cracked down on the inflow of Gulf money. To prevent violent jihad being taught to impressionable young minds, it has decided to bring madrasas under its education ministry and outlaw the Sharia University at Batticaloa. Such steps may seem unthinkable in India.
Take another example. India kills a leading terrorist, only to squander the gain by permitting a large public funeral that memorialises him as a martyr. India has learned little from its 2016 Burhan Wani blunder. Last week’s Pulwama funeral for local Al Qaeda leader, Zakir Musa, triggered rioting and curfew. Contrast this with the way the US dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the sea and China forced the burial of Noble peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s ashes at sea.
Modi’s first term failed to dispel India’s image as a soft State. If his second term is going to reinvent India, Modi cannot shy away from taking hard decisions. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi, with his cold-eyed pragmatism, must seize this moment. In the way his tax and regulatory overhaul is set to boost economic growth, he must similarly advance national security through fundamental reforms.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. The views expressed are personal.
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