Need for the Right Priorities

Published: 30th May 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st May 2014 10:42 AM   |  A+A-

Narendra Modi, predictably, has begun his rule at a canter, strengthening his hold on the party machinery and putting in place a system, wherein the Prime Minister’s Office is the nodal agency in government to vet policy options and shoehorn choices for the various ministries.

In the over-bureaucratised Indian milieu, the Principal Private Secretary (PPS) to the prime minister is often the difference between success and failure of the government. In the new millennium, it was Brajesh Mishra as both PPS and National Security Adviser to prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who piloted the BJP government through its tenure. Mishra’s views were sufficiently in sync with Vajpayee’s, a fact enhanced by the basic trust existing between them for the PPS-NSA to act as PM in all but name. The decisiveness reflected in that BJP government’s policies mirrored Mishra’s definiteness of views and preferred strategies. His successor, T K N Nair, a Punjab-cadre IAS officer, in contrast, reflected Manmohan Singh’s tendency for bureaucratic waffle and prevarication and the Congress coalition government soon resembled a ship adrift with neither the captain nor his first mate having his hand on the tiller but both cupping their ears to hear orders shouted by Sonia Gandhi aloft in the crow’s nest! Modi installed Nripendra Misra, a stalwart civil servant, for the same reasons he had K Kailashnathan running his show in Gandhinagar—intimate knowledge of the bureaucratic maze, clean record, and reputation for efficiently implementing decisions.

Prime minister Modi’s emphasis on internal security naturally led to Ajit Doval’s placement as NSA. Doval, director of the Intelligence Bureau during L K Advani’s stint as home minister, was the designated NSA had the BJP won the 2009 elections. As a hands-on intelligence operative, Doval provides Modi with the advisory and oversight support he will need to translate into action his promise of targeted intelligence operations against terrorist/gangster outfits generally and specifically to haul in the underworld chieftain, Dawood Ibrahim.

Given multiple ministerial charge of finance, defence and corporate affairs, Arun Jaitley’s top priority is incentivising foreign direct investment in the manufacturing sector, with modified labour and land acquisition laws, as the means to get a stalled economy going. The ostensible reason for his being hoist with the defence portfolio is because of Modi’s hope that he’ll quickly assess the financial situation, bring projected military expenditures on capital acquisitions in line with what’s in the kitty, and draw tentative red lines across procurement schemes deemed unaffordable, before he is divested of this portfolio. It would spare the incoming defence minister the need to make harsh choices or face criticism for junking this or that hardware acquisition programme.

Sushma Swaraj’s appointment as minister for external affairs is an anomalous development. Considering that Swaraj, an Advani acolyte, has no strong following in the party or at the grassroots level, saw herself as a rival to Modi, and never really warmed up to him before, during, or even immediately after the long election campaign, her being given charge of MEA suggests one of two things: MEA is not considered important enough by Modi, or he believes foreign policy can be micro-managed by the PMO, in which case it doesn’t really matter whether Swaraj or somebody else is minister. The latter seems to be the case, as was evident in the initiation and conduct of the “ambush diplomacy” with the surprise invitations to the SAARC heads of government and the successful staging of the bilateral talks at Hyderabad House, particularly with the Pakistan PM, when Modi’s obligatory riff on terrorism apart his personal relationship with Nawaz Sharif was established.

Obviously, obtaining a friendly neighbourhood, tying up the subcontinental and offshore South Asian states to the Indian economy with trade and commercial ties as a means of stanching China’s influence in the region ought to have high priority. But this policy has to be laced with steel. In this regard, it is imperative, for instance, that New Delhi quickly accept the longstanding offer of the Mauritius government headed by Navinchandra Ramgoolam of the North and South Agalega Islands in that archipelagic nation as forward base for the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force in the southern Indian Ocean. And landwards, India has to deploy a squadron of Su-30MKIs at the Farkhor base in Ainee, Tajikistan, to out-flank the Chinese Lanzhou Military Region centred on Urumchi in Xinjiang (or as the “splittist” Uighurs would have it, Eastern Turkestan). It is precisely the sort of moves that have been opposed by a strategically befuddled MEA and sections in Indian armed forces that the Modi PMO should now push. It will lend the otherwise toothless Indian foreign policy bite.

Of equal importance is the need to ratchet up strategic partnerships with countries in China’s vulnerable underside in Southeast Asia and off its coast—namely Australia, Taiwan and, especially, Japan. The prospective flagship defence cooperative venture is that of the Shin Meiwa Company proposing to produce its US-2 maritime surveillance flying boat in India in the private sector. Amitabh Kant, secretary, department of industrial policy and promotion, visited Japan last month to advance the deal, which needs to be speedily finalised. Japanese military sources complained about the Congress government’s unwillingness to upgrade the joint and multilateral naval exercises, ruing the fact that MEA accorded “too much respect to China”. This, hopefully, will change with Modi pursuing a disruptive but sophisticated twin-pronged policy of facilitating Chinese capital investment in massive infrastructure projects, such as construction of world-class country-girdling road and high-speed railway networks—a Chinese specialty—and, concurrently, strengthening the strategic bulwark against China on its land and maritime periphery. And as for the United States: Washington has for long defined its relationship with India in overly transactional terms and treated Modi too disparagingly for New Delhi to respond other than in a matter-of-course vein to Obama’s overtures.

Modi had talked about merging MEA with the commerce ministry to constitute a super-ministry tasked primarily with promoting trade and economic cooperation. It isn’t clear why this far-reaching organisational innovation has so far been given a miss.

The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com

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