Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

India in Afghanistan

02.28.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

The release of a 2011 speech by new U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which he says that India has been “financing problems” against Pakistan in Afghanistan, has set off a predictable storm in India. But several observers – in Pakistan, but also in the United States and India – are far from surprised. Indeed, they see nothing wrong with what Hagel said. Let me take this opportunity to outline (1) why the statement was misleading and (2) why it is dangerous.

First, let us size up the facts or, in their absence, the informed speculation. India has had a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan since 2001, where it has had an embassy and four consulates (no more, no less). There are members of India’s intelligence agencies based at these missions, just as there are other foreign intelligence officers in Afghanistan and just as India has officers posted in other major embassies around the region and the world. That is not the subject of dispute or of controversy.

What is, however, is the scale of India’s presence and the nature of its intelligence activities. Although exact figures are not publicly available, India’s external intelligence agency – the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW or RAW) – is tiny, and is in no way comparable to Pakistan’s ISI in terms of resources or standing. RAW has suffered from bureaucratic rivalries with other Indian intelligence agencies, the IB and MI, and in the words of one former officer has a “love-hate” relationship with the Ministry of External Affairs. While RAW’s involvement in East Pakistan/Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka are often cited by external critics, they conveniently overlook the setbacks the agency experienced under the Janata government in the late 1970s, and again under V.P. Singh and I.K. Gujral’s leadership in the 1980s and 1990s. Many Indian political leaders still harbour an inherent distrust of intelligence activity, and it could very well be that the intel agencies have remained resource-starved as a consequence. The idea that RAW would have a meaningful say in, for example, trade policy with Pakistan (as ISI does with India) is laughable.

With respect to Afghanistan, how much reliable public information is there to support the Pakistani contention that India is “financing problems” against it? As it turns out, not much. British and UN diplomats have told American academics that Afghan intelligence has provided weapons to Baloch insurgents in Pakistan, but they have simply assumed that this is being done at India’s behest. Yet Kabul has had as much, if not more, of a reason to play this game as New Delhi. Indeed, Karzai has admitted sheltering Baloch rebels, but has privately denied India’s involvement to American officials. Even critics of India’s activities have ultimately concluded that Pakistan’s allegations “are nearly impossible to verify”, its “most sweeping claims are ill-founded,” and “the scale of India’s activities in Pakistan pale in comparison to Pakistan’s sponsored activities in and against India.”

Let’s be clear. I do not mean to suggest that India is conducting no intelligence operations in Afghanistan, or that Indian intelligence has not pursued activities in the past meant to destabilize Pakistan. There is simply no evidence to indicate that India is currently using Afghanistan as a base to run operations against Pakistan in a manner akin to Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of violence against Indian and Afghan targets. India has neither a reason (the indication at every leadership level is that a stable Pakistan benefits Indian interests) nor the resources (as discussed earlier). Even if New Delhi did desire Pakistan’s destabilization, it is unclear whether RAW’s efforts are even necessary: Pakistan seems to be doing a fine enough job on its own.

Second, why are assertions about India’s intelligence activities in Afghanistan so dangerous? If India was indeed intent on undermining Pakistan, would it not be quietly celebrating rather than expressing outrage over Hagel’s comments? The reality is that such statements equate India and Pakistan as sponsors of terror, with blame being assigned equally to the perpetrator and the victim. When coming from the United States – a supposedly neutral source – this claim is particularly damaging, as it is used to continue justifying Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist activities against Indian targets, such as the 2008 and 2009 attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul. This not only threatens Indian lives, it also directly compromises the safety of U.S. and Western personnel. Perceptions of India’s nefarious activities are also employed to apply pressure on India to scale back its activities in Afghanistan – including valuable development work being done on the ground. This makes the prospect of a stable, peaceful Afghanistan that much harder, which is simply tragic. The bulk of India’s efforts in Afghanistan is squarely in line with the interests of the Karzai government, and of U.S. and Western forces.

American observers can continue making claims based on flimsy evidence about India’s misdeeds in Afghanistan. Some – such as Secretary Hagel, a non-specialist – cannot be blamed for holding on to these views, although they should probably be aware of the consequences. The same cannot be said of others. As someone once told me, the most useful idiots are the ones that don’t even realize they are being used.

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Recommendations for Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi

02.22.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

What Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi should read and watch on international affairs and security.

A recent panel discussion in Washington on Indian politics inevitably resulted in a discussion on the relative strengths and weaknesses of two personalities: Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. It reflected the growing consensus that one or the other will be prime minister—or, just as likely, kingmaker—following the general elections next year. Although both individuals have expressed an interest in international affairs and national security, neither has yet had an opportunity to showcase their abilities in this realm. (Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee, I.K. Gujral, and Manmohan Singh, by contrast, had all served in senior cabinet positions prior to their ascensions to the top post.)

Appreciating the fact that neither Mr. Gandhi nor Mr. Modi will have a lot of time for extracurricular reading in the run up to next year’s elections, I tried to think of ten books, five articles, and five movies that I would recommend most to someone in their position (or their advisors), with an emphasis on accessibility, clarity, and brevity. Here’s a starting list, and I would be eager to hear suggestions from others [e-mail address under "Contact"] , which—if interesting—could make for a good follow-on post.


1. Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi will find a lot to disagree with in this book, since it provides a mixed view of Nehru’s legacy. Nonetheless, it is far and away the best study of the origins of India’s continuing disputes with China and Pakistan, and provides a nuanced yet detailed picture of India’s diplomatic performance and decision to employ force between 1947 and 1962.

2. Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command. Not only is this a very accessible book for newcomers to military affairs, it is perhaps the best-articulated study of why political leaders can—indeed, should—on occasion overrule their top military advisers on matters of security. It is particularly applicable to the Indian context, because it relies on prominent examples from four democracies: the United States, Britain, France, and Israel. Most Indian politicians receive little guidance on how to work with the services prior to their elections to national office. This is as good a start as any.

3. The Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning. Remarkable for being one of the few official Indian government reports on national security to be widely circulated upon publication, it provides a good introduction to the continuing problems of intelligence collection and analysis, as well as recommendations for improving India’s readiness—most of which have yet to be implemented.

4. George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb. Perhaps just a skim is necessary of this massive tome, which remains the authoritative narrative of India’s nuclear development until 1999. Much has, of course, happened since the book’s publication, but it dissects key decisions made by successive Indian governments on a particularly sensitive matter of national security.

5. C. Raja Mohan, Impossible Allies. The book seems a bit dated now, having been written in headier days of India-U.S. engagement in the mid-2000s, but it represents a solid narrative of relations at a particularly crucial juncture. In that sense, it may be the closest thing to a blueprint for proactive Indian engagement of a major power—something both Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi should aspire to.

6. Strobe Talbott, Engaging India. What is it like to sit across from Indian negotiators? For an insider look of how India negotiated itself out of an incredibly tight spot following the 1998 nuclear tests, look no farther than this book. The fact that, at the time, India’s institutions were weaker, its resources fewer, and the international environment more hostile ought to be comforting.

7. Raja Menon and Rajiv Kumar, The Long View from Delhi. Short, chart-filled overview of India’s important relationships and future scenarios that may compromise Indian interests. A good guide to what may be the most important strategic trends for India.

8. David Malone, Does the Elephant Dance? Written by a former Canadian high commissioner to New Delhi, this is probably the best-researched book on Indian foreign policy. It is heavy on India’s multilateral engagement—in which the country comes off rather worse than in bilateral contexts—but provides a good broad overview for non-specialists.

9 & 10. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies. These two books may appear rather unusual inclusions to this list, as works of historical fiction. But Mantel’s two prize-winning novels are grounded in reality, and taken together offer a couple of important lessons for modern political leaders. Most importantly, they constitute one of the best literary treatments of the complex relationship between ideology, diplomacy, rule of law, factional politics, and personal relationships, with which both Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Modi will have to contend. Tudor England also bears some uncanny similarities to contemporary India, as a state being made, one confronting the challenges of modernity, and wrestling with its identity. India—like England in a Europe dominated by France and the Holy Roman Empire—will also be the key swing state in the international system. And much like Henry VIII, Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi arrive with high expectations, represent important generational changes to their country’s leadership, and will still need to consolidate their domestic and international authority in the face of much scepticism.


1. K. Subrahmanyam, “India’s Grand Strategy/India’s Strategic ChallengesIndian Express, February 3-4, 2012.

2. Shashi Tharoor, “In the Ministry of Eternal Affairs,” Caravan, July 1, 2012.

3. Shyam Saran, “Geo-political Consequences of Current Financial and Economic Crisis: Implications for India,” Speech at the India Habitat Centre, February 28, 2009.

4. Ashok Malik and Rory Medcalf, “India’s New World: Civil Society in the Making of Foreign Policy,” Lowy Institute, May 2, 2011.

5. Saran, “Deciphering Pakistani Adventurism,” The Business Standard, January 16, 2013.


Mainstream Indian films’ treatment of foreign settings and relations are rather mixed (e.g. Veer Zaara, Tere Bin Laden, Namastey London). And the security side—even the better, more serious fare (e.g. Rang De Basanti, Kahaani)—remains far too fantastic. In order also to increase international exposure, here are a few films that are both enjoyable and thought-provoking:

1. The Lives of Others (2006). Indians still tend to be agnostic—if not somewhat nostalgic—about the Cold War. Watching this German film should put a stop to it. All governments are not equal: some are inherently more immoral than others. With an eye on the future, it makes you think about the kind of regimes you really want to be friends with.

2. Dr. Strangelove (1964). Having your finger on the nuclear button is no laughing matter. What better way to be reminded of that than to watch this classic comedy.

3. The Debt (2011). This remake of an Israeli film, about the dark secrets behind a celebrated Mossad intelligence operation, explores the morality of unilateral action and the room for its abuse by operatives intent on personal survival.

4. The Last Emperor (1987). Apart from being a gorgeous film about an important country for Indian interests, there are few better cinematic treatments of a powerful figure’s fall from grace, of power’s use and abuse, and of the employment of political figures as symbols. Within lie many cautionary tales.

5. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). An antidote of sorts to the first film on this list. When it comes to tactics, the bad guys can be your friends, and the good guys are often dispensible.

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Da Game is to Be Told, Not to Be Sold

11.28.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

…or how to get a job in a Washington foreign policy think tank without a Ph.D.

For the second time in about as many weeks I am going to break with past practice and write from a more personal standpoint, this time about getting a job in a foreign policy think tank in DC. The primary prompt is Dan Drezner’s post on the merits of a Ph.D. (and Joshua Foust’s equally compelling response). But I’m also motivated by the—literally—dozens of phone calls, emails, and social media messages that I receive each month from young people from India, the United States, and elsewhere seeking to break into “The DC Game” (as Foust calls it).

First, what exactly is The Game? Washington DC is by any measure the policy capital of the world. DC and its environs are home to some 550 public policy think tanks working on just about every policy issue imaginable. Washington is also home to a range of U.S. government agencies with truly global interests and activities as well as international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF. It thus attracts an international press corps, lobbyists, private sector consultants and contractors, and global NGOs. It is also the location of several universities that boast public policy schools, often with an international focus or orientation. Think tanks lie at the intersection of these realms—government, academia, business, and the media—and this largely self-pollinating interwoven community engages in shaping various aspects of U.S. and international policy: high politics, security, economic development, trade, human rights, etc. This, in brief, constitutes The Game.

The Game is not strictly speaking a profession. There are no universal practices for how exactly to influence international policy and no academic qualifications or professional certifications that need to be met. It’s the Wild West to academia’s armed forces. On the plus side, these characteristics makes the system somewhat meritocratic: talent and hard work are generally rewarded, as are personal and professional networks (behold the DC Happy Hour). On the downside, there are no fixed paths for how to break in. Here’s perhaps the most common one:

Step 1: Study political science/economics/international relations as an undergraduate. Study/work/intern in another country to gain some international exposure. Learn at least one language in addition to English (now most commonly Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish). Develop a primary regional and/or topical expertise.

Step 2: Complete a graduate degree: an MA, MPA, JD, or even a PhD. Study in DC (probably at a university starting with “George” or “Johns”) or intern there. Identify the policy community you want to break into, and get to know people in it. You will soon find that everyone working in a certain specialized field knows everyone else.

Step 3: After Step 2, or in some instances before it, you will face three options: (1) work on a political campaign, (2) complete that PhD, (3) enter government by working on Capitol Hill, joining the civil or foreign service, or signing up for the military. Option 1 is the fastest but you have to be lucky and work insanely hard for little or no pay. Option 3 takes the longest time, but at least you’re getting paid and learning how government really functions. Important: these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Oh, and if your job lets you, write/blog to get your name out there.

Depending on which horse you back, how hard you work, and how much time and effort you invest, you end up somewhere in the Game’s hierarchical pyramid. While you can’t choose how high you go, you can opt to be closer to the powers that be (in government) or farther outside with a higher profile and more freedom (say, at a think tank). The Game is not exclusive to Washington, but really the only exceptions involve people who are already established, work for a prestigious university/Wall Street firm/media company, and, on very rare occasions, are active bloggers or writers. But, as you can tell, Paula Broadwell—military service, Harvard graduate school, non-fiction book, doctoral studies—was playing The Game rather well until things started to go haywire.

The problem with this model is that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of others doing exactly the same thing. The trick then becomes how to distinguish oneself. My own path did not exactly correspond to this established pattern, in part because I didn’t realise until very late that I wanted to play The Game and also because of personal choices I made. This is how it turned out:

Step 1: I studied history as an undergraduate. Classical history. Really ancient stuff. I also turned out to be terrible at languages. My scholarship didn’t allow me to study abroad, although I partly made up for that by actually being from outside the United States. I was also an undisciplined student, a dilettante.

Step 2.1: I did intern in DC for several months after graduation (unpaid), then a few more (poorly paid). This was really only possible because I lived rent-free with distant relatives. During this time, I applied incessantly for DC jobs with little success. However, this also proved an incredibly useful time to learn how Washington worked: who were the important players, what were the priority issues, etc. DC think tanks have numerous public events every day. Congressional hearings are also open to the public. I attended as many of these events as I could.

Step 2.2: I returned to India, initially because of visa regulations. But I used my time living and working there to learn how Delhi worked, particularly its version of The Game. This proved, in hindsight, a valuable use of my time as it helped me establish connections with the Indian policy community and helped sharpen my field of expertise.

Step 3: Since I wanted to remain an Indian citizen, working for the U.S. government was out of the question, as was campaign work (which, given that I have no political affiliation, was not desirable anyway). I did not want to commit to a Ph.D. nor did I have the academic pedigree for one. Marriage largely ruled out international journalism (if an Iraqi IED didn’t kill me, my wife would). So my only real option when I returned to Washington was to work my way up in the think tank world.

Step 2.3: After working for three years, I went back to grad school full time, while also holding a full time job at a think tank. This was a rough two years, but well worth it. I deliberately took classes in subjects that were only loosely related to my work, as well as extra classes in theory and history to provide a better foundation for research and a familiarity with academic discourse. Telescoping a graduate degree with accumulated work experience helped me move up at work, and my education complemented rather than duplicated my professional development.

In hindsight, there was little I would have done differently, although mine has been a roundabout journey. Here are some lessons I learned from my own experiences and those of countless others I have come to know:

1. Ball. What you study matters less than what you get out of your education. And that is skills: research skills, general knowledge, writing abilities, logic, and second or third languages. Almost everyone in DC has the necessary research and language skills, but writing and general knowledge are surprisingly rare commodities. Moreover, breadth helps more than depth, as it makes you more employable. Few think tanks will hire you just because you know more about the Malaysian rubber industry than anyone else. But if you have a versatile skill-set and a broad understanding of contemporary Southeast Asia you make for a much more attractive candidate. Some specialists with doctorates are thus less successful at The Game; some without doctorates are more so.

2. Hustle. Hard works can more than compensate for luck. Sure, some people are lucky – they know the right people – but hard work also gets you noticed. And that often helps you get to know the right people. I’ve met an incredible number of established experts who have made it not because of anyone they knew, but through sheer determination. Connections may help get a foot in the door through an internship or perhaps a job interview, but not many think tanks will opt to hire someone on that basis alone.

3. Ain’t No Fun (‘Cos Your Homies Won’t Have None). Your job is never going to involve doing only those things you love. Junior research staff at think tanks are generally expected to provide administrative assistance: managing subordinate interns, drafting program budgets, fundraising, organizing events, etc. Senior researchers and program directors spend much of their time raising money, directing research, and managing junior staff. But a willingness and ability to take on these tasks makes one more – not less – employable. The same holds true, if to varying degrees, in other areas: government bureaucracies, editorial work, political campaigns, and the private sector. A strong researcher who can also raise funds, manage resources, organize events, and write reports is an asset for any think tank.

4. Lay Low. Vertical mobility is hard without other experiences or further academic qualifications. This brings us back to the Ph.D. discussion that Drezner started. Even the most highly-qualified younger policy practitioners hit a glass ceiling in the think tank world. The only option is to take on another job in government, the private sector, the media, etc. or go back to school. Joining a think tank at a senior level is really only possible for those with a Ph.D. This is gradually changing, particularly in newer or less-established institutions that tend to favour talent over formal qualifications.

Which leads me to my conclusion on the Drezner debate, one that may appear blindingly obvious. If think tanks, the government, and (dare I say it) academia stop putting so much weight on a Ph.D.—if they stop treating it as a union card that is necessary to move up in The Game—then you’ll get fewer people who will treat is simply as a box to check. This is, in other words, a demand-side problem, not a supply-side one.

Regarding Foust’s suggestion that a Ph.D. constitutes a cost-effective way to rise in The Game, well, I’m not so sure. Five years (the average time needed now for a political science Ph.D.) spent doing meaningful work for an international organization or in the private sector or a government agency could offer greater material benefits, a better Rolodex, and access to top policymakers. Sure, one might have to compensate for the lack of academic experience by familiarizing oneself with the relevant literature and reading recent scholarly articles pertinent to one’s field. The other downsides? Foust rightly points to the mountains of debt that one can accumulate in a terminal masters program. But the number of spots in Ph.D. programs are few and funding is still scarce. Unless one wants to work strictly in academia, there just might be more efficient ways of playing The Game.

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Lessons from Gaza

11.16.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

Watching news footage of the latest Israel-Hamas conflagration, I can’t help but think back upon my visit to the Gaza frontier last year, as part of a trip to Israel sponsored by an American Jewish organization. Our group stopped by the Israeli village of Sderot, known throughout the country for being the settlement closest to the Gaza Strip and quite easily the nearest target of Hamas rocket attacks. We were shown around by the village’s head of security, a large man with the physique of an ex-soldier whose aviator sunglasses obscured dolorous eyes and an extraordinarily creased face. He had been a longtime bodyguard of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

At the northwestern edge of Sderot is a small hillock from which one can peer out into Gaza. Looking out from this perch at the Palestinian settlements of Beit Hanoun and Jabalia, just north of Gaza City, a battery that was part of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system was visible to the right. High and to the left, a faint white glint in the sunny blue sky provided the only hint of Israel’s communications intercept capabilities. I asked our host, through a translator, how much chatter they could pick up from members of Hamas, whose buildings were within sight, barely two or three kilometers away. “We know what kind of olive oil they’re putting on their hummus,” he replied.

Israel’s handling of the Palestinian issue, particularly with respect to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, offers some cautionary lessons for India. On the one hand, tactically speaking, there’s no question that India can emulate some of Israel’s best practices. Intelligence collection and missile defense are already realms in which India is importing both hardware and know-how from Israel.

On the other hand, Israel’s inability to force Hamas into concessions despite its overwhelming military superiority and willingness to blockade the Gaza Strip indicate the limitations of its approach. Sderot may have bunkers and first-rate warning systems, but its residents are still insecure. The death of three Israelis – including the pregnant wife of a Delhi-based rabbi – and Hamas’s newfound ability to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with its missiles, brought this tragically home.

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How to be the next Mishra or Subrahmanyam

09.30.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

Like many others, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Shri Brajesh Mishra, India’s first national security advisor, who—let us not forget—was also principal secretary to the prime minister and before that a veteran Indian diplomat. In my handful of experiences interacting with him, I found him to be a thoroughly decent individual, not at all averse in his later years to a casual visit to his home or a frank conversation over a drink. His passing represents, in some respects, the end of an era among Indian thinker-practitioners of foreign policy, coming just over 18 months after the death of K. Subrahmanyam. I heard KS and Mishra referred to more than once by foreign observers as the Kissinger and Brzezinski of India, but that comparison is only superficially apt. Neither came from a background in academia, instead having first risen as career civil servants. And given the paucity of heavyweight foreign policy intellectuals in India, their roles may in fact have been more influential in shaping Indian strategic thought and policy than even their highly-regarded counterparts in the American context.

In an insightful piece, Arvind Gupta, director general of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, writes:

In hindsight one can say that due to a combination of circumstances, Brajesh Mishra and K. Subhramanyam came together at an important juncture in India’s history. Brajesh Mishra was the national security adviser when K. Subhramanyam headed the first [National Security Advisory Board] and also the Kargil Review Committee. Subhramanyam helped conceptualise national security management, while Brajesh Mishra played a key role in implementing some of these ideas. The two had independent ideas and did not always agree but they also complemented each other.

Dr. Gupta is right to point out Mishra and Subrahmanyam’s complementarities, and circumstances certainly had a lot to do with their success. But as it falls to later generations to take up the batons left by the two luminaries, it might be worthwhile considering why it was that they gained such esteem and influence in the first place.

First, having served as career bureaucrats in the Indian government, both Mishra and Subrahmanyam had a keen appreciation for the bureaucratic and structural limitations of the government apparatus. Although they were occasionally characterized during their careers as hawks, they played valuable moderating roles in shaping the national interest, driven by practical considerations that tempered ideals. Such an appreciation of the limitations of the Indian government, unfortunately, may be lost on future generations of strategists who—despite their analytic acumen—may not have the experience of working on the inside. It should be no surprise that the position of National Security Advisor has always been assumed, until now, by former civil servants. For the near term, at least, bureaucratic authority and experience will count for a lot more in Indian policy circles than might be ideal.

Second, while they both advised prime ministers and other political leaders, KS and Mishra offer two diverging models for winning political relevance, which is critical to policy implementation. Mishra, after leaving the foreign service, joined the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and linked his fortunes closely with those of the future prime minister. Upon the NDA’s victory in the 1998 general elections, Mishra became principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and after creating the position of National Security Advisor (at KS’s insistence), also assumed the reins of foreign policy and national security in this new guise. Such was Vajpayee’s faith in Mishra’s handling not just of foreign policy but every facet of administration that it became something of a joke in Delhi that the government came to a standstill when Brajesh was indisposed. Subrahmanyam sought the opposite route, resisting the semblance of close ties to any one party or leader in order to win a reputation as an impartial and non-partisan advisor.

As Gupta notes, it was when one was National Security Advisor and the other was chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) that the two managed to successfully advance a national agenda related to such issues as the use of nuclear weapons and defense and intelligence management. Mishra’s good standing with his political masters won him the requisite authority, while Subrahmanyam’s wider appeal and impartiality made these then-controversial ideas palatable to a broader political and public spectrum. It should also be noted that despite his strong political inclinations, Mishra later supported policies that his party opposed. Subrahmanyam, too, was not strictly apolitical, advising political parties whenever called upon for his expertise.

Both Mishra and Subrahmanyam were also noted for their strong personalities, reflecting what some viewed as stubbornness. But this was also an important source of their success. Subrahmanyam made much the same argument in favour of an independent nuclear deterrent for India from the late 1960s onward—it took him 30 years to see his vision of an India as a nuclear weapons power come true. Similarly, reports of meetings between Mishra and his American counterparts in the early 2000s show him repeatedly making the same arguments in favour of closer ties, even during periods when the United States was dismissive. His vision was only realized in the second half of the decade, after the NDA lost power. Both Mishra and Subrahmanyam may have sounded repetitive at times, but they also demonstrated an unwavering fidelity to what they believed was the only right end state.

Finally, the institutions and policies that both Mishra and Subrahmanyam advocated (the post of National Security Advisor, minimum deterrence, overlapping intelligence agencies) were, in fact, drawn far more from Western examples than is sometimes realized. Yet, both understood that these institutions and concepts needed to be adapted to India’s unique context. Both had an appreciation of the key facets of policy: the nature of a problem and the availability of viable solutions. Conversations with the two of them reflected both a thorough understanding of the necessary facts and a rigorous logic. Their deep appreciation of India’s circumstances, their identification of only the relevant issues as priorities, and their rational distillation of possible solutions appear missing in some of today’s policymaking and commentary.

Perhaps circumstances will ensure—for better, as much as for worse—that India will not see two other individuals enjoying the same stature in Indian strategic circles, as influential commentators or policy executors. Kissinger and Brzezinski were anomalies, but the better counterparts to Subrahmanyam and Mishra in the United States might in fact be the generation of Acheson, Marshall, Dulles, Kennan, and Nitze, which had a unique opportunity to forge the institutional infrastructre and conceptual foundations of American diplomacy and security. Later generations made necessary improvements to their basis, leading to the advent of the U.S. National Security Council, to a thorough overhaul of higher defense management, and to improvements to the inter-agency process and to intelligence coordination. Perhaps, then, future generations of Indian strategists should be striving not to be India’s Kissinger or Brzezinski or Kennan, but rather our own versions of Bundy, Rostow, McNamara, Schultz, Scowcroft, Gates, or Baker.

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Why is India’s Middle Class So Ambivalent about Economic Liberalization?

09.28.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

Since the UPA government announced its intention to ease restrictions on foreign direct investment in the multibrand retail sector, we’ve seen a vigorous—if not terribly sophisticated—debate take place about the merits of this step, and what it might mean for India’s future growth prospects. Only the latest to weigh in against this move (in one of the better-articulated critiques) is former external affairs and finance minister Jaswant Singh. The opposition of the erstwhile NDA leadership to further liberalization—despite its own cherished record in this department—is often cynically attributed to the logic of democratic politics at its lowest.

But I can’t help but notice the continuing prevalence amongst India’s political leaders of what is, at best, ambivalence about India’s economic liberalization. This applies, in my experience, equally to members of the Congress and BJP, as well as some members of regional parties with whom I have interacted with over the years. It also applies more widely to the Indian urban, educated middle classes (particularly those over the age of 40), including to members of our media and even surprisingly to some of our business leaders—those thought to have benefited most from India’s economic awakening.

In an article in The Indian Express, Yale’s Tariq Thachil asks an important question: why does the average Indian voter appear not to care about important developments in economic policy? Thachil points to some convincing if tentative explanations, but in the context of India’s educated elites the rationale is somewhat more elusive. What makes it particularly puzzling is that I haven’t come across similarly widespread ambivalence about economic liberalization amongst other elites who have experienced high growth in recent decades, as in China, Turkey, South Korea, Poland, or Israel.

In addition to hyper-partisan politics, partial explanations can be sought by pointing to the prevalence of socialist ideology and the very real challenges of governing a democratic, developing country. But let me suggest a few other possible reasons for India’s middle-class apologism:

1. The blame game. Embracing the merits of economic liberalization involves honestly confronting two aspects of India’s recent past. First, accepting that independent India’s early leadership made some important mistakes when overseeing the country’s economic development. Second, acknowleding that later leaders, including some affiliated with the Congress Party, can be credited with steps that enabled the Indian economy to grow. This narrative is relatively uncontroversial to many members of the scholarly community, but is far less palatable to political leaders, who are either eager to gloss over the mistakes of Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi or are reluctant to credit the Congress for those things it did right. It’s an all-or-nothing package, so the easiest thing for all politicians to do is to downplay this narrative altogether, making it all but impossible for politicians of any stripe to construct a case for economic liberalization grounded in recent historical experience.

2. Historical amnesia. The challenge of assigning political credit and blame is compounded by historical amnesia. As I’ve observed repeatedly on this blog, India has a remarkably poor appreciation of its own history, particularly of its post-Independence experience. I recently observed on Twitter that India’s standard of living in the 1970s was equivalent to 15th century Europe, while today it would be comparable to the West in the late 19th century. My intention was to show how far and how fast the country had progressed in such a short time. When challenged on the facts, I noted that the vast majority of Indians—throughout India’s entire history until the 1990s—were illiterate, poor, rural, subsistence agricultural workers, even during periods of past historical grandeur, such as Mughal and Mauryan rule. The widespread perception that India was a wealthy, advanced state by modern standards laid low by a rapacious colonial Britain simply doesn’t hold true, even if it is evident that the British Raj stunted India’s economic potential. Most Indian elites, in other words, do not appreciate the fact that the pace and success of the last two decades’ growth is entirely without precedent in the country’s historical experience.

3. The urban-rural divide. As someone who grew up in Delhi, I know that life in the large Indian metros is almost unrecognizable from even 20 years ago, the days when a lower-upper-middle class existence meant watching DD2 (in colour!), having an STD connection, driving a second-hand Maruti 800, and eating occasionally at Nirula’s. But for many urban and educated Indians, the ensuing changes—more and better cars, bigger houses, more television channels, nicer restaurants—were improvements in material comfort rather than truly transformative. By contrast, the expansion of basic services (electricity, water, roads), the telecom revolution, secondary education opportunities, the expansion of basic healthcare, and other such offshoots of liberalization have completely altered the lives of hundreds of millions of previously illiterate and underemployed rural Indians. So India’s middle-classes can possibly afford to be nostalgic about the pre-liberalization period when, so they sometimes muse, life was simpler, prices were lower, politicians were less corrupt, children were better-behaved, and Bollywood films were superior.

4. Anti-intellectualism among the business class. I should qualify this: I know many brilliant members of India’s business elite who are deeply interested and invested in matters of public policy. But, by and large, the captains of Indian industry place a low priority on policy debates, not always investing their own efforts or—just as importantly—their newfound wealth in advancing the study of public policy. By default, that space has been ceded to well-meaning (if sometimes misinformed) members of India’s literary community, who also remain the most high-profile interpreters of the country abroad. Again, I do not mean to belittle the contributions of many important policy intellectuals who have added considerable heft to relevant discussions. But in the absence of commitment by the Indian business community, the important public conversation on the merits of economic liberalization has become skewed in favour of idealistic amateurs.

5. The private sector’s crisis of legitimacy. Many advocates of liberalization ground their arguments in the assumption that the Indian government is corrupt, incompetent, and exploitative, while the private sector offers a more efficient, transparent, meritocratic, and progressive alternative. If only it were so clear cut. The problem is that the Indian private sector often fails to live up to this ideal, providing easy fodder for the critics of liberalization. Stories I’ve heard from employees at some of India’s most reputable companies reveal inefficiencies, patronage politics, and corruption of the kind that makes these entities seem indistinguishable from an average Indian government department. It doesn’t help that companies all too often often conspire with the state, and leverage government regulation against one another.

I could probably come up with a few other reasons, over and above partisan politics, simple ideology, and political exigencies. In an ideal world, India’s political, business, and intellectual elites would be in relative agreement about the overwhelming merits of liberalization as a value. They would be making the moral case in its favour, against special interest groups who might seek to preserve an economic regime that has by every measure served India and its people poorly. But taken together, these possible mental blocks suggest the task might be more daunting. Several factors, I hope, will transform things. Demographics is a big one. Already, about half of India’s population has no memory of the period before liberalization. The rise of rural and small-town businesses, the growth of independent policy institutes, and the positive example and influence of the Indian diaspora might also bring about swift changes to the prevailing mindset. Let’s hope it happens sooner, rather than later.

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Young Indians

08.21.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

Chetan Bhagat’s “young India” will be a politically frustrated minority.

When attempting to discern how India might behave as an actor in the international system, an almost entirely overlooked factor is the changing perception of younger Indians. To select but one recent example, Nonalignment 2.0 makes but two passing mentions of the importance of ideas among India’s youth, and that too in the context of the country’s rise as a hub of innovation and research. There are many good reasons for remaining mute about the effects of generational change on national politics and foreign policy, not least because identifying a single perspective representative of a large, diverse country such as India is terribly problematic. Anticipating the effects of that evolving worldview on one’s foreign policy is doubly so.

In his latest book, What Young India Wants, the prolific and popular writer Chetan Bhagat ambitiously attempts to capture the prevailing zeitgeist amongst India’s youth. To his credit, the 38-year-old Bhagat admits that he has a specific young Indian in mind: “When I visualise it, I today see it as sombody who is from a tier-two, tier-three city, maybe between twenty to thirty, maybe finishing school trying for college, trying to get a job…” This young Indian, in his reading, desires more than anything else a job and a girlfriend (“meri naukri, meri chokri”), which also suggests a particular bias towards a (heterosexual) male worldview.

So, going by available demographic data and in its absence carefully considered if crude estimates, how representative is Bhagat’s young India of the country as a whole? India’s population under 30 years of age is approximately 55% of its total population of 1.2 billion. Of those under 30, some 53% are male, making young males approximately 29% of India’s total population.

Education—meaning, in this case, some tertiary education and some command of English—is also central to Bhagat’s conception of young India. Based on current enrollment data, roughly 21% of Indian males of appropriate age have some tertiary education. When projected on India’s total youth population, this statistic is likely a bit on the low side, as enrollment rates are continuously rising and a higher proportion of those currently under 18 can be expected to receive college educations. For our purposes, a rough estimate of 25% will have to suffice.

Bhagat’s clarification of his target being from second-tier or third-tier cities is an interesting addition. India’s urban population is about 24%, of whom roughly one-third live in the eight largest metropolitan areas (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkatta, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune). Urban India has much higher rates of advanced education than rural India, so—for the purposes of estimation—let’s assume that less-educated big-city dwellers and highly-educated rural citizens cancel one-another out. This, admittedly, errs on the side of larger numbers.

Thus, the young India that Bhagat attempts to capture—under 30, male, small city, university-educated—is, in reality less than 67% of 25% of 53% of 55% of India. In other words, they represent less than 5% of India’s population and 9% of Indians under 30. Extend Bhagat’s voice to females, and one still finds him purportedly representing the views of about 17% of India’s youth: 112 million of them.

Why is any of this important? Criticism of his writing and themes aside, there is no question that Bhagat touches a chord with his large and loyal readership. This is only underscored by the tremendous success of the film adaptations of his novels, particularly 3 Idiots, which was watched well over 100 million times in Indian cinemas. His audience may turn out to be largely representative of India’s middle class in 25 years: they could very well be the cohort from which the next two generations of Indian political and business leaders will emerge.

But where Bhagat’s claims of speaking for India’s youth fall exceedingly short are when they are translated into the political sphere. Small city, upwardly-mobile educated Indians will still represent less than one-fifth of the electorate in 25 years. Adjust for accelerated urbanization and enhanced higher education opportunities, and their ranks may swell to about one-third, but they will almost certainly remain a minority for the next quarter century. The Bhagat brigade’s political impotence will only be compounded by its apparent political apathy. As Nilanjana Roy writes, “[Bhagat's] protagonists never address the ugliness of a certain kind of Indian chauvinism or anti-Americanism, the narrow or absent political engagement among The Youth, the incuriosity about India’s history and recent past, the invisibility of anyone on the margins, either geographically or culturally.”

The situation is cause for both optimism and concern. The optimism arises from the fact that a large—and growing—proportion of young Indians are evidently confident, demand greater opportunity, and crave progress. The concern arises from the fact that, while successful, this cohort will almost certainly remain a politically frustrated minority well into middle age, one led by a government with electoral incentives to remain majoritarian. India will undoubtedly shed much of its Cold War baggage and its leaders may adopt a newfound confidence in international affairs. But it will take more than a generation or two to escape the impulses of a developing state, even if it is one with a sizeable naukri- and chokri-seeking middle class.

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Khel Gone

08.12.2012 · Posted in Sports

India punched well above its weight at London 2012. But the promise of future Olympic dominance is exaggerated.

As an Indian living abroad, I am now used to the quadrennial ritual of having to answer questions as to why a country of India’s size should perennially disappoint at the Olympics. But what if at the just-concluded 2012 games, India – with two silver and four bronze medals – outperformed the likes of the United States, South Korea, Britain, Japan, Germany, Russia, or Australia? In one sense, it did.

Let’s begin with the premise that a country’s performance at the Olympics is tied to three factors: the size of its talent pool; the per capita resources available to ensure the health and well-being of potential athletes; and a sports culture and infrastructure that can develop that talent to internationally competitive standards. These factors are hard to measure, but we can rely upon decent proxies: total population as a measure of available talent, per capita gross domestic product (adjusted for purchasing power) as a measure of human development and individual resources, and the proportion of athletes that are able to qualify for the Olympics from that given population as an indication of the strength of a country’s sports culture and infrastructure. Thus:

which can be boiled down to:

As this formula suggests, the advantages rendered by a large talent pool are not just offset—but are in fact reversed—by the other two considerations. This runs contrary to expectations, but in fact makes sense. The 15 largest countries by population include most of the Games’ notorious underperformers; between them, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Egypt average less than two total medals each for every summer games in which each has participated. Large populations are therefore a drag on sporting performance, and the likes of the United States, China, Japan, and Russia are in fact the exceptions rather than the rule.

Evaluating a country’s Olympic performance can also prove contentious. Should the total number of medals count, or the quality of those medals (gold, silver, or bronze)? To factor in both considerations, I would assign gold medals double the weight of silver medals, which in turn can be considered equal to two bronze medals. When adjusted in this manner, how do countries’ performances at London stack up? Here’s a list of the overachievers, including the factors by which they surpassed expectations in the right-side column:

The appearance on this list of some countries should not surprise given their dominance of a few specific events: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda (long-distance running), Jamaica (sprints), and Iran (wrestling and weightlifting). Most of the other nations featured – China, Russia, North Korea, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Cuba, etc. – are either communist or post-communist countries, where the state has allocated resources specifically for the development of sport. (One particularly noteworthy example is the $785,000 spent annually on Chinese swimming star Sun Yang, over 100 times what the average Chinese citizen earns annually.) But the list also includes a few surprises – notably India and Indonesia. Based on the formula above, India should have been expected to win only one silver medal. (Note: apparent discrepancies are due to rounding and different weights given to gold, silver, and bronze medals. For example, Great Britain still exceeded expectations by winning a large proportion of gold medals despite appearing short on total medals.)

Meanwhile the list of underachievers also includes a number of surprises: Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

Austria and Israel – which should have won the equivalent of eleven and four medals respectively given their resource bases and talent, but failed to win a medal of any kind – were the biggest underachievers. Hong Kong, Greece, and Belgium are at the bottom of states that did at least make the medals table.

Amid all the recent commentary on why India underperforms at the Olympics (see also Sharda Ugra’s justified criticism of India’s “Quadrennial Middle Class Mortification” and a glass-half-full antidote by Sadanand Dhume), Fareed Zakaria’s prediction that in 2040 India would feature at the top the medal standings deserves some closer scrutiny. If one were to extend the current trend lines concerning Indian participation at the Olympics to 2040 (when it should be expected to field 129 competitors) and combine it with projections about the size of India’s population and economy, India’s performance should still be expected to improve only marginally from 55th to about 35th place in the medals table.

Even Sports Minister Ajay Maken’s pronouncement that India could win 25 medals by 2020 appears to overstate the case—a linear projection suggests that India will, at best, double its London medal haul by then. In other words, barring serious public or private investment and greater youth participation and better training in medal-rich sports such as track and field, swimming, gymnastics, diving, and cycling, we shouldn’t expect India to match the lofty achievements of the United States and China in the medium-term future.

Olympic Gold Quest, a private initiative led by Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone represents a small but meaningful step in the right direction – and India has reaped the dividends in a handful of sports, including shooting, boxing, and badminton. Less appreciated, India saw three track and field stars boast top 10 finishes (when it had had none since 1984), and its athletes were serious contenders in a number of events in shooting and boxing even when they failed to medal. So the future is indeed bright. But much like India’s rise, it would be best to temper expectations without becoming unduly despondent about the prospects of long-term success.

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Indian Interests and the Liberal Order

05.31.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

In positioning itself as a leader of the liberal international order, India can better defend its core national interests.

In his capacity as a contributor to the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 forecast, my German Marshall Fund colleague Daniel Twining asked several experts from around the world a simple question: “What is the impact of the ‘rise of the rest’ (particularly China and India) on the liberal international order? Will it mean the end of the Western world?”

The results, accessible at http://gt2030.com, are fascinating for their variety. Jeffrey Gedmin leads several voices in suggesting that the West’s priority must be getting its own house in order. Indrani Bagchi, among others, foresees  an imminent return to the logic of balance of power. Walter Lohman, John Lee, and Steve Szabo believe that India is far more likely than China to play a constructive, if independent, role in maintaining a liberal order. Pramit Pal Chaudhari agrees, but perceptively notes that India’s hesitation arises from its functional approach to democracy, its lack of military capacity, and its continued efforts at nation-building.  C. Uday Bhaskar and Dan Kliman think that India will be among the key ‘swing powers’ in the emerging international system.

A number of contributors strike contrarian tones. Abraham Denmark posits that the decline of the west has been greatly exaggerated. David Kang similarly notes that the rising powers, unlike the United States, have not exhibited an ability to generate followers. On the other hand, Hugh White argues that the United States has no choice but to accept China as an equal, while Mark Leonard believes the United States is engaged in a foolhardy attempt at enmeshing China and India into the international system at the expense of its European allies.

My own essay—here—focuses on a somewhat broader conception of the liberal order than the rather contentious institutional and relational aspects. By going back to the Atlantic Charter—the remarkably concise 376-word document agreed upon by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941, which provided the basis for much of the post-war international system—one can derive a clearer sense of its elements. In essence, the  Charter catalogues eight ideals—peace, sovereignty, self-determination, economic development, open markets, defense of human rights, access to the commons, and collective security—that we may take for granted today, but which were radical, almost naively idealistic, concepts at the outset of the Second World War and before decolonisation. Although it inspired the UN, World Bank, IMF, G-8, NATO, WTO, and EU, the Charter makes no explicit mention of specific institutions. Institutions, we ought to remember, are not ends in themselves, but rather means by which to preserve and advance norms and ideals.

Although most Western discussions about India’s role in the international order have exhibited an inordinate focus on human rights, defense of the commons, and collective security—realms in which India is wary about becoming increasingly involved—the other tenets of the liberal order are far less objectionable. India wants a peaceful periphery and stable global system that allows its economy to develop in a manner that benefits its populace. It also jealously guards is sovereignty, independence, and system of governance.

India is not alone in these respects. As I note in my essay, with 7 in 10 people living under electoral democracies now in the developing world, the ownership of liberal values may have already passed on from the West.  Two-thirds reside in just 13 countries: India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines, Turkey, Thailand, South Africa, Colombia, Ukraine, Tanzania, and Argentina. Given the disparities in size and military potential in its favour, as well as its longer history of democratic governance, India is uniquely primed to take a leading role in defending a set of ideals that also advance its core national interests.

The transition from West to rest consequently presents a long-term opportunity for New Delhi to assume a unique global leadership role, one that is too big to miss. But we Indians should never underestimate our ability or willingness to miss opportunities. The latest growth figures (5.3% last quarter) are not encouraging. The obsession with the ceremonial trappings of global leadership—specifically, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council—are also woefully distracting. And the politics of timidity  cannot be perennially rewarding. Staking out a leadership role in this respect is not inconsistent with the logic of  ‘Nonalignment 2.0‘. Perhaps its time we took the plunge.

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The Wise Men of Indostan

Thoughts on “Nonalignment 2.0″ and “India: The Next Superpower?”

It was six men of Indostan / To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant / (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation / Might satisfy his mind.

John Godfrey Saxe (1872)

Early 2012 might not appear a propitious time to unveil an ambitious new road map or set of principles to guide India’s domestic, foreign, and security policies. The UPA-II government is walking on eggshells, the economy is faltering, and the country’s chief international interlocutors (the United States, China, Pakistan, Europe, Russia, Japan, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran) are all in states of flux or otherwise preoccupied.  And yet, two recently-published collaborative reports—one issued by the Centre for Policy Research and the other by the London School of Economics—have injected a healthy dose of debate on the way forward for the country. Both exercises should be applauded for their efforts, and yet each is marked by certain shortcomings.

The Centre for Policy Research’s Nonalignment 2.0 is by far the more ambitious project, and one could scarcely imagine a better line-up of contributors: India’s most astute political commentator, Pratap Bhanu Mehta; its most strategically-oriented economist Rajiv Kumar; its most highly-regarded political philosophe Sunil Khilnani; and its brightest strategic historian Srinath Raghavan; who benefit from unparalleled insight from leaders in business (Nandan Nilekani), journalism (Siddharth Varadarajan), diplomacy (Shyam Saran), and the military (Gen. Prakash Menon). And yet despite—or perhaps because of—this enormous wealth of talent, the report has elicited a wealth of criticism both within India and abroad, much of it relating to the choice of title. Among many others, K.S. Bajpai has warned of the recurrence of “a slogan [becoming] a substitute for thinking,” while Nayan Chanda notes that “fragmentation…obviates the need for alignment – version one or two.”

Nonalignment is quite possibly the most used and most misused term in international politics. While it evokes a sense of comfort and continuity for many Indians, it also provokes reflexive and exaggerated distaste in the minds of many outside observers. (One normally discerning commentator, for example, equates calls for non-alignment with India “measuring its independence by its ability to thwart Washington,” which is not something the report’s authors ever suggest.) The decision to use the term is based on what the authors see to be non-alignment’s guiding principles: “to ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its own developmental goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a more just and equitable global order.” Unfortunately, an indigenous national interest, strategic autonomy, and the desire to favourably shape the global order can also describe a wide spectrum of other policies, which can assume many different forms—and names. Additionally, whether or not it was intended, the use of the term non-alignment in the title suggests a preference for continuity over change and a lack of viable alternative courses for India, both somewhat at odds with the thrust of the report.

Beyond the headline, at least three other aspects of “Nonalignment 2.0″ stand out. One is its limited utility as a road map or means of guiding policymakers. Take, for example, the section on China which, despite the authors’ argument that it presents one of the greatest challenges to India in the coming years, concludes: “[India's] China strategy has to strike a careful balance between cooperation and competition, economic and political interests, bilateral and regional contexts.” That is all true, but hardly helpful as guiding principles or for the purposes of planning. Two, the report follows a popular trend in India—which in this respect lags the rest of the world by about 15 years—of encapsulating a vast array of issues and challenges within the rubric of strategy and national security. While democratic governance, internal security, an adequate knowledge base, and development initiatives are all undoubtedly intertwined with India’s external relations and national power, treating domestic and external policies separately would likely have produced more meaningful conclusions and more practicable recommendations. Three, like many such reports emanating from the Indian policy community, the report does not always distinguish clearly between description and prescription. It becomes difficult then to separate the authors’ evaluations of India’s capabilities, capacities, and challenges, ends, goals, and means.

Criticism is easy and it is cheap. The fact is that it is difficult to point to many other existing documents that better “Nonalignment 2.0″ in terms of ambition, scope, or nuance. Perhaps the authors’ most important contribution is to clearly articulate a critical element of India’s foreign policy which, while implicitly and widely acknowledged, is rarely recognised: “under no circumstances should India jeopardize its own domestic economic growth, its social inclusion and its political democracy. Its approach to the outside world must be to secure the maximum space possible for its own economic growth.” That is a powerful statement. Indeed, that simple principle has been the single most consistent feature of Indian foreign policy over the past two decades, under every Indian government, and marks a sharp break from the period beginning around 1971 and ending in 1991, when Indian interests were thought of in starkly different terms. This principle has also been important in shaping India’s relations with the United States, China, Pakistan, and other international actors in the post-Cold War era. And it is likely to only increase in salience with the growing influence of business elites, the media, regional political actors, and younger voters. A pity, then, that this maxim is buried in the body of the report and not made its central pillar.

Of Cars and Credit Cards

In contrast to “Nonalignment 2.0,” LSE IDEAS’ “India: The Next Superpower?” represents a more piecemeal and self-consciously contrarian effort. In fact, at times it seems to be at pains to conflate description with prescription. The central force behind the report is Ramachandra Guha, currently holder of the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the LSE, and it is his essay and the executive summary by Nicholas Kitchen which are perhaps deserving of the greatest scrutiny. Both detract from the generally unobjectionable contributions by others to the collaborative report on matters such as hard security, corruption, and soft power.

Among other things, Guha falls prey to the historian’s fallacy. “[T]he more things appear to change, the more they  are actually the same,” he writes. But then there are the inevitable contradictions. Guha dwells at length about the lack of integrity and intelligence amongst India’s politicians, a far cry from the qualities of the great Indian statesmen of yore. He also lambasts the growing culture of consumerism, of cars and credit cards. He faults the arrogance of the power elites of New Delhi and Bangalore, and the willful blindness and “dumbing down” of public discourse by the middle class. In conclusion, he argues that Naxalites, Hindutwadis, the corrosion of the liberal centre, wealth gaps, media trivialization, environmental degradation, and coalition governments, are “seven reasons why India will not become a superpower.”

All seven are certainly major challenges about which many Indians of a variety of ideological and political persuasions might agree. But beyond the fact that superpowerdom is left undefined, Guha’s argument is unpersuasive from the viewpoint of comparative historical experience. Take the examples of the last three indisputable global superpowers: Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Britain had to confront the challenges of, first, Jacobite rebels and, later, Irish revolutionaries on its own soil even as it went about transforming agriculture and industry and building a global empire. LSE is but a tube ride away from sites of rookeries at St. Giles, Spitalfields, and Whitechapel, which experienced unbelievable urban poverty, crowding, and crime at the height of Pax Britannica. The United States overcame separatism, immense corruption, yellow journalism, economic depression, racial segregation, and political scandal between 1860 and 1975. And what about the U.S.S.R., where superpowerdom arose out of civil war, political purges, an absence of a free press, wanton nuclear testing, and the forced migration of minorities?

Guha does not shy away from adding a normative element to his analysis: “To this, so-to-speak objective judgment of the historian, I will now add the subjective desires of a citizen – which is that India should not even attempt to become a superpower.” Although one can debate the propriety of advancing one’s subjective opinions using the vessel of an objective report, Guha at least attempts to separate the two elements in his essay. Unfortunately, Nicholas Kitchen’s executive summary is less clear on that score. “The bright lights of great power diplomacy may serve only to distract from the pressing requirements of India’s domestic development,” he writes, “which to date has neither locked in its successes nor laid out a sustainable path for the future.”

That both “Nonalignment 2.0″ and “India: The Next Superpower?” have helped promote vigorous debate in India is a testament to the healthy introspection and open discourse that continue to make India so resilient. And they are also useful contributions to a still scant body of literature on India’s grand strategic ambitions. Both efforts, however, also reveal the enormity of the task at hand. That task will be of a dialectical nature, and it is only in time—and in its own way—that India will stumble across the right synthesis.

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