Wednesday, 1 October 2014

India and ISIS: Foreign Policy Dilemma

The Narendra Modi and Barack Obama meeting this week, on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York threw up many asks from both India and America. It also brought to an end a hiatus in India and US relations.

From statements of shared values, economic and security agendas of both, emerged perhaps, three major red lines: American led coalition against ISIS, Nuclear Liability Law, and WTO blocking citing lack of progress on Food Security.

Of the three, the first namely, India joining a coalition against ISIS perhaps poses the largest challenge to Indian foreign policy. The latter two are a matter of negotiation, and have scope for finding a middle ground.

Whether or not India joins any such coalition against ISIS, will represent a very fundamental shift in both foreign policy and homeland security.

It will also be a fundamental recognition of the contradiction in the Indian stance in the Middle East, especially given the complex equation between India, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The dynamics of India, straddling Sunni and Shia relationships, have historical roots in different Muslim populations scattered across its geography. Indian expatriate labour works on both sides of the Sunni and Shia divide. Foreign remittance earnings, and well being of Indian citizens being key concerns.

The sectarian divide furthers affects the energy security plays of India. Despite recent derisking efforts, given the Western sanctions against Iran, deep concerns, and dependencies remain.

Navigation and maritime piracy is another factor in the Middle East, and Africa arena, impacted by the Sunni and Shia tangle. This directly impacts Indian energy lines, trade, shipping, as well as Naval movement.

Given this background of India's complex relationship with the Middle East. And India’s immediate neighbourhood, which in many cases remains adverse, due to direct and indirect conflict, and fomenting of Insurgency by Pakistan and China.

The direct threats include LoC, and LoAC infiltration by both Pakistan and China. The former with much higher frequency and intensity. The latter less intense but yet a constant irritant.

Indirect Chinese efforts include the 'String of Pearls' and the 'Silk Route' alliances, in the India Ocean, and the Eastern lands across Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. These further extend to energy supply, and rare earths around the world, as well as navigation and ports.

Both remain a worry. Soaking up troop deployment, air and naval postures, logistical and infrastructure resources, given threat to territorial integrity of India. These funds could have been deployed in growth and development, in the classic, guns versus butter dilemma.

That India refused to put boots on the ground alongside the NATO Coalition led by America, in the post 9/11 fight with Taliban, while Pakistan did, even in a duplicitous manner, nevertheless, remains etched in the American foreign policy establishment.

Similarly decades before 9/11, the animus of Nixon years, and the open naval threat by America and UK during the 1971 War, that resulted in creation of Bangladesh, out of East Pakistan, is ingrained in the Indian, Institutional memory.

India as one of the largest contributors to the UN Security Council Peacekeeping efforts, has nothing to show for it, except maybe the remunerative compensation paid to its troops, and the lure of foreign travel, goods. No seat at the UNSC, adverse scrutiny on trade, border conflicts are the report card. As India complains, of good and bad terrorism arbitrage, at the UNGA, it must take a long and hard look at the dividends, paid by its past policies.

Whether to engage or not, in the ISIS fight, is an open question. For India though, the expectation of favour from America, just because both are democracies is infantile, and has no precedent in the past behaviour, of successive American administrations.

Economic partnership is no substitute for hard realpolitik. This was most recently demonstrated between Japan and China. And while American power is on the descendent, it remains a key player in Asia.

Alliances with Japan, outreach to China, in the hope of a rapprochement, and rekindled regional ties are all very well, but India will have to give, if it wishes to get.

As Narendra Modi returns from a very successful visit to America, the real weight of putting deed to words will emerge. The lofty resolutions and MoUs, will need translation into action.

Indian foreign policy has been hostage to Nehruvian Socialist dogma for too long. In a state of flux, as the world happens to be, there is no succour to be had in precedent. India will have to be nimble, brutal and pragmatic, and employ its best minds to unravel the knots it has managed to tie itself into, on the world stage.

Both perception and reality of Indian foreign policy demand an urgent reset and Narendra Modi is certainly looking amenable to go out and play.

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