Event Reports

There is an absence of a strategic mindset: Ex-NSA

India's former National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan thinks that challenges posed by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor were far greater, as it directly impinged on India's sovereignty and security. He feels that this is a far graver issue than the India-China border dispute.

2015
Nov
18

Lamenting the absence of a strategic mindset in the current government at the Centre, Mr. M K Narayanan, former National Security Advisor (NSA), said that this absence reflected in the “One Rank One Pension” issue and in the downsizing of the 17th Mountain Corps.

Mr. Narayanan was delivering the keynote address at the ORF-Chennai Chapter interaction on “Agenda for India”.

He also said that ’Make in India’ was a casualty of the decision to purchase the 36 Rafale fighters from France.

Mr. Narayanan divided the topic into five sub-agendas and analysed each of them incisively. The areas he looked at were: Impact of the new NDA government, regional perspective, strategic imperative, internal security and defence preparedness.

Mr. Narayanan felt that apart from foreign policy, the new government has had a low key impact. He said that the government did not look at conciliation as an option in its various dealings and opined that a soft option was worth considering in some areas.

Speaking about the events in the region, Mr. Narayanan said that India is a victim of geography in that it found itself in a very volatile region. The region was filled with many ethnic and sectarian conflicts which require more focus and strategic thinking from India. In Afghanistan, he felt that Pakistan and China have effectively squeezed India out of the country.

Further, the positives for India in the region, such as improved ties with Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh should not be taken for granted. India must consistently work to adapt to the changing geopolitical situation in the region.

Mr. Narayanan said China must always remain in the calculations of Indian policy-makers dealing its neighbours. He also pointed to territorial disputes in the region as potential sources for future conflict.

China-Pakistan nexus

On the strategic imperatives facing India, Mr. Narayanan marked the challenge from the China-Pakistan nexus as the most significant. He called for the application of cold, hard-headed logic in India’s dealings with the same. Here too, he highlighted the worsening standing of India with respect to a role in the future of Afghanistan. This, he said, was meant to keep India out the vast possibilities on offer in the Central Asian region.

Further, Mr Narayanan said that challenges posed by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor were far greater, as it directly impinged on India’s sovereignty and security. In fact, he felt that this was a far graver issue than the India-China border dispute. Mr. Narayanan added that addressing the growing strategic distrust between India and China would require a more sophisticated approach.

On the West Asian front, he felt that the situation was far less stable than it was at the beginning of the 21st century. He cautioned that India must not find itself on the loser’s side in the geopolitical events that are panning out in the West Asian region. Mr. Narayanan felt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi must use his formidable skills in creating opportunities for a proper framework for a peaceful, political and strategic relationship across the region without succumbing or overreacting to fears of where China is headed.

Beneath the surface

On the internal security front, Mr. Narayanan, while commending the absence of any major violent incident, said that beneath the surface, the security situation was far from satisfying. He called for a comprehensive policy review. He felt that militancy was reviving in Jammu and Kashmir, Northeast and the Punjab. He feared that there were signs of Khalistani revival in Punjab.

Further, he warned against the potential consequences of totally inept government in Jammu and Kashmir. On the question of Maoism, he felt that the number of high quality recruits joining the ranks of the Maoists were on the rise and that the movement was receiving an intellectual stimulus from such developments. Mr. Narayanan called for a clear policy to deal with the problem of Maoism.

Talking about the dangers of online propaganda for extremism, effectively used by outfits such as the Islamic State, Mr. Narayanan called for more vigil and appropriate legislative frameworks. At present, he opined that the government was doing nothing apparent to counter the impact of the Islamic State.

On the economic front, Mr. Narayanan felt that there were mixed signals. He pointed out that there was growing corporate impatience and that the government had not progressed much on its promise of industrial growth and jobs. Make in India, he felt, was losing its sheen. On the positive side, he listed initiatives such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, the coal and spectrum auctions. He pointed to reports questioning the government’s functioning on issues such as secularism and social justice and felt that the government had to move to address such concerns.

Indiscriminate budget-cuts: Sivaraman

Following Mr. Narayanan’s address, Mr M R Sivaraman, ex-Revenue Secretary at the Centre, initiated a discussion on economic policy. Talking about the fiscal deficit, Mr. Sivaraman felt that indiscriminate budget cuts to deal with high fiscal deficit were not sustainable. Instead, the government must look at the revenue side of the issue. The government should work on widening the tax base and increasing revenue through simpler tax laws and more efficient tax administration.

On GST, Mr. Sivaraman opined that a high revenue neutral rate of 24% would push inflation up and suggested that a RNR in the range of 16-17% would be a better choice. On corporate tax, he felt that reducing it to 25% without removing all concessions would decrease revenue from corporate tax. Further, in his opinion, the corporate of the country could pay a tax of 30% and that the current target of 25% was a bit on the lower side.

On the bureaucracy, Mr. Sivaraman stated that India had less than one-third the size of the US bureaucracy on a per population basis. He added that there was a case for reimaging the India Administrative Service to make it more efficient and called for a more professional approach. He also called for legislative reforms and administrative reforms, adding that an evaluation of the impact of the 73rd and 74th amendments was necessary at this stage.

’Right to Clearance’

Mr. Sivaraman highlighted the Telengana government’s announcement regarding the ’Right to Clearance’ as an important example of improving ease of business. Also, he mentioned the Department of Industrail Promotion and Policy’s “name and shame” method to improve ease of business parameters at the state level. On stuck projects, Mr. Sivaraman felt that the real issue was of setting right bank balances and mere granting of permissions would not be of much use.

On the agriculture sector, Mr. Sivaraman felt that the central issue was productivity and expressed satisfaction at the expansion and strengthening of the National Food Security Mission. He marked out pulses as an area where low productivity was hurting our food security. On the external front, Mr.Sivaraman said that the agenda for the government should be to have zero balance of payments in merchandise trade by 2025. Further, he said that the government must look to widen export bases and create Export Processing Zones.

US defence treaty significant: Gen. Raghavan

Lt-Gen V R Raghavan, ex-DGMO, Govt of India, then spoke about the security issues facing the country. While India faces no major military threat, there exists the possibility of militant-related threats and small scale incursions. India should strengthen its security apparatus with both manpower and financial support to face up to such challenges. He commended the greater energy on display in our ties with South Asian countries and also with the great powers. In particular, he highlighted the renewed defence treaty with the US as having high significance.

On Chinese policy towards India, he pointed that it was a two-level approach. On the strategic plane, the Chinese employed very reassuring terminology while at the operational/tactical plane, the Chinese resort to a flare up every six months or so. Gen. Raghavan opined that this two-level policy would continue and that the appropriate Indian response should be to increase the cost of conflict. On Pakistan, our “implacable enemy” the General said that India’s current approach displayed a level of immaturity. Here too, the government must to improve our deterrence capabilities.

Military modernisation requires a long term approach and to expect changes in five years would not be par for the course. General Raghavan highlighted the Rafale deal as demonstration that bold actions can be taken on this front.

On the 4 June attack on the 6 Dogra regiment in Chandel district, Gen. Raghavan felt that while the attack was on the army, the message was intended for Delhi. He also said that the Indian handling of the messaging of the retaliation reflected a clear lack of understanding of larger issues.

’Articulation, not foreign policy, has changed’

Ambassador S. Ganapathy, former Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) initiated a discussion on foreign policy. He said that the foreign policy of India has largely remained the same since independence, only the articulation of it has changed. He highlighted the lack of manpower in the MEA as matter for worry. Although the current intake has been increased to 25 per year, this is hardly enough. He highlighted the proposal to induct subject experts into the Policy planning division as a positive development.

Mr. Ganapathi felt that our ties with our neighbours (except Pakistan) as exceptional and singled out our ties with Bangladesh for praise. He mentioned that the influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has been reduced considerably in Bangladesh. On Nepal, he decried the media’s overboard coverage of the earthquake relief as an issue for reflection. Maldives, he mentioned, as a cause for concern in our immediate neighbourhood. On Afghanistan, he opined that President Ashraf Ghani would see the flaw in his approach and come around to a position that is more favourable to both India and Afghanistan in the longer run.

Talking about a Code of Conduct with China on the border, he said that it would be of little practical significance as experience in the South China Sea shows. He mentioned that our Act East policy and our ties with the US have received new vigour. He pointed out our ties with Africa and Latin America, as also with the European Union, needed much more focus than what they currently received.

The talks were followed by a lively discussion.

(This report was prepared by Adharsh., M)