Originally Published 2010-08-10 00:00:00 Published on Aug 10, 2010
As the 21st century unfolds, India's power dynamic will be determined by its ability to finesse its strategic dilemmas and manage complimentary yet adversarial relationships.
New rules for a new world
As the 21st century unfolds, India’s power dynamic will be determined by its ability to finesse its strategic dilemmas and manage complimentary yet adversarial relationships.

The rubric that now includes multilateral conversations on the economic meltdown, trade and climate change will become even more complex, leading to a reassessment of the very basis of national interest and global engagement. Some of the triggers of this reappraisal are the following.

What is India today and what part of India does foreign policy seek to serve? Is it defined by geographical features alone or does it include oil and gas interests in Africa, Latin America, Russia and the Middle East? Does it also include the diaspora’s resources and Indian business empires? How do you then define national interest, and consequently, the concept of securing it? If the basis of foreign policy is to serve national interests, is it not a duty to serve the corporate sector as well where 74 per cent of India’s GDP and economic interests lie?

Whom do we engage with, since Indian interests are impacted by more than just nations — there are non-state actors, rogue nations, private players. Should foreign policy be readjusted to account for these? Is it time to develop back-channels with non-state actors? Should India informally engage with radical groups if doing so protects us?

How do we deal with the Microsofts and GEs, corporate entities that shape the development agenda of India more than any sovereign nation? Many such conglomerates have more impact on India’s GDP than any of our neighbours do, yet we do not engage with them.

Policy frameworks moving from a nation-centric to an issue-centric approach, with no permanent enemies or allies, clearly pose a new challenge. How can we redefine the conventional framework for alliances and yet secure the national interest? For example, India has voted against Iran on the alleged violation of the NPT, but it needs Iran for its hydrocarbon needs. The US might oppose India’s economic relationship with Iran, and yet the US and India are to remain good partners. Another instance is the India-China collaboration on climate negotiations and trade talks, despite the boundary issue and historical hostilities.

All these nuances imply a new complexity in foreign policy-making. However, as the prime minister has pointed out, we still lack a strategic culture. We need structured intellectual inputs on strategic dilemmas and appropriate policy. The fracas over the Indo-US nuclear deal and now, the nuclear liability bill, are glaring examples. Almost all the drivers of India’s security and threat response frameworks are going to be tested by a “capability and capacity” deficit. Managing this gap is India’s central policy challenge.

Unfortunately, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), meant to coordinate the inputs of different ministries and departments, could have done much more had it not been for inherent structural limitations. First, ministries/ departments would not be formulating policy through their own narrow prisms, and second, the intelligence-gathering/ collating body would not have been responsible for assessments as well.

India must evolve the intellectual architecture to support it as one of the poles of a multilateral world. There should be an Office of Strategic Assessments (OSA), formed through an act of Parliament, which can draw upon the best talent available in government, civil society and the private sector, with access to both classified and public information.

The OSA can subsume the existing NSCS, the office that services the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and the Strategic Policy Group (SPG). It may be headed by the national security advisor or any other independent person reporting directly to the PM (the Australian model of the Office of National Assessments may be a good example to look at, given that it sits between their internal and external intelligence services, although its autonomy is guaranteed by an act of Parliament).

Moreover, the act of Parliament would provide insulation, to the extent that legislation can, so that the OSA is not pressured into providing command assessments that suit the requirements of the administration in office. It would be tasked to provide impartial assessment, however unpleasant it may be, and an oversight committee could be set up. That level of hard-headed assessment is what India requires, as it charts its course in the next decade.

It would provide a cushion of expert advice to fall back on, as

India tries to reorient positions that may cause discomfort to the wider political establishment, too long used to outdated posturing. It could be one of the building blocks of a reinvigorated India.

The writer is a lawyer and Congress MP. Views are personal

Courtesy: Indian Express, August 2, 2010

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