As India takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of August and Indian strategists and policy makers trumpet this event, it is time to take a deeper look at the challenges facing this 64-year old democracy.
If we look at the political arena we see that the two largest parties seem to be stuck in limbo: Congress struck by corruption scandals and lack of desire on part of current leadership to reform the party from within, BJP still torn between whether it is an ideological movement-cum-party or a political party with an ideology. BJP too is struck with corruption and so while it’s been happy to criticize the government, it also doesn’t want to rock the boat too much because it is not ready to face the electorate with a new agenda.
Half of India’s population is under the age of 20 and this generation is searching for new leadership. However, it is faced with a died-in-the-wool pre-Partition leadership which doesn’t believe it needs to change much in any sphere.
In the economic sphere, two decades ago it was a Congress-led government in which then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh undertook vast economic changes which resulted in the unshackling of the License Raj economy. The Indian government has often stated that it hopes to use the growing economy to help reduce poverty and spend more money on the social sector. However, in order to do that, the economy has to grow as close to 10 percent as possible. For that, however, India needs to undertake a second phase of reforms.
There is a need to improve food storage and delivery systems which would help ensure that the food and goods stored in warehouses can be used to reduce inflation. While it is great that India’s service sector is growing at such a fast pace, economies need a robust manufacturing sector in order to sustain long-term growth. Further, in a high population country like India, industry needs to be encouraged to move from being capital-intensive to labor-intensive. Hence, changes in labor laws and land acquisition laws need to be undertaken so as to provide the needed incentives. Infrastructure is a key component of the growth of any country and while India has made massive strides in the last decade, there is a lot more that needs to be done.
In speeches over the last seven years, both Prime Minister Singh and his colleagues have referred to the Maoist menace as the greatest internal threat facing India. The majority of state police and paramilitary forces have not been able to reduce the threat despite vast amounts of money and resources being set aside for this purpose. There are states which have been able to deal effectively with the Maoist menace but there is lack of coordination in terms of both information as well as “best practice” strategies.
India also faces insurgencies in the North-East and in Kashmir. Whether it is the Maoist menace or the insurgencies, the Indian state has often preferred to respond with the iron fist. What this policy ignores is that when you are dealing with your own citizens, a multi-pronged strategy which has a security dimension but also political, economic, and social dimensions is preferable and more likely to have a positive long-term impact. There is no intelligence agency in the world that can prevent every terror attack but what is required is to reduce these attacks to a minimum. For that there is a need for more coordination between various government agencies which, again, is lacking in the Indian intelligence sector.
At its core, Indian foreign policy is still driven by the Nehruvian legacy. Just as non-alignment was a key component of that ideology, so was the belief that India was a great civilization and that one day the world would recognize this fact. That the world appears to have accepted India as an emerging power has led to a certain complacency on behalf of the mandarins in the Indian foreign policy establishment. Instead of recognizing that relationships only last if they are worked on, there is a belief that India does not need to do much to maintain its status.
We only have to look at the stalemate in the U.S.-India ties to see that both partners need to reciprocate for a relationship to become what I believe will be the defining partnership of the 21st century. Similarly, India, while being the larger power in South Asia, has not been as magnanimous as it could have been with respect to relations with its neighbors. This is not to say that the neighbors do not need to reciprocate as well, but that India could do more.
Finally, since India is a status quo power, Indian foreign policy has been reactive rather than proactive. Indian leaders need to realize that if the country wants to be treated as a global power, it needs to weild both power and responsibility. India will have to learn to take decisions which may be liked by some of its friends and not liked by others – it will no longer be able to keep everyone happy simply by sitting on the fence. Those who sit on the fence get left behind.