May 29, 2018

Indialogue: Weekly Newsletter by Aman Thakker


Welcome to a special Tuesday edition of Indialogue, thanks to a holiday on Monday due to Memorial Day. Let’s dig in.

This week’s brief is packed with foreign policy stories as I consider Prime Minister Modi’s “informal summit” with President Putin, recent statements from India regarding the “Quad”, and India-U.S. relations. On the domestic front, the brief looks at the coverage of the completion of four years of the government under the BJP and Prime Minister Modi.

- Aman

Taking Stock of Four Years of the Modi Government

May 26 marked four years since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. As the government comes into the final year of its term before the 2019 general election, let’s take a look at the some of the analysis over the government’s performance.

Economic Policy

Livemint writes “In the first four years, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rolled out bold and far-reaching reforms, including implementing a goods and services tax (GST), resolving toxic assets in the banking system, cutting down the oil subsidy that distorted the energy market, clamping down on black money and promoting financial inclusion.”

Roshan Kishore argues “Headline numbers suggest that the economy has done well in these four years. India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. This growth has not come at the cost of high inflation or fiscal deficit. At no point of time has the Consumer Price Index, the benchmark measure of inflation for Reserve Bank of India’s inflation targeting agreement with the government, exceeded its targeted range… Does this mean that the government will not face any headwinds on the economic front as it heads into the 2019 election cycle? Not necessarily. Headline economic numbers do not matter in the day-to-day lives of common people. Their judgment is more likely to be swayed by bread and butter issues.”

Yuji Kuronama notes “Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters his fifth year in office Saturday enjoying praise from many business leaders and economists for achievements resulting from his bold policies, yet rising crude oil prices suggest his support may hinge more on management than reform heading into India's 2019 general election.”

Infrastructure Development

Moushumi Das Gupta writes “In 2014, seven kilometres of roads were getting built per day; this number rose to 28km per day in 2017-18. This is still way below the 41km per day target set by the Union road transport and highways ministry but this has not stopped the government from setting a more ambitious target of constructing 45km per day this fiscal… But experts concede that raising resources to implement the ambitious highway expansion programme is going to be the biggest challenge before the government.”

Sanjay Garg notes “The infrastructure sector has received significant attention in the last four years of the present government. There has been a concerted focus in revamping the governance structure and create an enabling framework that would spur the rate of growth of development. The road sector has probably been one of the most significant growth stories in the last four years. It has seen a rate of growth of almost 25% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) from 11km/day to over 26km/day over the last four years.”

Foreign Policy

Arun Sukumar writes “With its South Asian diplomacy caught between the party’s political agenda and the need to serve the country’s national interests, Modi’s foreign policy has hollowed out. It has deprived the government of honest political interlocutors, the sine qua non of effective diplomacy. Put simply, a Ram Madhav or Adityanath speak to very different constituencies in Nepal than the foreign secretary does, and carry very different messages to their respective audiences. His counterparts in South Asia are probably wondering who Modi’s real messengers are – is it the robed priest or the professional diplomat?”

Shubajit Roy notes that while the government has made a concerted effort to reach out to all 192 countries and prioritized global outreach, India’s immediate vicinity remains a worry as “India’s engagement with its neighbors is the key “work in progress” after four years of the Modi government.”

Prime Minister Modi Meets President Putin in Sochi

Prime Minister Modi participated in yet another “informal summit” with President Putin of Russia in Sochi on May 21. According to PS Raghavan, chief of India's National Security Advisory Board, “The main driver of this meeting is the geopolitical environment prevailing today." The visit also came a time where reinvigorating ties with Russia was a priority for the Modi government as Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale allvisited Moscow in the lead-up to the Prime Minister’s visit.

Prime Minister Modi and President Putin in Sochi

The biggest development from Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Putin was a decision to undertake a joint project in Afghanistan. The announcement was particularly interesting as PM Modi had agreed to work on another project in Afghanistan with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their informal summit in Wuhan a month ago. However, sources in governmentpointed out that “Unlike in Wuhan, where Xi had proposed the Afghanistan project, here Modi took the initiative with Russia.”

Bigger Picture: This summit also comes at a time where India seems to be in the crossfire of worsening U.S.-Russia relations. Indeed, India faces a looming threat of U.S. sanction under the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanction Act (CAATSA) as India considers purchasing five S-400 Triumf missile systems from Russia. Reports indicate that the purchase may beannounced in October, during a planned summit between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi.

India Smooths Over Ties with the United States Following Wuhan and Sochi

As Prime Minister Modi engaged with the heads of China and Russia informally, India has also been engagingwith the United States to smooth over any concerns that India was cozying up to Russia and China at a time when geopolitical and economic ties between the two countries and the United States are strained. Indeed, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav was in Washington D.C. this week, meeting with Lisa Curtis, Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the White House National Security Council, Brian Hook, Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, and Director of the Secretary's Policy Planning Staff and Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.

Mr. Madhav’s message to U.S. officials was that “India’s engagement with China, Russia or any other country would have no impact on bilateral ties with the United States,” and that “India was happy about America’s economic stability and New Delhi considered ties with America a fundamental strategic priority for the long term.”

BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav

His message was met with a similar articulation from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, during testimony on Capitol Hill, said For scores of reasons, India needs to be central to what we do. Specific issues South Central Asia issues, Southeast Asia issues. They ought to be one of our closest partners and we ought to do everything we can to make sure that we achieve that.”

Why this Matters: Indeed, the CAATSA issue is central to the India-U.S. relationship. Indialogue has previously discussed why this is such a significant issue. But beyond that, India’s reassurances to the United States over its engagement with Russia and China provide significant insight into how New Delhi seeks to manage the bilateral relationship with a President who sees international relations as transactional, and view India’s relations with Russia and China as flying the face of his “America First” policy. It remains to be seen how this approach plays out, but so far, India has successfully avoided any ire from President Trump as it seeks to continue deepening relations with the United States on the economy, defense, terrorism, and international security.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back on the “Quad”

India’s Navy Chief and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral and Sunil Lamba said there is no need to give a military dimension to the Quad, a proposed alliance between India, Australia, Japan, and the United States to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. Adm. Lamba said “What do you think a military dimension will achieve? India is the only country in the Quad with a land border with China. In case of conflict…nobody will come and hold your hand” at an event at Vivekananda International Foundation.

Background: The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was first proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan in 2007. However, the dialogue was scuttled when Australia, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, withdrew from the grouping. As the Quad remained comatose through 2017, India and the United States continued naval engagement through the Malabar Exercises, with Japan participating as a non-permanent member until 2015, when it became a permanent member. In November of 2017, the four countries met before ASEAN and East Asia Summits, suggesting a revival of the Quad framework.

Admiral Sunil Lamba

Australia and Malabar: Adm. Lamba’s comments come on the heels of the announcement that the 2018 Malabar Exercises would not include participation from Australia, which has been lobbying to be included in the exercise for the past three years. Indeed, Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister of Australia, toldThe Hindu earlier this week that “We are interested in joining Exercise Malabar.”

Insight: While Exercise Malabar is under a distinct framework from Quad and a number of analysts have stated that two should not be confused, including Australia in the Exercise would provide greater teeth to the Quad and provide a more formal avenue for security cooperation. Indeed, given that both India and Australia have recognized the need for both countries to deepen engagement after PM Rudd’s withdrawal, India’s statements on backtracking militarizing the Quad and refusing Australia’s interest in participating in Exercise Malabar represents a somewhat frustrating one step forward, two steps back dance in its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

Stories you might enjoy:

Indialogue subscriber Emily Tallopublished an article for The Wire, writing “With the use of force [in the Kashmir Valley], India hopes to punish both Pakistan and Kashmiri civilians to draw support away from the rejuvenated militancy and separatist political movement. However, the Centre’s retaliatory approach has been ineffective, and this failure warrants a reassessment of its strategy.”

Kunal Singh argues “Pakistan hasn’t been able to fulfil its grand strategy objectives with the help of its nuclear weapons. And India hasn’t found an adequate answer to Pakistan’s skilful use of sub-conventional assets. This has resulted in a stalemate which seems likely to last for the foreseeable future.”

ThePrint asks experts and former civil servants “Modi govt’s proposal to change how service & cadre are allocated to civil servants – a good idea?” following a proposal by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that services and cadres should be allocated after civil services entrants complete their three-month foundation course.

Shivam Vij writes “Mayawati is best placed to be a sutradhar, and not the protagonist. If she were to declare she’s not in the race for the post of PM, her status as the tallest Dalit leader would make her the real power broker of opposition unity.”

Rani D. Mullen notes “Dokola, Wuhan, and even the recent deployment by China of cruise missiles to artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea: These are not a series of reactive moves by China. Instead, they are part of a larger Chinese strategy in the New Great Game playing out today in the Indo-Pacific. The big question is whether India, and other major powers in the Indo-Pacific, are being maneuvered by China or if they have a longer-term strategy of their own?”

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