Structural Impediments to Closer Indo-American Relations

American president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi of India attend a state dinner at the presidential palace in New Delhi, January 25
American president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi of India attend a state dinner at the presidential palace in New Delhi, January 25 (White House/Pete Souza)

American president Barack Obama’s recent visit to India supposedly saw the conclusion of some far-reaching agreements, including on defense cooperation, specifically missile defense, technology transfer and the operationalization of the dormant nuclear agreement Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, negotiated with India in 2005.

All of this cements the image of India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, of being both a strategic thinker and a doer.

But this is at the political level. At the operational level, things are controlled by a bureaucracy that remains deeply anti-American and is ingrained in leftist nonaligned thought. It may well fail to implement or even block the implementation of the latest agreements.

The clearest sign of the Indian bureaucracy’s ingrained anti-Americanism came from the visible euphoria of officials who were part of the negotiations. This in spite of the fact that no public announcements were made.

The Delhi diplomatic grapevine indicates that the Americans had never met an Indian leader who was so willing to “talk business” and help contain China.

India is a country with an acute governance deficit. Its bureaucracy that has no inkling of modern economic thought and zero experience with information age technologies. This may ultimately prove to be the biggest roadblock to a brave new era in Indo-American relations.

Take, for example, the purported agreement on building American nuclear reactors in India. India’s goal has been to get a first dozen or so reactors from abroad, gradually absorb the technology and then produce the same designs domestically at a fraction of the cost with some of the technological knowledge gained migrating into the military nuclear program.

The issue is that every Western-designed reactor depends on reactor vessels fabricated by Mitsubishi heavy industries in Japan, a country that has a similarly strong bureaucracy ingrained in nonproliferation and is unwilling to conclude a nuclear deal with India for this very reason.

This is not to say that the United States or France would be incapable of independently designing and milling a reactor vessel. But given the miniscule number of new reactors commissioned each year, the economics simply don’t support the creation of industrial facilities to produce, at best, ten to fifteen reactor vessels. As a result, even if General Electric and Westinghouse — the two American energy companies looking to export reactors to India — agree to the compromise reached with India on liability, going forward is an extremely difficult proposition.

The second set of agreements signed had to do with India slowly making its weapons systems more interoperable with NATO standards and transfers of American military technology. Here again the Indian bureaucracy’s lack of economic training could greatly impede operationalization.

Much of what India has invested in is NATO incompatible, specifically its fleet of Russian tanks and warplanes. Indigenous destroyers and frigates are also equipped with Russian sensors and weapons.

As a result, the kind of seamless interoperability that would bring serious synergies to play is largely either out of reach for around 70 percent of India’s armed forces. The remaining 30 percent is too small in terms of quantity to make a major difference, especially now the deal for the French Dassault Rafale fighter plane is now on the brink of collapse.

Moreover, India’s foggy ideas about nonalignment means that interoperability is both “undesirable and unnecessary,” as one senior military officer put it.

The net result is that future Indo-American cooperation at the strategic level is held hostage at three levels — all structural.

The first is the bureaucracy. The second is a largely non-NATO compatible military that does not wish to be NATO compatible. The third is the fact that India is a third-world economy. Its demographic bulge and collapsing education system mean it will have to focus on quantity manufacturing rather that high-value addition, quality manufacturing that Western technology represents.

This, combined with a chronic lack of civil-military integration in the manufacturing sector, means that Indian industry cannot sustain the manufacture of low volumes exclusively for military purposes when it is not properly integrated into global civilian supply chains.

Signs of change in at least one of these sectors, the bureaucracy, are visible. The new government has not hesitated to transfer or sack obstructionist or underperforming bureaucrats and officials who do not agree with its policy. But this represents a change on only one of the three structural plains that will determine the operationalization of meaningful Indo-American relations with the other two seemingly untouched.

Irrespective of Modi’s willingness to cooperate with the United States, his country’s reputation as one failing in terms of governance will likely act as check on meaningful cooperation for the foreseeable future.

After Month of Unrest, Pakistan Back to Square One

For the last month or so, most of South Asia has been transfixed on the situation in Pakistan. Except for minor diversionary hiccups involving the Islamic State and its victories in Iraq, the subcontinent’s media has been focusing on the shenanigans of Imran Khan and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri — before predictably losing interest and moving onto other things.

In Pakistan, the press found mundane stories to report, such as the forced deplaning of former interior minister Rehman Malik by the irate passengers of a Pakistan International Airlines flight that was delayed because of him. In India, prime ministerial visits to Japan and Chinese presidential visits to India grabbed the headlines while in Sri Lanka, a dispute with trespassing Indian fishermen quickly took over.

The waning interest, even in Pakistan, is symptomatic of the merry go round that is Pakistani politics. What we see is not any real movement to change the status quo but rather the usual shadowboxing of civil-military relations that is now in its umpteenth rerun. Read more “After Month of Unrest, Pakistan Back to Square One”

Kayani’s Succession Follows Familiar Pakistani Pattern

Pakistani general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani achieved rather little during his six years as army chief while his replacement this week brings back painful memories of past mistakes and missteps.

Kayani was General Pervez Musharraf’s successor as chief of Army Staff. When he took over in 2007, he was hailed, as is usual in the Pakistani press, as a reformer, a realist, apolitical and whatnot. By Pakistani standards he certainly was, given that the country had its first peaceful democratic transition of power under his watch. He is also credited with unverified reports of midnight diplomacy between politicians and judges to stave off a constitutional crisis.

But militarily he was no reformer. Pakistan’s green book, believed to be the core doctrine of army thought, retains its focus on India. This showed in Kayani’s conduct of counterterrorist operations. Pakistani troops remained just as deliberately ineffective in fighting the Taliban and other radical groups. Read more “Kayani’s Succession Follows Familiar Pakistani Pattern”

India’s Conservative Leader Modi Outmaneuvers Rival

After a disastrous election defeat and a stint as absentee leader of the opposition, Lal Krishna Advani finally resigned from India’s opposition conservative party on Monday at the culmination of its national conference held in Goa. That conference was meant to sew up the final minutiae of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral strategy for next year’s general election. The Indian press labeled the resignation as some kind of major churning being set in motion.

Ostensibly this churn is a result of the meteoric rise of Narendra Modi, the supposedly divisive chief minister of Gujarat state. Advani, as the story goes, believed Modi’s divisiveness to be detrimental to the party’s electoral prospects. The reality is that Advani, like most Indian politicians, used identity politics to further his own career. This had little to do with inclusiveness and everything to do with an internal power struggle. Read more “India’s Conservative Leader Modi Outmaneuvers Rival”

Cabinet Reshuffle Changes Little in India’s Political Outlook

Sunday saw one of the biggest midterm cabinet shakeups in India since the United Progressive Alliance formed the government in 2004. The reason it is considered “big” is largely due to the fact that it heralds a generational change and lowers the average age of the cabinet.

The specifics of the cabinet reshuffle are less important than the power structure of the ruling Congress party and the electoral and structural dynamics of the country.

The National Congress has in its second term lost significant sympathy as a result of a nigh total policy paralysis and almost daily stories of monumental corruption, causing a string of electoral reverses in state elections.

True power in the party rests with its president, Sonia Gandhi, who is not a member of the government. The split between executive and political power seldom works since in most cases, Gandhi can veto any decision that is made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. No change was made in this party structure on Sunday so the fundamental political outlook of the Congress cannot have changed either. Read more “Cabinet Reshuffle Changes Little in India’s Political Outlook”

India Sends Message to Washington from Tehran

The Nonaligned Movement has historically been seen as something of a talk fest — high on statements, missing in action and lacking in cohesion.

This week’s summit in Tehran, while mostly living up to the stereotype, was nevertheless important because of what was not said.

Of the 120 member states, only 29 sent their heads of government to Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chose a reasonably befuddled topic as the theme of the summit — “Lasting peace through joint global governance” — as if either of those will ever materialize. But in spite of one expensive exercise in whispering sweet nothings, one message was being conveyed loud and clear — and that was to the United States by India. Read more “India Sends Message to Washington from Tehran”

The Great Farce of Pakistani Politics

Recent developments in Pakistan have been variously characterized as a “judicial coup,” a “prelude to a coup” (or not, depending on the commentator), an anti-corruption crusade, a personality clash, a vendetta, an intelligence agency conspiracy and a military-judicial collusion. This plethora of views is best encapsulated by the conclusion to the poem The Six Blind Men of Hindoostan.

So six blind men of Hindoostan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceedingly stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

It is far too easy and a crude oversimplification to blame the “military” for Pakistan’s ills. The problem with Pakistan has always been systemic which is why history repeats itself time and again, usually as a farce, which is what this latest “crisis” is. Read more “The Great Farce of Pakistani Politics”

China Plays Energy Security Card in India Relations

The Chinese and Indian state hydrocarbon monopolies signed a far-reaching agreement last week envisaging cooperation across the gamut of activities from exploration to the point of sales. This brings into play several business synergies but geopolitically, it throws up many conundrums and opportunities.

Two possibly related developments have to be kept in mind here. India last month withdrew from its allotted exploration blocks in the South China Sea, widely seen as capitulating to Chinese pressure. Almost simultaneously, India’s defense minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony delivered one of India’s harshest condemnations of China at the Shangri La summit in Singapore, in effect joining the ring of naval containment emerging around China.

Both China and India are heavily dependent on sea lanes for their energy security. Read more “China Plays Energy Security Card in India Relations”

India Stops Hedging, Backs American Naval Strategy

Most dull speeches are ignored but a few mask statements of such enormity that their importance is lost.

In that context, Indian defense minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony’s words at the Shangri La 2012 summit were borderline genius.

Unlike in previous centuries, maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group. We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community in the maritime domain. Like individual freedoms, the fullness of maritime freedoms can be realized only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles.

The sheer innocuousness of these statements mask their potency in the Indian context. The basic summary was that India stopped hedging and threw in its lot with America. Read more “India Stops Hedging, Backs American Naval Strategy”

Eurofighter: The Great German Backstab

As David Cameron’s now infamous veto of a treaty for greater fiscal integration in the European Union, the leaders of France and Germany bonded closer, overcoming to a large extent their difficult personal chemistry.

Thousands of kilometers away in India, this realignment coincided with the victory of the French-made Dassault Rafale in India’s Multi Role Medium Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest. The emerging schism which the tantrum was symptomatic of, had already begun to play out in India.

The MMRCA contest has been India’s biggest fighter contest of this century, worth about $20 billion or $60 billion if spread out over the next thirty years. It coincided with a similar quest for a new fighter jet in Japan.

The Eurofighter also participated in both contests. Italy and Spain, junior partners in the joint fighter project, took a backseat while Germany took the lead in India (unusually, given that the British are much more familiar with it) while the British were given charge of the Japanese campaign (again, unusual, since the Germans consider themselves to have penetrated the Japanese psyche more). Read more “Eurofighter: The Great German Backstab”