The South Asia Channel

Modi’s Muscle Team: Flexing a New National Security?

The world’s largest democracy may have elected Narendra Modi as India’s 15th Prime Minister, but the ranks of Modi’s national security team – spanning domestic security, defense, finance, and external affairs – were chosen by the prime minister himself, offering a window into the likely trajectory of India’s foreign policy priorities.

The baton of the national security apparatus has been passed on from Shiv Shankar Menon, a China specialist and a strategic thinker in the broadest sense of the term, to Ajit Doval, who is widely viewed as an exceptional operations man. A former head of India’s domestic spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau, Doval has accomplished some of the most difficult missions in the realm of Indian security policy. His knowledge of regional politics and the terror infrastructure targeted at Indian interests remains unmatched, which should allow him to execute the Modi government’s regional and internal security priorities with some success. Doval is also credited with the idea of inviting the leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the swearing-in ceremony of the Modi government.

Doval’s appointment is indicative that internal security will be Modi’s topmost priority as longstanding inadequacies in intelligence and counterterrorism institutions need rectification. Given his long-standing background in covert operations, Doval is likely to be instrumental in shaping the institutional architecture of Indian intelligence and counterterrorism to meet India’s security challenges. With the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the Indian intelligence agencies are warning that these challenges will intensify.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is a powerful politician in her own right. In fact, at one point she was even a contender for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial position and had been reportedly unhappy with the announcement of Modi as BJP’s candidacy for the top post. In her charm, determination and courage, she has even been compared to the former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As one of the BJP’s main national leaders for the last several years, she had been a votary of a robust policy in the security realm, especially in responding to the challenge of Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of state policy. After Indian soldiers were killed and their bodies dismembered by the Pakistani Army in January 2013 after infiltrating into Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir, Swaraj had suggested that if Pakistan did not return the heads of Indian soldiers, India should get at least ten heads from the other side.

As India’s External Affairs Minister, Swaraj will surely not be quite as voluble. But her assertiveness was already evident when she underlined for her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that while New Delhi will be supportive of Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy, it would also expect China to adopt a ‘One India’ policy. This is a significant shift from India’s past positions for over a decade, an attempt by New Delhi to gain leverage vis-à-vis China.

This attempt is also leading to a focus on South Asia as a central strand in Modi’s emerging foreign policy priorities. Inviting all country leaders of SAARC was just the start. Modi has since then been to Bhutan for his first trip abroad after being sworn in as the Prime Minister not only because he wants to develop strong economic linkages among Indian’s neighbours, but also to check Thimpu’s gravitation towards Beijing. Swaraj will be visiting Dhaka beginning June 25 and Kathmandu next month to underline India’s seriousness towards its neighbours. The much-delayed Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Water sharing agreement is likely to be ratified during her visit to Dhaka. These pacts were signed by the previous United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA) government but could not be ratified due to coalition compulsions. The Modi government will be earning significant goodwill in Bangladesh if it could get these treaties ratified.

In a highly symbolic move, a former Indian army chief, General V.K. Singh, has been made a minister in Modi’s cabinet holding the dual charge of the affairs of India’s northeastern states bordering China as well as the junior minister in the ministry of external affairs. Though India has been trying to beef up its border defences vis-à-vis China for some time now, that process suffered from lack of direction. Singh wants to prioritize development in the northeastern region so as to narrow the gap with the Chinese infrastructure development on the other side of the border. China claims more than 90,000 square kilometers of land disputed by New Delhi in the eastern sector of the Himalayas, including most of Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls South Tibet. For the first time, a young member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, Kiren Rijiju, has been given a key ministerial position in the cabinet – minister of state for home – to underscore the Modi government’s intention of making India’s troubled northeastern region a priority. Lamenting the fact that India has, even after 68 years of independence, failed to ensure connectivity in its border areas, giving China a strategic advantage, Rijiju has been vocal about the need to strengthen the forces guarding the India-China border.

Another senior member of the BJP and one of Modi’s closest aides in the party, Arun Jaitley, has been charged with two important positions, finance and defense. This underscores a recognition in the highest echelons of the Modi government that unlike the previous two decades, in the coming years India will have limited resources to spend on defense. At the same time, Indian armed forces are facing critical shortages. It will be a delicate task to manage an Indian defense modernization program, a priority of the Modi government, during a time of slow economic growth. India’s military upgrade plans also faced some major hurdles under the previous government with New Delhi unable to demonstrate the political will to tackle the defense policy paralysis that seems to be rendering all claims of India’s rise as a military power increasingly hollow. There has been no long-term strategic review of India’s security environment, and no overall defence strategy has been articulated. Jaitley’s predecessor, A.K. Antony, defense minister under the UPA-II, is widely considered one of the worst defense ministers in recent memory, neither managing to bring transparency in the moribund procurement system nor providing a strategic direction to defense planning.

Delhi has also been accelerating its program of arms purchases, but has yet failed to broach the reforms that would be necessary for these to translate into improved strategic options. There is no substitute for strategic planning in defense. Without it, India will never acquire the kind of military muscle that would enhance its leverage regionally or globally. As a result, acquisition programs of Indian defense forces have been floundering. The Modi government has promised to “carry out reforms in defense procurement to increase efficiency and economy.” It plans to “encourage domestic industry, including the private sector to have a larger share in design and production of defense equipment” through, among other things, a liberalized policy on foreign direct investment (FDI). There are reports that the government might allow FDI of up to 49 percent in the defense sector without any mandatory transfer of technology. 

While the Modi government’s focus remains squarely on domestic policy issues, Modi has also charted out a rather ambitious course in foreign policy over the next few months. With Bhutan under his belt, his future destinations are likely to include Japan, Brazil, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Nepal. Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign minister has already paid a visit, saluting the new Modi government for injecting “new vitality into an ancient civilization.” In an attempt to woo New Delhi at a time when Chinese relations with Japan and Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam and the Philippines have been deteriorating, he underlined that China was ready for a final settlement of its border disputes with India and prepared to invest more in India.

Less than one month in office, the prime minister and his team are working at breakneck speed. Modi is rapidly positioning himself as an administrator who has come to Delhi with the sole purpose of governing, and governing well. His government has already laid out an ambitious vision document before the nation, which is likely to be operationalized in next month’s annual budget. He is also reordering governmental machinery in a manner, which, according to him, should produce more efficient outcomes. He has issued a list of do's and dont’s for his ministers and has empowered bureaucrats to work with him directly. Some of Modi’s ministers are already finding it difficult to keep pace with his gruelling work schedule.

Modi’s rise has transformed Indian domestic politics in some fundamental ways. On the foreign policy front too, given his hand-chosen team, he has an opportunity to make a departure from the diffidence of the past. Reflecting his pragmatic instincts with a nationalistic bent, his national security team is well placed to achieve just that. Modi’s success in achieving his domestic agenda will also depend on how successful he is in getting his external priorities right. The world will be watching as closely as the Indian electorate.

Harsh V. Pant is a professor of International Relations at King's College London and a non-resident fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. 

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