September 1, 2016

Indian Ocean Region: A Pivot for India’s Growth

The following article was originally published by the Indian Ocean Conference 2016. The full text can be found here.

“[Matsya said] ‘I have saved you from this cataclysm’ [and Manu] set about his work of creating all beings in proper and exact order.” –The Mahabharata, iii.186

The Indian Ocean matters today, arguably more than ever. It is a major conduit for international trade, especially energy. Its littoral is vast, densely populated, and comprised of some of the world’s fastest growing regions. The Ocean is also a valuable source of fishing and mineral resources. And yet its governance and security are under constant threat of being undermined, whether by non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and terrorists, or by furtive naval competition between states.

The Indian Ocean basin is of particular importance for India, as the region’s most populous country and geopolitical keystone. Although India has long been preoccupied by continental considerations, it has recently begun to re-evaluate its priorities. India’s Indian Ocean Region strategy—which in only just taking shape—conforms closely to global priorities for preserving the Ocean as a shared resource: an important channel for trade, a sustainable resource base, and a region secure from heightened military competition, non-state actors, and catastrophic natural disasters. Achieving these objectives will require further investments in capacity, greater transparency and confidence-building measures, and enhanced institutional cooperation.

Strategic Crucible

The Indian Ocean is important for three reasons. First, it enjoys a privileged location at the crossroads of global trade, connecting the major engines of the international economy in the Northern Atlantic and Asia-Pacific. This is particularly important in an era in which global shipping has burgeoned. Today, the almost 90,000 vessels in the world’s commercial fleet transport 9.84 billion tonnes per year. This represents an almost four-fold increase in the volume of commercial shipping since 1970.[1]  The energy flows through the Indian Ocean are of particular consequence. Some 36 million barrels per day—equivalent to about 40 per cent of the world’s oil supply and 64 per cent of oil trade—travel through the entryways into and out of the Indian Ocean, including the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb.[2]

But the Indian Ocean is more than just a conduit for commerce. The Ocean’s vast drainage basin is important in its own right, home to some two billion people. This creates opportunities, especially given the high rates of economic growth around the Indian Ocean rim, including in India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and Eastern and Southern Africa.  However, the densely populated littoral is also vulnerable to natural or environmental disasters. Two of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory occurred in the Indian Ocean rim: the 2004 tsunami that killed 228,000 people, and Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar in 2008 and took 138,300 lives.[3]

Finally, the Indian Ocean is rich in natural resources. Forty per cent of the world’s offshore oil production takes place in the Indian Ocean basin.[4]  Fishing in the Indian Ocean now accounts for almost 15 per cent of the world’s total and has increased some 13-fold between 1950 and 2010 to 11.5 million tonnes. Aquaculture in the region has also grown 12-fold since 1980. Although global fishing is reaching its natural limitations, the Indian Ocean may be able to sustain increases in production. Mineral resources are equally important, with nodules containing nickel, cobalt, and iron, and massive sulphide deposits of manganese, copper, iron, zinc, silver, and gold present in sizeable quantities on the sea bed. Indian Ocean coastal sediments are also important sources of titanium, zirconium, tin, zinc, and copper. Additionally, various rare earth elements are present, even if their extraction is not always commercially feasible.[5]

The challenges of securing the free passage of trade and energy, ensuring the sustainable and equitable exploitation of fishing and mineral resources, and managing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations would be daunting enough even if the Indian Ocean was not so contested. Beginning in 2005, pirates operating mostly from Somalia began to hijack commercial ships with alarming regularity, with such incidents peaking in 2010. Following global attention and the growing notoriety of Somali piracy, a series of steps were taken by industry and various governments. These included naval operations, transnational coordination, and security measures taken by the shipping industry. These developments resulted in a sharp drop in incidents in 2012. Nonetheless, as late as 2012, maritime piracy was costing the global economy between $5.7 and $6.1 billion, the bulk of which was borne by industry.[6]  Non-state actors such as pirates are not the only entities contesting the Indian Ocean. With an eye on securing trade routes, resource rights, and commercial interests, the naval forces of maritime states in the Indian Ocean region and beyond are becoming increasingly active.

India’s Importance in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean holds particular importance for India, as the littoral’s most populous country. Indeed, for the rest of the Ocean’s littoral states, and even those outside the region, India’s leadership role will be important in determining the strategic future. India is geographically located at the Ocean’s centre, and has over 7,500 kilometres of coastline. “India is at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in a speech in Mauritius in 2015. “The Indian Ocean Region is at the top of our policy priorities.”[7] The Ocean has long been a key determining factor of India’s cultural footprint, with people, religion, goods, and customs spreading from India to Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia and vice-versa.  India’s approach after independence was initially defined by the British withdrawal from east of Suez and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi calls for a zone of peace.[8] Only after the late 1990s, under the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Congress-led government of  Manmohan Singh, did the possibilities of openings in and around the Indian Ocean come to be seriously contemplated.[9]

Today, 95 per cent of India’s trade by volume and 68 per cent of trade by value come via the Indian Ocean.[10]  Additionally, 3.28 million barrels per day—or nearly 80 per cent of India’s crude oil requirement—is imported by sea via the Indian Ocean. Taking into account India’s offshore oil production and petroleum exports, India’s sea dependence for oil is about 93 per cent, according to the Indian Navy.[11] India is also the fourth-largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with about 45 per cent coming by sea.[12]

Moreover, India is heavily dependent on the resources of the Indian Ocean. India captured 4.1 million tonnes of fish in 2008, placing it sixth in the world and its fishing and aquaculture industries employ some 14 million people.[13] Fisheries and aquaculture industries are also a major source of exports. India’s maritime exports grew 55 times in volume between 1962 and 2012 and fisheries exports now account for Rs. 16,600 crore or about $2.5 billion.[14]

Mineral resource extraction is also important. In 1987, India received exclusive rights to explore the Central Indian Ocean and has since explored four million square miles and established two mining sites. In 2013, the Geological Survey of India acquired a deep sea exploration ship Samudra Ratnakar from South Korea, boosting its survey capabilities.[15] In 2014, the International Seabed Authority issued licenses for the Indian Ocean ridge, opening up new opportunities for deep seabed mining. This region is estimated to have massive reserves of manganese, as well as cobalt, nickel, and copper, all of which are scarce on Indian soil. However, such deep sea exploration will require further investments in remotely operated vehicles and processing facilities.[16]

Finally, there is a strong security dimension to India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean, beyond traditional naval considerations. One of the worst terrorist attacks in recent Indian memory—the 2008 assault on Mumbai in which 164 people were killed—was perpetrated by terrorists arriving by sea. Smuggling, illegal fishing, and human trafficking are all also major concerns.[17] The revelations about the A.Q. Khan network have highlighted the need for greater vigilance concerning the proliferation by sea of weapons of mass destruction – and even possible interdiction.[18] And while piracy has declined noticeably in the Indian Ocean since 2013, due in part to the efforts of countries like India, it could once again prove a threat to Indian commerce.[19]

India has also been playing a more active role in humanitarian and disaster relief operations. These have often focused on rescuing citizens of India from conflict zones, although India has helped citizens of many other countries in the process. A recent example in the Indian Ocean region is Operation Raahat in Yemen.[20] Indian efforts have also extended to disaster relief in other countries, including assistance to Indonesia and Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, to Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis, to Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr, and to Sri Lanka after Cyclone Roanu. Relative to other countries in the region, India has advantages in terms of capabilities. These include better maritime domain awareness, and military equipment in the form of transport aircraft, helicopters, and support vessels that can help deliver food, water, and medical supplies.[21]

Securing Shared Interests

An overview of the importance of the Indian Ocean and India’s priorities indicates a close alignment between Indian and global interests. The Indian Ocean can, as some have argued, be India’s ocean.[22] But that need not come at the expense of others. The shared interests relating to the region are essentially five-fold: (i) preserving freedom of navigation for commercial shipping, (ii) sustainably and equitably harnessing the Indian Ocean’s natural resources, (iii) establishing protocols for enhancing disaster prevention and relief as well as search and rescue operations, (iv) countering piracy, terrorism, smuggling, and illegal weapons proliferation, and (v) managing international naval competition.

These overlap with India’s objectives, as outlined by Indian Prime Minister Modi in 2015 under the banner of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). “Our goal,” he said, “is to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other`s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime issues; and increase in maritime cooperation.”[23]  India’s Indian Ocean policy, he said, would be based on building up India’s own capabilities, helping regional partners with capacity building, collective action, sustainable development, and cooperation with non-Indian Ocean region actors to ensure greater transparency, rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. He also laid out the objective of integrated maritime security coordination between India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius, initiated in 2011 as a trilateral India-Sri Lanka-Maldives arrangement.[24] India’s security efforts in the Indian Ocean have already begun to take concrete shape with the transfer of the Indian-made patrol vessel Barracuda to Mauritius, the deployment of P-8I aircraft to Seychelles for surveillance of its exclusive economic zone, the agreements to develop connectivity infrastructure on Assumption Island in Seychelles and Agaléga in Mauritius.[25]

In the near future, collective steps will need to be taken to prevent unnecessary—and possibly ruinous—maritime competition in the Indian Ocean. Greater Indian and international efforts must be made to ensure transparency concerning naval activity and the development of potential dual-use facilities, which can be used for both civilian and military purposes.[26] Indian leadership will also be necessary if international coordination and cooperation is to improve, whether on sustainable resource extraction, humanitarian measures, or Indian Ocean governance. Some institutions have already been established with these objectives in mind. India has thrown its weight behind the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which has 35 members and seeks to “increase maritime co-operation among navies” of the Indian Ocean littoral states. Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean Rim Association—which has traditionally emphasised maritime security, trade, cultural promotion, tourism, and fisheries, but has recently diversified into resource management and governance—involves 21 states.[27] (See Figure 1)

But questions will need to be answered concerning the adequacy of these institutions for addressing the region’s many challenges, and relatedly more resources should be devoted to these efforts. For all the region’s stakeholders, this will require greater financial outlays, which in turn necessitates a greater appreciation of the importance of the Indian Ocean for collective interests. This is slowly changing. “We recognize that there are other nations around the world with strong interests and stakes in the region,” Prime Minister Modi said in Mauritius in 2015. “India is deeply engaged with them.”[28] By instilling an appreciation of the importance of the maritime domain, key steps can be taken to advance global interests in the Indian Ocean.

[1] Jan Hoffmann, “Review of Maritime Transport 2015,” Presentation at Multi-Year Expert Meeting on Transport, Trade Logistics and Trade Facilitation, 16 October 2015; Amit A. Pandya, Rupert Herbert-Burns, and Junko Kobayashi, “Maritime Commerce and Security: The Indian Ocean,” The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 2011, p. 36.

[2] “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, November 2014.

[3] “Indian Ocean Tsunami: Then and Now,” BBC News, 25 December 2014; “Myanmar: Cyclone Nargis 2008 Facts and Figures,” International Federation of the red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 3 May 2011.

[4] World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, 2016.

[5] David Michel, Halae Fuller, and Lindsay Dolan, “Natural Resources in the Indian Ocean: Fisheries and Minerals,” in David Michel and Russell Sticklor, eds., Indian Ocean Rising: Maritime Security and Policy Challenges (Washington: Stimson Center, 2012), pp.104-105.

[6] Jonathan Bellish et al., “The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy,” Working Paper, Oceans Beyond Piracy, One Earth Future Foundation, 2012.

[7] “Text of the PM’s Remarks on the Commissioning of Coast Ship Barracuda,”, March 12, 2015.

[8] Selig Harrison and K. Subrahmanyam, eds., Superpower Rivalry in the Indian Ocean; Indian and American Views (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[9] David Scott, “India’s ‘Grand Strategy’ for the Indian Ocean: Mahanian Visions,” Asia Pacific Review, Vol. 13, Issue 2, 2006, pp. 97-129.

[10] Annual Report 2015-2016, Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, p. 4.

[11] “Indian Maritime Security Strategy,” Indian Navy, Government of India, January 2016, p. 25.

[12] “Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Statistics,” Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Government of India, 2014-2015, p.10.

[13] The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2010), p. 13, “About Indian Fisheries,” National Fisheries Development Board, 25 July, 2016.

[14] “Export Trends,” Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 2013.

[15] Abhijit Singh, “India’s ‘Deep-Sea Mining’ Capability Gets a Fillip,” IDSA Comment, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 1 November, 2013.

[16] Richard Mahapatra and Anupam Chakravartty, “Mining at Deep Sea,” Down to Earth, 15 September 2014.

[17] Aditi Chatterjee, “Non-Traditional Maritime Security Threats in the Indian Ocean Region,” Maritime Affairs, Vol. 10, Issue 2, 2014, pp. 77-95.

[18] William J. Broad, David E. Sanger, and Raymond Bonner, “A Tale of Nuclear Proliferation:How Pakistani Built His Network,” The New York Times, February 12, 2014.

[19] Angana Guha Roy, “Indian Navy’s Anti Piracy Operations,” Indian Council of World Affairs, 5 March 2012.

[20] Amit Agnihotri, “Yemen Crisis: India Gets Evacuation Request from 26 Countries,” India Today, April 7, 2015; Vijay Sakhuja, “India’s Yemeni Evacuation,” Indian Defence Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, April-June 2015.

[21] Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in India’s National Strategy,” Journal of Defence Studies, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2012, pp. 91-101.

[22] David Brewster, India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

[23] “Text of the PM’s Remarks on the Commissioning of Coast Ship Barracuda,”, March 12, 2015.

[24] P.K. Ghosh, “Maritime Security Trilateralism: India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 38, No. 3, May 2014, pp. 283-288.

[25] C. Raja Mohan, “Modi and the Indian Ocean: Restoring India’s Sphere of Influence,” ISAS Insights No. 277, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, 20 March 2015.

[26] Christopher D. Yung, Ross Rustici, Scott Devary, and Jenny Lin, “‘Not an Idea We Have to Shun’: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century,” China Strategic Perspectives, No. 7, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, October 2014; “Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016.

[27] Balakrishna Pisupati, “Redefining SAGAR in Indian Ocean,” The Hindu, 26 May 2015.

[28] “Text of the PM’s Remarks on the Commissioning of Coast Ship Barracuda,”, March 12, 2015.

August 8, 2016

Why Hillary Is a Safe Bet for India

The following article originally appeared in India Today on August 8 and was reproduced on the Brookings Institution's Order from Chaos blog. 

The field is set. With the formal anointing of party nominees at the Republican and Democratic Party conventions in July, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is certain to be the next U.S. president. This match-up is remarkable for several reasons. Trump would be the first U.S. leader in over a half century not to have previously held elected office. Clinton would be the first female president. Both are among the most divisive candidates in recent history, with high negative ratings-even within their own parties.

What does the outcome of November’s election mean for India? The degree of comfort in working-level relations between the two governments and militaries, the presence of the Indian-American community, and several areas of natural economic and strategic convergence mean that the foundations of the India-U.S. relationship are today strong enough to withstand any leadership change in either country. In that sense, a presidential transition in Washington will have only a limited effect on bilateral ties. But while the implications for bilateral relations would be marginal, the potential impact on the United States’ credibility and ability to wield international influence will be tremendous.

Hillary Clinton would be a very safe bet from India’s point of view. No incoming U.S. president has had the level of interaction with India that she has had. Her trip in 1995 helped paved the way years later for her husband Bill Clinton’s historic visit to India in 2000. As U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton was co-chair of the Senate India Caucus. And as U.S. Secretary of State she made multiple visits, during which she highlighted the need for India to “not just look east, but engage east and act east”—a mantra the current Indian government subsequently adopted—and surprised many with her sharp rhetoric against Pakistan-supported terrorism.

In fact, political opponents have tried to use Clinton’s close India connections to attack her. In 2007, then candidate Barack Obama had to apologize for a campaign memo that described Clinton as a senator from Punjab. More recently, the Trump campaign has published and circulated unsubstantiated allegations that Clinton received money from India for her support for the India-U.S. nuclear agreement. Overall, Clinton’s foreign policy and trade instincts—although dampened during the campaign in response to adverse popular sentiments—are in accordance with broad Indian preferences. From her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s group of advisers—the likes of her campaign chairman John Podesta, former Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, her closest foreign policy aide Jake Sullivan, and dozens more—are all individuals with a close working familiarity with India.

What about Trump? Unlike Clinton, he does not have a record to assess and his statements on the campaign trail have offered a contradictory picture. One statement that received considerable attention in India related to Pakistan. “Pakistan is semi-unstable. We have a little bit of a good relationship. I think I’d try and keep it,” Trump said at a town hall meeting in April. “If you look at India and some of the others, maybe they’ll be helping us out.” While interpreted by some in India as a signal that he would side with India against Pakistan, his remarks are actually ambiguous on that account, and largely conform to the United States’ recent approach to the region.

Trump has also been similarly ambivalent about economic relations and immigration as it relates to India. “India is doing great. Nobody talks about it,” he told CNN in January, but added a month later that he was going to “bring back jobs from India.” He often speaks of India along with China with admiration, but also as a threat to the United States’ economic well-being. On immigration, Trump has spoken about ending the H-1B high-skilled visa program of which Indians are among the biggest beneficiaries, but has also said he would create opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs and students. “They go to Harvard, they are first in their class and they’re from India, they go back to India and they set up companies and they make a fortune and they employ lots of people,” he told Fox News in March. “We need those people in the country.”

Indian-Americans, historically Democrats, are likely to support Clinton overwhelmingly. The racism associated with the Trump campaign will deter some Indian votes that might otherwise have gone to a Republican candidate. However, the vast majority of people in India appear to be undecided about the two candidates. A poll by the Pew Research Center released in June found 28 percent of Indians had confidence in Hillary Clinton’s ability to handle world affairs while 16 percent did not. Meanwhile, only 14 percent had confidence in Trump in contrast to 18 percent who did not.

The Indian government has been following political developments in the U.S. closely. But it has wisely chosen not to take sides. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Hillary Clinton (and other presidential aspirants such as Republican Chris Christie and Democrat Martin O’Malley) during his 2014 visit to the United States, he opted not to meet formally with either campaign during his last visit earlier this year. However, in an engagement with think-tank leaders in Washington, Modi met with individuals close to both campaigns. The election of a U.S. president is ultimately up to the American electorate, and India will have to deal confidently with whoever comes to power next.

July 12, 2016

China's South China Sea Setback

The following article originally appeared on ABP Live on July 12, 2016. 

On Tuesday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague released its much-awaited ruling on a case brought by the Philippines against China on the South China Sea disputes. The decision marks the most high-profile development concerning the overlapping and intensifying territorial disputes, which directly involve China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Taiwan.

The future of the South China Sea has global implications, as jurisdiction over a few seemingly minor islands legitimises control over vast amounts of sea, which in turn enables access to valuable mineral and fishing resources and denies warships from traversing waters through which a significant amount of the world’s trade passes.

In recent months, lobbying over the disputes had reached fever pitch, with China going on a global public affairs blitz to make its case heard, including by briefing academic experts and journalists and taking out full page advertisements in newspapers in India, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

Despite these immense efforts, the Philippines had constructed a clever legal case, invoking international law not for a judgement on the legality of China’s territorial control, but instead to assess the status of the islands claimed by China. Around islands, countries can claim territorial sea and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where they can exercise sole fishing, drilling, and resource rights. But that does not apply if the feature is an uninhabitable rock or submerged during high tide. It was on this simple, yet technical, issue that the legal case against China rested.

The court’s verdict has proved a resounding rebuttal to China, essentially on four grounds.

First, the Court determined that almost all of the Philippines’ complaints fell within its jurisdiction, despite Chinese arguments that the South China Sea was a matter of territorial sovereignty, that Beijing had not agreed to such international arbitration, and that military matters fell outside the Court’s purview.

Second, the Court rubbished China’s claims to the South China Sea on historical grounds, deeming them contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the bedrock of international maritime law.

Third, it ruled that the islands claimed by China were in some cases low-tide elevations, and thus within the Philippines’ EEZ, and in other cases were rocks, incapable of “sustaining human habitation or economic life” under natural circumstances. Despite China’s reclamation and construction efforts, these were rocks, not islands. China was thus in violation of the Philippines’ EEZ, and not the other way around.

Finally, and in conclusion, the court ruled clearly that China had violated UNCLOS and other elements of international law by denying the Philippines access to fishing and other maritime resources, by constructing artificial islands, by disregarding environmental concerns, and by aggravating and expanding the dispute while resolution proceedings were underway.

Why does this case matter so much? For the first time since its rise as a global power, the People’s Republic of China finds itself in flagrant violation of international law on an issue that it deems a “core national interest,” and thus non-negotiable. There are now concerns that China might respond by further aggravating tensions with the Philippines, its backer the United States, or other regional actors directly or indirectly involved in the South China Sea disputes. As a result, the uneasy consensus in Asia may fracture, forcing various countries to take sides, either with China or against it. This is a situation that India will have to monitor carefully.

But the South China Sea ruling matters to India for other reasons as well. Much of India’s trade is maritime in nature, and the principle of freedom of navigation and overflight are therefore crucial, particularly in important commercial channels.  As Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, China’s handling of the South China Sea dispute also serves as an indicator of how Beijing might approach other disputes, including possibly with India. Furthermore, when it comes to arbitration under international law, India has set a positive precedent, having accepted international arbitration on the Indus Waters Treaty and in its maritime dispute with Bangladesh, and respecting the result of the latter even though it went largely against India.

These concerns may explain why several Indian leaders – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar – have been making statements on the South China Sea issue over the past few months and years. They have all indicated their firm belief that maritime disputes should be resolved in accordance with UNCLOS. Absent that, in the words of Parrikar, “all of us will suffer, irrespective of whether we are big or small states.”

June 27, 2016

Brexit: The First Major Casualty Of Digital Democracy

The following article originally appeared in The Huffington Post India on June 27, 2016. It was reproduced on the Brookings Instituion's Order for Chaos blog on June 29, 2016. 

In the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, we are left with more questions than answers. What kind of relationship will the UK now forge with the EU, and how will that affect economic relations and migration? Will Scotland and Northern Ireland opt to leave? What is the future of British politics, given turbulence within both the Conservative and Labour Parties? Will a successful Brexit set a precedent for other EU members — perhaps even some eurozone members— to leave the union? What are the long-term economic consequences of the resulting uncertainty? Will Brexit even happen at all, given the absence of a clear post-referendum plan, the apparent unwillingness of ‘Leave’ campaign leaders to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and the fact that the referendum was advisory and non-binding? Answers to these questions will make themselves evident in the coming weeks, months, and years.

But there’s a bigger question worth asking: What are the implications of Brexit for democracy? Arguably, Brexit represents the first major casualty of the ascent of digital democracy over representative democracy. This claim deserves an explanation.

When historians look back at the world of the past 25 years, they will likely associate it not with terrorism or growing inequality but with the twin phenomena of the “rise of the rest” (particularly China and India) and of globalization. Globalization involves the easier, faster and cheaper flow of goods, people, capital and information. One big enabler of globalization is the internet, the global network of networks that allows billions of people to cheaply and easily access enormous amounts of digital information. The rise of service and high-technology industries, trade liberalization, container shipping, and the development of financial markets have also been important enablers, as is the increased ease and lower cost of travel, particularly by air.

Many technology optimists have assumed that globalization would lead to the democratization of information and decision-making, and also greater cosmopolitanism. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their leaders. They would also have greater empathy and understanding of other peoples the more they lived next to them, visited their countries, read their news, communicated, and did business with them. Or so the thinking went.

But there has been little to justify such panglossianism. There is some evidence for a correlation between greater information, political democratization and economic progress, in that all three have advanced steadily, if at different paces, over the past two decades. But that correlation is weak. Instead, digital democracy — the ability to receive information in almost real time through mass media and to make one’s voice heard through social media — has contributed to polarization, gridlock, dissatisfaction and misinformation. This is as equally applicable to the countries in which modern democracy took root — in the United States and Europe — as it is to India, the biggest and most complex democracy in the developing world.

The ascent of digital democracy around the world has some shared features. One characteristic is that access to greater information has, rather counterintuitively, contributed to a “post-fact” information environment. Nick Cohen — speaking of British pro-“Leave” journalists-turned-politicians Boris Johnson and Michael Gove —called out their use of bold claims, their contempt for practical questions, their sneering disregard for expertise, and their transgressions of the bounds of political spin. These tactics are not all that dissimilar to Donald Trump’s assertions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate or immigration policies, or Subramanian Swamy’s insinuations about the nationality of senior Indian policymakers.

But leaders only exploit the vulnerabilities of a post-fact world. The conditions have been laid by the digital sphere. A recent example springs to mind. There is a widespread belief on Indian social media that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is somehow anti-India, pro-Pakistan, and/or anti-Modi. I am no supporter of Ms. Clinton, but as someone who worked on foreign affairs in Washington and knows many of her advisors, I found these claims baffling. In fact, Clinton’s political opponents (whether Barack Obama in 2008 or Donald Trump in 2016) have accused her of being too close to India, while Pakistanis often view her as critical of their country and Prime Minister Modi appears to enjoy cordial relations with her. After some inquiries, and a few tips, I managed to trace these sentiments to a single publication, a poorly sourced and misleading column that gained widespread circulation upon its release. The article’s contents were deemed sufficiently credible to have now become instilled as absolute fact in the minds of many Indians active online. In a digital democracy, a lie or (better yet) a half-lie if told enough times becomes truth.

Another outcome of digital democracy may be a variation of what the psychologist Barry Schwartz has called the paradox of choice. Quite possibly, the greater abundance of political choice leads to less satisfaction, and the result is citizens increasingly voicing their displeasure with their available political and policy choices. The political platforms of mainstream parties rarely adhere entirely to individual voters’ views. That may explain why many voters are gravitating towards parties, factions or leaders who offer the simplest messages, and project themselves as alternatives to the mainstream.

A third result of digital democracy, and one that has been better documented, is the political echo chamber. Social media, rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies, tends to reinforce prejudices. As the psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo has noted, “Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust the news media (and ‘facts’ provided by the media) less than their own social group.” This makes it easier for views and rumours to circulate and intensify within like-minded groups. Similar digital gerrymandering was evident in the EU Referendum in Britain and the polarization is palpable in the Indian online political space.

Finally, instant information has increased the theatricality of politics. With public statements and positions by governments, political parties and individual leaders now broadcast to constituents in real time, compromise, a necessary basis of good governance, has become more difficult. When portrayed as a betrayal of core beliefs, compromise often amounts to political suicide. Political grandstanding also contributes to legislative gridlock, with elected representatives often resorting to walkouts, sit-ins, or insults — all manufactured for maximum viral effect — instead of trying to reach solutions behind closed doors. Even as ease of travel allows legislators to spend more time in their constituencies, making them more sensitized to their constituents’ concerns, less gets done at the national or supranational level. It is a trend that, once again, applies equally to the United States, Europe, and India.

The unintended consequences of digital democracy — misinformation and discontent, polarization and gridlock — mean that the boundary between politician and troll is blurring. The tone of democratic politics increasingly reflects that of anonymous online discourse: nasty, brutish, and short. And successful politicians are increasingly those who are able to take advantage of the resulting sentiments. Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise. All that could just as easily describe the playbooks of populists around the world, on the right and left: Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, Donald Trump or Subramanian Swamy as much as Jeremy Corbyn, Beppe Grillo, Bernie Sanders or Arvind Kejriwal.

In all these cases, populists are willing to cross the lines that mainstream parties have flirted with, becoming forces that the centre cannot hold. US Republicans fanned the anti-immigration sentiments that first the Tea Party and then Trump are only taking to their natural conclusions, just as mainstream Democrats’ economic protectionism has been seized upon by Sanders. Cameron’s euroscepticism, explained away initially as constructive criticism, spiralled out of control with Brexit, just as those who pronounced the death of New Labour helped paved the way for Corbyn. Will the same one day apply in India, to the economic populism of the Congress, of which Kejriwal has become a new torchbearer, or to the chauvinism of the right, which Swamy now threatens to run away with?

Brexit is not anti-globalization so much as a product of globalization. It is also a product of democracy rather than an affront to it. But it is a democracy of a different sort, one that many of its ideological forebears anticipated. When James Madison warned of “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,” or John Stuart Mill cautioned against “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression,” or BR Ambedkar argued (in a slightly different context) that “political tyranny is nothing compared to social tyranny,” they could just as easily have been speaking in 2016 as in 1787, 1859, or 1936. Democrats around the world may not yet be married to the mob, but plenty have been betrothed.

None of this should be interpreted as some kind of nostalgia for an older, simpler world. That world was not necessarily simpler, but it was more violent and chaotic, prejudiced and unfair, and poor and backward. It may be hard to discern amid the smoke and noise, but there are some benefits to digital democracy. Information is no longer in the hands of the few. It is easier than ever to bring injustices to light. And the same process can throw up mainstream leaders from backgrounds that are far from privileged, such as a Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Narendra Modi. Two of the three, Obama and Modi, rose to power on the backs of unprecedented social media movements.

But representative democracy as we have come to know it is under threat, and Brexit represents the first major casualty. Rather than fight the tide, a collective rethink is needed about how to make democracies resilient and productive in the digital age. It won’t be easy.

June 21, 2016

Critical Seoul NSG meet in 2 days will have reverberations for India’s international orientation

The following article originally appeared in The Times of India on June 21, 2016. 

A decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on June 23-24 – as to whether to include India as a member – may be overshadowed in international media by other expected developments. These include the results of Britain’s referendum on staying in the European Union, an unprecedented US presidential election campaign, and the imminent ruling by an international court of arbitration in The Hague between China and the Philippines on the South China Sea.

But the NSG meeting is no less important, for the potential implications it could have for relations between India and China. A decision, particularly if it were not to go in India’s favour, would have reverberations for Asian security, climate change and global governance.

NSG is a 48-country cartel initially formed in 1974 after India’s first nuclear test, to control the flow of nuclear technology and supplies. A consensus decision at its next plenary meeting in Seoul, South Korea, to include India as a member would help India’s integration into the global nuclear order, completing its transition from an alleged rule-breaker to a formal rule-maker. India’s ability to export civilian nuclear materials and technology could also help lower the costs of nuclear energy and could boost the sector in energy-starved India.

By extension, it would facilitate India’s ability to deliver upon its commitment, made before the 2015 Paris climate summit, to source 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. For the past several years India has been working to align its nuclear and dual-use export controls with NSG guidelines, to make a strong case for membership.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in recent months become personally invested in the matter, visiting Mexico and Switzerland to secure those countries’ support and personally reaching out to leaders of other countries who have expressed hesitation. Support for India’s NSG membership has consequently become a litmus test of relations with India.

Resistance to India’s inclusion has emanated from some predictable sources. Several smaller countries in Europe and elsewhere had earlier expressed concerns, echoed by non-proliferation groups in the US and elsewhere who believe that India’s entry somehow undermines the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and encourages Pakistan’s rapidly-growing nuclear arsenal. These are hollow arguments. NSG and NPT are distinct arrangements, while Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal is increasingly an insurance against US intervention.

However, the primary resistance to India’s inclusion comes from China. Beijing’s main argument is that India is a non-signatory of NPT, but it conveniently overlooks the fact that France was admitted as an NSG member before it joined NPT. India believes NPT is fundamentally unfair, permanently legitimising the nuclear weapons of certain countries, including China, while denying India for no reason other than its belated development of nuclear weapons.

China’s resistance to India’s membership is ultimately political, intended to constrain India’s rise as a global power. India is often described as a swing power in the evolving international system.

While deepening its strategic partnership with the US as a fellow democracy and status quo power, New Delhi has found common cause with Beijing in many areas. China is India’s largest trade partner in goods, and is an increasingly important source of investment. India and China also cooperate in various international forums, including on matters of national sovereignty and on increasing representation for the emerging markets in global governance.

China’s decision to accept or deny India’s membership in the NSG is therefore crucial. Its marshalling resistance in the face of overwhelming support for India would severely set back its relations with India, with possible consequences for bilateral goodwill, cooperation on climate change and multilateral groupings such as Brics.

China’s actions would stand in stark contrast to the US, which has actively lobbied for India’s inclusion in NSG. This would have reverberations for India’s international orientation. The future of Asian geopolitics could well be determined later this year in The Hague. But just as easily, it could be shaped by a decision made at Seoul in a couple of days.

June 6, 2016

A Crash Course in India-US Ties as Modi Prepares for Washington

The following article was published in The Quint on June 6, 2016. An excerpt is included below, and the full text can be accessed here.

India-US summits are often viewed as isolated events. Media and public expectations often focus on what specific deliverables – if any – will result from meetings between the two countries’ leaders. But only a few significant breakthroughs should be expected when Narendra Modi travels to the United States for the fourth time as India’s prime minister. Rather, he will attempt to consolidate the India-US relationship, and see it through a period of political transition in the United States for the first time in eight years.

The fact is that India and the United States have come a long way since 2008, the year that Barack Obama was elected US President. Earlier that same year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the unusual step of putting the future of his government on the line over a matter of foreign policy – specifically, a civilian nuclear agreement with the United States. Dr Singh barely survived a vote of no confidence in the Lok Sabha. History might have proceeded very differently had he failed. [Read more.]

June 3, 2016

India-U.S. Relations in Transition

A collection of short memoranda on India-U.S. relations was published by Brookings India on June 3, 2016. An excerpt from the introduction is below, and the full text can be downloaded here

This collection of short memoranda on India-U.S. relations has been written by experts from Brookings India and its affiliate, the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. The memos each represent the personal views of the authors and not the institutions themselves. They are meant to provide different, and sometimes differing, perspectives on how to make progress on some of the top issues on the India-U.S. agenda.
In the Introduction, Dhruva Jaishankar looks at the highs and lows in relations since 1998 and the considerable progress made...[Read more]

May 30, 2016

India and Japan: Emerging Indo-Pacific Security Partnership

The following commentary was published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore on May 30, 2016. A synopsis is below and the full text can be accessed here.


India and Japan, motivated primarily by shared concerns about China, have been developing a closer defence partnership defined by regular maritime exercises and high-level political consultations. The upward trajectory in strategic ties since 2006 can be maintained, as long as both countries take certain structural limitations into consideration.

May 26, 2016

India’s Five Foreign Policy Goals: Great Strides, Steep Challenges

The following article originally appeared in The Wire on May 26, 2016. An excerpt is below. The full text can be accessed here.

Two years ago today, Narendra Modi took the oath of office as India’s 14th prime minister. Among his first decisions as head of government – in fact, it was set in motion even before the formal start of his tenure – was an unconventional act of diplomacy: inviting eight foreign leaders of neighbouring countries to attend his inauguration. While many commentators claimed before his election that Modi would be a nationalist hardliner, a foreign affairs novice, or simply more of the same on external affairs, the prime minister instead proved more active and (perhaps less surprisingly) more pragmatic than many had expected. In two years, Modi has displayed an instinctive understanding of power in the conduct of world affairs, and he has also benefited from being less politically hamstrung than his predecessor Manmohan Singh, with whose worldview he in fact shares much in common.

A highlight of Modi’s first year was his outreach to the United States. In September 2014, Washington rolled out the red carpet for a leader it had once publicly shunned, and Modi reciprocated by inviting Barack Obama to India’s Republic Day celebrations, a first for a U.S. president. But beyond normalising and enhancing relations with the US, Modi’s international priorities were quickly made evident. Within his first year, he embarked upon state visits to India’s immediate neighbourhood, three crucial Indian Ocean island countries, important Asia-Pacific powers (China, Japan, and Australia), and eventually Western Europe.

Modi’s second year followed in much the same fashion, with a ground-breaking visit to Bangladesh, a swing through Central Asia, a long overdue visit to Afghanistan, and a renewed focus on the Middle East or West Asia. It also included a surprise stopover in Pakistan, a trip no Indian prime minister had managed since 2004. In addition, Modi has in his first two years played host in India to most of the world’s top leaders, including those of the United States, China, Russia, France, Japan, and Germany. He also hosted a landmark India-Africa Forum Summit last November that involved 41 heads of state and government.

Despite this flurry of activity, several commentators have been left disappointed by Modi’s – and India’s – handling of international relations. My Brookings India colleague W.P.S. Sidhu has pointed to a lack of strategic vision, and describes Modi’s various foreign policy initiatives – such as Neighbourhood First and Act East – as “vacuous.” While commending the prime minister’s sound instincts, initiative, and energy, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has lamented the lack of an overall national security strategy and criticised the priority granted showmanship over substance. Meanwhile, Rajesh Rajagopalan of Jawaharlal Nehru University has expressed disappointment with the lack of new ideas and synergy and his colleague Happymon Jacob has faulted New Delhi’s bullying and poor imagination for bad relations with its neighbours.

Much of this criticism is perplexing. Ambiguity and deniability have value in foreign affairs. As a consequence, neither this Indian government nor any of its predecessors have ever explicitly spelled out their strategic intentions in a single document, although there are plenty of public statements that offer a good indication of the government’s outlook. These public articulations, combined with the nature, outcomes, and timings of Modi’s diplomatic activities, offer a clear picture of India’s priorities and strategic objectives. They are essentially five-fold:

  • Prioritizing an integrated neighbourhood; “Neighbourhood First.”
  • Leveraging international partnerships to promote India’s domestic development.
  • Ensuring a stable and multipolar balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; “Act East.”
  • Dissuading Pakistan from supporting terrorism.
  • Advancing Indian representation and leadership on matters of global governance.

These are the yardsticks against which the international activities of this government – or, for that matter, any Indian government – should be measured. In each case, it is important to assess the progress made, the setbacks experienced, and the long-term or structural challenges that will continue to confront India.

April 21, 2016

How India Sees the World

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat on April 21, 2016. 

India’s history of Third Worldism and Nonalignment and its traditional overuse of the term “strategic partnership” have long created the illusion that New Delhi treats all foreign relations on a somewhat equal footing. But beyond bland public statements marked by diplomatic niceties, a lot can be discerned about India’s worldview by other means. Organizational structures are often an excellent indicator of a government’s priorities and concerns. Mapping the geographical divisions at India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) paints a rather revealing picture of how India sees the world.

Function over Form
One clear pattern that emerges is that MEA’s geographical organization is primarily functional. Take India’s immediate neighborhood, where whole divisions are devoted to just two or three countries. Landlocked and mountainous Nepal and Bhutan are grouped together, while Myanmar is coupled with Bangladesh, rather than with the rest of Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are considered as part of the Indian Ocean. And Iran is grouped with Pakistan and Afghanistan, indicating how much India sees policy toward those three countries as interconnected. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has only bestowed a name  – “Neighborhood First” – on what has clearly been a longstanding approach, although the articulation of that policy may have helped give it momentum and direction.

There is often a concern – as at the U.S. Departments of State and Defense – that foreign policy becomes uncoordinated because countries fall under different geographical bureaus. At first glance, this appears to be the case for India in the Middle East (or West Asia, to use India’s preferred terminology), where the region’s major actors – Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – fall under different divisions. However, this structure also confers certain advantages, allowing India to simultaneously advance various objectives with multiple actors, such as defense and space ties with Israel, energy and infrastructure considerations with Iran, and diaspora and counterterrorism priorities with the Gulf Arab states.

The imposition of functional interests over neat geographical divisions is perhaps most readily apparent in Africa. Eastern and Southern Africa are areas that are not just more proximate to India, but also enjoy deeper historical and people-to-people ties. Large Indian communities, including merchants and traders, thrived in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, all – like India – former British colonies. By contrast, India had far fewer historical contacts with Western Africa, which falls mostly within the Francophonie. Instead, from India’s standpoint, that region is defined by commodities and resources including energy, of which Nigeria and Angola have become increasingly important suppliers.

The Rajamandala
Just as revealing as how India divides up the world is how much attention it pays to each region. The number of countries in each division offers one point of comparison. The fact that 30 countries in Western Africa receive roughly the same resources and attention at MEA as two Indian neighbors indicates the greater attention that India devotes to its immediate periphery. Another factor is the number of diplomatic missions – embassies, high commissions, and consulate-generals – that India has in each region. Nine missions catering to 25 countries in Western Africa points to Indian diplomatic resources being spread far thinner than, say, the same number in just the United States and Canada. The Lowy Institute’s delightful Global Diplomacy Index, which catalogues and maps the global diplomatic presence of all G20 and OECD countries, helps to generate a pretty clear picture about India’s diplomatic priorities.

Based on the number of countries per division and the number of missions per country, three tiers are readily apparent. In the top tier – the first circle of the Rajamandala, to riff on the Kautilyan term – are divisions that cover India’s immediate neighborhood, encompassing the members of the South Asians Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) plus Myanmar and Iran. The importance India places on relations with the United States and, increasingly, China is also clear. India’s relations with the two biggest global powers are similar but fundamentally unequal. The United States shares space with only Canada, whereas China does with Japan, South Korea, and North Korea, and Mongolia. The presence of five Indian consulates-general in the United States is also indicative of the importance of the Indian-American diaspora. Despite growing commercial relations with China necessitating Indian consulates-general in Shanghai and Guangzhou, people-to-people ties between the two most-populated countries still clearly lag behind political and economic relations.

Beyond India’s immediate neighborhood, the United States, and China, a second tier includes bureaus covering some of India’s most important strategic and defense partners, including Russia, Western Europe, and Israel. It also includes India’s extended neighborhood: Southeast Asia, the Gulf, Central Asia, and Eastern and Southern Africa, regions with historical and civilizational ties to India and large number of overseas Indians. All these regions represent areas where a rising India could potentially devote more resources in the future.

Finally, a third tier is home to a number of important countries such as Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria, but includes regions that are neither strategically significant for India nor home to large numbers of ethnic Indians (excepting, perhaps, the Caribbean). Relatively speaking, India’s diplomatic resources in Central Europe, Western Africa, and Latin America are stretched thin, and in all these areas, India’s diplomatic corps is focused more on commercial relations than on strategic or consular matters.

Reallocating Diplomatic Assets
The decisions taken over the years at MEA to divide of the world into certain units and establish a physical presence in various parts of the world may have been organic, but has not been arbitrary. While there is a clear logic and sense of priorities, certain shortcomings in India’s global diplomatic presence are also apparent.

One obvious weak point is Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is faintly ridiculous that India should have wider consular networks in Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa, Turkey, Iran, Japan, Germany, Brazil, and Thailand than it does in two of its most important neighbors. The diplomatic principle of reciprocity means that just as India has no consulates-general in Pakistan, Pakistan has none in India. Despite repeated provocations against India supported by Pakistan’s military and no indication that Pakistan has stopped sponsoring terrorism, both Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif have indicated a clear desire to normalize bilateral relations between their countries. Establishing consulates-general in both countries would be an obvious place to start. Despite some evident challenges, such as security considerations, Indian consulates in Lahore and Karachi (with reciprocal Pakistani consulates in, say, Mumbai and Amritsar) would help expand commercial and social engagement between the two countries, strengthening the constituencies that favor normalization. Meanwhile, there is even less of a reason for India not to have a wider diplomatic presence in Bangladesh, particularly given that relations are set to improve following the conclusion of the historic land boundary agreement between the two countries.

A second possibility involves rethinking Europe, which has rapidly fallen in India’s list of priorities, but is also undergoing monumental changes of its own. The old divisions of east and west are no longer particularly useful. Germany, given its economic performance, its growing leadership role in European affairs, and its importance for India’s development, is deserving of greater attention, along with France – with its competitive defense, nuclear, and space sectors – and Britain, which enjoys longstanding cultural and economic links with India. In other words, it makes sense to give priority to Europe’s Big Three. Meanwhile, other bilateral relations in Europe, as well as those with the European Union, could be consolidated, to the benefit of India’s uneven relations with the EU.

Third, despite India’s Act East policy, the Southern division – which covers Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Southern Pacific – appears increasingly unwieldy, and involves the largest number of diplomatic missions, with 21. The division oversees relations with several countries that are of growing importance to India, such as Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. MEA does have a dedicated ASEAN division focused on multilateral affairs but, nevertheless, hiving off Southeast Asia from Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific would nicely complement Act East.

The final area to possibly consider is Eastern and Southern Africa, a region that has been developing greater strategic and economic significance as part of the Indian Ocean basin. Currently, South Africa is the only African economy with which India has broad diplomatic dealings and a diversified economic relationship. But given their geography and traditional connections to India, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia could be bigger priorities in the future, India’s gateways into what is already the fastest growing continent.

While a lot has been made of the small size of India’s diplomatic corps – an important problem, but one being addressed – few appreciate the reach of India’s diplomatic presence. Only nine countries (the P-5, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and Turkey) currently have more foreign embassies and high commissions than India. Identifying weaknesses and priority areas deserving of greater diplomatic attention will be necessary if India is to strategically expand its diplomatic footprint, and thereby leverage its commercial relations, widen its strategic ambit, and provide better consular and other services to overseas Indians.

April 15, 2016

Can India's Think Tanks Be Truly Effective?

The following article originally appeared in The Huffington Post India on April 15, 2016.

I have worked for much of the past decade in, or with, think tanks in both the US and in India, and am regularly confronted with misperceptions and misapprehensions about the sector. What is the purpose of think tanks? Who sets their agenda? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? The answers are, unfortunately, not so simple.

These questions are particularly important today because significant changes are afoot among New Delhi's think tanks. The opening of Carnegie India means that one of the world's leading think tanks on international affairs will now have a permanent presence in India. Carnegie joins its Washington neighbour The Brookings Institution, in many ways the archetypal think tank, which established Brookings India in New Delhi a few years ago, and recently moved its offices in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri.

Meanwhile, in March, the Observer Research Foundation concluded the Raisina Dialogue, giving India a major international policy conference. And the appointments last year of former Ambassador to Nepal and Afghanistan Jayant Prasad as Director General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and Nalin Surie, ex-envoy to China and the UK, as head of the Indian Council on World Affairs (ICWA) means that accomplished diplomats now head the two premier government-funded foreign policy think tanks. Taken together, these developments offer a good opportunity to revisit think tanks' role in the Indian policy establishment.

How think tanks work
The primary purpose of think tanks is to generate ideas and debate on matters of public policy. In that sense, they are both research institutions and conveners, bringing together different viewpoints and facilitating an exchange of views. In terms of research, what think tanks do is not dissimilar to business consulting, intelligence analysis, investigative journalism, or academic research in the social sciences. The difference, however, is that the research produced by think tanks is meant to inform and influence public policy. Their target audience is therefore either policymakers in government or the broader public.

Think tanks also serve as a venue for political leaders, bureaucrats and military officers to exchange views and interact with other actors: foreign counterparts, the media, academics, corporate representatives and the wider public. Having neutral venues for these kinds of interactions is particularly important given the changing roles and growing clout of some of these stakeholders in public policy formulation and implementation.

Despite these broad shared characteristics, there is considerable diversity among think tanks in terms of their mandates, priorities, and structures. Some focus narrowly on specific aspects of public policy, such as foreign relations and defence, domestic politics and governance, economic and trade policy, or education, migration, and environmental issues. Others are broad, covering a range of topics. Some, such as ICWA and IDSA, are government-affiliated while others are entirely autonomous and privately managed. While some Indian think tanks function almost exclusively as research institutes, such as the Centre for Policy Research, others prioritize convening, such as the Observer Research Foundation.

Think tanks such as IDSA and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) have been active in India since the mid-20th century. But the last 25 years have witnessed a tremendous growth and proliferation of Indian institutions, including privately-funded entities and military service-specific think tanks (the Centre for Land and Warfare Studies, the Centre for Air Power Studies, and the National Maritime Foundation). Location matters, given the need to be proximate to policy makers. There is a reason that global think tanks have congregated in major capital cities such as Washington and London, Brussels and Beijing. So it is only natural that the majority of Indian institutes have been established in Delhi. However, newer initiatives like Gateway House in Mumbai, the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore, and the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai now provide platforms beyond the capital.

Glorified talk shops?
If there is one big challenge that all think tanks face it is measuring their effectiveness. Ideas coming out of think tanks, even when adopted as government policy, are rarely credited as such. Some of the most effective work done by think tanks--in the form of private briefings and inputs to government policy makers--is often, by necessity, not publicly acknowledged. It becomes easy, then, to dismiss think tanks as ineffective talk shops. But at their best, they can play a big role in advising governments on sound policy, enabling increasingly important dialogue with a variety of stakeholders, and interpreting obscure policy issues for the broader public. They can also help build expertise, and perform in-depth or specialised research that government do not have the time or capacity to do. Despite its healthy growth in recent years, the Indian think tank sector today suffers from certain shortcomings. These have prevented them from competing for talent with academia, the private sector, and competitors abroad. They have also been inhibited from being fully effective.

Making Indian think tanks more effective
A few measures, if taken, could rapidly revitalize the Indian think tank industry, to the benefit of these institutions, government policy and public discourse.

1. Research needs to be given priority over convening
There is today no shortage in India of policy conferences, panel discussions, and Track II dialogues (which involve non-official participants from different countries). On almost any given evening in Delhi, there are book launches or speeches by visiting dignitaries hosted by one or another Indian think tank. But there remains a paucity of authoritative, in-depth, ground-breaking research. Book-length studies on such topics as the evolution of India-Southeast Asia relations, Pakistan's contemporary political dynamics, India's trade policy, defence acquisitions, the 1965 war, or India during the Narasimha Rao years--to list just a few topics--would be immensely useful. Op-eds and policy papers remain useful vehicles to disseminate ideas, but think tanks provide the luxury of time for truly detailed and path-breaking work.

2. Quality needs to be given priority over quantity
Think tank scholars ought to be among the most knowledgeable experts in their fields, and that means that institutions must be able to compete for talent with the private sector, universities and foreign organizations. At present, India's think tanks often function as homes for retired civil servants and military officers. These former officials can--and do--offer a wealth of experience, enabling them to document issues on which they have had first-hand experience and reflect on lessons learned. But generating new ideas and fresh perspectives will require tapping a wider pool of talent. This means investing in regional and topical expertise, a variety of disciplines (history, economics, and area studies, in addition to political science), and a mastery of languages. We currently lack the requisite expertise on our neighbours: China, Myanmar, Iran, and even Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Economic expertise, in particular, is missing at many Indian institutes. Establishing an external peer review process for publications will also help improve the quality of output across the board.

3. More autonomy and transparency
Institutions affiliated with the government are in constant danger of becoming extensions of ministries: rigidly hierarchical, risk-averse, bureaucratic, status conscious, and driven by patronage. The entire raison d'être of think tanks is to overcome these constraints. Meanwhile, privately funded think tanks have to show they are not beholden to their benefactors if they are to retain their credibility. Transparency about sources of funding allows people to draw their own conclusions about the nature of any research.

4. Think tank scholars need more interactions with government
This can be mutually beneficial. Unlike in countries where a revolving door enables experts to migrate between think tanks and government positions, in India, a career bureaucracy inhibits such career paths. Quite often, the lack of interactions with officials means that think tank experts in India are badly misinformed. Many of their recommendations--while well-intentioned--are simply impossible to implement, failing to take into account bureaucratic processes, political realities or resource constraints. By taking on more government advisory work, think tanks would increase the expertise available to officials while becoming better-informed about government priorities and processes.

5. Research needs to be usable
Finally, one big difference between policy research and other fields is that it cannot simply dwell on the past, but must have implications for the present and future. Far too much work being done by think tanks - and not just in India - tends to be descriptive, rather than analytical.

Additionally, for policymakers pressed for time, only certain kinds of information are useful. New conceptual frameworks that function as shorthand for policies (such as "Look East" or "Digital India") can enrich public discourse, while specific domain knowledge (such as language or area studies) and data compilation are useful contributions for babus pressed for time or requiring specialized expertise. Policy research must also be easily accessible if it is to inform officials pressed for time or shape the public debate, a particular challenge in an era of information overload. Rethinking outputs, both their form and their very medium, is a necessity for all think tanks today. Many are branching out into online content and multimedia presentations, such as podcasts, videos and interactive information platforms. Even with traditional written outputs, verbosity is too often equated with erudition. Presenting information in a manner that is easily digestible remains a challenge.

If it were to take some of these considerations into account--more research, higher quality standards, greater autonomy and transparency, more interactions with government, and higher-impact outputs--there is no reason that the Indian think tank sector cannot flourish. We are witnessing a period of increasingly acrimonious and often ill-informed public discourse. Now is the perfect time for India's think tanks to come into their own.

April 6, 2016

Deepening Security Ties With the US a Sign of India’s Growing Confidence

The following article originally appeared in The Wire on April 6, 2016. 

Next week’s visit by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to India has raised the prospect of deeper security cooperation between the two countries. Rumours about impending defence sales may be unfounded, as might the expectation that several bilateral defence agreements – long under negotiation – will be concluded. The agreements in question include the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA), the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). These are modest, and largely operational and technical agreements that would facilitate information sharing and the provision of supplies between the Indian and US armed forces. Being reciprocal, both militaries could potentially benefit from these agreements. The US has also expressed a willingness to tailor them to Indian circumstances and address certain Indian concerns. As with all important international agreements, the devils are in the details, and an argument can be made that some of the agreements (e.g. LSA and BECA) provide India with greater benefits and have fewer latent risks than others (e.g. CISMOA).

The probability of these agreements being concluded during Carter’s visit is low. However, regardless of the merits of these specific agreements, they have become a proxy for a renewed discussion on whether and to what extent a defence partnership between India and the US is desirable. The Modi government has indicated the outlines of strategic cooperation with the US in the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, agreed in January 2015. But there are reports of opposition to the foundational agreements from within the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Analyst Bharat Karnad, similarly opposed in principle to closer cooperation with the US, has called the signing of these agreements “disastrous”. Meanwhile, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, India’s foremost public intellectual, has also questioned the wisdom of moving forward with these agreements without further debate. While the arguments being made by the MoD and Karnad appear to be circular – that closer partnership with the US is fundamentally undesirable, and thus arguments must be found to oppose the agreements – Mehta’s concerns are worth addressing. Indeed, they must be addressed because his arguments, and how they are framed, implicitly imperil a healthy debate on India’s national security interests.

A first criticism is that the Indo-US defence partnership is progressing without a sufficient debate on its merits. This overlooks the fact that a robust debate has taken place on this very issue in India for years – in fact decades. (Indeed, Mehta has even contributed to it.) Beyond ties with Pakistan, relations with the US are among the most frequently discussed issues concerning India’s external relations in parliament. Newspaper op-ed pages reflect a wide-ranging debate on the nature and extent of Indian security cooperation with the US. And, as the MoD opposition suggests, there are healthy internal differences within the Indian government as well. It is all very well to call for more debate; nobody has ever prevented one from taking place.

A second line of criticism is that India is deepening cooperation with the US – and against China – at Washington’s behest and not in accordance with Indian interests. “The US is making no secret of the fact that it wants to position India in its plans for China,” Mehta writes. “But it is not in India’s interests to become a frontline state in that emerging faultline.”

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. One is that a privileged relationship with Washington in no way thwarts cooperation with Beijing. In fact, over the past twenty years, as Indo-US defence relations have strengthened, India has also deepened military contacts with China, as part of important confidence building measures. More recently, India has also joined a number of Chinese-led multilateral initiatives, from the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Additionally, the Indian government has increasingly sought investment from China, widening the bilateral economic relationship. There is no reason to believe that the foundational agreements with the US, which even the likes of Singapore and Sri Lanka have signed, narrow India’s options with China. Quite the opposite.

Besides, India may not want to be a “frontline state” against China, but it already is one, not because of Washington’s exhortations, but because of Beijing’s intentions and actions. These include China’s building up of defence infrastructure on its border with India, its occasional attempts at altering the territorial status quo, its military support – including its history of providing nuclear and missile technology – to Pakistan and its growing military reach in India’s neighbourhood. In fact, the situation is rather reminiscent of India’s position in the evolving international system of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, it was not India’s desire to create a rift with Washington, but the US’ instrumental relationships with Pakistan and China that necessitated the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation. Today, China’s opacity, military modernisation and strategic intent mean that India must reconsider its security posture rather than persevere with much-vaunted but illusory notions of great power neutrality.

Third, preserving neutrality or equidistance between the US and China will in no way contribute to Indian security. One need only look at the recent experience of Indonesia, perhaps the only large country more wedded to antiquated notions of Cold War-era non-alignment than India. Despite remaining steadfastly neutral and currying favour with Beijing by awarding it high-value infrastructure contracts, Indonesia has seen growing tensions with China over the presence of fishing and coast guard vessels around its Natuna Islands. Neutrality, it turns out, is a false comfort blanket.

Finally, the notion that a closer Indian defence relationship with the US is a mark of “defeatism” is particularly confounding. That very fear of weakness or defeatism prevented India from seizing opportunities for cooperation with not just the US, but many of its allies, such as Japan, opportunities it is now seizing squarely, with barely a squeak from Beijing. The argument about defeatism also underestimates India’s own agency and its ability to make decisions based on its own interests. The progress in India’s relations with the US has never been motivated by naïve sentimentalism. The idea that these agreements are some sort of “parting gift” to US President Barack Obama is ludicrous. In the past few years, India has responded severely to the treatment of an Indian diplomat by US authorities, condemned the administration’s support for the Pakistani military, and criticised the US’ public calls for joint military patrols. India has also locked horns with the US recently over its solar program and US immigration policies. Any number of American officials would attest to the fact that South Block can hold its own in any negotiation with Foggy Bottom. Far from defeatism, India’s ability to shake hands with Washington is a sign of growing confidence in its own abilities.

There is a dangerous subtext in much of this criticism. Those implying that deeper defence cooperation with the US, by its very nature, cannot be in Indian interests and is a product of American pressure, are narrowing the space for any rational arguments in its favour. This is a slippery slope. Mehta, of all people, should appreciate its possible implications.

By all means, elevated defence ties with the US – and the specific foundation agreements under question – must be considered very carefully, even if they are unlikely to be concluded in the near future. But a security partnership with the US should also be discussed and debated on its merits rather than on sentimentalism, whether in favour of the US or based on nostalgia for a principle that was unceremoniously discarded 45 years ago. It is worth keeping in mind that a healthy debate on defence ties with the US has taken place for a long time in India, and continues; that such cooperation in no way makes India a frontline state against China at Washington’s behest; and that defence agreements with the US are neither a sign of weakness nor of defeatism, but are instead reflective of India’s growing confidence in its own capabilities.