Arming without a clear strategic direction

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T-90 Bhishma tanks march down Rajpath in New Delhi during the Republic Day parade on January 26, 2016.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

India’s new national budget accentuates its stagnant defence spending. India’s defence spending figure of $46.3 billion contrasts starkly with China’s $177.5 billion, underscoring the yawning power gap between the two. Indeed, India’s defence budget is smaller than even China’s trade surplus with it, highlighting the extent to which India underwrites China’s hostile actions against it.

To be sure, national security has little relationship with the level of defence spending. Bigger military outlays do not mean greater security. What matters is how the money is spent to boost indigenous capabilities, deter adversaries and project power. As a relatively poor country, India must balance national security demands with pressing socioeconomic priorities.

The government has rightly sought to rein in defence spending. However, military modernization continues to lag due to stalled defence reforms, with two-thirds of the defence budget earmarked just for salaries and other day-to-day running costs. On top of that, pensions cost $16.4 billion, an amount not part of the defence budget. The Army’s spending on modernization, for example, has been a mere 14% of its budget.

Worse still, imports eat up the bulk of the modernization outlays. For many years, India has been one of the world’s top arms importers, spending billions of dollars yearly. Have such imports made India stronger and more secure?

The answer unequivocally is no. The imports, far from being part of a well-planned military build-up to make India regionally preeminent, have lacked a clear long-term direction. They have often been driven by the individual choices of the three services to meet pressing needs. In many cases, the imports have been influenced by foreign-policy and other non-military considerations. In fact, the initiative on some major systems came not from India but from selling countries.

India’s approach of importing conventional weapons without a clear strategic direction or forward planning is a recipe to keep the country perpetually import-dependent. Contrast the near-term considerations that often guide conventional-weapon imports with the strategic, long-term factors driving India’s nuclear, missile and anti-satellite capabilities. After Balakot, for example, India has rushed to buy stand-off weapons.

The paradox is that Narendra Modi, by launching the “Make in India” initiative in 2014, recognized the critical importance of industrial power for national security. And yet, little has changed significantly. In fact, the customs-duty waiver for arms imports in the latest budget not only confirms that Make in India has yet to take off but also promises to block domestic arms production from becoming competitive.

The threats India now confronts are largely unconventional in nature, yet it remains focused on importing conventional weapons. Without waging open war, regional adversaries are working to undermine India’s security, including disturbing the territorial status quo, mounting surrogate threats, sending in illicit arms, narcotics, terrorists or counterfeit Indian currency, and aiding Islamist or tribal militancy.

India, of course, needs to adequately arm itself for self-defense in an increasingly combustible region. But conventional weapons can scarcely be effective in countering unconventional or emerging threats, including from malware aimed at sabotaging power plants, energy pipelines and water supplies. Cyber warfare capabilities, underpinned by artificial intelligence, will be key for national security and future war-fighting. If India invested in this domain 10% of what it spends on importing arms, it could become a cyber superpower.

Make no mistake: No nation can build security largely through imports. Indeed, with its reliance on imported weapons, India can never be a power to contend with. In the past decade, India alone accounted for about 10% of global arms sales volumes. Yet its defensive mindset persists. Any imported platform or weapon makes India hostage to the supplier-nation for spares and service for years.

All the great powers are major arms exporters. Most of them view India as a cash cow. Arms imports actually corrupt the Indian democracy in unparalleled ways. The cancer of corruption caused by such imports has spread deep and wide. Even some journalists and “strategic analysts” have turned into salesmen for foreign vendors.

In fact, it is India’s dependence on arms imports — and their corrupting role — that are at the root of the Indian armed forces’ equipment shortages and the erosion in their combat capabilities. The more arms India imports, the more it lacks the capacity to decisively win a war. But where imports are not possible, as in the space, cyber, missile and nuclear realms, India’s indigenous capabilities are notable.

The capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a country must pass on the way to becoming a great power. India must think and act long term, spend its money wisely, ensure the success of Make in India and advance its capabilities in frontier areas — from space to missiles — where it already boasts impressive indigenous technologies.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Why India must get its act together on water diplomacy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi’s rise as the dominant force in Indian politics cannot obscure the daunting foreign-policy challenges he faces, including on transnational water issues. For example, communist-ruled Nepal’s tilt towards China is apparent not only from the mandatory Mandarin in many schools, but also from its resurrection of a scrapped deal with China to build the $2.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt (MW) Budhi-Gandaki Dam. Beijing’s dam-building frenzy on India’s periphery extends from Myanmar and Tibet to Pakistan-held Kashmir, where it is constructing the 720 MW Karot and the 1,124 MW Kohala (the largest Chinese investment under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor).

South Asia accounts for about 22% of the world’s population but must manage with barely 8.3% of the global water resources. Water is becoming the new oil in this region. But unlike oil — dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy — there is no substitute for water. India ought to make water diplomacy an important tool of its regional foreign policy so as to facilitate rules-based cooperation and conflict prevention.

India has a unique riparian status: It is the only regional country that falls in all three categories — upper, middle and lower riparian. Such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in the region. India is potentially affected by water-related actions of upstream countries, especially China and Nepal, while its own room for manoeuvre is constricted by the treaty relationships it has with downstream Pakistan and Bangladesh on the Indus and the Ganges, respectively. Indeed, no country in Asia is more vulnerable to China’s reengineering of trans-boundary flows than India because it alone receives — directly or via rivers that flow in through Nepal — nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory.

Yet hydro-diplomacy has scarcely been a major instrument of Indian foreign policy. Had India looked at water as a strategic resource and emphasized hydro-diplomacy to leverage bilateral relations, it would not have signed the one-sided Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), still the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. The chief Indian negotiator, Niranjan Gulhati, admitted in his book that the IWT was concluded without any study on its potential long-term impact on the Indian water situation. Today, deepening water woes in India’s lower Indus Basin have resulted in the world’s second-most rapid rate of groundwater depletion in the Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan belt after the Arabian Peninsula.

Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are employing water as a tool against India. Pakistan’s water-war strategy is centred on invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalize any perceived disagreement with India. China’s cut-off of hydrological data to India in 2017 — an action that not only breached bilateral accords but also caused preventable flood-related deaths in Assam — helped highlight how Beijing is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy.

Modi’s new, unified water power ministry aims to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges. But without institutionalized, integrated policymaking, it will not be easy to develop a holistic approach to a critical resource increasingly in short supply or to fashion an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances long-term water interests.

India must build pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources. With Pakistan, there is no need for India to bend over backwards. Two weeks before the Pulwama massacre, India hosted a team of Indus inspectors from Pakistan, although, under the IWT’s terms, such a visit could have waited until March 2020. The Permanent Indus Commission met in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting, although its next meeting was not due until March 2019. In February, India gratuitously supplied Pakistan the design data of three tiny hydropower plants it plans to build. Pakistan, however, has indefinitely deferred Indian inspectors’ reciprocal visit.

In keeping with Modi’s preference for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or Bimstec, a forward-looking Indian diplomacy should promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor. Cooperation on water, energy, irrigation and flood control would facilitate joint initiatives on transportation and tourism. The ultimate goal should be a water and energy grid that turns Bimstec into Asia’s leading economic-growth zone. India has already issued a new cross-border power trading regulation that allows any neighbour to export electricity to third countries via Indian transmission lines.

Water-rich Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal sit on vast untapped hydropower reserves. While Nepal still imports electricity from India, the flourishing Bhutan-India relationship is underpinned by close collaboration on water and clean and affordable energy. Bhutan’s hydropower exports to India have been the primary driver of what is one of the world’s smallest but fastest-growing economies. From modest, environmentally friendly, run-of-river plants, Bhutan is stepping up its India collaboration with a reservoir-based, 2,585 MW project on River Sankosh — larger than any dam in India.

Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development. India must get its act together on hydro-diplomacy and exert stronger leadership on trans-boundary water issues.

The writer is the author of “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

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Trump makes trouble for India

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The Modi government should strengthen ties with the US without allowing itself to be bullied by Trump, who is trying to arm-twist India into a closer but prescriptive partnership.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi has wisely gone to the strategic Maldives on his first overseas trip after re-election. It speaks for itself that the leader of the world’s largest democracy has begun his new term by visiting the world’s smallest Muslim nation — in population and area. Generous Indian financial assistance, including $1.4 billion in aid, has helped President Ibrahim Solih to escape a Chinese debt trap and enabled his Maldivian Democratic Party to sweep the April parliamentary elections.

Modi also shrewdly kept out troublesome Pakistan from his inauguration by inviting leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) grouping. While the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) boxes India in a narrow, artificial framework limited to the Indian subcontinent, the east-oriented BIMSTEC seeks to realign India along its historical axis. India’s main trading and cultural partners in history were the countries to its east. From the west, India experienced mainly invaders or plunderers.

Indeed, Pakistan greeted Modi’s re-election in North Korean style — by firing the nuclear-capable, Chinese-designed Shaheen II ballistic missile. Its intelligence then harassed and turned away guests invited to the Indian High Commission’s iftar reception in Islamabad. All this is a reminder that Pakistan must be kept in the diplomatic doghouse.

Modi has had little time to savour his landslide win. His second term, paradoxically, has started with troubles caused by India’s close friend — a superpower that regards India as the fulcrum of its Asia strategy. Despite an unmistakably US-friendly Indian foreign policy, US President Donald Trump’s administration has mounted pressure on India on multiple flanks — trade, oil and defence. Through its actions, Washington is presenting the US as anything but a reliable partner and unwittingly encouraging India to hedge its bets.

India is the new target in Trump’s trade wars. It was not a coincidence that on the first day of Modi’s second term, Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the US market. Expelling India from the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) was intended to drive home the message that the choice before Modi is to yield to US demands or face increasing costs. America’s array of demands ranges from lifting price controls on heart stents, knee implants and other medical devices to relaxing ­e-commerce rules, even though Amazon and Walmart have been allowed to establish a virtual duopoly on India’s e-commerce. Would the US permit two foreign companies to control its e-commerce?

The latest US action exacerbates Modi’s challenges just when India’s economy is growing at the slowest rate in five years and unemployment is at a 45-year high. Washington’s heavy-handed tactics have also driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying at concessional rates from next-door Iran or Venezuela. The US is attempting to undermine India’s relationship with Tehran, which is more than just about oil, as underscored by the Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran.

The US is similarly trying to stop India from buying major Russian weapons, not just the S-400 system. Moscow’s transfer of offensive weapons that the US will not export, such as a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier, explains why Russia remains important for India’s defence, even though Indo-Russian trade has shrunk. Simply put, the US — not content with emerging as the largest seller of arms to India, including bagging several multibillion-dollar contracts — is seeking to lock India as its exclusive arms client by torpedoing the Indian diversification strategy, which aims to import the most-potent available systems.

The Trump administration’s arbitrariness and assertiveness have imposed rising costs on India, as highlighted by the GSP-related termination of India’s designation since 1975 as a developing nation. US businesses, rather than paying new tariffs on the $5.7 billion worth of Indian products they were importing duty-free, would likely seek to source those goods from GSP-beneficiary countries, thus dimming India’s export outlook.

Trump may not stop with GSP withdrawal. Yet India responded meekly to his action by pledging to “continue to build on our strong ties with the US”. Likewise, there has been no Indian retaliation to Trump’s March 2018 steel and aluminium tariffs, with India repeatedly postponing new duties. In diplomacy, counteraction is often necessary to build bargaining leverage and to deter further bullying.

Multi-alignment has been the leitmotif of Modi’s foreign policy. As opposed to the passive approach of nonalignment — a Cold War-era concept — multi-alignment seeks to proactively build close partnerships with different powers, while shoring up India’s strategic autonomy.

In this larger strategy, a robust relationship with the US is central for India. But it cannot be at the expense of India’s own interests. US actions, including sanctions against Russia and Iran, have accentuated India’s challenge in balancing its relationships. Indeed, through its actions, Washington is calculatedly seeking to compel India to become more closely aligned with it. Is it overplaying its hand? Or will it succeed in Modi’s second term? Only time will tell.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Election triumph will boost Modi’s international clout

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Narendra Modi, left, and Xi Jinping talk at a garden in Wuhan on Apr. 28, 2018: Modi has invited Xi to India on Oct. 11 for another “informal” summit.   © Xinhua/AP

Brahma Chellamey, Nikkei Asian Review

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hit the ground running after shocking the country’s liberal chattering classes by returning to power with a thumping majority in the parliamentary elections on the back of a nationalist wave.

Modi’s new Cabinet is a mix of old and new faces. Before being sworn in for a second term on May 30, Modi already set out a heavy foreign-policy agenda, including meetings with several world leaders in the coming months — among them possibly two with U.S. President Donald Trump.

But wherever he goes, China — and the strategic threat it poses for India — will be at the top of his agenda.

Modi’s anti-elite coalition garnered a nearly two-thirds majority in the ruling lower house of Parliament. The strong mandate gives Modi the authority to move forcefully on domestic and foreign policy.

Modi is in some ways India’s Shinzo Abe, reflecting the Japanese prime minister’s soft nationalism, foreign-policy pragmatism, market-oriented economics, and tilt toward other major democracies, as well as a focus on maintaining a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, which largely comes down to containing China.

Just as Abe became Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II, Modi is India’s first head of government born after the country gained independence in 1947. However, unlike Abe’s distinguished political lineage, Modi, a self-made man, rose from humble beginnings.

Modi’s nationalist plank, like Abe’s, has been a key factor behind his political rise. His record in office also mirrors Abe’s cautious approach.

For example, like the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party’s commitment to constitutional reform, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, hews to constitutional revisionism, especially the abrogation of Article 370 that grants the troubled, northern state of Jammu and Kashmir special powers and status.

But just as his close friend, Abe, has thus far not introduced any amendment to tinker with Japan’s standing as the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation, Modi has trod cautiously on constitutional change.

Modi’s foreign policy will likely stick to cautious pragmatism. However, showmanship and a penchant for springing surprises have also been the trademarks of Modi’s highly personalized way of decision-making.

This has led his critics to claim that Modi has a presidential style of governance. The truth, however, is that India since independence has been largely led by prime ministers who have acted more like presidents — from Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments have been different.

Just before the recent elections, Modi, in a warning shot across China’s bow, demonstrated India’s space-war capability. India’s successful “kill” of one of its own satellites with a missile on March 27 made it the fourth power, after the United States, Russia and China, to shoot down an object in space.

India tested an anti-satellite weapon on Mar. 27, saying an indigenously produced interceptor was used to destroy an object in orbit.

Just as the anti-satellite weapon test marked a major milestone in India’s quest for effective deterrence against China, Modi’s first foreign-policy moves after his re-election also have Beijing in view.

For his first overseas trip, Modi has strategically chosen the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives, where voters last year booted out a China-backed autocrat, but not before he allowed Beijing to acquire several islets on lease. Generous Indian financial assistance to the Maldives since the restoration of democracy there has not only helped that nation to escape a Chinese debt trap but also allowed the new president’s Maldivian Democratic Party to sweep recent parliamentary elections.

Modi’s June 7-8 visit is symbolically important: The leader of the world’s largest democracy will begin his second term by touring the world’s smallest Muslim nation — in both population and area.

In another smart move, Modi invited to his inauguration the leaders of the member-states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, a grouping that brings together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. BIMSTEC is a promising initiative compared to the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, whose leaders Modi invited to his first inauguration in 2014.

The Bay of Bengal, which connects South and Southeast Asia, is where India’s “neighborhood first” and “Act East” policies meet. In contrast to SAARC, which boxes India in a narrow framework limited to the Indian subcontinent, the east-oriented BIMSTEC seeks to realign India along its historical axis. India’s main trading and cultural partners in history were the countries to its east.

BIMSTEC thus meshes better with India’s strategic compass. It also furthers India’s role in the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored by Abe.

By inviting BIMSTEC, not SAARC, leaders, Modi kept out troublesome Pakistan, which greeted his reelection in North Korean style — by firing a nuclear-capable, Chinese-designed intermediate-range ballistic missile.

The inauguration snub prompted Pakistan to extend until mid-June the closure of its airspace to most east-west overflights. Pakistan had said that, after the Indian elections, it would end the closure, in effect since India’s February 26 airstrike on a Pakistan-based terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 Indian paramilitaries.

The close alignment between Pakistan and China epitomizes Modi’s strategic challenges in one of the world’s troubled neighborhoods.

Modi has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to India on October 11 for another “informal” summit of the kind the two leaders held in Wuhan 13 months ago in a bid to mend frayed relations. China has been holding live-fire combat exercises near the border with India. However, Trump’s policy shift on China is helping to constrict Beijing’s room for maneuver against India.

Trump, to be sure, is also compounding Modi’s challenges, despite the growing U.S.-India bonhomie. He has raised energy-poor India’s oil-import bill by forcing it to stop buying from Iran and Venezuela. Washington, despite securing $15 billion worth of Indian defense contracts, is pressuring India to halt buying major Russian military hardware.

Trump has also taken trade actions against India, including on May 31. Accusing New Delhi of failing to provide the U.S. with “equitable and reasonable access to its markets in numerous sectors,” he announced the termination of India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, which allows preferential duty-free imports of up to $5.6 billion from India.

When Trump called Modi to congratulate him on his re-election, the two agreed to meet on the sidelines of the June 28-29 G-20 summit in Osaka. Modi’s hectic travel schedule will also take him to the June 14-15 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan, the September 4-6 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, and a likely bilateral summit with Trump in Washington in the fall.

Modi’s travel plans show there is no doubting his commitment to advancing India’s interests. If he fails to do so perceptibly in his second term, he will suffer for it politically. But if he succeeds, he may turn out to be the most important Indian leader on the world stage since Indira Gandhi, who engineered Bangladesh’s 1971 independence and conducted India’s first nuclear test in 1974.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

Modi must advance national security

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi’s return to power with a stunning majority reflects the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. Contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist plank with the opposing forces’ lack of ideological conviction or a clear national agenda. Most Indian parties, including BJP’s own allies, are controlled by single families, which run them like family-owned businesses. The state-level election success of a few notwithstanding, the humiliating rout of many such parties shows that politics guided by families, not principles or national vision, is out of sync with the new India.

Indians not only want their country to stop punching below its weight but also to emerge truly as a great power. But without ameliorating its security challenges and investing in human capital, India has little hope of becoming a major power with a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability.

Modi’s re-election represents a fresh mandate for change. The new government’s most pressing challenges relate to internal and external security, including a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an ascendant great power and an implacably hostile neighbour. New Delhi also needs to effectively counter Chinese inroads in its maritime backyard and in countries long symbiotically tied to India.

The recent Sri Lankan bombings, oddly, have helped underscore India’s own jihadist threat. The Sri Lankan investigations have helped shine a spotlight on the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The situations in West Bengal and Assam also appear fraught with similar danger.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds — a concern reinforced by the Pulwama terrorist massacre, which led to a retaliatory Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s lair in Balakot. However, when Pakistan daringly responded by crossing a red line — its February 27 aerial blitz targeted Indian military sites — Modi surprisingly held back Indian forces from wreaking punishment.

Yet Pakistan still fears Indian punishment, which explains why its airspace has remained closed to most east-west overflights for the past three months, even though this action has also cut off Pakistan’s air connections with Southeast Asia and resulted in its loss of overflight fees. Significantly, since Pulwama, Pakistan’s military has not staged any cross-border tactical or terrorist strike in India. This shows that keeping Pakistan under sustained military and non-military pressure holds the key.

China’s muscular revisionism, of course, poses a bigger national security challenge. India’s lagging defence modernization has compounded the challenge from the world’s largest, strongest and technologically most advanced autocracy. Unlike a short-focused India, China plays the long game, with the aim to advance its interests step-by-step. However, the ongoing paradigm shift in US policy on China under President Donald Trump is putting growing pressure on Beijing, constricting its space against India.

An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration, to be sure, is also adding to India’s diplomatic challenges, as underscored by the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. Although the Modi government said last year that “India follows only UN sanctions, not unilateral sanctions of any country”, it has been compelled to comply with the recent, Trump-imposed ban on Iranian oil exports.

More broadly, Modi’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. Shorn of ideology, his foreign policy has prudently sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

Modi, however, must develop a credible counterterrorism strategy. Sri Lanka, since the Easter bombings, is seeking to proactively root out violent jihadism. Emulating the Singaporean policy of zero tolerance of jihad-extolling sermons, it has deported or arrested more than 200 mullahs and cracked down on the inflow of Gulf money. To prevent violent jihad being taught to impressionable young minds, it has decided to bring madrasas under its education ministry and outlaw the Sharia University at Batticaloa. Such steps may seem unthinkable in India.

Take another example: India kills a leading terrorist, only to squander the gain by permitting a large public funeral that memorializes him as a martyr. India has learned little from its 2016 Burhan Wani blunder. Last week’s Pulwama funeral for local Al Qaeda leader Zakir Musa triggered rioting and curfew. Contrast this with the way the US dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the sea and China forced the burial of Noble peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s ashes at sea.

Modi’s first term failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state. If his second term is going to reinvent India, Modi cannot shy away from taking hard decisions. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi, with his cold-eyed pragmatism, must seize this moment. In the way his tax and regulatory overhaul is set to boost economic growth, he must similarly advance national security through fundamental reforms.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

The Modi Phenomenon Gains Strength

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India’s biggest neighbour, however, is the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, China – a reminder that the new Indian government’s most pressing security challenges relate to the country’s neighbourhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to vast swaths of Indian territory and employ asymmetric warfare.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds, especially because, in the run-up to the elections, a Pakistan-based, United Nations-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. An Indian retaliatory airstrike on the group’s hideout in the Pakistani heartland helped burnish Mr. Modi’s credentials as a strong leader.

Mr. Modi’s dramatic rise in 2014 from being a provincial politician to heading the national government had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government after a scandal-marred, decade-long tenure of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was widely seen as a proxy of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi (no relation to the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi).

Mr. Modi’s stint in office has helped change Indian politics and diplomacy. He has animated the country’s foreign policy by often departing from conventional methods and shibboleths. And as underscored by his latest election triumph, he has helped turn his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, into India’s largest political force.

The BJP has long espoused the cause of the country’s Hindu majority while claiming to represent all religious communities. It sees itself as being no different than the Christian political parties that played a key role in Western Europe’s post-Second World War recovery and economic and political integration. Mr. Modi has subtly played the Hindu nationalist card to advance his political ambitions.

However, like U.S. President Donald Trump, Mr. Modi has become increasingly polarizing. Consequently, Indian democracy perhaps is as divided and polarized as U.S democracy. Mr. Modi’s landslide election win is unlikely to heal the polarization.

In fact, Mr. Modi, like Mr. Trump, is accused by his critics of behaving like an authoritarian strongman. The truth, however, is that Indian democracy, like American democracy, is robust enough to deter authoritarian creep.

If anything, the “strongman” tag that political opponents have given Mr. Modi helps to cloak his failings. For example, his “Make in India” initiative to promote domestic manufacturing has failed to seriously take off. He has also been reluctant to introduce national-security reform. India’s defence modernization has lagged, widening the yawning power gap with China.

However, to his credit, Mr. Modi has reduced political corruption and cut India’s proverbial red tape by streamlining regulations and reining in the bloated bureaucracy. For example, government permits and licences can be sought online.

A new simplified national tax regime serves as further advertisement that India is open for business. The tax and regulatory overhaul will likely yield major dividends in Mr. Modi’s second term.

To be sure, India’s economic growth has remained impressive. Its economy now is about 50 per cent larger than when Mr. Modi took office five years ago.

After overtaking France, India – the world’s fastest-growing major economy – has just edged out its former colonial master, Britain, to leap to the fifth place in the international GDP rankings. But if GDP is measured in terms of purchasing power parity, India’s economy ranks third behind the United States and China.

India is respected as the first developing economy that, from the beginning, has strived to modernize and prosper through a democratic system. Less known is that India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious and fragmented polity, weighing down the country’s potential. Some 2,300 parties fielded candidates in the latest election.

The British-type parliamentary system is rife with inefficiencies, as Britain’s Brexit mess highlights. This system’s limitations appear greater in much bigger India, which is more populous and diverse than the whole of Europe.

Fortunately for India, Mr. Modi’s big win has averted a nightmare scenario – an indecisive election verdict fostering political paralysis.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Globe and Mail, 2019.

The internal jihadist threat is rapidly growing in India

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

As India seeks to address the terrorism challenge in Jammu and Kashmir, jihadist forces are quietly gaining ground in far-flung states, especially West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The situation in Assam is also fraught with danger. India can ignore the spreading jihadist threat only at its own peril.

The ISIS, for example, has reportedly named a new “Bengal emir.” The Sri Lanka bombings, meanwhile, have helped highlight the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Such forces are affiliated with larger extremist networks or provide succour to radical groups elsewhere.

The main group blamed for the Sri Lanka bombings, the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamat (TNTJ). The Saudi-funded TNTJ, wedded to fanatical Wahhabism, is working to snuff out pluralistic strands of Islam. Such Arabization of Islam is increasingly apparent in Muslim communities extending from Bangladesh and West Bengal to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.

More broadly, the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge. Battle-hardened terrorist fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq have become a major counterterrorism concern in South and Southeast Asia, given their operational training, skills, and experience to stage savage attacks.

The presence of such returnees in Sri Lanka explains how an obscure local group carried out near-simultaneous strikes on three iconic churches and three luxury hotels, with the bombers detonating military-grade high explosives through suicide vests. Similar returnees are present in a number of other Asian countries.

The Sri Lanka attacks indeed underscore the potential of such returnees to wage terror campaigns in the same way that the activities of the Afghan war veterans, like Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, came to haunt the security of Asia, the Middle East and the West.

The jihadist threat, however, is posed not only by the returnees from Syria and Iraq. Such a threat also arises from those elements who never left their countries but see violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. Such local forces extolling terror are gaining clout.

The TNTJ in India, for example, helped to establish the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamat, from which the bomber outfit NTJ emerged as a splinter. In the current national elections in India, the DMK and some other local political parties have openly courted the TNTJ.

Just as Bangladesh blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for instigating the 2016 brutal Dhaka café attack through a Bangladeshi outfit, Sri Lanka’s NTJ has ties with the ISI’s front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The ISI and the LeT, through their joint Sri Lanka operations, has sought to establish cross-strait contacts with TNTJ activists in India.

NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim, who reportedly died in one of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings, was inspired by fugitive Indian Islamist preacher Zakir Naik’s jihad-extolling sermons. Hashim also reportedly received funds from jihadists in south India.

India, despite providing detailed intelligence warnings to Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, has been slow to develop a credible strategy to counter the growing jihadist influence within its own borders. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government initiated action against Zakir Naik only after the Dhaka café attack prompted Bangladesh to demand action against him. The prime minister, however, is right in saying that Naik enjoyed the patronage of the predecessor Manmohan Singh-led government — which, according to Modi, once invited Naik to address police personnel on the issue of terrorism!

Today, Naik is ensconced in Malaysia, which has granted him permanent residency. Yet, India has imposed no costs on Malaysia, such as cutting palm-oil imports from there, for sheltering a leading fugitive from Indian law.

Lull-in-terrorism-masks-a-deepening-Jihadist-threat-Dutch-report-warnsLike al-Qaeda at one time, ISIS seeks to show its continuing relevance by claiming responsibility for terror strikes that occur in places far from the areas where it has had presence. Rather than ISIS being directly involved in the Sri Lanka bombings, it is more likely that the ideology ISIS subscribes to — Wahhabi fanaticism — inspired those attacks.

It takes months, not weeks, to motivate, train and equip a suicide bomber. So, the speculative comment that the Sri Lanka bombings were a reprisal to the March 15 Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre made little sense, especially as it came from the Sri Lankan junior defence minister. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan prime minister later walked back that speculation.

Detaining a terrorist attacker’s family members for questioning has become a de facto international anti-terrorist practice. Sri Lanka quickly rounded up the bombers’ family members, including parents, for questioning once the suicide killers were identified. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also detains a terrorist attacker’s family members for questioning, but not India. For example, the Pulwama bomber’s family members not only remained free but also gave media interviews rationalizing the February 14 suicide attack.

Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. Terrorists rely on media publicity to provoke fear and demonstrate power.

Unfortunately, in the absence of U.S.-style media peer guidelines in India on terrorism-related coverage, Indian journalists supplied the oxygen of publicity by reporting allegations of the Pulwama bomber’s family members, including their claim that he was once roughed up by army or paramilitary soldiers. What the family members did not reveal was that the bomber had previously been detained on four separate occasions by J&K police on suspicion of providing logistical assistance to the LeT but that each time he was freed without the investigators getting to the bottom of his activities.

Make no mistake: Islamist terror is closely connected with the spread of Wahhabism, the obscurantist and intolerant version of Islam bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and other oil sheikhdoms. Wahhabi fanaticism is terrorism’s ideological mother, whose offspring include ISIS, al-Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Boko Haram.

The jihadist threat in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam — like in Sri Lanka — is linked with the growing spread of Wahhabism. If left unaddressed, this scourge of Islamist extremism could become a major internal-security crisis in India.

India’s counterterrorism focus on Jammu and Kashmir has allowed jihadists to gain influence in some other states far from J&K.

India needs to wake up to this spreading threat. It must crack down on the preachers of hatred and violence. It also must rein in the increasing inflow of Saudi and other Gulf money so as to close the wellspring that feeds terrorism — Wahhabi fanaticism.