India cannot but develop asymmetrical advantages of its own.

by Indrani Bagchi

We have crested the final wave of an exhausting election campaign. But there is always a tomorrow, and a nation to run, never mind who will helm things at Lok Kalyan Marg. This was also the first election where national security played a role we hadn’t seen in recent years.

So as New Delhi prepares for a same-old, same-new or new-new government, we take a look at the top five national security imperatives India will need to tackle, both in the immediate and longer term.

The new PM will be haring off to distant capitals within weeks of taking over. (S)he will need to address a growing trade dispute with the US if we don’t want to tank that relationship. But on a bigger scale, India needs to urgently address much more important issues.

Heading the list would certainly be China. President Xi Jinping’s campaign season “gift” of Masood Azhar at the UNSC should not obscure the bigger challenge China poses to India’s national security. Quite apart from China’s economic and military asymmetry, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that China’s territorial ambitions have somehow dimmed, particularly as a result of the US-China trade war. China challenges India in the Indian Ocean, via Pakistan and through an economic model that keeps India on the losing side in trade.

China has become adept at talking Wuhan but walking Doklam. We like to walk Wuhan and pretend Doklam isn’t happening.

India cannot but develop asymmetrical advantages of its own. These could start with ramping up our investments in Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh. But, guess what the Azhar listing taught us? You can squeeze Pakistan to make China squeal. That’s a valuable lesson and should be used by the Indian state in future. More important, India needs to shed its touch-me-not tag in the oceans. New Delhi finally gathered up the courage to do a joint drill with the US, Japan and Philippines last week, but only after it had assuaged China at its fleet review. I can almost hear sarkari strategists saying, but, but, but …. Of course, we have to hedge. But more often than not, India hedges to duck from tough choices.

The new government has an opportunity to play a better game. So, build up the Quad and the India-Japan-US trilateral. Keep up the opposition to Belt, Road and CPEC. Keep Pakistan on its toes regarding support to terrorism, both diplomatically and through the multilateral route like IMF and FATF.

Second, India is staring at a huge decision that will affect not only its national security, but foreign policy and its technological future. Sooner rather than later India will have to make choices on the 5G debate. 5G has the potential to transform India’s knowledge economy, but also its defence structures. With the growing global fault lines, India will not be able to do its normal Jugaad, a little bit of one, a little of another. Our decision to go with Huawei and China or with the Western networks will go a long way in determining the tilt of our foreign policy. Those happy swinging days are coming to an end. As intelligence sharing, military interoperability increasingly ride on commercial 5G networks, India will have to walk one road. Artificial intelligence, industry 4/5.0, internet of things, autonomous platforms are bringing civilian and military futures together.

Third, we need to urgently review our system of defence acquisitions. Balakot demonstrated political will to use military force against terror. But the fact remains that after two days of a military conflict with Pakistan, we did not demonstrate military superiority. It is imperative, for the sake of national security, for the new government to streamline this crazy system. One idea might be to set up an autonomous entity for acquisition, populated by MEA, armed services, finance ministry and CAG – keep it clean, keep it quick, while being audited simultaneously, use an apex decision-making leadership headed by the PM.

Fourth, Islamic State has made landfall in South Asia. After the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, India cannot be blind to the implications. South India is increasingly vulnerable not merely as a target but as a hub for radical leadership. That will need some hard thinking between the states and Centre.

Simultaneously, India has adopted a hard line no-dialogue approach to Pakistan. After JeM’s Azhar was banned, nothing stops Rawalpindi from activating say, AQIS to operate in India with plausible deniability. We need to open some kind of dialogue with Pakistan, even at the NSA level, without letting up on the pressure. As long as Pakistan remains a state that naturally uses terrorism against India, the threat from IS would be the same as from LeT and JeM or the Haqqani network.

Finally, India needs to build strategic communication into its national security strategy. This is not between MEA/PMO and the media – it is a clear articulation of India’s policies and intents to friends and foes. When India was a smaller and weaker power, ambiguity allowed it to stay afloat. It’s in a different place now. There should be no ambiguity, for instance, what India’s nuclear posture is, which provocation will invite what level of retribution. Same applies for terrorism.

The same applies to India’s Indo-Pacific policy. India needs to think of this to make broad strategies, red lines and intent clear even within its own government. Whether in Islamabad, Beijing or even in North Block, that clarity will be important. This will not only help India’s grand strategy masters, it will also clarify state intent even to investors and business. As India moves to become a bigger power with bigger stakes in the world, predictability and clarity will be very important.