Monday, August 25, 2014

Modi has won respect for India abroad. Can he use it to solve problems with Pakistan -- and China, too?

Narendra Modi's India is turning out to be quite different from Manmohan Singh's India. This is borne out by America's shift in policy. If the old India often appeared like a supplicant before the US, the roles seem reversed now. Consider technology, for example. From the 1980s, the US was determined to scuttle India's space programme. It refused ISRO's request for assistance in cryogenic technology development. India then found Russia willing to help, but the US forced Russia to renege on its agreement. Thereupon P. V. Narasimha Rao announced, in 1993, that India would develop cryogenic technology indigenously. An angry US warned that its two-year ban on selling space components to ISRO would be extended. All this hostility was on the plea that India was actually after nuclear weapons development. Yet the US did not lift a finger in protest when China and North Korea equipped Pakistan with nuclear capability. Despite all the obstructionism, GSLV's advanced rocket soared into space last January, a triumph for India and a reproach to America.

It was a new America that sent its Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, to India a few days ago. Without the slightest embarrassment, he said that India and America must "transform our nations' defence cooperation from simply buying and selling to co-production, co-development and freer exchange of technology". This is what is known as epiphany. Hagel is used to it. Three years ago, as a Senator, he had criticised India for "using Afghanistan as a second front to fund problems for Pakistan from that side of the border". Now, in Delhi's fresh air, he said: "India has a critical responsibility in terms of Afghanistan's security". This is what is known as patriotic opportunism.

Clearly Hagel's chameleon act was meant to get America into Narendra Modi's good books. The new Prime Minister is seen around the world as a game-changer. His domestic agenda is still evolving though his associates have rushed through programmes that worry sections of the people. But in foreign affairs Modi has been firm. It's a tough field where victories can be quickly overtaken by setbacks. Nonetheless he has shown that he is not lacking in courage. He did not hesitate to make America angry by going against WTO's pro-Western definition of free trade. But America did not retaliate. Instead, on the Mumbai terror inquiry, having blocked linchpin David Headley's extradition to India and his interrogation by Indian investigators except under American supervision, the US now says that India's request for access to the terror mastermind is "under discussion".

Modi's readiness to stand up to American pressure has enhanced his standing with China and Russia. India is now seen, not as a Western ally, but as a power that will take independent decisions. This reading must be the reason for China's recent initiative to make India a full member of the important Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Known as Asia's NATO, the SCO has the potential to change the prevailing, West-centric economic and strategic structure of the world. Significantly, India is becoming a member against the background of a renewed American strategy of containment against China and Russia. No wonder that Russia, a member, is delighted by the invitation to India and predicts that the SCO will consequently become "a centre of power in world politics".

Such major international realignments, however, benefit those who know how to handle them subtly, astutely and even cunningly. China is adept at this and will be using India's, Iran's, Pakistan's and Mongolia's membership of the SCO to its diplomatic advantage every inch of the way. The latest Ladakh incursions could well be manoeuvres for future negotiations from a position of strength. Similarly Russia will gain considerably with oil and gas pipelines across the Asian landmass. What of India? The reality is that all our progress on all other fronts can be subverted by lack of progress on the Pakistan front. Last week's cancellation of talks between the two countries showed how abruptly things can go wrong for India. Modi, inexperienced in international diplomatic intrigue, now has warm relations with two masters of that game, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Will he be shrewd enough to talk them into cooperation under the umbrella of the SCO? This is a rare - perhaps the biggest - test of Modi's political skills. If he bargains cleverly, a border pact with China is not inconceivable. If China helps, an end to the Pakistani Army's hostility is not inconceivable. Is that level of diplomatic dexterity on Modi's part conceivable?