Indian government will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope

As we move into a new year and a new decade, it is an opportune time to take stock of the security challenges that confront India in the times ahead. It is now a well-accepted fact that the world is currently facing a period of severe geopolitical and economic instability. The first week of 2020 nearly brought the United States (US)-Iran confrontation to a head and, although both sides have stepped back, the situation remains incendiary. Rising nationalism has not only led to deglobalisation and polarisation, but could also be the spark for the next conflict as popular nationalistic sentiment feeds the risktaking appetite of leaders. Strategic decisions are announced on Twitter, and domestic political compulsions drive foreign policy decisions. We saw shades of this during the recent military actions by the US and Iran. Great power rivalry, particularly between the US and China, will remain a dominant feature of the future global landscape. A vital aspect of this rivalry is the technology decoupling that is taking place between the two countries.

This has wide-ranging consequences, the full effects of which are yet to be gauged. With the US crackdown on Chinese companies like Huawei and restrictions on the export of key technologies, the Chinese government is investing heavily in developing alternative indigenous products. In this technology cold war, other countries will have to study their stance carefully so as not to become utterly dependent on one side or the other. At the heart of the ‘technology decoupling’ are future 5G networks,with enormous implications on national security. In this environment, the Indian government’s decision to permit Huawei to participate in the 5G trials, instead of promoting indigenous players, seems poorly thought out and could come to haunt us in the future. Our neighbourhood remains troubled. Pakistan is a hostile and intransigent neighbour that has hardened its stance after the abrogation of Article 370. There is little chance of an immediate thaw in relations and a Pulwama-type attack cannot be ruled out.

The Afghanistan conflict continues unabated, with the United Nations recording an unprecedented 4,313 civilian casualties in the third quarter of 2019. Relations with other neighbours remain steady, although we have to contend with the increasing Chinese influence in South Asia and the recent disquiet in some countries over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In this uncertain global and regional environment, India also faces many internal challenges. Fortunately, Kashmir has remained violence-free after the state was split into two union territories. However, as has been seen in the past, this is not an indicator of normalcy and the situation could change rapidly. Continuing restrictions, particularly on the internet, are causing extreme inconvenience and could fuel further alienation.

Fundamental freedoms cannot be indefinitely held hostage to the demands of security. In the Northeast, the Naga Accord could not be finalised despite the pressure brought on the NSCN (IM). With the ongoing protests in the region over the CAA, the government will now have to tread carefully on the timing of the Accord, lest it becomes another trigger for further unrest. Even as the government grapples with these problems, its biggest challenge lies in providing a vision to our young citizens of a country that promises them a safe, secure, and stable future. The ongoing pro- and anti-CAA and NRC protests could morph into bitter divisions that outlast the current spell of agitation and create long-lasting schisms between communities and groups. Dismissing all anti-government criticism as anti-national would only exacerbate tensions.

Combine this with a slowing economy, rising inequality, technology disruption, poor education standards and we could be facing millions of sullen and dissatisfied youth. These are not easy times for the government. It will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope so as not to get drawn into great power rivalry and preserve its national interests. Some repair work is also to be done on the damage to India’s image as a democracy that has, in the past, successfully handled its vast diversity with inclusive policies. Internally, the government must grapple with the rising expectations of the largest youth bulge in the world, empowering them to take India to its rightful place in global affairs. Finally, it must calm the ongoing conflicts with a genuine outreach to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the ethnic groups in the Northeast, and the minorities with a softer and more reassuring political image than it has shown.

The writer is former Army Commander Northern Command

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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