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Indian Elections 2019: Towards New Economic and Political Goals

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The current protracted election campaign has been enduringly characterized, by a lingering overhang of foreign policy and national security considerations, punctuated by constant reminders of India’s rising acclaim on the world stage and resonation for its touchstone issue of epochal significance (counter-terrorism). Indian diplomatic and capacitive footprint would be deployed, to address the sub-continent’s structural socio-economic impediments and physical capacitation concerns, as a substantive antidote to the invariably operating existential security paradox of fragile states and porous borders. The presumably second Modi administration will have to deal with the scenario in Afghanistan, characterized by the engendering conditions for an American troop withdrawal from the country, the formulation of contours for potential rehabilitation of the Taliban within a prospective Afghan political future and the fomenting US-Iran crisis in the Middle East. The Iran dossier presents Indian foreign policy with a cleft-stick specter, wedging dilemmas and straddling angularities. One could not greater underscore the importance of Tehran for New Delhi, not just from the lens of longstanding energy is driven equations, but from the prism of the criticality of its multi-modal access to the far reaches of the Central Asian and Eurasian continental swathe. The second Modi regime would be under scrutiny for how this foundational economic diplomacy is consolidated and elevated into a new orbit, at a time when the government has pledged to catapult the nation to a five-trillion-dollar economy within a decade. The ensuing epoch in Indian foreign policy would be a build-on phase, under the philosophical and operative moorings of a ‘continuum-neighborhood’ concept, which draws on immutable features of India’s geographical physiology and the attributive tenets of its civilizational span, to construe meaningful engagements in its Eastern and Western vectors.

As the world’s most mammoth democratic exercise at the hustings successfully winds down on another electoral cycle and the intuitive feel and considered wisdom posits plain-sailing return to helms hip for the incumbent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, the anticipated focus appears to be plausibly shifting, towards decoding the prospective strategic-priorities and attendant policy-parameters, that would constitute and chaperone foreign policy and national security, under a Modi strategic calculus 2.0. (At the time of penning this account, India had not tallied, its federal election results).

The features of the electoral campaign

Unless in the grips of existentialism, national security and foreign policy dimensions rarely figure on the campaign-stump in India, or for that matter across most celebrated and mature democracies. This being said, the current protracted election campaign has been enduringly characterized, by a lingering overhang of foreign policy and national security considerations, punctuated by constant reminders of India’s rising acclaim on the world stage and resonation for its touchstone issue of epochal significance (counter-terrorism). The expected narrative of the ruling coalition trenchantly prosecuting the virtues of continuity versus the pyrrhic costs of change and the medley of opposition parties desperately litigating the need for the electorate to embrace their case for change. The election has been conducted in the shadow of India’s punitive cross-border air-strikes into Pakistan, presenting itself as arguably swift comeuppance for the terror assault in Jammu Kashmir state and evidence of emphatic decisive leadership of the Prime Minister to glower at and not be cowered, by the scourge of terrorism emanating from across its North Western border. The terror attacks in Sri Lanka helped coalesce popular opinion within India on the urgent imperative to choose the establishment, which can confront this metastasizing phenomenon and not favor the one which would equivocate on the issue. Then, the rare occurrence of the United Nations Security Council unite in unanimity, in placing the regional terrorist mastermind Masood Azhar, under global sanctions regime proscription, after Chinese relent over its technical-hold, allowed for the peddling of spin that speaks to visible evidence of persuasive traction for quiet, but purposeful Indian diplomatic manoeuvres, under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership. (After all, Indian diplomacy has worked to bring international opinion around this issue, since 2009, but with little success until recent moves). Besides, as elections unfolded, the news of the Prime Minister being feted with highest civilian honors, first from Russia and latest by the UAE, for coveted contribution to the development of bilateral ties, served as effectively oriented the outcome of Indian foreign policy were pursued these past five years. Hence, it was no surprise that throughout the campaign, these accomplishments were used as evolving signposts of a globally practiced foreign policy forged on a wider elemental and dimensional canvass.

India’s engagement in its neighborhood

The neighborhood surrounding India remains a challenged and contested geopolitical area, which would understandably attract the attention of the new government, mirroring the impulse from the onset of the Modi premiership back in May 2014. Consequently, the incoming Prime Minister pulled a diplomatic fast-one, by inviting all South Asian regional leaders, carrying out its strong sense of instructiveness. Such a move encapsulated an interplay of trinity messaging to stakeholders, showing its disproportionately outsized role in consensually shaping the region-on-the-move towards productive beneficence. This Indian diplomatic and capacitive footprint would be deployed, to address the sub-continent’s structural socio-economic impediments and physical capacitation concerns, as a substantive antidote to the invariably operating existential security paradox of fragile states and porous borders. Also, the region and all of its sovereign constituents would be subject to the inviolable redline of scrupulous good neighborliness, that would certainly require reciprocity though not necessarily parity in action, meaning the preclusion of their territories from being leveraged for inimical actions against itself. Through enhancing the profile of Indian engagement of its contiguous and proximate partners, wide assiduous politico-diplomatic engagement, it would be seen in the higher incidence of echelon visits (Modi sojourned to all South Asian countries during his full term in office) and revving-up of institutional mechanisms for bilateral dialogue. The Indian approach in South Asia over the past five years has witnessed a conscious effort to recoup ceded strategic space and to induce centrality back to New Delhi’s.

Moreover, the key to underpin the tectonic pan-South Asian economic transformation and mobility would be the following methods: a conscious coordinated endeavor from the highest reaches in government, a streamline tardy and slothful cross-country infrastructural projects towards expedited completion in winning back eroded credence of commitment, and entrenching the imperative notion of multi-vectored connectivity, along logistical compact, commercial interchange and civilizational affinities. However, it might be hard for New Delhi to diminish South Asian countries’ trade dependence upon China and to shrug-off the increasingly indomitable buccaneering industrial and infrastructural footprint of Beijing across Himalayan and Maritime South Asia, which constitutes the former’s proverbial sphere of influence. This is the reason why, the new administration has to embrace a strategy of counterpoise, blending elements of outright reductionist retaliation in certain coordinates, with the sophisticated and nuanced operation of a qualitatively differentiated paradigm at shaping the region in the piloting of newly minted and revived functional initiatives at regional economic cooperation (BIMSTEC), and models of mini-lateral integration (BBIN), etc., to build greater heft in the vicinity.

The presumably second Modi administration will have to deal with the scenario in Afghanistan, characterized by the engendering conditions for an American troop withdrawal from the country, the formulation of contours for potential rehabilitation of the Taliban within a prospective Afghan political future and the fomenting US-Iran crisis in the Middle East. Furthermore, the new administration will have to manage the American diktat to Iranian oil consumers, such as India, to shutter sourcing which exerts a collateral undermining impact on Indian strategic interests Their outcomes could undercut Indian stakes and valid expectations for exercising its influence in the region. These issues become further critical from an Indian standpoint, as their propitious resolution holds the sluice-gate keys to New Delhi’s tangible profile in engagement of Central Asia for strategic resources and as avenues for markets, both of which are contingent on a democratically benign, secure and stable Afghanistan. Concerning Iran, it is not subject to straitjacketed coercion from its arch-rivals within the region and the US on the extent, that would dis-incentivize its amenable disposition towards initiatives at regionally multi-lateralised economic cooperation and advancing objectives for share the access. These two issues are expected to figure in principal discussions at the impending SCO Summit in Kyrgyzstan, in June. In the meanwhile, since no potential solutions are to be forthcoming, it would put at a premium the Indian quest since 2012 and since Prime Minister Modi’s maiden visit to all the CARs in 2015 and India’s incorporation into the SCO in 2017, for cultivating cogent and enlightened bilateral exchanges with each of the region’s sovereign constituents.

Regarding Afghanistan, while the US has kept India abreast on the trajectory of its Qatar based backchannel with the Taliban, New Delhi fully sentient of Washington’s longing for terminating its inordinately lingering military involvement, which made it anxious, due to the apparent lack of clarity of Washington’s redlines and the latter’s ambivalence over Taliban’s incorporation into an Afghan government, without eliciting adequate accountability and a sufficing abjuration of violence. As a significant developmental partner for Afghanistan, with the involvement of fisc and material resources across a wide spectrum of capacity building projects, only second to Washington, New Delhi expects to be actively shaping the progression to a democratic, secure and stable Afghanistan. Henceforth, aware of the fluidity of the situation and mindful of the steadily expanding role of Russia and China in exploiting the pristine diplomatic space in Afghanistan, and how it could potentially resurrect Islamabad’s mission ‘strategic-depth’ in Kabul through the backdoor, it has precipitated into an enlightened New Delhi tactical approach, through shedding some of the idealism that has traditionally pervaded Indian strategic thinking in favor of participating in the Russian spearheaded Six-Party Dialogue Framework, even to sit at the Moscow table alongside Taliban interlocutors. In addition, it has worked with the US establishment principals at the State Department and the Pentagon, on calibrating a convergent and harmonizing approach, whilst niftily tiptoeing around the occasional rants of an irascible US President, taking derisive swipes at India’s developmental compact with Afghanistan, and its considered and principled reluctance, to not burden-partake through commissioning of a supplanting military presence in Afghanistan.

The Iranian question

The Iran dossier presents Indian foreign policy with a cleft-stick specter, wedging dilemmas and straddling angularities. One could not greater underscore the importance of Tehran for New Delhi, not just from the lens of longstanding energy is driven equations, but from the prism of the criticality of its multi-modal access to the far reaches of the Central Asian and Eurasian continental swathe. Also, Iran could be the maritime leverage in the Western Indian Ocean, where India manages port infrastructures and logistics arrangements, constituting vital instruments for strategic influence, commercial and mercantilist traction, along strategic sea lanes of communication. If US policy forces principal oil buyers, such as India, to totally blank oil purchases from Iran, (moreover, the chances seem remote as long as Trump helms affairs), then the potential forsaking of Iran from India allows peer competitor China to exploit the situation and trigger an Iranian tilt to its side, in pursuance of Beijing’s tangible offers of Iranian incorporation within the infrastructural ambit of the robustly fording Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Iran portfolio also brings to the fore, the debate about what exactly is strategic autonomy in foreign policy, and how does it pan out. Among the animated dynamic setting of an interconnected and interdependent world, it is most understood and internalized that trade-offs and quid pro quos undergird transactional interchange occur. Under a Modi premiership, Indian foreign policy has managed the enviable reputation for dexterously navigating through regionally adversarial juxtapositions, not through defensive self-preservation or abstinence of the past, but through proactively cultivated productively beneficent relationships, with a Jewish Israel, Shia Iran and the Saudi tutelage the Sunni Gulf States. However, this largesse may just have run its course, hopefully momentarily, as New Delhi might well perceive circumscribed downsides to its downgrading of commercial exchanges with Iran, as hydrocarbons deficits could be bridged through realigning shipments from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Besides riling up a strategically blinded non-countenancing and punitively oriented Washington won’t be desirable.

The second Modi regime and the prospects of new economic diplomacy

Historically, Indian foreign policy trajectory, and strategic orientation, in the post-liberalization period, has suffered from a triumvirate of infirmities, which have rendered its external outreach and engagement hemmed, hobbled and hortative. The advent of the Modi administration in 2014 was refreshing in that, it delineated a new template for Indian internationalism and forged it in the dispensing with staid cartographic imaginations of our neighborhoods in favor of re-imagined carve-ups of conceptions of the near-abroad. In abandoning the self-deprecating sub-continental scale of our economic existence and subsistence in favor of a comprehensive re-envisioning of economic diplomacy, it anchored in the inherent dynamism of rule-based democratic governance and demographics of demand being pitched as an attractive global proposition, building societal affinities and synergies. The second Modi regime would be under scrutiny for how this foundational economic diplomacy is consolidated and elevated into a new orbit, at a time when the government has pledged to catapult the nation to a five-trillion-dollar economy within a decade. Thereby, it made robust international economic interaction and interchange, an indispensable sine qua non for accomplishing such an ambitious strategic objective, amidst global headwinds of recession and the rising tide of protectionism worldwide. Achieving this quantum-leap scale-up, in economic size and profile, would need more than just linear organic progression. During the last five years, India moved from being viewed as a country with the promise to deliver on its potential to a nation on the economic march, witnessed in the hue of tectonic reforms consummated domestically and investment initiatives envisioned and instrumentalized in addressing both hard and soft infrastructural deficits. India transitioned, to being globally acclaimed as the fast-growing emerging economy, besides dimensions of its internal economic and policy transformation finding enthused endorsement in international policy circles. This elevated economic performance and the cogency of politico-executive leadership of the day has allowed Indian diplomacy to turn sure-footed, vigorous and purposeful on the international stage. It also resulted in the participation of Prime Minister’s pitch on the major platform of international relations, such as 2014 G20 in Australia and the annual World Economic Forum conclave in Davos in 2018. Notwithstanding, Indian diplomacy is moving further it by committing to in the global agreement on Climate Change in Paris, and to the India-France co-sponsored International Solar Alliance (ISA) initiative, headquartered in India, which is aimed at promoting expanded use of renewable energy for sustainable development, across the sovereign-comity of the putative ‘Global South.’

The ensuing epoch in Indian foreign policy would be a build-on phase, under the philosophical and operative moorings of a ‘continuum-neighborhood’ concept, which draws on immutable features of India’s geographical physiology and the attributive tenets of its civilizational span, to construe meaningful engagements in its Eastern and Western vectors. With India’s Eastern longitudinal stretch, both seaboard and inland, its position in the North-Eastern section and its obscuring black-hole, starved from rudimentary development, abutting South East Asia with one half of the Indian manufacturing GDP for exports. Besides the civilizational contacts, the process of fostering comprehensively intimating ties with the ASEAN comity of nations, as with other economic titans in East Asia, has been a signature initiative of the Modi government during 2014-2019, with no reason for it to flag or dampen. It ought to intensify across intertwining dimensions of augmented trading exchanges, deepened the development of multi-modal transportation infrastructure, enhanced integration of markets and logistics facilities, and greater investor-led stake-holding by these countries.

Similarly, with India’s ordained maritime location, residing astride strategic sea lanes of communication, the Modi government, during its first term, has embarked on a mission to impart situational sense to locational amenability, principally in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), through the commissioning and execution of a slew of path-breaking projects and initiatives, which pioneered under the marquee nomenclature of ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region). With the IOR, it is incumbent upon the new Indian government, to sustain its alacrity and proactivity, by its quest for preserving the primacy of operation, insulation of its sea-borne commercial interests and safeguarding its strategic sphere of influence, even though not exclusionary or prejudicial to any extant entity refuses insubordination or supplication. The Modi government seeks to enhance India’s power profile in the immediate maritime stretch, which would allow it to serve as a covetable stabilizing influence, contributing in its role as a prime ‘swing-power’, maintaining symmetry and equilibrium between competing domineers and helping shape the normative, institutional and capacitive edifice of the wide ocean ‘Indo-Pacific’ space, away from singularized ascent and towards a shared commons.

What about the US, China, and Russia?

The greatest operative determinant to Indian foreign policy, as it seeks to carve-up prominent stock for itself within a rising Asia, is how it handles its coupled equations, with the strategic trifecta impinging on its external orientation with the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. The Indo-US relationship remains the predominant key to India’s national aspirations for autonomous development and accretion in power-profile and attendant power-projection, across Asia and on the world stage. However, there is no gainsaying, that despite the brimming potential of the relationship in bilateral and regional terms, it does intermittently constrain New Delhi’s strategic choices and does inflict collateral damage to Indian strategic interests. Despite the burgeoning levels of political affability, economic interaction and societal interface, US-India engagement finds itself meandering, in aspects of market-access based trade disputes, disagreements over certain technology transfer mechanisms and perceived inadequacy over regimes governing the protection of intellectual property and the interests of the knowledge-based services sector.

Moreover, notwithstanding the significant advances incrementally achieved in the mutual strategic partnership, most notably witnessed in iconic collaborative agreements inked, in high-end civilian, high-tech communication, and sensitive defense-cooperation and military-operability sectors, a mutual wariness permeates ties brought on by a perceptible gap in actual performance, falling short of expectation thresholds. While New Delhi feels let-down, that Washington does not adequately tighten the noose on Pakistan towards extracting substantive remedial action on terrorism spawning from Islamabad, the US reckons that New Delhi does not step-up its game enough to dispose more proactively in countering China across Asia, most notably, across the Indo-Pacific, where intriguingly the two sides are concurred on an ostensible Joint Vision formulation and articulation for the ocean-continuum. It is clear that Prime Minister Modi, in his second term would have his hands full, in continuing to deal with an overtly transactional and short-leashed temperamental US administration, having to keep his side of the grand partnership bargain, whilst not transgressing on inveterately held and well-deliberated red-lines. Even as his government works through the scope of US institutional labyrinth, both congressional and bureaucratic, towards tempering the incumbent President’s pushbacks on matters of bilateral concern.

This segues into an examination of Sino-Indian relations, which seems to have historical baggage and mutual chariness of each other’s strategic intentions, between two simultaneously rising continental powers, in relative proximity and regional contiguity of each other. with the concurrence of politically ascendant trajectories of two leaders with strong personalities and cult-like followings domestically, the relationship during the past five years, marked a roller-coaster ride, commencing with the hyped euphoria of significant Chinese investment-led economic cooperation, descending into a purportedly escalatory slide that verged on potentially miscalculated conflict. During this period, the apogee of the Doklam territorial standoff during 2017 led to mutual good sense and to a commitment to establish ties concerning the indeterminate border. Additionally, it signified an engagement in a candid, but constructive dialogue, to comprehend strategic intentions around broader aspects of the relationship, and how each other’s instrumentalities militate, in each other’s coterminous and overlapping realms of perceived and proven influence. While the informal setting of the Wuhan Summit of 2018 was meant to induce a reset in ties, notwithstanding the bonhomie and geniality that was manifest, it would be risky to consider the bedevilling issues stemming from Chinese imperviousness to strident Indian criticism over the sovereignty contravening China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) component within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese refusal to allow Indian candidature of NSG membership decoupled from that of Pakistan, that is viewed and regarded as deeply and qualitatively odious, by the latter, and the nature and tenor of Chinese investments across South Asia, which has India spooked on dimensions of being predatory through vitiation of the fiscal health of the smaller nations. China harbors have their own set of concerns, stemming from a stepped-up Indo-US compact and an India-US-Japan role for strategic maneuvering across the Indo-Pacific, and the reviving of the QUAD framework, described as a Concert of Democracies quadrant committed to ensuring the plurality of the Indo-Pacific, a veiled reference to work against Beijing. The challenge for both sides would be to ally each other’s concerns credibly and tangibly, which would entail political statesmanship, forthright exchange of views, but some craft in forging project cooperation, that can reduce the trust deficit, which in turn lies at the core of the mutually critical relationship steeped in chariness and hesitation.

The resurgent role of Russia on the world stage and it’s robust inject into hotspots and flashpoints around the globe, allowing for a duality of views about its genuine intentions and how to respond to them, with the Indian establishment being no exception either in being called upon to re-appraise the once bell-weather relationship. Among perceptions about Moscow being a necessary strategic disruptor, contributing to balancing an otherwise US skewed global order, Prime Minister Modi has been pragmatic and principled in letting Indian national interests drive the Indo-Russian exchange, rather than be wedded to preconceived notions. The challenge on the bilateral track of reinventing the relationship beyond defence cooperation and a few lines of commercial interchange, notwithstanding the Modi government’s effort has been to forge new vistas of engagement on strategic dimensions of ramped-up energy cooperation, science and technological intermediation for civilian applications, innovation smitten joint-investments, in addition to the sophisticated and value-added co-development programs in modernised defence platforms, apart from the perfunctory phenomenon of defense hardware transactions. The fact of resilience in India-Russia engagement was tested and showed-up well, in the resoluteness of India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, weathering repeated US prodding, nudges, and implicit threats of collaterally damaging implications.

Similarly, New Delhi’s recent reconsideration of long-held reticence at upgrading the level of the mundanely operating Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral dialogue from Foreign Ministers forum to Summit status, and the actual convening of the RIC. The Modi regime desires to follow the vision enunciated and delineated in the Shangri-la address of the Prime Minister, of an Indo-Pacific narrative, that stands for a free and open Indo-Pacific, through plurality, not prejudice. One can then contextualize the stated indications that an ingenious “Indo-Pacific” dialogue would be a noted feature of overall India-Russia and Sino-Indian bilateral consultations going forward.

One can also see India putting a premium on its ties with Russia, from the standpoint of Moscow emerging, though by no means on parity, but as a critical-mass bulwark to an overbearing Washington, in multiple sub-regional areas, from the AFPAK theatre to the Middle Eastern vector. The Russia-China axis constitutes a significant pillar, alternatively framing and shaping the potential contours of a futuristic Afghanistan, and in concert with Pakistan, which can bring certainly material, if not game-changing influence to bear, on ultimate transpiring. Hence, it’s a no-brainer that Modi’s New Delhi, which has prioritized its Central Asian foray and recognizes Russian facilitation towards its incorporation within the SCO and its indispensability to achieve longitudinal access deep into Eurasia, circumventing all the way to Europe, cannot but keep Moscow cultivated, in the face of deepening ties with Washington. Russia was no less central to ironing out the creases that led to the P5+1 — Iran arrangement of the JCPOA, in that it had a protagonist-cum-superintendence role to dispose of, in the accord’s sequential and qualitative implementation. With current US-Iran tensions on the boil, Russia could once again emerge the “prima donna conduit” to de-escalation, which beholds dividends for India. Similarly, despite not being an OPEC member, Moscow through its strong links with Iran and a blossoming working relationship with Saudi Arabia, it is a not-so-discreet influence, nudging energy politics, if not dynamics, again with implications for India.

Going forward, three quintessential strategic objectives continually permeating Indian foreign policy endeavors and initiatives are the quest for consolidation of its uniquely centripetal role in advancing economic cooperation and functional regionalism goals sub-continent wide, within an increasingly vibrancy sworn South Asia; to substantively and efficaciously integrate adjoining neighbourhoods, both in the East (South East Asia) and to the West (Central and West Asia), through all forms of connectivity accessed mobility, be it hard and/or soft, physical and/or virtual; and to seamlessly integrate within, rather than aggressively impinge upon, the wider global institutions of financial management, regimes at trade facilitation and structures of governance enabling, by clamouring for reforms in architecture and processes, but not quite an upending the order.

First published in our partner RIAC

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1.2 trillion rupees on the move: Modi’s greatest piece of purchase yet

Sisir Devkota

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Last week, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) was taken aback by more than a surprise. Just when it was dealing with the uncomfortable series of events that led to the transfer of surplus 1.2 trillion rupees into the government of India; social media erupted. It quickly realized that losing the battle regarding the transfer would only add fuel to the hoax of closing down nine commercial banks. RBI enjoys considerable amount of autonomy and independence in the largest democracy, and still, it had to kneel down to Modi’s alleged quick fix.

The RBI would have to vouch for the government in times of need, it is primarily what is expected of the institution; but there was a great deal of discomfort in how the government justified it. A committee set up under the ex-governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, cited how central banks would not need so much of surplus to carry out their affairs. Effectively, it was an order, not a request, which became the underlying discomfort behind RBI’s hesitancy in adhering to the views of capital transfer committee. Not that anyone expected the central lender to protest longer, it did however, request Mr Jalan to reconsider the decision at the face of various consequences. To say the least, it was embarrassing for a premier financial institution to be put under the public eye. The social media hoax was another ridicule of the sickly RBI. In the tales of grand conquests, the victorious army steals the wealth from the losing party. Similarly, the BJP led government in India are redefining all forms of state tools in favour of their interests.

Stolen wealth is most often than not used to correct economic blunders. Just like in the tales of grand conquests, the decision to transfer national wealth from the reserve bank is nothing new. It is nevertheless baffling, that the money transfer is looping in the same direction. While the BJP government in India were imposing a comprehensive GST (Goods and Service Tax) policy, they would not have anticipated complaints from large industries over decreased consumer consumption. For a party that is now known to redefine the legitimacy of governance, falling prey to NBFC’s (Non-bank Financial Companies) incompetence or bankruptcy is a visible defeat. Unlike many other soaring economies, there are large group of subsidiary lenders operating in India. On hindsight, economic policies are barely creating tunnels through which the capital is getting recycled in the same loop. Revenues are not generating further revenues. It is merely closing down on its self-inflicted gap.

The Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) almost played with fire. Uncharacteristically, it proposed a framework to work together with the RBI in order to claim outstanding defaults from high value clients. The RBI was never going to agree with a defaming offer as such but the incident did fuel the argument of capital shuffling. It only makes the bluff look more real. A strategic plan to counter all measures that would have blocked the transfer of trillions. As Mr Jalan sheepishly implied how the importance of central bank and what is does is only limited to the public perception, RBI fought a fix in between larger or rather dangerous political agendas. Consolidating requests from SEBI to only fall into the whims of the government shows the lack lustre personality of the central funding institution. For the time being, Narendra Modi has his way, a theft of national treasure-like his opposition colleague Rajiv Gandhi expressed in the media. However, there will also be a far-fetched evaluation of Modi’s actions. A move of 1.2 trillion rupees in the same pot. Not by any means, a cunning cover up.

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Walking the tight rope: India’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Middle East

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India’s diplomatic corps have been resolutely articulating India’s stances and furthering its interests in the international fora where multiple challenges emanating from historical and contemporary contexts are being faced. One important factor which India’s astute foreign policy makers have faced is the complicated and crucial engagement with the Middle East. There are multiple facets to India’s engagement in the contemporary context that add to this complexity. One, India’s old adversary and neighbor Pakistan has upped the ante in its diplomatic blitzkrieg especially within the Muslim world. Second India’s has varied strategic interests in the warring Middle East factions. Third, the economic interdependencies and the crisis in the international trade in the Trump era has further complicated India’s position as an economic actor in the region. While there are various constituent elements of India’s Middle East outreach, the contemporaneous concerns relate more to its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey.

India and Saudi Arabia have historically engaged in deep and multi-dimensional political, economic, cultural, defence and strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia has long been an important Indian trade partner; the Kingdom remains a vital source of energy for India, which imports almost a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Saudi Arabia. Enhanced security cooperation has added a new dimension in the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Riyadh. Recently, Indian PM Narendra Modi was conferred with the highest civilian award of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia even as the top leadership continues to send signals of deep comradarie and solidarity.

With the ascent of the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, various layers in this important diplomatic relationship have surfaced. This has happened in a particularly peculiar geopolitical and geostrategic context where both countries have faced tough challenges to their internal stability and international position. While Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still emerging from the consequences of the massive attack in its oil fields as well as the widespread criticism of humanitarian crisis in Yemen at the international fora, India is grappling with international criticism and discourse about the situation in Kashmir in context of dilution of its political autonomy as well as prolonged information and communication blackout.KSA has had a mediating role in the Indo-Pak tussle since Pulwama and how this hyphenation has led to competitive photo-ops of diplomatic support. Even as KSA has stood by Indian leadership’s vital interests. However, the Pakistani leadership has been relentless in its attempts to appeal to the leader of the Islamic world for vital economic and diplomatic support, especially in context of the Kashmir situation. Even as Saudi Arabia has managed this delicate equation with deftness, it has given in to Pakistan’s economic demands while making a symbolic gesture of closeness by offering the private jet to Pakistani Prime Minister for his visit to the West.  It doesn’t help that the Indian economy is going through a rough phase. However, the audacious announcement to invest $100 Billion in the fledgling Indian economy is a bold testament of the veritable and vibrant economic partnership between New Delhi and Riyadh. It is pertinent to note that in the contemporaneous challenges that the countries face, Iran as well as Pakistan emerge as key actors that affect the bilateral engagement in a pronounced manner.

Iran is India’s historic ally and third largest supplier of crude oil. However, the India-Iran relationship transcends oil. India, with an investment of $500 million, aims to develop Iran’s Chabahar port as a transit hub for Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Additionally, India is developing two gas fields, namely Farzad-B gas field located in Tehran and the South Pars field located between Iran and Qatar. These projects clearly highlight India’s long-term engagement with Iran. However, India’s muted response to US pressure has been causing slight tension in the bilateral relationship. Even though the top-level bilateral meeting between Indian premier Modi and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani was successful to diffuse tensions to an extent. The crisis in Yemen, oil trade and even India’s action in Kashmir continue to affect the relationship.

In this context, the challenges emanating from Turkey are also a sign of worry. Even as Turkey has remained an old ally of Pakistan and a supporter of the ‘Kashmiri’ cause, its open support for a rather lonely Pakistan should cause some worry in India’s strategic circles. This is because India has fine diplomatic relations with Turkey and has considerable economic and trade interests.

However, oil being an important consumer and agricultural good in India’s economy, it is important to secure its interests to have access to reliable and affordable Iranian crude oil. The trade negotiations and engagements with the US haven’t had any headway even as the threat of sanctions for buying oil from Iran continues. India could emerge as a trouble-solver in this context especially since this KSA-Iran conflict in oil supply context has global implications. PM Modi’s personal chemistry with the US leadership could be useful in this context.

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From Ancient Era to Imperial Era: Indian Ocean in Historical Lenses

Rana Danish Nisar

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“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters,” Alfred Mahan

Authors: Rana Danish Nisar & Ali Nagri*

Among the oceans of the world, The Indian Ocean is third largest covering 70,560,000 km that is approximately twenty percent of the water on the earth.  This is bounded by Asia on the north, Australia in the east and Africa in the west and the Southern Ocean which is situated in the south.  Its borders were defined in 1953 by Hydrographic Organization.  The average depth of Indian Ocean is 3741 m and the Sunda Trench (earlier known as java trench) is the deepest point of it that has a maximum depth of 7906m.  The important points are Bab el Mandeb, Strait of Hormuz, the Lombok Strait, Strait of Malacca and the Palk Strait.  Its seas are Gulf of Aden, Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Great Australian Bight, Gulf of Oman, Persian Gulf and Red sea.  It is artificially connected to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal. The whole Indian Ocean is lies in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is the warmest ocean of the world and its warming is the largest among the tropical oceans. This essay attempts to discuss the history of Indian Ocean from ancient period to imperial period.

Prehistoric and Ancient Era

It is not easy to date back the human history of the world; same is the case with the Indian Ocean. Early rock art in India as in other places like Africa and South East Asia is very difficult to date to a specific period.  The rock art designs found in caves are believed to be 10,000 and 6,000 years back. This art shows a row of animals outlined in red ochre crayon and filled with crisscross lines. According to scientists, around 8000 years ago the first modern humans left Africa and it was through Indian Ocean. They were originated from a single woman from East Africa and therefore named ‘mitochondrial Eve’ as she was ancestor of many Africans tribes and groups of migrants who populated the rest of the world. Bronze Age is some 3500-1100 BC named after a durable metal made by combining copper and tin together.  In southeast Asia bronze spearheads, bells, axes and jewelry have been discovered and some archaeologists argue that Thailand bay have been one of the first centers of Asian bronze industry. Cowries shells (small, oval mollusks, found in many varieties) are very smooth sea shells only found in Maldives, a chain of islands in Arabian Sea, became very important in world trade as these were used as money around the Indian Ocean.  Cowries have been found in ancient Harappa and in tombs in China in second millennium and later. These were not only used in Asia but also found in West Africa where these were used as money. These also provide proof of seagoing Indian Ocean Trade networks and their connection to land routes. Monsoon Winds blow in Indian Ocean in a regular pattern and are playing its important role in sea trade.  Since the beginning of trade and travel monsoon are very important as in one season a ship could sail from Arabia or East Africa towards coast of India and in other season when the wind change its direction this ship will sail back. Merchants are using monsoon winds roughly since 2000 BC and these winds encouraged regular trade, communication and migration across the Indian Ocean.

Classical and Medieval Era

By the end of Classical Era Sugar was very wonderful luxury for cooking and sweetening in Persia. During the next few centuries, sugar spreader widely in the world through Indian Ocean trade. The Isthmus of Kra is a narrow strip of land that connects the Malay Peninsula to continent of Asia. It separates the Indian Ocean form the China Sea.  Traders of Indian reached the rest of Southeast Asia by crossing the Isthmus of Kra rather making the longer and more difficult journey around the entire Malay Peninsula.  By the first century CE, traders from Arabia and Africa regularly transported across the Indian Ocean, overland through the Isthmus of Kra and up to China.  Merchants even continued to use this trade route when political disputes made land travel dangerous throughout the second and third century.  Muziris was also an ancient port city in today’s Indian state of Kerala.  It was famous trading market for Roman-Indian merchants in India. Around 100-200 CE, in Roman Empire pearl jewelry was very popular.  Pearls which were produced by oysters and fished out of sea were very favorite of wealthy Romans.  Pearls were very ideal trade good because it takes very little room on ships but were very precious and commonly used for jewelry and decoration.  These were also used for medicine.  The world’s best pearls came from the water of the Persian Gulf, near Bahrain, UAE, Qatar and Oman.  

The pearling industry was very important to these countries as to export to Roman Empire. Ibn Battuta a very famous traveler and historian also contribute towards Indian Ocean. He tells a lot about Maldives Islands of Indian Ocean and their exchange of unique resources of their islands that directly lie on the Arabian Sea for necessities and food, metals and brass goods and textiles.  Two products were particularly important one was coconut fiber rope very important for shipping industry and second was cowrie’s shells used as currency at that time.  Cowries are known to have been used as money for Indian Ocean trade from the earliest periods to the 19th century. Ivory was another important product highly traded at that time from India and Southeast Asia but African ivory was highly prized because of shapes and very large tusks of African elephants. These were also very soft for carving.  Greek and Roman geographers reported the trade of ivory from East Africa as early as 4th century BC. 

As trade with east Africa expanded, gold rhinoceros horn, mangrove poles with ivory tusks from the Africa were goods traded through Swahili cities of East Africa.  Interestingly, Bananas have been cultivated since 6000 BC or even earlier in Southeast Asia, and were spread to Indian and China and major sea routes of Indian Ocean by 1000CE. As Islam spread and its contact along the land and water routes, bananas were also spread across the Mediterranean, in Palestine and Egypt, and from North Africa it moved to Muslim Spain and to the West Africa.  Bananas could not be grown in Europe, but later in the 1500s, the Portuguese carried the banana to the New World, where it has been grown since the 1500s. Biruni a very famous historian and geographer contributed a lot with the efforts and help of Caliph al Ma’mun to measure the meridian in the 9th century.  Al Biruni advanced the technology to determine the positioning and coordination of earth and different places. An advanced form of this is known as Global Positioning System (GPS) today.  He also writes a book “The Determination of the Coordinates of Positions for the Correction of Distances between Cities in 1025 CE by using the mathematical geography.  Al Biruni work was very accurate at that time and modern measurements confirm it.

Global Era 1500 to 1770 CE

Among the famous explorer of this era a famous name is Ferdinand Magellan from Portugal born in 1480.  When he was younger he worked as a helper in the Queen’s palace where he heard the fantastic adventures of great sailors like Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Bartholomew Dias, and their discoveries.  Magellan sailed under the Portuguese flag form years until he got a dispute with the Portuguese King.   After it Magellan approached the Spanish King join his fleet with an idea to find a western passage to Spice Islands and to compete with the Portuguese trading system in Indian Ocean.  At the time explorers believed that the Strait of Magellan only opened up into a bay rather than the Pacific Ocean but Magellan believed otherwise.  He sent a small crew to explore the western parts of the strait.  Magellan named the strait as Estrecho de Todos los Santos (the Strait of all Saints) but the Spanish King renamed it in the honor of Magellan as a Strait of Magellan.  Magellan set sail from South American coastline into Pacific Ocean; he named it Pacific as he found it very calm as compared to the Atlantic where he spent the most of time. 

The crew continued the journey for three months without fresh food and many died but ultimately reach to eastern Asia.  This era cannot be concluded without mentioning the Captain Cook.  James Cook is probably the most accomplished European mariner of the 18th century.  He went on three official voyages and spent over a decade at sea from 1766 to 1778. His first voyage was scientific in nature to Pacific Ocean in 1766 to observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun. After his return from first voyage Cook was commissioned to lead another scientific expedition on behalf of Royal Society to search the Terra Australia.  His last voyage was to locate a Northwest Passage around the continent of America.  The purpose of the voyage was to find a Northwest route that many believed led back to Europe.  In 1778 captain James Cook became the first European that has formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands. Cooked named this archipelago the “Sandwich Islands”.  Captain Cook was also murdered in 1779 on a Hawaiian island by local villagers on his final voyage when Tensions rose, and a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans and Hawaiians.  His voyages are best known for their contributions to geographic discovery, science, and the arts.(Rumely. d, 2007) He brought back plants, animals, and collections of art along with maps he made of his South Pacific voyages.

Captain Cook is credited for mapping New Zealand, some Polynesian islands, the eastern coast of Australia and was the first to circumnavigate Antarctica while searching for a southern continent. Captain Cooke was among the first to use the newly perfected chronometer on his Antarctic voyage, a device which allowed him to measure his longitude with precision. The Dutch East India Company also known as The United East Indian Company was founded in 1602 as a charter company by Dutch Government granting it monopoly over Dutch spice trade business. This company came Indian Ocean later than the Portuguese but it dominated the spice trade of Indian Ocean by taking complete control of cloves, nutmeg and mace. On the other hand, although pepper was most important good of trade for this company yet company failed to control the pepper its sale and shipment as it grew in many places and Dutch East Indian Company could not control ever source of pepper.  According to a rough estimate Europeans, in the seventeenth century, carried out almost seven million pounds of pepper shipment from Indian Ocean to Europe every year. In addition to spices, printed fabrics with fantastic flowers of many colors were very important goods of trade. These were originally printed in France. But during the 17th and 18th centuries, Indian style chintz fashion was very popular. 

These were hand painted on smooth cotton fabric with fast color dyes and imported from the India from Gujarat province and were sold in France by British East Indian Company.  Their demand was so high that French lawmakers were afraid that it would hurt French weaver industry so they banned it by law to import and forbidden to wear it. But amazingly, they continued to be popular, even though the French law included the death penalty. The reason was that the Mediterranean port of Marseilles was exempted from all such laws and it became the heaven for smugglers of Indian cottons and from here it was imitated into other parts of France and people wear these cloths secretly in their homes instead of public places.  Ultimately on the pressure of public these fabrics were made legal by lifting up all laws. During this era when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, they established a center point for navigation for their territories around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean.

The Ottomans were well aware of the growing competition from Italy and other European powers. The King, Sultan Mehmet, built a naval ship building arsenal on the Golden Horn, known as Halic in modern Turkey a waterway of Istanbul, and appointed a Commander of the Navy. At the arsenal, galleys, or ships with oars, were built, repaired and equipped with supplies. This arsenal was consisting of more than 200 buildings for preparation and repair of ships, ammunition depot, a mosque, a prison, kitchens for preparing food for working labor and to store on ships, water reserves for fresh water supply for voyage and administration buildings including studios for artisans related to shipping and outfitting.  There was no match Istanbul maritime Arsenal but only one in Arsenal of Venice.  A large Ottoman fleet which expanded in sixteenth century was built in the arsenal. Sultan announced that he would build 500 warships in addition to already existing hundreds of war ships to threaten other powers. They were already controlling the ports in Syria and Egypt, and wanted to hold major Eastern Mediterranean islands. Thousands of men from all over the Ottoman Empire were employed in Ottoman navy.  They were organized into Officers and crews.  The commanders and seamen who sailed and other were the workers and managers of the Arsenal, and both braches were headed by the Grand Admiral of the Fleet who directly reported to the Sultan.  The whole operation was highly organized and well financed. 

The Ottoman Navy kept it organized for centuries and ensure its presence it three major seas. The people living on the Malabar Coast of Kerala province of India are known as Mappilas. This community was grown by intermarriages of Arab traders and local Hindus on the coast of Malabar.  This community maintained peaceful trade relations for centuries with other communities of India and Indian Ocean.  These links with traders of Arab and Persia dated back to centuries.  According to a legend, the King Chera Manperumal Malabar had a vision during the time when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) lived and the king departed to visit Makkah. King Chera Manperumal embraced Islam and supported its spread on the Coast of Malabar. The Malabar mosque, built in 629 CE, is the oldest on the continent of India. It still exists today.   The community of Mappilas developed their own culture in dress, food music and in dance also.  They lived in a peaceful and beneficial way with other groups and communities and Hindu king of Malabar Coast treated them as a merchant caste, who gained wealth and status from their activities as traders.  Famous explorer like Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo mention this community as a peaceful trader.  When Vasco da Gama entered the Indian Ocean he was amazed to know that Muslims were prominent merchants in Africa and Asia and Portuguese had fought against Muslims traders to gain control of trader routes.  They anchored on Malabar Coast with cannons and demanded the Hindu rulers to expel the Muslim traders from the coast. 

The Hindu rulers were stunned and refused to do so. Portuguese bombarded the towns and demanded the control of seas also authority to allow the passage by special permission.  This situation was very awful for Mappilas so they retreated inland and became farmers or involved into fishing business.  Others used their maritime skills and fought against Portuguese ships, captured them and continue trading.  To the Portuguese the Mappilas were pirates and smugglers. The Europeans used the Carracks to take the control of all trade in Indian Ocean.  They also armed these ships and attacked major ports of Indian Ocean for example Mombasa and Kilwa in Africa, and Calicut and Malabar Coast in India.  They also attacked on Arab merchant’s ships and other ships that have not trading permits form Portuguese government.  This was to take all the trade control of Indian Ocean trade and to control the ports. However, they only had limited success and they met a great resistance from Ottoman Empire Navy and from other Europeans.  Besides, the Indian Ocean was too large to control by this way.

The Opium became also an important product for trade. Opium poppies are natively grown in Mediterranean region from thousands of years. From this it traveled to Greek, China and also to India by sea routes before 12th century.  Opium poppies were grown also in India and the Mughal Empire controlled the trader of Opium.  The Narcotic property of opium was used as a medicinal plant and its use can be found in Greek and Arabic manuscripts.  When Muslim medical work was translated in European languages it also became known to Europeans.  The trade of opium increased extensively after the entry of Europeans into Indian Ocean region in 16th century. It was imported to Europe as a popular medicine.  Portuguese also trader the it from India to China and the Dutch brought into China and Japan the practice of smoking opium through tobacco pipes.  After the weakened the Mughal Empire the British gained power in India and British East India Company gained complete control of trade also of opium and started taxing the sale of Indian Opium. European also gave very importance to opium by using it as an exchange commodity for trading of tea, silk and porcelain instead of gold and silver.  They expectant Chinese merchants to buy opium they bought in India as an exchange for trade. Soon the Chinese became addicted of it and by seeing all this situation Chinese government banned its import and use. But on the other hand British started its smuggling and increased opium production as it was most profitable crop. This all situation leaded to Opium Wars between China and British East India Company.

Industrial and Imperial Era         

During 19th century the Royal Geographic Society of Britain announced a prize competition to find and chart the Nile’s source.  Two explorers Captain John H. Speke and Captain Sir Richard F. Burton found this in 1858. Captain Speke named the lake after the Queen Victoria. James Bruce a Scottish explorer also claimed to be the first from Europe to reach to Nile source.The people working on ships of British were known as Lascars. The word Lascar is drawn from the Persian language that means army.  This term was used by the East India Company for the persons who were working on their ships.  These persons were skillful seamen, rope makers, ship carpenter and other crew needed on the board belonging from different regions of coastal areas of Asia.  These were free men who sold their services for wages mostly came from Indian Ocean region. These people were later settled.  There life was not easy and they had to do all the chores of the shipping life.  The Lascars worked long shifts in the dark, hot, dangerous engine rooms and coal furnaces that powered the ships. By 1928, there were more Lascars employed on British ships. Slave trade was common in regions associated to Indian Ocean. Slavery in the Indian Ocean was consisting of a wide variety of peoples of scattered cultural and backgrounds. 

Peoples were involved in different capacities as slaves, slave traders and owners of slave’s form regions of Africa, Arab, Asia and Europe. Male slaves were indulging in the business of pearl divers, ship crew, employed into trade, working in agricultural fields and as soldiers of wars while female slaves often worked in homes as maids, nannies and nurses.   In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries African slaves demand was rapidly increased because of less price and hard working.  British worked hard to end slavery. British Empire declared protect zone for slavery. But unfortunately, till to date, slavery is persisting is some sorts of forced labor, especially involving women, children and poor population of third world countries and refugees. Suez Canal was also built during this era. This is the artificial waterway is 163 km long, running north to south across the Isthmus of Suez in northeastern Egypt and shorted the distance between the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. This canal is one of most important water ways of the world.  This is also known as crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia because it is interlinking these three continents. It was built in 1856 by a French company after ten years’ hard work.  This made trade easy as traders had not to sail around the Africa or carry goods overland and gained its importance to European Imperial powers. in combination with the expansion of the American transcontinental railroad, the canal permitted the world to be circled in record time. The Suez Canal was not initially a financial success for Egypt, nor for France. Due to the growing debt required to finance it, Egypt was forced to sell the canal to Great Britain in 1875.

The English controlled the Suez Canal until shortly after Egypt regained its independence from Britain and nationalized the canal. Steamships changed the Indian Ocean trade by opening new routes that were not dependent on the winds.  By the mid to end of the 19th century, the British Empire had the largest and most successful naval force in the world powered by steam. Steam power allowed for expanded exploration of the continents, the mass movement of people around the world, and caused great changes in the trade system. During the period of the steam engine ships grew larger and faster, but they had to refuel often. The ships were first used for short and regular service, like mail and wealthy passengers. These first ships had a huge advantage over sailing ships, in that they were much easier to navigate upstream and this made rivers and canals more accessible. Steam-driven railways also transformed the British Empire, and the Indian Ocean region, increasing business activity, and giving consumers access to cheaper goods. In 19th century the most important and the busiest port of Arabian Peninsula was the city of Muscat in Oman. Being an international port, the city was heavily populated, having different religious, and multi-ethnic. Muscat was the crossroads of trade between East Africa, the eastern shores of the Gulf, and western India. In the 19th century every kind of merchandise could be found, silk and linen, spices, dates, coffee brought across the desert by caravans, pearls, grapes, bananas, figs, butter, fowl, and many more. Muscat was known for being supreme in trade and military power, and the city produced a lot of wealth for the Omani nation. Omani rulers carried out careful associations with customary Indian Ocean trading partners and with the European powers. They even concluded a trade treaty with the Americans.

*Ali Nagri, PhD Candidate, School of Politics and International Studies

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