Discretion is sometimes necessary. It allows people who cannot ordinarily be seen to speak their minds or share information in a “public” sphere do so with enthusiasm and, I dare say, relief. I was at one such gathering late last week, to discuss India’s security situation. It involved internal security, but not limited to left-wing extremism. And, external security, but not limited to Pakistan.
Chatham House rules prevent me from divulging the venue, names of those who attended, and who said what. But I can share that the two-day meeting took place in southern India under the aegis of an emerging Indian think tank and a major Indian corporation. It included top serving and retired officials from the country’s security and diplomatic establishments; CEOs; members of Parliament; heads of think tanks; top academics from India and those of Indian origin, analysts and consultants; and editors. Too, I can share some broad thoughts and ideas that emerged from this refreshingly diverse and largely open-minded group.
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The upshot, of which some elements would be recognizable as conventional wisdom while others would clearly be appreciated as important admission by members of the establishment, was on the following lines:
Whatever we like to think about the growing foreign policy prowess of India, it is—and will be—governed by India’s internal health. Internal security challenges, mentioned a former chief of army, are far greater than external security challenges.
India’s internal health has been greatly boosted by an increasingly robust economic performance over the past two decades. The islands of visible progress such as urban wealth, shopping malls, better airport terminals, several expressways, and better communications attest to India’s economic strength, but the country also continues to be deeply vulnerable.
Such vulnerability was perceived to certainly derive from the ongoing concerns related to left-wing extremism and several other forms of extremism, from the religious to that based on issues of caste. More importantly, however, concerns were perceived to accrue from deep socio-economic inequity, institutionalized corruption, issues of non-governance and misgoverning, and, a lack of understanding that while India’s glass may be perceived by professional optimists as being half full, the other half continues to be disastrously half empty.
There were several other issues, ranging from a growing population and consequent resource pressures, to the general “unemployability” of the great demographic bulge of India’s youth, further beset by continuing pressures of migration from rural to urban spaces, listed as areas of great concern. The pressure on land, among the last resources open to monetizing, was, of course, a key pointer.
Miscarriage of governance came in for special mention as a root cause of ills, and it was generally agreed that, unless this particular menace was not addressed and evangelized from the political leadership down—cutting across parties and states—India’s vulnerabilities would not decrease.
In the regional and the overseas scheme of things, three outcomes—corollaries, really—came through clearly. One: reach out to, cultivate and befriend the regional neighbourhood. Two: Pakistan is not the issue, and, even if it is seen as a client-state of China, its irritable aspects can gradually be contained. And three: the country to watch for India is not Pakistan, but China; and so, why expend so much intellectual and materiel energy on the former, and not the latter?
Moreover, while China reaches out to countries like Pakistan, Myanmar and North Korea—“its natural allies”, according to a foreign policy and security mandarin—India’s natural allies are relatively more robust and progressive countries like Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. But while it may appear to be a play of strong-arm versus relatively benign arm, it would do India good to not overreach with China, but play a game that is a combination of humility and smarts. Work its way up. It needs to be acknowledged, mentioned a technology CEO, that China, for instance, produces over 2,600 computer science PhDs a year; India produces 26. But there was unanimity that, while China may be the Middle Kingdom, India has a good bet to become the Middle Model of development.
Several possible solutions were discussed at the gathering, which I hope to share in subsequent columns. There was a mandate of searching out many more solutions. And then, to begin the most difficult process of evangelizing these to the powers that are and power that will be. The tipping point of persuasion may have arrived with a compelling reality: There is a country at stake.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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