My room at the National University of Singapore overlooks the lush greenery of the botanical gardens, and the quiet and peace is in stark contrast to the upheaval in South Asia. Last week, there was the question of why the Pakistan military had agreed to take on the Taliban—with several Pashtun regiments and Frontier regiments in the armed forces, it is quite inconceivable that these soldiers will agree to fight their own brethren. The clear consensus at our institute was that the Pakistan army is running rings around the US, extracting concessions and weaponry and engaging with the Taliban to please the Americans, and that after a few skirmishes, the army would declare success and withdraw. There is a real threat that we will see them within our borders in the next decade.
The events in Nepal overshadowed the latter part of the week, and from an Indian point of view, it appeared quite astonishing that a constitutional president (some say with India’s blessing) would ask the army chief to stay on and disobey the government. Some of the scholars in the institute wrote quite strongly last week about this in newspapers.
And finally, the running wound of the events in Sri Lanka continued to fester, and it was quite clear that the end of the war was but the beginning of a period of further conflict, which could be won only through accommodation, communication and understanding from both sides, which does not seem likely. There are real concerns that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam will infiltrate into Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and use these states as a base for operations, as well as for resources.
The discussions at the institute centred on the attitude, strategy and responses of India. From the point of view of an outsider, there does not appear to be a clear strategy to deal with these neighbourhood issues. It is quite amazing that the establishment and the policymakers are viewing all these events as developments that would not have long-term repercussions on India, that they would not affect us at all.
The important conclusion from this that in the last two months, there have been events in the region that are far more important for the stability of India than the economic crisis or the fiscal deficit, and it is unfortunate that these events have occurred at a time when the entire government machinery has been in election mode and unable to respond. These threats are real and need cool and mature strategic solutions, lest they threaten, in the long term, the Indian way of life altogether.
Irrespective of the coalition that comes to power and quite irrespective of the groups that vie for positions in power, the priorities for the nation have shifted, and are shifting. It is important to assume that for all political parties, small or big, preservation of this democracy and stability are important, and therefore, there are tasks that need to be done from the national perspective rather than merely from the point of view of power and commerce.
First, it is important that we strengthen ourselves in order to protect and defend ourselves against infiltration and terrorism. This would mean the modernization of the police forces, more equipment, training—especially in intelligence—and the deployment of the enormously sophisticated technical skills that we possess, in remote sensing, computers and electronics, to secure our borders and to safeguard our citizens.
The territorial waters need to be defended better. The positions of the defence and home ministers have become the most important, and whatever the combination, whoever the incumbent, it must be one that is nation-minded and fired with the zeal of making India safe for its citizens.
Second, these messages must be communicated to the world at large, and a strategic position adopted in diplomacy, trade and energy security. It is important that the external affairs minister be a combination of a diplomat with intimate knowledge of trade and commerce, to further India’s interests. In particular, the new Afghanistan-Pakistan policy of the US has repercussions for India and needs careful management. China and Asia require greater and better engagement.
The position of finance minister is very important, but I would put that in the third place. In fact, what is required is a mature, seasoned politician who is able to position talented people in the institutions under his charge and to allow them to work.
Most importantly, given the pulls and pushes of coalition politics, there should be a clear understanding that strengthening India to deal with internal dissensions and external threats is the most important task before the government in the coming days and that these issues will not go away unless confronted and dealt with. There should be no compromise on these ministries, and the best from any party, with a national bent of mind, should be placed there and accorded the full support of all.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org