With Prime Minister Narendra Modi set for a second term in office, it is being predicted that there will be continuity in certain policies concerning national security such as “zero tolerance" on terrorism, deepening of reforms in defence echelons as well as fine-tuning of policies towards the US, China and Pakistan.
All these elements, said analysts, are key to making India a “leading" power as envisioned by Modi.
The wish list drawn up by analysts include the launch of big-ticket economic reforms that will give a major push to the economy and in turn result in greater resources for the defence budget aiding modernization, a greater focus on the activities of the Islamic State in India while thwarting threats from Pakistan-based terrorist groups as well as building an effective coalition among countries including China to navigate global economic and strategic uncertainties —some posed by the US like the trade barriers. On the domestic front, the analysts expect an improvement in intelligence gathering and the initiation of police reforms.
On the continuity front, one of the key policies which is expected to sustain is the government’s tough stance on terrorism. Modi’s first term in office was marked by the “surgical strikes" against terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control in Kashmir in September 2016 and the air strike on a terrorist training camp in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on 26 February. Both were in response to terrorist attacks—the former in the wake of an attack against an army garrison in Uri in 2016 while the latter followed the 14 February suicide attack on Indian paramilitary personnel in Pulwama.
“The strike on Balakot will compel future governments to go beyond PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) in response to any future strike. Anything less will reduce the strategic space we have opened up now and will be rejected by public opinion," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal who is of the view that the strikes against Pakistan have meant rewriting the rules of engagement with Pakistan and dealing with terrorism.
On the diplomatic front, the Modi government was successful in rallying countries in its support to ensure that Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist group chief Maulana Masood Azhar was declared a terrorist by the United Nations.
“But along with these threats emanating from Pakistan, India now has to keep a close eye on the activities of the Islamic State in India," said Sreeram Chaulia, a professor of international relations at Sonepat-based O.P Jindal University.
“If you look at it, many of the IS terrorists who targeted Sri Lanka on 21 April, shot their videos in India. We need to expand our focus on beyond (Pakistan-based) terrorist groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba whose main focus is Kashmir. The threat from the IS is much deeper and India needs to cooperate with the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to focus on this threat," Chaulia said.
While India has been focused on the strategic challenges posed by China, New Delhi should look at taking the “Wuhan spirit" forward, Chaulia said. He was referring to an informal summit between Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping in April 2018 that was seen as helping stabilize ties rocked by a 73-day military standoff in Bhutan’s Doklam region, one of the worst face-offs between the two nations in decades.
“If we have been able to persuade the Chinese to back us to brand (JeM chief) Masood Azhar a terrorist by the UN, we should try and reach an understanding with China on Pakistan," Chaulia said.
Meanwhile, ties with the US have warmed up in the past two decades—with four US presidential visits to India and a deepening of defence and strategic cooperation. However, since Donald Trump became the US president in 2017, several irritants have cropped up in bilateral ties—with divergent positions over trade as well as the future of Afghanistan.
Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the new government would have to cope with “strategic threats posed by Beijing," and “geopolitical fickleness on the part of the US, which will repeatedly call into question New Delhi’s gamble to rely on Washington for help with balancing China."
India’s current trade disputes with the US “have the potential not only to undermine the developing bilateral intimacy necessary for the successful balancing of China but to actually embarrass the Indian prime ministers who have bet on Washington in the face of considerable domestic scepticism," he said in a recent article.
“Preserving this asymmetric balance (between the US and China), which involves deepening ties with Washington while simultaneously minimizing the offence to Beijing, will remain a continuing challenge for India’s new government, especially when China appears far more predictable and conciliatory than the US."
On Pakistan, analysts were divided over whether Modi should look at re-engaging with Pakistan or not. While Chaulia was of the view that Modi could look at “some kind of solution or settlement" vis-à-vis Pakistan, Sibal was of the view that India should not offer Pakistan the “diplomatic lifeline" of engagement.
Chaulia said Modi needs to look at big-ticket economic reforms in his second term, which he said, would boost India’s growth by making more resources available for defence spending. India’s GDP grew by an estimated 7% in 2018-19. The 2019 interim budget presented on 1 February allocated ₹4.31 trillion to the defence ministry. Though the budget represents an 8% increase over the previous year, it is seen as too little to take on the modernization plans of all the three services. “In 2018-19, the shortage of funds for the three services alone amounted to 30%—or about ₹1.12 trillion—against a projected requirement of ₹3.71 trillion," said Lakshman K. Behera, an analyst with New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses think tank. “What is of greater concern for the MoD is that this shortage is unlikely to be bridged in the next few budgets," he said on account of populist measures promised by the government and the fiscal consolidation path committed by the finance ministry.
Another area needing attention is higher defence reforms, said Mrinal Suman, a former major general. “Given the experience of Pulwama and Balakot, I think the prime minister has understood that the defence apparatus needs fine tuning. You need joint commands, specialised units for meeting cyber threats and space warfare. Some of this has been done, but some other reforms like the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff are long pending and need action," Suman said.
“I expect measures to encourage defence manufacturing in India," he added referring to a key policy plank of the Modi government which was to encourage local manufacturing of weapons—boosting investments as well as jobs besides attracting cutting edge technologies to India, one of the world’s top arms importer.
On the domestic front, there aren’t many challenges that the new government needs to worry about, said Manoj Joshi, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation think tank.
Maoist attacks have largely declined and there have been no major terrorist attacks in the country during Modi’s first term in office. However, the new government has to take more steps to beef up internal security especially in Jammu and Kashmir, said analysts.
“I think the (Modi) government should focus more on improving the situation inside Kashmir," said Joshi at ORF.