Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | India is grossly underinvested in studying its friends and foes

The loss of 20 of our soldiers in a violent confrontation with the Chinese army in Galwan Valley of Ladakh must have been a rude shock to the Narendra Modi government, which has invested so much diplomatic effort in engaging China, with the Prime Minister himself seeking to build an equation with China’s President Xi Jinping. Critics of the Modi foreign policy blame his personalized style of diplomacy, but it would be a mistake to think that personal equations do not matter in international relations.

The real problem is that India has simply not invested enough institutional resources to understand the culture, history, interests and political world-views of its major allies and trade partners (the US, Russia, Israel), leave alone its adversaries (Pakistan, China), or even its neighbours (Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh). We tend to have extremely leftist or rightist positions on our friends and foes, either rose-tinted or deeply negative.

When it comes to diplomacy, we expect retired foreign-service bureaucrats and the occasional China, Pakistan or US “expert" to offer inputs. The problem with this approach is that Indian Foreign Service bureaucrats, with a few exceptions, are jacks-of-all-trades. They may understand aspects of protocol and have some familiarity with India’s key geopolitical challenges based on their own postings and personal readings, but this is no substitute for a detailed institutionalized study of our friends, enemies and neighbours. The Indian foreign-service establishment—both those currently in office and those who may have retired—does not have the ability to provide real inputs for how our governments should conduct Indian foreign policy.

Take a case like China. We all know it is a greedy power, a country that believes its time to dominate the world as a hegemon has come, but how many in our China think tanks know Mandarin, Chinese history, its internal fault-lines, the way the Communist party functions, and how that country became the factory to the world?

The same shortcomings become apparent in understanding Nepal, with which we have a generous trade and transit treaty that lets Nepalese citizens freely cross the border and work in India. This is over and above our shared religious and cultural ties. The Indian army has many Gorkhas from Nepal serving with it, and on retirement they often enjoy higher status and pensions than what they may otherwise have received. Despite all this, Nepal’s government amended its constitution to change its maps to claim the Kalapani and Lipulekh areas of Uttarakhand. Now that this map is hard-coded into Nepal’s constitution, no nationalist party there will be bold enough to change it, even if we achieve better understanding and rapport in a dialogue. Clearly, we have not understood why this happened all of a sudden, and how a permanent wedge has been driven into bilateral ties. It is easy to say this was done at Chinese instigation, but how did India misread the situation so badly, despite having close cultural links with Nepal? Why were we not able to prevent this map revision through pre-emptive talks and a better understanding of the political situation in Nepal? Again, this shows our lack of institutional capacity in understanding a neighbour with whom we have been generous with trade and people-movement concessions.

The case with Bangladesh is similar. The government of Sheikh Hasina is friendly to India, and has been helpful in apprehending terrorists operating from Bangladeshi soil. The key Indian move that sent the relationship plummeting was the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019, which promised an early shot at Indian citizenship to “persecuted" minorities in the subcontinent, mainly Hindus. The CAA is a valid way to provide refuge to persecuted people in the neighbourhood, but did we do much to prepare the Bangladeshi government for the new law? Did we try to offer options on how to mitigate problems arising from a possible National Register of Citizens, which may withdraw the citizenship rights of Bangladeshis identified as illegal immigrants? Could we not have suggested a Nepal-like deal, where migrants from Bangladesh would have work permits, but not voting rights? This way, the border could remain porous, but electoral rolls would not be affected.

India’s geopolitical challenges stem partly from a serious lack of resources in developing a clear understanding of our key neighbours, trading partners and current and potential enemies. We need to invest more in studying the forces that are shaping our world, and this calls for massive investment in building expertise on the countries we deal or share borders with. For a start, we should invest in developing expertise on the US, European Union, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Later, we should have think tanks dedicated to studying Latin America or Africa and the remaining parts of Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia.

We cannot get good diplomacy and healthy geopolitical outcomes without real knowledge, and knowledge needs deep and long-term institutional investment in the generation of expertise.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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