May 11, 2014
As the dust of the hotly contested general elections begins to settle and memories of acid rhetoric begin to recede, India’s new leadership will have to grapple with a host of major problems.
Undoubtedly the domestic economy, security of its citizens and effective delivery of social security and health services must be priority. These challenges will be accentuated by the young voters, who constitute almost 21% of the electorate and have high aspirations, a low threshold of tolerance and demand visibly different policies from what they have witnessed over the years.
This makes it imperative for any new government to ensure that impactful and visible delivery begins within the first six months. Failure to do so will subject it to trenchant, persistent and possibly debilitating criticism.
A few immediate foreign and strategic policy challenges will, however, have to be tackled equally promptly if India is not to be marginalised even in its own strategic neighbourhood.
Most immediate are the developments unfolding in Afghanistan and the threat from Pakistan. As US troops prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan and hitherto effective CIA-trained specialist forces begin to go home, the Taliban will regain lost ground in the Afghan countryside.
Attacks against the Afghan and international security forces have already intensified. This will simultaneously relieve pressure on Pakistan’s borders. India will have to find ways to retain meaningful influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s establishment has in the past few weeks signalled its readiness to allow terrorist actions against India by increasing the incidence of firing along the LoC, attempting to push in terrorists, and permitting free movement by leaders of jihadi terrorist groups like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar. India’s new leadership will need to keep carefully calibrated ripostes ready for prompt implementation against imminent terrorist attacks.
More significant, but longer-term, is the challenge posed by China’s recently unveiled policy of ‘Peripheral Diplomacy’ (zhoubian), which brings India’s strategically sensitive borders and neighbourhood within the ambit of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy.
This policy for the first time ever categorises neighbouring countries as ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ and warns those obstructing China’s quest for pre-eminence in the region to be prepared for punitive measures over a sustained period.
It seeks to co-opt neighbours into supporting its regional ambitions through either outright financial largesse or economic dependency, supplemented by a network of bilateral and regional security alliances. The latter raises the spectre of India being ringed by China-led, or China-dominated, security alliances.