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Narendra Modi shines on world stage, labours at home

‘India First’. This phrase, used liberally by the then Indian prime ministerial candidate from Gujarat, Narendra Modi, captured the imagination of many Indians because it responded to the Indian moment.

In 2013-14, Candidate Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were determined to restore a semblance of pride in a population scarred by corruption scandals and government bloopers. The national shame resulting from the ghastly rape of December 2013 destroyed brand India and darkened the national mood. And the economy, India’s invincible proposition to the world for over a decade, began to head south. The nation was restless and impatient. There was a growing clamour for strong leadership.


This was the India of just over two years ago, when #NaMo began to trend on social media. This was when Candidate Modi would have sensed that he had a fair chance of winning. This was also when the ‘man of action’, the new loh purush (‘man of steel’), made his promises to an expectant nation and laid out his vision of a re-energised India.

Nearly a year later, it is a good moment to reflect on that promise.

It would be fair to say that there seem to be two Modis. The first is Prime Minster Modi on the world stage, a rock star when he’s abroad and when he receives foreign dignitaries. He is flamboyant in resetting the India narrative in Western capitals and closing in on lucrative partnerships in Asia. He has injected new dynamism in how India engages with its neighbourhood. He deploys slick messaging and leverages the Indian diaspora to create a sense of optimism. The US President waxes eloquent about him in TIME and even the Germans acknowledge the masterful conduct of the ‘Make in India’ outreach at their prestigious industrial fair.

Then there is the Prime Minister at home, with a different look and feel about him.

He is determined at one level, as he stakes his political capital on reforming the land acquisition law, and while pushing forth a slew of new initiatives like replacing the economic planning body (the Planning Commission) with a contemporary organisation. On the other hand, you sense there are some wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out. There are times when you can see him pensively watching parliamentary proceedings as the lack of majority in the upper house impedes him. There is reluctance while communicating his vision and policies, and an inability to deploy the same communication means to reach out to citizens that got him the top job in the first place.

Clearly then, as we clock in year one, there is much to be done at home for the Indian Prime Minister, if the disconnect between the external messaging and the politics at home is to be reconciled.

India’s most powerful proposition to the world remains an India that offers opportunity to Indians and to others who want to engage with it. It was on this promise of hope, domestic reform and growth that Modi was elected. His election slogans held a two-fold promise: Acche din aane wale hain (‘good days are about to come’), and na khaoonga, na khaane doonga (‘neither will I take bribes nor will I allow others to’). These slogans alluded first to a government that delivers on its promises and is sensitive to the aspirations of youth, and second to a commitment to systemic reform, with corruption a metaphor for bad governance.

Once the scale of his victory became clear, the Prime Minister’s first tweet was acche din aa gaye (‘good days have come’). Implicit in this declaration was that his election was a mandate for change and that change would be rapid, not incremental. If expectations of the new government were high, it was because Modi himself led India to expect a tectonic shift.

The Modi campaign was clever in seizing upon a rare confluence of the needs of big businesses and the bottom of the pyramid. Both needed financial-sector reforms and innovation. While at one end investable capital was needed through creative instruments, at the other end basic financial inclusion, distress loans and lifeline banking were crucial.

Big businesses sought employable human capital to scale up operations, to climb global value chains and to optimise labour productivity (a fifth of China’s). The bottom of the pyramid needed skilling initiatives, basic education, digital literacy and technical education that would allow them to participate in the modern economy and make their ‘mom and pop’ operations more profitable.

Both big business and small operations needed market access, roads, ports, energy and digital highways that would allow them to compete in the global marketplace. To deliver on these was essentially the ‘Modi Promise’.

So it was not surprising that in his early days he rolled out the ‘universal banking scheme’ (Jan Dhan Yojana), the Digital India Initiative and the ‘skilling’ initiatives alongside the ‘Make in India’ thrust. Earlier this year, in its first full budget, the Modi Government announced schemes to support micro-enterprises, innovation start-ups and a pro-industry economic orientation that was appreciated by many. The Finance Commission recommendations on federalising tax receipts and giving more to state governments was accepted. Several social sector and welfare schemes were left to the autonomous design of state governments. India was seen to be moving towards a more decentralised system that resonated with the campaign promise of ‘More Governance, Less Government.’

While the schemes and initiatives announced were on the ball, some of the tactics and processes that their success may depend upon need to be rethought and reorganised. Four in particular need attention.

First, the PM may have to oversee a more sophisticated management of parliament. BJP has to reach out to a variety of political actors in the upper house of parliament (and their own coalition partners) effectively. They are unlikely to have the numbers for a few years and the country may run out of patience before then.

The second would be to be mindful of the contradiction between seeking to expand one’s political base across the country while at the same time striving to deliver economic restructuring that responds to promises and expectations. As the political expansion takes place, policy compromises may seem tempting and could dilute the ‘Modi mandate’. Already the talk in some circles is that the real opposition the Prime Minister faces is within his party. The nationalist and insular component of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (the parent organisation of the ruling party) is vocal in its  opposition to a number of forward-looking measures the Government may opt for, be it issue foreign investment in certain sectors, labour reform or the reorganisation of the food and agriculture sectors.

The third is the fundamental tension between the centralisation and concentration of power within the Prime Minister’s Office, and the ambition to federalise and devolve governance horizontally and vertically. The Prime Minister’s Office is already under some flak for empire building, delays and inefficiency. What worked in Gujarat may not work for India.

And finally, the PM’s core instinct to operate through the bureaucracy (or a select few among them) may preclude the possibility of lateral hiring of talent that many of his key initiatives do need. While the Chief Minister-civil servant duopoly served Modi well in Gujarat, the decision-making high table may well have to be enlarged if real change is to be effected in New Delhi.

The Government’s honeymoon is perhaps already over and realistically it has another 6 to 12 months to start putting flesh on the bare-bone schemes and ideas announced this past year. If these do not eventuate, one may well witness emptier stadiums abroad and hear shriller voices at home. Ultimately, for PM Modi to sell the Incredible India story, he will need to make India credible.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.


A time to lead

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India must seek to deftly institutionalise an “India Exception” in cyberspace through bilateral deals with governments and institutions that manage the internet.

Today, Den Hague will be at the centre of the cyber world as over 100 delegations assemble for the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS) hosted by the Dutch government. India’s participation at such forums must factor in two important realities of the digital space.

The first challenges the core of how India conducts its diplomacy, a structural bias that seems to repose too much faith in the UN framework. Despite being the principal multilateral institution, the UN represents a legacy arrangement, too slow to govern this dynamic and rapidly evolving medium. It is frequently outflanked by the private sector, bilateral agreements and smart mini-lateral groups pursuing independent agendas. Even in the real world, the UN has been bypassed in Syria, Yemen and Iran, merely agreeing to what formations like the P5+1 decide. On the internet,the  “code” is already the “law”, where every digital transaction and every user sign-up to a digital service is creating a de jure legal framework that is defining internet governance. Users and industry are determining and enforcing laws like never before, and at a speed that neither nation-states nor the UN is designed to cope with.

The second reality, however, underscores the role of the state in managing the digital commons. India’s government must play an active role in formulating the rules for the road, given its social responsibility to ensure equitable access to the one billion “unconnected” citizens for service and governance delivery. But this poses flexibility problems, as governments are incapable of being as nimble as industry or users, and government participation can be both polarising and burdensome. The poser, therefore, is how to retain agency with the government while leveraging the creative capacities outside.

These two factors must be part of any engagement calculus, and responding to them may require India to pursue a policy approach that must have four central features. First, India must seek to deftly institutionalise an “India Exception” in cyberspace through bilateral deals with governments and institutions that manage the internet. One example is how the India-US civil nuclear deal forced an acceptance of India’s exceptional status. Similarly, China’s bilateral climate deal with the US has ensured that the debate on Chinese baseline emissions has changed dramatically. Such bilateral deals are vital to the pursuit of national interest. They create direction and momentum, which other nations and institutions begin to respond to.

One attractive option for India is to work towards a bilateral “digital economy and security partnership” with the US, free from multilateral meddling and the resultant dilution of interests. Such an agreement creates the critical mass for shaping internet governance. It would bring together two large digital economies already bound by commerce. It would also signal a compact between an incumbent power and an emerging power, between developed and developing nations. If managed properly, this gain can then be socialised through smart mini-lateral arrangements with like-minded countries. This brings us to the second feature.

India should take the lead in setting up a group of experts from 15 to 20 countries in the digital sector to shape internet governance, a proverbial “D-20”. Such a forum would translate the key features of India’s bilateral agreements into global norms and bring it cyber heft. The chances of entering into effective agreements in line with core interests are far higher at this forum than with unproductive posturing at the UN, where India would have the same weight as, say, Tuvalu. The trick would be to find the correct size and composition with the correct entry parameters, open enough to allow others in as they become relevant.

Third, India should consolidate its leadership by creating ideation forums to shape the discourse, rather than opposing or reacting to others, such as the NetMundial initiative. This could take the shape of a major annual conference or summit, given critical weight by being chaired by the prime minister, and co-convened by the telecom and external affairs ministers. This would also complement the “Digital India” initiative of this administration. Such a platform must be diverse in order to present a more palatable multicolour debate, as opposed to a state-centric position.

Last, to bring all these Indian stakeholders on the same page, an Indian internet governance council must be established. Combining features of the Niti Aayog (digital economy) and a national security advisory board (cyber security), such a platform would bypass the multilateral versus multi-stakeholder debates by organising diverse Indian positions into a comprehensive whole. The government must learn to synthesise domestic opinion like a Swiss knife — common in purpose but different in deployment — so as to allow voices outside government to represent India equally effectively.

Ultimately, India must accept its own exceptionalism. It must thereafter understand how to establish it. India is in a position to shape cyberspace debates, but for that it will need to be flexible, propositional and present everywhere that internet governance is debated. Its strong and diverse contingent at The Hague is a good beginning.

The writers are at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi



A meeting in Paris

April 9, 2015, The Hindu

Original link is here


If India & France move beyond Rafale deal stalemate, they could achieve a lot in areas of nuclear technology, regional cooperation, climate talks.

There is quite an air of anticipation around the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to France. The government’s foreign policy pace has been enviable, and Narendra Modi has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude in gauging the mood and the space to manoeuvre with various partners. He has revitalised old relationships and lent them his energy. He has also achieved some real strategic gains,such as the one in Seychelles. The visit to France is pregnant with possibilities that are rooted in a historic context and which now need to be leveraged on a broader plane.

France has always been a critical partner to India in high technology areas. Its bid to aid India in the diversification of its defence sector began as early as 1953, when the Dassault-Ouragan fighters were supplied to the India Air Force and played a leading role in the 1961 liberation of Goa. Significantly, when India-U.K. defence relations soured in the 1970s, France emerged as the only western power willing to supply India with state-of-the-art weaponry and support its space programme and nuclear development. The importance of France as a key partner was accentuated in 1998 when, following India’s nuclear tests, France actively thwarted United Nations Security Council sanctions and forced a toning down of the final language even as the Russians dithered. During that period, India’s agreement to launch satellites from French Guinea stayed intact despite the sanctions imposed by other European Union countries across a range of technological sectors, especially space. In 1999, during the Kargil war, the French maintained a supply of spares to the IAF, which allowed it to operate without worrying about expending smart weapon reserves.

France was arguably the first western country to de-hyphenate its relations with Pakistan from those with India, deciding that the artificial “balance of power” equation between the two was passé. Today, France is at the forefront of India’s ambitions of modernising its sub-surface fleet. Scorpène class submarines are being built at Mazagaon docks and Dassault’s Rafale has won the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. India’s only dedicated military satellite, the GSAT-7, was launched from Ariane 5, from Kourou.

Despite all this, it seems as if the tenor of the Indo-French engagement is being determined only by the progress on the Rafale deal. Much like the U.S. and India relationship, which had to find a way past the Civil Nuclear Agreement that hung heavy like the proverbial albatross, the India-France partnership must move beyond the circular meanderings that the negotiations look like to outsiders. One way or another, we must strive for an early conclusion, as this is not just about one set of aircraft but about investment in a host of current and future possibilities presented by India’s growing economic and geo-strategic strength. The Rafale deal must be placed in a broader framework of association. This framework could include three key elements, among others.

Nuclear cooperation

The first is for France to translate into action its previously expressed acceptance of India’s stance of nuclear exceptionalism and for the two countries to enter into full-spectrum collaboration. Such a partnership should be aimed at reducing the incubation time of Indian nuclear technologies and would cover the full nuclear cycle, including reactors, enrichment and reprocessing. This nuclear cooperation would logically extend into the sphere of military nuclear propulsion. The upcoming French Barracuda class SSN, for example, is optimally suited to the Indian Navy’s needs. If India buying the Rafale is the truest sign of India’s commitment to the relationship, then the nuclear submarine may well be the litmus test of French reciprocity.

But, again, it is important not to get fixated only on the big-ticket items but to use the other opportunities that signature government initiatives like “Skilling” and “Make in India” offer alongside these big deals. The French could, for example, help develop the defence sector eco-system in India, especially in the small and medium segments, investing in skills and capacity building here. This is where the real value addition takes place in the defence business and this could be the differentiator between France and other countries.

The second element must be regional cooperation. Increasingly, the interests of the two countries have intersected and their views tend to be similar even if their positions are not. Much of this is because Indian and French foreign policies share the same fundamental view of strategic autonomy and refuse to cede security primacy to one or two actors. It was because of this that India had, in 2013, co-sponsored a UN resolution that paved the way for French intervention in Mali. This is why it needs to cooperate in the Indian Ocean, West Asia and North Africa. India and France have significant interests here and it is perhaps time to build a robust platform for dialogue that will allow the two nations to cooperate meaningfully.

West Asia and North Africa are in the midst of a turbulent period of dramatic change. India’s chief task is to secure its energy source, the safety of its diaspora, and the stability of its extended neighbourhood. France will continue to play a significant role in the region.

As for the Indian Ocean area, France is a major power here and has demonstrated some degree of interest in cooperating with India. A focussed engagement would also be a natural extension of the collaboration envisaged here between the U.S. and India earlier this year. Co-investing with France in a ‘research’ facility located in Mauritius may serve as the point of convergence for such a regional play. This could form the basis for intensified cooperation on maritime domain awareness, building capacity in Indian Ocean Rim countries, and in honing synergistic strategies to deal with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Accord on climate

Finally, France is set to host the most important of climate conventions at the end of this year, one that will determine the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This makes for an important area where the two countries can cooperate. The climate agreement can impact energy access and energy options for most countries, including India. The French are familiar with the Indian effort to eliminate poverty and the principal role that low-cost energy could play in meeting this goal.

The Paris climate meet will be an optimal moment for India to stop being defensive about the issue. It must unhesitatingly showcase all that it has already undertaken and achieved in responding to the challenge of climate change. It must clearly signal what it seeks from the outcome to protect its development space. And France, with its agenda-setting capacity and consensus-building role, must strive to ensure a climate deal that is fair and equitable and allows India critical room to manoeuvre.

(Samir Saran is vice-president and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)