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Interview: Aparna Pande On India’s Foreign Policies And Her New Book ‘Making India Great’

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I recently got a chance over a Zoom call to interview Dr Aparna Pande, Research Fellow and Director of Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. Aparna wrote her PhD dissertation on Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Her major field of interest is South Asia, with a special focus on India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Foreign and Security Policy. In this interview, we discuss her latest book Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Superpower.

Yash Johri (YP): In your first chapter, you illustrate an incompatibility between the prevailing nationalism and India’s ability to effectively engage with the world community. Can you please explain this further, particularly given that nationalism in India has been electorally validated, as well as the fact that it has been on the rise across the world?

Dr Aparna Pande is a Research Fellow and Director of Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. Image credit: LinkedIn/Aparna Pande

Aparna Pande (AP): I accept both presumptions, nationalism, populism and protectionism are in ascendance across the world, including in the United States, where I currently reside. India isn’t unique, however, there are differences. The United States has strong institutions — the American media, judiciary as well as the political parties provide an adequate balance of power to the executive. In the Indian scenario, these institutions aren’t commensurately strong.

While our founders put us on the path of a constitutional democracy, in practice, we are far from achieving the same. Conversely, there has always been an alternative idea of India that we see has gained electoral validation from the late 1980s onward.

The reason I say that matters today is because we are no longer in the post-Cold War era. We live in a world where anything happening around the world is on social media within a short span of time.

At a time when the world is looking at India as a counter to China, as a democratic model for the rest of the world, as an ally and a partner with the United States or other South East Asian countries as well as to be a model developmental state within our own neighborhood, we cannot say that what is happening within cannot impact what’s happening without. Domestic politics impacts foreign policy.

If India wants to be seen as a regional power and wants acceptance from its South Asian neighbours (Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bhutan) as well as Central Asia and Middle-East countries, and seeks to project its power in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond, then the vision of India as portrayed to the outside world has to be one that our neighbourhood, extended neighbourhood and the world is comfortable with.

We may not like this, and may say that our electorate has chosen us and others don’t have a right to criticise, but the world in the past has looked at India as a democratic, plural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation that, despite numerous fissiparous tendencies, managed to sustain high rates of growth.

YJ: Numerous analyses of India often compare it to the development story of China and how it lags behind on numerous measures. The book uses a number of these measures in the second chapter on human capital.

However, India is an electoral democracy, and while it is true that a number of initiatives by the government will work towards serving the platform that has elected it to power, yet, at the same time, the Indian people do trust the Prime Minister to deliver reform and a better standard of living.

For all the criticism, the incumbent government is working on numerous initiatives such as Aayushman Bharat, National Digital Health Mission, Swachh Bharat Mission, a new National Education Policy and the repeal of the Essential Commodities Act.

Even on the digital front, there’s been unparalleled global investment in the country, even if it has been to one corporation. Therefore, even though one can rightly question the government’s politics, it has delivered to the country political stability.

Further, there is criticism on execution that the entire government’s work can’t be remote-controlled by one office, and that enough ministers and domain experts are not empowered enough. Do you think this is hindering the process?

AP: I’ll take the second part of your question first. If you are referring to the recent exits of economists, then yes, it’s something that institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund closely monitor.

Rating agencies such as Moodys and Standard & Poor also observe and ascertain who is really making decisions about the economy.

They keep a close tab on the management and health of the country’s economic institutions such as the RBI and Finance Ministry.

As to the first point, I don’t understand how these new initiatives counter the arguments that I have made in my book. Forget about China, over the last few decades, Bangladesh has done a better job in literacy than India, and why is that?

The question isn’t about who you are being compared to. The comparison with China is important here because it is China against whom we always benchmark ourselves. Let’s take one step back — in which of these areas have we done a good job in the past?

There’s a lot that has been started now that could have been started six years ago. I say this because Covid-19 has brought to light the many glaring deficiencies in both education and healthcare in our country. The more literate a society, the better it responds to crises and listens to experts.

My argument primarily is that at the core, one has to rebuild institutions, we have to invest in people at the primary and secondary level and build skill capacity, and this has a long gestation period. The question is: why is it that even when we start and talk about reforms, we rarely bring them to fruition?

Let us give an example: there are numerous policies from the UPA years, such as MNREGA. At the end of the day, if an industrialised country is supposed to have 60% skilling of the workforce, and India has just 7%, there is a real problem that has national security implications.

If you fix the primary and secondary school systems along with skills and basic healthcare, there’s a lot that will take care of itself. One will not have to worry about finding a job if they have skills. Our challenge is that we need vocational training to provide a productive outlet for the 1.3 billion persons of our country.

YJ: You state that there is a mismatch in strategic planning, between the civilian and military arms of the government. However, what do you think about the latest reform that’s been brought of a negative import list in the defence sector?

Do you feel that this is a result of policy being created by the newly formed office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) that wishes to address this very problem by bringing civilian and military personnel under one roof? Or is it just further encroachment on the independent institution of the army by the political leadership?

AP: We will have to wait a few years to see how India’s CDS and the new Department of Military Affairs (DMA) actually work. Given the strong British legacy that continues to persist in our armed forces, we haven’t ever had such an office that brings civil and military actors under one roof to jointly pursue strategic goals.

There have, however, been integrated headquarters and there has been some coordination among them. So, it will take a few years to find out how effective the CDS will be. We have to bear in mind the fact that most of the new capital acquisitions will not be under the CDS and DMA, and therefore, the jury is still out. There is a likelihood that the CDS can actually bring about the coordination that India needs, and there’s a chance that it won’t really work. We have to wait a few years to see that.

What I would say is three things — first, at the end of the day, what matters is how much money we allocate to the military. If we are spending only 1.5-1.7% of our, as of now, shrinking GDP, the majority of which goes in salaries and pensions, we are going to have almost nothing to modernise and purchase new equipment for.

Almost 65%-68% of our military equipment is outdated. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA-China), which is sitting on our border and has taken our territory, has allocated large funds and rapidly modernised.

If we don’t increase our budget allocations, the CDS will not have the money and resources to do what he needs to do. Second, in addition to the office of the CDS, what we need is to build a systematic method of working whereby, the country can plan not just a few months ahead, but 10-20 years ahead for each of the services.

And third is going to be the question of what purpose is achieved by adding a layer of bureaucracy to perform powers and functions that are already being performed by the incumbent Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force on the military side, and the defense officials in the Raksha Mantralaya on the civil side.

Budget allocations, at the end of the day, are indeed a deeply political exercise. However, there is a need to ingrain a strategic culture that becomes a mainstay in defence allocations and isn’t affected by the whims and fancies of politics. Forget external events, to deal effectively with our internal insurgencies of Naxalites, North-East and Kashmir, the fight begins in the correct allocation of resources. Secondly, for us to be able to continue to fortify the foundation of our national security, it is essential that we meet the challenges of developing our economy further.

At the end of the day, it is our country, it’s like our house. The house may have certain problems and you may need to rebuild the floor, and you may need to break down a wall and build a new one, but it’s your house at the end of the day. So, you care about it, you invest in it, and you want it to last, there’s pride in it.

I’ve also written this at the end of my book because I really do believe India can become great. But like most Indians, my concern is that we are lagging and need to accomplish things, so this is a wake-up call. My duty is to ask questions that provoke people to start thinking about the same.

If China thought it could teach India a lesson for its growing proximity to the Western liberal order, then I think it has miscalculated.

YJ: To what extent do you believe that the recent events between the Indian and Chinese armies in Ladakh have hastened India’s western embrace?

Do you agree with people such as Gideon Rachman, whose recent op-ed in the Financial Times states that India has picked a side in the new cold war because Foreign Minister Jaishankar, in a recent interview on 20th July, 2020, stated that non-alignment was a term of a particular era and geopolitical landscape, but that India will never be a part of an Alliance?

While there may not be a de jure alliance, but on the ground, what strategic formation do you see taking place?

AP: I’m more inclined to Jaishankar’s side of the debate. I don’t think that we have picked a side. We have had a close relationship with the West since the 1990s, not just with the United States, but also the United Kingdom, France, Germany as well as American allies to our East.

So, I would say, it is not a question of India making a Western embrace. What I would say, actually, is that if China thought it could teach India a lesson for its growing proximity to the Western liberal order, then I think it has miscalculated. We are not going to stop catering to our national interest that we have been pursuing in the past — the interest of building closer relationships with countries with whom it sees strategic, economic and cultural ties benefiting itself.

However, that won’t stop India from having a relationship with Russia, or Iran even, though these countries face Western sanctions. I also believe a further deterioration of relations with China is only detrimental to our national interest. But I don’t believe it is a western embrace. I believe we are already quite close to the US and many of the Western countries.

Due to connectivity and inter-dependence, the question of picking a side today, compared to the Cold War era, is a complex and challenging one. During the Cold War, there were no global supply chains, and the NATO and Warsaw Pact spheres provided economic aid to help development in their respective countries.

It was basically just the Soviets giving us aid or helping us set up factories. Today, except for in the defence industry, where we are dependent on the supply parts, we don’t have a supply chain relationship with Russia. The difference is since the early 90s, China has built a strong trading relationship with most countries. Further, with its new Belt and Road project, China is building a strong foreign investment relationship as well. Therefore, in practice, it is very difficult to decouple.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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