Modi India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Image Credit: ANI

They say timing is everything. For author and academic Aparna Pande, her seminal new book Making India Great, The Promise of a Reluctant Great Power couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.

Not only does it examine why India’s rise has remained a false promise thus far, she presciently homes in on the dilemma that has bogged down Indian foreign policymakers on whether it should shed the multiple partnerships that give it the freedom to tap all sides for military and strategic gain, or break out and become a full-fledged, card-carrying member of one alliance.

As the increasingly sinister squaring off in the Himalayas between India and China these past months turns into the biggest test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, is India, in a bid to shake the dragon off its tail, about to turn into a full-fledged ally of the United States? What will that entail?

Modi’s red-flagging of Pakistan as the primary foe, post 2015 was an obvious means to bolster his own popularity to win over a domestic audience, but it also meant that his reading of how China would react, was off point

- Neena Gopal

Already pushed to the wall over the Covid pandemic and an imploding economy, India is facing down not just the Pakistan military on the Line of Control as it has always done, but China’s powerful People’s Liberation Army on the largely undefined Line of Actual Control.

The much vaunted pincer move that has thus far been part of every military strategist’s playbook, is now a reality. And Modi’s refusal to engage directly with the Chinese President Xi Jinping that may stem from his wariness at being bullied into a pusillanimous withdrawal, a subservience that would dent his image domestically, makes the war that no one wants, a distinct possibility.

A matter of some alarm

Squeezed, strategically and militarily, the Indian leader is clearly weighing whether he can continue to not openly choose sides, going forward. Despite all its braggadocio, India’s isolation is a matter of some alarm. Modi’s India in 2020, mirrors Nehru’s in 1962 and Indira’s in 1971. Which of its ‘allies’ can India really count on, in this continuing standoff in the Himalayas?

Few doubt now, that given the circumstances, the Indian leader is about to execute an unequivocal pivot to Washington, setting aside his embrace of the Chinese president at the misconceived Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits in 2018 and 2019, predated by the Astana meet in 2017, and of Pakistan’s former premier Nawaz Sharif, on that wholly unexpected visit to Lahore in December 2015.

The Lahore foray, as Pande, Director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington points out, was the play of a new prime minister, reaching out to Pakistan’s effete civilian leadership, blind to the military-intelligence lobby’s refusal to play along.

Interestingly, she also talks up the hitherto unspoken China-Pakistan nexus, the bolstering of Pakistan as its ‘secondary deterrent’ against India as one of the key mitigating factors that held India back from growing into the dominant power in South Asia.

Held back by a bigger failing

In fact, India may have been held back by a bigger failing — the strategic community’s inability to read Chinese malfeasance that manifested in recent years in the steady encirclement of India.

While it threw everything it had to contain Pakistan, which it saw, wrongly, as its lone threat, India’s foot-dragging in extending assistance in infrastructure and nation building to its natural partners in the South Asian neighbourhood, opened the doors for the counter-pull into China’s orbit of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar and Afghanistan, and now Iran.

“Managing a sphere of influence is not only telling others what to do, but being able to expend resources that deny space to competitors,” writes Pande. Either way, India’s unwillingness to play second fiddle to China, while exhibiting none of that reluctance to sign on to Washington’s team, has now brought the Modi government to its current pass.

Curiously, it was US President John F Kennedy, who was a surprisingly early amplifier of the role he saw for India, when he said back in 1957 that India represented “the free world’s strongest bulwark to the seductive appeal of Peking and Moscow;” to be echoed by US envoy to Delhi, Chester Bowles’s, ‘the future of the world would rest on the competition between democratic India and Communist China.’

Post the Cold War, US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama in successive visits to India, not only signalled that ties with Pakistan would not affect the newfound warmth between Delhi and Washington, they characterised the relationship as the “defining partnership of the twenty-first century.”

Potential counterweight to Asian giant

But India, which the US wanted to draw into its sphere of influence as a potential counterweight to the Asian giant, remained conflicted on the way forward. Following a risk averse policy towards China to keep its eastern border quiet, Delhi played both sides. It kept both happy — old ally Russia, on whom China now depends for much of its energy needs, as well as Washington, which has increasingly, provided valuable intel, time and again on the terror hubs that pose a threat to India.

Post the Ladakh imbroglio, the first country that India turned to — pushing for a faster delivery of S-400 missile systems it had already provided China — was Russia, India’s staunchest ally and its main arms supplier.

Delhi duly signed on as a bona fide member of the Russia-China dominated Shanghai Co-operation Organisation in 2017 — as did arch-enemy Pakistan — partly to quell any doubts that Russia had over Modi’s growing closeness to the White House after his 2014 Washington visit and a slew of agreements that followed, which will finally lead to the intel sharing Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), later this year.

This week, however, it was Moscow that brought Delhi in as a partner in the clinical trials of its anti-Covid vaccine. At the SCO summit underway in the Russian capital, Pakistan’s move, Tuesday, to display maps that do not mesh with India’s, saw the Pakistan deputy NSA being given a sharp dressing down.

Delhi had allowed itself to be prodded into talking to a belligerent China at the SCO summit, but how US ties will impact the Indo-Russian equation is now a challenge. Moscow, which publicly maintains equidistance from the Himalayan conflict is tied into China’s strategic interests in the South China Sea.

How Modi will mesh this contradiction, this need for continuing Russian support while India embeds itself deeper into groups like the Quad, that alongside Japan, Australia and United States, as well as Indonesia and Vietnam is essentially a US created quasi-alliance aimed at checkmating China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, is now the question.

The ‘Howdy Modi’-Donald Trump love fest only crowned ever growing closer ties between the two leaders. Five years since the signing of the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Modi’s active wooing of the US with the acquisition of US-made drones, sending Indian warships to be deployed alongside the US in the South China Sea, taking part in Operation Malabar, the joint exercises in the Indian Ocean, signing agreements that mesh the two nations ever closer, has watered down India’s hitherto non-aligned status.

Steady Ladakh encroachment of 2020

Modi’s red-flagging of Pakistan as the primary foe, post 2015 was an obvious means to bolster his own popularity to win over a domestic audience, but it also meant that his reading of how China would react, was off point. Earlier infringements in Doklam ignored, it would take the violent Galwan clash and the steady Ladakh encroachment of 2020, for the Modi government to wake up and finally be forced to confront the Chinese dragon.

In fact, Delhi’s active encouragement of the US in signing a defence pact with the Maldives this week, unlike its 2013 torpedoing of the move, pries the India-leaning Male government out of the China embrace and places it squarely in the emerging Indo- Pacific alliance.

It is a signal of where India is headed. As the geopolitical goalposts shift once again in its immediate neighbourhood, and “China proxy” Pakistan, looks at the prospect of regaining some say in Kabul as the US prepares for a face saving exit, Modi’s Delhi may no longer be content to merely watch from the sidelines, unwilling to be trapped as before, between the false argument of committing to partnerships over alliances.

But, as the US Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad stops over in Delhi from Islamabad after historic peace talks finally began in Doha with the Taliban last week, India knows it has to move beyond building hospitals in Farkhor, to grow into the role of a muscular counterbalance to Pakistan and Iran, in Afghanistan.

That will require Modi to shore up India’s soft power into hard power. The pointless delivery of a few, ageing helicopters to better buttress the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces, is mere window dressing, when what is needed is to build India into the pre-eminent force in the region. Before refashioning India’s alliances,

As Pande tellingly remind us, while the average Indian may believe in ‘a seeming inevitability of its rise to great power status,’ successive governments have failed to march India towards that goal. Will Narendra Modi be any different?

Neena Gopal is an independent journalist and author