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Think Tank Regiment

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A number of concerned Indians — Siddharth Varadarajan, Shyam Saran, Srinath Raghavan, Nandan Nilekani, General Prakash Menon, Rajiv Kumar, Sunil Khilnani and Pratap Bhanu Mehta — met over 15 months in 2010-12 to worry about India's foreign policy. As long as the United States and the Soviet Union were at daggers drawn, India had no problem. It was an informal ally of the Soviet Union, which kept Pakistan and its allies at bay. But it claimed that it was a neutral in the global rivalry; it even collected a bunch of fellow neutrals around itself. Its socialist experiment at home was not so successful; the little allies of the west to our east industrialised much faster and left India far behind in growth stakes. But the loosening up of socialist fetters accelerated India's growth in the 1980s and narrowed the distance.

The fall of the Soviet Union left India with a problem. It would have liked to continue to be a neutral, but for neutrality, it is necessary to have combatants. In their absence, India did not quite know how to pose. But there was one role it could play without posing, that of a failed state. It got into a massive balance of payments crisis in 1989. After it had run through all possible bailouts, it decided that its socialism had failed, and that it had to reverse and revise its economic policies. In foreign policy, it drew in its horns and acted dead.

But that pose did not last long. The BJP took off the unfashionable neutrality mantle, and put on the superpower one; to prove that India had arrived, it made the nuclear ceremony. China left India economically behind, but its rise created a political opportunity: the US offered an alliance. Jaswant Singh had long and leisurely talks with the Americans. But before he could make a deal, the 2004 election swept away the BJP.

The succeeding Congress government went back to P.V. Narasimha Rao's tactic of acting dead, but the increased size of the Indian economy made the pose increasingly unconvincing. It got dragged into G20. Every few months the Prime Minister has to go to one of its meetings, and draft verbose statements of lofty intentions. He has given the foreign ministry to a man without an idea who goes from resort to resort, from meeting to meeting, but can summon nothing meaningful to say.

Concerned about this heedlessness, the group of think tankers has published a pamphlet to show how non-alignment can be repaired, polished and refashioned into Non-alignment 2.0.

India has hitherto posed as an inarticulate non-entity. In this, the thinkers see an advantage, that no one sees India as a threat. The thinkers do not propose much of a change in this; India should be a friend of all, and ally of none. They recommend spending less on the army, and more on the navy and on defences along the Chinese borders. The army should acquire capacity to make quick, small thrusts into Tibet for use in bargaining. If Pakistan misbehaves, they suggest punitive attacks across the border, but are against taking territory. They recommend a maritime commission to develop naval and marine capabilities, and integration of the armed forces into the defence ministry as a department. China should continue to get easy access to the Indian market, but India should ask for technology transfer in return. They are in favour of more liberal trade and visa regimes for Pakistan. They suggest giving liberal work permits to people from neighbouring countries.

They could have been more radical without appearing irresponsible. India is surrounded by many small countries; it could give completely free access to their goods, services and people without any significant domestic impact. On economic issues, the thinkers prove to be skilled fence-sitters, asking India to weigh its options, find national consensus, and so on.

They see no alternative to a shift to nuclear and renewable energy. This is superficial. Renewable energy can make little difference. Nuclear energy is expensive and risky. Energy supply prospects and Indian growth expectations are so inconsistent that our growth will shrink drastically unless we can find a more energy-efficient growth path. The biggest user of energy is transport; the only way to save energy efficiently is to pack people and goods more tightly. It calls for more urbanisation, and location of population in more fertile areas. And in a democratic society, it can be achieved only with fiscal measures. India needs to tax liquid fuels far more.

However, once we leave such specific measures, it is difficult to disagree with the think tank on the urgency of the problems it raises and the need for debating them nationally.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012)