Two Years of Modi Government in India

Professor Harsh V. Pant

The Narendra Modi government will complete two years in office this month. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government came to power in May 2014, it has been dominated by the powerful personality of its Prime Minister. Today, Mr Modi remains India’s most popular politician.

He has benefited in many ways from the disarray in the ranks of the main opposition party, the Congress, that ruled India for the better part of the past six decades under the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Yet, the party today is struggling to retain its relevance in a rapidly changing nation, mainly because the dynasty is no longer as potent as it used to be.

In fact, Rahul Gandhi, the vice president of Congress, is a much ridiculed politician who, despite the best efforts of his supporters, has neither been able to demonstrate leadership nor challenge the Modi government effectively. Other opposition figures are largely limited to regions within the country, without the pan-India appeal of Mr Modi, who has successfully wielded social media to emerge as one of the most formidable politicians of his generation.

If success can be measured by the shrinking of the main opposition party, then the Modi government has clearly been successful in keeping Congress on the defensive, by raking up a plethora of scams during its rule. Under Mr Modi, the BJP is expanding in parts of India where it could never set foot earlier. In the north-east and in the southern state of Kerala, for example, the BJP’s base has been expanding rapidly, turning it into a truly pan-India party.

It will be the government’s economic performance that is likely to determine its future trajectory. India’s economy seems to be doing well at the moment, with estimates suggesting that the country has overtaken China as the world’s fastest growing economy. At a time when major global economies are shrinking against the backdrop of strong American dollar and falling commodity prices, India remains one of the few bright spots. Its economic growth is expected to reach 7.6 per cent this year, higher than the 7.2 per cent of 2014. India also replaced China as the top destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) last year, largely on account of the push from the Modi government to increase manufacturing in the country. Yet, there has been disappointment in some quarters that the PM has not introduced any large-scale reforms as he seemed to promise during his election campaign.

One major reform initiative, the goods and services tax bill – that is to subsume all indirect taxes such as excise duty and service tax into a single standard rate – has not been implemented, thanks to Congress, which has stalled the reforms’ passage into the lower house of parliament. Although it was the brainchild of Congress, the institution now feels it can deliver a blow to the Modi government by refusing to ratify it.

However, the government has introduced several other measures that will have a long-term bearing on the economy. The insolvency and bankruptcy code, for instance, will make it easier to do business in India as it will ensure time-bound settlement of insolvency. It also makes it easier for the country’s financial sector to address loan recovery. Other initiatives include the direct benefit transfers scheme, which aims to transfer subsidies directly to the people through their bank accounts. It is hoped that crediting subsidies into bank accounts will reduce leakages and delays.

There is a larger focus on governance by ensuring bureaucratic accountability that bodes well for the future. Because of the government’s tough stand on corruption, cronyism centred wealth in India has come down from 18 per cent of GDP in 2008 to an estimated 3 per cent this year.

On the foreign policy front, the government has been successful in leaving its unique imprint in a short period, making clear its objective of positioning India as a leading global player. Gone is the talk of non-alignment. Instead, the focus is on building strong partnerships with like-minded states to enhance India’s economic and diplomatic profile. From giving greater operational autonomy to the military in border areas, to re-envisioning the country’s defence policy as an integral part of diplomacy, Indian strategic evolution has entered uncharted waters.

The country is now undertaking military exercises with like-minded states in Asia and beyond: Japan, Vietnam, Australia and the US, something that was considered to be controversial in the past in light of China’s reservations. New Delhi has decided to move ahead and deliver attack helicopter gunships to Kabul to buttress Indo-Afghan security ties. India is wading into the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbours by not only calling for freedom of navigation in international waters, but also agreeing to cooperate with the US in safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.

India’s Pakistan policy has also evolved to a point where New Delhi is now using Pakistan’s traditional allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, to put pressure on Islamabad to rein in militants.

These are still early days for the Modi government. In this age of rapidly rising expectations, it will be the outcome of its policies over the next three years that will determine the fate of the Modi government at the hustings in 2019.


This post is based on an article titled ‘Is India Developing a Strategy for Power?’, which appeared in the Washington Quarterly Journal.


Image:The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addresses the Parliament of Nepal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Three Questions for Indian Nuclear Policy


India’s nuclear forces are growing in diversity and technical capability. Unprecedented new nuclear posture options are being placed in the hands of Indian defence planners. India today stands ready to field the first of an indigenous fleet of nuclear-armed submarines; ICBM-range ballistic missiles; and a new generation of short-range ballistic missiles. The triad of nuclear forces deliverable from land, air and sea that was first envisioned in India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine is therefore finally coming into operational view. With a growing range of technical choices for how it wishes to structure its nuclear force, India must soon select from among these its preferred posture.

This notable technical progress coincides with a strategic environment that is growingly complex. China’s defence outlook is increasingly assertive, and it is fielding a new generation of SSBNs and restructuring its nuclear force governance in order to strengthen deterrence. Pakistan is estimated to have one of the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals in the world and is developing 60km-range tactical nuclear missiles in order to immediately threaten nuclear consequences at any level of future conventional conflict with India.

Combined with the new technical force options available to India, these shifts in the strategic environment create conditions that merit a review of India’s nuclear doctrine and posture. Some factors that should be integrated into this review can be summarised into three questions.

  1. What role should India’s nuclear force play in deterring new threats in the land domain?

Since 2003, India has articulated a no-first-use nuclear doctrine, but one promises massive retaliation to any adversary nuclear attack. Indian strategists have been frustrated by the ability of Pakistan conventional forces and by militant groups operating from Pakistan, undeterred by Indian nuclear weapons, to launch subconventional and limited conventional attacks. Slow Indian military mobilisation in reaction to these attacks have weakened the potential Indian response. Propelled by these frustrations, the Indian Army developed a “Cold Start” concept in 2004. This concept intends to quickly mobilise and launch integrated battle groups to seize and hold limited tracts of Pakistan territory within 72 to 96 hours. While the Army and Indian government have denied that the concept represents actual military doctrine, recent Army exercises involve manoeuvres similar to Cold Start thinking.

Pakistan announced the development of a 60km-range “Nasr” nuclear missile in 2011, and claims that this new nuclear capability is intended to deter any Indian Cold Start-like operation. Combined with a new nuclear concept of “full spectrum deterrence”, Pakistan now intends to threaten immediate nuclear escalation of almost every level of potential conventional conflict with India.

India simultaneously faces new land-based threats from China. China’s nuclear and conventional military technology is at least one generation ahead of that of India. Beijing has long held the ability to hold the entirety of the Indian mainland at nuclear risk. However, recent developments include the restructuring of Chinese nuclear forces under a new Rocket Force, strengthening their governance; heavy investment in ballistic missiles, presenting difficulty for Indian defence planners to distinguish between their potential nuclear or conventional missions; and logistics advancements close to the disputed border with India. While India struggles to raise enough forces along the border to generate an effective conventional deterrent, concerns about perceived Chinese dark intentions and conventional superiority has led to calls to end India’s no-first-use policy.

  1. How should India manage regional seaborne nuclear deterrence?

India, China and Pakistan are all currently working on fielding nuclear-armed naval forces. India’s first indigenous SSBN, the Arihant, was reported as ready for service on February 23. China is developing a Jin-class SSBN fleet, while Pakistan agreed in October to purchase 8 diesel-electric submarines from China. The latter boats are widely viewed as intended to be assigned nuclear missions in future. These three states have little operational experience of managing seaborne nuclear forces, and will naturally gain this experience partly through incidents that are learned from.

These nuclear-armed vessels join already fierce conventional naval competition. Pakistan is focusing particularly on anti-access/area denial capabilities, including submarines, fast missile boats, and anti-ship ballistic missiles, in order to challenge India’s carrier-based naval forces. Chinese submarines were suspected to be exploring waters close to a major Indian military command last month, and have previously docked in Colombo, Gwadar and Karachi. With virtually no maritime dialogue among these states and little shared understanding of naval and nuclear intentions, the risk grows of misperceiving an adversary nuclear-armed vessel as a conventional boat, with inadvertent escalatory implications.

  1. How should a nuclear doctrinal review be conducted?

Calls for a review of Indian nuclear doctrine are growing, and have recently been made by a retired External Affairs minister, a former Strategic Forces Command chief, a retired Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and a former National Security Advisor among others. The election manifesto of the BJP government, elected in 2014, appeared to accede to this pressure, promising to “revise and update” the doctrine “to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. However, this prompted robust international concerns that any doctrinal revision could end the no-first-use policy and generally assign nuclear weapons a greater role in Indian defence than at present. This furore erupted as India continues to seek acceptance as a “responsible nuclear power” as a full member of global nuclear order institutions, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

Facing these pressures, newly elected Prime Minister Modi declared in August 2014 that “we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.” However, this still leaves unaddressed the issue that the doctrine has not been publicly reviewed since 2003 in light of the evolving challenges detailed above. With Indian nuclear force advancements one of the few bright spots of general Indian military modernisation, there is a worrying tendency for Indian analysts to occasionally suggest that new nuclear platforms have a relevance to conventional challenges. This occurs due to the absence of a recent iteration of nuclear doctrine that addresses the new strategic environment and clearly structures the roles of Indian conventional and nuclear forces within this environment.

Given the pressures against India revising its stand-alone nuclear doctrine, India should instead conduct a broader public official defence review. This review would incorporate assessments of the above strategic challenges and assign conventional and nuclear forces to each challenge as necessary. Crucially, it would reiterate that nuclear forces only obtain credibility as a last-resort tool to safeguard national survival and that other challenges should be met by building and deploying strong conventional defences.

Whether or not this official defence review is conducted, the future of Indian nuclear policy and regional stability will depend to a great extent on how New Delhi answers these three questions. Those interested in Asian security should watch closely.

Dr Frank O’Donnell is Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Plymouth University at the Britannia Royal Naval College, specialising in Indian and Asian security issues. He obtained his PhD from the Defence Studies Department in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @frank11285.

Image: Construction site of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…South Asia: thaw in India-Pakistan relations?

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Avinash Paliwal

The year 2015 ended with a surprise diplomatic breakthrough between India and Pakistan after their national security advisors met in Bangkok (shortly after their prime ministers spoke in Paris). The meeting paved way for what is being termed a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. And Afghanistan is central to this recent thaw in India-Pakistan ties—both as a bane and a boon. It is a bane because of the powerful trope that Afghanistan is a proxy battlefield. Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in the 1990s, and India’s counter-balancing strategy of arming the anti-Taliban United Islamic Front, was perhaps the peak of such shadow boxing. However, it is a boon because resolving differences on Afghanistan requires relatively little political capital from both sides, and can pave way for better communication on ostensibly intractable issues such as Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.

But why talk about Afghanistan now? Arguably, Pakistan’s unflinching support to the Afghan Taliban has made it indispensable to ensure stability, if not peace, in Afghanistan, and that too on terms that it deems favourable. (Whether it can deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table both timely and effectively is a separate, but not unrelated, matter). India on the other hand, despite its heavy economic and political involvement, remains marginal in influencing Afghan politics, making it seemingly unimportant a player.  Yet, Pakistan is caught in a dangerous vortex of fire-fighting that it may not be able to either contain or sustain. Islamabad cannot curb the various militant proxies that it has nurtured over the years even if it wants to, given the expected blowback at home. It also cannot just continue to nurture them given the proactive regional pushback. The recent failures of the Afghan Taliban to credibly capture Kunduz, and that of the Lashkar-e-Taiba to substantially infiltrate into Kashmir, then, only increase Pakistan’s operational costs of cultivating these so-called strategic assets.

In such a scenario, where the cost of supporting proxies is higher than the benefits, talking to India on traditional bilateral disputes, but also on Afghanistan, is an attractive option. For treating Afghanistan as taboo only toughens India’s resolve to maintain its presence in Kabul and contain Pakistan’s influence. The timing suits India too. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s strong mandate and the Pakistani military’s consolidation of power make it viable for such talks to succeed. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s steadfast engagement with Pakistan also helps India’s quest for resolving differences with Islamabad, by creating a conciliatory environment across the region, instead of being stuck in a dangerous cold-peace/hot-war dynamic. This is not to say that talking about Afghanistan is a sufficient condition for sustaining the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, for India-Pakistan talks are highly accident-prone. But it surely is a necessary condition that imparts credibility to these talks.

Image: Pakistani forces atBaine Baba Ziarat, the highest point in Swat valley, in 2009, via wikimedia commons.

Tale of Two Visits: THE UK’s Outreach to China and India

This post is based on a seminar series talk organised by King’s College London’s Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC), which took place on 24 November 2015.


As the UK tries to reenergise its economy, manage its diverging interests with the US and the EU, and debate its role in the Middle East (especially the latest decision to bomb ISIS in Syria) and Afghanistan, it has reached out to the two Asian giants – China and India. Given their economic prowess these two competing Asian powers have tremendous global appeal. Reciprocating the UK’s overtures, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London in October and November 2015 respectively. Going by media optics and the series of economic and other agreements signed, both the visits were big successes. For the UK to increase its strategic appeal in the long run, however, it needs to ensure that it is seen more than just a trading partner in Beijing and New Delhi. For, despite the importance of increased trade, the UK still does not figure high in the political agenda of both these countries. What will go a long way in bringing some strategic parity, however, is a sustained dialogue on some well-known political roadblocks. If China’s tendency to build massive trade surplus with its partners and complicated human rights records were two problem areas, Pakistan and Afghanistan were the (literally) unspoken thorns during Modi’s visit.

Golden Era?

The Chancellor to the Exchequer George Osborne termed the 21st century as a ‘golden era’ in UK-China bilateral relations, and PM David Cameron projects UK as China’s ‘best partner in the West’. China for its part invested nearly £40 billion (US$ 62 billion) in Britain, the proceeds of which, government claims, will help create 3,900 new jobs. Reflecting a pragmatic angle to bilateral ties, economic relations between the two countries have grown tremendously over the past ten years. The UK attracted nearly US$12 billion of Chinese foreign investment in 2013, more than France and Germany combined, while China became the sixth largest goods export market for the UK in 2014, up from rank 14 in 2003. With its steel production reaching over-capacity, China requires buyers lest its growth bubble deflates (though unlikely). This was one reason why the nuclear power, automobile, healthcare, public works, and railroad sectors in the UK benefitted tremendously from Chinese investment. And all this happened despite the worries of an ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist’ China, which has no democracy, is routinely charged for violating human rights, and is the biggest source of cyber attacks against Western targets. Though a cyber-security pact was signed to convince London that China would not undertake commercial e-espionage against British firms, there was no mention of the human rights issue.

The US, Britain’s traditional strategic partner, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to London’s pragmatism towards China. How will the UK negotiate its Chinese ‘golden era’ with Washington? Arguably, this should have been the least of London’s worries given the whopping US$579 billion (2012 estimate) trade between the US and China. But even the free trade debate was at its most intense this year, as the US’ trade deficit (with China) surged to US$ 51.4 billion in March 2015 from US$ 35.9 billion just a month earlier. There has been no sign of this deficit reducing anytime soon. Not just the US, but also its allies – including India – complain that China’s massive trade surplus gives it a strategic edge over its competitors. The fact that the UK is entertaining Beijing, at the exact moment when the latter’s primary strength – excessive industrial production – is becoming its primary weakness, is difficult to accept for many in the US. More than the economic implications of the same, it is the political symbolism that ruffles the feathers.

Huge moment?

Modi’s visit, despite having divided the South Asian diaspora and some members of the UK Parliament, was termed a ‘huge moment’ for UK-India relations. India had just overtaken China to become the fastest growing economy in the world. For the second half of the 2014-15 fiscal year, India’s growth rate touched 7.4 per cent whereas China stood at 6.9 per cent. Further, Modi and Cameron signed deals worth more than £9 billion and pacts on wide-ranging issues such as defence, cyber-security, railways, and nuclear power. Ranking 18th in the top 25 trading partners of India, bilateral trade between the two countries stands at US$ 14.34 billion. The biggest strength of this relationship, however, is the 1.6 million plus strong Indian diaspora that occupies an important place in Britain’s social and economic fabric. The grand welcome reception at Wembley stadium, where close to 70,000 British Indians were present to cheer Modi on, was a reflection of these cultural links. And unlike Beijing, New Delhi is not seen as much of a threat by any of the UK’s Western allies barring on the issue of climate change. But some critical issues remain, such as the UK’s approach towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have done much harm than good to this relationship.

Kashmir and the Afghan war are issues on which New Delhi and London don’t see eye to eye. In 2009, for instance, British foreign secretary David Miliband said that the road to peace in Afghanistan was connected to Kashmir, cementing the perception in India that London was favourably biased towards Pakistan. The 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan that baptised the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban was also seen as a sell out to Pakistan. Britain wanted Kabul and the Afghan Taliban to launch a dialogue without any preconditions. Such talks, New Delhi argued, would be sabotaged by Pakistan. London’s persistent questioning about the role of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and their alleged anti-Pakistan activities only added to India’s consternation. Not surprisingly, Modi refused to discuss either Pakistan or Afghanistan with Cameron. Despite progress in all other spheres, the UK is one of the most mistrusted coalition members in Afghanistan among Indian officialdom. Even Cameron’s delicate handling of this issue during his 2010 India visit (and afterwards) did little to change New Delhi’s mind.

Strategic Parity

Political hot topics that are untouched in such situations are often the most critical in making or marring relationships. Despite Cameron’s three visits to India with major business delegations since 2010, London was Modi’s 27th stopover in his busy travel itinerary since becoming PM in May 2014. Xi’s visit too occurred at a time when China was witnessing a financial downturn. Despite the various promises made and deals signed, the context in which these two visits occurred, reflect the fact that the UK is not a strategic priority for the two Asian giants. And trade links will take these relationships only so far. What is needed is an ongoing dialogue not just with China and India on these political ‘no-go’ areas, but also an alignment of ideas with the US. London can easily mismanage its outreach to China and become Beijing’s lonely partner in the West – and eventually lose its appeal in the long run. Or else, it can take the political lead and become an effective ‘bridging power’ that brings these two world powers closer. As for India, having set the ball rolling during Modi’s visits, London should ensure that the damage its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy has done, is addressed. Even just showing that it cares about Indian sensitivities on these key regional issues – for they matter a lot among Indian officials – will make a considerable difference.

Image: PM Modi with President Xi in New Delhi, September 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

China’s Rise Tests India’s Non-Alignment

Indian Prime Minister Modi Delivers Remarks at a Luncheon Co-Hosted by Secretary Kerry and Vice President Biden


Every September, a host of global political leaders descend on New York for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual summit and every year there are one or two leaders whose visits are highly anticipated. If last year it was the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was visiting the US for the first time after coming to office, this year it was the Pope and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. While Pope’s visit had its own charms, it was Xi’s first state visit to the US and so predictably it generated a lot of commentary on the present state of affairs in Sino-US relations. Though Xi had formally met with U.S. President Barack Obama twice before — once during the US-China Sunnylands Summit in June 2013 and Obama’s November 2014 visit to China – his latest visit happened against the backdrop of worsening Sino-US ties and great turmoil in the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to move historic defence reforms through the Japanese Diet, enabling Japan to better cooperate with America to defend its interests in Asia in the face of growing dangers from a rising China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army will also be getting rid of 300,000 soldiers from its ranks in a bid to shed dead weight, reduce overhead, and use the savings to buy more high-tech ships, planes, and make its army leaner and more professional. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the cuts in a public address after a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s victory over Japan in World War II.

There still remain many unanswered questions about the future trajectory of the new Chinese military reform program but what remains certain is that the Chinese military of the near-future will be very different from the Chinese military of the recent past. And this will predictably cause consternation in the region and beyond. Already regional powers are responding to the rise of China in several ways.

China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea and its willingness to assert those claims with a military build-up has rattled some countries in the region, pushing them towards greater military cooperation with the United States. The US has reached an agreement with Malaysia to let American P-8 Poseidon and P-3 Orion spy planes use airbases in the country to spy on China’s activities in the waters off Malaysia’s coast. The Philippines has also welcomed the US plan to deploy air and naval assets to the country as part of the next phase of Washington’s rebalance to the region. The US troops are likely to have access to at least eight Philippine military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed last year between the two states. In a sign of warming US ties with Hanoi, Washington has partially lifted a 40-year ban on providing lethal military support to Vietnam in order to enhance its maritime security. The arms embargo was a major stumbling block on the American side of the road to closer US-Vietnam relations. In a significant change in the communist regime’s attitude toward Washington, Hanoi has decided to allow the US Peace Corps to operate in Vietnam.

India too has been recalibrating its regional ties at this time of great strategic flux. China’s display of its military might is prodding New Delhi to invigorate its defence policy and diplomacy to tackle China’s rise in its vicinity. India hosted its first-ever bilateral naval exercise with Australia earlier last month, and will conduct maritime exercises with Japan in November. India has also invited Japan to join its Malabar exercise with the US in the Bay of Bengal after eight long years. Although Australia and India have participated in military events and exercises together before as well, this will be the first time that the two nations will be jointly planning and participating in a military drill of this nature.

Non-alignment has been a central feature of Indian identity in global politics that is manifest in continuities: India has been in pursuit of strategic autonomy since independence, which in practice has led to semi-alliances fashioned under the cover of non-alignment and shaped by regional dynamics. In this setting, the rise of China now raises an interesting conundrum for Indian policymakers as New Delhi seeks to balance the benefits and risks of an increasingly assertive neighbor and a network of alliances with like-minded countries. In order to effectively balance China’s growing influence, India has become more assertive in building these alliances, as the success of its modern-day pursuit of strategic autonomy may well rest on a strong foundation of strategic partnerships. The coming to office of the centre-right National Democratic Alliance government in May 2014 has signaled a move away from even the rhetoric of non-alignment with significant implications for the future of Indian foreign policy.

This theme is fully explored in my International Affairs piece, here.

Photo: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers remarks at a luncheon co-hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on September 30, 2014. Courtesy of: State Department photo/ Public Domain.