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Home > News > Columnists > B S Raghavan

A task force to sell US to India

January 11, 2006

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is bidding fair to enter the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of task forces he has set up to go into whatever problem confronts him.

The one on 'global strategic developments' that came into being in the first week of December is the 22nd, and possibly the most nebulous, in the series, with no indication of what it is expected to deliver at the end of the initially stipulated -- and likely to be prolonged -- six months of labour on such a mountainous topic.

The press release issued by the Prime Minister's Office merely states in one sentence that the task force 'will examine various aspects of global trends in strategic affairs'.

This begs not one but as many questions as there are issues affecting the globe.

First and foremost is the question of the need for such a task force at all.

There are any number of think tanks going by a variety of names in almost every country -- India included -- which are constantly churning out reports covering precisely the terrain that the newly launched group will be covering at considerable expense, time and energy.

Those ready-at-hand reports under diverse auspices could have formed the raw material for preparing a digest of the trends in the current state of affairs the world over. A knowledgeable and experienced expert attached to the National Security Council who is clued up on the contemporary setting could then have been entrusted with the task of analysing them from India's perspective with suggestions for such policy improvements and improvisations as may be called for.

The ministries too carry out similar policy-oriented studies on subjects falling within their purview taking account of the feedback received on current programmes and the proposals received from various quarters, including civil society.

There are policy planning and research outfits within the home and external affairs ministries whose business is exactly what the Subrahmanyam Task Force is called upon to do. The advantage they enjoy over the task force is that that they have continuing awareness of current thinking on present-day problems and can bring their practical hands-on experience to bear on their reports.

Complete coverage: The India-US nuclear tango

Whereas, the nine members the prime minister has put together have been out of the mainstream for many years, being either retired or attached to institutions that live in their own worlds.

Their choice reflects a pronounced establishmentarian bias with a perceptible antediluvian tinge.

There is, of course, merit in engaging independent groups of eminent public figures unstuck in governmental grooves as special commissions or task forces, but then the problem should be one that is compelling in importance, long-range and multi-dimensional in its ramifications and implications, and unamenable to regular processes of day-to-day decision making. Civil rights, terrorism, quality of governance and educational reforms are good examples.

But 'global trends in strategic affairs'? There is no perplexingly vague assignment more calculated to bedevil the working of the new task force ab initio.

Why, indeed, should a task force be asked to sprawl itself on global phenomena on such a vast, exhaustive and extensive scale, with no limits put on its insatiable quest, is a million-dollar question.

The effort has all the makings of a gargantuan exercise, perhaps duplicating databases and causing distraction to government ministries by making nagging demands on them for consultations, interviews, reports and comments.

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If the task force is not to end up as a monumental woolgathering enterprise -- and if, like Lord Gilpin's horse, it is not to take off simultaneously in all directions all at once -- its purpose should have been delineated in sharp and clear terms.

Unless the nature and scope of what it is to 'examine' are intelligibly specified, the bland single-point term of reference provides no lead either to the members or to the public.

The reason for not doing so may well be that the prime minister and the task force members have arrived at an understanding beforehand in this regard; if so, it is only fair that they take the people into confidence.

The reported remarks of the chairperson, Mr K Subrahmanyam, of the task force and some of its members speaking off the record lend substance to some sort of a preconceived approach.

According to one member, 'The most important recent development is the nature of partnership between India and America. It's such a contrast from the past history between the two nations. It's necessary to understand why the US is doing it and what's in India's interest as it goes ahead.'

Mr Subrahmanyam himself has been quoted as saying, 'We are thinking about all aspects relating to co-operating with the US on democracy initiatives, on the energy issue, on how to deal with terrorists and weapons of mass destruction… analytical Indian brains should not be prejudiced against the US because the focus should be on what lies in India's long-term national interest… We must seriously assess China's opposition (to the Indo-US nuclear deal). China opposes India's attempt to get civil nuclear energy. Why does China not want India to grow faster?'

No progess made on Indo-US nuclear deal

Thus, it is patent that the focus will be on Indo-US relations and on building up the case for 'the validation of (Dr Singh's) US policy'.

If other countries and issues figure at all, it may only be to the extent they have a bearing on the core issue.

Comments have already appeared in the media about the known stand of the members of the task force being identical with that of the prime minister and his immediate circle of advisers in respect of Indo-US strategic partnership and the various pacts and deals entered into with Washington during the visits of the defence minister and the prime minister.

The task force runs the risk of being viewed as an attempt at whitewash if there is even a hint of its having been used to defend, justify or endorse the government's pro-US policies.

The PMO's press release, deliberately or otherwise, throws no light on what the task force is to do after examining 'various aspects of global trends in strategic affairs'.

What should be the major thrust of its report? What should be the pith of the observations, findings or recommendations presented by it at the end of its confabulations?

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Leaving that dangling for the present, there is also no way of knowing the kind of affairs that could be legitimately described as 'strategic'.

One gets no help even if one desperately seeks out the dictionary to know what the word in this context can be assumed to stand for.

The following are a few definitions of 'strategy' relevant to the work of the new body: The science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war; the art of devising or employing plan or 'stratagems' toward a goal; the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions.

On a common sense understanding of the mandate of the task force, it should, in the ordinary course, be engaging itself in the study of trends in the affairs predominantly relating to the first two encompassing the entire world, with a glance at the third.

But here's the rub.

Looking around, one sees no such contingency that makes it necessary for the prime minister to seek a comprehensively conceptual, philosophical or operational platform for the government's domestic and foreign policies.

'No American can treat India like a pet'

Obviously, no task force, however energetic and encyclopaedic, can, within six months, equip itself to range over the innumerable developments falling within the calculus of India's strategic goals and come out with any definitive or meaningful set of pointers to the policies and plans of action to be adopted by the government by way of a suitable response to each eventuality.

Even if it does, its recommendations have once again to run the gamut of review with a toothcomb by the implementing ministries for their opinion on their advisability and feasibility -- a tortuous, time-consuming process that may even result in their being buried in the dreary desert sands of the central secretariat.

In the above light, and assuming that the prime minister still considers such a group necessary despite all the objections set out above, he will be well-advised to have a precise and specific set of realistic tasks drawn up for it to work on.

Actually, what he needs is something entirely different: Frank, courageous, vigorous, technology-savvy, modern-minded brains trust, professional to its fingertips, free of tilts, slants and hang-ups, capable of turning around issues as and when they come up for negotiation or decision and presenting their pros and cons straight from the shoulder.

That Obscure Object of Desire: Nuclear energy

For instance, if only the prime minister had had the benefit of such an in-depth scrutiny before he signed the so-called nuclear deal with US President George W Bush, Dr Singh would have known that nuclear energy was not, and could never be, a critical feature of the country's energy scenario, and that there was no need for him to disturb the pre-existing and on-going nuclear policy regime to satisfy the Americans just to gain a distantly marginal benefit. He would have thereby avoided all the complications and embarrassments the deal has since thrown up.

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Number of User Comments: 2

Sub: task force to sell US to India

Nuclear deal is a massive terrible blunder.PM has goofed up completely.As FM also he had messed up defence.Why does he do it? Why task force? ...

Posted by k k vaisoha

Sub: A disconnect

Well written article! One question though. What does the author mean by saying, and I quote " nuclear energy was not, and could never be, ...

Posted by Sohail Sikora



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