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India in 2012: Strategic and security challenges beckon

January 03, 2012 08:57 IST

The greatest challenge to India is that its political class seems oblivious to the challenges of the big picture and national security does not receive the attention it warrants in Parliament, points out Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (retd).

For India, the year that has dawned will have to address a complex set of security and related strategic challenges. Appropriate lessons will have to be astutely gleaned from the tainted year that has ended which has been one of great contrast for India.

A series of scandals involving high-profile public figures had rocked the country over the last six months and December witnessed the Indian political establishment in great tumult, even as Parliament remained locked in a bitter, arid, struggle over the issue of corruption and the most appropriate way of dealing with it, as symbolised by the ruckus over the Lokpal Bill.

The last sitting in the Rajya Sabha reveled in cynical legislative obfuscation and at year-end, Indian democracy was diminished.

Yet 2011 began with India being hailed as an island of political and economic stability even while other nations and regions were in ferment -- from the Arab Spring to fiscal convulsions in Europe, turbulence in the Af-Pak region and Iran and the growing social unrest in China.

However, notwithstanding the current domestic political contestation between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, it may be reasonable to suggest that India's political stability is not in dire danger -- this government is unlikely to be toppled in a hurry -- though the ignominy of poor and corruption-tainted governance will be a cross that the United Progressive Alliance II will have to bear till the next general election in 2014.

Paradoxically the big picture about India remains positive and a CEBR report released in London on December 26 indicates that the upward economic trajectory of the country will continue and that by 2020, India will be the world's fifth largest global economy. The four nations ahead of India are projected to be the USA, China, Japan and Russia in that order.

In 2011, India's GDP is estimated to be $1.843 trillion and by 2020, this will move up to $4.5 trillion -- in other words India will be two-and-a-half times more prosperous.

The challenge will be to ensure that this growth is equitable and inclusive -- an objective that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has always identified -- but whose realisation remains elusive.

In the intervening period, India will have to deal with complex security and strategic challenges and these may be classified at three levels. The most visible is the domestic context wherein one strand -- referred to as the Maoist or left-wing-extremism, is to my mind the most serious challenge to internal security.

This is directly linked to the poor and inadequate development effort and as India grows richer -- the gap between the haves and have-nots is bound to increase. This in turn will lead to a growing underclass of millions who remain unemployed and impoverished, thereby generating a tsunami of deprivation driven anger with the potential for pockets of intense sectarian and class violence.

The related threat to internal security is the variation of the Mumbai 26/11 kind of terror attack and this is linked to the external regional dimension. Since 1990 Pakistan has been stoking and spreading the fervour of distorted Islamic ideology through groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed to wage a proxy war against India and inciting disgruntled elements within India to join this effort.

The scope of this challenge remains dormant, but will be shaped by events within Pakistan and Afghanistan even as the US withdrawal date in 2014 draws closer.

Current developments in this region are bleak and the projection for 2012 pessimistic, given the ongoing tussle between the military and the civilian leadership in Pakistan on one hand, and the Hamid Karzai government's inability to deal with the multiple challenges in Afghanistan.

The right-wing Islamic constituency that supports the ideology of the Taliban and Wahabbi Islam is spread in pockets throughout the South Asian region and apart from Pakistan and Bangladesh, the most recent example of this occurrence is in distant Maldives.

This challenge will remain abiding for India for a decade -- if not longer -- and has to be addressed with the right combination of political and socio-economic initiatives complemented by security and intelligence effort. The post Mumbai 26/11 security preparedness audit would indicate that India has not learnt the right lessons from its long drawn terror experience.

At the strategic level the principal challenge for India will be the 'rise' of China. Over the next decade, both Asian giants are poised to grow in prosperity -- though China is growing more rapidly. By 2020, China's GDP is estimated to be $17.88 trillion -- and will be almost four times more prosperous with a slightly lower population base that will be ageing.

History tells us that when a nation becomes richer, it is able to spend more on its defence and military profile -- and China is no different.

While India's defence expenditure is currently in the range of $40 billion -- that of China is almost three to four times larger and the military gap is increasing in China's favour. It is instructive that the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship is characterised by what may be described as strategic restraint, but tactical provocation. The unresolved territorial and border dispute which triggered the October 1962 war will soon be 50 years old and a contradictory pattern is emerging.

China will soon be India's largest trading partner and the inter-dependency on the economic front will become more robust -- unless Beijing decides to embark upon a very rash and impulsive anti-India initiative. While the top political leadership in Beijing has been cautious till now -- the transition in the Chinese leadership in 2012 will have to be managed prudently by both sides.

The related strategic link is the manner in which Delhi defines and manages its relations with Washington and Moscow as far as its holistic military profile is concerned. It is a matter of shame and vulnerability that India is the world's leading importer of military inventory and has a negligible domestic design and production capability.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to India is that its political class seems oblivious to the contours and challenges of the big picture and national security does not receive the objective and constructive attention it warrants in Parliament.

Is there slender hope that this will be redressed in 2012?

C Uday Bhaskar