India’s Former National Security Adviser and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon in a lecture in New Delhi argued that, “sooner rather than later India will have to make real political and military contributions to stability and security in this region (West Asia) that is so critical to our economy and security.”
He takes India’s “high stakes”, specifically its oil being sourced to West Asia, the presence of an Indian diaspora and remittances, as its national interest, and advocates that “our approach and behavior should change in defense of our interests.”
That India is not part of the ongoing four powers’ peace initiative closer to home in Afghanistan suggests prudence in casting out wider. Further afield in West Asia, our power is greatly diluted by distance. As a recent study points out, India does not currently have the capacity to sustain such operations, even if it would be able to do so in future.
At best India can reinforce the peace frameworks being put in place under US-Russian aegis. Militarily, it can participate in any subsequent peacekeeping, but, as pointed out by its defence minister, only under the ‘UN flag’.
The catch is in going further in terms of rolling back the ISIS by going beyond peacekeeping to peace enforcement.
As the foreign office spokesperson Vikas Swarup hastily clarified, this is a “hypothetical situation”. Menon, who plugged the liberal-realist perspective while at the helm of the national security establishment, is unlikely to have had this in mind.
What can India do? India has rightly ruled out a military solution to the conflict and backed the conference that is currently bringing all actors to the table. Interestingly, its statement in the UN makes no mention of its position on ISIS.
In standing up against regime change in Syria, the line favoured by Russia, China and Iran, India stands to be at odds with the West, Arab regimes and Israel that have consistently sought the exit of Basher al Assad. India’s stakes – oil, diaspora and remittances – being largely on the Arab side of the divide and its tilt towards Israel, act as constraints to actively standing up against regime change in Syria.
Therefore, India cannot be expected to ‘do more’ at this juncture. It can await fruition of the UN led peace initiative currently underway, whereupon it can participate more broadly including in any peacekeeping dimension that emerges.
However, tacitly in what Menon says, and explicitly in the words of other commentators, there is a belief that India, as part of its ‘great power’ march can, indeed must act, in the defence of what it defines as its national interest.
In regard to West Asia, a leading strategic commentator, Manoj Joshi, puts it thus: “If our oil supply lines or citizens working in the Gulf are threatened, or hundreds and thousands of Indians are being radicalised by the Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, India should certainly consider intervention, with, and if it has the gumption, without, UN authorisation.”
Although Joshi’s is rather a high – almost hypothetical level – of Daesh tentacles, even so, interventionist thinking needs contesting.
The first problem is political, on the question of legitimacy. Menon appears to suggest that since traditional security providers in the region – read the US and UK – are less than effective, India must sign-up rather than continue as a free-rider.
Menon appears to justify prospective military action by saying India’s transformation depends on flow of oil. Interference in its flow would require Indian military response to defend the status quo. The argument smacks of neo-colonial logic in which oil dependency of the West requires them to back repressive Arab regimes.
Arab nationalism that has been discounted in the media fixation with the religious dimension to the Daesh challenge, has been air brushed out of the frame. This has enabled the unchallenged Western, and now Russian, military approach in West Asia. In effect, India would end up backing a status quo in favour of the mix of repressive regimes that have between them succeeded in stymieing the promise of Arab Spring.
Scope for ‘doing more’ is in pointing this out in a bid for course correction by Arab regimes in internal reform and their Western backers in shedding militarized templates. However, in having the French President over for its Republic Day, India appears instead to be painting itself into the same corner as the West.
The second reason is military. An ‘all of government’ response would be called for. The response to the terror attack on Pathankot airfield does not lend any confidence that the national security establishment can pull it off.
An external – military – consequence of India’s military proactivism could be with Islamists fetching up at the door step. The Pathankot episode suggests that the border fence, even if shored up with gadgets and tactics of Israeli provenance, cannot be relied on.
Menon discounts such a scenario, saying that the “risks of the (India-Pakistan) relationship deteriorating into open conflict are slight.” With the Daesh having already fetched up in Afghanistan, in case of India’s military involvement in the Levant it could provide a fillip to anti-India groups in Pakistan.
The internal political consequence of this would be the benefits for the right wingers in India. It would buoy majoritarian extremists who misrepresent the Islamist threat as the threat from Islam.
Therefore, any thrust for a greater role in West Asia needs to be contested. The liberal realist argumentation can be easily manipulated by cultural nationalists at the helm of national security affairs to depict an emerging consensus in favour of intervention. That an Akshay Kumar starrer Airlift is ruling at the box office suggests such a thrust.
As Menon points out elsewhere, the timing of when to make the move from a regional player to a ‘great power’ is a delicate one. Clearly now is not the right time and this is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
*Ali Ahmed (@aliahd66) blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.