Among the hundred or so books on China in my home, there is a hardback red volume titled “The 60th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and India.” The book is outwardly a boring set of largely black and white photographs of official visits and events held between India and China obviously taken by the government-hired photographer of the day. Read more

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had hoped to go to China next week with a new visa regime that would have at least given businessmen, workers and academics an easier time travelling back and forth. It won’t happen this trip as the cabinet reportedly didn’t have time to clear it.

But it says something about the difficulties of India’s visa regime in general that this should go all the way to the cabinet for clearance. It also says something that India is so reluctant to provide Chinese visas despite the Middle Kingdom being the country’s largest trading partner and generally a big wheel around the world.

I would estimate about a third of the correspondence I receive from people is about visa problems. Much of it from Indians complaining about other countries. But a fair share about foreigners trying to get Indian visas.

The Indian system, especially the home ministry, don’t get visas. They are treated as the paper equivalent of minefields and watchtowers. Actually, they do little more than provide basic statistical evidence about movements in and out of the country – and movements by middle class people who function inside the law and travel by regular means of transport.

An Israeli study actually concluded that visas provide zero additional security to a country – which is why this security-conscious people began allowing visas on arrival.

India’s visa policy, as senior Indian foreign policy officials admit, is a product of knee jerk responses to crises and embarrassments: terrorist attacks like Mumbai 26/11, illegal migrant scares and so on. Barriers are raised and layers of bureaucratic requirements are made like the birth certificates of your parents or that you have to put a two month interval in between visits to India (I have yet to work out why that helps prevent anything).

Then a backlash sets in, criticism builds up and the system then carves out exceptions to the rules to satisfy various groups or people. India also has a remarkable multiplicity of visas. And, as this oldish blog noted, it also has ever-changing visa regulations:

Getting an Indian Visa in the USA – Difficult or Simple?

“The whole policy is filled with exemptions for old people, then women with children, and so on,” said an official. The result is an incoherent policy that resembles a piece of Swiss cheese, filled with holes.

Also, within a month, everyone works out ways to get around these barriers. Foreigners, faced with the two month idling period, often jet into Kathmandu and then travel by road into India. As the Indo-Nepalese border is little more than a string with tin cans hanging from it, they pass right through.

The costs to India in economic terms are high. India gets a pittance of foreign tourists for its size and will continue to do so as long getting a visa is so cumbersome. It costs India, as well, in terms of goodwill in foreign countries. And it makes India’s upper and middle classes look hypocritical given how much they raise a hue and cry whenever a Western nation puts up the slightest obstacle to their getting a visa for their children. Note the continuing furore over the UK demanding a money bond for some Indian travellers. This would actually facilitate Indians travelling to the UK, but just the idea has triggered protests by most Indians.

Being an attractive place to visit, a non-complicated place in terms of getting in and out, and otherwise seeming to be friendly and efficient would massively improve India’s image and create jobs. It would also be a huge multiplier in terms of “soft power” besides being more in line with India’s democratic polity.

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How revolutionary for the rest of the world is the United States shale gas revolution? Michael Levi of the Council for Foreign Relations, in India recently, gave an assessment that should reassure New Delhi that shale won’t turn geopolitics (and the Persian Gulf in particular) inside out. Read more

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It didn’t really take Rahul Gandhi to wreck Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tour of the United States. It was already a farewell visit. The US President Barack Obama had been reluctant to meet him, even trying to avoid having to give Singh a lunch. Read more

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