Recently I had a chance to do survey the India-Africa energy relationship when I was asked to speak on the topic at the University of Calcutta’s Foreign Policy Institute. I looked at oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear ties. Read more

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A number of foreign policy commentators in India, including most notably the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, have argued that the open international economic system backed by the US and the West in general has begun to become less open. And that the change is being driven by the West itself. Read more

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Blue Beijing sky

These days, a visit to Beijing and any major Chinese city evokes thoughts of face masks, diesel smelling air and smoggy skies. When I arrived in Beijing as part of the Aspen Institute of India’s delegation to the fourth India-China Strategic Dialogue two weekends ago, I was greeted by clear blue skies, clean air and bright sunlight. And it continued for three days. Read more

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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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A remarkable number of India’s intelligentsia were privately unhappy when the Arab spring broke out. Not because they had any love for the likes of Hosni Mubarak and his ilk. Read more

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Almost everyone opposes nuclear weapons even though there is a strong case for saying they have helped keep the peace in many periods, like the Cold War and even between India and Pakistan. Read more

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The newly minted president of China, Xi Jinping, speaking to a group of BRICS newswires, told them the Indian participant that he had a five-point formula for Sino-Indian relations. Read more

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There was a time when France mattered a hell of a lot to India. It was the dissident member of the Western world that India could count on to resist the imposition of sanctions (after nuclear tests) and cast the odd veto (when Kashmir would come up). Read more

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The last few times I shared some space with Brajesh Mishra he indicated his health was poor. When we were part of an extended team that drafted an Aspen Institute of India – Council of Foreign Relations report on Indo-US relations, The United States and India: A Shared Strategic Future, Mishra declined to travel to America for the report’s release at his doctor’s orders. So I was not all that surprised when he died last week.

There are many articles on Mishra’s accomplishments. I will try to make an informal assessment of what he represented in the longer continuum of Indian foreign policy. My answer: a recognition that India’s growing economic clout and international profile allowed it to take greater risks in foreign policy than it had before.

Before Mishra and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee, India was rightly cautious. Its poverty, its numerous social and domestic ailments, and its very youth as an independent state made it cautious about foreign policy adventurism. Nonalignment and Nehruvian economics was, in many ways, about building a cordon sanitaire around India so it could develop without external intrusion.

This began to change with P. V. Narasimha Rao who, under foreign secretary J. N. Dixit, began to rejig the original Nehruvian assumptions. But it was under Mishra’s influence that the policy changes, and more importantly, the policy risk-taking began to flow thick and fast.

The most obvious example was the Pokhran II nuclear tests. It was not merely the act of testing – we’d done that before – but the confidence India could ride out the sanctions that were sure to follow. (The sanctions regime did not exist when the first nuclear tests were carried out.) And the even greater gamble that it would actually help India begin a dialog with the US and the West about ending India’s nuclear isolation.

Previous Indian governments had contemplated such tests but had concluded the country’s economy was too fragile to handle the consequences.

Then there was the single-minded pursuit of a Pakistani peace process that began with the Lahore bus trip. This was partly about a Hindu nationalist government being in power and being immune to charges of Muslim appeasement. But it was also a belief that India’s economy and post-Cold War profile could allow it to take initiatives with Pakistan again and again, even if they blew up in New Delhi’s face. Why? Because India’s ability to achieve great power status required an end to the Pakistan imbroglio. Lahore disintegrated into Kargil, but Vajpayee and Mishra were ready to try again. It is noticeable that this policy of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” when it comes to talks with Pakistan is continued with the present government.

Mishra was always a China hawk, even before he became the national security advisor. And it was one of the reasons that drove him to push hard, very hard, for a different relationship with the US. He coined the phrase “natural allies,” he contemplated sending Indian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the first outlines of the nuclear deal began with him.

I suspect his initial opposition to the nuclear deal was driven by personal irritation that this didn’t happen under his watch. Mishra had no doubts it was a historical pact and was to later embrace it. Point is: he was prepared to put the Indo-US relationship on the fast lane at a time when being associated with Uncle Sam was seen as seditious.

Getting the calibration of foreign policy responses right is not easy when the country you represent keep changing its capacities so rapidly. Mishra overstepped at times. For example, he reportedly threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with South Africa when they criticized the nuclear tests. They called his bluff, and Mishra had to eat humble pie. There is a case for saying that he made mistakes on the Chinese border talks as well.

But Mishra set the ball rolling for an India that believed itself able to try and proactively and directly change the international landscape in its favour. It was no longer a case of New Delhi being either passive or speechifying. And it started with him.

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There is no shortage of ferment in India’s relations with Sri Lanka. Some of it is manufactured, some of it is genuine and some of it is India’s fault. But compared to the mess it was during the civil war, bilateral relations at the government level are arguably the best they have been since independence. Read more

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