India is probably more dependent on the West Asia and North Africa region than any other part of the world, especially that big chunk of WANA that is around the Persian Gulf. And it is one of the regions which the Indian strategic community struggles to get its head around. Read more

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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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Professor Eswar Prasad of Cornell University is touring India promoting his new book The Dollar Trap. Read more

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The tale of Narendra Modi and the United States is also a parable of how the relationship between the two countries requires constant work. Read more

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Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be India’s Republic Day guest this weekend. Traditionally this is an invitation the Indian government extends only to countries that it sees as friendly, to leaders who are not seen as controversial and to reflect relationships over whom there is a broad consensus at home. 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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Much pious noise is being made in New Delhi about the difficulties India is facing in getting other World Trade Organisation members to give it a permanent exemption from the 10% farm subsidy cap under the WTO’s existing agreement on agriculture. 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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There’s a lot of scholarly work on the Third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party so I won’t pretend I have any value addition to add. The pessimists have said the plenum was notable for its failure to mention the state-owned enterprises and financial sector liberalisation. This means Xi Jinping is wary of treading on the corns of vested interests. The optimists have said the reformist outline of the plenum’s pronouncements show there is a consensus on more things than many had expected. 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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