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CURRENT AFFAIRS 22.05.2018 - 23.05.2018

1. Fuel on fire

Yesterday retail prices of petrol and diesel were increased for the ninth straight day, pushing them to record levels despite international crude price being nowhere near the level it was four years ago. In Delhi, retail petrol and diesel prices were Rs 76.87 a litre and Rs 68.08 a litre respectively. Such sharp increases choke economic growth, stoke inflation, hurt consumers and domestic budgets. The current spell is inopportune as it comes at a time when there are discernible signs of a recovery in economic growth after disruption induced by demonetisation.
To prevent these fallouts, the immediate solution is for governments at all levels to lower taxes. The Centre levies a fixed excise duty on petrol and diesel. It used the window provided by weakening of crude soon after NDA assumed power to raise duty. Excise duty on unbranded petrol was raised nine times and it is now more than twice the rate which existed when NDA came to power. In the case of unbranded diesel, the duty is more than four times what existed in mid-2014. The outcome of increase in duty has been a sharp rise in revenue collections from petro products. Revenue, which was Rs 88,600 crore in 2013-14, increased to Rs 2,53,254 crore by 2016-17.
For sure, the main cause of the current spell of increase in retail price is the hardening of international crude price. But that should not be an excuse to avoid proactive measures. The Centre must move to significantly slash excise duty. The Modi government should also persuade all states administered by BJP to lower their fuel taxes which are a percentage of an ever increasing retail price. This will make it politically difficult for non-BJP states to hold out. For almost four years, governments have used revenue from fuel taxes to offset the fallout of lacklustre economic growth. This cushion has allowed them to postpone much needed economic reforms.
In the recent past, private consumption expanded at a disappointing pace. Any measure which puts money in the hands of consumers at this moment will push up the growth rate in private consumption. This expansion will help governments garner more tax, not less. A reduction in dependence of fuel taxes will also create an incentive for the GST Council to hasten the pace of reforms, one of which must be to bring petroleum products within GST’s ambit.

2. Making sense of the Wuhan reset

On the cards was a possible reset of ties between India and China in the wake of the ‘informal summit’ in Wuhan (April 27-28) between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The outcome is uncertain, however. The choice by China of Wuhan, a city situated in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, though was not accidental. Wuhan is symbolic of China’s resilience and economic might today. It was possibly chosen by Mr. Xi to showcase China’s progress since Mr. Modi (as Chief Minister of Gujarat) had last paid a visit to the region. As Mr. Xi proceeds towards his next goal, ‘Made in China 2025’, he may also have wanted to demonstrate the wide gulf that seems to separate his programme from Mr. Modi’s own struggles to make a success of India’s ‘Make in India’ programme. The visit to the museum and the boat ride on the lake, in turn, were possibly intended to demonstrate the extent of China’s soft power.

Trust-building exercise

An ‘informal summit’ is different from a regular summit. India clearly viewed this ‘informal summit’ as a trust-building exercise, hoping to quietly sort out problems that existed between the two countries, including the vexed border issue. Absence of any formal joint communiqué that is sacrosanct for any summit also enables each side to spell out its own impressions of any outcomes. India has already used this to project that India and China are on the same page in dealing with global problems. It cannot be certain though that China sees the world through this same prism.
Mr. Modi used the occasion to convey his ideas on what was needed to be achieved, viz. a shared vision, a shared thought process, a shared resolve, a strong relationship and better communication, between the two countries. He further emphasised the importance of a global leadership role for both nations — two major powers linked by history across more than two millennia. He provided his vision of the Five Principles defining the relationship: Soch(thought), Sampark (contact), Sahyog (cooperation), Sankalp (determination) and Sapne (dreams).
Enumerating the main takeaways, in the absence of a joint communiqué, is not easy. One outcome was to have more such summits, alongside an agreement between the leaders for provision of greater ‘strategic communications’ at the highest level. Another was the opportunity it provided to give ‘strategic guidance’ to the respective militaries to build trust and understanding for ‘prudent management of differences with mutual sensitivity’. A third was the agreement between India and China to work together jointly on an economic project in Afghanistan, with details to be worked out through diplomatic channels.
Both sides also reiterated the need to cooperate on counter-terrorism, and to strengthen the dialogue mechanism to deal with contentious issues and concerns. Both have agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border. The claim by the Indian side that the two countries today have ‘wider and overlapping regional and global interests’ meriting sharper ‘strategic communications’ is, however, subject to interpretation.
On the border issue, the summit appears to have reinforced the validity of the April 2005 Document on ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question’, which was signed in the presence of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. This document happens to be one of the very few that implicitly acknowledges India’s claims to certain ‘disputed’ areas in the Arunachal sector of the India-China border. Ever since signing on to the ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles’ in 2005, China has been trying to reinterpret the contents of the document. If the informal summit, as claimed by the Indian side, has endorsed adherence to the letter and spirit of the 2005 Agreement, it marks an important milestone in the settlement of the border issue.
The wisdom of holding an informal summit when other, and possibly better, avenues of diplomacy are available is debatable. India’s preference for an informal summit so as to be able to discuss contentious issues with China away from media glare and publicity — and the many trappings of diplomacy — is understandable. China’s acquiescence in this form of diplomacy is less understood. At best, China could have hoped to extract some concessions from India as the price for agreeing to an informal summit, viz. putting curbs on the Dalai Lama’s activities in India or backing away from the U.S. policy of containment of China in Asia.

A pivotal moment

China is today at a pivotal moment in its history, having embarked on preparations for a pole position in the global sweepstakes. The U.S. and the West are not ready to openly confront China, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. China currently has a vital role to play in the maintenance of peace in the Korean Peninsula, and in ensuring that the forthcoming Trump-Kim Jong-un talks are not jeopardised. The China-Russia equation today is much stronger than previously. China may be feared in East and South Asia, but no country here has the capacity to challenge China. It has established new equations in West Asia, including with Iran. In the South Asian neighbourhood, China is positioning itself as an alternative to India.
One must, hence, look for reasons elsewhere as to why China is adopting a less than belligerent attitude towards India. It appears that China is positioning itself for bigger things and to play bigger roles. This period is thus a defining one for China. Behind the rubric of a looming trade war between the U.S. and China — which is, without doubt, one of China’s major concerns — is China’s unstated struggle to redefine the rules governing economic and power relations worldwide. At a time when the U.S. is busy lining up the vast majority of Western democracies to checkmate China’s advance, the latter is equally anxious to build support in its favour in Asia and elsewhere to counter the U.S.
The India-China reset talks must, therefore, be seen in this wider perspective and context. It cannot be seen in isolation. At about the same time, on the India-China reset talks, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was in Tokyo to meet his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe as part of a major two-stage initiative. The Li-Abe meeting has reportedly helped remove many of the cobwebs in China-Japan trade and strategic relations. Leaders of China, Japan and South Korea also met in Japan at about the same time to devise measures that were needed to move ahead with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (India is a part of the RCEP, but a reinvigorated RCEP, alongside a China-Japan reset does not augur well for India).

No concessions

It should not, therefore, be surprising that in spite of China’s acquiescence in an informal summit, the report card from Wuhan does not add up to much in real terms. No manifest concessions appear to have been made by China. The Doklam issue (which was not discussed at the summit) remains unresolved, with China still in the driving seat. There are no indications that China has softened its attitude vis-à-vis India’s position in Arunachal Pradesh, or that it will refrain from accusing India of further transgressions here. China’s penetration of India’s neighbourhood is set to continue, with special emphasis on countries such as Nepal and the Maldives. China again has not conceded anything with reference to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. India may believe that it has demonstrated good faith by putting certain curbs on the Dalai Lama’s activities, but this is hardly likely to satisfy China’s concerns about his role.
Meanwhile, India should be concerned about Beijing’s defence budget for 2018. This is being increased by 8.1% over that of the previous year, and is in keeping with the decision of the Chinese 19th Party Congress (October 2017) to build a world class military. Mr. Li is on record that China would now focus on building strong naval and air defences, bolstered by the infusion of high technology. This can only further encourage China to expand its activities in the Indian Ocean region.

3. We must adapt to EU data privacy rules

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the latest shiny new regulation to address the issue of data privacy. The GDPR adopts a rights-based, consent-driven approach towards protecting the data of natural persons. It mandates the concept of ‘privacy by design and default’ and creates categories of data privacy compliance that never existed earlier.
The implementation deadline for the GDPR is May 25.
What difference does it make to you as an Indian company? Well, the GDPR is possibly directly applicable to you as well.
First off, it is important to note that, as a rule, the GDPR applies to any act of processing data. The scope of the term ‘processing’ is broad enough to cover any operation, from data collection to analysis, storage, transfer, erasure and others.
Secondly, the GDPR’s territorial applicability clause states that it can be applicable to you in one of three ways: You may have an establishment — a broad and flexible term — in an EU member-state. The presence of a single representative may be sufficient to constitute an establishment. Or you may offer goods or services to natural persons in the EU (not limited to EU citizens); or you may monitor the behaviour of natural persons in the EU, said behaviour taking place in the EU.
Onus on ‘processors’
The third point to consider is that the GDPR is not merely applicable to entities which collect or order the collection of data (referred to as ‘controllers’ under the GDPR) from EU natural persons for their own purposes, but also places liabilities on people who process this data on behalf of controllers (referred to as ‘processors’ under the GDPR). The GDPR also devotes an entire Chapter to the transfer of personal data to third countries or international organisations.
Finally, the GDPR has teeth. In addition to providing for compensation to natural persons whose privacy rights are violated, the GDPR empowers EU statutory authorities to impose administrative fines of up to €20 million or 4 per cent of total group turnover of a company, and to impose bans on data processing, ordering rectification, restriction or erasure of data and suspending transfers to certain countries.
In other words, any person processing data, whether on their own or on someone else’s behalf, having any kind of ‘establishment’ in the EU, or offering goods or services to natural persons in the EU, or monitoring the behaviour of natural persons in the EU, is subject to the GDPR. It is this factor that sets the GDPR up to become a new paradigm in global privacy regulation.
Needless to add, it will be potentially applicable to Indian establishments across a swathe of sectors. The GDPR may be as applicable to a single-person start-up offering customised e-cards to Indian diaspora as to global e-tailers offering products or services to customers in the EU. Any company offering back-end services to companies operating in the EU or elsewhere, if they are receiving EU resident data, may fall within the definition of a processor under the GDPR.
India rules
Under India’s existing data protection regime, only one legislation, the Information Technology Act, 2000 (the IT Act) has attempted to deal with data protection in a comprehensive manner. The IT (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules 2011 (The IT-RS Rules) under the IT Act seek to address data privacy issues. However, the granularity of detail at which the GDPR addresses data protection compliance is hard to compare to the approach taken by the IT-RS Rules.
The IT-RS Rules effectively commit a portion of a single provision to consent, Rule 5(1), requiring that consent be obtained in writing through electronic communication. The GDPR, in contrast, commits five detailed provisions (Articles 6 to 9 and 22) to the essentiality of lawful consent for processing data, factors to determine whether consent was lawfully obtained, conditions for consent, consent for children and heightened consent requirements for special categories of information and for data-based profiling.
Additionally, the language of the GDPR indicates that consent is interwoven through most of its important provisions, making it a key foundation of GDPR compliance.
There are certain aspects of the GDPR which are not reflected anywhere in the IT-RS, such as the adoption of a rights-based approach to data privacy. The GDPR makes it clear at the very outset that it protects the fundamental right to protection of data of natural persons, and goes on to establish, amongst others, rights to data access, rectification, erasure, restriction, portability and objection.
The GDPR is being adopted at a time where India is arguably at a cusp regarding data privacy. The August 2017 decision of the Supreme Court in Justice Puttusamy vs Union of India confirmed the existence of a fundamental right to privacy, recognised the concept of informational privacy and noted that legislation should be enacted to ensure enforceability against non-State actors (private entities).
Moreover, the Justice Srikrishna Committee, established to make recommendations for a proposed data protection legislation in India, released a white paper on Data Protection Framework in India which utilises much of the GDPR’s terminology and approach.
These are indications that a future data protection legislation in India will share several commonalities with the GDPR. From this perspective, GDPR compliance may be considered an opportunity for Indian companies to achieve early compliance with a potential Indian data privacy legislation.
The GDPR was announced on April 14, 2016, at which time the May 25, 2018 deadline for implementation was announced. Indian companies need to quickly determine their potential liability under the GDPR and take steps towards compliance. The GDPR’s provisions for ‘privacy by design’ mean that compliance with the GDPR is a techno-legal process, requiring revision of software code as well as legal documentation.
However, legal compliance is essential to the process. The broad steps that a company should take in this regard are: Diagnosis — determining their data flows and extent of statutory compliance requirements; creation or revision of internal policies such as codes of conduct or end-user facing agreements such as privacy policies; review or renegotiation of agreements with third-parties and, finally, future proofing through creating systems for audit, training and record-retention.
Indian companies need to quickly recognise GDPR’s potential significance to their operations and to take steps towards compliance.

4. Miles to go for the new bankruptcy code

Good news has finally started to roll out of the refurbished bankruptcy courts. Tata Steel acquired 73% stake in the bankrupt firm Bhushan Steel for about 35,000 crore last week, making it the first major resolution of a bankruptcy case under the new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC). Bhushan Steel was one among the 12 major accounts referred to the National Company Law Tribunal at the behest of the Reserve Bank of India last year to ease the burden of bad loans on banks. The proceeds from the acquisition will go towards settling almost two-thirds of the total outstanding liabilities of over 56,000 crore that Bhushan Steel owes banks. While it may be unwise to read too much into a single case, the Bhushan Steel resolution is nevertheless an encouraging sign for banks because they typically manage to recover only about 25% of their money from defaulters. In fact, between April 2014 and September 2017, the bad loan recovery rate of public sector banks was as low as 11%, with non-performing assets worth 2.41 lakh crore written off from their books. The Finance Ministry now expects banks to recover more than 1 lakh crore from the resolution of the other cases referred by the RBI to the NCLT. If the banks do indeed recover funds of this scale, it would considerably reduce the burden on taxpayers, who would otherwise have to foot the bill for any recapitalisation of banks. Even more important, speedy resolution would free valuable assets to be used for wealth-creation.
The resolution of one high-profile case, however, should not deflect attention from the many challenges still plaguing the bankruptcy resolution process. The IBC, as the government itself has admitted, remains a work in progress. This is a welcome piece of legislation to the extent that it subsumes a plethora of laws that confused creditors; instead it now offers a more streamlined way to deal with troubled assets. But issues such as the proposed eligibility criteria for bidders have left it bogged down and suppressed its capacity to help out creditors efficiently. Also, the strict time limit for the resolution process as mandated by the IBC is an area that has drawn much attention, and it merits further review in order to balance the twin objectives of speedy resolution and maximising recovery for the lenders. To its credit, the government has been willing to hear out suggestions. It would do well to implement the recommendations of the Insolvency Law Committee which, among other things, has vouched for relaxed bidder eligibility criteria. Going forward, amendments to the bankruptcy code should primarily be driven by the goal of maximising the sale price of stressed assets. This requires a robust market for stressed assets that is free from all kinds of entry barriers.

5. The classroom as the instructor’s castle

Some months ago, a global leader of the IT industry set sections of India’s corporate-sector elite aflutter with the comment that Indians are not creative. It is possible to disagree with the criterion Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple Computer, had adopted while at the same time agreeing with some of his observations. He had predicted that Indians are unlikely to create world-leading IT companies because they lack the creativity to do so and argued that this has to do with the education system.
While building global IT giants may have more to do with an appetite for growing a business rather than anything else, Mr. Wozniak’s assessment of India’s education system is sharp. He traced the lack of creativity to an education system that rewarded studiousness over independent thought. He also managed an anthropological take when he identified the ‘MBA and the Merc’ as the mark of success in India’s corporate world. For good measure he likened this to the culture of Singapore, but here he may have missed a trick. The per capita income of Singaporeans is quite close to that of Americans. And that country has achieved much of what it set out to do when it struck off on its own, which was to turn a swampy colonial port into a prosperous city state proudly independent of world powers. Also, it has a national leadership more educated and responsible than what the U.S. has currently. Singapore’s orderly society may not be everybody’s cup of tea but its history suggests one way we could identify the creativity of a people as a whole. That is, a people are truly creative when they are able to collectively surmount the challenges that their country faces.

Crisis in higher education

Actually, what India is experiencing in higher education today is far worse than merely the production of studious but creativity-challenged youth. There is abetment of a toxic productivity whereby our universities churn out youth with a poor grasp of the subject matter that they are expected to know and an even poorer understanding of the challenges that India today faces, for which they alone can provide the solutions. This is particularly troubling as public expenditure on education in India favours higher education far more than elsewhere in the world when schooling is severely neglected by comparison. In addition, this is a sector so micro-managed that it answers to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s description of the Indian economy in the 1990s as “over regulated and under governed” better than the economy itself. So, neither funding nor neglect can be blamed for the lack of vitality in India’s institutions of higher education.
Universities are embedded in society and cannot be expected to naturally rise above them. Close to 50 years ago, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had spoken of a ‘crisis in Indian education’ pointing to how India’s educational policy had been shaped by the aspiration of its middle class. Creativity is unlikely to have been a part of it. However, it is precisely to ensure that there is no sectional capture of public institutions intended to serve a larger purpose that we have public regulators. While there is more than one regulator for the higher education sector in India, for sheer reach the University Grants Commission (UGC) is unmatched. To say that it has a major responsibility in the state of affairs that we are experiencing in higher education would be an understatement. The government would be advised to follow email discussions of UGC regulations circulating on the Internet right now to garner a sense of how wide the resentment against the body is.

Journal publication

The bone of contention is the basis on which the regulator identifies ‘recognised’ journals, publication in which alone earns credit for faculty. Having drawn up such a list a couple of years ago, the Commission appears to have now backtracked. Possibly stung by the claim that an astonishingly high percentage of the journals on its original list are of dubious distinction — the term for which is ‘predatory’ in that they either solicit articles to be published for a fee or follow no clear refereeing procedure — the UGC has suddenly trimmed the list. This has led to questions of the criterion that has been used.
While predatory journals are not a uniquely Indian problem, the problem appears to be more grave here, and has possibly been aggravated by the UGC’s policy of soliciting recommendations for inclusion of journals in its approved list. The whole process has led to a severe diminishing of credibility for one of the most crucial regulators of the country.
To believe that the problem of dubious journals on the UGC’s whitelist is the sole issue awaiting resolution in the university would be naive. This is actually quite recent and just another manifestation of the unaccountable regulation that has had a vandalising effect on the higher education space in the country. A small set of actionable points, not every one of them the responsibility of the UGC, would be as follows.

Revise the API

The problem of predatory journals emerged after the UGC introduced a quantitative scoring system leading to an Academic Performance Indicator (API) in which publishing is a part. The activities approved for toting up a teacher’s API are many, extending beyond teaching and research. This has led to a form of academic entrepreneurship that has very likely demoralised the less entrepreneurial, who are often the more academic and therefore more deserving of being in the university to start with. For this reason, the contents of the API must be revised to include only teaching and research, thus also saving scarce administrative resources. Teaching input can be partly measured by the number of courses taught, but research assessment should avoid the quantitative metric. Instead it should be judged by committees that have reputed and recognisably independent subject experts on it. This is not foolproof but, in the context of the email discussion now on among India’s academics, superior to a discredited list of approved journals.
Next, compulsory attendance, which goes against the spirit of learning, must be replaced by credit for classroom participation.
Third, introduce student evaluation of courses to be made public. It needs emphasis that this is meant to be an ‘evaluation’ and not some ‘feedback’ to be contemplated upon by the lecturer at leisure. However, it is important to see the process in perspective. Course evaluation is meant to instil in studentsboth a sense of confidence that their view is being solicited and a sense of responsibility in wielding authority early on. It can effectively check truancy among faculty but there should be vigilance against its misuse.
Fourth, the UGC should remove all experience-related considerations to career advancement. The present system leaves the able to stagnate during their best years and the undeserving to believe that time served grants entitlement to promotion. There must be a drastic reduction in the number of hours faculty have to teach. While this may not be much in the research institutes and the Central universities, in India’s colleges the teaching load is not merely taxing to the point of lowering productivity but leaves teachers no time to address the burgeoning literature in their disciplines.
Finally, once courses are evaluated by students, the classroom should revert to being the instructor’s castle. A pincer movement of corporate interest and political pressure combined with regulatory overdrive have cramped the autonomy of the teacher. The state of higher education in India today partly reflects this.

6. Nipha virus: stay alert, local bodies told

All the local bodies in the district have been directed to take precautionary measures in the wake of outbreak of Nipah virus in the neighbouring states, District Collector Rohini R. Bhajibhakare said.
Speaking to reporters here on Tuesday, the Collector said that there are no reports of outbreak of Nipah virus in the district. All those suffering from fever should have properly tested in the Government hospitals and primary health centres. The managements of the private hospitals should inform the details of the patients getting admitted with severe fever to the Government authorities immediately, the Collector said.

7. The fading appeal of soft power

In India’s evolving foreign policy imagination, the pursuit of power and influence seems to eclipse the country’s traditions of normative behaviour and principled positions. The jury is still out on whether by shedding its normative shibboleths New Delhi is finally doing what states typically do, and whether or not its post-normative turn will negatively impact its national interests.

The rise of realpolitik

Around three months ago, the Central government frankly told the Supreme Court, “we don’t want India to become a refugee capital,” even as the Border Security Force (BSF) had been pushing back Rohingya refugees from the eastern borders.
India’s stand vis-à-vis Rohingya refugees is an indication of how new India proposes to deal with humanitarian issues in its neighbourhood. Its approach to the Rohingya crisis (i.e. its refusal to admit people fleeing for their lives into the country or to ask Myanmar to address the human rights violations against its Rohingya population) is informed by several realpolitik considerations. At the domestic political level, there is a religious rationale for pushing back Muslim Rohingya, and an electoral calculation vis-à-vis the Northeast and West Bengal. At a broader level, with the Chinese charm offensive in the region putting India on the defensive, it does not want to alienate Myanmar. And yet, in its enthusiasm to please Myanmar by not nudging it to resolve the refugee issue lest it warm up to China, India actually ended up ceding ground to China when Beijing began negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
India’s response to the Rohingya crisis, then, is in stark contrast to its long tradition of offering refuge to the region’s homeless. What makes this policy even more petty-minded is the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which empowers the government to offer citizenship to migrants hailing from minority communities in the neighbourhood, except Muslims. It is clear then that the government’s position on refugees is anything but principled.

Downplaying non-alignment

Consider another example. Through the much-publicised celebration of the India-Israel partnership, the government has made it clear that it seeks to pursue a foreign policy guided by realpolitik. From being ideological opponents to maintaining a relationship in the closet, India and Israel have come a long way. While an earlier BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had invited the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to visit India, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government deepened engagement, the current NDA government has taken the relationship to another level. New Delhi doesn’t any more pay heed to accusations of human rights violations against Tel Aviv, its blatant refusal to abide by various UN resolutions, or the manner in which it discards the political rights of the Palestinians.
This is not to discount the fact that there is an instrumental rationale underlying the India-Israel relationship, especially in terms of national security and strategic considerations. But isn’t there a troubling politico-ideological narrative underwriting this partnership which seems to go beyond the material requirements of the Indian state?
Non-alignment once used to be the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Delhi continued to pay lip service to it. In 2016, only for the second time ever, India’s Prime Minister was not present at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. NAM stood for several important global movements: decolonisation, disarmament, correcting the inherent ills of the global economic order, etc. For sure, some of the founding ideals of NAM may have lost their relevance today, but the grouping can help rising powers such as India to enhance their global standing and influence. But then, solidarity with other developing countries is no more a foreign policy priority for New Delhi, nor is it greatly invested in strategic autonomy.
With the U.S. designating India as a “Major Defence Partner”, it is one India’s closest strategic partners today. In 2016, India had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. which gives both sides access to designated military facilities for refuelling and replenishment. Clearly, this is far more useful to the U.S. than to India. Several such agreements are in the pipeline. In 2014, the U.S. replaced Russia as India’s largest defence supplier, and the Russians started negotiating arms sales with Pakistan that same year.
It is in this context that Mr. Modi’s ‘informal summit’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi is viewed as an attempt by both to reassure each other that the relationship has not lost its warmth. However, will India-Russia relations survive the several fundamental geopolitical and material transformations taking place in the Asian region and their sharp, and and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in dealing with them?
And whatever happened to good neighbourliness? The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) seems to be consigned to the dustbin of history as for some reason New Delhi sees no future for it. Is the ‘mistreatment’ of SAARC in our best interest? It is ironic that SAARC and NAM, both India-centric institutions, have been sidelined by our own conscious efforts.
Non-alignment is passé, ‘neighbourhood first’, despite the recent overtures, is falling apart, and multi-alignment is increasingly looking like a fantasy: India’s post-normative foreign policy is in a shambles.

How does all this add up?

Thinking beyond normative strictures has both positive and negative implications. When free from ideological constraints and legacy dilemmas, states can pursue their self-interest with a free hand. There will be lot more flexibility to determine the demands of national interest, for national interest is itself not static, only the idea of it is. India’s post-normative approach to external behaviour also is a recognition of the importance of the pursuit of power in the contemporary international system. In that sense then, the new foreign policy thinking in the country has some merits.
The post-normative turn also comes with its challenges and complications. For one, the soft power persuasiveness of a country is also the product of its political ideals, civilisational values and its cultural resonance. Choosing to exclusively focus on hard power for foreign policy outcomes sidelines our rich soft power attributes. Second, new India’s foreign policy choices also indicate the company it wishes to keep in the comity of nations and what it wants from the international system. It seeks hard power, great power status and the company of great powers — not an equitable international order and the company of developing nations. If so, we must also ask how steadfast are our current great power partnerships? Will they stand the test of time well beyond the attraction of India’s growing defence budgets and expanding consumer markets?
Post-normative India is also an aggressive India, and even the hollow invocations to Gandhian non-violence have become less than routine. Worryingly, the reliance on aggression as a foreign policy tool seems to have strong domestic political origins, premised on a mistaken belief that force can overcome resistance. Some Ministers openly threaten neighbours of military strikes, and military leaders display a growing fondness for making domestic political statements. Confrontation seems to have displaced quiet diplomacyas our favoured tool for conflict resolution. And, as a society, we seem to be emotionally invested in coercive solutions to political questions both within and outside the country. Yet, India is more insecure today than it was four years ago.
We would do ourselves good to remember that the pursuit of national interest is a complex affair, and norms, values and soft power should co-exist with the pursuit of hard power.

THANKS: Excel career India, Chennai

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