The Top Four Ministers Need to Work in Harmony to Help Build New India
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

One striking feature of Modi Sarkar’s new cabinet is that the top four jobs of Home, Finance, Defence and External Affairs, are now occupied by new incumbents. They will bring their own visions and styles of functioning to their portfolios. Enjoying the trust of the Prime Minister, they, as members of the Cabinet Committee on Security, would need to work as a team to fulfil Prime Minister’s vision for New India.

India is facing, as it has in the past, complex internal security challenges handling which requires holistic political, economic, and law and order approaches. Kashmir is an example. The BJP manifesto has spoken about removing Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. If this goal is realised, the situation in Kashmir would change forever. The repercussions of such a move would need to be carefully assessed.

The status quo in Kashmir cannot continue indefinitely. Bold, well considered moves are needed. Assembly elections are due in J&K. Kashmiri pundits evicted from their homes under the shadow of the gun thirty years ago continue to await their return. Cross-border infiltration, incidents of cross-border terrorism, alienation and radicalisation amongst the Kashmiri youth remain persistent. The divide between Jammu and the Valley is deepening. The new Home Minister would have to devise a proper strategy to deal with the delicate situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

The framework agreement signed with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN)-IM during the tenure of the previous government has not yet resulted in a proper settlement of the Naga issue. The situation cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely. While a lot has been done to gain an upper hand over left-wing extremism, the Maoists remain active inflicting damage on the security forces from time to time. Radicalisation, inspired by the ISIS type of extremist ideologies, is increasing and palpable. Suitable deradicalisation measures will need to be devised to deal with this very serious problem.

The Home Minister may also like to have a closer look at the capacities of the institutions governed by the Home Ministry. A number of suggestions were made in the last term of the government regarding strengthening border security, coastal security, counter-terrorism mechanisms, building a National Intelligence Grid and so on. India still does not have a national counter- terrorism centre. The Home Ministry’s budget has increased rapidly crossing ₹ 100,000 crores for the first time. Yet, police force modernisation, police reforms, and training of para-military forces lag behind. Image of the police in the public is low. In the meanwhile, old policing methods are no longer effective for new age crimes and law and order situations. Police personnel have to be tech-savvy and sensitive to people’s problems. The old mindsets must change. The problem of corruption among police personnel needs to be tackled.

The Home Minister may also like to have a deeper look at the structure of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) itself. Is it organised suitably to deal with contemporary internal security challenges which arise from radicalisation, unemployment amongst youth, uneven population growth, regional imbalances, environmental degradation, unplanned urbanisation, natural disasters, extreme weather events, nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism, cyber space, internal migrations, farmers distress, violence against gender, social media-inspired campaigns, et cetera? The plain answer is ‘no’. Our mindset is too old and structures too rigid to deal with these challenges. There are hardly any experts in the MHA who can provide inputs to the Home Minister based on such disciplines as psychology, behavioural sciences, anthropology, linguistics, et cetera. Modernisation of the Home Ministry is urgently needed. The new Home Minister should look into this aspect with the help of experts and not be guided solely by the bureaucrats.

The Finance Minister would get down to the task of preparing the first budget of the new government amidst slowing growth in the last three quarters. Government’s welfare schemes, on the basis of which it won the mandate of the people, would need to be continued, extended and deepened. Resources for a hundred plus welfare schemes would have to be found and sustained. Stress on the banking sector would need to be relieved. The requirements of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for higher defence budget would have to be met. At the same time, rural development, agriculture, small industry, skill development, education and health, to name a few, require greater resources.

The Finance Minister would also have to keep an eye on the current account deficit which cannot be increased beyond its present level without damaging the economy. There are already demands from various quarters for the simplification and reduction of the GST. Raising new resources will be a major task for the Finance Minister. The Government would need to take suitable steps to revive private investment and increase foreign direct investment in the country. The economy would have to become more productive and competitive.

The last five years have shown time and again the need for deep reforms in the defence sector. It is an open secret that defence budget as a share of the GDP (about 1.6 per cent) has fallen steadily in real terms and is not good enough to sustain modernisation of the Armed Forces. Procurements are becoming more expensive by the day and in the long run they are unsustainable. Indigenisation of defence production has not got the required boost. Make in India program in the defence sector has not yet taken off. Procurement procedures remain lengthy and tortuous. The strategic partnership reform announced in 2016, which would have brought the private sector into defence production in a big way, has faltered. There is not enough money to buy new equipment after meeting the existing commitments.

The security environment has altered rapidly. If India has to take on the challenge of China, Pakistan, and the threats arising from the Indo-Pacific region, it needs to do far more on defence. The cyber capabilities of the defence forces need to be enhanced. Defence diplomacy has to be stepped up by bringing in new ideas. The relationship between the MoD and the Armed Forces needs to be made more harmonious and synergetic. The decision on the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) must be finalised at the earliest.

The new External Affairs Minister, a confidant of the Prime Minister, has been handpicked to steer India’s diplomacy. As former Foreign Secretary, he is well-versed with the opportunities and diplomatic challenges the country faces. No doubt he will hit the deck running. The global and regional environment is highly uncertain. In the next few weeks, a hectic diplomatic engagement agenda is awaiting the Prime Minister. Indo-US relations have seen headwinds in the context of trade and economic relationship. US sanctions have also impacted India’s relations with Iran and Russia. The connectivity agenda of the Government, launched in the last term, remains incomplete. The neighbourhood, the extended neighbourhood and relationships with the great powers will be the top foreign policy priority for the Government. The Indian media would be cosey watching the possible meeting between PM Modi and Pakistan PM Imran Khan on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. The Government is unlikely to give up its firm view that talks and terrorism cannot go together.

Ties with China are never without problems. India would have to look carefully at the Chinese push to penetrate the Indian telecom market with Huawei’s 5G technologies which have raised concerns over the world. Will the new government be able to persuade the Chinese to agree on a border settlement, or a clarification on the Line of Actual Control at least? How will India deal with the growing influence of China in its sensitive neighbourhood? China’s Belt and Road Initiative is reflective of its geo-political ambitions. These questions were always there. They take on new meanings as the global balance of power changes.

If India’s economy slows down, India’s options also diminish. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would need to see how India’s vast markets can be leveraged to meet India’s interests. Diplomacy has to be a combined effort of MEA, MoD, MHA, Ministry of Finance (MoF), Ministry of Commerce and other sectoral ministries. The potential of Indian culture in building ‘New India’ has been underutilised. The MEA should impart a strategic dimension to public diplomacy. The role of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in strategising culture needs to be reexamined in this context.

The National Security Advisor (NSA) has been playing an important role in the critical aspects of India’s diplomacy, particularly relating to the security aspects. A trusted aide, he has been a trouble shooter for the Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether the NSA’s role will change in the new government.

The National Security Council (NSC), set up in 1999, has been underused. In most countries, NSCs have become important institutions, bringing about coordination and a measure of monitoring the implementation of strategic programmes. The NSC could provide much-needed coordination amongst various ministries, particularly when it comes to the issues of threat perception, scenario building, crystal gazing and ways and means to deal with multiple challenges. It is hoped that NSC would become more active in the second term of the Government.

In today’s day and age, no Minister or Ministry can work as an island. The four top ministers have to work together to realise the Government’s agenda of New India.

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