KII Graduate Forum 2014 – Contemporary India’s International Role

For several months, two fellow student convenors and I have been engaged in organising the second King’s India Institute Graduate Forum, a student-run conference for doctoral students working on India across the UK, Europe and beyond. After the call for papers was disseminated, we received several impressive papers, out of which 12 were chosen for presentation in five panels – Intellectual history, Politics and Society, Negotiating Growth and Development, Gender and India’s International Role.

The initiative went really well. All the papers and presenters were stimulating, some provoking and critical. I chaired the panel on India’s International Role, which had two papers on different issues – domestic politics and Indian foreign policy through the lens of the Sri Lankan resolutions at UNHCR and India’s space programme and the justifications provided for its origins and sustenance. Both papers were well written and captured key debates surrounding their issue and forwarded assertions that were unconsidered hitherto. Below, I have captured the key arguments of the papers and offered comments on its shortfalls, that were also presented at the conference.

Guruparan Kumaravadivel’s (UCL) paper National Interest’ and India as a Singular Political Community: Towards a critical understanding of Tamil Nadu’s response to India’s Post-War Foreign Policy on Sri Lanka tackled the issue of how domestic political factors influenced India’s positions vis-à-vis civil war in Sri Lanka at UNHCR where several countries brought forward resolutions against the Rajapakshe administration. Guruparan’s paper argues that the explanation of Tamil Nadu’s influence on India’s post-war policies with regard to Sri Lanka has hitherto mainly focused on the issue of federal entitlement of states in in the making of Indian foreign policy. Thus, it has largely been explained by the growing prominence of states in the wake of coalition politics at the centre/federal level since the mid 1990s. This phenomenon, he argues, is read along with competitive party politics to provide the explanation for the incoherent and fragmented nature of Indian foreign policy on Sri Lanka, at least since 2009. However, the paper asserts that to cast the role and influence of Tamil Nadu in this particular dimension does not entirely explain the underlying dynamics of the relationship between Tamil Nadu, the Eelam Tamil problem and Indian foreign policy. Drawing from MSS Pandian’s historical characterization of Tamil Nadu’s involvement in the Eelam Tamil issue as an example of ‘surrogate nationalism’, the paper argues that the end of the war in Sri Lanka and the manner in which it effectively ended renewed and intensified Tamil Nationalism in Tamil Nadu. Concomitantly, the paper argues that the ‘rhetoric of ‘national interest’ is in fact is a veneer for the real debate on how best to handle the diversity of interests at stake and that the debate in fact is deeply connected to the debate on the ‘idea of India’ as a singular political community.’

The paper provides a novel argument to explicate India’s positions on Sri Lanka over the past five years. The paper claims that India’s or the UPA’s policies vis-a-vis the SL civil war is more complex, it is not solely driven by partisan considerations emanating from coalitional management or from the desire of states to exert themselves within the Indian polity. There is a deeper issue at play here – that of Tamil nationalism and its historical legacies which were activated in 2009 after being dormant since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. The paper problematises this by asking what drove TN’s activism over India’s SL postures? Instead, the paper argues that this involvement has to do with surrogate nationalism. Surrogate Nationalism – it is best understood as a form of nationalistic politics practiced in Tamil Nadu that sought to provide empathy and support for Eelam Tamil Nationalism. But what is this surrogate nationalism? How does it manifest? The paper mentions the protests 2009 as critical manifestations of this nationalism but this has been ongoing in some form or another for past twenty years. Is it only through protests that their voice is activated? What are its components and facets? How does this legitimation take place? Is secession their objective or trumpeting it for political purposes? Insofar as Im aware, TN has not sought for separate nationhood or even moved the discourse that way – which Quebec and Catalonia, cited as examples of this phenomenon, have insisted on. How does it affect the prevailing political structures or the coalitional politics that you dismissed earlier? And what benefits do they acquire from international recognition since it would undercut their role within the nation. It is very possible to be sympathetic to the Tamil cause and yet be faithful to the Indian nation, I don’t see why and how surrogate nationalism intervenes here. The paper needs more clarity on this central concept before it can be applied to examine developments in TN over the Sri Lankan civil war. Fundamentally, I think both factors are relevant: that of competitive party politics within the UPA and a manifestation of nationalist politics within TN that coalesced to influence India’s positions at the UNHCR. The key question is how can we first, identify what these are and second, how we robustly map their constitutiveness and interactive effect of policy. 

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The second paper on The New Temple of Modern India: Modernity, Technology, and India’s Space Programme was presented by Dimitrios Stroikos (LSE). The paper attempts to theorise the determinants of India’s ambitious space programme and associated policies since the 1950s. Drawing on the concept of the ‘standard of civilisation’ and building on ideas from postcolonial studies on India’s nuclear programme and foreign policy, the paper argues that it is India’s ambitious plans for space exploration and human spaceflight as well as its renewed interest in military space capabilities can be explained through a historical lens that privileges discourses on post-colonial modernity that ‘signifies national techno-social and techno-political projects as markers of status and modernity in international society.’ The paper was excellently written, clear in its approach and presentation, robust in its conceptual framework and the evidence marshalled to support the central arguments. However, it needs more clarity on two particular aspects. First, the politics of Post-colonial modernity? More attention required there especially on the appropriation of discourse to justify current investments being made on several space and nuclear related technologies and this is relevant not only since 1998 but also during the early years when Nehru spearheaded the scientific project with support from the scientific establishment. The politics of the space and nuclear programmes were heavily contested internally and the range of debates reflecting those contentions and conflicts need to be considered since the ‘discourse’ being employed as the central framework to explain India’s investments was the subject of much scrutiny and hand-wringing; thus reifying it will not suffice. Furthermore, as the author argued, the realpolitik aspects of the space programme are important but it is unclear how and where it is significant with respect to the key argument being posited, that of a powerful discourse – post-colonial modernity. Some of these investments, especially over the past decade, were driven by security considerations given China’s rise and the need to neutralise their massive investments in these areas and their growing presence but how can that be analytically embedded within the argument that privileges ideational factors or ‘notions of techno-nationalism’ within a post-colonial context. Going ahead, scholars tackling issues of contemporary Indian foreign policy have to be more adept at explaining how structural and domestic factors collide in determining policies emanating out of the PMO or the South Block in New Delhi.

The Accidental Prime Minister

Not very often do we see policy memoirs of former Indian bureaucrats of their time in office. Other than the United States where former officials are placed on a carousel with one account following another, this is one tradition that has yet to be exported. And for this reason alone, Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister is worth the read for its atmospheric rendition of the policy corridors surrounding the PM’s office in New Delhi. Moreover, the trouncing of the UPA-II last month at the elections allows us to put this version and the events in context, providing readers a window into the incompetence and disaster that lay ahead for UPA-II, which are presaged from the memoir.

Baru’s book covers UPA-I, specifically his time as Manmohan Singh’s media and communications adviser, responsibilities not very dissimilar from that of a press secretary. Some issues and events get top billing, especially the Indo-US nuclear deal that required painstaking diplomacy on both sides, including several critical junctures involving high stakes diplomatic wrangling.
Baru provides a convincing account of the battles involving the politics of the deal given the feckless conduct of the left and ongoing skirmishes with party leadership with events eventually leading to Singh staking his political life at the altar in return for the deal’s progression. What we eventually come to see through these negotiations is a strong leader, political leader, willing to cut deals and make concessions whilst facing stiff resistance both within the party and coalition without sacrificing the core objective. Reading these portions begs us to ask why was this was not more commonly seen from the PM on other areas of importance. Why did he cede so much space on other areas while exerting himself with vigor in foreign affairs? And having seen UPA-II, even this robust foreign policy leadership did not sustain with momentum dissipating surrounding his leadership as the economy waned.

And this leads us to another puzzle: why did Manmohan Singh, after winning a convincing, if not, triumphant mandate in 2009 effectively cease from functioning as the PM during the second term? Baru’s account suggests that not standing for a seat in the lower house certainly undermined the PM’s standing but this does not explain why he proved to lead on many fronts in the first term. But his encounters with the PM as the second term commenced suggest that a more fundamental shift of power was taking place from the PMO to the party and one that would not only, as we know, damage the party’s and government’s capacity to function as a unit. In a startling conversation, Singh contritely concedes that there cannot be dual bases of power and has come to accept his place in the mystical hierarchy, that under the congress president, Sonia Gandhi. It is revealing and startling admission. For Indian voters that reposed their faith in the hands of a sturdy PM candidate, it amounts to a dereliction of duty. Even if citizens voted for the policies espoused by the congress they did, however, do so under the knowledge that Singh would be at the helm. To shift and distort lines of accountability and command without due process and recognition, as implied by Baru and confirmed by subsequent events, is disconcertingly at the very least. If anything, one can surmise that this move proved to be the beginning of the UPA-II’s undoing.

Other than the nuclear deal, Baru’s book gives readers and scholars of Indian politics, a better view of the fractious world that is coalition government. The left’s intransigence in the run up to the nuclear deal and the confirmation of several appointments, DMK’s ignominious efforts to place officials in key ministries to augment their pockets and fund their largesse within TN, Mamta Banerjee’s intermittent antics and even many within the congress party like Pranab Mukherjee that sought to create intimate fiefs away from the PMO, all point to a system that is structured for rent-taking and sharing than power sharing and policymaking. It is both a wonder that the government was able to achieve many important things including several years of robust growth and less a surprise that it found itself riven by scandals given the fractured nature of policymaking.

Surprisingly, despite negative coverage in the press and from congress officials, Baru presents a Manmohan Singh, who despite foibles, rises above the rest. Here’s a citizen who is deeply patriotic and grateful for the opportunities given to him; a leader who worked tirelessly to advance India’s interests globally; a statesman whose leadership and counsel was sought the world over, including the current occupant in the white house who waxed regularly over Dr. Singh; a politician who consistently surprised many across party lines; and a scholar whose analytic disposition and nature surpassed those of his subordinates and peers. But these eminent qualities would ultimately be overshadowed by his conduct as a prime minister, whose diffidence and reluctance to place the government’s agenda above the party’s would come to define his premiership, and perhaps, legacy.