At CFR her work focuses on India’s role in the world and on U.S. relations with South Asia. In 2015, she served as the project director for the CFR-sponsored independent task force on U.S.- India relations, and from 2014 to 2016, as the project director for an initiative on the new geopolitics of China, India, and Pakistan supported by the MacArthur Foundation. During her tenure at the State Department in the Barack Obama administration, Ayres covered all issues across a dynamic region of 1.3 billion people (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) and provided policy direction for four U.S. embassies and four consulates.
Originally trained as a cultural historian, Ayres has experience across the nonprofit, government, and private sectors, and she has carried out research on both India and Pakistan. Before serving in the Obama administration, Ayres was founding director of the India and South Asia practice at McLarty Associates, the Washington-based international strategic advisory firm, from 2008 to 2010. From 2007 to 2008, she served as special assistant to the undersecretary of state for political affairs as a CFR international affairs fellow. Prior to that she worked in the nonprofit sector at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Asia Society in New York.
Her book on nationalism, culture, and politics in Pakistan, Speaking Like a State, was published worldwide by Cambridge University Press in 2009, and received the American Institute of Pakistan Studies book prize for 2011–2012. She has coedited three books on India and Indian foreign policy: Power Realignments in Asia, India Briefing: Takeoff at Last?, and India Briefing: Quickening the Pace of Change. Ayres has been awarded numerous fellowships and has received four group or individual Superior Honor Awards for work at the State Department. She speaks fluent Hindi and Urdu, and in the mid-1990s worked as an interpreter for the International Committee of the Red Cross. She received an AB magna cum laude from Harvard College, and an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, where her dissertation was defended with distinction. She is a former term member of CFR and a life member since 2010.
Reyna Wang CMC'19 interviewed Alyssa Ayres on April 15, 2019.
India is currently holding the world’s largest election and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running for a second term. Is this election a referendum on the leadership of Modi or more a referendum on his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
India is a parliamentary system, not a presidential system. Technically, people are not running for the position of Prime Minister, they are running from the seat of their constituency. If a particular party gets enough seats to form a government, then that government can choose the Prime Minister and the cabinet. What you have seen happening, over the course of the last five years, has been almost, de facto, as if it were more like a presidential system. You see Prime Minister Modi as the main campaigner for the BJP. The manifesto that the BJP released in 2014 versus the one they released in 2019 are quite different. The cover of the previous manifesto featured a roster of leading politicians of the BJP, which shows a group leadership effort. The current manifesto, however, just features Modi on the cover. Because he has put himself out there as the kind of “One Man Band,” I would argue that it does appear to be much more of a referendum on his policies as the leader of the BJP.
The Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said: “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state – but based on issues.” Do you think India’s foreign and security policies under Modi have significantly deviated from the past? If so, what are the main changes in Indian foreign policy and what are the main motivations for such a change?
I wrote a book about this, called Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World. Part of what I lay out in that book is the evolution in India’s foreign policy. For decades since independence, Indian leaders from all parties have had the ambition for India to attain its rightful place as one of the world’s great powers in a multipolar world. Successive Indian leaders have pursued that path in different ways. What you have seen with Modi is an acceleration of that ambition. I don’t think there is a departure, in terms of direction, but an intensification. Modi’s policy to more significantly expand the relationship with the U.S. follows the direction of the trajectory that had been laid out by previous governments, including the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from Modi’s own party and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which was in place for two terms from 2004 to 2014. The Modi government amplified the outreach to the U.S., but it doesn’t mean that India sought to shrink its ties with countries that the U.S. is not close to, such as Russia and Iran. The Modi government has been disinterested in the nonaligned movement, but they have adhered to some of the features of the nonaligned movement, in terms of ensuring that India has a diverse portfolio of close international partners with which India can partner on specific initiatives to help achieve its own transformation on the world stage. I would say Modi has continued along the trajectory put in place by previous Indian governments, and intensified it.
Do you think Modi’s strong response to the Pulwama attack at the end of his first term could be perceived as a significant change in India’s policy toward Pakistan? What were the reasons behind India’s strong response? How will Modi’s response affect the India-Pakistan relationship?
We can say at the outset that India and Pakistan have a terrible and extremely tense relationship. The events from February 14 to the end of February demonstrate how quickly events can escalate. The main part of the problem here is that Pakistan continues to provide safe haven for terrorist groups. This is my main point and there should be no confusion about that. What has unfolded over the course of the last couple of decades, particularly since Pakistan began making use of terrorist groups, is that every time there would be some Indian government efforts to engage in wide-ranging negotiations with Pakistan, these negotiations would be disrupted by a terrorist attack. And the moment of change in the way that India decided to respond to these provocations was actually in September 2016, not this past February.
If I can back track slightly, Modi comes from a party that is a Hindu nationalist political party, which is not a champion of Pakistan. People didn’t expect that he would be interested in trying to further ties with Pakistan. But one of the first things he did when he came into office was to invite all the heads of government from around the region to attend his inauguration, including the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif. That was a surprising engagement, which ended up leading to a series of conversations and meetings that took place between Modi and Sharif, culminating in a surprising visit that Modi made to Sharif’s home on December 25, 2015. About two weeks after that, there was a terrorist attack in India that was traced back to a Pakistan-based terrorist group, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The attack put a stop to the dialogue that had been under way between the two countries.
The previous Indian government had also engaged in years of backchannel negotiations with Pakistan and found itself rewarded with terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. There is a sense in India across different political parties that India keeps trying to have a good-faith political negotiation with Pakistan and they are rewarded with terrorist attacks. By the time September 2016 rolled around, there was an attack on an Indian military facility that was traced back to a Pakistan-based terrorist group. The Indian government decided to respond by sending an infiltration team of Indian commandos across the line of control, who then took out terrorist camps along the border. According to the Indian government’s intelligence source, the terrorists were about to mount an attack. The Indian government then publicized their reaction and said this is what we’ve done to respond to an imminent attack.
By the time the Pulwama attack, which was also on a para-military convey and was traced back to the JeM, took place on February 14, there were expectations within India that they had to have an even firmer response than their reaction in September 2016. That is how you ended up with the decision to use airstrikes across the border for the first time since 1971. This problem would be diminished and it would be much easier for the two countries to carry out a sustained political dialogue if Pakistan got serious about these terrorist groups. In my mind, the limiting factor here is the continued presence of these terrorist groups and the fact that you don’t know if an attack will take place any moment creates a real sense of insecurity in the region.
How did Modi manage to improve India’s relationship with the U.S.?
As I mentioned, there has been a sense in India for some time that partnership with the U.S. inherently means subordinating India’s freedom of choice. You have seen successive Indian governments, from Vajpayee (1998-2004) to Manmohan Singh (2004-2014), trying to push ahead of the old-received wisdom and to forge a new relationship with the U.S. The big change in the U.S.-India relationship came in 2005 with the announcement that the U.S. and India would begin negotiations on a civil nuclear agreement.
The Modi government developed a close relationship with the then President Barack Obama. Modi invited Obama to be the first ever American chief guest in India’s Republic Day. What makes this more significant is that it was the Republic Day that commemorates the inauguration of India’s Constitution. For all the Republic Days that India has held, there is always a chief guest from another country, but the U.S. had never been the chief guest. Therefore, that was a big moment, which happened in January 2015. You also saw a willingness to finalize more significant defense agreements, which is a path that had begun during the previous UPA Congress-led government, beginning with a new defense agreement in 2005. That led to a much deeper possibility of exercises and partnership. There has also been a continued engagement between India, the U.S. and Japan. Japan became a full member of the U.S.-India Malabar exercises, which is now a trilateral exercise. You have seen a greater willingness for India to say that we are standing with the great powerful democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. The Modi government has also agreed to relaunch the quadrilateral consultation among Japan, India, Australia and the U.S., which hasn’t met since 2007. These are just a few examples of the closer relationship between India and the U.S., and I’m assuming that this has been politically challenging within India because people worry about the U.S. is demanding too much or the U.S. will constrain India’s freedom of action. The Modi government has gone ahead with, not all but some, agreements that they feel are in India’s national interests.
How does the rise of China shape or threaten India’s interests? Do you think Modi has effectively dealt with China during his first term?
There’s a big debate in India about how effectively the Modi government has dealt with China. There are some people in India who believe that he has done the best he can while others believe that he has not managed this relationship very well. China has been a very difficult relationship for successive Indian governments. India and China don’t have a great relationship: they fought a border war in 1962 and their border remains undemarcated despite 21 rounds of negotiations. The fact that the border remains undemarcated means there are continuous challenges across the border. In the summer of 2017, there was a three-month stand-off between India and China in an area high in the Himalayas, which is not actually part of the India-China border but a section of the Bhutan-China border, which is similarly undemarcated despite rounds of negotiations. India sent in troops to help Bhutan defend its border.
There is supposed to be no change in the status quo in these border areas until countries involved can reach an agreement on the demarcation. On the summer of 2017, PLA troops began building a more permanent road in that area, so India sent out troops. Having a border stand-off for three months worried people in India that it could lead to further escalation. The stand-off came on the heels of several high-level outreach: India having hosted President Xi Jinping and Modi having gone to China. Despite Modi’s engagement in personalized diplomacy, it still has not made India more secure.
On the economic side, China has a huge economy and is India’s largest trading partner in goods. It’s a trade relationship that India is not happy with because India runs a deficit and they don’t like the composition of trade – they are sending raw materials and importing back finished goods. India has struggled trying to find a better way to manage the trading relationship.
The one area where India and China have continued positive cooperation has been in the pursuit of new multilateral institutions that both countries feel better represents their interests in leadership on the world stage. India is the number two capital contributor to the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa have created the BRICS, which is a very active multilateral institution now. In the summer of 2014, they all agreed to create the New Development Bank. India is now, as is Pakistan, a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As you see, in the multilateral space, quite a lot of cooperation and a shared sense that India and China should be playing an even greater role in global governance. They are willing to create new institutions that they feel better reflect the leadership that they should have.
How well has Modi navigated the worsening U.S.-China relationship during his first term?
In addition to India’s own challenges with China on the bilateral side, you have seen a strong Indian interest in being vocal about issues like maritime freedom of navigation and international rule of law. India is concerned about some of the Belt and Road investments in South Asia, which have become sources of economic insecurity, especially for the smaller countries, such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and possibly Nepal. India has watched the U.S. criticize China on many of these issues and some of the very same issues are the ones that India agrees with in terms of larger principles. India has been willing to stand up and say we think this is important, the rule of law is very important, and having transparent infrastructure financing is important for the overall health of infrastructure investment and development around the world. You’ve seen India stand up in cases where they identify with their own interests and they’ve been quite vocal about it.
Could you please speculate about Modi's foreign policy agenda and priorities should he win another term?
This is a very hard question to answer because we don’t know what’s happening with this election. Polls are not usually correct in India. As we saw in the U.S. 2016 election, polls were not correct here either. The reason why this is an even more difficult question to answer is because the current conventional wisdom about India’s current election is that the Modi government is likely to return but without a single party majority. What was interesting in 2014 was that they got a single party majority, which was the first time that it happened in India in 30 years. That gave them a level of flexibility to move ahead on their own. If they need coalition partners to come to power, we don’t exactly know what those coalition partners will think about foreign policy and what they will or will not demand as a part of their conditions for supporting the government. It is also possible, although with a lower probability, that we might see a different kind of large coalition of opposition parties come to power, in which case you have even less of a sense of what the foreign policy agenda would look like. That’s why I’ll have to reserve speculation because a lot depends on what the voters have to say and what the shape of the next government looks like.
Image Courtesy of Naver University.