Global geopolitics is always in flux. Sometimes it changes dramatically. These changes can be accompanied by domestic transformations that radically alter the matrix of national choices. And internal changes in some countries can indeed also transform the wider geopolitical environment for third parties in the world polity. The end of the geopolitics of the Cold War was signalled by Sino-American rapprochement in the late 1960s, though its antecedents can be traced to meetings between the two parties in Warsaw as early as 1955. The upshot was increased pressure on a solitary Soviet Union which its faltering 1970s economy found hard to resist effectively. Soviet Afghan embroilment led to a crisis, initiating a reappraisal of feasible alternatives by the Soviet leadership. The climax was Mikhail Gorbachev's chaotic and ill-planned withdrawal from Eastern Europe and the end of the momentous Bolshevik experiment that had begun almost ninety years before.

This contemporary world order is presenting India with complex challenges, and domestic change is also transforming the potential scope for responses to them. The end of the Cold War and the period of chaotic transition in Russia, as the remnant of the USSR became, created a host of problems for India. The supply of Soviet weaponry and spares to maintain existing Indian military hardware became far less reliable. The implied guarantee of Soviet support in the event of Indian involvement in major conflict was no longer fully credible, though the revival of post-communist Russia assuaged some of India's worst anxieties. Indians began to learn on the run, with its top diplomats visiting Russian arms-producing factories with hard cash to buy spares for India's defence forces. But old certainties had receded and newer global realities intruded insistently.

An important issue has been the possibility of a more amicable relationship with the US, which has been tense, historically, because of India's dogged nonalignment and grievously injured by Bangladesh's birth in 1971 owing to India. The financial crisis of the early 1990s paradoxically began a process of far-reaching significance for India, with its thousand-year history of grim poverty and chronic economic backwardness. The Indian economy began to grow rapidly, making a modest dent on poverty and empowering both the state, through vastly increased revenues, and a much larger middle class with significant spending power. India's growing economy also posed the question of how to manage India's choices in relation to the global economy and in particular its dependence on energy and associated imports. In addition, India is confronted by the challenge of the rise of China that has multiplied its own ability to pursue national objectives, affecting Indian interests adversely. Antecedent issues in the region have persisted, their direction subject to wider regional and global developments.

Despite individual successes, the complex menu of a dynamic multi-polar world proved challenging for Indian institutions, nurtured in the more predictable environment of relative Cold War status quo. The permanent reality of coalition government also introduced more perplexity since the consent of domestic political allies for international accords could not be taken for granted. In the past few years, growing domestic political disarray has further complicated the task of managing India's international relations by raising questions about the government's credibility and distracting its attention towards other issues. It is a minor miracle that the Indian electorate has retained a relatively passive attitude towards the government's diplomacy and even supported its overall stance. Yet, that situation should not be taken as an indication that Indian diplomacy has been wholly effective or imaginative. It has had one historic success in the Indo-US nuclear accord despite the outward appearance of serious divisions on it within the political establishment. But that is not the whole story of the array of challenges faced by India.

There has been little positive change in the overall relationship with Pakistan despite the profoundly debilitating crisis the latter is experiencing. Indeed, relations have worsened because Pakistan has resorted to state-sponsored terrorism to ensure that problems between the two countries remain on the agenda. As an aside, it should be noted that India's enhanced presence in Afghanistan, while the US and its allies wage a futile war against the threat of terrorism against their own countries, is another possible motive for Pakistan sponsoring terror strikes against India. US frustration and anger with Pakistan over its duplicitous, spoiler role against its Afghan war effort has prompted the triumph of hope against all experience in some Indian quarters that it will somehow benefit. But so far, it has provided nil respite against the grievous injuries being inflicted by an adversary for which causing harm to India has become the sole raison-d'etre for national existence. Also unfolding ominously is China's purposive, Machiavellian role in using Pakistan entirely as an instrument for its own objective of overawing India.

To its credit, the Indian state shows no sign of succumbing to the diabolical attempt to intimidate, and indeed shows every intention of rising to the challenge by using all available means. For example, India can finally boast a hugely impressive missile programme that counsels adversaries to pause before embarking on any military adventure against it. Nevertheless, the Indian political and bureaucratic establishment could be accused of making a virtue of its instinct for caution which might be interpreted merely as its historic propensity, in the final analysis, for timidity. Robust and imaginative measures surely entail risk, but the long-term consequences of imperceptible drift, due to a reluctance to make difficult choices, could lead to catastrophe. In the argument for a firmer approach may be identified a number of critical problems and the huge long-term threats they pose to the fundamental interests of India and its people.

The end of the Cold War, the retreat of EU solidarity as a nascent political community, as well as the rise of Chinese power and its willingness to deploy it crudely, have created opportunities for Indian diplomacy. Engagement with countries that have a South China Sea littoral has begun in earnest after an uncertain start. Historic psychological doubts have been overcome to reach an understanding with Japan and relations with a whole suit of economic powers, across the world, has gained momentum. Perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the role of Germany as a potential global power, surely only less consequential than the big two and the equal of China. The Indian encouragement of Germany's accession to great power status will have symbolic and substantive significance that is likely to be reciprocated with goodwill. And there may be some lasting advantages for India as a result since neither party has any obvious issues of contention to divide one from the other.

The most intractable immediate issue bedevilling India's ability to respond to Pakistani terrorism is the blackmail of nuclear escalation, being used with extraordinary success to constrain Indian retaliation. This is not a sustainable situation since the destruction of an Indian nuclear facility or attack on a major security installation by terrorists, followed by Indian failure to respond, will destroy the reputation of the Indian state, virtually eliminating its credibility as an international actor. It may even be the harbinger for domestic civil war, exactly as its neighbouring tormentors wish. A radical policy stance, which would credibly underpin the threat of a full-scale retaliatory military response to Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism, is feasible. A public discussion needs to be instigated, without any direct governmental participation, though involving individuals with appropriate prominence, that a Pakistani nuclear first-strike against India will indubitably prompt retaliation. And that it will not merely be against Pakistan, but also the country that has effectively outsourced nuclear weaponry to Pakistan and the one that finances them. These two countries have decisive influence over Pakistani decision-makers and should be obliged to ponder the risk of an existential calamity, however remote, for indirectly facilitating Pakistani provocation against India.

India's relationship with China remains deeply troublesome since normal commerce and political intercourse cannot be isolated indefinitely from unforgiving military challenges put through its Pakistani surrogate, however much India deludes itself to overlook the glaring contradiction. Quite clearly, China itself does not. In addition to Indian diplomatic manoeuvres and military preparations in response to persistent Chinese pressure, the feasibility of upgrading the Indo-Vietnamese accord, signed in 1980, into an open military alliance, should be examined. It might commit each country to aid the other in the event of a land war, originating in their respective northern borders. Each country should mobilise forces at the appropriate location, regarding, in effect, a war on one as a declaration of war on the other. Assistance in the event of any naval engagement might be limited to the supply of equipment and ordnance and a clause inserted to allow for the revision of this aspect of the treaty, when both countries possess naval capacity commensurate with challenges they are encountering. The value of such a treaty is deterrence since it cannot by itself provoke any belligerence that is not already at play and indeed, in the event of actual war, cannot but be of positive value to both parties.

China periodically tries to gauge Indian reaction by airing a supposed proposal to divert the mighty Brahmaputra river, though it would constitute a casus belli, an act of war. Brahmaputra is the world's fourth largest river, sustaining more human life than contained in Western Europe and North America combined and flows into India and Bangladesh from its headwaters in Tibet. It is thought China plans to construct a dam in the area of the Great Bend in order to divert 40 billion cubic metres, more than half its annual inflow, towards the Gobi Desert, which constitutes half of China's landmass, but only has seven per cent of its freshwater. India would have to respond militarily to the effective devastation of a significant part of its own entire landmass, even if that entailed prolonged conflict. On the basis of China's past behaviour, India cannot rely on its goodwill to respect international norms forbidding such profoundly hostile conduct, since it disregards them when it suits Chinese interests. Apart from ensuring that it possesses the military capability to ensure a stalemate through a diversionary invasion of Tibet, India should examine other strong measures. Training substantial numbers of saboteurs to engage in military operations to disrupt the building of the dam is one such option. For Tibetans, if the Brahmaputra flows into the interior of China rather than towards India, its historic friend and brother, the dream of ever gaining autonomy would evaporate.

Finally, one potentially hugely beneficial outcome for India would be for Indian agriculture to achieve its full potential and there are signs of the behemoth stirring already that are a cause for optimism. Indian agricultural productivity remains low, even by regional standards, and the crop mix is anchored to needs of an earlier era. Indians can be proud that they have managed to overcome food shortages that consigned millions to famine deaths and chronic hunger over timeless generations. But they should be ashamed that failures in managing food supplies, addressing distributional issues, as well as sheer official and societal callousness, means that many suffer malnourishment and persistent hunger. There must be anger and method to address these eminently curable but deplorable failings. But Indian agriculture can achieve much more, as global population growth and higher incomes raise the demand for food and its price. A dynamic and agile Indian agriculture that can situate itself within the matrix of emerging global demand patterns will allow Indians to eat well while exporting enough to defray at least some of the cost of imported fuel. Machines need fuel to run, but the human beings who operate them must first be fed. If oil is gold, food is surely platinum!