Too big for its boots?
New Delhi needs realism in rhetoricJuly 13, 2012, 7:58 pm
by Krishnan Srinivasan
THE Cold War came to an end with a whimper after 40 years, and India lost the leverage of having a superpower positioned on its side in moments of crisis. It was obliged to adjust itself to globalisation and free market economies, and to a new western-dominated expeditionary campaign for environment and human rights. A revised international order had been brought about neither through international consensus nor external mediation by a group not affiliated to either bloc, but by powerful countries in the West led by the United States.
Post-1991, the dismal Russian story was one of dislocation, fall in production, inflation, capital flight, underemployment, corruption, privatization, shock therapy, currency depreciation, social decay, mafia, organized crime, Chechen unrest, the financial wrench of 1998, revaluation of the rouble, global downturn in 2007/8, and the depredations of grasping oligarchs. The wonder is that the pervasive sense of futility did not lead to a revival of Soviet-style communism, which would have been met with relief and satisfaction among the political leadership and academic-intellectual circles in New Delhi.
India had been caught on the wrong foot by the events in the USSR from 1989 to 1991; it had been wilfully ignorant of the widespread domestic resistance to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. All along, Indian diplomats, parliamentarians, scholars and the media had uncritically accepted and promoted the line that the intimate ties with the Soviet Union were perpetual. Nothing illustrates this better than journalist Nihal Singh’s description, in his memoir Ink in My Veins, of the Indian Ambassador in Moscow who began every meeting ‘with a 10 minute prelude to friendship each time he met a high official’.
In India, there was no consensus on how to react to this dramatic change in the world landscape. Ideological rigidity on the part of the large majority in the Indian political establishment, parliament, policy think-tanks and the media impacted adversely on the ability of New Delhi dispassionately to assess the implications of these developments for Indian foreign policy.
The so-called Third World was a construct of the Cold War, but the Second World had collapsed in ruins, and these new circumstances eventually forced a change in New Delhi from collective identification with the Third World to a promotion of India’s own interests. Standing up to the West while flying the colours of the Third World had become old hat; there was no traction to be found in Third World trade unionism. There was no longer any effective collective bargaining by the G-77 in GATT/ WTO because there were too many divisive regional or sector-specific interests. Every country that aspired to a bigger role in world affairs had to attend primarily to safeguarding its own interests. It had become a question of sauve qui peut. India’s previous activism in the Non-Aligned Movement was accordingly a thing of the past; it may have once generated some political goodwill for India in the Third World, but that was at best intangible and could not be translated into any practical benefits. Unless it shed its old ideological baggage, India was confronted with a long slide in both economic and diplomatic terms.
There had to be a new stress on economics in the making of foreign policy, taking the cue from neighbouring Asian giant China. China had by then become the second most important world power, both economically and politically, and Beijing remained, and continues to be, ever-doubtful about India, especially since New Delhi voiced opposition to any G-2 construct comprising USA and China. In this unpromising international climate, India had to move from its past emphasis on the power of argument to a new stress on the argument of power.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, India had to reckon with a sole superpower dominating international politics, but its relations with the United States were weak and susceptible to fluctuations. The dominance of the USA created a sense of unease in India, and the pursuit of a multi-polar world was considered the only alternative to alliance with, or opposition to, Washington. To counter the leadership of the West, closer ties between Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi were sponsored by people in authority who thought India’s interests were impossible to reconcile with the USA. The presumed objective was to prevent, or at least constrain, a uni-polar dominated world – but foreign policy experts should have known that each of the three capitals really wanted to forge a special relationship bilaterally with the USA, and the triangle was only to leverage a better claim with Washington. The expansion of the triangle into the BRICS has not altered that equation.
Abstract battles over ideologies gave way, in India, to strategic partnerships over issues like terrorism. In the end, building a new relationship with the USA was the only answer, together with closer ties with the second tier of countries like Britain, France and Brazil. It was essential for India to create new commonalties of interests with Washington, and while some unreconstructed Indian diplomatic representatives cling to the archaic language of the world prior to 1989, these commonalties were found in the development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, access to new technologies, the growth of the Indian software industry and fears of the rise of an unpredictable China.
The Indian economy, as a result of its partial liberalization after 1991 by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, is growing at between 6 and 8 per cent a year, and should be able to generate the resources needed to address the country’s many problems in the social sector. India is the 10th trillion dollar economy in the world; it holds 300 billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves, the 5th largest in the world. The investment rate, creating capital assets, is high by world standards, and so is the household savings rate. India’s image abroad has changed for the better due to success as an offshore provider of skill-based services such as software development, though this sector is very small compared to the overall economy. Steady GDP growth and the trebling of per capita income have led to the vision of a successful future; that India will catch up with the world economic leaders. The buoyant sentiment in middle-class India has been fanned by both Indian and diverse foreign spokesman, who have prematurely hailed India’s emergence into the league of international big hitters. Consequently, the Indian public’s expectations and aspirations have changed dramatically at all levels of society, despite India’s place in the second lowest quartile in nearly all the world’s ranking tables of socio-economic indicators.
However, India is not de-coupled from the recession in the West, and there will be an inevitable economic slow-down in India during the next several years. Demonstrations of arrogance among Indian spokesmen in New Delhi and abroad that have lately been in evidence are misplaced. It was fatuous to see our television anchors in Davos pressing world celebrities to comment on their estimation of Indian super-power prospects when our media at home are full of reports of rampant corruption and policy stasis. Keeping the positions of ambassador vacant in our Embassies in some key countries for months at a time are signs of superciliousness or incompetence, or both. Our pretensions to being a potential super-power are a fantasy, and permanent membership of the UN Security Council – not that it implies super-power status by any means – is not attainable in the near future for many reasons, several of which have nothing at all to do with India. It is no bad thing that we should be prevented from expressing an opinion on every other country’s problems. Like Voltaire’s anti-hero Candide, we should first cultivate our own garden. We should address our many failings in governance and poverty-reduction, and continue to build issue-based foreign alliances without attempting any over-arching grand strategy with any big power. When we succeed in achieving these basics, we will make some progress towards securing India’s rightful place in world. The world is moving towards a multi-polar political landscape of a few regionally-influential powers, and India will certainly be one of those. The government and people of India should be more than satisfied with that.
The writer is India’s former
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