June 15, 2010

No invites :India is all alone as it seeks to become a great power

For all the nice words, India is all alone as it seeks to become a great power, says N.V.Subramanian.

Before gullible officials and the press go over the top on the India-relevant portions of the latest US National Security Strategy (NSS) document and the Indian foreign office turns immoderately self-congratulatory in respect of so-called Chinese concessions during President Pratibha Patil's visit, let us throw some cautionary dampeners all around and calmly appraise the situations on the fronts of two of the greatest powers today.

While it is to the good that the Barack Obama administration reaffirms in the NSS document to "(build) a strategic partnership" with India, the proof of the pudding remains in the eating. Nothing so far has suggested that the (aberrant) good relations in the limited field of civil nuclear relations that obtained during the George W.Bush administration have passed undiluted to the current dispensation in Washington, leave aside generic Indo-US bilateral ties, which have plateaued out and lost their drive.

As regards China, the foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, has been gushing that during the meeting between Patil and Chinese president Hu Jintao, Beijing has shown understanding of and been cooperative about India's ambition to be a permanent veto power in the UN Security Council. The Chinese are quiet about this aspect in their communique. A section of the press has reported that the Chinese statement post the Patil-Hu meeting "ambiguously called on two sides to work together "to increase the representation of developing countries in international affairs", avoiding any mention of UN reforms or the UNSC".

To regain some lost perspective, India is a status quo, non-expansionistic power like the US and unlike China, but at the same time, it does not seek any primacy in world affairs as the US does, and which it has continuously ensured for itself since it entered World War II and powered the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and Japan. India truly seeks a "peaceful rise" and this is not restricted to the Manmohan Singh regime either. It was this non-expansionistic, status quo impulse that convinced Indira Gandhi not to annex Bangladesh and make it another Indian province and a similar intent bound the A.B.Vajpayee government to fight the Kargil War entirely on the Indian side of the LoC and not to open one or two fronts against Pakistan as the military leadership was keen to.

The consequence of this at least on the Pakistani side has been determinedly to inflict a "thousand cuts" on India through terrorist acts, and it is continuing with the stalled prosecution of the LeT terrorist leader and 26/11 mastermind and chief inspirer, Hafez Sayeed. No amount of angry exhortations would provoke the Indian government to launch retaliatory attacks for terrorism, despite the phenomenal preparation of the military to make such attacks successful, and this is reflected in action -- or limited action -- in another sphere, the Indian Ocean. For all its vaunted claim that the Indian Ocean is India's Ocean, India has both stymied the growth of the navy and choked naval ambitions. It is fair to say that on the present trajectory, India would be loath to project power anywhere, be it apropos Pakistan (despite all the war exercises), or in the Indian Ocean. The blundered Sri Lanka intervention has turned the political class cold to power projection in principle, and pushed it to consider other means to accrete national power, of which the 1998 nuclear test is one example, and possibly Manmohan Singh's tilt towards the United States is another.

This writer is most concerned about a tilt towards a foreign power to meet national ambitions, because, almost as a given of international relations, those ambitions won't be met, while concessions have to be made, which cannot be repented in leisure.Consider, for example, the Barack Obama NSS document insofar as it concerns India. It completely glosses over deep and abiding Indo-US differences on Afghanistan and Pakistani terrorism. Obama does not cultivate any special ill-will against India. India simply does not fit the US's scheme of things, regardless of what the NSS document says.

Certainly, Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said much more than the Obama document personally to Manmohan Singh on a visit in 2005, pledging to make India a great power. Where's that pledge, for what it is worth? A simple test of the pledge was if the US would push for India to become a UNSC veto power, and the then president Bush flatly refused. For all Manmohan Singh's kowtowing to America since, it has not taken Indo-US relations in a "strategic" direction, in the real sense of the term. If anything, it has sharpened Indian vulnerabilities in respect of Kashmir and against Pakistani terrorism.

Turning to China, the narrative of relationship is worse, commencing with the 1962 Chinese aggression, and building up with China's nuke and ballistic missile exports to Pakistan against India. As much as India's growth story and its near-miraculous escape from confinement in South Asia in the seventies has surprised China (and this writer), it is not by any means reconciled to either, and its strategic competitive reflex is to keep India down by any and all means. Funnily, Jairam Ramesh mentioned the Indian favour to China during the Copenhagen summit, and strangely sought for more Indian concessions, rather than ask the Chinese to reciprocate. (For the record, this writer is fully supportive of Ramesh's work as environment minister, particularly his decision to scrap BT Brinjal.) It would be nice to think that the Chinese have done an about turn during the Pratibha Patil visit, somehow favouring India as a permanent UNSC member. According to this writer's analysis, that is the last thing the Chinese will agree to, because it would be the beginning of the end of their growing Asian hegemony. It would pour cold water on all their brazen efforts to contain India for over half-a-century.

A calm and rational assessment of the two developments on the US and China fronts that the piece deals with would call upon India not to abandon its caution, and to embrace the hard and gritty way to international preeminence, because that is the only avenue available. India is as unique as the US or China, and those two powers and Russia have found their own unique ways to win world power status. For better or worse, India has chosen to be content with being a status quo, non-expansionist power. This means neither will it provoke hostilities, near or far, nor will it project power, nor will it ever ally with war-mongering powers, which unfortunately includes the United States.

But there will be a price to pay for striving for this Mahatma status among nations, on the assumption that India survives this. India has to be internally strong to repulse external aggression. Because India will be of no use to external interests in their world-domination ambitions, it will consequently get little meaningful assistance in becoming a great stable power. So India will have to fend for itself.

That is its fate. All is not lost, however. India's time will come, in about forty years. But it must grow in that time, and it must grow strong. To give just one example, if we won't carry Pakistan's terrorist war to its territory, then we must build foolproof systems against Pakistani terrorist infiltration. Those systems cannot be imported. It is such ideas, hardened by and emerging from experience, that will secure and power India forward. So while we should not be wanting in our welcome of the appreciative sentiments contained in the Obama NSS document, let us not be carried away. And commonsense tells not to trust the Chinese. It is best to be business-like with them, as this writer has frequently implored. India will have to make its own destiny. Nobody will make it for it.

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