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Deeply flawed foreign policy

Indian leaders have picked up rather well on an increasing loss of confidence in the West, packaging the country’s successes in small pools of the economy into a convincing, though largely mythical, narrative of a rising global power. Cheerleaders of the establishment have transformed a handful of selective macroeconomic indicators to project an illusion of ‘India shining’ —brushing large segments of the economy under a fraying carpet. With growth rates sustained at over six per cent since 1993, and surging above nine per cent after 2003, the economy has shown itself strong enough even to tide over the current worldwide contraction. These trends are expected, on customary ceteris paribus (other things being equal) assumptions, to propel the Indian economy to the status of the third largest in the world by 2035, lagging behind just China and the US.

But other things may, in fact, not be equal. For one thing, the Indian system is already hitting a range of structural obstacles, most significantly in the apparatus of governance and security, but also in the country’s manpower profiles and its capacity to develop sufficient skilled resources to sustain present levels of growth. Crucially, moreover, great power status can hardly be secured on the back of an information technology and business process outsourcing boom alone. The sinews of the economies of the future can only be built on extraordinary innovation, scientific invention, and the dominance of production processes in at least a core range of industries. There is little in India’s current structural profile that suggests that such dominance is attainable.

The economy, moreover, is not the nation. And while economic growth has integral linkages with military and global power, it is necessary to understand that the reverse is also often the case. Unless India is able to project international power, and impose a far greater measure of internal order than is currently the case, its economic ambitions may, themselves, be thwarted. For one thing, there is a clear realpolitik dimension to accessing assured supplies of global resources, including increasingly contested energy resources, which will require the capacity to project strength across critical regions of economic interest. For another, regional and domestic disorders, articulated in terrorist violence, proxy wars and insurgencies, have tremendous potential to undermine trends in economic consolidation. Most significantly, the economic environment is enormously vitiated by the sheer structural ineptitude and cumulative deficits in governance, and there is little evidence that this crisis is on the way to being addressed.

This is a growing concern in the international community, which had initially and uncritically bought into the ‘emerging global power’ myth. India will not be able to continue to trade on this illusion, unless it is, in fact, seen to conduct and govern itself as an emerging great power.

But how is such a perception even possible in view of India’s cumulative failures, its utter ineptitude and lack of direction? Look at the country’s counter-terrorism and internal security responses, and the negligible and often negative role New Delhi has played in dealing with the enveloping disorders of the South Asian region. Pakistan is the most obvious case in point. After each major Islamist terrorist attack, the national leadership scuttles around the globe, demanding a fitting international response to Pakistan’s continued support to terrorism on Indian soil — and the international community has, at least in some measure, responded.

But there is an equal expectation that India will act with some degree of determination to deal with its own problems — and this has, invariably, not been met. After a short period of posturing, there is a swift climb-down, often under visible outside (read, American) pressure, with the national leadership quickly proclaiming that both India and Pakistan are, equally, "victims of terrorism". Nothing could be more nonsensical. Pakistan has been, and remains, the principal state sponsor of terrorism in India and the South Asian region, and its footprint can be found in virtually every act of international Islamist terrorism across the world. Nevertheless, at no stage has any effective initiative been taken to bring Pakistan’s state sponsors to account. If anything, India’s leaders have gone out of their way to validate the pretence that these activities may be carried out by autonomous groups outside the state’s control — when the overwhelming burden of evidence suggests the exact opposite.

The limited gains that may have been secured through the suspension of the pseudo-peace process between India and Pakistan were, of course, entirely sacrificed in the purposeless compromises of the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement. Today, despite the enormity of the 26/11 outrage, it is India that appears truculent and uncooperative when it refuses to restore the ‘dialogue’. Pakistan parades the ill-conceived reference to Balochistan as a demonstration of the moral parity between the two countries, and uninformed Western commentators buy into the charade that India’s external intelligence agencies "run operations from its missions" in Afghanistan and Iran. Beyond generalised denials and the assertion that "we have nothing to hide" in Balochistan, India has failed to effectively counter this campaign of deceit.

Then again, a tremendous legitimacy was conferred on New Delhi by a successful and transparent election process in Jammu & Kashmir, with a relatively high voter turnout despite a boycott call by Pakistan-based terrorists, backed by death threats. But India frittered away this advantage, in the absence of any coherent strategy of political consolidation. Pakistani proxies have quickly reinvented their covert war in an increasingly disruptive campaign of street demonstrations on a range of opportunistically harvested issues, including the recent bedlam over the Shopian rape case.

Beyond these immediate failures is the collapse of any broader strategic vision. Indeed, India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the South Asian region is in utter shambles. India has been a vocal critic of America’s strategy in Afghanistan (and Iraq), and rightly so. The US intervention has been a disaster. But what has India to offer its beleaguered friends in Kabul? Aid for infrastructure development is all very well, but how much time will it take to blow up hospitals, schools, parliamentary buildings and roads, if the Taliban juggernaut doesn’t end? As an ‘emerging global power’, has India anything whatsoever to offer as a strategy for stabilising Afghanistan, and for neutralising Pakistan’s pernicious role in this region?

There is, indeed, not a neighbour we can point to as a foreign policy success story, not an intervention that we can demonstrate as consolidating our prestige and influence. Forget Pakistan, forget Bangladesh, in stages we have lost influence even in Nepal and Sri Lanka, nations linked to us by intrinsic cultural and civilisational ties, even as an insidious Chinese presence consolidates in a garrotting encirclement around every Indian border and interest beyond.

There is a delusional character in India’s present great power pretensions. Power is rooted in reality, a dish this country’s leadership shows very little appetite for.

(Published in The Pioneer, New Delhi, August 27, 2009)





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