India was, is and will be nowhere in the world

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By Bhim Bhurtel

After the Narendra Modi-led government’s grave failure to combat the explosive second wave of Covid-19, this wave exacerbated by the Delta variant, Western media, think tanks and academia have shifted their attention to India again. Earlier, the West projected India as a critical partner of the US to contain China’s economic and strategic clout. That focus gained adherence after India and the US signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in August 2016, and both countries inked the subsequent foundational agreements.

US President Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, termed US strategy the “planned partnership for the entire 21st century.” But now, in stark contrast, India is being dismissed in the Western world as an ineligible partner for the Western world to contain China. The Western refocus on India now in the West is the realization of Western strategists that they made a mistake to project India as a global player. They started to recognize that India has power and strategic illusion.

But they made an error, misjudging India’s proper position. Last October 20, I wrote an article in Asia Times entitled, “India is nowhere in the world, denial won’t work.” More than a thousand Indians from India and the Indian diaspora sent me insulting and abusive emails. I didn’t feel sad about those emails. Rather, they made me laugh, and I felt pity for those who sent them. Some of my Indian scholarly friends inside and outside India also expressed their discontent with my article. They said they found my characterization of their country over the top. However, my comments about India were not baseless.

While working at the Nepal South Asia Centre, a Kathmandu-based South Asian think tank, I had the opportunity to observe South Asia very closely. I have a fair understanding of trade, technology, economy, politics, culture, religion, population, democracy, human rights, international relations, diplomacy and the strategies of India and other South Asian countries. I also have had plenty of opportunity to observe the Indian psyche. I used to tell my Indian friends to wait and see that my perception of India would be proven correct sooner or later.

The pumped-up claims by Indian political leaders, top bureaucrats, diplomats, think tanks, journalists and scholars for their ideas of India’s role on the global stage used to astonish me. I used to believe that they were immersed in a fantasy far away from ground reality. I now recognize that there is a big difference between the powerful land they have imagined and India’s actual economic and strategic position on the global stage. In exchanging views with my Indian friends, I had always advised them not to believe the baseless claims made by their cleverer-by-half leaders and babus (top bureaucrats). I kept repeating my assertion:

“India is nowhere in the world.” Many Indian friends became furious after hearing me say it. The miserable failure to combat the corona virus pandemic has exposed India’s weakness. The West had a misconception that India is growing and can be a global player and instrumental in countering China. However, the epidemic helped the West to dispel its illusion. Recall a few facts. India, among the South Asian countries, is at the bottom of the Global Hunger Index, 2020.

India even lags behind literally starving countries such as Congo, Ethiopia and Angola. One in five Indians still earns under US$37.50 a month and 88.87 percent of the population or, in other words, nine out of ten, still make less than US$ 165 a month in India. Economic activity in India is limited to a tiny population. Out of a population of 1.36 billion, only 14.6 million people had taxable income in the fiscal year 2018/2019. India’s taxable income is above the figure of US$6,750. Only 4.6 million Indians earn more than one million Indian rupees, an amount that equals slightly less than US$13,500. Urban India, known to the West as India, accounts for only about 35 percent of the country’s population.

Sixty-five percent of India’s population lives in rural areas. Thus, the countryside of India is very different from what India looks like in the world. Despite the economic reforms that began in July 1991, India only grew to join merely the $2.5 trillion economies in 2019. In the Lok Sabha election campaign 2019, the Modi government raised the slogan of creating a $5 trillion economy by 2024. But India’s ambition to become a $5 trillion economy is unlikely to be realized even by 2030. After the Corona virus outbreak in China in March last year, there was much hype insisting that the caravan of manufacturers from China would rush to India.

But there was no basis and reason for international manufacturing companies to relocate to India from China. I wrote in Asia Times last year to explain why manufacturing companies would not relocate to India from China. Thus, as I want to repeat once again, as always in the past, India was nowhere in the world. India is nowhere in the world now. And India will be nowhere in the world in the distant future. It does not make sense to falsely claim that India becomes a vishwaguru (world teacher) or global economic power at ordinary times.

Certainly there was no possibility that India could show leadership in a crisis. Indian Prime Minister Modi was seen as a global leader in world politics because of the pro-Western policy of his external affairs minister S. Jaishankar. US President Donald Trump used India as a proxy in his China strategy to give the impression to American voters that he would contain China. Trump had a plan to use Modi to help him be reelected in the November 3, 2020, presidential poll. But he failed unsuccessful. Modi suffered from the delusion that Trump really looked upon him as a global leader.

American strategists are well aware that Indian political leaders and high-ranking government officials have Dionysian personality traits. American Psychological Anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict says that there are two types of personality traits in human beings. The first is Apollonian, and the second is Dionysian. An Apollonian person does not seek status and doesn’t want a leadership role. Meanwhile, the Dionysian person seeks more status than he/she deserves.

Due to the Dionysian personality traits prevalent among the Indian political leaders who seek more status than they actually command in reality, Indians have come to believe that they can play a role in re-balancing the US and China in the world. The media coverage of India’s failure to control Covid-19 in the West means a lot to India. First, the West has concluded that India cannot play the role that the West wants India to play.

The West has realized that any miscalculation against China by relying on India would have cost the United States dearly, depending on India. A recently published report in the Financial Times is an example. Those who saw India’s role yesterday seem to become mindful that there’s no role India can play now. The Biden administration looks like it is now working to reset China’s policy. Recently, the Financial Times quotes US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley as saying, “I think China has a ways to go to develop the actual, no-kidding capability to conduct military operations to seize, through military means, the entire island of Taiwan, if they wanted to do that,” at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

Similarly, Bernie Sanders, in his most recent article in Foreign Affairs, has called for a change in China policy. Thus, the US wants to alter the China policy. Even within India, some scholars, responsible journalists and think tanks have concluded that India is nowhere in the world currently and will not be soon. Recently, Kanti Bajpai admitted this fact in his interview with senior Indian journalist Karan Thapar about his recent book India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends. So what is the actual position of India in the world? Modi’s India is in the same situation as I said in last year’s Asia Times article. I wrote, “There is a very popular Hindi proverb, “Dhobi ka kutta, na Ghar ka na ghat ka.” A working translation: “A person who is supported nowhere.” Modi will find no beneficial friends when he needs them in the future by putting all his eggs in the American basket.

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