The discovery of India’s Heft

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But not yet of how to use it

By Bharat Karnad

That India has clout if it acts independently in pursuit of narrowly defined national interest is something the Narendra Modi government apparently discovered, courtesy the Ukraine war. It reveals what is fundamentally wrong with Modi’s world view and how the S. Jaishankar-led Ministry of External Affairs assesses the world and India’s role in it. Initially skipping around moral issues to avoid condemning Russia for its messy military intervention, India became more forthright in pursuing its national interest. It was uneasy about running afoul of the United States and the West but unwilling to court President Vladimir Putin’s wrath. The balance of Delhi’s concerns was this: The US and European states could be persuaded to be flexible on account of China, West’s other great rival, otherwise benefitting strategically. The Modi government hinted at the possibility of China using the Ukraine tensions to initiate hostilities across the disputed border as it had done in 1962 when exploiting the super powers’ distraction with the Cuban missile crisis to start the mountain war that India lost.  It is a danger heightened by an unpredictable Putin, in a pique, slowing down the flow of military spares and creating no end of trouble for the Indian armed services. It eventuated in India’s “neutral” stance and abstentions on several UN votes, which preempted Putin from getting punitive.  The success in dealing with the US and Russia led Jaishankar, at the Raisina Dialogue 2022, to declare, a trifle triumphantly, that “It’s better to engage with the world on the basis of who we are rather than try and please the world by being a pale imitation of what they are” and to not let “others define us, or, have the need to get approval from other quarters, which era”, he said, is “behind” us. This is very rah-rah and self-congratulatory, of course.  But the era he would like the country to forget is the one in which he had ceaselessly talked up India as needing to be part of “a rules-based order” one dominated politically by the United States and the West, and economically by the US and China. It is a system, moreover, that because India had no part whatsoever in crafting, requires it to traipse through the minefields of clashing US, European, Russian and Chinese interests. In the event, like it or not, India and its interests are defined by whichever powerful country or countries it wants to sidle up to. Still, taking Jaishankar at his word, is he saying the extant correlation-of-forces was examined, India’s choices pondered, and decision made to pursue national interest by relying on itself? In that case, what’s not to like? Except, the success in resisting American pressure to disengage from Russia without alienating Washington, it must be noted, was at the sufferance of both the US and Russia. The Indian foreign minister’s statement, however, suggested something else: A new, more disruptive, attitude and a departure from, what I have called, a “creeper vine” foreign policy that India adopted post-Cold War of clinging to the US to rise. Plainly, this is not so as Modi subsequently clarified. On the eve of his European tour, the PM reassured everybody that India’s rise would not be at the “cost” of any other country. So, disruption of the existing international order is not on the cards. In reality, it means India remaining what it has always been  a tame and timid country ready to ride any passing coattail with little gain in sight. That’s not a surprise. The 2008 India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement promised “20,000 MW by 2020”, and the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) advanced military technologies and high-value tech collaboration. Neither delivered. The only important project involving US help to design and develop a combat aircraft jet engine in India was terminated by President Donald Trump, notwithstanding the “Howdy, Modi!” and “Namaste Trump” galas in Houston and Ahmedabad respectively. And the series of DTTI and 2×2 meetings with the US have, like the Joint Working Group negotiations with China to resolve the border dispute, produced only promises to meet again. The “India as responsible state”-mantra that’s routinely rolled out to explain the country’s external behaviour has covered for India’s foreign and military policy inaction, lack of political will, loss of nerve, and for compromises at every turn. India has failed to respond to China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan with like strategic arming of countries on China’s periphery. Incidentally, this was a late 1970s-vintage provocation the US was party to. Delhi then delayed the export of conventional warheaded Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to Vietnam, Philippines, et al, until now but blamed Russia for not previously permitting such sale, when India had the indigenous short-range Prithvi missile that it could have liberally dispensed.  And India did not instantly retaliate with air strikes against significant targets within Pakistan when terrorists attacked Parliament in December 2001 and Mumbai in November 2008. The fact is India never needed to placate the US, nor required the Ukraine issue to assert its policy freedom. It is America, the European Union, and Russia as I have long argued, that crucially need India to ringfence China. No other country in Asia has the location, size and the all-round heft. What is missing is an Indian government with the vision, iron will and self-confidence to talk straight with Washington and to demand a substantial price for partnering the US  expeditious transfers of high technology and such. Instead, New Delhi appears content with the H1B visa crumbs Washington throws its way. For reasons of economic and military counter weighting and access to its market, the US, EU, Russia and China alike find India indispensable to their plans. It is “India’s moment” alright but not, as former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran roundaboutly argues, to get closer to America. That would be to squander a glorious opportunity for the country to emerge as international system balancer and great power, unconstrained by partnerships with big powers. Alas, that is not the path Modi and Jaishankar are taking.

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