Tuesday, 1 December 1998

Acknowledging the Reality: India's Emergence as a major Power

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

It was Regis Debray who wrote that the past remains as a
constant companion to the present. Analogously, we may argue
that perceptions about countries change slower than the reality.
By the early 1970s Japan was already a major economic power,
and yet it took a decade more before that was reflected in the
standing of Japan in the international community. Today Russia
has lost its coherence as a state; the security system and much of
the economic base has become an anarchic jumble. And yet, the
memories of the superpower-that-was generate a mist that
prevents such a harsh assessment of the Russian situation from
becoming accepted. Even—or perhaps one should say
particularly—within the Indian foreign policy establishment,
Russia is still regarded as a major world player.

India and China
There is an irony in this, because the latest entrants to the ranks
of the major powers are India and China. Both are experiencing
a period of rapid economic growth through an unshackling of
private initiative. They have built up the essential foundation for
growth, which is a large body of trained manpower. Despite
fissions and frissons, both have managed to keep the diverse
elements in their multicultural society from breaking loose and
triggering a Yugoslav-style chain reaction. And both have thus
far resisted pressures directed at lowering their external security
cover through abandoning the option of developing strategic

The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to the United States
winning the 'superpower war' by default. Washington is,
therefore, enjoying its moment of glory on the world stage,
preening as the arbiter and arbitrator of the fortunes of different
countries. Its objective is to prolong this moment of glory by
preventing other countries from equalling it in strategic power
and economic prowess. Thus, using the pretext of ensuring
global disarmament, Washington is seeking to throttle the missile
and nuclear programmes of India and China. It is also seeking
to improve its own economic performance by using its political
strength to get trade concessions from other nations.

It would be unfair to blame the United States for such a
policy. Any country in similar circumstances would have acted
in the same way, perhaps with greater ruthlessness. The contrast
between western and eastern Europe is proof that America has
been a much more benign Big Brother than the former Soviet
Union. Indeed, unlike European nations such as Britain and
France—which ruthlessly bled their colonies—the Americans
realised that a prosperous economic hinterland gave better
returns to the mother economy than an impoverished one. And
thus was born the Marshall and other plans. In the strategic
sphere, the United States was supportive of British and French
efforts at crafting an independent deterrent.

Such support has been in contrast to the stand taken by the
United States on the emergence of India as a strategic power.
Despite the reality of India having exploded a nuclear device 20
years ago, the United States has blocked efforts at admitting this
country as a full member of the nuclear club, and has sought-
these days with greater finesse—to 'persuade' India to give up
the option of a strategic deterrent, using as a rationale the
'danger' of Pakistan emerging as a nuclear power. Numerous
books and articles have surfaced to flash out this concept of
Pakistan as a threshold nuclear state, ignoring the reality: that
the indigenous Pakistani programme is as yet years away from
producing a serviceable nuclear weapon, and is moreover based
on technology stolen from the West.

If the United States is nowadays less shrill about imposing
sanctions on India, it is not because the fundamental aim of
forcing this country off the nuclear track has been given up, but
because of the realisation in Washington that the Indian
programme is an indigenous one that outside sanctions may
delay but not cripple. The strategic establishment in Inndia,
despite opposition from within the country expressed through
underfunding, has become viable on its own, and consequently
has the strength to resist 'murder’ (through international
sanctions). Which is why it is being pressed to commit ’suicide’
(i.e. shut itself down), not just by the United States but also by
a lobby within this country.

Strong Security Cover
This lobby, perhaps because of its external cultural and intellectual
underpinnings, grossly underestimates the mood within India
for a strong—and indigenous—security cover. In large part this
mood is the result of the memory of a thousand and more years
of servitude, to Afghans, to Persians, to the European powers. To
expect a nation that has undergone such torment—and over such
a prolonged period—to set aside the option of developing a
security umbrella that incorporates the world’s most effective
system of deterrence is to forget history and abandon
common sense. Only after the world follows Jawaharlal Nehru’s
vision and becomes wholly nuclear-free, can India abandon the
strategic option. But not before this, not when external pressures
and threats are continuous and powerful. Any government that
is seen as compromising on the country's essential need for
external security will soon be voted out of office. 

War is no longer confined to the clash of tanks and troops in
set-piece battles. Guerrilla war is equally lethal, as first the
French and then the Americans discovered in Vietnam. Using
this criterion, Pakistan has been in a state of war with India for
at least the past five years, ever since it began sending armed
men into the Kashmir Valley on a scale reminiscent of 1947-48.
If it has not expanded this war into the conventional channel as
well, it is probably because of fear of the Indian strategic
deterrent. Seeing the post-Pokhran unwillingness of Pakistan to
enter into a conventional war with India, a strong case can be
made out that the speedy development and deployment of Agni
and Prithvi will diminish (rather than make inevitable) the
prospect of conventional war between India and Pakistan.

'Coming of Age'
The United States needs to become more 'contemporaneous'
with current reality: 1994 is a significant distance away from
1984, and 2004 will be very much more different. If present
trends continue, that year may well see the ’coming of age of the
latest major power, India America needs to adjust itself to this
emerging reality to acknowledging that India and China have as
much right to their own strategic defence systems as Britain and
France have. The Euro- centric world view of the east coast
establishment of the United States has to give way not to the west
coast’s Asia-centred view, but to a recognition that Asia and
Europe have already become equal strategic partners, deserving
of the same treatment. In particular, China and India should not
be judged by yardsticks different from those used by America
for Britain and France.

While the British may have been tardy in acknowledging the
new reality, the largest power in Europe has not. Foreign
Minister Klaus Kinkel of Germany made plain that his country
welcomes a permanent seat for India on the Security Council.
Unlike Britain, which follows the US State Department line with
an embarrassing fervour, the Germans have been much more
understanding of India’s need to protect itself against cross-
border terrorism. Neither the British nor the Americans appear
to be giving sufficient weightage to the effect on international
security that a Yugoslav-type break-up would have on India’s
880 million people. If the fundamentalist elements in Kashmir
did not get encouragement from American expressions of concern
over 'Kashmiri rights' (as though these were different from the
rights of other Indians), an end to the insurgency there would be

In sum, the 'unipolar' world of today will in the decade
ahead change into a 'tripolar' world, with America, Europe and
Asia as the three nodes. As for the present sole superpower, the
United States, it needs to recognise that India and China are at
least as responsible and relevant as its traditional allies, Britain
and France. Double standards are no longer an acceptable
medium of dialogue between countries.

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