Updated: June 30, 2016 12:02:47 am
“Knight of the Sorrowful Face”, says Sancho Panza, in Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote, tired of battling priests, escaped convicts, prostitutes, scorned lovers, goats and windmills, “I cannot bear with patience some of the things your Grace says. They are enough to make me suspect that all you have told me about knighthoods and winning kingdoms and empires, of bestowing islands and giving me other favours and honours according to the customs of chivalry must be hot air and lies”.
Last week, many Indian diplomats may have shared just that sentiment, as they watched the country’s leaders leave with banners unfurled on a multinational quest to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) — only to find the gates slammed shut in their face at its plenary in Seoul. For years now, membership of the NSG has seen as one in a sequence of steps that will lead on to that most hallowed of high tables, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Leaving aside the actual benefits of NSG membership — which are debated by experts, since a 2008 waiver already gives India access to the nuclear marketplace — India’s quest is deeply entwined with its sense of entitlement to recognition as a great power.
Instead of railing against China for blocking India’s NSG entry, though, this a good opportunity for introspection about whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is actually doing what it needs to deserve that recognition.
“This government, over the last six years, has assiduously promoted the idea that India is a major power,” said then External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha in 2004. He spoke of an “extended neighbourhood for India which stretches from the Suez Canal to the South China Sea and includes within it West Asia, the Gulf, Central Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region”.
India’s use of the term “extended neighbourhood” first appeared in the ministry of external affairs’ Annual Report for 2000-01. Embedded in the Hindu nationalist zeitgeist of the times, and fuelled by the Pokhran II nuclear tests, the term spoke of a certain expansive sense of what Indian-ness represented.
This meme, together with “major power”, were to embed themselves in Indian diplomatic language. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was to use it in 2006, followed, soon after, by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Indian greatness, though, was premised on a particular, but transient, configuration of global power: A unipolar world that revolved around the United States. From 1999, when it won Washington’s approval by demonstrating restraint during the Kargil war, New Delhi proved deft in leveraging its rapid economic growth to cast itself as a counterweight to a rising China.
The strategy paid off. The US pushed General Pervez Musharraf’s regime to scale back support for the jihad in Kashmir, leading to an unprecedented fall in terrorism from historically high levels in 2001, to near-zero levels by 2006. From 2001 to 2008, India did not witness a single major terrorist attack carried out by a Pakistan-based jihadist group.
Larger strategic gains also accrued. In 2008, India secured access to global nuclear markets, necessary for its energy security, through an historic deal with the US. President George H.W. Bush was able, with a single phone call, to secure consent from China for the NSG to grant a one-time waiver of its rules for India — and India alone.
Even as that deal went through, though, the configuration of power Indian diplomacy had been built on was changing. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 transformed the relative power of the US and China. The chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, moreover, brutally exposed the limits of US military power. From the South China Sea to the Baltics, the US’ great-power rivals slowly began to reassert themselves, testing their behemoth adversary’s responses — and finding it wanting.
In retrospect, 26/11 demonstrated that the rules of the game had changed even for India’s dealings with Pakistan: The US could no longer guarantee it could rein in Pakistan’s generals.
The world which Prime Minister Modi inherited in 2014 was thus characterised by a US which is no longer an unchallenged global Leviathan. New Delhi cannot continue to behave now as it did in the decade from 2004 to 2014, secure in the belief that the US will be able to guide it through the perilous paths that lie ahead. His charge to breach the NSG’s ramparts is just one of many signs that India hasn’t quite grasped that reality.
Examined with any kind of dispassion, it’s hard to make the case that India has done enough to assert an independent foreign policy role — the exact role Sinha had laid out in 2004. The country has, for example, maintained a studious distance from arguably the greatest conflict of our times — the war against the Islamic State and other jihadists in Iraq and Syria. India hasn’t contributed humanitarian aid — let alone troops — to address the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.
The stated reason for this reticence is pragmatic: India does not wish to expose its large diaspora in West Asia to harm. However, it’s lost on no one that an entropic West Asia will harm that diaspora and hurt India’s energy security — leaving New Delhi open to the charge that it wants to free ride on others’ sacrifices.
India under Prime Minister Modi has also shown an unwillingness to independently exercise power in its immediate neighbourhood — much as it did earlier, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Though the country has exhorted the US not to withdraw from Afghanistan, there’s been a marked reluctance to significantly step up military aid to the country’s beleaguered government. Three second-hand Mi 25 attack helicopters were indeed recently handed over to Afghanistan, but were part of a package agreed on by the UPA government — and fall well short, moreover, of a game-changing commitment.
Elsewhere, muscle-flexing appears to have been reflexive — not strategic. Following a high-visibility cross-border raid into Myanmar that arguably yielded more column inches than deterrence, business has gone back to normal. Northeast insurgent groups continue to operate across the border with impunity, as do narcotics traffickers.
Each of these cases — and others, from Pakistan to the Maldives — are examples of a deeper malaise: The inability to think through policy in granular detail and create the capacities to execute it.
“A tooth is much more to be prized than a diamond”, Sancho Panza sagely observed, at the end of one of the many beatings he endured for his master. The time has come for India’s foreign policy czars to stop chasing baubles, and focus on giving the country some bite.
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