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Thursday, December 02, 2010


Obama helped India along in its search for greatness. During his visit, he reckoned India was a candidate for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Obama’s visit is being followed in quick succession by Medvedev, Sarkozy and Wen Jiabao. This owes not so much to the comparatively pleasant Indian winter, but to the percentage change in its yearly GDP.

Opinion is upbeat not only because of a selective view of the Indian reality but also due to perceptions of relative power. Europe is in trouble economically. The NATO, exhausted by Afghanistan, decided at its summit in Lisbon to leave by 2014. Declining populations in Russia, Japan, Europe and elsewhere and an ageing China are contrasted to India’s youth bulge yet to play itself out and its seeming energy. Manmohan Singh’s recent East Asia trip suggests that India’s strategic location is seen in fresh light as a check on a rising China. Obama’s visit, and his remainder itinerary across China’s periphery, can be read as an acknowledgement of this. The belief that India can now be an equal partner of the US can hardly be faulted.

Strategic commentary has it that this is in Indian interests since it would replicate the manner other great powers achieved such status. For instance, the Chinese first latched on to Communist Soviet Union and thereafter to the US. This assistance enabled China to get to its current position as the second superpower. India could also follow this route, using the proximity to the US for its own ends. India’s case as a potential great power cannot be pursued as a ‘free rider’. India would require lending a shoulder, alongside democracies in running the world. Since such reasoning is gaining uncritical acceptance, it could do with a critical once over.

Firstly, the analogy is stretched. In the period of US-China patch up, the dangers of the Cold War turning hot were well past, the last instance being 1962. China’s relations with the Soviet Union were also on the mend since the nadir of 1969. This is not the case with India since its border problem with China remains in the news. In case India was to weigh on the side of the US, it would complicate the problem by having the superpower competition figure as a factor. Also, local and regional problems would acquire wider ramification. This would endanger its growth path, sought to be benefited by such closeness.

Second, China, due to its closed system was an autonomous player in the relationship. India could instead end up a ‘junior partner’. Is this term merely a bogey of the political left? America’s relations with states that have been close to it, such as one closest to India’s western border, suggests that the embrace is certainly useful for some sections of the state and society. Even its allies have to suffer the consequence of dependence, such Blair’s Britain being inveigled into unpopular wars. Any tie up would have an internal political price. China could bear this due to its closed system. India’s internal deficits, particularly on the governance front, make this debatable.

Lastly, the Soviet Union was a satisfied power. Therefore, China did not get embroiled in great power games, including those that brought down the Soviet Union in the eighties. India would not have like luxury since the Chinese challenge is underway, best evidenced by its access denial strategy based on missiles and submarines. Even if the China front remains dormant, China would take care to keep India tied down on the other front by proxy.

Strategists bewail India’s lack of will to power. On that count, their analysis, in its focus on the structural, neglects the internal political and social consequence. A true appreciation of power - the staple for realists - would include being sensitive to India’s deficiencies and vulnerabilities. The structural level reasoning limits political choice and agency, making for poor strategy. Unless realists are countered in debate, their argument and dominance of the strategic community may carry the day, restricting India’s foreign policy choices.

Economy-centric neoliberals, in control of policy currently, find the neorealist logic appealing. Their case is that without growth, India’s internal contradictions would overwhelm it over time. Growth would be slower and will have indeterminate outcome. Closeness to the US may have a price, but worth paying in India’s interests such as access to high technology, investment, weapons etc. In any case, India is autonomous and in control. They iron out jagged edges in emulating the US in creating a regime of interdependence, such as through making China India’s largest trading partner.

India is ready for great power status, but not for great power games. How can it gain the former without the latter is the key question? To some it cannot be otherwise, in fact, being in the game is the sign of arrival. To others, India has been up there before and done it differently. It can be so yet again, even if to the disappointment of its self-styled strategists, middle classes and diaspora.

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