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Friday, May 06, 2011

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Unity in militarism
The security establishment would like India to project its power more forcefully abroad. But to position this as an exercise in protecting the nation's internal unity stretches the imagination, writes Firdaus Ahmed.
Nitin Pai’s candour is revealing. In an article with an honest title ‘Projecting power to protect unity’, he argues that ‘India must project power abroad to stay united at home.’ For those not familiar with him or his work, Pai is editor of Pragati and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution. His blog, The Acorn, reflects and furthers the conservative-realist perspective on security. That the article is an excerpt of his speech at a conference at the Army War College, Mhow, suggests that this perspective has a keen following where it matters. What does this mean for regional security?
India’s rising power is sold as a ‘benign’ development, particularly when it is contrasted adversely with China’s ‘hegemonic’ rise. Its democratic credentials, record as a non-expansionist state, military restraint and strategic prudence are taken as indicators that it is a non-threatening development. Besides, it is increasingly inclined towards the West and since the West holds the levers of the strategic discourse, India is easily projected as a useful balance to China in Asia. This article questions the thesis that India’s rise is of unqualified benefit for security.


That India has been status quoist so far obscures the possibility that it may not always remain so. Nitin Pai argues for ‘reform’ using the logic that India’s internal unity demands an external orientation of its growing power. His thesis is that India’s strategic culture needs changing in light of its growing power credentials. This would enable Indian unity.
What he does not say, but is implicit, is that creating an external ‘Other’ would be a useful national enterprise since it would lend India cohesion and national identity. This means an adversarial equation with China and with Pakistan, seen as China’s proxy, would help India stay united internally, help it create and sustain power necessary to wrestle with these external challenges. This argument is as subtle as self-serving.
Conservative realists such as him who form the dominant strain in India’s strategic community use innovative logic for militarization of India. To them this would create power and the culture to use power appropriately. Power so created would be useful in warding of the ‘threats’ posed by the ‘Other’, even if the threat arose due to this very creation of power.
There are several problems with this. The more obvious ones are disposed off here first. There are other more revealing indices of national arrival, such as education, gender balance, poverty figures etc. There is nothing to suggest that a growing felicity in the creation and use of power would lead to a corresponding change in the socio-economic indices. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the power gained would be able to offset the combined power of the ‘Other’ so created, China and Pakistan. It may be hurtful in case the nuclear backdrop to the conflictual relations was to come to foreground for some reason later. Thirdly, the connection between external power projection and internal unity is not readily established. In the Indira-Rajiv period for instance, there was considerable Indian muscle flexing such as against Sri Lanka, with no obvious effect on internal unity as the outbreak of trouble in Punjab, Kashmir and in social harmony indicate.
Lastly, India’s power projection capability and intent needs to be seen in relation to its association with the US. The European allies of the US stand exhausted. It is seeking military partners for continuing its global stewardship, in particular with relation to controlling terrorism and access to oil. India is being prepared for this role as indicated in the statement of Condoleeza Rice when secretary of state that US intends to make India into a great power. Clearly, this was to serve a purpose of the US. India therefore, refutations of alliance notwithstanding, would lend itself to the US agenda. It would believe that this would be an exercise in its own interest. The distinction between strategic autonomy and external manipulation will be hard to discern. The implication for the region, such as in the short run in AfPak and in the long term for the neocolonial embrace of West Asia, is amply clear.
But more importantly, what realists fail to perceive, even if their logic is driven by a look at internal politics, is that Indian power can be harmful for itself and its region if in the wrong hands. They are unmindful of the possibility of the process of creating the ‘Other’ leading to the Indian identity formed in contradistinction to the ‘Other’. The emphasis on ‘unity’ would be to steam roll the diversity that defines India. The harmony imposed, that is itself necessarily selective in its basis, will lead to internal disruptions that will neither help the creation of power nor its external projection.
Of greater consequence is the possibility of dominance of majoritarian extremists over the power structure created. The conditions of external and internal strife created by the process of imposing ‘unity’ would be fertile for their ascent to power. Given that the power levers that they inherit would be stronger, India would cease to be the ‘benign’ power as is currently imagined. It would certainly not be ‘benign’ to those not of the persuasion of these forces within India. It would be equally problematic for the immediate neighbourhood.
Realists in their external focus can be forgiven two mistaken beliefs. One is that they take India’s democratic credentials as a given. Instead these need to be constantly recreated, worked on and preserved. Conditions that degrade these need being guarded against. The second is that even if Hindu nationalists were to come to power, this is not such a bad thing since it would only be democratic. The cultural trove of the religion would ensure that India stays benign. This is to miss the ugly face of cultural nationalism and neglect the fact that it would get uglier the closer it gets to unbridled power.

It is for these reasons, India’s growing power is not necessarily a blessing for India or its region. The extant thesis of India as a ‘benign’ power will prove very short lived indeed.

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