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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Did Manmohan Singh Mean By ‘Disastrous’?
By Firdaus Ahmed
17 March, 2014 16-28 Feb 2014

Cyber space is filled with jokes on the prime minister and his silence. Therefore, when he does speak, he needs being taken seriously. In his press conference, itself a first time in his second term, he made the point that if his successor were to be Modi, it would be disastrous for India. The reasoning he gave also needs considering. He said that presiding over organised killings in the streets was no way to display strength.
What kind of disaster did the prime minister have in mind? The mention of ‘strength’ in the same breath is instructive. Modi will be out to prove his is ‘strong’. He is well aware that killings – not to mention the rapes - in Gujarat in 2002 have not served to establish that, as pointedly mentioned by the prime minister. The ‘need’ to display and project strength is peculiar to right wing extremists. To them, Hindus have been emasculated by a millennium under ‘invaders’. Their psychological need is to recover and demonstrate their ‘manhood’. This perverse ‘need’ prompted the rapes and killings in first place.
Modi’s playing Nero for the duration presented him, in their mind’s eye, as a strongman, creating the space for them to fulfil their ‘need’ and thereafter preserving his flock from prosecution. Modi’s quest to install the ‘tallest’ statue, of the original ‘strongman’ himself, Sardar Patel, is a psychological pointer. It is a separate matter that AG Noorani has demonstrated in his latest work on the ‘police action’ in Hyderabad that the Luah Purush was himself a Hindu nationalist, and through his unnecessary military recourse in Hyderabad, is not necessarily the only or best role model to follow.
India’s strategic culture has been evolving under the influence of change in its political culture. The latter has jerked towards the right ever since the Congress started flirting with religion since the early eighties. Its endeavour to take over the agenda of the right wing, by symbolic gestures all through the eighties such as visits to Vaishnodevi by Indira Gandhi and the opening of the Babri Masjid locks by her son, boomeranged. Unwilling to be outflanked by the Congress the BJP took up religious issues to attempt make out an unbeatable vote bank from the majority community, even as it accused the Congress of playing vote bank politics. A political culture trending towards Hindutva started impacting India’s strategic culture by the nineties.
This was evident in the strategic shift taking place over the post cold war period with India veering towards foreign and strategic policies changes, such as opening up to the US and to Israel. Strategic community veterans took the opportunity to make their pitch for a more assertive, if not a more aggressive India. This is best exemplified in their tutoring of an American visitor, George K. Tanham. He was from the think tank, Rand Corporation, and in India to make out where India was headed. They conditioned his report with their views that India lacked a strategic culture, owing to its supposedly Hindu cultural ethos that included a non-linear concept of time and non-violence that made it less receptive to having a strategic culture. The argument was that since it did not have a strategic culture, it needed to get one, particularly since it was surrounded by enemies in league with each other, Pakistan and China.
The principal theme thereafter has been that India is a reactive, defensive state. Its political leadership is known for its pusillanimity, with its current defence minister derided as ‘Saint Antony’ for tying down military modernisation with bureaucratic knots in order that another Bofors scandal does not erupt to set back Congress chances. The corollary in this strategic perspective that has acquired prominence over the 2000s is that India needs a dynamic, ‘strong’, leader. By this yardstick, the performance of the Congress princeling in his interview with the television strongman, Arnab Goswami, is taken as showing him as timid, with another set of internet jokes doing the rounds for to the effect of political advantage of the BJP. In contrast, the image of the contender, NaMo, is built up as a ‘strong’ leader, the messiah who will deliver India to the P5 table; deliver its comeuppance to Pakistan; and get China to back off.
The problem will be when NaMo gets to the chair and takes the opportunity to enact the leader that this strategic subculture wishes for India. Leveraging Modi’s rise, the denizens of this strategic subculture will take over the strategic policy space. Their input will be music to his ears. In his case it would be a commitment trap, since he will have to demonstrate to himself and his supporters his will-to-power, given the image built up for him by the likes of Vanzara, now in Sabarmati jail, over the graves of innocents such as Ishrat Jahan. Whereas his ideological predecessor in the chair, Vajpayee, blasted India into the nuclear club, he, having been foreign minister as early as the late seventies, was aware enough of strategic nuances to keep India out of a full scale war in Kargil and in the post parliament attack phase. A self-awareness of his limitations and knowledge of the deceit that goes into image building will push Modi over the edge into mistaking the political utility of image of a strongman to being a strongman.
With India’s growing power at his call and several ongoing arguments with its neighbours, ranging from a post US Afghanistan to who controls the South China Sea, Modi will create occasion to exercise the power. This is where potential disaster awaits India. Egged on by the strategic subculture that wishes India to exercise its military muscle in order to dispel the mistaken self-belief of an 'effete' Hindu culture, Modi may end up fancy himself as a regional warlord. In a region that has plenty of nuclear tinder, this can prove disastrous.
The prime minister did not have this in mind when he predicted a Modi tenure being disastrous. He was likely instead thinking about internal security and stability involving a strained relations developing between its majority and minority. That is also a likely outcome, since it is internal political capital that Modi would be chasing. He will try and conflate the external and internal ‘Other’ and presenting himself as the difference between Indian weakness and strength, he could well bring nuclear contaminated disaster on to India. It is for this reason that while it can be assessed that Manmohan Singh is largely right in his prognostication, here’s hoping for the sake of India, that he is proven wrong.

Firdaus Ahmed is a freelance writer on security affairs. His blog is Think South Asia:

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