Rising India!

The Indian Prime Minister might be enjoying the fact that he is now in a position to offer the American president billions of dollars worth of jobs. But he would be better off concentrating on the strategic thinking worthy of a great power
Ehsan Ahrari
11 November 2010

From India’s point of view, President Barack Obama’s trip could not have come at a better time.  The “Obama glaze” or even “Obama magic” that brought him to office in 2009 is damaged, if not permanently gone after the “shellacking” he has received during the mid-term elections on November 2, 2010.  As a weak president, he went abroad looking for jobs to bring home to USA in the blazing lights of international coverage. 

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Wikimedia Commons/The White House in 2009

PM Manmohan Singh reminded me of the proverbial sphinx, with a mysterious smile that could be interpreted variously.  At best, he seemed bemused about the plight of the young president whom he so admires.  But he might be enjoying the fact that he is now in a position to offer the American president billion of dollars worth of jobs.  What a magnificent example of role reversal!  Kishore Mahbubani did not know how right he was when he predicted the upcoming ‘power shift’ from the west to Asia.  I am less of a doubter of his analysis now than I was when I first read his book.

President Obama has taken a lot of measures to boost India’s world standing.  The fact that he stayed at the Taj Mahal hotel is a very important symbolic measure.  He is underscoring the commonality of the extremist threats that showed its brutal face in Mumbai in 2008.  His visit to the Gandhi museum and his emphasis on Gandhi’s legacy was also a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose Herculean peaceful fight for the rights of Black American is hugely responsible for Obama’s election to the American presidency.  Most important of all, Obama has endorsed India’s long-cherished desire for a seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC).  Even though that endorsement is not a ‘done deal’ in the sense that it does not guarantee India’s membership to that institution; however, it removes any constraint  remaining from the powerful psychological barrier of the Cold War years between the United States and India.

There still remain a number of obstacles in the way of India’s entry to the UNSC, however.  First and foremost is the objection of the People’s Republic of China, India’s chief nemesis in the region.  Can India be convinced about the US commitment to its ‘rise’ as a great power while the United States remains so ambivalent with regard to China and its economic and military power-building?  One can understand why America remains obsessed with China’s rise and the implications of that reality for its own future status as the lone superpower.  In the escalating intricacies related to this particular issue, US-India relations may remain only an afterthought to American strategic thinkers, much to the chagrin of India’s leaders.

But India should not allow this to cloud its ambitions. If it were to take one lesson from China, it should be the latter’s steely resolve to emerge as a superpower, despite all the odds related to being a communist economy and despite the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.  Compared to those barriers, India had a very calm legacy of poverty and underdevelopment.

India’s greatest obstacle is its own lack of strategic thinking. That became obvious to me when I interviewed one of India’s primary strategic thinkers, K. Subrahmanyam.  His thinking also filters into the writings of C. Raja Mohan, one of India’s foremost journalists.  To summarize that problem, India has notoriously failed to follow through on such important matters as its ‘Look East’ policy.  As Mohan notes, “The East Asian nations are troubled by the fact that India seems unable live up to the full potential of its own unique possibilities in the region. Delhi has been good at drafting resounding speeches on Asia but rarely delivering on its promise.”

Secondly, India’s international manoeuvrings have remained reactive or even an afterthought compared to China’s strategic moves.  The best example that I can give is India’s reaction to China’s brilliant ‘string of Pearls’ strategy.

It remains for India to transfer its economic vibrancy into diplomatic vitality through imaginative measures.  One example that comes to mind is the Indo-Iranian ties.  Those ties should be nurtured single-mindedly, given India’s growing energy needs, and considering the fact that India badly needs the Central Asian markets to which Iran serves as an excellent outlet.  On this issue, India should learn an important lesson from the United States.  To the extent that the lone superpower deals with China as a major foreign policy priority, while not considering its implications for countries like India, India, by the same token, should deal with Iran single-mindedly in the pursuit of its own strategic interests.

More than a decade after becoming a nuclear weapons power, it is about time that India started behaving like one.

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