Friday, February 17, 2012

DEMANDS OF GREATNESS - India is a long way from acquiring the attitude of a great power

By Swapan Dasgupta

The day following a car bomb in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi seriously injured an Israeli diplomat, the Police Commissioner of Delhi held a media briefing. Apart from the usual homilies about ‘pursuing all leads’ and the force doing its utmost to bring the perpetrators to justice, he issued a brief note about the “sticky bomb” that had made its explosive debut in Delhi. According to a report in the Delhi edition of Times of India, the note stated: “Sticky bombs are a type of explosives crafted from one Bomb and 5 Gel. At point blank range, it can cause a total of 100 damage to mobs and 200 to the player.” The note apparently listed a series of ‘statistics’: Damage 100, Max Stack 50, Shoot Speed 5, Use Time 24, Sell 1.

The bewildered reporter did a spot of research on the net and was aghast to discover that the note had been copy pasted from something called Terraria Wiki, a popular site for players of the on-line game Terraria.

That the police chief of India’s capital and the most high security zone in the country could actually mistake gaming instructions for the technical specifications of the sophisticated explosive that was used in the city calls defies belief. It is bad enough that the police and intelligence agencies were clueless as to which group or which foreign agency could have targeted the Israeli diplomat. What compounded the offence was the impression conveyed that the police in India are no better than a rag-tag force in Ruritania, with its ace investigators resembling Thompson and Thomson of Tintin fame. After this bizarre show of expertise it is doubtful whether Israel or any other country whose diplomats are vulnerable to terrorist attacks will feel any comfort from the Home Minister’s assurance that everything possible is being done to prevent a recurrence and that the authorities are on top of the terror threats.

Ever since a decade of impressive GDP growth statistics has removed India from the list of struggling Third World nations and cast it in the mould of an emerging superpower, there are Indians who have convinced themselves that the transition has already taken place. In their bid to talk India up and aggressively flaunt a resurgent nationalism, successive governments have contrasted the northward growth curve of this country with the southward direction of growth in the US and Europe. This has prompted the conclusion that India is ready to play a greater role in global affairs and even deserving of a permanent, veto-wielding membership of the UN Security Council.

It is not merely the boo-boo of the Delhi police chief that invites ridicule. At every stage of the way to greatness, India has been exposing its utter inability to live up to its self-professed greatness. Instead, it comes across as a nation enmeshed in ad-hocism and gripped by profound uncertainty over its own role. Whereas Great Powers are said to be blessed with nerves of steel, India is a bundle of fickleness and inconsistency.

Last month’s bloodless coup in the idyllic setting of the Maldives was yet another demonstration of the vacuous hype that surrounds Indian pretensions. For a start, India was relatively clueless of the possibility of a coup after the elected President Mohamed Nasheed ordered the arrest of a Judge who had ruled against intitating corruption proceeding against the former president M.A. Gayoom who had ruled Maldives for three decades. If the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) had indeed submitted an essay on the coming together of Gayoom supporters and Islamist parties, it must have been unread in both South Block and the offices of the National Security Adviser.

Secondly, rather than take a principled stand frowning on the removal of a democratically-elected Nasheed at gunpoint, India rushed in with an endorsement of the new government of former Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. It is not that India should have recalled its High Commissioner or done anything precipitate—like the military intervention in 1988 to foil a coup attempt against Gayoom by Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka—but a signal of intense displeasure and concern would have done the country’s image absolutely no harm. Instead, India wilfully left the field open for the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and the multilateral Commonwealth to step into the diplomatic void. With growing reports of Islamist activity—symbolised by the destruction of the Buddhist artefacts in the National Museum in Male—India is now ruing its diminished role in the islands it hitherto regarded as falling within its sphere of influence.

The pusillanimity that marked the handling of the Maldives crisis was not an isolated lapse. Last year, India won a two-year seat on the UN Security Council, an event celebrated in South Block as a moment of great significance and a portend of things to come. Yet, has India made a distinct mark inside this select gathering? The answer, regrettably, is a big No.

The biggest challenge that faced the Security Council and, indeed, the UN in recent times was the Arab Spring and the outpouring of democratic sentiment throughout a West Asia which had hitherto been ruled by autocrats. In Egypt, the sentiment in South Block was quite conclusively in favour of Hosni Mubarak. There was a fear, later manifested in Libya and Syria, that known devils such as Colonel Gaddafi and President Bashar al-Assad were preferable to unknown forces that any turmoil was calculated to throw up. There was some merit in this cautiousness since democracy in hitherto repressed states was likely to trigger a regressive strain of religiosity. At the same time, there was a cost to disregarding the democratic impulses altogether.

In global affairs, the world seems to be split in two broad camps. First, there is the West that uses democracy selectively, particularly to get its own back on ‘difficult’ regimes like that of Gaddafi in Libya and the one ruled over by Assad in Syria. Then there is China which uses the principle of national sovereignty to back some of the most loathsome regimes. India has tried to straddle between these two approaches using the legitimate yardstick of national interests. The most difficult balancing act was in Sri Lanka where New Delhi had to balance between a resurgent Sinhala nationalism and a brutal Tamil resistance that sought to exploit ethic solidarities in Tamil Nadu. However, in the case of other difficult situations, national interests have invariably meant economic and commercial interests.  

There is nothing to get defensive about letting money talk—both China and the West do it all the time. What necessitates a measure of introspection is the extent to which strategic interests have taken a backseat. Even in the matter of Somalian pirates, the British navy has been more pro-active.

Is this a result of calculation or merely a function of the innate inefficiency, indeed ineptitude, of the Indian state and the disinclination of its political class to view foreign policy as anything more than Pakistan? Wouldn’t it be more prudent for India to temporarily eschew grandiose schemes such as permanent membership of the Security Council until a time the country is better able to tackle the obligations that come with Great Power status?

There are lessons to be learnt from a China that wilfully kept below the power radar until it was economically in a position to be counted. More important, China used the interregnum for human capacity building. To be counted, India also needs functionaries commensurate with its aspirations. 

The Telegraph, February 17, 2012

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