March 24, 2020
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Here, There Be Dinosaurs... Cataracts, Warts And All

India’s rise is stunted by a hegemony of outmoded thought and indecision

Here, There Be Dinosaurs... Cataracts, Warts And All
Illustration by Sorit
Here, There Be Dinosaurs... Cataracts, Warts And All

United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s call for India to show greater leadership in world affairs is one more reminder of our tragedy. Just when the world starts to think of us as the major power we’ve always fancied ourselves to be, we have made ourselves increasingly unfit to take on the role. Our methods of attending to our affairs lead the other way: at best, stagnation as a backwater, or more probable, a deep ocean of trouble. We just cannot carry on like this. The immediate cause of this sorry state of affairs is the decay in governance, with our instruments of state action turning increasingly dysfunctional. But the government is the people: those in government or politics, whichever we wish to blame, are of our own creation. Ultimately, it is the way we all think and act that decides outcomes. Let alone taking leadership on the world stage, India is not even churning out far-sighted thinking on internal problems.

The reasons behind this are too complex for a detailed analysis here, but the one crucial failing is that the thinking, or considerations, that we bring to bear on any issue obstruct, instead of facilitate, decisions. Tangents, digressions, irrelevancies, non-sequiturs, the half-digested leavings of yesterday’s half-baked intellectuals, all compounded by unbridled emotionalism—the anarchic tendencies we seem to revel in are in full spate in our decision-making paradigm. Add the one constant consideration—“what’s in it for me or mine?”—and you’re assured of a bad result or none at all.

The illustrations of our condition are endless. A common feature emerges though: decisions are not taken, or taken for the wrong reasons, and then, only poorly implemented. The spectre of Maoism looms larger because of this. Perhaps the worst hit is our defence-preparedness. Delays in procurement are endemic; more worrisome, and wholly ignored, are the deteriorating civil-military relations. Many leaders are aware of this, but are stultified by the most petty of politics.

What goes virtually unnoticed is that we lack a shared frame of reference (FoR)—that “set of ideas, beliefs, assumptions and standards in terms of which other ideas are interpreted and assigned meanings that determine perceptions and reactions”, and enable constructive discussion and practical outcomes. People everywhere differ profoundly over issues, individual lines of approach being conditioned by training and experience. A soldier’s “set of ideas and beliefs” is quite different from a doctor’s, a professor’s from a street-sweeper’s. But elsewhere, those who must work collectively develop a broadly common sense of what they are dealing with and what kind of answer is needed. Without thinking the same thing, they think in the same terms. In India, apart from our well-known solipsism (immature egoism?), there are such tremendous divergences in the ways we are formed that a mutually comprehensible FoR between, say, a legislator, a businessman and a strategic analyst hardly exists. Even within cabinets, ministers approach issues with little in common by way of background or understanding—and publicly air differences. (Once, when the question of how to deal with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was raised, two members solemnly urged we all return to Gandhian society, where nuclear weapons would not exist!). What is at stake in our relations with a particular country means nothing to most of them.

We must learn to recognise the extent and implications of our strategic frontiers. The first head of our foreign service emphasised that they were the concentric circles passing through the Hindukush and the Irrawady, Aden and Singapore, Suez and Shanghai. Within the first circle, Af-Pak is an enlargement of our congenital problem with Pakistan, undoubtedly our biggest headache and our biggest source of confusion. That, and our other long-festering and long-neglected South Asian challenges aside, our wider priorities currently include Gulf security, Central Asian stability, the changing power equations to our East (of which the global consequences of China’s ascension is a vital, but separate issue), and several interests in the Indian Ocean. In which of these are we intellectually, much less militarily, equipped to do anything? How many in Delhi, leave alone Lucknow or Bangalore, are even interested, if not informed?

What passes for our worldview was born of a world that has long since ceased to exist. The cold war era mindset against the USA stymies any greater engagement.

The overriding aim of all policy is to protect and enhance your way of life on your territory. The worst dangers are domestic—aggravated, if not created, by lack of thinking—but externally, the two states (India and Pakistan/China) have both the capacity and—in their view—justification for hostility to the ‘other’ way of life and/or territory. This does not necessarily mean that they will go to war, but it would be a criminal neglect of India’s interests to not develop contingency plans for disagreement erupting in conflict. It is literally an existential necessity for us to realise that, if that scenario was to ever come to pass, no state would come to our assistance: we would stand alone. The contingency is best pre-empted by making yourself so strong as to deter mischief. Several states are willing to help you make yourself strong—doubtless for profit but some also for common interests. We need to get them to be of use to us, something we cannot hope to achieve with our lordly illusions of dictating terms.

How can we safeguard our territory and security? How to develop influence within our strategic frontiers? Our two great priorities do not even figure into our thinking. Nor does the realisation that, until we are able to do more on our own, we must develop partnerships, or at least ad-hoc collaborations—not, obviously, with any one country. Ask our average neta or buddhijeevi, and you will be told non-alignment is still our shield or India and China are brothers and that we’ve nothing to worry about or people-to-people relations with Pakistan will make us friends. Some see salvation in new groupings: brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), or just ric. The height of sophistication is proclaiming that we must preserve our strategic autonomy, our intellectual’s variant of the politician’s favourite euphemism for avoiding decisions: “Keep all options open.”

The one option we still shy away from is America. It may no longer be treason to think of cooperating with it, but the old mindset against the arch-villain has remained extraordinarily tenacious. America cannot be our sole, or even primary, focus. But as the only power capable of influencing the course of events, for better or worse, wherever it chooses, it surely merits a greater degree of thoughtful—and skilful—handling. And of course America is no angel: what we refuse to understand is that no state is, not even us. Nor should we aspire to be. Notions of having friends in international affairs only betray naivete. States may have friendly relations, their agents may develop personal friendships, but even close allies will be as manipulative, opportunistic and unreliable as worst enemies. We will have major differences with America. But then that is the way the world works. And like it or not, it just so happens that America’s worldview now sees a strong India as an international asset (which itself must arouse our suspicions). It is also the only power willing and able to work towards the same objectives as us in the four strategic areas mentioned above. It will naturally work to its own advantage—as we should to ours. Common objectives never preclude conflicts over how to reach them: stability in the Gulf, for example, involves disagreements on Iran’s role. But should we therefore neglect exploring avenues for cooperation? If you cannot attain your vital objectives on your own, you must hold hands even with the devil.

What passes for our worldview was formed of a world that has long ceased to exist, but still the view persists. In particular, the Marxian FoR, which provided a readymade substitute to thinking for ourselves, has been abandoned by all the original Marxist states but still grips and paralyses us. It does not enter the minds of those most responsible for shaping our destinies that developing our strengths is of utmost priority or that strength is not just economic or military—the greatest asset is to be seen as knowing what you are doing and just as efficient in doing it. Instead, we keep broadcasting our sloppiness, indecisiveness, glaring lack of statecraft, and of course a brand of corruption that does not even deliver.

“Strategic autonomy” is meaningless if you can’t produce the bulk of your military requirements. We import 70 per cent of them, including nearly everything needed for the “teeth”. Thirty years and we are still to get our own light combat aircraft operational. Our medium gun, the famous Bofors, began slipping into obsolesence a decade ago. We can’t choose a replacement: the ghost of that affair frightens everyone, press and politicians bay for blood, nobody takes decisions. Decisiveness and delivery, understanding power and knowing how to use it—just mentioning these elements of statecraft underlines our lacking of them.

An eminent statesman, when asked about China and India, pointed out the key difference: “China is a closed society, but with open minds and an eagerness to learn about the world. India is an open society, but with closed minds and a know-it-all attitude.” If we can change, as people do, it will take decades. One interim possibility must be attempted. We still have people who know what is needed—and there’s no basic difference on this between our main political parties. If these could agree to eschew petty politics on just a few national challenges, especially national security, India could be a leader despite its defects.

(K. Shankar Bajpai is a former diplomat, and has previously served as India’s ambassador to Pakistan, China and the US. He is presently the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board)

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