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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

India Needs A New World View

 Barack Obama's recent visit to India may looked upon as the most significant visit of an American President to India. Now this statement might sound a bit immature considering the fact that despite numerous efforts, Obama did not make any statement on India's security concern vis.a.vis Pakistan and China, both of which are important for the USA as they are for India. But before he even left for India, Obama had made it clear that trade and commerce would be the main agenda of the visit and he stayed true to it. However, he did offer the long-aspired support for India's bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC but it would do well to remember that the UNSC reforms are not happening any time soon and when they do take place in the future, India would still have to compete with other aspirants and keep veto-power holder,China in good humor. t is not very clear what a permanent member seat in a reformed and an expanded UNSC actually means. Will India and other new members be vested with the same  powers that the Big 5 possess,including the power to veto any resolution ? Finally, given the role UNO has played in conflict resolution,especially in the last two decades, would India's empowerment in any way help India fight off its demons?


 (Undoubtedly, permanent membership of the UNSC can help in numerous ways in the longer term, IMHO world order is in a transitory phase now )

How then can Obama's visit be so significant ?
Unlike his predecessors, Obama did not - land in Delhi, make passionate statements on how our two states were natural allies and together destined to fight terrorists,increase trade etc and then fly to Islamabad and sing a different tune. Barack Obama meant business. He did not just make deals with corporates but also tried to deal with the masses. The gesture that President Obama showed by making his first stop in Mumbai, staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel, attending memorial of the victims of 26/11 attack was highly symbolic one.
During the entire visit, Barack and Michelle Obama  tried more to connect to the people than to the government.  The message, as I read it, is simple. Obama was trying to cement the bond between the countries by highlighting the shared values and aspirations between our two nations,starting from democracy to civil rights and values to contemporary cultures and economics. True, the areas where India and USA have much in common can be referred to as "soft power", there really are some major differences when it comes to "hard power" or military capabilities, objectives and even the structure. In a manner, it was more like Martin Luther King meeting Mahatma Gandhi rather that Indira Gandhi meeting Richard Nixon.

However, going by the present world order and long term policies of India as well as the US, Obama's reluctance to address to India's security concerns, especially Pakistan-backed terrorists, was disappointing. But perhaps we need to look at it from a different  perspective. His attitude now reflects his publicly expressed desire to pull out troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and rebuild the economy fast. It might seem like he is following an isolationist (or neo-isolationist) policy but Obama is doing what he thinks is the best for the American people. And he is fully justified in doing so, he is after all the President of the United States of America and therein lies the message for the Indian policy makers.

Obama's Inheritance
And he hasn't been left with great many alternatives either. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Obama did not inherit the Presidency,he inherited the mess that George W Bush took 8 years to create. Bush left behind not only the second worst economic crisis ever, he also bequeathed two costly wars neither of which show any signs of ending soon. The war in Iraq, a completely futile exercise, has cost the US more than $3 trillion and would continue to draw more funds even if Obama has declared the end the war (end of combat)  But things are much bleaker in Afghanistan where the cost has already exceeded the  cost of the Iraq war and yet it shows no signs of ending soon. 
These wars continue to drain the already weakened American economy and some of Obama's recent statements indicate that he intends to address this issue. This brings us to the situation in Afghanistan and what it augers for India

Pakistan's Afghan Gambit
Anyone who has been watching the Afghanistan chessboard would tell you the advantage Pakistan has gained because of the war in Afghanistan. From the beginning, i.e. Post-9/11, Pakistan has been playing a dangerous game. When it went to war against the Taliban regime as a US ally it seemed Pakistan is finally eliminating a malaise that would come back to haunt it in later years. However,before even the war was over, it was apparent that after all Pakistan military was not going to throw away its strategic assets just like that. It may have convinced the Americans that there was a difference between terrorists like Al Qaida and Kashmiri militants,who were "fighting for their freedom". That would explain why AQ has never claimed responsibility for terror attacks in India and LeT,HuM have not been clearly implicated in any attack targeting US/Western interests. All these years,it was an open secret that Pakistan has been running with the hare and hunting with the hounds  but the bad news now is that it is no longer secret. When the Wikileaks documents directly implicated Pakistani agencies for helping terrorists, no one was surprised. In fact, President Obama did state that the wikileaks did not reveal any information that they were not aware of. He was right of course, it wasn't really a secret,but it also implied that Pakistan no longer had to pretend that it was not being selective in dealing with terrorism. A decade back this might have been followed up with some sanctions being imposed upon Pakistan but this time it was awarded with a $2billion aid. 

This reflects the huge dividends Pakistan has reaped from its double- game and also the predicament Barack Obama currently faces. The early signs of maturity Obama displayed was identifying Taliban-controlled region,not as Afghanistan but parts of it as well as parts of Pakistan- the AfPak region. On the negative side (from India's PoV) this made the role of the Pakistani military indispensable.  It is also interesting to note that as more information regarding Pakistan's dubious role is thrown into the public domain,it is becoming more overt and aggressive. The Pakistani establishment has on three occasions gone to war with India, mostly based on its self-appraisal of its military possessing the edge over India's armed forces. With major upgradation of its armory with the assistance of the US and China, Pakistani generals developing a similar mindset  cannot be ruled out completely.

For Generals Its Personal
Now this observation may be considered an alarmist one, but  as the noted Indian writer, MJ Akbar has pointed out in many of his columns,the current top brass of Pakistani military establishment is the same generation that in its youthful days witnessed the humiliating defeat that India doled out in 1972 war when more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to an Indian general. For young officers joining the force with enthusiasm to fight for the country, such a defeat would traumatize them and revenge become some sort of a salvation. It is this singular factor that defies the rule that nation-states however belligerent, are still expected to act rationally when it comes to conflict of this magnitude.

Mumbai Mayhem
Mumbai terror attack on 26/11 could be part of the larger game. Kargil war had further demoralized Post 9/11 when Pakistan was under intense international pressure and Gen Pervez Musharraf desperate to prove his credibility, reconciliation with India must have looked appealing even if it meant conceding some grounds. At the same time, the Indian Prime Minister, AB Vajpayee, widely known for his diplomatic skill and thorough understanding of inter-state relations, too wanted to normalize ties with Pakistan. Although nothing concrete came out of Vajpayee-Musharraf string of engagements, it did lead to a thaw in the frozen relationship and people to people contact. Further warming of ties could lead to a status quo of sorts which Pakistani military elite never wanted but could not stall either looking at the circumstances. However, a couple of years or more later, military strategists realize that they are finally gaining the strategic edge as the US begins to rely more and more on it, especially as it now intends to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.  But the Indo-Pak peace process was on, even if no solutions had been arrived at, the military's fantasy of wresting Kashmir from India through force was no longer an option now, even mature Pakistani political leaders wouldn't stand with them.

The dastardly terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26/11/2008 changed all that, India refused to resume peace talks until the perpetrators had been brought to book. It is not very difficult to now guess who conspired and orchestrated the attack and on whose direction. To be fair to all, the civilian government of Pakistan may not be aware of the operation even immediately after it had been carried out. So, we are now back on square one, and things don't look too bright in the face of the apparently nefarious designs of our neighbors.

What India needs to do.
As Obama said, India is no longer a rising power, it has already risen. And as such it needs a new perspective towards global politics, look beyon the need . Now, India must renew ties with traditional allies such as Russia, France, Japan etc and work for closer ties with countries in South-East Asia and Central-Asian Republics (India has an airbase in Tajikistan).  Sino-Indian relations are not very cordial, but I don't intend to go into that (no one does ). But it is a fact that Pakistan is lobbying hard against India to win over minor powers, especially Muslim states  to support its claim over Kashmir. Iran hasn't always been at the best of terms with Pakistan, yet its supreme leader issued a statement, apparently, sympathizing with Kashmiri secessionists. Pakistani has been long trying to represent hyphenate Kashmir with Palestine and India with Israel but has not been quite successful as yet  because there are no parallels. For Pakistan, Kashmir is a territorial dispute with India to win which it has been raging its proxy war against India, the world population has no reason to see it otherwise. However, the recent uprising and protest marches in Kashmir by mostly civilian population may change the perception on the nature of the dispute in some segments unless Indian foreign office swings into action.

There is unrest in Kashmir but that is not the only part of India facing protests. Almost every state of India has been witnessing angry demonstrations, Naxal insurgents are now in control of a third of India's territory, militancy in the North-East is far from over and lately even far-right Hindu extremists have taken to terrorism.  But these are internal problems of India, arising mainly out of unequal economic growth  and marginalization of certain groups. Issues that India itself will have to address. It has been addressing these issues and still developing faster rather than falling apart the way Pakistan seems to be. What Pakistan does not understand is that religious identity may not have much to do with nation-state politics else there wouldn't Bangladesh or more than 50 Muslim states, there would be one and the label Pakistan wouldn't exist!

Of course, this would be difficult for a country like Pakistan to understand but India needs to counter its propaganda in Muslim world. India is not like any other country and definitely not like other states with large Muslim minorities. It is not just home to the third (unofficially, second)  largest Muslim population of the world, Islamic culture forms an integral part of the Indian culture and identity. As the saying goes, India is largely Hindu but partly Muslim. It was this very premise that the founders of Pakistan based their claim to a separate statehood on but what Pakistani leadership still doesn't understand is that India's soul survived the violence of 1947, it remains the home of the larger part of the Muslim population of the subcontinent.     Even today, world famous Muslim architectures such as the Taj Mahal or the Charminar, seminaries like Dar-ul-uloom, holy places such as the dargahs of Khwaja Mohiuddin Chisti and Haji Ali are situated in Ajmer and Mumbai respectively. Further, in contemporary culture too, no Muslim country can boast of such immensely popular film personalities such as Bollywood's Khans (Shahrukh,Aamir,Salman,Saif,Irrfan...) nor the respect that former President APJ Abul Kalam receives as a scientist (everyone knows the treatment meted out to the father Pak nuclear bomb). In every field (except terrorism) Indian Muslims are far ahead of their Pakistani counterparts.

The flashpoint today is Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been able to influence US to keep India at bay but interestingly enough India is the largest regional investor. Afghans wary of Pakistan's strategic interests in their country seem to be seeking friendly relationship with India. Maldives,another Muslim country, has very close military ties with India and virtually depends on it for its national security. Similarly, India is also an observer member of the Arab League(Pakistan is not),it should press for membership of OIC too. The good thing about these is that these relationships do not directly have any bearing on India's relationship with the USA. 

 When Obama expressed solidarity with the population of India, and talked of increasing trade and commerce between the two countries,it may be his view of India being the most important ally in the future. As
a capitalist society, the US may ignore military and/or diplomatic treaties but not its trade relationship, provided the latter is strong enough.Developing strong trade ties with the USA is the only way to build the alliance. 

       


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