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India Zero-Watt Smile?

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
President Obama and Manmohan Singh at the joint press conference in New Delhi

Zero-Watt Smile?
Before it goes to our head, let’s quantify—and qualify—our power

Obama's Booster Shots

Agrees to support India's quest for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Legitimises India's rise.
  1. Promises to help India become a member of the NSG and other such bodies. Establishes India as a key player in the non-proliferation regime.
  2. Removes Indian organisations from Entities List. Will enhance India's space and defence prowess.
  3. Wants US to partner India in Afghanistan. Means Pakistan can't whittle down New Delhi's definition of its neighbourhood.
  4. Keen on Indo-US joint ventures in Africa, recognises New Delhi's equity there.
  5. Says India has emerged as a power, accepts it should play a role beyond South Asia. Subtext: it can balance China.
Prescriptions For The Great Game
  1. Agrees to support India's quest for a permanent seat at

  1. Resolve Kashmir. Runs the risk of being shamed for its human rights violations there.
  2. Solve the Maoist problem. You can't be a power with your own house on fire.
  3. Bridge the glaring economic inequality. You won't be taken seriously with half of the population living below poverty line.
  4. Be independent, not a camp-follower. Convince western powers to engage Iran rather than impose harsh sanctions on it.
  5. Protect core interests. Engage Myanmar rulers as also push them to walk the road to democracy.
  6. Enemy of none, friends of all. Convince China that Indo-US relations not aimed against it.
Even at the worst of times, we Indians have had an exalted notion of ourselves and our nation. Perhaps our hubris is rooted in our being an ancient civilisation, of having discovered the nuances of urban planning two millennia before the Romans, of having produced sophisticated philosophical treatises and a rich body of literature long before much of the world forsook the nomadic life. It’s we who showed the world the power of non-violence, overthrowing the British colonial masters and establishing a democracy in which every person had equal rights. Our forays in space and atomic research, best symbolised through Pokhran-I in 1974, were testimony to India’s brain power that overcame grinding poverty to herald the wonder that is India.

But this wonder called India didn’t impress the modern powers. The world, we sullenly noted, respected those countries which could create wealth and influence events beyond their national boundary. We didn’t possess these attributes of power in a substantial measure. And then, as they say, India decided on yet another tryst with destiny—we embraced market economy, galloped ahead in information technology, and registered astonishing growth. A habitual backbencher, India took a ringside seat in the global amphitheatre. Soon we wanted to be in the ring, jousting with the powers.

Perhaps this psychology explains the thunderous applause that greeted President Barack Obama’s declaration in Parliament that America supports a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This quest of ours now has the endorsement of all those who constitute the P-5, barring China, of course. During his three-day stay in India, at every conceivable opportunity, Obama repeatedly said, “India is not an emerging power, it has already emerged.” We cheered, we celebrated. Really, who wouldn’t want to sup at the high table, break bread with the powerful?

But really, are we a power, traditionally defined as a country that boasts the capability of influencing events worldwide or overcoming the will of those opposed to it? Definitely not, says a school of thought, citing the abysmal poverty in India to hammer in their point about our impotence. They quote World Bank estimates to say that 41.6 per cent of India’s population or 446 million live below the global poverty line of $1.25 per day. This means a third of the global poor reside in India. The realists and sceptics, therefore, say India’s inability to uplift the poor mocks at its global power pretensions.

Says former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh, “It’s wonderful to aspire to become a global power, but let us also be realistic.” He argues that India is definitely an emerging power but is still nowhere near matching America and China’s economic, political and military reach. Before it can be counted as a global power, Natwar says, “India will have to take care of Kashmir, the Northeast, the challenge posed by the Maoists, and the dissatisfaction of its people caused by economic deprivation.”

Opposed to this view is another school of thought which says most past and present global powers weren’t universally rich at the time they began to influence events worldwide. Says Baldev Raj Nayar, professor emeritus at Canada’s McGill University, “It’s the aggregate capabilities that matters to other nations, not whether there are poor people in a powerful country. International politics is driven by power, not by notions of approval of a country’s internal social constitution.” He says Britain’s population wasn’t “all rich” when it became an imperial hegemon, and the US had a large number of “destitutes”, particularly among African Americans and indigenous Indians, well after World War II. Ditto China. “Notions about poverty are rationalisations to deny recognition to a major power,” Nayar declares.

Nayar says the textbook definition of power has undergone a revision in an increasingly globalised world. As he argues, “Euphemistically, one can refer to the regional powers as global powers without being misled into believing that their power and influence extend across the globe. Witness America’s impotence today in the face of defiance by North Korea and Iran today?” Nayar says competition and cooperation among a number of nations configure world power today. For instance, China and India combined together to thwart America’s attempt to implement its climate change agenda at the Copenhagen conference last year. Alone, they might have not been successful in protecting their interests. Says Nayar, “India is definitely a major power whose pre-eminence in South Asia was never in question but today its influence is being recognised not only by the US but also by many others in East and Southeast Asia.”

Agrees Dietmar Rothermund, professor emeritus of Germany’s Heidelberg University, “Defining a global power in our world today cannot be based on oldfashioned criteria of military power. India is home to nearly a fifth of mankind and this in itself makes it a global power to be reckoned with.” He says India’s prowess in IT, its fast growing economy, stable political system and its democracy together allow India to act as an anchor to the world order. In addition, not only does it have a fairly strong military, its economy is already impacting several countries.

A third line of thinking, represented by T.V. Paul of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University, takes an institutional view of power, saying it’s difficult to confer the status of global power on India in the absence of mechanisms to formally legitimise it. “The postwar settlement has been the vehicle for such changes in the past. The challenge today is how to recognise an emerging power like India and legitimise its dominant status.” Paul feels Obama’s endorsement of India’s quest for a UNSC seat is a big step forward. “India has elements of major power status. It needed the existing superpower’s endorsement to start the process as also work for being formally recognised as a major power.”

Do not think, however, that Obama’s endorsement is a huge favour for India. As Oxford University’s Faisal Devji says, “India should have a seat in the UNSC not in the sense of a minor who’s reached drinking age.” In other words, Obama has merely accepted the reality that India is a power. But this recognition wasn’t without a caveat. As the American president said in his speech to Parliament, “With increased power comes increased responsibility.” He then prompted New Delhi to nudge Myanmar and Iran to tread the path of democracy and respect the human rights of their citizens.

Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq feels Obama’s reference to Myanmar and Iran had a veiled message for India. “He was asking New Delhi to put its own house in order, particularly Kashmir,” says the Mirwaiz. “We are not against India’s rising status in the world. But as India engages more significantly with the outside world, it also needs to resolve the Kashmir issue.”

Introspect How about the power to change lives?. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)

Will the status of world power ***** India? Will it compromise India’s autonomy in the conduct of its foreign policy? Will India behave as other powers, brutally suppressing its own people and bullying neighbouring countries? Says strategic commentator Srinath Raghavan, “As we become a more prominent actor on the international stage, our actions will be subject to standards that most states can never hope to abide by. But that is the price of aspiring for greater power status.” Even under Nehru, he says, India tried to balance the competing claims of national interest with idealism.

The tightrope walk and intense international scrutiny will create piquant situations for India. For instance, should India forfeit its interests in Myanmar to restore democracy there, as Obama wants us to? Says former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Aloke Sen, “The foreign policy a country pursues cannot be divorced from its context. There is nothing academic or abstract about the relations between two neighbours—the compulsions are direct and immediate.” Sen says western leaders in their rhetoric have adopted an ideological position on Myanmar only because their countries are geographically remote from it. Yet, in reality, their diplomats in Myanmar take a more practical position suited to the current situation. “In India’s Myanmar policy, democratic principles were never jettisoned. We consistently advocated a broad-based and inclusive political process. Our message is given in private and not delivered publicly,” says Sen.

About Obama’s reference to human rights in his speech to Parliament, officials in South Block say, “India does not need to be lectured by anyone on human rights or democracy.” This, interestingly, has found an echo in many commentaries of foreign writers. For instance, the South Asia correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph, Dean Nelson, blogged saying a UNSC seat for India can’t be subject to its record on human rights. Pointing to the brazen violation of human rights by the P-5 nations for well over a century, Nelson noted, “India is entitled to a place at the high table of world powers because it is one of the world’s most powerful countries. It may even introduce that moral dimension Obama can talk of, but about which he can never quite convince.”

Agrees Devji, “A UNSC seat for India shouldn’t be seen as a reward for good behaviour and even less as the membership of an exclusive club, but rather a test of India’s resolve to act in the interests of those who don’t yet have a voice in international affairs.” Even without a permanent seat, India has been at the forefront of transforming the UN in a more egalitarian way. A seat now will enable India to complete the task of establishing a just world order that it undertook in 1948. “India’s role as a global power should be to change the rules of the international game rather than simply abide by them,” says Devji.

But then, it can scarcely hope to change these rules as long as its own people grovel in poverty and suffer the brutality of its state. In providing a moral underpin to its growing military and economic clout, India can truly become a global leader that’s respected, not feared—loved, not detested.

source: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?267927



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