Sunday, May 6, 2007

Rising India: A View from the Neighbourhood

India’s relations with South Asian countries function like traffic-lights and have failed to establish a stable, mature relationship based on mutual trust and a long-term vision of cooperation

By Nischal N. Pandey

Two point four billion people, or 40 % of the world’s population, live in China and India . Currently the United States has the largest and most technologically advanced economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of $43,500 but with economic growth between 8 and 10 % per year, economists say that China and India are fast catching up. China’s current per capita GDP is $7,600 and India’s is $3,700 but all projections under realistic scenario made by the World Bank reveal that these two Asian giants are set to become the second and third largest economies in the world in PPP terms by 2020 next only to the USA. According to a report prepared in early 2005 by the National Intelligence Council, an in-house think tank of the CIA, “ India and China increasingly will flex powerful political and economic muscles as major new global players by 2020 likening the rise to the emergence of the U.S. as a world power, a century ago.”

Let us analyse how India’s emerging economic status in Asia and its strengths in many areas on the global level is re-defining its self-image leading to a new political role and leave the China perspective to more observant analysts than me from Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Its nuclear testing in 1998, the sheer number of its growing population, expanding middle class which in itself is the second largest market in the world, its robust military establishment, the acquiring by its navy of an aircraft carrier and the country's increasing sophistication in high-technology are shaping India as a rising political, economic and military power of this century. I would even say that this rise is “inevitable”. The checkerboard pattern of the Cold War alliance has long gone and the new India is now in the threshold of claiming its legitimate place in the international arena.

Once proudly non-aligned, India has turned its back on strategic policy independence through a military cooperation agreement with the U.S. that analysts say is the most far-reaching and comprehensive military agreement that India has signed with any country. Simultaneous improvements in relations with the U.S., the EU and Russia, Southeast Asia, Japan, and China demonstrates that for the first time in diplomatic history, India is forging significant strategic ties with both the east and the west. Although its Cold War alliance gave India access to much-needed industrial and military technology from the former USSR, it unfortunately remained backward and underdeveloped for decades due to the socialist policies of its successive governments. Since the economic liberalization initiated in the early 90s, which led to growth rates of 6-7 percent per annum, India’s global presence has been clearly visible. Its well-educated, young population has embraced state-of-the-art computer and information technologies, which has made it a global knowledge hub with a central place in the transitional movement of knowledge and services; India’s comparative advantage lies in the large and relatively young population. 70 percent of its population is literate, many of them speak fluent English and about half of them are under 30. In fact, according to one study there are more English speaking people in India than in any other country. So, while it is undoubtedly a rising power in the software, design, services and precision industries it must not be overlooked that the Indian Diaspora and Indians working abroad are playing invaluable roles in global innovation chain like here in Singapore. Today, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, CISCO systems all rely on Indian teams to devise software platforms and dazzling multi-media features for next generation devices.

Rarely has the ascent of a relatively poor nation been watched with such a mix of wonder, opportunism and skepticism basically because India, despite these achievements in so many areas still contains half of the world’s chronically hungry.

There are a few crucial issues that if left un-tackled are likely to hinder India’s emergence as a major world-power of this century. First, the liberalization wave and the ‘India Shining’ attribute that has been talked about with such glamour hasn’t reached places like North Bihar, North Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, the entire seven sister states of the Northeast, and many other rural areas of India. There are still jolting signs of extreme poverty even in urban centers supposedly to be the show-cases of economic development such as Dharavi in Mumbai which is Asia’s largest slum. These regional disparities in levels of economic development of the states and the slow pace of development in rural India is likely to thwart progress of the rest of the country.

The second area of concern is the South Asian region which is a big disadvantage for India in comparison to China as it “rises” to be a major power of this century. The east coast of China is situated in a highly dynamic and rich neighborhood. Neighbors like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore plus Hong Kong and Macau provide capital for investment, markets for Chinese exports, tourists from abroad, more advanced technology, and expertise. The neighborhood of India, in comparison, is less dynamic. Moreover, China has settled differences with all its neighbours in Southeast Asia and long given up the policy of exporting its ideology around its vicinity. It has since the early 80s shown little interest in the domestic politics of these countries and deals with a constructive outlook no matter which regime or leader is in power in these countries. Although hiccups remain in bilateral relations with Japan and on issues such as the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and Taiwan, these are not likely to substantially impact on China’s speed of progress.

On the other hand, India’s relations with South Asian countries function like traffic-lights. The chronic tension, occasional conflict and perennial lack of trust between India and Pakistan and the frequent strain in relations between India and the immediate neighbors is likely to be a major barrier for re-defining its self-image and the world’s perception of India. As the largest country of the region, it bears a disproportionate responsibility for the success and failure of regional and sub-regional cooperation efforts in the region as compared to other countries; therefore it is condemned to be both the necessary engine as well as the likely obstacle in the fulfillment of the region’s potential. The last five decades of New Delhi’s policies towards its neighbors has comprehensively failed to establish a stable, mature relationship based on mutual trust and a long-term vision of cooperation.

The Indo-Pakistan relations has even been termed as a “tarot reader’s paradise.” The issue of Jammu and Kashmir has been and is likely to deter all efforts towards the harmonizing of bilateral relations and thereby prevent India from emerging as an international player especially as the Kashmir issue is sentimental to the larger Muslim world. It is an “unfinished agenda of partition” and the “core issue” in one view and an “un-vacated aggression” and “an externally sponsored terrorism,” according to another. There seems to be no middle-ground. But the sooner Indo-Pak relations improve the better for India’s long-term goal of “rising” as a major power.

New Delhi must also not forget that with increasing political and economic clout comes increased responsibility which demands a larger heart while dealing with neighbors. But although it aspires to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we can’t see how in contrast to its pre-1990 foreign policy, India is engaging with its neighbors differently. In the past, India frequently resorted to passionately transmitting internal trouble within the territory of smaller neighbours but the genie´ has most of the time uncorked from the bottle and rose up against its benefactor as in the case of more than two thousand Indian Peace Keeping Forces being killed in Sri Lanka and Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi being assassinated by a LTTE sponsored attack. Despite this grim memory, Delhi can neither aggressively back the Sri Lankan Army through a joint military cooperation because of the sentiments of Indian Tamils in Tamil Nadu nor support a Tamil eelam as wanted by V Prabhakaran because of the LTTE being branded as a terrorist outfit and the larger ramifications that it will have on India’s fragile southern flank. This policy bewilderment continues even as the LTTE now has already erected a mini air-force along with a navy of its own.

Nepal is another paradox of India’s neighborhood policy. Every major political change in Nepal since 1950 has been the outcome of the deterioration of its relations with India but every government that comes to power has had difficulty accommodating Delhi’s interests within Nepal. With every change, follows an invisible undercurrent of anti-Indian feeling which within a few years transforms into a dangerous surge of mass anti-Indian euphoria like it happened during the anti-Tanakpur demonstrations and the Hritik Roshan riots. History keeps on repeating and Delhi keeps on committing the same mistakes.

In 2005, it facilitated an understanding between the underground Maoists and the seven political parties in New Delhi although the Maoists at that time (and till today) were declared terrorists by the Government of India in order to help usher in democracy in Nepal. But India’s sympathy for democratic forces stops at the Nepal border and doesn’t cross over to neighboring Bangladesh where since January this year, 95,000 have been arbitrarily arrested, 19 people have been killed since the emergency was declared and while former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been accused of massive corruption another former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been accused of plotting murder. All these questions raise doubts that if India cannot solve problems effectively in its own backyard how can it play a greater role in the international front? Or is it the innate desire of some powers to want India to be bogged down so much in its own neighborhood that it cannot go ahead? Therefore, as the largest country in the region, it must make sure that these countries become its natural allies not by fear but by genuine bond of friendship. This can only happen when it stops taking sides and having “preferences” in internal political dynamics of these countries. They should feel that India is an opportunity for them whereby the SAARC as a whole becomes the most vocal advocate of India ’s legitimate place in the permanent category of the UNSC.

The third area of crucial importance is how India manages the Naxalite problem because as we have seen Indian states including Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, parts of Orissa are badly affected by Naxal terror. Communism being a communicable disease has engulfed all these states in such a major way that the Naxal problem has now been regarded as the second most dangerous conflict taking place in India after Kashmir. The fourth area of concern is the multiplicity of crises stemming from recurrent and escalating conflict in the Northeast region. Northeast India and Southeast Asia have a long history of affinity and shared religious, cultural and economic ties; thus it is a vital determinant for the success of the ‘Look East Policy’.

Lying at the inter-section of Southeast Asia and South Asia; India’s Northeast shares more commonalities ethnically, culturally and linguistically with its Southeast Asian neighbours than any other country of South Asia. The region is an abode of 200 diverse ethnic and tribal groups who belong to the Southeast Asian region’s culture zone, bearing striking societal similarities. Northeast India is also a natural land bridge linking the two regions as it is at the cultural and ecological crossroads of South and Southeast Asia . Unfortunately, it continues to be beset with massive infiltration of people from outside the region, ethnic strife and geographic isolation . It also harbors the oldest insurgencies of independent India that are becoming increasingly intractable. In fact, four states – Assam , Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura-- witness scales of conflict that can be categorized as low intensity wars. There has to be a combination of economic development, massive central investment and negotiations with these outfits to resurrect the Northeast which is extremely vital for the success of India ’s Look East Policy.

There are other emerging challenges as well such as energy and water crises which are going to be great barriers to economic and social progress in the coming years. Furthermore, at least five million Indians are currently living with HIV. According to UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic published in 2006, India has the largest number of people living with HIV than any other country in the planet. India also needs to do more in the sports sector which in comparison to that of China is dismal if one is to compare the medals tally in the Olympics and the Asian games. It must try to hold the Commonwealth games by 2010 and even the Olympics by 2020 to project its growing eminence in the international scene.

Although the challenges are enormous, the prospects are bright for India which is not only in Information Technology and trained human resources but also in the realm of “cultural power”. Its culture and music, arts, Indian Miss Universe and Miss Worlds, Hindi films and its free media are only some of the vital elements facilitating its soft power status. Most importantly, India is a functioning democracy. If it is able to loosen up infrastructural bottlenecks, resolve implementation problems due to political and bureaucratic hassles, change its mind-set as regards to dealing with neighbors; it maybe second or third to the U.S. and China in the loop but it is ultimately going to win the marathon.

(Excerpts of the author’s presentation at an international dialogue on “Regional Perceptions of Asian Powers for Global Change: With Focus on Rising China and India” organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, held in Singapore 26-27 April 2007. A strategic analyst and former director of the Institute for Foreign Affairs, the author can be contacted at

Source: Nepalnews

No comments: