Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

The Wise Men of Indostan

Thoughts on “Nonalignment 2.0″ and “India: The Next Superpower?”

It was six men of Indostan / To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant / (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation / Might satisfy his mind.

John Godfrey Saxe (1872)

Early 2012 might not appear a propitious time to unveil an ambitious new road map or set of principles to guide India’s domestic, foreign, and security policies. The UPA-II government is walking on eggshells, the economy is faltering, and the country’s chief international interlocutors (the United States, China, Pakistan, Europe, Russia, Japan, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran) are all in states of flux or otherwise preoccupied.  And yet, two recently-published collaborative reports—one issued by the Centre for Policy Research and the other by the London School of Economics—have injected a healthy dose of debate on the way forward for the country. Both exercises should be applauded for their efforts, and yet each is marked by certain shortcomings.

The Centre for Policy Research’s Nonalignment 2.0 is by far the more ambitious project, and one could scarcely imagine a better line-up of contributors: India’s most astute political commentator, Pratap Bhanu Mehta; its most strategically-oriented economist Rajiv Kumar; its most highly-regarded political philosophe Sunil Khilnani; and its brightest strategic historian Srinath Raghavan; who benefit from unparalleled insight from leaders in business (Nandan Nilekani), journalism (Siddharth Varadarajan), diplomacy (Shyam Saran), and the military (Gen. Prakash Menon). And yet despite—or perhaps because of—this enormous wealth of talent, the report has elicited a wealth of criticism both within India and abroad, much of it relating to the choice of title. Among many others, K.S. Bajpai has warned of the recurrence of “a slogan [becoming] a substitute for thinking,” while Nayan Chanda notes that “fragmentation…obviates the need for alignment – version one or two.”

Nonalignment is quite possibly the most used and most misused term in international politics. While it evokes a sense of comfort and continuity for many Indians, it also provokes reflexive and exaggerated distaste in the minds of many outside observers. (One normally discerning commentator, for example, equates calls for non-alignment with India “measuring its independence by its ability to thwart Washington,” which is not something the report’s authors ever suggest.) The decision to use the term is based on what the authors see to be non-alignment’s guiding principles: “to ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its own developmental goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a more just and equitable global order.” Unfortunately, an indigenous national interest, strategic autonomy, and the desire to favourably shape the global order can also describe a wide spectrum of other policies, which can assume many different forms—and names. Additionally, whether or not it was intended, the use of the term non-alignment in the title suggests a preference for continuity over change and a lack of viable alternative courses for India, both somewhat at odds with the thrust of the report.

Beyond the headline, at least three other aspects of “Nonalignment 2.0″ stand out. One is its limited utility as a road map or means of guiding policymakers. Take, for example, the section on China which, despite the authors’ argument that it presents one of the greatest challenges to India in the coming years, concludes: “[India's] China strategy has to strike a careful balance between cooperation and competition, economic and political interests, bilateral and regional contexts.” That is all true, but hardly helpful as guiding principles or for the purposes of planning. Two, the report follows a popular trend in India—which in this respect lags the rest of the world by about 15 years—of encapsulating a vast array of issues and challenges within the rubric of strategy and national security. While democratic governance, internal security, an adequate knowledge base, and development initiatives are all undoubtedly intertwined with India’s external relations and national power, treating domestic and external policies separately would likely have produced more meaningful conclusions and more practicable recommendations. Three, like many such reports emanating from the Indian policy community, the report does not always distinguish clearly between description and prescription. It becomes difficult then to separate the authors’ evaluations of India’s capabilities, capacities, and challenges, ends, goals, and means.

Criticism is easy and it is cheap. The fact is that it is difficult to point to many other existing documents that better “Nonalignment 2.0″ in terms of ambition, scope, or nuance. Perhaps the authors’ most important contribution is to clearly articulate a critical element of India’s foreign policy which, while implicitly and widely acknowledged, is rarely recognised: “under no circumstances should India jeopardize its own domestic economic growth, its social inclusion and its political democracy. Its approach to the outside world must be to secure the maximum space possible for its own economic growth.” That is a powerful statement. Indeed, that simple principle has been the single most consistent feature of Indian foreign policy over the past two decades, under every Indian government, and marks a sharp break from the period beginning around 1971 and ending in 1991, when Indian interests were thought of in starkly different terms. This principle has also been important in shaping India’s relations with the United States, China, Pakistan, and other international actors in the post-Cold War era. And it is likely to only increase in salience with the growing influence of business elites, the media, regional political actors, and younger voters. A pity, then, that this maxim is buried in the body of the report and not made its central pillar.

Of Cars and Credit Cards

In contrast to “Nonalignment 2.0,” LSE IDEAS’ “India: The Next Superpower?” represents a more piecemeal and self-consciously contrarian effort. In fact, at times it seems to be at pains to conflate description with prescription. The central force behind the report is Ramachandra Guha, currently holder of the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the LSE, and it is his essay and the executive summary by Nicholas Kitchen which are perhaps deserving of the greatest scrutiny. Both detract from the generally unobjectionable contributions by others to the collaborative report on matters such as hard security, corruption, and soft power.

Among other things, Guha falls prey to the historian’s fallacy. “[T]he more things appear to change, the more they  are actually the same,” he writes. But then there are the inevitable contradictions. Guha dwells at length about the lack of integrity and intelligence amongst India’s politicians, a far cry from the qualities of the great Indian statesmen of yore. He also lambasts the growing culture of consumerism, of cars and credit cards. He faults the arrogance of the power elites of New Delhi and Bangalore, and the willful blindness and “dumbing down” of public discourse by the middle class. In conclusion, he argues that Naxalites, Hindutwadis, the corrosion of the liberal centre, wealth gaps, media trivialization, environmental degradation, and coalition governments, are “seven reasons why India will not become a superpower.”

All seven are certainly major challenges about which many Indians of a variety of ideological and political persuasions might agree. But beyond the fact that superpowerdom is left undefined, Guha’s argument is unpersuasive from the viewpoint of comparative historical experience. Take the examples of the last three indisputable global superpowers: Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Britain had to confront the challenges of, first, Jacobite rebels and, later, Irish revolutionaries on its own soil even as it went about transforming agriculture and industry and building a global empire. LSE is but a tube ride away from sites of rookeries at St. Giles, Spitalfields, and Whitechapel, which experienced unbelievable urban poverty, crowding, and crime at the height of Pax Britannica. The United States overcame separatism, immense corruption, yellow journalism, economic depression, racial segregation, and political scandal between 1860 and 1975. And what about the U.S.S.R., where superpowerdom arose out of civil war, political purges, an absence of a free press, wanton nuclear testing, and the forced migration of minorities?

Guha does not shy away from adding a normative element to his analysis: “To this, so-to-speak objective judgment of the historian, I will now add the subjective desires of a citizen – which is that India should not even attempt to become a superpower.” Although one can debate the propriety of advancing one’s subjective opinions using the vessel of an objective report, Guha at least attempts to separate the two elements in his essay. Unfortunately, Nicholas Kitchen’s executive summary is less clear on that score. “The bright lights of great power diplomacy may serve only to distract from the pressing requirements of India’s domestic development,” he writes, “which to date has neither locked in its successes nor laid out a sustainable path for the future.”

That both “Nonalignment 2.0″ and “India: The Next Superpower?” have helped promote vigorous debate in India is a testament to the healthy introspection and open discourse that continue to make India so resilient. And they are also useful contributions to a still scant body of literature on India’s grand strategic ambitions. Both efforts, however, also reveal the enormity of the task at hand. That task will be of a dialectical nature, and it is only in time—and in its own way—that India will stumble across the right synthesis.

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