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July 3, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Amberish K Diwanji

The Unbearable Unimportance of Being India

When India went nuclear, millions of chest-thumping Indians went around proclaiming how "important" their country had become, how the United States and the rest of the world were forced to notice India and Indian aspirations. The Indian middle-class, increasingly cut off from the vast masses of toiling Indians, began to imagine India as a superpower, a great power, and what not. The equation was with China. After all, the bomb had been exploded because of the Pakistani threat and the perceived long term Chinese threat.

When Washington DC announced economic sanctions, a show of bravado was the order of the day. We were convinced that sanctions will hurt the US, that it will hardly impact upon India, and that surely the government would take a slew of measures that would have American businessmen salivating at the prospect of the Great Indian Market. Indians pointed to how China had ridden roughshod over sanctions. Was not dictatorial China, with an awful human rights record, given the Most-Favoured Nation status year after year by the White House incumbent, regardless of whether he was Democratic or Republican? Were not American businessmen flocking to the Middle Kingdom even after the gruesome Tiananmen Square massacre, when tanks were let loose upon unarmed students?

Alas, it was not to be. The post-Pokhran political and economic situations provide little to cheer about. If anything, the single-minded decisiveness that Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed in going nuclear (the merit of the decision is another issue) has simply been lacking after May 13. Diplomatically, New Delhi blundered along as the world pointed an accusing finger at India. Pakistan's blasts increased the focus on the subcontinent, considered one of the most likely regions to go to war. Even worse was the fact that Kashmir was once more an international issue, with the P-5 and G-8 both choosing to discuss the issue and sermonise New Delhi about it.

Many Indians like to believe that with the nuclear explosions, India has achieved great power status or is very close to it. What we fail to understand is that nuclear weapons, even thousands of them, are just one facet of power. Internal stability, economic strength, and a clear and farsighted strategy and the diplomacy to implement them, are some of the other important factors. The BJP appears unclear on what it wants for India now, or how to go about the task even as it wants India to be a great nation and to be taken seriously (who doesn't?). If the party seeks to be a world power politically, economically, diplomatically, its actions leave a lot to be desired, especially on the economic front.

For instance, economists and analysts had suggested that to counter the impact of sanctions, the government should open the economy much, much more. This strategy called for integrating the Indian economy further into the world; it meant opening up sectors such as insurance and consumer goods, lowering imports, signing the various agreements on IPR and TRIPS, and so on. It means a willingness to suffer pain (perhaps at the hustings) for a few years as the Indian economy restructured to become globally competitive and relevant. Yet, the BJP, which speaks of swadeshi instead of globalisation, hiked import duty in the recent Budget, and is keen to protect Indian business (many of them ardent BJP supporters) from global competitors. Believe it or not, BJP president Kushabhau Thakre even spoke of quitting the WTO, at a time when China is keen to join the WTO.

Even as I write, US President Bill Clinton is in China with 1,200 aides, one of the largest contingents ever. Reason: China is a very important player for America in economic terms. Hurting trade ties with China will cost thousands of American jobs, and this is why the US is willing to genuflect to Beijing. Sino-US trade, at about $40 billion, is around ten times the Indo-US trade. For India to be as important to the US, and to the rest of the world, our economy has to become more akin to that of China. It means increasing the size of the economy, it means increasing the importance of trade, and making American jobs depend on the Indian market. Instead, we have harebrained schemes by certain parties (who incidentally belong to the same ideology of the BJP) who want to shut the Indian market. If we follow the ideas espoused by the RSS and Swadeshi Jagran Manch, we are only making India less relevant to the US. Let us not forget, after the Tiananmen Square killings, when the world imposed sanctions on China, Beijing responded by opening up its economy rapidly. Result: Bill Clinton was even willing to take a ceremonial salute on the very same square. It is high time we realise that money does matter!

The problem is that taking tough economic decisions, ones that can actually make India a superpower, are very difficult to implement.

The IMF has predicted that if India has an eight per cent growth rate for eight years, poverty within the country will be wiped out. But this will require sustained liberalisation and reforms, which could change the way the India functions today.

Many middle-class Indians, the very ones who crave a superpower status for India, are loath to forego their sheltered existence for the competition of the market place. Indian business wants protection; public sector employees oppose privatisation; the government-run insurance sector staff does not want competition; and so on. The BJP, so willing to risk international condemnation, is not keen to upset the very people whose votes it will seek. In this way, it is no different from the other political parties.

Then there is the unresolved anti-Muslim fervour that so dominates the party. If at all India is to be a global player, it must be stable internally and not divided by communal battles. A country too engrossed in its unresolved disputes will find it difficult to play a major role internationally. Yet, at this juncture, the issue of a Ram temple at Ayodhya has reappeared, ready to once again turn the spotlight on India's internal problems. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has shown that it cannot suppress its anti-Muslim ideology even while the BJP government is in power.

A renewed communal conflict within India will also hurt India's ties with the Muslim nations of West and Southeast Asia, and give India the image of a divided country caught up in medieval disputes. Certainly Pakistan will exploit the situation to whip up anti-India sentiments among the various Muslim nations, especially the Gulf countries. No doubt, there has been loose talk of creating an Indo-Israeli nexus, yet this only reveals just an anti-Muslim ideology rather than pragmatic thinking.

India has good relations with most Muslim nations, whether in the Gulf or in Southeast Asia, and depends on Arab petroleum. So why disrupt the existing ties just because the crazy VHP can't see beyond a temple? Yet, who in the BJP will tell the VHP to keep quiet? Also, as long as US-Israeli ties remain strong, India will remain of marginal importance to Israel.

Will not a temple now harm India's global image, its quest for superpower status? If the BJP is really keen to make India a great power, it must be firm with the VHP, fight for economic reforms, be tactful in its diplomatic negotiations. Some of these moves might not go down well with its allies and friends, and might turn out to be politically expensive.

But then, there is no gain without pain.

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