My first reaction to the news that the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was going to the US for yet another meeting (his seventh) with President Barack Obama, was one of scepticism. My misgivings arose on four counts: First, about Modi over-exposing himself , thereby incurring a dent on his gravitas, affecting his and India’s emerging role as a world leader; second about his being discounted in the eyes of the political leadership and public opinion in that country and the international community as a supplicant or a client of the US many of whose policies and approaches have been self-centred and hegemonistic; third, about the possibility of such a manifestly effusive and effervescent relationship impairing India’s capacity to judge world issues on merits and its right to independent decision-making; and fourth, about drawing needless attention on himself by investing so much time and energy in cosying up to someone who is lame duck.
But seeing him in action on the US soil, especially after going through the statement issued jointly by him and Obama, and more emphatically, after listening to his speech to the Joint Session of the US Congress, I am happy to cast off my misgivings like wornout garments. There is only one way of summing up the outcome of his visit: Narendra Modi has once again done India proud. I say “once again” because I have by now watched him speaking at a variety of forums, and as a role model of effective commuinication, he is non pareil. Among the country leaders in Asia, Africa, the West and the Indian Ocean Rim I have seen over my long many years in public life, Narendrabhai comes close to being hailed as a man for all seasons with unmistakable grasp over the many complex and intricate issues of moment impacting the world. He captures and holds the attention of whatever audiences he addresses with a cogently and coherently woven tapestry combining sweep of vision with tangible pathways to realise it, as also with his conviction and commitment matched by impressive eloquence and flawless delivery. His ideas flow in the right sequence with the right emphasis, laced with humour at appropriate junctures. In his latest address to the US Congress, for instance, he quoted from the Amrican national anthem, the declaration of Independence and Walt Whitman with effortless ease and ithout fumbling and faltering. And he pulls it all off in a relaxed manner. That explains the rapturous ovations he got from the hard-boiled Congresspersons and Senators. Chapeau, Narendrabhai!
There is a fitting answer to the reservation about his repeatedly meeting and doing business with a lame duck President. Presidents may be ephemeral, but Governments are eternal, and once the directions and dimensions of a partnership are affirmed in a declaration signed on both sides, it binds the governments concerned in all aspets. The fact that the Modi-Obama joint statement has been enthusiastically welcomed by the leading lights of the US Congress and the media is a pointer to the US-India strategic partnership assuming broader, deeper and stronger proportions in the near future.
Now to brass tacks. Let’s face it: By whatever name it is camouflaged, call it “major defence partner” or the new found phrase during the current trip, “priority partner”, India, under Narendra Modi, has wittingly and willingly decided to become the staunch ally of the US and signed and sealed something which is nothing but a grand alliance for all practical purposes. For half-a-century after Independence, India was happy to be virtually in the camp of the Soviet Union which stood by it through thick and thin. Besides providing easy access to supplies of arms and weapons systems, it committed itself to military help in the case of attack on India and extended unquestioned and unconditional support to India’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir in UN and wherever the question was raised. But the tensions of the cold war and the label of a communist state constricted the influence and authority of the Soviet Union; there was also a tinge of unstated disreputability attached to India seeking its backing.
For these reasons, there are those in India itself who argue that it would have been far more beneficial for India to have been the friend and partner of the US during those, what now seem to them, wasted years. In their view, by getting under the wings of the Soviet Union, India denied itself the gains flowing from the military might, technological prowess, and unbounded wealth of the US — all of which would have been at its disposal. At that time, it was the anti-capitalist prejudices, and pro-socialist predilections of the first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who also became Prime Minister, that ruled the roost, making estranged democracies of India and the US. Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, each in his own way, tried rebalancing the relations, but the inhibitions and repressions of the past disabled them from going the whole hog. Since the Leftists still had a sizeable presence and a vocal say in Parliament and in the country, they had to walk a tight rope so as not to be seen currying the favour of the US. Meanwhile, even the Congress and preponderant section of India’s political class had quietly veered round to the view that in the unipolar world in which the US has emerged a decisive player, it is best to side with the strongest, the richest and technologically the most advanced. Because of his spectacular electoral victory, Modi had far greater opportunity vouchsafed to him to shape India’s relations with the US without “the hesitations of history” (as he put it in his address to the US Congress) in terms of either ideology or the past baggage, and he has grasped it by taking India, based on his own world view, to where he believes India should be heading.
One can be sure that this has not been without ratiocenation or rationalisation of some kind. One can guess what must have provided the ballast to Modi deciding to throw in his lot with the US: China! Before I set out the basis for my statement, I must, for the record, make a disclosure: I have been, for as long as I have been writing on public issues, an ardent proponent of understanding and accommodation with China. I had a romantic vision that the two ancient civilisations, by working together and mutually reinforcing their strengths, can usher in a brave, new world order and put their stamp on the coming centuries. Alas, China has managed to shatter that vision by continuing to behave, in relation to India, like an insensitive, intractable, impolitic, implacable dragon in the China shop. I have been disillusioned to the extent of being driven to ask myself whether all the effort that India has put in from the time of Nehru to be on its right side has been futile.
In retrospect, it would seem that the fiery socialist, George Fernandes, who was the Defence Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA Government, like the Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhhbhai Patel, at the time of India’s Independence, was only being prescient when he declared publicly in 1998 that China was India’s “potential threat No.1″. He cautioned India to wake up to the fact that Chinese military activities and alliances, particularly those involving Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet, had begun to ”encircle” India. He was trenchantly critical of the ”carelessness and casual attitude” in regard to national security in recent decades, in the context of the reality of what China was doing. ”China has provided Pakistan with both missile as well as nuclear know-how,” he said. ”China has its nuclear weapons stockpiled in Tibet right along our borders…..We have become a very soft people, and we must realise that nations are not built through soft options, nor are the country’s frontiers secured by a soft line…..One has to be willing to live a hard life.”
Indeed, China has pulled all stops to prop up Pakistan to the detriment of India. It has provocatively resorted to issuing “stapled visas” to Indian passport holders hailing from Arunachal Pradesh wanting to travel to China, and has been brazen in warning Prime Ministers of India to desist from visiting that State. Off and on, its authorised spokepersons have been proclaiming Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory. More recently, it blocked UN action against Pakistan for releasing Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, allegedly the masterminded behind the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, blaming India for not providing adequate documentaion for his complicity. It has voiced its strong opposition to India’s admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, without Pakistan also being made a member. All this makes nonsense of all the pampering of Chinese President, Xi Jinping, by Modi. In short, it has been using every conceivable opportunity to harm India’s interests and has been myopic in pulling all stops to prop up Pakistan, a failing State and a seedbed of terrorism, to boot.
The other problem with China is its promulgation of its ever expanding core interests. It covers a wide range from sovereignty, territorial integrity and security (Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiyang) to furtherance of its economic, commercial and maritime ambitions (South China Sea, Yellow Sea). It has been adding to them from time to time creating uncertainties and insecurities in tge meinds of its neighbours and the world community by its minatory attitude of confrontation. At this rate, nothing may stop China from extending the coverage of core interests to even the operation of exchange rate to suit China’s exports-imports and currency management regimes, right to exercise veto over other countries’ foreign and domestic policies, unilateral claim of ownership of other countries’ territories, and deciding when, where and how it would strike to enforce its diktats!
In sum, over a period, China has been proclaiming more and more areas to be out of bounds for the rest of the world, and taking aggressive postures to enforce its own version of Monroe Doctrine. At one stroke, China has brought the entire Korean peninsula within its sphere of influence; it has enlarged the scope of maritime domination in strategic waters that connect northeast Asia and the Indian Ocean; and it has asserted its interventionist rights over whatever has a bearing on its ‘core interests’.
The result is that even those who were in favour of friendly and harmonious relations with China, are now convinced that there is a megalomaniacal streak of insensitivity in its make-up leading to its behaviour as the odd person out and that it only understands the language of tit-for-tat. It may have a sobering effect on China if India also draws up its own list of inviolable, immutable core interests and asks China to adhere to them.
It is not to be wondered if, in this background, other countries, notably those in its neighbourhood, with their own stakes and core interests, engage themselves in devising the means of injecting a sense of sobriety in China’s conduct. In that sense, if the comprehensive and concrete dimensions of strategic partnership worked out by India and the US seem like a grand alliance targeted at you-know-who, China had better realise that it has fathered it. There is no point in Global Times sermonising to India that “Picking one side or camp against the other is not the way India will rise”, or that “its great vision cannot be realised by bashing or containing China.”
The commentary published by Xinhua news agency was nearer the mark in acknowledging the strategic considerations behind the frequent meetings between Obama and Modi. It quoted Jin Canrong, vice president of the School of International Studies at Renmin University, as saying that “US attaches importance to India’s strategic value, economic development potential and ideological advantage….Embracing India will help consolidate the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific….(and) India is willing to deepen the India-US relations out of the consideration in both strategic security and economic development.”
I am content to let Jin Canrong have the last word.
B.S.Raghavan is former Policy Adviser to UN(FAO who is currently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and Adviser to Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry