The recent Supreme Court judgement on the Mumbai blastscase again brought home India’s inability to get hold of Dawood Ibrahim and other perpetrators safely ensconced in Pakistan. Forget Pakistan, the leader of opposition in Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia refused to meet President Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka. Colombo is angry and moving closer to China because India’s Sri Lanka policy is hostage to local Tamil Nadu politics. Even the tiny Maldives cares two hoots for Indian sensitivities or pressure.
Is India really that weak? An honest appraisal of various components of India’s power should make things clearer. First, diplomatic power. India’s diplomatic corps may be really small for a country of India’s size but it seems to be doing well. Italian marines case might be a public example that is fresh in our memory but Indian diplomatic track-record has more pluses than minuses.
At a lecture in Mumbai last month, Ashley Tellis, who was involved in the India-US Nuclear Deal negotiations, rated the Indian diplomats as absolutely top-class. Even earlier in the 1990s, India has done well diplomatically on the Kashmir issue against a sustained Pakistani campaign. The military victory at Kargil was converted into an outstanding success against Pakistan by some deft diplomacy. The performance at the multilateral forums has though been mixed, especially with little to show for the recent stint at the UN Security Council.
Second, military power. Indian military is highly respected as a professional force across the world and in the region. Indian armed forces have performed creditably in UN peacekeeping missions and in counter-piracy operations off the Somalian coast. But the idea of a strong military power must move beyond the three defence services. Being the biggest importer of weapon systems in the last five years, India has no military-industrial base to talk of. China, handicapped by technological sanctions, has moved far ahead of India in producing military equipment.
The Indian defence services also suffer from a shortage of officers and lack of modern equipment. Thankfully, the dynamics of a conventional war with China and Pakistan have altered after the testing of nuclear weapons and induction of missile systems. After the IPKF experience in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, India doesn’t seem keen on flexing its muscle in the region. There isn’t going to be another Operation Cactus soon.
Third, political power. India’s politics is now both fragmented and centralised, the centralisation taking place at the fragments in the states. As a columnist in The Hindu recently noted, it is almost a modern version of the Mansabdari system under the Mughals. Coalition governments at the Centre mean that the foreign policy or the national security strategy is no longer the sole preserve of the officials sitting at Delhi.
This is a newly evolving dynamic which is challenging the established norms in the way foreign policy has been conducted so far. If there is no going back to old ways of working, institutional means must be devised to resolve competing political interests. Notwithstanding this, Indian politicians have always united to face national challenges and this is unlikely to change any soon.
Fourth, informational power. Indians might think very highly of their Soft Power but Bollywood is not conquering the world for us. India has no news-channel to match the CNN or BBC, or even the Al Jazeera. The Times of India can claim to be the most read newspaper in the world but it has no global influence. India is at the lowest rungs when it comes to informational power.
Finally, economic power. India’s growth and rise on the global stage were directly linked to its strong economic performance. The double-digit growth rates are history now and so is the global attention on India. Economic growth underpins everything else in the modern world. It is easy to do diplomacy when every country wants a share of your market or wants to trade with you. It is also easy to develop militarily – buy equipment, hire more people – when you have the money. With economic growth, even politics becomes easier: states focus on the politics of aspiration and not on an emotional politics of grievance. And informational power is a natural byproduct of your economic heft.
Some components of India’s power are well-developed, others less so. But the one that is guaranteed to kick-start India’s power in all spheres is economic growth. If we want India to be loved, respected or even feared across the globe, higher economic growth should be our urgent and immediate goal.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review