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Dancing with an elephant: India's delicate minuet

By Rajeev Srinivasan
Last updated on: November 18, 2005 12:58 IST
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How do you dance with an elephant? Answer: Very, very carefully, else you get stepped on. This should be the watchword informing Indian foreign policy as George W Bush, somewhat bloodied and bowed by domestic troubles, continues a much-ballyhooed visit to East Asia, full of photo-opportunities and sound-bites and 'sound and fury, signifying nothing.'

Alas, some damage has already been done to India's positioning by fired foreign minister Natwar Singh's bull-in-a-china-shop act. His tirades, meant for the consumption of the Marxists and Muslims, included a broadside against the US and in favour of Iran.

Natwar ko kyo gussa aata hai?

Singh also apparently dictated that India would not sponsor a UN resolution memorialising the victims of Nazi genocides -- clearly a sop to anti-Israel, and in a roundabout way, anti-US, sentiment. (Interestingly, this comes at a time when Rep. Dan Burton, arch-India-baiter, is supporting the Indo-US nuclear agreement, which reinforces my feeling that the agreement is a bad deal for India.)

This embarrassing Non-Aligned-Movement-banana-republic behaviour does India no good at all. But then this is expected of old war-horse Natwar Singh, whose Nehru-Dynasty-gravy-train credentials are impeccable.

The Economist called Singh a 'Nehruvian,' and the rude Rep Tom Lantos of California called Singh a 'Stalinist.' Singh could be a charter member of the 'Nehruvian-Stalinist' club.

Unfortunately for Singh, Sonia Gandhi, the Dynasty incumbent has declared -- in self-preservation mode -- that "we are not amused" by the Volcker Committee Report implicating the Congress Party and Natwar Singh by name in the oil-for-food Iraqgate scandal. "Off with Singh's head" seems to be the general sentiment these days.

What surprised me, however, was the reaction of a number of others who are more reasonable, have no particular axes to grind or personal aggrandizement to worry about. I was astonished that they suggested that since America was morally wrong in imposing crippling sanctions on Iraq based on non-existent WMDs, the whole Volcker Report should be trashed.

It may be true that American sanctions in effect resulted in genocide in Iraq, and the deaths of 500,000 children, but that is beside the point. Alas, this sort of thing happens, and there's very little India could have done to prevent it: no more than to prevent genocide in Rwanda.

Frankly, Indians need to worry more about genocide and ethnic cleansing in Jammu and Kashmir than in distant countries, charity beginning at home.

There is a certain strain of endemic and reflexive anti-Americanism in India. It is all very well for Marxists and fellow-travellers to exhibit this Pavlovian response; after all, their handlers/paymasters in China would have instructed them to scream bloody murder.

However, the average man in the street in India views the US positively, as seen in the Pew study of attitudes recently. That's why I am amazed when some sensible, nationalist intellectuals take an irremediably dim view of the US.

Nuclear pact gives US lever over India

It may have to do with their observation that the US is not a reliable ally, nor a particularly moral one. The American forte is moralising and pontification: "do as we say, and not as we do." But then, I submit that this is expected behaviour for every major power. As purveyors of realpolitik, they are all resolute in the unwavering pursuit of national self-interest, ethics be damned. We have to be realistic enough to recognise this.

What the US does is the shameless pursuit of self-interest, and I quite admire the Americans for it. This is precisely what Indians should do too, instead of being seduced by the dubious and chimerical siren-song of NAM-solidarity and the so-called 'independent foreign policy', which is a euphemism for 'servility to Soviets, Arabs, and Chinese'. Independent, really, when India was thunderously silent about the Prague Spring, the Hungarian Uprising, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

A purely objective analysis of India's self-interest would suggest that a stronger relationship with -- admittedly undependable -- America would serve India best, although that emphatically doesn't mean becoming a vassal. Among other reasons is the dictum by Chanakya in the Arthasastra about near and far powers: the nearby ones are by definition your enemy, while the distant ones are potential friends.

Chanakya, if I remember correctly -- I do not have my trusty copy of the Arthasastra with me right now -- talks about the Far Emperor, a powerful, distant king who has the ability to tip the scales between us and our neighbour/enemy if they allied themselves with either. This is the role imperial forces (Gupta, Maurya, Vijayanagar, Mughal) used to play vis-a-vis independent kingdoms not under their sway.

The United States is the nearest thing to a Far Emperor that exists in India's near-term strategic calculations. If we do a fair analysis of all the current and near-future potential Great Powers, we arrive at this short list:

  • United States -- the incumbent hyperpower
  • China -- the challenger, perceived as gaining on the US over time
  • India -- the dark-horse, ugly-duckling nation that doesn't realise it will metamorphose into a swan
  • the European Union -- still rich and powerful, but threatened by demographic decline and the rot of unrest within (see the riots in France)
  • Russia -- the once (and perhaps future) superpower, but imploding due to demographic timebomb -- its population is already smaller than Pakistan's
  • Brazil -- the eternal bridesmaid with no sense of purpose because it is a colonial construct with no memory of indigenous empire
  • South Africa -- large and populous enough, but again lacks a certain something
  • Japan -- too small, but has demonstrated its willingness to go militaristic with a vengeance
  • You might add a couple of other nations to this list, but that's about it.

    Now let us consider the issues that concern nations a great deal. Here is a list of life-and-death issues, in my perception of the order of importance from India's point of view:

  • Poverty and Development
  • Terrorism
  • Disease
  • Energy
  • Water
  • Environment
  • Nuclear Weapons
  • Trade
  • Strategy
  • Technology
  • I would claim that as a first approximation, India should ally itself with other would-be powers whose views on these critical issues match India's to a significant extent. Let us take a quick look at how the top three contenders relate to India's self-interest:


    India's interest

    US response

    China response

    EU response

    Poverty and Development

    Develop rapidly

    Possibly helpful

    Significant competitor for investment, markets

    Possibly helpful


    Reduce terrorism

    Reduce terrorism

    Instigator of terrorism through axis of evil

    Reduce terrorism


    Improve health care, lower costs; AIDS scare

    Supports pharma giants' huge profits

    Major concern; source of SARS/bird flu?

    Ignores tropical diseases


    Deficient, seeking oil and alternatives

    Competitor for oil, uninterested in solar etc.

    Most significant competitor for oil

    Competitor for oil


    Husbanding resources

    Neutral, possibly helpful with technology

    Antagonistic/dominates Tibetan watersheds, likely to divert Brahmaputra



    Desires 'green' techniques

    Possibly helpful

    Major polluter in Tibet; causing acid rain in the region

    Possibly helpful

    Nuclear Weapons

    Desires non-nuclear world; wants minimum deterrent

    Wants India to 'cap, rollback and eliminate'

    Worst proliferator of WMD; systematically opposes India's nukes; wrote harsh UNSC resolution condemning Pokhran II

    Prefers India would de-nuclearise


    Desires open trade in services; wants tariff barriers reduced

    Wants US services firms to

    penetrate India; retain subsidies

    Competes with India in products; practices unfair trade including 'dumping'; wants to copy from India in services

    Wants to keep its agricultural subsidies and tariff/non-tariff barriers


    Status-quo power; non-expansionary; live-and-let-live

    Status-quo power; uses Pakistan to contain India

    Imperialist, irredentist, expansionist power. Uses missionary Maoists to infiltrate; contains India through Pakistan and Bangladesh and Nepal

    Status-quo powers; except for UK, no malign interest in subcontinent


    Wants to develop IPR

    Semi-willing to cooperate

    World's biggest IPR violator

    Somewhat co-operative

    Based on this analysis, it is quite clear that among these three major powers, the US is most closely aligned with India, although there is of course no complete convergence of interests. China is pretty much the implacable enemy whose interests diverge from India's across the board.

    If you were to consider the other powers, there would be similar results. Now, the EU cannot be considered a single entity because it has warring factions within it. Russia is a waning power; Japan is potentially a good partner. But for all practical purposes, India's choices boil down to being aligned with either the US or China: so much for non-alignment.

    Let me hasten to add that any such alignment is only a temporary step to play off these two against each other: for India's near-term goal would be to be one of the Great Powers itself. In fact, India's strategic intent should be to be Number One in the world, economically, politically and militarily. This is not an impossible goal, although it is certainly a stretch.

    In the meantime, though, India can start by carving out territory: a sphere of influence. The Atlantic Ocean is America's sphere of influence (as is, to a diminishing extent, Latin America as per the Monroe Doctrine). The Pacific Ocean has been overwhelmingly an American lake, but the Chinese are challenging the Americans there. As far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, that is and should be India's sphere of influence, although once again the Chinese are looking to butt in.

    India should formulate policies that declare a Pax Indica in the Indian Ocean and in the littorals; but of course this needs a couple of things. One is a powerful blue-water navy that can project force rapidly anywhere in the region. As things stand, the Indian Navy is indeed the most powerful force in the region, but the Chinese Navy is rapidly modernising itself.

    The second is an expression of will to take the necessary steps to protect India's interests. Rather than suffer silently from the war of a thousand cuts imposed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and increasingly Nepal, all acting as proxies for China, India needs to do something decisive. If it doesn't, for instance by imposing severe and punitive pain on Pervez Musharraf for continuing acts of terrorism, then nobody is going to take India seriously.

    This, alas, is not something the Nehruvian Stalinists are able to comprehend; and they may also be hamstrung by certain understandings, a la Bofors, Mitrokhin and Iraqgate. My suggestion to them is pure realpolitik: take everybody's money, and then tell them to go jump in a lake. What honour among thieves?

    Such a division of the world into spheres of influence and a division of labour will not be altogether unwelcome to the Americans, preoccupied as they are with their adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and soon, perhaps, in Iran. They see the perils of imperial over-reach.

    Apart from the larger strategic concerns that suggest an Indo-US marriage of convenience, there are other, more subtle reasons. One is the issue of soft power. India and the US both have used their soft cultural power to influence the world. As may be remembered, most of Central Asia, East Asia, and in particular South East Asia were part of the Indian cultural zone until the era of European colonialism. In fact, South East Asia was known as Greater India because of the immense cultural influence from India.

    Similarly, as individuals, Indians and Americans tend to be open, gregarious and garrulous. This is in deep contrast to the cliquish and ultra-jingoistic Chinese who have been indoctrinated to have a chip-on-the-shoulder about how the Chinese have been unfairly colonised by others and how it is the individual responsibility of each one of them to propagate Han Chinese imperialism. You see this in their extreme intolerance of any criticism: whereas Indians and Americans are quite willing to engage you in debate about their nations and systems, even though they might disagree with you.

    Thus, from a cultural and strategic basis, there are fairly good reasons for India to align itself with the US. This should be seen only as a means to an end, however; and the end is Indian hegemony certainly in its own sphere of influence, and a certain multi-polar equilibrium in the world. To get there, an alliance with the Americans and the Japanese to contain a rampaging China would be most appropriate.

    Comments welcome at my blog at


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    Rajeev Srinivasan