Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wanted leaders with vision

Contrary to popular opinion, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War with the signing of the Paris Agreement on November 19, 1990, did not transform the world from a bipolar to a unipolar system. As was argued by Dr Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy that unprecedented event led to the emergence of a polycentric world with the US, a Germany-dominated European Union, China, Japan and Russia as players in a balance of power system. He speculated at that stage whether India could become a probable sixth centre of power.

Today there is no doubt that India is one of the six members in the global balance of power. This came about with the nuclear and missile tests in 1998, rising foreign exchange reserves, increasing foreign trade and economic growth and the global perception of the political stability of the world’s largest democracy.

The demonstrated capabilities of Indians in the field of information technology and the achievements of the non-resident Indians in the US and elsewhere also helped to project to the world the potential of India as a knowledge power. These led to India, along with China, being identified as a rising power.

Growth potential

International recognition of India’s potential was underscored in March 2005 when the US publicly announced that it will be helping India in its efforts to move towards the status of a global power in the 21st century. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged that never before has the external world been as supportive of India’s development as it is now.

In his speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, Dr Manmohan Singh exhorted India to seize this opportunity to grow. Both these expressions are somewhat different from what Indians are used to hearing. The Indian elite is used to the assumption that the US is not a friendly factor in India’s development and that the international environment has not been conducive to India’s fast economic growth. Therefore, the above pronouncements have left the Indian political class, bureaucracy, media and academia somewhat bewildered.

Dr Manmohan Singh, though a towering intellectual, is not a communicator like Jawaharlal Nehru. Nor is he a very assertive leader. He believes in gentle persuasion through intellectual dialogue. Consequently, he has a major problem on his hands in making his political colleagues as well as the bureaucracy adapt to the fast-changing international environment and act effectively to maximise Indian national interests. It is easier for people to remember a catalogue of events of the last 58 years and carry out a linear extrapolation of those trends than to foresee developments ahead and devise policies and strategies to maximise gains and limit damages.

We have lived through a period of history when unprecedented changes have taken place. Since continuity is more easily understood, and favoured, by our elite than change, they have failed to grasp the enormity of the change we are now undergoing. Therefore, there is a lot of scepticism about unfamiliar developments and the benefits flowing from these for the country. For instance, there is not adequate appreciation of the end of the Cold War when two blocs of nations — armed to the teeth, with enough nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy our civilisation several times over, in confrontation for 40 years — finally concluded a peace treaty and agreed to cut back on their armaments. There is no precedent for this in history.

Positive approach

Similarly, the phenomenon of globalisation and its impact on the future of international relations, too have no precedent. Dr Manmohan Singh has been repeatedly stressing that globalisation is an irreversible phenomenon and, therefore, instead of resisting it we should attempt to adjust ourselves to it and reshape it to suit our interests. It is a waste of time to compare it to obsolete imperialism.

Not only is such comparison inapt but also actions in pursuance of such comparisons will be futile. The phenomenon has many adverse effects, but there have to be new remedies for it. Time-worn shibboleths would not help in mitigating the negative effects of globalisation, which is an inevitable outcome of the revolutions in transportation, communication and knowledge.

While denouncing the harsh aspects of globalisation, the positive aspects tend to be overlooked. Globalisation has reduced the chance of war among major powers, and has made the major nations interdependent. It has increased the possibilities of outsourcing; improved the prospects for economic growth of countries like China and India; compelled nations to take a global view of issues like energy, diseases, pollution etc; and, create conditions for likely migration of populations from developing to developed countries.

Powerful player

A world of six balancing powers and balance of power politics among them is altogether a new experience for the Indian political class, bureaucracy, media and academia. Over the last 60 years, this nation has been conditioned, to denigrate the politics of balance of power. It never occurred to our politicians that non-alignment was balance of power in a bipolar world where the two powers that constituted the opposing poles could not go to war because of nuclear deterrence. Already, India is fast learning to play the balance of power politics.

There are strategic partnerships between India on the one side and Russia, the US, EU, China and Japan on the other side as individual partners. The balance of power relationship is a dynamic one that needs continuous adjustment in the relationships to ensure an equilibrium. Unfortunately, without understanding this need for an overall balance there is talk of containment of a single power like China. In fact, balance of power and containment are antithetical concepts.

In the 21st century, nuclear weapons and missiles are not likely to be the currency of power as there is little probability of war between the major powers. While wars between a major power and a medium or small power cannot be ruled out, the prospect of a war involving nuclear-weapon powers is very remote. Conflicts in the future will be over intellectual assets. It is knowledge that would drive inventiveness, and competitiveness, which will be the currency of power. Hence the global focus on intellectual property rights.

In this context, it should be noted that China has a strategy for rising to global power peacefully. The US sees China as a potential rival, not a military one but an economic one, in terms of global competitiveness and inventiveness.

In his address to the US Congress, Dr Manmohan Singh referred to the need for Indo-US cooperation if the US were to sustain its competitiveness. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also referred to India as a natural friend of the US in dealing with its long-term economic problems. Since the US perception, of India as a much-needed partner in the future, is not recognised in India, there is a lot of skepticism about American overtures and a tendency to think of US moves in Cold War terms.

Therefore, to effectively tackle the foreign policy and defence problems of the 21st century, India needs to replace the old, Cold War mindset, develop a new understanding of the emerging world and come to terms with both balance of power politics and globalisation. Some of the shibboleths of the last 50 years such as non-alignment, unipolar world, the public sector at the commanding heights of economy, autarchic economics and technology etc. have to be shed. This is not an easy task.

It is difficult to educate our politicians, bureaucracy, media and academia as could be done in China, for the very concept of such education or re-education is anathema in our democratic culture. The kind of complete change in mindset as has been carried out by countries like China cannot be accomplished in India. Here, it has to be a slow process and the initiative has to be taken by the government.

Security strategy

On the subject of government initiatives, it would be pertinent to dwell on the role of the National Security Council. The concept underlying the setting up of a National Security Council was that it should be the engine of long-term assessments and follow-up strategies. Unfortunately, though the NSC was set up in 1999, it did not make much headway in its role during the NDA regime. As it happens, some of the radical changes on the international scene such as the US declaration of its intention to help India in its moves to become a world power in the 21st century came about only this year. So did the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that the external environment is conducive to Indian development.

Thus, the task is clearly cut out for the NSC staff to prepare strategic assessments and submit them to the Council to enable it to direct the ministries concerned towards the long-term objectives for India in the 21st century. Since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been in the forefront of the new thinking, the initiative to energise the NSC on such a course will also logically be his. The necessary intellectual resources for the task may not be available within the government, and, therefore, to begin with, it may have to consider setting up task forces of experts drawn from outside the administration.

Attention needs to be paid to the generalist approach inherited from British Raj to the very complex issues of today — especially in areas of international relations and national security. The bureaucracy tends to be guided by precedents and is not in a position to take the initiative to adjust Indian policies to the fast-changing international climate. Further, the compulsions of coalition politics, in which partners are either ideologically mired in early 20th century thinking or more interested in promoting their own parochial interests than national interests cannot be avoided. That is an inevitable price of democracy, which makes it all the more necessary for the NSC to be the driving force of change in terms of political thinking on national security and international relations.

Given the constraints he has had to deal with, Dr Manmohan Singh has done well on the foreign policy front and reasonably so in the economic sphere. As he himself acknowledges, this has been mainly due to the conducive external environment. While that favourable factor will continue to prevail, the possibilities of India growing faster and achieving effective governance (a vital pre-requisite for India’s further progress) depends largely on our domestic politics. And that happens to be this nation’s Achilles’ heel. With the exception of Dr Manmohan Singh, who is not strictly a politician, one does not see a visionary leader equipped to deal with the 21st century either in the UPA, the NDA or in any of the regional parties.

Nevertheless, our democracy, our private sector, our increasing integration with the rest of the world and our brain power are likely to move India forward, even though not at the speed of which it is capable.

-K. Subrahmanyam

— The writer is an expert on strategic affairs.

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