Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New Delhi gets a mandate to handle a changed world

(This is my first piece after the general election results. Readers of this blog know that I am a strong supporter of the Congress for systemic reasons. I believe that a strong, centrist and secular party is the best option for a country that is so diverse in terms of ethnicities and religions.)

The world changed while we were in election mode. Change is, of course, constant. But there are periods in time — during war or some disaster — that it gets accelerated. That is what seems to have happened as a result of the global economic meltdown in the last eight months. Besides that great catastrophe, we have also had tumultuous events in our neighbourhood.

Sri Lanka stepped up its war against the LTTE, the post-civil war peace process in Nepal collapsed, the barbarians arrived at the gates of Islamabad, the US’ and western financial system imploded, and China suddenly became that much more important on the world stage.
But New Delhi was distracted. There was some half-hearted diplomatic action. The stimulus packages were there, but the overwhelming focus of the government was on the issue of elections. So satraps like Reserve Bank governor D.V. Subba Rao sat on the file and refused to take key decisions that would have accelerated recovery.
Almost everyone recognises that we are living in an era of great flux. Many of the countries affected are not conscious of the shift, others are, but are unable to alter the course of events. Some are trying to ensure that they are able to retain control after the buffeting, others have gone down. In the Indian case, we have been a largely direction-less ship as we went through the needlessly lengthy exercise of choosing a new government.
But the elections and their outcome have provided a great payoff for the six months of drift. Instead of a weak government, brutalised by dealing with the Left and having to rely on the somewhat sleazy Samajwadi Party, we have a government which is stronger than we have had in a while.
Since this government was re-elected with a vastly greater majority it can treat the verdict as a mandate of sorts for its policies. Principal among these is its strategy of close ties with the United States and the west, of flexible containment of Pakistan and competitive engagement with China.
But even as the government savours its mandate and tries to comprehend its meaning it will find that the world it was dealing with in October 2008 has changed. In America, an election brought into place a government that has self-consciously set its policies in contradistinction to those of its predecessor. At the same time, the US virtually lost an arm and a leg. Its vaunted financial services sector collapsed and even today, as the new administration picks up the pieces, it is not clear what is going to take its place. A big hole has been blown on to America’s side and the world’s sole superpower has come down a couple of notches on the global totem pole.


On the other hand, in China, acting with a sense of urgency and efficiency that characterises the Communist “democratic centralist” system of governance during a crisis, the leadership has contained its worst elements that have seen a dramatic decline of Chinese exports and huge unemployment in its manufacturing sector. With a stimulus package that rivaled that of the US’ in size, the Chinese have begun the process of restructuring their economy, seeking out opportunities for mergers and acquisition abroad, and planning for a world in which they have suddenly climbed a couple of notches up that totem pole.
The rise of China is the single greatest challenge for India, but I am not clear whether it is seen in this way by most of our political class. As you can see, in the recent elections, we had Mr Mulayam Singh put forward the view that all that mattered to him was the dismissal of Ms Mayawati’s government. Not to be outdone, Ms Jayalalithaa wanted the Indian armed forces to invade Sri Lanka.
In the recent months, China has acted with great perspicacity to establish itself as a leading economic power which is willing to enter into a relationship of partnership with the United States. This was the subtext of Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao’s remark in mid-March, that he was “worried” about the safety of China’s $1 trillion investment in US government treasury bonds. He called on the US to “maintain its good credit, to honour its promise and to guarantee the safety of China’s assets.” One significant consequence of the crisis is that the Chinese have made it clear that they are interested in a gradual transition to some other regime, perhaps one in which special drawing rights can play the role of the international currency.
The 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy happened to take place last month. It was a good occasion to see how much China had changed from the time when it followed Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character injunction to “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

The parade of naval vessels, including the spanking new Chinese nuclear propelled submarines was as impressive as the news that China had begun work on its first aircraft carrier, based on the hulk of the erstwhile Varyag which it has bought from Russia.
What happened with the United States is very different. India was lucky in the UPA’s first term to have had a president who was ideologically against the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and had a great fascination for India. The result was that these two seemingly insurmountable obstacles were simply brushed aside when the US agreed to enter into a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India. As a result of this, the Nuclear Suppliers Group has opened the doors of all member countries for trade with India. Now that so many doors are open, it does not really matter if the US wishes to close its door. The nuclear pill that was stuck in the Indo-US face for an entire generation has been washed down and digested.

There is every indication that the new Obama administration and New Delhi may find themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to his disarmament and climate change plans. Mr Obama is likely to be pre-occupied with PakAf through his entire term and New Delhi is likely to play only a peripheral role in American calculations. This is likely to involve the maintenance of peace on the India-Pakistan border, for which New Delhi needs no prompting, because the boot on this issue is really in the Pakistani foot. In addition, the US would want India to maintain its aid and reconstruction programme in Afghanistan, again something for which New Delhi needs little prompting, since it is fully in our national interest.
But the crises in the neighbourhood brooks no delay. New Delhi must immediately get involved in the rehabilitation and relief of the beleaguered Tamil community in Sri Lanka. It must build on the Maoist decision to persist with the political track to repair the situation in Kathmandu. Then, there is need to respond to Pakistan’s predicament, without necessarily pandering to Islamabad’s usual neuroses relating to Kashmir or alleged Indian activities in Afghanistan.
Above all New Delhi must not forget that the possibility of another Mumbai-type terrorist attack remains its first short-term national security priority. Another attack would stain the new government’s reputation, regardless of the mandate. Some hurried measures were taken last year in the wake of 26/11. The new government must move vigorously in the domestic and international arena to counter the terrorist threat.
This appeared in Mail Today May 18, 2009

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