Friday, April 02, 2010
The past is never a good guide to a country's future
There is something pleasurable about nostalgia. The process of looking back is always selective and air-brushes away the more difficult and unpleasant episodes of memory. So it seems to be with Indian policy towards Pakistan and the United States. There is a longing for the days when a single-window operated in Islamabad. President-General Pervez Musharraf decided everything and a deal with him, meant a deal with Pakistan. Likewise, the era of George W. Bush was as uncomplicated as the man. The US President had this thing for New Delhi, and all we had to do was to ask. Underpinning all this was the economy, climbing steadily towards double digit growth.
The situation today is bewildering. No one is clear what the President of Pakistan controls, and what the Prime Minister does. And this is not counting what provincial politicians and the Chief Justice manage. The Army has resumed its authority as the default power and runs whatever does not seem to be run by the others. As for the US, our relationship seems to be confined to symbols — the White House dinner last year and the forthcoming Obama visit and so on. The focus in Washington is so determinedly crisis oriented that India has gone off its radar screen.
In fact the US has just given us an object lesson on how big powers conduct their relations. Though dripping with false conviviality, the “upgraded” US-Pakistan strategic dialogue was a cold blooded affair. The US needs Pakistan to execute its Afghanistan policy, and so, everything must be done to secure that end. So, notwithstanding New Delhi’s discomfiture, Washington has begun the third cycle of its strategic partnership with Islamabad. There is no place in this cycle for a similar relationship with New Delhi at this juncture, indeed, if its success requires excluding India, so be it.
Of course, the warning bells should have rung at the time New Delhi was excluded from the London Conference on Afghanistan. Had we been as important a player as we thought we were, that would not have happened. Now, we know that the moment the United States and the West decide, India will be asked to begin winding down its presence there. If not, the projects we aid, and our consular outposts will become terrorist targets.
In great measure this is a consequence of the effective power we wield, as against the potential or even the self-assumed power. India brings little to the US table, except its potential. Its armed forces simply lack exportable power and its politicians the will to commit these forces in pursuit of any policy but the defensive. Economically, India is still struggling to stabilise its growth track which is now being buffeted by the structural weaknesses of its agriculture and infrastructure. The root of all three problems lie in India’s dysfunctional political system that refuses to engage with its military on one hand, or undertake deep reform of the political system to match governance with the promise of electoral democracy.
In that sense, all the problems can be fixed. But it requires a much higher order of leadership than we have available. The present quality has been made painfully evident in the recent weeks through the twin fiascos of the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Nuclear Liability legislation. The issue is not so much whether the two bills are needed or not, there are valid arguments for and against for both of them. The question is about the parliamentary prowess of the Congress, or, to be more accurate, the lack of it. The politics around the two bills have actually showed up the Congress to be like the emperor without clothes.
The party has been behaving as though it has a two-third majority in both houses of parliament. Despite its improved standing after the 2009 general elections, the fact is, of course, that it runs a coalition government with allies who are not as united as they appear at first sight. There is an argument that the Women’s Bill is the electoral master-stroke that will bring the Congress its majority. Even if it were to happen, that would be an illusory victory. The party needs to establish itself through the success of its policies in a range of substantive areas — food security, employment, healthcare, infrastructure development and so on. Disarming adversaries through legislative manoeuvre helps, but only temporarily, as V.P. Singh learnt when he brought down Mandal reservations on the country.
India’s ability to change its external environment is limited. In today’s world, even the mighty US is finding it difficult to get Islamabad to do its bidding. So, New Delhi does not have the luxury of a single-window clearance in Islamabad, or a friend at the very top of the American system. But our leaders do have the option of influencing their internal surroundings.
The success of the Union home ministry should serve as an example. Because the task of creating an effective counter-terrorism shield has just about begun, we may still be hit by terrorist attacks, but we will know that we have at least tried to block them. We must, likewise, have the comfort of knowing that we have done our best to deal with the complex challenges of our relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China or the US.
There are things that the Manmohan Singh government can do better, without creating the political eddies that threaten the stability of its government. Foremost among these is the reform of the government system viz, the bureaucracy and the secretariat. Just what reform can achieve is evident in the revitalised home ministry. A determined Minister has been able to bring about visible change in a short space of a year and a couple of months. A similar effort is needed in two ministries that deal with national security issues — the ministry of external affairs and the ministry of defence. Both these have remained untouched by reform and their political leadership is, at best, indifferent.
The last year has been a trying one for India, as well as the world. The economic melt-down has altered the rhythm of global politics. The rise of China has come along with a more complicated Pakistan, the deep crisis in the US has impacted on the project of creating a stable, secular Afghanistan.
India’s options are not easy. But what we do need is a government that works at its full power. The country will not be able to cope with a government de-rated by inefficient ministers and indifferent bureaucrats. Looking back may provide illusory pleasure, but the need is to focus relentlessly on the future.
This article first appeared in Mail Today March 30, 2010