Friday, December 10, 2010

Distracted New Delhi teeters on the global highwire

Nicholas Sarkozy’s departure, officials are already burning the midnight oil to receive, in quick succession, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (15-17 December) and Russian President Dimtry Medvedev (December 21-22). This caps a year in which India has already received two other members of the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council—British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama.
On December 10, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend the Indo-EU summit and meet the leader of the world’s economic powerhouse, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel. In a period of six months, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have had summit meetings with the leaders of all the countries that really run the world.
The face of India put before these leaders is the enigmatic visage of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It reveals little, truth to tell; animation is visible only when he meets the US President. It is a calm, confident and assured face. We all wish that the polity that it represents were also the same. But it is not. Belying the expectations that were aroused after its unexpectedly strong performance in the General Elections of 2009, the United Progressive Alliance began a steady downward drift in terms of keeping control of the agenda of governance.

A year later that drift has turned into a noisy stasis. The faultlines in the polity have been exposed by revelations of an unending series of high misdemeanours and scams. It began with an innocuous tweet that launched IPLgate. Then came the damning 2G scam which has paralysed Parliament. Parallel to this have been the goings-on in Karnataka and the Adarsh Society scam, and, as the year reaches a close, we have been told of the great food robbery in Uttar Pradesh and reminded of the big rice scam of UPA-I.
So we are in a peculiar bind. The world has woken up to our geopolitical importance, but our polity is too distracted to do anything about it. It is one thing to put out platitudes, as the PM did at the HT Leadership summit, when he spoke of “the great adventure” that India had entered into with its economic rise, one that would banish poverty, ignorance and disease, poor infrastructure, corruption and misgovernance.
It is quite another, to respond to the challenges that an ascendant China, a failing Pakistan and an uncertain political and economic climate in the world places on India whose record in removing illiteracy, chronic hunger and maternal mortality remains abysmal as it is.
What the world leaders will learn—and it is important enough for them— is that if the political part of the Indian system remains paralysed, the economy is running along at a handsome clip. Having weathered the recession with a growth rate of 7.9 per cent in 2009, the economy is headed for 9-plus per cent growth rate in the coming years. As the scams reveal, the growth is no thanks to the government system. Far from facilitating growth, the principal aim of government policy has been to ensure that a substantial portion of its revenues comes into the coffers of the political parties and their henchmen—the bureaucrats, policemen, middle-men and fixers.
As growth picks up, bottlenecks are becoming evident. A recent visit to western UP and Uttarakhand showed that the roads, some of them just recently widened, were clogged with goods vehicles. Minor accidents, police checkpoints (to make money), shoddy construction and unfinished portions led to traffic jams extending to kilometres. Even today it takes as much time to travel from New Delhi to Nainital by road, as it did when I was in school in the 1960s. The government claims that investment in infrastructure is increasing exponentially.
That may well be so, but who is managing it? Who runs the small towns and kasbas en route, who is it that can ensure smooth traffic, effective policing, sewage, and planned growth there? The basic (mal)administrator is still the colonial era District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police, with the panchayats and municipalities being a misnomer.

But the P-5 leaders are not merely in India to promote trade or to indulge in rhetoric. The global situation is in such a state that they are looking for concrete ways in which they can associate India to  promote the stability and prosperity of their regions and the world. The US, for example, wants to know the tangible terms in which India will act to check Chinese power, or stabilise the situation in the AfPak region. The Chinese and the Russians, on the other hand, want to ensure that India does not enhance its alignment with the western powers.
At present, however, New Delhi lacks the institutions and, more important, the inclination to think through these issues. Policy making is left largely to the bureaucracy, or a small community of strategic experts, mainly former officials. But babus can execute policy, they cannot quite make it. That remains in the realm of political leaders and, in India’s case, it still remains a work in progress.
The lack of political leadership impinges on another vital area as well— the integration of the armed forces of the union with the civilian leadership. Politicians are willing enough to appropriate funds for the armed forces modernisation, but they are unable to provide even a modicum of leadership to them in terms of directing the effort towards more effectively securing the country, leave alone furthering the country’s interests.

If the UPA government itself was the problem, it would not be so bad; someone else would replace them, even if the prospect of a wounded government limping along till 2014 does appall. But the Opposition can barely look after itself, what to talk of the country. Start with the Left which has suffered what amounts to a virtual meltdown ever since it suffered reverses in the Lok Sabha poll last year. The BJP may revel in its victory in Bihar, but it would be fooling itself if it sees a meaning there for its larger role in the country. While the BJP satraps in the states (barring Uttarakhand) are doing  well, and even managing, like B.S. Yeddyurappa, to survive scams, the central leadership remains diffuse and divided, and somewhat incoherent.
So when the P-5 leaders come visiting in New Delhi, they are met with all the formal pomp that a former colony can gather, they get a heavy dose of rhetoric, and a generous amount of business. But they cannot get the answers they are seeking: What does— or will India— as a power, stand for? Can they depend on it to promote democracy in Burma, combat Teheran’s proliferation? Will Indian heft bring Pakistan to heel, and check Beijing?
If the answer to all the questions is a yes, there is the bigger and more practical question—how? By acting in concert in the diplomatic corridors of the world? Stepping up its military-to-military relationships to underline its sense of purpose? What really does a “strategic partnership” that India has with all, including Beijing, mean? As of today we only have questions, no answers.
New Delhi will be delusional if it thinks that the world powers are knocking on its doors to kowtow to a rising (risen?) power. That kind of thinking only works for Beijing. What does seem to be happening is that, for the want of any application of mind, and a lack of political leadership, New Delhi is still trying to cling on to an equidistant, non-aligned posture on issues.
But when there is great disorder under the heavens, and there is quite a bit of it right now, maintaining equipoise no longer looks possible.
This appeared in Mail Today December 9, 2010

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