Remember the old primary school lesson about India's unity in diversity? Well, Nitin Pai is offering a new twist on this. His candour is revealing. In an article with the honest title Projecting Power to Protect Unity, he argues that "India must project power abroad to stay united at home." For those not familiar with him or his work, Pai is editor of Pragati and a geopolitics Fellow at the Takshashila Institution. His blog, The Acorn, reflects and furthers the conservative-realist perspective on security.
The article is an excerpt of his speech at a conference at the Army War College, Mhow, which suggests that this perspective has a keen following where it matters. What does this mean for regional security?
India's rising power is sold as a 'benign' development, particularly when it is contrasted adversely with China's 'hegemonic' rise. Its democratic credentials, record as a non-expansionist state, and strategy of restraint are taken as indicators that new-found Indian power on the world stage is a non-threatening development. Besides, India is increasingly inclined towards the West, and since the West holds the levers of the strategic discourse, the country is easily projected as a useful counter-weight to China in Asia.
But is India's rise really an unqualified benefit for security, as is made out in such reasoning?
India is a nuclear power in search of a 'triad'. It has been the largest importer of military hardware globally over the past half a decade. It is set to retain this position well into this decade as it is gearing up to spend US $100 billion over the period. It has the third largest military in the world, and is looking to dominate the Indian Ocean. It is seeking a place among the permanent members of the UNSC. It has political stability and a fast growing economy. These aspects in themselves do not suggest that India's growing power needs any worrying about.
India has been status quoist so far, but that does not mean it will always remain so. Nitin Pai argues for 'reform' using the logic that India's internal unity demands an external orientation of its growing power. His thesis is that India's strategic culture needs changing in light of its growing power credentials. This would enable Indian unity.
What he does not say, but is implicit, is that creating an external 'Other' would be a useful national enterprise since it would lend India cohesion and national identity. This means an adversarial equation with China and with Pakistan, seen as China's proxy, would help India stay united internally, help it create and sustain power necessary to wrestle with these external challenges. This argument is as subtle as it is self-serving.
India has been status quoist so far, but that does not mean it will always remain so. Indeed, being able to project power abroad would necessarily tend to make us more inclined to abandon status quoism.
There are several problems with this. The more obvious ones are disposed off here first.
There are other more revealing indices of national arrival, such as education, gender balance, poverty figures etc. There is nothing to suggest that a growing felicity in the creation and use of power would lead to a corresponding change in the socio-economic indices. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the power gained would be able to offset the combined power of the 'Other' so created, China and Pakistan. It may be hurtful if the nuclear backdrop to the conflict-oriented relations was to come to the foreground for some reason later.
Thirdly, the connection between external power projection and internal unity is not readily established. In the Indira-Rajiv period for instance, there was considerable Indian muscle flexing such as against Sri Lanka, with no obvious effect on internal unity as the outbreak of trouble in Punjab, Kashmir and in social harmony indicate.
Fourth, the recent exchange of words between India and Pakistan over India's capability to do a 'Geronimo' (the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in foreign territory) has, in the words of the Pakistani foreign secretary, 'catastrophic' portents. If this is the case now; once power grows it would make India insufferable. Noting that the US exercise of power has little to commend it, we should recognise that power is not necessarily a useful acquisition.
Lastly, India's power projection capability and intent needs to be seen in relation to its association with the US. The European allies of the US stand exhausted. The US is therefore seeking military partners for continuing its global stewardship, in particular with relation to controlling terrorism and access to oil.
India is being prepared for this role, as indicated in the statement of Condoleeza Rice when she was Secretary of State, that the US intends to make India into a great power. Clearly, this was to serve a purpose of the US. Refutations of alliance notwithstanding, India would therefore lend itself to the US agenda, believing this to be an exercise in its own interest. The distinction between strategic autonomy and external manipulation will be hard to discern. The implication for the region, such as in the short run in AfPak and in the long term for the neocolonial embrace of West Asia, is amply clear.
But more importantly, what realists fail to perceive, even if their logic is driven by a look at internal politics, is that Indian power can be harmful to itself and its region if in the wrong hands. They are unmindful of the possibility that by creating the 'Other', India would be reshaping its own identity in contradistinction to it, rather than celebrating what it already has. The emphasis on 'unity' would steamroll the diversity that defines India. The harmony imposed by such unity, which is itself selective in its basis, will lead to internal disruptions that will neither help the creation of power nor its external projection.
Of greater consequence is the possibility of dominance of majoritarian extremists over the power structure. The conditions of external and internal strife created by the process of imposing 'unity' would be fertile for their ascent to power. Given that the power levers that they inherit would be stronger, India would cease to be the 'benign' power as is currently imagined. It would certainly not be 'benign' to those not of the persuasion of these forces within India. It would be equally problematic for the immediate neighbourhood.
Realists in their external focus can be forgiven two mistaken beliefs. One is that they take India's democratic credentials as a given. Instead these need to be constantly recreated, worked on and preserved. Conditions that degrade these need being guarded against. The second is their belief that even if majoritarian nationalists were to come to power, this would only be democratic. The cultural trove of the religion would ensure that India stays benign. This is to miss the ugly face of cultural nationalism and neglect the fact that it would get uglier the closer it gets to unbridled power.
It is for these reasons India's growing power is not necessarily a blessing for India or its region. India is embarked on power acquisition with the
intent of making Pakistan irrelevant. This has risks, largely unimagined for the internal political domain. The extant thesis of India as a benign
also prove very short lived.