On the Edge of turbulence: India between uncertainty and promise

Lecture at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad on 21 November 2024

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It gives me great pleasure to be in your midst. A long time has passed since I spent three of my formative years in the late 1960s as a student at Vallabh Vidyanagar. That was an exciting period in the life of a teenager – young, enthusiastic, naive and adventuresome. I was touched by the tolerance of people I met. The experience triggered a desire in me to go places, to learn about peoples and cultures in distant lands, and to try to understand how history shapes societies, and interaction between peoples. A couple of years after leaving Gujarat, I left India to work for the United States federal government. I saw three presidents in office – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. It was a tumultuous period in American politics: the Watergate scandal forced President Nixon out of office; the Vietnam war was at a decisive point; American forces were about to withdraw; the cold war, the 1973 Arab-Israel conflict and the OPEC oil embargo were wreaking havoc on the economy. In India, too, a political crisis was brewing, soon to climax in the state of emergency. In an uncertain world, a youth in his early 20s found excitement and plenty of scope to learn about different societies, peoples and problems. After a hectic period in which I travelled from coast to coast through the American continent, my next destination was Europe. Forty years on, I am here again, and I ask myself: What has changed?

The topic I have chosen today has dual rationale. India in the twenty-first century is the second largest country by population; it is a democracy in which, after over-heated campaigns, when the governing party loses a general election, transfer of power happens peacefully. India’s economists, scientists, technicians are among the world renowned. It was the eleventh largest economy by market exchange rates in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund. The number of students enrolled in tertiary education is around seventeen million. India is a leading emerging economy, inviting comparisons with China. But India has problems, too: bureaucracy, corruption and inertia are often cited. There are disturbed areas inside India along the periphery. There is a history of adversarial relations with neighbours. And a vast region of high turbulence, the Greater Middle East, ripe with internal strife and external interventions lies just west. To sum up, India is on the edge of disturbance – unceasing and violent. At the same time, on the threshold of bigger and better things which might come. It is a journey between uncertainty and promise. In this context, how the country navigates is crucial.

I want to spend a few moments on the role of ideology or dogma in determining foreign policy. Strict obedience to ideology of whatever kind offers a vision that is fanciful. It is stark, clear, simple. Reality is far more complex; displays contradictions, and often requires skilful navigation in an uncertain world. Dogma may seem to provide a pure vision. Whether that pure image can be attained is questionable, because reality often imposes limitations. Reality informs us not only about what can be changed, but also things we cannot do much about.

I am sometimes reminded of an observation made by Harold Macmillan, Britain’s prime Minister, in the late 1950s. A journalist asked him what blows governments off course. Macmillan’s reply was: “Events dear boy, events.” Macmillan had taken over as prime minister after the failed Anglo-French attempt in 1956 to seize control of the Suez canal, which had been nationalised by President Nasser of Egypt. The military debacle had forced Prime Minister Anthony Eden to resign. Macmillan, who succeeded Eden in 1957, knew very well the power of events to shape history. His aphorism “Events dear boy, events” is now part of the lexicon of politics.

In the 1960s, Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave us another famous maxim when he said: “A week in politics is a long time.” What he meant was that things can change within a very short period, and what looked possible only recently may not be achievable now.

I want to make two general points which are essential to the understanding of a country’s relations with the outside world. On one hand, foreign policy is a function of domestic needs, since among the most important functions of a state is to defend its territory from external and internal threats, to maintain order and ensure its people’s welfare. On the other hand, from time to time there are external events over which a country has little or no control, and such events can derail its policy.

Let us therefore look back. India gained the dominion status in August 1947, and became a sovereign republic in January 1950. A vast, but fragile, country; wary of Western imperial powers; its challenges were huge – poverty, hunger, disease, lack of development; resources limited; the task huge; and the choice was simple. Development or military build-up. There were policy differences, but idealists prevailed over realists. The 1950s were the decade of Panchsheel, incorporating the five principles of “mutual respect, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation, and peaceful coexistence.”

In the years immediately after independence, India was most vulnerable, but recognized in the growing community of emerging nations for its moral leadership, the way it emerged from the trauma of partition and its commitment to democracy and its resolve to achieving self-sufficiency, so the country could reinforce its independence. The country seemed willing to walk away from instant gains that could jeopardise its long-term interests.

Then, major events occurred either side of the year 1960. The Tibetan uprising, followed by a Chinese crackdown and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. India’s decision to grant refuge to the Dalai Lama came with a certain cost for India’s relations with China. But to hand over the twenty-four-year-old Tibetan leader to the Chinese was inconceivable.

Three years after the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, there was a fierce border war with China. Other events were also responsible for the China-India breakup. But 1959, the year of the Tibetan crisis, triggered a major deterioration between Beijing and Delhi. The Chinese leadership felt humiliated by the tumultuous reception the Dalai Lama received in India. And the friendship was over. The Chinese leadership linked the Lhasa uprising to India’s expansionist policy. Prime Minister Nehru’s Tibet policy was fiercely criticized. Addressing the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, Mao Zedong told members not to be afraid of irritating Nehru and causing trouble for him. On the other hand, much of the non-Communist world was gripped by what American diplomat William Bundy described in an article in the French magazine Preuves as a “fearful view” of China. The humiliation felt in Beijing, and the suspicion in Delhi, were too much to prevent the collapse of their relationship. In his review of Neville Maxwell’s book India’s China War, controversial in India but acclaimed abroad, Gregory Clark wrote that “up until 1959, Nehru genuinely favoured Zhou Enlai’s compromise for an Aksai Chin/NEFA exchange.” Nehru had been trying to prepare India’s public opinion. But after the 1959 escalation in Tibet and raised passions in India, Clark said that “Nehru lost control of the situation.”

It marked the failure of India’s “Forward Policy” – that meant establishing advance posts that could only be supplied by air, and could not be defended at all. But 1962 was a turning point, for a new realist era in Indian foreign policy had begun. Two years on, China carried out a nuclear test – it was the beginning of a nuclear arms race in Asia.

The 1965 conflict with Pakistan helped India recover its pride. Indian forces made territorial gains, and many Indians felt that the country had shaken off the 1962 defeat by China. However, the Tashkent agreement reversed those gains under some pressure from the Soviet Union, because under the pact the Indian army was required to withdraw from the territory it had captured from Pakistan.

Two further events happened in the 1970s. First, the 1971 India-Pakistan war, resulting in the dismemberment of Pakistan, and the emergence of Bangladesh in its eastern half. That was when India finally shook off the “China syndrome.” Second, in 1974, ten years after China, India carried out a nuclear test. India’s nuclear test made Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program inevitable. With Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme a reality in time, the advantage India had secured would eventually diminish in relation to Pakistan. Then in 1975, the leader of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated. India lost a close ally and some of the strategic gains made in the 1971 war with Pakistan. Looking back, the 1971 victory over Pakistan has been a mixed blessing.

In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi thought it possible to impose peace in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict under the India-Sri Lanka accord. A large military force was sent to the island state, but there were unintended consequences. Among neighbours, the image of India behaving like a “big brother” was reinforced.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and the proxy war the United States fought against the Soviets in the 1980s had profound consequences for India, the region and beyond. Few countries that were bystanders had control over the long and violent sequence of events during the 1980s. And the consequences of the growth of Islamism and the collapse of Soviet communism were far-reaching. I will explain the emergence of a wholly new context which was unforeseen and unpredictable. For example, by helping the most hard-line armed groups in the war against Soviet and Afghan communism, the United States greatly contributed to the phenomenon of Islamist radicalization. Erstwhile allies turned against the United States. Radicalization, once begun, cannot be switched on and off at will. Militant groups are reborn again and again. They split. And each time, they mutate into more violent splinters.

By the mid-1990s, the backlash could be witnessed across frontiers in India and faraway lands. What happened in the 1980s not only radicalized sections of Indian society. It more or less closed India’s foreign policy alternatives.

In the 1980s, India had reacted at most with muted criticism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, India had to reorient its foreign policy towards the United States. And following the events of 9/11, India came to support the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. As it was then, India’s objective now is to counter Pakistan and China. Also like before, the environment around India is adversarial. So India has built what I view is a diplomatic flyover to Israel, bypassing the Muslim and Arab world. The flyover then goes on from Tel Aviv to Washington. And the spaces in between–meaning the Muslim world and Europe–have not received the attention they perhaps deserve. As India and Pakistan remain locked in a cold war, each side tries to outmanoeuvre the other to get the United States to punish the other. Each side seeks to demonstrate that it is the true ally in the American-led “war on terrorism.”

There are two unchangeable factors in international politics. One is location; the other neighbours. In the vast South Asian subcontinent, India has emerged as the dominant country and the strongest economy. At the same time, there is considerable historical baggage which bears heavily on Indian foreign policy. Neighbours are near, yet far. This explains India’s quest to build bridges to avoid the risks that have accumulated in the long run. The impact of events in the Greater Middle East over the centuries has been undeniable. And it continues to be the case.

Much of my academic work on Middle East history and contemporary politics involves an attempt to explore how war and humiliation affect human attitudes, and how cultures evolve. Here Milan Kundera, one of the most recognized Czech writers, is worth citing. Kundera was twice expelled from the Communist Party; forced to leave his homeland to go to live in France seven years after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; then stripped of his Czech citizenship. He became a French citizen in 1981. In his novel Immortality, Kundera wrote: “The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.”

Kundera’s words capture the powerful emotion that humiliation is –– whether it applies to an individual, a community or nation. Part of my thesis is that the bigger the group that feels humiliated, the greater the chance that the humiliator’s act will have far-reaching consequences.

I discuss the role of shame in my book, Imperial Designs: War, Humiliation and the Making of History, the final volume of a trilogy on the Middle East. Imperial Designs follows Breeding Ground, which is a study of Afghanistan from the 1978 Communist coup to 2011. Based on Soviet and American archives, Breeding Ground covered the gradual disintegration of the Afghan state –– a particularly violent phase of history of that country, including the Soviet invasion of December 1979; America’s proxy war against the Soviet forces in the 1980s; the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism around 1990; the rise of the Taliban and the creation of safe havens for groups like al Qaida; the circumstances of America’s return to Afghanistan after the events of September 11, 2001; and the war thereafter. The second book, Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, evaluates George W. Bush’s presidency in terms of the “war on terror”; that book is about the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq; and thereafter.

I suggested in these books that among the factors contributing to the events of September 11, 2001 was the sense of humiliation felt in the Muslim world, the Middle East in particular. The history of Arabs and Persians is rich and interesting. They have fought many wars over the centuries. The history of external actors meddling in the region––the Ottomans, the British and the Americans is intriguing. And the consequences have been profound and far-reaching.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire around the First World War in the early twentieth century and its aftereffects; the discovery of oil in the region and the division of Arab lands between Britain and France; the creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War and its meaning for Palestinians and Arabs; and further conflicts. In Iran, the early democracy movement; the 1953 overthrow of the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeqh in an Anglo-American intelligence plot; and subsequent events over a quarter century until the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1979 revolution. Examination of events such as these is relevant in any study of the role of humiliation and the shaping of the contemporary Middle East.

The upheavals of recent decades in the Greater Middle East have their origins in the events around the First World War a century before, when Ottoman rule was replaced by British and French colonial rule using the instrument of Mandate.

Conflict between tribes and wars with external invaders have determined the thinking and behaviour of local peoples through history. Vast sandy deserts, a free spirit and a warrior instinct are fundamental characteristics of Middle Eastern cultures. Repeatedly, wars have put these instincts on display and have reinforced them.

Where desert communities were sparsely located, interaction was less between them, but more within members of each community or tribe. The emphasis was on cohesion within each tribe. Personal possessions within the general populous were fewer; lifestyle was frugal for most members. Wealth tended to accumulate with chiefs. Honour, its dispossession causing humiliation and promises betrayed became strong drivers of human behaviour. Defending the honour of a person, a clan, tribe or nation––and regaining it after humiliation––became of utmost importance. Past injustices and unsettled disputes still persist. More have been added to the long list in the new century, and we are only living through the second decade.

One of the earliest references to imperial behaviour in literature can be found in Plato’s work The Republic. There is a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about rapid development in society. The essence of that dialogue is that increase in wealth results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in Plato’s Republic reads: “We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries.”

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offered a Marxist interpretation of neo-imperialism in the twenty-first century in their book, Empire. Their core argument in the book, first published in 2001, was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but that it is a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Hardt and Negri, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political centre and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must be someone who poses a threat to the entire system–– so it is a “terrorist” entity who must be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, I think that Empire got it right, as events thereafter would testify.

At an early stage of the “war on terror,” Johan Galtung said in 2004 something which looks like a fitting definition of the term “empire.” Galtung described empire as “a system of unequal exchanges between the centre and the periphery.” The rationale of his thesis is that empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration,” articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner. That Pentagon planner was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who in 1999 wrote a book Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?. Here I quote Ralph Peters: “The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”

What did the Pentagon planner mean by “keeping the world safe and open to America’s cultural assault”? To appreciate the relationship between economic interest and cultural symmetry, we need to understand culture as a broad concept. English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and many other capabilities and habits acquired by … [members] of society.” Culture is the way of life which people follow in society without consciously thinking about how it came into being. Robert Murphy described culture as “a set of mechanisms for survival, but it also provides us with a definition of reality.” It determines how people live, the tools they use for work, entertainment and luxuries of life. Culture is a function of homes people live in, appliances, tools and technologies they use––and ambitions.

I would therefore argue that culture is about consumption in economic terms. Culture defines patterns of production and trade, demand and supply, as well as social design. I will give a number of examples. In Moscow, the old Ladas and Wolgas of yesteryear began to be replaced by Audi, Mercedes and BMW cars in the late twentieth century; the number of McDonalds restaurants in Russia rose after the launch of the first restaurant in the capital in 1990; in Russia, China and India, luxury goods from cars to small electronic goods and jeans became objects of desire for the growing middle classes, while grinding poverty still affected vast numbers of their fellow-citizens. Consumption of luxury goods in China and India rose as their economies grew. Following the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, sales of American brands in Kabul and Baghdad increased. Such trends form an essential part of what defines societal transformation and, at the same time, represent a powerful cause for opposition. To comprehend this vast phenomenon, we need familiarity with the nature of hegemony and its effects.

The hegemon flaunts its power, but also reveals its limitations. It invades and occupies distant lands, but cannot end opposition from determined resistors. Economic interests of the hegemon, and the way of life it advocates, are fundamentally interlinked. The hegemon claims superiority of its own culture and civilization over the adversary’s. Its own economic success depends on the exploitation of natural and human assets of others. The hegemon allows political and economic freedoms and protections enshrined for the privileged at home. Indeed, the hegemon will frequently buy influence by enlisting rulers in foreign lands. Rewards for compliance are high, though human labour and life are cheap in autocracies of distant lands.

The costs of all this accumulate, and their sum total eventually surpasses the advantages. Military adventures are hugely expensive. As well as haemorrhaging the economy, they drain the hegemon’s collective morale as the human cost in terms of war deaths and injuries rises. Foreign expeditions by empires tend to attain a certain momentum. But a regal power is unlikely to pause to reflect on an important lesson of history––that adventure leads to exhaustion. Only when the burden of liabilities––economic, political, moral––causes the hegemon’s own citizenry to revolt does it mean that the moment for change has arrived. There is a simple truth about the dynamic of imperialism. Internal discontent turning into outright rebellion grows as the hegemon’s involvement in foreign conflicts gets deeper and its difficulties mount. On the other hand, radicalization of, and resistance from, the adversary seem to be in direct proportion to the depth of humiliation felt by the victim. Effects of this phenomenon are durable and unpredictable, such is the desire to avenge national humiliation. For whereas every human possession comes with a price tag, honour is priceless.

The historical development of the Middle East, comprising vast desert lands between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, is complex and messy. A careful survey of imperial designs from the early twentieth century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, leaving a void, to the present time is revealing. Historically, the Middle East has had two distinct spheres of cultural influence––Arabian and Persian. The Arab provinces had been under Ottoman control whereas Iran had been a theatre of rivalries between Imperial Russia, Britain and France. A clash of interests between these major powers was the primary cause of upheavals of the last century that continue to date.

The race for hegemony in the contemporary Middle East has its origins in the discovery of oil in Khuzestan in south-western Iran in 1908. The leap of technology from steam to more efficient petrol engine gave new urgency to the search for oil. Khuzestan became an autonomous province of great strategic importance, but drilling had already been going on in anticipation of vast oil reserves in what is now Iraq and was then part of Mesopotamia. Nearly twenty years after Khuzestan in Iran, oil was found in Iraq in October 1927. And a decade after, vast oil reserves were discovered in al Hasa, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, which at the time was among the poorest countries in the Middle East. Imperial designs by great powers in the post-Ottoman Middle East became a certainty.

The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of oil in the Middle East were two major factors which would determine the course of history for the next century and more. Victory in the First World War was to destroy the existing balance of power, and with that any pretence of equality and fair play when there were clear victors and vanquished. With the prospect of war turning in the Allies’ favour, a grand plan began to emerge. In May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot signed what came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, under which Britain and France were to divide up much of the Middle East between themselves, should the Ottoman Empire fall. That is what subsequently happened.

A year later, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour gave an undertaking on behalf of the United Kingdom to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. Balfour wrote in his letter to Rothschild: “I have much pleasure in conveying to you … the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.” Balfour went on to say: “His Majesty’s government would view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Despite words of assurance that this would not be at the expense of the Palestinians’ rights, contrary was the case. Jewish immigration and colonization of Palestine on a large scale was allowed and has continued since. By the time the state of Israel was established in 1948, the United States had become the most powerful nation in the West and the main backer of Israel.

The 1993 Oslo accords, which promised a permanent settlement within five years, barely limped to Oslo 2 in 1995, and finally collapsed. It was bound to happen, for virtually everything that mattered – the question of Jerusalem, the return of refugees, borders, security, and Jewish settlements, all these issues were left for future negotiations. All those issues still haunt the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at the heart of the wider Middle East crisis. And it can be argued that the fundamental nature of the cycle of conflict which started nearly a century ago has not changed.

This is the broad context in which India has to navigate. I said at the beginning that the goal of foreign policy is to meet domestic essentials, namely security, prosperity and a fair distribution of wealth, because a fair wealth distribution is necessary for peace in society in the long run. Sure, India has considerable economic vitality – but in the immediate environment there are adversarial circumstances, too. Beyond, there are fierce rival forces, local and distant great powers, which make the Greater Middle East a region of extreme volatility. It is also a region where the rulers and the ruled are dangerously apart; too many in the populous are alienated. So in my concluding remarks, here are some pointers.

One – awareness of the history of difficult relationships, the composition of societies around the country and of the country itself, all are important factors. Two – it should not be forgotten that there is a dangerous rift between the ruling elite and the alienated in many of these societies. Authoritarian rule means unacceptable use of coercion to maintain social order – and inevitable loss of legitimacy of government. Therefore the third pointer – a deliberate emphasis on diplomacy which includes people-to-people contact. Fourth – after nearly seven decades it is perhaps time for lower rhetoric and less blame game in dealings with immediate neighbours. Finally, when thinking foreign policy, think long term – very long term.

[END]

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