The all-American way is not India’s way

When nation states have the potential of breaking into the elite league of great powers, the paths they tread become topics of universal discussion. We have just come out of intense deliberation about one such transition, as China rose over the last decade to take its place as a genuine superpower. With India now attempting its own push for global recognition, international strategic commentaries on its strengths, and bets on whether it can really “make it” or not, are proliferating.

Former American diplomat William Avery’s new book, China’s Nightmare, America’s Dream. India as the Next Global Power, joins this crowding genre of India-watching. It contends that India can be a world power like China and the US, but for the “timidity of its political leadership”. It is a call to action for India to convert its increasing wealth into more power through “the right policies and leadership”, which have been scarce commodities.

Avery argues that Indian leaders have shown “courage and speed of action” only twice in the last two decades, viz. in 1991, via the economic reforms which spurred remarkable growth, and in 1998, when they tested the atomic bomb and ended a long spell of strategic irrelevance. On the converse side, India’s leadership has been found wanting in acting forcefully against foreign enemies perpetrating acts of terrorism on Indian soil.

The author’s recipes for overcoming this “timidity” are, however, quite jejune. His wish that India should have militarily re-intervened in Sri Lanka right after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi reveals a stunning lack of basic cost-benefit analysis or means-end matching. His prescription for India to “strong-arm resource-rich countries of Africa” is another over-the-top idea with complete disregard for the backlash that would generate (a heat which the Chinese are already feeling in Africa now). Avery keeps paying lip service to the ideal of India engineering its ascent through its unique ways, but his policy recommendations are imitative of what other great powers, past and present, have done.

The author sounds more credible in the portions of the book that address the challenge of taking India’s economic growth to higher levels. For achieving “great power growth”, India’s private-sector enterprises will have to globalise their footprints. In the game of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), Avery advises them to “look at tomorrow’s markets (China, Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America), not yesterday’s (the US, Europe and Japan)”, since the former promise more cost savings and sales growth.

Avery stresses that Indian corporations must urgently move up the value chain, shedding low-margin services like business process outsourcing (BPO) in favour of innovation-based technology products and brands.

It is time, he says, to “stop selling India’s talent short” and to convert our cyber-coolies into patent-bagging nerds. A world-class non-profit university system is essential to nurture this transformation into a high-tech economy. Avery aptly pinpoints to the imperative of Indian corporations and the state investing heavily in university infrastructure and professorial pay packets to “draw some of its academic diaspora back from Western institutions”, the way China has done successfully.

China is already a university powerhouse and India has to close this “minds race gap” as much as the arms race gap and the intelligence agency funding gap with its giant northern neighbour. Avery identifies a core flaw in India’s military investment for being “strong on people, weak on equipment and technology”, and pleads for rectifying this imbalance. He also contrasts China — which has a long-term strategy for turning the renminbi into a global currency — with India, which lacks “an activist government with the vision and confidence to promote the rupee as one of the leading currencies in the world.”

The most problematic aspect of Avery’s book lies in his foreign policy blueprint for India to gallop to great-power status. Recapping the views of Robert Kaplan of Stratfor, Avery believes that India must agree to act as an offshore counter-balancer of China to serve American interests. He does not pause to consider whether American interests and Indian interests are not always identical. India’s geography and geopolitical setting demand that it decide its own strategy, which may coincide with the needs of the great powers at particular historic junctures. But Avery goes for overkill, where India is expected to become a useful pawn for the US grand strategy.

The author’s conviction that India must enter into an alliance with the US “to stop the spread of tyranny” and to uphold shared “values of the British crown” is quaint. His exhortation to India to resurrect a “new British empire” in partnership with the US is literally a form of linguistic violence. The less slavish India remains — be it to the US or to China — the better its chances of evolving as a great power. Avery’s odious analogy of the “Indo-American alliance” with the US-Britain special relationship sidesteps the total asymmetry of the latter dyad. He should know better that India will never agree to become anyone’s poodle or junior partner.

The author’s convoluted point that the US “successfully persuaded” India not to avenge Pakistan-sponsored terrorist acts, and his satisfaction that “India complied” for its own good, exposes his American big brotherly intentions. His admonition of India for maintaining relations with “pariah states Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela” again imposes American choices on a sovereign India, allegedly for India’s welfare. His vision of India “committing to a common foreign policy framework” with the US and its allies, wherein New Delhi no longer “cultivates relationships with regimes such as Iran”, is barely disguised neo-imperialism to restrict India’s choices.

Should Washington decide for Delhi who it should consort with? Avery’s unabashed suggestion that India “act as America’s eyes and ears in a region far from Washington” is an insult to Indian self-esteem. Other glaring examples of misguided policy counsel in the book include assertions that India’s “restraint” vis-à-vis terrorism unleashed by Pakistan is admirable, and that this passivity is turning Delhi into a closer ally of Washington. India’s failure to force a change in Pakistan’s behaviour is actually a telling indicator of why the former cannot be rated as a great power.

Is it preferable for India to become a great power with a distinct quality or to win brownie points from the US? Avery never poses such a question, since his core assumption is that India has no option but to concede a trajectory of dependent rise, where it becomes a loyal member of the American global alliance system.

This book is agreeably impatient about short-sightedness in India’s political class and corporations, but it falls pitifully short on how Indian foreign policy should proceed towards the goal of great power stature. If Avery were to decide, India would be yoked to one superpower and offered some wages in return for being pliable. While we can rubbish this fanciful scenario from ever materialising, it is important to read books like these (and works by Robert Kaplan) to stay alert against strategic entrapment and to chart our own destiny.

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