Love of Flattery

Lead us not into temptation

 India strives harder for external recognition than to build up its own strength


Hindustan Times

Manmohan Singh’s address to the US Congress will attract more attention in India, where it has been billed as a major event, than in the US. In this interregnum between the Fourth of July holiday recess and Congress’ month-long August break, many lawmakers will be absent, and their seats will be filled by congressional staffers and their friends to create an impression of a full audience.

            Few in the US take such an event seriously. This is not the equivalent of a US president addressing the Indian Parliament, as Bill Clinton did, with appreciative MPs in full attendance and a live telecast captivating the nation’s attention. Yet because the Indians make a big deal of such an event, as when Vajpayee addressed Congress, the Americans find it useful to pander to Indian pride through such a gesture.

            India’s craving for international recognition and status is so apparent that other powers play to that weakness through pleasing if empty gestures or statements. The best way a foreign power can get a good press in India is by mouthing sweet nothings on India or lavishing attention on a visiting Indian dignitary. Each time the US president has ‘dropped by’ his national security adviser’s meeting with a visiting Indian minister, India has read the gesture as a sign of its growing importance in US policy.  

            India has come a long way since the gloom of the 1960s, a decade in which the Chinese invasion shattered its confidence, socialism began to fail and US wheat aid caricatured it as a begging-bowl nation. Today, a buoyant India is a knowledge powerhouse, a nuclear-weapons state and a food exporter. But it still manifests some of the same weak spots that led it to the earlier depths of despair.

            Much of Indian foreign policy quintessentially remains a search for status, a recognition from rich foreigners that India is not an assemblage of poor people repeatedly conquered by bands of outside invaders for nearly a thousand years. In seeking to play a greater international role, India unsuspectingly displays signs of its long subjugation, including a psychological dependency on outsiders to assist its rise. Pakistan also seeks status, as recompense for lacking a national identity, but it has a clear and immediate goal — undermining India. That aim gives a distinct focus to its foreign policy.

In contrast to India’s fuzziness on goals, China, also ravaged by colonialism, has defined a clear objective for itself — to emerge as “a world power second to none” — and is expanding its capabilities at the fastest pace possible. India strives more for external recognition than to build up its own economic and military strength, even though status comes with might. Indeed, it began economic reforms, unlike China, not by choice but under external compulsion.

Much of the Indian discourse centres not on how India can grow strong and rich speedily but on gauging how popular the nation is becoming with foreigners — to which clubs it is being invited, which country is offering to sell what arms to it, the level of FII flows, and the latest ‘special’ gestures and laudatory references by a foreign power. India allows China to dump cheap manufactured goods but will not open up competition in labour-intensive manufacturing at home to provide productive employment to a quarter billion impoverished Indians who constitute the world’s largest underclass. All important powers subsidise their military modernisation through arms exports but such is the lure of kickbacks and foreign trips that India’s ruling classes have developed a vested interest in keeping the nation dependent on imports for almost all its main conventional weapons.   

The absence of clear, long-term strategic goals and political resolve only swells the longing for outside approbation and recognition. India is the only known country that overtly moulds its policies to win international goodwill. Even when faced with aggression, like in Kargil, India did not open a new front to relieve pressure and allowed the US to midwife an end to the war because its main concern was international goodwill. The desire for external endorsement and certification is deep-seated.

The rise and fall of great powers is testament to the critical role of vision, leadership, tenacious goals, capability growth and enabling ideas. India, however, faces a triple deficit in the key propellants of national power — a leadership deficit, a strategic foresight deficit and an idea deficit. Old, tired, risk-averse leadership operating on the lowest common denominator can hardly propel any nation to greatness.  

A nation’s influence and prestige are built on capability and what it stands for. Ideas and themes serve as the rationale to the assertive pursuit of national interest, providing the moral veneer to the ruthlessness often involved in such endeavour. The philosophy of non-violence, on which India was founded, was crushed in 1962. Non-alignment has become passé. India is left only with advertising itself as a liberal, secular democracy — a notable achievement but hardly a galvanizing element. Some may ask what sort of liberal democracy India represents when its president and prime minister are both bureaucrats who never won a single direct election and came to office by accident.

India has to start thinking the ideas that would enhance its appeal and help aid its rise as a great power. What does India wish to promote or offer internationally? Like in domestic policy, would India shy away from hard decisions if it were in the UN Security Council, as it should be in the seat of international power? The old ways of thinking are breaking down in India. But clear new political ideas are still to emerge in their place. The idea deficit has been laid bare by the PM’s homage to British colonial rule and the leader of the opposition’s homage to the founder of Pakistan — a double blow to the dogmas on which India was founded.  

India’s love of flattery makes it particularly vulnerable to seduction by praise. Remember the elation that greeted Washington’s offer — made the day it decided to sell F-16s to Pakistan — to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century”? India has shown it can exercise power self-protectively to withstand external pressures. But the same India can be sweet-talked into ceding ground in a process of engagement. One act of defiance in May 1998, for instance, was followed by several acts of compliance, as Jaswant Singh fed the nation dreams sold to him by Strobe Talbott.

The itch to join every club, even if it’s just a talk-shop or doesn’t treat India fairly, needs to be contained. From showing up as an observer at the anaemic Shanghai Cooperation Organization to seeking membership of the US-led Nuclear Suppliers’ Group even as it remains its target, India weakens its leverage. On the way back from the G-8 meeting, the PM said India will “apply for membership” of the fusion-power consortium. India should join a group by invitation, not by application. An invitation, however, will not come to a supplicant. The best way India can end the nuclear embargo against it is not by flaunting its ‘impeccable non-proliferation credentials’, as it childlike does, but by employing proliferation as a strategic card like China.  

India should persist with its efforts to build a mutually beneficial strategic partnership with the US to help underpin its long-term interests. But if India allows process to matter more than results, the US will continue to play to its quest for status through syrupy promises while it develops aspects of the relationship beneficial to US interests. The warm ambience of Manmohan Singh’s meetings in Washington should not deflect India from insisting that the relationship progress in a balanced way so that it secures clear economic and strategic gains, not status-enhancing inducements.  

(c) The Hindustan Times

First published: July 18, 2005

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