Saturday, February 12, 2005

INDIA: Baby Elephant Walk

+ Nepal would rather stop development than listen to India; Bangladesh would rather impoverish itself than trade energy with us; Pakistan remains too uncertain about its identity to think long term. This makes it more difficult for India to offer the usual incentives that countries respond to. There is a line of thinking that suggests that India’s relative weakness comes from its reluctance to use force. This is true enough, but the question is whether we have the relative capability to successfully deploy force with our neighbours even if we wanted to. Our own experience with the IPKF in Sri Lanka, or dealing with home-grown insurgencies, suggests otherwise. Another possible option is to target regimes through low-level warfare of the kind that Pakistan engages in with us. But this has serious limitations. This kind of warfare is good at inflicting damage but it rarely transforms regimes. In the short run it may even embolden them. And if escalated, they could unleash general chaos whose consequences are not easy to control. Our options on the use of force are limited. And the simple truth is that no nation is feared unless it has the capacity to use overwhelming force. +

11/02/2005

Baby Elephant Walk
PRATAP BHANU MEHTA

The Nepal crisis has exposed India’s limitations as a major power: We do not offer carrots that are attractive enough for our neighbours to love us; yet our stick is not strong enough for them to fear us


The crisis in Nepal has brought home India’s limitations as a major power. Not only did the King blatantly ignore India’s advice and concerns, the timing of the dismissal was designed to cause maximum embarrassment to India. But even more importantly, it has exposed how limited India’s options are when it comes to dealing with its neighbours. A great power ought to be loved or feared or both. We do not offer carrots that are attractive enough for our neighbours to love us; yet our stick is not strong enough for them to fear us. We yet again helplessly watch Nepal drift by. We do not appear to have the military capabilities to transplant democracy or bring the Maoists to heel. Nor do we have other forms of soft power to greatly influence the outcome. We once again are left to pick up the pieces.

The same goes for our relations with Bangladesh. We do not have enough incentives to offer to make the regimes there be more accommodating. On the other hand the threat of force seems, at best, empty. Think further down of Myanmar. The need to solicit their cooperation in dealing with insurgency in the North-East has made us warm up to a junta whose own brutal history should have made us more wary.

With SAARC again we are caught in the middle. There may be good reasons to have postponed the SAARC summit in Dhaka, but it is difficult to escape the impression that once again we have not been strong enough to read out the riot act to our neighbours in public. Denying the King a photo-op, or avoiding going to Dhaka in the middle of an Awami League protest against the assassination of a former finance minister may have been sound reasons to cancel the summit, but then we ought not to have hid behind MEA euphemisms like the security concerns in Bangladesh or the crisis in Nepal. Some might think such a stance to be arrogant, but the fact that we do not have the luxury of being arrogant is a true measure of our power. No one seems to see our humility the way we do: as humility rather than incapacity.

To be fair to India, we are surrounded by regimes that are so determined to undermine the welfare of their own people that they do not respond to normal incentives. There is a Chinese saying that some people pick up rocks to crush their own feet. The actions of the regimes in our neighbourhood have this quality. Nepal would rather stop development than listen to India; Bangladesh would rather impoverish itself than trade energy with us; Pakistan remains too uncertain about its identity to think long term. This makes it more difficult for India to offer the usual incentives that countries respond to.

There is a line of thinking that suggests that India’s relative weakness comes from its reluctance to use force. This is true enough, but the question is whether we have the relative capability to successfully deploy force with our neighbours even if we wanted to. Our own experience with the IPKF in Sri Lanka, or dealing with home-grown insurgencies, suggests otherwise. Another possible option is to target regimes through low-level warfare of the kind that Pakistan engages in with us. But this has serious limitations. This kind of warfare is good at inflicting damage but it rarely transforms regimes. In the short run it may even embolden them. And if escalated, they could unleash general chaos whose consequences are not easy to control. Our options on the use of force are limited. And the simple truth is that no nation is feared unless it has the capacity to use overwhelming force.

India can also take some consolation in the fact that the 20th century is replete with examples of weak states creating havoc enough for strong ones. The Americans in Vietnam and Russians in Afghanistan were both brought to heal by nominally weaker adversaries. Cuba has forever been mocking the US, Our neighbour, Pakistan, is an even more curious case in point. There is something admirably roguish about the way in which Pakistan, for years, subverted the two greatest foreign policy objectives of its mighty ally: nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism. Of course, the Americans needed Pakistan for their own strategic purposes, but that is precisely the point. Despite Pakistan’s immense dependence on the US, the US could do relatively little to prevent Pakistan from sustaining its two worst foreign-policy nightmares.

Or even if they do not inflict outright defeat, weak powers can cause considerable damage. They can partly do this by playing other powers against each other, as Nepal will try with China. They can also do this because diffused violence and infiltration turn out to be something very difficult to combat. Weak states can be very obdurate.

The lesson in all this is the following. Most foreign and military policy is premised on matching strength with strength, surpassing force with more force. But such policies have relatively little effect on groups or states that, conscious of their relative weakness, can nevertheless devise strategies to inflict substantial costs on their more powerful adversaries. It is easier to deal with adversaries that trade in the currency of power than it is to tame groups that turn their relative weakness on its head. And it is easier to deal with regimes that are playing the same game as you are, not with those that are on the path of self-destruction.

So perhaps India ought not to take what transpired in Nepal too personally. In terms of the structure of our relationships we just have very limited options and we ought not to pretend otherwise. But we need to rethink our long-term strategy for the region. As Machiavelli suggested, there is no such thing as being half-loved or half-feared. But our entire strategy for the region seems to have been premised on half of each: so we lose credit for our generosity and take the sting out of fear. Unfortunately the time may have come where we may have to make a choice about consistency in strategy. If we are not shy about our power, we have to devise strategies to effectively project it so that it is an effective deterrent. On the other hand if we are not sure that we can project power, at least let us go all the way we can with what might be called the love strategy, otherwise known as the Gujral doctrine. But meanwhile, while we procrastinate over what kind of power we want to be, we can be forgiven for those who are singing an adaptation of the old Raj Kapoor song, ‘Chino Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara/Nepal, Bangladesh nahin hain, par sara jahan hamara’. Welcome to Great Power status.