India Engages with the World

K Shankar Bajpai

The honour of being invited to deliver the Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture is both flattering and humbling. It makes one proud to be asked to join the galaxy of truly eminent speakers who have preceded me, but their very eminence increases my sense of inadequacy. I must first ask for your indulgence, if I cannot even approximate the quality you have come to expect in these talks.

I am lucky to be among those who have had the happy privilege of knowing Premji and Shakuntalaji. The standards he set in his profession, and his achievements in it, shine forth with-out any added tributes from me. Last month, when the essays in his honour were released, the Vice President of India made a very thoughtful and moving speech, bringing out our country’s imperative need for emulating those standards, in all walks of life but especially in the media and in public life; but at the risk of lese majeste, I must venture to disagree with one point . It was said that Premji’s commanding stature induced a fear of approaching him. Respect, admiration, even awe – yes, those he always inspired, but at least to us youngsters, as we were then, he was kindness itself, always encouraging and making us feel at ease. With national leaders from all walks of life eager to meet him, he nevertheless deliberately chose to give time to those of us beginners whom he felt happy to be with. Many of you will recall, as I will always do, the delightful evenings at his house in Defence Colony, with his ever gracious lady looking after us so well.

I myself owe Premji a permanent debt of gratitude : when my father, Girja Shankar Bajpai, died in 1954, he wrote what is still to us in the family the most memorable tribute to him. As in all his writings, he had the gift of getting to the essence of things, and brought out in a few words both the man and his work, his personality and his quality. He particularly noticed my father’s interest in strategic thinking. When our sponsors were discussing with me what this talk should be about, it struck me that that might provide a subject pertinent to what we in India need to think about today.

India is by now looked upon the world as one of the key players on the international stage, but we ourselves have yet to develop a suitable awareness both of the nature of that role and of the capabilities required to play it. As our Prime Minister has often observed, we lack an adequate grounding in the broad strategic thinking without which no state can manage its interests effectively, specially a state rightly considered to be a major power. Not that we have lacked for tall claims of having being such a power from the start; certainly, we have been active enough from that start even to the point of being called inter-national busy-bodies. But my submission is that that kind of involvement in world affairs was extremely limited, both in approach and in effect; we lacked a hard-headed understanding of the way the world works and the ways in which we have to work with and in it. And for the reasons I hope to bring out, we are only now beginning to grapple with that issue.

For over a decade, but especially in the last couple of years, under two different Governments, the rise of India has been increasingly attracting the world’s attention. The procession of state leaders, businessmen and political analysts who have been visiting us, is only an outward manifestation of the extent to which India has begun to count in their approaches to their own country’s international interests. Unquestionably, the way our economy has broken through into the world’s horizons is the single most significant cause, but realization of our military capabilities, paradoxically noticed more because of the nuclear tests which earned us such denunciations, is not far behind. And buttressing these two basic developments have been the perception of our techno-scientific strength and the view that we have achieved that miracle virtually unknown in the decolonised states, a stable system of government. In short, we are now seen as a state that can carry influence beyond its borders, and must be reckoned with in regard to a growing number of issues.

Consider some of the salient issues requiring the world’s attention. Whether it is the security of the Persian Gulf, or of energy supply generally, or the stability of Central Asia, the changing power equations of East Asia, the safe openness of sea lanes, the spread of terrorism, the dangers of religious extremism, the proliferation of WMDs, or such non-traditional challenges to international order as HIV-AIDS or global warming- take any such major issue and India has both great interests involved and great contributions to make.

Do any of you detect in what I have said an echo of a far greater observation of a similar nature? It is not accidental. I have very much in mind what our first Prime Minister said at the beginning of our international interactions:

“Look at the map. If you have to consider any question affecting the Middle East, India inevitably comes into the picture. If you have to consider any question concerning South East Asia, you cannot do without India. So also with the far East. …whatever regions you may have in mind, the importance of India cannot be ignored.

…..So the point I wish the House to remember is this: first of all the emergence of India in world affairs is something of major consequence in world history. We… in the Government are men of relatively small stature. But it has been given to us to work at a time when India is growing into a great giant again. So, because of that, in spite of our own smallness, we have to work for great causes and perhaps elevate ourselves in the process.”

When Panditji so addressed our Constituent Assembly on March 8, 1949, we seemed to have the opportunity of being a major international player very much as we have today, of being “a great giant,” albeit in very different circumstances. International affairs were then dominated by the established powers, and we were an unknown quantity. Yet others as well as we ourselves felt we would really count. And in objective terms we were far more powerful than is even now realized. We had one of the worlds five largest armies, ranked tenth in industrial capacity, despite the terrors and strains of partition we had a strong administrative structure, a pool of exceptional talent- and, incidentally, no foreign exchange shortages. True, we were new to international affairs, but it was a less complex world and, oddly enough, proportionately speaking we had a better fund of knowledge available for policy making and for public debate than we do today. We had another advantage we may prefer not to acknowledge: expecting us to exercise our capabilities in the same way as others did, the world assessed us as stronger than we allowed ourselves to be, not knowing our self-imposed constraints.

And the world did turn to us for important work: from Korea to Gaza, from Indo-China to the Congo, whenever an international crisis needed international cooling down, India was asked to provide both individuals and forces. And as the Cold War took over the global arena to become the central fact of international life, India was constantly in the lead both to reduce the possibilities of world war and the structuring of a world order. Yet, without belittling in the slightest what we tried for and indeed what we contributed, we must acknowledge that we did not become of that ‘major consequence in world history’, much less that ‘great giant’ which we expected and which our size, situation, resources and talents ought to have made us. And the reason lies in our difficulty in coming to terms with the role of power in world affairs.

To substantiate that view, I must get back to certain basics. What are the elements in history, personal and national experience, culture and view of life, that shape a people’s view of the world? Without getting too involved in that complicated subject, I will just draw attention to a few major influences that worked on us in those formative years. First must be put our inwardness. Both as a people and as a state, we have through-out history been a world unto ourselves. The evidence of extended trading links and of repeated invasions does nothing to contradict this fact. Angkor Wat and Borobudur bear enduring witness to the power of our thought and of our peoples to be felt beyond our borders but it was never a case of an Indian state exerting imperium abroad. Hegel’s famous observation that “ India as a wished-for land has been a major principle of history” underlines how others have sought us out, acted upon by others, not acting outwards ourselves. From being only an object of power, our British rulers made us a base of power, which enabled them to exercise their control from Suez to Singapore and indeed farther East. We of course considered that part of the era of imperialism, which we opposed; and as we assumed charge of our destinies, our historic isolationism resumed charge of our approach to the world.

Let me offer one illustration. In the late fifties, as Britain with-drew from the Persian Gulf area, they relinquished Gwadar which, though on the coast of Baluchistan, was for some reason administered from Muscat and Oman. The latter enquired if we would like to buy the place. We would not even think of the possibility. We also, more famously, agreed to withdraw the rupee as the currency of the region; with the Gulf region’s oil development, it was probably only a matter of time before the rupee would cease to be relevant there; but the strategic advantage of acquiring Gwadar simply would not enter our thinking.

Two other formative influences, reinforcing this inward-ness, arose from our freedom movement: anti-imperialism and pacifism, meaning both non-violence and an innate inclination to work for peace. I do not think we should ever claim to be holier than others in these respects; the needs of the state drove us to the use of force soon enough-Junagadh, Hyderabad, Kashmir, later on Goa, were cited gleefully by our critics as mocking what we professed, but apart from the justifications of necessity, these cases in no way lessened the very profound beliefs that power, especially military power, was the cause of evil. It took our humiliation of 1962 to drive home the inescapability of developing our military capabilities, but no conceptual thinking on security strategies developed to inform our policy making. We continued in particular to believe that imperialism and its reliance on power was the cause of the world’s troubles. Both the annals of the Congress Party going back to the 1930s and the pronouncements of leaders across our entire political spectrum after independence, provide ample evidence of our abhorrence of power politics, and even of the concept of balance of power, from which it was all too easy to condemn power as such.

This mistrust of power strengthened one of the principal concerns of our early foreign policy: anti-colonialism. Eager to consolidate our own independence, we also believed in the independence of other subjugated peoples, and working for the end of colonial rule everywhere was one of our prime objectives.

One component of ‘the intellectual prism’ though which we viewed the world is rarely mentioned but is nonetheless important, and that is Socialism. No one growing up under colonial rule could fail to be a socialist in some degree or another; not only were the theories based on Marxist thought anti-imperialist, it was among the world’s socialist that we found such friends as the cause of freedom could turn to. Moreover, for those living through the thirties, with the twin disasters of the economic crash of 1929 and the rise of Fascism, Socialism offered the most appealing answers, morally and intellectually, even romantically, thanks to the heroes of the Spanish Civil War. Marxism reinforced our suspicions about the Western powers, which we associated with imperial ambition and its hand-maiden, a grasping capitalism; it also provided a ready- made frame of reference, such as we otherwise lacked, within which to evaluate international developments. Coupled with the fact that no Indian had exercised power at strategic levels for centuries, it severely limited the evolution of our national perspectives.

Circumstances attendant on our emergence into the world as an independent player also came into play. The coming of our freedom coincided with two events of huge importance: the end of World War II, and the beginning of the nuclear age. The horrors of the former underlined the over-riding necessity of avoiding the horrors the latter could lead to. A brief spell of idealism pervaded the world, with hopes arising everywhere that a new world order could be created, depending not on the enforcement capabilities of the world’s great powers, who had constantly shown that their own selfish interests took precedence over world order, not to mention peace, but on multilateral cooperation based on equality, mutual benefit, equity and international law.

In short, everything conspired to amalgamate our instinctive proclivities : our historical aloofness from the world, abhorrence of imperialism and what we saw as an emerging neo-colonial-ism, the aversion to power politics, the primacy of consolidating freedom at home and supporting it abroad, the moral and philosophical tenets of our independence movement, the situation in the world we were entering- all this encouraged us to believe that the world needed a new approach to handling its inter-relation-ships-and that we in India could offer the new approach.

Please note the one thing missing in this thinking: the realization that until a new way was found, the old ways had to be dealt with on their own terms. We also failed- one might say we positively refused- to realize both that we were stronger than we allowed, and that we were so situated geographically that we needed to develop that strength in order to establish as well as protect our interest.

Panditji had said “ Look at the map.” How many of us have ever done so? We have more neighbours than all but a handful of countries- seven by land and three by sea, but how conscious are we that we have them , much less what they signify? Jungles, mountains, deserts, oceans connect or separate them; Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Communism animate them; we must deal with military dictatorships, monarchies, Marxist democracy, happily a real democracy. The geographical and political complexity is exceptional, requiring knowledge, skill and flexibility we hardly ever allow for. I wonder how many of you go through a year without ever hearing about Myanmar; do we realize that the last major attempt to invade India was through that country, whose strategic importance for us can-not be over-stated? And how many of us still think of China as some distant land you fly 2,000 miles east to enter from Hong Kong, rather than the country with whom we have the longest land frontier?

Above all, we are one of the world’s great crossroads. Our interests in West Asia are relatively well known, and those with South-East Asia happily at last becoming so; we are less aware that our Northern borders make developments in Central Asia of direct interest to us; and of course the great waters on three sides of us make us and the Indian Ocean mutually important. I fear, however, that few of us- fewer even, alas, of our policy makers or those who shape our public discussions, ever heeded Panditji’s injunction.

It has in recent years become increasingly fashionable to blame Jawarahlal Nehru for just about everything that is wrong with us or has gone wrong for us. His contributions to our potential greatness, material and intellectual, and his own greatness as a human being and as a leader, put such modish carping to shame; certainly they need no defence from me. No doubt, he made mistakes, of judgement and of policy, but if we look at most of what we might now wish had been otherwise, it will be evident that it was not so much that he was in error, but that the rest of us did not grasp the infinite nuances that shaped his approaches. Crude oversimplifications became our guiding concepts. His vision that we should “ work for great causes” became an excuse for us to concentrate on the major international problems of the day, to the detriment of the strategic thinking about our national interests . And far from “elevating ourselves”, I fear we have become ever more parochial in our thinking and smaller in our behaviour.

Today, the world’s expectations, but above all our obligations to our country and peoples, call clamantly and imperatively for us to shed notions and attitudes that are out of date or otherwise irrelevant. I am reminded of George Kennan’s admonition to America:

“If we are to regard ourselves as a grown-up nation- and anything else would henceforth be mortally dangerous- .. we must…put away childish things …. the first to go (being) our self-idealisation, and the search for absolutes in world affairs: absolute security, absolute amity, absolute harmony.”

Kennan adapted St.Paul: “When I was a child, I spoke.. under-stood.. thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”. Our discard-list might be different- certainly including sentimentality and wishful-thinking- but the basic lesson remains the same: for nations, as for human beings, different stages of life, or circumstances, demand increasing maturity. Today’s India is as different from that of independence as today’s world is from that of the Cold War . Have our speech, understanding , thought – our whole behaviour, as a people and as a state, matured accordingly?

The capabilities we have developed, which are attracting this attention of the world to India as a key player for tomorrow, behoove us to grow out of our yesterdays. The weaknesses that are keeping so many of our people beyond the benefits of our progress, and even beyond the reach of hope, are an appalling reflection on all that that we still need to do, but they cannot be overcome by pity or idealism, howsoever admirable those virtues may be in themselves. Nor should they be allowed to distract us from realizing that, despite the weaknesses, we have acquired great strengths, and are no longer one of the disadvantaged countries, waiting for the world’s pity or idealism to come to our aid. It passes all understanding how we are still conditioned in our approaches to the world by slogans of non-alignment, third-world solidarity, anti-imperialism and the like. Even at the best of times, these were substitutes for thought; now they stifle thought.

Consider the most persistent of these slogans: non-alignment. There are a number of countries in the world that continue to find comfort in both the concept and the grouping. As a rhetorical instrument for helping our ties with these countries, obeisance to the movement may be harmless, even marginally useful, but as a guide to foreign policy it is positively malign. Let us remember that non-alignment never was and never could be a policy: it was an attitude, a way of approach, a basis for developing policies.. Nasser and Tito, two of the original founding triumvirate, could not bring the real philosopher of the idea to join their efforts to make it a grouping. For Jawaharlal Nehru, the independence of a nation included above all independence of thinking: he resisted the attempt to constitute a bloc, or create an organization, because he feared-alas, all too rightly- that it would not suit his purpose of making us think for ourselves but would impose positions on us-the very negation of the independence which he hoped to stenghten. Unfortunately, he lived only for one session, in Belgrade, after which non-alignment was hijacked to serve the national objectives of almost everyone but ourselves. It is time for us to serve our own national objectives.

I do not for a moment overlook the facts that might appear to controvert what I am urging here. Over half a century has seen us confront the most serious challenges to our territorial integrity and to our very nationhood; yet here we are, with all but a sliver of our territory intact, our nationhood consolidated, with a history of respect for our international activities and our standing in the world higher than ever. Surely we have been doing things right for all that to be the case; what is there to cavil at? I do not go so far as to say that we have achieved all this despite ourselves, but I do maintain that we owe more to circumstances that have favoured us than we are willing to acknowledge, much less learn from. Furthermore, we now face opportunities as well as difficulties for which all our past achievements still leave us less adequately equipped than we can afford to be.

To be better equipped, we must first develop both the concepts and the mechanics for using state power for state purposes. By power is meant neither more nor less than the capacity to move others towards doing, and even thinking, what they might not otherwise envisage or be inclined to. We in India unfortunately lack both a body of experience in the use of the power of a state for the purposes of a state, and a body of thought devoted to such use. Everyone thinks of Kautilya, but the most important point to note about him is that he was two thousand years ago-and unique: he left no school, nor did anyone develop the kind of political or strategic thinking which still inform the policy making of countries belonging to other major civilizations. To make matters worse, as already mentioned, the century-plus of colonial rule left us without any practitioners of power at any significant level. To this day, most people who have power seem unable to rise above patwari-power, meaning its use for essentially limited, and personal, purpose- giving or obtaining a license here, a school admission there, a job, a protection, a favour of one kind or another. Unfortunately, moreover, from our initial aversion to developing the instruments of force, we have come to rely on force to the detriment if not the exclusion of other instruments of power. This is most evident in domestic matters, where we let a problem simmer up to boiling over, when no solution remains possible without at least using some force to begin with. But in the affairs of the world at large, we neither use the instruments of power nor allow for the way others use them.

I don’t suppose many people read Thucydides these days; a pity, for there is much to learn there, particularly in the Melian Dialogues. Athens was asserting itself, and tried to get the independent island of Melos to go along with it. In the course of the negotiations, arguing to avoid alliance on various grounds, the Melian delegation finally invoked the question of justice. The Athenian reply is a classic guide to our much abhorred but wholly inescapable bugbear, power politics: “ Surely we both know that in these matters the question of justice only arises when the equation of power is equal; for the rest, the strong take what they can and the weak yield what they must.”

It is not a nice thought, and goes against the whole grain of our national upbringing and hope of a better world, but it is a reality we can ignore only at our peril. Nor is it a negation of the moral principles we must all seek to strengthen in the world. As my father said in a lecture on the balance of power which Premji drew my attention to,

“We should never make the mistake of assuming that the rightness of a cause can even eventually ensure its success. We live in a world of power. Power exercised without regard to morality is a crime against humanity; but morality cannot prevail without the backing of power.”

Let me re-emphasise that force is far from being the only means of exerting power. I do not want to get into the controversy over soft-power, whether there is such a thing effective apart from hard power. But there can be no doubt that there is a whole range of instruments available in statecraft; the power of ideas is manifest; less obvious are the powers of anticipation, positioning and manouvering; the power of persuasion and reasoning; all that is nowadays much talked about, the power of knowledge; not least, the power of being considered a power, of respect and the image of knowing what you are about and of the capability to succeed.

The world today believes we have all that; it also recognizes that we have interests beyond our borders. It is my impression that in this respect as in many others; the world is ahead of us. We have to wake up both to our capabilities and the challenges of using them as a constructive power in the evolution of tomorrow’s world. When told that nuclear fission had been achieved in the deserts of Los Alamos, Einstein’s comment was: ‘everything has now changed- except our ways of thinking.” We need to change our ways of thinking .

First, we have to start thinking of ourselves as a source of power, not as a victim that must ward off power. Secondly, we must think afresh of where our interests lie. Third, we must develop our capabilities for shaping events, not merely reacting to them. In a sense, we as a state must emulate what our business entrepreneurs have started doing: after decades of inwardness, of deliberate self-limitation to small horizons, our businessmen are not only successfully competing with the worlds best, they are building up their activities in the world. India needs to engage with the world in similar fashion.

Our first area of attention ought to be our neighbourhood. It is not easy to be by far the largest state in any region: one inherently arouses fear, resentments, extreme touchiness among adjacent peoples. India is by no means alone in that situation, nor in being unable to go too far in being generous as the ‘big brother’. Smaller states naturally wish to feel confidence in a big neighbour, that its power will not be used to intimidate them. It is obviously an asset to diplomacy to help our neighbours develop such confidence; even in wider circles, it is important to be seen as what we are, a force for stability, not hegemonism.

But big countries also have interests, with limits on what they can concede. There are also limits on influence: the greatest power in the world has for decades been unable to do anything effective about the intractable difficulties with a small island just off its land-mass. But certainly, other big states have devoted more constant and purposeful attention to neighbours, and have enjoyed the help of large bodies of opinion and of interest working for better relations with the ‘big brother.’ We do fortunately have such advantage in a couple of countries, but need to develop more with others.

Let me recall some of the other leading issues mentioned earlier as being of vital interest to us. Islam and oil are only the most obvious reasons why West Asia is important for us; we also have some 3 million of our citizens at work there, and the peoples there and here get on with each other more easily than with other parts of the world. We have not till now applied our minds to the ways in which we can be useful in easing some of the infinitely complex problems of the region, or whether indeed we have any role to play in the stability promoting possibilities there. Central Asia is more distant and less immediately relevant, but its long-term significance requires positioning ourselves today to be helpful there tomorrow. We have finally for a decade or so tried to build up interaction with South East Asia, but it is no secret that countries in that region have been disappointed in us and look for greater attention. Just beyond, in regard to East Asia, we have been less active, and no doubt on questions such as North Korea or Taiwan there is virtually nothing we can do, but in regard to the changing power equations in the region, we are looked upon by all concerned as of major significance.

To shed the euphemisms, we are talking about the rise of China. It goes without saying that healthy cooperation between India and China is our preferred purpose; that it has been developing well is a measure of the benefits both sides can derive from it. We do have the great unsettled question of our boundary, which presents some fairly intractable difficulties; it is good that tranquility prevails and possibilities of settlement are being seriously probed. Meanwhile, in a fine case of practical statesmanship which ought to serve as an example to some of our other neighbours, both sides have decided to build up relations even as the major difference between us remains unsettled. But nor can India afford to ignore some worrying aspects of Chinese policies. China’s incalculably vital help to Pakistan in developing nuclear weapons capabilities we are told is a thing of the past; but apart from having achieved its purpose of plaguing us for all eternity, it cannot alas be taken as finished and done with. The development of naval facilities by and for China in Myanmar and Gwadar, also, we are asked to consider innocuous, intended for China’s broader interests; the fact remains that it could pose serious problems for us. Above all, no one can be sure how benevolent China’s growing power will prove in its applications to Asia as a whole. Clearly, it is no part of India’s interests to let mistrust, much less confrontation, return to Sino-Indian relations; equally, it is in nobody’s interest to see China dominate Asia.

I will conclude with just one more illustration of the highly sophisticated handling of our international interactions that is essential for what I trust is now at last our real engagement with the world. Nothing is more topical or more complex, than our relations with Iran. With its hugely important strategic situation, its equally important potential as an economic, especially an energy, partner for us, not to mention the extremely gifted talents of its peoples, Iran obviously is a country we should also seek good relations with; and again, as in the case of China; we are fortunate that Delhi has for well over a decade sought steady betterment. If any of you wonder why I have not mentioned our historic and cultural links, it is because that to me is an area of distinct controversy. That so much of our language, music and literature, ways of living and behaving, even our food come from Persian influences, and vice versa, demands respect and strengthening. No less notable is the place Persia or Iran holds in the minds and feelings of many of our peoples. I am less sure about our inclination to call it a great friend; not only under previous regimes but even since the Revolution, there is too much on record that does not fit such a rosy image. But what is truly mystifying is the degree to which opinion makers in India, especially political parties which are supposedly concerned more about India’s interests than those of other countries, have sought to mobilize support for Iran’s nuclear program without the slightest attention to its dangers for us. Of various irrelevancies cited, what betrays precisely the mind-set we have to be rid of is the appeal for third-world solidarity. Apart from what I have urged about India no-longer being a third-world country, we might reflect that all the countries normally referred to by that term have signed the NPT, opposed India’s going nuclear- as did Iran- and oppose Iran’s doing so. What solidarity is called for? Worse still, parties constantly championing secularism not only cite India and Iran’s Shia links but blatantly sought to arouse our Muslim population. Iran is important, and we certainly do not want to be antagonistic, but this is another case of our needing to pursue policies that reconcile our own conflicting interests- good relations and non-proliferation.

The more we engage with the world, the more such dilemmas and balancing acts will face us. A skilful diplomacy will need the vital reinforcement of a large body of informed strategic thinkers, of area and subject experts, and a reasoned public debate. I realize what I say is not going to make a whit of difference, but since you have given me this prestigious platform, and no less prestigious audience, I cannot resist making one desperate, heartfelt plea: please, let us grow up. Let us respect but adapt the wisdom and the values of our older traditions but let us also learn from the experience of our own lifetime. A friend in South East Asian country told me a couple of years ago: “Now when we consider every morning the decisions we have to take, we no longer ask ourselves even what will Washington think; we wonder what will Beijing think, We are waiting for the day when we can add the same question about Delhi.” If we can up-date and up-grade both the concepts and the mechanisms of our interactions with the world, what Delhi thinks will count more and more. ?