Power and policy

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

India: Emerging Power by Stephen P. Cohen; Oxford University Press; Pages 377; Rs.495.

The Defence Makeover: 10 Myths That Shape India's Image by Pravin Sawhney; Sage; Pages 458; Rs.425.

STEPHEN P. COHEN has emerged as one of the foremost American writers on India's foreign policy with much empathy for the country. Frequent visits and a large circle of friends in good places gave him insights which he shared with his readers, to their profit, in occasional papers.

Consider these insightful passages from a paper read at a seminar in November 1998. "The core Indian strategic view holds that not only was New Delhi potentially one of the four or five great states of the world, its true emergence would come about through a combination of its own movement from middle-power to great power status, and the decline of the superpowers that towered over the next tier of states. The Soviet Union had gone, and 'declinist' theorists - Japanese, Chinese, British, and American - found a ready audience in India. The United States would soon retreat from Asia in general and South Asia in particular.

"The scenario never materialised. The United States not only refused to go into decline, but its logical successor, Japan (from the Indian perspective, a benign and friendly state), tentative and cautious in its post-Cold War diplomacy, showed no interest in a special relationship with New Delhi. India wound up with the worst of all possible worlds: the continuation of a China-Pakistan relationship, a still-meddling America, no likely new Asian partners, the collapse of the Soviet state, and a burgeoning domestic insecurity problem, abetted by a Pakistan that, after 1990, had to be treated as if it was a nuclear weapons state."

The core is essentially sound, even if a detail or two is not, but the picture as a whole is somewhat overdrawn. This failing recurs constantly. The Bharatiya Janata Party regime has sought strenuously to co-opt the United States as its ally and benefactor, offering enthusiastic, even unsought, support on global issues in return for backing on regional questions. It suits the U.S. to allow India to believe that its policy is a signal success. Many American academics and, more so, diplomats, serving and retired, cannot believe that Indian leaders could be so friendly. Frozen in time, they cannot shrug off the spectre of the ogre V.K. Krishna Menon which has haunted them for long.

Cohen has now written a comprehensive overview. "This book examines the proposition that India is becoming a major power and that such a development has important implications for the United States. I first addressed this subject twenty years ago with the late Richard L. Park. We concluded that if one took a twenty-five year perspective, then India would loom large as a crucial factor in America's policies toward all of Asia, and beyond. Sufficient evidence is now available to demonstrate that we were essentially correct. To its smaller neighbours, India has always been a great power...

"To China, most Western states, Japan, and the economic and political arrivestes of Southeast Asia, however, India has not counted among the most important states in the world. In American calculations, India has assumed at best a secondary place.... One is therefore tempted to ask whether India is destined always to be 'emerging' but never actually arriving. Will it remain lodged in the second rank of international politics? Some believe it could drop from even this position into extreme chaos and disintegration, beset by population pressure, the demands of India's 20 language groups, 50,000 castes, and 500,000 villages. This would in addition seem to ensure that for several decades India is likely to contain over half of the world's poorest people. No wonder some are asking not whether India will emerge but when it will collapse, bringing down much of South Asia with it. Presumably, the United States would want to avoid ties with a faltering state."

ONE wonders how many, rather how few, share this fear. It is true, though, that India's greatness as a power and its might as a nuclear-weapons state are delusions which reside in some Indian minds, exclusively.

"Almost all Indian writers have focused on India's relations with the 'great' or superpowers, but few have paid much attention to relations with the smaller states. From the perspective of its small regional neighbours India is already a superpower. It constrains them in every possible way; its cultural and economic power is projected on them far more strongly than American, Chinese, or European power is projected on India.... Since Pakistan has become a nuclear weapons state, has powerful allies, and a strong military establishment, India-Pakistan relations are important to India's place in the international order, and the Pakistan-China alliance places a critical restraint upon India, seemingly confining it indefinitely to the status of a "regional" power". A wag said: India would like the great powers to call it brother and its neighbours to call it uncle.

Sadly, Cohen's book comes as a disappointment. It is studded with factual errors, inaccuracies and even bloomers. To call the RSS "one of the major supporters of the BJP" is completely to misunderstand the entire relationship. Which are the other "major" ones? To call the RSS "one of India's largest and most important social service organisations" (page 45) is to betray sheer ignorance. His appreciation of its ideology misses, understandably, its core "cultural nationalism".

Understandably, because the book reveals shoddy research Cohen has not profited by the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru which cover the formative years after Independence. Nor by the archival disclosures by Prof. M.S. Venkataramani in this magazine (April 9 and 25, May 7 and 21, 1999). Even S. Gopal's biography has been of little help to him, evidently. These sources reveal that Nehru was, if anything, anti-Soviet and pro-West in the early years; that he sought an alliance with the U.S. and was rebuffed. Kashmir was his constant obsession. Also, far from being conciliatory - except outwardly - Nehru set India on a collision course with China as early as in mid-1954; reinforced this in March 1959; and pursued the line with disastrous consequences from November 1959 onwards.

Simplistic most of the time, Cohen likes stereotypes. "While sharing Nehru's belief in India as a great civilisation, and the militant Nehruvians' willingness to use force, a new generation of politician/strategists, such as Jaswant Singh, are realists. Although tough on past leaders, especially Nehru, for their mistakes, Jaswant Singh has been sympathetic, as a politician himself, to their plight." Jaswant Singh is more a romanticist with Curzonian delusions than a "realist." Not a line of sympathy occurs in his book Defending India; only libels such as that Nehru wanted to dissolve the Army after Independence. Cohen adds: "Quoting both Nehru's cousin, the distinguished retired diplomat, B.K. Nehru, and Jagat Mehta, a Foreign Secretary in the late 1970s who had worked closely with Nehru, he (Jaswant Singh) concludes that Nehru - and by extension, his successors - did not get their priorities right. Instead of accommodating the weaker Pakistan and recognising the stronger China, Nehru pursued an excessively firm line toward Islamabad and too soft a line toward the Chinese."

Cohen's comments on Jagat Mehta merit elaboration. Jagat Mehta was a Joint Secretary working on China when Nehru died. He was by no means "close" to him as he would desperately like people to believe. The less said on his varying views on China the better. Jaswant Singh is double-faced. He laments "this Indo-Pak stand-off", blames Nehru for laying "the foundation of India's early attitude", yet, also criticises him for referring the Kashmir dispute to the U.N. He is himself no advocate of conciliation, either. Only a crass ignoramus would accuse Nehru of being "too soft" on China. As on Kashmir, so on the border dispute; Nehru was obdurately chauvinistic. The Jaswant Singhs of today - Cohen's "realists" - are even more chauvinistic.

Jaswant Singh's book laments "the near total erosion by then (1962) of institutional decision-making, particularly of the country's foreign and defence policies". Is the BJP regime any better? Cohen apparently understands Jaswant Singh as little as he does his book: "Several Swatantra party members continued their political careers in other channels, and one, Jaswant Singh, finance minister in one BJP coalition government and foreign minister in the second and third, has emerged as the leading spokesman for a realist foreign policy" (p.43). Jaswant Singh entered politics well after the Swantantra was extinct. He joined the BJP. He was not a Minister in the second government. He had lost in the 1998 elections.

If Nehru personified anti-Americanism to some Americans, to the Jan Sangh he was a symbol of secularism which they inwardly loathed. On July 30, 1990, Jaswant Singh said that "the legacy of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, should be rejected in toto" (The Times of India, August 1, 1990). He made plain his distaste for secularism. Socialism was a dirty word for the Jan Sanghis, anyway. So, was non-alignment. Americans who disliked the policies of old found the BJP a welcome change. Since it is "sound" on socialism and non-alignment, how does it hurt U.S. interests if it jettisons secularism? Small wonder the Gujarat pogrom had little impact on the American Establishment.

This is a description of the mood in some American circles. Cohen shares some of its elements; but not all. He writes: "India wants a U.N. seat (on the Security Council) because it may at some time have to veto a U.N. resolution dealing with Kashmir or South Asia." He ought to know that this cannot be true. Article 27 (3) of the U.N. Charter enjoins a party to a dispute, being discussed under Chapter VI, to "abstain from voting". India took the Kashmir dispute to the Council under Chapter VI. It seeks a seat on it for far wider considerations. K.C. Pant will be flattered by, and Indians astonished at, the importance Cohen bestows on him. Was Sardar Patel, indeed, "willing to recognise Pakistan as an Islamic State and the reorganisation of South Asia along religious lines?" Not surprisingly, no document is cited in support of this ipse dixit. Cohen is very generous with opinions. Vajpayee will be reassured to know that he is "widely revered" in the RSS. "But he is also a political and strategic realist." (p.47). A footnote (22 at p.326 records). "For a testimonial to Vajpayee's 'Churchillian' qualities by a distinguished former Foreign Secretary, Jagat S. Mehta, see..." This tells us more about Jagat Mehta than about Vajpayee.

Not that Cohen understands others better. "The Nehruvians assumed that the United States would eventually retreat to its own hemisphere and cease its interference elsewhere around the world. Failing that, in the short term, the United States (and to a lesser extent its allies and dependencies, such as Japan) could possibly be 'educated' into the proper norms of international behaviour." This is too preposterous for words. Neither Nehru nor "Nehruvians" had this delusion ever.

Another ipse dixit, unsourced naturally reads: "One proposal (devised by Krishna Menon) that part of India's territory be exchanged with China was vetoed by the venerated member of Congress Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant, then Home Minister, who threatened to bring down Nehru's government if any Indian territory was traded away."

Not one chapter is free from such blemishes. For long Pakistan exploited the problems of Indian Muslims in its propaganda war with India. But that is altogether different? from what Cohen ascribes to it. "... because it purports to speak on behalf of Indian Muslims, Pakistan's very identity is "a threat to India's integrity". More recently, Pakistan has served as the base for Islamic 'jehadists' who seek not only the liberation of Kashmir, but also the liberation of all of India's Muslims." Such rubbish would be inexcusable in a foreign correspondent, on a hurried visit to the region. It is unforgivable in an academic of Cohen's distinction. This is only an illustrative list; not, an exhaustive one.

Not only does he miss the wood for the trees, but identifies the trees themselves wrongly and hopelessly gets lost in the wood. He however does make apt comment whenever he finds his bearings. Yet the book must be read, especially in the Ministry of External Affairs. "For many foreign officials, dealing with New Delhi can be a frustrating experience. Western diplomats were for many years put off by India's flexible non-alignment, which for a time was a pretext for a close relationship with the Soviet Union. They were also irritated by the style of Indian diplomats. While professional and competent, they seemed compelled to lecture their British or American counterparts on the evils of the cold war, the moral superiority of India's policies, or the greatness of its civilization."

There are some good bits of information properly sourced. Inder Kumar Gujral told Cohen that "India should have gone nuclear many years earlier, although he did not give the order when he was Prime Minister from 1997 to 1998."

The author is on target when he avers: "Unless India can foster a more normal relationship with Pakistan, its perceptions of Washington's relationship with Islamabad will colour its own relationship with Washington. If the Americans continue to play a constructive role in ameliorating the India-Pakistan conflict, that is one thing; but if Pakistan should deteriorate, India might escalate its goals dramatically by attempting to dominate Pakistan and asking for American assistance in the process...."

It is a grave, but common, failing to view matters exclusively from the limited perspective of one's intellectual discipline. Politicians who ignore military advice are as culpable as soldiers who view diplomatic aspects - and compulsions - with contempt. Pravin Sawhney, who took premature retirement from the Army to pursue a career in journalism, is the worst example of that failing. He not only treats the diplomatic aspect with scorn, but does so in crass ignorance and misplaced confidence.

No government should decide on withdrawal from Siachen without seeking military advice. Equally, no government's decision should be controlled by that advice alone. As was said during the Vietnam war, there is no exclusively military or political solution. Sawhney writes of the June 1989 Indo-Pakistan understanding, which Rajiv Gandhi aborted, "while sounding plausible, the flaw in the story was that it overlooked the most crucial fact about Siachen - that it is a military problem. Military commanders must first agree on a phased withdrawal leading to eventual demilitarisation, before diplomats conduct negotiations. Otherwise, it was putting the cart before the horse. There were no indications that the military commanders had endorsed the June 1989 formula." Without the Army's O.K. the PM had no right to act, apparently.

He holds: "By the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement, India agreed to rename the traditional border with China as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a term which suggests a creation by military force/presence.... India has sleep-walked into China's trap... the MacMahon Line does not exist any longer." As a matter of fact, since the border dispute erupted in 1959, both sides drew a distinction between the boundary proper and the Line of Actual Control. The 1993 Agreement says explicitly, "The two sides agreed that references to the Line of Actual Control in this agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question." The Agreement sought to preserve peace; not settle the dispute. But Sawhney holds that "Consequent to the 1993 agreement, both sides agreed to define the entire 4,056-km Sino-Indian border as the LAC.... Officially (sic.) the MacMahon Line no longer exists." It has been "renamed the LAC". The quotes have been corrected. To the author it is MacMohan Line drawn by "Sir Henry MacMohan in Simla" (p.24). It is no misprint. "MacMohan appears unfailingly at pp. 21, 22, 24, 26, 30, 46 and 51. Sawhney would have been more entertaining had he dubbed it as the ManMohan line. Evidently he has not read a single book on, well, the MacMahon Line.

It is not China but India which been pressing for definition of the LoAC. China has always preferred negotiation of the dispute itself. No Indian government has had the will or courage to accept the offer in all the last 40 years. Sawhney supports a "package deal" with China as, indeed, he does a Siachen accord; this is inconsistent with his hawkish postures on both. The author seeks to debunk ten "myths" - China is not a military threat to India; India matches China in defence planning; the Simla Agreement can resolve the Kashmir issue; the Army has frustrated Pakistan's proxy war in Kashmir; South Asia is a nuclear flashpoint; India and Pakistan are locked in a missile race; India has scored over Pakistan by occupying Siachen; India won a decisive victory in Kargil; nuclear deterrence has facilitated confidence-building measures; and nuclear tests have enhanced India's security.

ANY book which stirs up debate on these issues deserves to be read. This one is packed with useful information on the military aspect and has excellent maps. He is exceptionally good on relations between the defence services and the media and bears quotation in extenso.

"Over the years I realised that the defence services and the media shared a very peculiar relationship. There was suspicion on one side, and condescension on the other. Then there was the unsaid maxim - the defence services were beyond questioning. As a result, the Indian media depended on the regular handouts of the government and never tried to understand the issues concerning defence and security in the Indian context. Occasionally the services extended their hospitality to the media personnel and got some favourable reportage in return.

"For the Indian media, defence reporting was one of the easiest beats to cover; it required no expertise as stories came largely from press releases. Any cub reporter could do them. The trouble with this approach, however, was that the foreign media relied on their Indian counterpart for stories, which were not only misplaced, but often incorrect, and only helped create a number of myths. The regurgitated myths came back to us and we accepted them as truth...

"The defence forces withdrew into a cocoon, or indulged in fire-fighting against allegations of violation of human rights by requesting noted journalists to bail them out by arguing their case. The government on such occasions usually went on the defensive. Respected human rights organisations were banned from Kashmir once insurgency started in 1989. Diplomats from friendly countries were regularly taken on doctored tours of the troubled state. Instead of explaining the combat environment in which the army was operating in Kashmir, the Defence Services Public Relations Department (DSPRD) was content with issuing lists of militants killed and arms recovered from them."

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