The Second Delusion

The nation has charged far ahead of its foreign policy establishment’s mindset

A perspicacious piece by Ashok Malik on how the foreign policy establishment is yet to come to terms with India’s new reality (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran). First, there is a capacity problem. Second, there is the systemic incapacity to undertake a fundamental re-imagination of India’s role in the emerging world. Finally, there is the incessant feel-good “Bollywood gives us global influence” fodder that lulls everyone into the Second Delusion. (The first was when the Indian government believed that it was a leader of the “bloc of developing countries”).

Mr Malik’s antidote, therefore, is all too necessary.

In his inaugural speech, the Commerce and Industry Minister began by saying that he found the reference to India as a ‘rising great power’ very “uncomfortable” and proceeded to use that word five times. Two days later, the National Security Adviser was asked to speak on India’s equation with other great powers and said this was a “delicate subject”. He then explained how India wanted good relations with everybody from SAARC to the European Union, Japan to West Asia, without really revealing much at all.

It led to one British delegate being quite frank in suggesting that India’s intellectual contribution to the conference was below expectation. Another delegate pointed out that the world had heard of great powers, superpowers and hyperpowers, but now faced the prospect of a “nervous power”. Actually, what India is burdened with is an establishment nervous at the idea of power.

When asked to enunciate specific national goals and responses to well-defined challenges, Indian foreign policy interlocutors speak in platitudes without giving away anything. Actually, there is precious little to give away. Indian grand strategy is marked by its absence. In place of clarity, one is left with generalities.

At the IISS meeting, for instance, the Foreign Secretary spoke of India’s “civilisational engagement” with ASEAN. The following day, the NSA spoke of Iran being an “ancient civilisation”. Almost as a pattern, a few days later an article in a newspaper sought to date the India-Iran strategic partnership to the 16th century, when the ruler in Tehran lent his troops to Humayun to displace the successors of Sher Shah Suri.

This is plain humbug. In terms of hard power, India’s so-called civilisational engagement with a bewildering array of countries and regions has won it very little genuine influence. It is one thing to boast that Hindi films are watched halfway across the world and that Indian culture and soft power are geographically expansive. It is another to suggest that these can replace hard diplomacy, anchored in military and economy muscle and a trenchant security doctrine. [The Pioneer]

Related Links: The June 2007 issue of Pragati injected some new perspectives on India’s role in the coming decades. Read the piece on Soft Power, Hard Reality. Also see Rohit Pradhan’s pithy post on India’s attitude towards hard power.

9 thoughts on “The Second Delusion”

  1. The problem, to me, seems to be the generation gap between the leaders and the led.

  2. I could not agree more!! There is not a single national goal stated clearly. It is like being carried with the waves wherever they are taking us and fortunately enough, at this time waves are going in good direction. But unless the political leadership realizes that they have to have some specific agenda and fulfill it too, we can forget about becoming powerful. I cannot agree more with the term “nervous power”. There is so much potential sitting to be tapped. All we need is the determination and the cleverness to use it in a better way.

  3. Doesen’t Menon die a little bit inside each time he has to spout this civilisational rubbish? Resorting to Mughal-era examples of Indo-Iraninan engagement does nothing but illustrate the hollowness of Indian foreign-policy formulation.

    Richa, I like the wave analogy…there are positive currents in India’s strategic landscape and many of the great powers are ready to welcome our ascent. But India needs a grand startegy, stated national goals, engagement with academia and the evolution of an inclusive strategic culture.

    Then and only then, will we see India becoming a global player.

    I agree with so much that is opined on this blog.

  4. Vijay

    To rephrase it a bit: India is already a global player. The game is on: either you play by the “rules” (paradoxically, this means relying on power than on legalities) or you watch others score goals against you (okay, bowl you out, to take a seasonal analogy).

  5. Given the government we have now, I think it is best to Not to have a strategic policy drawn out by them and their coalition partners. Ambiguity might be a blessing in disguise for us, at least for now.

  6. There is something called the “South Asia Lockdown” that India suffers from. Unless and until we are able to purge these “south asians”, a new order is not possible.

  7. “engagement with academia”

    As if we’ve a dearth of JNU types meddling in our national policies. Probably the British delegate was being generous in using “nervous power.” Hyperpuissance might be the right term.

  8. Its good that India isn’t some great, rising, emerging, emergent, effervescent, global, fragrant etc etc power.

    I doubt our leadership can handle it.

    Already there are signs that what was reluctantly done in 1991 (the economic glasnost thing) has gone to sarkar’s head. How they mistreated PVN Rao (no INC worthy graced his funeral) and how they now strut about wearing the mantle of economically rising power etc etc!

    Again, the same peaceniks who brayed at what a misstep India took with Pokharan II (our hon’ble PM is one of them, as are assorted commies and some regional and casteist parties) have no qualms about basking in the after’glow’ that singular step bestowed on this country’s place in the global security sweepstakes.

    There’s good reason for India to be ‘nervous’. Our leadership has seldom shown it is capable of handling power well. We’ve consistently either underplayed our hand or overplayed it, seems like. Of course its easy to pass judgement in hindsight. Lets see where we go from here.

  9. It’s not nervous, but muddled foreign policy.

    And it comes from the top – the way PM thinks. There was nice op-ed by Sekhar Gupta, of IE, some months back, on how the muddled policy won over the confident pronouncements of general Mush when it comes to ultimate direction of peace talks before and after Agra.

    Screw the British minister. That’s the way we work because of the distributed nature of power and decision making in the country. If not, the US nuclear deal, for all it’s pluses and minuses, would have been signed long time ago. The important point is – is the eye focused on national interest on every issue or not? – not some rhetorical flourish to keep the meeting attendees happy.

Comments are closed.