Who has condemned South Asia to an existence of perpetual conflict and antagonism? Is our South Asian journey fated to be mired in perennial shallows and miseries? Why, despite all natural bounties, are we wallowing in poverty and under-development? Are we unwittingly living out the prejudice of Churchill who created leaders who would tax even water and air?
In order to answer these questions, one has to look at the power matrix of South Asia where India looms like a colossus, bordering seven nations and dominating others through a network of politico-economic alliances. What is holding back our great South Asian dream? Indian failure to resolve conflicts with its neighbours and an adversarial relationship with a rapidly emerging global power of the region, China, lie at the heart of the present problems of the region.
Why has a nation that gave the world a political science treatise like ‘Arthashastra’, failed to reap the peace dividends of cooperative engagement that the region promises? The reason might be found in the particularistic nationalism adopted by the Indian polity after a short-lived Nehruvian peace Camelot.
After Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, despite her secular pretensions, treaded the xenophobic path of exclusivist nationalism. When in the afterglow of 1971 dismemberment of Pakistan, she gloated about drowning the Two-Nation Theory in the Bay of Bengal, she actually disavowed her father’s pluralistic and nationalistic outlook. From there on, a precipitous slide down the slippery slope of intolerant Hindu nationalism began. Instead of Gandhi, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar therefore came to occupy the centre stage in the Indian political consciousness, replacing secular Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism.
Savarkar had coined the term ‘Hindutva’: a religious political ideology that called for the homogenisation of Indian society. It was also a euphemism for forced conversion of all non-Hindus to Hinduism. The founder of Hindu Mahasabha and an inspiration for the Sangh Parivar, Savarkar, was the true ideological mentor of the present ruling BJP party in India. His followers, like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh zealots, completely repudiated the eclectic inclusiveness of Gandhi and spawned a culture of hate and exclusivity.
As a result, India fought debilitating wars with its neighbours regarding border security, environment and even water sharing. All of this condemned the region to security dilemmas that fuelled the costly arms race. The ultimate casualty was human development as precious national resources were diverted towards defence spending – a fact evidenced too well by the abysmally low HDI world standing of India and Pakistan (131 and 147 respectively).
Nirad Chaudhuri’s famous book, ‘The Continent of Circe’ debunks the centuries-old myth about Hindu pacifism encouraging militarism as a soul of the Hindutva creed. Circe being a mythological Hindu creature was touted to rule a sacred continent sailing away from whose shores was a sin. The myth-based political discourse of the book considered by many as the ‘vade mecum’ of Hindu nationalism encourages xenophobia and insularity vis-a-vis other nations and religions.
The rabid intolerance for minorities’ beliefs gets transmuted into an adversarial policy towards neighbouring countries that force militarisation of politics and diplomacy in the Subcontinent. It is a policy that is at odds with the march of globalisation where free trade zones and politico-economic unions are the norm. While the world encourages free trade areas, India actively sabotages the Saarc initiative as if it is on a trade suicide.
India is rapidly losing its lustre as a new shining city on the Asian hill because of its internal policy paradoxes. It is an amazing paradox: a country that is apparently secular bans cow slaughter and doles out jail sentences to those eating beef. The same paradox manifests itself where a pro-business India refuses to be pro-trade. With a $52 billion trade deficit with China, it is chary of trade engagement with the new global economic giant. China backed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership initiative that involved Asean countries plus ten other Asian nations. These include 44 percent of the world population. At least 24 percent of the GDP is being spurned by India ostensibly to please the US that encourages India to act as a bulwark against Chinese economic expansion in Asia Pacific region. With CPEC as a meal ticket to economic prosperity, why a rising Indian economy is baulking to feast at the banquet is befuddling.
Another paradox that gnaws at the heart of Indian stability is the mismatch between internal and external threat management. With the third largest military in the world and the sixth largest arms spending – $51.3 billion – Indian armed forces are finding it hard to pacify the seven restive sisters in its north-east where 18 insurgencies are mocking their efficacy. Despite much brouhaha about ‘shining India’, the soft image of the country is being marred by ugly yet irrefutable facts. Nothing underscores the paradox of instability in a country more than the one where there are bustling cities like Bangalore on one hand and increasing bomb blasts on the other. In 2016, there were 406 bomb blasts in India, 221 in Iraq and 161 in Pakistan.
It is astonishing how the Indian media successfully conceals these facts to present a false soft image to the world. The harrowing statistics that are issued on the authority of Indian National Bomb Data Centre and published by the Hindustan Times are the by-product of a policy of exclusivity and over-reliance on power.
While the world moves towards the new notion of national power called comprehensive power – a Chinese coinage that incorporates hard and soft power to calculate the national power potential – Indians are stuck in a time warp. Culture, economy, diplomacy and military power are equal stakeholders in the national power matrix nowadays. India needs to offer a libation to peace gods instead of propitiating the war gods in pursuit of the Hindutva creed. According to US-based strategic foresight group, a peaceful and cooperative trade-driven politico-economic engagement promises to unleash an annual trade potential of around $120 billion in South Asia with maximum benefits to India and Pakistan. A peace dividend therefore awaits the land of Buddha and Gandhi where centuries of wisdom lies shackled at the hands of a myopic leadership.
Analogously it does not take much wisdom to imagine the state of the North American continent had the US been on a path of war with Canada and Mexico. With Nafta gone and Niagara Falls militarised, who would have called the US a land of plenty? If India and Pakistan learnt to coexist peacefully instead of fighting proxy wars, they would be able to exorcise the internal demons of terrorism, insurgencies, poverty and a possible nuclear war.
The CPEC manna is falling from the skies and if it is not grasped, the opportunity will be wasted. India has to decide whether to play the role of a perpetual spoiler or become the inspiration for a new South Asian century.
The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.