With the U.S. and most European countries lurching from economic crisis to economic crisis, India continues to hum along, its homegrown mix of democracy and capitalism driving a vibrant economy that is among the fastest growing anywhere, and many of its major corporations are striding ever more confidently into overseas markets. India, in short, is a super power in waiting, but its focus is substantially inward and it shows little inclination to leave its mark on South Asia, let alone the world at large.
That is a shame, because I have long felt that the key to regional stability -- and we're talking about a region that includes bloody Afghanistan and at-war-with-itself Pakistan -- is a more assertive India. Regional rivalries notwithstanding (India and Pakistan are sometimes barely on speaking terms), it is India and not the U.S. or U.S.-led NATO military coalitions that will win the peace. If there is ever to be a peace. It is not that India doesn't already do its share.
As the world's second most populous country, it has diplomatic relations with most nations, is a founding member of the United Nations, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and the G20 industrial nations. It is a nuclear power, the second-largest troop contributor to the UN and is seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Additionally, as many as 20 million people of Indian origin live and work abroad and constitute an important link with the mother country. Yet India seems reluctant to try on its super power shoes for size while it grapples with a booming economy and strengthening its historically weak social fabric.
It's foreign policy is founded on the concept of Panchsheel, five principles of peaceful coexistence first delineated as it prepared to sign a treaty with the People's Republic of China in 1954. Those five principles are mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs. equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.
Panchsheel certainly is not outdated. On the contrary, it is praiseworthy considering the bellicosity that characterized the Bush interregnum and the periodic saber rattling that emanates from Moscow and Beijing.
It also is not the case that India has not stepped up to the plate. In the mid-1990s, India won the Kargil War and a major diplomatic victory when it revealed that Pakistan was backing terrorism in the still disputed eastern region of the state of Kashmir. In the post-9/11 world, it has been a reliable conduit for significant information on the activities of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan and has held joint military exercises with the U.S. and E.U. nations.
India is not part of any major military alliance, but has close ties with the Russian Federation, Israel, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Russia is the largest supplier of its military hardware.
All praiseworthy, yet I find myself wanting India to do more if not being quite able to articulate what that "more" should be.
So I turned to three friends -- a former foreign correspondent stationed in India, an Indian ex-patriot academic and a friend who lived there -- to ascertain their views.
The consensus answer, articulated at some lengthy by the academic, is that India simply does not aspire to world power like Britain and the U.S. have. All three were polite enough to not say that I was looking at India through a Western prism, a frequent failing of pundits like myself.
"If democracy among nations is about learning to live with the power of others (which is itself a form of power, though of the cultural rather than military kind), then India may have something to contribute beyond its borders," the academic explained. "This does not obviate force, of course, if only in a protective sense. Indians by and large don't think of international relations as a zero sum game or in terms of dominance or submission. This grows out of the Indian historical experience where numerous ethnic groups, nationalities really if you used a Western lens, have lived together with a fair degree of harmony, in one civilization for centuries.
"This is what the Europeans are now attempting within the framework of the EU. Your reference to India's fragile social fabric is well-taken nevertheless because there has been one big rupture in that civilization, that of partition when Pakistan came to be on what used to be northwestern India. Ever since, Hindu-Muslim relations within India have been tense and this is mirrored in the acrimony between Pakistan and India as you know well."
But still, the academic concludes, the notion of India as a superpower in the expeditionary sense is, and is likely to remain, a stillborn one.
"It doesn't fit in with India's view of its geopolitical realities. Its security problems are on its doorstep and inside the house, so to speak. The other day I saw a piece somewhere quoting the Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force saying that the new C-17 Globemaster transports imported from the US would be used 'defensively' rather than for 'power projection' purposes. It was significant that the distinction had to be made."
Will India step into the breach if Pakistan's descent continues?
My three sources agreed that it will probably have to do so for its own security, although the question of whether India can bring the two nations closer together on its own is problematic. The same goes for Afghanistan.