Monday, December 29, 2014

Xi. Putin. Obama. The new India arouses curiosity; But we have weaknesses they will exploit

Reforms that will change the conditions of life in India are under way. We can see their implications more clearly if we look at them in the context of the Prime Minister's foreign policy excursions. Narendra Modi's flair for foreign affairs is by now legend. Not only has he had some triumphal rallies abroad; Xi Jinping came and went in a blaze of celebratory razzmatazz. Vladimir Putin has come and gone with deals ranging from diamonds to nuclear plants. Barack Obama is set to dominate Republic Day, dwarfing the military showpieces on parade. The world is discovering India with a curiosity and esteem last seen in Jawaharlal Nehru's early days.

But Nehru was tricked by the Mountbattens and then by Chou Enlai. The result was a virtually unsolvable Kashmir problem and the China war. There are already signs that Modi may be taken in by a demanding America, an assertive China and a disappointed Russia. Are we at a disadvantage, irrespective of who is the Prime Minister, because of deficiencies in our national character? We do have a tendency to be carried away by public relations dramatics. And we do lack a sense of historical continuity in our governance system.

The tendency to mistake publicity brouhaha for substance made us go ga-ga recently over Modi's place in a Time magazine stunt. This was just a magazine's marketing gimmick. Besides, its so-called competition for Man of the Year title is a trick; it's a nomination, not an election by readers. Yet our cheerleaders fell for the trick, and our media was breathless in reporting "Modi tops the list", then "Modi drops to second position" and so on. No other country attaches importance to this familiar media fiddle. For Indians, however, a good chit by a foreign source is the ultimate achievement. Is that all we are worth?

Worse is our tendency to see a change of government as a new beginning for the country, not as a continuation of India's march towards greatness in a changing world. Every government that comes to power ignores and sometimes repudiates those before them. This became ludicrous when Sonia Gandhi tried to turn P.V.Narasimha Rao into a non-person. When we don't have a sense of continuity, we don't have a longterm view of our national priorities.

China presents a study in contrast. The shift from Mao Zedong to Deng Hsiaoping was fundamental while that from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping has been radical. But China presents it all as continuity. There is no criticism of previous regimes. The dominant note is national pride as could be seen from a People's Daily headline a couple of months ago. It said: "Mao Zedong made Chinese people stand up; Deng Hsiaoping made Chinese people rich; Xi Jinping will make Chinese people strong".

Against this real world, where do we stand? Especially against American pressure with the combined might of the big corporations and the White House? US interests have been focussed on agriculture and pharmaceuticals, basics that cover India's entire billion-plus market. In agriculture Monsanto gained at the cost of India's own highly competent seed technologies. US drug companies were kept at bay by Indian laws that sought to maintain the prices of lifesaving drugs at affordable levels. This precious protection is now under threat. Big Pharma from the US will soon be able to fully own Indian companies and thereby influence drug prices. Obama has been fighting in his own country to make drug companies interested in patients as well as in profits. He has not succeeded. How then can India maintain price levels?

If that is the situation in a field where India has high levels of competence, what about the military front where we are several years behind? China has surrounded India with military assets while it objects to our building even roads along the northern frontier. As for Russia, there was a time when it was India's most valuable strategic ally. A measure of how much things have changed lately was the military pact Russia signed with Pakistan a few weeks ago. It would serve India's long-term interests, said Putin in a memorable political joke of our time.

The lesson to learn is that smiles, cheering rallies and celebratory publicity are all fine, but they are on the surface. To reach the substance underneath, we must acquire America's and China's and Russia's abilities to play hard ball and play it with a hundred-year vision. That's right, a vision that goes beyond the next election.