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Shyam Saran: A season of missed opportunities

In foreign affairs, reform and the Kashmir Valley, New Delhi is ignoring chances for long-term advantage

Shyam Saran 

Since at least the middle of 2011, the global geopolitical environment has been changing in a direction unusually favourable to the pursuit of India’s interests.

Let’s take our adversaries first. For more than half a century, has relied on its alliances with the United States and China to underpin its anti-India strategy. Today, the US-alliance is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. From a non-Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) ally, is today a non-ally on the way to becoming an adversary that needs to be contained. China continues to value Pakistan as a proxy power to constrain India. However, the internal turmoil in Pakistan and the growing threat of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan into China’s Xinjiang province are putting limits on the China-Pakistan alliance. A new situation has developed in our region, creating significant space for India vis-à-vis both Pakistan and China. It also strengthens the convergence between India and the US, whose calculations are no longer conditioned by Pakistani sensitivities.

There are gains on the China front too. Thanks to the aggressive posture adopted by China towards Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries over the past year, there has been a strong countervailing reaction in the region. The US has taken advantage of growing anxiety over Chinese intentions by announcing its decision to reinforce its military deployments in this theatre. The uncertainties clouding the planned leadership transition in Beijing are inhibiting Chinese room for manoeuvre. China’s growth is slowing down, while its openness to foreign investment is being narrowed by its increasing demands for preferential technology transfer as a condition for market access. Add to this the stubborn persistence of ethnic unrest and violence in both Xinjiang and Tibet, and it becomes easy to see why China is on the defensive. This may be a temporary phase but there is no doubt that China’s pressure against India has eased. It is making an effort to present a more benign face to India, emphasising the points of convergence rather than divergence between the two nations. China is convinced that the US is building a containment ring around it, and so it hopes to wean India away from becoming a part of this.

The other side of the picture is the interest that the US, Japan, Australia and Southeast Asian countries have conveyed in an increased economic and security presence of India in the Indo-Pacific region, to balance China’s dominating profile. Rarely in the past have we witnessed an influential group of countries openly expressing a stake in India’s success and its enhanced power projection. This is a significant opening for India in a strategically critical region. This must be leveraged to our advantage even while avoiding a confrontation with China. I believe India has the diplomatic finesse to play this game with the skill and subtlety it demands.

This window of opportunity may close very quickly once the global and regional situation alters in the wake of political changes both in Beijing and Washington, as also in response to the direction the ongoing global financial and economic crisis may take. The trick lies in using a short-term opening to put in place long-term assets. Thus, even if – and when – the prevailing situation changes in a negative direction, a transformed ground reality should give India some enduring advantage.

It is, therefore, a great pity that precisely when unprecedented opportunities beckon, India finds itself preoccupied with domestic political and economic crises, which are largely self-inflicted. The failure to pursue second-generation economic reforms is a case in point. The political establishment in Delhi has become risk-averse. It believes that further steps towards economic liberalisation and eliminating long-standing distortionary policies, such as administrative pricing of resources, will be damaging to its electoral prospects. This is a costly misjudgement, which misses entirely the enormous social and economic changes that are taking place in India. There is an aspirational India out there, one that values empowerment over entitlement. Thus, in the remotest corner of India and even among the poorest families, there is a pervasive and compelling demand for their children to be educated. The young Indian in semi-urban and urban India wants more, not less, globalisation. He or she wants a share in the prosperity that globalisation has spawned rather than to turn the clock back to pre-liberalisation faux socialism. One sees insistent demand for accountability in governance, but this is less about acts of commission than about acts of omission and avoidance of decision-making. India is full of creative and talented innovators and yet both in the public- and private-sector procurement policies there is insistence on proven technologies, which, by definition, are obsolete. Innovators are right to demand recognition and reward. Political leaders and parties that acknowledge and respond to the aspirations of this changing India are the ones likely to succeed at the hustings, not those that still believe in the efficacy of one-off handouts at election time. Some political leaders at the state level have understood this and have successfully bucked the anti-incumbency trend.

The sense of stasis on is mirrored in the failure to use a favourable external environment to tackle long-standing domestic issues. Thanks to Pakistan’s preoccupation with its own internal problems, its compulsion to keep its eastern front relatively tranquil and, most importantly, the virtual evaporation of any pro-Pakistani sentiment in the Kashmir Valley, the time is ripe to take bold initiatives, not conditioned by overweening security imperatives, for a credible and enduring political settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue. The Valley is quiescent at present, but, as in the past, this breeds complacency rather than a sense of political opportunity to tackle the issue from a point of advantage and confidence.

The India story is still one full of hope and promise. There is latent energy and power that is struggling to find expression. Aspirational India has already cast its vote in favour of the politics of empowerment against the politics of entitlement. This holds true for both domestic and external policies. Will the political class see the writing on the wall before it’s too late?

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman of RIS and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

First Published: Wed, June 20 2012. 00:37 IST