The dynamics of historical forces on the fate of a country is usually of greater significance than the actions of mortal politicians, though they might occasionally seek to redirect it. – Dr. Gautam Sen
An air of optimism pervades the perception of many educated Indians about their country’s place in the contemporary world. Yet others are dismayed at an alleged collapse of values of tolerance and plurality that supposedly informed India’s socio-political life during the early decades after Independence in 1947. Neither view is a truthful or realistic depiction of India’s history and how it has unfolded in recent times since the accession of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister in 2014. The long hand of the inexorable dynamics of historical forces on the fate of a country is usually of greater significance than the actions of mortal politicians, though they might occasionally seek to redirect it. Events like Peter the Great’s decisive moulding of Russia’s future, its twentieth century revolution, or changes wrought by the earlier French Revolution and American Civil War or indeed the upheavals in China following the accession of Mao Zedong are rare.
India came into its own, not as most believe as an independent country that had suddenly severed the umbilical cord of British rule overnight in 1947, but with much of the past association intact. It remained a Dominion of the British empire, with a British head of state and its armed forces led by British officers. Of course it experienced the momentous event of Partition, imposed due to the brutal sleight-of-hand of British geopolitical purposes. It was a fateful outcome that has come back to haunt the world with serious dangers as Pakistan emerges as the axis of global terrorism. The principal conspiratorial aim of establishing a military cantonment in the shape of Pakistan in northern India has been frustrated subsequently owing to developments that have bequeathed the strategic territory of Pakistan to China, now the greatest rival of the Anglosphere. Only the original aim of its deployment by Britain and then the US to constrain and harass India remains unaffected.
The India of Jawaharlal Nehru and his immediate successors was never quite so pluralist and tolerant as claimed by some. It was easier to rule since it was a more politically quiescent and less turbulent country during the first two decades after 1947.Yet, during Nehru’s premiership the democratically-elected communist government of Kerala was ejected and journalists and other critics were highhandedly incarcerated for offending his government. Of course it reached the unprecedented high water of a suspension of Indian democracy itself in the mid-1970s under the rule of his daughter, Indira Gandhi. By contrast, contemporary India continues with its raucous traditions of rivalry without pause. However, two distinctive changes of idiom are taking place, which are a genuine transformation of India’s socio-political landscape. Long established political parties are experiencing an apparent abiding decline in popularity and fortunes and that alone provokes accusations of autocratic misrule. There is also a willingness under the current dispensation to use the full force of the law to curb the illicit political funding of predecessors and rivals, which incumbents would previously ignore.
All the indicators suggest India has recently begun the surge of an historic economic trajectory that has its roots in changes first initiated more than thirty years ago. The list of indicators is long and intricate and include a major transformation of the nation’s infrastructure, a prerequisite for broader economic advancement, regulatory reform, the growing digitisation of the economy and the emergence of new commercial agents that promise to dominate India’s economic future. There is also an apparent change in political consciousness in important areas of the country, with more concern among voters about the quality of governance than parochial identity politics. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is still uneven and remains a potentially significant challenge to stable governance. The upshot of these economic and political developments has been evidence of India coping with the on-going global economic disruptions better than most. It has also managed to deal, so far, with the serious Covid pandemic with an impressive display of political self-confidence and organisational prowess.
Yet, such changes, of the kind being witnessed in contemporary India and accelerating since 2014, after a decade-long hiatus, are embedded in a significant political context. Its importance cannot be underestimated nor is there any guarantee that this arguably positive political context is inevitably durable. A major factor of the present political setting is the primacy of prime minister Narendra Modi in Delhi and his wider political role. He has been the driving force of contemporary change in India with a focus that is unique and, likely, problematic to replicate. There are some other examples of economic transformation within India that are also notable, for example, in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra for a period, the latter perhaps experiencing a possible renaissance now too. But the phenomenon of Narendra Modi’s is probably unique and the principal reason for the change in the quality of governance and the economic transformation that have been unleashed in India nationally. Weighty foreign policy successes have also been registered and these two layers of change, domestic and foreign, have reinforced each other.
How the ongoing current transformation of India will likely impact its longer-run historical evolution is not easy to anticipate despite confident predictions about its global economic status within the next twenty-five years. As far as one can infer, the political economy of prime minister Narendra Modi’s strategy seems, in the main, to be the delivery of a whole range of essential public services to the mass of ordinary people, combined with effective methods for doing so. These have been unequivocally spectacular and unprecedented and clearly the reason for the high esteem in which voters hold him. There have also been a host of symbolic religious gestures and social policies that have inspired the majority community. These economic and political measures have combined with major foreign policy accomplishments that are carrying an appeal for many. Yet, no far-reaching and durable attempt has been made to mobilise India’s majority and especially in the imperative BJP heartland, by adopting policies that would galvanise them and inhibit the possibility of their electoral defection indefinitely.
On the contrary, Hindu temples remain under the occupation of hostile secular forces. They are systematically destroying the heritage of India’s ancient civilisational identity with alarming long-term consequences not achieved by earlier iconoclasts. In addition, there has only been a dismayingly feeble attempt to alter India’s dangerously corrosive prevailing national narrative without imaginative countermeasures, forcefully implemented. There are also apparently two startling ideas that hold sway over the current political dispensation as well as the leadership of its wider national socio-political base. The first is that good governance will conquer the political terrain across the religious divide, which appears to be a case of triumph of hope over experience. The second seems to have been somewhat unthinkingly adopted out of perceived contingent necessity. It entails a conviction that India’s historic transformation can be achieved through the existing bureaucracy, with the help of American management consultants. These are staggeringly optimistic beliefs and one searches in vain for a convincing rationale. The potential consequences if the NDA falters as a result of such missteps would be a threat to India’s very survival as a sovereign polity, with the catastrophic electoral triumph of a fractious coalition national government, compromised by foreign interests.
While a mood of jubilation, even triumphalism, has overtaken much of India’s chattering classes they seem largely oblivious to ominous signs of structural forces unfolding relentlessly within their polity and society though adversaries of Indian nationhood have quite clearly understood them. One immediate contingent issue that has potential to destabilise India’s painfully won progress is Narendra Modi’s succession. There is a strong likelihood of an unholy struggle to become his successor and that could descend into a deadlock that anti national political forces will eagerly exploit, turning any drama into crisis for India. Such a scenario is what India’s foreign adversaries are awaiting, in order to intensify the internal subversion of India and the effective seizure of its domestic process. This will occur through assets already created by global evangelists, their Jihadi allies and others, who are clutching a MoU with India’s most dangerous enemy close to their chest.
Key Indian border states remain in virtual revolt and all the clever strategies to secure their stability will turn to dust the moment coalition opportunism and horse trading are normalised again in Delhi. The Punjab, West Bengal and Kerala sporadically turn their face against Indian federal obligations and their sullen acquiescence to them could suddenly become an open challenge to Indian political unity itself. Separatist sentiment remains fully alive south of the Vindhyas and their alliance with Anglo American evangelists acquired deep roots in the decade before 2014. At an opportune moment, the indissolubly entrenched soldiery of a Kashmir Caliphate will once again look to the neighbourhood for resolute help to recommence rampant jihad. Others, not excluding Turkey further afield as well as China, will find taking advantage of any fresh Indian troubles an irresistible temptation.
Most importantly, the accelerating demographic transformation of India will only compound any intractable eventual predicament. It is likely to bring the problems closer to the chic salon life of Delhi, with a whole swathe of territory across the heart of India already only nominally governable by either legitimate state or central authority. Delhi’s own recent internal communal violence ought to have already been a foretaste of things to come. Parts of one city alone, Meerut, only a short distance from Delhi, typifies the acquisition of the embryonic elements of concrete self-rule by a single community that derives from demographic pre-eminence. The demographic checkmate has already resulted in the de facto loss of authority in swathes of Indian territory, where the sovereign writ of the central government is barely enforceable. It was most graphically and egregiously evident in West Bengal where a 1,000 or more Hindu women, where sexually assaulted without redress and many others fled the state for having voted for the wrong political party. The killings of nationalists continue unabated in Kerala and threaten to spread elsewhere in the wider region.
India’s domestic vulnerabilities are embedded within a vortex of faithless predatory international intrigue in which opportunism alone rules. Its neighbourhood remains a cesspool of festering resentment and loathing camouflaged only by India’s oversized regional economic and military footprint. The three international players of significance to contemporary India are becoming hazardously unreliable and potentially inimical towards its fundamental national interests. India continues to remain afloat and able to assert its sovereign autonomy in a world of precarious cross-cutting conflictual cleavages and shifting mutual interests by virtue of an accident of fate that the gods alone could have decreed. Contemporary India has sufficient material resources to spend unconscionable sums on military hardware to deter adversaries and adequate balance of payment reserves to swim in the shark-infested waters of the international economy. That India has done so with a degree of adeptness is also fortuitous. It is due to a team of capable ministers and advisers around the prime minister as well as officials running the foreign ministry and supervising the nation’s finances and, of course, the heaven-sent gifts of its prime minister himself.
The US can hardly be regarded as anything other than a duplicitous peril to India’s integrity and autonomy. It only cares for Indian manpower, and infrastructure facilities as a signal to China for a highly unlikely actual military engagement with it, while the contours of their condominium are defined to the accompaniment of militarised tensions. India’s growing middle class market and its technically skilled domestic manpower are an important subsidiary additional attraction for the US. India has become a destination for outsourcing production of US consumption needs for digital services, with or without temporary rights of presence for Indians in the US for delivery. But virtually open war has been declared against India by US government agencies like USCIRF, its shameless arms-length media proxies and a malicious American academia.
The US refurbishing Pakistani F-16s while its national military planning, including nuclear strategy, are fully integrated with China’s war plans against India, is nothing short of treachery. This episode will no longer be dismissed as minor, as some in India have done, if China helps arm Pakistani F-16s with advanced missiles and India’s border standoff with China turns into real combat. The abiding US attempt is regime change in the hope of implanting the kind of accommodating political elite every other US ally is apt to become. If there are any doubts, the willingness of Europeans to contemplate national suicide to comply with US injunctions over the Ukraine should be a wake-up call for complacent Indians.
India’s new-found intimate friend, France, is ruthless in calculating national interest and immediate advantage though there is an absence of any obvious conflict between their respective contemporary national goals. But the bonhomie is essentially actuated by Indian purchase of French military hardware that lowers the average cost of exorbitant R&D commitments through larger production runs that exports to India allow. The rationale of overdone Israeli solicitude for India is not dissimilar since nothing apparently holds back its global cosmopolitan intellectual elite from unsparing attacks on India and its civilization, from the sanctuary of media houses and by vicious academics in the West. Both countries have relatively small markets for their own defence output and exports are an essential aspect of reducing average costs and ensuring affordability for domestic use. One only hopes the evident cynicism underlying the dynamics of the situational logic of their relationship with India has dawned on its own decision-makers.
The Indo-Russian relationship has long antecedents that justify indulgence in some sentimentality about its allure. Russia has been a reliable friend since the early 1950s, Stalin dispatching food grains to India when Russia’s own post-war situation was still appalling beyond imagining and the US response to India’s plea for supplies had been humiliating. The USSR could not offer succour to India in 1962, having already fallen out with China earlier and preoccupied with the climactic Cuban missile crisis. It rose to the challenge in 1971, mobilising forty divisions at the Sino-Soviet border as a warning against any intervention during India’s liberation war in East Pakistan and the rest is history. But India’s alleged strategic partner, the US, has managed to undermine this imperative partnership with Russia and the reliance on it to keep the mainstay of its air force flying, by forcing Russia into the arms of China in recent months.
The Sino-Russian engagement continues to deepen daily and casts a cloud over the Indo-Russian relationship. India has embarked on deft diplomacy to ensure the continuation of friendship with Russia, but it can no longer be taken for granted in a moment of crisis. Such a crisis will involve China whose covetousness of Indian territory has only grown over time, whetted successively by its dramatic economic advance since the late 1980s. China first seized Tibet formally in 1950, followed by Aksai China in 1962 and has since added Tawang to its list of demands as well as Arunachal Pradesh in its entirety. Demands for the strategic prize of J&K will likely follow if the Chinese economic and military gap with India continues to widen. India has deterred the insolence of the Middle Kingdom by mobilising militarily and it must remain constantly prepared for this challenge, the greatest historic direct and indirect threat to its integrity. – Firstpost, 30 November 2022
› Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics.