Praful Bidwai on India's Self-Deluded Elites
The Nation
October 28, 1997
Recenty, Indian writer Praful Bidwai wrote a very interesting column titled, “Elite Self-delusion: India is No ‘Global Player Yet,” in The Times of India. The way Indian media portrayal Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral’s recent meeting with US President Bill Clinton was what forced Bidwai to speak the truth. “Such is the propensity for self-delusion among large sections of our elite that the 30-minute long Gujral-Clinton meeting has been hyped into a major triumph of Indian foreign policy. The mere fact that the US did not explicitly offer to mediate in South Asia, and the claim that India-Pakistan tensions did not figure in the discussions, have been taken to signify a paradigm shift in Indo-US relations,” Praful wrote.

Most Indian correspondents who reported the New York meeting between Gujral and Clinton tried to depict as if, within half an hour, Clinton had decided to change the entire US outlook on South Asia and make India its strategic partner in the region.

Vinod Mehta of a New Delhi-based magazine Outlook, for instance, cited some six reasons, for what he termed “momentous shift” in US policy—namely, India’s post-Cold War strategic significance, US economic stake in the world’s largest market, the exit of the “mischievous” Robin Raphel (former US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia), the eponymous Gujral doctrine, tons of positive coverage that Gujral’s meeting with Clinton received in the US media, and Hillary Clinton—India’s best ally in the Clinton administration.

“We do not wish to interfere (to settle Kashmir),” Mehta quoted Clinton. Contradicting him, Praful cited Karl Inderfurth’s statement in New York, which said the meeting between Clinton and Gujral did focus on India-Pakistan tensions. “The truth is that Washington is nowhere near treating India in the manner that our policy-makers favour…India has a very low priority in the US scheme of things, whether strategically, as an investment destination or as an ‘emerging’ market. India is still emerging.”

The public stance that Gujral had taken before going to New York last month was that he wouldn’t meet the US president if the latter tried to include India-Pakistan ties in the talks agenda. All this defiance was for public consumption. Pakistani mediamen, who accompanied Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to New York, are of the view that so frustrated was the Indian prime minister for meeting the US president that he had to change his entire schedule for the said meeting.

Indian leadership's arrogant attitue was visible on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to India and, secondly, by refusing to hold defense talks with the Americans. British foreign secretary Robin Cook, who had accompanied the Queen during her visit to India and Pakistan, had offered British mediation on Kashmir. So annoyed was Gujral with the British foreign secretary over his offer on Kashmir that he went to the extent of terming Britain a ‘third-rate power.’

“Who actually is a third-rate power?” Praful asks, adding, “Such thinking is in evidence in our elite’s growing nuclear nationalism, and the hope that India will get a Security Council seat although she has the world’s largest collection of poor and illiterate people and is a third-rate economic power.”

Arrogance comes with power. If the American president, for instance, behaves arrogantly in world affairs, it will make some sense. The USA of the 1990s is generally perceived as a sole superpower. Therefore, in his last State of the Union address, President Clinton had remarked proudly that it was America’s duty to restore peace and order in the world. That he was criticized for this statement is another matter.

The point is that in the world of real politics, whichever nation is more powerful is likely to behave more arrogantly. Then what has made the Indian ruling elite to behave so arrogantly in the last few weeks? It’s military power? Proclaimed status as the wold’s biggest consumer market? Successful economic performance? Or, the belief of its present leaders that the world’s great powers—most importantly, the United States—take it very seriously?

Living in a world of illusions, the Indian leaders are seemingly maintaining a wrong perception that somehow America has finally recognized their country’s preponderance in the region. The fact is that various US leaders visiting this region—starting from former defense secretary William Perry in January 1995 to last week’s visit by under-secretary of state Thomas Pickering—have made it clear that this policy is based on nothing but the principle of even-handedness.

Two manifestations of this evenhandedness are reflected in America’s current policy on nuclear and Kashmir issues. Unlike the past, the United States is no more exercising unilateral pressure on Pakistan. Instead, as Virginia Foran of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US thinktank, also explained recently at a seminar here, Washington seems to have accepted the nuclear-status quo in the region. Secondly, the US continues to term Kashmir as a disputed territory. The Indians hated former assistant secretary of state Robin Raphel for calling Kashmir a disputed territory. Now, Raphel’s successor Karl Inderfurth in a last week House committee hearing on October 22 also termed Kashmir a “long-standing problem in South Asia”.

As Praful Bidwai wrote in The Times of India, “India’s performance since Independence has at times been embarrassing, even disgraceful as regards poverty and illiteracy. Before India even claims to become a world power, it has to liberate some 400 million people form bondage, grinding poverty and the lack of capability. On the latest World Bank projections, an optimistic 5.8 per cent growth rate will see India’s share of world GDP doubling by 2020 to just 2.1 per cent—one half that of China’s, less than Brazil’s (population 150 million) 2.5 and Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines’ (combined population 147 million) 2.4 –compared to 71 per cent for the high income countries.”

One of the main reasons behind, what Praful terms, “rosy myths” and “arrogant platitudes” of the Indian ruling elite is its nuclear nationalism. Indian leaders believe, and wrongly so, that since India has a large-scale military potential, including the undeclared nuclear weapons, it should be categorized as a great world power and given a permanent place in the UN Security Council. “Had there been a military short cut to global power status, then Israel should also have applied for the permanent UNSC membership,” argues Praful.