India no banana republic but treads fine line
Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
Many hubristic public figures who often proclaim, in the media, that “India is no banana republic”, may be less strident, if they learnt the actual implications of such a label. It is not merely a term used for small Central American dictatorships whose economies depend on export of bananas, but has a wider connotation. According to economic theory, a country qualifies as a “banana republic” if it is “operated as an enterprise, for private profit from the exploitation of its national resources, by collusion between ruling politicians and favoured monopolies.” While its “legislators are for sale,” government officials “exploit their posts for personal gain through bribery, corruption and nepotism”, the central government is so ineffective that “it cannot provide public services and has little control over much of its territory.”
The uncanny familiarity of these attributes is a grim reminder of the snide aphorism that one hears from foreigners: “Everything that you hear about India is true; but so is the opposite.” India treads a thin line; a nuclear-weapon state and growing economy, aspiring to great-power eminence; it is, simultaneously, a nation negotiating a slippery slope from which it could easily plunge into the abyss of banana republic status. As we have seen in the past few years, all it takes for such a precipitous fall from grace (in the prophetic words of Winston Churchill) is for power to go “to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters… and men of straw”.
The test of a nation’s mettle and the calibre of its leadership is a crisis situation. Whether it is a natural disaster, terrorist strike, hijacking or trans-border incursion, the Indian state’s response to any emergency has followed a depressingly familiar sequence. The onset of a crisis finds the organs of state caught unawares and the leadership stricken with paralysis.
The multiple ministries, departments and agencies involved, pull in different directions, lacking coordination and a firm hand on the tiller. Frenzied and haphazard damage-control measures, eventually, bring the situation under control, mostly with the military’s help. A phase of national breast-beating follows, accompanied by a free-wheeling blame-game. The state apparatus, thereafter, relapses into its earlier comatose condition – no wiser and unrepentant – to await the next disaster.
This is not an indulgence in hyperbole, because having seen such episodes occur many times over, in the recent past, most of us have reconciled ourselves to the Indian state’s sub-standard performance and even learned to rationalise it with the sad home-spun aphorism: “We are like that only.” Our fatalistic acceptance of incompetence and inefficiency, coupled with tolerance for venality, and the low worth we place on human life and dignity, promise to brand India as a second-rate nation – even if it becomes a great power.
It was, perhaps, in the hope that he would rescue India from such a fate, that the electorate swept Narendra Modi to power with an unprecedented majority. So far, Mr Modi has not disappointed. An example is the demonstration he provided, not just of his nonconformist approach but also, of moral courage, by broaching the taboo topics of cleanliness, sanitation and public defecation on Independence Day. Accustomed as we are, to soporific speeches full of anodyne sentiments, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Modi’s blunt words have woken the nation to the grim reality of our garbage-strewn cities, towns and villages; and the need to do something about it. As if to emphasise his commitment to clean up India, Modi had the chutzpah to include this topic, even in the recent Washington Post editorial that he jointly issued with President Obama.
While the PM must be allowed to savour the well-earned hosannas for his recent foreign-policy triumphs, including the hugely successful US visit, he needs to focus urgent attention to the domestic scene, which is fraught with hazards. He would have noted the unexpected rebuke delivered by the pragmatic Indian voter, during recent assembly elections, to his party; the underlying message being that religious rabble-rousing cannot be a substitute for promises of good governance and achhe din made during the election campaign. At a juncture when maintenance of domestic harmony represents the most crucial challenge before this government, stoking divisive sentiments for political gains, would be most deleterious to national security.
Apart from unrest in Kashmir, lingering insurgencies in the North-Eastern states and frequent outbreaks of communal violence, the most serious internal security threat to the nation arises from the violent Naxal movement, running through half of India’s 29 states. This 47-year-old movement is a clear manifestation of the Indian state’s dismal failure in delivering on agrarian reforms, poverty alleviation and social justice to our poor, landless and deprived masses. By treating a socio-economic problem as a law and order issue and throwing poorly trained para-military forces at it, successive governments have exposed their scanty vision and lack of strategic thought-process.
India looks forward to a putative “demographic dividend”, which is expected to provide a boost to the economy and open a narrow window which may permit India to catch up, economically, with an ageing China. However, the exploitation of this dividend demands that government educate, train and create jobs for 100-200 million young persons in the next two decades. Should we stumble or fail in this task, many of these youth could end up swelling the ranks of Naxalites.
It is against such a daunting domestic backdrop that Mr Modi needs to scan the external horizon for the unique combination of security threats confronting India. At one end of the spectrum is the twin nuclear threat posed by neighbours China and Pakistan, with the latter foolishly brandishing tactical nuclear weapons of late; at the other end is the menace of jihadi terror outfits which have openly declared India as a target and form an integral part of Pakistan’s low-cost war of a “thousand cuts” against us. There is, of course, the ever-present possibility of conventional armed conflict with China or Pakistan – or both in collusion.
As Pakistan jockeys for domination of Afghanistan, wherein it wants influence as well as “strategic depth”, and China resolutely seeks hegemony across the Indo-Pacific region through the establishment of a maritime silk route, these arenas promise to become the twin crucibles where India’s strategic acumen and diplomatic skills are going to be tested shortly. With few cards – economic or military – to play, India would need to employ a skilful hedging strategy and buy a breathing-spell for itself.
Given such a fragile strategic environment, one would have expected the new government to bring sharp focus to bear on national security issues, which have suffered egregious neglect for, at least, a decade if not more. It is, therefore, disheartening to note that defence and security have not received the pre-eminence that they deserve in the national agenda. In BJP’s 2014 Election Manifesto, security related matters are discussed, somewhat haphazardly, almost at the bottom of a long list of 75 issues, under the unusual heading: “External Security – its Boundary, Beauty and Bounty”.
A far more worrisome message is being sent out by the government not appointing a full-time Raksha Mantri (RM) to manage the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for four long months. It hardly needs reiteration that India fields a million and a half strong military and is a nuclear weapon state with a three-legged deterrent. A hiatus of this nature would certainly cause further damage, to this vital ministry, already suffering from a decade of lethargy, indecision and myopic vision.