NEW DELHI: Ashley Tellis is an old friend and I was more than a little surprised at this gratis advisory, delivered recently. (If India keeps diluting its liberal character, the West will be a less eager partner, Ashley Tellis September 23, 2020, https://theprint.in/opinion/if-india-keeps-diluting-its-liberal-character-the-west-will-be-a-less-eager-partner/506160/) Known for his circumspection and for his role in the improvement of India-U.S. ties in the Bush-Vajpayee era and even later, his latest outburst seems out of character. Or maybe not, since the U.S. now has India as a budding defence market even though we did not buy the American fighter aircraft and preferred the French product. The American military-industrial complex would not have forgiven this transgression by the Indians. So, an attempt to further American defence interests by an American is perfectly understandable. That is how it should be and that is how any reasonable national should also be expected to do for his country.
The other possibility is that now that the U.S. has achieved what it set out to do long ago and it took nearly two decades to get there, tying up the Indian military establishment more closely with the American, U.S. can now throw away any restraint it might have had in criticising India. America can now tell us not only where we are going wrong, which is fine among friends, and then advise Indians what is good for us in a manner that also conveys a threat. This is not so good. Now for some specific comments.
Re need to indegenise defence production. Comment: True, all equipment need not be made in India. But no, this decision is driven by threat assessments, cost of equipment and the need to be independent of supplies which in the past tended to dry up for strategic and partisan considerations of the supplier. Besides, no major power can be a major power unless it is reasonably self-sufficient in the means to defend itself and maybe sell the equipment to others, a page from American practices.
Re unlike China, India has seen its rise widely welcomed. Comment: No, China’s cooperation was assiduously sought since the times of Nixon, welcomed in the West and human rights were never an issue until things began to go wrong recently.
Re U.S. & many other Western powers jumping at the prospect of aiding India’s ascent, presuming that it would not misuse its power against its own citizens or its neighbours. Comment: This is rich, coming from a country that has liberally pounced on its neighbours, adversaries—real and imagined—globally in the last 70 years. In defence of freedom, undoubtedly. And of course, Black Lives Matter.
Re policies widely perceived to be illiberal have eroded this confidence, like revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, CAA, possible NRC, seen as a weakening commitment to liberalism… moves have not satisfied India’s minority groups or others concerned about India’s direction. Comment: This bit about CAA, NRC, minority groups and so on is a typical cold war-style narrative—amid lootings, violence, and arson in the U.S.—highly out of place.
Re The community of liberal democracies internationally stands to lose if domestic unrest fueled by confrontational politics stymies India’s growth or if India enlarges its material capabilities only by sacrificing its liberal character. Either outcome would dilute the West’s eagerness to partner with India. Comment: Clearly holding out a threat. Nothing of the sort dampened western enthusiasm in dealing with China and making that country even stronger as can be seen by its behaviour since early 2020. The West continued to happily deal with China and adjusted policy despite Chinese practices of oppression. Profit was the motive, now running thin.
Re realization of potential will require New Delhi to deepen its economic reforms in order to expand its national power, use that power to strengthen the liberal international order in partnership with its fellow democracies, and remain a credible example of how liberal politics can advance development in large, diverse countries outside of the West. On each count, India will have to meaningfully correct course if it is to achieve these ambitious aims. Comment: Three advisories, delivered gratis but sounding ominous like an ultimatum.
An American friendship is valuable to India. Surely the reverse should be true as well. In the midst of falling and failing democracies, we have held our ground; not perfectly, not ideally but then democracies are imperfect and inefficient. We need time, and please remember the U.S., nearly 270 years after independence still does not have a woman president. Transfer of power in India has always been through the ballot. Our friends need to be patient because we got so far after independence because the majority has been and will be intrinsically moderate.
(The author is former chief, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). This article first appeared on soodvikram.blogspot.com. It has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.)