India’s Asian Ambitions Face Risks at Home

With the political fate of Australian Prime Minister John Howard hanging by a thread, and the departure early last month of Shinzo Abe from Japan's political stage, the "conservative spring” in the Asia-Pacific political region is coming to an end. George Bush, Howard and Abe, the three leading spirits of that abortive revolution, can now do little but gaze wistfully at their catalogue of unfinished tasks.

Somewhere high on that list is bound to be their ambition of seeing India appointed a strategic partner in South Asia, both to act as an anchor of stability in a region rife with failed or failing states and as a democratic counterweight to authoritarian China.

In a sign that the dream is not dead, warships from the US, Australia, Japan, India and Singapore staged last August a drill in the Bay of Bengal, named Malabar 07, marking a major expansion of what began 12 years ago as a purely US-India naval exercise.

But as the accompanying shrill protests by the Indian Marxists against both the naval exercise and a separate Indo-US civil nuclear pact indicate, any alliance - formal or unwritten ‑ that ties New Delhi closer to Washington and its allies, is likely to end up as a political football in a country otherwise addicted to cricket.

It is not that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leaders of the ruling Congress party are instinctively opposed to hitching the country's fortunes to any project that carries some geopolitical risk.

Nor is it that India, with its stable democracy, billion-strong population, galloping economy and powerful military, would be a misfit in the four-way partnership envisaged by Bush and Abe. However, as with other important issues such as modernization of airports, foreign investment in the retail sector and labor reforms, what is lacking on the part of India's political rulers is the conviction and authority to implement a strategic vision that befits the country's emerging-power status and responsibilities.

Consequently, the interaction between India and its aspiring strategic allies is happening almost by stealth, and is of a piece with defense and economic cooperation with several other countries, including the two powers most suspicious of this putative alliance ‑ China and Russia.

To understand the historical context of India's somewhat fuzzy foreign policy, it is useful to bear in mind that the country's evolution from a member of the Non-Aligned Movement talking shop into an aspirant for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is a work in progress. Indeed, the process of transformation would not even have commenced but for the force of economic circumstance and the foresight of a handful of politicians and bureaucrats.

Today, almost 16 years after another shaky federal government was nearly toppled after US military transport aircraft refueled at Mumbai airport during the Gulf War, India's political class continues to be vulnerable to attacks of what modern historians might call "post-Cold War stress disorder". And unless there emerges a consensus on vital questions of national interest, different political parties will try to ride off in different directions depending on their constituencies and strength in parliament. The resistance to the US-India civilian nuclear agreement is a case in point.

In the view of a great majority of Indian commentators, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's objection to the deal has little to do with its substance and all to do with posturing. After all, it was the BJP which initiated the dialogue with the US on nuclear issues that was merely expanded by the Congress-led government and the Bush administration.

The hostility of leftists to the agreement, however, is regarded by the some pundits, rightly or wrongly, as grounded in blind anti-Americanism and reeking of hypocrisy. Vir Sanghvi, one of India's best known media personalities, summed up the arguments in a recent harsh op-ed: "The leftists ... have emerged as the parties of stubborn, unsmiling, unelected commissars, drunk on their own power, bereft of any ideological consistency, hungry for publicity and eager to blackmail the legally elected government of India."

The irony is unmistakable in that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the smaller Communist Party of India owe in large measure their present influential position in the foreign-policy debate, to the Congress-led government's dependence on their support in parliament.

Now they are pressuring the ruling coalition to put the nuclear deal into cold storage, having earlier announced their intention to oppose the government's planned next step to make it operational and hold talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group.

According to the Indian political analyst Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, even if the US converts the agreement into law, no US supplier will look at India until it passes a nuclear-liability protection law.

"Since the Congress-led coalition lacks a majority in parliament, it cannot pass any legislation without your support. By refusing to support legislation, you can ensure that the agreement is not operationalized," Aiyar wrote in an open letter to Prakash Karat, the CPI (M) general secretary, in August. Were such a fate to befall the showpiece of the US-India strategic partnership, it would be the communists' biggest coup to date.

Even if the communists do not succeed in derailing the deal, emboldened by their experience they are sure to raise a ruckus in the future against every instance of perceived convergence between Indian and Western positions on important international issues. For the foreseeable future any Asia partnership of which India is a pillar is doomed at best to uncertainty and at worst to failure, assuming the next crop of leaders in the US, Japan and Australia revive the idea.

There is nothing wrong in fantasizing about an India that is economically as strong and militarily as powerful as China, yet a force for moral good and stability from Sudan to Burma and from human rights to currency convertibility. Indeed, such a role is sure to find its biggest support within India, given public admiration for open societies and free markets, and deep abhorrence of authoritarianism and radicalism.

But the stark reality is that Indian politicians, especially leftists, lag behind the national curve on major policy issues. Many of them heard Abe speak about creating "an arc of freedom and prosperity" and a "broader Asia partnership" incorporating Japan, India, Australia and the US during an impassioned speech to the Indian parliament in August.

Yet, within days, Karat, the Marxists' leader, was warning Prime Minister Singh to be careful about choosing his friends. And who did he have in mind? Abe, Bush, Howard and Tony Blair.

Arnab Sengupta, currently based in Qatar, has held senior editorial positions at India Today magazine and Dubai's Khaleej Times daily.