India’s Brexit Moment
Sashi Tharoor has done a pretty thorough job of debunking the pretentions put forward by journalist-historians, like Niall Ferguson, that the Raj conferred several benefits on India and other colonies. However, what is yet to be written about is the destructive stranglehold imperial memories continue to have on the guardians of Whitehall and of the South Block in Delhi. Britain was the most powerful and richest country in Europe when the European Economic Community was shaped in 1957, but it stood out grandly talking about its Commonwealth ties. When it grudgingly agreed to join Europe in 1962, De Gaulle refused to have such an uncertain partner mess up the new emerging Europe. The Labour Party belatedly brought Britain into Europe in the 1970s, but nostalgia for the grand old days when Britain ruled most of the world has brought it to a miserable parting, with the Brexit referendum. What lies ahead for Britain no one knows, but certainly it is neither prosperity nor importance.
The new generation of Indian babus in the Ministry of External Affairs and in the Prime Minister’s Office may never have heard the magnificent strains of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ march, but Lutyen’s Delhi undoubtedly continues to reverberate to that music and subliminally influence national decisions. Otherwise, it is somewhat incomprehensible to understand why India so petulantly refused to attend the opening meet of the visionary One Belt One Road conference in Beijing, involving delegates from almost half of the world’s countries, including America, Japan and Russia, with Putin himself signifying its importance with a personal appearance. Indian opinion makers from the Left and the Centre showed a rare uniformity by urging the government to attend with a positive view.
India’s objections to the OBOR can be summarized as follows: The branch line of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor passed through Gilgit and Balkistan over which India claimed historical sovereignty; the design of the project was ‘colonial’ in intent; participating countries may be left with uneconomic infrastructure; and the possibility of Chinese banks bailing out these would amount to enlarged Chinese control.
Indians would be glad to be reminded of government’s interest in the remote Gilgit region inhabited by less than two million persons, but home to five great peaks above 8000 metres high and over fifty peaks only slightly lower in height, besides three of the world’s great glaciers. The people of this wild area along with others in the tribal belt to the west of Pakistan’s Punjab province fought against nominal British rule, and continue to fight against even more tenuous Pakistani governance. It is worth considering whether the Indian government’s benign interest in their welfare may not be violently misconstrued by these warlike tribes jealous of their independence. It might be wiser not to press too hard on our right to govern this area.
The ‘colonial’ aspect of the revival of the Silk Road by China is inescapable since China by far is the most powerful and economically most dominant country in Asia. This is an inarguable fact of the 21st century, and leaders of all countries must shape their policies in accordance with this political reality. Further, there is every expectation that China will become the strongest world economy, surpassing America within the next few decades. To opt out of engagement with the dominant power is a bit like the dead-end autarkic stance of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. It is best to be on the negotiating table, along with other partner countries, big and small, and press for the best terms possible. It is simple commonsense that it is best to be in at the very start when terms are still nebulous, when smaller partners may join in with you to demand better terms.
The new Silk Road, like the ancient one, is focused on delivering the products of Asia to the rich consumer markets of Europe. Once, Indian textiles and crafts were valued all over the world. Studied neglect has brought ruin to several million artisanal families, with many skills being lost forever. Perhaps, this great new opportunity will open many new markets for them, with some judicious help from Indian designers and the craft councils. Any opportunity is fraught with risk which can only be mitigated by proper planning right from the start to match infrastructural development with trade volumes. Indian businesses, big and small, and our craftspeople in rural areas, have been hampered by a serious lack of infrastructure. China offers to build a grand backbone all the way to Europe, and Indian enterprises should have a right to fill it with loaded containers.
Globalization has brought in the irreversible flow of capital investment into any part of the world, whether American, European or Chinese. Trade barriers are no longer a functional concept, but more knowledgeable governance of capital markets need to be put in place. To achieve such judicious management it is imperative that India should participate fully on all negotiating tables.
There are two unspoken of issues which might bother Indian negotiators. The first is the undoubted boost the new trillion-dollar Silk Road will give to the already massive Chinese economy. But the growth of China’s economic and political power cannot be stopped by India; certainly not by opting out of the project. It is best for India to work out a share in the growing clout of Asia vis-a-vis the Western powers. The second is the strength Pakistan will acquire from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The startling expose made by the Pakistani newspaper ‘Dawn’ about China’s Long Term Plan lays bare China’s intention to modernize all of Pakistan from its agriculture to its industry to its electronic surveillance of its law and order situation. But is this a threat, or another opportunity for India? Pakistani civil society and its middle-classes, its media and its artists, have long been pushing for normalization of relations with India. They have all been regularly thwarted by the deep-state control the Pakistani military experts, and even more so by the shadowy elements within that military. Modernization, economic prosperity, and opening up of the country to the world can only dilute the power of the military and strengthen civil government. It is a prospect India should welcome.
India has become firm friends with Britain, despite the horrors of dozens of millions of famine deaths during the Raj; the destruction of its ancient textile industry; and the ruin of its prosperous farms. As Macauley predicted we share a language, a set of laws, a form of governance, and a passion for cricket. The 1962 fracas between India and China should be seen as an untoward result of the impractical idealism of Nehru, and the two Asian giants, who once shared the cultural links formed by Buddhism, should make a new start at economic interdependence.
(The writer is a reputed thinker and humanist who lives at Ketti, The Nilgiris)