Poverty as a strategic weapon!

  • China capable of economic offensive against India
  • Nuclear-free South Asia is panacea
  • 77% of Indians live on Rs 20 a day
  • More than half of Indians own not more than 4.5 of total wealth
  • Top 10 percent own 74%
  • This national weakness could be exploited by enemies

(Vithal Rajan)

Wars have always had an economic base for conflict. Analysts postulate that even the long-forgotten Trojan War was about which power controlled the trade routes in the Aegean, and certainly not about a beautiful woman. The great victories of Genghis Khan brought untold wealth to the Mongol nomads and led to their suzerainty over China and most of the known world. The colonial wars of the British secured for them world supremacy in the 19th century from the Treaty of Vienna to the Treaty of Versailles.

Vithal Rajan PhotoThe American Civil War signalled a change in military fortunes. From then on, the stronger economy won wars, not brilliant strategists like Napoleon. In similar fashion, the break-up of the Soviet Union signaled another military change, though this has not been so clearly recognized. The Cold War was a silent economic war, and the Soviets who lost were ground under by their incapacity to match America in production, in living standards, and even more importantly in the arms race. From now on, all major wars will be similar silent wars fought out ruthlessly on the economic front.

The age of trans-border wars has definitely passed. Such major wars that occurred after the end of World War II have been defeats for the transgressor, namely the Vietnam and the Afghanistan wars, one of which wrecked the American economy, while the other brought an end to the Soviet empire. Even the Chinese offensive against Vietnam in its post-war period ended in a bloody Chinese nose. But the threat of intrusions remains potent, and is used cleverly by military players to weaken the economic contender. The purpose of such threats is to divert resources into building up unusable military inventories, while taking them away from civil usage, from increasing living standards, building up industries, or creating employment. The weaker economy will succumb to economic penetration, and leave it an ‘economic client.’

With the rise of economic warfare, the strategic importance of holding territory has also shrunk significantly. In fact, where there is a dissident population, the need to control territory becomes a destabilizing factor. Rapid decolonization after World War II was more a recognition of this strategic fact, than a gesture of democratic goodwill on the part of imperial powers. Mountbatten pushed through the processes of Partition of India at breakneck speed, and De Gaulle agreed to free Algeria to save their own weakened countries from more misfortune. Russian acquiescence to letting go of the territories of Tsarist expansion into Central Asia is a similar token of present-day strategic thinking. The Chinese offer of a cease-fire after their victory in the 1962 border war with India, and unexpected withdrawal from areas rich in oil can be counted as a significant and early recognition of this strategic reality.

In the 21st century India remains critically weak in economic terms. The Arjun Sengupta committee proclaimed that 77% of Indians live on Rs. 20 a day. A UNDP Human Development Report placed 481 million Indians under multi-dimensional poverty, especially in the politically sensitive BIMARU states. The most recent Credit Suisse study of wealth inequalities shows that the gap between the very rich and most of India has been growing at an alarming rate during the last two decades. Half of India’s peoples own no more than 4.5% of to total wealth, while the top 10% corners 74%! The weakness created by inequality is dangerously masked by an overall growth rate in the tertiary sector, buoyed up by the IT consultancy bubble, which could be burst any day by a conservative America. The agriculture sector which provides a failing livelihood to the great majority of Indians is periodically devastated by floods and droughts, and incoherently neglected by governments which falsely imagine they can continue to reply on rural vote banks. Senior bureaucrat, PS Appu, former director of the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, had once ominously warned: ‘Writing about conditions in France on the eve of the Revolution, Hilaire Belloc famously observed: “Government is a thing that guides, and if need be, compels. Visible in France there is not such a thing.” Regrettably, India is heading towards that kind of situation.’ The new Modi government promises to compel, but that might not serve unless it also learns to guide.

Such a situation of national weakness will necessarily be exploited as the British exploited dissension among Indian rajahs in the 18th and 19th centuries. At least in those days, Tipu Sultan saw clearly what danger British power posed to India, but unfortunately none today observes the strategic point d’appui on which a strong economic power will exert unbearable pressure. None of the old imperial powers can exert such economic pressure on India. Not even the United States, whose economic offensive lies in the areas of military supplies, high-end pharmaceuticals, and other expensive goods. Only China can exert sufficient pressure to break the back of the Indian economy and it has already started, with a wide range of manufactures selling in India at half the cost of local goods. Today, Chinese-made benarasi brocade sells at half the local price in Varanasi! Indian leaders would do well to remember the role of Manchester cloth in ruining the trade in Indian textiles, for millennia the backbone of Indian wealth and industry, and the shared employment source which kept amity between Hindus and Muslims. It would be improvident to imagine that Chinese economic incursion into India will table out as their own costs of production rise. Indians should remember how VO Chidambaram’s Swadeshi Steamship company was bankrupted by the British offering everyone free passage to Ceylon, and even free saris to women travellers.

To paraphrase Clausewitz, if economics is warfare through other means, Indian strategists must focus on new methods to combat such ‘intrusions’ in the 21st century, and not plan according to 19th century theories. The Chinese seem to have a clear roadmap for world supremacy. Their greatest contender is the present-day super-power, The United States of America, hamstrung by its own outdated perceptions of its vital interests. The needs of global policing drain the American economy of any hope of early recovery. The Chinese courageously buy vast amounts of dollars to keep American manufactures uncompetitive compared to the Chinese, and are launched on the road of investing in America and colonizing it. If the Roman Empire was unable to withstand the tide of Vandals it once employed, it seems unlikely America will withstand the pressure of a Chinese buyout.

This larger world drama leaves India alone on the margins. If we are to survive in the 21st century, we must as soon as possible focus on our internal economy, institute strict normative rules of governance, and achieve manageable peace on all our borders. The Indian land armies are more than capable of preserving territorial integrity. A deadly nuclear arms race can bleed our economy to death. Such weapons can never be considered secure in the hands of the unreliable Pakistani military elite. This very real danger presents a potent threat, and will lead arms dealers and their governments to impose on India and Pakistan the need to maintain and improve on such weapons. Such pressure while fatal for a civilian government might be joyfully accepted by a ruling military elite. It is imperative that India should push for a nuclear-free South Asia through all possible diplomatic means. That several other powers are so armed, or are capable of being so armed, does not weigh in the strategic balance as much as India’s need to address maximum resources to its internal economic front. Without nuclear weapons, Pakistan offers no threat to India, except being a launching pad for low-intensity terrorist attacks, which will remain as an irritant till that country gains a fully responsible civilian government. This, despite the fact that the United States of America will continue to fund and arm the Pakistani military in its own national interest of securing an encircling ring around middle-eastern oil.

The main strategic question involves the long border India shares with China, and that country’s intention towards India. In the light of present-day realities, and China’s own power trajectory, it is unreasonable to expect a border war or even an incursion. What India can expect is the ever-present threat of such action from China so that India’s resources are tied-up in non-developmental expenditures and in military inventory build-ups. While the Chinese leadership is coldly calculating, it is also reasonable to expect that that collective is made up of hawks and doves with power tensions playing between them. India should play on such tensions by systematically defusing situations, and systematically offering confidence building measures. It is also important to recognize that however cerebral a leadership might be, it would be influenced by its history, by past fears, angers, and trauma. The terrible century the Chinese experienced from the time of the opium wars and the western ‘open door’ policy right up to the cruelties of the Japanese invasion and Kuomintang rule has seared their imagination. Chinese diplomatic policy towards Japan, for instance, is conditioned unreasonably and disfunctionally, by such memories. Indian engagement with the Tibetan question, partly informed by idealism, partly by CIA-directed real-politick and partly by bravado, has continued to colour Chinese perceptions towards Indian intentions. Indian leaders need to appreciate the real significance of such fears and take corrective measures. Irresponsible statements targeting China, as the one made by George Fernandez when he was Defence Minister, must be swiftly withdrawn and the erring politician disowned. Will all this produce a rapprochement between India and China? Unlikely, but Indian leaders must know what game the Chinese are playing, what the rules are of that game, and devise a home-grown strategy to produce at least a draw as they go down to the wire with real-politick manoeuvres.

Any algorithm that is written to lead to Indian national security must include the drastic reduction, if not the elimination, of present high levels of poverty. If a pathway is chosen to strengthen Indian-American relations as a step to check Chinese ambitions in South Asia, this cannot be put in place securely unless Indian purchasing power increases greatly to lock in with the American market. An increase in purchasing power is a resultant of diminishing poverty levels. If the aim is to secure a friendly government in Pakistan, rising incomes in India following the development of the secondary manufacturing sector and its agricultural base will irresistibly attract Pakistanis towards similar economic modernization and lead to an economic community in South Asia. It should be remembered that a similar process occurred in Europe to end the age-old enmity between France and Germany. The right way to end the Naxalite problem in Chattisgarh and other forested areas, as pointed out by Mr. Ajit Jogi, former Congress CM, is by providing schools, hospitals and amenities to tribals and not by way of the Green Hunt or other draconian measures. In other words, by removal of dire poverty among the tribal poor. Economic development also holds the key to the peaceful settlement of the Kashmir valley, whatever form the political solution might take. What is stated here is not a mere repetition of the guns or butter debate, but an assertion that butter forms a better defensive shield than guns.

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