Despite appearances to the contrary, India’s position has shifted little since the days of the Cold War, though the superficial media spin may like you to believe otherwise.
India’s history with the transatlantic alliance has, for much of its history, been problematic. On one hand, for Indian society at large, the values and lifestyle of the US-Europe compact were aspirational, both in terms of looking up to the West, from an academic standpoint, as an anthropological end goal, as well as the West being a prime destination for economic migration. Politically however, there was a sharp contrast. The rapid industrialisation of agrarian states that socialism seemed to achieve, was seen as desirable in what was and remains a desperately poor country. Being the only democracy that refused to tow a moral line with regards to personal freedoms put India at odds with the US-Europe grouping. Geopolitically, India’s cardinal goal was to prevent any single power or grouping from monopolising Asia’s resources: In this case the Sino-Soviet compact. The problem was that while the US and Europe shared the exact same political goal as India in breaking the Sino-Soviet alliance, the methods used were different. The West, sure of its economic and military strength, preferred confrontation. India preferred persuasion, using it cleverly to play divide-and-rule through the 1950s and 1960s. These efforts paid off when India became one reason in a complex set of issues that led to the Sino-Soviet split.
The question now is what exactly has changed? Very little. The love for socialism is alive and kicking, in the process destroying what few gains India made from liberalising the economy in 1991. If the fantasy of the 1950s and 60s was that India could industrialise without reeling from the intense social consequences of one of the most disruptive processes in history, it was mistaken. Elections ensured the pain inflicted was at best temporary and gains reversed in short order. The fantasy of the 21st century is that somehow India can “leapfrog” industrialisation, despite statistics on the ground indicating otherwise, not to mention the anthropological impossibility of transitioning to an information age economy without the necessary human value-addition enabled by mastering the manufacturing cycle. India’s best and brightest continue to migrate abroad, and India’s so-called innovation is not cutting-edge, new knowledge, but rather price point innovation of existing knowledge. A self-proclaimed “right-wing” government, that far from helping businesses and the medium-to-small sector grow, seems to be doubling down on socialism to the point that they make several communist parties look like raging capitalists. India’s labour laws remain stuck in socialist paradise, and land registry is a nightmare; the combined effects of which mean India has not attracted any big-ticket investment in the last decade or so. India’s human resources remain abysmally trained, with a failed education system that incentivizes rote learning over problem solving and a job market incapable of absorbing the output. The latest statistics contrast 13 million ostensibly “trained” young people that India puts out every year to the mere 200,000 to 1.1 million who find employment, depending on whose statistics you choose to believe. Already, social tensions are boiling over in a significant increase in societal violence over the last few years due to intensified resource competition. While India has achieved a lot socially since it achieved independence, it is stuck in a rut where getting out is difficult, due to a lackadaisical approach to collecting data, an enforcement deficit, the structural limitations of the education system, as well as a lack of economic empowerment.
In this scenario, how does “Transatlantia” or “The West” fit into India’s jigsaw? The belief was that the highly disposable income market would absorb Indian products, which would be given preferential treatment over Chinese products. However the realization that India has failed comprehensively to produce, leave alone wrest anything away from China, means that the paradigm has shifted. A recent belief was that the West would provide a fertile market for information age Indian services. Again this has failed, as creators prefer shifting to the achievement- and heresy- friendly climes of Silicon Valley and the lower-end Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) remains stuck without any value addition due to the educational crisis and investment glut discussed earlier. The latest fantasy is that additive manufacturing will help India where manufacturing and services failed. Again, what this fails to realise is that at the lower end it will replace long-distance transport and hurt China’s exports, and, at the high end, lower the cost and technology threshold for complex 3D manufacturing that augments western technological superiority. Neither of these scenarios benefit India. Economically then, India’s attachment to the West remains aspirational, in the hopes that some of its daydreams take off.
Politically speaking, three points will determine the relationship: Human security, technology and Russia. The first is Europe’s human security focus versus India’s state security focus with all it entails for sovereignty, human rights and the responsibility to protect. Actions like regime change that stem from this human security approach, India views with alarm and deep consternation. Second is the current climate of technology and knowledge denial to China, contrasted with the permissive regime of allowing India to procure high-tech military equipment. This is key to keeping the military advantage in India’s favour. Again this is illusory, as western technology is simply the tip of an iceberg — an ecosystem of high human value-addition and a vast ISR apparatus that India neither understands nor can acquire due to the educational problems discussed earlier. Finally there is the question of the West isolating Russia and pushing it closer by the day to China, in the hope that the latter will exercise a restraining influence on former. No matter how beneficial to Europe such Chinese-enforced restraint might be for Europe, for India, a Russia dependent on China is a foreign policy cataclysm.
In an ideal world where India had its act together, and was a self-confident rising power, a strong Transatlantia and India could be the best of friends. Unfortunately when the “India Rising” story is mostly smoke and shadow, the relationship will remain stagnant at best and distrustful at worst. This will manifest itself as foot-dragging and diffidence on India’s part, but the sooner the West realises the root causes and stops deluding itself, the better for everyone involved.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Dehli, India.