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Can India Be Cunning?

By Expert Author: Suba Chandran

That was the deliberately provocative title given by Kishore Mahbubani to his K. Subrahmanyam Memorial lecture on March 4. In a way the title was in line with K. Subrahmanyam’s personality which, as all those who knew him, would vouch, was highly individualistic, assertive, and combative.

Mahbubani was aware that this title would arouse curiosity, and was at great pains to explain himself. Mahbubani argued that cunning was not a negative concept, but meant to convey that it would best serve India’s interests in the emerging multipolar world. India’s earlier adherence to ideologies like anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, or non-alignment had adequately served its national interests in the post-World War II and Cold War years, but was now passé. In fact, India should, hark back to the Mahabharata that did not eschew, but deified, cunning if it served the larger national interests.

Thereafter, Mahbubani explained how and why countries, especially the major powers, are cunning; suggested that India is “ sail(ing) into a geopolitical sweet spot”, but could sail through without exploiting this situation; while finally suggesting how India could become more cunning.

That great powers are cunning to achieve these national interests hardly require any belaboring. The United States has set itself forth as a “beacon of freedom and liberty”, while supporting the most hideous dictatorships and autocracies. Similarly, other major powers “given a choice between national interests and moral causes… put national interests first.” Mahbubani noted that China had defused the Taiwan Straits crisis in the late fifties by isolating Taiwan while cultivating the Taiwanese people. Thereby, trade and travel between China and Taiwan has increased manifold, while the possibility of conflict has receded.

How could India exploit its “sweet spot” situation in the emerging multipolar world? Mahbubani argued that China’s rise was of concern to the United States, Japan, Europe and Russia; hence they were wished to cultivate India as a potential ‘balancer’, appreciating its growing national power. Mahbubani advised that India should “also (be) developing equally close relations with China, especially on the trade and economic front.“ No doubt, developing close relations with China would serve India’s interests. But, China’s hostility to India was evident. It had laid claims to Arunachal Pradesh, activated the Sino-Indian border by intrusions; given military and nuclear assistance to Pakistan to confront India and so on. It could therefore be argued with considerable felicity that India’s best interests lay in seeking an equable relationship with China, but in countering its policy to keep India off-balance by deepening its (India’s) relations with the major powers that are concerned with China’s far-from-peaceful rise. Further, China’s current foreign policy activism in the East and South China Sea is uniting its neighbors in Northeast, East, and Southeast Asia against itself. Moreover, the U.S. pivot towards Asia seeks to checkmate China by aligning with its estranged neighborhood, which includes India. There is no reason why India should eschew the possibilities of exploiting this situation to serve its best interests.

How India could also use cunning? This part of Mahbubani’s talk was most disappointing and revealed a startling naiveté. He argued that India should state that it will not accept the decisions of the UN Security Council unless the membership of the Council was reviewed. Having throw down the gauntlet in this fashion India should abandon its G 4 partners, Germany, Brazil and Japan that are also seeking permanent membership in the Security Council. He favored, instead, a 7-7-7 formula to achieve UN Security Council reform. This formulation envisages a Security Council having seven permanent seats, seven semi-permanent seats, and seven elected seats to replace the current 15-member set up. Allocation of permanent and semi-permanent membership would be based on a country's share of the global GNP, or its share of global population. Thereby, the seven permanent members would be the United States, China, Russia, one seat for the European Union, Brazil, India, and Nigeria. It requires no great perspicacity to discover that this proposal going nowhere, since Britain and France—the present permanent members of the Security Council--are unlikely to pass a self-denying ordinance against themselves.

Mahbubani went further by advocated that India use cunning in dealing with Pakistan adopting the Chinese strategy towards Taiwan. Hence, India should distinguish its government-to-government relations from its people-to-people relations. India could also use the “soft power” of Bollywood to win the hearts and minds of Pakistani citizens. He seemed oblivious to the convoluted nature of estranged India-Pakistan relations, the dominance of its military over its foreign and national security apparatus, or the practical obstacles in improving people-to-people relations like the restrictive visa regime, and the severely controlled trade relationship—all functioning under the baleful glare of the security and intelligence agencies in the two countries.

All in all, Mahbubani would have done well to recollect the ancient wisdom that things can be simplified, but they cannot be over-simplified. That applies to the complex international and regional problems that are currently excoriating the international system.

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