Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)
Oxford University Press, 2015, 568 pp., $59.95
Getting India Back on Track: An Action Agenda for Reform
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2014, 348 pp., $19.95 (paperback)
The South Asia Papers: A Critical Anthology of Writings
Brookings Institution Press, 2016, 400 pp., $35
The Technological Indian
Harvard University Press, 2016, 400 pp., $39.95
The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience
Oxford University Press, 2015, 670 pp., $34.99
Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris
C. Hurst & Co., 2015, 288 pp., $30
Over the past 15 years, the U.S. government has devoted greater and more sustained attention to South Asia than ever before. September 11 brought America back to Afghanistan’s war and into yet another round of tortured dealings with Pakistan. Over the same period, U.S. diplomats took the historically unprecedented initiative of courting India in an attempt to reverse decades of estrangement and build a “strategic partnership” based on common interests and ideals that would bolster India as an Asian counterweight to China.
To date, the payoff from this unprecedented U.S. involvement in South Asia has been mixed at best. This is largely because U.S. policymakers face a daunting challenge in South Asia: In order for the United States to achieve its goals, India, Pakistan, and Indo-Pakistani relations all need to change in fundamental ways. And they seem not to want to do so, certainly not just to please us.
For its part, India needs to mature into the role of a serious global power, or else the strategic utility—at least in Washington’s eyes—of a partnership diminishes. Pakistan faces an even more urgent need to get its act together, first so that its military and intelligence services confront terrorism rather than foster it, and then in order to avoid the further deterioration of a nuclear-armed state with roughly 200 million citizens. Otherwise, the United States will never find a safe way to end its military operations in neighboring Afghanistan or a politically sustainable way to assist Pakistan itself. Together, India and Pakistan need to find a path toward normalization—if not peace—in their bilateral relationship or their hostilities will continue to weaken and destabilize them both.
Engineering change in other states is a tall order; any American who doesn’t know that by now has just not been paying attention. It may be especially difficult in South Asia, where populations are enormous, institutions are often weak, and history runs deep. That said, neither India nor Pakistan is static. To the contrary, both are undergoing extraordinary, and in some cases quite rapid, changes on their own. So the real question—at least for U.S. policymakers—is whether these states are moving in ways that suit U.S. purposes, and if so, whether they can be accelerated or modified by specific policy choices. Several recent books help to shed light on these issues, mainly by looking to history for clues about the changes that have already shaped the region’s recent past.
Making India Great
Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all appreciated India’s potential as the world’s largest democratic state, a vast and growing market, and the only nation on earth with the scale—if not yet the resources—to balance China.
Bill Clinton’s trip to India at the end of his presidency received gushing coverage from the Indian media and marked a major change from the chill in relations that followed India’s 1998 nuclear tests. The positive momentum continued into George W. Bush’s Administration. His national security team clearly viewed India in grand strategic terms, motivated by a view of the world in which China constituted a rising “peer competitor” unlike any the United States had seen since the Cold War. At the same time, New Delhi’s BJP-led government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee signaled its own enthusiasm for a new sort of partnership, even though it—and its successor, the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—never shed its lingering reluctance to be perceived as a traditional ally. The shock of September 11 and the launching of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq forced the Bush Administration to put many China-centric initiatives on the back burner, but top officials never lost sight of India. Their efforts bore fruit in the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear deal, an arrangement that not only permitted India to buy American high technology equipment that had previously been off limits, but also removed one of the main sticking points that had hampered the bilateral relationship for decades.
Since then, leaders in both countries have perceived the value of closer diplomatic engagement, although no similar breakthrough agreement—or even the full consolidation of gains from the civil-nuclear deal—has yet materialized. President Obama has been uncharacteristically eager to build ties with his Indian counterparts. He hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the first state dinner of his Administration and traveled to India twice. In his first visit he spoke before parliament and pledged to support India’s candidacy as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and in his second he was the “Chief Guest” at India’s Republic Day festivities. The White House also hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and again in 2016, when he addressed a joint session of Congress. These visits laid to rest Modi’s rocky history with the U.S. government—as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was denied entry into the United States in 2005 for his controversial role in the communal violence of 2002.
So India and the United States have come a long way in a relatively short stretch. The trouble, as Bharat Karnad argues in his book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), is that India has a lot more work to do before it achieves anything close to the promise that has so impressed U.S. policymakers. Karnad begins with a lament about India’s persistent lack of global ambition and vision, observing that, “the Indian government, military, and policy circles are habituated to aiming low and hitting lower.” Then, even if India were able to overcome this “absence of strategic imagination,” Karnad fears that its military is wrongly oriented (with too little focus on China), too low-tech, and poorly integrated in terms of operational and command structures. India’s arms industry, which Karnad sees as “a precondition for great power,” also needs a “radical structural/systemic rejig.” Finally, India suffers from a debilitating array of “enduring internal problems relating to the nature of politics, the governance structure, and policymaking.”
Karnad’s diagnosis of Indian failings shares common points with those of other India boosters, such as the contributors to Getting India Back on Track, a volume released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to fanfare in New Delhi just as the new Modi government took office. Whereas Karnad is principally concerned with India’s strategic vision and military capabilities, the contributors to this volume situate the most critical Indian deficit in its political economy. Co-editor Ashley Tellis writes, “India’s most conspicuous failures are still rooted in economic arrangements and political postures that derive their inspiration from various forms of utopianism,” by which he means India’s “unfortunate fling with socialism.” What follows is a series of detailed, policy-oriented chapters on topics ranging from revamping agriculture and managing urbanization to strengthening rule of law and correcting the administrative deficit.
Reading Getting India Back on Track and Why India Is Not a Great Power (Yet) side by side exposes Karnad’s policy recommendations as generally unwelcome, at least from an American point of view. For instance, quite unlike C. Raja Mohan, whose chapter on India’s foreign policy includes the advice that “revitalizing the strategic partnership with the United States must be the foundation on which the new government pursues its great power relationships,” Karnad stresses the “limits on how close India and the U.S. can, in fact, get,” clearly fearing the possibility that India will make itself a junior partner in the service of America’s imperial agenda. He ponders “just how much India-U.S. relations are hostage to fundamental policy differences and strategic compulsions.”
Many American readers will also bridle at Karnad’s recommendation that India should play a more Pakistan-like “problem child” role, by “upping New Delhi’s unpredictability quotient” and better appreciating that “nuisance has great disruptive value in foreign policy.” Karnad, who seems sometimes to be channeling Richard Nixon in his “brinksman” moments, muses that India should have made itself a “first-rate nuclear vendor,” and “rendered infructuous the entire West-dominated nonproliferation system.” He advocates “nuclear missile arming Vietnam to payback China for nuclear weaponizing Pakistan” and suggests that India should defend against a Chinese military offensive by mining Himalayan passes with atomic munitions. If a scenario exists in which India could turn itself into a pugnacious power and alienate well-wishers in Washington, Karnad probably favors it. He wins points for creativity, but one has to wonder whether many in New Delhi take his recommendations seriously.
For readers seeking a more sober analyst of the U.S.-India relationship, Stephen P. Cohen has been a resource for over fifty years, first from an academic perch, next on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, and finally from the policy/academic halfway house of the Brookings Institution. It is fitting that Cohen should release a “critical anthology of writings,” The South Asia Papers.
Cohen’s anthology is instructive for its clear demonstration of how much the U.S.-India relationship, and India itself, have already changed over the past half-century. Cohen’s earliest writings reflect an India mired in a post-colonial or Cold War mentality, and he relates how his own professional experience was shaped by India’s refusal to grant visas to American scholars in the early 1970s. But by 1980 Cohen was arguing that India (along with Japan and China) had the “potential for great power status, and quite possibly near-superpower status.” By 1997 he was considering the “critical dimensions of a possible U.S. strategic partnership with India,” based on commercial opportunities, shared interests, and a similar ideological commitment to democracy.
With the Cold War’s end, a reimagined U.S.-India relationship has had a series of champions in the White House, but its origins are deeply rooted in Indo-American educational and business ties, especially in high technology fields. As Ross Bassett’s The Technological Indian explains, our contemporary view of India as a source of seemingly limitless engineering and computer science talent was barely a dream at the time of India’s independence in 1947. Bassett painstakingly recounts how that dream became intertwined with the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school that embodied the new American ethos of engineering and science and, in its creation, represented a break from the British model of higher education. MIT also served as an important transmission belt for Indian students, initially from elite families in western India, who sought to transform themselves and their nation.
Bassett’s story draws out the connections between India’s society, politics, and technology. Along the way he partly dispels the common perception of Gandhi as “anti-technological,” presenting him instead as a Benjamin Franklin-like character committed to peacefully re-engineering Indian society and instilling values of “discipline, time-thrift, organization, and quantitative thinking,” who chronicled how one of his closest associates and a young protégé both chose to study at MIT. In the post-World War II era, Bassett situates MIT at the center of India’s effort to rewire its technological connections away from Britain and to the United States by adopting MIT as “the standard to which Indian technical education would aspire.”
Change has not come easily or rapidly for India. Yet in tracing the stories of the many “sons of leading Indians” who studied at MIT in the 1950s and 1960s, Bassett finds the roots of the Indian IT industry that burst onto the scene in the 1970s and 1980s and went global after India’s epic 1991 economic reforms. He shows how intellectual and professional networks developed between India and the United States, persisting even when official bilateral relations turned frosty. Bassett takes pains to note that the Indians profiled in his book “are a tiny elite.” Yet that elite has already “made India a participant in the world of high technology and brought Indians to the pinnacle of American technology and industry,” thereby transforming India’s future prospects and firmly linking it to the United States in ways that could be missed if we pay attention only to official state policies or formal diplomacy.
Dealing with Pakistan
America’s rooting interests in India are fairly clear. In Pakistan the situation is murkier. For over six decades, the United States has repeatedly tried to hitch Pakistan to its own strategic purposes, while Pakistan has sought to use the United States for other goals entirely. Similar patterns persist to this day.
During the Cold War, Washington intended Pakistan to serve as part of its defensive bulwark against the Soviets’ southward expansion into the Persian Gulf, first by drawing it into a treaty alliance and later by using it as a conduit for sending money and weapons to the Afghan mujahedeen. All the while, Pakistan’s leaders—usually dominated by the military—pocketed resources for the fight against their principal adversary: India. In the 1990s, Washington’s concerns quickly shifted to nuclear nonproliferation, but neither threats nor costly sanctions dissuaded Pakistan from testing, weaponizing, and even sharing its illicit technologies with other states like North Korea and Iran.
Then in 2001 the fight against al-Qaeda eclipsed all other U.S. business. The good news—that many of the world’s most notorious terrorists have been killed or captured in Pakistan—is pretty much the same as the bad news. Early on, U.S. intelligence officials were pleased with Pakistan’s cooperation against targets like September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. But by May 2011, President Obama revealed Washington’s basic distrust of the Pakistani state by launching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound without cooperation or prior warning.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan has never deviated from a decades-long strategy of asserting its influence through favored Afghan proxies. Since 2002, it is the United States that has shifted its approach, from forbearance rooted in confidence that the new Afghan state would take hold, to increasingly frustrated attempts at violent coercion of, and negotiation with, the Taliban. Thus far, at least from an American perspective, nothing has worked.
By now most U.S. policymakers, intelligence officials, and legislators have simply lost patience with Pakistan. Still, many also appreciate the risks associated with treating Pakistan solely as the adversary it too often is. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is home to roughly 200 million people with a median age of only 21 years. Lacking adequate education, health care, and good job opportunities, but surrounded by extremist ideologies and networks of sophisticated militants, too many of Pakistan’s youth have already turned to violence. This is no Somalia or Yemen—Pakistan is a big state bordering other big and important places, like China, the Arabian Sea, and Iran. Pakistan isn’t going away, at least not quietly, and there are good reasons to fear that, as difficult as Pakistan is today, its future could be far worse.
Thus the question of Pakistan’s future haunts U.S. policymakers and analysts. Christophe Jaffrelot’s The Pakistan Paradox was not written to resolve that question, precisely, but more to impress readers with just how complicated a serious answer would have to be. The author delights in the details of Pakistan’s early history, in which he perceives the origins of many of the state’s present-day troubles.
Jaffrelot identifies several core tensions that define Pakistan. The first is the sheer difficulty of governing from the capital; Pakistan’s national leaders have always tried to unify and centralize political power but cannot come to terms with the provincial, ethnic, and other interest groups that militate for greater local autonomy. Next comes the divide between Pakistan’s military and civilians. Here Jaffrelot appreciates that the surface game of alternating civilian and military governments masks an underlying reality, in which nearly all civilian political leaders play along with a dominant army to form a permanent “establishment” that protects its narrow interests at the expense of the vast majority of the population. Pakistan’s third tension is found in the competition between different conceptions of Islam. This started when Pakistan’s founders used their Muslim identity as a core justification for political separation from India. National leaders later turned Islam to violent purposes in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and those efforts gave root to Islamist social movements that the state is now only barely able to contain.
Finally, Jaffrelot blames the role of outside powers, especially the United States, for Pakistan’s continuing dysfunction. Unfortunately, his brief summary judgment—in just four pages out of nearly 650—reads like an afterthought in a book where so many other episodes are described in thorough detail. Jaffrelot charges Washington with providing aid that “spares the state from having to implement a [responsible] fiscal policy,” and infringing upon Pakistan’s sovereignty in ways that “cause a huge deficit of self-esteem.”
Looking to the future, Jaffrelot suggests that as Washington withdraws from war in Afghanistan and likely reduces its assistance to Pakistan, Islamabad will be forced to undertake healthy tax reforms. Yet for a scholar so invested in the details of history, it is curious that he chooses not to ask why, when Washington dropped aid and imposed sanctions on Pakistan throughout the 1990s, no serious fiscal reform ensued. Instead, Islamabad staggered through years of what Jaffrelot describes as “a façade of democratization,” “impotence, corruption and lawlessness,” and “parliamentary dictatorship.”
Cohen, like Jaffrelot, is inclined to place much blame for the Pakistani mess at the feet of its army, an institution that “cannot run Pakistan effectively by itself but…is also unwilling to entrust civilians completely with the job.” Nor does Cohen spare Washington the blame for bolstering generations of Pakistani generals at the expense of democrats, writing that “Pakistan’s current plight and troubled prospects can only be understood in the context of its having embraced the role of America’s ‘most allied ally.’” Cohen faults a parade of U.S. policymakers for their focus on tactical security interests without considering how investments in Pakistani education and industry could better serve both Pakistani and U.S. interests over the long haul.
Although they are unsparing critics of Pakistan’s own leaders and the U.S. policies that encouraged Islamabad’s bad choices, Jaffrelot and Cohen remain open to the possibility that Pakistan will change for the better. In other projects—like the volume he edited in 2011, The Future of Pakistan—Cohen has even played the game of considering alternative future scenarios for the country. His generally gloomy conclusion is that Pakistan is most likely to “muddle through,” but that “more extreme and unpleasant futures” cannot be ruled out. Jaffrelot, for his part, is frustratingly unwilling to apply his evident historical familiarity with Pakistan toward predicting its future. Although he explicitly leaves the door open to the possibility of change, he refuses to suggest how it might occur, concluding, “only the future will tell.” That, at least, we already knew.
Jaffrelot’s work is also noteworthy for its focus on politics and social identity, often at the expense of economics. To be sure, Pakistan is a place where politics reigns. A traveler from America, where we so frequently think of our political leaders as being in the pocket of major business interests, would be struck by the extent to which Pakistan’s business community takes its cues from the state. The general uncertainties of life in Pakistan have created a business culture characterized more by quick transactions than patient investment. But the timidity of the business class relative to the politician can probably be traced to January 1972, when “Bhutto nationalized 31 major enterprises in a dozen industrial sectors ranging from the iron and steel industry to petrochemicals and including electrical equipment.” Wealthy families dispossessed of their industries were not compensated. Some went into exile, and most invested their remaining fortunes outside Pakistan.
Economic uncertainty and underinvestment explains a lot about Pakistan’s present condition. More to the point, accelerated economic growth is probably the only conceivable way for the state to overcome some of the many political pathologies identified by Jaffrelot and Cohen. For U.S. officials thinking about Pakistan’s long-term prospects, this suggests the need for sustained attention to economic policies, especially those designed to expand opportunities for tens of millions of young Pakistanis.
Indo-Pak Hostility and Kashmir
India and Pakistan are large states, and their futures will depend mainly on domestic policy decisions. Yet they will also always be bound by their pre-partition identities. After 1947, their prospects have been shaped in large measure by mutual hostility, war, and—especially after 1998—the threat of nuclear escalation. Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris by Christopher Snedden explores the issue that is both a cause and consequence of Indo-Pakistani discord.
Like Jaffrelot, Snedden is consumed with the intricacies—and even more so, by the intrigues—of political history; roughly half his book covers the period up to and including the partition of British India. For it was as the British expanded their control over India that Kashmir assumed a formal territorial status, and, in the context of the famous “Great Game” of imperial rivalry between Russia and Britain, took on a broader strategic significance. But Kashmir’s unique identity stretches back hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, as Snedden describes, “apart from ancient Greeks, informed Chinese knew about the region, as did Romans, Jews, Tibetans, and people in the ancient and advanced city of Taxila.”
Snedden is also willing to contemplate Kashmir’s future. He perceives that “all that can be currently said with much certainty about J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] is that India and Pakistan will continue to bicker over it, seemingly without relenting.” Cohen’s writings on Kashmir tend to be similarly pessimistic; his book on Indo-Pak relations is entitled Shooting for a Century, by which he means we should anticipate that New Delhi and Islamabad have at least another several decades of hostility ahead of them.
Yet there is an awkward gap between Snedden’s gloomy prognosis on Kashmir and his idealistic recommendation that India, Pakistan, and the international community should “let the people of Kashmir decide their fate,” through a process that would require leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad to “significantly change their attitudes to allow J&K-ites to be involved in resolving the Kashmir dispute.” Cohen, too, was once less willing to play the waiting game on Kashmir. In 1995 he wrote that, “The only solution that should be ruled out is doing nothing. Time will not heal the Kashmir problem,” and argued that, “seemingly intractable disputes can be resolved, or ameliorated, by patience, outside encouragement, and, above all, a strategy that will address the many dimensions of these complex disputes.” In short, nothing is likely to work in Kashmir, but that doesn’t mean policymakers shouldn’t try. Sounds a little like the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and not without reason.
But what can all of this tell U.S. policymakers charged with, in a nutshell, making India great, turning Pakistan around, and keeping the two from going to war longer enough for those goals to be realized?
First, a simple reading of Bassett’s work shows the transformative power of U.S. educational institutions. Although he is careful to note that Silicon Valley has drained a good number of India’s best brains, it is also clear that MIT and other U.S. research universities have disproportionately shaped India’s economic prospects and, in critical ways, stand at the heart of the U.S.-India relationship.
Today India and the United States are ripe for a new round of educational collaboration, with many U.S. research universities feeling the pinch of financial constraints and millions of Indian students clamoring for top-quality degrees. It seems only a matter of time before someone cracks the code on how to deliver American degrees to Indian students at a quality and price point that serve everyone’s interests. More than defense sales and co-production agreements, or even blockbuster civil-nuclear deals, collaborative efforts in education will enhance India’s prospects and bind Americans and Indians together with a shared worldview.
Second, at the moment the prevailing sentiment about Pakistan in Washington is deeply pessimistic. The Obama Administration long ago lost whatever patience it might have had with Islamabad (and even that patience resided mainly at the State Department, where improbable schemes for transforming U.S.-Pakistan relations through massive assistance gave way to other, only slightly less improbable schemes for a Pakistan-aided negotiation with the Taliban). But this does not negate the need to think about Pakistan in a longer-term context, drawing lessons from Jaffrelot’s careful assessment of domestic dynamics and Cohen’s focus on civil-military relations.
For the United States, this principally means implementing policies that aim to boost Pakistan’s economic growth and development. Rather than following past practices of providing direct aid to Pakistan’s civilians and military, however, Washington should seek mechanisms to expand trade and investment. Once implemented, these efforts should persist not because they offer leverage to encourage Pakistan’s cooperation in fighting terrorism or serving U.S. purposes in Afghanistan, but because they hold some realistic potential for delivering a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future to Pakistan over the long run. In other words, at least with respect to development assistance, we should adopt the approach of a patient gardener, and forget about harvesting anything for the time being.
Third, the next U.S. Secretary of State is not likely to be so delusional as to enter office with urgent plans to resolve the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir. That said, he or she would be wise to start preliminary, closed-door conversations with India, Pakistan, and possibly even China. In the event that these discussions begin to bear fruit, a more formal diplomatic process could be arranged. Given the U.S. interest in avoiding war in South Asia, a diplomatic investment of this sort is warranted, even if it is unlikely to pay off in the near term.
All of this is to say that U.S. policymakers can have a modest—and on occasion, perhaps even a decisive—role in fostering desirable changes in India, Pakistan and Indo-Pakistani relations. But success will almost certainly require a long-term perspective of the sort that has not historically characterized U.S. South Asia policy, more often described as reactive, forgetful, and security-obsessed than as patient or forward-leaning. Thus, the parting question for Washington is whether it too is capable of change.