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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The Indian Union turns sixty

Jean-Luc Racine

Texte intégral

1January 2007

2India will celebrate its sixtieth year of independence on 15th of August 2007, bringing about analysis of the state of its country. Recently accustomed to looking confidently into the future, Indian decision-makers and the media are sure to turn to the past to gauge the ground covered, recall the major developments of the last decades and perhaps evoke certain lost illusions. The most well-balanced assessments will mention those left behind by the progress and obstructions that tarnish the image of the “world’s largest democracy”. Optimism should, however, prevail in the era of the major changes in India.

3The last sixty years of independence have been full of crises and tragedies. Three wars with Pakistan and one with China followed the bloody aftermath of the 1947 partition that created Pakistan and India at the same time. Assassinations left an indelible mark on people’s minds including the founding father of the nation, Gandhi, in 1948, Indira Gandhi in 1984, the after-effects of Sikh secessionism and Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, killed by a suicide bomber and whose death was claimed by the Sri Lakan Tamil Liberation Tigers. More recently, the strategists of Hindu nationalism within the Bharatiya Janata Party or the organisations associated with it were instrumental in the division between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority, by destroying the Ayodhya mosque in 1992 and allowing an anti-Muslim pogrom to happen in Gujarat in 2002. The Indian national fabric has frayed apart at the margins more than once: in Punjab in the 1980s; in Assam and in the small neighbouring north-eastern states where secessionist groups remain active, in Kashmir where the violent uprising took place in 1989, quickly backed up by the infiltrated Jihad combatants, and the repression that followed, left tens of thousands dead.

4However, on the whole, the Indian gamble has paid off. The dialectic of “unity in diversity”, coined to manage the religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity in a democratic situation, has enabled the nation-building process to strengthen its fight against secessionisms, by redrawing the map of the states of the Union and reconciling regionalism. The delicate balance of power between the centre and the states is defined by a Constitution that was put into effect in 1950, and also by the interplay of political dynamics that witnessed the hegemony of the former Congress Party crumble over the decades in favour of a greater number of players often with regional strongholds. Even so, no strong national alternative was apparent before the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998, which lost the elections in 2004, but remains a force to be reckoned with. Congress’s return to power then occurred against the backdrop of an increasingly dominant model: the coalition government.

5The plurality of political groupings does not only convey major ideological movements or the assertion of regional identities. It is also the result of a more vocal emergence of a social issue in a political field, redefined by the newfound dynamism of the lower castes and by the assertiveness of the untouchables, renamed the dalits. The “crushed”, the meaning of dalits, are awakening, but not without divisions or contradictions. The movement is heightened by the effects of positive discrimination sending tens of thousands of underprivileged Indians to the school benches and government jobs. The 1980s and 1990s thus witnessed two options changing direction of the Congress’ heritage and the paradigm defined by Jawaharlal Nehru in the founding decades of independent India. While Hindu nationalism seeks to unite the nation behind hindutva, defined as the cultural matrix of a four thousand-year-old India and re-emerging at the end of the 20th century, those who support the revival of the lower castes are increasingly asserting the socio-economic identity of the most numerous, yet dominated groups, which then expect to free themselves from catch-all parties to play the complex electoral arithmetic game (with their own political tools).

6At the same time, the Nehruvian economic model is also being revised. Post-colonial India hoped to construct a new economy behind protectionist barriers, receiving foreign aid, but advocating the virtues of “import substitution”. This was about laying the foundations for extensive industrialization – coal, steel, electricity – and renovating agriculture, with the emphasis on “community development” for a short time and on the development of irrigation, with land reform being only applied to big landowners. In spite of the five-year plans and many different rural development programmes, the results remain inadequate. The “Green Revolution” in the 1970s had dispelled the ghost of famines and drought, but did not settle the issue of those without any land nor rural underemployment. The half-private and half-public industrial infrastructure grew increasingly constrained by burdensome regulations such as the “Licence Raj”, which gave rise to corruption without ensuring productivity or competitiveness. The reluctant opening-up of the country in the 1980s led to a payment crisis in 1991, which served as a trigger mechanism at the very moment when (a historical coincidence) the USSR collapsed and, with it, its interventionist model. Interestingly, the new economic policy that was put into place as of 1991 was supported not by a new political force, but by Congress and leaders who were, for a long time, part of the inner circle of power. Manmohan Singh, the Minister of finance at the time who launched the policy of gradual reforms, and today’s Prime Minister, is an archetypal figure of this reformist elite.

7India, a political laboratory of mass democracy, a social laboratory in a multicultural and inegalitarian context, and a economic laboratory of transition with measured steps, when all is said and done, is working out its own models according to a process whose initial principle remains the same, without needing to put it on display, that of not being a convulsive revolutionary movement, but one that measures changes, step by step. Should we see a cultural heritage at work here, defined in the long drawn out history by the intellectual practice of pluralism and debate? Whatever the limitations and flaws, the option of parliamentary democracy is central; it assumes a practice of negotiation and bargaining under the watchful eye of a multi-faceted press and a fully assertive civil society. No politician can ignore the coming elections, and this principle, although it sometimes curbs reforms and can lead to populism, maintains at least a certain degree of consensus that explains why, for the last fifteen years, despite the changing government, reform policies have continued to be pursued.

8The questioning of the former protectionist model brought India into post-post-colonial times during the 1990s. The new economic paradigm, which combines the growing liberalisation, regulatory state and greater decentralisation of power, is an integral part of the redefinition of India’s relations with the world. A world of post-Cold War years, when the old Soviet friend was supplanted by the American superpower. Indian diplomacy, shaped by the Nehruvian non-alignment, mixed with Indira Gandhi’s pragmatism, should therefore redefine its hallmarks. While the Congress Party reformed economic policy at the beginning of the 1990s, at the end of the decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party redefined India’s strategic doctrine and global positioning in realpolitik terms. The nuclear tests in May 1998 set the pace of an India that denounced clearly the inequalities of a world order, which was created for the Big Five after the war (United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain), the sole beneficiaries of the “nuclear apartheid”, ratified by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and sole permanent members of the UN Security Council. Eighteen months after the tests, Bill Clinton was in India where he celebrated “the concert of democracies”. George W. Bush would go even further, by trying to promote the rise of an India, which, in his eyes, deserves much credit, having established democracy, an emerging market and a feasible counterbalance to the rising power of China.

9Sixty years after independence, India was, for a long time considered a stereotype of underdevelopment and has since changed its image. The emblematic success of its expertise in software technology has shown that it could compete on a global level and become, with the service industry, a base for comprehensive research and development. Biotechnology should follow, while the manufacturing sector is undergoing changes, a fact that automobile multinationals have now understood. This emerging India, brought to the forefront by the upper middle class, who are increasingly open to an influential diaspora established in the United States, is redefining its foreign policy. Never have its ties with Washington been so strong, but it is not a straightforward one-to-one alliance. New Delhi plans to take advantage of these ties in many ways, in terms of the status and access to sensitive technology, particularly for the civil nuclear deal. At the same time, however, its relationship with Beijing is improving as well, with China now being India’s second trade partner after the European Union. New Delhi is also positioning itself in various configurations for examples, south-south at the World Trade Organization, against European and American agricultural policies; north-south with Germany, Japan and Brazil to recommend the Security Council’s enlargement. Close ties are also maintained with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Traditional supplier of arms, Moscow has also become a major oil and gas producer and India is in need of increased energy resources to sustain its growth rate by more than 7%. This explains its interest in the Middle East and Central Asia and the new African and Latin American horizons of Indian diplomacy. In this context, the old anti-Pakistani tropism also needs revision. The dialogue with Islamabad, established in 2004 thus continues, in spite of uncertainties and ambiguities on what the future of Kashmir could be, as well as the curbing the terrorist threat.

10By redefining its relations with the world, India is thus taking a fresh look at its relations with what it calls its “extended neighbourhood”, running from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, and also covering Central Asia. The interplay of regional construction is therefore becoming more complicated. In South-East Asia and in East Asia, competition between China and India is becoming greater, although the former weighs almost three times more than the latter in terms of its economy. The United States, Japan and Australia are therefore witnessing a potential partner emerging in the major interplay that seeks to resketch a geometry of powers that one can either interpret as the first move towards a new multipolarity or as the adjustment of old Westphalian principles to a new globalised world.

11It is with this in mind that the Asia Network, in collaboration with the France-Indian Union Association, will organise a conference on “India and Asia” on 3rd of February 2007 at the Palais Bourbon. The issues that will be discussed are not confined to the continent, as the future of Asia will significantly shape power struggles and compromises, competitions and common interests, which will, in every sense, define the world of tomorrow.

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