Of all them blackfaced crew/The finest man I knew/Was our regimental bishti, Gunga DinRUDYARD KIPLING
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads towards Washington and New York for the first time since 2019, the European end of NATO is examining its options. The sudden Anglo-Saxon unilateral military alliance between the US, Australia and the UK, has rattled the chains of not only France but the EU as a whole.
France has lost a troubled if a massive $ 90 billion contract for conventional submarines, without warning. It is nothing short of furious. President Joe Biden, whom nobody expected to be quite so decisive during his campaign, has followed through on President’s Trump’s complaints against the European NATO partners. They haven’t been ponying up their share of the costs, nor showing the strategic commitment that this post-WWII military alliance demands.
France and Australia have been conflicted on the much delayed and cost escalated deal for some years, but the key change is that Australia has just gone nuclear with US help, nods towards non-proliferation notwithstanding.
China is worried, perhaps for the first time, with America moving into Australia with its nuclear weapons on land, sea and air more or less on an immediate basis. Nobody is waiting to actually build the nuclear attack submarines at Adelaide which will take a decade for the appearance of the first one. China has 50 conventional and 10 nuclear submarines. But these numbers are no longer daunting.
India is likely to gain economically from the shifting of a number of American manufacturing enterprises to India from China as this squaring off escalates. It will also be able to buy military technology and hardware it needs from the US as an important partner of the QUAD. It will gain from Japan and Australia as well on similar lines. AUKUS may prove to be a general benefit in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific to those in the QUAD. Others are welcome to be camp followers. There is the UK beyond the AUKUS deal, in Diego Garcia and with its aircraft carrier group in the Asia-Pacific. France in the Indian Ocean. Germany in the South China Sea. Littoral states such as Vietnam, Singapore. All of them are in a sense QUAD plus.
At the same time, India needs to ramp up its own economic and military strength by bilateral cooperation with multiple countries. After all, the old order is changing, and India is well placed comparatively, without any bones of contention with any of the players except China and Pakistan. Beyond the hectic bilateral meetings and those with American company heads, India would do well at the UN to stick to its tried and tested messages against international terrorism and broad-based cooperation on climate change. Bland is good to negotiate through these sensitive times.
The Modi government knows there is much to be gained in a multipolar universe. It offers sovereign autonomy and freedom of choice. However,if we are pressured to toe any American line in our region or country, pragmatism dictates we need to be well compensated for it both strategically and economically. But to say no may not be wise, with China watching for any rift. Australia and the UK have happily embraced their supporting roles in AUKUS. Like Australia, India needs a lot more military equipment than it can readily buy or manufacture in short order. Again, China is relentlessly building up strength on our borders all along the LaC and via Pakistan as well. Russia cannot really help in this, because as a smaller economy, it has its limitations and is dependent on China to an extent. If India as a member of the QUAD with imminent threats from China, is presented with American military teeth, provided India supplies the bases, it must not hesitate.
Looking at the past can be educational. Non-alignment was meant to be a post-colonial equidistancing from the then power blocks of the Capitalist West and Communist Soviet Russia. It degenerated swiftly into all the newly independent countries adopting both Socialism and the USSR as Godfather.
This arrangement apparently gave the have-not nations a voice in the UNGA and a certain dignity to poverty. It was axiomatic that the poor countries could not survive without the help of a big brother. The benefactor, in turn, subordinated these satellites in large ways and small and expected their unflinching support in foreign policy, big buying decisions, and value systems.
For India, this hollow form of non-alignment lasted nearly fifty years. Nobody has quite removed the obsolete name plate as yet. We talk of national interest and multipolarity these days. This is because we no longer accept aid and have grown into one of the top ten economies of the world.
But in the old days, due to our British colonial hangover and Nehru’s penchant for imported conceptions under the surface Gandhianism, we became part of the Commonwealth – a kind of non-military QUAD of its time. We continue with this example of subservient Gunga-Din diplomacy. Even as it too has declined along with the fortunes of the United Kingdom, little more than a US satellite itself.
Of course, Socialist India also needed British Aid and grants in the early years. The Commonwealth Games extant to this day, are fun, though they are really also reminders of the extent of the imperial British Empire at its zenith.
During our active non-alignment years, made nonsense of as we held hands with the likes of Marshal Tito of then Yugoslavia, Muammar Gaddafi of Egypt, and later, Cuban supremo Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority.
We were laughed at for our posturing and hectoring at the UNGA by the prosperous and technologically superior West. But, that wasn’t half of it. India had to endure many humiliations from both sides of the see-saw.
The USSR kept India on its leash with bribery, flattery, while infiltrating Indian politics and policy-making using the KGB. They sold us second level armaments no longer used by the Soviet armed forces. They permitted us our rupee payments and barter as we persisted with 2% or less rates of GDP growth. Today, we still buy Russian armaments because 50% of our in situ equipment comes from there, but we get much better terms. Including JVs such as the one that has produced the universally respected Brahmos missile. A grown economy on its way to becoming the world’s third-biggest is putting the erstwhile bishti in the driver’s seat.
We had to turn to America for food grains and milk in the early decades, donated under their PL-480 programme. This went on till the 1960s and even later till the Green and White Revolutions despite distribution bottlenecks and primitive storage conditions that persist to this day.
But our mateyness with the newly liberated Socialist or Communist countries, our dislike of imperialism, plus that unworkable non-alignment, clearly harmed us. We refused to accept Nepal and Balochistan into our fold. We didn’t take the proffered UNSC seat from President John F Kennedy, or his offer to turn India into a nuclear weapons power before China.
Instead, we gave away both opportunities to China. China went nuclear in 1964 itself. A couple of years before that, Mao’s China came at us in NEFA, took over the Karakoram Pass, large tracts of Akshai Chin, and all of Tibet. We ended up providing refugee status to the Dalai Lama and lakhs of his followers as a gesture.
Early independent India had no idea of realpolitik. Ironically, we forgot all about non-alignment when Nehru begged America in a panic to attack China for us. Kennedy didn’t but forced China to give back seized Indian territory to an extent.
The Soviets didn’t come into all this, but years later rival block pressures, with China added to the mix, persist. Russia, the successor, was forced by America to deny us its cryogenic technology for rockets. Israel’s dealings with China sometimes get in the way of its posture towards India.
Going with the power blocks however used to hurt much more when India was poor. Pakistan was the out-and-out US ally, and India was hyphenated with it, till the disparity between our economies became too large to ignore. By then the Soviet Union was gone but Russia, with a much smaller economy, is not free of pressures.
Pakistan wasn’t so essential, once the US managed to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Now Afghanistan too is gone from the US equation.
In the heyday of non-alignment, India needed development money, soft, long-term loans, aid, grants. And this came via institutions controlled by the West- the World Bank, the IMF, the ADB. The Soviets couldn’t help in this regard, being hard up behind their ‘Iron Curtain’ themselves.
Coming back to the Prime Minister’s US visit, it is reassuring that India will be seen as a power on its own. Buying armaments from Russia continuing, no longer defines us. We buy significant value from the US, France and Israel as well. India has begun exporting its military equipment starting with excellent bulletproof vests and coast guard boats and frigates for the navy. Missiles might be next. Gunga Din can rest from his labours at last.