Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Scholar Explodes Myth of ‘India Shining’ Image

KARACHI: The image of ‘India Shining’ is one that applies to only about 30 per cent of the Indian population, but it is taken by many around the world to apply to the majority of the population, when in fact the remaining 70 per cent of Indians have very little to do with that image at all, according to a British academic at the University of London.

Dr Marie Lall, South Asia specialist at the University of London and an associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, was speaking at a seminar titled ‘India Today: Rising Star or Land of Snake Charmers?’ organised at a local hotel here on Saturday.

Beginning her talk, Dr Lall asserted that in her experience Pakistanis and Indians tended to have very ‘incomplete pictures’ of one another, and that this tends to colour their perceptions.

She spoke about the development of the idea of India’s identity and its aims as a nation. Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and other leaders at the time of partition, she said, were primarily educated in the West, and so the anti-colonial movement was shaped ‘primarily by Western ideas of the nation state’.

‘Nehru’s first challenge,’ she said, ‘was framing a new identity for India around something. For Pakistan this was simple, as there was a common religion, but for India this was not workable. So he chose the idea of shared history.’

She argued that there is a disparity between the image of India and the realities on the ground. ‘There is an India of the 70 per cent, and an India of the 30 per cent. To the outside world, they see just the 30 per cent.’

Dr Lall also provided a brief overview of Indian political and economic history, with particular emphasis on the 1991 financial reforms, which were necessitated after India was forced to empty its gold reserves to pay off loans to international institutions. She said that reforms led to devolution of power from the Centre towards the provinces, thus leading to the growth of smaller, local parties. The south of India prospered more in comparison to the north, and there were rural/urban demographic shifts. She further said that the rise of Hindu nationalism is directly linked to the reforms that were brought about between 1991 and 1996.

She said the 2004 and 2009 wins for the Congress party in the Indian general elections were relatively unexpected, particularly to analysts, who assumed that India would go whichever way the middle-classes went, which was presumably with the BJP.

‘But the masses dictated the elections, and the Congress won, something which most analysts did not factor into their calculations,’ she said.

Regarding foreign policy, Dr Lall asserted that India’s ‘aim was always to be a global power and to be recognised as such’.

Prior to the 1990s, she said, India’s claim to being a global power was on the basis of ‘moral standing’. Nehru’s vision was that India would ‘lead the postcolonial world’.

This, however, proved to be problematic as time went on, as India’s ambitions then grew to leading the developing world, many of whom were not postcolonial and had no interest in being led by the South Asian giant.

With Indira Gandhi, she said, one saw a gradual shift to a more realistic approach on the regional level, where India recognised that it was the hegemon, and acted as such by dominating smaller states such as Nepal and Bhutan. ‘Again,’ Dr Lall said, ‘you see a dualism, where there is regional hegemony on one hand and then ‘moral standing’ on the other.’

Post-1991, she said, things changed significantly, and India went from being non-aligned to dictating foreign policy on the basis of economic growth and needs. ‘To open markets you need to trade, and there was no real foreign policy vision from either the Congress or the BJP.

The only government which did have that vision was the short-lived United Front government, led by I.K. Gujral. There was also a gradual shift towards welcoming mostly Hindu non-resident Indians, who had in the past been shunned by the Indian state, to invest in the country. Congress followed in BJP’s footsteps, as far as this was concerned.’

She added that it was significant that during this ‘new era’ of foreign policy, India also approached other states it would in the past not have, including the US and Israel.

Indian energy security

A significant part of Dr Lall’s talk also centred on India’s new focus on energy security. She said that as of 2004 India realised that it requires this security in order to fuel its economic growth in the coming years.

‘It is now energy that drives Indian foreign policy. Nothing else,’ she said. ‘Right now there is no idea how they are going to meet the needs they will have in 2020, and even though there is increasing cooperation with other states, the energy secured so far is not enough.’

On the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, she said that the project will likely not only provide India with energy, but will also foster regional stability. The economic and logistical feasibilities were all worked out in 2007-08, she said, but the only remaining issue was the US’s objections to the deal. In the past this would not have stopped India, she said, but now there was the India-US nuclear deal to consider. As such, she said, her feeling was that the pipeline would not in fact be built.

‘The India-US nuclear deal has nothing to with energy, let’s be clear about this,’ she said. ‘It has nothing to do with energy and everything to do with great power status.’

Further, she argued that US and Indian priorities on the deal were actually conflicting. While the US wants to use India to counter China as a growing economic threat, and to increase trade with it to ease its own balance of trade deficit, India has pursued the deal mainly to be recognised as a military and civilian nuclear power, and to have access of fissile material and the latest nuclear technology. India, she said, also wants a greater role to play in the Asian balance of power, and believes that the nuclear deal gives it a greater ‘status’ as a country.

Dr Lall also spoke briefly about Indo-Pakistan relations, as well as about relations between India and Myanmar. Concluding her talk, she said that in the Indo-Pakistan set-up at present, India ‘does not need to do anything, and so it is treating Pakistan like China treats India. It can afford to stand back’.

Dr Lall’s research has focused primarily on India, Pakistan and Myanmar. She has written widely on issues of political economy, energy security and foreign policy. She also works on education policy in Pakistan and India, and is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of London.

She is currently residing in Lahore, where she is a member of the visiting faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.


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