No. 41, December 2005

No. 41
(December 2005):

India's Place in the US Strategic Order

India as 'Global Power'
II. The Class Logic of the Indian Rulers' Drive for 'Great-Power' Status

The dream of great-power status is as old as the Indian State. S.K. Ghosh points out that this dream pre-dates even the transfer of power from the British:

Addressing army officers in October 1946, when India was still a British colony, Nehru declared: "India is today among the four great powers of the world: other three being America, Russia, and China. But in point of resources India has greater potential than China." He affirmed: "India is likely to dominate politically and economically the Indian Ocean region."20

After the transfer of power, India was of course too weak economically and militarily to be considered a great power – without the help of a great power. In 1948-49, Nehru proposed a comprehensive military collaboration to the United States, but the latter did not find it useful at the time, for various reasons."21The dream receded for some decades, but did not disappear. It remained an underlying factor in India's foreign and military policy over the years.

Indeed the Indian government's recent decisions are not the result of any sudden turn-about in foreign policy, or change in the external environment; these decisions are the logical extension of long-standing policies adopted by successive Indian governments of different political parties/alliances.

The roots of these policies lie in fact in the nature of India's political economy and recent history. That political economy maintains a veneer of modernity and dynamism, and is able to show remarkable growth in pockets, but it is basically retrogressive and stagnant, allowing all sorts of semi-feudal and parasitical forces to flourish at the expense of the country's productive potential.

We need to return to the actual course of India's freedom struggle to understand its subsequent political economy. The Indian people's freedom struggle took place as part of a worldwide anti-imperialist awakening. While the Congress leadership attempted to place restrictions on the forms of struggle, each major 'national movement' tended nevertheless to take in the main the form of militant worker and peasant upsurges.  The peasant revolts centered around the demands of 'no-rent' and 'no-tax', and of tribals' control over their forests. In the wake of World War II, and amid the worldwide anti-imperialist and revolutionary ferment reigning then, these agrarian movements took an even more militant form, culminating in the Telangana armed struggle of 1946-51, which raised the question of the seizure and redistribution of landlords' land.

In the immediate aftermath of the transfer of power, during 1947-51, the Indian State thus faced the pressure of the people's high expectations. The ruling Congress enjoyed the huge political capital of (apparently) having led the freedom struggle. Yet the interests it represented stood directly opposed to the aspirations of that struggle. Thus only a trivial share (one per cent) of the land was distributed; and the forests, historically belonging to the Adivasis but later taken over by British India, remained the monopoly of the new Indian State (effectively of the private interests operating through it). The negligible employment in industry, moreover, meant that there was no escape for the peasant from cultivating the land.

The Indian State embarked on a pompous exercise of 'planned development'. However, this was to be carried out without disturbing powerful foreign and domestic private interests in trade, industry, and land. In fact, it was tailored to the needs of these very classes. As a result, resources for the Plans could not seriously be raised from those sources; this limited the size of the Plans and ensured dependence on borrowings. Foreign lenders thus were able to intervene to curtail investments further and set their direction. Within a decade of its inception 'planning' went into decline, and the tempo of investment slackened. Agricultural and industrial growth rates slowed from the mid-1960s. After the humiliating defeat in India's 1962 war with China, the government decided to allocate an increasing share of the budget to military expenditures, which further restricted the scope for public investment.

Cracks in the edifice
Within two decades of the end of British rule, disillusion set in among various sections of the people; a series of bad harvests and consequent food shortages coincided with the fresh worldwide revolutionary ferment of the mid-sixties, particularly among the youth. Militant forms of struggle were adopted by workers; the gherao was invented in this period. Agrarian unrest in many parts of the country assumed militant forms during 1966-69, which the Home Ministry attributed to the "persistence of serious social and economic inequalities". Indira Gandhi admitted to a conference of chief ministers in 1970: "The time has come to face the facts.... The land reform measures implemented have failed to match the legitimate expectations which were fostered among millions of cultivators during the national movement." Student agitations and new student organisations sprang up in many states. Against the background of this turbulence, serious differences cropped up within the leading party of the Indian ruling classes, the Congress, culminating in its first split.

The Congress led by Indira Gandhi finally emerged from this crisis through a combination of repression (the first use of 'encounter' killings on a large scale, and even worse atrocities in West Bengal); grand populism ('garibi hatao' -- a host of superficial anti-poverty schemes; bank nationalisation and the spread of rural banking; 'socialist' gestures such as the cancellation of privy purses of princely families), and military triumph (the 1971 war with Pakistan).

In the elections held before the war, the Congress won by a landslide.21a Yet it was unable to recover the status it once enjoyed among the people (and therefore with various factions of the ruling classes).22 Within two years of its landslide victory the Congress government faced a nationwide railway strike (which was put down with force) and expressions of broader stirrings and unrest everywhere. These stirrings were exploited by parliamentary rivals (the Navnirman agitation in Gujarat, the JP agitation in Bihar). The Emergency was a pre-emptive coup against the slow disintegration of Congress hegemony; yet it did not stop that disintegration, as witness the lifting of the Emergency in 1977 and the fall of the Congress in the ensuing elections.

Nor was any other party or combination of parties able to step into the Congress's shoes: If the Congress returned to power at the Centre within three years, it was more by default than by virtue of any positive wave. The task of maintaining influence over the vast masses of people, and on that basis retaining the authority to hold together and lead squabbling factions of the ruling class, was made ever harder by the sustained stagnation of the economy: India's average annual growth rate of GDP slowed from 3.9 per cent in the 1950s to 3.7 per cent in the 1960s and 3.2 per cent in the 1970s.23

One path of growth was of course ruled out – a massive upturning of backward agrarian relations, the ending of parasitical extractions from the peasantry, hence the generation of a surplus for agricultural investment, and the creation through that route of a mass market for industrial goods; the expropriation of foreign interests and large domestic capital – and the raising thereby of resources for genuine planned development; protection from indiscriminate imports; planned all-round development; and conscious encouragement to the widely dispersed small national capitalists. The upturning of backward agrarian relations would also have helped liberate people's consciousness from all sorts of feudal bonds and reactionary influences, and helped create instead the basis for a genuinely democratic political consciousness.  Such a path would have gone counter to the social classes the Congress and its parliamentary rivals represented – large domestic and foreign capitalists; landlords and other feudal sections; big traders and other parasitic forces.

The liberalisation era
The new Congress government's decision to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a loan in 1981 (even in the absence of any immediate compulsion such as a foreign exchange crisis) was thus an announcement of a different path: Namely, to overcome the lack of resources for investment by expanding debt (external and internal); to evade the problem of the restricted mass market for industrial goods by promoting import-intensive industries and these catering to the top 5-10 per cent of the population; to accelerate the growth of national income by proliferating unproductive activities in the services sector – including in trade, the financial sector, public administration and defence. It was in the 1980s that India overcame the previous three decades' 3-3.5 per cent so-called 'Hindu rate of growth',24 to achieve an average annual growth rate of 5.7 per cent in the eighties.

Some of the government spending of the 1980s did trickle down in the form of rural development and welfare schemes, generating some rural non-farm employment. But the negative consequences of the new thrust of 'growth' were already visible in the 1980s. Though rural welfare schemes grew somewhat, essential agricultural investment began a long decline (from which it has not yet emerged). Import-intensive growth, including the large-scale import of labour-reducing capital goods, saw the growth rate of organised sector employment fall steeply (indeed organised private sector employment fell in absolute terms in the mid-eighties). And external debt ballooned from $19 billion in 1980 to $37 billion in 1985 to $84 billion in 1990. This last culminated in the balance of payments crisis of 1990-91, the IMF structural adjustment loan of 1991 and the New Economic Policy of 1991 – which continues to date.

The rise of communal politics
From 1981 itself, with the first embrace of the IMF and import liberalisation, the old slogans of garibi hatao and 'socialism' became less and less credible. The ruling class parties hunted for replacements. Mrs Gandhi, who traditionally had cultivated the Muslim vote, began in this new context a tour of Hindu temples. Communal hatreds were whipped up in Punjab by various ruling class political forces, including the Congress. This divisive policy culminated in the November 1984 massacre of Sikhs; Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's surviving son, won the ensuing election with a landslide.

The Congress was not alone or, ultimately, even the most capable, in this communal game. At the very start of the decade of the 1980s the RSS floated the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which launched the Ekatmata Rath Yatra. In 1984 the campaign to 'liberate' Ram's alleged birthplace began; in 1986, with the intervention of the Congress government at the Centre, the court ordered the locks on the Babri Masjid to be removed. From then on, the country descended into blood as the BJP rose to power. From a negligible force in the 1985 parliament the BJP became, via the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the single largest party (though never the majority party in Parliament). Moreover, it successfully broadcast a social-cultural hegemony far greater its actual vote-share (which peaked at around 25 per cent) or support-base. After a brief interlude of minority non-Congress non-BJP governments at the Centre between 1996 and 1998, the BJP finally siezed the throne.

The anti-Muslim frenzy of 1992-93, however, could not be maintained indefinitely, and at any rate it posed an obstacle to expanding the BJP's vote-share further. The 1996 and 1998 general elections were marked by widespread public apathy; by the absence of any slogans which could sway the electorate (the prominent alliances thus pathetically focussed on their capacity to provide 'stable rule'); by broad agreement among all the parliamentary parties on the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation; and finally by the failure of any party to win a majority. The products of these vast electoral exercises were the most rickety coalitions the Centre had yet seen. In 1998, the new BJP-led coalition did not enjoy the customary 'honeymoon period', and was at the very outset faced with public criticism and internal wrangling.

Search for a broader platform
It was at this point that national chauvinism was brought forward as the new rallying theme. Within months of the BJP-led government coming to office its defence minister George Fernandes engineered alarms regarding Pakistan's Ghauri missile and China's designs on the subcontinent (which he even termed "threat number one"). In May 1998 the government carried out the nuclear tests known as "Pokhran II", and its supporters whipped up a wave of bellicose celebration throughout the country. The media and the Hindi cinema industry too proved eager recruits to the jingoistic campaign. 

This is not to suggest that Hindutva communalism was abandoned. Anti-Pakistani themes harboured an obvious anti-Muslim aspect as well. Moreover, the following period witnessed two major campaigns of communal terror: the nationwide attacks on Christians in 1998-99 and the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Yet the BJP leadership was clear that it needed a theme with a broader appeal than anti-Muslim pogroms, and one that would facilitate coalitions with a range of non-Hindutva parties – since it was clear that for the foreseeable future no political party would enjoy a majority. As national chauvinism was already a common tenet of all the parliamentary parties, it became a convenient platform for coalition government.

Initially, the main form of national chauvinism these parties propagated was traditional anti-Pakistani rhetoric; this reached a peak after the attack on Parliament in 2002. However, tensions between India and Pakistan ran counter to the US's current interest, which was to bring both these countries into an alliance with itself. From late 2003 the leading Indian political parties began to downplay their anti-Pakistani rhetoric; even the BJP, the leading Pakistan-baiter, made various highly publicised 'peace initiatives'. The major parties subtly shifted to a different form of chauvinism, namely, the projection of India as a great power.

People's economic concerns make their presence felt
Despite these various exercises of ruling class politics, a distinct theme began asserting itself more and more in the Indian political scene, particularly since the late 1990s: namely, the growing pressure of people's economic concerns. The economic policies implemented since 1991 have had a severe impact on various sections of people: first on the working class, then, especially since about 1997, on the much vaster peasantry. (See Aspects  no.s 36 & 37) The policies advocated by the World Bank were reinforced after 1995 by the requirements of the newly-formed World Trade Organisation. For the people at large the development of events has been devastating. The relative stability of certain sections – middle peasants, organised sector workers, educated employees and teachers – evaporated; and those whose existence was already precarious plummeted.

It took time for people to arrive at the perception that what was happening was not merely a series of individual tragedies, but a broader social calamity linked to official policy. As they did so, they expressed their anger in whatever way they could, generally by throwing out whichever party was in power, especially at the state level. Invariably, the defeated party was replaced with another that represented the same basic interests as the rejected party and was compelled by those interests to follow identical policies; this new party in power in turn met a similar fate in the following elections. This phenomenon of the last 15 to 20-odd years has been torn out of its economic and political context and termed the 'anti-incumbency factor'. Indeed, the terminal decline of the leading (and once-hegemonic) party of the Indian ruling classes, and the failure of any party to replace it, can be traced to this context.

It was in the May 2004 general elections that people's economic concerns came most sharply to the fore, as evidenced by the fact that the parliamentary parties themselves felt compelled to make them the centre of their campaign. The BJP-led government at the Centre, which claimed that India was 'shining' with economic prosperity, was removed from power, and the most aggressive state-level 'liberalisers', such as Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, were trounced.25 Yet the Congress-led coalition which owes its victory to the May 2004 elections follows, indeed must follow, broadly the same policies as its predecessor. Any attempt to slow the pace is met with rebukes and pressure from imperialist countries and the domestic corporate sector. Indeed, there is no longer any need for them to intervene explicitly. With the last 14 years of financial liberalisation, the country is now enormously vulnerable to volatile capital flows. This fact alone would rule out any serious populist exercise: for the resources required would have to be gathered either from increased taxation or from fiscal deficits, either of which would alienate foreign speculators and could precipitate a sudden outflow of capital.

Declining credibility of the system
Political instability, then, is inherent in the present set-up: the elections are intended to confer the stamp of a popular 'mandate' to the victors; yet whichever coalition is elected must adopt policies that alienate it from the people. The underlying economic reality has robbed the parliamentary parties of their credibility, and made it impossible for any of them to command broad support. That in turn makes it impossible for any of them to prevent the sharpened squabbles in the ruling class camp. In several states such as Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, no party commands a majority, and the vote is split among several irreconcilable parties.

Larger and larger swaths of the country are considered 'disturbed'. Elections are major security exercises; for example, the assembly elections in a single state, Bihar, are being carried out over four phases under the watch of 90,000 security forces. While the unrest and insurgencies in the North-east and in Kashmir are of long standing, the authorities now see 'left extremism' as a major menace, warranting the recent (September 19) conference of chief ministers, home secretaries and police chiefs. By unanimous official admission, underlying social and economic factors – land (particularly of tribals' forest land), employment, and social oppression – generate sympathy for 'Naxalism'. However, the only official response to it is military: the main practical outcome of the recent conference was the decision to raise a special battalion of 1,200 tribals from the affected areas and spend Rs 20 billion on 'modernising' the police forces. Such a military response has had no effect over the years: According to official estimates, 'Naxalite'-affected areas have spread in the last year and a half from 76 districts in nine states to 118 districts in 12 states. The objective situation itself is volatile: during the last decade, it is areas such as Haryana and Rajasthan, devoid of Naxalite influence, that have witnessed militant, spontaneous peasant upsurges defying the authorities.    

Such is the internal condition of this aspiring 'global power'. The purpose of the above narration is to convey the state of affairs of Indian ruling class politics, and the context in which the rulers are desperate to be granted great-power status. That status does not follow from the objective economic rise of India. It is a title manufactured to meet a political need of the Indian ruling classes. That need flows from the sharpened internal contradictions of Indian society and the loosening grip of the ruling classes on the political consciousness of the people.  

"Consuming desire to be seen as a great power"
Of course the governments of various other countries are hardly taken in by the hype about India's great-power status. They find it pointless to state their views officially, but their observations in semi-official or unofficial contexts are cruelly frank. In May 2001 China's semi-official Outlook magazine commented that in order to rope in India, the US first catered to India's "psychological desire to be seen as a world power rather than a second-rate country" (emphasis added). It said that "the carrot the US is offering to India is attractive, so no wonder India is tempted to move closer and closer to the US".26

US views on the question are similar. A recent study by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, talks of "India's psychology of being a great power" , and remarks candidly: "India... has long craved recognition as much more than a major South Asian power and been greatly frustrated by its failure to achieve it. Major policy decisions like the decision to go nuclear in 1998 can be attributed to this consuming desire to be seen as a great power."27

Indeed, India's own minister for science and technology, Kapil Sibal, remarked candidly at a recent conference: "If the US faces a challenge in the 21st century, it will not be from India; [but] somebody from its neighbourhood. US is cosying up with India because of the Chinese challenge". He hastened to add that he was not speaking in an official capacity.28

Seeking official international confirmation of its claimed new status, the Indian government (under both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh) has single-mindedly pursued permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). (As is well known, the UN's General Assembly is merely decorative, and only the permanent, unelected members of the UNSC – the US, France, Britain, China and Russia – have any powers.) In this pursuit, India joined a club of which the other members are Germany, Japan, and Brazil, collectively the Group of Four. However, the G-4 proposal requires the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly; it has failed so far to obtain the support of more than a handful of countries. The US dismissed the G-4's proposal, saying it only supported a permanent seat for Japan and perhaps one other country (without specifying which other country).



20. S.K. Ghosh, The Indian Constitution and Its Review, R.U.P.E., 2001, p. 31; citing Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, 2nd series, vol.1, p. 311, emphasis added, and vol. 14, p. 325. (back)

21. M. S. Venkataramani, "An elusive military relationship", Frontline, 9/4/99, 23/4/99, 7/5/99. (back)

21a. This sentence is a corrected version of the sentence in the print edition, which incorrectly states that the elections followed the war. (back)

22. The last gasp of official 'land reform', the guidelines issued by the 1972 conference of chief ministers, had negligible effect. As the Planning Commission's Task Force on Agrarian Relations said in 1973, "In a society in which the entire weight of Civil and Criminal laws, judicial pronouncements and precedents, administrative tradition and practice is thrown on the side of the existing social order based on the inviolability of private property, an isolated law aiming at the restructuring of property relations in the rural areas has little chance of success." (back)

23. 1951-52 to 1960-61, and so on. (back)

24. The term 'Hindu rate of growth' was coined by an economist, Raj Krishna, to describe the 3-3.5 per cent rate at which the Indian economy appeared to be stuck. (back)

25. A large and detailed nationwide post-election survey (by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Hindu, 13/6/04) documented the unpopularity of the current economic policies – of privatisation, entry of multinational corporations, and 'downsizing' (ie retrenching) of government – and their effect on voting patterns. The bulk of those surveyed, particularly the lower income groups, felt that the economic policies of the BJP-led coalition had benefited only the rich, and that their employment opportunities had worsened. (back)

26.Press Trust of India, 24/5/01. (back)

27. Natural Allies? Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation, Stephen J. Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, September 2005; hereafter cited as "Natural Allies" ( India's 'psychology' is indeed the butt of jokes: at a private dinner in 1998 Clinton referred to India as "The Rodney Dangerfield of great nations – convinced that it was never getting enough respect". (Strobe Talbott, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, quoted by A.G. Noorani, Frontline, 9/10/04. Dangerfield was an American comedian whose routine revolved around the fact that no one "gave him any respect".) (back)

28. Mumbai Mirror, 3/9/05. (back)

NEXT: From Central Asia to the Gulf to the South China Sea


All material © copyright 2015 by Research Unit for Political Economy