No. 41, December 2005

No. 41
(December 2005):

India's Place in the US Strategic Order

India as a 'Global Power'

One can hardly open a newspaper today without reading about India emerging as a 'global power'. This is not a spontaneous phenomenon.

The country's rulers have actively promoted this notion. Since the mid-1990s it was the BJP's favourite theme, and even Hindutva was made subsidiary to (in fact merged into) this theme. Thus the 1998 nuclear tests – christened 'Operation Shakti' (Strength) – occasioned a great display of chauvinistic breast-beating. The press was filled with editorials to the effect that India was now a power to be reckoned with in the world. The Prime Minister declared that India was now a 'nuclear weapon State', ready to stand up to western sanctions.

Of course, the reality was entirely different: Following the tests, the Indian government hastened to negotiate with the US to rehabilitate itself "internationally", that is, in the US's eyes. This began with a secret letter from Vajpayee to Clinton on May 11, 1998, the very day of the first set of tests, pleading for his understanding and assuring him that India "will continue to work with your country in a multilateral or bilateral framework to promote the cause of nuclear disarmament... In particular, we are ready to participate in the negotiations... for the conclusion of a fissile material cut-off treaty." Soon defiance of the US, even for public consumption, disappeared entirely from the rhetoric of the Indian government, to be replaced with assurances that the US government was now coming to "understand" and "appreciate" the Indian position.

Yet the theme of India's alleged new international status persisted. The BJP-led coalition indeed fought the last (2004) general elections on the slogan that it was making India a 'great power', even a 'superpower'. Its 'vision document' declared: "We have set the stage to reclaim our rightful inheritance as a Great Power", "India is now impatient to get to the top", and "The BJP is committed to making India a Developed Nation and Great Power on the global stage."1

At first, till 1999, the US government debunked this theme in often humiliating language. For example, in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests, the US Secretary of State said India's leaders lacked "maturity and responsibility"; she called their decision "reckless", "rash", and "dangerous". The Undersecretary of State said the tests "will gain [India] isolation and retribution". The US State Department spokesman spelled out several steps India would have to take to "get themselves out of the hole they've dug for themselves", failing which sanctions "would sting India for a long time to come". He specifically dismissed India's potential for emerging as a great power, and said that it would never be allowed to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

US shifts stance
By January 1999, however (for reasons discussed later in this article), the US's public stance began to change. During the 1999 Kargil crisis, the US compelled Pakistan to withdraw its forces, allowing India to claim a victory. The April 2000 Clinton visit to India marked the turning-point to active celebration of US-India ties.

As the new Bush administration assumed office in January 2001, the US Secretary of State-designate testified at his Senate confirmation hearing that India was a "powerful country" which the US had to engage "more broadly": "We must deal more wisely with the world's largest democracy.... India has the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean and its periphery." Then US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told India's external affairs minister in April 2001 that "we have watched India prove to the world that she deserves a place at the table of great powers."

Since then the theme of India's global importance has been repeated over and over by various agencies of the US government. A report of the National Intelligence Council of the USA, "Mapping the Global Future" (December 2004), predicts that India will emerge, like China, as a "new major global player" in the next 15 years. Meeting with India's external affairs minister in April 2005, US President Bush "spoke about India as a global power with which the US wanted to work very closely..." On his November 2005 visit to India, US treasury secretary John Snow pronounced that "India is emerging as one of the great economic powers of the world."

Historically, over the past two centuries, several countries such as the United States, Germany, and Japan have risen as great powers, unsettling the existing world order as they did so. Today, a (prospective) united Europe and China are talked of by many as potential future contenders for global hegemony. The rise of some powers and receding of others is inherent to capitalism, which develops unevenly. Indeed all capitalist powers, by their nature, strive for hegemony on the strength of their respective capital. The basis for the change in the world order is the decline in the strength of some power or powers, and the growing economic strength of new powers, which makes possible the latter's military rise. No country was made a great or global power by any other power; rather, in each case of a rising power, other powers have been compelled to acknowledge the new entrant as it forced its way to the imperialist dining-table.

It is revealing, then, that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her March 2005 visit to New Delhi, offered to "make India a world power". This was not a vague promise: in a confidential briefing on March 25, US State Department officials outlined to Indian officials the US "plan" to make India a world power.2 The Indian side shared this perspective: On March 30, 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "India needs help from the world community, including the US, to emerge as a global power."

So India's 'rise' is not a change in, but merely an expression of, the existing power relations. Speaking on an earlier occasion, Manmohan Singh thus confessed that

We have to recognise that the US is a superpower. International relations are, in the final analysis, power relations. And we are living in a world of unequal power. We cannot wish away the realities of this situation. We have to use the available international system to promote our interests. And, therefore, we have a necessity to engage the US. The US plays a very important role in the world economy, the political world system and we cannot wish that away. (7-11-04)


1. Quoted in C. Rammanohar Reddy, "Growth over development", Hindu, 17-4-04. (back)

2. K. Subrahmanyam, Times of India, 15-4-05. (back)

NEXT: The Reality of India


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