Smash the Nehruvian Mould: Donald Trump offers India a massive paradigm shift. We should embrace this

There is huge opportunity for India behind Donald Trump's assertion on Kashmir. From trade to tackling terrorism, this could be a game changer for a nation that remains stuck in musty Nehruvianism.

 |  12-minute read |   24-07-2019
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The exact wrong response by us to US President Donald Trump’s friendliness with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan would be go into a bunker and revert to old Nehruvian ideas about India’s interests and resisting the hegemony of self-interested, unreliable America.

To begin with, nations function primarily in their own self-interest — and that is not a bad thing. Moreover, America is very reliable to its allies — Israel, Taiwan, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, Canada and others. Indo-US relations have been fraught ever since Jawaharlal Nehru started lecturing the Americans on the evils of capitalism while soliciting (or begging) for food aid. The Americans didn’t like India’s non-alignment which was, in truth, friendliness towards Russia and China, who provided India little aid compared to the Americans — but got all the good press in India.

Nehru, in turn, protested about the US using food aid as a policy lever and how India would never give up its self-respect and freedom-of-action. Indeed, it has not, but it has managed to do so only by keeping itself utterly uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Apart from providing forces to the UN Peace Keeping Force, which hasn’t managed to keep peace in the world, no country can rely on India to come to their aid when the chips are down and friends are needed. This isolationist frame of mind has been so ingrained into the thinking of the Indian Republic that it does not change with a change of government. 

nehru-690_072419102604.jpgHow non-aligned was he really? The US felt Nehru strongly tilted India to the left. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Because of this, India is a featherweight on the world stage — despite having the second largest military in the world, the second largest population and the fifth largest economy.

Is this frame of mind innate to Indian culture, just the same as how India always got captured by foreigners but Indians rarely went anywhere to truly engage with the world outside? If it is not, post-Congress ‘Naya Bharat’ needs to wake up — right now.

Let us first dispense with the notion that Donald Trump is an oaf. Indeed, everything about him offends against everything that is believed to be proper by politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and the news media the world over. But the world of sophisticated people in important offices saying all the right things and making all the right decisions haven’t managed to shift the world’s axis in decades as much as Donald Trump has done, single-handedly.

He simply flicked China off the North Korea table after six decades of logjam and opened up conversation with the Kim regime directly. China is under trade pressure from the US — unimaginable in the years from Clinton to Obama. He has caused the Palestinians to fall off the List of Causes of most democratic countries. He has defied the American Deep State’s efforts to take him down or involve him in fresh wars. He has openly challenged the Islamist assault on American democracy by taking on Ilhan Omar, made oil sheikhs declare end of hostilities with Israel and told the American people that the Military Industrial Complex needs sales — and Saudi Arabia will buy if it wants to stay in America’s good books.

The British establishment, which is against Britain leaving the European Union according to the results of the 2016 referendum, is foaming at the mouth about how Donald Trump has involved himself so completely in Brexit that it changes the calculus in favor of Leave by committing the US to any and all assistance and cooperation Britain needs to offset the damage that the EU is determined to cause it for leaving. This is after he brought the EU into heel by threatening a trade war against the German car industry that the EU had no stomach to fight. 

donald-690_072419102945.jpgThose who call him a fool need an IQ test. (Photo: Reuters)

Donald Trump is no fool.

Let us understand that he is changing the world.

Let us also understand that Donald Trump means what he says.

He is for American interest in a way that no American President since Ronald Reagan has been. The US has been losing its energy, its competitiveness, its authority and its autonomy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and was near the edge of a permanent decline. Trump was elected to set that right — and that’s what he has been working on very effectively, within the opportunities and constraints he faces.

The Indian establishment now needs a change of thought. Diplomacy fails because it focuses on common interests instead of self-interest. Can we fulfill the self-interest of the other in some way so that they can do the same for us? If yes, only then can we talk about how our common interests fit into that cooperation. A refusal to consider the self-interest of the other and to enable it prevents your own self-interest from being fulfilled by a partnership.

India has to start thinking of America’s self-interests and presenting its own to arrive at a deal.

The fact is, Pakistan has played the game of 3D chess with the rest of the world far more effectively than India has — its web spreads across the Middle East, and into China in the East and to London, Washington, and Ottawa in the West. India’s got nothing except official statements about intentions to cooperate.

naya690_072319085602.jpgV for Victory: But how do we get there? Not with the same old weapons. (Photo: Reuters)

India is not going to be a wealthy world power and it will not get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council if we do not fundamentally rethink our place in the world.

Relations with Donald Trump are the litmus test of where India goes from here. 

So, what can India do?

First, buy 120 American fighter planes.

India is still defended by the MiG-21 — 36 years after the IAF first requested a replacement. Our MiG-29s and Su-30MKIs have abysmal availability because of the rate at which we can repair, build and overhaul them in Indian facilities. The Tejas drags on, pulled along by national pride more than anything else. Our procurement procedures, criteria and policies have failed. It may be that a European fighter is better than the American offering, but India is not going to lose a war with American planes that it would have won with European ones. And if India gets into a fight where the Chinese overwhelm the IAF, the difference in performance between the American and the European plane won’t matter.

What will matter is who India calls for help.

In all likelihood, that scenario will never arise. But what will have mattered meanwhile is the strategic and economic partnership opened. India buying American planes can have no reason other to express a desire to help out the US president and recognise his imperative to secure the future of American military technology, jobs and revenues — that’ll make Washington much more willing to plan and execute a strategy in cooperation with India that ends the Pakistan military’s jihad racket once and for all, bringing instruments that only the US can wield, but which offer the US no reward if India isn’t playing ball.

Second, work out a trade relationship with the US that helps India take significant portions of Sino-US trade.

Donald Trump understands that many, if not most, of the American manufacturing jobs that have gone from the US to China cannot go back to the US. But the next best thing is for them to go from China to somewhere else — say, India. That would both curtail China in a big way, and it will also create the opportunity to do that proportion of US trade fairly. Fair trade from the US perspective means an opportunity for American made goods and services to be offered in India and vice versa, without theft or extortion in the acquisition and use of American intellectual property, and without the Indian state resorting to the sort of economic manipulations that China has engineered.

India should consider erecting barriers to trade with China on anything and everything that can be manufactured in India.

Why should Indians buy Chinese made Apple products if Apple could be making them in India?

But can India make it attractive and easy for Apple to manufacture computers and phones in India and ship them worldwide at costs, quality and speed that rival China’s?

If not, how is India ever to become a first-rank power? Narasimha Rao’s reforms of 1991 have long ago been exhausted of their transformative effect on the structure and size of the Indian economy. A major rethink is needed that combines diplomacy, geostrategy and smart business thinking.

Donald Trump wants India to take a lot of China’s trade with the US, if it will engage in fairer trade policies and practices than China did. In this vision, India prospers, the US prospers, America gets the only other giant democracy in the world to set up an alternative trading order in the world to the one that China has mugged the world with, and India’s role in the world as an economy and as a geostrategic player gets transformed in ways that it dreams of — but has no other way to achieve.

Third, reduce Indian immigration to the US.

immi690_072319090405.jpgUnwelcome: India needs to heed America's warning signs. (Photo: Reuters)

The honest reality is that while many Indians have been stars in America, America is not as short of capable people as American companies claim when they sponsor H1 and L1 visas for Indians. American companies like Indian employees because in return for the faraway dream of a Green Card, Indian employees make excellent corporate drones.

They don’t cause retention problems because they want the job more than life, they don’t push for raises and promotions and opportunity like American employees do. They don’t have ideas and passions that they push, pursue and make their employers deal with. They’re happy to take what they’re given — and live in fear of losing it. They’re excellent servants for the shareholders. And they have displaced too many Americans from employment in their own country. A backlash is as inevitable as it was with the flood of economic migrants into India across the Bangladesh border.

But almost none of these Indians in the US is willing to give up an ordinary job at Citibank or Amazon for a job at HDFC or Flipkart. A trade boom would bring very many Indians back home, to do great things and be home with family. It would stop many more leaving. India eventually has to do this. We can’t all go to America, and those who remain behind can’t keep waiting for the transformative economic boom to happen while all of us who can get out continue to do so.

Sooner or later, India has to become the one place where Indians want to work and live — instead of running for the exits. And Trump represents an opportunity for India to fix itself, so that it can compete with China and do it such so that trading with India is better for America than trading with China.

Fourth, stop buying oil from Iran.

Iran is not India’s ally.

Iran is besieged by the Saudi-led Sunnis and holding its own, but a crucial part of that is keeping Pakistan benign toward itself. It does so by holding cooperation with India as a club over Pakistan’s head. So long as Pakistan leaves Iran alone, the India-Iran cooperation never reaches a level that fundamentally alters India’s ability to encircle and squeeze Pakistan strategically. But some cooperative activity with India always simmers to keep Pakistan alert to the dangers of crossing Iran. The likelihood that Iran’s cooperation with India will ever reach a level to seriously threaten Pakistan is negligible. 

rohouni_072419103306.jpgThe Iran minefield: India is pointlessly investing in ties which will get it nothing. (Photo: Reuters)

Iran is holding India like a fish on a line — but India will never get to eat the bait. Iran is never going to amplify the hostility with the Saudi/Pakistani Sunni world at great threat to itself so that India can surround and crush Pakistan. There is nothing for India in a relationship with Iran except to hold the status quo — a status quo that has left India alone and isolated, with no close bonds with any democracy for mutual benefit, and surrounded by the threats of totalitarian China and Pakistan’s Jihad.

This is the time for India to spell out a complete willingness to cease trade relations with Iran, get serious about competing with China for world trade, and establish a defence and strategic relationship, in exchange for complete US cooperation in isolating and sanctioning Pakistan’s military, for the common objective of tackling Islamic terrorism. That’s the target that Donald Trump has set. If India doesn’t want to meet it, he has no interest in any Global Right-Wing alliance or Shining India.

The bottom line is — like him or hate him, Donald Trump is a figure of historical importance and the world order will change because of him. India’s choice is, whether to go into Nehru’s bunker, or to take the enormous opportunities here to get involved in international relations with sophistication to rival Pakistan’s, but with India’s democracy, geostrategic weight, and capacity for trade, and ride the wave to power and prosperity.

Trump is a rare and vital opportunity for India to reconsider its Nehruvian ideas about India’s relationship with the United States.

Also Read: Imran meets Trump: Why Pakistan and US’ strategy on Afghanistan could hit India hard


Harbir Singh Harbir Singh @harbirsingh_

Harbir Singh is a political analyst and writer.

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