“History repeats itself, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” -Clarence Darrow

Great Power Or Great Pity?

Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.

25 November 2002

India simply does not have the streak of irrationality and brute mentality necessary to become a great power in historical terms. What Indians are capable of is gathering “sympathy cards” from other great powers.

Immediately following the bold terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, the Indian government marshaled its defense forces on a war footing and sent ground troops west to take up “forward positions” along the Pakistani border. The rhetoric from Indian politicians was equally belligerent with the Prime Minister telling his generals that “the day of reckoning with Pakistan has arrived”. There appeared to be no doubt that India was finally saying that enough is enough and preparing to go to war with Pakistan.

A close friend of mine in Washington, DC, who is the former head of a policy Think Tank that specializes in Confidence Building Measures (CBM) in troubled regions of the world including the Indian subcontinent, asked me if I thought the war between India and Pakistan was imminent. I replied with an emphatic “NO” which took him by surprise.

Subsequently, he received reports through American government officials that confirmed his personal belief that India was planning to attack Pakistan which he believed was certain to trigger a Pakistani retaliation that might include nuclear weapons. I tried to pacify my friend by telling him that the NDA government was still debating this issue internally and, from what I had heard, some very important constituents in the NDA did not support the hawks and would unlikely change their views, unless of course Pakistan launched a pre-emptive overt strike first.

Fortunately, my friend did not press me on why the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) peaceniks were thinking the way they did, nor did he appreciate the subtle point that Pakistan was already engaged in a proxy war with India. To him the possibility of a nuclear war was real and he remained unconvinced that India would keep getting its nose rubbed in the mud by Pakistan without some retaliatory response in return.

To allay his fears, the South Asia specialist arranged a visit to India in May 2002 to meet with key politicians, and more importantly, with Indian military establishment including the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO). He came back even more convinced that India was preparing “to teach a lesson” to Pakistan and that the military had planned for all eventualities. His passionate views were based on his first hand observations, but he did not realize that I knew the “Indian psyche” a bit more. I stuck to my “NO” and raised the ante by saying that we should have a friendly bet. He agreed.

Right after Americans got worried enough about escalating tensions in South Asia to the point that the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory to India and cautioned multinational companies to not send representatives to India (Summer of 2002), the Indian government quickly began to reassure the West that there would be no war and even hinted that foreigners should not read too much into war-like postures instituted by India. I sent a message to my friend telling him that I was ready to collect my bet but he replied that I should wait until after the elections in J&K when he expected the Indian army to start its military campaign. Well, the army did finally make a move after the State elections, but it was towards their home barracks!

My point in telling this lengthy story is that even the most astute India specialists in the West are unable to fully comprehend the Eastern, and particularly the South Asian, culture. How else can one explain West’s inability to see through Pakistani treachery and continue to shower it with rewards far beyond its contribution and assistance in the war against terrorism? And why is India always viewed as an “empire building” nation when the last time the Indian empire was truly ruled by natives (Mauryas) was nearly 2,500 years back?

Closer to contemporary times, India may express aspirations to secure a permanent seat in the Security Council, but in reality it lacks the essential psyche needed to be in the select group called “the great powers”. From a historical perspective, it was neither the size of the land mass nor population that made Portugal or England to be masters of the world in their respective times. It was their confidence and an absolute conviction that it was their destiny to rule the world.

It is the same confidence that President Bush shows when he speaks of changing the political landscape in the Middle East by invading Iraq. It is not just the brinkmanship, but a sure determination to use raw power. Indeed, being sometimes irrational and Machiavellian are common attributes among the great powers. So it is not surprising that my American friends would read India, an aspiring great power, in the same light as great western powers when in fact nothing could be farther from reality in so far as India is concerned.

Two highly unconnected events took place in October 1962 that greatly affected India and America, sapping the national morale in one country and lifting spirits in the other. India lost a war with China, the result of immature brinkmanship by Indian political leadership without a properly trained and equipped army that took on a ruthless enemy that sent initial waves of intruders as human shields for the main force to follow.

That any country would send mostly unarmed troops to attack another nation simply to act as cannon fodder was beyond the comprehension of Indian military strategists, but that was exactly what China did. Through sheer brutality and irrationality, China showed to India in 1962 what the rest of the world knows about China today.

Indeed, China has all the idiosyncrasies to make it to the top and its time as a great power will surely come sooner or later. There is no historical record of a nation becoming a great power by exhibiting piety or by letting other nations take advantage of its generosity. In fact, the reverse has been proved to be true in India. Armies as small as a few thousand have been able to conquer and rule India for centuries, simply because Indians are extremely docile and generous people who have always welcomed foreigners with open arms.

The other event that took place in October 1962 was the Cuban missile crisis. Nikita Khrushchev, much like General Musharraf, was a charismatic and gutsy leader who made impassioned speeches in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and elsewhere that “Soviet Union was going to bury American capitalism”. He made many risky decisions both internal and external to his country (party’s exasperation with his risky internal decisions eventually led to his fall), but none was more risky than bringing Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba.

He was testing the newly elected American President, and bringing the world to a near nuclear catastrophe was his way of feeling out his adversary. The American President knew the irrationality of a nuclear war, but at that moment everyone in the U.S. saw it as nuclear blackmail by the Soviets which had to be tackled then or else the American influence and power would never be the same. In the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, it was Khrushchev, not Kennedy, who blinked first. The rest, as they say, is history. Sadly, in the recent eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and Pakistan, it is India that blinked first. India has given into nuclear blackmail by Pakistan. Not one of the conditions laid by India in announcing the troop mobilization has been met by Pakistan. Rather, Pakistan based terrorists that India wanted arrested and handed over have been released by Pakistanis who have thumped their nose at India at every opportune moment.

India pulled back its army from the borders in a face saving moment, but the fundamental weakness of India has been exposed. Indians may argue that there was not really a choice as the alternative was too horrific to even contemplate, but that simply underlines India’s weakness as a military, and hence political, power.

India simply does not have the streak of irrationality and brute mentality necessary to become a great power in historical terms. What Indians are capable of is gathering “sympathy cards” from other great powers, and while many India experts and American politicians congratulated India for showing restraint, in reality what everyone understood is that India “does not have it”. George Perkovich, an American security expert, recently said that both India and Pakistan do not believe in nuclear deterrence, something that is necessary to establish regional stability among neighboring nuclear states. What he failed to recognize is: what if India accepts it, but not Pakistan? In that case, what are India’s options? If Pakistan continues to bleed India through a “proxy war” on one hand, and holds the big stick of “nuclear first strike” on the other, what should India do?

The reason that Perkovich and others like him put India and Pakistan on the same footing is because India matches Pakistani nuclear rhetoric by an outward belligerence, which in reality is an empty threat. The world at large does not realize that the same rational minds that are capable of achieving global leadership in software development are incapable of daredevilry needed to pursue an irrational war, and in effect have become paper tigers.

India is at momentous cross-roads of history. Soon it will be an economic powerhouse. But will it be a great power? Acquiring latest weapons of war and providing a huge military budget are necessary, but insufficient, steps towards that goal. What is needed is a new “can do” attitude, not please-pity-me-as-I am-wrongly-being-victimized outlook.

India should not be looking to America and other nations for pats on the back, but into the eyes of its own fellow countrymen who have lost everything in the war that Pakistan is waging against India for the last decade without an end in sight. The answer does not lie in rationalizing the “down side” of any confrontation with Pakistan, but in creating the “up side” that rationalizes war against evil nations and tyrants much like a great power is doing these days.

There can be no respect without creating fear in enemies and there can be no greatness without being willing to sacrifice everything for national sanctity. India has been defiled, repeatedly, by one of its neighbors, and yet its leaders seem more interested in protecting their legacy, rather than in restoring dignity and honor of the wounded nation.

I wish my premonition about empty Indian rhetoric had been proved wrong. I wish I had lost the bet with my American friend. As it is, he is treating me to a lunch in the first week of December. I hope that by then India makes moves to prove that my friend is right and I am wrong.

After the new wave of terrorist attacks in Srinagar and Jammu on November 23-24, is it too much to hope for?

Further elaboration was provided by the author in the Commentary Magazine, New York, April 2008 Edition.Please click to read

This article also appeared in the Outlook Please click here to view the same.

About Me

Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.

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