(This column was published in DNA edition dated November 10, 2010.)
Former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh once noted wryly that gaining admittance into the club of Big Powers was like jostling in a crowd to get into an unreserved railway compartment. You do whatever it takes to get in, whereas those inside are doing their damnedest to keep you out; but once you squeeze your way in, you become one of the privileged few and your best interests are in ensuring that no one else gets in.
President Barack Obama’s articulation of US support for India’s claim to permanent membership of the UN Security Council is the clearest sign that India, which has been banging on that compartment door for long, might at some point be let in. And although the invitation is for now merely symbolic, Obama simultaneously made clear that admittance would require India to be morally complicit in efforts to maintain the exclusivity of the club and to control the ‘unruly’ crowd outside the compartment.
Like a pimply schoolboy who is being nominated class monitor and is called upon to be a “responsible stakeholder” and police his erstwhile naughty peers, India faces an agonising rite of passage into adulthood, which comes with a certain loss of innocence.
On his ‘charm offensive’ tour, Obama framed his ‘invitation’ to India to sit at the high table of global governance by claiming repeatedly that India was no longer a “rising power” but one that had already risen. Although such a characterisation vastly understates the myriad developmental challenges that India faces, it is not entirely without merit. As a secular, pluralistic democracy with a young population and the potential for high economic growth driven by a free market economy, India offers a fairly unique developmental model. It is also, by and large, a force for global good, having conducted itself on the world stage more responsibly than most permanent members of the Security Council.
But it would be naïve to believe that Obama’s ‘invitation’ to India came about only because of these virtuous qualities. Promoting India serves US geostrategic interests of the moment precisely because in that exclusive ‘permanent membership’ club where once it held unchallenged power, an economically enfeebled US now faces an energetic pushback from a resurgent China. In fact, Obama started his presidency by trying to co-opt China as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ on a variety of issues – Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea – but found, during his visit there last year, that Chinese leaders were immune to his charms. Over the past year, in fact, Sino-US relations have gone rapidly downhill, with tensions across the board from currency issues to friction in the South China Sea. That perhaps explains why he’s turned his charm on India and is looking for it to be a pinch hitter to advance US strategic interests – and even “Engage the East”.
All this is not to say there aren’t shared values that bring India and the US together or that there isn’t a reason to aspire for admittance into that unreserved compartment. But a seat at the high table will perforce draw India into the cynical mechanics of Big Power politics, and in the short run at least, see its many internal problems amplified before the world. How India conducts itself, now that it is on the threshold of having Big Power status thrust upon it and will consequently face even more prickly needling from its hostile neighbours, will be a stern test of its character.
China is edgy about India’s rise as an East Asian power
‘Don’ be a pawn for US’: Advice to India from Shen Dingli, executive dean of the Institute of International Studies and the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China ‘supports’ India’s enhanced role in the UN
Over here, Mr Obama, you can still win
Light a Diwali diya, Obama
Interview with Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at Brookings Institution
‘Obama won’t seek high-profile role in Kashmir‘: Interview with Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Is India a tiger or a pussy-cat?
‘Politically immature Asia needs the US to stay engaged‘: Interview with Simon SC Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs