The pendulum of tricky times

ONE need not look to the deadly scuffle between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the inhospitable terrain of the Galwan Valley to explain the prevailing pro-US chorus in New Delhi. It has been the quest of India’s weathercock strategists ever since the demise of the Soviet Union to somehow replace Pakistan as South Asia’s blue-eyed boy in Washington’s calculations.

This ignores the trail of political malevolence and social damage the US embrace has left Pakistan with. Egypt, Latin America and Africa have been the other victims. Iran wouldn’t be where it is but for the Shah’s mindless embrace of Washington and vice versa. Nor would mediaeval era polity be tolerated in Saudi Arabia without US support.

Vajpayee’s secret missive to Bill Clinton, which the US media creditably revealed to the world, that India’s 1998 nuclear tests targeted China, was only one of the telling episodes of India fancying its chances with the United States.

A subsequent love call was sent out by the Vajpayee administration to Bush Junior, offering Indian bases to the US to launch the fateful war on Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks. It is another matter that the US opted for Pakistan as the launch pad for the miscued offensive — to a very unenthusiastic Pakistan, one might add. Wasn’t it the nightclub bouncer-like Richard Armitage who threatened Pervez Musharraf to come on board or have Pakistan reduced to rubble?


The enthusiasm with which Indian officials are showering rose petals on a dream is so palpable that it can be seen from a satellite.

Now, after suffering a forbidding toll in men and money, Washington has accepted the futility of its tragic venture in Afghanistan. In fact, the pendulum has swung so sharply in the opposite direction that Donald Trump is courting the very zealots the US had targeted as alleged collaborators in destroying the World Trade Centre.

This awareness of the pendulum’s wayward movement seems to have eluded New Delhi. The enthusiasm with which Indian officials are showering rose petals on a dream is so palpable that it can be seen from a satellite.

What’s taking time? There is Russia, of course, with its sway over India’s defence apparatus. Moreover, Vladimir Putin has also pulled India into the orbit of the Shanghai club. There is also the perennial US demand that India embrace more politically costly neoliberal economic policies. Above all, the pendulum is being powered by the existential crisis the US itself faces, in which China alone seems to be in a position to nurse it back to health.

India, despite its efforts, has no leverage to assist Trump’s re-election. Although Trump did get his quota of anti-malarial pills from Modi, the latter cannot ensure the non-resident Indian vote for a second term to the president in November. American NRIs have been predominantly a pro-Democratic lot. China, of course, can tip the vote, like Khomeini did against Carter in 1980. Going by John Bolton’s revelations, and even without them, Trump clearly would love Xi Jinping to bail him out, which Xi can do if he so chooses before the US polls later this year. However, China may opt to help Joe Biden instead, preferably with a promise to ease the anti-China Asian pivot that John Pilger has described in his compelling documentary: The Coming War on China. Xi, like his predecessors, is too nuanced to easily pick up farm produce from the US to placate Trump’s constituency.

The bind makes the alleged Russian influence on US elections look like a prank. China knows how in 1980, Jimmy Carter fell into bad odour with Iran with his ill-fated commando attempt to rescue American hostages from the US embassy in Tehran. Iran helped Ronald Reagan’s election to spite Carter, and released the captives only after Carter accepted defeat in an election he could have won with Iran’s indulgence. Reagan rewarded Tehran with the Iran-Contra deal, which helped both sides to further degrade Iraq’s military apparatus. The fall guy was Capt Oliver North.

From Bolton’s ringside notes, it may be inferred that China can tip the balance, if it so chooses, just as Khomeini once did. Joe Biden naturally took a pre-emptive course on Bolton’s claims, saying: “If these accounts are true, it’s not only morally repugnant, it’s a violation of Donald Trump’s sacred duty to the American people.”

The Washington, D.C. that the post-Soviet India looks keen to link up with has been slighted also by the European Union. While welcoming China to its gradual opening from the post-Covid shutdown, Europe has pointedly excluded the US. India too doesn’t figure in the list of countries welcome to Europe in the near future. The nation that Trump described as the source of the “plague” stands invited but not the country that Trump leads. This is how the cookie crumbles for India’s strategic community and its assorted analysts, as it does indeed for the rest of the world.

What is to be done? Pakistani economist Akbar Zaidi may have hit the nub of the issue in a TV discussion on why Bangladesh was doing better than Pakistan. He said: “Sab sey pehli cheez: unhon ne fauj ki chhutti kar di.” (First of all, Bangladesh effectively disbanded its army.) The answer while absolutely valid for the entire cluster of developing nations will not wash with India in its current mood. Given the fabled inviolability of Pakistan’s military, Akbar Zaidi got away unharmed. A similar thought would be forbidding for anyone making the suggestion to India, currently.

There’s still hope though. Prime Minister Modi has done well to negotiate a promising disengagement with China. Another landmark move by him, Hindutva’s exigencies permitting, would be to implement the agreement on Jammu and Kashmir that Manmohan Singh and Gen Musharraf had all but clinched. Modi’s lasting legacy could be a prosperous India at peace with its neighbours and, potentially, with its citizens too. Alternatively, he can repair America’s grandfather clock and fix its erratic pendulum.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2020