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India’s New Saffron-tinted Self-confidence: What Does It Bode for Its People and the World?

India’s New Saffron-tinted Self-confidence: What Does It Bode for Its People and the World?

  • Will the BJP’s philosophically hollow and passionately violent Hindutva ideology not tarnish the image of Hinduism worldwide, just as the Taliban’s extremism did to Islam? The world is watching, nervously.

Following vigorous deal-making with President Biden on his U.S. trip, Prime Minister Modi will bring back many goodies to India – jets, drones, semiconductor technologies, space exploration collaborations, and deliverables on renewable energy, critical minerals, telecommunications, quantum computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and health care. The U.S. also promised to renew its commitment to permanent membership in the UN Security Council for India.

What does the U.S. promise itself in return for this largesse? There are never any freebies in diplomacy. Claims of a strong U.S.-India friendship as a reflection of their joint commitment to democracy and human rights are disingenuous against the backdrop of Modi’s autocratic leadership style, and betray a thin cover for a de facto transactional relationship that will grant the U.S. access to India as a defense base against China. 

Daniel Markey of Foreign Affairs noted that the two countries’ shared values have grown weaker, while their shared material interests have become stronger. He writes, “With a clear, common geopolitical foe in China, each understands that the other can help it win its competition against Beijing. For the United States, India is a massive, pivotal power in Asia that sits astride critical maritime routes and shares a long, contested land border with China. For India, the United States is an attractive source of advanced technology, education, and investment.” 

What Modi is invariably going to tout as a big win for India’s defense against Pakistan and China is actually opening India up for the first time as a defense base for the U.S. to park its weapons against China. The promise of a partnership based on mutual understanding and trust has been lost to a marriage of convenience that threatens to fall apart after the hour of mutual need passes. Experts have variously pointed out that India under Modi does not share American values, and, as Jonathan Guyer of Vox magazine warns, some of the advanced military technologies that the U.S. is providing the country could be used against dissidents or journalists.

Derek Grossman, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, cautions against the U.S. approach of going all in with India to counter China. The U.S. cozied up to dictatorial or semi-authoritarian regimes, notably Afghanistan, with drastic consequences for the people. Domestically, it gave an upper hand to the U.S.’s war-hungry military-industrial complex, diverting resources away from civilian priorities, while making the world more unstable.  

Guyer reports that the U.S. defense sector is thrilled. Asia Group, a consulting firm that advises clients like General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, was founded by Kurt Campbell, now the Biden White House expert on Asia policy. Campbell’s former firm says the time is now to invest in India. Gopal Nadadur, an Asia Group executive in India, informs that defense and aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing, Dassault, General Electric, General Atomics, Raytheon Technologies, and Pratt & Whitney have boosted their engineering and manufacturing operations in India.

Military Industrial Complex

What would be the implications of granting entry to the powerful for-profit U.S. weapons industry into India? Looking back over 400 years, the British had gained a foothold in India with the establishment by the English East India Company of factories in Masulipatnam in 1611 and Surat in 1612. By 1690, there were factories in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, unremarkable beginnings on coastal India that were a prelude to the 200-year-long colonization of India. The company had its own armed forces with which it seized control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent, causing a flow of bullion for the first time from East to West since Roman times, impoverishing India irreversibly. 

William Dalrymple wrote: “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. For it was not the British government that began seizing chunks of India in the mid-18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, ruthless and mentally unstable corporate predator — Robert Clive. India’s transition to colonialism, in other words, took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.”

This history of colonialism led India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to be deeply suspicious of the intrusion of foreign powers into independent India. With his exhaustive knowledge and nuanced understanding of India’s colonial past, Nehru was wary of unregulated capitalism in general, and western offshore capitalism in particular. He shunned overtures in the late-1940s from the U.S. under the Truman administration, which leaned towards India because it was more diplomatically valuable than neighboring Pakistan. Nehru, recognizing the need for fundamental reform in Indian society, favored fabian principles that demanded slow but lasting, values-based change, and maintained a preference for a multipolar world, shaping India’s policy of non-alignment with both the United States and the Soviet Union. 

During the Cold War, India’s policy of neutrality was cumbersome to many American observers, drawing not only sharp criticism but also open U.S. support for Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War (India won with Soviet support). India’s non-alignment policy has persisted to this day, with the otherwise fiercely anti-Nehru Modi government abstaining from successive votes at the UN after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and refusing to openly call out Russia as the instigator of the crisis. 

In signing defense deals that reduce India’s dependence on Russia, the U.S. clearly hopes that India will join the Western alliance in imposing sanctions on Russia. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highlights the incongruity of India’s support of the U.S. for opposing Chinese territorial assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific while tolerating vastly more egregious Russian belligerence in Europe.

Explaining his rationale for adopting the path of non-alignment in 1946, Nehru said, “We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which have led in the past to world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale.” Modi, so far, has not explicitly expressed his motivation for non-alignment. 

Neutrality for Profit

But a New York Times report published last week by Lazaro Gamio and his coauthors shows how Modi’s India profits from its neutrality in the Ukraine War. Using satellite data analysis, they showed that, until recently, Russia, the third largest producer of crude oil worldwide, rarely shipped to the Gulf of Kutch, home to the world’s largest oil refinery that belongs to the most powerful Indian industrialist and Modi ally, Mukesh Ambani. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian oil tankers have become an increasingly common sight there. 

The Western coalition, consisting of the U.S., Europe and other countries backed Ukraine, imposing sweeping sanctions on Moscow. In an effort to hurt Russia but keep global supplies steady, the West imposed a cap on the price Russia could charge for its oil. India has become the biggest market for this cheaper oil, purchasing nearly two million barrels a day, equivalent to over half of Russian seaborne crude oil, and roughly 45 percent of India’s imports, according to the International Energy Agency. 

In December, S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, was asked in Parliament about India’s decision to buy Russian crude. “It is a sensible policy to go where we get the best deal in the interest of the Indian people,” he said. “If it is your contention that our position has been in putting the interests of the Indian public first, I plead guilty.”

Though India continues to bask in the glowing international reputation afforded to it by visionary stalwarts like Gandhi and Nehru, it is easy to recognize a clear shift in India’s motivations and priorities under Modi, who prides himself on his ability to seize opportunities and deliver results (by hook or by crook). 

Afghanistan was the last country that tried to play both Russia and the United States simultaneously. In the 1950s, Afghanistan was going through a series of modernizing infrastructure projects: the Soviet Union built the Salang Tunnel to connect northern Afghanistan to Kabul, and the United States was involved in building dams in the Helmand Valley in southern Afghanistan for agricultural irrigation. Historian Ali A. Olomi noted in an interview with Emily Stewart of Vox that both great powers invested vast amounts of money vying for Afghanistan. Mohammad Daoud Khan, the autocratic first president of Afghanistan, famously said, “I feel happiest when I light my American cigarette with Soviet matches.” 

See Also

But his attempt to leverage the uncomfortable Cold War relationship between the U.S. and the USSR made both powers very nervous. By 1978, Khan was overthrown in the Saur Revolution, resulting in the establishment of a Marxist-Leninist government by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), and Afghanistan became the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Acting against its own commitment to democracy, the U.S. started to fund resistance groups to overthrow this communist government. Using Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a cover in the late seventies, the U.S. funneled money to the Afghan resistance without knowing much about them. When this provoked a Soviet invasion, the U.S. openly lent its full backing to the anti-communist resistance movement, the Mujahideen. 

The Afghan Mujahideen was loosely organized, consisting of four distinct groups, ranging from violent Islamic lumpen elements, moderate Islamists, disaffected communists, and military defectors. They were haphazardly aligned through their resistance to the PDPA, a progressive government that expanded women’s rights, literacy, agricultural reforms, and the economy in Afghanistan. In allying with the Mujahideen against the Russians, Dr. Olomi notes, the U.S. committed some horrific blunders. One of those was to pressure Egypt to release a group of imprisoned radical Islamists, one of whom, Ayman al-Zawahiri, went on to become the second-in-command of al-Qaeda. According to Olomi, the U.S. also unwittingly assisted the Afghan Mujahideen in importing international Islamic extremists – fighters from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Yemen Mujahideen, the Saudi Mujahideen, and others, who eventually formed al-Qaeda. After the U.S. and the Soviet Union withdrew their influence at the end of the Cold War, Afghanistan descended into a civil war. In the chaos of that civil war, the Taliban were born in 1996-97, turning Afghanistan into an Islamic Emirate. 

The U.S., along with the rest of the world, reached a late realization of its miscalculations when the Taliban started denying school education to girls, forcibly confining women to their homes, and mutilating them or stoning them to death for minor infractions against the Taliban’s extreme and repressive rules. Harsh international sanctions and withdrawals of aid followed, and in retaliation, the Taliban abetted the atrocities of 9/11 in 2001 on American soil, shattering not only the peaceful progress of the postwar world but also tarnishing the image of Islam and condemning millions of peace-loving Muslims around the world to a lifetime of international mistrust. 

Parallels With Islamic Afghanistan

What will India’s opportunistic dalliance across historic Cold War boundaries bode for its people and for the world? There are differences between today’s India and Afghanistan in the late 1970s, but there are also strong parallels. India is much more populous, advanced, and diverse than Afghanistan ever was, and it is rooted in a rich and ancient civilization. But this no longer offers much consolation, because India today, like Afghanistan in the 80s, is being led by a similar troupe of Hindu zealots and lumpen elements, moderate Hindus unwilling to rock the boat, and disaffected sections of Indian society (of which there are many), with the aim of turning India into a Hindu supremacist theocracy. Just as the Taliban scapegoated “the infidels” and enslaved women to assert their power, defenders of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology scapegoat Muslims, Christians and Dalits, and use sexual violence against women to assert their power. 

The Taliban were rootless and unhinged from decades of chaos that decimated democratic norms, the quality of school education, and levels of gainful employment in Afghanistan. This is increasingly true for India as well: the country was downgraded from a “free democracy” to a “partially free democracy” by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute in 2021, and now is an “electoral autocracy.” Narendra Modi’s BJP has been making willful changes not only to history textbooks but also recently eliminated evolution and the periodic table from high school science textbooks, all while indoctrinating Hindu youth with manufactured pride and hate towards non-Hindus. Modi’s disastrous policies like demonetization, his catastrophic mismanagement of India’s COVID crisis, and his anti-poor policies to favor crony capitalists like Adani and Ambani have eroded protections for farmers and laborers and rendered an unprecedented quarter of its youth jobless. 

The otherwise idle Taliban felt invincible in their liturgical righteousness and were impossible to negotiate with in the late 90s because the world could never be ideologically “pure” enough for them. Similarly, today’s India is brash and irreverent, and yearns to be seen as a “Vishwaguru” (teacher to the world), with a clear distaste for criticism or dialogue, or as Modi’s government repeatedly says: being lectured to.

The United States under Biden has shown that it still applies what Emily Stewart calls a “rolling reasoning” to its international relations, creating arbitrary narratives to reach its short-term goals, with little hesitation in unleashing the beast that is its military-industrial complex against weaker nations that refuse to toe its line. Is there any guarantee things will go differently for India than they did for Afghanistan? Will the BJP’s philosophically hollow and passionately violent Hindutva ideology not tarnish the image of Hinduism worldwide, just as the Taliban’s extremism did to Islam? The world is watching, nervously.

Suniti Sanghavi is an Indian citizen who has lived in Europe and the U.S. for the past 24 years. She lives with her family in Southern California, where she works as a scientist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Living as an immigrant in different parts of the world exposed her to new perspectives and opportunities, but also indignities and disadvantages that were unknown to her as a member of the Indian privileged class. This led her to believe that solidarity with and advocacy on behalf of the deprived is an automatic obligation of privilege. Without this obligation, privilege becomes an unchecked downslide into self-satisfied depravity. 

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