Indian versus American hegemony

The CPM threatens to bring down the government. Its main objection is not to the Indo-US nuclear deal so much as the proposed strategic partnership with the US, whom it regards as an imperialist threat to India and the whole world.

Two issues arise. First, does it make sense to regard the US as imperialist in some degree? Second, how should we react to various degrees of imperialism?

A good way to approach these issues is by asking whether India is any different from the US. The US is a muscular bully globally. So is India in the South Asian region. The US is hated in many countries globally for its muscularity. So is India in South Asia. Obviously, global muscularity is far greater than regional muscularity, but the principle is no different.

Imperial powers through the centuries aimed to grab foreign territories. The US does not seek to grab territory, and so is not a conventional imperialist. But it is a military and economic superpower, and since 9/11 is more willing than ever to use its military and financial muscle. This is not the old colonialism, yet is a sort of hegemonism.

But is India’s muscularity in South Asia different? India has repeatedly resorted to military force in the region, most famously by splitting Pakistan into two in 1971. In 1950, India ousted the Ranas in Nepal and put King Tribhuvan on the throne. It got him to sign a treaty of peace and friendship that is still condemned today by some Nepalese politicians as imperialist.

In the early 1980s, India trained the Tamil Tigers to start a rebellion in Sri Lanka. When the rebellion got out of hand, India used its muscle to get Sri Lanka to agree to an Indian Peace Keeping Force to bring peace and a political settlement. However, the Tamil Tigers refused to lay down arms and attacked the IPKF, which could not crush the militants and ultimately exited ignominiously. This was a prophetic prequel of what happened two decades later, when US forces failed dismally to bring peace and political stability to Iraq, and now look set to exit Iraq much as India exited Sri Lanka.

When the Maldives suffered a coup in 1988, Indian troops captured the coup leaders and restored prime minister Gayoom’s rule. In this episode, as in all others, India promoted its private interest while claiming to work for regional peace and high moral norms. Exactly as successive US presidents did when using military muscle abroad. The claims were not entirely without substance, yet did not impress affected countries either globally (in the US case) or regionally (in the Indian case).

Finally, consider Kashmir, a territory long disputed by Pakistan. A recent, authoritative opinion poll by CSDS showed that 87% of people in the Kashmir valley want independence. Many people-and not only in Pakistan – view this as proof that Kashmir is an Indian colony.

India, of course, bristles at the suggestion that it is imperialist. So does the US. Both claim to follow high moral principles, and complain that small countries imagine imperial threats that do not exist.

I think India and the US can both be called mild hegemons. They certainly seek to use their muscle, but in a mild form, very different from conventional imperialism. After 9/11, the US ceased to look mild. But Iraq soon exposed its limitations. The supposed superpower is helpless to quell militancy; lacks troops for even one occupation, let alone global hegemony; and dares not impose compulsory military service in the US. It can bomb countries from a height, but cannot control events on the ground. US politicians want to exit Iraq, and have no stomach for occupation of other foes (like Iran). After talking mighty and very imperial after 9/11, the US once again looks a mild hegemon, though less so than pre-9/11.

The second issue raised at the start of this column was: how should we react to this degree of hegemonism? For an answer, turn again to India’s position in South Asia. Some neighbours view India as an imperial threat. But it is better viewed as a mild hegemon. Should the neighbours boycott India and avoid any form of co-operation? Should they treat India as a strategic pariah? Surely not.

For the same reason, India must not treat the US as a strategic pariah. It must laugh at the CPM, which is a prisoner of its own past. A child of red imperialism, the CPM was utterly humiliated by the US when the Soviet Union and its East European empire collapsed. Anti-Americanism is in the CPM’s blood. It is not in India’s.

The CPM thinks partnership with the US means becoming an imperial slave. Some extremists in our neighbouring countries similarly view co-operation with India as slavery. Yet, sane folks in these countries see eminent sense in co-operating with India, both bilaterally and regionally. Indeed, they see such co-operation as a way of blunting the edge of Indian hegemony. That is how we should view co-operation with the US.

What do you think?