The outpouring excoriation of the Modi government by the Western media has not paused in the aftermath of the Coronavirus crisis. Indeed, his hard Left and Islamist critics, joined at the hip, have been mobilised to spew venom resorting to even more blatant lies. Major Western outlets like the Financial Times and Sunday Times have intensified the spreading of poisonous canards against the Modi government by denouncing its extraordinary efforts to deal with the unprecedented health and economic crisis. These major publications, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, may have their problems with the person of President Donald Trump, but, ultimately, remain organs of the US state policy, only at one remove. Their role in promoting US foreign policy goals transcends domestic political controversy, however fraught they may outwardly appear. Significantly, even Western social media platforms are blatantly censoring Modi supporters and Indian nationalist posts while allowing incitement of Indian Muslims to revolt. It would seem that the Western political establishment is seeking regime change in India by provoking civil unrest and discontent that will have electoral consequences. Narendra Modi’s disempowerment and his removal are now an acknowledged goal, being pursued by mobilising his adversaries at home and abroad. His brand of national self-assertion is no longer to be tolerated, and painting it as Hindu fascism is a ploy to engineer his eventual departure.
To understand what underlies this extraordinary and apparently puzzling US goal, it is necessary to examine its global foreign policy aspirations and intensified competition with China. The absolute centrality of China to US global policy will now become much more unambiguous than it has been since the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. However, there was a serious divergence earlier within the US establishment on the sequence in which national policy priorities should be pursued. For the traditional US political and military establishment, which includes the Democrats, Russia was still unfinished business from the symbolic end of the Cold War in 1990. In their view, for the US to regain global primacy, the complete erasure of a specific Russian check on it needed to be addressed first. Donald Trump took a different view, regarding the extant Russian footprint as manageable and the Chinese threat to US economic primacy a more immediate issue requiring action. It appears that Trump’s stance may have coincided broadly with the perception of Henry Kissinger, with whom Trump’s officials had engaged.
The Russian conundrum was its ability to launch a nuclear second-strike against the US that no other political power possesses. The US therefore initially sought to perpetuate weak and pliable Russian governments in the mould of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. It was evidently hoped they would so severely weaken Russia that it would be willing to negotiate an understanding that would eliminate the Russian nuclear threat. One aggressive aspect of the US strategy to achieve this goal was to renege on the expectation that it would not seek to create client regimes adjacent to the Russian border. But this is exactly what the US did, without restraint, since no one with Joseph Stalin’s cynical grasp of geopolitics was present in the Russian political leadership. That is until 2000, when the hard-headed and determined Vladimir Putin arrived on the scene, ending the plunder of the Russian economy and its historic assets aided by Western advisers, and also began renewing its defence industries. The US has since sought to install nuclear missiles close to the Russian border in order to threaten a massive first strike that would then be followed by interdiction of the fewer surviving Russian retaliatory second-strike missiles by US ABM defence. This scenario of checkmate was to be the basis of all negotiations with Russia and to cut down its global influence, e.g. in the Middle East.
The Coronavirus pandemic is likely to have strengthened Donald Trump’s hand and may indeed have brought the US political and military establishment closer to a consensus on dealing with China first. The US has a four-fold strategy to deal with China and has begun to contest the mercantilist basis for China’s economic advance, which squeezes current consumption to invest in economic assets that augment national strength, especially in manufacturing and high technology. It also entails addressing China’s plunder of US intellectual property through theft and bribery of US citizens. This is the arena in which Donald Trump has begun to take purposive action and that is likely to intensify in the aftermath of China’s coronavirus assault on the world. But that is proving costly to US consumers and producers because of reciprocal interdependence, which had been allowed to proceed too far in the past two decades. The second limb of the US strategy has been an attempt to overawe China with an expanding military presence in the Indian ocean region, but China has responded by playing the time while it continues to build economic and technological muscle in critical areas to restrain the US challenge.
The third and fourth elements of the US strategy to repudiate Chinese claims to global power, even aspiring to eventual primacy, involve India and will be of paramount importance if all else fails. The first and second strategies of containing China are already failing and the necessity of deploying the third and fourth dire instruments is becoming a stark future possibility. The reasons for the failure of the attempt to reverse China’s growing economic clout and overawe it by a show of military strength are straightforward. The immediate personal costs associated with economic warfare against China were too great for a mollycoddled US consumer to absorb for any length of time since there is the reciprocity of vulnerability. The US military power play is only prompting China to work harder to attain economic and military prowess. But the real reason why these two strategies cannot succeed is that the oligarchic, finance-dominated US economy cannot generate surpluses for investment in long-term projects and the costly infrastructure that needs to accompany it for radical national economic renewal. By contrast, China’s one-party militarised society, bearing all the hallmarks of textbook fascism, is uniquely suited to the purpose of advancing preferred economic sectors at the expense of the consumption aspirations of a cowed citizenry.
The third and fourth elements of the US strategy to deal with China are preparing for combat in the oceans and along the Indo-Chinese border if the need ever arose. The Indian ocean is the likely arena in which the US would seek to massively disrupt Chinese international supply lines with the help of naval assets that had access to Indian ports and the hinterland for supplies. The only feasible land border available to enter Chinese territory is through Tibet, via Nepal, and that, of course, requires access through the Indo-Nepal border. No other country allows such a possibility since North Korea is completely unavailable and neither Vietnam nor Myanmar are likely to entertain the use of their territory for such a war. The question is whether India is also likely to acquiesce without demur to being dragged into such a cataclysmic conflict when its likely ultimate outcome would be a Sino-US peace treaty that will definitely be at its expense and that of other Asian powers in the region. This is why the US has an urgent interest in the dynamics of Indian domestic politics.
The US would be very anxious about the ultimate military strategy it might one day need to deploy to constrain China, and not be held hostage to the opinions of mere Indian politicians. If the US triggers warlike actions in the ocean and on land against China, India will be required to offer itself as an uncomplaining accessory. It cannot be allowed to negotiate the detail and insist on Indian national prerogatives while such military action is in progress. And its armed forces may have to be put under the command of US generals and admirals. All the contingent bonhomie and protestations of friendship and alleged timeless mutual regard with Indian leaders, currently being bandied about with cynical abandon, cannot obviate this insuperable conundrum. However, nothing India has done in its history since independence has inspired the trust of the Western alliance and that period’s political conflicts between India and the West are too well-known to need recounting. It climaxed with the US’s Seventh Fleet in the Indian ocean in 1971, threatening India’s foray into East Pakistan.
However, the period after 2004 provided the US with an illustration of how accommodating some Indian governments could be when cajoled. It signed the Indo-US nuclear accord with alacrity, even bribing parliamentarians to do so and endangering its own very survival as a government. Although it was definitely in India’s interest to become a recognised nuclear power, its shameless alacrity was also prompted by the US. The latter had calculated that the dramatic change in India’s status as a bona fide nuclear power would enhance Indian nuclear deterrence against China, its identified deterrent adversary in any case. The Manmohan Singh government was even poised to reach a catastrophically disadvantageous settlement over Kashmir the US would have approved. They had found in Manmohan Singh a Prime Minister apparently more sensitive to US wishes and influenced by its preferences. He was under the complete control of compromised foreign-born overseers who had seized the levers of power of the Indian Union, about whom the US had enough evidence of misdeeds to silence. Yet, even this pliable, corrupt and incompetent government felt obliged to refuse compliance with US sanctions against Iran because of the high political and economic costs entailed, underlining once again the impulse of India to disobey US commands. Only when a gun was eventually held to India’s proverbial head that India felt there was no option but to acquiesce with the imperious US diktat on Iran. But it was also Manmohan Singh, who, as Prime Minister, effectively announced that India itself was a terrorist state at the infamous Sharm el Shaikh meeting, for which his advisors should have been imprisoned for treason. The US State Department must have been well pleased that India had helped its Afghan misadventure by offering Pakistani terrorism against itself an alibi, although humiliating itself in the process.
However, the US government also has access to pretty much anything that goes on in India, through its myriad infiltrators at every level, hacking official Indian computer networks and using sophisticated methods of intercepting electronic communications. It is likely privy to the deepest secrets of the Indian government’s reflections. In addition, and more to the point, the US has understood that the Modi government is a cynical partner also capable of smiles and bonhomie but unwilling to become an ardent instrument of US global policy. Despite agreeing to multiple and deepening agreements on defence-related and technology issues with the US on an unprecedented scale, India’s incumbent top political leadership also calculates the nation’s interests and advantage in acceding to them. Although many US assets in the Indian bureaucracy attempt to mislead the Indian leadership into adopting policies consistent with US preferences, it is not all plain sailing. US international adversaries also provide inputs that determine Indian government perceptions and policy, as illustrated by its insistence on purchasing the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system in 2015 despite persistent US blandishments and threats. One specific issue has also demonstrated to US decision-makers that the Modi government cannot be trusted and tolerated, and hence the immediate rationale for attempting to undermine it through a global media campaign, combined with getting its local Indian assets to create disorder and unrest, which, of course, suits them too.
It is the August 2019 transformation of the status of J&K within the Indian Union through the revision of Article 370 that has caused the greatest heartburn in Washington and the capitals of its Western allies. The US had not dreamt that India would try to resolve the decades-long J&K impasse with completely unilateral and swingeing policy change. It was as bold and courageous as it was risky, and truly catalysed the global media hysteria. At this climactic juncture, even stately national dailies and journals like the FT, the Sunday Times, the Economist, the NYT and Washington Post threw caution to the winds and began purveying outright abusive fabrication and arrant nonsense. Any preferred US resolution to the J&K issue would have taken into account Pakistani demands, the basis on which that nation has functioned since independence, to the exclusion of pretty much all else. India, it was reasoned, could make major concessions because of the historic cupidity of its Hindu population, easily persuaded to accept astonishing national reverses if the outcome is presented with appropriate obfuscatory garnish by the right chefs. The Musharraf Plan was once the careful subterfuge that would have ceded J&K sovereignty to Pakistan over a period of time, Indian interlocutors failing to grasp its deadly long-term implications. Instead, the Modi administration has made firm claims to occupied PoK and understood the dire historical consequences of accepting the line of control as the international border, an issue I have written about with urgency.
The resolution to the J&K imbroglio in Pakistan’s favour would have weakened India politically, but also enabled it to give more military attention to its northern border with China, which, one can surmise, would suit US strategy of increasing pressure on it. Pakistani dependence on China would have also been diminished and the temptation to join a two-front strategy against India rendered less meaningful once it was satisfied over J&K, though this can be doubted from an Indian perspective. But Modi has made that all impossible for the foreseeable future by actions that amount to a virtual declaration of war against Pakistan by completely altering the status of J&K in the Indian Union as well as subtly declaring a long-term intention to destabilise it. The US, like any sensible strategist, despite periodic hostile verbal outbursts, is unwilling to abandon a Pakistan that has always complied with its wishes since the moment it became independent. Once the US-Afghan misadventure is over, the US will surely also come to rely on Pakistani influence to ensure that a Kabul regime would not engage in acts inimical to its critical interests and that of its Western allies.
India will find itself left high and dry on its western border and Pakistani terrorism will continue to prosecute its thousand cuts policy while suckling on Sino-US largesse. India will be weakened by such a scenario, but possibly also less truculent when the US makes demands. The US also correctly judges that an economically empowered India, with a US$ 10 trillion economy, will be even less receptive to US preferences and should not be helped to reach that level of economic independence. The unhappy example of China, which the US foolishly helped to achieve economic success, is now looming large before its eyes. Worse still, the US may have discovered covert Sino-Indian engagement that will totally undermine it in Asia and end its aspirations to dominate the world. In fact, India has every reason to reach an understanding with China, since its immediate disputes with it are mostly the product of Chinese self-aggrandisement and economic primacy, and will recede when its relative position declines. The apparently intransigent territorial issues themselves are only deadlocked disputes over thirteen strategic points along the Sino-Indian border since India has effectively conceded China’s position in the Aksai Chin. These issues can be resolved if there is political will and, once the Tibetan government in exile’s presence in India is repudiated, it will lead to a wider Sino-Indian concord. This would be a nightmare scenario for the US and the reason why it considers Modi and his government an object of ‘regime change’, a policy it pursues anywhere it pleases. This is why India’s greatest leader since Maharaja Ranjit’s sagacious and far-sighted rule and his purposeful attempt to build a strong and independent nation may be in jeopardy. India without Narendra Modi’s leadership would suffer an incalculable historic setback, from which it may not ever recover.
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Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for over two decades.