Within days of his re-election, President Barack Obama was out to meet Asian leaders at the East Asia Summit in the Cambodian capital of Pnom Penh. That underscored the importance the region has begun to acquire as a playground of global forces in a rapidly changing world power balance. By some coincidence the other major power in the world, China, also underwent a change in leadership within its one-party regime. At the other end, in Myanmar change is occurring with a slow movement from military autocracy to democracy.
No wonder as a showpiece of democracy in action the American leader was in Myanmar on the eve of the East Asian Summit meet, embracing that country’s long incarcerated and recently released democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. China, America and other participants at the Pnom Penh meet would have resurgent governments ready to take over in 2013 with fresh ideas of their role in the emerging sector of the world.
The one leader who was present at Pnom Penh whom his counterparts at the meet saw as skating on thin ice so far as public support of his own countrymen was concerned was Manmohan Singh. After all the world knows that his is a minority government facing an uncertain 18 months ahead.
Some analysts have made much of the fact that India was endorsed as the cornerstone of the emerging US global policy in the region. Both the Democrats and the Republicans were extremely supportive of India in the pre-election campaign. There are Americans of Indian origin in both the camps in positions of influence.
The Congress has been at pains to claim that the turn round in US policy treating India now with respect and as a partner, not to be dictated to on what is good for it, has come as a result of the Singh government signing the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement. This is only a half truth. The turn round came when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee defied the US in 1998 to demonstrate India’s nuclear weapons capability.
After two years of sanctions and political hostility to India, the Democratic Clinton administration came to understand if not appreciate the Vajpayee-led new confidence of an emerging Indian state. That was even more underlined when Vajpayee rejected the US president’s request to come to Washington to work out a compromise with Pakistan as the Kargil war raged. This refusal to negotiate with an errant Pakistan on Clinton’s terms, conveyed to Washington what a confident ruler in New Delhi could achieve in the face of US duplicity in the South Asian region. It was the Vajpayee-led NDA government that forced Washington to stop treating India and Pakistan at par as it used to do.
What his successor President George W Bush did in offering the civilian nuclear deal was only a follow up and time alone would show whether Singh’s enthusiasm for the deal was a surrender to American interests or a success of his foreign policy. In any case, India stands bound to the deals terms on pursuing its own nuclear path; the advertised benefits of the deal are yet to follow in terms of massive capital and technology infusion into India’s nuclear power development.
The Indian administration’s ability to withstand American pressure in the region is even more under display in the public discourse in India and US retail giants’ abiding interest on the FDI in retail issue. As against the PM’s claims of FDI as the talisman for several ills of the economy, the American view is brought out in the recent publication of the Boston Consulting Group’s publication ‘The 10 Trillion Dollar Prize: Captivating the Newly Affluent in China and India’. In a detailed analysis of consumer spending in the two countries, the study claims that the real annual GDP growth of 8 per cent for both the countries, consumer spending at current prices would grow together to $10 trillion from almost $3 trillion between 2010 and 2020. The break-up for China is from $2.036 to $6.187 trillion and for India from $0.991 to 3.584 trillion. In India the growth would be over 350 per cent in just a decade. No wonder that the US and other Western retailers are knocking at our doors.
That the market in the next eight years would be three and half times larger does not necessarily mean that it should be necessarily kept open for outsiders. Indian capital could as well manage such transitions.
No government that has national interests at heart can ignore the recent revelation in the US itself that Walmart has extensively bribed people in Mexico for gaining favours there. The list of countries it has influenced thus also names India as one of the beneficiaries. Who in India could have been the recipients except those in a position to influence policies? Walmart recently claimed that it has complied with Indian regulations and is investigating the charges of bribing local authorities in several countries. That the debate over FDI is coming to its crescendo in this country’s Parliament at a time when Walmart has been caught with its pants down has its lessons for the discourse here.
China has many conflict areas in the Pacific and South China Sea islands with Japan at one end and Vietnam and Philippines at the other. Naturally the rim countries of South China Sea look for support abroad for enabling them to stand up to Beijing’s pressure. For India to be one such counter influence to China in the region it needs to be a strong economic power on its own and not as a conjoint of a policy made in Washington.
However, for New Delhi to send its own different and native message, it needs a government that has wide public support and a PM who compels respect by his political leadership and the strength of a self-reliant country. Singh on the other hand is globally derided as a weak and politically paralysed leader and his government could vanish into political sunset sooner than we expect.
Balbir Punj is a BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member.