India in a multi-polar world

We are suddenly in a new, multi-polar world. And India is one of its major pillars. Many of us may find this hard to believe. But those who are beginning to realise that it is indeed so, are also bemused at the enormity of it all. How did such an immense change take place so imperceptibly?

This smooth, yet dramatic transition from a unipolar to a multi-polar world is one of the most singular achievements of India’s two month long engagement with the Pakistani Army and mujahideen in Kargil. Surprisingly, it is also the least acknowledged. Or perhaps it is not so surprising, given the niggardly attitude of the media, academics, politicians, et al, towards giving credit to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the political leadership he has   demonstrated in matters like exercising the nuclear option, test-firing missiles, facing brute aggression with calm strength, and changing the contours of our foreign policy in a manner that brings such tangible benefits.

Cynics will demand evidence of India’s emergence as a power deserving respect and consideration. Yet discerning observers can see this in the refusal of the United States, China, and others, to treat India and Pakistan at par in the conflict. This is the first time India has received such a courtesy since Jawaharlal Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations, though we have always protested at being equated with a country one-seventh our size. The shift has been executed with finesse, which is probably why it has gone unnoticed. But those who have noticed Pakistan’s unique isolation in the international community on the Kargil issue must also take note of the quality and quantity of support received by India.

On the one hand, the Indian Government’s measured response of pushing back the invaders but confining operations to the Line of Control won widespread approval. At the same time, and this is truly significant, none of the major world powers issued the usual statements asking both sides to cease hostilities – a position that would hold both sides equally responsible for breach of peace. This time, the international community took an unprecedented position – there was an aggressor (Pakistan), a victim (India), and the victim was acting within its rights by giving the aggressor a fitting reply. The victim would be allowed to do this job in peace, and its decision to do so on its own territory so as to limit the area of hostilities, was greatly appreciated. On the other hand, efforts were made to persuade the aggressor to back off.

This is the real significance of American President Bill Clinton’s one-sided intervention with Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif on the fourth of July. President Clinton did go through the motion of inviting Mr Vajpayee for talks, but he readily accepted the Prime Minister’s refusal to do so in the midst of a grave conflict. By all accounts, however, he put the screws on an old client-state, Pakistan, and back home, after some bluff and bluster, Mr Nawaz Sharif ordered both troops and troopers to withdraw.

Those of us who cannot break out of the old mindsets see the Clinton-Sharif joint statement as evidence of third party mediation in Kashmir, and say it violates India’s stated position of settling the dispute bilaterally. Others caution that it could pave the way for eventual third party mediation, which India could find difficult to resist after having canvassed the support of the international community on the violation of the LoC. This line of thinking is inadequate to explain the situation in which we find ourselves today.

The deference shown by the international community, particularly the United States, to India’s desire that none should interfere in its engagement with Pakistan in Kargil, is a powerful indicator of international acceptance of India’s new status. Contrast this with the arrival of the Seventh Fleet in the wake of the 1971 war, and you will realise that what I’m talking about is no small achievement. The question is, how did it come about?

It certainly didn’t happen overnight, though it has only now become apparent. The collapse of the Soviet Union from its own internal contradictions ended the structure of two-superpower hegemony the world had witnessed in the aftermath of the Second World War. This gave rise to fears of American dominance in a unipolar world, and the American proclivity to play international gendarme certainly added to the misgivings. But anyone with a sense of history would realise that there is no such thing as a unipolar world; what has happened is a redistribution of power among nations. This is to say that a new world order has emerged, only we have not given it due recognition.

That new order is now becoming more clearly visible. The Soviet Union is no more, but Russia is a force to reckon with, as is China. In fact, the Chinese have neither subscribed to nor worried overmuch about the so-called unipolar world; where China’s internal and external interests are concerned, they know how to have their way. Britain, France, Germany and Japan continue to rank among the leading nations, and now, with Pakistan virtually considered a “rogue state”, India has emerged as the country of status in this region.

To emphasise the point, I may point out that for the first time in its conflicts with Pakistan, India has not had to rely solely upon Russian support. I value Russia’s friendship, but there is no denying that having a solitary friend-patron in the international arena diminished our status and gave us the look of a ‘semi-protectorate’. That is why the world mocked at our non-alignment, while we were pushed into taking absurd positions on issues like the invasion of Hungary.

Mr Vajpayee, on the other hand, charted out a bold new course when he tactfully supported the US decision to bomb Taliban bases in Afghanistan last August by linking it with India’s problems with cross-border terrorism. This writer had then pointed out that he had “reversed the anti-American tilt” bequeathed by Nehru and paved the way for “an epochal realignment of forces on the international plane, which could see an evolving alliance between the world’s largest and most powerful democracies” (The Pioneer, August 29, 1998). I am gratified that my perception that the Prime Minister had corrected a critical faultline in our foreign policy has been vindicated. By any reckoning, the decision to invest in US friendship was a wise one. Even Japan, which seemed at odds with international perceptions on Kargil, has since clarified its stance.

It will be argued that a combination of factors worked to prompt the Pakistani withdrawal. China was so cold that Mr Nawaz Sharif had to cut short his visit. General Anthony Zinni conveyed a threat to bomb Taliban bases in Pakistan, and France withdrew a promise to deliver a submarine and Mirage III fighter jets. The US House foreign relations committee passed an amendment urging President Clinton to oppose the proposed US $ 100 million World Bank loan to Pakistan. The point, however, is that India was in the right even in the past.

It is Mr Vajpayee and his team, notably Mr Jaswant Singh and Mr Brajesh Mishra, who have made the world see the conflict through India’s eyes. In a fundamental sense, he has opened the door for settling the Kashmir dispute to our satisfaction at some future date.

The Pioneer, 20 July 1999

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