by Alyssa Ayres
Oxford University Press, 360 pp., 2018.
In a February 2018 article for War On the Rocks, political scientist Paul Staniland warned US policymakers against “excessive optimism about India’s ability”. “India is a hard-pressed power,” Staniland continued, “facing deep domestic challenges and tightly constrained by powerful adversaries on its borders.” Therefore, Staniland argued, there are “real limits” to what India can deliver. While this seems a reasonable argument, Staniland did not suggest concrete policy recommendations. Conceding that an “American tilt toward India … is a smart long-term strategy”, he wanted the US to “keep its expectations limited and realistic”.
Staniland failed to reconcile the factors that make India a good partner for the US in the long term with those that make India less worthwhile, presumably, in the shorter term. This is where a new book by Alyssa Ayres fills the void. The central objective of Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place In The World is to explore the puzzling “duality” of the Indian state— where growing external power coexists with internal fragilities. A glance at India’s per capita income will make it difficult to sustain any claim of India’s growing heft. But it is India’s size and location that make it important to the US and rest of the world. Ironically, Staniland’s article is a response to, among other things, Ayres’ book itself. Ayres, however, does not brush India’s challenges under the carpet. To the contrary, she undertakes a holistic appraisal of India’s capabilities by situating its myriad challenges alongside its growing material capabilities since the economic liberalization of the early 1990s.
It is this paradox of the Indian state—external strength based on aggregate measures and internal weaknesses manifested in per-capita terms—that helps us understand many aspects of India’s external engagement, which can, at times, bamboozle sane observers of global politics. Take, for example, India’s negotiating approach in trade and climate change negotiations. As the world’s sixth largest economy and third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, India is crucial to the success of multilateral negotiations on trade and climate change. Yet its behaviour—often to the frustration of other leading powers including the US—mostly conforms to that of a poor country which contributes very little to the stock of greenhouse gases. And indeed, India is not just poor but also a negligible emitter of greenhouse gases in per capita terms.
External observers also find it difficult to grasp why India hesitates to embrace capitalism and globalization whole-heartedly even though it has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of freer markets and expanding trade linkages. A number of reasons shape India’s reticence, ranging from its history of colonization to the entrenched political economy of an erstwhile socialist state. But there is also a concern for equity—that unrestrained opening to global capital and markets may adversely affect India’s poorest. Whether such concerns are well-founded or not is another matter altogether.
Ayres devotes a large part of the book to India-US relations. The aforementioned paradox also, in many ways, mediates this critical bilateral relationship. The US has endlessly urged India to open up its markets to foreign investment and reduce barriers to trade. New Delhi’s response has been positive but tepid, occasionally putting off India’s best friends in Washington. The history of colonization also explains why India values its autonomy to a great extent. Slow movement on issues of importance to India-US relations is seen by leaders as insurance against charges of kowtowing to American primacy. For instance, India took more than a decade to negotiate a logistics exchange agreement with the US. There are two other “foundational agreements”—aimed at facilitating greater operational integration between the armed forces of the two countries—pending for a period longer than that.
How does India manage to resolve such contradictions? Ayres does not provide a direct answer but hints appear scattered through her book. There are three visible patterns in how the Indian leadership reconciles India’s poverty with its growing external power. One, leaders keep highlighting the fact—especially post 1990s liberalization—that India is rising. While India remains decades behind China in both economic and military terms, the narrative of a rapidly growing India is essential to make both internal and external constituencies not lose hope in India. (It is good to remind ourselves that the story of China’s phenomenal rise is also based on aggregate measures of power, not on per capita income).
Two, Indian leaders habitually refer to India’s past glory. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders are more prone to such rhetoric than those in Congress. A constant reminder of the golden past of Indian civilization instills hope in, again, both the internal and external audience that a reversion to the old mean is eminently possible.
Three, India does not complain of its poverty but, in fact, positions itself as a leader of poor and developing countries. This way, poverty serves as an asset, not just a constraint. This behaviour has been seen in not just multilateral negotiations on trade and climate change, but also in its traditional leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In its early years after independence, Indian leaders championed decolonization and South-South cooperation. Of late, one can see a shift in India’s approach, especially with regard to NAM and climate change negotiations. But it still, from time to time, continues to pose itself as a challenger to Western dominance. India’s participation in BRICS (an emerging nations block comprising of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are examples of this equipoise.
One reason why many people, including scholars, find it difficult to make sense of India’s behaviour is because New Delhi does not follow prescribed norms of balancing and bandwagoning as predicted by dominant theories of international relations. According to realism, a newly-independent India should have bandwagoned with stronger powers and gradually transitioned to a balancing role as its economic and military power grew. If India were to follow the logic of constructivists, India should have done the opposite—balanced stronger powers in its infancy and bandwagoned with them as views on key issues converged. But as can be gleaned from Ayres’ account, India does not follow either of these trajectories. India’s behaviour is much more nuanced and somewhat sui generis.
But this does not completely address the specific points Staniland raises. It is true that India is beset with domestic challenges. A country populated by one-sixth of humanity will have its set of problems. And when all of them are listed together, the task before it can seem daunting, if not insurmountable. But rather than focusing on the absolute scale of challenges, one should focus on trends. Domestically, Staniland concedes that the Maoist insurgency has mostly been quiet. He could also have mentioned India’s successes against insurgencies in Punjab and Mizoram. According to recent reports, a deal with rebel groups in Nagaland is about to be concluded soon. Kashmir remains a festering wound but a growing India should have the necessary resources to deal with problems in the Valley.
As far as regional challenges are concerned, Pakistan is increasingly becoming a subset of the China problem. Indeed, the China problem itself is much bigger than ever. And it is precisely because India cannot deal with China all alone, a partnership with the US becomes useful. For the US too, India along with Japan and Australia is a helpful balancer against China’s hegemony in Asia. To present the strategic rationale for the Indo-US partnership—the growing threat in China—as also the reason for the US to not bet on India is, in my view, a bit strange.
Ayres’ book is targeted at an American audience. Those immersed in India studies on a daily basis will not find anything new. Moreover, her coverage of Indian domestic politics is a bit simplistic. This seems deliberate so as not to complicate the narrative for her primary set of readers. But even India scholars will end up with a better handle on the “duality” of the Indian state. Most of the wisdom in Ayres’ book is scattered through the pages and has not been bound in a carefully crafted framework. It is here that Ayres could have done a better job than leaving it upon her readers—whether they are experts on India or not.
Kunal Singh is a member of the editorial team at Mint, India’s most respected business daily.