Saturday, 8 October 2011

India's Strategic Aikido

Much analysis has gone into the announcement of the strategic deal between India and Afghanistan. Under this agreement, India will train Afghan security forces to be able to shoulder the responsibility of holding their country together after the withdrawal of Western forces in 2014.

Even though there is no proposal in this agreement to put Indian boots on the ground, most analysts warn that the aspiration is as hopeless as it is ambitious. There is a feeling that Pakistan holds all the cards and can very easily play the spoiler in Afghanistan. India's influence in that landlocked country is handicapped by geography to the same extent that Pakistan is advantaged by it. When push comes to shove, it seems apparent that India is headed for humiliation. The lessons of India's disastrous excursion into Sri Lanka in the early nineties also come to mind. This seems to be a bad idea, no matter who thought it up.

However, there is another way of looking at this. The New Delhi-Kabul axis is bound to whip Pakistan up into a frenzy, and that may be its very intent among the policymakers in South Block. This could do to Pakistan what Ronald Reagan's SDI ("Star Wars") did to the Soviet Union - push it over the brink into bankruptcy by raising the costs of keeping up.

India can afford an arms race. Pakistan can't. Pakistan's traditional donor of military aid, the US, is increasingly reluctant to supply arms, partly out of pique at the duplicitous role of the Pakistani military, but also partly out of the forced frugality of its own internal financial crisis. The Chinese are vocal supporters of Pakistan, but have been pointedly reticent about opening their wallets to actually help. As for the Saudis, they would probably lean towards India in a conflict, as their behaviour during the Kargil war could attest. They do far more business with India than with Pakistan, and money talks. And that about exhausts Pakistan's list of friends.

Aikido is the art of turning one's opponent's momentum against himself with a minimum of effort and no physical contact. By the mere announcement of the agreement with Afghanistan, India has ensured that Pakistan will devote even more frenzied energy into shaping Afghanistan to its own liking, a diversion of resources that it can ill afford at this point in its history. Pakistan has never been economically weaker. Its GDP growth rate last year was an anaemic 2.5%, when it needs 4% to even stay in the same place. Power shutdowns ("load shedding") are a feature of daily life, not because of increasing demand as in India, but because of decreasing supply. Power, or the loss of it, is an economic multiplier, and this does not bode well for Pakistan's GDP growth next year and the year after. Even without an exhausting military race, the Pakistanis are inexorably bankrupting themselves.

There probably is some even greater wisdom in the Indian strategy, because India is also simultaneously holding trade talks with Pakistan to eventually move towards a free trade agreement. That would of course benefit both countries, but it will benefit the weaker economy much more, since the savings would be all the more precious.

In other words, there is a carrot and a stick for Pakistan in the Indian strategy. An adversarial attitude towards India will hasten the onset of bankruptcy and the chaos that will ensue. A thawing of hostility can conversely ease the pain and gradually lead to a return to normalcy and eventual prosperity. The choice is entirely Pakistan's to make. But the path to redemption will require submission to the idea of India's superiority, a swallowing of pride that the Pakistani establishment has never been willing to accept.

They may have no choice. The reality they face is harsh and uncompromising. Pakistan's quest for strategic parity with India was always an unachievable dream. A country with just a seventh of another's population can never aspire to anything resembling parity. It may seem unjust, but India will always dominate South Asia on account of its inherent advantage of relative size. The pygmies (and yes, Pakistan is among them) may understandably chafe at it, but all the rest have come to terms with it. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and even Burma and Afghanistan further afield, are realising the benefits of warming to an economically resurgent India. [One only hopes that India will resist the tendency to arrogance and hubris, and maintain a "light touch" in its dealings with its neighbours, because India's greatest potential enemy is India itself.]

The economic carrot and stick may be just the tactic required to get Pakistan to accept the reality of its situation. With some deft footwork, India can get Pakistan to lurch to where it wants it. Like with the five stages of grief, Pakistan for its own sake needs to arrive at an acceptance, however bitter, of India's dominance in every sphere. Otherwise, survival itself will become a problem.

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