The Lumbering Elephant: Giant strides in 2023


An unperturbed but nimble elephant, itself a consequential and responsible world power, is taking its place without the need for moralising or lecturing other world powers

By Jan Arden

In Jan 1962, V. Krishna Menon, who became the second most powerful and intensely controversial figure in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, responsible for retaking Goa militarily in 1961 and, nine months later, damned for military unpreparedness in the brief but humiliating October 1962 Chinese incursion into India, is reported to have said to then visiting Harvard academic Henry Kissinger: “You are always trying to embrace us. Don’t embrace us. We are a proud people…”.

The Lumbering Elephant. Pic -The Economics Club IMI

That devious Chinese slap, even while Chou En-lai was boasting about Indo-Chinese friendship, stung deeply, demolished Menon-Nehru image as would-be world statesmen, dented the Non-Aligned Movement’s credibility and furthered the Anglo-saxon condescension, if not, downright contempt, of the Indian Congress ruling class. Indira Gandhi would find out in 1971 how deep that Hindu or Indophobic feeling ran as the UK, the USA and China sided with West Pakistan’s murderous clampdown of its moslem Bengali East, and millions of hounded refugees poured into India. On August 9, 1971, India hurriedly signed a ‘Peace and Friendship’ treaty with the Soviet Union, which despatched a fleet of destroyers and a nuclear armed submarine to the Bay of Bengal that stunned all three major powers and halted the gun-boat politics of the mighty.

The elephant’s long memory

The lumbering elephant has a long memory and rarely forgets its foes and allies, namely a visceral defiance of China’s intentions behind any diplomatic prose at regional and international fora: normal trade relations had to be coupled with a permanent national security vigilance. Years of strategic neglect, for want of a better term, had left the Himalayan frontier vulnerable to Chinese military build-up, allowed China to develop a « string of pearls » around Indian shores, and the latter’s nuclear submarines disturbingly prowled the Indian Ocean.

Modi’s foreign policy recognised India’s dire straits and set itself the formidable task of awakening the slumbering elephant out of its torpor through massive military, defence, space and  aero-naval catch-up expenditures. A simultaneous « Make in India » push across these vital domains, initially derided by the Opposition, has been vastly successful in ensuring strategic military transfers of technology from Western powers that is rapidly plugging most gaps in India’s impressive autonomous technological know-how and capacities. The lumbering elephant could also be nimble by necessity and defence deals that would previously take decades to be agreed upon were now floated, analysed and launched within a couple of years with that powerful sense of purpose and urgency.

The West’s contempt and its attempt to militarily and diplomatically brow-beat India in the 70s also left scars that imposed on India a very cautious, progressive embrace of the West over twenty years, even with economic liberalisation of the nineties. The elephant had to tread carefully in uncharted territories. Under Modi’s foreign policy, ably articulated by Minister of External Affairs Dr Jaishankar, India for instance, has steadfastly refused to condemn Putin’s Russia in its protracted conflict against Ukraine-NATO despite intense Western pressure to do so.

But astute observers noted that this was no longer old India’s vacillation, policy paralysis, fence-sitting or inability to take a stand, but rather a clear articulation of a confidently stated strategic imperative, which the EU and the US came grudgingly to respect, that new alliances, however vital to the new ages would not overshadow or replace trusted past allies in India’s hour of dire need. This was the expression of a new-found confidence of the lumbering elephant on the world stage allowed for by its remarkable economic growth performance and the Modi rock-star status conferred by its enterprising diaspora in major countries.

In parallel, another obdurately hostile neighbour, Pakistan, having lost 4-5 attempted military invasions of Indian territory, launched itself on a « bleed the elephant with a thousand cuts » terror-funded policy of infiltrations and vicious attacks which did not spare Indian civilians, the most horrific being the 2008 Mumbai series of meticulously planned terrorist attacks. This one originated in fast boats from Karachi, when  explosive devices and gunfire were used to cause the maximum number of civilian casualties at ten prestigious sites on the financial capital’s exposed waterfront.

Swing to a nationalistic wave

While Indian public opinion had become familiar with border infiltrations through porous frontiers and deadly skirmishes, this dastardly act and the ensuing ineffectuality of Congress-led legalistic Indian response, proved a determinant factor in the swing of an angry public opinion to a nationalistic wave that Modi rode successfully in 2014 and 2019. Western observers, who decry India’s nationalism, are unappreciative of the cardinal effect of Mumbai’s 26/11 on the elephant’s psychology and India’s unrepentant crusade against cross-border terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy.

On the home front, despite having lifted an extraordinary 450 million Indians out of poverty in nine years (UNDP figures), creating a growingly affluent, educated and well-travelled middle-class and hundreds of thousands of small and medium entrepreneurs, India has much more work ahead in a vast continental size country of 1.4 billion. Contrary to intellectually lazy opinions in some Western quarters and media, particularly leftist-liberal ones, Modi does not control every socio-political lever in that vast tapestry of Indian diversity. 30 different official languages, 28 states and 8 Union Territories all proud of their cultural heritages, food, arts and traditions, and the federal nature of India, is a reality BJP and all previous governments have had to contend with.

Modi has no hold over Opposition-managed states: flood devastations in the Opposition-controlled Capital state Delhi, communal anti-Hindu violence in Mamata’s West Bengal or in Kerala can hardly be laid at Modi’s doorstep. India is home to some 5,000 census registered communities and castes, including Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians and Moslems. The latter number almost 200 million, who largely prefer living under India’s dharmic values in preference to any Islamic neighbour state, who enjoy similar rights and benefits as all other Indian citizens and which no party or alliance would even think of alienating as part of its electoral gambit, despite the country’s foreign policy and national security imperatives at its frontiers.

Besides the free press and rumbustious Opposition debates aired freely, the imperative of India’s sociological consensus seems centred around its Constitution and the primacy of the Indian Supreme Court in determining complex or sensitive issues on which different parties have failed to find common ground. India’s vast tapestry of diversity has thus developed its own way to handle, with occasional disruptions, complex questions such as the hijab, halal, cow slaughter, festivals and temple processions. No Western country and no leftist liberal preachers could, we believe, boast of a resilient democratic fabric under such conditions that the Indian dharmic values have evolved over millennia in a modern-day federal system of government.

But the economic rise and poise of the lumbering elephant, weathering the worst terror bleeds, after decades of post-independence paternalistic lecturing from the Anglo-saxon West and despite their grudging acceptance of India’s partnership in containing China’s far more redoubtable ambitions as a necessity, does not make only for friends. Indian Opposition forces, chaffing after ten years in Opposition, try hard to raise issues with every single initiative of the Central government and will do their best to present a united front at the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, portraying BJP and PM Modi as some sort of anti-minority despot. These are relayed in some left-leaning Western press and the Rahul Gandhi sortie in Europe and the US prior to the Modi visits.

The latter’s hugely successful State visits to the US and as guest of honour in France for its 14th July National Day were followed by warm accolades in Egypt and the UAE. On the economic fronts, there are always grounds for improvement in the federal workings, even if Modi’s direct benefits schemes have been hugely popular by cutting out layers of profiteering and corrupt administrative babus. While anti-incumbency can have an effect on local elections, few would consider that Modi’s statesmanlike figure and popularity has any credible counterpart on India’s national scene either from Congress or from any of the several regional satraps.

A new era of poise and self-confidence

It is on the world scene however that PM Modi has ushered the lumbering elephant to a new era of poise and self-confidence, relating amicably with allies and partners from across the globe, including the Quad partners, France, Japan, South-East Asia and the Middle East to promote a development agenda that serves not only India’s interests, or those of the « global south » as India assumed chair of the G20 summit, but also those themes of planetary concern (renewable energies, green planet, yoga consciousness, women empowerment, amongst others).

France in particular, which consistently stood by India since its first nuclear tests and its autonomous space and satellite technology efforts, has already edged out either Russia or the UK as India’s reliable military supplier for fighter aircraft and as strategic partner in future high-power aircraft engines, space exploration or nuclear submarines, all with inbuilt technology transfer. Some analysts have waxed lyrical that we are witnessing the lumbering elephant’s century whatever the slings from certain quarters that traditionally or as a result of the country’s economic rise, have not held back their criticism.

Many indeed may not like Modi or the BJP or their policies, some born of necessity with hostile neighbours at its doorsteps. But large swathes of the Indian population and the vast majority of its diaspora proudly look upon PM Modi as the embodiment of a new self-confident India. If Hindutva has any meaning, then it portends (or should) a Hindu renaissance that is a reflection of its ancient wisdoms and civilisational ethos rather than the aggressiveness that have marked other civilisations. Over eight thousand years of its recorded history, India never invaded or annexed militarily any neighbouring country, still less imposed its religious and dharmic world view elsewhere.

An unperturbed but nimble elephant, itself a consequential and responsible world power, is taking its place without the need for moralising or lecturing other world powers.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 21 July 2023

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