Thirty years ago, Indian political scientist, writer and foreign affairs commentator (late) Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta wrote in the India Today, “The Indian elephant cannot transform itself into a mouse. If South Asia is to get itself out of the crippling binds of conflicts and cleavages, the six will have to accept the bigness of the seventh. And the seventh, that is India, will have to prove to the six that big can indeed be beautiful.” [“The Big Brother Syndrome”, India Today, April 30, 1984]
Has the Indian elephant proven its case that it is beautiful, and not an ugly beast? Before we try to explore the issue, it may be proper to get used to the term ‘hegemony’; after all, India is viewed as a hegemonic power by all her neighbors – from Bangladesh in the east to Pakistan in the west, from Nepal and Bhutan in the north to Sri Lanka in the south.
Hegemony is the privileged exercise of power in complete disregard to the interests of other states. Joshua Goldstein defines the term hegemony as “being able to dictate, or at least dominate, the rules and arrangements by which international relations, political and economic, are conducted.”
The power that a state possesses in a community of nations is measured either by a quantification of the elements of national power, which includes both the tangible elements like national population, GDP, military expenditure, technological capabilities and intangible elements like national morale and quality of leadership, or a perception that other states have in regard to that state. Perception is psychosomatically rooted in what and how of the others’ behavior in international interaction. It is conditioned to circumstances, duration of time and historical experience, and may not really be true.
Leadership, regional or global, on the other hand, does not reflect only one country’s national interest; it reflects the common interest of a group of states in the regional or global order.
Hegemony and leadership emerge from the same sources of power elements, but essentially differ in the mode of power projection and reception creating different models of inter-state relations.
Power is perceived as leadership when its exercise is characterized by the following: i) encourage maximum involvement and participation, ii) diffusion of responsibility, iii) reinforcing inter-state contacts, iv) initiation of new ideas, and v) defending and advancing common group interest.
When power is distributed unevenly, political leaders and theorists use terms such as empire and hegemony.
The exercise of power is perceived as hegemonic behavior when it is characterized by the following:
i) changing the rules rather than adapting to policies to the existing rules,
ii) enjoying special rights for advancing hegemonic interests,
iii) voluntary responsibility for group development is assumed, with focus on individual development,
iv) group goals and strategies are defined by the hegemon which may or may not promote group interests, and v) code of conduct is framed for directing and regulating behavior of individual states.
Is India a hegemonic power? As to her tangible, quantifiable power, here are some undeniable facts to consider. India occupies a unique position in the South Asian region by dint of occupying nearly 72 percent of the land surface in South Asia, being a home of 77 percent of the region’s population, and accounting for nearly 75 percent of the regional economic output.
As noted above, by the virtue of its size, location and economic potential, India claims a regional leadership position for herself, while her South Asian neighbors accuse her of exercising hegemony. And her neighbors have reasons for their allegations. India has repeatedly resorted to military force in the region, most famously by splitting Pakistan into two in 1971. India ousted the Ranas in Nepal and put King Tribhuvan on the throne (1950). India got him to sign a treaty of peace and friendship that is viewed by many Nepalese politicians as imperialist. India trained the Tamil Tigers to start a rebellion in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s worsening the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. India restored Prime Minister Gayoom’s rule during the attempted military coup in Maldives (1988).
In terms of annexation, land grab and occupation, India has occupied Muslim-majority Jammu & Kashmir (1947), Muslim-ruled Hyderabad (1948), Portuguese-administered Dadra & Nagar Haveli (1954), and Goa, Diu & Daman (1961), and Buddhist-ruled Sikkim (1975) through a plethora of violent and deceitful means, often disregarding people’s wishes. For instance, an opinion poll by CSDS in 2007 showed that 87% of people in the Kashmir Valley wanted independence, i.e., they didn’t want to live under India. And yet, India, the so-called largest democracy in our world, has no desire to holding such a referendum in the occupied territories. She likes to hold onto the territory by hook or crook, much like what China has been doing with Xinjiang and Tibet.
In the early 1960s, the world’s initial outrage at ‘pacifist’ India’s resort to military violence for conquest of Portuguese territories (and enclaves) subsided into resigned disdain. The Christian Goans were humiliated and less than happy about their “liberation” by luxury-hungry Indian soldiers who stripped bare their shops. In a December 19, 1961 article, titled, “India, The Aggressor”, The New York Times stated, “With his invasion of Goa, Prime Minister Nehru has done irreparable damage to India’s good name and to the principles of international morality.” Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, a respected Indian leader of the Swatantra Party, declared, “India has totally lost the moral power to raise her voice against the use of military power.” In a letter to the U.S. President on January 2, 1962, Pakistan’s President General Ayub Khan stated: “My Dear President, The forcible taking of Goa by India has demonstrated what we in Pakistan have never had any illusions about-that India would not hesitate to attack if it were in her interest to do so and if she felt that the other side was too weak to resist.”
India’s relationship with her neighbors is quite contentious. India favors a bilateral dialogue for addressing these concerns, while her neighbors demand a multilateral regional approach. India fears that the neighbors would gang-up against her and demand unrealistic concessions in a multi-lateral milieu, while the neighbors suspect that India seeks to take undue advantage of the weak bargaining capacity of each state in a bilateral dialogue. Neighbors view Indian bilateralism as an instrument of coercive diplomacy, while India considers the demand of multilateralism as an unnecessary burden of the nascent and fragile process of SAARC.
The neighbors see India as a powerful bully that is using their territories to dump poor quality Indian goods while putting unnecessary restrictions to exporting their goods into India. Consider, for instance, the trade with Bangladesh. With regard to exports, Bangladesh’s contribution to India’s global exports is significant. According to World Bank, Bangladesh officially imported $2.3 billion (USD) worth of goods from India in 2007 while exporting only $0.5 billion (USD) to India. (Note that illegal trade between the two countries is estimated to be at least three-quarters of the official figures.) This trade deficit has since been widening at an annual rate of approx. 10%.
If the unfavorable trade deficit continues, the neighbors fear that they will be dependent only on a few products for their exports, and imports from India will displace domestic production to such an extent as to de-industrialize those countries. As a result, high levels of unemployment will follow creating chaos and regional instability.
As noted by experts, the real constraints to intra-regional trade in South Asia are to be found in tariff and para-tariff barriers. The tariff rates have always been higher in India than in Bangladesh and other neighbors. India also requires mandatory testing on India’s imports in food items, textiles and leather from her neighbors like Bangladesh. The samples of Bangladeshi textile and leather products are sent to Lucknow and Chennai for testing which takes significant time.
Obtaining licenses for meeting the Indian mandatory standards on a number of export interest items such as cement, electrical appliances, drinking water appliances, etc., also involve considerable amount of time. India has neither taken the initiative to liberalize the license issuing procedure nor attempted to set up testing laboratories closer to the border area.
India’s attitude with her smaller neighbors has been quite roguish. She has granted Bangladesh the opportunity to export six million pieces of RMG products to India, provided the entire fabric for the purpose is imported from India. Here again, India has forgotten that dynamism is the most basic quality of leadership, which it has failed to demonstrate with her neighbors.
India has been accused of wanting to use Bangladesh as a corridor to transport its goods to north-east corner without providing similar facilities to Bangladeshi goods to penetrate the region.
India has shown reluctance for updating the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950 and the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of 1972 despite repeated demands by these two states. There has been no real progress on issues around the enclaves since the signing of Indira-Mujib treaty between India and Bangladesh. In September 2011, the Prime Ministers of the two countries Manmohan Singh of India and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh signed an accord on border demarcation and exchange of adversely held enclaves, giving residents a choice of nationality; Bangladesh has already ratified the agreement, however, the Indian parliament has yet to ratify it.
With India persistent with her ‘unilateral withdrawal’ of water upstream, it is hardly surprising that the trans-boundary river Teesta has almost dried up. Irrigation in the northern Bangladesh is being affected by the low flow in the Teesta. According to officials of the Joint River Commission (JRC), as quoted in a report published in New Age recently, Bangladesh received the lowest-ever 500-550 cusecs of water in February-March, out of a ‘historical record’ of 6,500 cusecs in the lean season. New Delhi has repeatedly postponed JRC meetings on such pretexts as the ‘Indian water resources minister’s inability to attend the bilateral talks in Dhaka.’ It is uncertain if New Delhi will ever sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement given the fact that the agreement was supposed to be signed during the September 2011 visit of the Indian prime minister but did not go through with it in the face of objection by the West Bengal chief minister. [The chances of signing the agreement are even slimmer if BJP wins the national election.]
Bangladesh has already felt the adverse effects of India’s Farakka Barrage, which has been correctly termed as the ‘Death Trap’ for Bangladesh, built on the international river – Ganges/Padma. It has raised salinity levels, contaminated fisheries, hindered navigation, and posed a threat to water quality and public health, let alone leading to desertification of vast territories inside Bangladesh. In spite of widespread public criticism, India is planning construction of yet another dam – the Tipaimukh Dam – on another international river – the Barak River, in an ecologically sensitive and topographically fragile region that has registered earthquake of magnitude of 6.6 on the Richter scale.
The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is also guilty of gruesome murder and killing of Bangladeshis along the no-man’s land (inside Bangladesh) showing its trigger-happy murderous instinct. While most of the land borders between India and her neighbors to the east and the west are barb-wired, India has deliberately left certain areas unwired. This policy is seen by many as a ploy to exploit the so-called infiltration issue from her neighbors to her advantage. The policy of erecting barbed wires to deal with so-called labor migration negates the leadership potential of India in the region.
Bottom line: the notions of hegemony and leadership are shaped by policies and sustained by perceptions. And India is failing in both counts to making a case for her potential leadership role. Her policies remain short-sighted, if not selfish and often murderous. She has also failed to eradicate the widespread negative perceptions held by all her regional neighbors. So far from Bhabani Sen Gupta’s utopian view India has become a regional untamed bull, if not an elephant or even worse. And no one likes such a beast!
Just as the United States of America and Russia are hated today in many countries globally for their hegemony, so is India in South Asia.
Truly, the stamp of a regional hegemon is written all over India’s face. As a matter of fact with the resurgence of the Hindutvadi fascist forces in the national politics of India, she has the potential to become a regional pariah. And that is an ominous sign for the entire region!
[This article is based on author’s speech at a seminar hosted by the AMV in St. John’s University, New York, on April 19, 2014.]
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored nine books. His book: “Democracy, Politics and Terrorism – America’s Quest for Security in the Age of Insecurity” is available at Amazon.com.