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India's Centrality in South Asia

Paper No. 5753                                        Dated 28-Jul-2014

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

Centrality of a nation in its region or beyond depends on the insecurity of adjoining nations from aggression or threat of destabilization by adversaries. Since the end of the second World War when communism stood as an alternative to Western capitalism as a viable alternative development model it was embraced by many developing nations recently freed from the yoke of colonialism.

Colonialism was broadly seen as a method to extort colonized countries for the furtherance of the interests of the colonial masters at the expense of taking away resources of the colonized to the mother country from the periphery. Another interpretation of colonialism was the duty of the white man to "civilize" people in other nations who were materially underdeveloped but with inferior morality while the superiority of the white man's morality to the "uncivilized" remained questionable.

The White Man's Burden popularized by Rudyard Kipling exhorting the colonizers to "send forth the best ye breed" remains open to questions. One view proposes that whites have an obligation to rule over, and encourage the cultural development of people from other cultural backgrounds until they can take their place in the world economically and socially. The term "the white man's burden" has been interpreted by some as racist, or possibly taken as a metaphor for a condescending view of "undeveloped" national culture and economic traditions, identified as a sense of European ascendancy which has been called "cultural imperialism".

An alternative interpretation is the philanthrophic view, common in Kipling's formative years, that the rich (whites) have a moral duty and obligation to help "the poor" (coloureds) "better" themselves whether the poor (coloureds) want the help or not(Wikipedia). It   would be a fallacy to project lack of morality in the peripheries as Joseph Conrad in the Heart of Darkness demonstrated through his   central character in the book--Kurtz--  "this place nor the natives are the true "heart of darkness", but it is himself and his European contemporaries.

The reader recognizes that the Congo is not the "heart of darkness", but it is actually the heart and soul of every human. One learns that the natives in their primitive and brutal ways are actually more pure and good, than the Europeans and their greed. Conrad uses Kurtz, an ideal human of remarkable mettle and impervious morals, and demonstrates what lies beneath all men, the evil that is present and waiting in all of us.  

Despite the moral incontestability of the center and the periphery on grounds of lack of modern technology by the colonized the justification of colonialism has been difficult to sustain. Besides the ruthless exploitation of the resources of the periphery and their forced transfer to the center brought alongside the practice of slavery that existed of decades contributed to the prosperity of the center. Harriet Beecher Stow's Uncle Tom's Cabin and many other literary gems brought to the fore the brutality of colonialism and consequent movement for autonomy and later for freedom by the colonized.

The world today has progressed far from the days when Australian settlers' weekend game was celebrated by wages made on the basis of  how many aborigines the settlers could shoot in a given period. Though the New Zealand has apologized to the Maoris and the Australians to the aborigines for the wrongs done to them the fenced communities constructed for them and the "facilities" given to them still mark them out as distinct species in their homeland.

The domination of less developed nations are no longer determined by blood and sword as in the Roman era. It is determined by the superior (and sometimes ulterior) use of scientific knowledge of the West. An example is the British aid to Botswana in which the recipient country was obliged to export major part of its diamond to England that more than made up for the amount of "aid" that England gave to Botswana.

Similarly the Bretton Woods financial institutions though conceived to help the needy countries to overcome the extreme poverty afflicting them the IMF prescription given to Malawi proved to be a failure. A world Development Movement report of 2005 stated that the liberalization, privatization agenda pushed on Malawi through conditions attached to aid and debt relief has had a devastating impact on attempts to alleviate poverty in Malawi. The UK government, through its own policies and those that it still endorses at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund shares responsibility for this situation and must now live up to its new commitments to end conditionality.

The faulty policies followed by the IMF and the World Bank led to the 2002 famine in Malawi. Malawi, as with most poor countries, is faced with an international financial landscape where loans, debt relief and aid are all subject to meeting economic policy conditions determined by the IMF, World Bank and individual countries in the developed world by means of bilateral agreements.  The privatization of the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation was a key aim of the World Bank. In July 2002 it was reported that the IMF had pressured the Malawian government into selling its grain reserves - following two years of drought and just before the food shortage - to pay off hard currency debts owed to commercial banks. As a result, Malawi’s disaster preparedness programmed for the vulnerable was non-existent when the food crisis hit.

The writings of Niall Ferguson repeats the superiority of the West over the developing countries. Though he regrets the lack of desire of the US to build an empire he nonetheless strongly believes in the division of the affluent West from the poor South regardless of the fact that the wealth and the power of the world are shifting  from the West to the Pacific. In his book Civilization:the six killer apps of the Western Power Niall Ferguson states the “six killer apps” of Western civilization – competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – and how they contributed to the “ascent of the West” which he describes with a flourish. The problem arises in the assumption of superiority that precisely opens Ferguson up to charges of racism, even if he himself would prefer  not describe the issue in such emotive terms.

Ferguson's denial of the contributions  of the older civilizations extends further when he writes: There are those who dispute that claiming all civilizations are in some sense equal, and the West cannot claim superiority over, say, the East of Eurasia. But such relativism is demonstrably absurd. No previous civilization has ever achieved such dominance as the West achieved over the Rest….. It is not ‘Eurocentrism’ or (anti-)’Orientalism’ to say that the rise of the West is the single most important historical phenomenon of the second millennium after Christ. It is a statement of the obvious. The challenge is to explain how it happened.

The rise of the rest, as Fareed Zakaria labels the emerging economies, may to an extent highlight the injustices done  to the poor who had to go to the rich with begging bowl for temporary relief. The  relief sought from countries  like BRICS and G-20 is impregnated with rivalry both  regional and global. China today is the second largest economy in the world with global economic reach. The recent aggressive actions surrounding the Sprattly Islands also claimed by Philippines, Vietnam, and several other countries and friction with Japan over an island have raised fear in the region. China, on the other hand,  reiterating its peaceful intentions, is fearful of being encircled by India, Japan, South Korea and Philippines with the US backing in case of military conflict.

In such a scenario India as the largest democracy and the US as the one of the most mature democracies have more in common despite India's dalliance with socialism in the early years. In India's Rise, America's Interest (FOREIGN AFFAIRS The Fate of the U.S.-Indian Partnership) Evan Fiegenbaum writes that India's   dynamism and transformation  starting in 1991, leaders in New Delhi -- including Manmohan Singh, then India's finance minister and till recently  its prime minister -- pursued policies of economic liberalization that opened the country to foreign investment and yielded rapid growth. India is now an important economic power, on track (according to Goldman Sachs and others) to become a top-five global economy by 2030.

But risks abound.  A further impediment to India's economic ambitions is social: although the country has world-class talent in some areas, such as information technology, it still faces daunting challenges in its labor market and in its education system. Indian labor is disproportionately rural and heavily concentrated in unorganized activities and sectors. Experts have described a series of transitions that would strengthen the Indian work force: from farm to nonfarm, rural to urban, unorganized to organized, school to work, subsistence to a decent wage, and job preservation to job creation. But whether these transitions take place will depend in part on India's education system. Demand for education, especially from the growing middle class, vastly outstrips supply, and 160 million Indian children are out of school.

Thus, as Europe, Japan, and others pay a price for their aging work forces, India risks missing the opportunity to benefit from its significantly younger population. India's global aspirations are constrained by its geography. Although India is the most stable country in South Asia, events in less stable neighboring countries threaten to occupy its attention and derail its aspirations: Pakistan is confronting institutional weakness and growing extremism; Nepal may fail as its elites jockey for power and struggle to integrate former Maoist insurgents into the political mainstream; Sri Lanka is struggling with ethnic and constitutional challenges; and Bangladesh and Myanmar are yielding unwelcome exports, such as economic migrants, refugees, and extremists. Particularly Pakistan's position as the refuge of the "persecuted" Muslims compounded by Shia-Sunni conflict and the terrorism conducted by Tehrik-e-Taliban(Pakistan) has put the country in dire strait. The end of Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abottabad leading to American strengthening suspicion  of Pakistani double game of hunting the hare and running with the dogs, openly criticized by Admiral Muller on the verge of retirement accusing Pakistan of giving refuge to terrorism in Afghanistan with safe refuge inside Pakistan put strain on relations with the US.

Given the eternal animosity of Pakistan South Asia experts Stephen Cohen ascribed in his book The Idea of Pakistan, for example, one can cite Pakistani nuclear physicist Parvez Hoodbnoy reviewing Stephen Cohen's book The Idea of Pakistan asked the enigmatic question can Pakistan work because dispelling the idea of Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah to form a secular country, Hoodbhoy writes,  “with time Jinnah’s Pakistan has become weaker, more authoritarian and increasingly theocratic. Now set to become the world's fourth most populous nation, it is all of several things: a client state of the United States yet deeply resentful of it, a breeding ground for jihad and al-Qaeda as well as a key US ally in the fight against international terrorism, an economy and society run for the benefit of Pakistan’s warrior class, and an inward- looking society that is manifestly intolerant of minorities”.

 Larry Diamond is not only skeptical about the cooperation among regions he argues that while conventional wisdom states that democracy being more accountable to the masses should have more possibility to reduce poverty, both Milton Friedman and Joseph Stiglitz are skeptical that democracy can be sustained in poor countries unless these countries achieve rapid growth.       This accords with the views expressed by Stanford University Professor Larry Diamond that the Third World is witnessing a democracy recession due to serious problems of governance with pockets of dissatisfaction, and unless income inequality is reduced, freedom is guaranteed, and economic growth is generated many of the struggling democracies would eventually lean towards authoritarianism.

Pakistan's sense of security based on nuclear deterrence is suspect. Goldberg and Marc Ambinder, the authors of the article suggest that Pakistan is the likeliest place in the world for jihadi terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons as it "is an unstable and violent country located at the epicentre of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea."

Quoting Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear weapons who directs the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, the authors state: "The first is a terrorist theft of a nuclear weapon, which they take to Mumbai or New York for a nuclear 9/11. The second is a transfer of a nuclear weapon to a state like Iran. The third is a takeover of nuclear weapons by a militant group during a period of instability or splintering of the state."  Generally South Asian experts  are of the opinion that notwithstanding  strained relations yet not insoluble India has  with some  South Asian countries  ultimately India with its resources and huge reservoir of human resources and with the US acquiescence will play the central role in South Asia despite  the  constraints put by China in the region as a whole.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary in Bangladesh.  He can be reached at e-mail