A Year of Marginal India

Nothing succeeds like success. And the opposite is also true: once you start going down the slippery slope, the process only accelerates until you reach rock bottom. India has yet to reach rock bottom, but the ill effects of its decline are already evident in its global standing and influence. 

What has been remarkable about the past few years is how much India has slipped across the world in every possible sphere: economic and political influence, hard and soft power, regional and global standing. The economic story is fairly evident: after a year of widespread predictions that India’s growth rate was about to overtake China’s, India has struggled to stay above 5 percent and has become racked by macroeconomic crises. The interlinked political story has been evident for some years: global leaders, from Barack Obama down the line, have concluded that if the Manmohan Singh government promises something, it is almost certain not to happen.

The soft power loss, I would argue, has been in many ways a consequence of the “Nirbhaya” rape case and the subsequent focus on gender inequalities in India. It was a story that ran through the lean winter media period in the West. New Delhi failed to set up a counternarrative — that the protests were a positive sign that society was reacting, that it is not clear India’s record on rape is any worse than other comparable countries.

Various surveys, like those by Pew, showed a sharp decline in India’s approval rating overseas. And it is probably one reason that while the rupee has fallen, there has been no increase in foreign tourists.

Arguably the worst damage has been done in the neighborhood where New Delhi’s paralysis and the weakness of the Prime Minister’s office has resulted in the country’s foreign policy being hijacked for the most short-term of goals. Thus the wrecking of the country’s Bangladesh and Sri Lanka policies, and India’s embarrassing silence when the militaries of Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh ask for weapons.

India’s multilateral activities have also been obstructionist. Though New Delhi has spun a nice tale about its successes at the World Trade Organization and in climate change, the truth is that India has been repeatedly isolated in such groupings and reverted to a pre-liberalisation strategy of blocking everything and otherwise blackmailing the international system. We returned to being the country that can’t say Yes.

But another way to look at it is that if you were a friend of India — Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and so on — you were likely to get nothing from New Delhi except broken promises and passivity. Restoring that degree of lost credibility will take a few generations.

This is what happens in India when the country effectively lacks a leader at the top. The functional anarchy becomes just a little bit more difficult to function.

Copyright 2013 the Hindustan Times

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