Acouple of months back, during a discussion on South Asia held in Beijing, Khurshid Kasuri, the former Pakistani Foreign Minister during Gen. Pervez Musharraf's reign, had some tongue-in-the-cheek remarks on Indian foreign policy. He said New Delhi has been viewing it as the 'heir to the British Empire' in the subcontinent since the British Raj had left the region.
Sphere of influence
Predictable enough, Cambridge educated Kasuri, an intellectual in his own right, like most other Pakistanis, is not a fan of Indian foreign and defence policies. But leaving aside the rhetoric, he is not altogether wrong. India has viewed South Asia as its sphere of influence and has been actively involved in the domestic affairs of the countries in the region. It intervened in the Bangladeshi independence struggle and sent troops to the then east Pakistan, after evidence of the mayhem caused by the Pakistani Army became evident. It intervened in the Maldives, when the Indian Ocean atolls were overrun by mercenaries from Sri Lanka. Both Bhutan and Nepal are more or less the client States of India.
New Delhi intervened to halt Operation Liberation launched against Tamil militants by the Government of J.R. Jayewardene in 1987, and forced him to sign the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. In 2009, New Delhi nodded in approval as the government forces hunted the Tigers in their final offensive. Without that endorsement, recent history would have been different.
Influence accepted as fait accompli
Nonetheless, Indian influence in the region was accepted as a fait accompli by both superpowers during the Cold War rivalry. Though New Delhi, the world's largest democracy maintained a special rapport with the Soviet Union, the world's most powerful democracy, the USA, did not seek to challenge India's status quo in the region throughout the Cold War and after that. That was not withstanding Pakistan's special relationship with the USA. (The relationship between Washington and Islamabad initially blossomed under the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War rivalry.)
The Indian establishment may view itself as the successor of the British Empire while the world's liberal democracies have been content with it. After all, India, like the British Empire itself, is intrinsically liberal.
But, India is increasingly losing its focus in the region. The vacillation on the part of New Delhi over Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh's attendance at CHOGM, is a case in point. Singh's absence would be felt in a forum in which India was once the jewel of the British Empire. But, whether Singh comes or not, the on-going guessing game over his attendance has questioned India's strategy with regard to its foreign policy, within its sphere of influence.
India is also two worlds: One rich, liberal and elitist, and the other poor, illiterate, caste-ist and tribalist. The latter, however, accounts for the majority of the population. In a democracy, it is natural that regressive majority impulses over show the rational calculations of the liberal elite. Some regimes, from Singapore to Turkey, sought to strike a balance between the popular will of the retrogressive masses and the rational policy calculations of the political elites. They designed controlled democracies where the state apparatus were largely immune from populist impulses.
Rational decision-making near impossible
India sought to follow the traditional model, like any other government of the authentic Westminster model. However, a cacophony of popular outbursts, and vested interests, had made rational decision making a near impossibility. In 1983, five years after China embarked on the first round of true economic reforms, India's per capita income (US$ 297) was one-third higher than that of China (US$ 207). Today, an average Chinese earns four times as much of his Indian compatriot. However, India is complacent to the fact that it is losing out in the economic race and has put much of the economic reforms on the back burner. To make matters worse, faced with the opposition from the rabble-rousing Communist allies and small-time, shanty town businessmen, it recently put off the implementation of a landmark retail Bill which was expected to bring US$ 400 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI).
The lack of strategic foresight, which has been compromised by populist outbursts of the backward masses is a case in point in contemporary India. The vacillation of Manmohan Singh is also proof of this predicament. However, India's loss is the loss of democracies. India's relative lack of financial clout, vis-à-vis China, would have serious impact in the international order in the long run. If India has been the heir to the British Empire in the region, many expect it to be the successor to the USA, the other liberal empire in the decline. For instance, Japan wants India and Indonesia to join it to form a democratic umbrella.
However, India is yet to prove that it is good enough for its future role. Whether Manmohan Singh attends the summit or no,t would not have much impact on India's foreign policy clout. But, it would question the will of the political leadership in order to act decisively. All other elements of the gross national comprehensive power would fall by the wayside, should the political leadership lack the will to impose its will. India's current foreign policy is the manifestation of this vacuum.