1 - The Lessons of Awadh The Dangers of Strategic Complacency

1 April 2023

351 Viewed 351

'The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior'


A famous Satyajit Ray film some decades ago captured the A Indian self-absorption that shapes its larger awareness of the world. It depicted two Indian nawabs engrossed in a chess game while the British East India Company steadily took over their wealthy kingdom of Awadh. Today, as another global power rises - that too in India's immediate proximity - this country cannot be oblivious once again to its consequences. Ideally, the emergence of China should serve as an inspiration to sharpen India's competitive instincts. But at the very least, it should stir a serious debate about the direction of world politics and its implications for us.

This is important because in parallel there are other momentous shifts underway. A larger rebalancing was already in evidence, now overlaid by greater regional volatility, higher risk- taking, stronger nationalism and a rejection of globalization. But the critical change is the recalibrated posture of an America that has long been the bedrock of the contemporary international system. Its response to China's rise may well determine the direction of contemporary politics. Because global happenings are not always factored fully into its internal dynamics, such developments have often passed India by. How they impact its thinking is also not always made clear in the absence of definitive political narratives. So as India rises in the world order, it should not only visualize its interests with great clarity but also communicate them effectively.

This is an effort to contribute to that endeavour, encouraging an honest conversation among Indians, without discouraging the world from eavesdropping.

International relations may be mostly about other nations, but neither unfamiliarity nor indifference lessen its consequences. So, rather than allow events to come upon us, these are better anticipated and analysed. That has not been our history, as demonstrated in the Panipat syndrome that saw invading forces enter the Indian heartland for decisive battles. This default option of playing defence reflects a mindset that does not comprehend external events well, leave alone appreciate their implications.

In contemporary times, Indian agnosticism about the outcome of the Second World War had major repercussions. In the next decade, India's handling of the Cold War led Pakistan, a smaller neighbour, to close the power differential for decades. The consequences of its illegal occupation of part of Jammu and Kashmir was as underestimated as the strength of its revanchist sentiments after 1971. Understanding of China has been inadequate, whether it was the significance of the 1949 revolution, later the intensity of its Communist nationalism or, finally, the enormity of its post-1978 rise. As India developed a greater familiarity with world politics, power equations were misjudged by political romanticism. Inevitable decisions, such as on nuclear weapons, were consequently delayed at great cost. The issue of pursuing earlier a United Nations Security Council seat is another example that has been debated widely.

Missed opportunities in economic development by turning our back on global progress are, of course, a story told before. While the 1971 Bangladesh War, the 1991 economic reform, the 1998 nuclear tests and the 2005 nuclear deal were exercises in strategic retrieval, it nevertheless told on our overall standing. It is only more recently that a stronger realpolitik has overcome a complacency based on entrenched dogma.

The rise of a potential superpower is naturally a disruptive occurrence for any global order. If we forget that, it is because the last time it happened, with the USSR, was in the midst of a World War that masked its emergence. Transitions between superpowers and their overlapping coexistence are difficult at best of times. The one between the UK and the US in the first half of the twentieth century is the exception, not the rule. But when societies are built

More Books by HarperCollins India

The India Way
The global order is always evolving, and in that sense, change could well be seen as a constant factor. But that ongoing evolution has now been given a sharper edge by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, developments in Afghanistan, the Ukraine conflict and greater friction among key powers. ‘One Trend and Four Shocks’ are thus creating a new landscape. The ‘Four Shocks’ have, each in their own way, led to heightened global anxiety and insecurity. This era of upheaval entails greater expectations from India, putting it on the path to becoming a leading power. In The India Way, S. Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs, analyses these challenges and spells out possible policy responses. In doing so, he is very conscious of balancing India’s national interest with international responsibilities. He places this thinking in the context of history and tradition, appropriate for a civilizational power that seeks to reclaim its place on the world stage.