Westward Ho!

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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India can do without China envy, but it needs to make use of democracy with more vigour. And that is what India expects from Prime Minister Modi
In his engagement with the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began with a courteous note. The presence of our neighbourhood leaders at the Inauguration was a measure of his international priority: India’s regional preeminence needs to be reaffirmed—and played out with less friction. The Big Brother behaved with sophistication, and the message was appreciated in such problematic capitals as Islamabad and Colombo. He followed up the gesture with his first international trip as Prime Minister: Destination Bhutan fit perfectly into the script of Romancing the Near Abroad. The Buddhist Kingdom has always been a good friend. Unlike some others in the region, Thimphu has shown no hesitation in treating New Delhi with respect and gratitude. Modi, in his maiden speech from a foreign capital, acknowledged the special relationship; and he was pretty statesman-like in his speech in the Bhutanese parliament.

So far so good, and the symbolism of it all has been dissected in detail by aficionados of the so-called Look East policy. Much has also been read into the hidden Chinese aspect of the visit: how India intends to contain the dragon that continues to expand its spheres of influence as salesman, builder and bully. Beijing, on its part, is not unnecessarily bothered by its critics from the democratic West, who just can’t comprehend the way the Chinese strike a perfect balance between national interest and extraterritorial terror. It is too late for India to ‘contain’ China, in its neighbourhood or elsewhere; single- mindedness, stealth, paranoia, a nationalistic urge to outperform its enemies and a state answerable to none are not exactly Indian, which is good even though we could have done better in the national interest department.

That said, it must be hoped that Modi won’t be another Indian leader suffering from a China complex. He is apparently a great admirer of the Chinese model of development, and there is much to be admired about the Chinese growth rate, Chinese roads, Chinese buildings, Chinese railway and Deng Xiaoping (in spite of Tiananmen.) Modi the modernizer has reason to be inspired. And there is much to be ashamed about things Indian in above categories. Still, the Indian obsession with “Why can’t we be like the Chinese?” is a silly one, which in part is perpetuated by the tea leaf-reading industry of the seminar circuit.

Beyond the glitz of Special Economic Zones and the other wonders of social capitalism lurks an Oriental beast that is never satiated, looking for the deviant who defies the limits of happiness. The paranoia of the People’s Republic knows no bounds, best illustrated by the ever-expanding Chinese gulag. Lately, the republic that still resists what the dissidents call the Fifth Modernisation (democracy) has come to enjoy some benefits of the freedom the apparatchiks have: corruption. India can do without China envy, but it needs to make use of democracy with more vigour. And that is what India expects from Prime Minister Modi.

There is only one thing the prime minister can learn from China in dealing with south Asia: diplomacy is economy. China pursues this motto with ruthlessness. India, in spite of being the only fully evolved democracy in the region, still has to try hard to assert its supremacy, and some bilateral relationships are far from smooth. The best of India’s best of diplomatic efforts in south Asia have yielded minimum returns. As a regional organization, SAARC is not only a poor men’s club. It is also a travesty of regional cooperation. Its members are hardly there for each other; in the age of multilateralism, it has no global influence. It may end up as a worthless effort for Modi to build on a grand south Asian plan. India’s neighbours have a long way to go democratically before they can even aspire to be players in an interconnected world.

Some other parts of the world demand Modi’s attention. It is part of the Nehruvian legacy that India continues to look at the West with suspicion. The remnants of the socialist state are still alive in the minds of our policy establishment. Anti-Americanism is a necessary nationalist trait not only in places such as Caracas and Havana; it has not been fully exorcised from Delhi either, no matter that considerable improvements have been made since the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. For the first time, India has a right wing government that can stand on its own—and a leader who means business. It is his moment to start a meaningful conversation with the world. He was so good at talking to India. His visit to the United States later this year could be the beginning of a confident India talking to its natural ally. India needs to be heard, but India on the global stage hardly comes out with the right words. Modi has the mandate—and should have the words.

It is still a big bad world, and fresh acronyms of terror and fear are spreading. The leader of the world’s largest democracy has to look far beyond the East.