[From the Berkeley blog June 2003 archives.]
Why is India poor? As some have argued, India is poor by choice. I will explore that idea a bit here.
Of course, that does not mean that every poor Indian has chosen to be poor. Someone else in a position of power made choices whose consequences are evident. India’s leaders – past and present – have consistently made choices that have had, and are having, a disastrous effect on the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings. What motivates these people is a question that directly follows from any attempt to answer the question of why India is poor. Nehru epitomizes the class of people that have through their choices doomed India to being an almost irrelevant nation of one billion humans.
To better understand the source of the great screw ups that Nehru is responsible for, I think we need to examine the primary personal motivation of the man. My contention is that the primary motivation was that he wanted absolute personal power. Note he had acquired power in the years preceding India’s independence. But it was the old story being retold: power corrupting and that corruption leading one to seek absolute power, and that absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Why did Nehru decide to not align India with the victorious Western nations and instead chose that India should be non-aligned? I believe that it is instructive to examine what the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir did at the time of India’s independence.
Following the withdrawal of the British from India and the creation of Pakistan, the Princely States had the option to align themselves with either the union of India or with the Islamic nation of Pakistan, or remain ‘independent.’ Kashmir chose to be independent. Or more accurately, the Maharaja of Kashmir chose to be independent. It is important to recognize that it was the leader who chose, not the people.
How the existence of J&K as an independent state could be contemplated by any sane person is difficult to understand unless one posits that the Maharaja was not entirely sane. How can a sane person think that the territorial avariciousness of the newly formed Islamic nation would not extend to a beautiful state with nearly half its population Muslims?
I think that Maharaja Hari Singh was insane.
The Maharaja was suffering under a grand delusion — the goal of personal power blinded him to reality and led to his disastrous mistake for which hundreds of millions are paying today. The Maharaja refused to align Kashmir with India until after the Pakistanis invaded. Then he suddenly realized that he wasn’t as great and mighty as he had imagined himself to be. That is when he turned to India to save his sorry ass. Maharaja Hari Singh’s story is the story of Nehru played out on a smaller stage.
There are certain parallels between the actions (or rather the inaction) of the Maharaja during 1947-48, and the actions of the leaders of independent India. The Maharaja, by acceding neither to India nor to Pakistan, wanted to be non-aligned and be independent. In attempting to do so, he failed miserably and ended up being a dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka.
India too followed that same policy with equally disastrous results. I lay the blame on Nehru. I believe that his idealism was the result of arrogance rather than wisdom. He saw the world as he wanted it to be rather than seeing the world as it was. Being a pukka Britisher was more important to him than being realistic. So in his attempt to be more British than the English, to do what was ‘cricket,’ he bought into what the British themselves don’t buy.
This is pure conjecture of course but I think that Nehru wanted to be the monarch of an independent India. He could not countenance being the monarch of an India that was certainly going to be a junior partner in any coalition had he aligned India with on either side of the Cold War. In this sense, Nehru was merely following the same impulses that forced Jinnah to demand a separate nation to be the monarch over. They all — from Hari Singh to Jinnah to Nehru — wanted to be king. They were arrogant but their arrogance was not supported by sufficiently powerful armies. Perhaps Nehru should have read and understood Machiavelli at least, even if he was too much of a Pukka Sahib to read Kautilya’s Arthashastra. He should have paid attention to this part of Machiavelli’s The Prince:
A prince is further esteemed when he is a true friend or a true enemy, when, that is, he declares himself without reserve in favour of some one or against another. This policy is always more useful than remaining neutral. For if two neighboring powers come to blows, they are either such that if one wins, you will have to fear the victor, or else not. In either of these two cases it will be better for you to declare yourself openly and make war, because in the first case if you do not declare yourself, you will fall a prey to the victor, to the pleasure and satisfaction of the one who has been defeated, and you will have no reason nor anything to defend you and nobody to receive you. For, whoever wins will not desire friends whom he suspects and who do not help him when in trouble, and whoever loses will not receive you as you did not take up arms to venture yourself in his cause.
Reality intrudes into the lives of even the most able dreamers. So the ideal of non-alignment was shelved from time to time and Nehru repeatedly cast his lot (and more tragically, the lot of India) with the wrong side of the Cold War. The Chinese read their Sun Tzu’s Art of War quite diligently. They understood it too:
War is a matter of vital importance to the state; a matter of life or death, the road either to survival or to ruin. Hence, it is imperative that it be studied thoroughly.
Clearly Nehru was no match for the Chinese who must have been amused by Nehru’s naivete. I am sure that Chou En-lie must have been contemptuous of Nehru and pitied India to some extent.
Nehru fancied himself to be a student of history. But he never learnt the lessons of history himself. History tends to repeat itself, however imperfectly. He could have learnt the lessons directly following from the actions of the Maharaja and seen the disastrous consequences of non-alignment. In the end, Nehru must have started believing his own whitewashed version of history in which high principles triumph over strategic realities. He refused to form strategic alliances and instead chose to have a ‘swadeshi’ attitude towards defense, much as the economic policy he advocated. Both are, admittedly in hindsight, failed policies.
Contrast this failed non-aligned policy with that of Pakistan’s. Pakistan played both sides of the fence while India decided to sit on the fence. In doing so, Pakistan won the gratitude of both sides while India was regarded contemptuously. Running with the hares and hunting with the hounds is a trick Pakistanis have been perfecting for long enough that it has become second nature to them. Without batting an eye-lid they can now simultaneously fight the war against terrorism and give support and comfort to the terrorists of every stripe. And for doing this, the Western countries are immensely grateful to Pakistan.
Back to Kashmir. If Nehru had not screwed up, the UNCIP would have expeditiously concluded that Pakistan had been the aggressor in sending an army into an independent Kashmir and that the Maharaja had been right in acceding to India.
The Kashmir conflict is sufficiently complex for it to be resolved in multiple ‘right’ ways. Whatever be the facts, they can be interpreted differently by powerful interests depending on the global environment. India was sufficiently large and thus potentially significant that its actions could create the environment in which the issue was embedded. Pakistan, on the other hand, could not materially affect that environment. It was therefore not Pakistan’s being ‘right’ that caused the UN to take the stance that it took; it was India that defied the powerful and created an environment in which the West saw it fit to punish India for its arrogance.
I take that back: It was not India at fault, it was Nehru, the Nabob of Cluelessness, who was at fault. India merely paid, and is continuing to pay, the price of his cluelessness.
Minor dimwits are basically harmless; but when dimwits gain absolute power, they become capable of unleashing great disasters. The US will point to George W Bush as an illustration of that point; in time to come, Indians will point to Nehru.
[The above is from nearly five years ago. An article by N Rajaram about India’s interest in Tibet. “The monks and the dragon” (The Pioneer, April 6th, 2008), prompted the repost. I post Rajaram’s article in its entirety with my emphasis.]
Tibet and Jammu & Kashmir offer striking examples of a self-absorbed leadership placing personal glory ahead of national interest. India is still paying the price for these blunders by being the only country of its size without a recognised border with its giant neighbour. The failure is not just geopolitical, but also one of morality and even identity of India as a nation. It is an unhappy fact that Indian leaders gave no clear vision of national identity: instead, what they gave and followed were personal fetishes like ahimsa and Panchasheel that have cost the country dear.
Indian leaders have avoided taking morally forthright stands over international issues like Tibet and Hungary as well as over domestic issues like the Shah Bano affair and jihadi terrorism. For this India has earned the label of being a ‘soft’ state. By supporting the Tibetan people, India could send a clear message to the world and to its own people that it stands for some values that it holds sacred. But this calls for political courage that has been missing so far.
The Tibetan uprising has brought to light some uncomfortable facts which Nehruvians would like to see removed from history books. There is an attempt to whitewash the Chinese occupation of Tibet as a reaction to a CIA conspiracy to turn Tibet into a Western colony with the Dalai Lama as a puppet; one ‘secular’ writer has even compared him to Osama bin Laden!
This creative rewriting cannot obscure the fact that it was Jawaharlal Nehru’s pursuit of international glory in Korea that led to his giving up India’s rights in Tibet. As China appeared on India’s doorstep by occupying Tibet, the Jawaharlal Nehru Government made a strenuous effort to gain international recognition for Mao’s China at India’s cost. It is not widely known that India was offered a UN seat as a permanent member of the Security Council, which Nehru rejected insisting that China be admitted first.
In 1950, as Chinese troops were invading Tibet, India’s Ambassador in Beijing KM Panikkar went so far as to claim that protesting the Chinese occupation would be an “interference to India’s efforts on behalf of China in the UN”. Nehru concurred: “Our primary consideration is maintenance of world peace… Recent developments in Korea have not strengthened China’s position, which will be further weakened by any aggressive action (by India) in Tibet.”
Deeply disturbed by these developments, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel complained to Nehru that Panikkar “has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions”. India got nothing in return from China. At the very least India could have demanded settling its border with India for its support. But Nehru gave up India’s diplomatic rights in Tibet by closing down missions in Lhasa and Gyangtse.
An argument is now being made that Nehru had no choice because India was not strong enough to challenge China in Tibet. Nehru himself never made this dubious claim, then or later. China, just coming out of the civil war was overcommitted in Korea and was vulnerable in Tibet. Tibet also had international support.
The highly influential English publication The Economist echoed the Western viewpoint when it wrote: “Having maintained complete independence of China since 1912, Tibet has a strong claim to be regarded as an independent state. But it is for India to take a lead in this matter. If India decides to support independence of Tibet as a buffer state between itself and China, Britain and the US will do well to extend formal diplomatic recognition to it.”
India would have lost nothing by protesting and gained much in goodwill, but Nehru’s infatuation with Communism made him blind to the gross immorality of allowing a peaceful neighbouring people being enslaved. Nehru covered this moral obtuseness with self-righteous arrogance. He saw the spiritual civilisation of Tibet as primitive that could benefit from a dose of socialism administered by the Chinese occupiers. (“A very large dose,” said the Dalai Lama.)
Sixty years after independence, it is time for Indians to re-examine their recent history and see how they have been misled by self-righteous rhetoric and posturing leaders pursuing personal glory at the cost of national interest. This has also weakened the country’s moral fibre, leaving it without a national vision. It is time India came out of this moral stupor by taking a forthright stand on the side of the oppressed people of Tibet. At the very least there should be no second betrayal.