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Incredible India and the New Delhi Dissensus

by Jeff Kingston

On a recent visit to New Delhi, I met an activist promoting the rights of dalits (untouchables), who quipped, playing off a current national-branding campaign: “India is indeed incredible . . . but only in paradox.”

Earlier this month, people power ousted the establishment Indian National Congress party from control of the New Delhi state assembly and catapulted the Aam Admi Party (Common Peoples Party), which was only founded a year ago, into power as head of a coalition government.

It is, indeed, an incredible story, and even though the Hindu-nationalist Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) won a few more seats, the outcome was a significant setback for mainstream parties.

The young, the frustrated and the poor, cutting across caste and class lines, voted against corruption and politics-as-usual, demonstrating that Indians remain believers in democracy despite accumulated disappointments delivered by a succession of unscrupulous politicians.

Although Emperor Akihito’s visit coincided with mine, I was more interested in India’s relations with China. Participating in a seminar at the Institute for Chinese Studies (ICS) about nationalism in East Asia helped put into better perspective the fantasies of “Chindia” — a term referring to the possibilities, chiefly economic but also strategic, inherent in the two Asian giants developing closer cooperative ties.

In her 2008 book “Smoke and Mirrors,” journalist Pallavi Aiyar provides an excellent account of the human consequences of China’s rapid emergence. There, examined through the lens of Indian experience, China looks less of an outlier on corruption, environmental issues, traffic jams and crackdowns on minorities.

The former Beijing correspondent also observes that Indians are flocking to the opportunities in China, and envy the amazing progress ranging from infrastructure and healthcare to education and poverty alleviation. They are, however, also disdainful — lamenting the cuisine, the boozy business parties and absence of democratic freedoms.

Vigorous public debate and the messy assertion of rights are fundamental strengths of democratic India, but Aiyar also recognizes the downside as politically repressed Chinese constantly seem to be trading up, motoring along in the single-minded pursuit of materialism. Paradoxically, she cites the blossoming of yoga salons, staffed by Indians, as a sign not only of China’s growing prosperity, but also the gnawing emptiness of the Chinese dream.

The ICS seminar only touched on Tibet, but someone commented that Kashmir represents India’s Tibet. It had not occurred to me, but the room suddenly crackled with debate about the role of Tibet and the Dalai Lama in Sino-Indian relations; he and the Tibetan government-in-exile are based in Dharamsala in northern India.

According to one participant, there is a correlation between Tibetan unrest and rough patches in bilateral relations as Beijing seethes over Indian support for reviled “secessionists.” Indeed, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China in October, Beijing issued a white paper blaming the Dalai Lama and his supporters for instigating border problems.

Chindia, based on civilizational ties and galloping trade, faces some tough realities beyond Tibetan issues. The 1962 border war with China may not remotely approach the 1947 Partition in India’s closet of traumas, but it remains a powerful reminder that the two nations share a long border with vast undemarcated stretches that remain a source of rancor and tensions.

In the war, Indian troops were routed, and since then the disparity in conventional military strength has widened considerably. In April 2013, just prior to President Li Keqiang’s visit, Chinese troops camped out in disputed territory — a novel way to announce the pending arrival of a dignitary. The platoon withdrew only after India acquiesced to Beijing’s demands to destroy some bunkers.

India is also wary of China’s strengthening ties with archenemy Pakistan, fears that are embodied in the deep-water Arabian Sea free-trade port at Gwadar now under Chinese management. Other Chinese port and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and Myanmar amplify New Delhi’s concerns about an encircling “string of pearls.”

I asked seminar participants if India was prepared to become the strategic counterweight to China that Washington and Tokyo hope for. The response, basically, was “No.”

One elderly scholar said it was not in India’s interest to do so because it doesn’t share those nations’ views about China. Niraja Gopal Jayal, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told me, “The strategic community wants China to be the preeminent ‘Other,’ because it sees China as a greater threat and bigger rival (than Pakistan), but this doesn’t resonate with the public. China is often portrayed as a role model to emulate rather than a rogue state (to be confronted).”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is president of the Centre for Policy Research thinktank in New Delhi, sees little gain in confronting China, suggesting that within Delhi’s strategic community there is a divergence of opinion. In his view, Sino-India relations are “by and large okay” — even if there is some apprehension over the border. Overall, his view is that the border problem “has been managed very well,” and border probes can be seen as a “Chinese version of ‘price discovery.’ “

Dr. Mehta notes that China is India’s largest trading partner, and thus pragmatism trumps territorial issues. As with other Asian nations, he argues that India is best served by a hedging strategy, not siding with either Beijing or Washington, but maximizing concessions from both.

While a major border incident could make India tilt toward the United States, he points out that India “has no capacity to do containment.”

So is Kashmir India’s Tibet? Rajeev Bhargava, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Developing Societies, asserts that the situation is totally different, as China is undemocratic and Tibet doesn’t enjoy the same degree of autonomy as Kashmir. Mehta adds that, “Over the past 10 years, democracy has been normalized in Kashmir.”

Bhargava blames the proxy war with Pakistan in the province, and Kashmiri secessionists, for provoking the Indian state into deploying the military — an institution that only knows one way to deal with dissent. In his view, “Kashmir is impossible as a separate state and will be engulfed by one of its neighbors. Its best bet is with India.” He also raises the specter of an intolerant Islamic government taking power — though Ananya Vajpeyi, author of the award-winning “Righteous Republic” (2013), thinks this is unlikely as Kashmiris don’t have a strong Islamic identity and reject religious extremism.

Basharat Peer, author of the global hit “Curfewed Night” (2008), offers a Kashmiri perspective. Interestingly, this grim account by a former editor of Foreign Affairs and reporter for the New York Times is a bestseller in India, where it is now in its ninth printing.

Noting that there are still 500,000 Indian troops occupying the province of 4 million inhabitants, Peer says that the abuses and oppression he hauntingly describes in his book persist because soldiers are exempted from prosecution for any crimes they commit.

Recalling Mao Zedong’s dictum about political power flowing from the barrel of a gun, he dubs Kashmir a “siege democracy” — insisting that in a referendum the people would vote overwhelmingly for independence.

For Peer, “Kashmir exposes a blind spot in the self-deluding mainstream liberal consensus about the ‘Idea of India’ — a monstrous conceit that ignores many realities on the ground.”

Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.