Incredibly shrinking India

Last Updated: Mon, May 06, 2013 00:35 hrs

It appeared, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, that India had a seat at the global high table for the asking. It was a valued member of the G20, which had apparently taken on an especially powerful role in response to the crisis. 

The economy appeared resilient, protected from the worst effects of the crisis, and seemed poised to keep producing high growth numbers even as the rest of the world slowed. The civil nuclear agreement with the United States had, in effect, welcomed India into the small group of nuclear-armed nations. 

It was on its way to better relations with its smaller neighbours - and even with Pakistan, the Indian government's admirable restraint after 26/11 won it points.

Recent events have shown how much of that has changed. The manner in which Pakistan defied Indian public and governmental opinion about Sarabjit Singh, the man who was convicted of spying by the Pakistan supreme court and murdered in prison last week, was just the latest indication of how little India's stature has in fact grown. 

China's People's Liberation Army, too, felt emboldened enough to try to set up advance camps in an area of the Line of Actual Control that has traditionally seen no permanent military camps. Any "Chindia" bonhomie of the past decade was punctured by one platoon of 55 Chinese troopers. China's other maritime and land neighbours, worried about the People's Republic's aggressiveness, find it tough to look to a confused, weakened and slowing India for leadership - but, as the reported Chinese retreat following the Japanese deputy prime minister's strong speech in Delhi and Manmohan Singh's decision to extend the length of his coming trip to Japan shows, the only hope of containing Chinese aggressiveness is through strong alliances. 

Meanwhile, the United States has its most anti-Indian state department under John Kerry in over a decade, and India's stakes in a peaceful Afghanistan after the withdrawal in 2014 are being largely ignored. Even India's smaller neighbours like Sri Lanka and the Maldives have felt no need to acquiesce to Indian national interests of late, so little does Indian power and potential impress the world these days.

While much of the blame must accrue to diplomatic missteps, perhaps the biggest reason why India stands diminished in the world's eyes is that any reputation it had for economic management has been comprehensively destroyed by this government. Deficits have increased while manufacturing has stalled; external vulnerability has grown while growth has collapsed - and, worst of all, international observers are forced to conclude from New Delhi's continually optimistic statements that the government has chosen to ignore the problems' seriousness.

In the midst of all this, the government has also developed a reputation for corruption and impunity, which is hardly going to help the country's stature. The 10 years after 1998 saw two governments, one under the Bharatiya Janata Party and one under the Congress, raise India's global profile to levels unreached since the 1950s. 

But the five years since, under the second United Progressive Alliance, have seen India head firmly in the other direction. This matters to many Indians. 

The UPA is likely to pay heavily for this in the next election.

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