Returning to the broken fragments of the 1990s to understand the China-driven churn of the present
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
As reports came in of the clash with Chinese troops in the remote Galwan Valley in Ladakh, many in India certainly felt that the present conjuncture in our geopolitical history weighed particularly heavily on us. Domestic polarities were no less significant on account of the continuing fallout of contestations arising from the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the legislative changes of August 2019 with regard to the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state. The continuing tensions with Pakistan and recent frictions with Nepal underlined that disturbances in our neighbourhood were combining with larger regional and international situations. All this occurred in the midst of a pandemic of a scale and intensity that was hardly to be anticipated and with consequences for the economy which are dire.
The wider environment seems especially turbulent, for there is a geopolitical churn underway: no less than a reordering of global power. This process had many symptoms but none more than a US with a maverick leadership seemingly self-engrossed in its own woes while China seemed to be reaching far back into its own history to assert a newfound strength in disregard for both its own stated policies and established international norms and precedents that it had always avowed to follow.
The traction developing around the term the ‘Post-Covid World’ seemed to be particularly relevant for us—the future suddenly seems to be more dangerous, more uncertain and more unpredictable. Different internal and external factors appear to have converged or at least their impact is being felt together.
It is the wider geopolitical churn that gives this period its exceptional quality. The retreat of the US—both real and metaphorical—is accompanied by the consolidation of China in its position as a rival hegemon, again both in real terms and also in terms of narrative value. Our own historically adversarial relationship with China has accentuated post-Galwan. This has made at least one core objective of Indian diplomacy somewhat more elusive: A cherished sweet spot has been to have better relations with either great power than they have with each other. In the triad of India-China-US, this meant stronger relations bilaterally with the US and China simultaneously, or at least stronger than the US-China relationship. This now appears that much more difficult and the difficulty represents in a concrete way the dilemma of this geopolitical churn we find ourselves in the midst of.
Lenin had once famously said that a crisis was “like a flash of lightning which threw more of a glare upon reality than anything else”. So the current geopolitical moment may have been amplified into sharper relief by the Covid-19 pandemic-cum-crisis but its ingredients, and particularly those relevant to India, have been maturing for some time and at least since 2015. This applies certainly to the situation with Nepal in particular but also to the rest of South Asia in general. Our traditional foreign policy toolkit was largely based on the premise that keeping great powers out of our neighbourhood was both in our interest and in that of our neighbours. Barring Pakistan—where an adversarial mould from the beginning precluded any realistic possibility of this policy being applied—this was the template that we sought to apply to our neighbours with varying degrees of success at different points of time. Pakistan stood as the case apart. It brought in outside powers—first the US and increasingly China from the 1990s, as the Pakistan-US relationship started on a long process of erosion. This was partly on account of its own internal contradictions and even more so on account of greater proximity in US-India relations from the beginning of this millennium. But with our other neighbours, one of the challenges of Indian diplomacy always was how to keep others at bay.
That template now belongs to history. There is a changed reality today that we confront, which is that of a great power in physical proximity to South Asia so the question of keeping it out does not arise.
The global geopolitical churn we are in the midst of today then has much to do with China which has all the assertive energy of a new power and alongside a corresponding disengagement and self-absorption of the US. As far as India is concerned, this wider geopolitical churn has the following implications. First, that we are a neighbour of one of the two global powers and that this is a neighbour with whom we have a long history of adversarial relations as equally a serious territorial and boundary dispute. Second, the economic and cultural footprint of China in South Asia has expanded to an extent that erodes to some extent India’s position. Third, and finally, China’s assertiveness has coincided with a sharp downturn in Pakistan-India relations. The downturn is not itself new since it dates back to 2016 and points also to the structural imbalances in Pakistani politics where India is concerned.
The wider environment seems especially turbulent, for there is a geopolitical churn underway: no less than a reordering of global power. A US with a maverick leadership seemingly self-engrossed in its own woes while China is reaching far back into its own history to assert a newfound strength
These three factors, each enormously significant in itself, are at the core of our current political predicament and to which a host of others further contribute: the pandemic, the economic slowdown and contraction, and the base level static arising from domestic issues such as Jammu and Kashmir, the CAA, etcetera.
HOW EXCEPTIONAL or unique is this period—beginning with the wider geopolitical churn resulting from the assertiveness of a new global power down to the specificities of regional issues in South Asia and, finally, the economic uncertainties resulting from the pandemic acting as a kind of black swan topping?
It is instructive to look back about three decades to the first half of the 1990s, for we encounter in that period a similar cocktail of issues, forces, and dilemmas. If the rise of a new power is the subject that engrosses us all today—from diplomats and strategic analysts to the manufacturer and distributer worried about supply chains from China—some 30 years ago, it was the terminal decline of another that similarly absorbed us. Glasnost—free access to information—and Perestroika—changes in the economic structure—unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev from the mid-1980s seemed to be taking the Soviet Union into unchartered territory. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan from 1988 heralded a new Soviet Union, too self-absorbed with its own manifold difficulties to really have energy left for others. Letting East Europe follow its own separate destiny was the next step—and over the latter half of 1989 and the first half of 1990, the ‘Eastern Bloc’ had disintegrated. Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia had variants of a peaceful transition to non-communist rule. In Romania, the transition was violent but with much the same result. Yugoslavia, not in the Soviet camp but a close friend of India due to a shared history in the Non-Aligned Movement, was also in fundamental transition but here the process appeared to be akin to a train hurtling to a crash. Within the Soviet Union itself, the changes were no less significant. In April 1990, a law allowed a constituent unit to secede if two-thirds of the population so voted in a referendum. As Soviet Republics and state-owned enterprises, including those in the defence and hydrocarbon sectors, eyed autonomous futures, concerns in India were intense. By August 1991, the process was complete when an attempted coup by communist hardliners and military generals failed to set the clock back and, by the end of the year, only the formalities to announce the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union remained.
An American scholar couple recalled the mood in India: ‘In India the response was guarded, troubled, fearful. The United States celebrated; freedom had triumphed over tyranny. In India the mood was something like mourning; a dear friend had passed away.’
India, they wrote, ‘feels orphaned ideologically, strategically, economically’ and that ‘many Indians worry too about the precarious fate of multinational states’. There were alongside practical, everyday concerns, since: ‘The Soviet Union was critical in India’s economic calculations. One of the world’s leading arms buyers in the 1980s, India acquired most of its arms from the Soviet Union at bargain basement rupee prices. India’s protected and regulated economy fits well with the Soviet Command economy. State trading in soft rupees and rubles linked the two economies. Centralized bureaucracies in Moscow cleared arms shipments. Which republics now control the arms plants? Where will the spares come from, and the hard currency to pay for them? Now that the rupee-ruble trade is dead, how will India get and pay for its oil, newsprint and non ferrous metals?’And there was also the political and strategic aspect. ‘The Soviet cast vetoes at UN for India—when India used force to erase the remnants of Portuguese colonialism and the Kashmir question appeared in the agenda…its nuclear arsenal helped India to avoid an overt answer to China and Pakistan.’
The Rudolphs—Lloyd and Susanne, close observers of India since the 1950s and scholars of India in the best traditions of Western academia—concluded: ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union and communism has left India’s leaders ideologically and strategically adrift, aware that new realities call for new thinking but reluctant to believe that the world they have lived and worked for was an illusion.’
What gave to these wider concerns an even sharper edge was the situation in India’s immediate neighbourhood and within. 1989-90 had seen a major turbulence in trading relations with Nepal. Nepalese observers were to call this a “blockade” imposed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to pressure Nepal to abandon its independent foreign policy. Realities were more complex and what was involved here was a cluster of issues ranging from tensions over trade, internal Nepal politics between the king and the political class, Nepalese arms purchases from China and others. If the Nepal situation was bad from India’s point of view—how could things reach this point with a neighbour like Nepal so heavily dependent on India?—the situation with Sri Lanka at the other end of the subcontinent was worse. An Indian military contingent—an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)—had been deployed to keep peace and ensure a cessation of hostilities between the Tamil militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military. The Indian intervention was the result of two related causes apart from the strong sympathy factor in Tamil Nadu in favour of the Sri Lankan Tamils. First, the LTTE’s aim of a sovereign Tamil nation was something that Indian strategic thinking saw as being against its own interests. Second, disturbed conditions and internal conflicts in Sri Lanka opened the doors for outside powers—the US in particular but also others—or so at least it was felt to intervene in India’s immediate proximity. The IPKF deployment followed an agreement between India and Sri Lanka in July 1987. By October that year, the Indian Army was heavily engaged against the LTTE and what had appeared initially to be a short and swift operation had become a grind and a military nightmare. Through 1988-1989, the IPKF suffered many casualties and in India its wisdom was being questioned across the political spectrum. The IPKF deployment finally ended in March 1990. The diplomatic and political gains from the operation were non-existent while India’s reputation had suffered. The final denouncement of India’s intervention came in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE suicide bomber unit in May 1991.
If the rise of a new power is the subject that engrosses us all today, some 30 years ago, it was the terminal decline of another that similarly absorbed us. Glasnost and Perestroika, unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev from the mid-1980s seemed to be taking the Soviet Union into unchartered territory
If there is an actor missing or largely absent in this narrative, it is China. It, too, drew lessons from what was happening in the Soviet Union but these were opposite to what Gorbachev attempted through Glasnost and Perestroika. More, not less, control was the Chinese solution. The events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 set limits on political expression that remain to this day. Concentrating on the economy appears to have been the Chinese policy takeaway from all that was happening around, for it is from the economy that hard power would be derived.
The Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi was defeated in the December 1989 General Election. A coalition led by VP Singh assumed office. The change in government enabled course corrections both in Nepal and Sri Lanka—but the Government faced its first crisis, and from another direction, within days of being sworn in. The daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the first Muslim Union Home Minister of India, was kidnapped by militants in Srinagar. This episode more than anything else heralded and dramatised the beginning of an insurgency that has had its crests and troughs but has nevertheless continued for the past three decades. From January 1990, an exodus of the Hindu minority began from the Kashmir Valley—one of the numerous tragedies inflicted by an insurgency that would not just receive support from Pakistan but would inevitably also bedevil India-Pakistan relations in the period since. The insurgency meant that after a long gap since 1965, Kashmir was again a major item on the India-Pakistan agenda—perhaps now the most important item on the agenda. The fact, however, is also that through the early 1990s, and up to 1998, India-Pakistan agenda-setting remained largely notional. For long periods, dialogue or discussion of any kind was suspended—at Pakistan’s instance. As infiltration from Pakistan increased across the Line of Control, political rhetoric sharpened on both sides. Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in a speech in Muzaffarabad in March 1990, spoke of a thousand-year war for Kashmir and Prime Minister VP Singh responded that Pakistan would have to see if it could fight for a thousand hours. In India, the mood consolidated that Pakistan was riding an adventurist horse again and certainly the thought grew whether another Operation Gibraltar, as in 1965, was being planned to cap the insurgency with an external intervention.
In Pakistan, there was certainly a mood of triumphalism. Insurgents and militias, trained and ideologically motivated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had finally forced the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. There were many who thought that Kashmir was now ripe for this model to be successfully applied. Revolutions in Eastern Europe, accompanied by cartographic changes in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Germany, all strengthened the perception that maps in South Asia could also be redrawn. The impending and then real disintegration of the Soviet Union was at the base of such optimism.
The VP Singh Government faced its first crisis within days of being sworn in. The daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the first Muslim Union Home Minister of India, was kidnapped by militants in Srinagar. This episode heralded the
beginning of an insurgency that has had its crests and troughs but has nevertheless continued
Notwithstanding tensions in the US-Pakistan relationship over nuclear proliferation, many in India were conscious of the depth of that relationship forged through the 1980s in Afghanistan. Certainly, the US position seemingly was more impatient with India and sympathetic to Pakistan as far as the situation in Kashmir went. At a particularly fraught time in Jammu and Kashmir in late 1992 (there was a siege underway in the Hazratbal mosque with militants holed up inside), a US Assistant Secretary of State said that the US “viewed the whole of Kashmir as a disputed territory” and “we do not recognise the instrument of accession as meaning that Kashmir is forever an integral part of India”. Pakistan had soon thereafter tabled a resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission on Kashmir. That resolution went nowhere. The Indian delegation to that meeting was led by an opposition leader—Atal Bihari Vajpayee—who had agreed to the responsibility at the request of then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. Others in the delegation included a deposed Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah. It was bipartisanship—both symbolic and real—but also showed how high the stakes were. Alongside, Parliament adopted a resolution declaring the whole of Jammu and Kashmir an integral part of India and demanding that Pakistan must vacate the part of Jammu and Kashmir it had illegally occupied since 1947-1948. This was a bigger change than many at the time saw.
Two other factors have to be added as ingredients to this cocktail of regional crises amid superpower decline. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 led to the first Gulf War as the US decided to make full use of a clear field provided by the decay of the Soviet Union. The Iraq war, or the First Gulf War as it came to be later called, became a laboratory to demonstrate how much the nature of war had changed. US technology eroded the numerical advantages of the Iraqi war machine and this dominance was transmitted live across the world on television. Post-Gulf War, the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ meant no longer just a doctrine or theory, but a real military capability albeit one requiring massive investments of intellectual and financial capital.
Two seminal events of the new millennium in its earliest years, the Global War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis, focused attention on the US to such an extent that China for a long time remained under the radar of many. That situation is now changing in large part on account of the pandemic
For India, the Gulf War did mean seriously thinking about finances, but in a different context. It was in the nature of a black swan event and the war led to an explosion in oil prices that tipped the balances of its economy deep into the red. An economic catastrophe seemed imminent. How India dealt with its financial crisis and the beginning of its economic reform process is a separate story in itself. It is useful to recall, however, how significant an ingredient the domestic economic situation was in the atmosphere of geopolitical crisis in the early 1990s in India. If the economy also looms large in our thinking of crisis induced by the global pandemic today, the main difference with the situation in the early 1990s merits being pointed out. The economic crisis from 1991 onwards was a national crisis, unlike today. India had to improvise its way out of it on its own and to that extent, our burdens appeared all the greater.
And finally, to the economic woes and geopolitical uncertainties must be added the domestic political crisis of polarisation that was unmistakable in India through the early 1990s. The history of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation shows how it converged with the multiple external crisis of the time. The serial blasts in Bombay in March 1993 and Dawood Ibrahim’s and the ISI’s roles underlined how the internal and the external can and will intersect—and that is the nature of all crisis situations.
India in the early and mid-1990s is usually summarised as a history of the early years of economic reform and liberalisation. The story of those years can also be narrated in terms of an adjustment to a new world in which a single power had greater pre-eminence than had been seen in international affairs for a long time. The US as a hyper power was spoken of frequently in the decade of the 1990s. Even as this position was being eroded from the first decade of the 21st century, the narrative power of unipolarity obscured the change. Two seminal events of the new millennium in its earliest years, the Global War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis, focused attention on the US—on its thinking, policy and action, to such an extent that China for a long time—at least a decade or perhaps a decade-and-a-half—remained under the radar of many. That situation is now changing in large part on account of the pandemic. By slowing everything else down, it enabled a sharper focus on the bigger picture of geopolitical churn and the crystallisation of the process by which another great power has now arisen.
DOES THIS exercise of recalling our experience of the times when a superpower waned have any pedagogic value now in a changed context when another power has arisen? Is it only the vanity of historians that makes them believe in the lessons of history?
We do not know for certain whether Mark Twain said “History never repeats itself but it rhymes”. But he certainly did say, “History never repeats itself, but the kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends”. So while we need not be unduly concerned with the past, some awareness of it is helpful. Certainly some, if not many, elements of the past are recognisable today also, although how we will steer our way through these multiple moving pieces remains in the future. There is no readymade template before us and the solutions of the past are now also past history. New frameworks have to be envisaged and constructed and what these will be we cannot say. The German historian Reinhart Koselleck once wrote ‘it is in the nature of crisis that the solution, that which the future holds in store, is not predictable’. The only certainty that remains, therefore, is what belongs to the past and that is what makes such reflections relevant.