Hagel in a teacup

Chuck Hagel — the successor to Leon Panetta as America’s secretary of defence — has caused a bit of a furore in India with his two-year-old remarks. For the record, Mr Hagel had, in 2011, said: “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan.” The media in India and sections of the political class have called these remarks “anti-India”. This is a classic case of a storm in a teacup.

Consider Mr Hagel’s remarks first, and the timing and why they are out now. It would appear that Mr Hagel, in view of America’s exit from Afghanistan and seeking Pakistan’s acquiescence in a smooth transition and post-exit Afghanistan, was playing to the gallery in Pakistan. By saying what he said, Mr Hagel mollified the Pakistani strategic community and the country’s power structure. His assertion or statement had no policy connotations. The statement then was in the nature of a gratificatory exercise for Pakistan. Nothing more. Nothing less.
A section of the political class in the US was keen to get President Barack Obama to withdraw
Mr Hagel’s appointment, and India may have bitten the bait.
Mr Hagel’s record in the Senate tells a different story — he supported the Indo-US nuclear deal when many were opposed to it. And even if there is merit to what Mr Hagel said, what is wrong? States are guilty of far worse than what
Mr Hagel asserted. And in the India-Pakistan context, if India has indeed been financing problems for Pakistan, it’s merely a reflection of the nature and tenor of relations between the two countries. The two states are, unfortunately, locked in a zero-sum conflict revolving around the axis of Kashmir. For Pakistan, Kashmir is an existential issue and its nationalism — which is negative in nature and posits India as its “other” — is trapped in an emotional matrix from which it is unable to extricate itself.
Pakistan has devoted much of its national energy in wresting Kashmir from India. In this schema, it has employed and instrumentalised its youth bulge and directed their energy towards Kashmir. Afghanistan formed a crucial link in this. Not only was Afghanistan a battleground and a staging post for this but it also served as a cornerstone of Pakistan’s strategic depth policy. Given this, India could not have been a mute bystander. This is not to defend India’s alleged involvement in Afghanistan, but to put into perspective the potential reasons for doing so. This involvement amounts to shoring up or supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban which India sees as a proxy force for Pakistan’s regional interests. It is held that India supported the Northern Alliance in an attempt to blunt the advances that the Taliban had made and to maintain a modicum of balance of power in the tribal matrix of Afghanistan.
As such, Mr Hagel’s remarks should not be seen as dismissive of India or “anti-Indian”. Relations between the US and India, shorn of historical baggage, are now in a different league. They are defined by the growing recognition of India as a great power. The India factor is an important component of the foreign policy calculus of every major country, let alone the US. India is not only viewed as a great power that can hold its own but its soft power — liberal democratic polity and multicultural and diverse entity — is widely recognised and appreciated. The Indo-US nuclear deal, which is seen as a metaphor for this budding relationship, is an indication of how this relationship has deepened.
Even though what has been termed the “India fatigue” in the US has crept in of late, it accrues from distractions elsewhere. It cannot be inferred from this that the relations between India and the US have ebbed. India, it would appear, is viewed by the US as a partner in what could be called a “Concert of Democracies” — a putative grouping which align or band together to forge a new world order. The world is also witnessing nascent multipolarity and in this emerging multipolar world, India is viewed by the US as a critical and pivotal actor.
India then stands effectively dehyphenated from Pakistan in the US calculus. It is viewed as a power in its own right that can promote both the international system’s stability and world order. This is in stark contrast to Pakistan that continues to be viewed with jaundiced eyes — more in the nature of a spoiler state than anything else.
In effect then, Mr Hagel’s remark should not be seen as a policy discontinuity on part of the US. A sense of proportion and sobriety should inform the Indian political class and the media. The world has changed and it is changing at a frenetic pace. Both continuities and discontinuities define contemporary world politics. In this fluid condition, India is not emerging but has emerged. And this is recognised by the powers that be especially the US. This trend is structural and nothing can detract from this. It is about time that efforts be directed towards improving and remedying constraints that potentially preclude India from its rightful place in the world. This warrants closer relations with the US and setting the house in order.
Mr Hagel’s remarks are not important. What is important is the thrust of India’s relations with the US. The trajectory of these are defined and almost set in stone. The rest is mere noise. That too two years old.

The writer is a senior policy analyst in J&K government. The views expressed are personal.

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