India - Interviews
Constantino Hermanns Xavier
Watershed - You resided for four years in New Delhi. How would you define the Indian capital in social and economic terms and how was your process of adaptation to the new city?
Constantino Xavier - The Indian capital is today in the league of the most influential capitals at the world level. Twenty years ago, it was a slow city on all levels and marginal to the main world happenings. Today it is one of the capitals with more foreign diplomatic missions. It is a nerve center of global society, capital markets and the diplomatic agenda to migratory and financial flows. And that is not just due to its size; with fifteen million inhabitants, it is all a volume of knowledge, decisions, values and goods, which connect the city daily to the rest of the world. It is a key city in the emerging archipelago of global megalopolis, maybe one of ten or fifteen cities, which our future is played in. At the same time it is one of the oldest cities in India – New Delhi is presently a historic city located in the same space in the last thousand years. The British constructed this most recent city from the roots at the beginning of the XX century, and the urban planning, with many green zones and wide avenues distinguishes it from the remaining Indian cities, generally more chaotic. It lacks a general identity and for this, I like to characterize it as a mosaic, as a mini-India. In 2002, on a trip as a “backpacker” to India, I remember arriving at New Delhi and crossing it by rickshaw and feeling an immediate attraction. I like decision centers and New Delhi smells at politics, diplomacy, economics in every spot – there is a will to change, by businessmen, artists and even the recently arrived flower vendor from the countryside. For whoever comes from a country and a relatively settled country like Portugal, this teeming environment is particularly interesting.
WS - After studying at the New Lisbon University and the Science Po of Paris, how would you analyze Jawaharlal Nehru University?
CX - It is one of the most prestigious universities in India, which is soon indicated by its name in memory of one of the first great Indian political leaders. Especially in the area of Social Sciences, International Studies, it is often placed in the first places in Asian ranking. Its campus is in the center of the city, but is an authentic tropical forest, densely vegetated, in which all reside from the newest students to the present and distinguished professors, their families, all the workers, even storekeepers and street sweepers, apart from monkeys and other wild animals of course! It is a big family, like a microcosm of India and even the world bearing in mind it has over 400 foreign students from all the continents. It is also a privileged place for observing Indian politics. Every day and night there are seminars, gatherings, meetings and demonstrations many times until the following morning! Probably a little like in Portugal and Brazil a few decades ago. Its Students Union is the object of intense ideological disputes sometimes extremely violent, which require Police intervention. Between Maoists and Hindu nationalists the war is always open and the political barometer of the campus is used by analysts as an indicator of national tendencies. It is an ideal place for any foreign student to submerge into India.
WS - China knew how to best take advantage than India of the force of its Diaspora in its economic resurgence. How is the Indian government dealing with this matter?
CX - I do not know if China knew how to take advantage of it better. It was more a question of timing, related to reforms of the economic model adopted. Post-1978, China having reached two thirds of the IDE coming from its Diaspora, principally from Southeast Asia and Hong-Kong. India only started to harness the potential of its Diaspora post-1991, that is, post-reforms. The Diaspora potential of the Indian IDE is small, about 5%, but with the creation of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, a special citizenship for the Diaspora (a Overseas Citizenship of India), and a whole new policy to extract remittances from the Diaspora as well as deposits, investments and knowledge, the balance is positive. Twenty years ago, the Government did not know the number of its expatriate citizens while today it has studies and exact estimates as well as a consular structure prepared to respond to the growing demands of more than seven million expatriate citizens and about twenty million people of Indian origin. Just in the Gulf countries there are more than four million Indian citizens, 1,5 million of which are in Saudi Arabia – and naturally an important security challenge for the Indian Government, especially bearing in mind that Islamic terrorist networks are about to take advantage of these emigrants in order to penetrate India. A relationship which has been established in the last years is interesting: the Indian Government extracts capital and investment from the Diaspora, appealing to its patriotism with the idea of an Indian super-power in 2020, while for the Diaspora this association with its country of origin, traditionally seen in a negative way in the West, allows it to now gain trust, sense of identity and belongs to one of the greatest Asian nationalistic projects of the XXI century. This “partnership” has worked very well, including on a political level in which the Indian “lobby” in Washington, D.C. fulfills a fundamental role, like for example in the recent case of an Indo-American civil nuclear cooperation agreement.
WS - How does the billionaire North American aid to Pakistan impact on the strategic interests of India?
CX - For the Indians, the impact is fundamental, because it permits Pakistan, directly or indirectly to continue to modernize its Armed Forces and thus represent a threat to India. This perception is natural, if we bear in mind that both courtiers have fought four wars, including the most recent in Kargil, in 1999. New Delhi never understood the positive relationship between Bush and Musharraf, and the associated credit lines involved in the relationship. Although the Indians see the Pakistani military as their principal enemy, accusing them of being the most anti Indian Pakistani actor, the curious thing is that the most positive bilateral moments always coincide with the period when Pakistan was in the hands of the military. It was the case of Musharraf, who in his book In the Line of Fire presented entirely new solutions for the resolution of the conflict with Kashmir, but that India did not know, or rather did not want to take advantage of. Under pressure from the USA, which needs a normalization of Indo-Pakistani relations to be able to concentrate on Afghanistan, there are now more positive bilateral signs, in following the latest round of the Non-Aligned Movement, in Egypt. The new government of Man Mohan Singh, which enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority, will now have naturally more domestic room to maneuver in order to proceed with his agenda of normalization with its neighbor, which interests India also - the country cannot give itself the luxury of a new war or military tension in case it wants to maintain economic stability and present itself as a “responsible” actor in front of the international community. In addition, the worst is that it could happen to it.
WS - What is the Indian dimension in the identity of Pakistan?
CX - It is a question you could ask L K Advani, the leaser of the opposition, of the Hindu nationalists of the BJP. In a visit to Pakistan, in 2005, he referred to this “Indianness”, to which he referred in a fraternal way and paid a high price for his affirmations, being after his return expelled from his party and Indian political life. They did not forgive this “intimacy” with the rival. This episode reflects the delicacy of this question – after all, in 1947, the partition of the sub-continent made millions of dead and refugees, and there is an entire generation, which does not manage to face this historic moment. By the way, General Musharraf was born in New Delhi, and present Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh and Advani himself , in the present Pakistan. There is however, a new generation, which is supporting transfrontier cooperation and in a neo-functionalist style, has defended the integration of sectors and strategic communities on both sides. These regionalists, who include people like C. Raja Mohan, P R Chari or Mahendra Lama, have ambitions to adapt the European model in South Asia and, although they are minorities still, are starting to gain space. Unprecedented measures of trust were adopted with Pakistan, including new road and rail links, sporting tournaments (especially the digressions of the national cricket teams), commercial acceleration, bilateral technological cooperation, etc. In a certain form, the Indians and the Pakistanis were never as close since 1947 as they were in 2008, before the Mumbai attents. And if there is an Indian dimension in Pakistan there is also a Pakistani dimension in India – they are intimately linked by all possible factors but clearly there is the religious question, which will remaining a source of fracture.
WS - The Indian external Policy in Myanmar: idealist values or energy resources?
CX - Both. This is the prowess of the Indian diplomacy. We have a week, like in July of this year, the Secretary of State of Indian Foreign Business in Lisbon, on the initiative of the Community of Democracies, bragging about India as the “largest democracy in the world”, making an effort to promote democratic principals and values. We have at the same time, the Indian Government maintaining complete silence over the situation of Aung Suu Kyi and the violent Birmanese military regime, in his immediate neighborhood. It is interesting to observe how the Indian Government resorts to strategically the flags of “Asian Values” and “silent diplomacy” to shield itself from them and explain this contradictory behavior. The argument that the Indian diplomats like to bring out is that India refuses to export its democracy in a western way, in an imposing and coercive way, and prefers to integrate its neighbors by way of persuasion. However, it is doubtful if it will manage to while selling military equipment and signing millionaire energy resource exploration agreements like in the Burmese case in the Arakan region, the port of Sitter and the new Kaladan project of river access to the Northeast of India.
WS - China does occupy ever-greater spaces in the south of Asia. Does not India seem a bit timid in projecting itself?
CX - It is not timidity. First it is lateness. Just in the last years India started to realize the importance of China and recognize that, in economic and strategic terms, its neighbor enjoys an immense advantage. This explains with what I would call “taboo of 1962”, that is, defeat in the Sino-Indian war led to an Indian introversion, trying to forget the past and deny the growing might of its neighbor on the other side of the Himalayas. This was reflected in the absence of a generation of Indian academics, journalists and diplomats with specialized knowledge on China, at least until the end of the 90`s, which is surprising bearing in mind that both countries share thousand of miles of (conflicting ) frontiers and a rich common history. Until a few years ago, India had no direct flights to China, or a newspaper correspondent in Beijing, much less a group of sinologists. With analytical capacity, understand the transformation and the great Chinese strategy for the next decades. Secondly, that changed suddenly with the late recognition that China was not just the “other” Asian giant, on the same level as India, but a pole of opposition to the USA in a growingly bipolar world. In reply, New Delhi bet on a revitalization of the bilateral dimension, the official discourse adopted being that greater proximity and “engagement” would benefit the relationship. But I think that it will be exactly the opposite: conscious of a growingly asymmetrical relationship, India saw itself obliged to block investments and the wave of Chinese exports, redirect military resources to the western front with Pakistan to the Chinese front in the Himalayas, and lastly, seek extra-regional balances which may permit keeping its strategic zone of influence in South Asia and staunch the Chinese advance. All three processes are already in an accelerated phase. In particular, countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and all the Indic Ocean will be very interesting stages for observing this new Sino-Indian rivalry. Indian strategists are very worried with the growing Chinese presence and will resort to all possible means to keep South Asia as its primary region of influence.
WS - Can India assume the role of a great power, without modernizing its Armed Forces?
CX - That is one of the official theses, inherited from the Gandhi and Nehru pacifism. The idea that India can become a great power, and world level leader, thanks to its pacifism and moral mission in favor of universal principals. The problem is that India knows that it can only realize its ambition through material capabilities, especially military, that there is no alternative to that. It always knew it, but shielded itself for four decades and to a certain extent, still today, in the pacific rhetoric and the Gandhi inheritance, a very nice identity to be projected internationally. Even Nehru never accepted abdicating from a possible nuclear military program, defending this possibility until his death. The tests of 1998 oficialized India as a nuclear power, but the present Indian rhetoric remains dualist: “we were obliged by present circumstances , but we will be the first to disarm … if there is universal consensus”, they like to say. Well, there is a perfect and noble example of how to transcend the eternal paradox of international politics, tension between morality and pragmatism. On the practical level, the modernization of the Armed Forces is thus in an accelerated process, with the dynamic minister Antony about to announce various new bids, mainly for fighters and submarines. India was until 2007 the main conventional arms importer among the developing countries and prepares heavy investment, presenting itself as the most succulent for the main defense manufacturers, especially the Europeans, Americans, Israelis and Russians, and also the Brazilians and South Africans.
WS - How do the Indians – from the elite to the most popular classes – feel in relation to “India superpower”?
CX - The great narrative moves the Indians, both the elites as well the middle class and even the lower ones. The idea of an “India Superpower”, originated in the work and policies of ex-president A P J Kalam, can take on various turns, but Akhand Bharat, is consensual in his fundamental idea of a Great India. For some, it is an aggressive, militarist, powerful and vindictive India with the powers that colonized the subcontinent be they from the Muslim world or the West. For others, it is the dream of an inclusive India, developed in the socioeconomic level, pacific and with political stability – this is, an India in the top places of the index of human development. However, it is, in all versions, always a super-, hyper-, mega- India; prefixes adored by the Indians, mirroring sometimes a little of their post-colonial anxiety to “dominate”. The problem is that this narrative, many times with very concrete goals (2020, for example) is about to create false expectations. India grew in an impressive manner at rates of 7 to 9% and offered new opportunities and possibilities to hundreds of millions of its citizens. Bu the international crisis, and other structural problems that the country faces, among them ecological sustainability, ethnic and religious tensions and the growing disparity and social inequality, presents themselves as significant obstacles which can create points of very violent discontent. Today there is no Indian who does not aspire more, much more, whiter for him or his children, and that is a positive and fundamental change which took place in the last twenty years in relation to an extremely conservative past, in which no one risked change, due to a socialistic system and caste structure which by norm is reactionary and unchangeable. This ambition of the Indians is however, on one hand, often unmeasured, and on the other, runs the risk of a tremendous disillusion. It is up to the government to manage and in a manner, to moderate these expectations and recognize that in no case will India, in ten years time, be equal to the United States of today, however much the Indians may dream of it.
WS - How does the European Union see India in commercial and strategic terms?
CX - The problem is not seeing or not to see, but the recognition of the real importance that India represents for European interests. It does not matter if India will or will not be an Asian giant, if it going to assume a preponderant role in international politics. What matters is to evaluate in what contexts, in what specific areas, the transformations in India will have in the immediate European interests, internal and external. There are questions related to the growing competition of the Indian economy in leading sectors of the sciences and technology, but also services in general, the quality of Indian exports, the model of commercial regulation on a global level, climatic alterations and environmental legislation, patents, intellectual property, dislocation of European factories to India, labor rights laws, education and social security models, management of migratory flows, etc. It is in these specific questions that India is already having a relatively strong impact, although invisible in Europe, exposing however, the shortcomings of our development model and obliging us to greater competitiveness, and above all, introspection on the role of creating European value in a world in accelerated transformation. The question of democracy and “shared values” is marginal in this context. For the Indians, Europe does not stop being a perfect example of a fortress, defensive, conservative and scared, and for this, sometimes aggressive. I would say that, to a certain extent, the Indian perception is correct. However, I would add an explanation: we do not know nor do we study India, it strengths and weaknesses, its model and its strategy - and it is this that has obliged us to react to the changes in the Orient in a defensive way, when there is no reason to.
Interview by Marcos Guedes Pereira