India in the New Year / Paulos Gregorios

(Editorial of The Star of the East Vol. 3 No. 1)

1981 has come, with little fanfare and much foreboding. In India 
the twin recognition, on the one hand that Mrs. Gandhi is unlikely 
to come up with any major realistic programme for ameliorating the 
situation of poverty and injustice, worsened by fresh outbursts of 
human cruelty, widespread government corruption, and general 
indiscipline in the nation and on the other that there is no alternative 
in sight to Mrs. Gandhi that could be any better deepens the prevail- 
ing gloom and catalyses the latent cynicism of the Indian middle 
classes. This in turn leads to a further disintegration of values in the 

Mrs. Gandhi may be doing better in handling foreign policy 
than in solving domestic problems. The dangers are many and not 
all of them imaginary. A nuclear armed Pakistan can, with the help 
of allied forces, start a rumpus in Kashmir with unpredictable conse- 
quences for national security and integrity. There is some reason to 
believe that outside forces are involved in fomenting communal riots, 
and in making the North-East problem beyond conciliatory settlement. 

America, starring Ronald Reagan, may turn out to be no more 
disastrous in fact than a Wild West movie. But then, if the Indian 
Ocean becomes the place of concentration for U. S. naval and nuclear 
forces, India may have difficulty sleeping. In a crunch, some of that 
“ force de frappe” can be used as a tool of “diktat” telling India 
what to do in Kashmir or the North-East, as once happened during 
the Bangladesh crisis. India, (along with Vietnam, Kampuchea and 
Laos), seems to be in danger of being punished for refusing to line 
up with the west, following all other nations in East Asia, including 
the People’s Republic of China. Mrs. Gandhi understands this as 
well as anybody else in India, and may have already taken measures. 
The visit of Brezhnev to India, which the media in India as well as 
elsewhere sought to depict as unproductive, may have had more signi- 
ficance than these vested interest defending newspapers are willing to 

The concern about the Reagan regime, which, thank God, 
cannot last beyond four years, is not limited to India. His victory is 
widely acknowledged as a slap in the face for the American liberal 
tradition — a definite swing of the pendulum from the liberal East 
coast to the conservative Mid-west and the insular Far-West. Mr. 
Reagan and his colleagues have far fewer inhibitions than better- 
informed Americans about the once-inspiring dream of a great and 
powerful America as leader of the west, champion of democracy, 
defender of the free world, and crusader against ungodly communism. 
In any case Reagan’s bid to win back the leadership of the world 
through a posture of Wild West toughness can be no more realistic 
than Carter’s costly claim to set the world right through simple 
honesty and straightforwardness in diplomatic relations. Reagan 
will soon learn what Carter took a little longer to learn— that the 
American President is neither omnipotent nor able to make all 
decisions on his own even in domestic matters. 

The point for India is two-fold — first that Reagan has openly 
expressed his desire to increase the strength and duration of America’s 
military presence in the Indian Ocean and second that he knows even 
less than Carter did about our problems in India; nor has he so far 
shown any signs of special friendship for India. Not that India has 
any particular reason to prefer the cow-boy hug of Reagan to the 
much berated bear-hug of Brezhnev. The realities of the situation 
are so obvious even to such an anti-communist figure as B. J. P. 
leader Vajpayee; we need the help of the Russian bear to ward off 
the sharp claws of the American eagle. But there is perhaps another 
side to it. The USSR has few friends on whom she can rely in Asia 
as much as on India. And Mr. Brezhnev has left Indians in no doubt 
that for the Russians, support of Mrs. Gandhi is even more important 
than supporting the communist parties of India, in order to express 
that reliance upon India. 

Naturally this reality can be used by interested parties to argue 
that India is deviating from the Non-Aligned path. Such arguments 
come in very handy for those interests in the world who desire to 
drive a wedge between the USSR and India, as well as to Two-third 
world interests jealous of India’s leadership in the non-aligned move- 
ment. What they forget is that non-alignment by no means implies 
equidistance from the great powers. Non-alignment is a refusal to 
commit oneself to support one side or the other and an insistence 
that each issue will be settled on its merits and not on the basis of 
which of the great powers is on which side. If the non-aligned 
decisions tend to agree more often with the policy objectives of the 
USSR than those of the USA, this means that there is more conflict 
of interest between the Two-third world and the market economy 
countries than between the former and socialist countries. 

One bit of cheering news in the New Year has been the release of 
American hostages in Iran. But does this ending of many months of 
misery for the hostages mean also that Iran has finally made up its 
mind that any price is not too high for getting the spare parts and 
the additional arms necessary to win the war with Iraq? Does it 
mean that Khomeini has decided, by force of circumstances, to follow 
the path of the Shah in totally lining up with the west? It is possible 
that the American ploy of making Iraq attack Iran has really worked. 
It has more than secured the release of the hostages. A multi-million 
dollar market has been opened up for the western arms trade, which 
in itself is a big boost to a sagging western economy. An almost 
comparable market in both Iraq and Iran has been provided by the 
need to repair the oil installations that have been damaged by war. 

Obviously the Russians do not want openly to side with Iraq, 
for fear of pushing Khomeini into the bosom of the West. But will 
Khomeini himself last? Are there not generals waiting in Paris to be 
crowned in Teheran by the Americans? And what would a Pakistan- 
Iran axis in league with the West and China mean for the security of 
Kashmir and communal harmony between Muslims and Hindus in 
India? Mrs. Gandhi and India’s very sober foreign minister Rao 
seem to be aware of these questions, though their efforts to reconcile 
Iraq and Iran stand little chance of succeeding. 

The heavy arms build-up in the Indian ocean is justified by 
America on the assumption that the vital interests of the American 
people are buried in the oil-fields of the Gulf area, and the charge 
that Russia’s move into Afghanistan is a first step towards the take 
over of West Asian oil fields, which would give the USSR a strangle- 
hold on the Western economy and on the Market Economy system 
as such. 

As far as Afghanistan itself is concerned, events go to show that 
the forces for socialism in that peasant land of warring tribes have 
less influence on the minds of the Afghan people than the vibrant 
emotions of “Islam in danger” or “life and death struggle of belief 
against unbelief” spread by sophisticated propaganda interests, speci- 
ally trained in Pakistan to use Islamic feelings as a most effective 
anti-socialist weapon. 

We do not want to play the game of the World Astrologers 
Conference recently gathered together in India, nor to take their 
word that the Third World War will not come this year. If there is 
a third world war, it can come only as the result of a wrong decision 
on the part of the leaders of the two leading powers. Such an error 
is even more likely this year than the next. For in a year’s time, 
even Reagan would have understood the harsh realities of a nuclear 
war, which despite arguments to the contrary, can neither be conta- 
ined nor won. If the folly of being armed to the teeth as counter- 
productive in terms of national security is realized on all sides, there 
is nothing other than the fact that the arms race and arms trade are 
profitable to a small group of powerful people, to stop the world 
from beginning to disarm, and to use the resources so saved to solve 
the problems of poverty and injustice all over the world. 

Unfortunately in India the debate among intellectual circles 
seems preoccupied with non-issues like Parliamentary versus 
Presidential system of Government. Since everybody thinks that the 
debate is part of Mrs. Gandhi’s scheme to introduce again a dictator- 
ship in the country, opposition intellectuals get into such great fury 
that they affirm without batting an eyelid that the present system is 
working quite well. There are three points (among others) at which 
the present system fails miserably (a) its inability to mobilise the 
masses for social production with justice and equity; (b) the enor- 
mously expensive character of the election machinery which lets even 
leftist political parties become enslaved to the money-bags and their 
interests; and (c) the odious practice of defection and changing of 
parties by legislators elected by the people on a particular party plat- 
form. The Presidential system would help only in the third point, 

but would make little difference in the other two areas. A Presiden- 
tial system has the advantage that the President would not have to 
spend all his (or her) time trying to stay in power. Elected for four 
or five years, the President can devote the time not for ensuring 
political survival but to get something done. 

Whether President or Prime Minister, to infuse a little discipline 
into the Government and into the political system in India today is 
hardly possible without taking the risk of assuming powers whicn can 
be used also to suppress certain fundamental rights like protest 
demonstrations or newspaper criticism. The fact of the matter is 
that the people sometimes feel that the protesters and the newspapers 
are also putting their own interests before the interests of the nation 
and especially of the poor. In India it is quite possible to organize 
protests, provided one has someone to pay the bill (this applies even 
to the recent farmers’ agitation), ^nd most of the English language 
newspapers in our country are run by moneybags in their own 
interests and in the interests of their affluent readers and advertisers. 
A general reduction in the number and volume of protest demonstra- 
tions may turn out to be healthy for the economy. And what our 
English language newspapers say cannot always be taken as the voice 
of the people. 

Which set of risks should we take — that of going on as we now 
are, drifting into anarchy and chaos, or accepting a measure of disci- 
pline, knowing fully well that the day may not be far in the future 
when discipline turns into authoritarianism and the people’s protest 
energies would have to be turned full blast against that authoritaria- 
nism? It is somewhat unfair to forget that Mrs. Gandhi’s ordering 
a general election in 1977 was a democratic act — whatever her own 
motives might have been — a democratic act which freed us from 
oppressive authoritarianism. It was not the Janata party that libe- 
rated us, it was the people’s vote which was allowed to be exercised 
and was accepted without demur. 

Once that process of expressing the people’s verdict through free 
and democratic elections can be exercised periodically every four or 
five years, the difference between Prime Minister and President is 
simply that the latter has political security for one term and does not 
need to concentrate all effort on political survival. 

Mrs. Gandhi is perhaps one of the few persons around in Asia 
capable of world leadership. In fact, she is much better and fairly 
unerring in her judgments about international relations than about 
domestic issues. A little peace, through the Presidential system, may 
give her a better chance to do something creative in international 
relations as her father trained her to do. On the domestic front, 
only the hand of God working in totally unconceived ways, can open 
up a glimmer of hope.