Great Power Aspirations

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jan 2 2003, 05:30am hrs
I was recently invited to speak before a senior gathering of Asia-based diplomats. The theme of the topic was: Can India hope to aspire for and achieve Great Power status in the next decade Despite some of the positive things going for us and there are a few I remain a sceptic. As do most of my friends. Maybe its our generation, the forty somethings. We grew up at a time when just about everything turned gloomy in India very rapidly: economy, politics, university education or standards of public morality. Even sports. The 1971 test win over West Indies and the 1975 hockey World Cup victory are the only memorable feathers in an otherwise dismal decade.

So India as a global power All signals point otherwise, and the bottomline is that we lack the sense of unity, brotherhood, purpose and motivation that combine together to form the social fuel which propels nations forward. However, and here is the bittersweet irony, the primal impulse in India is power, not money or sex. The Hindu caste system with all its mutations and regional nuances accurately reflects our power trip. Think about it. The pecking order starts at the top with those who wield power over minds and opinion and self-esteem, and not those with money, land or armies.

Our bureaucracy is yet another example. Other columnists have written very eloquently about it, but here are a few recent examples of bureaucratic power flexing in tourism, an area which is really all about impressions and attitudes rather than tax benefits and fiscal policy:

* Stringent eligibility requirements and cumbersome procedure put off many visitors from visiting India. One of our major policy restrictive to the growth of tourism is reciprocity, under which we give visas to citizens of only those countries which give to Indians. Countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Singapore, Seychelles, Maldives, Thailand, Turkey, Taiwan and Indonesia give visas on arrival without reciprocity as a condition. Thailand has a visa-on-arrival policy for over 140 countries and there is no reciprocity in every case.

* Tourist inflow to India is highly seasonal while government regulations and false ego keep airline capacity static. In winter months, there is no seat to be found on any in-bound flight because of the tourist season and vacationing NRIs. The Civil Aviation ministrys box of bilateralism is an obstacle. Emirates, for instance, is not allowed to bring in the several thousand more passengers that it can because its local partner, Air India, doesnt have the capacity to reciprocate. Compare this to Indonesia, which has opened its sky regardless of bilateral rights, and 28 international airlines fly direct to Bali.

* The Oberoi group of hotels, Indias premier hospitality company, offered to maintain the toilets at Delhis international airport. They promised to ensure that toilets had latches and working flushes and that attendants were not having a bath in the basins while grudgingly rationing out scraps of toilet paper to passengers. No, said official mandarins. Why Because then all the other airports would suffer by comparison.

With mindless obstacles like this, is it any wonder that India gets less than 0.4 per cent of world tourist traffic, less than Sri Lanka or even a dot like the Maldives

Interestingly, the term aspiring for great power status is one that is hardly ever used by the Indian establishment or by serious analysts and foreign policy experts. Jaswant Singh employed the term once in a prepared speech in 1999 Indias voice is now heard with much greater respect; Indias views are treated with seriousness; Indias voice is now treated as the voice of a great power but he abandoned it thereafter.

It is used much more by western analysts, especially by Michael Krepon of the Stimson Institute and Stephen Cohen of Brookings, and usually with some sort of amusement as if the very idea was so absurd. A foreign analyst once said that India would like the great powers to call it brother and its neighbours to call it uncle. These people need not fear. India is hardly likely to achieve anything even close as long as the elite and bureaucracy of the country bask in great power status for themselves.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors