The resolution adopted by the Indian Parliament did not dispute the logic of regime change in Iraq nor the need to stabilise the region with external forces. It merely disputed US unilateralism and called for a United Nations cover. This is now history. The reality of regime change stares us all and the world is coming to terms with it in its own way. India cannot today benefit from the growth of anti-Western religious extremist and totalitarian groups in Iraq or anywhere in the Gulf. It must cast its weight in favour of modern and democratic forces in the region.
There is a positive role that India can and should play and the first step in this direction, apart from stepping up its diplomatic and developmental role in Iraq, would be to assist in ensuring the security and stability of the Iraqi state. This it can do by joining the Coalition forces. There is also a strong, legitimate case for Indian troops being sent to Iraq from a purely Indian national security perspective.
While the final decision will have to be a political and strategic one, it will also have a fiscal dimension. The United States is not inviting tenders for troops. It is asking nations to foot the bill of regime change. There has been much rhetorical writing in the Indian media both for and against sending troops to Iraq but, as G Balachandran has written in this newspaper (FE, 16/6/2003), the decision involves footing the bill and is, therefore, on a completely different footing from earlier United Nations sponsored peace-keeping missions.
All the rhetoric about being a big power in a multipolar world will remain just that, pompous hot air, if we cannot cough up the funds required to ensure the security of our neighbourhood. Sending troops to Iraq is not about cleaning up the mess created by the United States and the coalition forces. It is about investing in our energy security in the long run. India has a stake in the security and stability of the Persian Gulf and must find the resources needed to be part of a strategic intervention initiated by the United States and now tacitly supported by most global powers, including Russia and China.
Surprisingly, the bill will not be much. The 200 all-terrain 4-wheel drive trucks required for the troops are expected to cost no more than US$20 million. Carting the troops across, some by air and some by sea, cannot cost more than a few million dollars. Stationing the troops will itself not amount to much if the Indian Army is sent to Iraq on national duty and paid a normal salary in rupees, with some additional hardship allowance in local currency. All told a budget of $200 mn or thereabouts Affordable cost.
India should not ask for payment nor should this operation be viewed by the armed forces as a foreign jaunt where everyone earns a few dollars. The mission to Iraq is not just about helping the US secure control over the country. It is about investing in Indias long-term security in the region.
If Indias neighbourhood does in fact stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits, then it must find the resources to invest in the assurance of security in this region. And for the foreseeable future it will have to do this in collaboration with the US which has today emerged as the predominant power in this region. No point denying reality. One must learn to deal with the real world as it exists, even if the point is to change it.
But finding the funds for troops in Iraq is not the biggest economic challenge for our strategic and economic policy makers. The real challenge is crafting a macroeconomic policy that enables India to feel secure in a troubled neighbourhood. That is the lesson that Mr Vajpayee would hopefully have learnt during his travels in China this week. Three decades back, China was as insecure as India seeking to pursue economic development in a hostile global environment. The Dengist answer to Chinas security challenge was economic modernisation and growth. Same goes for India.
I am reminded of a telling observation made by former foreign secretary K Raghunath at a round table interaction a few years back involving the top mandarins of the ministry of external affairs and some of Indias best strategic and foreign policy thinkers. For over two hours speaker after speaker waxed eloquent about Indias foreign policy goals, interests and challenges. What we must do here, there and everywhere. Mr Raghunath listened patiently and politely conceded that there was much Indian diplomacy could yet do.
Being the only economist around the table I chose to listen rather than speak. Perhaps taking note of this, Mr Raghunath said to me as I took leave, If you economists can show us the path to seven per cent growth over the next decade, it will make our diplomats job easier! There are many diplomatic opportunities and challenges that we cannot address satisfactorily if we cannot build a more robust economy. I nodded vigorously in agreement.
Television viewers and newspaper readers might like seeing L K Advani chatting up President George Bush one day and Prime Minister Tony Blair the next, they may be impressed by the presence of Mr Vajpayee at the Evian Summit of G-8 and his travels through China. But all this diplomatic toing and froing can mean little if it is not backed by a strong and competitive economy built on the foundations of human well-being and technological capability, and a healthy fisc that can afford a modern army.