Iran, Myanmar Core To India’s Interests
Aung San Suu Kyi is loved in India, a country that she knows very well, having studied in one of the most prestigious colleges in Delhi, Lady Sri Ram College, after having studied at the city’s convent of Jesus & Mary School. Her classmates still keep in touch with her, a process that has become much easier after the relaxation of Martial Law recently, and the withdrawal of the Myanmar military to the barracks. However, unlike the US and the EU, which have for decades imposed severe economic and political sanctions on her country, successive governments in India have continued to develop relations with the military in Myanmar, even during the period when they monopolised power. A few—notably former Defense Minister George Fernandes—have been opposed to such engagement, and have wanted India to join the list of countries that have cut off Myanmar. For a while, this was done. However, wiser counsel finally prevailed, and it was accepted that Myanmar was too important a country to be ignored, the way it was by faraway countries in North America and Europe.
Interestingly, while the NATO bloc had the closest of ties with Pakistan during the periods when the country was wholly under military rule—as when Pervez Musharraf was in office—the excuse of “military rule” was used to snap ties to Rangoon. While the NATO powers incessantly talk about “rules”, the fact is that such restrictions apply only to other countries and not to them. Thus, Pakistan and Myanmar have been treated differently, as have Bahrain and Syria. While in the former, crackdowns have been ignored (barring a few weak expressions of concern),in the latter case, efforts for the Kaddafy-style removal of Bashar Al-Assad are under way. Indeed, NATO seems to have launched an undeclared war on the Shia. In Iraq, the US in particular has been consistently demanding that concessions be given to the Sunni population of that country,a consideration not shown to the Shia population in several GCC countries where they form significant minorities (and in the case of Bahrain, the majority). While the Sunni rulers of Bahrain are given full backing, despite the fact that their branch forms a minority in the country, NATO points to the fact that Sunnis are in a majority in Syria when demanding that Bashar Al-Assad (who is Shia) step down.
The antipathy being shown by NATO to the Shia across the Gulf region is repeating the 1982 mistake made by Ariel Sharon in Lebanon, when he used the Israeli defence forces to support Maronite Christian militias against the Shia. Several thousands of Shia were killed in the fighting that followed the IDF intervention, and the anger this has caused has made Israel the only country in the world that is a target of Shia extremists. The demonisation of Iran, the move against Bashar, the pressure on Nouri Al-Maliki, the ignoring of majority rights in Bahrain, are all adding up to a situation where Shia extremists may broaden their attack from just Israel to countries within the NATO alliance. Of course, this would come as a relief for Israel, in that it would no longer be the only target of such forces. As for India, while the country is a friend of Israel (with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna visiting Tel Aviv) and is getting closer to NATO, there is no question of joining that alliance in its strategy of taking on the Shia.
There is a huge Shia population in India, that has been distinguished for its peaceful orientation and its moderate culture (in sync with the true spirit of Islam), and any linkage with NATO’s ongoing war against the Shia would create a Second Front in the War on Terror within India, the First Front being comprised of extremists among the Wahabbi population who have since the 1980s taken up arms against the state. Friendly relations with Iran is crucial to India’s interests, as that country is the only land bridge between India and Central Asia, because of NATO ally Pakistan refusing to give access to Indian produce across its territory.
Further, Iran is a major supplier of crude oil to India, and is a major civilisational partner. For all these reasons, there is no question of adopting an anti-Iran policy, despite pressure on Delhi to do so.Similarly, Myanmar is India’s land bridge to the rest of ASEAN, and promises to be an important supplier of natural resources. There are substantial civilisational linkages between the peoples of the two countries, which is why it would be absurd to join NATO in seeking to block access to Myanmar.
NATO has very little civilisational linkage with Myanmar, which is why it is far easier for that alliance to impose a policy of quarantine, motivated by the fact that NATO-based oil companies have not been given concessions in Myanmar, the way they have secured for themselves in other parts of the globe. The root of all NATO policy is economic, although this is covered up by talk of “human rights” and “modern values”. Now that several countries in the alliance are in a desperate economic situation, they are seeking concessions across the globe, are not hesitant to use military leverage to secure such advantages, as has been demonstrated in Iraq.
While the US and several other countries in the NATO bloc can do without oil from the Gulf, neither India nor China has such a luxury. Higher oil prices will slow down both economies. Indeed, the high price of oil that is being caused by speculators operating from the US and the EU have already brought oil prices to a level at least 40 per cent higher than what market conditions mandate. Lower prices would make China and India more competitive, so there is a method in the apparent NATO madness of boosting tensions with Iran so that oil prices will rise.
While initially a lot of the extra cash will go to the coffers of the GCC countries, the NATO allies know that they will be able to sell them tens of billions of dollars of defense equipment, thereby bringing back the money to the NATO shores. Indeed, precisely because of US tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia has been made to spend more than $30 billion this year on just military aircraft from the US. As the experience of the Shah of Iran shows, the spending of huge amounts on arms purchases does not promote stability within a country. Only a contented populace can achieve such a result, and this is possible only by spending money on social services rather than weaponry that is very unlikely to ever get used in conflict situations.
Apart from the GCC, another major purchaser of arms from abroad is India, which sources its purchases from the US, Russia, France and Israel. This year, the country will spend more than $26 billion on arms purchases, whereas with half that money, it could have developed a robust domestic defense production industry. Of course, this would mean giving the private sector in India the right to enter the field of defence production, something that international lobbies and their many agents within India have been preventing to this date.
So powerful are these lobbies that scientists in India who come up with breakthroughs in technology are ignored if not harassed, thereby forcing them to go abroad to continue their work. Today, India has become a graveyard for domestic talent, so all-pervasive is the culture of “Buy Foreign” in the country, a culture that has accelerated in recent years because of the propensity of politicians and officials to build up illegal assets not in domestic currency (where discovery is more likely) but in foreign currency. Each year, tens of billions of dollars get piled up abroad by policymakers in India, who are expert at twisting the rules and specifications so as to favour designated foreign suppliers.
Over the past few years, these foreign suppliers have ensured that Indian companies will no longer challenge them in global markets. While other governments (notably China, the EU and the US) help their own companies to face foreign competition, India’s policymakers help foreign companies enter India, rather than the other way about. While they constantly push for lower import duties, they oppose lower domestic taxes or lower rates of interest. As in South America during the 1970s, the situation in India is that the system has become geared to the protection of foreign over domestic interests. Given this, it may be only a matter of time before India joins the NATO bloc and conforms its policies to those of NATO vis-a-vis Iran and Myanmar, despite the fact that such a stance would be totally contrary to the national interest. But so long as money flows in such abundance to shady destinations abroad, why should policymakers care? Charity not only begins, but ends, at home as well.
By MD Nalapat