NEW DELHI — India is a power on ascendence in the region and beyond, according to Henry A. Kissinger, Time magazine and some influential commentators in Washington. This may come as a surprise to many Americans, who till recently saw India as a vast sea of human misery.
At the moment Indians are experiencing the joys of exercising primacy in the South Asian region. Woes may come, however, sooner than most Indians think.
At the request of the Maldives government, in July, 1988, India sent troops to save the regime there from an armed coup. India also keeps "peace" in Sri Lanka, and coerces those who defy its regional status with severe reduction in the supply of essential commodities to Nepal and persistent diplomatic pressures on Pakistan to sever its security links with China and the United States.
By regional primacy India largely means what it meant to Great Britain--the subcontinent as one strategic entity with India as its security guardian. Delhi has always attempted to prevail over its neighbors to shun security links with countries outside the region, for it thinks that outside powers deny India its natural predominance in the region.
Today India is better able to assert primacy. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi commands more military power than did his mother, Indira Gandhi, or his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. With the fourth-largest army, fifth- or sixth-largest air force, the largest navy among the countries of the Indian Ocean area and a clear nuclear capability, India occupies an important place in the global military hierarchy.
But its power is seriously flawed; the world's fourth-largest military establishment rests on an economy slightly larger than Spain's. The long-term question is whether the world region inhabited by the largest number of absolute poor people (as defined by the World Bank) and beset by ethnic and religious strife, can be organized into something resembling a regional order on the basis of Indian military might alone.
The military engagement in Sri Lanka is by far India's most ambitious undertaking since it became sovereign 40 years ago. But after nearly two years of involvement, India is nowhere near realizing the purpose for which it deployed some 50,000 men. Sri Lanka may well turn out to be an Indian quagmire, deeper and more entrapping than what Vietnam turned out to be for the Americans or Afghanistan for the Soviets.
The Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, recently said: "Our desire is to see the last Indian soldier leave Sri Lanka by July 29." Two years ago on that day his predecessor, Junius R. Jayewardene, invited Indian troops to keep peace between the warring Tamil and Sinhala communities of the island. It is doubtful whether Sri Lankans can manage, much less resolve, their ethnic conflict; but it is certain that Delhi cannot.
A deep gulf divides India and its truculent neighbor, Pakistan, on how to organize the security of South Asia. Primacy is the basis of regional security, India believes; a rough balance can alone safeguard the independence of small countries, Pakistan asserts. It maintains this balance by inviting India's adversaries, China and the United States, into the region.
By primacy India does not mean outright subordination of Pakistan, or other small neighbors, to its dictates. India would gladly establish a warm relationship with Pakistan, if only Pakistan would accept India as the custodian of the region. The India-Pakistan relationship could be modeled along lines of the U.S.-Canada relationship, India hopes.
Pakistan fears that by accepting Indian proposals for peace and good neighborliness it would become what Bulgaria is to the Soviet Union. At any rate, Benazir Bhutto is perhaps even more determined than was her predecessor, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, to resist Indian regional dominance. She could count on the United States and China to contain India, for both value Pakistan's strategic importance.
No developing country has so doggedly worked to build a regional sphere of influence as India. Brazil, Nigeria or Indonesia, for instance, all large in comparison with their neighbors, have not really aspired to regional primacy.
Apart from military power, India has little to influence its neighbors decisively. Trade and aid are often better and cheaper means of influence than military power. The United States and the Soviet Union are successful regional powers because they possess such a vast array of the means of power to influence their back yards. Moscow and Washington have the capability to reward by aid, trade and charity those who recognize their regional primacy and punish by interventions those who do not.