Ganges Valley. Geopolitical journeys of a Lithuanian

Ganges river, India. By Snowscat at Unsplash

India’s paradoxes begin with a glance at a map. The country’s historical name is linked to the Indus River, which is, after all, the most important river not in India, but… Pakistan, is formally the most hostile country to India. India’s largest river is the Ganges, and it is in the Ganges valley that the most important moments in the life of this country take place. Demographers estimate that in a month’s time, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

Greatness in itself is not a geopolitical virtue, and often it is not even a vice. It has a relatively young and able-bodied population, but it is poorly organised and socially very unequal, and its gross domestic product is only a quarter of that of China. The biggest, but is it the most important? Is it the most influential? Is it the most attractive for a long and happy life? Is it any good in this world apart from its size?

We find India a sympathetic country in its own way, and for most of the world (with the exception of a few neighbours), India is neither an aggressor nor a hegemon, but the above questions have to be answered more in the negative for now. The classics of geopolitics, which predict the future, do not see India as a future centre of power but rather as a periphery. I have not found, I must confess, a single serious prediction that India will become a global decision-maker in the coming decades.

If you look at why you will find a metaphorical answer – India is (and will be) an elephant in the economic and social life, but not a tiger. It is not entirely clear what kind of India is, by the way, because present India is not the product of a long history but rather post-colonial politics. British India was never any single colony but a mixture of different levels of subordination and varying levels of local self-government. A united post-British India was a Gandhian idea fix that was only partially realised.

Even today, it is a mixture of languages and cultures. Unlike China, which has a dominant ethnic group and ethnic minorities, India does not have an ethnic group that constitutes a clear majority. There are two official languages (Hindi and English), 22 semi-official languages, and several hundred official languages reality. Even Hindi is not the mother tongue of the vast majority of the country’s population. The current government is trying to pursue a policy of Indian consolidation, trying to create a truly Indian nation, to find Indianness in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious (sic!), multi-cultural community. (Something like the Russian attempt, where there is “russkiye” in the narrow sense and “rossyane” – with all ethnic groups). It is slow going, but it cannot be said to be unsuccessful. Magnanimous nationalism is growing. But… there are over 200 million Muslims in the country (one of the largest countries in terms of total Muslim population), and these people do not really want to be so genuinely Indian.

It so happens that consolidation is accompanied by economic and demographic fragmentation, with the population growing most where the economy is weak. According to the so-called Human Development Index calculated by the United Nations, India is barely a middle-income country, and it looks as if it will remain so for perhaps decades to come. India is a democracy, a good democracy, a rare good exception in Asia, but economic freedom, media freedom, and the level of corruption … as in the rest of Asia, are no exception.

Since the outbreak of Russian aggression against Ukraine, India‘s posture has disappointed many people in our region. Why do they – the Indians – not condemn the Russians as much as they would like? Experts point to several reasons, perhaps not equally important, but reasons nonetheless. The first is the traditional policy of non-alignment (since the Cold War). India has been a kind of flagship of the so-called “non-aligned” movement. (It was basically Moscow that supported India’s policy, the non-alignment was more pro-Soviet than pro-American, and Pakistan was pro-American). On Kashmir, India had Moscow’s support. About half of India’s arms imports today come from Russia, including submarines, T-90 tanks, aircraft, and S-400 surface-to-air missiles. About 70% of the military arsenal is now Russian. The Americans, it is no secret, are not very happy about this and would prefer an India that is more dependent on US weapons, but India has had and still has its own claims on the Americans. After all, they have never seriously condemned Pakistan and even in the Sino-Indian conflicts, they have not been on India’s side. However, the situation is changing now that India is in the QUAD security alliance (with the US, Australia and Japan). It wants to exploit the war in Ukraine for its own gain. And overall, the US and Russia’s relationship is very selfish. And for the Russians, India seems to be an even more reliable partner than China; India has no direct claims on Russia but has not yet been able to impose on Russia the “clarity” of being ten times bigger.

Military power in and around the Ganges Valley is very important. India is a nuclear power. Pakistan and China too. As the US grows in influence, it may well be that historic Pakistan will be more and more an ally than an enemy. The main geopolitical problem is China not only because of territorial disagreements but now also ideologically. China’s armed forces are considered to be the third (some say the second) most powerful, and India’s the fourth. But there are also problems of geography and ideology with other neighbours, almost all of them. There is also political competition over spheres of influence in the Indian Ocean region – over whose influence this or that country will come under. An exciting “Brzezinskian” chess game…

And us? What should today’s India be for us? Don’t condemn, be friends… but don’t lose your head. And in our minds, it is not India for us now and not us for them. Last week, the foreign ministers of the so-called G20 gathered in what is now almost the largest country. Once again, the problematic question arose about how to deal with the Russian and Chinese ministers and what the others would do when invited for a joint photograph.

India, apparently, does not dictate the terms. India is manoeuvring. That is not the mark of a great and grand country. But, on the other hand, there is plenty to do in the Ganges Valley without being a great power.

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