August 08, 2021

The Pitfalls of Running with the Empire And Hunting with Nationalism

B Arjun

LAST week the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken was in New Delhi and his deputy, Wendy Sherman was in Beijing. Blinken’s India visit was to strengthen the existing strategic bonds between the two countries that are poles apart in terms of power. The secretary’s job was to ensure that New Delhi does not deviate from the prescribed path and continues its allegiance to the strategic agenda designed to retain American primacy in world affairs. 

In China, Sherman had a tougher task at hand negotiating with the Chinese in an era where the asymmetries between the two big powers are fast diminishing.  China is asserting its cyber-sovereignty and aggressively challenging US monopoly over emerging technologies.

In sharp contrast, India has almost surrendered its cyber sovereignty to America. Our media is focused on Indo-US relationship based on “fundamental convergences” - counter-terrorism, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, climate change and post-Covid recovery – neglecting the actual convergence happening between the two countries in the area of technology.

The colossal presence of the US tech companies in India has resulted from our failure to spend on R and D or even imagine guarding against foreign tech invasion. We have embraced US technology as a fait accompli.

We have reached a stage where it seems unnatural to question the dominance of US technology. When China was erecting the “great firewall” to block social media apps, Facebook, WhatsApp messaging service and others, India was busy inviting them to invest in networking our entire country. We were thrilled at the prospect of Google setting up free WiFi in 400 Indian railway stations. 

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s most memorable moment of his tour of Silicon Valley in 2015 was when he remembered his mother and shed tears during a conversation with Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. 

This was the time when “AatmaNirbhar Bharat” was not a part of Modi’s political agenda. He was riding high on exploiting the social media networks erected by US companies to win young voters. Facebook and Twitter were our prime minister’s favourite communication platforms because not only did they aid his poll campaign but also assisted him to treat the conventional media with utter disdain.

The US social media companies are now more powerful than before and both BJP and Modi government find them too intrusive. Twitter, which had banned the former US President Donald Trump from using the platform, had little doubts in blocking the personal account of former union IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad over violation of copyright laws. Prasad who took up cudgels against the tech-giant was also cashiered from the cabinet allegedly due to US pressure.

In order to avoid being identified as an ‘American poodle’ the shenanigans in Modi’s team have made vain attempts to control the tech-companies. In February it announced a new set of rules for social media platforms and digital news outlets which stipulate that Twitter and Facebook need to censor speech and take down content within 36 hours of being ordered to do so by the Indian government but the social media platforms remain defiant. 

The Modi government’s false bravado is exposed by the fact that India has endorsed US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy stance that polarises the world in terms of “techno-democracies” versus “techno-autocracies”.

With 5G at the centre of the technology cold war between US and China, America has been campaigning hard to dissuade friends and allies from subscribing to the Chinese 5G technology. The Indian foreign policy because of its ideological leanings has willy-nilly got trapped into signing the new ‘Washington Consensus’ against Chinese tech. 

The four military foundational agreements with the US have plugged the Indian armed forces into the network controlled by Pentagon’s private contractors. It is now extremely difficult for India to buy weapons not compatible for an interoperable environment erected by the US military. It is also difficult to modernise the forces without US approval.  The sanctity of our military data flows and the long-term implications of interlinking our weapon platforms to the US military command and control centres just does not bother us. 

All that this government is bothered about is controlling the narrative, trying hard to prove that irrespective of the huge power differential, India is not subservient to the US. The fact remains that loss of strategic autonomy cannot be hidden by issuing some statements here and there to look independent and create a false perception of equality between India and US. Recently answering a question by Wall Street Journal with regards to “the Indian government’s backslide on issues such as human rights”, Jaishankar said, “it is the moral obligation of all polities to right wrongs when they have been done, including historically. And many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in the last few years fall in that category.”

In late 2019, Jaishankar had endeared himself to the Indian media by refusing to meet Democratic Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal, owing to her view of the Indian government's mishandling of the Kashmir issue. Such rants and displays of independence by the Indian elite don't really affect the Americans as long as Indians remain gung-ho about the US-India engagement.    

The Biden administration is preparing to hold a concert of democracies, in which India will be a key participant. However, erosion of democratic values in India is a concern for the democratic administration in the US that is pitching the Indian democratic model as a counterweight to China’s communist order. It is largely with this strategy in mind, the US secretary of State held the “civil society round-table” discussion in which representatives from almost all faiths in India interacted with him on issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), ‘love jihad’ laws passed by some BJP ruled states, arrest of journalists and the undemocratic use of Israeli Pegasus software by the Indian government. To balance things and send a message to Beijing a representative of the Dalai Lama was also in the meeting. The meeting was also a signal to Modi that a relationship with a global hegemon also involves interference in domestic affairs.

The US interference in our domestic politics will increase with the growth in our dependence on the US empire. The ruling elite may continue to delude themselves as well the nation that ties with US is the key to becoming a great power, the reality is that the US will never allow India to be another China.

Modi’s foreign policy that has failed to segregate trade has made us more dependent on American technology. India’s entrenchment into the US 5G architecture is only going to increase and the handling of S and T portfolio directly by the prime minister is not likely to make any substantial difference in strengthening our cyber-sovereignty.