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(First published on September 26th, 2020)

“When she was two years old, she would lift her hands over her head and say very sweetly, “Dada, up.” His friends expressed surprise. The baby was polite. “It’s not politeness,” her father told them. “She used to scream when she wanted to be picked up. So once I said to her, “Ellie, you don’t have to scream. Just say, ‘Daddy, up’.” — Contact by Carl Sagan

Within months of taking over office, President Trump sent a delegation headed by White House Advisor Matt Pottinger to the first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit. In his recent book, Rage, Bob Woodward introduces Pottinger, an old China hand with incredible domain knowledge, as Master Yoda of the administration’s China policy. Originally, the new administration was neither hostile to the project nor averse to partnering with China. The BRI summit was a high-profile affair, after all. Word had it all countries had sent their emissaries to the event. All, except one.

India was not just conspicuous by absence, its government had issued directives ordering that any citizen interested in attending the event (including think-tanks, businesses, media outlets, governmental departments) in private capacity would first need clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), once a glorious department now reduced to the intelligence community’s mostly MIA proxy. The clearance never came. In the end even the Indian embassy in China did not send note-takers to the event. Shortly before the summit, the MEA issued the following charge sheet: The BRI’s CPEC project included developments in disputed territories, the whole initiative could trap countries in a crushing debt cycle and that China’s intentions were not clear.

The second and third objections then did not mean anything to India because until then it had not ruled out the possibility of joining the BRI. It was clear it was primarily CPEC that was pushing Modi government’s buttons. The second objection, the crushing debt trap, would soon become Alice Wells’ chief objection to the project as India lobbied the administration through Republican Hindu Coalition’s Shalabh Kumar, who later made Steve Bannon, White House’s former chief strategist, a co-chair of the body. The two would later join hands to recycle old cold war banter and establish a think tank to define China. The Hambantota port episode gave India the necessary propaganda material against the initiative. But since then China has given little excuse to anyone else.

It’s a simple strategy really. If China is the next threat, the US would badly need India to contain it. Free insurance. Destroy democracy at home, gut the economy, be the nuisance in South Asia and no one in the West would bat an eye. India has benefited enormously since the day American intelligentsia slavishly decided to subscribe to Huntington’s clash of civilisations thesis. As India’s strategy was mostly tailored by diplomats back then, there was an element of subtlety, plausible deniability. India could tell Beijing it harboured no malice against China, while silently plotting against it. But in Modi’s India the foreign policy would be held hostage by a former spymaster. The problem with the intelligence community is that its work mostly involves a zero-sum game. With Ajit Doval deciding India’s foreign policy, it was like the head of an impulsive five-year baby was transplanted on the body of a massive giant. The national interest and in many ways the future of the liberal democracy would now be defined by elements who subscribe neither to democracy nor to pluralism. This would prove a critical flaw in the plan. Short-term goals would constantly trump long-term interests, optics would become the only form of plausible reality.

When Huntington plucked random trends out of thin air to build the West’s narrative against weaker identities, early converts to his cause did not suspect he would betray his own construct of the West so badly. Whether 9/11 messed up his mind or he always carried the seeds of bigotry and intolerance in him, his last book, Who are we?, did quite a number on Western identity. It brought identity politics to its baser parts: race, sects, birthrates, food consumption, and immigration. But too late. People, mostly conservatives, had already declared their allegiance. When people gawk at the sight of a Jewish man in Stephen Miller and a black woman in Candace Owens spouting borderline Nazi gibberish they do not understand this is the logical culmination point of Huntington’s last work.

If on one side this is happening, on the other you could see how hateful elements would react and attract. When the Modi government committed the century’s strategic blunder by abolishing Article 370 in Kashmir, no one in the West would touch the created mess with a barge pole, but then a group of far-right European parliamentarians decided to come to the rescue. It was clear the bridge between Indian far-right and similar elements in the West existed for long, held together by a common hate for Indian and Western minorities. Sadly, in the West’s case, Indians are also a minority. When elements like Richard Spencer talk of a peaceful genocide it entails expelling all non-white people from Western territories. And because Indian ruling elite does not see beyond its nose it doesn’t want to take stock of the grave danger it has subjected the Indian diaspora to.

This elemental shift in Western culture has already taken place. Our best hope lies in the possibility that anti-immigration sentiment does not take the shape of an overtly racist or Nazi political movement. Anti-immigration sentiment has already taken an anti-minority colour, meaning the attention has shifted from Muslims and Chinese expats to the African American, Jewish, native and Hispanic communities. Given the West possesses most of the world’s destructive firepower this is a chance nobody can take. You must have read Turner Diaries and The Camp of the Saints by now. The best help the world can provide is by cutting back on the immigration rate.

Ask yourself: why do people migrate to foreign lands? For greener pastures. Otherwise, it’s not easy to leave your life behind. If opportunities come to your home in the shape of development and infrastructure only those would like to migrate who think they have a higher calling. It would have been great if the West could empty its coffers on building infrastructure around the world. But citizens of Western democracies are tired of spending money on other countries when their own are poorly managed. China’s BRI changes that because the country has the will and resources to build an infrastructure to benefit all. This makes it a potential ally. Of course, the West would be interested in keeping what it sees as Beijing’s authoritarian impulses in check. But what to talk of China, the current arrangement is failing to check the rise of authoritarianism even within its allied nations like India. The West will need to earn the trust of the Chinese people and leadership to build a common future.

India, meanwhile, needs a massive change of posture and outlook. The amicable settlement of border disputes could restore its relevance in the region and help it find new allies. The clock is ticking.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2020.

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