March 12, 2002


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Sport as metaphor, and why we need to build up the Indian Navy

It is increasingly evident that the Americans fight their wars the way they play their national game: NFL-style football. That is to say, they throw overwhelming resources at the opposition, the participants are specialists who do exactly one thing and do it well, the whole thing is intensely rehearsed and even choreographed, and there are convenient breaks for commercials. Oddly enough, quite like the strangely maudlin yet jingoistic Winter Olympics spectacle we were all subjected to recently.

There is a school of thought that America's national game is baseball, but I think this is an obsolete idea. The game of baseball itself is archaic, with its romantic associations with the slightly musty Fenway and the Brooklyn Dodgers and Babe Ruth -- all anachronisms in a world of intense commercialism, competition and media blitzes. A sports writer in The Financial Times of February 3 -- whose name I didn't write down, and my apologies for that -- commented on the same idea.

If one could take forward the hypothesis that the chosen sport is a reflection of a people (or even that this sport moulds a people in a particular way), then what does this say about India? It is a truism that India's national sport is cricket. I have in the past contended that the true national metaphor is kabaddi, but the reality is that cricket is the thing that gets all the money and all the TV ratings -- and whenever I speak disparagingly of cricket, I get such injured hate mail that it is obvious that there is some deeply sacred idea of cricket in the psyche of the average Indian. The Nehruvian Stalinists have removed faith from the populace, and replaced it with a trivial entertainment, an opiate.

As Susan Sontag contended in her brilliant critical study "Illness as Metaphor", or as in the Joseph Cambell series on mythology, it is clear that the language of metaphor and myth can have a significant impact on reality. This is where I personally despair, because I see the metaphor of the way cricket is played in India as the very opposite of what one needs in a national strategy. The contrast with America's disciplined approach to football couldn't possibly be more telling.

Consider the way cricket works in India: there is mindless adulation of self-proclaimed heroes; their every move is glorified by a relentless media glare; they seldom succeed even against the most pedestrian opposition; but there is no penalty for lack of performance and there is ample opportunity for useless hangers-on to jump on the gravy-train. To anyone who looks at it objectively, it is a total racket: great job if you can get it.

Now compare this to the way governance works in India: almost exactly the same. The personality cults, the dynastic succession of mediocrities, the extreme incompetence and inability to win, and the fattening of self and pals at the trough of public money. The structure of governance is dysfunctional. Our heroes have feet of clay; and the pork-barrel is the primary motivation. I wonder whether there is an "Indian disease" just like the "British disease" that has so rapidly made Britain the sick man of Europe.

It is a depressing scenario: no wonder cricket appeals to Indians. This is the way we run our country too. In a way, Indians are too individualistic. Everybody has an opinion, which they feel free to hold forth on. Nobody particularly wants the team to win: if anyone wins, it is only in the pursuit of that person's individual glory. Very much the opposite of the East Asian paradigm that the 'nail that stands up will get beaten down'.

I think until India starts to see a paradigm shift, where it becomes important to win and not just to participate, I think we are doomed to failure. A good place to start would be to dump cricket; or perhaps just tighten the screws on the players and officials until they start producing. If we can manage that in cricket, we can surely manage that in governance too.

But the world is not hanging around, waiting for us to get our act together. In the same issue of The Financial Times, historian Paul Kennedy wrote a chilling article on the monolithic military and economic power of the United States. It is a sobering thought that the Americans are so far ahead.

Consider the raw numbers: $329 billion defence budget in 2001, and Don Rumsfeld asked for a $48 billion hike in 2002. These numbers are of the order of magnitude of the GDPs of India and Pakistan! Imagine that: not their entire government budgets, but their Gross Domestic Products!

Furthermore, consider world military expenditures in 2000. Source: SIPRI Military Expenditures Database, The Military Balance, 2000-01, as quoted by Kennedy. India accounts for 1 per cent, China for 2 per cent, the US for 36 per cent and the Rest of the World for 61 per cent. Clearly the Americans are outspending everyone else dramatically.

And the clincher is the following: it is not that America is tightening the belt greatly to assemble the most powerful military force ever seen by man: in 1985, the US spent 6.5 per cent of its GDP on defence, but by 1998, it had fallen to 3.2 per cent of GDP! This means the US is spending proportionately far less -- and thus feeling the pinch much less -- than it used to. The reason of course is that the US economy has boomed dramatically in the 1990s, and even with the current recession, it is doing quite well.

In global terms, says Kennedy, the US accounted for 22 per cent of global GDP in the late 1980s, and that number has gone up to roughly 30 per cent now. This is astonishing. A point to note is that India accounted for 25 per cent of the world's manufacturing as recently as 1750. It is likely that Asia will within 25 years regain its predominant share of world GDP, which in fact had been the historical situation for millennia before European colonialism turned the tables on us.

And what is all this defence money buying for the US? It is most directly seen in the aircraft carrier battle groups that the US has, of which it has twelve, with one in the works:

  1. Kitty Hawk>
  2. Dwight D Eisenhower
  3. Abraham Lincoln
  4. John C Stennis
  5. Harry S Truman
  6. John F Kennedy
  7. George Washington
  8. Theodore Roosevelt
  9. Nimitz
  10. Enterprise
  11. Carl Vinson
  12. Constellation
  13. Ronald Reagan (to be commissioned in 2002)
These flotillas are veritable floating cities capable of projecting power thousands of miles away. Here is what a typical battle group consists of (based on the USS Enterprise's carrier group in January 2002): a total of 15 vessels, 14,300 men and 3,250 troops
  1. 70 warplanes
  2. 2 Aegis-class cruisers (anti-missile ships)
  3. 6 submarine-hunting frigates and destroyers
  4. 2 hunter-killer submarines
  5. Several amphibious vessels with troops for assault and landing
  6. Several supply ships
The only other countries that have carrier groups are Russia, the UK, France, and India. The ageing INS Viraat and the decommissioned INS Vikrant and the possible acquisition of the Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov, seen in this light, are important factors in force-multiplication and projecting force in the entire Indian Ocean/Straits of Malacca/Arabian Sea littoral waters that India is the most obvious power in. China has accelerated its blue-water navy programme, but they are behind the curve.

There are two or three observations I'd like to make: first, that it is necessary to invest in defence, especially in naval power, as it generally has the greatest bang for the buck in non-combat, coercive situations. Many of us remember the US Seventh Fleet (complete with the USS Enterprise) steaming into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Bangladesh conflict. That certainly was the equivalent of holding a gun to India's head.

Second, a strong defence does not come free. It has to be accompanied by a strong economy: no end of belt-tightening was able to rescue the Soviet defence forces when their economy started collapsing. India's priority should be the continuing freeing of the economy from the Nehruvian-Stalinist shackles that have unnecessarily kept us poor and downtrodden.

Third, there is no reason for India to look upon the US as anything other than a partner of convenience. The US, bless them, are perfectly clear about having permanent interests, but not permanent allies, which I personally think is absolutely the right thing to do. India has to be prepared to cooperate, compete, or whatever else it has to do with the US in the pursuit of its own interests.

For instance, I was not at all surprised to hear about the recent revelations that there indeed had been a massive airlift of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces from besieged Kunduz to parts unknown in Pakistan, where they melted into the population. I said the same thing in a previous column, What happened in Kunduz?

My rationale was that there was no difference between the Taliban and the Pakistani Army, and therefore it was clearly in the interests of the latter to save a few thousand of their own officers. If the Northern Alliance caught them, they certainly would have been hanged or shot. Clearly, the US state department colluded in this airlift (and the defence department went along). That this merely let loose a bunch of deranged and dangerous people, who would almost certainly reappear in some guise in Jammu and Kashmir, was obviously of no concern to the Americans.

Therefore, let us build up the muscle, smile nicely and wax eloquent about world peace, but keep the powder dry.


There is an online magazine that I occasionally read, partly for entertainment and partly because I am impressed by their chutzpah at holding, unapologetically, an intensely anti-Indian and pro-Pakistani view. It comes out of Thailand, and I suspect it is funded by the Chinese government, which, incidentally, readers including Arvind suggest to me, has been the prime mover behind the "South Asia" moniker to relieve India of its brand. Of course, China encourages the use of the "Greater China" brand to include much of Asia to increase the power of its own brand.

I won't mention the name of the magazine because I don't particularly want to increase their traffic. The point is that they made an interesting statement. They have several sections: China, Southeast Asia, Japan, Koreas, India/Pakistan, Central Asia, etc. They have justified their policy of bracketing India and Pakistan, while not creating a section China/Taiwan, although they do include Taiwan under the rubric "China". They also justified not giving India a section of her own by stating that "Japan, China and Korea are the three most important economies in Asia".

However, they are wrong. If you consider GDP a good analog for the importance of a nation's economy, here are the numbers for Asia, both at purchasing power parity and in nominal dollars:
GDP at PPP, 2000$3.15 trillion$4.5 trillion$2.2 trillion$764 billion$282 billion
GDP, 2000 (nominal)$4.67 trillion$1.07 trillion$474 billion$457 billion$62 billion

Sources: CIA World Book, World Bank, both on the Web

Let us not be under any illusions about the size of the Indian economy, mismanaged though it might be: it is a powerhouse. The information about the size and dynamism of India's economy should be propagated by Indians. According to The Economist, India's latest-quarter GDP growth rate is 5.3 per cent, which is the third highest in the world. India ranks in the top five in the world in terms of its GDP at Purchasing Power Parity.

But the aforesaid magazine reflects the usual misconception people have about India and in particular the comparison with Pakistan. The latter's economy is no more than a fraction of India's: roughly 13 per cent. No, Virginia, there is no comparison.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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