New Delhi: India’s obsession with Pakistan is preventing its rise as a world power. While in the early and middle years after independence, the overhang of Partition was strong, and India had to break Pakistan in two to gain the status of a regional power (since lost), India’s potential expanded exponentially after the P. V. Narasimha Rao/ Manmohan Singh reforms of 1991.

Whilst Narasimha Rao had the acuity to understand the transformational change reforms had brought to India, he was too close to the action, and too proximate in time to reforms itself, to be able to apply it fully to India’s geopolitical and geo-economic growth. His true successor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, intuitively understood the new frontiers open to India. Eschewing aggression, he tried to make common cause with Pakistan for a united and prosperous South Asia. Betrayed in Kargil and failing with Parvez Musharraf in Agra, he persisted nevertheless and obtained what in the circumstances was a major success, namely the border/ LoC ceasefire agreement.

Of all the post-reforms administrations, the Vajpayee government was the most clear-sighted about the threat from China. This could probably have had something to do with defence minister George Fernandes’ Lohiaite background, but it was not confined to him or his ministry. The ministry of external affairs mostly guided by Jaswant Singh, a former commissioned officer, was also in sync with Fernandes’ position that China was India’s number one foe. Such things are best left unarticulated and perhaps Fernandes went too forward in denouncing China, but a sophisticated thinker like Jaswant Singh was no less aware of the malevolence of Beijing.

And, of course, the clearest expression of it was contained in Vajpayee’s post-Pokhran II letter to Bill Clinton, where he identified China and Pakistan as threats necessitating a nuclear deterrent. The identification of China in those terms in a letter to the US president was certainly unprecedented after 1962. In this naivety or bloody-mindedness, Clinton leaked the letter to The New York Times. Probably one of his aides did it but it is one and the same. China reacted violently to the letter and never forgave Vajpayee. One could argue that the letter should not have been explicit but its sentiment faithfully reflected reality. Vajpayee did compromise on Tibet near the end of his term but probably it was not out of conviction. He likely just ran out of options to contain China.

It is far from easy to contain China. It is certainly beyond India’s immediate or middle-term capability. Sharing the most hostile border with China of any other country in southern Asia, there are severe limits on India’s options vis-a-vis China. The Chinese economy is nearly five times the size of the Indian one. In military strength, poverty alleviation, the economic mix among agriculture, manufacturing and services, etc, China is far superior to India. And yet China sees India as a real and present threat. The Chinese communist party is paranoid that the Chinese will revolt one day and seek a democracy after the example of India, however imperfect. So whether or not India seeks active hostility with China, China cannot accept the prospect of a strong, united and prosperous India. India presents existential nightmares for the communist leadership.

If India were to accept this core reality, at least half of its strategic perception problems would be over. It should be accompanied by a shift of focus away from Pakistan and concentrated primarily on China. Since Vajpayee’s time, and particularly under Narendra Modi, that strategic clarity against China has dimmed. Modi boasts of a “surgical strike” against Pakistan and awards it, by implication, a status above the creation of Bangladesh. Only a strategic cretin would do this. On the other hand, he genuflects to the dictator of a country fundamentally inimical to India. This devotion to China while ignoring its backing to Pakistan against India is one of the reasons for the country’s strategic backwardness. If you cannot identify your enemies properly, how will you choose your best friends?

The Indian tendency is to make light of China’s achievements while indulging in atavistic hatred against Pakistan for some form of emotional fulfilment. This might please the Bharatiya Janata Party’s votebanks but it buries India deeper in the mire of strategic misdirection. The 1991 reforms effectively mark the beginning of the Modern era for India. India’s strategic muddle-headedness must end with Narendra Modi. Modi’s successor, whether from the BJP or the opposition, must capitalize on the reforms, turn India into a genuine economic powerhouse, and become the example leading the Chinese to overthrow their authoritarian government. Geo-economics and the right set of partners would permit India to take on China without war or bloodshed. That is the way to go.