New Delhi: IAS, IPS and IFS officers think no end of themselves. Although they are mostly mediocre and have stamped that quality on the country, they rule over it nevertheless. Under Narendra Modi, this is even more the case. Political rule has made way for bureaucratic rule and Modi alone presides over this vast, incompetent and unaccountable machinery. Officials today are even more vain and arrogant than before and have still less to show for the fat salaries they draw and the fatter perks they commandeer. Nothing impairs their self-centred equanimity.

So it was something of a surprise when an official speaking anonymously to a newspaper cracked up over the United States’ abrupt termination of the Iran oil import waiver granted to India and a few other countries. He was probably an IFS officer but he could just as well be somebody from the PMO or the National Security Council. They are all jokers anyway. The official was pained to observe that the US had assured a waiver extension in March or thereabouts but reneged without consultations. Since it was merely an assurance, the United States was not obliged to keep it; the US official who gave the assurance was probably overridden by the White House: this is happening with dazzling regularity in Washington today. Possibly no assurance was given at all and the Indian side completely misread the Americans. (This is going to come true with the S-400; wait and see.) The West is a contractual society. You cannot assume anything unless it is a written document; and even that can be torn up like the Iran nuclear deal with the Barack Obama administration.

There was, however, more to the Indian official’s discomfiture. It turned on Donald Trump making wicked fun of Narendra Modi’s English in private while reserving special reverence for Xi Jinping, the Chinese strongman. Why, the official plaintively asked, was China given respect and not India? If you at all bother to hear Narendra Modi on the campaign trail, he conveys the impression that he is some sort of superstar on foreign state visits. The world, he imagines, supplicates to his greatness. The truth is what the anonymous official blurted out. It is not important what Donald Trump thinks of Narendra Modi’s accented English. Modi is not schooled in English but that is fine. The operative part is really this: Why does Trump respect China and not India comparably? The answer is something that Narendra Modi would loathe to hear. China is an economic giant. Donald Trump who understands money if nothing else knows this very well. India has a long way to go before it can catch up with China. In his five-year rule, however, Narendra Modi has made the catching-up even harder.

Because Narendra Modi has failed India economically, he has seized on the national security plank like a drowning man clutches at a straw. Modi’s political fate does not interest this writer: prime ministers come and go; only India’s well-being matters. Without economic power, India’s advances in the political and military spheres will always prove insufficient. Mighty standing armies and nuclear weapons do not impress the world any longer. All advanced industrialized non-nuclear powers are a screwdriver away from nuclear weapons. ASAT technology is available with all of them. Let us not delude ourselves as a space superpower. Such semi-literate “glorification” actually demeans India. Social peace and economic growth are the first things that matter to a nation. Counterterrorism is an ongoing tactical measure which ought not to be given strategic status. Phulwama was an intelligence failure. Did heads roll for it? Balakot was a failure and the February dogfight over Indian skies went Pakistan’s way: Tactical setbacks all. Did heads roll?

The respect China attracts today was gained the hard way. When Deng Xiaoping spoke of growth with peace and stealth, he was inadvertently borrowing a leaf from Kemal Ataturk when he set about rebuilding Turkey from the ruins of World War I. One of Ataturk’s first strikingly strategic decisions was to make peace with the totalitarian giant to the north, the Russian/ Soviet empire, with which Turkey (as the Ottoman Empire) had fought the Crimean War and later provoked the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the Great War. Nation-building is vastly different from electioneering. You can lie in an election campaign and gullible voters will internalize it. You cannot, however, build a nation with deceit and gimmicks.

For India to have a meaningful place in the world, it has to be a political, economic and military power with social peace and multiparty democracy as its guiding compasses. The Indian political establishment must cease being envious about China’s achievements and indeed pause to learn from its tremendous economic growth. China’s growth is not a fluke but it is not without flaws. Those flaws are now coming to the surface and Donald Trump is exploiting them. Donald Trump’s supposed reverence for Xi Jinping is actually artful. But that cannot detract from the immensity of China’s achievements.

Bogus slogans will not get India going. Lots need to be done and thank god for the 1991 reforms which provide a roadmap.