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Foreign (Mis?)perceptions of India

The Commonwealth Games and India’s Global Image
22 September 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

This week’s shooting of two tourists in front of Delhi’s Jama Masjid drew a great deal of unwanted attention just days before the Commonwealth Games, expected to bring some 8,000 athletes and 100,000 tourists to India beginning on October 3rd. The security fears exacerbated existing worries that New Delhi won’t be ready in time (a footbridge collapsed Tuesday, for example, injuring 27 people).

After the incident, Australia warned its citizens of a “high risk of terrorism” at the games and the United States issued a travel advisory. At least three major British athletes pulled out of the games, with one quoted in the Guardian saying, “Sorry people, but I have children to think about…. My safety is more important to them than a medal.” The terrorist organization Indian Mujahadeen reportedly promised a “great surprise” for October. And today’s Asia Times reports from Pakistan that Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations are planning to use ongoing unrest in Kashmir and the international attention of the Commonwealth Games to bring India into their “broader regional theater.”

Yet this incident–whether it turns out to be a terrorist act or not–is just the latest in a series of events that reflects both India’s internal security problem and the country’s global image problem.

India is certainly still struggling with major internal security threats from a mix of sources–most prominently an increasingly active communist (Naxalite) insurgency and local Islamic fundamentalist groups like Indian Mujahadeen, as well as infiltrators from Pakistan and the ever-simmering issue of Kashmir. And thus, even as India seeks to become a global power, these issues closer to home continue to constrain its ability to wield influence beyond South Asia, something Evan Feigenbaum wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs.

Still, it is not impossible for a country with a troublesome neighbor to become a significant global force. South Korea, for instance, punches above its weight, and it has done particularly well this year in spite of North Korea’s attack in March (which I wrote about most recently here).

Yet India’s challenge is also one of internal cohesion, and perhaps more importantly, the perception widely held that India lacks internal cohesion.

This perception reduces the effectiveness of Indian economic and political influence abroad. Why? Not because India is actually that unsafe. Such attacks take place in the United States, England, and China, too. Looking back at a chart of terror attacks per capita (2000-2006, a time that includes the infamous brazen terror attack on India’s parliament, among many others), India ranks at #66–way, way below “safe” countries like Spain (#8), France (#16), and Italy (#27), and even less safe countries like Russia (#31), Algeria (#33), and Indonesia (#49). These numbers may have changed over the past four years, but I doubt India has actually become significantly less safe. (And though terrorism in Europe has declined, it certainly has not gone away. Europe, minus the United Kingdom, experienced nearly 300 terrorist attacks in 2009. Incidentally, only one was from an Islamic terrorist group–most were separatist groups in France and Spain.)

Rather, the perception of India’s lack of internal cohesion leads Americans, Asians, and Europeans alike to two troubling assumptions:

  1. India cannot stop or deter terrorist attacks.
  2. A country preoccupied with internal issues (security and economic development) is going to have only a limited ability, or interest, in attending to matters beyond its borders or immediate region.

The first assumption is just not a very accurate way of interpreting events in India. Besides ignoring the tremendous strides in internal security that India has made under Home Minister P. Chidambaram since the Mumbai attacks of 2008, this is statistically difficult to defend when one considers attacks as a function of population size.

But the second assumption is harder to refute–and, indeed, it may be accurate. A more active Indian diplomatic effort, in areas like the Doha trade negotiations and climate change talks–combined with continued, growing global economic engagement–would help overcome it.

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One Comment »

  • Preet said:

    Well analyzed, Dan. Maybe this time, the Indian government will pay heed to warnings from intelligence communities abroad before the fact.