India's new president: focus is on prosperity, not terrorism

Pranab Mukherjee's acceptance speech highlights how India sees its sharpest threat as slower-than-expected economic growth, not Pakistan and its Islamic militant proxies.

Manish Swarup/AP
India's new President Pranab Mukherjee, right, in a traditional horse driven carriage, waves to the media as he arrives at the Presidential Palace, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 25.

India’s new president, Pranab Mukherjee, took the oath of office and described his nation as so focused on achieving prosperity that it would not be distracted by “noxious practitioners of terror” and, by unstated extension, the long-running rivalry with Pakistan.

He described terrorism as a “fourth world war” that followed the cold war, and said that India faced it long before many other nations understood its scope. Yet, President Mukherjee also appeared to be declaring victory and nudging India off a war footing, laying out peaceful prosperity as the challenge ahead and describing terrorism as a “trap” for those who overreact. 

“Peace is the first ingredient of prosperity,” Mukherjee said in a speech before Parliament after ascending to the mostly ceremonial post. “I am proud of the valor and conviction and steely determination of our armed forces as they have fought this [terrorism] menace on our borders; of our brave police forces as they have met the enemy within; and of our people, who have defeated the terrorist trap by remaining calm in the face of extraordinary provocation."

He added: "India is content with itself, and driven by the will to sit on the high table of prosperity. It will not be deflected in its mission by noxious practitioners of terror." 

The speech fits well with how India interprets its current place in the world: The longtime rivalry with Pakistan has essentially been won, with India pulling ahead in terms of economic development and global stature. And, in this view, the sharpest threat comes from the slower-than-expected economic growth of late, not Pakistan and its Islamic militant proxies.

With Pakistan slipping into pariah status internationally and making little economic headway, the country has by most objective measures been left behind by India. But whether Pakistan’s insecure military establishment will quietly accept that position and stay in peaceful dialogue with New Delhi remains an open question.

Mukherjee’s reference to “extraordinary provocation” no doubt includes the 2008 Mumbai massacre, which India blames on Pakistan, with growing evidence to back it up. The Indian public has stoically avoided pressing political leaders to exact revenge, allowing New Delhi the chance to portray itself as the responsible player in South Asia by resuming peace talks and to further isolate Pakistan with intelligence dossiers on the attacks.

However, Pakistan still has cards to play in Afghanistan and Kashmir. As the US troop presence in Afghanistan draws down, Pakistani support for the Taliban could draw India into military support for the Afghan government. And while Pakistan has largely desisted in recent years from encouraging Islamic militants to infiltrate Indian-controlled Kashmir, that policy could change – especially given festering Kashmiri frustration over the lack of any political settlement there.

Where's the accountability?

It’s in India’s handling of domestic uprisings in places like Kashmir where Mukherjee’s comments become far more patriotic than truthful.

“Violence is external to our nature; when, as human beings, we do err, we exorcise our sins with penitence and accountability,” he said.

In truth, India’s actions in Kashmir are increasingly at odds with the new image it’s trying to project globally as a responsible advocate of democratic norms – a point argued in a recent op-ed in The New York Times.

Nearly 65 percent of residents of the Kashmir Valley still say they want independence. While India succeeded in putting down an armed insurgency from Kashmiris and Pakistanis during the 1990s, New Delhi has been unable to win a peace by finding a political solution to Kashmiri aspirations. Instead, India maintains a massive police state in the contested land.

A stunning BBC Channel 4 documentary this month detailed the widespread use of torture in Kashmir by Indian security forces. The Monitor followed the report with a look at how torture houses still dot the landscape of Kashmir.  

Last year, the state government of Kashmir acknowledged for the first time that thousands of bodies lie in unmarked graves around the state.

Yet, India has kept human rights violations in Kashmir out of its court system by giving blanket immunity to security forces there. As a recent New York Times report put it, “Mass murderers walk the streets openly, having killed thousands of people who are buried in unmarked graves in scores of secret cemeteries.”

Prosperity is the prime goal

Many in India, however, appear to view Kashmir as a conflict of the past. And in his speech, Mukherjee argues India must not focus on the past but the future. That means revving up the economy again from the anemic 5.3 percent growth in the first quarter of 2012 back up to China-chasing levels of 8-plus percent.

The reasons for India’s slowdown are myriad, from deep corruption to political paralysis over economic reforms. Even India’s success in integrating with the global economy is partly to blame, exposing the country to the downward trends in Europe.  

But Mukherjee homes in on what could either make or break India’s future.  

“In my view, education is the alchemy that can bring India its next golden age,” he said. “Our motto is unambiguous: All for knowledge, and knowledge for all.”

In a recent cover story, the Monitor looked at this daunting education challenge:

To accommodate this crush of young people, the Indian government says the country must build 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges within the next decade. By comparison, the total number of colleges in the United States, including two-year institutions, is 4,200….

[Q]uestions loom. Is India on the verge of a new renaissance or is this effort an overreaching bound to fall of its own ambition? How do you maintain any kind of quality control in such a massive scale-up of schools? Will the legendary bureaucracy of India stifle its quest to be the world's new cerebellum?

Mr. President, best of luck. 

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