India’s Global Role: Marching To Its Own Drummer – Analysis

By Tarun Basu*

When Salman Khurshid took over as External Affairs Minister in the latter part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second government in 2009-14, he had breakfast with a group of editors and foreign policy analysts. The meeting took place a few months of then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India during which, at an address in Chennai on July 20, 2011, she spoke of India’s leadership potential and “India’s growing role in the Asia Pacific and in South and Central Asia..

“I believe in India’s future. This is not, therefore, a time when any of us can afford to look inward at the expense of looking outward. This is a time to seize the opportunities of the 21st century, and it is a time to lead, Clinton said in an address tilted “A Vision for the 21st Century” at the Anna Centenary Library to much applause.

When Khurshid was asked whether India was prepared for such a “larger role” as advocated by US, he made light of these remarks, saying India never saw itself as a “power” in a geopolitical sense as its foreign policy was an instrument to promote national development goals and not for projecting itself to the world in any muscular manner.

Much diplomatic and political water has since flowed and much of that thinking may have got nuanced since the change in government in New Delhi in the summer of 2014 though the direction of the country’s foreign policy has not fundamentally changed.

The debate may have got sharpened with the publication of a book (Choices/Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy/Penguin Allen Lane) by India’s former national security adviser and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, who said though India is destined to be a “great power, with the ability to shape the international system and environment to our purposes”, its time has perhaps not yet come. In his estimation “for a considerable time to come, India will be a significant power with many poor people” and therefore should be “conscious of the difference between weight, influence and power” which, in a geopolitical sense, should carry with it the ability to influence outcomes – which, he implied, India did not yet have.

Menon cautioned that “history is replete with examples of rising powers that prematurely thought that time had come. that mistook their influence and weight for real power”.

There is little doubt that the US, for long the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power has by its sheer weight and influence exercised its unchallenged ability to shape global events and outcomes till much of the 20th century. However, with the spread of nuclear weapons among non-traditional powers and rise of radicalised, highly motivated non-state actors and their powerful patrons that ability has seen serious abridgement or has been called into question as carefully laid out military plans and strategic calculus went awry in meeting major global challenges.

Hence, perhaps because it has come to recognise its inherent limitations in exercising global power in the 21st century and fulfilling international obligations on its own, the US has looked for a string of alliances and partnerships in shaping global policies in tune with its own value systems.

“..I think this is the only way forward. Yes, it is ambitious agenda, but we can afford to be ambitious, because when we in the United States and particularly in the Obama Administration look at India, we see, as President Obama said, a nation that is not simply emerging, but has emerged, and a nation with whom we share so many bonds, and one that will be a leader globally in shaping the future we will all inherit”, Clinton said in context of shaping the future of what US has begun calling the “Indo-Pacific region”.

She went on to say: “The United States has always been a Pacific power because of our very great blessing of geography. And India straddling the waters from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean is, with us, a steward of these waterways.”

But is India ready for that “larger role” professed by the US? Going by Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s declarations and belief systems, India, despite its rich cultural history, size, population and economic status was punching below its weight and India should now “improve our weight and punch proportionately”. It should, government strategists believe, discard defensiveness on global issues, shed past certitudes on multilateralism (like being part of the non-aligned bloc) and begin to alter the way that India looks at global problems.

From the outset the government, led by am ambitious Prime Minister in Narendra Modi, a political neophyte out to prove to people of the country that India’s “good days” (achche din) were still to come and he was the man of destiny for the country, set out in the conduct of its foreign policy and international relations, demonstrated not just a lot of energy but inventiveness (calling neighbourhood leaders, including Pakistan’s to his inauguration) and some daring (surgical strikes, standing up to China over Dalai Lama, etc).

Although he himself is yet to articulate a foreign policy vision for his government in parliament or elsewhere, two policy addresses, one by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and the other by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, provide interesting insights to his and the government’s thinking. Doval made two interesting observations that reflect in many ways the changed thinking of the Indian establishment. One, weak states invite trouble and hence, to demonstrate one is a strong state, one must not hesitate to exercise power. Two, there is little place for morality in international affairs, a point emphasised by ancient India’s pre-eminent ideologue of statecraft, Chanakya, whose dicta have been resurrected by the present nationalist rulers.

Pro-government analysts say that Modi and his ideological fellow travellers dream of a “big power” role for India in the near future and the deepening and broadening of ties with the US as among the “key elements of a changing Asian calculus”.

Will India then be a “balancing power” or a “leading player”? Will India step in to play a peacemaker role in global hotspots as many countries keep demanding?

The question that remains is India ready yet to play that role, institutionally and structurally, whether it has a political consensus for that strategic leap and whether its forces can be deployed beyond the borders if required to match the expectations of such a role.

This is where there seems to be a conflict between the thinking of the present NDA dispensation in comparison to the “strategically bold but tactically cautious” previous UPA administration.

Howard B and Teresita C Schaffer, retired US diplomatic couple with long experience in South Asia, in their new book “India at the Global High Table” (Harper Collins), feel India should be seen more as a “revisionist power” where the country “seeks to revise a world order that gives primacy in its international relations to a handful of powers, most of them European or American, and it aims to take its place among those who are acknowledged to run the world.”

According to them”if India does pursue a bigger international leadership role, its policies will become more deeply interdependent with those of other countries.

“It will need to make choices that it has been able to avoid until now. It may in the end continue to see a solo role as its preferred international pathway. But the whole concept of autonomy, or maximising one’s options, is harder to define for countries playing a major role in a globalised world.”

To this determination, which lies at the core of US strategic thinking, UPA policymaker Menon has this to say in his book: “At the risk of disappointing those who call on India to be a ‘responsible’ power – meaning they want us to do as they wish – and at the risk of disappointing Indians who like to dream of India as an old-fashioned superpower, I would only say as Indira Gandhi once said, ‘India will be a different power’ and will continue to walk its own path in the world. That is the only responsible way for us.”

Or, as Schaffer and Schaffer defined so perceptively what they called the central element of the vision guiding Indian foreign policy down the years as “India determination to march to its own drummer”.

*Tarun Basu is a veteran journalist who is President, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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