NEW DELHI: The results of India’s changed approach towards international relations and diplomacy are becoming gradually visible now. I have to admit, that as someone banking on the Cold War era conflicts and politics to create a workable understanding about global realpolitik, I have traditionally been fairly sceptical about India’s approach towards the international arena. India under JL Nehru was like the pimply teenager – a rebel without a cause. New Delhi’s wanting to stand apart from the rest of the competitors back during the 50s and 60s resulted not out of cold calculative manipulations but a kind of arrogance that narcissism brings. That behaviour made the later period particularly tough – one that required the iron will of someone like Indira Gandhi to keep things afloat; and that in turn required her to migrate closer to the USSR.
Ever since the economic liberalization of the 90s, India, predominantly under the bureaucratic influence of UPA, tried to maintain a congenial ambiguity in the international arena. That was, in a manner of speaking, partial reminiscent of woolly headedness that characterised the Nehru era. This was compounded by an unwillingness to take tough calls and a habit of looking up to the US-led West expectantly for most priorities – including some as basic as domestic chaos caused by Pakistani establishments like the ISI and the terrorists that they nurtured. As a result of which, a few of the notable international observers and political analysts, on different occasions (some, even as late as in the 2010s) warned India about how international politics was not a popularity contest, how agreeableness wasn’t the same as being assertive, and how international players, even in disagreement, respected those that were tough enough to stand up for themselves.
It wasn’t very different when the Modi government began its international outreach. The signals remained vague, all over the arena for the first few years, till EAM Jaishankar took over. With him, things began settling down. Mr Jaishankar’s book, ‘The India Way’ helped elaborate on India’s immediate and medium-term priorities in the face of the changing global dynamics and the stirrings of a multipolar order. India, Jaishankar argues, intends to engage with the rest of the world on a transactional basis to create win-win situations.
India held on to that approach, which in a manner, validated the earlier opinions of those analysts and rapidly (in just a span of 3-4 years) transformed India’s image from an also-ran to an emergent, assertive international competitor. For the geo-economic enthusiast, an important component in this equation, no doubt, is India’s growing economy. However, it is important to remember that South Korea, Japan, or the EU are all strong economies, and yet they still have to create the same global impact like that of China, Russia, or even Israel.
Two big events that flagged not just India’s emergence but also its 21st century behavioural template in the world of realpolitik is India’s unconditional vaccine support to whoever was in dire straits during the Covid19 pandemic, and India’s refusal to spoil its relations with Russia during the Ukraine crisis even on the face of collective pressure from the West. The vaccine initiative cemented India’s image as a country that walked the talk on Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – One World, One Family. The refusal to buckle under pressure on the Ukraine issue forced the world to note (even as many of them refuse to acknowledge) that India has stopped being affably agreeable to the whims of the Western powers.
With the recently concluded G20, those who understand global geopolitical dynamics observed how an unsure Joe Biden banked on Modi to deliver a summary statement that could potentially help him/his party shift focus from Russia and Ukraine to the 2024 elections, how Western lackeys like Canada were subtly shown their place, or how easily India positioned itself as the representative of the Global South banking solely on the shortcomings of the West and China. It is safe to assume that there is a realization out there that India has finally emerged as a pole in global affairs with an unshakable vision and the mantle to represent ignored voices.
Back within the confines of the country and speaking of the resistance within a section of the population to anything that the present government initiates or accomplishes, the onus of lost opportunities rests with the UPA alliance. It was the UPA that ushered the liberalization of the 90s. It was the UPA that remained predominantly in power as the Soviet Union collapsed and a unipolar world was created. Through the rest of the time, as the US attitude morphed from assertion to belligerence, as it began forcing its interests upon the world sometimes hiding behind the idea of exporting liberal democracy and sometimes flying the GWOT (Global War on Terror) flag, as China rose rapidly as an economic and export powerhouse, and finally as the US influence began waning owing to multiple factors – with the exception of the Vajpayee government it has been the UPA in India, most of the times.
The UPA’s inability to capitalize on PM Narshima Rao’s vision, their incapability to change the behavioural representation of India in the international arena, or their visible unwillingness to chart an independent route away from the influence of the USA and the west kept them locked in limbo – BJP or Narendra Modi did not. And if a section of the Indian bureaucracy, under someone’s stewardship, is showing a willingness to take risks in understanding and analysing the coming of the future, over just enjoying plum posts and securities of a government job, there is no reason other than ones cosmetic (and for vote banking) for any Indian to feel left out. We all have our chances. What matters is how best we utilize them.
(Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own.