Whither India? Who will decide?
If you are an Indian, one of the unavoidable consequences of having a rapidly growing economy is that you are being constantly asked where you and the country are headed. Most non-Indians ask this not out of fear of a threatening super power en herbe, but rather as a way of sharing the excitement over the vast changes that Indian society and its people will encounter in the coming decades, including the prospect of increased incomes for most, if not all.
Rapid growth means greater opportunity for millions of Indians, new urban centers and life styles, cultural impact on a global scale, greater focus in the world’s media, and being the center of attention at dinner parties among the international set.
The Indian government, of course, has both to respond to this other revolution in rising expectations, and lead it in ways that serve the national interest. Some of this response comes in the normal course of changing domestic and international circumstances. Some from ideology. And some from being pushed into it.
Newly independent India quickly grasped the foreign policy reins in 1947, establishing a largely Asia focused and anti-colonialist policy under its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. This included close ties with the Soviet Union and China, the two other post-war emerging giants; helping launch the Non-Aligned Movement; and engagement in international diplomacy, such as participation in the International Control Commission in Indo-China. But this internationalist thrust was cut short, and dramatically so, by the 1962 India-China border war; and Nehru’s death in 1964.
India’s leadership role declined along with its economy in most of the 1970s and 1980s, but this, fortunately, was not to last. A number of factors have lead to policy, and indeed global, re-engagement. Prime Minister Narasima Rao’s is justifiably famous for instituting major economic reforms in the early 1990s, and promoting a foreign policy that priorized economic relations, notably with East Asia, through his Look East policies. The results of those initiatives twenty years ago speak for themselves. China’s successful economic reforms and their political impact put another set of considerations on the diplomatic table. The post-9/11 world forced further recalibrations of Indian foreign policy, particularly with respect to relations with the United States.
Among other things, all this has lead to a more assertive India. India demonstrated that it understood the importance of soft power, notably in Davos in 2006, where the India Rising campaign really took off. India is pursuing a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. And, depending on your point of view, it has played a principled or a spoiler role in the Doha Round of trade negotiations and at Copenhagen on Climate Change.
Who cares about this, in India?
Beyond the foreign policy elites in government, academia and think tanks, who are often noisily engaged, probably not many. Indeed, relatively speaking, in all likelihood, not a very different proportion than that of policy-savvy Canadians, although in absolute terms, this would still make for a lot of Indians.
Of course, many Indians are immensely proud of the international attention that their growth has engendered. The Commonwealth Games, another outstanding global platform, will be held in Delhi in the Fall, and many an Indian breast will be pumped up with pride at this additional indication that, in many respects, India has arrived.
Games aside, not all Indians are of the same view. Indeed, many believe that India’s domestic challenges are such that claims of super-powerdom, even seeking to become a super power, are premature in the extreme.
The national priority is on ‘inclusive growth’, economic growth for all. This leaves more limited inclination for pursuing geopolitical goals where the putative beneficiary is primarily the global commons. From this perspective, India’s main task is to address the groaning problem of poverty. India’s ranking on the UNDP’s Human Development Index is actually declining, from 127th in 2007 to 132 in 2008; the are declining scores in other indices as well, such as Transparency International corruption indices. India is in the G20, but it has the lowest per capita income of the group.
The view in favor of a more narrowly defined foreign policy is even shared by many members of the foreign policy elite, who want an Indian foreign policy that contributes to economic development, focuses on home-grown environment policies, and seeks bilateral rather than multilateral trade agreements. Security issues are most important, but India wants to go alone on these as well.
So, Canadians can continue to expect mixed policy signals from India, the unavoidable international player perhaps, but one whose cards are all drawn from the domestic deck. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it's just another key consideration in our globalized world.