In a September 1946 radio broadcast, Jawaharlal Nehru singled out the US, Soviet Union and China as the three countries most relevant to India’s future. Historian Ramachandra Guha records that in 1947, speaking in the Constituent Assembly on how India hoped to be friends with both the US and the USSR, Nehru declared, “We lead ourselves.”
When India attained Independence, there was little doubt among its founding fathers on how the nation will lead. India would find its rightful place in the world by showing how numerous religions, languages, ethnic groups and communities can peacefully coexist and economically prosper without having to take sides in a polarised world. It was a nation that beat back colonialism with Gandhian non-violence. When it ushered in people’s rule, it was determined to marshal its diversity around the idea of India without compromising the principles of equality and freedom even when most outsiders did not give it a chance.
As it prepares to celebrate its 63rd year of Independence, the country remains a laboratory of social, economic and political experimentation within the framework of Parliamentary democracy. All three are works in progress but progress there is. India is the third fastest growing major economy. If it sustains its growth rate, the country will become the world’s largest economy after the US and China by 2040.
Social transformation has been slow but is now picking up pace with political action, positive discrimination and economic growth. It is a clear indication of that change that India’s president is a Hindu, its vice-president is a Muslim, the prime minister is a Sikh, its ruling party president is an Italian-born Christian and its most populous state is ruled by a dalit. It is also an indication of its political maturity that three varied coalitions have provided a relatively stable government in the past decade. Even an advanced country like Japan has had five prime ministers in the past four years.
ICRIER director Rajiv Kumar calls it a triple transition. “This is a huge, complex and expectedly a messy undertaking which purports to change in most fundamental manner the lives and livelihoods of a sixth of humanity,” he says. Kumar points out that countries such as China and Japan went through these transitions in a sequential order, which was more manageable, less complex and also less costly in social and economic terms.
Its hewing open an independent path for itself has in many ways helped India preserve its independence in its relationships with other nations too, and that is reflected in the country’s foreign policy over the years.
Largely, we have been able to ensure an independent identity for ourselves. We have managed to carve out an independent strategic space,” says Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary.
The country’s political class, since the time of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru and its elite bureaucracy, including the diplomatic corps, has always had global leadership aspirations. This is clear in the organisation of the first Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 and India’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which continues in some form even today. The country’s leaders — both politicians and, to a greater extent, senior bureaucrats — are strongly attracted to a role in the global arena as they see it as a continuum from the early days of India’s independence when it was clearly one of the spokespersons for the developing world, say ICRIER’s Rajiv Kumar and Mathew Joseph in a paper, ‘India and Global Governance’.
At last count, NAM had 118 members and 18 observer countries. Leadership of NAM also brought India to the forefront of the Group of 77 developing nations in various international forums such as the WTO. Often India appears to even trade national interest for leadership.
In WTO’s Uruguay Round, for instance, Indian negotiators until almost the very end took the position that India would not talk services and would not allow it to be on the agenda of the round. India’s own interest lay in the services sectors if these were opened up to private investment, given the country’s comparative advantage in highly trained manpower. Ultimately, the Indian position crumbled in the face of sustained pressure from OECD countries and the last minute desertion by major emerging economies. India’s strength in services has since been borne out. India appeared to adopt the anti-services position more to secure its leadership of G-77 than to serve its own interests. However, it is a strategic balance that needs to be maintained.
“It is the leadership of developing countries that has given us political weight and influence,” says Shyam Saran.
Though India’s voice has been clear at multilateral trade and governance forums, it has struggled to balance its political ambitions and national interest. That meant even though it was a leader of NAM, its defining relationship was with the USSR throughout the middle years of independent India’s existence. After the unravelling of the Soviet Union, the strategic landscape changed and India too had to change with it. The early signs of a more assertive but quiet diplomacy focussed on national interest can be found in the early Nineties.
In 1993, India quietly helped scuttle a move to haul up Myanmar at the UN’s human rights conference in Geneva. Former deputy national security advisor, Satish Chandra, who was instrumental in the move, says that the same year, China helped put pressure on Pakistan to withdraw a resolution alleging Indian human rights violation in Kashmir. The next year it was Iran that helped derail Pakistani moves again.
However, in later years, especially after 9/11, India has felt compelled to sacrifice many of its good yesteryear relationships for pragmatic tie-ups. Since former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s unconditional offer to help the US in its fight against terrorism — including with operational military support — India has been inching closer to America in the hope of diplomatic help against its adversaries such as Pakistan and China and access to modern technology. That hope has even pushed it to voting with the US to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, in spite of the natural gas and oil-rich country being an old friend which is also important from an energy security perspective. That it was an opportunistic move is clear from recent reports suggesting that India is now embarking on “creative diplomacy” with Iran to avoid attracting US and UN sanctions.
Finding enough resources to fuel economic growth is a prime concern for energy-deficit India. But the fact that some of the most resource rich regions of the world are conflict-ridden, severely limits its diplomatic manoeuvrability. It is further complicated by climate change imperatives as India often ends up running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. “Our relationship with the US will move in a positive direction,” says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal who sees it as a hedge against Pakistani designs. “We can neutralise (with US help) any capacity that Pakistan can build up,” Sibal says.
India’s growing linkages with the US can make a major contribution to bridging any security deficit by adding to China’s or Pakistan’s risk perceptions in planning any military action against India. It will be important to ensure that China sees India as having multifaceted cooperation with the US that is short of a military alliance, says former diplomat Santosh Kumar.
As far as security scenarios are concerned, analysts differ widely. Former national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, says, “For India, national security is a part of economic growth.” He foresees a simultaneous military pressure on the borders with Pakistan and China within the next five years if India does not quickly beef up its military capability. That means buying modern weapon systems, fighter aircraft to replace its shrinking squadrons, aircraft carriers and howitzers.
Mishra points to Pakistan’s ratcheting up activity in Kashmir since February and General Kayani’s statement that the Pakistan army is “India centric”. In April this year, the Pakistan army conducted the “Azm-e-Nau” (New Resolve) exercise in the Cholistan desert to train for the possibility of a conventional war with India. About 50,000 troops and air force elements were mobilised for Pakistan’s largest manoeuvres since 1989.
Another issue of anxiety for India is the seeming change in China’s policy towards Kashmir. It signed an MoU with Pakistan to build a hydropower project in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Mishra says that China has hegemonic ambitions, especially in Asia. And it wants India preoccupied and tied down in South Asia to further its objectives. That theory has many takers though observers differ on how it would impact India.
Harsh V. Pant, a lecturer of Kings College London and commentator on foreign policy, wrote last year that China is consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India. He cited a secret memorandum issued by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general logistic department director to drive his point home: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians…. We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account.”
An expansionist China also means other nations in the Asian neighbourhood would look up to India to provide leadership. Most nations are more comfortable with democratic India than autocratic China. A couple of years ago, Japan signed a security cooperation agreement with India. There is also a possibility of nuclear cooperation between the two nations. Japan also came to India’s rescue during the East Asia Summit in 2005. Suspecting that China wanted to keep the grouping under its influence, Japan lobbied hard to get India included along with Australia and New Zealand.
It would fall on India to grab the opportunity and prevent the world from getting polarised yet again. India has tried to provide some level of comfort to others in the region by unilaterally reducing tariffs and signing free trade agreements with small nations. The objective of these pacts is more to bring those countries politically closer to India than any economic gains.
Not everyone agrees with the grim prognosis, though. Rajiv Kumar says that India should single-mindedly focus on growth. He believes that India has a 10-year window to focus on economic growth as external threats to the country during that period will be low.
China’s primary concern will remain its engagement with the US and improving its global influence. It would not want to push India into a corner to project power. Not only that, the hawkish argument assumes that India does not have any leverage with Pakistan. “It is true that we do not have any levers against China. But with Pakistan, we have options. So it is unlikely that either of them want a war with India,” says Kumar.
Former diplomat Santosh Kumar, who spearheaded the National Interest Project with Rajiv Kumar at ICRIER, says that China will be focussed on its own growth, internal issues and securing its economic interests across the world over the next decade. Pakistan at the same time will be trying to put its own house in order. Besides, he says, Pakistan is aware that India’s economy may be able to withstand a war but its own will be devastated.
Former foreign secretary Sibal says that China is both a threat and a partner. “We are caught in the contradiction and the consequences of our policy choices could also be contradictory.”
Both Rajiv Kumar and Santosh Kumar are quick to add that India will be grappling with internal security problems and would need to find solutions to them quickly. They, however, say that economic growth will ensure that India has the wherewithal to spend more on security.
There is little doubt that India’s success would lie in quickly consolidating the gains of the triple transition. If it manages it well, it will also be a model of development and progress for other developing nations. Of course, the challenge would be to ensure that countries like China do not feel threatened by India’s progress and other nations continue to view India as a power in the making but without hegemonic ambitions. India also has to dispel the misconception that seems to be taking root in many regions of the world that its army of skilled workers will take away local jobs. The government would need to work to quell anti-India sentiments.
The US effectively uses the private sector as a tool to further its interests. At some level, America’s national interests merge with private interests. While it may not be the most desirable way of conducting a country’s foreign policy, the private sector and the government do need to work in tandem, especially on economic issues. Some of it is evident in the way Indian companies have gone about in search of resources and markets but more often than not, there is no symbiotic relationship between the two.
In the following pages: Beginning with a list of the seven threats that could trip our triple transition, we delve into India’s game plan for participation in future standard setting bodies, market access, water security and energy. You will find how India has shaken off past baggage to engage with its neighbours without being scared of competition.
(This story appears in the 27 August, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)