Following excerpts adapted from the author’s new book, Why Bharat Matters, published by Rupa Publications
Three years ago, in my earlier book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, I had urged that ‘this is a time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood, and expand traditional constituencies of support’. In the period that has passed, much of this has advanced but, obviously, not equally on all fronts. Some have progressed smoothly; others have been more complicated than expected. In the meantime, the world itself has witnessed deeper transformation. The challenges of a global order in transition have been magnified by the back-to-back impact of the Covid pandemic, the Ukraine conflict and the fighting in West Asia.
There is no question that this has now become a much tougher world. For India specifically, the going has been far from easy. Many of the larger concerns have impacted it directly. The changed posture of China on the border, in particular, is a major factor in its strategic calculus. But a determined leadership and a supportive society are helping it to navigate this turbulent era. Rising powers seek stability most of all; India must plan to rise amidst serious unpredictability.
International relations for the last quarter of the century have been dominated by five phenomena: globalization, rebalancing, multipolarity, impact of technology and the games that nations have always played. Globalization, the most fundamental of them, will only intensify, even though its earlier model of creating dependencies has come under growing challenge. It has led to rebalancing the relative weight of players in the world order. That initially unfolded economically, but its political and cultural facets are now making themselves felt. As it proceeds, rebalancing, in turn, will create multipolarity. A new lot of more consequential powers will separate out, joining those dominant since 1945. This is still work in progress, one could even say in the early stages. Much will increasingly depend on how and with what agenda combinations of states come together.
Technology, too, has become more of a game-changer than in the past. Its ability to impact the daily routine is much deeper, as indeed the capability to weaponize our normal activities, needs and resources. In fact, the pace has reached a point where we are compelled to think in terms of ‘techades’. And then there are the perennial games that nations play, expressed through competitive politics between individual countries or, sometimes, groupings. Each of these phenomena is a key factor in the fashioning of contemporary Indian foreign policy, individually as much as cumulatively. Today, India has to not just prepare for a re-globalization that corrects economic and technology concentrations but also use that opportunity to strengthen comprehensive national power.
Given that there is at least as much change as there is continuity in world politics, it is obvious that our approach cannot be overly reliant on muscle memory. Certainly, the structural framework and previous experiences have a critical bearing. But, at the same time, the processes described above that are continually shaping our current existence need to be given full recognition. There are important shifts in power between and within states that are also relevant to the overall calculation. Much of that centres on the US, whose dominance is clearly not what it was in the past. That it has changed is indisputable; what it leads to will be still very much a matter of debate. And recent events have demonstrated that neither its capabilities nor its influence should be underestimated. Reading its new posture right is a challenge in itself, especially when it exercises influence in a more off-shore manner. How invested it is in various regions is a natural question, one juxtaposed against the growing presence of other nations, especially China.
Political polarization within societies is also a factor that the diplomacy of many states needs to take into account. Domestic changes, in the US as much as China, are compelling some countries to recalibrate their posture accordingly. As geopolitical arenas go, a world long used to thinking of West Asia and Europe as the central theatres of competition is increasingly looking at the Indo-Pacific instead. Even distant countries are, therefore, compelled to come up with their respective Indo-Pacific approaches. The Ukraine conflict and its energy consequences, significant as they may be, are unlikely to dilute this development.
Each of these trends also had their own resonance on Indian foreign policy. Handling this volatility effectively has required both intensive strategizing and tactical fine-tuning. Our domestic policies not only ensured recovery from the pandemic but also, thereafter, became the basis for Covid diplomacy. In regard to Ukraine, a political posture took into account not only the imperatives of energy and food security but the broader dynamics of Eurasia as well. On China, a robust deployment on the border was accompanied by conscious constraints on cooperation. With Quad partners, we were one of the few nations who made the transition smoothly between successive administrations so different from each other. But there were also important political calls taken at the right time, including the upgradation of the Quad, creating the I2U2 and devising the IMEC.
The exercise of engaging in multiple directions and constantly balancing competitive relationships was also tested in this period. Having invested so much in intensifying cooperation with Europe, harmonizing that with maintaining traditional ties with Russia was not easy. As the North–South divide deepened, undertaking the Voice of the Global South Summit at the commencement of the G20 presidency was a timely move. And when multipolarity continued to unfold, the broadening of India’s engagement sought to keep pace.
The factors that drive the choices of nations have also undergone a profound change in the last few years. Earlier, the established way to measure the advancement of power was to use more orthodox military and economic metrics. Our assessment of opportunities was also more predicated on partnerships between nations. Recent events have, however, introduced many more parameters to evaluate security and calculate gains. And our outlook, be it directly economic or more broadly national security, must adjust accordingly. De-risking the global economy is now a principal preoccupation. For market economies and democratic polities, this focusses on establishing more resilient and reliable supply chains. In the digital domain, we see a parallel emphasis on the importance of trust and transparency. A more decentralized world economy is increasingly perceived as the most viable solution to current anxieties. Such sentiments against economic concentration are only likely to intensify as tech wars gather greater momentum. We must also accept that interdependence, in itself, cannot always be an assured basis for international peace and security. Re-globalization in an open-ended techade will call for trusted collaborations of a kind that will be a new experience for all of us.
It is this scenario that confronts India and the world as they both contemplate and calculate. We are heading into volatility and upheaval, where mitigation and navigation go side by side. In fact, the transformation that we long speculated about is now actually upon us. Externally, India is discovering the merits of converging with like-minded nations, even while maintaining its distinct identity. Its domestic journey enables it to offer new terms of engagement to a growing range of partners. As the most populous nation and currently the fifth largest economy, its salience is underlined by the manner in which it conducted the G20 presidency. The interaction between a changing India and a more dynamic world is clearly novel for both of them. In that situation, the quality of its leadership will make the difference. I have sought to capture the various happenings of a world under exceptional stress and present them as trends against which we assess India’s prospects. Like my previous effort, this too is intended to contribute to an ongoing debate in an argumentative society.
Major nations that make an impact on the world do so after a defining event. It could be a conflict, a revolution or a major economic shift. Underlying all of them are both a jump in capacities and the character traits of a new player at that level. In India’s case, its early diplomacy was eventually constrained by the capability factor. It may have shown up in national security and political challenges, but was actually a cumulative outcome of limited progress in socio-economic and technological fields. But somewhere, there was also the inadequate projection of a great civilization. India’s progress has been more staggered than others in its peer group. Today, all these variables are coming together into play as India advances across multiple fronts in a self-supportive manner. Politics, economics, demography, culture and ideas make a potent combination. These deep changes across broad domains are contributing to the creation of the New India.
The last decade has witnessed an expansion of India’s space and a rise in its international profile. The mandala of its diplomacy has taken a clear form, even as the Neighbourhood First policy struck roots and the extended neighbourhoods advanced in all directions. The global footprint is widening too, visible as much in Africa and Latin America as in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Multiple engagements simultaneously with major power centres have also intensified, though not always without challenges. The Vaccine Maitri strongly reaffirmed credentials as a champion of the South, just as first responder operations highlighted our international commitment. Operations like Kaveri, Ganga, Devi Shakti and Ajay underline that Indians abroad could count on their government during times of difficulty. And a decade that began with the advocacy of yoga is appropriately seeing the espousal of Sri Anna (millets). The journey will continue but this is a time to take stock and assess what difference we have made. And that exercise will surely bring out why we matter more to the world.
At the end of the day, foreign policy is very much about clinically assessing the global landscape and calculating one’s prospects. Only if the larger picture is accurately read can the risks and benefits of any course of action be assessed. But no nation plans or acts in a vacuum. It must have a vision for itself, an architecture in mind and objectives to attain. For both practical and cultural reasons, these may not always be spelt out explicitly. But by analysing the world, describing processes and suggesting solutions, their outlines can nevertheless be discerned. To that extent, this is also a volume to be read between the lines.
India’s G20 presidency is also instructive in offering insights about how to navigate current world politics. By relentlessly shining the spotlight on the concerns of the Global South, we were able to ensure that the G20 returned to its basic mandate of promoting international growth and development. Defining priorities in that regard and devising collective solutions were also objectives that were attained to considerable measure. Faced with the parallel challenges of East–West polarization and North–South divide, each was utilized to mitigate the other problem. A firm diplomatic posture that included some new practices on interim outcomes encouraged consensus to be reached when it really mattered. Taking the initiative to enable the permanent membership of the African Union (AU) was notable in itself and helpful in strengthening the larger narrative.