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India’s global role: Bridge, broker, balancer

So the story goes: Indian spies (licensed to kill, apparently) or hired hitmen, bumped off Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in June. Not only that. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with whom quiet diplomacy over his tolerance of anti-India activities in Canada did not seem to work, landed in Delhi for the G-20 summit, his security team found his presidential suite at The Lalit fully bugged. That’s par for the course, of course, but Trudeau’s boys had apparently forgotten to bring jammers. Then, his aircraft suffered a mysterious ‘breakdown’. Legend has it that this too was the handiwork of Indian spooks frying up the aircraft’s electronics! A humiliated Trudeau then decided to “expose” India over the Nijjar episode!

Let me put up a disclaimer: The above is a fictionalised account based on true events. It does not purport to be the truth. India has officially called Trudeau’s charges “absurd.”

We will probably never know the whole truth. What we do know is that India has since upped the ante and forced Ottawa to downsize its diplomatic presence in India – it almost feels as if we are at war with Canada. What we also know is that in the West, there is now a sense of unease about India, which it has been courting. Is this how India is going to behave now on, intoxicated by the idea of its rising power?

In India, too, many have worried in the wake of the Nijjar episode as to how India’s relations with the world might evolve here on. Throughout its G-20 presidency, India had sought to give a completely different account of itself, a more ‘Nehruvian’ one, so to speak. Indeed, even before that, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought on pressure to align India more closely with the West, the Modi government, after years of trying to “overcome the hesitations of history” with the US, moved right back to “non-alignment” – now improvised to “multi-alignment”. Throughout the G-20 presidency, India spoke the language of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’. Modi’s theme for the G-20 was ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ (closely tracking Nehru’s ‘One World’ for the Asian Relations Conference, 1947); India sought to be the ‘Voice of the Global South’ (not different from the Nehruvian idea of India’s global role). Has the Modi government suddenly thrown it all to the winds? Has India decisively moved out of ‘idealist’ Nehru’s shadow and taken on ‘realist’ Modi’s garb?

The Nijjar episode, and other actions over the last few years, do show a more assertive national security policy that’s in keeping with the times. Terrorism, Canada-based Khalistani separatism, Pakistani nuclear blackmail were not problems of the Nehru era and indeed not until the 1980s, although there were other problems, no less threatening. So, they do seem to convey a departure from the reluctance of the past to reach for a muscular response as a first resort. But the preservation of national security is a narrower, if intertwined, endeavour of a nation’s larger foreign and strategic policy.

The means and methods of achieving national security goals change with the preferences and predilections of individual leaders and the capabilities available to them.

But for an understanding of whether India’s relations with the world at large — India’s foreign policy and its self-image of its global role — have fundamentally changed, we must look elsewhere.

To, most recently, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s speech at the UN General Assembly. Recalling proudly how India had convened the ‘Voice of the Global South’ summit and had brought not only the views of the Global South to the G-20 table but also the African Union itself as a member, Jaishankar declared that “From the era of non-alignment, we have now evolved to that of Vishwa Mitra (a friend to the world).”

Jaishankar’s articulation of India’s goals and what they mean for the world is unexceptionable. It is also understandable that he should project it as a new, Modi-era phenomenon, given Modi’s domestic political need to project himself as the Anti-Nehru. But this was India’s conception of its foreign policy and global role under Nehru. It remains so under Modi. It is also a role that the West, on the one hand, and the Global South, on the other, have needed India to play since Independence – a bridge between Global North and South; and a force for peace inserting itself between warring Great Powers.

Nehruvian legacy

At Independence, Nehru’s foreign policy was characterised by India’s support for rapid decolonisation of Asia and Africa, ending the European empires, and his desire for India to play an active role in world affairs without joining either of the two Cold War military blocs (‘non-entanglement’, as Nehru termed it at the time).

If today, India is once again the ‘Voice of the Global South’, it’s due to that legacy. In the words of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Nehru was “the first of the Afro-Asians.” The issues of that day were freedom struggles, discrimination against coloured peoples, the poverty of Asia and Africa. Today, India champions the Global South’s views on development, climate change, and continuing poverty.

By standing apart from the Cold War military blocs, Nehru preserved India’s freedom of action and raised its international stature, a fact that even US President Eisenhower acknowledged in 1958, writing to Nehru: “Universally, you are recognised as one of the most powerful influences for peace and conciliation in the world. I believe that because you are a world leader for peace in your individual capacity, as well as a representative of the largest neutral nation.” It is the same playbook that Modi has profitably adopted in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As India’s own capabilities in development and diplomacy – especially navigating the UN and the Bretton Woods system – increased, India played ‘Vishwa Mitra’ by helping fellow nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America build capability through training programmes and leading other interventions, such as the New International Economic Order discussions and declaration.

India’s ability to play a global role was somewhat diminished, and the desire to do so muted, as it turned to the task of building up its own economy and dealing with internal matters in the 1980s, not least due to an era of rising internal mutinies which, at the political level, manifested in the era of coalition politics and the rise of strong regional forces even as the Centre weakened.

Self-assured Centre

The arrival of the Modi government with a comfortable majority signalled the return of a stronger, more self-assured Centre. It was helped by the fact that it could leverage India’s rising economy and global stature since the 1991 economic reforms, its emergence as a nuclear weapons power, the world’s recognition of India’s ability to be a “force for good” in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, and the core political bargain behind the India-US nuclear deal of 2008, to return to a more confident foreign policy and aspirations for a global role.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to build on its “force for good” image through ‘Vaccine Maitri’ and crucial medical supplies — and to re-engage strongly with the Global South. The pressures brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the emerging US-China Cold War provided the Modi government pause to rethink and recalibrate India’s aspirations. The result: India’s foreign policy and global aspirations are back in the Nehruvian mould — to be the bridge (and broker) between Global North and South; and to play a role that would ensure that the US-China Cold War does not flare up into a hot war in our region — now broadly conceived as the Indo-Pacific. In Nehru’s time, India played this second role banking on sheer moral stature. Today, in restraining China’s power and determination, of necessity, India must play a ‘Balance of Power’ role.

In 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis imagine the next world war and how it ends: India inserts itself militarily in a hot war between America and China, brings them to their senses, and emerges as the world’s new leader. Note that even in that fantasy, it does so by “skilfully inserting the peace will of India between the raging antagonisms of the Great Powers of the East and West,” in Martin Luther King Jr’s words about the role that Nehru’s India played during the Cold War. Who knows, that may be Modi’s legacy, too!

(Published 07 October 2023, 21:18 IST)

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