The twin visits of French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron in the same month reflect the growing import of India on the global stage. However, the substance of the deliberations indicates the limited role that India is likely to play in affecting change in the global arena to its own advantage. To achieve that, New Delhi and its eager suitors in Paris and London will have to move beyond their mercantilist instincts.
The visits will primarily be remembered for a series of bilateral transactional endeavours: weapons deals—both anticipated and unrequited; civil-nuclear cooperation with the tempting prospect of building power plants; prized joint infrastructure development projects; improving the investment climate; and loosening the visa regime.
While such visits are, doubtless, designed to enhance relations at the bilateral level, their overwhelming focus on business issues are likely to improve only one—albeit vital—aspect of their relations. At the same time, the inability of the interactions to give similar attention to critical global issues, which affect all three and what role they might jointly play in addressing them, was found wanting.
Take, for instance, the token reference that both joint statements made to support India as a permanent member in a reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This belies the fact that neither France nor the UK is in a position to make this happen; the key lies, on the one hand, in India convincing both the US and China of its credentials—a herculean task by itself—and the bulk of the UN membership, particularly African states, to support UNSC reforms, on the other. Let alone the UNSC, it is doubtful that the UK (which is reconsidering its own relations with the troubled European Union) and France are in a position to deliver even the much-coveted free-trade agreement that New Delhi desires with the EU.
Moreover, there is an assumption that once India becomes a member of the prestigious club there would be close cooperation on UNSC matters. Indeed, the UK-India statement welcomed the “close engagement during India’s recent tenure” (2011-2012) on the UNSC. In reality, the “close engagement” resembled one between two bitterly opposed pugilists rather than two amicable partners. This was evident in the shrill and public dust-up between the P-3 (France, the UK and the US) and India in the UNSC over Libya and Syria.
If the European members of the P-3 are serious about their intentions to closely cooperate with India on UNSC matters, then any institutionalized dialogue will do well to first acknowledge the differences and then seek to narrow them. Given that the UNSC addresses some of the most contentious peace and security issues, this exercise to find common ground will be a daunting but crucial test even in the best of scenarios.
Instead, the countries might do well to work together on less contentious but equally critical issues, such as the global post-2015 development agenda, which has the ambitious objective of eradicating poverty.
Similar candid discussions and joint efforts on how to move forward on the stalled climate negotiations and how to improve coordination to combat piracy will not only enhance the role of India in global governance issues but might also contribute to addressing these challenges at the national and regional level. All of this is possible only if the countries see the measure of their relationships as more than just transactions in euros, pounds sterling or rupees. Otherwise, they will remain stuck in the mercantilist trap.
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