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Home / Opinion / Columns /  With ‘India first’ stance, our terms of engagement with the West have been reset

For India, the past week, without a doubt, belonged to external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. It is hard to recall another foreign affairs minister who articulated India’s views so firmly and well in international fora.

In the run-up to the 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US, some ‘experts’ commented that this was not a good time for India to have these meetings. The US was unhappy with India’s neutral stance on the Ukraine conflict. India had been warned of “consequences". In Washington DC, Jaishankar would be subjected to every pressure tactic that the US could think up.

In the end, it was the US that blinked first. Jaishankar did not step back an inch from India’s position.

He handled the global media with a sharp irrefutable logic that silenced questioners. His put-down of an Al-Jazeera correspondent’s thinly veiled condemnation of India’s purchase of oil from Russia was epic. “If you’re looking at (India’s) energy purchases from Russia, I’d suggest your attention should be on Europe," he said. “I suspect, looking at figures, our purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon." Game-set-match.

When asked about US secretary of state Antony Blinken saying that the US was monitoring increased human rights abuses by Indian government, police and prison officials, Jaishankar said: “People are entitled to their views about us. But we are equally entitled to have views about their views and about the interests and lobbies and vote banks that drive that…We also take our views on other people’s human rights situation, including that of the United States." He then pointed out that just the day before, two Indian-American Sikh men had been assaulted in a hate crime in New York.

The next day, at Howard University, he became our first foreign minister to call India a “civilizational state": “For our ties to grow, it is necessary that there is a better understanding of India and the world on the part of young Americans. Your appreciation of a civilizational state and a fellow democratic polity that is daily overcoming enormous odds is essential." This is a historic declaration on the world stage of “India, that is Bharat".

Right from the day he joined Narendra Modi’s cabinet in May 2019, Jaishankar, in both words and action, has rejected the diffidence that has often marked India’s foreign policy and ministers. He has been soft-spoken but resolute, and unapologetically hard-headed. He has been telling the traditionally-condescending West (and China): This is a new India and we are changing the terms of engagement.

His talk at the Washington-based think-tank Atlantic Council in October 2019 is now referred to as the “Jaishankar doctrine" speech.

He asserted that it was time for a new compact between India and the West, but first the West had to realize that a new compact was needed. This was no longer the India that the West had been so complacent about, he said. The old elite was out, replaced by a new set of people with their own sense of roots and own world view, who remembered “two centuries of humiliation" by the West. This was an India which looked after its self-interest and was confident enough to state openly that it “would…make sure that it always has a strong bargaining hand vis-à-vis the West". India was no longer going to adhere to the self-serving rules of Western etiquette.

Jaishankar elaborated the ‘doctrine’ in his 2020 book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. “Asserting national interests and securing strategic goals through various means is the dharma of a state," he wrote. India must discard “political romanticism" and think in realpolitik terms. There are no true friends or allies; the world is a “transactional bazaar", a fact that India has long been in denial of. In this marketplace, India must advance and maximize its “national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions".

The world needs to come to terms with an India that defines itself and refuses to be defined by the West, Jaishankar wrote. This is an India with a civilizational identity, and a deep pool of strategic wisdom that dates back to the Mahabharata. Classical Indian strategy has always looked beyond dogma and at possibilities of the convergent interests of players. To the West and the Westernized mind, this may appear to be a baffling pursuit of contradictory approaches (are you with us or against us?), but as Jaishankar put it, “Think of it as calculus, not just as arithmetic."

This is of course the geopolitical strategy that China has successfully followed for decades, and Jaishankar knows this better than any no-skin-in-the-game analyst. In essence, what he is saying—and what every Chinese leader in modern history, from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, has exemplified—is that the only valid Indian foreign policy is an Indian foreign policy, not bounded by Western rules or matrices, and committed only to self-interest.

India has blundered often by being timid, by choosing a vague moral high ground rather than retaliate to aggressive acts, and by making speeches about its millennia-old heritage and history of non-violence (which is largely nonsense anyway). Jaishankar is making up for all that lost time and all those missed chances at Formula 1 speed. And a Gen Z niece WhatsApped me just now: “He is so cool!"

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazinesis a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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