Will India's global pursuit of self-interest work?

More than any major power today, Indians view their future in aspirational terms, and that is shaping their domestic and foreign engagements.. Photo: HT
More than any major power today, Indians view their future in aspirational terms, and that is shaping their domestic and foreign engagements.. Photo: HT


Achieving influence in world affairs will depend on how well New Delhi overcomes key challenges

As the Russia-Ukraine crisis escalated earlier this year, India’s response to it generated a heated debate in Western capitals. New Delhi was accused of not supporting Ukraine and siding with the West as it refused to publicly name Russia as the aggressor. India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar responded to it frontally by arguing that India’s foreign policy is not about sitting on the fence just because it may not be agreeable to some other countries. “It means I am sitting on my ground," he said. Arguing that “Europe has to get out of the mindset that Europe’s problem is the world’s problem but the world’s problem is not Europe’s problem", Jaishankar made it clear that “I am one-fifth of the world’s population. I am today the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world… I feel I am entitled to have my own side. I am entitled to weigh my own interests, and make my own choices… There is no country in the world which disregards its interests."

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It is certainly a basic tenet of international relations that national interests are paramount, and India too, like other nations, has pursued its interests when it comes to foreign and national security policies. But as it celebrates 75 years of independence, what gives the country greater confidence in articulating an “India First" foreign policy is its growing capabilities and sense of optimism about the future. More than any major power today, Indians view their future in aspirational terms and that is shaping their domestic and foreign engagements.

The consequences are remarkable. Even as India’s position on the Ukraine conflict caused disappointment in the Western world, the latter’s ties with New Delhi have gained momentum. So while the Western media has been lecturing India on its democratic responsibilities, Western governments seem to understand India’s challenges much better, and in an ironical way, this crisis has provided the means to both New Delhi and the West to come closer and engage more substantively.

The international order is evolving at a rapid pace and structural changes are indeed compelling India and the West to deal with each other on the basis of 21st century realities. But India’s response to its strategic priorities has also evolved significantly. Today’s self-confident India has a new voice in the global firmament—clear, rooted in its domestic realities and civilizational ethos, as well as firm in the pursuit of its vital interests. As Jaishankar remarked at this year’s Raisina Dialogue, it is better to engage with the world on the basis of “who we are" rather than try and please the world. If India is confident about its identity and priorities, the world will engage with India on its terms. In recent years, New Delhi has not been averse to challenging its adversaries and courting its friends without the ideological baggage of the past. From being the only global power to challenge Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative as far back as 2014 to responding to Chinese military aggression with a strong military pushback, from trying to work with the US without entering the full embrace of a formal alliance to engaging the West to build domestic capacities, India has been pragmatic to the core and willing to use the extant balance of power to its advantage. India’s focus today is on enhancing its capabilities in every possible sector and that allows for a more clear-eyed engagement with its partners. The West, often used to a pontificating India of the past, today hears an Indian voice on the global stage that is capable of articulating the narrative of a responsible stakeholder that is steeped in its own ethos.

The challenges confronting India are serious and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. China’s rise and its assault on Indian interests is forcing New Delhi to reassess its old assumptions. There are also institutional issues that need attention, from the size of the foreign ministry to forging a whole-of-government approach to national security. Yet, New Delhi’s readiness to address these challenges is shifting the conversation in ways that are quite revealing.

As it celebrates 75 years of freedom, India wants to play the role of a “leading power" in the international system, one that shapes global norms and institutional architecture, rather than these being shaped by others.

Towards this end, it is willing to forge partnerships that are likely to yield concrete outcomes. Shedding its old diffidence, New Delhi is proclaiming that it is no longer non-aligned but willing to align based on shared interests. From the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) to the BRICS, there is a long list of memberships that India holds. Often this is seen as old-style meandering. But look closely and one will find that India is increasingly willing to articulate and promote its priorities more sharply.

Today’s India is willing to set its own standards and this approach is now shaping its external engagements as well. This may or may not be a significant break from the past, but it is certainly a reflection of contemporary domestic socio-economic realties in India. The next few years will determine how successfully New Delhi transcends the constraints of the global order and domestic infirmities to achieve its aspirations on the global stage.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London

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