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India: Reset Terms of Engagement

Under the dynamic leadership of PM Modi India’s foreign policy has shed it’s diffidence and ambivalence. Self interest is the sole guiding force. — KK Srivastava


It is time for India to summon courage to tread an independent path in world affairs, notwithstanding the enormous pressure to toe the line suggested by one major power or the other. The present Russian-Ukraine war is testing our resolve. Perhaps west did not expect the Indian response being what it is in face of unfair Russian invasion and consequent western retaliation, including the economic sanctions. Yet, while the west has issued not so subtle threats to India, no concrete action has been taken, nor has India budged from its position. Instead, India has admonished the west to not lecture on taking the ‘appropriate’ stance, especially when its own record has been murky, especially when China tried to invade India in recent past. While India has responded the way it has partially because of the fact that Russia is a major defence supplier and partly because Russia is embracing China with a firm grasp, let us understand that actually the foreign policy assertion is in consonance with Modi’s renewed resolve to preserving strategic autonomy in the world order. To be sure, even Nehru had set for itself the goal of pursuing an independent foreign policy. 

No doubt since Modi government came to power eight years ago, India has enthusiastically tried to build its ties with the U.S. and Western Europe, especially, as some would say, in view of the presence of a hostile neighbor, China. This was further catalyzed with the latest formation of the group of four nations, the Quad, where again India made common cause with the US. Many analysts therefore concluded that India has joined the Western camp, partially to offset the growing might of Russia-China nexus. Jaishankar, our foreign minister, of course led by the PM, has put paid to this conclusion more than once on many platforms. India’s increasing global heft is primarily an outcome of its calibrated strategic positioning in a new world order that is no longer dominated by the west and yet it is far from being controlled by rising power China (with help from Russia). The powers of the West are waning, especially when the rivals have understood that west (Washington and its allies) will not intervene in the ongoing war so long as NATO territories remain unharmed. 

Yet, the fact remains that the Western grouping is still the wealthiest global grouping. It still has a firm grip on world’s financial, cultural, and even academic institutions plus the media. This soft power helps it weave the popular narratives. It seeks to achieve its professed aims through deployment of diplomatic and coercive powers.

Russia and China are finding common cause because on one hand Russia has been crowded out from the global high table (and many Eastern European countries joining NATO), while on the other China perceivers increasing threat from groupings like Quad, AUKUS, ASEAN, etc. Both are pushing against West.  While Russia is upping the military ante in its neighbourhood, China is challenging the Western economic and governance model. In this background, the West is finding it perplexing as to why India is not on its side. But India is following a policy of enlightened self-interest amid the shifting sands of geopolitics that is now permanently in flux. Indeed, this ever transient state is helping India since on one hand it can build its military set up, and on the other it can sign mutually beneficial trade deals with nations of all hues to move towards becoming a five trillion economy.

During the recent India-US 2+2 dialogue India firmly articulated the independence of India’s foreign policy. Not only that, it has convinced US (and most recently Boris Johnson, of the UK) to accept New Delhi’s position on Russia. No doubt the Indo-US relations were further strengthened. Yet, it did not present the foreign minister from chiding the Western world on being hippocrite on issues like hostile invasions or violation of human rights or challenges to democratic institutions in India, particularly in the background of Western world’s less than stellar record on all these counts. India thus showed its firmness, and even defiance in face of western coercion. India is showing to the world that it has the sole agenda of growing strong without tilting in either direction-Russia or US – and yet forge fruitful ties with all those who matter to achieve this goal. It has decided, and communicated this fact to the rest of the world, that it will stand firm against any kind of bullying economically, militarily, or diplomatically. 

Since Nehru’s times the core tenets of India’s foreign policy have always been to play a balancing game with rival camps (mainly US and erstwhile USSRby pursuing partnerships with all great powers of the time (China was not so mighty then). And now even the US administration has conceded to the fact that while India wishes to further cement its relationship with US, this will not come at the expense of severing-or even limiting – meaningful ties with Russia. The world is not unipolar, and in a multipolar world order, the only sensible realpolitic stance would be to refrain from tilting excessively in either direction. The only guiding force should be the hawk eyed focus on managing the self interest. India has amply demonstrated this resolve through words and action on global theatre in wake of Ukraine crisis. India needs to take care of its own interests without being intimidated. 

India needs to acquire economic heft through domestic industrialisation and modernization. It should also work in the direction of plural financial and digital systems that are not the monopoly of any one nation or few institutions. It should seek a balance of power in its immediate neighbourhood, rather in Asia and the whole of the world. When the cold war ended, the post war scenario failed to accommodate all sides in fair manner. The ‘defeated’ power – Russia – is now refusing to accept the US and EU formulation of defence security architecture handed out to it. This is the primary reason for the current crisis. India should aim at connecting with Eurasia. Closer home it should build a counterforce to Chinese influence by deepening ties with its own neighbours. It should catalyze a beneficial trade and investment system at global level by flexing its economic muscles. And it should emphasize the fact that it is a multicivilization world, sans the dominance of any one that we live in.

It is time the world comes to term with an assertive India which refuses to be dictated and defined by the west. India is looking at the possibility of convergence of interests of all players; it is refusing to play ball to the classic western approach; are you with us or against us? We are committed to only our self interest.  

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