“As India’s economy continued to grow and the country engaged with the rest of the world on a more equal footing, India underwent a third evolution in the country’s strategic outlook. This shift, which is ongoing today, seeks to position India among the great powers by showcasing a willingness to take on more international responsibilities,” ran an article in The Diplomat. Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and his team have displayed skills as a smart and crafty diplomatic operative. India is taking on key global responsibilities to achieve the holy grail in the international order: a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. Modiji has been well advised by suave Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval, a former spy.
Former Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla too was a dutiful lieutenant. Shringla is now guiding India’s management of the G20 Summit meet of 2023. History is rightly described as the most accommodating affair. Its pages are full of mortal men and women anointed with immortality. These spaces are not always given as accolades. The leaders have to earn it. During the last eight years, Modiji has pushed India’s global influence both on strategic matters and also on the soft power front.
In 2015, Modi staged a huge publicity coup at the global stage. The International Day of Yoga started from that year and the move was recognised by the UN unanimously. In 2021, the essence of Diwali seems to have changed. It assumed almost a global respectability if not acceptability. The peculiarity of a foreign policy is that it is generally guided by permanent features—the geography and also the history. The legacy is a matter of pride but some situations require tremendous amounts of course corrections. Over the years, Indian diplomats and foreign ministers played experts trying to work out a ‘compromise position’ rather than playing hardball to push India’s national interests. In the words of retired diplomat Rajiv Sikri, “India indulged in moralistic posturing, and had an air of self-importance and self-righteousness as it strutted on the world stage with lofty statements that did not match its real strength”.
He further says, “In this shifting kaleidoscope, a more self-confident and ambitious India under Narendra Modi is seeking to develop a new paradigm for India’s foreign policy where India would not be a mere ‘balancer’ or ‘swing state’ but a ‘leading state’ that seeks a place at the global high table”.
Some years of formative period and decades of engagements with the USSR and NAM were also crucial. In the 1980s during the Rajiv Gandhi era when India prevented a coup in the Maldives, President Ronald Reagan had described the action as a “valuable contribution to regional stability”. Curiously but not quite surprisingly, a Pakistani official had reacted to the development and according to Time magazine said that such endorsements made many Indians believe that the country (India) could emerge as a ‘regional policeman’ sanctified by the US.
Prior to that, Dr Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, had predicted that “India will play an increasing international role”. It is debated that vision, ambition and necessity shaped India’s foreign policy between 1950 and till the 1980s. This was also a period of mixed bag as 1962 was a big debacle while 1965 was a major win against Pakistan. The 1971 war and liberation of Bangladesh were significant events. Years back, Pran Chopra had written in his book The Crisis of Foreign Policy that—“The Sino-Soviet offshoot of the Soviet-American Cold War shattered Nehru’s hope that Sino-Indian relations would one day become an Asian proclamation”. At a later stage when India started to build up the public sector steel industry, the Soviet Union was much eager to help India and the Americans were reluctant. This became a bigger factor when India launched initiatives to build up the defence industry. Friendship with the erstwhile Soviet Union and now Russia has been beneficial for India as there is now a strong defence supply-acquisition axis. Even till date, Indian defence preparedness and maintenance of old weaponry is based on Moscow’s help. In fact this is one reason that New Delhi cannot disown Moscow completely post Ukraine-Russia conflict.
India is the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 11 percent of global arms imports in 2017-2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Nearly 80 per cent of India’s weapons systems come from Russia.
On the other hand, the Indo-Russia friendship has strengthened and to an extent even for economic cooperation etc—there are now chances of growing bonds between Russia, India and China. It’s called RIC. India has maintained good ties with the key European players including France and Germany as well.
In 2022 as the Sri Lankan crisis came to fore, India asserted that it stands firmly with the people of crisis-hit Sri Lanka and will continue to help the island nation attain stability and economic recovery through “democratic means”. “We would stand with them in their quest for stability, economic recovery through democratic means and values, established democratic institutions and the constitutional framework. And I think the fact that this transition happened through the constitutional framework is a clear and positive indicator,” MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi told reporters. In March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi allowed an audience with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Western observers like The Guardian newspaper did not miss the point—“Modi had not met the string of other Foreign
Ministers to arrive in Delhi in recent days, including the UK Foreign Secretary who is also in the race to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Liz Truss, and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, so Lavrov has been singled out for attention by the Indian leader.
India abstained from UNSC and UNGA voting more than once and made it clear that Kremlin’s concerns ought to be understood and addressed. It has made a big difference globally and many global players hitherto underestimating New Delhi’s position have started showing a ‘new variety of respect’.
From foreign policy point of view, things are working in India’s favour. India has come out of the ‘shy’ period and shun the hesitancy that was apparent in the Congress era. Today, it is assertive and is being heard. Coming 25 years would be very critical for India to attain its place globally. But healthy domestic polity and inclusive growth are must. The high rates of economic growth have already ushered through domestic reforms. Maybe little more ought to be done in sectors like labour reforms. The agrarian reforms have hit roadblocks. We should remember that improved reforms trajectory helped attract international investors. Economic attractiveness gives India a space to engage the rest of the world on its own terms. A country needs to be ‘flexible’ and engage with the rest of the world to achieve win-win outcomes. So far, insiders say, the going has been good while powers such as the US and Russia cannot ignore India. The Modi Government has also ensured improved ties with the European world and the African nations. It is true, in the year 2022, there was confirmation that New Delhi was taking a completely independent line.
India is the only country among the Quad (three others being the US, Japan and Australia) which has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the geo-political standing is such that none can easily condemn India. The US today describes India as an ‘essential partner’.