Below is the text of a lecture I delivered at the famed Vienna Diplomatic Academy just a while ago. The audience was more international than Austrian and at least three Indian students identified themselves. The rather prosaic title was given by the Academy as it is the title of a course the students have to cover for their degree. The moderator told me that it was a full house despite the fact that all lectures were not compulsory. The discussion was rich, spirited and informed.
If you find in my lecture echoes of some recent speeches of Mani Shankar Aiyer, Shyam Saran, Shivshankar Menon or Shashi Tharoor, it was not accidental. I did not do a cut and paste job, nor did I plagiarise them. But I found that some of the ideas articulated by them recently fitted into my narrative and they occurred to me as I wrote. Being original was not my priority, but making my presentation effective and comprehensive. As they say, copying from one is plagiarism, but copying from many is research. I wish to thank them for being my Dronacharyas, who, hopefully, will not demand a costly gurudakshina.
The current geopolitical and economic importance of India
I am delighted to be back at the Vienna Diplomatic Academy, where I have listened to erudite scholars and brilliant diplomats in the past. The Vienna Diplomatic Academy occupies a special place as a nursery of diplomats in a city, which is considered the cradle of diplomacy. I consider it an honour to be invited here to speak about my country, its current geopolitical and economic importance. I am grateful to the Academy and the Public Diplomacy Division of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs for making this possible. Vienna brings back fond memories of my tenure here when my good friend, Ambassador Sucharipa headed the Academy. I am sorry to hear that he passed away recently.
India has been important to the world over centuries of its civilisational history. From zero to complex philosophical concepts, India has contributed immensely to the evolution of mankind. Indian treatises on such varied subjects as rule of law, statecraft, astrology, diplomacy and even love have determined human behaviour for centuries. India is a young country, but an ancient civilization. It has played its part in the past, it plays its part today. Its image may have changed from time to time, but its importance has been beyond question throughout recorded history. A country that has given the world the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, Kathakali and Kathak, the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi will remain significant even if it does nothing more for a century. But India continues to be a dynamic power, playing its role in a changing world.
India has never been a homogeneous entity. Its diversity is its strength. It has also never been a conquering nation. Its charms and wealth have attracted a multitude of cultures to its vast expanses. Emperors and conquerors subjugated it, but it outlasted all of them. It absorbed the best in alien cultures, but never lost its identity. The India of today derives its strength from its rich heritage and its innovative spirit. Its political and economic importance today is part of a continuum, enriched by experience, innovation and triumph of the human spirit.
Today, the world hails the emergence of India. President Barack Obama declared in the Indian Parliament last year that India is not an emerging nation, it has already emerged. But India’s emergence has been celebrated before. President George Bush and President Bill Clinton before him, came to India to declare that India is indispensable in building a new world order. When India won its independence in1947 after a non-violent freedom struggle, it was hailed as a model and a hope for millions under colonial subjugation. Mahatma Gandhi, like the Buddha two thousand years earlier, became a hero to the world. “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked this earth in flesh and blood”, said Albert Einstein. The excavations of Mohanjodaro and Harappa had already revealed that the civilization that existed in the Indus Valley was more advanced than anything that existed at that time. For India, therefore, being considered important in the world is not a new experience.
But it is true that India has assumed a new importance and a new stature politically and economically since the end of the cold war. It has been compared to a slumbering elephant, slowly waking up and making its presence felt in the international arena. More has been written about India than ever before. Power, they say, is shifting from the west to the east. India, as Indira Gandhi declared some years ago, has been recognized as a “different power”, different in ambitions, different in development strategy, different in political profile and different in ethos. What makes India important today is not just its phenomenal economic growth and its growing political influence, but the way it conducts itself as a responsible nation, seeing itself as an essential component of an evolving world order. It does not seek domination, but harmony, it seeks equity, not exploitation. It has not sought economic growth without care for the environment, it has not surrendered to unbridled market forces without restraint and regulation. This explains how India has escaped the worst consequences of global recession, it also explains why India has not yet attained its legitimate place in the global power structure.
India’s greatest challenge politically and economically has been in its neighbourhood. But in dealing with its neighbours, most of them smaller and weaker, India has sought cooperation rather than confrontation, peaceful settlement of disputes rather than armed conflicts or other forms of coercion. Wars have been imposed on us, but we did not escalate them. We have not held on to an inch of territory, which came into our hands as a result of war. India has been patient with boundary disputes, resorting to persuasion and logic rather than use or threat of use of force. China’s rise and assertiveness brings back memories of the disillusionment of the early sixties, when India’s vision of Asian unity was rudely shattered. But provocations are met with patience. India seeks areas of cooperation and mutual benefit even when it is encircled and threatened. Managing an adversarial relationship with China is the biggest challenge for Indian foreign policy in the next decades. The key to the future may lie in economic complementarities creating a political environment that fosters normalization. With both the countries seeking equations with others, it may take a long time for the two countries to engage with each other without external involvement.
Pakistan, “born of the same womb” as India, sees an existential threat in friendly relations with India as the question, “Why Pakistan?” may come up if they have no serious differences with India. Neither religion nor language justifies the partition and justifications are invented and reinvented again and again. But India has persisted with its peace offensive without compromising on the non-negotiables like the status of Jammu and Kashmir. India has walked the extra mile to peace despite provocations like the Mumbai terrorist attack. If only Pakistan had abandoned terrorism as an instrument of policy, there could be a breakthrough in bilateral relations. Even as it is, there are hopeful signs as Pakistan begins to recognize the imperatives of economic cooperation. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has begun to make a difference in the region.
With all the problems it may have with its neighbours, which entail a mix of hard pursuit of its own national interests and sympathetic understanding of the needs of others, India remains the key to stability and progress in South Asia. Its importance as a regional power is long acknowledged. More recently, India’s importance in the outer periphery of our neighbourhood has also been recognized. Secretary State Hillary Clinton travelled to Chennai recently to stress the importance of India’s benign influence in South East Asia and beyond. As against Chinese economic and military assertiveness, the countries in the region look up to India for cooperation with a friendly face.
In the international arena, especially at the United Nations, India has always worked for the common good, for the global commons, not to use it as an instrument of Indian foreign policy. India has given to the UN much more than what it has ever sought. Indian diplomacy has been responsible for seminal agreements and resolutions, which have resolved global problems and established frameworks for lasting peace. Austria has not forgotten the role the Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, played in liberating Austria from foreign occupation. Improvement of relations with the United States has not diluted India’s basic position on sovereignty, non-interference, non-violence and independence of judgment. India’s record as a non-permanent member of the Security Council since the beginning of this year has raised eye brows and questions have been asked about a return to the old nonaligned vocabulary. But the truth is that the fundamental tenets of the Indian position were not altered even when new strategic partnerships were established. New strategic partnerships are, for India, a tool for enhancing international cooperation, not to seek opportunistic advantages. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke at the UN General Assembly this year not just for India, but for the entire disadvantaged world.
India’s quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council is still unsuccessful and may remain so for some more time precisely because India is not willing to become a tool in the hands of those, who are still taking no action to pursue the assurances of support they have given. Those assurances were linked to certain responsibilities, which, in their view, entail accepting the western world view and its pursuit of regime changes to suit their political and economic interests. Rightly, the Prime Minister of India moved away this year from seeking support for India to be a permanent member to asserting the need for UN reform as an essential prerequisite for the world body to become credible and effective in its mission. He has realized from the experience of a few months in the Security Council that membership of the Security Council will impose undue strain on our policies. India has not been less important in the world since it left the Security Council in 1992. If anything, it was during that period that the shift of global power from the west to the east began.
India has always been an important player in nuclear disarmament despite its refusal to join the NPT. By declaring itself a nuclear weapon state in 1998, it challenged the whole edifice of non-proliferation, which enabled the recognized nuclear weapon states to make their arsenals larger and more sophisticated. But in a short span of seven years, the US initiated the nuclear deal in recognition of India’s strength and its vast market. Today, India is no more a nuclear pariah, but a partner in non-proliferation and nuclear security.
Geopolitically, India is literally at the crossroads of the world today. It belongs to a number of political and economic groupings, which enable it to traverse geographical and political borders and benefit from multiple partnerships. India has strategic partnerships with most major powers. As a member of BRICS, India works with Russia and China, as a member of IBSA, it coordinate efforts with the two other large developing countries. It plays its traditional role in the Nonaligned and G-77. It has close links with ASEAN and several other groupings, old and new. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, India has stood firm on principles, even as it cooperates with the permanent five. In the G-4, with Germany, Japan and Brazil, India strives to bring about reform of the Security Council. Good relations with the Arabs and Israel at the same time and the massive presence of Indians in the Gulf countries give it a unique position in the Middle East. More than anything else, G-20 has given India a forum to shape the contours of global economic policy. In all these multiple forums, India’s voice is heard with respect as it is the voice of wisdom, moderation and reconciliation.
On India’s growing economic importance, there is complete agreement around the globe. The phenomenal economic growth even in the years of recession has given India a leading role in G-20, the emergence of which democratized decision making in the economic arena. In a dramatic reversal of roles, Indian direct investment in the US has increased and assumed importance. Western leaders went to India not only to find markets, but also to find jobs for their citizens. They vie with each other to bag huge defence and nuclear contracts with offers of political concessions. When India decided not to buy fighter aircraft from the US, it openly stated that friendship would have come with it if India had bought the aircraft. If India had placed orders for the envisaged nuclear reactors and the fighter aircraft from the US, it would have saved President Barack Obama the embarrassment of rising unemployment and helped his reelection. Such is the level of economic importance that India has assumed in the world today. In the old days, American mothers told their children not to waste food because many Indian children went to bed without any food. Today they tell their children to eat well because they would have to compete with Indian children to succeed in this world. President Barack Obama once advised his people to remember that India and China were striving for the number one position in the world and the US should work harder to meet that challenge.
I have given you enough evidence of the importance India has assumed politically and economically in today’s world. Statistically, India has the second largest population, and poised to be the first shortly, it has the fourth largest army in the world, it is the fifth largest economy in the world in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms and soon to become the third, after the US and China in 2012. A Japanese writer had predicted long ago that Japan would never become a super power as it did not have a large territory, a huge population and plenty of natural resources. Since India has all these with nearly ten percent growth rate, India has been described variously as a potential super power, though a reluctant one and a future world leader, even though India has several millions below the poverty line.
But what makes India a particularly significant nation today is what is called its soft power or smart power. Basically, it is the perception about a country, either deliberately projected by a Government or the sum total of its image and activities or its attractiveness. As Dr. Shashi Tharoor, the Member of Parliament from my constituency in India puts it, “hard power is exercised, while soft power is evoked.” There are many aspects of Indian history and culture that have attracted people around the globe and this soft power could be evoked in order to enhance India’s importance. India’s diversity, its tolerance, its religious freedom, its literature, its cinema and its music may have such a cumulative impact on the world that the political and economic importance is enhanced by soft power. Its manifestations can be seen in the extraordinary popularity of Bollywood in many parts of the globe, the influence of Indian soap operas in Afghanistan and Brazil, Indian restaurants in the UK, Bollywood music in Indonesia and the bindi the dot, bidi the hand rolled cigarettes and bhangra, the Punjabi dance in the US. Combined with economic strength, political clout and military strength, including nuclear weapons, smart power may well give India an edge over the others. Soft power may not be sustainable in certain cases, where the attractiveness is dulled by actual performance in domestic and foreign policies, but India has power of both the varieties to make it a significant power on the world stage.
As for the strategy India is likely to adopt on the international stage, a clear indication was given by the National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon in an address in August this year. “For a considerable time to come, India will be a major power with several poor people. We must always, therefore, be conscious of the difference between weight, influence and power. Power is the ability to create and sustain outcomes. Weight we have, our influence is growing, but our power remains to grow and should first be used for our domestic transformation. History is replete with examples of rising powers, who prematurely thought their time had come, who mistook influence and weight for real power”, he said. He suggested that India would, therefore, walk its own path in the world.
If power means the capacity to hurt or help, India is developing both, but it is not about to project them. It will bide its time as a different power till it is called upon to play a more prominent role on the world stage.