India - International Relations
New Delhi’s great power ambition
Constantino Xavier explains the driving forces that support India's ambition to be a big player in the international arena. According to him, there are at least seven factors that sustain the idea of moral superiority of India. From Washington, DC.
No battles, no treaties, no negotiations. In 2005, one simple sentence was enough for the USA to win over India after decades of an uneasy and often hostile relation. While visiting New Delhi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that “India is emerging as not just a regional power but as a global power” and that both countries were “global partners.” India erupted into euphoria: I vividly remember Rice’s declarations flashing continuously on TV and the next morning’s bold newspaper headlines proudly announcing that India’s global leadership had finally been “recognized”.
This Indian great power ambition is not restricted to the popular domain of the Times of India or its readers’ rather naïve views on international politics. Talk to an Indian diplomat or attend a seminar at a Delhi think-tank and you’ll see India’s international role described with a plethora of monumental adjectives: from “rising” and “emerging”, to “giant”, “great”, “major” and even “super-power India.” The implicit suggestion is that New Delhi will - rather sooner than later - assume its predestined global pedestal. What drives and sustains this grandiose ambition?
First things first: for Indians, size does matter, even in international politics. India is often depicted as an elephant, and it is a big country indeed! Territory, population, economy, military… you name it! – Indians will flood you with a variety of facts, numbers and world rankings where their country assumes a leading position. In order to legitimize a greater role for India practically everything counts, including being the largest democracy or having the largest number of post offices in the world! Rankings placing India as No.1, from having the “largest film industry” or the “largest number of domestic terror groups,” are thus regular appearance on its newspaper’s front pages or in prime-time television news.
Second, more than half a century after the end of the British Raj, there is still an acute sense of post-colonial inferiority permeating the Indian worldview. Rooted in its fear of suffering neo-colonial subjugation or engaging in any type of asymmetric relation, this anxiety explains why even two decades after the end of the Cold War, non-alignment persists as an influential concept in Indian strategic debates. Sovereignty and territorial integrity also remain relatively untouchable concepts in its diplomatic canon. Sports tell us that offense is often the best defense and, in the same logic, India’s great power ambition functions accordingly as a larger geopolitical narrative which helps Indians to situate their country in a wider historical perspective, on a path from past submission to future preponderance and self-fulfillment. It is therefore not surprising that the very European idea of a “post-sovereign world” finds little receptiveness on the subcontinent..
There is still an acute sense of post-colonial inferiority permeating the Indian worldview.
Third, India’s great power ambition can also be traced back to the fierce revisionist tendencies which permeate current Indian historiography. In reaction to the dominant Marxist paradigms, an equally radical/nationalist, but more culturalist and exclusive “History of India” has crystallized over the last decades. History is now all about the “golden Vedic age” and India’s hitherto “dormant” Hindu civilizational attributes. This includes both delirious claims such as the invention of the helicopter and of nuclear power thousands of years ago, as well as more sober elegies of the Indus Valley civilization, the invention of the zero, or India’s technological advance and immense wealth until the advent of Muslims invasions and Western colonialism. Two implicit suggestions underpin this historiography: first, the understanding that historical and civilizational seniority should be a criterion of membership to the selective club of contemporary great powers; and, second, the interpretation that moments of internal unity (as, in the past, during the Gupta or Maurya empires) always coincide with moments of external grandeur.
Why, then, has post-1947 independence and its unprecedented free sub-continental political union not materialized into hard power on the external sphere? How to explain India’s relative weakness at the international level, for example its absence as a permanent member from the UN’s Security Council? This puzzle drives a fourth factor, namely theperception that it has been and continues to be discriminated against and disrespected by its peers. Deeply rooted in the nationalist mantra, is the belief that Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Party shaped India into a “soft state”: submissive, naïve, and full of intentions, but without the material capabilities to transform this into influence beyond South Asia. This deep sense of injustice (which, ironically, is equally strong in China) reflects a chronic malaise with the current system and its ordering principles. The feeling of discrimination and injustice runs deeper than the mere suspicion (especially during the Indira Gandhi years) that half of the world is constantly conspiring against New Delhi.“It’s just unfair: how can an ‘adolescent’ great power such as the USA assume a superpower status and relegate ‘old lady’ India to a second or third rank of newly emerging powers?”
This is where Hindu nationalism played a fundamental role, assuaging these post-colonial fears and insecurities by articulating the great power ambition in the post-Cold War era into a coherent foreign policy framework. Just a few weeks after reaching power in 1998, the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ordered two nuclear tests and thus declared India as a de facto member of the nuclear club. China and Pakistan were invoked as immediate reasons, but the tests were more about demonstrating India’s capacity to behave like a “tough” and “strong” state and guarantee its strategic autonomy in a very uncertain post-bipolar era. The popularity of Swami Vivekananda’s saying “Strength is life; Weakness is death” among Hindu nationalists attests to their preoccupation in contradicting what they perceive to be an excessive Orientalist (and then Gandhi-institutionalized) image of India as a peaceful, spiritual and non-material power. As an act of bold defiance, the 1998 tests therefore symbolize an India on the way of becoming a hard state, more respected than loved.
Hindu nationalism assuaged post-colonial fears by articulating the great power ambition into a coherent foreign policy framework.
Sixth, Western scholars like to point out India as a “positive” or “normative” power, and as an advocate of a fair and balanced “multipolar” world. Europeans, in particular, often like to interpret India’s status discontentment as an indicator of revisionism, in favor of a more just and democratic international order. Nothing is further from the truth: while Indians do feel misplaced within the current hierarchy, they are not opposed to any type of hierarchical order per se. Perhaps flowing from the relatively static and status-conscious tenets of Brahmanic Hinduism at the domestic level, Indians do not reject power and status asymmetries in international politics with the same vigor that mainstream and politically correct Europeans do. What concerns India is the fact that it is not on top and leading the way. Failing to understand this, many Western diplomats and analysts are thus often in for a rude shock when they first encounter their surprisingly hawkish “post-colonial” counterparts.
Seventh, the ambition is also rooted in the popular perception that India is also expected to assume a moral and normative responsibility towards “the others”. This sense of superiority (and paternalistic duty towards the rest) is indirectly enshrined in its Constitution, which imbues the state with the obligation to “promote”, “maintain”, “foster” and “encourage” various ways of ensuring international peace and security. This universal mandate, beyond merely ensuring national interests, further sustains India’s great power ambition on the basis of a strong sense of distinctiveness and (moral) superiority.
Finally, as noted above, the great power ambition is also sustained by the predominance of Realpolitik in Indian strategic and foreign policy thinking. Westerners often expect post-colonial states like India to be fertile breeding grounds for critical, post-modern and constructivist approaches to international politics, and their associated paradigms based on the softer dimensions of institutions, culture and norms as instruments for eroding the power-centric Westphalian order. However, the crude reality is that the hard tenets of power politics are alive and kicking in India and often paradoxically in consonance with earlier Marxist and Dependency theories that survived the 1980s and India’s liberalization. While the popularity of the Realist theses in India’s International Relations thinking comes in handy for legitimizing India’s current “pragmatist” or “omni-aligned” foreign policy, it is also the perfect breeding ground for its great power ambition. Hans Morgenthau, John Mearsheimer, Kenneth Waltz, Alfred Mahan thus continue to be read and adored and, if in need of an autochthonous version, there is always Kautilya as “the first realist”.