It is no exaggeration to say that India must make the best out of an ever changing international system taking into account not only the changing needs and demands of the world but also its own domestic and foreign policy interests. If perhaps in the 1970s and 1980s India was looked upon as no more than a regional power with limited stretch, that perception is no longer valid given the global role India itself has taken on or has been thrust upon it by major and non-major powers.
India’s rise as a global actor in the international system has in many respects been pegged to globalisation and in the route the leaders of the country sought to shift direction in the 1990s. The unshackling of economic India meant that it soon emerged as a major force to contend with and along with China was indeed to be reckoned with not only in the Asia Pacific but beyond. If globalisation brings with it tremendous opportunities and challenges to nation states, it also sets forth parameters for an emerging multilateral order and one that only a nation-state can determine for itself how it is going to respond.
To say that Sidhu, Mehta, Jones and 19 other scholars, researchers and practitioners of foreign policy have merely “added” one more work to the existing literature would be unfair. Rather this group has put together a compelling document that lays thread bare not only the searching questions that policy makers in New Delhi have had to ask in the last few decades but will continue to be tormented with in the years and decades to come. In whatever field India chooses to look at multilateralism, according to the authors, one of the bottom line questions is this: am I going to accept the rules of the system, break the rules or make/shape the rules of the game?
As Sidhu, Mehta and Jones put it in their introductory chapter, “Today India’s economic, political and social future is inexorably linked to the latest wave of globalisation. This linkage, coupled with the changing world order, provides, perhaps, a once in a millennium opportunity to shape the norms and institutions that will govern the global order”. Drawing upon the first Independence Day speech of Jawaharlal Nehru, the editors provide the framework for their volume: “Will India keep its ‘tryst with destiny’ and emerge as one of the shapers of the emerging world order?”
That shaping of the emerging order has a word or two of caution from Shyam Saran, India’s one time top diplomat and Chairman of the National Security Council Advisory Board. Drawing upon his first hand experience in the Conference on Disarmament and Climate Change, Saran makes the point rather quite lucidly — engage with all major powers but align with none. “We need to become adept at forming and working through coalitions that are issue based and sometimes event specific. Dealing with uncertainty demands flexibility of response. It also demands contingency planning, the working out of alternative scenarios and the Indian responses that are appropriate to each”, Saran maintains in his contribution, going on to make the point that finding the right balance between the demands of a global role and the imperatives of domestic challenges is “never easy”.
The challenges to India on the multilateral front come from many issues and all of which are relevant to the country and at the same time scholars like Kanti Bajpai have made the point that it was not without reason that India had a certain amount of ambivalence to multilateralism and a mixed track record of multilateral diplomacy and third party engagement in disputes settlement. The technicalities of river water disputes being what they are may lead to acceptable outside involvement but Bajpai makes the point, and correctly so, that “it is difficult to imagine” that the Kashmir or the border dispute with China being solved through arbitration, multilaterally or through third party involvement.
One of the interesting discussions in the collection of essays deals with the tendency within India for quite sometime to see itself only as a “land power” and in the process not take note of the fact that the country was more the central node of the “yawning maritime expanses of the Indian Ocean”. Iskander Luke Rehman makes the point that for a country like India that used to play an extremely limited form of naval cooperation, India is now involved in a an array of wide ranging and complex exercises with a number of countries. “New Delhi … now embraces a more inclusive form of maritime diplomacy and plays an increasing salient role in shaping the norms and rules that undergird the law of the sea”.
This rich collection also has Raja Mohan on Changing Dynamics of India’s Multilateralism, Srinath Raghavan on India as a Regional Power, Sanjaya Baru on the Economic Imperatives for India’s Multilateralism, the Capacity for Multilateralism by Tanvi Madan, , issues of sovereignty and order by David Malone and Rohan Mukherjee, India and Peacekeeping by Richard Gowan and Sushant Singh, Rajesh Rajagopalan on India and its approach to Arms Control and Disarmament, Sandeep Bhardwaj on Cyberspace security, India and International Financial Institutions by Devesh Kapur, Navroz Dubash on Climate Change, Arunaba Ghosh and David Steven on Energy, Food and Water Security, Nitin Pai on India and International norms on responsibility to protect, genocide prevention, human rights and democracy and Christophe Jaffrelot and Sidhu on Plurilateralism to Multilateralism?