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India at 75 | Looking back, looking ahead...

Time for India to reclaim its moral leadership

The challenge today is to define a unique foreign policy identity and shape the country’s engagement with a chaotic world

August 15, 2022 04:48 am | Updated 08:19 am IST

‘Once a site of India’s primacy, South Asia is no longer ‘India’s region’. Picture shows Nepalese policemen at the Basantapur Durbar Square that was damaged in an earthquake, in Kathmandu, in 2015

‘Once a site of India’s primacy, South Asia is no longer ‘India’s region’. Picture shows Nepalese policemen at the Basantapur Durbar Square that was damaged in an earthquake, in Kathmandu, in 2015 | Photo Credit: AP

At 75, India — a younger state and an older nation — stands at a critical juncture in its relationship with the world. The world in which India won indepdence in 1947 has changed beyond recognition, from a bipolar U.S.-U.S.S.R. world to a brief unipolar moment of American hegemony to one that is moving toward another bipolar competition between China and the United States, distracted by the illusions of a multipolar world. For India, the challenge today is to define its unique foreign policy identity, and shape the contours of its engagement with an increasingly chaotic world. India can address this by reclaiming its moral leadership in the region and beyond.

A post-normative turn

India at 75 appears to have become a ‘normal country’ (or just another country if you will) with its claims of a moral or political exceptionalism increasingly ringing hollow (or being abandoned), and its national interests articulated in a more unembarrassed manner. There is an abiding feeling within much of the Indian strategic and political elite that its moral claims have not served the country’s interests well. This post-normative turn in India’s foreign policy, with its attendant aggression, a new language of self-interest and growing balance of power temptations, is likely to define India’s attitude towards the world going forward. India has long given up on non-alignment, and its legatee concept ‘strategic autonomy’ is devoid of any normative connotations, unlike its predecessor.

While this post-normative turn has helped better clarify the country’s national interests to itself and others, the moral argument is no longer viewed as a powerful foreign policy tool. There is an enduring grievance in contemporary India that the moral arguments it consistently made since (and even prior to) its independence have not taken India very far. While it is not wrong to argue that in an increasingly chaotic world, self-help is unavoidable, and moral arguments or policies alone will not take nations very far especially those located in hard geopolitical situations, it is also not inaccurate to argue that nations and leaders who can provide moral leadership have a special place in the comity of nations.

So, the question that countries such as India (because the world still, albeit occasionally, looks up to us for moral leadership or as a peace-builder) should ask is whether it is possible to uphold the norms and values in foreign policy pursuits without necessarily sacrificing its own national interests. As the historian E.H. Carr powerfully argued in his masterpiece, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, “any sound political thought must be based on elements of both utopia and reality”. India may have become a ‘normal country’ today, but there is no reason for us to stop being a normal power with a moral persuasion.

India and global institutions

Another important factor in India’s relationship with the world is its role as an institution builder (or the lack thereof). India has followed seemingly contradictory policies. It has been keen on participating in global institutions, including the UN Security Council (which it has been kept out of), it has made significant contributions to various types of international organisations, international or inter-governmental, and it has been a keen participant in various global efforts at addressing common global challenges. And yet, despite our keen desire to be a part of global institutions and governance structures, have we made, sustained or supported such institutions in our own region? I agree it would not have been easy and would have involved compromises.

Let us dig a little deeper. Even as we fought for sovereign equality and non-intervention in the affairs of other countries globally, and dismissed hegemony or the dominance of any one power, we have done pretty much the opposite in our own region (once again, I get it — ‘it’s complicated’). Notwithstanding the double standards, the point I want to stress is that we lost an opportunity in our own region to lead by example. Once a site of India’s primacy, South Asia is no longer ‘India’s region’, and so India has lost the opportunity to build cooperative institutions and norms in the region, and to sustain its political influence in it.

The impact of such a lost opportunity is becoming evident today. India’s reluctance over building institutions in its ‘periphery’ which can sustain democratic values and economic integration has come back to haunt the country given how Beijing’s predatory economic practices have managed to sway the region so effortlessly. So, we must reimagine our approach to global and regional institutions and norm-building.

India is also a power caught between the deep desires of being a great power and the material incapacities of being unable to become one. That was perhaps a reason why the country’s ‘early leaders’ sought to project India as a moral great power, cognisant of its debilitating material incapacities to be a ‘normal’ great power. Seventy-five years since Independence, India is perhaps neither — a moral great power or one in the standard material sense.

Our loss (or wilful renunciation) of moral agency in foreign policy has a number of consequences. For one, our ability to build peace or mediate for global peace has vastly diminished (not that there is much appetite for doing so in New Delhi even if material ability were available). Second, contemporary India’s pursuit of its interests is hardly backed by normative arguments but by material power (which it does not have a great deal of) or exploitation of great power contradictions or playing the balance-of-power games.

As the incumbent Foreign Minister writes in his book, The India Way, India seeks to advance its “national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions”, using “competition to extract as much gains from as many ties as possible” and soliciting or manipulating stronger forces to its advantage. Surely these are standard practices of statecraft and India cannot be faulted for adopting them in an uncertain world. And, yet, this line of thinking belongs to a passive state unwilling to proactively shape the outcomes of international politics. Can we not do better than that?

Here is a related question: when India seeks a place at the global high tables, what does it bring to the table? If the answer is one that is premised on the argument of sheer size, that is a lazy one. Consider this: India will soon become the most populous country in the world, but it will hardly be a demographic superpower; it is set to be the world’s sixth-largest economy but it is still too poor to spend for global peace, stability or maintenance of world order. So, what exactly can we offer the world if we want to proactively shape the global order? That is precisely where normative arguments and moral leadership are important.

Elusive peace and stability

Another major aspect of India’s engagement with the world is its search for peace and stability. New Delhi’s insistent references to ‘terrorism’ in its statements in various forums is a partial indication of this deep desire for a stable neighbourhood. Despite enjoying regional primacy for a long time, India failed to pacify the region, and its own actions have often contributed to regional instability. But there is a larger issue here pertaining to India’s moral agency: our attitudes and policies toward the outside world will also be a function of who we are internally. Our Weltanschauung cannot be seen to be divorced from who we are internally as a nation. Put differently, can India truly build peace externally without building peace internally? Good foreign policy starts with good domestic politics.

We must reclaim our moral leadership in the comity of nations, but it has to begin from within the country and neighbourhood. The argument is not that India must relinquish its hard national interests, but that moral arguments have the power to highlight the appeal of our national interests even more.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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