Ohen india officially takes over as head of g20 on December 1, he will do so as a prominent and sought-after actor on the world stage. Having refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she was praised this month for contributing to a joint leaders’ statement in Bali that implicitly did so. He then contributed to the creation of a fund in UN climate negotiations in Egypt to compensate developing countries for climate-related damage. This week, Jon Finer, US deputy national security adviser, described India as “very high” on the list of US partners who “can really help move a global agenda forward.”
Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party often attribute India’s growing stature to a more assertive foreign policy that dispenses with the deference and dithering that they say characterized the approach of previous governments. . Mr Modi, a charismatic Hindu nationalist who claims to want to be the “guru of the world”, would embody this change. “In the case of India, nationalism has actually led to greater internationalism,” Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in a landmark speech on the evolution of Indian foreign policy. Yet aside from its nationalist rhetoric, the Modi government’s approach and goals abroad are remarkably similar to those of its predecessors.
Since India gained independence in 1947, its foreign policy has prioritized developing its economy, defending its territory, and maintaining influence and stability in its neighborhood. And he did so imbued with a deep fear of being dominated by a more powerful country as it has been for so long. It was this sentiment that drove India and other newly independent countries to pursue their interests without joining either Cold War bloc, in what became known as non-alignment. “We don’t intend to be someone else’s plaything,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, who would become India’s first prime minister.
It is often said that the tightening of ties with America, which since the 1990s has seen India as an important potential counterweight to China, has paid for the non-alignment. In 2013, Indian officials formally adopted a new guiding principle, strategic autonomy (without quite specifying what had changed). In 2016, Mr Modi became the first Indian prime minister since 1979 not to attend the annual summit of the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement, which Nehru helped found. Under Mr. Modi, the rapprochement with America has accelerated. India has expanded defense cooperation with it and sought more US investment. She joined America, Japan and Australia to form the Quad, a diplomatic network that seeks to promote, in tacit resistance to China’s growing influence in the region, “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. . Mr Modi described America and India as “natural allies”, a heretical term for non-aligned traditionalists.
Yet that hasn’t stopped his government from maintaining all sorts of policies America doesn’t like, especially regarding Russia, India’s biggest arms supplier for decades. This was evidenced by India’s 11 abstentions from the UN on motions to criticize Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And also by the eagerness with which he stocked up on cheap Russian oil and fertilizers. Some Indian commentators say Mr Modi has re-embraced non-alignment. Indeed, the Prime Minister has resumed attending the annual Non-Aligned Movement party during the covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps America’s failures against the virus, including its reluctance to lift export controls on vaccines as covid-19 raged in India, made it reevaluate its pro-Americanism?
In reality, India’s commitment to non-alignment has never been as pure as traditionalists assume. As needed, he always got into bed with one power or another. During its border war with China in 1962, it turned to America for arms. After America moved closer to Pakistan, it veered so much towards the Soviet Union, whose ideology the Nehruvian elite worshiped, that non-alignment became a euphemism for anti-Americanism. India’s ties to America are not much closer today than her Soviet ties were then.
Its relations with America may indeed be more opportunistic than its ties with the Soviets, contrary to what some pro-Indian American policymakers believe. “India today is an aligned but issue-based state,” then-foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said in 2019. Its accommodation with America is therefore not ideological. This gives us the ability… to maintain our decision-making autonomy. Underscoring this point, Mr. Jaishankar suggested that America’s declining supremacy, of which its concern over the rise of China and its eagerness to draw closer to India are symptomatic, gives India both a reason and an opportunity to hedge your bets. “India must follow an approach of working with multiple partners on different agendas,” he said. The country has pursued this course with unusual vigor under Mr. Modi; hence its recent hyperactivity in world affairs. But the approach is nonetheless entirely consistent with the realism and distrust of clutter that, its pro-Soviet blip aside, has always guided Indian foreign policy.
But if its policy has changed less than announced, its reception abroad has changed enormously. India’s increased wealth and power means multiple partners are keen to work with it. This has helped Mr. Modi look like a statesman, even a guru. And India’s many suitors are ready to excuse anything they don’t like about his behavior. This has long been true of Russia’s eagerness to sell arms to India despite its friendship with America. This is even more evident in the West’s cautious response to its prevarication over the war in Ukraine.
At the start of the war, the US State Department reportedly reminded its diplomats of a stiffly worded missive, instructing them to sideline their Indian counterparts during the war. “We know that India has a relationship with Russia that is separate from the relationship we have with Russia,” the State Department spokesman said. This American reluctance to criticize India has presented Mr. Modi with opportunities both to maintain economic ties with Russia and to win praise for even mildly reprimanding it.
So the applause he won after his semi-gnomic rebuke to Mr Putin – “today’s era is not an era of war” – was paraphrased in the Bali statement. None of its predecessors would have been so praised for so little. There is no doubt that Indian diplomacy has changed a bit over the past two decades. But the geopolitical context has changed more. ■