India in the changing world

Print edition : May 30, 2014

RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan (left) and Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda at the International Monetary and Financial Committee meeting during the IMF and World Bank's 2014 Annual Spring Meetings in Washington on April 12. Photo: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS

The book, comprising 17 articles, deals with India’s role in the changing global political and economic order and attempts to show how difficult, and yet unavoidable, it is to protect or promote one’s own interests.

ONCE considered a country too poor to be taken seriously, but too large to be ignored, India today has a very different image in the comity of nations. Whether this change has come about because of what has been happening within India or in the rest of the world can be debated and there is enough to be said on both sides. India had started changing, though difficult to say from when. When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980 from her short wilderness experience, she had turned from left to right. Rajiv Gandhi, in his turn, followed that path and also inaugurated a new technological era readily picked up by many private companies that gave the country a lead in the information technology revolution.

But the decisive change in the country can be traced to the early 1990s. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh opened up the country to foreign private capital through their “reforms”, which changed internal economic policies also. It is claimed that these measures led to the high growth path of the first decade of reforms, leading to the “India Shining” slogan of the first few years of the second and a modified version of the same until the end of that decade. When the Western world was caught up in an economic crisis in 2007-08, world leaders were ready to listen to the wise Prime Minister of a country that was moving up in its growth path. Adding to India’s growing importance was, let us not forget, Pokhran 1998, which gave the country entry into the exclusive “nuclear club”. So, here was India in the first decade of the 21st century—with a population of a billion and more (and a democracy too!), a nuclear power and with a near double-digit annual economic growth rate. Awesome!

The world had changed too. What had emerged after the Second World War where there were only two superpowers had disappeared, with one of them collapsing in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Militarily, then, it was a unipolar world. But there were two power configurations—the old (fading?) West and a new rising East, the latter represented by China and India. More important still, there is only one world, the “globe”, dominated by capital, private capital at that, but still with hundreds of political voices heard principally in a club that calls itself “the United Nations”.

What is new in India’s role in shaping this emerging multilateral order (disorder?)? This is the question that the contributors address in this volume. They (22 to be precise) have the credentials to address this question. Many of them were dealing directly with it as officials in different Ministries of the Government of India, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; some have been associated with institutions dealing with public policy; yet others are administrators-turned academics. A question they pose and try to answer is: In the changing global political and economic order, is India a rule-maker, rule-taker, rule-shaper or rule-breaker?

It may be recalled that India, though still under British rule then, was one of the founding members of the United Nations in 1945 as also of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And because of the standing that Gandhi and Nehru had in the closing years of that decade as well as in the early 1950s, they were listened to by the international community, though many global leaders of the time felt that Indians were too moralistic in their approach to complex problems. In the dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan, Nehru (who was also heading the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) idealistically took it to the U.N. without adequate appreciation of the political undercurrents in that body. Today, India’s stand is that it does not want any third party interventions in its “internal affairs” or bilateral relationships. But in dealing with the complex problems in Sri Lanka, India is not sure what role the U.N. or other countries should play.

Similarly, Nehru took the initiative to form an alliance of non-aligned countries, but soon learned that it was not easy not to be aligned with one of the two superpowers, and that India would rely more on the geographically closer Soviet Union than on the politically and culturally closer United States. Such indeed are the forces, most of them hidden, that shape the emerging world. Hence, the possibilities for any one country to influence them are limited. And, of course, there is the prime consideration that one’s own interests must be promoted, or at least protected. The 17 pieces that constitute the present volume attempt to show how difficult, and yet how unavoidable, the task is.

Geography, naturally, plays a role in influencing, if not deciding, what needs to be done and what can be done. As the saying goes, it is possible to select one’s friends, but not one’s neighbours. The neighbours are there—some possibly friendly, some hostile, some inconvenient.

“India’s core interests and its capacity to secure these have apparently been bounded by geography and the politics of South Asia,” says one of the contributors. India has much in common with its immediate neighbours, but there are worrying concerns also.

India is the largest and most powerful country in the region and many of its immediate neighbours are tiny ones by comparison. It is not surprising then that most of her neighbours consider it with suspicion, if not hostility. Pakistan, our biggest neighbour and until Partition a part of what we considered our country, is our biggest enemy now. We cannot be concerned with our immediate neighbours alone. We must look East, interact with a wide variety of sovereign states. We must benefit by trade with them; we must compete with many of them in the global markets.

We must learn from the rapid economic transformations of the city state of Singapore and of South Korea. Above all, we must assess China’s strengths and weaknesses and be ready to join hands with that rising superpower in our fights with Western powers and be constantly on the vigil about its military might.

Our engagements with the West Asian countries are complex. We have had long associations with Afghanistan and are interested in reviving and renewing them, but we have to cross two hostile forces, Pakistan and the Taliban. We have interests in Iran from where we get the bulk of our oil, but we learn that most other countries of the world also have their interests in that country.

Rule-taker

Economic issues play a major role in international relations. Although, as noted already, India was a founding member of the IMF and had placed before that body during its early days some suggestions to safeguard the interests of non-Western countries, our role in global economic issues was limited as long as we followed an inward-looking economic regime. (It may be noted that India’s share of world trade declined from 2.0 per cent in 1950 to 0.5 per cent in 1980.) But this phase of quasi-isolationism had to change when the discussions on the General Agreement on Tariff s and Trade (GATT) started with its many “rounds” leading finally to the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). When the GATT rounds were started in 1986, India’s main concern was to protect its specific interests, and for long the strategy was to go slow on multilateral trade.

But with the “reforms” of 1991 whose main plank was to allow foreign private capital to flow into the country, our economic strategy had to move towards multilateralism as propagated and largely practised by the WTO and publicly admitting that the WTO dispute settlement system was indeed a valuable achievement. With the Indian corporate sector also becoming champions of the free flow of goods and capital across national boundaries, India had become very much a rule-taker.

On climate change, India can claim some credit for getting global recognition that there is a problem which can be solved only with the cooperation of all countries.

India played a not–so-insignificant role in getting the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle accepted, but appeared to be single-mindedly devoted to it even when it became evident that a large country must accept a more positive approach and take definite steps to reduce global warming.

On the eve of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, India, along with China and many other countries of the Global South, agreed to a phased reduction in “emissions intensity” over the period from 2005 to 2020. In the aftermath of Copenhagen, India has continued to play a highly visible role in this sphere, in that process also discovering that it is imperative for the country to strive hard to gain and retain new allies.

India’s eagerness to play a prominent role in global affairs has been put to the test most clearly in its relationships with the U.N., especially in its attempt to be seated at the high table as a permanent member of the Security Council. That has not happened so far and it is doubtful if it will happen in the foreseeable future. India faces several problems here.

The first is that the Big Five are extremely jealous of their power as permanent members, especially the power of veto that it confers on each one of them. The second is that one of the five is China, which does not relish the idea of another Asian country joining the high table. There is a basic problem, too.

The chapter that deals with the theme puts it thus: “.…[S]ince the end of the Cold War, India’s multilateral engagements have increased in number and intensity on the global scale, but its security challenges have remained overwhelmingly internal and regional, in effect constraining India’s ability to manoeuvre at the multilateral level…. Therefore, due to concerns of national security and international representation, India has been more supportive of sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of states and less committed to an international order that, in the official Indian view, does not accommodate Indian interests or aspirations.” This internal view must be quite palpable to other members and so they too become rather lukewarm towards India’s periodic attempts to reach the top.

As an aside, probably more than an aside, the authors also point out that the size of India’s Mission in the Security Council in 2011 was just 24, only slightly above Portugal’s 21, a little more than half of Brazil’s 42 and way below China’s 63. India aspires, but does not pursue.

I have found this volume very helpful in coming to have an understanding of the complex issues that the country has to deal with to be an active participant in today’s changing world and recommend it to those who are eager to know more.

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