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India India Must Decide What It Is Rising For

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
India Must Decide What It Is Rising For

World Politics Review

Harsh V. Pant - 22 Nov 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama made a splash in India by announcing that Washington will back New Delhi's bid for a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council. It was a major policy shift that India has long clamored for and that the U.S. has long been reluctant to offer. As such, it warmed the hearts of Indian policymakers who have often viewed American support for the Security Council bid as a litmus test of the burgeoning U.S.-India partnership.

But in backing India's claim, Obama also raised some uncomfortable issues for Indian policymakers, making clear that Washington expects a newly empowered New Delhi to deal firmly with Iran and speak up on subjects like human rights violations in Myanmar.

That, in turn, speaks to a fundamental question that India has yet to answer. For all the talk of its rise in recent years, India has yet to define clearly what it stands for as an aspiring global power. Without that ideational mooring in place, India's claims to great power status are less likely to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the world. Indian policymakers are increasingly coming to terms with their nation's rise, but there is still an absence of big ideas backed by political conviction to guide it. More worrisome still, there is also an intellectual vacuity in the debate on what being a great power means for India. When India was on the margins of world politics, it mattered little what India stood for. But now that India is rapidly assuming global stature, it needs to address the issue of the larger purpose behind its growing ambitions. India wants to rise, but what for?

This lack of strategic vision is exacerbated by certain aspects of India's political culture. Indian elites have a growing sense of their country as an emerging great power and an important player on the global stage. Yet the Indian state seems unable to fully leverage the opportunities presented by its economic rise. Policymaking in democracies -- especially a multi-ethnic one like India's -- is a complex, messy process, with inherent tensions often exacerbated by the demands of pursuing a great-power foreign policy. But India's polity displays an almost-paralytic fragmentation of authority, to the point where a sense of drift prevails on a range of crucial issues. Policy initiatives continue to be hampered by a highly fragmented and unstable political environment, with the result that larger issues confronting Indian foreign policy are often left unaddressed.

In The New Asian Hemisphere," Kishore Mahbubani makes a strong case for India's global leadership, asserting that India's "credentials as the world's largest democracy; its open, tolerant and inclusive culture; its unique geopolitical and cultural position as a bridge between East and West gives it a unique opportunity to provide the leadership for forging new forms of global governance . . . " Certainly, India's democratic political system will go a long way in allaying the apprehensions of the established powers, thus smoothing its rise to global prominence. But the real challenge lies in the domestic sphere, where the Indian state will have to succeed in overcoming the constraints that continue to inhibit the country's potential.

India has always wanted to be taken seriously. Now it would do well to remember the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for; it may come true." For if India succeeds in achieving its great-power ambitions, the transition is not going to be easy, and will take place in full view of a global audience. That means that everyone will be listening when New Delhi speaks -- or can't figure out what to say -- and watching when it acts. They will also care about what Indian policymakers decide to do, and even more so if India does become a permanent member of the Security Council, where it would have to bite the bullet and take positions on a range of critical issues. Given the fragility of its domestic politics, India might find that harder to accomplish than many anticipate. It's not surprising, then, that some observers wonder if India isn't better off not being a permanent council member.

Obama's endorsement of India's candidacy, and before that, in last month's election to the Security Council as a non-permanent member, do indeed represent recognition of India's credentials as a major global power. But India still needs to convince the world that it has a legitimate claim to a permanent seat on the council. Now in the spotlight, India will find its actions on critical global issues --including Iran, Israel-Palestine, Sudan, North Korea and Myanmar -- subjected to close and critical scrutiny. As a result, India will be forced to jettison its old foreign-policy assumptions and strike a delicate balance between the pursuit of its narrow national interest and its responsibility as a rising power to help maintain global peace and stability. New Delhi won't be able to please everyone, as solving the world's problems often involves making difficult choices -- and at times picking winners and losers. Merely suggesting, as India's foreign minister recently did, that India will be the "voice of moderation and constructive engagement" won't suffice.

For all the euphoria in India surrounding Obama's announcement, New Delhi still must answer these difficult questions if it wishes to continue its ascent in the global hierarchy.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London in the Department of Defense Studies. He is also an associate with the King's Centre for Science and Security Studies and an affiliate with the King's India Institute. His current research is focused on Asia-Pacific security and defense issues.




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