Challenges to India Gaining a Seat at the High Table of World Politics

~ By Walter Andersen

Some 70 years ago, India emerged as an independent country with daunting challenges at home and in its immediate neighborhood. Poverty and illiteracy, ethnic diversity and scattered secessionist movements, as well as the growing tensions associated with the then emerging Cold War were widely viewed as existential threats.   In 1947, many commentators, such as the eminent economist, Gunnar Myrdal, expressed doubts if a country as poor and socially diverse as India could sustain a democratic system of governance – or even survive as a united country. That flamboyant imperialist, Winston Churchill, agreed, arguing that this socially diverse country was not a nation at all, but a product of British power, and that it would likely fall apart when British power departed.

Well, here we are 70 years later, and India has not only survived intact, but its democratic systems, despite its flaws, have thrived.  The consensus for the democratic process is witnessed by fact that a higher percentage of the poor and illiterate vote than the rich and literate. At the international level, India is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s rising powers. While not yet recognized as a great power on the international stage, it is a contender for great power status in the not too distant future. India, among the large countries of the world is the fastest growing economy, with a national income of 2.5 trillion dollars and growing at about 7.5 percent a year. If you look at its nearby Indian Ocean neighborhood, India is an arena of relative calm in a broad swath of littoral countries that the American foreign affairs scholar, my colleague at Johns Hopkins University, Zbigniew Brzezinski, once described as ‘an arc of crisis’. The clear majority of the population considers elected civilian authority in India as legitimate; India possesses an accepted line of authority responsible for decision making in domestic governance as well as in both – foreign affairs and security.  At the geostrategic level, India, jutting down 1500 miles into the middle of the Indian Ocean and crossed by critical sea-lanes, is compelled to look both east and west in the search of raw materials, investment and markets.  As it continues to expand economically, its global interactions will grow even more.

The key question is whether India will be sufficiently daring to take advantage of these opportunities and assume a leadership role on issues it faces in a changing world.  In short, can India get past transactional relations with individual major powers and pursue a larger strategic vision as a player at the Global High Table?  The answer to that is maybe — and depends, in my view, on how Indians manage challenges posed by two of the critical drivers shaping its foreign policy:  (1) domestic politics, and (2) economic growth.

On issue of domestic politics, mobilizing support for an assertive and imaginative foreign policy changes will require, in my view, a large measure of political stability at home and a leadership with a vision.  Whether this is possible as you look out is not at all certain, given India’s fragmented political system.  2014 saw a single party win a majority at the center for the first time since 1984. Chances are good that there will be a return to coalition politics at the 2019 parliamentary elections, though very likely the National Alliance will have a majority to form the new government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government will lead that coalition and Narendra Modi will again be the Prime Minister of India.

The imperatives of revived coalition politics at the center may mean that foreign policy decisions are constrained by the parochial interests of regional political parties.  For instance, the opposition of regional political parties sabotaged India’s delay in the ratification of a river agreement with Bangladesh several years ago. While there is a legacy of weak and strong coalition governments, coalitions complicate and often delay efforts to make significant changes.

Second, on the economy, continued high growth (at desired level of 7 percent plus) faces political reality of a population that remains largely poor and a political system with a traditional commitment to equity. The unmet needs of India’s poor and the country’s huge infrastructure needs, which are in large part meant to stimulate jobs, also mean that the ‘guns vs butter’ debate must be addressed — and chances are good that the debate will be biased in favor of “butter” over security. India’s defense spending now is 1.62% of GDP, which is the lowest share of national income since 1962, and that will not fund the military modernization that a ‘leading power’ and a ‘net security provider’ such as India needs. It must prepare for an increasingly assertive China linked to an increasingly assertive Pakistan.

A third – and related economic issue – is the willingness of the political system to accept involvement of private enterprise as a player in such critical areas as defense production.  Question is how (and whether) the political class or the bureaucracy not accustomed to – and to a certain extent antagonistic to – outside influence will accommodate these new players from private enterprise. Defense industry analysts have watched carefully as India’s Defense Public Sector Undertakings (which goes by the acronym DPSUs) have given way to the private sector’s participation, including significant collaboration with large international defense companies.  On the Indian side, several companies have invested heavily in defense production and research – such as TATA, Mahindra, Larsen and Toubro and Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group.  Some of these have set up joint ventures with foreign private manufacturers of defense equipment. Reliance Defense Ltd. and Israel’s Rafael Defense Systems Ltd. have agreed, for example, to set up a joint venture to produce air-to-air missiles. Foreign private companies on their own have already begun to manufacture equipment for the Indian military. Lockheed Martin, for example is manufacturing tail wings for the global C-130 transport aircraft and Boeing is manufacturing critical components for the CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopter in Bangalore.  Chief executives of Boeing and Lockheed Martin have visited India to pitch for the manufacture of the F-18 and F-16, respectively, in India. These investments represent a strategic shift in the way Prime Minister Modi embarks on a major “make in India” campaign as it applies to defense manufacturing.

Yet the country faces several major challenges requiring leadership willing to chart the country on a more daring course: (1) a rising China that is both much richer and militarily stronger than India – and with an interest in deepening relations with its south Asia neighbors and around the Indian Ocean, (2) a terrorist threat from the northwest of the subcontinent, some of it with likely support from Pakistan’s military intelligence;  (3) increasing integration in the world economy and (4) looming environmental crisis (like the melting of the Himalayan glaciers).

So what will it take for India to move to a leadership position?  I think it useful here to refer to a speech that Indian External Affairs Secretary, S. Jaishankar, gave at the April 6, 2016 inauguration of the Indian Centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New Delhi  – where he addresses the question of India becoming a major actor on the world stage.

  • Jaishankar starts his discussion with the categorical statement that “the quest towards becoming a leading power rests first and foremost on our success in expanding the economy” – and I concur.
  • He goes on to say that this quest will be a priority goal for Indian diplomats and, perhaps with an eye on his own bureaucracy asserts, “this task calls for a change in attitude and skills of our diplomats – which I can affirm [he says] is already underway.”
  • While linking South Asia closely to India is an important immediate goal, he notes that “an aspiring leading power, at a minimum, needs to expand its global footprint” far beyond the region and specifically mentions deepening relations with the US, Russia, the EU, Japan and China. Yet, he further adds that an “important characteristic of a power that seeks to go beyond a limited agenda is its interest in global issues.”  In short, moving beyond mere transactional relations with individual countries.

The issues raised by the Foreign Minister are possible, of course, because Prime Minister Modi is willing to think differently about India and how the world should interact with it. The real question is how deep and politically sustainable are Modi’s new ways – and to what extent will they be undermined by liberals on the left who put ideology above self-interest and the nativist right that has little appreciation of the world and is easily influenced by xenophobia.

In summary, I argue that if India is to assume the role as a leader in international affairs, as it goes forward its policies must become more deeply interdependent with those of other countries. The hard part will be getting there.

(This is the summary of the address made by Walter Andersen, Director, the South Asia Studies Programs School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University at the India Ideas Conclave at Goa on 5th November, 2016)