Expectations are high about the meeting scheduled next week between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Americans have pinned hopes on a strategic partnership with India and the prospect of large contracts for U.S. corporations, on several previous occasions. But the India-US relationship has moved forward by inches, not miles. Will things be different this time?
Modi’s election campaign generated expectations of a rising or emergent India. Washington DC, like Tokyo and London, expected an immediate change not just in style but strategic decision making by New Delhi on foreign and economic policy issues. For decades scholars have referred to India as an ‘emerging power’ or ‘rising power.’ From Washington’s perspective India has not yet risen or emerged.
The British viewed colonial India as critical to the maintenance of their empire and vital to the security of the Middle East. During the Cold War both the Soviets and Americans were keen to have India in their bloc as its size, geographical location and potential resources made India a significant player. It was not as though Indians did not understand this fact.
Indian leaders and the lay public have always believed that India was a great civilization and a future great power. As India’s first Prime Minister and framer of India’s foreign policy, Jawaharlal Nehru, asserted India “because of the force of circumstances, because of geography, because of history and because of so many other things, inevitably has to play a very important part in Asia.”
India is active in all multilateral organizations, is one of the top contributors to the United Nations peacekeeping forces, and is one of the founders of the nonaligned movement and of the recently formed BRICS (Brazil Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping. However, to most observers what appears is that India is lacking either the will or the potential to take that extra leap which takes it to the big league.
India under Nehru chose to be nonaligned, preferring to keep away from military entanglements. One of the reasons Nehru chose this path was that he knew that foreign policy was dependent on “economic policy” and realized until and unless India was strong economically her “foreign policy will be rather vague, rather inchoate and will be groping.” While nonalignment was made into a mantra to be idolized, Nehru’s successors never really properly grasped the importance of economic policy to foreign and security policy.
During Nehru’s era India was able to play the role of the big brother amongst the newly emerging decolonized nations. However, this status was not commensurate with India’s weak economic potential.
While tremendous time and money was put into economic planning through the 1950s-80s India’s economic growth stayed at a low rate of around 3 percent, referred to as the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ by economist Raj Krishna. Part of the reason was the influence of Fabian socialism and the belief that the state should be the engine of both economic growth as well as redistribution. Economic autarky was championed but policies to encourage economic growth were not adopted. Disdain and suspicion of the private sector was built in from the beginning.
The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of globalization meant that both in terms of geopolitics as well as geo-economics the world changed and India had to adapt itself to that change. On some levels India initiated immediate change, on others it sought to wait it out.
The economic front was the one on which changes were forced upon India. The reforms which started in the mid-1980s and culminated in 1991 initiated the process of liberalization. The next two decades saw the fruits of these reforms with economic growth going up to almost 10 percent. However, a paternalistic state which preferred rules and believed at its heart that the market was not to be trusted found it difficult to be at ease with economic reforms. The result was a re-emergence of the state and a slowdown in economic growth. Americans, in particular, were disappointed with old ideas still blocking progress on issues such as Intellectual Property Rights, trade and Foreign Direct Investment.
On the foreign and security front while India re-built ties with the United States yet the old desire to maintain ‘‘strategic autonomy’’ meant that there was an Indian reluctance to deepen ties with the United States. India has the right to define its national interests but it must bear in mind that only deep economic and strategic ties between countries will lead to India having friends who support it during times of crisis. India should never forget that during the 1962 India-China war, the nonaligned world remained ‘nonaligned’ and it was countries like the UK and US who supported India militarily.
While ties of history and culture may be important, India needs to build deeper economic and strategic ties both in the region and with countries in Asia and beyond. During the 1990s India started the ‘Look East’ policy — policy of building closer ties with the South East and East Asian countries — and while closer economic ties have been built, India needs to not just ‘look east’ but also ‘involve’ and ‘act’ in the East and invest more deeply in strategic and economic relationships.
When asked about India’s status in the world Indians often wrongly quote Nehru to say: “India need only wait until others understand and accommodate to the Indian position.” What they ignore is that complacency has never ensured status; a country has to work for that position and then work to keep that position.
Today India is demographically the second largest country, the largest democracy, among the top five global economies and has the third largest army in the world. India’s foreign policy should reflect this and it will only do so when India’s leaders ensure a synchronicity between its economic and foreign policies.