Like Americans in the nineteenth century who believed in ‘manifest destiny’, many Indians believe that their country has a right to historical greatness. The world may look at India through the lens of its struggles with modernity, its economic obstacles and its demographic challenges. For most Indians, however, India’s centuries-old civilization, its geographic location, its population comprising one-fifth of humanity, its growing economic power and military strength, and its history make it inevitable that it will be a great power not only in Asia but the world.
This faith in ‘Indian exceptionalism’ pervades and defines India’s external relations. For Indians, the country is unique and thus deserving of global power status. In a speech in March 1949, India’s first prime minister and foreign minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, stated that it was inevitable for India to play an important global role ‘not because of any ambition of hers, but because of the force of circumstances, because of geography, because of history’.
Indian exceptionalism rests on the belief that there is something unique about the nation, which enabled it to gain independence without violence, revolution or war. Indian discourse often speaks of an ‘Indian character’ that will overcome odds and circumvent difficulties. In this case, they are not just ‘feel good’ avowals, but, rather, reflect a deep-seated way of thinking, similar to the messianic vision of the United States.
As Stephen Cohen, an American scholar who worked for decades on India, wrote, ‘Whether a realist or an idealist, almost every member of the Indian strategic community thinks that India’s inherent greatness as a power is itself a valuable diplomatic asset. India’s ambassadors are expected to persuade foreign officials of the wisdom and moral correctness of the Indian position, say, by stating the Indian case and supplementing political arguments with information about India’s great civilization, its cultural and economic accomplishments and its democratic orientation.’
India’s sense of self
India’s interactions with the world are framed by civilizational and historical imperatives. It is not unusual for countries to argue that their path is unique and specific. But for India, this is more than a platitude. It has always sought to be viewed as an example to the world: India is unique in maintaining a democratic system in a poor postcolonial state; its path of economic growth, emphasizing self- sufficiency, is different from others. India retains a large military without being trigger-happy in deploying its troops beyond its border; it sees itself as having global influence, without viewing power as only the ability to coerce, unlike other regional or global powers.
Indian leaders have often expressed the thought that the country could lead the world, albeit in a different way from traditional hegemons. The moral and realist dimensions of India’s foreign policy are often reflected in the same conversation by its diplomats and leaders. In a speech in January 2019, the then foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale spoke about how India’s ancient philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the entire world is one family) ‘presented the world with a philosophy for uniting mankind and erasing artificial barriers’. And yet, India’s top diplomat emphasized how ‘at the heart of our global engagement is to make our diplomacy an enabler of the security, development and prosperity for the people of India’.
India’s desire to engage with the world, but on its own terms, is part of its five-millennia history as a civilizational entity. Ancient Indian kingdoms also maintained relations with countries and regions beyond the subcontinent, even when their focus was their immediate neighbourhood. There is evidence of diplomatic exchanges between ancient Indian kingdoms and those in China, Rome, Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Hindu and Buddhist religions that started in India expanded beyond the subcontinent, providing evidence of historic links beyond its shores and mountains. Some Southeast Asian empires were even led by dynasties which practised Hinduism and Buddhism – such as the Srivijaya Empire in present-day Indonesia (Java) and the Khemer Empire which covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.
The general attitude of the present being guided by the past and the future only reflecting it has also applied to modern India’s foreign policy. There seems to be an abiding grip of history and tradition on how India views the world. Indians would argue that modern India is inspired by the past, connected to the present and looking towards the future, but critics see it as overly burdened by philosophies and ideas rooted in the distant past. Inspired by the concept of the eternal cycle of life, Indians remain confident that their tomorrow will be as good as their yesterday, if not better. To them, the republic mirrors the glory of past dynasties and empires, which is sometimes seen by others as reflecting a vanity that does not always indicate the current economic or power realities. India’s interaction with the rest of the world continues to be guided by a civilizational sense of the country’s self.
Belief in the greatness of Indian civilization lies at the core of Indian nationalism and foreign policy. Its leaders have often voiced the view that India was a ‘guide’5 for the world and had a ‘mission to fulfill’.6 Of late, BJP leaders have been claiming the status of Vishwaguru (world teacher) for India!7 In the decades immediately after Independence, this desire to be a global leader, albeit a moral one, manifested in the preaching overtones of Indian foreign policy.
During the 1950s, India’s championing of anti-colonialism and anti-racism and its campaign against apartheid in South Africa reflected the tendency to adopt moralistic stances. So was India’s demand for reforms not only in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) but also in the international economic order, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
These positions did not always benefit India materially, but the moral dimension of policymaking has always been incredibly important for the country. India saw the world’s major powers, especially the industrialized capitalist nations, as unwilling to cater to the interests of previously colonized, poorer countries.
India’s economic growth and its rise in military capability in the last two decades have only enhanced its desire to play a leading role in the world. From being a founder-member of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) during the Cold War, to being part of the Group of 77 (G-77), and in recent years, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) economic grouping, India has always been engaged in efforts to create international institutions that are not run by western European powers or the United States of America.
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