The New World Disorder and the Indian ImperativeShashi Tharoor and Samir Saran
312 pages|₹ 799
INDIA IS LOCATED at the centre of our changing mental maps of the world—giving it a unique opportunity to shape the political, economic, and security arrangements that will govern these regions. ‘Geography is destiny’, goes the popular adage, and India is sitting on prime real estate. Unsurprisingly, even the British understood the significance of India’s location. From the Suez Canal to Singapore, British supply lines and naval forces would have been unable to exercise their global reach without India. The ‘crown jewel’ of the British empire was far more than a labour and resource supplier; it was the central geographic node of Britain’s imperial architecture. That the empire collapsed almost immediately after India was lost is no coincidence; Britain could simply no longer sustain a global reach. Even Lord Curzon, perhaps one of India’s most notorious viceroys, thought of India as the heart of global geopolitics. Straddling the Indian Ocean with its inverted triangular shape, India has long been a maritime bridge linking Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf and East Africa. The Indo-Pacific, as this space is now known among the international community, hosts nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population, acts as the world’s principal inter-state energy supply route and is home to critical hydrocarbon and mineral resources along with a diverse marine biology. At the same time, for centuries before the violent partition of India, the country remained a land bridge to Central Asia and the Middle East, allowing the flow of goods, capital, people and ideas. India, therefore, has for centuries fused the politics and economics of two otherwise disconnected civilizational regions. Today, as India is poised to become an economic behemoth, it will straddle a region that will mark the intersection of Eurasian (comprising Europe and Asia) and Indo-Pacific ambitions.
In the late twentieth century, and well before India was considered any sort of power deserving attention, Henry Kissinger recognized that India would emerge as a crucial swing state in the post-Cold War international order. In his book, Diplomacy, he writes that India’s ‘geopolitical interests will impel it over the next decade to share some of the security burdens now borne by the United States in the region between Aden and Malacca’—prophetically, the very region that is expected to be at the centre of world politics in the twenty-first century. Today, it is certainly clear that India’s interests span this geography: from oil, energy, and diaspora interests in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, to trade, investment, and technology interests in Southeast Asia, India is steadily reclaiming its historical role as a melting pot of Eastern civilizations. India is a part of as many of the alphabet soup of groupings as it possibly can be from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to the SCO, as well as observer status at ASEAN and the East Asian Summit. India is willing to cooperate with countries that share similar goals, and compete with those that do not at the same time, such as China and Pakistan in its neighbourhood.
Nevertheless, navigating the politics of the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia will be no easy task. The central predicament for New Delhi will be balancing its relationship with the US, Russia, and China. In the Indo-Pacific, for example, Washington is India’s primary partner. However, this relationship breaks down in Eurasia—where India’s equity lies with Moscow, despite China’s long shadow over the region. New Delhi is walking a tightrope between the political realities of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. How India assesses and acts on its interest in these regions will go a long way in defining the world order in the twenty-first century.
Of course, the fact that India straddles the Indo-Pacific and the Eurasian landmass must also serve a larger purpose. And this is perhaps the most crucial feature of India’s importance: it can anchor liberal democracy in a part of the world where American leadership is no longer as welcome, and where China’s offering is not universally acceptable. To place the significance of India’s rise in context—China’s successful economic growth paved the way for the United Nations to celebrate the success of the Millennium Development Goals and India has the capacity to see that it does the same with the Sustainable Development Goals, albeit in a world that is increasingly insecure. If India succeeds in its effort, it will have an economic development model that works with liberal democracy—and a model that is replicable in large portions of the developing world, given contextual similarities.
Indeed, India has a unique cultural ethos to offer to the world: the breadth and scope of its religious, linguistic, caste, and tribal diversity have not so far prevented them from coexisting in relative peace. While nearly 80 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion citizens are Hindu, India also hosts around 180 million Muslims—the second largest Muslim population in the world, and due to become the largest in 2050. Indeed, India has long sheltered persecuted minorities and religious groups for most of its history. At the same time, India’s census lists nearly 122 major languages, while officially recognizing twenty-two of them. It is home to descendants of every imaginable ethnicity, with Mongoloid, African, Arab, and European blood all mingled in the Indian gene pool.
India has evolved a distinctly non-Western form of democracy and religious freedom that have made it an exemplar of the successful management of diversity in the developing world. And the ‘Asian century’ will undoubtedly be characterized by a similar congeries of multicultural, multireligious, and multilingual interactions. Perhaps, in a world that is today racked by questions of identity, race, and religion, and where the very idea of multiculturalism is under strain, India can pursue a multidirectional foreign policy that allows it to manage and bridge these complex relations in order to build a more plural world. Indeed, as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once remarked: ‘We have emerged as a bridge between the many extremes of the world. Our composite culture is living proof of the possibility of a confluence of civilizations. India will always be a nation bridging many global divides.’ The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, once argued that, ‘India’s long tradition of religious tolerance can be a role model for rest of the world.’ History is India’s guide—it has long assumed the role of mediating between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, and today it can do the same for the multiple countries, democratic or non-democratic, religions, cultures, and civilizations that comprise our world.
India may just be able to temper the excesses of Western liberalism and its belief in universalization, and the coercive nature of Chinese state communism and its belief in cultural subjugation, by offering a middle path between these extremes
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Nevertheless, India still has a long way to go; and how it goes about accomplishing the promises of independence will have reverberations around the world. Whether it seeks to export its own model however, is questionable. Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon once said: ‘Do we not have a responsibility to spread democracy and fight for our values abroad? Yes and no. Yes, if we have the means to actually ensure that we are able to spread them. And yes if having democrats as our neighbours contributes to the peaceful periphery that we need. But please remember that a people cannot be forced to be free or to practice democracy. They have to come to these values themselves if they are to be lasting. Such a crusade for one’s values is often mistaken by others as the pursuit of self-interest couched in high-toned words.’
While many in the West would take this to mean that India has no interest in democracy promotion, it is equally arguable that India is less evangelical in its beliefs, and is willing to allow a bottom-up development of democracy, as opposed to ‘liberal interventionism’. In 2004, for example, India was a founding member of the United Nations Democracy Caucus—the ‘only body within the United Nations system to convene democratic states based on shared values instead of regional affiliation’. New Delhi is also the second largest contributor to the United Nations Democracy Fund, having contributed $31.91 million as of February 2018. Further, India is involved in an India-Brazil-South Africa dialogue—based on a shared commitment of these three ‘Southern’ nations to democracy—outside of the larger BRICS grouping, which was ironically a vehicle to oppose Western hegemony and interventions. In and around its neighbourhood, especially in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Bhutan, India has consistently supported electoral processes, providing capacity-building aid and training and setting up the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management to formalize this process.
India’s approach towards democracy, then, is tempered by its post-colonial commitments to non-intervention as well as the disastrous consequences of America’s democracy promotion in other parts of the world. If anything, India may just be able to temper the excesses of Western liberalism and its belief in universalization, and the coercive nature of Chinese state communism and its belief in cultural subjugation, by offering a middle path between these extremes.
Of course, India’s political and geopolitical propositions matter just as much in the physical world as they do in the digital one. The world is fast approaching a moment where the boundaries between the real and the virtual will vanish, and the feedback loops between both will create much political, social, and economic friction. India will be the first global power to mature in the midst of these digital transformations. This brings us to another key feature: by design, India will have to be a key player in the fourth industrial revolution. With over half its population under the age of twenty-seven, India will be tasked with providing paychecks, purpose, and protection to its young and ambitious workforce as they transition to the new industrial realities of a virtual, digital, and automated world. In this, India is similarly placed with emerging economies around the world, who are all searching for a new digital social contract. The consequences of these shifts are still uncertain and how nations shape their economic and political institutions to cope with them will have a significant impact on the continued success of the world order. India’s choices and policies will play a crucial role in determining the future of this digital order.
India is emerging as a key player in issues of global governance and development. India, however, will be a very different power. The US is now primarily a geopolitical superpower, with its network of alliances and partnerships buttressing its dominance over economic and strategic global affairs. China, meanwhile, is a geoeconomic power, leveraging its central position in global supply chains to underwrite its influence. India, on the other hand, is likely to be the world’s first development superpower. Already, India’s budget allocations for economic diplomacy have crossed the one-billion-dollar mark, with most aid being directed towards its development partners in Asia and Africa. More than the amounts alone, however, India is inculcating a new ethic for global development partnerships. Unlike Western powers and China, India’s development cooperation is dependent on the priorities set by its partners. At the same time, India has committed itself to creating equitable partnerships that follow internationally recognized norms of good governance, reducing the risk of ‘debt trap diplomacy’, a feature that has become a staple ingredient of China’s aid. Having made no attempts to pursue exceptionalism beyond its nuclear deal with the US, India’s development story will be embraced with vigour by foreign markets and governments alike.
More importantly, unlike the Atlantic powers or China, India does not seek hegemony over the international system. Writing for the influential magazine Foreign Affairs in 1949, an ‘anonymous Indian official’ had this to say about India: ‘Underdeveloped as she is, her organized industrial and military capacity still exceeds that of any nation in the east. She has no traditional enemies, nor has she acquired new ones; she has no vested interest of any sort in world affairs, except an interest in peace, a tradition of friendliness to all, and a readiness to cooperate with others for constructive ends.’ Indeed, India’s enthusiasm for the United Nations process in the early twentieth century bears testament to this reality. In September 1946, Nehru promised that India would “play that role in Councils to which her geographical position, population and contribution towards peaceful progress entitle her”, committing “unreserved adherence, in both spirit and letter” to the UN Charter. Many of the freedoms that India’s Constitution guarantees are drawn from international agreements and covenants, and its Supreme Court often refers to the UN Charter to decide human rights cases. Even on the international conduct of states, India has adopted principles of the UN Charter that encourage the promotion of peace and security, international law, and the peaceful settlement of international disputes. Clearly, the philosophy of the United Nations has resonated deeply with India’s civilization.
(This is an edited excerpt from The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative by Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran, to be published in January 2020)