If one day it’s Male, the next day it is Rome. If one day, it’s Mamata Banerjee scuppering a deal with Bangladesh, the next day it’s the DMK threatening the survival of the government for failing to take on the Sri Lankan government. Listening to the hyperventilating television anchors in India, one can be excused for thinking that the whole world has rallied against India. This at a time when the very same anchors don’t cease to remind us day in and day out that India is no longer a third-world developing country but a rising global power. That the past few years have already put paid to the notion of India as a global power seems to have missed their attention. That India has neither been rising nor was it being perceived as a credible global power for quite some time now is a reality that the recent episodes have only underlined.
India’s status as a regional power of any consequence has always been questionable. With the entry of China in India’s periphery, India has become all the more marginal even as the space for smaller states to play India off against China has only expanded. This was reflected in the Male episode, where New Delhi has been reduced to stressing “due process and the rule of law.” Less than a fortnight after former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed left the Indian High Commission in Male where he had sought refuge for 11 days to evade arrest in a case concerning the detention of a judge during his presidency, he was arrested even as New Delhi had received assurances from Maldivian authorities that Nasheed would be free to campaign for presidential elections. Though he was freed by the court a day later, his case was deferred to four weeks and underlying tensions remain intact. Male succeeded in publicly and rather subtly rebuffing India’s role.
At the global level, India’s rise was always viewed as questionable. While Western leaders dutifully visit New Delhi and heap praises on India’s rising global profile, this has been primarily to keep Indian elites in good humour. In private, most would express grave doubts about the ability and willingness of New Delhi to assume a global profile. The sheer audacity of Italy’s refusal to return two marines charged with murdering two Indian fishermen despite personal assurances from the Italian envoy is a testament to a widespread perception that there are few costs to antagonising India. And true to form, Indian elites have been bemoaning their lack of serious options vis-à-vis Rome.
At a time when anyone and everyone seems to be taking New Delhi for granted, the inability of the political establishment to come to terms with national imperatives has been the hallmark of India. In the larger scheme of things, Italy doesn’t really matter for Indian priorities. But Sri Lanka does immensely. And look at what has become of the Sri Lanka debate in the country where the government’s inability to articulate national interests coherently has allowed regional parties to dominate the discourse completely. India is being forced to overturn its consistent policy of not supporting intrusive resolutions that impinge on state sovereignty and this is something that can come to back to haunt India in the years to come. Yet neither the government nor the parties opposing it seem to be making any effort to reconcile Indian concerns with Colombo’s post-war rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils with the larger priorities of Indian foreign policy.
It is now clear that huge costs are being imposed on Indian foreign policy because of the domestic drift in Indian polity. A government that is unable to get a grip on domestic turmoil cannot effectively deal with myriad challenges facing the nation on the external front. The rest of the world sees it clearly and is therefore ready to up the ante. However much Indians like to be argumentative, a major power’s foreign policy cannot be effective in the absence of a guiding framework of underlying principles that is a function of both the nation’s geopolitical requirements and its values.
Power is as much about material capabilities as it is about perceptions. A nation’s capabilities certainly matter but what matters more is the perception about that nation’s willingness to use power to further its national objectives. Where Indian elites keep on harping about their nation’s high rates of growth and its growing military heft, few in the wider international community find India’s power aspirations credible. How can they when Indian policy elites keep reminding the world that “power is poison”?
The exercise of power can be shocking and at times corrupting — but power is absolutely necessary to fight the battles that must be fought. India’s ambivalence about power and its use has resulted in a situation where even as India’s economic and military capabilities have gradually expanded, it has failed to evolve a commensurate strategic agenda and requisite institutions so as to be able to mobilise and use its resources most optimally.
As Hans Morgenthau, the American political scientist, wrote long back, “the prestige of a nation is its reputation for power. That reputation, the reflection of the reality of power in the mind of the observers, can be as important as the reality of power itself. What others think about us is as important as what we actually are.”
If Indian elites do indeed find power repugnant in global affairs, they should articulate it clearly and remain satisfied with a marginal place in the international system. But if they do aspire for great power status, then they will have to play by the rules of global power politics, which are often brutal. They cannot have it both ways. After Male and Rome, New Delhi should now recognise clearly what other states think about India. It can either earn a reputation for power, or remain destined to wallow in self-pity with the rest of the world refusing to take it seriously.
The writer teaches at King’s College, London