In a New Year coming on the heels of waning economic growth and all-round policy paralysis, India will be hard-pressed to meet the expectations of its own people and those of the comity of nations.
The facts that we have a democratic polity, a relatively peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, and a promising emerging economy are all subject to constant testing rather than being set in stone. Status in world affairs is earned, not given, on a continuous basis.
In 2013, the onus will be on India to live up to its reputation as a force for good that keeps lifting its teeming millions out of poverty and simultaneously uses its diplomatic, economic and military assets to promote moderation, tolerance and welfare on a global scale.
Often, our policymakers, media houses and citizens are so consumed by pressing domestic priorities that it is easy to forget India’s existence in a wider global context demanding greater Indian involvement and contribution. Charity and reform may indeed begin at home, but in a globalised and competitive international system, we cannot afford to be left behind because of passivity and indifference that circumscribe India’s true power.
The principal obstacle facing India’s expanded role in world affairs is an ostrich-like belief that our problems are mainly internal and that we need to fix them first to be eventually admitted into the ranks of great powers. Arguments often flow that we must focus on privation within our country before doling out foreign aid, or that we must manage our own domestic communal and armed conflicts with Maoists and separatists before offering to make peace in other regions of the world.
The practical import of such myopic vision is that India under-invests in its international mission (Kanti Bajpai terms it as “foreign policy on a shoestring”), discourages its youth from studying and making careers in world affairs and underachieves its potential in global governance. As a result, we remain on the receiving end of an external environment that is stacked against Indian desires to be influential and powerful.
Unless there is lateral entry and infusion of creative thinking about India’s engagement with the outside world, we will be trapped in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of cursing the unfair international system that discriminates against us and doing little to change it. I recently had a debate with a former foreign secretary of India about the lack of proactiveness on our part vis-à-vis tackling global problems such as wars and replacing unjust international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
He insisted that India must “know its limits” and be extremely cautious in wanting to fight for drastic changes. I countered that a nation that aims big and wants to be counted as a great power should not be defeatist and shy away from transforming the world. India must stake claim to global leadership through bold strokes.
Bureaucratic inertia is a recipe for India remaining a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker in international affairs. How many of us realise that while we rant endlessly about the absence of inspiring leadership in our political class, India as a nation is also failing in discharging leadership in the world?
The two aspects may, of course, be related, in that a political leader with a truly global focus like Jawaharlal Nehru could secure greatness for India in the international arena. But instead of waiting for messiahs who would stride the world like colossuses, it makes sense for the Indian state to better harness the ideational talent and human resources within the Indian society to take on advanced global responsibilities of preserving international peace and security and carving an international economic system based on equality and dignity.
The essence of “soft power”, a phrase that refers to non-economic and non-military power in international politics, is not to rest just on familiar means like exporting India’s attractive popular culture (films, theatre and music) or knowledge forms (agricultural techniques, yoga, Kamasutra and Ayurveda), but to immerse India in the quest for solutions to problems affecting geographically far-off countries.
The American political scientist Thomas Volgy defines a major power as a state with “unusual capabilities” to pursue “unusually broad and expansive foreign policies beyond its immediate neighbourhood or region”. Our government is neither planning to speedily build up unusual capacities through parallel admission into a lean foreign service bureaucracy, nor is it self-imagining India to be anything larger than a subcontinental or regional power.
The smallness of thought and deed is frustrating for a nation that aspires to be at par with China at an intercontinental level.
Over the years, I have suggested a number of doable and pragmatic measures for India to enhance its soft power through commitment of a little more financial and human resources. We could seed our native version of the American Peace Corps that wins appreciation for India’s acumen in fields like mathematics and science. We could create an international medical force that ships off talented Indian doctors to war zones, natural disaster spots and post-conflict societies the way Cuba has done. We could form a cartel of manual labour exporting countries to bargain for better living conditions for international migrant workers. We could launch our own 24-hour world news television channel in English, à la China’s CCTV and Russia’s RT.
We could have Indian newspapers publishing regional editions in Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia, just as the China Daily which has recently launched a dedicated Africa edition. We could deploy Gandhian peacemaking organisations from our vibrant civil society in helping war-torn countries rebuild their torn inter-ethnic or inter-communal fabrics.
The benefits of intentional strategies like these transcend routine advantages of organising Indian film festivals, culinary exhibitions or art workshops across the world. Cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy are components of nation-branding and image-burnishing, but India must invent social diplomacy that connects problem-solving powers of our people with people in distant parts of the world who might accept Indian solidarity as opposed to suspect charity of former colonial Westerners.
The Indian state has to act as a facilitator rather than an obstructionist in this inter-societal exchange that is non-commercial and non-military in nature. The year 2013 will feel sweeter if more international problems are settled through India’s purposeful and deliberate actions.
The author is dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs