As deadly explosions continue to hit Ukraine, Russia’s invasion also highlights something that might explain why New Delhi’s global reach falls below expectations. Despite the unwarranted excitement over the routine G-20 presidency, the highest international position India has ever achieved was when career diplomat Kamalesh Sharma became the Commonwealth secretary-general in 2008.
The election of a successor to Kofi Annan as United Nations Secretary-General illustrated an Indian weakness. Shashi Tharoor, the most visible of the candidates, was eminently qualified and already entrenched in the UN headquarters as under-secretary-general for communications and public information. One reason why he wasn’t selected may have been the difficulty of dissociating Mr Tharoor from a plethora of controversies involving India. None of the countries that have provided UN chief executives -- Norway, Sweden, Myanmar, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana, South Korea and Portugal -- aspires to world leadership as Vishwa Guru, Patron-Teacher of the Universe. None can be accused of nursing an inflated self-image. Or of being engaged in long-running quarrels with its neighbours.
A superpower may be able to command obedience. Less exalted aspirants to a global role must win the world’s confidence. That includes sufficient diplomatic dexterity intelligently to disseminate relevant information to highlight favourable facts and play down the posturing and bombast of politicians which can distract attention from the more rational presentations of professional diplomatists.
Claiming the mantle of Vishwa Guru is pompous and pretentious. Yet the BJP’s Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a Rajya Sabha member who is also president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, dismisses domestic sceptics to write that “sharing that worldview loud and clear with the requisite confidence and courage of conviction will make the world understand that yes, India is a Vishwa Guru”. What wisdom will this guru who can’t guard India’s own borders and who exports deadly lethal children’s medicines impart to others?
Foreign governments cannot feel comfortable discussing mundane but essential aspects of governance like the need for democratic elections or demarcating maritime boundaries with a Vishwa Guru whose exalted status seems too lofty even for the top job of UN Secretary-General. Being a big fish in a small pond can’t be an enviable privilege when the smallest fish enjoys exactly the same rights internationally as the biggest. Legally, the United States and Burkina Faso stand at par.
Dawa Tsering, Bhutan’s foreign minister for a record 26 years, claimed that India’s neighbours welcomed Pakistan’s acquisition of the nuclear bomb because they felt safer with a balancer, especially when the regional hegemon assumes that whatever course it adopts is the moral high road. The veteran diplomatist Ronen Sen recently argued in Kolkata that no other country endorses India’s position on the various border disputes with China and that these problems cannot be solved except through negotiation.
India’s partnership with Russia (and its predecessor, the Soviet Union) doesn’t always impress other nations either. Narendra Modi follows the ground rules that Indira Gandhi set in refusing to allow ideological or Cold War considerations to influence her policy favouring a Moscow that extended India diplomatic support, traded extensively with us, and was also India’s most important supplier of military hardware. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar reiterated that pragmatism by exposing Western double standards in importing far more oil from Russia than India while criticising India’s purchases.
It’s a measure of the failure of New Delhi’s diplomacy that the Western alliance and many vulnerable countries nevertheless hear echoes of the sanctimonious rhetoric of the non-aligned years when Moscow’s occupation of Hungary was equated with the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in India’s refusal to extend unequivocal support to Ukraine.
It would jeopardise India’s vital interests directly to oppose Russia’s aggression. But there’s always a bottom line. During the Iraq-Kuwait crisis, the Americans understood Inder Kumar Gujral’s anxiety to rescue thousands of Indian workers in the Persian Gulf and secure to the extent possible India’s oil supplies from the region. But US secretary of state James A. Baker and his colleagues were not amused to see CNN pictures of Gujral and Saddam Hussein locked in a rapturous embrace in Baghdad. “Did he have to demonstrate that degree of personal warmth for the Iraqi dictator?” they asked in irritation. They were even less pleased when Gujral became the first foreign dignitary to call on the conquered Kuwaitis. Washington felt that a visit under the conqueror’s auspices proclaimed India’s recognition of the conquest.
Unfortunately, the flamboyant rhetoric and public gestures of India’s leaders often distract attention from more meaningful signals. Jawaharlal Nehru’s wry comment on China’s claim to have “liberated” Tibet and the blind eye he turned to CIA operations there received far less notice than his seeming acquiescence in the annexation. Indira Gandhi’s intercession with Alexei Kosygin over Afghanistan was similarly overlooked. Perhaps because of this background, friendly elements in the West seized on and made much of Mr Modi’s mild “this is not an era of war” warning to Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps India would be judged with greater discernment if its own house was in better shape. Our former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, always stressed that only an India that was internally and externally strong can play an effective international role. That means not only uniting all sections of society behind a shared national vision and making a positive effort to earn the minorities’ trust but also according far greater priority to the basics of life -- food, education, medicare, housing and employment -- that are in such short supply.
Mr Modi’s gift of free food to 81.35 crore people for a year is relevant mainly because it might win additional votes for the BJP. Such largesse is in the tradition of soup kitchens that far from adding to productive activity and wealth generation, kill initiative and sap morale. Despite the grinding poverty that this statistic exposes, Indians would benefit more from a government that creates opportunities for them to fulfil themselves than from motivated charity.
A New Year resolution to project a humbler government more mindful of neglected responsibilities at home and more sensitive to neighbourhood concerns would earn the world’s trust and enable Indians to be chosen for the top global jobs. Now, Indians qualify mainly for peacekeeping assignments that are universally seen as the Third World’s most lucrative source of earning foreign exchange. It’s hardly a fit role for the venerable and all-powerful Vishwa Guru that India seeks to be....