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Foreign policy: India's diffidence problem

By Harsh V Pant
April 15, 2010 15:10 IST
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India is a major power today in its own right. While much of the world has started to acknowledge it, Indian policy-makers remain diffident, almost apologetic, about their nation's rising profile, writes Harsh V Pant.

In the last few days, India has engaged with two major powers -- China and the US -- at the highest levels. Both are vital states in so far as Indian national security interests are concerned and both deserve to be treated with a degree of seriousness reserved for great powers.

But what is equally important to recognise is that India is also a major power today in its own right. While much of the world has started to acknowledge it, the Indian policy-makers remain diffident, almost apologetic, about their nation's rising profile. And when they interact with major powers, they reveal this weakness embedded in the Indian psyche.

So when External Affairs Minister S M Krishna went to Beijing to mark the 60th anniversary of India's recognition of the People's Republic of China, he ended up pleading once again for Chinese support for India's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. It is unseemly for a nation that claims to be a rising power in the international system beseeching Beijing for its support, again and again, and then again, only to be rebuffed. More damagingly, it betrays a lack of confidence in India's own ability to define the terms of debate of its rise in the global inter-state hierarchy.

China is not going to support India's candidature for the Security Council, at least not in the foreseeable future. If the Indian foreign policy establishment cannot understand this basic fact of Asian geo-strategy, they have no right to be running this nation's foreign policy. And if there is some psychological need that gets satisfied in asking this question time and again why can't it be done outside the public glare, saving the Indian public constant humiliation?

Every time India asks for China's support and gets a negative answer it underlines China's status as the pre-eminent Asian power that reserves the right to grant India the privilege of being in the Security Council.

It should also be asked why does India have to waste so much of its diplomatic capital on an issue that is not likely to get resolved anytime soon. And why should India care about this so much. Even as the UN's failures have become self-evident over the years, Indian political elites have continued to view it as an almost indispensable actor in global politics that needs substantial Indian diplomatic investment.

While this fascination with a moribund institution may not have had any cost in the past when India was on the periphery of global politics, today's India cannot afford to cling on to that same old worldview. India's experience with the UN has historically been underwhelming, to put it mildly. India's interests have suffered whenever the nation has looked to the UN for support.

Yet for most of the Indian policy establishment the role of the UN in Indian foreign policy continues to be one of using the organisation "as a manifest of our desire to be a responsible world citizen." It is time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that India is going to be a permanent member of the Security Council anytime soon and that too with China's support.

Instead, Indian policy-makers should work towards an eventuality where India gets invited to join the Security Council by virtue of sheer heft in global politics.

India's obsequiousness towards China is not the only problem. It's evident in India's engagement with the US too. The Indian prime minister's reception in Washington was no doubt warm. All the right things were said and the Indian government's media managers underlined that President Barack Obama was indeed sensitive to Indian concerns.

The nation was told that Obama "fully understood our concerns about the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and "was engaging" Islamabad on these issues. Again, while one cannot quarrel with these assertions, it has become a regular feature of Indian diplomacy to press America toward securing its own regional security interests. The speed with which India has outsourced its regional foreign policy to Washington is astonishing.

New Delhi is now reduced to pleading with Washington to tackle Pakistan and to rein in Pakistan army's nefarious designs against India in Afghanistan, in Kashmir and elsewhere.

It is true that India and the US share a set of common goals in the region. There is a fundamental convergence between India and the Obama administration in viewing Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan's insecurity and the suggestion that the world must act together to cure Islamabad of its political malaise. In recognising that the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute the single most important threat to global peace and security, arguing that Islamabad is part of the problem rather than the solution, and asking India to join an international concert in managing the Af-Pak region, the US has made significant departures from its traditionally held posture towards South Asia.

But it is equally true that a divergence has emerged between American and Indian interests in recent times. Indian regional policy should be based on an unambiguous assertion of its vital national interests, not on the hope that eventually America is there to pull its chestnuts out of the fire. By failing to craft its own narrative on Af-Pak ever since the US troops went into Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, New Delhi has allowed America to dictate the contours of Indian policy towards the region, doing much damage to India's credibility as a regional power of any consequence.

The US will only take India seriously when India starts taking itself seriously and starts behaving like a major power. The same applies to China. China is nothing if not pragmatic in its foreign policy. China's support for India's candidature to the Security Council's permanent membership will come when India's rise becomes a reality that Beijing can no longer ignore.

A diffident India will continue to crave for the attention of Beijing and Washington but will not get it in return. A confident India that charts its own course in world politics based on its national interests will force the world to sit up and take notice.

For all the breast beating in recent years about India emerging as a major global power, Indian strategic and political elites display an insecurity that defies explanation. A powerful, self-confident nation should be able to articulate a coherent vision about its priorities and national interests without apologies. The brazen display of a lack of self confidence by Indian elites in their nation's abilities to leverage the international system to its advantage will only weaken India over the long term. India should assess its interests carefully and learn to stand up for them.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College London.

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