Barack Obama apparently has little time for India these days. For many in India, the Devyani Khobragade controversy has underscored how little Washington cares about India and its sensitivities. Many in India have read in it the beginning of the end of the US-India strategic partnership. The first thing the Indian government did after hosting the South Korean and Japanese leaders recently was to underline that these engagements are not aimed at China. A regular feature of Indian diplomacy: even as China continues to weave circles around India, India continues to walk on shells for fear of annoying the Chinese. These episodes merely highlight the broader strategic culture that pervades Indian foreign policy.
Despite the chest-thumping in recent years about India emerging as a major global power, its 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. Various domestic constituencies have accused the government of betraying its “time-tested friends”, such as Iran and Russia, as if the only purpose of foreign policy is to make friends. The government has failed to strongly defend itself, generating confusion about its policy priorities. Foreign policy cannot be geared towards keeping every other country in good humour.
Such insecurity makes India overboard with its concerns about Obama and reluctant to appreciate fully what George W. Bush has accomplished for Indo-US ties. It is perfectly reasonable for India to emphasise that while it doesn’t support many of Bush’s foreign policy ventures, it recognises the critical role he has played in transforming bilateral ties. Bush’s U-turn on Kashmir and non-proliferation might make him one of the most significant US presidents for India. Whether it was preventing the non-proliferation lobby from wrecking the deal or using his clout to bring recalcitrant NSG nations around, he spent political capital building a new partnership. India’s concerns about some US foreign policy priorities and its acceptance of the Bush administration’s critical role in transforming ties are not mutually exclusive.
After all, India did not agree with many of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy priorities either. And yet when the Indian Prime Minister thanked Bush during his visit to the US, critics in India went berserk. In a similar vein, notwithstanding Obama’s problematic stands on several issues impinging directly on Indian interests, there is no need for India to be hyperbolic in its concerns. If the Obama Administration decides to downgrade India in its foreign policy calculus, then it would be as much a problem for broader US foreign policy as it would be for India. He is not doing India any favours by engaging India more substantively either. India is a rising power. The US and the world need it as much as India needs them. The visible lack of self-confidence among Indian elites in their nation’s ability to leverage the international system to its advantage will only weaken India. India should assess its interests carefully and learn to stand up for them.
India’s strategic diffidence is in full display in the case of China, where India has consistently refused to tackle the challenge that China poses to Indian interests. China has upped the ante on the border issue, and its rhetoric on Arunachal Pradesh is getting stronger. More alarmingly, intrusions into Indian territory are getting more brazen. As usual, India is left to reacting to these actions — actions that do not conform to India’s self-image of an aspiring global power either.
India’s China policy and its larger foreign policy continue to be premised on the liberal fallacy that strategic problems will inevitably produce satisfactory solutions merely because they are desirable and in the interest of all.
As a result, the real issues are sidelined while the peripheral issues attain centrestage. India is too big, too proud and too significant a global player to worry about Washington’s fickle courtship. Its sights should be on the real challenges to its interests and it should work towards preserving and enhancing them, without any apologies or explanations.
Over the last few years, New Delhi has reduced itself 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.
The author is a reader in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.