India not really a superpower

Many of our neighbours have slipped into the orbit of China. And New Delhi has made no major strides in other global platforms too

Published: 24th June 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th June 2019 03:49 AM   |  A+A-

That Prime Minister Narendra Modi raising the visibility and standing of India in the world during his first term had put the biting economic realities on the backburner among the voters in the 2019 elections is a narrative some TV pundits proffer, suggesting that Indians today care more for their country’s place in the world than their roti, kapada and makaan issues. Here is India, with its macho leadership at the forefront, leading the charge against terrorism and not hesitating to send a “fitting reply” a la Balakot. As a result, they claim, India is treated like a superpower in the global arena. That narrative, however, has no life beyond the plush suites of the TV studios.

Take, for example, India’s neighbourhood. Nepal has firmly slipped into the orbit of China, India’s biggest adversary in the region. The NDA government’s muscle-flexing to shape Nepal’s Constitution aimed at protecting the interests of Hindus in that country failed and India is no longer high on the friendship score there. In Sri Lanka, which is veering towards China, and in Bangladesh as well as Maldives, India’s fortunes ebb and flow depending on the governments in power. For now, Myanmar is balancing India and China, and New Delhi’s discredited anti-Rohingya stance and coddling the junta in Naypyitaw have contributed to this quasi-friendship chugging along.  

In Afghanistan, if the ongoing US negotiations with Taliban succeed and the group becomes a partner in the government in Kabul, New Delhi’s strategic interests and influence in that country would go for a toss, leading to serious security challenges for India. Not inviting Pakistani PM Imran Khan to the inauguration of Modi’s second term, using the fig leaf of BIMSTEC only shows that the BJP government intends to keep Pakistan as a forever adversary to reap political benefits. 

While India’s stature in its immediate neighbourhood lacks any “superpower” aura, its influence beyond looks even more dismal. The spectacular failure of the NDA’s foreign policy is nowhere more evident than in the recent threats directed against New Delhi by the Trump administration. Washington has threatened to impose sanctions on India if it continues to buy Iranian oil and goes ahead with the already signed deal to acquire the S-400 missile system from Russia. Acquiescing to the US demand will invariably alienate both Iran and Russia, India’s time-tested strategic partners. New Delhi’s oft-touted “strategic autonomy” in matters of foreign policy will be dead in the water. On the other hand, going against Washington’s diktat will have severe economic consequences to India and may even lead to the disintegration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the group linking the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter China’s expansionism. Already, Washington has removed India from the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), a preferential trade programme offering lower tariffs to exports from developing countries.

The myth of India’s superpower status explodes spectacularly in the multilateral arena as the country continues to remain excluded from major institutions of global governance. Despite being Asia’s third largest economy, India is still not a member of the influential Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Although India is a major donor of development aid across South Asia and Africa, a membership in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development still eludes us. India is also not a member of G7, a central institution of the world’s leading democracies.

Barring the pre-poll hype surrounding the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, India has made no major strides during Modi’s first term on the world’s biggest diplomatic stage, the United Nations. Some of the Centre’s policies have only come under withering criticism. The first-ever report by the UN Commission on Human Rights in Kashmir, accused India of excessive use of force. India’s stance against Rohingya refugees has also come under criticism. 

The world’s largest democracy, with the third-largest military by personnel strength and a top troop-contributor to UN peacekeeping, is still not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the hope of ever becoming one is fast receding as there is no tangible progress in reforming the exclusive club now occupied by the US, China, France, Britain and Russia. At the UN General Assembly too India’s heft has suffered thanks, in no small part, to New Delhi’s steadily dwindling support to the Palestinian cause amidst soaring ties with Israel.

To realise India’s great power ambitions, the new government should “accelerate economic reforms domestically, strengthen India’s institutions, preserve its constitutional ethos, and protect the nation’s internal cohesion, all of which have floundered dangerously in recent years,” says Ashley J Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Amidst all this flux, one silver lining is the choice of S Jaishankar as the external affairs minister in the Modi 2.0 Cabinet. By appointing an accomplished diplomat and a former envoy to Beijing and Washington to the post, Modi seems to be acknowledging the enormity of the foreign policy challenges confronting the new government. If even a modicum of progress has to  be accomplished in realising India’s great power ambitions during this term, Modi couldn’t have hoped for a better ally than Jaishankar.

E D Mathew

author is a former spokesperson with the United Nations.



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