How the world sees India
As leaders come to Delhi, Indian diplomacy has reason to be pleased, but there still remains a need to look within
As a stellar cast of leaders descended to Delhi this week for the Raisina Dialogue, which has, in seven years, become a significant platform on the lines of the Munich and Shangri-La dialogues, there are two parallel narratives of India in western capitals. And while these intersect at times, they also operate almost on independent planes. They reveal both the priorities of foreign governments and international capital, but also the success and challenges for Indian diplomacy.
The first narrative is what dominates most foreign ministries, armed forces, intelligence agencies, business chambers, investment banks, financial firms, and policy institutes.
In this narrative, India is among the most important swing players in the international system. It is politically stable with strong leadership within a democratic framework. It is among the key global economic engines coupled with a pro-business regime and an expanding market. It has a gigantic and connected population. It possesses one of the strongest militaries in Asia. It is increasingly embracing a new assertive role and is willing to make difficult strategic choices, especially when it comes to China. And it has a vibrant technology sector with a pioneering role in the digital economy.
All of this makes Delhi somewhat indispensable as existing international structures go through a churn, old rivalries resurface and new ones sharpen, and each country looks to expand partnerships which would help their companies profit, their workforce get jobs, their trading arrangements become more robust, and their interests more secure especially in the Indo-Pacific. The guests at the Raisina Dialogue want to be friends with this India.
The second narrative is what dominates the thinking of large sections of the western press, human rights organisations, segments of the liberal and Left political landscape, including legislators, and a set of foreign policy and economic analysts, some within but mostly outside the governance ecosystems.
In this narrative, India is on the cusp of a crisis. Its economic story is exaggerated and obscures the slowdown in growth and rising inequality. Its strategic strengths are overblown, given the deficits in its military modernisation, its reluctance to speak up candidly about the China threat, and its desire to be in all global strategic boats simultaneously. And India’s democratic script has gone awry, with an illiberal and majoritarian regime deepening communal cleavages, misusing independent institutions, giving an ideological cover to vigilante groups, and undermining the rule of law and social peace.
This narrative is partly driven and stoked by India’s external adversaries. But it is also driven by constituencies that genuinely believe that neglecting these trends will push India on to an insular and authoritarian route, and weaken its value as a credible and strong interlocutor for the West.
Sometimes, the two narratives — despite their contradictions — overlap. Which is why you have foreign leaders reciting a long list of Indian strengths, interspersed with statements on their concerns about India’s political and strategic direction.
But for the most part, as much as the government’s critics find it uncomfortable to acknowledge it, the balance of power is clear. Those who wield political, military and economic levers of power in western capitals want to leverage India’s strengths, rather than turn the spotlight on its perceived weaknesses except sporadically.
This is due to India’s structural advantages. But it is also due to relentless Indian diplomacy, which has had the tough job of casting a spin on India’s turn towards illiberalism, pretending there is a values-based convergence for public optics, while firmly focusing on tangible interests to build convergences.
This has also involved building up political, economic, diplomatic and military constituencies in key capitals, which speak up for Indian interests as well as leveraging personal relationships.
But success in ensuring the first narrative prevails requires constant work, for domestic political events often end up feeding the second narrative. While the context is entirely different, how sceptics can, abruptly, overpower advocates of a relationship is most visible in the case of Saudi Arabia and the United States (US). Riyadh has remained one of Washington’s closest allies, but the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), led to a shift where the Democratic administration and Congress took a tough line on the kingdom. The reduced energy dependence played a part. The strategic argument took a backseat, the rift between the two capitals deepened, Saudis began exploring alternatives and deepening their partnership with China. It is only now, as DC tries to make up with Riyadh, that MBS has regained the upper hand.
The world has become more dangerous and the period where India could focus on domestic transformation in a relatively benign external climate is long gone. But each crisis is throwing up newer opportunities. The pandemic has made Make in India a defining diplomatic card, aligned with the world’s focus on diversifying supply chains. China’s border challenge has made both India reset its strategic calculus and the world see Delhi as the only capital that is actually spilling blood to resist the new bout of Chinese expansionism. Russia’s war is opening diplomatic and military doors as the West makes a renewed bid to woo India.
All of this is helping New Delhi win the narrative war where it matters — inside the power corridors of Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels. But to ensure that the noise from outside those corridors doesn’t percolate through the windows and translate into policy, and, more importantly, to live up to its constitutional principles, India may want to take a hard look at what’s happening on the ground.
The views expressed are personal