India is beginning to be given a seat at the global high table, such as the G-20. There is a growing acceptance of India’s size and its enormous potential, and though it is consulted on regional issues, its role in global decision-making, while growing, remains small. So does India’s share of votes in major international financial institutions, where competent Indians are denied top decision-making positions. US President Barack Obama has acknowledged that India’s role in global cooperation is indispensable, signaling that it will play a more important role in the future.
Part of India’s problem is that its own backyard is in turmoil, making it difficult to project itself globally. But the new free trade agreement with the Association for South East Asian Nations is a huge step forward and reviving the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) must be given top priority. Intra-regional trade between the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) countries remains the smallest as a share of total trade compared to any other regional grouping. Cooperation on many regional issues — energy, the Himalayan ice-melt — remains small. As the only power in the region with a global reach, India must play a binding role in presenting the interests of smaller countries in global forums and find a way to build greater regional cooperation.
India does not have a history of being an aggressive power and has no territorial claims on any of its neighbours. As the Chinese Ambassador Qu Shih stated, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.” Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian, ascribes the foundation of India’s remarkable democracy to its underlying argumentativeness. As a result India can sometimes appear to be a spoiler in global cooperation. It has incorrectly been blamed for torpedoing the Doha trade deal, but it could not have agreed to a deal that would’ve ruined the lives of millions of its small farmers living on the edge of poverty.
It is considered recalcitrant in climate change discussions despite having the world’s lowest per capita emissions while not having been a major global emitter in the past. India’s own record on global cooperation, when given a fair opportunity, is very positive. It is moving quickly to a low carbon energy strategy and has committed never to exceed the average per capita global emissions. India’s rise to the high table will bring a much-needed change in global cooperation. It will no doubt be argumentative, but its arguments will reflect the voice of millions of poor, globally.
As the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee rightly observed, “It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”
Ajay Chibber is UN Assistant Secretary General and Head of the Asia Pacific Bureau at UNDP
The views expressed by the author are personal