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India is showing signs of a psychological shift to a philosophy of pragmatism

Once the self-appointed champion of the Global South, India has, in recent years, shown signs of a psychological shift to a philosophy of pragmatism.

columns Updated: Jul 25, 2014 23:17 IST

In the sixth and final part of his Hitchhiker Trilogy, Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams wrote: “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” You could argue that in India, rumour moves more rapidly than bad news, only to be outstripped by rumours of bad news.

If bad news were a commodity, its value during July would be nearing its peak. Not only have we seen the Islamic State’s jackboots trample over the civilisational core of Iraq, but like a zombie movie franchise that refuses to die, Israel and Hamas have made Gaza a constant chest-thumping and breast-beating contest. Meanwhile, the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukrainian territory is a tragedy born of Russia’s land grab.

Plenty can occur between now and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly in late September. But by the time he does his summiting with American President Barack Obama, there’s cause to argue that while India and the United States don’t quite always see eye-to-eye on geopolitical developments, they are no longer engaging in a staring match.

As India and the US meet for the next round of the strategic dialogue later this month, there will be a comfort that had been missing in recent times. The Indian government did prevent an anti-Israel resolution from being passed in Parliament and has tacked to a position that’s close enough to that of America. For instance, even as the US seeks a ceasefire in Gaza, there’s Obama’s speech at a White House Iftar dinner where he horrified attendees by saying that “we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas.” That’s hardly a politically correct stance but foreign policy isn’t a popularity contest.

Meanwhile, US secretary of state John Kerry even managed to broker a deal between the rivals for Afghanistan’s presidential election. India won’t mind a national unity government in Kabul. Perhaps Kerry could endear himself further to the Modi sarkar by finding meeting ground between other warring factions, like the various self-anointed Indian-American community leaders currently fighting for the prestige, press- and photo-ops of organising a reception for the prime minister in New York.

Where the twain won’t meet will be on Ukraine. The US isn’t going to get India to condemn Russia, since the Modi government appears to believe the two countries go together like idli and sambar. And the Obama administration’s pattern of blundering its way through most of West Asia, be it Iraq, Syria or even Egypt, will always remain a concern. And, of course, America’s Pakistan policy deserves its own display at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Manhattan.

But it’s been quite a departure for India from its past as a major player in the reflexively anti-American Non Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM was that in name only. Fortunately, though it lives on as a multilateral group, it currently has less strategic influence than, say, Kim Kardashian. Fittingly, though NAM was founded in Belgrade, none of the nations that comprised what was once Yugoslavia is a member.

Once the self-appointed champion of the Global South, India has, in recent years, shown signs of a psychological shift to a philosophy of pragmatism.

While India did revert to stereotype, voting for a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against Israel that uses the word ‘condemn’ more frequently than Obama plays golf during global crises, it has balanced its position.

There will be much attention paid to how India aligns itself in the future. Will this Indian summer persist or will there be a return to the chill that outlived the Cold War? As Kerry and his colleagues arrive in New Delhi, they’ll certainly hope this climate change continues.

Rumours of the revival of genuine non-alignment in India aren’t exactly unfounded. And that’s not necessarily bad news.

(Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years. He is the author of The Candidate. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Jul 25, 2014 23:14 IST