A balance between societal dynamics, policy-making must

At a time when most are pursuing interests narrowly, it is to India’s benefit that it takes a more expansive view of the world. By stepping forward, it cannot only underline its capabilities but also build its brand as a generous power
Union minister for external affairs Dr S Jaishankar.(ANI)
Union minister for external affairs Dr S Jaishankar.(ANI)
Updated on Aug 30, 2020 04:48 AM IST
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ByDr S Jaishankar

It may be hard for diplomats to digest, but the Indian Street has often displayed better instincts than Lutyens’ Delhi when it comes to assessing opportunities and risks abroad. Their geopolitical understanding may not be formal. But they intuitively know with whom to trade and where to travel. Their choices in emigration and education were made well ahead of policy shifts by Indian diplomacy. A game-changing event like 9/11 was seen for what it was. The sharp popular imagery of nations has also captured the complexity of diplomacy. Say what you will, but the Street has a well-developed instinct, whether it is about Russia or America, China or Pakistan.

Now, this is not to suggest that the measured deliberations of statecraft are less important than the passions of society. But it is also a fact that we have entered a different era where the availability of information, tools of technology and cultural identities drive contemporary nationalism. The democratization of societies that bring to the fore more grounded politics also contributes to this process. Therefore, convolutions of policy and the accumulated weight of experiences sometimes struggle to meet the demands of society, particularly on issues where public opinion is exercised. The challenge today is to strike the right balance between societal dynamics and the mechanics of policy making. Mandarins can no longer be impervious to the masses.

An inability to reconcile the two can only come at the cost of political credibility, a phenomenon that we have seen in so many other countries. India is obviously not immune to this paradigm shift and the changed discourse reflects a newer era with its own driving forces. How to capture Indian nationalism in policy terms is a complex task that must simultaneously address issues of history, identity, interests and politics.

Among the more arrogant assertions of an era of hubris was that of the ‘end of history’. The complacency of this

pronouncement is only matched by its limitation as a Eurocentric analysis that disregarded what was happening in Asia at the same time. But nevertheless, we were supposedly staring at a universal and invincible globalized order led by the US. However, what appeared then as permanent was a transient moment of American unipolarity, as it was with other powers in history before. Larger competitiveness and political contestation proceeded to return the world to a more natural diversity.

The real truth about this revival of nationalism is that it has actually been a very durable basis for organizing societies. At various times, it has defeated conflicting ideologies that appealed to both larger and narrower loyalties. Multinational empires struggled with nationalist sentiment and by and large, lost out.

But national entities that encountered sub-national dissensions have usually won. Western imperialism was eventually undone by nationalist sentiments awakening in their former colonies.

Communism was the next of the transnational ideologies on a global scale. This too eventually foundered when socialism acquired national characteristics.

Faith-based movements have also attempted to cut across national divides. Being outcomes of high emotion and exceptional circumstances, nationalism eventually returns them to business as usual. The globalization of our era represents yet another effort at transcending an entrenched organizational principle of modern politics. But because it rests on a deeper technology basis and stronger economic interests, its tension with nationalism will continue for the foreseeable future.

Contestation between two such powerful rationalizations is not unnatural. So, rather than visualize either of them as an event, we should see them as currents of history.

Coming in different sizes and shapes, nationalism can be assertive, reactive or just expressive. The confident category reflects the real and psychological outcome of shifts in the world power hierarchy. It is represented by the rise of nations like China and India, of a continent like Asia and the consequent rebalancing of the global order. A second driver of greater nationalism is its very opposite: the reaction in more privileged societies to this rebalancing. The offshoring of manufacturing and creation of extensive global supply chains has inevitably had an impact on the West. A third category is the accumulated impact of how sharper cultural identities across the world have played on each other. The epicenter for that has been West Asia; and other regions have reacted to it over time. We should expect uneasy coexistence and shifting equations between globalist and nationalist forces as neither can prevail. And the world it will produce will be very contentious.

India is no exception to the larger trends that have strengthened nationalism. In emotional terms, nationalism obviously contributes to a stronger sense of unity. In political terms, it signifies a greater determination to combat both sub-national and supra-national challenges to it. In policy terms, it focuses on how to maximize national capabilities and influence.

In India’s current situation, that has a particular relevance to security. Overall, a nationalistic foreign policy outlook is likely to approach the world with more confidence and greater realism. What may be different about India is that unlike in many other powers, that sense of nationalism does not translate into an ‘us versus the world’ mentality. For reasons that derive from our innate pluralism, there is a tradition of reconciling the nationalism with global engagement. Not driven by victimhood, it has the potential to serve as a bridge between the established and emerging orders.

At a time when most are pursuing interests narrowly, it is to India’s benefit that it takes a more expansive view of the world. By stepping forward in difficult situations, it can not only underline its greater capabilities and confidence but also build its unique brand as a generous power. This imagery fits in well with the embrace of the world that is inherent in Indian thinking and reinforces its positioning as a power that can bridge divides.

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