A confident India is taking on the world
PM Modi's three-nation tour was a testament to how New Delhi has managed the turbulence of global politics effectively and positioned itself well for the future
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s recently concluded three-nation tour was a testament to New Delhi’s growing weight in a rapidly evolving global order. PM Modi’s presence at the G7, his meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, emphasising the Quad connect, outreach to the South Pacific, and consolidation of ties with Australia — all serve as a useful reminder that New Delhi has managed the turbulence of global politics effectively and positioned itself well for the future. The fact that India successfully concluded a G20 meeting in Srinagar last week with great fanfare, and with hardly a murmur abroad, is a sign of the government’s growing confidence in its ability to navigate even the trickiest of policy issues.
This is also an apposite moment to reflect on the last nine years of the Modi government’s foreign policy. Next year will be an election year, when, predictably, political partisanship would make dispassionate engagement with a serious subject almost impossible. From the beginning of his term in 2014, there was a debate if PM Modi would try to be a revolutionary leader when it came to external engagements. Revolutionary changes in foreign policy are rare, and when they do happen, they are largely an imposition due to some sudden change in the structural environment facing a nation. But for a long time, some sections argued that for all the talk of a break from the past, PM Modi had not really changed any aspect of foreign policy fundamentally.
But as we look at Indian foreign policy close to a decade after PM Modi took over in 2014, it should be clear to all, except the hyper partisans, that a singular transformation is underway in India’s engagement with the wider world. It is a function of a changing world, of course, but also of a changing India. New Delhi today is articulating a new voice on the global stage and is confidently able to steer through some of the evident contradictions in its approach.
That a more powerful self-confident India would be looked at differently by the world is a given. Gradual accretion of economic capabilities has given the country a singular heft in global diplomacy that was missing in the past. Beyond that, it was the way India managed the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and Chinese aggression that has left an imprint on global consciousness. India has succeeded in conveying a message that while it doesn’t want to disrupt the extant order, despite its visible dysfunctionalities, New Delhi will not shy away from standing up for its interests and priorities. India’s Pakistan obsession has given way to strategic management of China, clarifying strategic priorities for a nation that has often been accused of strategic drift.
At an ideational level, the logic of non-alignment has been turned on its head with strong partnerships — from Europe to the Indo-Pacific, and from Eurasia to Africa — being viewed today as essential to furthering Indian interests. India was one of the first nations to underscore the centrality of issues-based coalitions in a world order defined by fluidity and flux. This is proved by its presence in Quad, which is about striving towards a free and open Indo-Pacific, and its simultaneous engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which gives it a toehold in Central Asia, critical to managing its continental challenges. It is these partnerships that have made it possible for India to reimagine its own global role amid the emerging geopolitical contestation among major powers.
Operationally, New Delhi is willing to play its part as a responsible global stakeholder. It is no longer a mere critic of existing frameworks but a provider of solutions to global problems. From the International Solar Alliance for environment and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure for sustainable development to its Vaccine Maitri to tide over the pandemic, India is contributing to global governance in ways not foreseen just a few years ago.
Changes in the international context have opened up new possibilities for India and Indian policymakers have shown receptivity to these opportunities. The global balance of power has evolved in a direction that has ushered in new faultlines among major powers.
The United States-China contest has taken on a particularly serious dimension while the Russia-West relationship has taken an ominous turn. Ordinarily, for a power such as India, stable ties among major powers is a sine qua non for continued focus on economic growth. But going against conventional wisdom, Indian diplomacy has thrived even among these tumultuous times. The Ukraine crisis, instead of shrinking Indian options, has further amplified New Delhi’s voice on the global stage. And as the West has soured on China, New Delhi has moved quickly to offer itself as a credible economic alternative, disavowing some of its old diffidence on global trade issues.
What started off as a fairly dynamic approach to global diplomacy is today yielding significant dividends for India. PM Modi and his team deserve credit for steering India effectively through some of the most difficult times in recent history and giving India a voice on the global stage that is distinct, rooted in Indian ethos and effective in articulating the concerns of those who are rarely, if at all, heard in the international system. And despite his critics, PM Modi remains the most visible and important symbol of this transformation in Indian diplomatic culture.
Harsh V Pant is vice-president, ORF, New Delhi and professor at King’s College. The views expressed are personal