Modi’s India has a quiet confidence that is markedly different from lofty Nehruvian rhetoric
The victory of India’s candidate to the International Court of Justice has been lauded as a great diplomatic victory, especially since it involved a bitter contest with a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
There were two interpretations attached to the triumph. Commentators in the West attributed the withdrawal of the British candidate to the UK’s waning global influence after Brexit. However, the sheer scale of support for India’s candidate in the UN General Assembly has also attracted attention. While it is tempting to see this as a continuation of an earlier pattern of Afro-Asian solidarity against an erstwhile colonial power, the point shouldn’t be overemphasised. Would any candidate from, say, a smaller country, have succeeded in rallying as many countries as India did in the UNGA? Unless an exceptional candidate was on offer, this seems unlikely. The UK’s importance may well have shrunk, but as a P5 country, it still has considerable drawing power.
The conclusion is inescapable: the large support was more for India than it was against the UK. Even London calculated it was better to opt out of the race than risk a contest that would have soured bilateral relations. In the context of next year’s Commonwealth summit in which India is expected to play a leading role and a possible post-Brexit India-UK trade pact, the UK chose to not make the ICJ election a prestige issue.
In its report, The Times (London) referred to a diplomat quoting Tennyson: “The old order changeth, yielding to the new.” For India, such a projection is extremely flattering. For those blessed with a spirit of nostalgia, it invoked memories of a distant time when Jawaharlal Nehru was routinely consulted on international issues.
To see the India of Narendra Modi reclaiming this inheritance is tempting. After a prolonged period on the margins, India appears to have clawed its way back to the centre stage of world affairs. Today, India is taken seriously and its voice matters. Even P5 countries are willing to show flexibility to accommodate India, witness the unconfirmed suggestion that Washington may have played a discreet role in persuading the UK to withdraw its candidate for ICJ.
However, there is a major difference between the influence India exercised in the early-1950s and its role today. Earlier, to quote V.K. Krishna Menon – arguably the most loquacious of Nehruvian publicists – India was a “quality” in world affairs. Its interventions, mainly to promote decolonisation in Asia and Africa, were based on moral arguments. As the first large country to secure independence from colonial struggle after an ethical struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, India tended to be hectoring and even preachy. There were constant attempts to guilt-trip the West and prey on the troubled conscience of Western liberals, a posturing that ingratiated India to the Soviet Union and other ‘progressive’ forces. Yet the loftiness of the rhetoric could not conceal the fact that India lacked the capacity to feed its people, defend itself and muster enough internal resources to ensure adequate economic growth. Equally, the claims of moral superiority were punctured by the indulgence India showed in supporting shambolic post-colonial regimes.
The real difference between Modi’s India and Nehru’s India lies in India acquiring domestic capacity and achieving a measure of economic growth that many countries find enviable. Today, the Indian economy is vibrant and relatively more open than at any time since Independence. Additionally, while India has certainly not become insular, it has tempered its internationalism quite sharply. The irritating habit of pious grandstanding has been replaced by circumspection, strategic silences and a greater willingness to put national self-interest above ideological correctness. Finally, India has been willing to shoulder international obligations that go much beyond despatching peace-keeping forces to troubled spots. Its role in expeditions to the Antarctica and explorations in space, not to mention providing targeted assistance in war affected regions in, say, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, has significantly enhanced its claims to a permanent place at the global high table.
It was Cyril Connolly who once wrote: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” For a very long time, India’s global image was laced with either patronising asides of ‘promising’ and ‘potential’ or quasi-mystical prognosis of ‘destiny.’ They essentially covered up for underperformance. It is only now that India is beginning to be taken seriously. A contrived arrogance resting on under-performance has been replaced by the quiet self-confidence that comes with rising achievement.
Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal
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