India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was in Europe last week. Rarely do key European capitals extend the level of courtesy and attention we saw lavished on him. But Modi is no ordinary visitor, for in today’s global dynamics, India presents the West with a difficult calculus.
India is the most important ally of the US that has remained equidistant from both sides in the Ukraine crisis. And when some had tried to nudge it to side with the West, India’s response was as assertive as it was firm in maintaining its position.
India matters. It is by far the most militarily powerful Western ally in Asia. It has a long border with China, and a conflict with the rising superpower that is likely unresolvable in the medium term. These two factors give India a strategic importance in any American (and Western) calculus. And so it was not surprising that America saw it as a valuable success when India had joined the US-led Quad (along with Japan and Australia), which is effectively a budding alliance to encircle China.
India is also a colossal demographic power in Asia. This translates into a major market all global companies eye with strong interest. But demography is much more than consumption. It is social depth and solidity – something of serious importance when new technologies (sponsored by extremely wealthy interests) are diluting national identities.
Add to that India has a highly successful diaspora, that includes communities of serious influence in different regions of the world, in addition to the CEOs of around 20 of the most important global companies.
Not surprisingly, the West wants to draw India to it. The question is at what cost.
India needs highly sophisticated Western arms to diversify from its decades-long dependency on Russian weapons, particularly as India seeks to bolster its traditional (non-nuclear) capabilities, not really vis a vis Pakistan, but primarily relative to China. But this makes supplying India with advanced weapons a difficult decision for the West. India is not a lagging country that could be pleased with massive shipments of arms it lacks the capabilities of using to their true potential. With its serious technological base, India can optimise on its acquisition of any advanced weapons. As such, decisions to supply India with advanced arms will be noted in China.
India also wants much better terms of trade with most large Western economies, which is another dilemma for the West. Several major Western companies operating in different sectors have learnt from long experiences in India that the market there has its own peculiarities, and that attempting to impose external rules is futile. And so based on these experiences and impelled by India’s size and weight, many Western countries are tempted to give India special terms of trade. But preferential treatment could well prompt other important countries to demand the same treatment, which when they do not receive it, would create unnecessary complications for many Western countries as well as for the European Union.
Crucially, India wants respect and reciprocity. Like China, India feels that her experience in the past two centuries were far from what she deserves (or as some would say, what she is entitled to). Whether the British Raj and its aftermaths, the struggle for independence, the political divisions that took place in the Indian Subcontinent in the mid twentieth century and the subsequent military confrontations that ensued as a result, or the economic difficulties that many in India believe were consequences of unfair Western policies – all are viewed as episodes in a trajectory of historical decline. At the core of the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is the determination that that decline must be reversed.
This means that the West must accept Indian values, views, and terms as those of an equal, whether in politics or in trade. But the West has not engaged with any civilisation in the past three hundred years as an equal. India is not as assertive as China is in demanding a particular treatment; but it notes, and subtly reciprocates.
Yet, as it notes how others treat her, India realises that these encounters present her with difficult choices.
India is almost compelled by its acute disagreement with China to be close to US-led efforts in Asia and the Pacific. But India does not aim to be, in Lee Kwan Yew’s phrase, “an honorary member of the West”. India sees herself as a centre of gravity in its neighbourhood, a radiating civilisation, its glow both illuminating as well as drawing those around her. This subtle rivalry is one of the reasons behind its conflict with China. But it is also a brake in its getting too close to the West.
There is also a values issue. For the past sixty years since its independence, India’s politics – externally, but much more importantly internally – were anchored in an expansive conception of what India means. In this conception, India was an aggregation of the heritages of the different cultures that have existed in the Indian Subcontinent in the past several hundred years. This is the tradition espoused by Gandhi and sustained by Jawaharlal Nehru. Arguably it is the tradition that enabled India to have a serious democratic system.
This tradition has been losing ground in India in the past two decades. The ruling political-Hinduism defines India narrowly, excluding from its rhetoric about the national identity anything that it sees as diluting Hinduism. And so, the more India embraces this narrow scope of its history and identity, the more it will lose its attraction as a successful political entity anchored on true representation and respect for liberalism. Inevitably this will break that sense of belonging to the camp of political liberalism that has connected India and the West in the past six decades.
And the more narrowly-defined-nationalism prevails in India, the more the country will lose its strongest political differentiation from China: its positioning as a colossal Asian society sustaining a true democracy. This will be a serious political loss for India. Also in this scenario, India’s struggle with Pakistan would increasingly be portrayed as between Hinduism and Islamism, something India has worked for decades to avoid.
A narrowly-defined assertive nationalism would not only dilute the soft power attached to India’s politics; it would also lessen the sense of continuity in India’s rich history. Modern India would seem disconnected from the marvels of its old highly advanced philosophy – arguably the most powerful association the collective global consciousness has concerning India.
The Ukraine crisis has brought India’s dilemmas and dilemmas about India under the limelight. Whether they will be solved or exacerbated will be of major importance to India and the world.