How Modi’s India pursues Nehruvian foreign policy with a difference


India is on Western global groupings like the G-7, G-20, Quad and the Indo-Pacific. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, it is there on BRICS and SCO. On the regional front, it has BIMSTEC and the non-functional SAARC, not to leave out the likes of ASEAN-Plus. Then, there is the CHOGM inheritance from the British colonial era, and the forgotten NAM. On the UN and its affiliates, where India is an elected member of the all-important Security Council for a term, till year-end.

India has the second-largest global population, hence cannot be left out. Post-reforms three decades back, it is also a massive market for the Western MNCs to sell their high-end white goods. IT sector jobs in the West and also the opening up of commercial television and easy access to credit, all coinciding with the economic reforms, have generated a craving for ‘phoren goods’ beyond the traditional upper-crust, which in an earlier era would pull out their woollens when it was winter in London. Now, across the social spectrum, many rural and urban families do so when it is winter in the US.

‘Nationalist’ economists often argue that the nation is also a huge domestic market, for manufacturing to thrive, and provide more jobs and family incomes.  The ‘Bombay Club’ protested when the reforms regimen opened up the economy for foreign investments even in very traditional sectors and also permitted the marketing of imported products, legit. Soon, they fell in line. To have the cake and eat it too, they found foreign partners, again mostly from the West, to package their proposals, projects and products to the Indian government and to the Indian people.

Eternal flux

India’s call for a permanent seat in the UNSC, along with those by Germany and Japan, Brazil and South Africa, continues to fall on deaf ears. It is not a member of the all-important Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In the regional context, every other stake-holder, including good friend Russia, kept us out of the ‘Afghan caucus’, if it could be called so, ahead of the transition caused by the US withdrawal last year. There are other specifics of the kind that can be read out.

At the recent G-7 summit, too, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the First World members of the grouping, to invest in India. New Delhi continues to underline the fact that it is not yet an investor-member like the rest, to claim a seat on its own. It has no friends that way, but then it has no other enemies other than those caused by historic reasons, involving China and Pakistan.

In the same vein, Modi also participated in the ‘rivalling’ BRICS virtual summit around the same time. He even got the support of the Chinese host, to keep Pakistan out of a BRICS-Plus event. India is also cautious in signing in new members into the BRICS, as China and Russia, with their political agendas, are keen on enrolling.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the 14th BRICS Summit.

Hare and Hound

The question is this: Where does India fit into this still-evolving post-Cold War global order? Or, is this eternal flux, the new normal? A section of the Indian strategic community is confident that there cannot be a global or regional grouping without our presence. To them, Indian participation in G-7 and BRICS is a fine example of diplomatic balancing act.

Others tend to feel that it’s like running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Until the Ukraine War, there was some doubt, who was the hare and who the hound was. The way the West has gone overboard, penalising Russia through multiplicity of sanctions, shows who is after whom, but not why. It is their impotent rage at NATO not being able to join the war, as European scars from the two Great Wars of the previous century still remain.

At G-7, the West wanted to fix a cap on Russia’s oil prices, because it could not stop nations like China, nor persuade India not to buy. They hoped that fixing a cap on Russian oil would tempt India to sign up. As the post-Ukraine Delhi parade by western leaders showed, they want the only major non-ideological friend of Russia to distance itself from Moscow — and for good. With experience gained from post-Independence experiences of the kind with our post-Cold War western friends and allies, our government just refuses to blink.

Food markets

If anything, only days after his returning from the G-7 summit at Germany, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, their fourth telephonic conversation this year. They reportedly discussed the update on the decisions taken during Putin’s Delhi visit last December, as a part of the annual, bilateral summit. India’s ban on wheat exports, after the commencement of the Ukraine war, irritated friends more than enemies.

PM Modi and Vladimir Putin

According to an official statement, “The leaders also discussed global issues, including the state of the international energy and food markets.” The former has been in the news for decades now, and the latter is acquiring new urgency, especially since the outbreak of the Ukraine War. “In the context of the ongoing situation in Ukraine, the prime minister reiterated India’s long-standing position in favour of dialogue and diplomacy,” the statement added.

At a separate Caspian Sea Summit, Putin said that the proposed 7,200-km International North-South Transport Corridor (INST), connecting India to Russia via Iran, as a “truly ambitious project”. Unlike believed since, it was signed in 2020, long before the Ukraine war. This gives a new dimension not only to bilateral relations, especially fuel-supply in the context of the Ukraine war, but can also redefine geo-strategic priorities for all three nations, in the immediate regional context.

This is apart from the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime trade corridor, for which an agreement was signed in 2019. It covers 5,600 nautical miles of 10,600 km, through the Sea of Japan, East and the South China Seas through Malacca Strait to reach the Bay of Bengal, in about 10-12 days.

Grace and cunning

What does it all mean? India is important to nations, but on their terms, not on India’s terms. Post-Ukraine, the West, for instance, does not want India to fall back on Russia more than already, and certainly not patch up with China, even if the terms are not uneven. Xi Jinping does not have either the grace or cunning to do it that way. He wants to have the cake and eat it too. Hence, the crudity of Galwan. It does not work, not with the India of the sixties, not certainly with India in the 21st century.

Xi Jinping

None of it solves anything for India. Just because Modi has rechristened Nehruvian ‘self-reliance’ as ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’, it has not made India, either. There is still great reluctance in the corridors of power to regulate the ‘globalisation’ part of Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms and expand on ‘privatisation’ — focusing on Indian investors, household savings and the like.

It would also be a true reflection of the nation’s true capability instead of imagined positions, inspired by professional motivators from the West. If it had commenced earlier, maybe by now, India’s R&D skills would have improved, and could have produced globally-acceptable products, from heavy engineering to white goods. That’s just not happening.

Raw power

Like in the previous centuries, the world still respects raw power, whether economic or military or both. By a quirk of fate and some sleight of hand, the US acquired both with the two Wars in the 20th century — and remains the sole super-power. The Soviet Union went on its own, and out of the radar, not very long after.

China used Western investments and domestic labour laws to become one of them — yet, against them, quick and fast. India is only trying to ape that ‘Deng model’ of economic development, but is not attracting as much investments as required, and as expected — if not promised.


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‘Ease of doing business’ is a terminology with flexible, evolving interpretations. India does not fit in – and should not fit in, if governments care for labour uplift and social harmony, through the medium and long terms. Communist China did not have to care.

Earned, not made

Super-power stardom is still earned, not made, unlike in the case of the US, which was already there, defining the definition of the terminology when it evolved. The holder of the title does not like competition at the top, but can accommodate rungs of favourites and favour-seekers. It’s true of the US still, of the Soviet Union when it mattered.

Seen from either side, China is no different. First, the US and the rest of the West wanted it as a bulwark against the Soviet Union first, and then as a cheap labour market for their MNCs to make bigger profits than already. Once China had the economic muscle to flex its political and military muscles, Beijing’s expansionism and un-democratic and non-pluralistic political ideology had to be fought at all costs, but without firing any shots. Wars are for the poor, indefensible in Iraq and Syria, if not post-9/11 Afghanistan.

But for China to claim super-power stardom, it has to be seen to be present, and accepted. So, Taiwan issue has to be raked up time and again, so should the South China and East China Sea issues. Even big neighbours like India had to be seen as South Asian supplicants. Whatever concessions are there, it is for either the West or China to give India. Or, that is how they are looking at it, working on it.

Truth be acknowledged, India is at the crossroads, but no one wants to acknowledge it. Each generation of political leadership is satisfied with earning a few brownie points more than the opponent, nearer home, and approbation from friends and allies, outside. Leaderships are happy with victorious wars, are disturbed, if not perturbed, when the reverse happens. Without reference to the area lost, China’s 1962 war and Galwan stand on the same pedestal, connected by the immediate concerns of the political leadership.

Soft power display

India’s Covid era ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative was a display of 21st century soft-power at work without impeding cultural markers. It did not stop with the neighbourhood. Instead, the message went across the Third World, where the Indian pharma industry was doing commendable work all along. It was the first time the world came to acknowledge India’s pharma prowess, but our friends were only less unhappy than our known adversaries.

There is a message, a way out, for India. New Delhi may not be able to convince all P-5 members to expand the UNSC high-table to give it full membership. It may apply to such other fora, too. But its soft power, when administered with purpose and focus, can have a higher number of committed admirers in the General Assembly, whom India had inspired through the early decades of the post-colonial era. India should pay more attention to NAM, without writing it off as had-been grouping, which had outlived its utility.

Missed the bus, but…

Prime Minister Modi in his more stable, more-than stable second term since 2019 could have boldly designed a foreign and economic policy that explored and exploited our core and inherent strengths. This does not mean that we could ditch our current crop of friends or ignore their ability to play mischief in India’s ties with other Third World nations. Of course, the China irritant remains.

A community of faceless scientists who have taken the world by storm through our nuclear and space programmes could have achieved much more in other areas. But the hurry is to buy weapons and heavy machinery from outside the country. Galwan was the reason this time, but governments and generals have always found reasons for such imports.

India has missed the bus — and it has not, either. It is a mind and mindset problem, nothing as much to do with the nation and its people. As a nation, we are still in the Nehruvian era, where we acknowledged our post-Independence weaknesses, to remain ‘non-aligned’. Today, we are using our relative strengths to achieve precisely the same, only the packaging, and the consequent beliefs, are different!

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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How Modi’s India pursues Nehruvian foreign policy with a difference
How Modi’s India pursues Nehruvian foreign policy with a difference
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