India’s silence on critical global issues fits poorly with its global aspirations.
Last week, the unstoppable force of international politics met the immovable object that is Indian foreign policy and as usual, a maelstrom of angry commentary ensued. On July 21, while the government refused to table a resolution on Gaza in the Rajya Sabha, the opposition excoriated it for abandoning long-held diplomatic positions, displaying crass political expediency, and denying India the prestige it once enjoyed in the global vanguard against colonialism and Apartheid. On July 23, as the government voted against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council, commentators decried the decision for selling out a friendly country, endorsing Islamic terrorism, and pandering to residual “UPA-style” bureaucratic thinking in the MEA.
Lost in this cacophony was an important line of reasoning that cuts to the heart of the matter. During the parliamentary debate, opposition members such as Ghulam Nabi Azad and D. Raja exhorted the government to act in a manner commensurate with India’s “stature” and “status” in the “comity of nations”. Baishnab Parida expressed his astonishment at the length of time — seven days — it had taken India’s elected representatives to even begin debating Gaza. Kanimozhi reminded the government that if India aspires to become a world leader, it must take a stand on humanitarian issues. Unlike disagreements over moral imperatives or the ever-elusive national interest that inevitably lead down ideological rabbit holes, here was an essentially forward-looking aspect of the national debate that focused on what might be expected of India as a potential
There are, of course, many reasons why India, with no direct interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, should adopt a minimalist policy of saying nothing and doing nothing — or abstaining at the UNHRC — with regard to the present crisis. Israel’s material support during the Kargil war, its role as a major purveyor of arms to India and the inadvisability of endorsing a terrorist outfit such as Hamas are among them. Moreover, as suggested by some commentators, to single out Israel for its response to Hamas’s rocket attacks after barely taking note of recent atrocities by organisations such as the ISIS, the Pakistani Taliban, and Boko Haram would be hypocritical.
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Does this type of studious silence befit India’s great power aspirations? Perhaps India does not espouse such pipe dreams — New Delhi is arguably content to be left to its own devices by the great powers without getting too involved in their machinations, be they in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, or anywhere outside South Asia for that matter. However, India’s demands and initiatives for greater participation and representation in global institutions, ranging from the World Trade Organisation to the Nuclear Suppliers Group suggest otherwise, as does
India’s participation in rising-power groups such as BRICS and IBSA.
Many of these global institutions provide public goods, such as a robust ozone layer, lower tariffs on goods and services and international security. India’s approach to global issues so far represents the classic case of a free rider, one that seeks to maximise its benefits while minimising the costs of engaging in public goods provision. This default strategy may have worked so far, but as India grows more powerful, the world’s expectations of it will continue to rise. If India does not step up in this regard, global public goods are likely to be under-provided in future — an unquestionably adverse outcome for India itself.
Shouldering these costs requires, among many other things, taking appropriate action (or at least positions) in situations where civilians are at grave risk or have been deliberately targeted. This fundamental tenet of the laws of war is not just vital for international security but also increasingly part of a global normative consensus on the responsibility to protect civilians in times of conflict. National interests may undoubtedly countervail, but to do nothing in such situations — as the Indian government initially purported to do — is largely the preserve of smaller or declining powers, the European Union’s vote at the UNHRC being a case in point.
Fortunately, the signs are encouraging. The BRICS vote at the UNHRC and the Fortaleza Declaration’s section on the Israel-Palestine conflict should be seen less as saying anything to the parties to the conflict and more as a signal to the world that rising powers such as India, Brazil, South Africa, and even China, are in their own way willing to work towards maintaining international peace and security. For its own part, India will increasingly experience the improbability of benefiting from the current world order without contributing a disproportionate share of it. It bears repeating to Delhi’s well-intentioned policymakers that with great power comes great responsibility.
The writer is a visiting fellow at the United Nations University and a research scholar in politics at Princeton University