If you want to describe the relations between independent India and post-War Germany, the phrase “benign neglect” readily comes to mind. Before the Second World War, though, there was a lot more going on between Indian and German nationalists united by their hostility towards Britain.
After the War, India and Germany had a correct but inconsequential relationship. The current turmoil in Eurasian geopolitics — the prospects of an American retrenchment under Donald Trump and the growing assertion of Russia under Vladimir Putin and China under Xi Jinping — demands that Delhi and Berlin reconnect and revitalise their relationship.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chancellor Angela Merkel have promised precisely that — that they will deepen their political, economic and security cooperation on the basis of shared values and offer responsible leadership on regional and global problems, ranging from maritime order to climate change.
Sceptics would say the words from India and Germany on building a strategic relationship have not been matched by deeds. One major constraint has been India’s legacy of non-alignment and Germany’s deference to American leadership. Both nations were hesitant powers — India is tied down by a pretentious moralpolitik and Germany by the genuine expiation of the guilt from World War II. That is changing now.
Under Modi, India’s aspirations to become a leading power have become more pronounced. Meanwhile, Merkel is under a growing compulsion to take a larger share of global burdens. As Britain walks out of the European project and “America First” isolationism threatens the global economic and political order, there are growing expectations of the German leadership. Merkel’s remark, that Europe can no longer rely on the Anglo-American leadership and must take charge of its own destiny, resonates in India.
Modi had every reason to cheer Chancellor Merkel in building a globally engaged Germany and a more cohesive Europe that could partner India in structuring a stable balance of power in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific theatres. So far, so good. But the problem begins when it comes to concrete issues relating to India’s economic and security cooperation with Germany and Europe.
If the prickliness of Delhi’s Commerce Ministry alienates India’s trade partners, the Defence Ministry relishes slamming the door on the face of all those seeking strategic engagement with India. Despite the massive centralisation of power in the last three years, the PM seems unable to force his trade and defence negotiators to follow through on his expansive internationalist rhetoric.
In his talks with Merkel, Modi has promised to renew the conversation on free trade and investment protection with Europe and on defence industrial collaboration. Germany and Europe will not hold their breath for too long. For, the pace of Eurasian tectonic movement may be much faster than the response time of the Indian bureaucracy.