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Not so credible India

Why the world sees India’s foreign policy as non-serious and whimsical.

Written by Pratapbhanumehta |
April 24, 2008 12:19:22 am

India has a growing sense of itself as an important player on the world stage. But there is often a curious gap between its self-perception and the way the rest of the world views it. There is absolutely no doubt about the increasing importance of India. The world is looking to India on many dimensions: its economic prospects, cultural visibility and its own political example. There is a sense that, despite some serious challenges, the momentum of history is on India’s side. The future is only India’s to lose. But there is also tremendous apprehension in different parts of the world about the Indian state’s ability to leverage this opportunity to its full advantage. In meetings across the world, whether in Asia or the United States, the usual homage is paid to the Indian growth story. But shortly thereafter, the frustrations begin to emerge. While it is usually a mistake to let one’s own sense of self be shaped by how others view one, it would be equally myopic to ignore the fact that perceptions matter. And many of these perceptions are not to our advantage.

The biggest source of frustration the world over is the near paralytic fragmentation of authority in our politics. Before we get too defensive and start with homilies on our deepening democracy, we must understand this. Everyone understands the complexities of democracy. What observers don’t find understandable is the degree to which every small interest can exercise veto over important issues, without concern for any minimal degree of rationality. On the Indo-US nuclear deal, for instance, people can understand principled reasons for different parties not wanting it. What they are not convinced about is whether the reasons given by our parties are indeed principled. The worry is not that our politics is fragmented: the worry is that it projects the air of being non-serious and whimsical.

But the issue is much broader than the nuclear deal. A whole range of issues is stuck. Progress in FTAs and trade liberalisation with Asean, exploiting the slivers of opportunity we have had for pressing an advantage with China and Pakistan, a clear-eyed view of the developments in Sri Lanka or Nepal, or a more constructive role on issues of global importance are all areas where there is more talk than action. India is fast acquiring a reputation that is best captured in a couplet that was once used, perhaps unfairly, for Nehru: nahin ikrar ka alam, nahin inkar ka pehelu. Whatever our substantive differences, it would be disingenuous to deny that the rest of the world does have a sense of Indian policymaking seriously drifting, bereft of leadership and likely to be held hostage to all kinds of uncertainties.

Besides the political vacuum, many observers agree that there is also the serious challenge of what Marshall Bouton called the “soft infrastructure” of foreign policy. This has two components. The first is capacity within government itself. The simple fact is that, as in so many areas of domestic policy, the government is simply unequipped to cater to the demands that are being placed on it. Just the intensity of summits, organisational memberships, conclaves, and negotiations is proving to be beyond the capacity of the state. As anyone who has watched Delhi can sympathise, there is a sense in which parts of government are tremendously overworked, and the best have unbelievable demands placed upon them. Besides the issue of size, there is also the issue of whether government is organised to mobilise the best available knowledge. There is a good deal of respect for some parts of the IFS and IAS. And there is an understanding that you need good administrators to coordinate and shepherd through a negotiation process. But there is also tremendous consternation at the fact that these services have monopolised the representing of India’s interests. As one senior Asian diplomat put it in a recent conference, “I deeply admire the Indian Foreign Service. But they think they are experts on everything: from climate change to energy, from nuclear weapons to trade.” The point was not a reflection on the capabilities of the service; the point was the lack of its ability to draw in from a wider pool that would allow it to think strategically rather than merely diplomatically.

But this ability to draw in from a wider pool is premised upon the second aspect of soft infrastructure: a robust, serious and deep culture of academics, think tanks and a vibrant university system. Without the widespread and rigorous knowledge base that comes from having a rich gamut of institutions, the preparedness and quality of our engagement with the outside world is very thin. There is colossal frustration across the world at the fact that India has relatively little absorptive capacity in higher education, the principal means through which nations have historically projected their point of view and their soft power. Hundreds of international institutions are dying to collaborate with Indian institutions; the capacity at the Indian end to effectively utilise these opportunities is dismal. While there is great appreciation of the possibilities of doing business with business, there is palpable disappointment that huge areas where India’s advantages can be projected on to the rest of the world remain unexploited. In the rest of the world, they see a great disjunction between India’s entrepreneurial confidence and its still apparent lack of intellectual self-confidence. When being charitable, this gap is seen as something of an enigma. But it also raises more doubts about how real the India story is.

Perhaps it is too much of the world to expect from India. But one very eminent Brazilian academic and politician recently made the observation that India is hampered in a couple of ways. Although it is an emerging power, it does not yet have the capacity to project what it stands for. Second, on a large number of important issues, India’s role ought not to merely be to maximise its gains; it also ought to be to provide some intellectual leadership. Raymond Aron once made the perceptive observation that the legitimacy of a great power diminishes if that power is also not associated with a vibrant set of ideas. What the rest of the world sees in India at the moment is a lot of contention, but relatively little serious argument and debate. Business dynamism can sustain interest in India. Ultimately its power will be a function of how it manages its internal challenges. But there is a sense that political drift, state incapacity and intellectual impoverishment still cast a long shadow over India’s credibility.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research pratapbmehta@gmail.com

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