T K Arun
India As a Balancing Power
What determines the ardour of the West’s wooing of India? Wherever India’s Prime Minister goes, he is feted, wooed, coddled. What explains this ‘rock star’ treatment?
For the supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the answer is quite simple: his unparalleled charisma and popular support. For those not so adept at such thinking, a more rational explanation is in order. One can be found in the ongoing flux in geopolitics and the desperate search for a new world order, in which the West hopes to retain advantage, even if to a lower degree than it has had in the past.
What stands between the West and a new world order dominated by rising China is India. India cannot be alienated. Rather, it must be wooed, and its support ensured, to guard against violent conflict heralding the new order.
This is not the first time India finds itself in such a balancing role vis-à-vis rival power blocs. In the wake of World War 2, when old empires had crumbled and newly decolonised countries were groping their way to their place in the world, the West saw India as the bulwark against a future in which newlyindependent countries fell like dominoes to a surging wave of communism, led by the victorious Soviet Union, and aided by a template-setting China.
The West’s Wooing of India
Irked, the West was, about independent India’s desire to build industrial muscle through Five-Year Plans, instead of following its advice to focus on textiles while importing the machines to make textiles from the West’s industrial powerhouses. Vexing, too, was India’s attempt to rally developing countries into a Non-Aligned Movement, instead of rallying behind their former colonial masters. India’s leaders were uppity folk, given to speaking their mind, instead of minding their Ps and Qs in front of the great and the good of the Western world.
Yet, the West plied India with food aid, agricultural technology to enable a Green Revolution, steady dollops of yearly foreign aid and liberal assistance from the World Bank. It was vital for the West that democratic India should succeed in its nation-building mission. Failure ran the risk of yet another communist insurgency taking hold in Asia, and strengthening the Soviet bloc.
India’s policy of non-alignment saw it getting major benefits from both sides of the Cold War. But this was more than an expedient adjustment to a world divided into two camps. India’s leaders saw India as being too big and too important to be a mere camp follower. For a nation seeking its tryst with destiny in the era of potential universalisation of the scientific and industrial revolutions that had carried the US and Europe far ahead of the rest of the world, strategic autonomy was the only viable option.
India’s Non-Alignment Policy
Such considerations continue to guide India’s establishment thinking on foreign policy. When US President George W Bush offered India a nuclear deal in the first decade of this century, to counterbalance China, few political leaders recognised its role as the way out of the technology denial regime in which India had been placed after its nuclear tests. Fortunately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee happened to be among them, and they staked the UPA government on securing the deal. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, had been one of the critics of the deal, as he had been of Aadhaar and the goods and services tax (GST).
India is now a member — or, as good as a member — of the all the world’s four key technology control regimes, thanks to the nuclear deal. These control regimes are, of course, part of the rules-based order the US-led West seeks to defend against disruption.
India has little sympathy for the West’s dominance and control of the world’s financial architecture, complete with its ability to weaponise the dollar. The threat of being locked out from New York’s dollar pipelines are enough for most nations to toe the West’s line on sanctions backed up with secondary sanctions. At the same time, India would not like China to be the cornerstone of an alternate financial architecture.
India’s Financial Interests
On climate change, ideally, the developing world should be asking the rich world to suck out from the atmosphere the CO 2 they had released into it while growing rich, instead of putting pressure on the developing world to reduce fresh emissions. The viability of negative emissions depends on discovering and scaling up chemistrythat uses CO 2 as the starting block for materials conventionally derived from petroleum.
The West’s Derisking Strategy
India’s independent stance on Ukraine makes it clear that it will prioritise its own needs over the West’s diplomatic requirements. With the world’s largest demographic of young people, which can be converted into low-cost, skilled labour, India is uniquely placed to build derisked, non-Chinese supply chains and provide the trained manpower the West needs in everything from healthcare to technology R&D.
The West is not a homogeneous entity. Different powers seek to derisk themselves, each leveraging India’s resources. Hence the competitive wooing of India, even letting ‘Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar’ slide.
The article was first published in the Economic Times as Why is the West Wooing India? on July 18, 2023.
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