India's wary rise

Dominique Moisi
7 Min Read

PARIS: Some countries are naturally at ease with the concept and the reality of strategic power. Such was clearly the case of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King in the seventeenth century, and such is the case today of China, whose leadership is comfortable with the balance-of-power games of classical Europe.

India is clearly in a different category. In economic terms, India’s confidence has been boosted by the way the Western world now looks at it with a mixture of respect and greed: “What kind of deals can I strike with such an emerging market, whose population will soon be the largest of any country in the world?

Yet, in order to understand India’s political and diplomatic relationship with the outside world, the most enlightening comparison is with America in 1920. Like the United States after World War I, India is realizing that its status and role in the world have been deeply transformed in the last two decades. And, like America then, India is not naturally at ease with the notion of exercising global power.

India’s history and culture, from Asoka, its mythical emperor in the third century BC, to Gandhi, push it to emphasize ethics and to consider itself an “exceptional nation in its relationship with the world. Contrary to China, India finds it difficult to adapt to its status as an emerging “Great Power. It would be a gross exaggeration, of course, to speak of an Indian “inferiority complex. And yet India constantly measures itself against China, remains obsessed with Pakistan, and has recently begun to look more critically at its relationship with the US.

It is natural for India to proclaim its “democratic superiority to China while recognizing that on all strategic fronts it is not in the same league. But is it even possible to draw a comparison between what one Indian academic has called the “robotized Chinese man and the vast human diversity of India?

India seems to worry more than ever about China’s evolution. China’s key role within the G-20, together with the relative if not absolute decline of the Western powers, seems to have reinforced the hard-liners in Beijing and the nationalism of a China that seems less ready than ever to accept any criticism of its human rights record. Viewed from New Delhi, the vision of a reasonable, prudent, and ultimately satisfied China – a vision “sold to the world by the Minister Mentor of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew – appears less than obvious.

When it comes to Pakistan, too, India seems to lack confidence. On all fronts – demographic, economic, military, and political – India is far above Pakistan. But India does not seem to know how to deal with its northwestern neighbor, and even less whom to deal with in its government.

The largest democracy in the world cannot say openly that it almost preferred the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf to the chaos of the current situation. In reality, what prevails in India is a deep sense of frustration with Pakistan. India’s overtures to Pakistan’s government have largely remained unanswered, and when Indian officials express their unease, the US, if not the international community, accuses them of behaving irresponsibly.

If India seems not to believe that America and its allies can really “succeed in Afghanistan, nor is it willing to resign itself to a return of the Taliban to power, which could in turn lead to Talibanization of Pakistan. Yet India seems to behave in a very “European way in Afghanistan; it is ready to send money and experts, but not troops.

India’s worries and frustrations in Afghanistan and Pakistan translate into a mixture of disillusion and irritation with an America that, seen from New Delhi, allows itself to be manipulated by Pakistani officials. Indians cannot quite decide whether the Americans are simply “naive or duplicitous; either way, they are not reassured.

Whatever the case, the current warming of relations between India and Russia, symbolized by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent visit, does not translate into a grand reversal of alliances, as India’s break with Russia in the 1990’s did. India’s exchanges with Russia are only one-fifth of what they are with China. What prevails nowadays in New Delhi and Moscow is simple pragmatism.

While there is room for Europe in India’s view of the world, for India (as for China) Europe is above all an economic rather than a political reality. When it comes to politics, bilateral relations prevail, and from that standpoint France and Germany seem more important than Great Britain. The Raj era may be visible in the buildings of New Delhi and in the uniforms of the Indian army, but Britain has lost any competitive edge that it once had in India. The past is truly passed.

India’s unease about strategic power, and its resemblance to a gigantic European Union united only by the English language, reflects its ongoing search for a new international identity. In this quest, India is impaired by its lack of practice in the exercise of power on a grand scale. India is not about to become a second China – it lacks both the means and the ambition. That is a further reason for the West to engage and invest in India.

Dominique Moisi is a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion. Project Syndicate ( . For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:

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