At the sixth edition of the world Government Summit in Dubai, India was the guest country and Prime Minister Narendra Modi a keynote speaker. This was Modi’s second visit in less than two years and comes on the back of his hugely successful previous visit of 2015 which in itself was a landmark for no other prime minister from India who had visited the UAE for more than 34 years, until Modi’s visit in August 2015. There can be thus no better occasion to explore India’s rise than at this year’s event in Dubai, a knowledge hub, where taught leaders around the world gather. It provides the perfect backdrop to examine the Indian exceptionalism, a claim that the country has been reticent to make until recently. But under the prime ministership of Modi, that has changed. The country has a leader that has the mandate to shift gears, the perfect spokesman and agent to rebrand and reset India’s trajectory: A country labeled habitually a cautious power, is stepping up to reclaim its natural global role. A paradigm shift from its ingrained diffidence and reticence born out years of colonial rule.
During the announcement of the agenda of the three-day summit, the UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, and Chairman of the World Government Summit, Mohammad Abdullah Al Gergawi, said India carries exceptional experiences worthy of being global models to follow; He then went on to add: “ The World Government Summit has transformed into the largest platform for shaping future governments and a meeting point between international organizations and governments from around the world… and in this edition, the Indian delegation participating in the annual gathering will bring across the latest technologies developed by the country, covering space exploration and technological advancements”. A variety of expressions-a palimpsest, a sinkhole for gold, as abstract an idea like the equator have been used to grapple with this conundrum called India. From Winston Churchill to Romaine Rolland, from Mark Twain to Adam Smith to more contemporary writers like Ramachandra Guha, Shaski Tharoor to Patrick French have written domes to understand India.
Yet, a recently published book which is worth to read, “Our Time Has Come”, by Alyssa Ayers, brings a distinctly unique view on India on account of her more than 25 years of experience in India, she was the United States deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 2010-2013 and her insights are based on a variety of conversations with interlocutors, both in India and the US. The very title suggests that Ayers has topped into India’s yearning for recognition, for the tag sits well on a self assured India ramping up its presence on the world’s stage and it echoes the ambition of its live-wire prime minister. It resonates perfectly with the Prime Minister’s speech in Kuala Lumpur in 2015: “Now, it is India’s turn. And we know that our time has come.” Pitch perfect to Indian ears who had earlier heard Modi thundering in Madison Square Garden, New York: “Our country used to play with a snake, now we play with a mouse.”
Ayers make clear that India is not looking for ‘global dominance’. On the contrary, its desired goal is far more finessed and some would even say modest. India is not an expansionist power. It takes a more nuanced and evolved idea of greatness and Ayers makes an earnest attempt to understand the country. Her book explores India’s idea of itself and how it wishes the world to ‘rediscover’ the country. Uncover its unique heritage starting from antiquity, whether through a study of Chanakya, the Indian equivalent of Mackiavelli, or that ancient Hindu concept of universalism called “Vasudhaiva Khulumbakam” or the Hindu theory of international relations based on the doctrine of “Mandala” (the sphere of influence). And through this unpeeling of its riches, India wishes to influence the world in a distinctly Indian way of thinking. From matters, spiritual to material, from statecraft, astronomy, mathematics to healing through Ayurveda and yoga.
Re-emerging Great Power
Former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao had Said: “India has not got its clue on the world stage, despite its size, its democracy and its accomplishments.” And parliamentarian Jay Panda had observed: “I see India as a re-emerging great power and… India’s previous foreign policy of diffidence is being gradually supplanted.” Ayers calls India a living laboratory for politics, while former secretary Larry Summers says: “The country could be a part of the biggest story of the era, the coming of age of the developing world.”
It is time, therefore, to examine if India under Modi is charting a new course. Is a so-called Modi doctrine being crafted or is it essentially old wine in a new bottle? For much as the India-rising story is beguiling and music to the ears of Indians, especially its middle class which is our focus and which is obsessed with tags like ‘Super Power’, the ground realties are stark. While some of its aggregate indicators, especially in military terms, are indeed impressive, the India story is riddled with disappointing statistics. Some would say bleak for while India boasts of top-class space technology, the country also happens to be the epicenter of stunted children, more than 60 million and endemic malnourishment akin to sub-Saharan Africa. India’s consistent underperformance in key areas is legendary.
It still lacks a mass manufacturing base like China and so unemployment continues to bedevil its rise. Close to half of all India’s employed work is still in agriculture, which only contributes 17.4% to its gross domestic product. The share of manufacturing in India’s GDP is a paltry 18%, compared to China’s 30% and South Korea’s 31%.
India’s inability to eradicate poverty and its shodely record in health care and education as well as its creaking infrastructure and the snail’s pace of ushering in much needed reforms in area like labor laws, foreign direct investment, the ease of doing business are in glaring contrast with China. Yet, despite these stark differences, India’s proclivity to fall short of expectations and the Indian state’s consistent habit of failing its civil society, Indian watchers still keep faith in India. Indeed, there is that remote possibility of the Washington consensus slowly giving way to the Beijing consensus and finally setting for the Mumbai consensus.
Meanwhile, how clearly can we define the Modi doctrine? Is Prime Minister Modi India’s Deng Xiaoping? Are we seeing a new India emerging with accelerated growth and on the way to becoming a paramount maritime power in the Indian Ocean region and beyond and thereby breaking free from the geographically circumscribed continental view of itself? To explain this, there is none better than recently retired Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar. He listed five “innovations” in the way India was using the tools of statecraft to further a proactive foreign policy: Narratives, lexicon and imagery; soft power; the Indian diaspora; and the link between foreign policy and national development. First, the Modi government was developing a narrative as part of a transition to making India a leading power. For instance, Jaishankar said, attention to India’s sacrifices in the First World War, or its record in peacekeeping operations, strengthens its case for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Second, the creation of a new lexicon and imagery, whether it is from a “Look East” to “Act East” policy or the image of a “first responder” in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This has been critical in signaling and driving foreign policy changes.
Third, the Modi government has emphasized the use of soft power in Indian foreign policy, as evidenced by the International Day of Yoga and its links with the country’s culture and heritage.
The fourth “innovation” is related to the Indian Diaspora. While their achievements have long been broadly appreciated, the Modi government has been more direct thus far in engaging with overseas Indians as evidenced by the turnout at Madison Square Garden during his visit to the US earlier.
Finally, there has also been a more explicit link made between diplomacy and national development efforts, with India working hard to leverage its international relationships to bring resources, technology and best practices to further its own development such as through the “Make in India” initiative.
Powerful In an Aggregate Sense
According to policy analyst Dr. C. Raja Mohan, director of Carnegie India: “If you take classic indicators of hard power… India’s aggregate indicators make it a major power… that does not mean we don’t have problems…we are still a 2,000 USD per capita economy… We’re going to be powerful in an aggregate sense before we are individually rich.” This indeed is the thin end of the wedge that has become part of a larger debate and the epicenter of the ideological wars being waged within India. Particularly, those from the left of centre who refuse to accept that India’s compulsions to ramp up its hard power is inherently linked to the coercive pressures it faces in its backyard. Its geography, its size, its diversity and legacy issues on account of its colonial past demand unfettered strategic autonomy to tackle its gargantuan problems. India lives in a hostile neighborhood with forces inimical to its interests. Its complexities are unique, it faces exceptional challenges unlike any other country and it also pays the so-called “democracy tax” unlike China that is a one- party state. The Indian democracy is noisy and dysfunctional, yet it has delivered results.
The India story is intact even if its narrative gets occasionally frayed at the edges. Indeed it will be no exaggeration to say much hope and optimism for humanity as a whole runs on the back of this story. The 21st Century could belong to India and Modi, the strongest Prime Minister the country has had in 28 years if he takes the right approach and reforms, embodying the will of its 1.3 Billion people, has within his grasp the ability and mandate to truly transform the country. The Mumbai consensus, the third way, could well be the biggest story of the 21st Century.
We are monitoring the development process of India very carefully and believe in great opportunities which India will offer over the next few years. If India is processing in the right direction we see us getting permanently operated in India in the second half of 2020 which is currently our aim.