international analysis and commentary

India: superpower or subcontinent?


No Indian official statement has ever referred to the country as a “superpower” – or even said that becoming a global power was a national objective. The last Indian Prime Minister, the low-key Manmohan Singh, once allowed that the country was likely to become a “knowledge superpower” but avoided any more hard-nosed references.

India’s strategic community is generally skeptical at the idea of its country becoming a superpower. Just becoming a regional power when one’s two largest neighbors are China and Pakistan is difficult enough, many would argue. More to the point, the domestic debate as to what sort of larger role India should play in its neighborhood let alone the larger world is still unresolved.

Most commentators argue there are six distinct Indian foreign policy schools. Of these schools – generally described as Nehruvian, neoliberal, hyperrealist, Hindutva, Gandhian and Marxist – only one can be said to have a clear concept of India as a superpower in both hard and soft dimensions. The rest of them are either indifferent or openly hostile to the idea of India even attempting to follow in the footsteps of empires and hegemons.

In practice, Indian foreign policy has historically adhered to Nehruvianism, most famously represented by the policy of nonalignment. A more fundamental Nehruvian principle is that the prevention of conflict between nations is essential. As Jawaharlal Nehru argued, even if India won a war against Pakistan, “both countries will in effect be ruined”. Gandhian thinking takes it even further: arguing industrialization is a form of economic violence, and that avoiding smokestacks and suburban sprawl would ensure global peace.

The neoliberal and Marxist schools are strongly internationalist, but in a non-Westphalian manner. The former because it sees the unfettered flow of capital, goods and people as the means to the kind of global prosperity that would make conflict redundant. The latter because it elevates class-consciousness to paradigm while viewing the concept of nation-state as irrelevant.

The Hindutva and hyperrealist schools dominate the Indian right wing and are cut largely from realist cloth. However Hindutva advocates have minimal interest in global affairs, being much more concerned with the overseas footprint of Indic culture. The present Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, spends much time courting the Indian diaspora when he travels abroad. But this limits the Hindutva vision to the subcontinent and, at best, a few countries in the region. The hyperrealists also have a restricted nationalist agenda where a strong economy, a strong military and such icons of hard power as a nuclear arsenal override any real multilateral concerns.

Ideologically, therefore, India is not predisposed to take up a truly global role. It is notable for example that Singh and Modi are not particularly keen on India receiving a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. While they mouth the official position that India deserves such a seat, they are privately dismissive of it. Modi did not even include a permanent seat in his election manifesto.

Policy of scarcity
Even those slices of Indian society that take global aspirations seriously admit that this is at best a far-off dream given India’s enormous domestic problems and the severe capacity restraints of its economy and government.

While India’s economy passed the $2 trillion mark in nominal terms this year, it remains among the poorest nations in the world because this wealth is shared, rather unequally, by a large and still growing population. A tradition of poor human capital investment means India has more people living below the poverty level than Sub-Saharan Africa.

An additional financial restraint on New Delhi’s ability to develop the muscles and sinews of a great power is the weakness of central government finances. Because few Indians pay taxes, the total budget of the central government is presently in the region of only $300 billion. Combine this with the generous welfare and subsidy programs that the Indian political class deem necessary for electoral reasons, and there is little left for New Delhi to spend on the sort of influence multipliers that most powers take for granted. India has a small overseas aid budget, a defense budget of less than $40 billion and a diplomatic corps the size of New Zealand’s.

The thinness of New Delhi’s budget is aggravated by other structural problems. India must import the vast bulk of its weaponry because of the weakness of its indigenous manufacturing sector, ensuring it tends to get less bang for its buck. It has yet to master the full technology cycle because of the paucity of research and development programs in its academic institutions.

Additionally India’s leadership is extremely aware of the different leanings of its very diverse population and is obsessive about avoiding international entanglements that could affect domestic political stability. Thus New Delhi, conscious that it has the world’s third largest Sunni and third largest Shia Muslim populations, has declined to project power into the Persian Gulf though it has arguably more economic interests in that region than any other part of the world.

As then-Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told a Bahrain audience in December last year, “Because of the philosophical constraints that we impose on ourselves, we don’t see ourselves as a replacement for any other power [in the region].”

Sphere of caution
In tangible terms, India’s foreign policy has been marked by extreme caution and, though it talks of being strategically autonomous, New Delhi has been prepared to bend towards one foreign power or another depending on circumstances.

It has also been careful to tailor its foreign policy to its abilities, eschewing larger global roles for lower hanging fruit. Therefore, the dominant goals of Indian foreign policy do not stray much beyond the country’s borders. These include a neighborhood policy that uses economic carrots to secure security relationships with its smaller neighbors, from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka. This policy has been largely constant irrespective of party and prime minister in power. The present Indian Pime Minister, Narendra Modi, made Bhutan his first foreign destination after election.

New Delhi sees its relations with Pakistan and China as its most problematic. With regard to Pakistan, India seeks to constrain the political strength of its military, an autonomous actor whose legitimacy largely derives from a continued state of hostility between the two countries. But India has only had limited and occasional success in accomplishing this.

In the case of China, the task is more about managing a relationship. Beijing, with a GDP over five times that of India’s, does not see New Delhi as an equal so is largely willing to accept a relationship of minimal strategic convergence. Reports of a Sino-Indian “Great Game” being played out across the world are largely exaggerated.

India has sought a closer relationship with key countries in the world, the most obvious being the United States. But it refuses to become a piece of another country’s foreign policy agenda, preferring to choose bits and pieces from a larger menu. So New Delhi declines to align with Washington on Afghanistan and Pakistan but works closely with the US on East Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It also has unusually close ties with many niche countries as well. Israel is one of the largest suppliers of arms to India. Tajikistan lets India maintain an airbase on its soil. It has similar special arrangements with a handful of African countries.

Future of India’s foreign policy
In any case, there is no doubt that confidence has grown in India since economic reforms boosted the growth rate close to double-digits post-1991. By 2008, the Manmohan Singh government began to push for more constructive stances by the Indian government in the international arena. India signed over a dozen free trade agreements, including with Southeast Asia and Japan. It accepted certain limits on its carbon emissions as part of its climate change responsibilities. And it was a key player at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, held in the wake of the global financial crisis. These were signs of a nation that could finally say “Yes”. But that same financial crisis, coupled with numerous domestic problems, saw India quickly withdraw into a shell again.

Prime Minister Modi has so far followed the blueprint of a Hindu nationalist leader. He has focused on those countries that were influenced by historic Indic civilization, but has generally preferred not to push any big idea to large multilateral events. There are green shoots: he takes climate change seriously, but has tended to see it in terms of domestic energy policy. But what has characterized his foreign policy the most has been the tight molding of external relations to his economic agenda, a preference for tangibles rather than high-sounding diplomatic language.

The real test will come if Modi is capable of turning the Indian economy around within the next couple of years, in which case global issues may once again become important to India’s interests. Will he then, irrespective of ideology, follow in Singh’s path, of favoring a foreign policy with a heavy economic footprint?