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India and the exasperation of a patient rising power

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Understanding the trajectory of India’s quest for status from Jaswant Singh’s ‘nuclear apartheid’ to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘till when do have to wait’.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the United Nations General Assembly in 2020 using virtual technological tools.

In 1998, about four months after India tested nuclear weapons, a member of the then-ruling coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jaswant Singh wrote a seminal essay in the American Foreign Affairs magazine titled Against Nuclear Apartheid.

In this essay, Singh challenged Western chastisement of India’s decision to test its nuclear capabilities on the grounds of, not only strategic and political unfairness, but racial discrimination (notice the choice of the word ‘apartheid’). For the first five decades of its existence since independence from British rule in 1947, Singh argued, India had had a “moralistic nuclear policy” and shown “restraint’, but that “had paid no measurable dividends, except resentment that India was being discriminated against”.

Singh wrote: “If the permanent five [members of the United Nations Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China] continue to employ nuclear weapons as an international currency of force and power, why should India voluntarily devalue its own state power and national security?... If deterrence works in the West – as it so obviously appears to, since Western nations insist on continuing to possess nuclear weapons – by what reasoning will it not work in India? Nuclear weapons powers continue to have, but preach to the have-nots to have even less.”

At hand was a matter not only of India’s security, but, embedded in that question, if something works in the West, why will it not work in India, was a subterranean concern about societal parity.

Like most postcolonial countries, India has sought its ‘rightful’ place in the world since independence. But its ambitions have always been not merely to belong to the club as an equal member but as part of the leadership pool. As international relations scholars Kate Sullivan de Estrada and Rajesh Basur have pointed out even the first prime minister of independent India Jawaharlal Nehru believed that India was a potential Great Power. This, even though, post-independence India was a strikingly impoverished place, ridden with hunger and illiteracy. Nehru’s gambit, then, these scholars argue, was a claim to status for his country not on the basis of its material resources but on its ideas, including its role in crafting a sort of ‘independent path’ for post-colonial nations without aligning with any of the Great Powers.

But the non-aligned path has been chipped away steadily as the Indian markets integrated with the world starting in 1991. The Indian economy was already on the path to greatness – at the very least in sheer size – by the time Singh wrote his essay. Within barely two months of its publication, Jaswant Singh became India’s foreign minister, and the power of the propagation of India’s unique position, and ambitions, won the country a coveted civil nuclear deal with the United States in 2005, despite having never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - a status it maintains even today.

Fifteen years later, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads a two-time full majority government of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s stated goal is to be a ‘Viswa Guru’ or World Teacher. It is a vision often promoted by the prime minister himself, propagated by his second-in-command, and most trusted lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, and espoused by some of the senior most leaders in the government including Vice President Venkaiah Naidu.

While there is no deadline as such to this vision, there is a palpable sense, now nearing the middle of Modi’s second straight term as prime minister, that India’s time in the sun has come. Nearly three decades of economic growth has made India the fifth largest economy in the world, and one likely to return to high growth of more than 8 per cent (as predicted by the International Monetary Fund) in 2021, swiftly after the Covid-19 pandemic. It also has the fourth strongest military in the world. In essence, ranked alongside the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France – India outstrips both the UK and France in both size of economy and military strength. It is economically stronger than Russia. India may not qualify as rich in per capita terms but it would be a far cry to suggest today that it is resource-starved – in 2019, it entered the ‘super space club’ testing an anti-satellite missile (ASAT), and in 2020, it became only the fourth country, after the United States, Russia and China, to get elite hypersonic missiles.

Therefore, there is resonance to Prime Minister Modi’s question to the United Nations in his latest address to the General Assembly, “Till when do we have to wait? Till when will India be kept away from the UN's decision-making process?”

India’s growing strategic importance in the American pivot to the Indo-Pacific, and the propelling of the idea of the Quad, a grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia that China sees as designed to counter its influence in Asia, has added to the sense of importance.

Some old politicians in India from the non-aligned era mourn its passing, as the diplomat-turned-politician Mani Shankar Aiyar recently did when he wrote “Nonalignment as the fulcrum of our foreign policy has been overtaken by military alignment through the ‘Quad’. Where we were the strongest link in the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] chain, we are now the weakest in the Quad chain.”

Almost no one who matters in Indian foreign policy today agrees with Aiyar. The Quad is increasingly the most talked about alliance in India. India’s sitting Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently told the New York-headquartered Asia Society that, “I think the future of the Quad and any other arrangements, you know, which countries may have of a similar nature actually reflects the movement of the world to multipolarity.”

India’s veteran diplomats propagate such ideas these days even on social media, as Gautam Bambawale, the country’s former ambassador to China, recently did when he opined that India should, “Invite the Australian Navy to participate with India, US and Japan in the next edition of India’s Malabar Naval Exercise.”

Also, from China’s aggressive economic postures towards Australia to derail the Quad, it is clear which pillar of the Quad China thinks is the weakest (hint: not India which had a trade deficit of more than $48 billion with China in FY2020, and which provides a critical market to the Middle Kingdom).

In a sense, then, Modi’s “till when do we have to wait” is a pivot as important as the race theme that Jaswant Singh chose in 1998 to make his point. The difference is in the tonality – while Singh’s was a lament, the words of the incumbent prime minister suggests a certain exasperation on behalf of a country which is, and has been, ready for some time to get its due.


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