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What Type of Great Power Will Modi’s India Be?

On June 5, India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, officially released a brochure containing India’s priorities for its candidature as a non-permanent member at the U.N. Security Council. Analysts have long lamented the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) lack of a normative vision, which could help clarify the nature of its great-power ambitions, as well as India’s stake in the evolving international order. Late last year, in his speech at the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture on November 14, 2019, Jaishankar had argued that a Rising India approaching multi-polarity would carry out the “purposeful pursuit of national interest in shifting global dynamics” by relying on “hard-headed [realist] assessments of contemporary geopolitics”. Similarly, giving the IISS Fullerton Lecture in Singapore in 2015, he had emphatically claimed that Modi’s India sought to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing one. But, prior to the release of this brochure we have not seen a clear articulation of New Delhi’s vision beyond assertions of reviving its status as a “Vishwaguru” (global reformer and teacher).

Three strands of thinking emerge from India’s brochure that signify its projection of great power status. First, while avoiding any explicit mention, India quite clearly wishes to represent its rise as being constructive, peaceful, and most notably, distinct from China’s. At first glance, this is perhaps reminiscent of Deng Xiaoping and Wen Jiabao’s projection of “China’s peaceful rise”—something the West has become increasingly disillusioned with. However, India has had a longer history of acting as a “responsible stakeholder”. For instance, it adheres to the principles of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite being a non-signatory. Thus, capitalizing on previous reputation-building, the brochure mentions that a vote for India should be viewed as an endorsement of “transparency, credibility, accountability, and effectiveness” in global governance. Noticeably these are all features that China has drawn flack for due to its delayed response to the outbreak of Covid-19.

Especially because of the US’ retreat from leadership positions with respect to the governance of the global commons, India is likely to be forced into shouldering greater responsibility to avoid a Chinese takeover of existing institutions. For instance, as President Trump has threatened to withdraw from the World Health Organization, India, as the chair of its Executive Board, has led the charge for an independent investigation into its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although, what remains evident in this respect, is that on the international stage, India wants to project itself as a consensus-driven, inclusive, democratic alternative to China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”. This framing may partly be driven by the force of circumstance, as India simply lacks the relative material strength to forge an anti-China coalition in the absence of recourse to shared values.

It is important to add however that while New Delhi has affirmed its commitment to “multilateralism” and the “rule of law”, this must be seen as being vastly divergent from the West’s perception of the Liberal International Order. In fact, the brochure expressly calls for a “new orientation for a reformed multilateral system” and, as was stated earlier, also contains India’s long held demand for reforms in U.N. Security Council, so they may more accurately “reflect contemporary [material] realities”. Fundamentally, India views order transition with both, opportunity and anxiety. It may not seek to upend the complex system of rules, norms, conventions and social assemblages that characterize the current international order, but it certainly resents being denied its seat at the global high table—a textbook case of “status inconsistency” or a mismatch between India’s aspirations to higher status and the response from higher ranked states (such as the P5).

Second, India will view the significance of global security issues through its own prism of regional security. On this front, a seat at the U.N. Security Council is likely to provide a fillip to its hardline approach on anti-terrorism vis-à-vis Pakistan. An entire section in the brochure is dedicated to “effective responses to International Terrorism”. It lays down India’s intention to (1) address the use of Information and Communication Technology by terrorists, (2) stop terror financing, (3) disrupting nexus between terror proxies and sponsors or organized criminal entities, and (4) strengthening existing normative and operative frameworks to tackle terrorism. These moves are in line with India’s enduring push for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, and strong support for the Security Council resolution adopted on terror financing in March 2019. Thus, for India, instead of the intensifying geopolitical competition between the US and China, the primary security issue to draw global attention to, and stigmatize, will continue to be terrorism. This is where most of its diplomatic efforts and entrepreneurship will be directed.

Third, the normative crux of India’s brochure is found in the principles of the “Panchamrit”. The philosophy was first adopted as a resolution on foreign policy by the BJP National Executive in April 2015. The five principles are: Samman (Respect), Samvad (Dialogue), Sahyog (Cooperation), and Shanti (Peace); to create conditions for universal Samriddhi (Prosperity). For most observers, it is apparent that this is a case of ‘old wine in new bottle’. While displacing its ideological moorings to Hindu neologisms, the five principles bear remarkable similarity to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchsheel or “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”. These were: (1) mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, (2) mutual non-aggression, (3) mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, (4) equality and mutual benefit, and (5) peaceful co-existence.

While both conceptualizations are somewhat unimpressive as a set of banal platitudes, what is striking is a continued “missionary” zeal and simultaneous lack of an “exemptionalist” character in Modi’s articulation of India’s moral leadership. With the Panchamrit, the BJP seeks to exalt ideas of “Hindu” civilizational greatness by adopting an implicit moralizing tone in international forums and aggressively inflating India’s virtues at home. The U.N.’s recognition of “International Yoga Day” for instance, has been trumpeted as a sign of growing international recognition for India’s spiritual values. However, unlike the US’ liberal internationalism during the Bush years which aimed to convert and liberate others in the pursuit of an allegedly universal common good, or China’s view of the West as barbaric and morally bankrupt, India’s exceptionalism is predicated on an acceptance of the diversity that is inherent to international society. The espousal of the Panchamrit is another indicator of New Delhi’s intention, as former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale once put it, to maintain its strategic autonomy, and pursue alignments based “on issues, not ideology.” This means that any lingering hopes in Washington of a non-issue based democratic coalition against China are unlikely to be realized.

India's two-year term begins in January 2021. This is the eighth time India has got a non-permanent seat as it was the uncontested nominee of the 55-nation Asia-Pacific grouping, which includes both China and Pakistan. Asoke Mukherji, India’s former permanent representative to the U.N. disclosed that Afghanistan, as a gesture of friendship, stepped aside to allow India’s candidature to remain unopposed since the year 2021 signifies the 75th year of India’s Independence. Since India demands more prominence in global governance, beginning with its role as a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean Region, this stint would be an audition of sorts, which could strengthen New Delhi’s case for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council in the future. India has ably set out the agenda. Soon it will be time to deliver the makings of a New World Order.

(The author is a DPhil Candidate in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford, and the founder of Young Bhartiya, a Mumbai-based think tank committed to bridging the gap between academia and popular media consumption).


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