India’s former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, in a recent report titled “India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy”, published with Brookings India, argues that Indian foreign policy needs to “change its ways and stops wasting time on peripheral issues”. Technology issues, atomic energy and cyber security, climate change, energy security, and traditional hard security issues, need to be prioritized over status goals. He believes that “Modi’s goal of making India Vishwaguru won’t transform lives of Indians.” While I entirely agree with the need for economic reforms and a deeper consideration of India’s security interests, the relegation of “status” as a secondary goal meant to satisfy the needs of “national egos” is short-sighted. For example, status is quite inseparable from materiality. The Vajpayee government’s decision to test nuclear weapons was as motivated by protecting India’s security interests in the region, as it was about projecting an international image. Similarly, promoting India’s image as democratic and inclusive country has delivered crucial FDI flows, and enabled a recalibration of the Indo-US relationship after the end of the Cold War. Does the Indo-Pacific only signal US strategic interests, and not represent India’s revised status in international society?
Moving forward, India’s status projection is likely to play a key role in two aspects. The first is with respect to social acceptance in great-power elite clubs such as the U.N. Security Council. Unless India “acts” like a great power and is “accepted” as one by its peers, it is unlikely to gain a formal seat at the global high table. These considerations are not straightforwardly linked to material power. Status is a social good. What matters more than whether you can quantitatively establish your great power status by stockpiling armaments or improving weapons technology, is whether other actors in the international realm perceive you to be a great power. Material attributes are certainly an essential part of this consideration, but they do not act in a social vacuum. The US, despite being a great power in material terms prior to World War I, did not begin to play a preeminent role in world politics because of its policy of isolationism since Roosevelt. For Modi’s India, demonstrating to existing partners a firm commitment to shared values, responsible leadership, and the stability of the international system, through discursive signaling and diplomatic effort is necessary if it is to play a prominent role in shaping the global security infrastructure.
Secondly, status signaling is important to establish legitimate leader-follower relationships. In terms of gaining allies and balancing China’s rise in the region, India does not have recourse to equal economic or material instruments. The Quad plus arrangement, as an effective counterweight to China, requires the followership of smaller states. Let us remember that during the Cold War, Western military alliances such as ANZUS, SEATO, CENTO all failed because of the inability to capture the “nationalist” imaginations postcolonial states in Asia. Taking cues, since India cannot offer material incentives that match China’s heft, it has so far sought to offer an alternative leadership model. India projects a democratic, consensus-driven, and inclusive alternative to China in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus, without status signaling, India’s larger interests in the region—which include subjects like energy, technology, cyber security etc.—may be compromised. On this front however, what is still required is a more comprehensive set of dialogues between New Delhi and regional stakeholders, and a consequently emergent normative vision that can offer stability in an increasingly ambiguous strategic environment.
During the Covid-19 pandemic as well, by leveraging its huge capacity for pharmaceutical manufacturing, technical medical capabilities and food production, India has augmented its image as a responsible stakeholder and provider of global public goods. None of these arguments discount the salience of foreign policy goals that Shivshankar Menon has most lucidly articulated. But, for a rising power, whose material power and leverage vis-à-vis other important stakeholders in the system in constantly improving, it is vital assure the “status-quoists” of its peaceful intent. This is a task that China for instance, has spectacularly failed at due to its behavior in the South China Sea region, and on the Sino-Indian border. Becoming a Vishwaguru does not distract from, but facilitates India’s rise. It indicates the type of great power India wants to be—a leader not a hegemon.
(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).