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A Changing India’s Search for Leadership

Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant is a Reader in International Relations in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. His most recent books include The U.S.-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process, and Great Power Politics (2011) and The Rise of China: Implications for India (2012). He can be reached at harsh.pant@kcl.ac.uk.

This is one of six essays in the book review roundtable on Sumit Ganguly & Rahul Mukherji's India Since 1980.

In more ways than one, India stands at a crossroads today in its sixth decade since independence. Politically, democracy in India is thriving as new alliances emerge virtually every election cycle and governments, at both the regional and national levels, are thrown out at regular intervals by a populace that demands better governance from the ruling elites. Economically, the country continues to perform well, despite the inefficiencies of the government, primarily due to the dynamism of its private sector. And increasingly India is not shy to assert itself on the global stage as a power that can shape and possibly transform the emerging global balance of power.

But beyond the hype of a “new” India, there is another story. Despite all the claims that India is a rising power, the country is passing through a serious crisis. The government in New Delhi is facing a credibility test as the nation has been besieged by a plethora of corruption scandals in recent months. From the Commonwealth Games to telecommunications, there have been scandals galore, and the government has found it difficult to operate amid demands by the opposition and the civil society for greater accountability. The Indian government is paralyzed to the point of looking like a lame duck, given that there is no political will to make tough decisions and follow them through. Dark clouds are gathering on the economic horizon, with many questioning the ability of the Indian government to initiate the much-needed second generation of economic reforms.

India has always been a land of myriad contradictions, but these contradictions have been accentuated over the last three fateful decades. In India Since 1980, Sumit Ganguly and Rahul Mukherji, two of the most prolific and perceptive observers of contemporary India, tell this fascinating story of the momentous changes underway in the country by using the conceptual frame of what they term the “four revolutions”: the deepening of Indian democracy, secularism, economic reforms, and changing Indian foreign policy. These are huge themes to cover in a single volume, and the authors should be commended for presenting a succinct and rigorous analysis in an eminently readable form.

Given my research interest in Indian foreign policy, this discussion will largely focus on those parts of the book that delve into changing Indian foreign policy priorities in recent decades. The authors rightly highlight the crucial role that structural changes and key individuals at critical junctures have played in allowing New Delhi to make some significant changes in its foreign policy priorities. The impact of the end of the Cold War has been evident in almost all spheres of Indian foreign policy, with the authors focusing particularly on India’s outreach to Israel, the transformation of U.S.-India relations, India’s emergence as an overt nuclear power in 1998, the ushering in of a cautious change in Sino-Indian relations, the maintenance of an important defense relationship with Russia, and the extension of relations with Southeast Asia.

A broad overview of these changes succeeds in bringing out the choices that India has been making over the last three decades. It is in the last section of the chapter on foreign policy that the authors present some of their most important and interesting insights. They exhort Indian elites “to begin a discussion of the principles that might undergird Indian foreign policy” (p. 55). I have also commented along similar lines in my own work. It is not that there are no debates in India on the foreign policy choices facing the nation, but rather that these debates are happening in an intellectual vacuum with the result that micro issues dominate the foreign policy discourse in the absence of an overarching framework. A major power’s foreign policy cannot be effective in the absence of a guiding framework of underlying principles that is a function of both the nation’s geopolitical requirements and its values. In India, that big debate is still awaited, though a few recent attempts to articulate broad intellectual principles to guide foreign policy priorities suggest that the idea of nonalignment continues to enjoy wide support among members of the Indian intelligentsia. Ganguly and Mukherji want Indian elites to devise a new set of guiding principles for foreign policy, and I agree. But it is more likely that in the absence of new thinking, nonalignment will continue to be India’s default position. And even if it might only be rhetoric, this reliance on nonalignment will have some significant costs attached to it. This will be particularly true as the competitive dynamic between China and the United States in the Indo-Pacific becomes more acute.

India is trying to figure out its position in the contemporary international system, and because the system itself is in a state of flux, the complexities facing India are enormous. The loosening of the structural constraints imposed by the Cold War has given India greater flexibility in carving out its foreign policy. The changes in the structure of the international system have enabled India to pursue a “multivector” foreign and security policy, allowing the country to strengthen its ties with all major global-power centers, including the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, and Japan. But the search for India’s rightful place in the global balance of power continues because India cannot continue for long with its multidimensional foreign policy without incurring significant costs. Ganguly and Mukherji discuss India’s evolving ties with the United States and China and provide a helpful overview. But it would have been interesting, and perhaps more fruitful, to locate Indian foreign policy more substantively within the changing regional balance of power in Asia, where China’s growing prowess is challenging U.S. predominance and India is trying to work with the United States to manage this fast-changing structural reality. The really interesting issue here is how India will combine its rhetoric of nonalignment with the structural imperative of close ties with the United States. So far there seems to have been no long-term strategic assessment of this in New Delhi.

This inability to think strategically remains Indian foreign policy’s major vulnerability, and India’s lack of capacity in dealing with its growing commitments is increasingly coming into sharp relief. The authors rightly highlight the small size of the Indian foreign service and the lack of specialized functional and area expertise. Yet there is a larger problem with the overall institutionalization of Indian foreign and security policy decision-making. It is often assumed that India has the necessary institutional wherewithal to translate its growing economic and military capabilities into global influence, even though the Indian state continues to suffer from weak administrative capacity in most areas of policymaking. The authors rightly underscore the decay that has seeped into the nation’s institutions in areas where the demands of political mobilization seem to have exceeded existing capacity. In the realm of foreign and security policy, however, there was hardly any credible institutional capability to begin with. The personalization of foreign policy has always been a unique attribute of Indian policymaking, but the costs of this approach are rising by the day as the capacity of existing political leadership is failing to keep pace with growing demands on Indian foreign policy. This personalization of foreign policy and its consequences underscore a larger theme that pervades the book but is not sufficiently highlighted. There is a leadership deficit in India at the political level. The mystique of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is eroding but it has not been replaced by an alternative national leadership. There are regional leaders who are doing well, but their appeal remains geographically limited. The opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have failed to present an alternative leadership that is able to mobilize public opinion at a national level. None of the parties have leaders who seem capable of rising to the nation’s many crucial challenges with the sense of urgency and the creative vision that is called for.

Political disarray is a symptom of something insubstantial and weightless in the current state of the Indian polity. Politics in India has ceased to be a contest of ideas and has become entirely a cast of characters that take center stage from time to time, entertain us with their antics, and then disappear into oblivion. There is no vision from either of the two main parties as to where India should be heading in these crucial early years of the 21st century. There is nobody who can act larger than the moment, nobody being propelled by anything deeper than the last news cycle. This generation of Indian political leaders is confronting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yet so far they have failed to project any real authority and thereby give the world a reason to believe that India is being governed in any sense of the term.

At crucial moments in its history, a nation needs leadership that can inspire, rally the nation to some higher ideal, and infuse people with confidence. Regrettably, there is no such leadership in sight in India. Is it any wonder then that India continues to look to Bollywood and its cricket pitches in search of heroes? All four revolutions that Ganguly and Mukherji explore in this book—democracy, secularism, economic reforms, and changing foreign policy—face challenges as institutions decay and the political leadership remains bereft of a sense of purpose. It is a tribute to the scholarship of the authors that they are able to celebrate India’s achievements over the last three decades, while at the same time highlighting the challenges the nation faces in the coming decades with a clarity and verve that are rare in academic writing.

Asia Policy 14 is supported in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation.