There has been a quantum shift in India’s diplomatic practices in recent years.
India has come a long way in transitioning itself from a middle power to a great power. The elevation of India’s status in the international system over the years has been due to its remarkable success in dealing with the complexities of the international system. The challenges which India confronted after it became independent in 1947 were largely addressed with virtually no emphasis given on strategic thinking and how India could get more dividends in terms of its recognition in international affairs. It must be mentioned here that India had taken three decisions after it became independent which had a larger impact on international diplomacy as well as its domestic constituents. When the rest of the world was either joining the capitalist bloc led by the United States or communist bloc led by the formerly Soviet Union in the bipolar nature of the international system after the Second World War, India chose the path of non-alignment and reflected the willingness to assume the leadership role for the newly emerged nations of Asia and Africa. But, diplomatically, it lacked strategic vision and could not make any impact on these newly emerged nations, even though India remained vocal and kept arguing against colonialism and imperialism. In the process, India completely annoyed the United States. The nations which had emerged in Asia and Africa had become independent politically but economically they became part of a “neo-colonialism” which emerged as an instrument of promoting the foreign policy interests of the two power blocs.
The second decision taken by India on adopting a “socialistic pattern of society with mixed economy” again had inherent contradictions when the rest of the world was adopting either the capitalist mode of production or the communist mode of production. India chose the path of adopting a closed economy, which again had negative consequences for promoting India’s interests. India’s diplomatic maneuvering was not mature enough to understand the pulse of the international system and the global economy. India’s GDP was higher than China’s GDP during the early part of the 1950s. But India could not keep up with the pace despite the evolving dynamics of geo-economics. Obviously, India learnt the lesson from its mistakes and adopted an open market economy much later after announcing the liberalization of its economy in 1991.
The third decision was again a spontaneous one without knowing the larger implications, but seems to be an asset because India thought it can manage diversity. When the whole civil society was burning, India chose the path of secularism. India, though, has attempted to manage the situation but a number of contradictions emerged in maintaining its “unity in diversity”.
All these decisions taken have had a bearing on India’s diplomacy. India was never seen as a part of the mainstream. India’s voice was not well heard across the global spectrum. Though India remained instrumental in sharing a number of ideas, resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), but was never paid attention to and could not get adequate support to universalize its ideas. India’s relations with its immediate neighbours did not prove to be of a greater value diplomatically. Even a tiny country like Nepal was difficult to manage on several occasions in the past. Pakistan has all the time been working with a single aim to destabilize India. Dealing with China was always difficult. The Sino-Indian conflict in 1962 still has a strong imprint on India’s psyche. Despite India remaining the pivot in liberating Bangladesh in 1971, it still faces a number of irritants including the refugee problem. Myanmar borders four states of India—Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, To a large extent, India could not handle Myanmar well in the past and the problems relating to insurgency kept getting fuelled. Even Afghanistan remained a part of the problem for regional peace and stability. The reasons why China was able to mobilise countries in India’s neighbourhood did not find much place in India’s strategic thinking. China’s strategy of encircling India remained a part of the problem. India’s relations with its extended neighbourhood, such as Southeast Asia and West Asia, could not gain much momentum in the past. India-ASEAN relations are one such case in point. India’s relations with Israel, Iran and the GCC also could not build much dividend.
India’s diplomacy needed a new look especially in terms of reflecting India’s strengths and how India has been emerging as an assertive power. There has been a quantum shift in India’s diplomatic practices in recent years. Now India has shown that it has all the major attributes where it can assume the responsibilities to lead global affairs. India also has been becoming a part of the agenda setting for the international system. The way India has been managing to deal with the complex problems of a multipolar system is being eyed by the members of international community.
The changing dimensions of India’s diplomacy have shown that India will never get tilted towards one pole of the international system. It has shown its strategic autonomy in the decision-making process even in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, as in how India can work with all the major poles of the international system. India perhaps is one of the very few countries in the world which has shown a high degree of responsibility and maturity in its diplomatic practices in recent years. India has certainly been well heard in the last few years. The way India has connected with the rest of the world has shown its larger diplomatic success where the rest of the world in general and the major powers such the US, Russia, Japan and China in particular are witnessing India’s growing role in global affairs with greater interest. There will remain divergences in India’s bilateral approaches with the major powers at the political level but there will be certainly no compromise made on economic interests. One of the notable successes of India’s diplomacy is witnessed in the economic sphere. There is a shift in India’s approach from political diplomacy to economic diplomacy.
India, in recent years, has created a conducive environment and connected with the rest of the world by building win-win situations. India does not believe in zero sum games in its diplomatic practices. The so called “Smart Power” concept in India’s context will gain momentum and see how India remains pro-active as well as reflect assertiveness in not compromising with its national interests. India’s signalling in recent times has also shown that India will never work under any pressures, which happened to be the usual practice in the past. Even India had to cancel its plan to conduct nuclear tests because of mounting pressure from the United States in the past. How India has reached to a stage now where it can negotiate from a position of strength with the rest of the world, perhaps defines best the changing dimensions of India’s diplomacy at 75 .
Prof Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit is the Vice Chancellor of JNU, New Delhi.
Dr Arvind Kumar is Professor at School of International Studies (SIS), JNU.