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India's Global Bridging Powers

Can India act as an effective medium between the developed world and the developing world?

October 19, 2005

Can India act as an effective medium between the developed world and the developing world?

Beyond the debate on outsourcing and its impressive IT skills, how is India positioned on the global landscape? What are its unique contributions? And in what policy areas does the nation have to change its stance to become more effective on the global stage? In our Read My Lips feature, we explore these questions with Sunil Khilnani, author of "The Idea of India."

What is the most overlooked development when it comes to India?

“In my view, it is that India is experiencing a ‘silent’ social revolution. Democratic politics and now economic growth are producing new elites. They have new aspirations and energies — and seek a new status for India in the world.”

Where are the limits of that new role?

“Today, as in earlier decades, India’s international aspirations exceed its actual capacities.”

What can India do under those circumstances?

"Historically, India has shown great resourcefulness in using its frugal reservoirs of 'hard' power to maximum advantage. Through wit and intelligence, it will need to renew and enrich this capacity."

Which global relationship is hardest to manage for India?

“The global predominance of the United States is awkward news for India, given India’s historical commitment to non-alignment and the idea of a multi-polar world.”

In an ideal world, what would the United States like for India to accomplish?

“From the U.S. perspective, India — positioned at the heart of the crescent of Islamist forces — offers a potential anchor against extremism, as well as a curb on China.”

Where can India find inspiration in terms of shaping its relations with the U.S.?

“Surprisingly, in Europe. The European Union is trying to compose a sense of itself in a new forum. As part of that process, it is also trying to figure out the terms of its relationship to its closest ally, the United States.”

That aside, how do you view Europe's future in general?

“To me, Europe increasingly appears as a conservative force. It seems cornered by a triumphant United States on one side — and an emerging Asia on the other.”

And what, in your view, is the biggest danger overlooked by most Americans?

"Few Americans realize that their biggest vulnerability is not a future terrorist attack. Rather, it is that — unlike Britain at its imperial zenith — the United States of America needs permanently to import goods, services, capital and people to sustain its own momentum and fund its insatiable consumption."

What do you find peculiar about India's relations to China?

"Just look at the fact that the phrase to be 'Bangalored' — meaning to lose one's job — has entered the American lexicon. And yet, especially with regard to China, India has so far only taken a tiny number of jobs from the United States."

Specific regions aside, how has India operated in its foreign policy until now?

"Historically, India has seen its mission in positioning itself somewhere between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor — and between contending ideological groups."

And what approach should India now adopt?

"India should take advantage of this positioning. In fact, it can have a unique role as a bridging power that actively manages relations between the rich states and the poor. And this bridging role also extends to the relationship of the two countries which are currently near-obsessed with sizing each other up, the most powerful state in the world, the United States — and the most populous, China."

How is this a departure from the past?

"India has long staked its international power heavily, but more passively, on operating within the framework of multilateral institutions. This applies to the Commonwealth, the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN — and in some respects, the WTO."

Why would you change that operating style?

"Essentially because India's primary mode of exercising autonomy in the international domain has been negative.
It has often refused to participate in alignments, treaties and markets which it viewed as skewed in favor of the more powerful. In some way, it strikes me that this aloof stance could have been an extension of the Gandhian strategy of boycotts and fasts."

Could the roots of this strategy reach back even farther than that?

"Yes. For centuries, Indian intellectuals struggled with the fact of India's relative weakness and its proven conquerability.
This often led to a rejectionist — and relativist — position: To mask its weakness, it was resolved that India did not need to engage with the world, but could simply withdraw — and revel in its profound spiritual superiority."

What is India's role in the West's struggle with Muslim fundamentalism?

"At a time when the West is embarking on a nervous and intense relationship with Islam and when Muslims feel increasingly alienated within the international order, the Indian model established in 1947 is a powerful example of how ancient religions can co-exist within a single political frame."

Can India lead the way?

"Given the botched efforts of the U.S. to pursue domestic change abroad through military intervention, India has an opportunity to offer an alternative method to promote democracy. It can present itself as a model of building democratic states — by coming forward to assist wherever democracy is trying to take root locally, say, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Burma and Bangladesh."

How do you see the Asian landscape changing?

"Until now, Asia has been quite sharply segmented into three sub-regions — East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. Each was based upon certain historical and cultural connections. But with all Asian countries, with the exception of North Korea, now abandoning the autarkic route to development, inter-regional trade and investment flows are rising."

What overall approach would you advise the Indian government to adopt?

"I see India as a bridging power in the new century. The tools which India will rely on to fulfill that role are essentially the ones it has possessed for centuries, wit, morals, discipline — and faith in the power of example to persuade."

In conclusion, why does the entire world have a stake in the transformation of India's global role?

"In the 20th century, poor states were usually weak and their demands could be brushed aside. But in the coming decades, breakdown can come from either end, from the powerless as much as the powerful. We have seen what an Osama or a Saddam can do. India — as a bridging power and as a nation that contains within its own borders, the both very powerful and the very powerless — can appreciate this dichotomy better than most other large nations."