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Why the emperor may have no clothes?

The Joint Statement made by Narendra Modi and David Cameron-the former the Prime Minister of India and latter the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom-reads like a homily written by academics disconnected from the real world and read ad nauseam by politicians. The platitudinous and clichéd joint statement says all the right things- security and prosperity in an interconnected world, India’s economic development, rise as global power, the homilies to the international system and reference to global threats, among other things.  In this sense, Cameron and Modi then have reasons to feel good: they have delivered speeches that are ‘forward looking’ and imply vision. But the problem is that the statement is too forward looking. World politics and international relations are too fluid to conform and correspond to the vision laid out by both Cameron and Modi. There are other issues of a structural nature with it.

This, insofar as the broad critique of the joint statement is concerned. But , it does mean that the two leaders’ meeting has been fruitless. There are key takeaways for both India and the United Kingdom- the former a nation that seems to be stuck in the ‘ emerging power’ appellation and the latter a former colonial power whose role in the world has shrunk considerably and whose foreign policy orientation and approach has been characterized by a ‘muddle’ since the past decades or so.

So what are the key takeaways?

The thrust of the emerging bilateral relationship and the joint statement appears to lie in a commitment to the international system and order that emerged after the detritus of the Second Great War. This international system – a  compendium of power and a rule based one whose normative content and thrust was created and crafted by the West- is under threat – albeit a rather diffuse one. The threat comes from the emergence and rise of China. While ostensibly, China purports to  work within the normative and power political premises of this order, it is belied by the very nature of China- a civilization state with its own sense of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and exceptionalism. This threat is sought to be pre-empted by powers that be. The premise appears to be protection and longevity of the basic architecture of the order and system created and formulated by the West. The corollary that  flows from this impulse is to seek a partner( not an ally) that could approximate or correspond to the basic requirements of a democracy and other allied themes. India fits the bill here and hence the wooing of the country by Western powers. Cameron’s reference or paean to the international system and India’s role in it falls into perspective.

India then appears to be sought by the West not merely to ‘contain’ China but as a ‘partner’ to defray the China threat to the international system. Among other things, the Indian Ocean becomes the arena here. It is, in all likelihood,  the Indian Ocean that  will be the fulcrum of Great Power rivalry and competition in the 21st century.

The rest is mere corollary- albeit important and significant.

While all this would be well and fine for India-perhaps in the nature of validation and encouragement but what is key for India is its domestic condition. The rise of India as a potential power accrues largely from its post 1991 outward orientation. The country ensconced itself in the sinews of globalization whose concomitant was economic openness; the economic dividends reaped from this along with the paradigmatic churn in the international relations- the end of structural bipolarity or the Cold War- have been key enablers for India’s rise. And what is now elided these days, another significant idea and theme that was appreciated in Western capitals is India’s post colonial political makeup: its democracy and pluralism that undergirded it(held by many to be India’s soft power). Both- India’s economic progress and its plural nature- are, with the advent of the forces of Hindutva – are under assault.

To sustain the economic growth that has been momentous and consequential for India and has been the bedrock of the country’s hard power, India needs to turn its gaze inward. The reference here is not to insularity but rather a focus on reforms that will deliver the desired rate of economic growth. But PM Modi and his party have been strangely remiss in addressing this glaring lacuna.  Equally or perhaps even more important is India’s continued commitment to democracy, pluralism and secularism- all in cross hairs of attack by far right(Hindutva) forces in the country.

In an age characterized by complex interdependence, heightened globalization and rather new paradigms of international relations, hard and soft power (termed as ‘smart power’ by Joseph Nye of Harvard University) cannot be divorced from each other. Both exist in a symbiotic relationship with each other. And both determine the trajectory of nations. If India is to become what it aspires to and if it wants to be courted seriously by powers that be, then it is exigent for the country to review and course correct. The first step may be to wed itself to the ideals of pluralism and democracy and a focus on domestic reforms. Till then, the wooing of India may turn out to be ephemeral and illusory. And if, India’s domestic condition- economic and political- regresses, the world may conclude that the ‘Emperor has no clothes’.

Author is Associate Editor of The Kashmir Observer

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