As Narendra Modi assumes power for a second time as Prime Minister, India stands at a crossroads
India has long dreamt of becoming a fourth pole in an emerging global order. The time has come for us to pursue this dream, now that the world is in a flux and the three existing poles are not able to cover the entire globe.
India, having experimented with embracing the United States till 2017, feels it necessary to find an alternative and neither China nor Russia holds any attraction for us.
India too has no constituency of its own, either in our neighbourhood or elsewhere, as the glue of non-alignment has withered away. The emergence of Narendra Modi as the leader of the biggest democracy presents an opportunity for India to build a string of friendships with common aspirations for beneficial cooperation.
Even in the absence of overwhelming economic and military power, India may be able to build an affinity with a variety of countries across continents and ideological affinities. Countries like Japan, Germany, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel come to mind.
One positive development in this context is the overwhelming support India has received from the international community for Modi's relentless fight against terrorism, exemplified in the intervention by Trump to de-escalate the situation on the South Asian Sub-continent and the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.
We have done so without deploying our army abroad or launching a hunt for terrorists around the world. The United Nations, which has been unable to define terrorism so far because of it being confused with freedom struggles, has come out clearly against terrorism.
There was no international criticism of the attack on Balakot. If India's efforts to save the world from the scourge of terrorism succeed, India will earn a special place in the global community.
Modi’s initial forays into foreign policy had the flavour of “Aswamedha Yagas” launched by ancient kings to conquer the world. He overcame the hesitations of history and explored unconventional ways to win friends and influence people.
But soon enough, he was faced with the realities of history and geography, which prompted him to proceed with caution. But his definition of national interests and pursuing them with vigour gave him the image of a man of action and the powerful leader of a potential great power.
Good relations with the United States was at the centre of his global vision and brought in a new symphony in India-US relations. But the advent of President Donald Trump altered the global situation and prompted him to reset relations with the major powers and to seek alternate ways to attain his goals.
The second term, which implicitly approved his global view, has provided him and India with an opportunity to consolidate the gains of the past, apply the necessary correctives and move forward.
Our immediate concern is to build an alternative to SAARC as a regional organisation for economic cooperation. India has embraced the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternative.
The Bay of Bengal could become the key economic connection between East and South Asia and a potential zone for Asian economic growth. An overarching priority for the BIMSTEC member states would, therefore, be to further strengthen the regional integration process.
Today, BIMSTEC is celebrating 20 years of its establishment. In these two decades, BIMSTEC has progressed in regional cooperation and integration front, whereas, it, at the same time, has faced several new challenges.
Infusing BIMSTEC with a political cohesiveness and economic clout is an onerous responsibility for India. At the same time, we need to cast our net wider to larger concentric circles to South East Asia and beyond to build a constituency, which has faith in India’s policies.
Our ability to help and hurt should be highlighted by a string of projects in which each of them has a stake. Economic cooperation and investments must grow and the Make In India initiative has to be vigorously pursued. For this, we need to project our requirements as part of the global agenda and not as transactional deals.
Our quest for a permanent seat on the horse shoe table of the Security Council has no chance of success as the vast majority of the members of the United Nations would rather abolish the veto than give veto to new members. The permanent members will naturally resist sharing their privileged position with others.
Reflecting the change in the power structure of the world is not the sole responsibility of India. When that realisation comes, as it must, India will not be excluded. We may do well to appear to be patient and realistic on this issue. We should, however, insist on membership of bodies like APEC. The exclusion of India from APEC is a relic of an era when the Indian economy was considered illiberal.
The strong second mandate has given Modi a stature similar to those of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in terms of stability and that too through the ballot box. The western prejudices articulated close to the elections against Modi must evaporate with the massive mandate.
Trump has already indicated his willingness to work closely with Modi. These advantages, together with Modi’s penchant for international affairs, a congenial economic climate and a broad consensus inside the country in his favour, should give his foreign policy a new thrust and vigour.
He has already indicated the need to reassure the minorities in India and even exhorted all to learn from the teachings of the Prophet.
Securing a fourth pole for itself with a reliable group of friendly countries will be neither effortless nor fast for India. But the present propitious international circumstances point towards India keeping independent of the three poles and building a niche for itself in the world.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)