Decoded: India’s role in a multipolar world

Published: November 22, 2018 4:16:32 AM

On November 1, it was reported that the US has granted India waiver from sanctions imposed on Iran.

COMCASA, USISPF, US-India, US-India relationship, united states, india, Narendra Modi, bilateral relationship, Donald Trump, india newsScholars of Indian foreign policy have debated over this, but they haven’t arrived at concrete answers.

By Martand Jha

On November 1, it was reported that the US has granted India waiver from sanctions imposed on Iran. After a tense period of Indo-US diplomatic relations due to India’s refusal to bring down its Iranian oil imports to zero, global observers had watched the ups and downs of Indo-US bilateral relations.

This episode raises fundamental questions regarding Indian foreign policy, which has primarily been non-aligned in nature. India has tradationally refrained from choosing or aligning completely with one side as opposed to the other. This has given India manoeuvring capability to build strong ties with all major powers. But the global system today is vastly different. The same is true for India’s position in world affairs—from being a third-world nation to an emerging power.

Today, the global community expects India to take a strong stand on global issues (often third-party ones) and even choose sides, if needed. For instance, both the US and Iran were looking for India’s support during their tussle after the scrapping of Iran nuclear deal. But India refused to choose sides. During the Cold War, when the global system was largely bipolar in nature, India’s leadership and skilful diplomacy made sure it didn’t get trapped into bipolar politics and, as a solution, the Non-Aligned Movement was born.

Post-Cold War, as the world has become multipolar, India’s non-aligned credentials get questioned. However, India has managed to pull itself out from the tricky situation by making its foreign policy guided by calculated ‘self-interest’. Also, when a country’s power and reputation increases in the global system, the world starts to expect it assumes greater responsibility. Until now, Indian diplomacy has been fairly successful in doing that, but the question is, for how long can India continue to move on this tried and tested path of deft diplomacy? The question about India’s foreign policy framework is whether the path of non-alignment was taken out of a conscious ‘choice’ or out of ‘necessity’ to balance the bipolarity of Cold War politics?

Scholars of Indian foreign policy have debated over this, but they haven’t arrived at concrete answers. Many experts on international relations consider non-theorisation of non-alignment policy as a missed opportunity on India’s part, as it would have solidified Indian foreign policy even more concretely as well as making it well-defined and nuanced. The opposite view has been that it’s good that non-alignment remained a policy and didn’t become a theory, because had it been theorised, it would have curtailed India’s manoeuvring capabilities between the bipolar bloc politics during the Cold War and even post-Cold War as well.

It was due to this manoeuvring capability or the ‘madhyam marg’ enshrined in our foreign policy that India could extract best benefits from both the superpowers. For instance, India’s space cooperation during Cold War shows it managed to collaborate with both the superpowers in a calculated manner—India collaborated with the US for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) that revolutionised telecommunications in the country, and it also collaborated with erstwhile Soviet Union to launch its first indigenous satellite Aryabhata in 1975.

Had India not been non-aligned or had non-alignment been theorised, there would have been high chances of India deteriorating its relations with one of the superpowers. Post-Cold War, the situation has become more interesting, as despite the US maintaining its hegemony, many countries have become regional powerhouses, the most important of them being China. Today, the question facing Indian foreign policymakers is whether non-alignment is serving our self-interest as much as it did during the Cold War? If the answer is yes, then India should stick to its non-aligned path, which has served it so well in the past, but if the answer is no, then there is a tough task ahead for Indian diplomacy.

The author is junior research fellow, School of International Studies, JNU

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