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India’s Rulers and India’s National Interest

Research Unit for Political Economy

India’s rulers were once fond of making pious references to moral principles in international arenas. Till the 1990s, they promoted themselves as leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 15 (developing countries), confronting the developed world on behalf of the Third World, and indeed humanity at large. Speaking at the Seventh Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi in 1983, Indira Gandhi declared:

Non-alignment is national independence and freedom…. It means equality among nations and the democratisation of international relations, economic and political…. Nationalism does not detach us from our common humanity…. [I]njustice and suffering can and must be diminished. Our world is small but it has room for all of us to live together and to improve the quality of the lives for our peoples in peace and beauty. The destructive power contained in nuclear stockpiles can kill human life, indeed all life, many times over…. The arms race continues because of the pursuit of power and desire for one-upmanship, and also because many industries and interests flourish on it…. Development, independence, disarmament and peace are closely related. Can there be peace alongside nuclear weapons? Our plans for a better life for each of our peoples depend on world peace and the reversal of the arms race.1

Referring to nuclear deterrence as the “ultimate expression of the philosophy of terrorism”, Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 also condemned the discriminatory nuclear regime:

Nor is it acceptable that those who possess nuclear weapons are freed of all controls while those without nuclear weapons are policed against their production. History is full of such prejudices paraded as iron laws: that men are superior to women; that the white races are superior to the colored; that colonialism is a civilizing mission, that those who possess nuclear weapons are responsible powers and those who do not are not.2

Terming outer space “the common heritage of mankind”, he demanded that “outer space be kept free of all weapons”.

At the same time, India under the Nehru dynasty emerged as one of the world’s largest arms importers, secretly developed a nuclear weapons and missile capability, forged open or tacit military ties at different junctures with one or the other superpower, and intervened repeatedly in the internal affairs of its neighbours.

Nevertheless the NAM rhetoric served a purpose. Domestically, it was part of the progressive sheen worn by the Indian State as it presided over a severely underdeveloped and distorted economy. Internationally, the Indian rulers’ claims to Third World leadership and moral authority were their best hope of attracting global attention, in the absence of their own economic or military strength.

Changed stance
Nowadays, however, India’s rulers hardly refer to the interests of the Third World; they prefer to avoid suggesting that India is a Third World country. Instead, in recent years, India’s rulers talk of protecting India’s “national interests” alone, jettisoning earlier stated positions.

The Congress now states that “India’s independent foreign policy” is based on “national self interest and the expansion of India’s strategic autonomy and capability.” It no longer talks of representing NAM or the Third World, but of “cultivating close ties with key global players and playing a key role in global affairs – whether trade or security or climate change issues”. (emphasis added) The Indian rulers’ language too echoes that of the “key global players”.

Today’s challenges – terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, energy security and food security – cut across borders and demand broad-based multilateral cooperation between nations and groups of nations…. Our international friends and partners recognize our commitment to pursue an independent foreign policy. They understand that a country like India cannot be persuaded to follow a course in its foreign policy which does not pass the litmus test of meeting our interests.

India’s new strategic relationship with the US is to be dictated by “national interest”, unconstrained by “Cold War-era thinking”:

Development of good relations with all major powers without being constrained by Cold War-era thinking of blocs and alliances adds to our ability to pursue our independent path as dictated by our national interest. This provides us the leverage and space to pursue our independent foreign policy. It is in this context, Government has pursued cooperation with the USA to the extent that it helps to achieve the goals set by successive governments for the welfare of our people, and in overall national interest.3

And so the rhetoric of lofty principles has been replaced by the language of power. India’s Nuclear Doctrine, adopted formally in 2003, states: “In the absence of global nuclear disarmament India’s strategic interests require effective, credible nuclear deterrence and adequate retaliatory capability should deterrence fail.”4 India’s Army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, recently called for India to “optimise space applications for military purposes”. Space was increasingly becoming “the ultimate military high ground”, and the establishment of a tri-Services Space Command “is required in the future”.5

Whether in negotiations relating to climate change, trade, the country’s nuclear programme, the reform of international institutions (e.g., the United Nations), or other questions of international relations, the Indian rulers have deliberately distanced themselves from the Third World countries as a group and attempted to strike separate deals. Often this has led them to band promiscuously with a handful of other powers, or even a single superpower:

— During the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference at Cancun in 2003, India joined with 22 other developing countries in a single negotiating bloc, in opposition to the attempt by the advanced countries to impose their terms. However, in less than a year, India broke ranks with this bloc, choosing instead to became a member of the “Five Interested Parties” (FIPS) at the WTO negotiations in Geneva (along with the US, the European Union, Brazil, and Australia.) Thereafter India has remained one of the handful of important countries carrying on world trade negotiations behind closed doors.

— In 2005, India formed a ‘G-4’ (group of four) with Germany, Brazil and Japan in order to lobby for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Undeterred by failure, India’s quest for the Grail of Security Council membership continues through lobbying the UNSC permanent members, most importantly the US.

— In July 2005, Manmohan Singh and George Bush signed the Indo-US nuclear deal, whereby the US agreed to “work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India” despite India’s nuclear weapons programme and its refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state (NNWS). The US used its dominant status to push this unprecedented, exclusive, made-for-India regime through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) in the face of resistance from several other members. One account describes how the NSG meeting saw “in the game’s closing hours, the full weight of the American diplomatic machine swinging into action. At 2 a.m. on Saturday, the Gang of Four – New Zealand, Ireland, Austria and China – were still undecided. By the time the plenary reconvened at 11 a.m., each had come around.”6 India stands firmly against any other power (e.g., Pakistan) being granted a similar exemption. It also has voted against Iran at the IAEA on three occasions since 2005, and affirms that Iran must clear doubts regarding its nuclear programme.

— In September 2009, the US announced that the ‘G-7’, the club of seven rich industrial countries which had operated till then as the leading global forum for economic policy, would be replaced permanently by the somewhat broader ‘G-20’, including China, India, Brazil, and other such major ‘developing’ countries. India has welcomed this decision and declared the G-20 to be the appropriate forum for global economic decision-making.

— At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009 India joined Brazil, South Africa, and China to sign a deal with the US behind closed doors. The US then sought to foist the deal on the rest of the countries attending the Summit, but met with determined resistance from Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and other Third World countries. On his return from Copenhagen, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh declared:

I didn’t go to Copenhagen with the mandate of saving the world or humanity. My mandate was to defend India’s right to develop at a faster rate…. We have been successful in defending India’s national interest.7

In the past few years, India has also been a key participant in other small gatherings of important powers – for example, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa) summits; and it has attended meetings of the East Asia Summit, urging steps towards the formation of an “Asian Economic Community”.

These developments have been portrayed widely as marking India’s “coming of age” and the flexing of its new economic muscles. “Finance ministers from the rich G7 countries today surrendered the dominance they have held for a quarter of a century over economic policy-making… With power shifting from the west to the bigger developing nations, the G7 agreed at the weekend that from 2011 it would meet [only] informally…. (UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) Alistair Darling said: … ‘the main focus will be the G20 for some time to come.’”8 Headlines herald the dawn of what is said to be a new era: “New World Order emerging at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh”, “India and China in G20 coup”, and so on. This fits in with the widespread depiction of India as a burgeoning economic power, whose tycoons now grace lists of the world’s richest individuals and buy up firms in both the First and Third Worlds.

“Seeing India in terms of power”
Some critics of the Indian government’s role, too, more or less accept this account of India’s rise. Their criticism is that India, as an emerging global power, is becoming just like the existing global powers. Far from being troubled by such criticism, prominent intellectuals of the Indian establishment treat it as confirmation of India’s rise, and jubilantly embrace it. India, they say, should take advantage of the new realities to pursue its own interests. Sanjaya Baru, till recently media advisor to the Prime Minister, and now the editor of the Business Standard, writes:

Goodbye East-West. Goodbye North-South. Goodbye bi-polar certainties. Hello G-20. Hello IBSA, BRIC and BASIC. Hello multipolar uncertainties…. Yes, there has been no radical restructuring of power relationships. The OECD economies remain the “North” and the G-77 remain the “South”…. But just as in any society the emergence of a middle class alters the nature of the rich-poor divide, so also in the world today a new middle class is altering the bipolarities of the past century…. What is different about the early 21st century is, in fact, the emergence of a new middle – countries that are no longer poor and not yet rich, but big enough to make a difference to the way the world is run…. Even as new groups of the “non-rich”, “non-poor” middle class nations form and re-form, at the global level, the middle class have been invited to join the board of directors in the new entity called “Group of 20”.

Baru praises his former employer, Manmohan Singh, for his skill in “walking a middle path between rich and poor” – at times striking “bargains with the rich”, at others championing the cause of the developing countries, and at yet others working through organisations such as BRIC, BASIC and G-20.

Critics of this new approach would, in fact, say that India is “abandoning” its role as a spokesperson of the developing world. Some critics of India’s stance at Copenhagen have, in fact, chided the prime minister for abandoning the G-77 [the bloc of Third World countries] in favour of BASIC. But such critics remain innocent of the ways of the world.9

Such views are now dominant in the media and public life of the country. C. Raja Mohan, generally referred to as one of India’s leading strategic affairs analysts and former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, asserts:

So I think that the change that is taking place in India today, it can historicize its own experience.  It can look at itself and its outcomes in terms of power, and not the moral politics which we people are so fond of fooling ourselves and fooling the rest of the world.  I think we’re moving away from that to one of seeing India in terms of power.10

Behind this, he argues, are a transition “from the past emphasis on politics to a new stress on economics in the making of foreign policy”, and a “shift from being a leader of the ‘Third World’ to the recognition of the potential that India could emerge as a great power in its own right.”

In the early decades of its independent existence, India viewed many of the international and regional security issues through the prism of the third world and ‘anti-imperialism’. The 1990s, however, brought home some painful truths. There was no real third world trade union, that India believed it was leading…. [T]he policy orientation in India’s external relations increasingly focused on India’s own self interest. There was a growing perception, flowing from the Chinese example, that if India could sustain high growth rates it had a chance to gain a place at the international high table…. The 1990s also saw India begin discarding the “anti-Western” political impulses that were so dominant in the world view that shaped Indian diplomacy right up to 1991…. Finally, the fifth transition in Indian foreign policy in the 1990s was from idealism to realism.11

This dictated several changes in India’s foreign policy. It was now “necessary to
necessary to make itself an unambiguous nuclear power”. While expanding relations with “all the major powers”, “Injecting political and economic substance into the long emaciated relationship with the United States, now the lone super power, became the principal national strategic objective”. (emphasis added)

In India’s new avatar, says Mohan, “the regions abutting the Subcontinent beckoned India to reassert its claim for a say in the affairs of the Indian Ocean and its littoral…. India’s new economic and foreign policies have given India a real opportunity to realize the vision of Lord Curzon, the British viceroy at the turn of the 20th  century of Indian leadership in the region stretching from Aden to Malacca.”12

The sense of triumph and exultation is unmistakable. As Indian business chieftains focus their attentions on turning their domestic conglomerates into multinational firms, the Indian press and electronic media talk incessantly of India’s arrival on the world stage, and the upper layers of India’s class hierarchy exude a brash self-confidence. Rahul Gandhi declared in Parliament: “What is important is that we stop worrying about how the world will impact us, we stop being scared about how the world will impact us, and we step out and worry about how we will impact the world.”13

Realist doctrine?
This now-dominant rhetoric reflects a conception of international politics referred to by contemporary academia as “Realism”. The proponents of this view by and large see the world as a cruel, lawless place, in which each nation pursues its interests in contention with, and at the expense of, others. In order to do so, each nation attempts (or, alternatively, should attempt) to maximize its power; great powers are clearly distinguished from the other powers by the hegemony they can exercise; and the structure of the international realm is defined in terms of the great powers (thus unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar worlds).

Despite its name, the Realist view in fact fails to capture the real forces operating in the world. It ignores or effaces the question of class interests within each nation and the distinct historical development and class structures of different nations, in particular the sway of imperialism worldwide in the present era.

The depiction of India as a rising independent power, a power that embraces the Realist view and hard-headedly promotes its self-interest, appeals to India’s elite and a section of its middle class. Its appeal for this class derives not only from one of the most important elements of the ideology of the Indian ruling classes, namely, national chauvinism, but also from the unabashed individualism and consumerism promoted by the current economic policies.

This depiction is in fact fundamentally mistaken and misleading. In the actual correlation of forces worldwide, the global power aspiration of India’s ruling classes, far from promoting India’s true national interest (the interest of the Indian people), undermines it. As we shall see, it winds up reinforcing the grip of imperialism over the Indian people, in both strategic and economic arenas.

1. While the rapid current and projected future growth of India’s economy have been celebrated internationally, and India is thus given greater importance worldwide, the Indian rulers’ claim to great-power status is not accepted widely. Thus for India to achieve some of the external attributes of such a status requires backing by the world’s only superpower. The more urgently the Indian rulers strive to attain that status, the more they must attune Indian policy to US requirements, and contrary to the interests of the Indian people. In particular, the Indian rulers’ great power aspirations bring them into contention with the more powerful Chinese rulers for regional sway, and this contention drives them to lean even further towards the US, with dangerous strategic implications for the Indian people.

2. As India is given greater importance in international forums or slightly larger voting shares in international institutions, its role in these forums/institutions is essentially in line with the existing policies of those institutions, which serve imperialist interests.

Moreover, the imperialist powers’ current policy of accommodating certain rapidly growing Third World countries in their various decision-making clubs (such as the G-20) is double-edged. While it may give the ruling elites of these Third World countries some voice in the decision-making process, this very accommodation serves (a) to pit Third World countries against one another, and (b) to impose additional burdens on “rapidly-growing” (or “advanced emerging”) countries such as India, on the spurious claim that they are no longer underdeveloped.

This can be seen, for example, in the international negotiations on trade and on climate change. In the WTO negotiations, the imperialist countries are demanding that India open up its economy yet further to foreign goods, services and capital; and in the climate change negotiations they demand that India, despite its abysmally low per capita energy consumption, take on part of the imperialist countries’ burden of mitigating climate change. Both the weakening of the Third World as a group, and the burdens of being treated as an “advanced emerging” country, thus stand in the way of national productive activity in India and help intensify the imperialist exploitation of the Indian people.

3. In attempting to extend their influence and reach, too, the Indian rulers are taking on various additional burdens, which they pass on to the Indian people in various ways. For example, the development of the capability to mount expeditionary forces in the region, and the establishment of large-scale nuclear, space, missile and missile defence programmes, are a giant drain on the exchequer. The Free Trade Agreements the Indian rulers are signing in order to build strategic ties in Southeast Asia and elsewhere are destructive of India’s domestic production in small-scale industry and agriculture, and thus of employment.

4. The “rise of India” is part of a wider phenomenon. The contours and processes of imperialism have undergone certain shifts even as its parasitic essence remains the same. In its relentless striving to expand its profit and to overcome its internal contradictions, imperialism has been carrying out large-scale re-location of the production of goods and services to low-wage countries, mainly in the Third World. Also as a result of the same internal contradictions, the financial sector has risen over the years to supremacy (in relation to production) in the imperialist economies, and imperialist countries have forced open sectors of economies worldwide that were hitherto closed to global finance.

The re-location of production and free flows of international finance worldwide have integrated segments of the Third World more closely with the imperialist economies. These have propelled to international prominence many tycoons of the Third World who are now growing with the help of international liquidity. These very trends have weakened the inter-sectoral links within Third World economies such as India’s, spurred the predatory capture of their natural resources and small-peasant assets, compelled large-scale transfer of surplus by the State to private investors through subsidies and the like, perpetuated the extensive and profound unemployment prevalent in those economies, and immiserised vast numbers through the application of neo-liberal policies. Hence, even as certain multinational manufacturing firms of the imperialist countries decline, and Indian tycoons convert their domestic conglomerates into multinational firms, the vast gulf that imperialism creates between the imperialist centres and the world hinterland gets reproduced in an intensified, albeit modified, form. Indeed the retrogressive social relations in India’s hinterland facilitate arbitrary extractions and dispossessions by marauding capital. The people of India experience these shifts as essentially a greatly intensified form of the earlier pattern of exploitation and the crippling of the internal market and people’s productive potential.

5. Thus, apart from various objective constraints on the Indian ruling classes’ ambitions of global power status, a key obstacle they face is the weakness of their internal political hegemony over a discontented people. Indeed this weakness is one of the factors driving them to seek such a global status, in the hope that that will strengthen their internal hegemony. While the Indian ruling classes fancy their time has come on the world stage, the growing resistance and turbulence among the oppressed Indian people threaten their rulers’ dreams.

We will pursue these themes in the next issue of Aspects.


1. Cited in (back)

2. Address to the U.N. General Assembly, 9/6/88, (back)

3. “Some issues pertaining to civil nuclear cooperation agreements”, (back)

4. (back)

5. Times of India, 17/6/08. (back)

6. “Thirty words that saved the day”, Siddharth Varadarajan, Hindu, 8/9/08. (back)

7. (back)

8. Guardian, 25/9/09. (back)

9. (back)

10. Will India Become a Global Power?”, Seminar, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 19/6/06. (back)

11.“India’s New Foreign Policy Strategy”, 26/5/06. (back)

12. Elsewhere, Raja Mohan expands on this theme: “[M]any of the ideas of India’s foreign policy actually go back to British India.  These are not… our rhetoric on nonalignment, but you step back and say Nehru continued much of Curzon’s policies when you talk about India’s neighborhood…. [G]eography, power, those enduring elements of India’s foreign policy, it’s possible to see them more clearly today, once we step back from the self-deluding rhetoric about India being a nation of moral politics.” – “Will India Become a Global Power?” (back)

13. New York Times, 22/9/08. (back)

August 24, 2010 - Posted by | articles, Breaking with the old ideas, pedagogy of oppressed

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