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India rising: Where is it on the global stage?

Last updated on: May 30, 2011 11:18 IST

India rising: Where is it on the global stage?

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T N Ninan

A lot of people talk about India rising," Barack Obama declared in November when in Mumbai. "But, in our view, India has already risen."

Even such obvious flattery is music to Indian ears, because the average Indian remains hungry for endorsement by the rest of the world - that a country "long suppressed" has arrived again on the world stage.

It is after all the second-fastest growing economy, a member of the G20, a pillar of BRICS, and a claimant to permanent membership of the Security Council.

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Image: A man rides a motorcycle carrying six children on their way back home from school at Greater Noida.
Photographs: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters
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However valid the revivalist narrative might be, there has always been a vulnerable underbelly to the story of India Shining: massive poverty, and "under-development" on many fronts (the largest number of poor people, the largest number of malnourished people, the largest number of illiterates, the largest number of blind people...).

You can sense the unstated position in many minds around the world that India is running ahead of itself, that it is confusing potential with achievement, and that its leadership role in world affairs is yet to be demonstrated.

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Image: More poor people in India.

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The less charitably inclined will also have been muttering "arriviste".

If the country needed a wake-up call, it has got it in the run-up to choosing a new managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

First, there was the small matter that its favoured candidate for the post was over-aged - a fact ignored for several days amidst expectant speculation.

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Image: Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
Photographs: Reuters.
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It now turns out that China, while seeming to go along with the BRICS position that the choice should not automatically go to a European, has done a deal while quietly offering support to the French candidate.

There is a precedent worth recalling: the election of the United Nations secretary-general.

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Image: Chinese flag.

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The government backed Shashi Tharoor's candidature when he had little hope of winning because the US preferred a candidate from another "risen" country with whom it has a military alliance, South Korea. India, in comparison (and rightly so), seeks strategic autonomy in international relations.

Such tactical mistakes are not without cost. If it turns out that China has in fact done a deal, securing the No. 2 position at International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its national as quid pro quo for supporting Christine Lagarde, then India has scored an own goal.

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Image: Christine Lagarde.
Photographs: Reuters.
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From the perspective in New Delhi, a European or American would have been preferred in that position, rather than a Chinese.

Indeed, the prime minister is known to have argued in the past that having a European at the head of the IMF has served India well.

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Image: IMF headquarters.

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What might happen in the IMF could be a precursor of other things to come.

Pushing for re-ordering the global order, and a declining role for the West, means that the default country that gets to fill the power vacuum will be China - which after all has an economy thrice as big as India's, a much greater role in world trade, a pivotal place in the currency market, and much else.

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Image: China's flags are displayed outside a dormitory building at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
Photographs: Reuters.
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BRICS solidarity is also a double-edged sword.

In the Doha Round of trade talks, the rich countries have been able to drive a wedge between "emerging markets" like India and the more numerous poor economies, by pointing out that the two groups' interests are not synonymous.

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Image: BRICS must stay together.
Photographs: Reuters.
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In a recent meeting of the World Trade Organisation, some of the fiercest criticism of BRICS positions came from poor countries in Africa.

In short, India should be careful about what it wishes to achieve in international affairs and how it leverages group dynamics; it might well get what it asks for - only to discover that the earlier arrangement was more to its advantage.


Image: France's Finance Minister Christine Lagarde (R) chats with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

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