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What does a rising India symbolise for the world?

July 08, 2009 15:20 IST

In the past year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found himself at the summits of the G-8 and Outreach Countries, the G-20, the East Asia Summit, the summits of IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and NAM (Non-Aligned Movement)

What does India bring to these tables? What does India's rise symbolise for the world?

In shaping Indian economic and foreign policy, Dr Singh has drawn on two important ideas that India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru put forward at very beginning of the nation's birth as a democratic republic.

First, in his eloquent address to the nation on the day India became free, Nehru said, "(Our) dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments."

Second, striking a realistic note six months later, Nehru told the Parliament, "Talking about foreign policies, the House must remember that these are not just empty struggles on a chessboard. Behind them lie all manner of things. Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy."

Both these ideas had lost salience during the Cold War years but have returned to define India's view of the world, of globalisation, of environmental issues, and issues relating to nuclear proliferation and human security.
As India's economy has grown in recent years, and as India's global engagement has widened, these two concepts have also shaped Indian thinking about global governance and regional cooperation.

Apart from emphasising the importance of India's economic development, and its re-integration into the global economy, Dr Singh has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the ideas that define the Indian civilization and the Indian Republic for global peace, security and challenges, ranging from terrorism to pandemics.

In one of his early speeches as prime minister, Dr Singh told a conference on "India and the World" in New Delhi (November 2004), "India's unique contribution to the world has been the notion of the many-sidedness and the constant and continuing discovery of Truth. The idea of unity in diversity, drawing on the wisdom of our forefathers who spoke of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam' -- that translates as "The Whole World Is One Family" -- is a powerful yet practical political basis for dealing with the challenges of our times."
While laying the foundation stone for a new building for India's Foreign Affairs Ministry, named the Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan, Dr Singh spoke at length about his vision of Indian foreign policy:  "Our civilisation has had a message for the world that informs our foreign policy vision. That has been a message of 'unity in diversity', of pluralism, inclusiveness and secularism. The idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam -- The Whole World is One Family. A policy that combines these universal values with national interest is what Panditji (Nehru) visualised and shaped. For it was in our national interest to seek space in the world to facilitate our development."

While emphasising the centrality of economic development and growth in shaping Indian foreign and national security policy, Dr Singh emphasised the relevance of 'universal' principles in defining India's rise and rejected narrow nationalism as a basis: "Our nationalism was not based on narrow chauvinism or aggressive jingoism. At the time of our Independence, the world had just rid itself of one manifestation of such negative nationalism, when it defeated fascism. Our nationalism was elevated by larger universal principles as well as an abiding commitment to the well-being of our people. That is precisely why it was an enlightened nationalism."

The ideas that we have now come to associate with Manmohan Singh, of 'inclusive growth' at home and of 'inclusive globalisation' internationally, are derived from the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. A concept that Dr Singh has once again put forward in a special volume published on the occasion of G-8 this week.

India's views on climate change, on nuclear proliferation and on the global trading system are based on this vision of inclusiveness and the indivisibility of peace, development and security. Thus, India's trade policies are not mercantilist, its environment policies are based on notions of equity and co-existence and its nuclear policy emphasises 'no-first-use' and the desirability of universal nuclear disarmament.

In the on-going international debate on the global economic slowdown and the so-called 'power shift' from the West to the East, India emphasises the importance of its experience as a 'free market democracy'. The global economic crisis has once again brought to the fore questions about the viability of capitalism and free markets. China's rise is held up as an example of the greater efficiency of 'state capitalism'.

Many see in the West's problems and the East's successes a validation of the idea that 'strong States' and 'guided capitalism' work better. India's relatively good economic performance, even in the face of the 'Great Recession', shows that 'free market democracies' also hold hope for developing nations. India's success, as indeed the success of other plural democracies like Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, is vital to the future of democracy in the developing world.

It is these ideas of pluralism and inclusiveness that India has brought to the table in a wide range of regional and global forums in recent years.

Within India the electoral victory of the Manmohan Singh government has revived 'centrist' politics, and forced parties on the Left and the Right to re-consider the wisdom of their political platforms. 

Home to half of the world's great religions, now defined by a composite culture and a secular Constitution, India lies at the crossroads of the East and the West and, indeed, the North and the South.

Political scientist Sunil Khilnani has called it a 'bridge power'. Indeed, that is what India brings to the global table. Eschewing extremes, it seeks today to build deeper relations with all the world's great cultures and powers, and act as a bridge between them.

Sanjaya Baru