N Sathiya Moorthy 

28 May 2024

In every way, India is uniquely placed as far as its geopolitical, geo-economic, and geostrategic approaches in the 21st century go. New Delhi hosted the G20 summit and the BRICS summit in the same year, 2023, but it also continues to give voice to the world’s voiceless people in the Global South. If anything, India used the G20 summit precisely for its purpose, something that it could not achieve in the global North-South dialogues of the previous century.

It does not stop there. On specifics, India asserted its own ‘supreme national self-interests’, as the Americans often put it, on the Russian oil import imbroglio after the US and the rest of the West imposed additional sanctions on Moscow. Recall the flights that multiple Western leaders took to New Delhi to dissuade the Indian leadership from importing cheap oil from Russia, and how the latter did not budge. That is a record of sorts for peacetime India after Indira Gandhi’s tough stand vis-à-vis the West in the ‘Bangladesh War’, 1971.

The West was silenced only when External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar told Western European nations what India thought of them in reality. His famous words that ‘Europe wants everyone to believe that its problems are the world’s problems’ and not the other way around should resonate in the ears of their respective leaderships when doing business with India.

Rolling the ‘Black Ball’

Today, it has come full circle. The US ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, now tells us that Washington and the rest of the world actually wanted India to procure Russian oil. Does it mean that the US and its European and Asian allies were only testing India’s resolve in matters of foreign and security policy without meaning to alter the course? Earlier, New Delhi had put its foot down on not converting the US-initiated four-nation Quad into a ‘military alliance’ and had its way.

It is another matter what was discussed between India and the US, especially on Quad before New Delhi signed in, and how they intended to distinguish it from the other American initiative, ‘Indo-Pacific’, which also sprouted out around the same time. Was Quad meant to be a strategic consultation forum with no new members, or new members only through the roll of the ‘black ball’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ was for trade and investments and was expandable with entry rules being more liberal than for the other?

Anyway, there are more ‘Indo-Pacific’ concepts doing the rounds in the region, and everyone of the initiating nations, starting with Germany and the EU, wants India on board. Or, they do not want India to stand in the way. Lately, India is warming up to Germany, which seemingly has a long-term project for global presence, if not outright dominance, if and when the US fails itself and its partners and backers elsewhere.

In Germany’s views, it would seem, someone from the western hemisphere has to be ready to fill the geopolitical and geostrategic vacuum if and when the US becomes weak, especially in the face of the dollar losing its dominant position as the world’s ‘reserve currency’ in the foreseeable future—or later.

So is France, with which India has developed a stronger but less boisterous relationship than the one with the US, especially since the days of the Mirage procurement to the present-day Rafale. Of course, in the case of Germany and France, trade and political relations are more important for India, though military procurements and security cooperation have also helped.

Expanding the frontiers

Through the past years, India has achieved something more, or rather much more, under the radar. It has expanded the frontiers of Indian influence by signing up with ASEAN nations like Vietnam and the Philippines in matters of security cooperation and defence supplies. Simultaneously, it has also been making inroads into the arms supply market in Africa at the other end of the Indian Ocean, moving from the nearer-home east coast to nations on the west.

Thus far, the African arms market is dominated by Russia, America, and China, in that order. Of them, China is a late entrant, and India is now the latest entrant. Of course, there are nations that are still colonies of France, where the French franc is in currency, and Paris decides their foreign and security policies. Nearer to India, there is the French Reunion Island, where the two nations keep conducting naval exercises periodically. Yet, New Delhi would have watched with interest, if not concern, the recent Beijing visit of French President Emmanuel Macron and his summit talks with President Xi Jinping in Paris —and the latter’s subsequent meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the latter in the Chinese capital.

India has working security arrangements of one kind or another with Indian Ocean faraway neighbours like Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Madagascar, which are placed politically in the African continent.

Strategy and tactics

New Delhi still needs to straighten out strains in bilateral relations in the neighbourhood, especially involving the two near-by Ocean neighbours, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, in that order. Interestingly, or ironically, there is a thin yet distinct difference in the problems that New Delhi is facing right now in the case of the two nations.

In Sri Lanka, problems, if any, are in the perception of peripheral sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian polity. Independent of this and even otherwise, a vocal and not-so-influential section of the nation’s strategic community and other intellectuals are unwilling to dismount their anti-India hobby-horse from the war era, where Indian assistance in defeating the LTTE is widely acknowledged.

For this very reason, the Tamil polity and community have become anti-India, but without accepting that the problem was with the LTTE leadership that bit the hand that served it food in the face of an unprecedented crisis. The reference, of course, is to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

In the Maldives, the problems, if any, are with the incumbent government of President Mohamed Muizzu. India’s strategy for containing an adversarial China in its immediate neighbourhood has to be appreciated, but New Delhi needs to move away from the one-size-fits-all template model of the all-American kind. It should adopt tactics that are nation- and leadership-centric. Rather, India should go back to the days when it used to do business with the governments that the people elected in its neighbourhood nations without working for ‘regime-change’ of the Western, rather American kind.

Dichotomy and more

There is also a larger issue for India to address. New Delhi has been juggling its multiple roles constantly, in the Quad-Indo-Pacific, BRICS, G20, and, of course, the Global South. There are also direct and not-so-direct engagements dating back to the previous century or commenced more recently with many nations and regional groupings. Balancing those relationships is not going to be easy.

India, for instance, continues to be the bold and old voice of the Global South. Yet, oblique questions are being thrown, as if to challenge India’s legitimacy to be the group’s leader, or be among the leaders, under the nation’s improved economic circumstances. Today, India and all Indians take pride in the country becoming the fifth-largest economy, only to become the third-largest one in the coming years—not even decades.

This is the kind of dichotomy that India needs to address. Does it belong to the Global South, or has it already taken its legitimate place in the G20? If so, where does it fit in the scheme of BRICS? It is one thing for a nation, like an individual, to have its finger in every pie, but it is another thing for it to be the leader or the representative voice of one or more groupings—and to be accepted and acknowledged as such.

It is a fine-balancing act that India will be called upon to do. No doubt, New Delhi is capable of doing it too, but it needs the geostrategic cushion for it to claim geopolitical victory in the matter. Achieving that balance, along with moving up the socio-economic scales nearer home—where the rich-poor divide too is showing—is the name of the game for the future, in the near and medium term.