The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Is India Still a Rising Superpower?

India’s international relations have become a hostage to its own domestic political and social chaos.

By Muhsin Puthan for
Is India Still a Rising Superpower?
Credit: Flickr/ Sanyam Bahga

Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 he has actively pursued India’s international relations. While it is debatable how much his foreign policy activism has delivered in concrete terms, it has undoubtedly brought greater vigor and enthusiasm into India’s foreign policy. Some of his notable foreign policy pursuits include greater attention on expanding India’s soft power through cultural diplomacy, effective engagement with the Middle East, increased outreach to the Indian diaspora, and a leadership role in climate change (and particularly solar energy).

Much for the same reason, while Modi was seeking re-election last year, foreign policy received greater expectations from both policy circles and the general public. The notion of the rise of India’s international prestige that Modi had managed to cultivate seemingly played a contributing role in the his landslide victory the secured his second term.

However, hardly a year into office, Modi’s second term has already given overwhelming indications of a scenario in which India is losing its grip over maintaining the status quo. Foreign policy challenges are mounting, especially emerging from the domestic political arena — and some of them are clearly the result of the government’s own mistakes, coupled with deeply misplaced national priorities that do not accord with the reality and thus suggest a lack of global vision. While prudence dictates maintaining momentum in foreign policy for long-term benefits, unfortunately India’s international relations have become a hostage to its own domestic political and social chaos, if current trends are a reliable indicator. And the severe downturn in India’s economy further adds to its woes.

India Pitting Its Domestic Policies Against Its ‘Rising Superpower’ Status

The notion of India as a “rising global power” received wider acceptance when then-U.S. President Barack Obama, on a visit to India in 2010, dramatically said that “India is not just a rising power; India has already risen.” Notably, the rhetorical elevation of India was part of the U.S. strategy of countering a rising China. Yet Obama’s statement also attested to the prevailing perception of India as a capable and responsible power. This perception was not solely based on India’s stable and solid economy, which was touching a growth rate of 9.8 percent in October 2009. Other reasons for this positive image include India’s long democratic credentials and achievements as well as its success in upholding values and ideals such as multiculturalism, pluralism, secularism, tolerance, and international peace. All of these, while seemingly taken for granted, have been crucial for India’s rising superpower status.

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Nonetheless, as we speak, India’s domestic politics seems to be driving its foreign policy in a different direction. In fact, there has evidently been a rather dominant shift of focus to domestic politics, overriding the larger foreign policy concerns. And unfortunately, this flirting with domestic politics at the cost of foreign relations has clearly been accompanied by scant regard for acquiring and maintaining cultural and political attraction, and international prestige in the global community. As a matter of fact, while Modi’s foreign policy activism during his first tenure received much appreciation, to the point of many even comparing him with Nehru, his second tenure manifests a rather completely different picture. Modi is strikingly dismantling many of his own contribution to the building of India’s image.

A number of domestic political concerns have been at the forefront of inducing new foreign policy challenges. By bringing religion in as a criteria in the determination of citizenship through the recently legislated Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the government has egregiously undermined the considerable applicability of India’s historic ideals and the domestic roots of India’s foreign policy, including pluralism and secular values. The move bolstered and accentuated the deepening religious and social polarization that has become a new normal in India in recent years.

In parallel, there has also been brutal violence and the use of aggressive force in suppressing protests against the CAA. The inevitable result of all this has been opposition from different parts of the world and growing concerns from various quarters of South Asia as well as from the UN and other human rights organizations. Such a mounting opposition to the policy has led Modi’s government to upend its diplomatic efforts to weather the storm.

However, despite these efforts — and the Ministry of External Affairs’ claim that many countries have understood that it is an internal matter of India — the indeterminate and the ongoing protests in different parts of the country seem to be making countries rethink their position. Many countries have now broken their silence to voice concerns on the issue, including the EU Parliament’s move to bring an anti-CAA resolution.

Likewise, last year’s controversial revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave special power status to the only Muslim-dominated state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the subsequent internet lockdown in the state since then, has also caught international attention for the allegedly rampant human rights violations. Certainly, terming these as internal matters of India neither allays these concerns nor constitutes an effective face-saving gambit to limit the damage.

Moreover, even faced with a situation where tremendous diplomatic efforts are required to douse international concerns, India’s diplomatic endeavors to this end have so far been poor, especially its public diplomacy engagements. On the other hand, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have already conducted large-scale outreach programs in the domestic sphere, including door-to-door campaigns. As such, the question is not whether India has the practical savvy to deal with the fallout from its decisions; rather it is about whether India is willing, in all seriousness, to at least present a plausible narrative on the world stage.

The inevitable inference from these policies is the fact that the government’s overriding priority lies in domestic political consolidation and the expansion of the BJP’s power. However, as a “rising superpower” India is expected to offer an appealing political and development vision for the world. Such policies, albeit domestic, can be counterproductive and have implications for India’s international relations.

At this juncture the question inevitably arises; can India champion the values of international order at a time when there are greater aspirations from Asian countries to play a significant role in the world order? Unfortunately, a cursory glance at India’s recent domestic policies shows that India sits uneasily with such a goal, if not completely at loggerheads. For instance, India’s advocacy of a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific is unlikely to find resonance in the international arena if these values are on a shaky foundation at home. The sharp contrast that India’s recent domestic policies pose vis-a-vis the spirit of liberal democracy is telling. It compels a probe into what actually represents India’s world view — and whether India has one at all.

Muhsin Puthan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at University of Hyderabad, India. His research interests include international relations, India’s foreign policy, political communication, soft power, and public diplomacy.