The Debate | Opinion

Is India Being Swiped Left by Britain? Could Others Follow?

A recent paper by a British think tank head, and ensuing commentary, once again leads to key questions about the implicit assumptions driving Indian foreign policy.

Abhijnan Rej
Is India Being Swiped Left by Britain? Could Others Follow?
Credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo

Even as the post-Brexit United Kingdom – in its quest to rebrand itself as “Global Britain” and reorient the country’s economy toward the Asia-Pacific – reaches out to India, visible signs of difficulties in the relationship abound. While, historically, the India-U.K. partnership has been plagued by what many in New Delhi consider pandering to Pakistan due to domestic-political reasons, the most proximate cause of the latest bout of heartache in India about Britain is, of all things, an essay by the head of an influential British think tank.

In a January 11 paper charting a strategy for U.K.’s post-Brexit future and international orientation, Chatham House Director Robin Niblett clubbed India with China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as potential “rivals or, at best, awkward counterparts” for his country even though they are important for British economic interests.

As if that was not shocking enough to many in New Delhi, who have long grown accustomed to the self-created myth of Indian indispensability in global affairs – a myth the United States has done much to perpetuate for manifestly instrumental reasons – Niblett wrote: “…India shies away from joining Britain and others in supporting liberal democracy beyond its shores. To the contrary, the overt Hindu nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is weakening the rights of Muslims and other minority religious groups, leading to a chorus of concern that intolerant majoritarianism is replacing the vision of a secular, democratic India bequeathed by Nehru.” With this salvo, he entered territory that invariably attracts massive fire from Hindu nationalists.

And criticism came swiftly and from all corners. Writing in the Hindustan Times on January 21, Syed Akbaruddin, a former Indian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, by way of pushing Niblett’s argument back, listed a whole litany of grievances India holds against the U.K., including instances of British politicians seeking to debate ongoings in India and that old favorite – accusing the U.K. of shielding anti-India separatists. “Rarely has a report from an ‘establishment’ institution in the UK portrayed India in such inimical terms…” he wrote.

It needs to be pointed out, in the interest of fairness, that many other foreign policy intellectuals, including in Britain, found Niblett’s assertions problematic, and for good reason. Writing in the Indian Express, Oxford University professor Kate Sullivan De Estrada astutely observes that Niblett “places India and other countries in a different normative universe to the ‘liberal West’ and then confers unequal status upon them,” a veritable imperial impulse. As former British diplomat and scholar Samir Puri recently noted in an interview to The Diplomat, “in the instance of Brexit, imperial legacies acted as an unconscious reference point,” and the country’s post-Brexit ideation very much draws on Britain’s imperial past.

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However, what remains exceedingly curious is how India has – over the past six years, especially – imagined that its conduct at home and its global role and reception can remain perpetually compartmentalized. To be sure, it is highly unlikely that India’s diplomats – widely known for their astuteness – have failed to pick up on signals in Western capitals that concerns continue to mount about the trajectory of India’s politics, even when they have not been publicly articulated as such (as Sullivan De Estrada also notes). So, what gives?

A large part of the problem lies with what has become a common-place – and, dare I say, manufactured – consensus in New Delhi’s foreign policy circuit that India’s future (contra extant) heft, coupled with China’s growing intransigence, is what does the trick in keeping the domestic and the foreign compartmentalized;. In other words, no matter what turns India’s economy and politics take, the West needs India — and would give it what it needs to maintain its position in the international order irrespective of how things unfold at home, both in India and key North Atlantic states.

This attitude – which University of Chicago professor and longtime Indian watcher Paul Staniland memorably described as “trading on future economic growth in exchange for current strategic benefits” – has become so ingrained in Indian strategic thinking that any statement that effectively, if circuitously, takes aim at it is instantly and angrily reacted to, as was the case with Niblett’s paper. But conflation of future and current positions, the contingent with the permanent, and of how the world perceives India (sans polite flattery and diplomatic floweriness) with how it should is not realism, that favorite intellectual framework of the current dispensation in New Delhi.

If naïve structuralism – the belief that relative decline of the West is what automatically makes India an attractive global partner — is one part of the problem, the other lies with India’s manifest revisionism. There is little point in once again listing how and why India seeks to take aim at the current international political and economic order. (Akbaruddin takes umbrage at Niblett flagging India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club of revisionists and global malcontents if there was ever one.) But suffice to say, whatever be India’s reasons for its grievances with what is constantly tom-tommed in many capitals as the “liberal international order,” and however sound they may be, the fact of the matter is that the constant harping about the unfairness of the West-created post World War II order sits uneasily with Indian pieties about the United States’ importance to India and other such claims.

Put bluntly: If American primacy, and sustenance of political and economic structures that support that goal, is what the U.S. and key allies seek, why should it trust India, given New Delhi’s uncertain commitment, if not downright aversion, to that project? Even more provocatively: What guarantees do Western powers have that India – 30 years down the line – will not, through a combination of toxic nationalism as well as growing power, become another China circa 2021? After all, isn’t that future position of India what is allowing New Delhi to improve its present status?

To be sure, these are extremely uncomfortable questions. But Indian strategic analysts and scholars should be grateful Niblett’s paper – despite its many problems – provided an opportunity for them to probe what is, often, instinctively left untouched.