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Opinion | Inward-looking India is Going Global, Thanks to Narendra Modi who Thinks Big

PM Narendra Modi being greeted on arrival at Washington DC airport. (Credits: Twitter/Narendra Modi)

PM Narendra Modi being greeted on arrival at Washington DC airport. (Credits: Twitter/Narendra Modi)

India is uniquely poised to take advantage of the reordering of the world order, an opportunity which was unavailable in the past.

Narendra Modi In America
President Joe Biden would be the third United States President that Prime Minister Modi would be engaging with, at the head-of-government level, in his current visit to the United States. After Indira Gandhi, no Indian Prime Minister had this opportunity. But this statistic wouldn’t have been so important in itself had this not been the first in-person engagement at this critical juncture in history. On the agenda is also the first in-person QUAD summit which is taking place at a very remarkable time in the history. But before we return to the present, a brief context setting would not be out of place.

The New World Order is a much-used term and although its vintage is only a century old, it has been retrospectively applied to define eras even though the principal actors during that era may not have used the term. From the global perspective, we can define two distinct world orders in the last millennium and two reordering in the second world order.

The first world order took shape at the beginning of the last millennium, when the Islamic World gained a foothold in regions beyond the Arabian Peninsula – in the Indian subcontinent and a few centuries later conquering Constantinople. The second world order emerged with the rise of Europe, in the late second half of the last millennium and with it the rise of colonial empires. The second world order, went through its first reordering phase, if we can classify it as that after the second world war. Although it was still, what many Eurocentric writers call, “Western Civilization’ led, the center of gravity of this reordered world had shifted from Europe to the United States.

India, for a significant period of these thousand years successively battled Arabic, Mongol, Turkish, Persian and Afghan invasions. No invader could ever really conquer India for any sustained period or ever conquer it fully. Though the British colonized large parts of India, even they could never subdue India’s cultural and civilizational history in the way they did with other colonies.

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During these thousand years, one characteristic of India though did change. During the time of Gupta Empire and beyond that, right down to Cholas and Pallavas, India had always been an outward looking civilization. The great Indian kings did not hesitate to look beyond their traditional borders and spread the Indian culture and way of life to regions far and wide – to the East, South and the West of India and importantly through the sea routes. This characteristic – of being an outward looking nation – did change in the last thousand years and India became and inward looking, sell-consumed society. Although Panipat syndrome is used as a pejorative, but it does have some truth to it. And this mindset continued to haunt India even after India gained Independence.

From a more recent perspective, India has seen two reordering of the world order. The first was right after the second world war and alongside India gaining Independence. This reordering was still West dominated but had a competing power in the Soviet Union, two competing economic ideologies and Cold War camps.

Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister at the beginning of this reorder. He had a good 17 years to frame India’s engagement policy with the rest of the world. In a space and time removed from his circumstances, he can easily be critiqued by his detractors. On the other hand, to his supporters he could do no wrong. Perhaps a newly independent nation was too weak to confidently engage with the victors of the great war. Perhaps Nehru placed deluded notions of idealism above cold calculations of national interest. Whatever it maybe, there is no denying the fact India did not fully utilize the opportunity of a clean slate that was provided to it in 1947. A dispassionate analysis would show up that Nehru missed the bus. Such moments come but come rarely in history, and the man who had the brush to paint whatever he wanted on that clean slate mostly messed it up. The economic policy that Nehru chose eventually influenced all his policies – social, domestic, political and international relations. One could argue that Nehru further accentuated the inward-looking acquired Indian mindset with his Fabian socialism.

The second reordering happened with the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of Soviet Union and the presumed emergence of a Unipolar world. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister now. He undertook economic reforms under duress, and stopped them as soon as the crisis abated, calibrated India’s foreign policy stance to adjust to the new reality, ended terrorism in a key western state but watched terrorism spawn and grow in another border state. The Huriyat and the likes were created under his watch. But beyond some course correction, on a broader level, Narasimha Rao too could not change the Indian stance of an inward-looking power, the characteristic we acquired in the last millennium. India was still responding defensively to aggressive existential threats from its neighbors and meddling by superpowers.

Which brings us to the present and what is without doubt the zero hour of the emergence of New World Order. Whether this order would be on a pattern similar to the post-Cold War reordering or it will be a more fundamental shift and witness the emergence of a completely New Order, in the way the last millennium witnessed, only time would tell.

This reordering of the world, however, presents an opportunity for India unlike any afforded in the past many centuries. There are several factors influencing India’s ability to shape this nascent new order.

First, unlike 1947, India is now a confident nation with more than seven decades of successful self-rule with one of the world’s largest economies, large middle class and firmly integrated in the global institutions.

Second, unlike 1947, India now has a Prime Minister in Narendra Modi who is not squeamish about projecting India’s strengths, India’s civilizational heritage, India’s cultural and social richness and at the same time marching in tune with modern impulses. Prime Minister’s impulse is also in tune with the national impulse and a New India generation which does not carry the baggage or the shackles of the past but thinks of itself as equal to the best in the world – from the technological field to the sporting field.

Third, unlike 1990s, India is not in an economic crisis. In fact, India is one of the most important engines of global economy. And unlike 1990s, the economic reforms that take place now are institutionalized, driven by considered policy making and not under duress. As Prime Minister Modi himself noted, “India now reforms with conviction and not compulsion”. This gives India immense leverage to play to its strengths, especially its market size.

Fourth, manufacturing was the most important component that drove economic wealth both in 1947 and in the 1990s. India had missed both the industrial and the manufacturing revolution buses during the 18th and 19th centuries. The economic policies followed after Independence under Nehru extinguished any remote chance that existed of being able to catch that bus.

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This third reordering, or emergence of a completely New Order, though will primarily be based on the Digital Revolution. And in that, India is not just equal to everyone else, but in many fields the undisputed global leader. Consider digital payments. Skeptics mocked India’s push for digital payments as late as 2017, deridingly asking that when there is no electricity to charge mobile phones, who will adopt digital payments? Just three years later, India became world’s number one in digital payments, overtaking China by a substantial margin. Remember, India overtook China, so it is not a function of population numbers but real adoption. Or take the case of Startups ecosystem. In 2021, India, in the first nine months, produced the maximum number of unicorns in the world.

Therefore, India is uniquely poised to take advantage of the reordering, an opportunity which was unavailable in the past. And as happens with most of these things, global manufacturing in India is also finally taking off.

Fifth, the new strategic theatre for the world is going to be Asia, unlike 1947 or even the 1990s. Flurry of blocks emerging unmistakably point in that direction. No strategic game in Asia is possible with India being a pivotal player.

Sixth, a tactical opportunity has now presented itself which can and will have strategic ramifications. Afghanistan will be free from direct presence of USA (and Russia) after four decades. During these four decades, Pakistan became a nuclear power, sponsored terrorism in Punjab (which was quashed) and later sponsored terrorism in Kashmir (which has substantially been defeated). During these four decades, Pakistan also armed and funded terrorist group who carried out strikes in other parts of India, especially in the 1990s and the 2000s. The direct USA ‘protection’ of Pakistan, due to proximity presence is now gone. How the Afghanistan situation unfold in coming years is hard to predict. But the strategic consequences of this tactical opportunity can be manifold.

Seventh, the post COVID-19 world will not be business as usual. That much everyone has by now realized. The questions regarding the origin of the virus, the belligerence of China against all its neighbors, the corrupting of institutions across the board by Chinse machinations– from Ease of Doing Business Rankings to Universities and Think Tanks in USA and UK – has created a new global urgency in dealing with the present reality. President Biden is not even ten months in office but he has already taken far reaching decisions. How those decisions will play out is different debate, but the urgency to recalibrate is hard to miss. The theatre that has necessitated this urgency has distinct Indian presence.

Finally, the inward-looking India has finally started looking outward as well. The credit for this mindset change firmly goes to Prime Minister Modi. From proactively engaging Indian diaspora across the globe and emotionally vesting them with the India story to proudly showcasing India’s rich traditions and cultural diversity; from weaving a new paradigm in India’s relations with West Asia to setting up New Global Institutions; from fundamentally changing the way India would respond to aggression from its neighbors to reimaging India’s relationships with global powers, Modi has systematically but resolutely changed the way India deals with the world. The engagement is no longer that of an underconfident nation fearing that it will be shortchanged, but one of a nation and of people confident of holding their own and in many cases shaping outcomes.

That the first in-person QUAD summit is happening in 2021 and not 2006, when the idea first emerged, is ample indicator of how much the world has changed in the last two decades.

The question is, how will India play this opportunity? We will know this only in the future, perhaps in a decade from now. But the one comforting factor, in fact the most comforting factor, is that India is being led by Narendra Modi at this juncture. Modi is a man who is just about to complete two decades in elected office, as head of government, and who in these two decades has emerged as an undisputed champion of Thinking Big and executing it to Perfection. Its exciting times as Modi enters the third decade of holding public office and at the same time a third chance presents itself for India!

The writer is the CEO, BlueKraft Digital Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:September 23, 2021, 08:25 IST