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In a grim world, the India way is winning

It is a grim world out there. But trailing the external affairs minister S Jaishankar for six days in New York, and covering the first two days of his visit to Washington DC, offered a window into how smart Indian diplomacy has been in dealing with this uncertain world.

New Delhi is in a unique position. Russia and Ukraine are fighting, but both want to be friends with India and have a degree of appreciation for its position on the war. Europe and the United States (US) are key players in the war helping the Ukrainians, but despite Delhi’s indifference and refusal to participate in any of their measures to make life tough for the Russians, they are happy enough with India’s position. Smaller countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America don’t like the war and are aggrieved that they are suffering for no fault of their own. But the global South sees India as a voice of reason which can highlight the consequences of the war on the big power stage that they have little access to. And the top United Nations (UN) leadership is keeping India briefed on developments, and sees India as a valuable partner in its efforts to lower the temperature.

Both on the war, and beyond the war on the most pressing strategic and development issues of the day, the world is wooing India. And no, lest anyone think so, this isn’t spin provided by the ministry of external affairs.

HT spoke to seven foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly; it spoke to UN officials; it spoke to diplomats from several Southeast Asian countries on the sidelines of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework meet in Los Angeles two weeks ago. And in each case, these interlocutors valued India and wanted greater Indian engagement.

If Austria, Estonia and Finland lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement to Russian Vladimir Putin’s comment about wars and wanted to deepen bilateral ties with Delhi, Madagascar emphasised how it was a part of “the Indian, the Indian, the Indian Ocean” and wanted to partner with Delhi to mitigate the effects of the war for smaller States. If Australia hailed India’s engagement in Quad, Libya wanted New Delhi to get more engaged in the country’s messy transition and reopen its embassy in Tripoli. If Bolivia wanted to invite India to participate in projects to tap lithium, Southeast Asian nations, quite firmly entrenched with China economically, wanted India to play an even more proactive role to bring a sense of “balance” to the region.

At a public event, if the Guyanese foreign minister, his voice cracking with emotion, thanked India for help during the pandemic, Yemen acknowledged India’s food assistance. If Tanzania said it agreed with India on every big issue of the day, the UN system felt that India’s digital-driven financial inclusion, welfare, and cash transfer model was worth studying and being replicated.

Or take the multiple constituencies within the US itself as the minister moved to DC.

If Pentagon was clear about the China challenge and told India that it wants to deepen operational ties between militaries and step up cooperation across new domains, the American scientific community expressed its enthusiasm to work with India on deep technologies in all its dimensions — national security, economic collaboration, leveraging the talent pool.

If secretary of state Antony Blinken hosted a dinner for Jaishankar on Monday night to exchange views about the state of the world (and the China challenge could not but have come up) before their formal engagement on Tuesday, the commerce department appeared to be actively willing to nudge American businesses towards India and cement a place for Delhi in supply chains of key materials. If the White House was finally putting its weight behind Security Council reform with categorical support for India, the US at UN was working with India on counterterrorism. Don’t get distracted by the noise on Pakistan — it is a blip in the larger picture. India’s engagements are in a different league.

This is just a sample of recent voices on India, but put it all together and it is clear that India finds itself in a sweet spot. China makes India indispensable in the American strategic calculus but the relationship goes far beyond it now. The desire for friends and economic and security engagement makes Delhi vital for Moscow. France likes India’s tradition of strategic autonomy and has clear security and economic convergences. Delhi’s disapproval of the war is music to the ears of the Central European, Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Japan and Australia are friends. Ties with West Asian countries and Israel have never been as good. India’s ability to scale up its development model and export it to parts of the world is making it attractive to the global south. India’s cultural links make it popular in the Caribbean, Africa and Pacific Islands, as do Delhi’s enhanced resources and capabilities. And the size of its market, edge in tech, soft power add to its overall weight.

All of this also adds to the pressure on India to make strategic choices, ramp up its economic strength, contribute to global public good, and ensure that it remains a beacon of democracy and pluralism. If India can get its domestic script in order, and continue to navigate the currents of global politics with the finesse it has displayed, it will be a better partner to a willing world. The moment is ripe.

The views expressed are personal



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