India is entering a geopolitical sweet spot. What does this mean? In a world crying out for a strong, independent voice to provide moral guidance to a troubled planet, the only realistic candidate is India.
None of the three other obvious candidates – the United States, the European Union and China – can step up to the plate now.
The US is a deeply troubled country, even after the election of Joe Biden. It has travelled the full moral arc from a John F. Kennedy, who famously said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”, to a Donald Trump, whose proclaimed goal was to “Make America Great Again”. In short, America went from caring for the world to caring for itself only.
The EU is faring no better, bogged down with the technical details of Brexit, while struggling to deal with Covid-19, terrorism and a surge of migrants. China is sadly distrusted by the Western world as it is increasingly seen as a threat, not an opportunity. By a process of elimination, that leaves India as the only realistic candidate.
This is why the book by the Indian Foreign Minister, Dr S Jaishankar, The India Way, is so timely. It provides valuable glimpses of the thinking behind many of India’s policies.
It is very rare for sitting foreign ministers to write books. To avoid offending countries, they can only offer platitudes. Fortunately, Jaishankar avoids them (although he does indulge in elliptical allusions, some of which may be beyond the reach of lay readers).
He makes it clear, for example, that India will not be beholden to one side in the growing US-China geopolitical contest.
As he writes: “If India drove the revived Quad arrangement, it also took membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A long-standing trilateral with Russia and China coexists now with one involving the US and Japan. These apparently contradictory developments only illustrate the world in which we now operate.”
Yet while Jaishankar’s many geopolitical observations are fascinating, the most powerful chapter in his book is the one on the Mahabharata, a significant ancient Sanskrit text.
“The Mahabharata is indisputably the most vivid distillation of Indian thought on statecraft,” he states categorically. “As an epic, it dwarfs its counterparts in other civilisations, not just in length but in its richness and complexity. Focusing on the importance of the sense of duty and sanctity of obligations, it is also a description of human frailties.”
It is truly brave of Jaishankar to try to distil the life lessons of the mighty Mahabharata into one chapter. But he succeeds in drawing out the complexity of the epic, which narrates the rivalry of two groups of cousins.
While Jaishankar points out all the deceptions waged by both sides, he also emphasises the advantages of being ethical.
“Where the Pandavas consistently scored over their cousins was the ability to shape and control the narrative,” he writes. “Their ethical positioning was at the heart of a superior branding.”
In short, the ethical power enjoys a key advantage. He concludes the chapter by saying: “Being an ethical power is one aspect of the India way.”
Providing ethical leadership has been part of India’s DNA. Indeed, of the two greatest ethical leaders in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, one came from India.
Mandela was often inspired by Gandhi. He once said: “[Gandhi’s] philosophy contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa, and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid.”
He also said: “Gandhi remained committed to non-violence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could.”
This is why it was right for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tell the UN General Assembly last year on September 25 – Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday – that “whether it’s climate change or terrorism, corruption or selfishness in public life, Gandhiji’s ideals are the guiding light for us when it comes to protecting humanity. I believe that the path shown by Gandhiji will lead to a better world”.
One simple path India could take in our challenging world is to ask what Gandhiji would say about a vexing contemporary question.
Take the case of the terrorist killings in France. Gandhi would have unreservedly condemned the killings. Yet, he would also have counselled an understanding of the deep sensitivities of the 1.4 billion Muslims of the world.
He would have echoed the message by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who defended free speech but said it should not “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt” people with whom “we are sharing a society and planet”.
The world has come a long way from leaders of the calibre of John F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand and Helmut Schmidt, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew, who never hesitated to speak out when the world needed a strong moral voice.
In the book, Jaishankar writes: “The Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once paid India’s rise a backhanded compliment of being the more reassuring one [as compared with China’s].”
India’s rise is “reassuring” because it is not perceived as a threat by other powers. Given this trusted position, India can take advantage of it by providing the world ethical leadership, of the kind that Gandhiji would have provided if he were alive today.
One ethical step India can take is to become the global champion of multilateralism. As Jaishankar says, “our own growth model and political outlook intrinsically favours rules-based behaviour”.
Rules-based behaviour has sadly declined in the Trump era. It can return in the Biden era. Yet, it also needs a fervent champion. Emmanuel Macron has been one such champion. However, no Western leader today can enjoy the same level of trust in the non-Western world (who make up 88 per cent of the world’s population) that India does.
Jaishankar is right to lament the fact that India has not yet been made a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Indeed, as I have argued consistently, India should be made a permanent member immediately. Many others agree. Martin Wolf observed in 2009: “Within a decade a world in which the UK is on the UN Security Council and India is not will seem beyond laughable.”
A decade has passed. The UNSC does look laughable.
India has been campaigning strongly to get its permanent seat. Yet the best way to achieve this is to get a global consensus that the world’s most ethical power deserves a seat on the UNSC. Indeed, India could even exercise a veto today by refusing to implement the UNSC resolutions which are clearly unjust.
The “best” India way forward is to project itself as the leading ethical voice on planet earth. This is also what Krishna would whisper into the ears of Arjuna as they ride their chariot together into battle.
As Jaishankar says about the Mahabharata: “The courage required to implement policy is, perhaps, its most famous section – the Bhagavad Gita.” India can provide this courage.