In this video, filmed before the event reported on below, Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta joins UNU Rector David Malone to discuss the origins and early drivers of India’s foreign policy, the country’s rise to the top tier of international discussions on several topics, the constraints on New Delhi in formulating India’s foreign policy, and possible future directions for India’s evolving international relations.
With a population of more than 1.2 billion, India is the world’s most populous democracy and holds immense potential for international influence. But understanding India’s significant role in contemporary global affairs calls for an honest exploration of the country’s inward and outward aims and how these motivate decisions at the high table of world politics.
To consider this topic, the United Nations University, with support from the International House of Japan, hosted a public conversation in Tokyo on 15 January featuring Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, and UNU Rector David Malone.
With Malone moderating, the discussion’s entry point was the emergence of independent India. Mehta noted how India’s independence movement — conceived in a climate of colonialism — was unique in its commitment from the beginning “to liberalism and democracy”. It was a nationalist movement that “was very internationalist in its outlook”, a trait that continues to be a “cornerstone of India’s political identity”.
Mehta pointed out that this movement also created an intellectual culture in which the country has strived to avoid being a source of global contradictions, consistently emphasizing the idea: “Don’t be a polarizing force. Be a zone of great power agreement”.
Mehta further illustrated the country’s adherence to that principle in responding to Malone’s query on the perceived mismatch between India’s “extraordinary struggle for human rights” at home and its reluctance to clearly export that approach to its international identity. Though he acknowledged that democracy and human rights in India are a work in progress, Mehta explained that because of the “very deep historical sense of what it takes to create a culture of human rights and democracy — what a fragile achievement it is — [India] is a little bit more skeptical about the instruments that actually promote democracy”.
“[India’s] caution on the international front comes from a sense that you can’t as easily do it by force or external intervention as some of the Western powers sometimes like to believe,” said Mehta.
Every state faces limitations to its foreign policy. History, economics, and geography, among other factors, can dictate strategies for international relations. The regional elements influencing India’s foreign policy are by no means conventional, and while Mehta pointed out the economic limitations of still being a “19th century economy” in terms of per capita income, he gave special attention to “neighbourhood” considerations and the need for India to “come to terms” with regional historical legacies.
“Unless we can demonstrate leadership in our own neighbourhood it is not going to be easy for us to demonstrate moral leadership in the world,” commented Mehta.
New governments bring new aspirations and India’s upcoming general elections will be closely watched for the potential policy outcomes. But Mehta kept his election wishes fundamental, stressing that “India’s greatest foreign policy has got to be its domestic policy”, with a focus on re-establishing growth and remaining a vibrant democracy. He stressed the need for much-neglected investment in the capacity of the Indian state and more recognition that the onus is on India to find creative solutions to its regional challenges.
With over 135 people in attendance, there were a number of excellent questions from the floor.
Returning to the notion of India’s moral leadership, the audience quizzed Mehta on how being a nuclear weapons power reconciles itself with India’s aspirations as a moral leader.
His response focused on two points of India’s general political consensus: 1) that the global nuclear order should be just, equitable and fair, and not give exclusive privileges to only a few major powers, and 2) because India “remained in a tough neighbourhood” with two other nuclear powers (China and Pakistan), it would need a credible minimum deterrent, thus “carving out an exception for itself” which is likely to remain.
Mehta suggested that India would probably stay firm in its right to develop its nuclear weapons programme if confronted on the world stage, and any changes in this stance would require prior commitments to progressive nuclear disarmament from China and the US. However, Indian domestic politics continue to slow development of the country’s nuclear weapons expansion, Mehta explained.
A few audience members posed questions on India’s pressing social issues, particularly gender parity and violence against women.
“If you aspire to be influential in global politics, the power of your example has got to be a very big part of that story,” responded Mehta. He pointed out that while India’s serious social challenges, particularly gender, are not necessarily news to the global community, it is not the existence of such problems but rather the solutions that the country employs that will determine India’s global position.
Mehta noted that India’s strong media reaction and civil society pressure are powerful assets for democratic response, but that “we should have a frank and open discussion globally” on gender issues because we “need all the help we can get”. But in a related follow-up question he spotlighted India’s promising social revolution of female higher education enrollment, which is just now overtaking that of males. Mehta was cautiously optimistic that as this trend translates into the workforce it could become the core of India’s momentum to successfully overcome violence against women.
Moving the topic to environmental issues, Mehta was asked to assess the Indian government’s policy on addressing climate change. He began by pointing out how India’s official climate change stance is “full of tensions”. Its official global position is rather conventional and hardline, placing blame and need for response with developed countries, particularly China and the US, before it makes its own international commitments.
However, Mehta emphasized that India’s domestic climate action has been far more constructive than its global position. But he summed up the topic saying that “I don’t think lndia needs to be as defensive as it has been in international [climate change] negotiations, but [it is] waiting to see what happens between the US and China”.
“The shame is that instead of pushing the US and China for that position, India kind of retreated back into its hardline position,” said Mehta, noting that international agreements would likely favor India. Nonetheless, he said he could not think of any international agreement in which India would not be well placed since its emissions are lower than those of developed countries.
Malone closed the session by asking Mehta to share his perception of India’s relationship with Japan and its future prospects.
Mehta emphasized India’s “incredible enthusiasm” for Japan, praising the great contribution Japan has made to India’s development, particularly in terms of infrastructure, and the continued importance of this cooperation as India grows. But he spotlighted an evolving contemporary relationship spurred by “shared surprise over China” concerning issues fundamental for India and Japan including open navigation, open aviation and not precipitating geopolitical conflict.
“These topics will become a shared ground… Japan is beginning to be seen not just as a generous economic partner but really that… Japan-India dialogue will be very crucial in thinking about what the security and economic architecture in Asia should look like.”
The event finished with a casual reception where the audience had an opportunity to mingle and to join Rector Malone and Dr. Mehta for continued conversation over food and drinks.