Nehru said India’s global rise was ‘inevitable’. This belief now defines our foreign policy

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower with former PM Jawaharlal Nehru | Wikipedia Commons
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower with former PM Jawaharlal Nehru | Commons

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Like Americans in the nineteenth century who believed in ‘manifest destiny’, many Indians believe that their country has a right to historical greatness. The world may look at India through the lens of its struggles with modernity, its economic obstacles and its demographic challenges. For most Indians, however, India’s centuries-old civilization, its geographic location, its population comprising one-fifth of humanity, its growing economic power and military strength, and its history make it inevitable that it will be a great power not only in Asia but the world.

This faith in ‘Indian exceptionalism’ pervades and defines India’s external relations. For Indians, the country is unique and thus deserving of global power status. In a speech in March 1949, India’s first prime minister and foreign minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, stated that it was inevitable for India to play an important global role ‘not because of any ambition of hers, but because of the force of circumstances, because of geography, because of history’.

Indian exceptionalism rests on the belief that there is something unique about the nation, which enabled it to gain independence without violence, revolution or war. Indian discourse often speaks of an ‘Indian character’ that will overcome odds and circumvent difficulties. In this case, they are not just ‘feel good’ avowals, but, rather, reflect a deep-seated way of thinking, similar to the messianic vision of the United States.

As Stephen Cohen, an American scholar who worked for decades on India, wrote, ‘Whether a realist or an idealist, almost every member of the Indian strategic community thinks that India’s inherent greatness as a power is itself a valuable diplomatic asset. India’s ambassadors are expected to persuade foreign officials of the wisdom and moral correctness of the Indian position, say, by stating the Indian case and supplementing political arguments with information about India’s great civilization, its cultural and economic accomplishments and its democratic orientation.’

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India’s sense of self 

India’s interactions with the world are framed by civilizational and historical imperatives. It is not unusual for countries to argue that their path is unique and specific. But for India, this is more than a platitude. It has always sought to be viewed as an example to the world: India is unique in maintaining a democratic system in a poor postcolonial state; its path of economic growth, emphasizing self- sufficiency, is different from others. India retains a large military without being trigger-happy in deploying its troops beyond its border; it sees itself as having global influence, without viewing power as only the ability to coerce, unlike other regional or global powers.

Indian leaders have often expressed the thought that the country could lead the world, albeit in a different way from traditional hegemons. The moral and realist dimensions of India’s foreign policy are often reflected in the same conversation by its diplomats and leaders. In a speech in January 2019, the then foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale spoke about how India’s ancient philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the entire world is one family) ‘presented the world with a philosophy for uniting mankind and erasing artificial barriers’. And yet, India’s top diplomat emphasized how ‘at the heart of our global engagement is to make our diplomacy an enabler of the security, development and prosperity for the people of India’.

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