David Malone argues that to understand India’s foreign policy behavior, the study of India on three levels must be executed: history, geography, and capabilities. India stands as a civilizational-state, with a deep, rich history encompassing the Indus-Valley civilization of 3300 BC to modern India. A mosaic society with layers of civic and civil organization and institution expanding across cultural diversity, embracing and enmeshing new peoples and traditions has come to emblazon into its soft power status. Though the richness of Indian culture and society has been continuous, its wealth had been disrupted by external actors.
The Raj period of British imperial rule introduced modern concepts like public education and civil governance. The British also developed a small indigenous Middle Class to manage the crown jewel on behalf of the British Empire. However, the introduction of modern mechanisms of social governance was not complemented by the entrance of an industrial economic base. The Indian economy continued to act chiefly in the interests of the colonial power. Consequently India’s share of global wealth production dropped from seventeen to twenty percent to two percent. Like the colonization of the Americas and Africa, wealth was extracted, in the form of natural resource especially, from the colonized country to feed the excess development of the colonial power, Great Britain.
To understand the Foreign Policy path of post-imperial India requires understanding the preceding history. The first Prime Minister Nehru advocated a Foreign Policy that was anti-colonial, Asian-oriented, and nonaligned to existing Cold War blocs, the Capitalist West and the Communist Soviet Union. Though India was the largest Democracy, and America the oldest, the gap between the U.S. and India proved nonnegotiable; America was an imperial, Western power, and India was too big to align as an appendage on the U.S. geopolitical chessboard.
Too big indeed, India is the largest and most powerful country in its sub region. Geography explains in conjunction with history how India understands Foreign Policy. India lives in a precarious neighborhood, involving Afghanistan and Pakistan for sure, but also Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. All these nations at some point have preoccupied Indian foreign policy and Diplomatic relations. Disturbingly, India shares a contested border with China, and China shares borders with many of India’s South Asian neighbors. For Indian foreign policy to breakout internationally to compete with China’s breakout, they may first have to secure their own neighborhood from creeping intervention and encirclement by China.
India certainly has the capabilities to project power in its neighborhood and beyond, using diplomatic pressure, military strength, and economic prowess to punch those below its weight. India has not chosen to do that. Instead it has engaged in a policy of strategic restraint; not responding to attacks on its sovereignty (from China or Pakistan), and shedding any ambition of bolstering its geopolitical position through military intervention, like in Afghanistan where it could encircle Pakistan to pressure the Pakistani government into a settlement that would release India from sparring with its weaker neighbor. To utilize its capabilities, I suspect, India will have to overcome both history and geography. What may the consequences to its soft power status be? India will have to be creative in resolving its outstanding disputes in its neighborhood, and cautious in its dealings with China.