Interviews | Diplomacy | South Asia

Mohamed Zeeshan on How India Can Grow Its Global Influence

“There is space for India to position itself as the organizer of a global development coalition.”

Mohamed Zeeshan on How India Can Grow Its Global Influence

India has big power ambitions but is still far away from realizing it. Despite its massive population, economic heft and military might, India’s global influence remains limited and it is punching way below its weight on global issues. In his book “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership,” published by Penguin Random House, author Mohamed Zeeshan says that India’s fence-sitting on major geopolitical issues is costing the country dearly. He argues in favor of India supporting democratic values and processes abroad.

In an email interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor, Sudha Ramachandran, Zeeshan discusses how India must deal with its South Asian neighbors and why it must “avoid paranoia over its neighbors’ dealings with China.”

You say that fence sitting is “responsible for India’s lack of influence” in the world. Could you explain?

When I think of “influential powers,” I think of countries that are able to consistently represent and fulfill the interests of allies or constituents abroad, so that their own welfare becomes integral to the welfare of the allies. India does not have the military and economic capabilities of the U.S. yet, but given its size, demographics, arms imports, and other things, it’s still very important. The problem for India is that it does not take a consistent or coherent stance on sensitive political questions that are important to other countries.

On most geopolitically sensitive issues around the world, India is entirely absent and has no stance, but even when it takes a stance, it is not clear or consistent. Indian diplomats often say that they represent democratic values, but India is afraid to commit support to democratic movements. If India thinks that supporting pro-democracy activists is not in its interest (and in my book, I argue that it most certainly is), then it should commit its support to authoritarian leaders – as some world powers do, under the garb of protecting state sovereignty. But India isn’t able to commit support one way or the other reliably, in a way that is consistent with its own interests and therefore sustainable for any length of time.

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While fence-sitting on issues may be problematic, don’t you think that not taking sides between “sworn enemies” enables a country to do business with both sides (as with Iran and Saudi Arabia)?

For smaller powers, this is true, but I think that India – largely owing to its extraordinary size – has crossed the point where countries that are angry can simply say that they won’t do business with India. Whether Iran likes the West or not, it has to do business with the West, which is why it hankers after the removal of sanctions. I think that we can say the same for India; countries would like more access to India’s large consumer market.

As I write in my book, India was – for decades – a very vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause. But that did not stop Israel from courting India, largely due to lucrative arms deals. If India can do this with Israel, why is New Delhi afraid of taking a stand elsewhere?

In your book, you call on India to support democracy and democratic values abroad. How should India deal with authoritarian democracies like Sri Lanka, for instance?

I write in my book that the neighborhood is very tricky for India. It’s easier for India to stand up for democratic values in Somalia or Syria than in South Asia, because the neighbors can do damage by courting China.

Authoritarian democracies are trickier than undemocratic states, because majoritarian politics in these countries enjoy electoral support and, therefore, greater public legitimacy. In such countries, like Sri Lanka, back-door diplomacy is wise: mediating between communities and factions, towards well-defined objectives, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the government.

Pakistan gets just limited attention in your book. It doesn’t figure in the cooperative initiatives you suggest for South Asia. Why? Have you given up hope, at least for now, on India-Pakistan relations improving?

I think India-Pakistan relations are going to ebb and flow. We’ve just seen this now with the latest attempt at backdoor talks; they seem to have petered out very quickly. There are very fundamental differences on the two sides which make a sustainable thaw unforeseeable. The absence of hostilities with India is a significant threat to the Pakistani military’s standing and influence within Pakistani politics. Even for civilian politicians, owing to deep-rooted mistrust and misinformation, painting India as anything other than an enemy will be political suicide. And now, with India under the grip of Hindu majoritarianism, the incentive for peace has also diminished in New Delhi.

But by obsessing on Pakistan, India is wasting opportunities for integration across the rest of the region. In fact, if India can integrate the rest of South Asia – and produce developmental gains as a result – it could even help build a case within Pakistan to drop old animosities and join these efforts, for Pakistan’s own economic benefit. We have seen this happen in Southeast Asia and Europe, and there is no reason why it can’t happen in South Asia.

For the success of its global power project, India needs the support of its South Asian neighbors. In your book you say that they have to believe that a strong and powerful India is in their interest. That means they will have to see their own welfare in India’s security and development. What should India do to convince them of this, especially at a time when they see their interests more in sync with what China has to offer (infrastructure)?

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The first thing India needs to do is avoid paranoia over its neighbors’ dealings with China. No South Asian country wants a region dominated by China. They seek a healthy balance of power between India and China.

But due to geographical proximity and cultural ties, there are many things that India can provide which China can’t, which I enumerate in my book. For instance, a common visa for tourists from outside South Asia would boost tourism revenue for many countries. Only economic and cultural integration, which makes India’s neighbors a part of India’s growth, will create a stake for them in a strong and powerful India.

India’s greatest challenge, however, will be trust-building. There is a lot of mistrust and cynicism on all sides, and as I argue in my book, India is not blameless for the rather high-handed manner in which it has often behaved. I talk about the Friendship Treaties with Nepal and Bhutan in my book as one of several examples. India needs to be more charitable and respectful.

In your book you clearly favor India joining a global alliance with the U.S. You don’t discuss the Quad in your book, but how far would its partners in Quad, for instance, be willing to go to back India in a military confrontation with either Pakistan or China?

Mutual defense partnerships are a chicken-and-egg situation. On India’s side, folks would wonder if the Quad will come to India’s aid. On the other side, Washington wonders if India will ever come to its aid.

There’s a clear overlap of interests. If India is able to play a more proactive role in Afghanistan – from a security angle – America is far more likely to trust India than stay committed to Pakistan. With regards to China, there’s a clear consensus in Washington that favoring and strengthening India will fulfill American interests. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Galwan clash, India now clearly believes that an Asia dominated by China is not in its interests.

So, if a mutual defense pact is to be worked out, there is a fair bit of common ground to work with. But the big question is whether India wants a mutual defense pact with America. India has been the most skeptical Quad member, in terms of viewing the Quad as a potential military alliance.

But before jumping into such commitments in Asia, I think it’s wiser for India and the U.S. to build trust at an easier level – intelligence-sharing around the world, for instance, as I describe in my book.

You suggest the building of a “Delhi Consensus” coalition to grow India’s influence. Could you elaborate?

India is very unique, in that it is fairly advanced in some respects while still suffering from several developmental challenges. But I see these developmental challenges as a strength in diplomacy rather than a weakness, because the vast majority of the world’s population still faces many of these problems.

I think there is space for India to position itself as the organizer of a global development coalition, which shares lessons and knowledge on what works and what doesn’t, in terms of development. If India organizes such a global effort, it will also bring several solutions for India’s own development problems.

India is already doing this in a fragmented manner through various bilateral initiatives under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program, which builds state capacity in various developing countries, but if India can expand this into a multilateral give-and-take initiative, it would increase India’s influence in world affairs.

There are several emerging areas in global governance – digital economy, cybersecurity, e-governance and so on – which require norm-building and standardization at a global level, and a “Delhi Consensus” coalition would certainly be able to set the agenda on these issues. India has the technical capabilities, but it would require political will to bring countries together.