When Bill Clinton became President of the USA in 1993, he didn’t appoint an ambassador to India for nearly a year, and went about opposing India on a number of fronts. No head of state today would think of treating India like this.

Gold and guns are the not the only things that a country needs for its power to rise vis-a-vis the global system. For a country to be a great power it has to be recognised as a great power. It might just be as simple as that.

In recent years India’s perception about itself has moved in the direction of seeing itself as a major power in the region, if not the world. The term “great power” has also been used. India is making a bid for its recognition as a major power, and there is research to suggest that firstly, the direction of Indian foreign policy has changed to make the global community recognise India. Secondly, a rising India means a much more aggressive India when it comes to Pakistan or China.

While we have already seen the aggression since PM Modi was elected, this article is an attempt to track the historical changes that have caused a shift in India’s vision of power and international relations. We here in Pakistan have always seen India as an aggressor, without looking into the subtleties of its politics. The truth is that India, before the rise of the right wing parties in the last two decades, was a much easier and softer country to deal with.

Traditionally, India has been at the bottom of the international pecking order with no membership to exclusive clubs like the G7, G8 and UN Security Council. This has been called “status inconsistency” by scholars as India perceives itself to be a civilisational hub entitled to the benefits other western civilisational orders have reaped from the recognition of their power.

Starting of with Nehru’s moralistic diplomacy, up until 1970, India saw itself as the leader of Third World solidarity. There was a conscious choice to advocate liberal norms, and rely on multi-lateral venues for its purposes, “without guns or butter”. This basically meant that India would refuse to ally itself with the two major superpowers during the Cold War, instead relying on temporary alliances with small powers. Nehru believed that the Non-Alignment Movement would make major powers vie for interest. The NAM got India through the 1950s but such a stance was damaging in the long run. India’s 1962 defeat by China shattered ideas of Third World solidarity and made India move towards the Soviet Union. China’s nukes and a war with Pakistan in 1965 drew attention to India’s military weakness.

To correct this weakness, in the 1970s Indira Gandhi believed that nuclear capability was the key to India becoming a great power. Chinese growth had not taken off yet, and China despite the mass poverty and repression of its people, was seen as a global power. Part of the reason was its inclusion into the list of countries with nukes. Why couldn’t India do the same?

Indira Gandhi was wrong. Instead of recognition India got ostracism. The US created the 45 member Nuclear Suppliers (NSG) Group and excluded India. The NSG was never an organisation that wields great institutional power in the global system, but the past snub may have created an ego problem, thus the desire to join the NSG. Additionally, at the time, India was still no match for China. The Soviet Union helped the military but not the stunted economy. India’s autarkic model and licence raj created a sluggish system.

Economic reforms came in the 1990s, spurred on by a rise in oil prices, a balance of payments crisis, and a loss of Soviet military support. The liberalisation of the economy was in part to present to the US and institutions like the IMF that India was playing by the rules, rather than sitting sulking over the principles of the system (which were admittedly unjust). This is the time where Indian foreign policy may have changed from being reactive, weak on military might and moralistic, to more strategic. Yet, even now, there was room for India to be negotiated with. The Gujral Doctrine of accommodation and non-interference was still active and India was still playing with the small states as the “chief of the outsiders”, opposing Western-led interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, East Timor etc., rather than throwing its weight behind the US, in exchange for guns and aid.

Yet by 1999, the dynamic of recognition had changed. The Pokhran II tests and the 8% GDP growth rate got India its recognition. India still lacked the global influence relative to its size, but rapprochement with the US became a central concern. In 2010, through the G20, India was able to reform the IMF governance structure to give emerging powers more weight. India thus became the 8th largest shareholder in the IMF. Permanent UN Security Council membership is still elusive, but may be useful to the US in the future.

India is still no match for China, but a lot of what happens in international relations is due not to actual capabilities, but good PR. Even with mass poverty India has become a major military power and its economy may yet sustain growth rates enough to create an image of long term stability. Most of all, it’s getting recognition as a power. Its diplomacy is working when it comes to the west. Narendra Modi just opened proceedings at the World Economic Forum in Davos. For Pakistani diplomacy it is important to read history, remind India of it accommodating past and remind the world that that was the India they should deal with, not this one with a repressive economy and rising Hindu nationalism. Unfortunately, our diplomatic machine has been unable to counter India. India’s rise in no way has been fettered by Pakistan.


The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.