30 Nov 2015 15:06 IST

A non-US idea of India

A new book presents varied perspectives on India’s global presence. But can India stop being fixated on the US?

How do we really know what we know about ourselves? And by what mechanism can one truly make sense of the world and one’s place in it? These are two questions every thinking human being has asked at some point in his or her life. The same can perhaps be said of countries as well.

In the case of India, this knowledge of the ‘self’, its construction and validation, stems from India’s assessment of itself in relation to others, and equally, it is based on how others view it. In recent times, the United States has become a major point of reference.

It’s time for India to relinquish this fixation. If global trends are anything to go by, for India to successfully chart its rise going forward in a multipolar world it needs to take into account a diverse range of views about itself. Competing Visions of India in World Politics: India's Rise Beyond the West (Palgrave) is a volume of essays that aims to take a step in this direction.
The book captures a range of important non-Western evaluations of India's growing international influence. And in doing this, it gives a fillip to a countermovement of sorts that advances an alternative set of reflections on India's global role to those put forth by mainstream, US-centric narratives within the field of international relations.

In conversation with BLOC, the volume’s editor, Dr Kate Sullivan, speaks about why this book is important and what it does differently.

Dr Kate Sullivan

Sullivan is a Lecturer in Modern Indian Studies at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford, and a research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. She teaches International Relations as part of Oxford's MSc in Contemporary India, and her research centres on rising powers and status-seeking, and India’s foreign and nuclear policies.

“I think Professor Kanti Bajpai, perhaps the best-known expert on India’s international relations, phrased it beautifully in his endorsement for the book: we simply do not know enough about how the world, and particularly the non-Western world, sees India,” says Sullivan, explaining the need for a volume of this nature. “India’s rise has been the subject of numerous books and analyses from the perspective of the US in particular, but—in the English language at least—it is very difficult to tell whether other important countries are viewing or responding to India’s rise in the same way,” she adds.

Knowing how India is viewed in the eyes of ‘Others’, outside the West, is important for two sets of reasons, according to Sullivan. “First, and in relation to India, we know that in today’s world, important countries beyond the traditional core group of powerful, Western states are playing an ever greater role in world politics—countries such as Brazil, South Africa, Japan, Mexico, Iran and South Korea. So what India means to them will be increasingly important. We also see that India’s global reach is expanding: witness India’s development cooperation across Africa, for example. This means that Indian policymakers need to constantly gauge India’s reception in multiple places,” she says. Second, she feels that the work that International Relations scholars have done in the West has not been particularly good at viewing international politics and history from different vantage points. “What we have is a discipline that has largely explained how and why States interact from the perspective of only a handful of powerful countries,” she adds. “I believe what we need, increasingly, is an account of world politics that is truly global in focus.”

Historically informed

But wouldn’t the way States assess each other and in turn how they interact with one another vary from Government to government? “The book was wrapped up before the Modi government came to power, so it doesn’t reflect on how other countries see India’s new leadership or what they make of Mr Modi’s foreign policy. The chapters are all historically informed, however, so what we have in the book is a bank of national and regional responses to India that have evolved over time and will likely continue to inform those countries’ perspectives of India into the future,” she explains.

Distinct lens

Each author in the volume, views India from their own country or region, by focusing on a distinctive issue. For example, there’s the Chinese view of a nuclear India, how the Japanese view India’s stance on climate change, and Brazilian views of India’s role in negotiations on world trade. “For this reason, the chapters do not sit neatly in comparison with each other, but this does not mean that they don’t tell comparable stories about India at a broader level. The same themes arise again and again throughout the book – themes such as the dominance of the US in world politics; the ways in which countries build their own mental hierarchies of the world and their place within it; the shared experiences of exclusion or oppression at the hands of powerful Western countries; the hopes for a fairer, more equitable world; the continued salience of third world solidarity,” says Sullivan.

Diverse views

The reason for allowing the authors free choice on issue area, she explains, was that she believed that they, as country or regional experts, were best equipped to decide on the most meaningful way of framing India instructively from their individual country perspectives. “To my mind, this was the only method of drawing out the diversity of ways in which India is received and appraised in different places. India’s place in the global nuclear order matters rather a lot to China, for example, but it is likely to be less important to South Korea. Brazil and India have a long history of working together within the GATT and the WTO, so it’s unsurprising that this is one of the key ways in which Brazil understands India. And Iran and South Africa both have long and complex histories of political, social or cultural interaction with India that shape their own perspectives,” she adds.

However, another way of approaching the book would have been to set up an analytical framework and have each of the authors catalogue their country or regional perspective through a regimented set of lenses. “I didn’t see how this could deliver on what I had set out to do – to generate diverse views of India. Which lenses could we have used that would have made sense from all of the perspectives? To truly tap into the deep area knowledge of the authors, I had to allow them the freedom to tell the stories that they considered most important,” she says.

Pivotal moment

How then can these views be competing if the views are on different subjects to start with? “The term ‘competing visions’ primarily underscores the manner in which the book as a whole offers a serious alternative to the US views of India and the world with which we are all familiar. But some of the country perspectives within in the book compete with one another, too – according to the chapter on Mexico, for example, India is simply not as significant as other rising powers such as China and Brazil, and elements of its rising power strategy, such as the decision to test nuclear weapons and the quest for a veto-wielding seat on the UN Security Council, sit uneasily with India’s earlier international projection of values,” she explains.

This book is not only a book about India’s place in world, feels Sullivan, but also one that can help these countries get a better idea about themselves, by studying and reflecting on India’s global role. “To understand how a given country sees India, you absolutely have to look into the historical, political, social and cultural forces that shape each perspective,” she adds. “Only this way can you appreciate how different the world looks in different places.”

Making new efforts to understand such diversity, she believes, is essential at this pivotal moment in India’s diplomatic history, when India's relations with a host of new major players are intensifying.

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