How does India relate to the West and how does the West hopefully relate to India and where do we go from here? Many of you would have heard in another country the term ‘century of humiliation’. India actually had two centuries of humiliation by the West because the West, in its predatory form, came to India in the mid-18th century and continued for more than 190 years. It was interesting that about a year ago, there was actually a very serious economic study that tried to estimate how much the British took out of India in value terms, and a very calculated math put a number of $45 trillion at today’s value. So that should give you a sense of what really happened in those 200 years. The reality is that the history of India and the West is also a history of famine, of slavery, of opium trade. So, there is a very dark side to all of this.
Now, this is the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and I think it is worth our while to pause and reflect on how a leader like him actually changed India’s attitude to the West. In 1947 when India got independence, it need not have had the kind of relationship with the West that it did thereafter. We can debate the merits of it, but I think it is extraordinary in a way that a country that struggled so long for its independence, after that it actually reached an informal understanding or a compact in a sense with the West. And I would regard that as the ability to set history aside and allow politics and economics and social connections to take over.
So, what you don’t see in India and have not seen for the last 70 years even during the most difficult times with the West has been a kind of mobilisation around an anti-Western nationalism. It has been in many ways a cordial relationship, if not cordial, it was certainly not frictional. And part of that was also the way we set up our own institutions and created our society.
The reality is that the history of India and the West is also a history of famine, of slavery, of opium trade. So, there is a very dark side to all of this
At the end of the day, the fact that we are a liberal democracy, the fact that there is a governance model based on rule of law, the fact that there is social pluralism, and that we are a market economy, these were all very powerful factors that actually enabled us to leave that history behind us. And here I would make one point before shifting to my next argument, which is that India’s choices in 1947, and thereafter, actually took what were western values and western practices, and made them near-universal.
So today if you have in the developed world or the South — whatever you call it, really Asia, Africa, parts of Latin America — a belief that democracy is an ethically superior model of governance, in part it is due to the fact that the first big post-colonial polity actually chose that and sustained it, despite extraordinary odds, over the last 70 years.
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It is what I would call a sort of a goldilocks era of our relationship, which is: the West didn’t want India to get too weak, it didn’t want India to get too strong. So it stirred the Indian porridge or tried to stir the Indian porridge just right. And sometimes, there were margins of error on either side.
So, actually, we have a very interesting situation when India in 1962 after the conflict where we were defeated, the West actually comes to the assistance of India. But in less than a decade in 1971, when it seems to the West that India is seeking primacy in the subcontinent, the West opposes India. So, there is a bandwidth in which the relationship operates. Now the bandwidth is not just episodic if you look at where it is that we got our relationship right and where we did not – pretty much across the development spectrum, the West was very supportive. But when it came to industrialisation, particularly in heavy industries or in defence and security, the West was very conservative. So, you had both geopolitical or political moments as well as sectors where there was — this very interesting I would say — almost a management of relations.
The West didn’t want India to get too weak, it didn’t want India to get too strong
And today, if you go to the archives, a lot of the internal thinking or multiple administrations are there for people to access, it is most starkly laid out by President Eisenhower, but you can see strains of it before him and after him through multiple administrations. But this idea of how do you keep India in play — a weak India is bad for American-Western interests, while an excessively strong India is also a problem of its kind. By the way, in those days they were mostly worried about a weak India. So, this in a sense was the scenario through the 20th century. Somewhere along the way that changed, and I will begin to talk about it.
Even though it has changed, I do believe that some of the structural issues where there are divergences between India and the West do continue. It is visible in trade, it is visible on IPR issues, it can be visible sometimes on issues of non-proliferation, freedom, civil rights — you know which cause you support, which cause you do not, sometimes.
We look at situations where we ask why the West is broadly and the US looking away from a visible violation of rights. There would be times, in some form, the same question is asked to us. And the bottom line for me really is that for all that we have in common, we also need to recognise that we are coming from a different place and that we do have different histories. A lot of the challenge today for us is to reconcile that.
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Some of the things to work on would be to overcome history. One of the burdens that India carries is the fact that it was not a central part of the 1945 world order. It wasn’t on the high table at that point of time. So, how do you make the world order more contemporaneous? And here I would argue that it is very much in the interest of the West to do that, but it is obviously not a task which is easy. The symbol of that is the UN Security Council, but that is not the only facet of that particular argument.
One of the burdens that India carries is the fact that it was not a central part of the 1945 world order. It wasn’t on the high table at that point of time
So, I would end with a concluding observation, which is that as India rises, we are today the 5th or the 6th largest economy. We certainly would be the third largest economy even in nominal terms by 2030; we will be the most populous country in less than the next five years.
So, the question we ask ourselves and in a way the world asks itself is: what kind of power will India be? I think a large part of the answer is obviously with ourselves, but I think one part of the answer is also with the West. What kind of relationship we now forge together, to my mind, would really give us the full picture.
This is an edited excerpt of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s speech at a roundtable conversation hosted by the US-based think tank Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center in Washington DC Tuesday. For the full video of his talk, click here.