Local troubles still hinder India's global role

Updated: 2009-06-16 15:36

NEW DELHI - India represents a sixth of humanity and its giant economy may help reshape global business, but its place in the world is still hindered by the country's struggles to find stability in its own neighbourhood.

It is extending its reach though, and among its interests are BRIC partners Brazil, Russia and China. The group meets in Russia for talks on strengthening their clout as producers of 15 percent of global economic output.

Underlying India's strategy is a traditional policy of "non alignment", which is defined as an independent foreign policy.

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In a parliamentary address in June, re-elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India's "time had come" in one of his first major speeches after the polls. But he tempered the optimism with some other words.

"We are living in a neighbourhood of great turbulence," Singh said. "I have believed that India cannot realize its ambitions unless there is peace and prosperity in South Asia."

As Singh hinted, if BRIC nations are counting on India for some global and united leadership, they may have to wait.

India's massive problems, from bombings of cities, disputed borders and its huge infrastructural shortfalls may first have to be dealt with before it can truly assert itself on the world stage on issues like trade and global warming.

"India has an attention span issue. Living in an unsettled neighbourhood diverts India's attention from a more global policy," said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of the Hindu newspaper.

A sign of India's restricted global role is the number of its diplomats. In 2007 for every one Indian diplomat there were four Brazilian diplomats and seven Chinese diplomats, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon was quoted in local media as saying.

"India faces huge problems. It has the largest number of poor in the world," said Naresh Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to Washington. "The government has to keep its feet on the ground and not think of being a global power any time soon."


That does not mean that India is standing still. Its history of non-aligned policy still drives its relations with both BRIC countries and the United States.

As the trillion-dollar Indian economy expands, Indian business is looking abroad - and not just to Western powers. Companies are looking at telecoms deals in South Africa and IT opportunities in China.

And Indian diplomacy is following.

"India is looking for other circuits of globalization," said Varadarajan."India's ability to exploit the early linkings of non-alignment, to re-invent them in the 21st century, has been the quiet success of the Indian policy establishment."

For example, India still has close relations with Russia, although those ties are mostly based on weapons and possible new nuclear power stations.

China is now India's biggest trade partner in Asia. There have been moves to improve relations, and the two countries have held small military exercises.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited India last year, and Brazil is seen as a gateway to Latin America where both China and India are searching the region for commodities to help fire their booming economies.

"China has been capturing commodity resources. India has been slower but it is now moving more resolutely," said Shashank, a former Indian foreign secretary who goes by one name.

All this has not stopped India moving closer to the United States, including the signing of a landmark civilian nuclear deal.

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