Successive Prime Ministers have proclaimed that Indian foreign policy is based on the principle, and aspiration, of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” -- The whole world is one family! Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the first to define Indian approach to international relations and global policymaking by referring to this age-old Sanskrit saying when she addressed the first-ever United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too often spoke of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, an idea that is also frequently espoused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Yet, the reality is that while the human family may be one, as a species, humans organised into social, economic, and political groups fall far short of this aspirational claim. This became apparent once again when the leaders of the world’s “rich” economies, the Group of Seven (G-7), met their counterparts from the developing world, represented mainly by India, the present chair of the Group of Twenty (G-20) and the former and future chairs of the G-20 -- Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa.
Despite all the photographed hugs and bonhomie, the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, once again underscored the division of the world into the “haves”, the “have-nots” and the “want-to-haves”. The lengthy summit communiqué offered little hope for the world’s poorer economies with the developed economies focused on their own gradual marginalisation, the war with Russia and the challenge posed by China. As this writer has repeatedly said in the past year, the ongoing East-West conflict continues to take the focus away from the concerns of the developing economies, now fashionably referred to as the “Global South”. Hence, it is good that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s President Lula de Silva focused on these issues.
In what was without doubt the most consequential and forthright address at the G-7 outreach meeting with developing countries, the charismatic President Lula called out the hypocrisy of the major powers which continue to dominate multilateral institutions. “The solution does not lie in the formation of antagonistic blocs or in responses that include only a small number of countries,” President Lula told the G-7, calling for profound changes in global governance reflecting the emerging multipolar power structure. (https://www.gov.br/planalto/en/latest-news/speech-by-president-lula-at-the-g7-working-session)
While President Lula’s more emphatic message was more mildly echoed by Prime Minister Modi, the latter received endorsement of India’s leadership of the G-20 in a stirring message from the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, who told Mr Modi, “We are victims of the global power play. You are the leader of the Global South. We will rally behind your leadership at global forums.”
With that brief but powerful statement, the leader of a small Pacific region island nation thrust great responsibility on India. The question is, will India rise to the challenge and the opportunity. In its effort to demonstrate good relations with all nations, with the exception of China and Pakistan, there is often a temptation to fudge differences with the developed countries. However, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has rarely shied away from calling a spade a spade.
As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would often say, “international relations is not a morality tale. It is a power play”. He would have to say this to remind his interlocutors that as in domestic politics, so too in international politics, seeking, securing and retaining power is the motive force of all diplomacy. At a time when there seems to be a premium on demonstrating to the home audience that the whole world loves India and the Indian Prime Minister, it is perhaps useful to also remind ourselves that such love comes with a price tag.
Sections of the Indian media have gone ecstatic about US President Joe Biden walking up to a seated Narendra Modi at the G-7 meeting to say hello and the Australian Prime Minister referring to him as “the leader of the free world”. There will be more such gestures of friendship and public fawning if India opts to take sides in the East-West conflict. However, if India persists with its “independent foreign policy” and espouses the interests of the Global South on such matters as buying sanctioned Russian products, seeking intellectual property rights waivers, access to affordable healthcare and medicines, access to green technologies, data localisation, restructuring of multilateral institutions and so on, such visible acts of friendship may not easily translate into substantial policy changes.
In short, even as we speak about the world being one family, we have to recognise that like most traditional families in patriarchal cultures, there is hierarchy even within this global family. My generation understood this since we carried the memory of anti-colonial struggles in our minds, and we were witness to the perpetuation of neo-colonialism. Many young scholars today imagine that we live in a world of equals and empty diplomatic gestures are interpreted as a manifestation of real changes in the balance of power.
To paraphrase George Orwell, the whole world is one family but some family members are more powerful than others. It is within this world of unequals that India seeks space for its own development. To quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once again, and he would say this often: “The single most important objective of Indian foreign policy has to be to create a global environment conducive to the development of our country and the well-being of our people.”
That there is more often than not a likely conflict of interest between the developing countries seeking an international order that safeguards their development aspirations and the developed countries which seek to preserve their power and privileges was obvious to my generation of the students of world affairs, but seems increasingly lost on the millennials who were brought up on the post-Cold War myth that the “world is flat”.
The world is not flat. It is uneven and the G-7 nations continue to seek to sustain their global dominance. The Global South must perforce upset many apple carts if it wishes to restore some balance to the global distribution of power between nation states.
Many people in India are hoping that a successful G-20 summit would be one in which the world says nice things about India and its leadership. We must also be prepared for harsh words and disagreements if we have to have our interests protected.
The writer is an author, a former newspaper editor and adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His latest book is Journey of a Nation: 75 Years of Indian Economy.