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After the conclusion of the Cold War, the international relations system was largely shaped by the American transcription of Westernism. It assumed the establishment of two norms: liberal democracy within states and globalist pan-Americanism in international relations. Although this symbiosis of liberal democracy and pan-Americanism failed to dominate the world entirely, it did register tangible success in imposing the idea of a unipolar system in international relations. However, this understanding is gradually being edited by the collaboration between China and Russia, which mutually declare themselves as an alternative geopolitical pole. And while it is relatively easy to reach a consensus today that the world is no longer unipolar, it is much harder to determine whether it is bipolar or multipolar.

There are two reasons for this. One concerns the degree of closeness between Russia and China – whether these two states must necessarily be perceived from now on as inseparably linked in a common geopolitical bloc. However, the more important reason is associated with the growing demographic and economic influence of India. The way this South Asian giant situates itself in international relations will answer the question of what the world will be like in the 21st century.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is heavily charged with nationalism and religion, creating a political interpretation of Hinduism that refers to the leading role of the ethno-national element (Hindutva) in the geographical space of Akhand Bharat (from Afghanistan to Myanmar). Hence, India is presented not only as a state but as an empire and even as a civilization. And its ideological impetus changes both its internal and external image.

Regarding the internal dimension, significant changes were evident in the revocation of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, placing it under the direct control of New Delhi, and the introduction of discriminatory legislation against Muslims for obtaining Indian citizenship. A symbolic manifestation of the policy of Hindu homogenization of Indian society, led by Modi’s party Bharatiya Janata, was the unveiling of a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Rama in the place of a once-existing mosque.

A similar ideological motivation underlies the use of the endonym “Bharat” instead of the exonym “India,” imposed by the ruling authorities and their coalition partners. Concerning the external dimension, nationalism is becoming increasingly prominent in the country’s diplomacy, both regarding its immediate neighbors (Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan) and countries outside the region (Turkey, Azerbaijan, and even Hamas in the context of the Gaza Strip conflict). The commonality between the internal and external dimensions of Hindu nationalism is that it asserts itself – as identity politics does – by delineating and pointing out the enemy.

The nationalist narrative of India, which gradually restricts freedom of speech and political expression in the country, makes it challenging for the state to align itself with Western ideological formulations such as liberal democracy (despite New Delhi’s occasional flirtation with the idea as the “mother of democracy” and the “largest democracy”).

On the contrary, the shaping of nationalism as the primary reference for domestic political identity and as a tool for foreign policy activities is more in line with autocratic frameworks, following the examples of Russia and China. This parallel is not only theoretical but also has practical dimensions. One aspect is economic – it involves the pursuit of a degree of production self-sufficiency (atma-nirbhar), expressed in initiatives like Made in India/Vocal for Local (a trade policy emphasizing the country’s attempt not to be dependent on international economic trends). The second aspect is in foreign policy: when the military carried out a coup in Myanmar in 2021, India, like Russia and China, chose to continue its cooperation with the junta, unlike what the US and EU did. Dissimilar to its Western counterparts, New Delhi willingly “closed its eyes” during the controversial parliamentary elections held earlier this year in Bangladesh.

New Delhi defines this behavior as pragmatic, considering the (sometimes misunderstood by the US and EU) necessity for the country to have beneficial relations with states that have access to the Bay of Bengal, as China would benefit from any tension emerging between them and India (notably Beijing tries to bypass the Malacca Strait through Myanmar’s territory). For this reason, the West should think very carefully before deciding to criticize India – it is pragmatism, not shared values, that motivates the South Asian country to develop its relations with Western nations.

Here, India’s leading motivation seems to be “negative,” stemming from what the country defines as the greatest risk to its security: China. Specifically, as a countermeasure to the geopolitical expansion of the Chinese empire, India is developing unprecedented relations with the United States. This includes bilateral engagements through the 2+2 format involving the foreign and defense ministers of both countries, as well as multilateral aspects such as the Quad Security Dialogue with Australia and Japan and the U2I2 involving Israel and the UAE.

New Delhi is also participating in some of the most ambitious projects supported by the West, including the recently announced economic corridor India-Middle East-Europe. Indian interests in the Indo-Pacific align more closely with those of Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians than with the Chinese and Russians. As part of its Act East policy, India seeks cooperation with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

However, this is one wing of the South Asian country’s foreign policy. The other emphasizes maintaining good relations with states considered adversarial by the West. Among them is Russia, with which India maintains mutually beneficial relations dating back to the Cold War era. Moscow continues to be India’s primary supplier of military hardware, and the two nations conduct joint military exercises (INDRA, PASSEX).

India not only disregards the sanctions imposed by the US and EU on Russia due to its conflict with Ukraine but also takes advantage of them by purchasing Russian hydrocarbons at a discounted value. India and Russia are also delineating shared economic corridors, such as the already operational North-South International Transport Corridor, and the proposed Chennai-Vladivostok corridor. Notably, in 2023, the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Moscow, where the two countries agreed on joint development of military hardware (although the specific details remain unclear, given their existing collaboration on the BrahMos missile). New Delhi seems willing to accept Moscow’s actions in sensitive areas like the Bay of Bengal, where Russia conducted joint military exercises with Myanmar last year, and the anchoring of two warships in Bangladesh, providing these states with an alternative to the Chinese option.

If last year concluded with Jaishankar’s visit to Russia, this year began with the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit to Iran, where the two countries negotiated the terms for India to use the Iranian port of Chabahar. Iran plays a crucial strategic role for New Delhi for several reasons. Firstly, the Islamic Republic provides India with a logistical link to Central Asian states, otherwise challenging due to antagonism with Pakistan and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Secondly, Iran is a key passage for the international transport corridor connecting India with Russia, as mentioned earlier. India’s pragmatic interest prevents it from worsening relations with Tehran, even though the two capitals hold different positions on the conflict between Hamas and Israel. India discreetly supported Iran’s actions when the Middle Eastern country conducted strikes against a terrorist organization on Pakistani territory last week.

Building good and pragmatic relations with states otherwise in strained relations with each other creates conditions for India to position itself as a balancing power, seeking to ensure its strategic autonomy. Hence, India’s membership in both the Quad Security Dialogue (with the US, Japan, and Australia) and China-dominated formats like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS Plus. The latter should signal to the West that India sees the US and EU more as instruments to counterbalance China’s geopolitical ambitions and would not allow itself to become such an instrument in the hands of the West against Russia and China. In his book “The India Way,” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar captures this ambivalence in Indian foreign policy well, writing that “India may not be Western, but it must understand that there is little gain in being anti-West.”

India may not be an anti-Western state, but it is not pro-Western either. Moreover, New Delhi is also a revisionist power, parallel to Russia (and to some extent, China), in that India believes it can gain more in a multipolar world than it would in a unipolar one dominated by Pan-Americanism or a regional environment dominated by China. The multipolar world creates conditions for India to achieve its greatest geopolitical ambition – to become a leader of Global South countries.

India, through its positioning and if it realizes its potential, has the opportunity to significantly shape the international constellation in the 21st century. This will be a period in which the West (the US and the EU) must understand that its collaboration with the South Asian country will occur more on the platform of shared interests than common values. Therefore, under certain conditions, India can be, if not a like-minded ally, then a practical ally of the West.

The article was originally published at News BG.

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After the conclusion of the Cold War, the international relations system was largely shaped by the American transcription of Westernism. It assumed the establishment of two norms: liberal democracy within states and globalist pan-Americanism in international relations. Although this symbiosis of liberal democracy and pan-Americanism failed to dominate the world entirely, it did register tangible […]