India Cleans Up Its Act

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeremy Kahn

Manmohan Singh's new stand on Copenhagen is just part of a plan to reposition India as a global power.

Until very recently, India seemed to pride itself on poking a finger in the eye of rich superpowers, particularly the United States. Beginning in the mid-1950s, India was the leader of the group of poor, postcolonial nations that banded together in what they called the nonaligned movement, but which routinely tilted to the Soviet Union and bashed American imperialism. To Washington's consternation, New Delhi voted against the U.S. at the United Nations time and again. Relations between the United States and India soured further when it refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then tested a nuclear device in 1974. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when India began to abandon Soviet-inspired economic planning, New Delhi retained a reputation for obstructing America at every opportunity. It opposed NATO intervention in Kosovo, and the establishment of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf war. As recently as last spring, the highest profile Indian voice on the world stage arguably belonged to Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who set himself up as a defender of all poor nations against the trade machinations of the conniving rich. Many in Washington saw Nath as the man who killed the Doha round of global trade talks. Western diplomats continued to describe India's

negotiating style as a series of attempts to score debating points before "getting to no."

Now, as he prepares to make his first summit visit to see Barack Obama in Washington later this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is repositioning India as an emerging power that can say yes. In place of the resentful leader of poor, postcolonial nations, Singh is defining India as an emerging powerhouse that can sit at the table of rich nations, with fewer chips on its shoulder. This new stance has been evolving for some time, and led to the landmark 2005 deal in which America agreed to help India with civil nuclear technology--and at the same time essentially conferred legitimacy to India's nuclear-weapons program. Partly in return, India has in recent years twice voted at the International Atomic Energy Agency to condemn Iran's nuclear program, siding with Washington against a former Third World ally, and a major energy supplier. Now the transformation of Indian foreign policy is gaining pace. Nath was shunted off to the Ministry of Roads in May, a move that has helped revive hope for the Doha round. Then in August, according to sources who attended the session, Singh said in a closed-door address to foreign ambassadors and senior Indian diplomats that India would work to drop its image as an obstacle to progress, particularly in talks on trade and climate change, and instead "play a role in the international arena in a manner that makes a positive contribution to finding solutions to major global challenges."

Singh's speech signaled a growing realization in New Delhi that India can have greater influence as a player inside the G20--the group of large economies of which it is now a member--than merely as a leader of the outsiders. Though still controversial at home, the new tone acknowledges that if India wants to exercise the political clout that is its due as one of the world's fast-growing economies, it needs to accept certain responsibilities. "You can't [be] a global player and just obstruct all attempts at cooperation," says Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. It also revealed the increasing sense in New Delhi that India is being outmaneuvered by its regional rival China, which has been earning plaudits as a stabilizing force amid the global financial crisis as well as for offering concrete action to combat climate change. Singh's former spokesperson, Sanjaya Baru, says Singh aims to position India as a "consensus builder and a bridge" between rich and poor nations, rather than a spokesnation for the poor. …