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There is a mood of anticipation and expectation ahead of this year’s Raisina Dialogue, India’s sui generis ‘Global Conclave’ – a blend of the World Economic Forum and the Shangri-La Dialogue. The real showdown will come during India’s general elections scheduled to take place between April and May 2024. Exaggerated rhetoric and fanfare extolling ‘India’s Moment’, or rather ‘Bharat’s Moment’, is to be expected. Since its inception in 2016, the Raisina Dialogue has evolved to showcase India’s growing international status and outstanding achievements to the world. But now is perhaps a good moment to pause and consider India’s strengths and weaknesses on the global stage. How much of the triumphalist narrative will translate into tangible reality?

During his years in power Narendra Modi has made clear his vision of India’s global role and foreign policy ambitions at the high table of international politics: henceforth India will be a purveyor of solutions to global challenges and a norm-maker as opposed to a norm-taker. Calls for anachronistic and inefficient multilateral institutions – that fail to provide India with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council – to be reformed, and New Delhi’s quest to have a leading role as the Voice of the Global South, are gaining momentum. The successful outcome of India’s recent G20 presidency illustrates this. However, it will take much more for India to become a pole in international politics and a competitive and developed economy in the next 25 years.

New Delhi has become a necessary counterbalance to a rising and increasingly threatening China.This is dictated by both geographical and tactical imperatives, considering India’s 4,056 km-long international border with China and its ambition to become a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. India’s inclusion in numerous strategic partnerships across the Indo-Pacific such as the QUAD, the Australia-India-Japan Supply Chain Resilience Initiative or creative trilaterals in tandem with France and the UAE demonstrate its strategic advantage. While this does not render New Delhi indispensable, it is certainly a much sought-after partner. It is also projected to be the fastest growing G-20 economy in 2024 and 2025 despite global challenges. India has furthermore launched and implemented its vast Unified Payments Interface (UPI) as part of an India Stack masterplan exportable to the Global South.

New Delhi has become a necessary counterbalance to a rising and increasingly threatening China.

In contrast, India’s neighbours in the subcontinent seem to have misgivings about what they perceive as a ‘Big Brother’ that further entangles them in the ongoing global rivalry between the US and China and its regional version being played out between China and India. New Delhi has tended to take the acquiescence of its smaller neighbours for granted as it seeks to expand its influence. But some of these states have been co-opted by Beijing – India’s biggest geo-strategic rival – leading them to oscillate between pro-India and pro-China postures, as shown by Maldives’ President Muizzu’s recent request for India to withdraw its military personnel from the island.

Bhutan, a buffer state between New Delhi and Beijing, has become a source of some concern, which would previously have been unthinkable considering New Delhi’s tight foreign policy and economic hold on the country. Among India’s immediate neighbours, Bhutan remains the top recipient of New Delhi’s technical and economic assistance.  Yet Chinese influence across levels of investment, infrastructure development, co-option of political elites and governance standards-setting is proving hard to counterbalance, despite India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Not to speak of the broader region and Beijing’s strategic relationship with Pakistan, Iran and Russia. Moscow remains India’s top arms provider.

While New Delhi may have lost territory in its backyard, it has been adept at building partnerships with extra-regional powers, be it to the West or to the East. This has paid off: New Delhi has managed to adroitly navigate the Ukraine crisis without positioning itself against Russia and, more importantly, without clashing with leading European countries or the Biden Administration, for example. It is certainly India’s Moment in this respect: New Delhi has outsmarted liberal Western powers while successfully donning multiple hats – that of a ‘like-minded’ power that supports a rules-based order, that of a self-righteous rising power and that of a ‘teacher of the world’ (Vishwaguru). 

While New Delhi may have lost territory in its backyard, it has been adept at building partnerships with extra-regional powers.

Against this background, the EU must acknowledge New Delhi’s normative expectations while refraining from imposing its own worldviews: this will set the framework for fruitful cooperation. In its engagement with India the EU should prioritise shared strategic interests in domains beyond trade. Concretely this means focusing on potential trans-regional connectivity initiatives, maritime security cooperation in the Western Indian Ocean or knowledge-sharing on digital public infrastructure schemes, for example. The EU should be as pragmatic in its dealings with New Delhi as the latter has shown itself to be towards it, without losing sight of the reality of India’s socio-economic circumstances.

In the mid-/long-term India’s success cannot rely only on showcasing its foreign policy accomplishments and spinning captivating geopolitical narratives. Should India be set to become a geostrategic pole in the evolving world order, it will have to find a more solid and sustainable development path. Inequality remains a challenge, more so in urban versus rural India. India’s loss in human development potential due to inequality is 25 %, according to the Human Development Index. Educational inequality is even worse than income inequality: three times more than in China as shown by the inequality-adjusted HDI statistics for 2021.  India needs to create more employment for a burgeoning young workforce. New Delhi must also ensure adequate training for the low-skilled segments of the workforce, rather than concentrating on the already highly skilled.

In the mid-/long-term India’s success cannot rely only on showcasing its foreign policy accomplishments.

While India’s Moment is surely in the making from a geostrategic perspective, its coming to fruition will depend on the state being able to build a fairer and more inclusive society. Leaving domestic politics aside, India will have to deliver to the masses if it aims to fulfil its narrative of a rising power that has seized the moment. No matter how impressive its foreign policy achievements may be, the state’s legitimacy relies to a large degree on its ability to guarantee the social contract. India’s domestic socio-economic reality could undermine Modi’s upbeat foreign policy narrative if not adequately addressed by the upcoming government.