Putting India on the radar screen: Nick Bridge continues his account of his time as New Zealand high commissioner in India.

AuthorBridge, Nick
PositionREFLECTIONS - Personal account

On the foreign policy front, in the 1990s India at long last seemed interested in developing a more engaged approach towards Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. For too long Delhi had been locked into apprehensions as regards China and the United States; and had disdainfully regarded the ASEAN states as Western clones. Since independence, India's attitude to the outside world has been mainly one of grievance.

Indians do grievance especially well. It is to them what daffodils were to Wordsworth. Only in its own South Asia neighbourhood, where it is known as the 'regional bully, does it shed grievance--for something worse: arrogance. The disproportionate power it wields over its small neighbours seems to occasion some delusions as regards its ambitions and performance on the bigger stage.

The colonial legacy for India is probably more psychological than material. Deep down, it is uncertain about its place in the world. The heyday of 1950s non-alignment, when Jawaharlal Nehru cut such a commanding and attractive figure in the Third World, lasted only briefly. Indonesia and Egypt ran into internal problems. That putative tripartite alliance went nowhere. In the 1960s, disdainful of America and its ego badly bruised by China, Delhi turned to Moscow. Two vast, soulful and poorly governed countries found a common bond.

Boris Yeltsin visited India when we were there; and we were invited to a concert to be given by the famous Red Army Choir. The auditorium was full of India's top brass and their resplendent wives. We were enchanted by the Russian singing. So was the top brass. We were intrigued to hear them joining in some of the choir's wonderful performances. It was an eye opener. The concert and reception afterwards taught me more about the Indo-Russian relationship than any dissertation.

As to the new 'Look East' policy, it took India quite some hesitant time in the 1990s to put any flesh on it. Indira Gandhi had disdained the South-east Asian countries as being too joined to the West and not much more significant than Sri Lanka. And they in turn were apprehensive about the likely effectiveness of India being a counterweight to China; perhaps even a provocation. Given longstanding Sino-Indian repressed animosities, they seemed apprehensive that India might turn out to be a complicating rather than a constructive partner in growing Asia-Pacific multilateralism.

The high commission tried to engage with Indian ministers and officials on the matter, but New Zealand was regarded as scarcely relevant; indeed, if India ever looked beyond Australia, it was to Fiji rather than New Zealand. And, as regards Australia, the Indians were indiscreetly scornful about what they saw as its middle power pretensions and its close alliance with the United States.

That was in the 1990s. Things are now changing. For one thing, Delhi is responding most positively to Australia's new Indo-Pacific concept that envisages broader grouping than Asia-Pacific, stretching from the Indian Ocean across to Japan. And the Japanese, with a strongly nationalistic government, like it too. They have never forgotten that at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, the Indian judge was the only dissenting one, asserting that it was an unfair trial by the victorious. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the descendants of the judge in Calcutta recently and, also, the descendants of Chandra Bose, the Second World War leader of the Indian National Army that had sided with the Japanese. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had no problem with these calls. India is now aiming at big power status, not middle power. Time--and China--will tell.

Cultural diplomacy

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