India at 72: Ethics of Rising

India at 72: Ethics of Rising

Identity has been one of the constitutive components of Indian foreign policy and is inextricably linked to the ethical choices made at various phases in the construction of the identity of the Indian state. The ethical content in Indian foreign policy, therefore, needs to be understood according to the identity the Indian state has sought to project about itself. In this case the evolution of India’s identity can be divided into two phases; India’s identity as a responsible power and her identity as a rising power. The difference between these two phases extend beyond the traditional idealism-realism debate and represent how the idealist and realist versions have co-existed in the ways Indian policy makers accommodated the question of ethics.

Values of a responsible power

Immediately after India’s appearance on the international platform, Jawaharlal Nehru declared that states must not ask what the world can do for us but what we can do for the world.  During the formative years of Indian identity as a responsible power, the predominant ethic of Indian foreign policy was contribution towards building of a just international order. In view of limited material capacity, endorsement of the values of internationalism and universalism as part of India’s national interest strikes one as a calculated strategy rather than blind idealism. Recall India’s international behaviour during those Nehruvian years; the idealism exhibited a pattern of engagement with the outer world that worked to establish India’s international identity as a responsible power committed towards building a just international order. In this context India was more inclined to participate in loose political groupings which would ensure Indian leadership than binding politico-military organizations led by superpowers. Nehru’s active participation in drafting of the Universal Charter for Human Rights, India’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations, offering of Indian diplomatic services for mediation during the Korean war, were all intended to project India’s civilizational responsibility to the international community.  After Nehru’s death, Lal Bahadur Shastri did not make any radical changes and continued to push forward India’s image as a responsible power through his atoms for peace policy even at the face of credible Chinese threat.

Dilemmas of being responsible and rising

Although the death of Shastri marked the end of moralpolitik, India remained a reluctant power through the phase of hard-edged realpolitik initiated by Indira Gandhi and later intensified by Rajiv Gandhi. India during this period probably suffered from an identity crisis, where it wanted to project itself as a rising power but was not prepared to give up the mantle of being a responsible power. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war was one such moment where India orchestrated the creation of Bangladesh to establish its military superiority on one hand but assumed the garb of a declaration of India’s responsibility to stop a second holocaust. In this context the code name of India’s first nuclear test is also interesting to note. The name Smiling Budhdha, was intended to project India’s civilizational character as a peaceful state while re-asserting India’s status as a rising power in the region. Therefore, the ethical biases India placed on its policy rationale clearly demonstrated a conflict between India’s proclamations and the identity India wanted to project for itself.

 In the later years Operation Wind and Cactus were remembered as further instances of India’s emergency intervention in the neighbouring countries. Much to the pleasure of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Time magazine in 1989 declared India as the next military power. Therefore, the identity project had taken a turn towards projecting India as a ‘rising-responsible power’ with more emphasis on the first quality.

Towards a Risingpower

India’s robust economic growth following the 1991 liberalization had brought to Indian policy elites a new-found confidence expressed in India’s expanding bilateral relations, assertive presence within international multilateral forums and the nuclear experiment. In the first case, the philosophy of Vasudeva Kutumbakam was evoked to justify India’s expanding bilateral ties. Breaking out of the rigidities that had beset Indian foreign policy due to years of state -led socialism, Narasimha Rao’s government as a benchmark for its own liberalization started diplomatic and economic engagement with the South East Asian countries and revamped India’s West Asia policy by establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. Although non-interference in internal matters was stated as one of the most important preconditions for good neighbourly relations, Indiacontinued to interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The Vajpayee government extended the Gujral doctrine to other aspects like trade, and concluded the successful signing of a South Asian Free Trade Agreement. The UPA-I that came to power in 2004 continued the tradition to extend it beyond South Asia. As Myanmar assumed a central position in India’s Look East policy, India gradually dropped its antipathy towards the military junta in Naypyidaw and began to cultivate warm relations with the same.

Owing to its history of being colonised India avoided entangling military alliances and claimed them to be antagonistic to India’s identity as a peaceful civilization. United Nations on the contrary was seen as an organization for international governance which if efficiently utilized would legitimize India’s claims of a responsible power. Post -liberalization change in India’s attitude wasapparent;  the new strides India made in multilateral diplomacy were motivated by a strong sense of entitlement as a rising power commensurate with India’s growing material capabilities. Multilateral diplomacy was directed to bring India recognition of its growing power through membership in elite clubs like BRICS, IBSA, ASEAN, SCO,G-20. Also, regional arrangements like BBIN and BIMSTEC were promoted to establish India’s political and economic indispensability in South and Southeast Asia. The most radical departure came in 1992 when India participated in MALABAR naval exercise with US, followed by initiation of MILAN in 1995 which has now evolved into a 16-member naval exercise hosted by India every two years. All this to promote India’s identity as a rising power.

Perhaps it was in the decision of acquiring nuclear weapons where India faced the most contradictions regarding its choice of ethics. The decision to go nuclear was at once seen as an exercise of India’s moral autonomy  but was also understood as a radical departure from India’s previous campaigns for nuclear disarmament.  In order to reconcile between the two conflicting identities, India on one hand quietly pursued its nuclear ambitions; shocking the world with three Pokhran tests and on the other hand projected its responsibility by declaring a ‘no-first use policy’ and upholding its strong commitment to the non-proliferation regime despite being a non-signatory. However, over the years, nuclear weapons have been associated more with India’s rising power identity, signifying an end of nuclear victimization by the West.


The above aspects are a few of the areas where India has actively demarcated its identity as a rising power. Other issues like climate change, human rights and contribution to the global commons remain central to India’s identity project as a responsible power. The question that remains is whether as India’s military capability grows, India will strive more to maintain a balance between the two identities, or chart a course which will prioritise India’s rising rather than its responsibilities.

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