India’s Wary Rise

PARIS – Some countries are naturally at ease with the concept and the reality of strategic power. Such was clearly the case of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King in the seventeenth century, and such is the case today of China, whose leadership is comfortable with the balance-of-power games of classical Europe.

India is clearly in a different category. In economic terms, India’s confidence has been boosted by the way the Western world now looks at it with a mixture of respect and greed: “What kind of deals can I strike with such an emerging market, whose population will soon be the largest of any country in the world?”

Yet, in order to understand India’s political and diplomatic relationship with the outside world, the most enlightening comparison is with America in 1920. Like the United States after World War I, India is realizing that its status and role in the world have been deeply transformed in the last two decades. And, like America then, India is not naturally at ease with the notion of exercising global power.

India’s history and culture, from Asoka, its mythical emperor in the third century BC, to Gandhi, push it to emphasize ethics and to consider itself an “exceptional” nation in its relationship with the world. Contrary to China, India finds it difficult to adapt to its status as an emerging “Great Power.” It would be a gross exaggeration, of course, to speak of an Indian “inferiority complex.” And yet India constantly measures itself against China, remains obsessed with Pakistan, and has recently begun to look more critically at its relationship with the US.