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Interview with Mr. Mohamed Zeeshan

Mr. Mohamed Zeeshan is a foreign affairs columnist and author of ‘Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership’, published by Penguin Random House in January 2021. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette, an acclaimed policy advocacy site based in India, and a staff writer for The Diplomat.

1. What was your inspiration and intent behind writing the book "Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership"?

Mr. Zeeshan: During my time living and working around the world in different countries, including my stint at Columbia and my short service at the UN, I started pondering over why India has limited influence over world affairs. In my book, I cite several indicators and surveys that prove this point – not least of which is India’s consistently poor ranking on the Henley Passport Index for travel freedom and our inability to build a global coalition to act against threats to our people.

I found this to be extremely strange, because India is, in many ways, a very natural power on the world stage – we are the world’s largest democracy, with its second-largest military, third-largest defense budget, and fifth-largest economy. And yet, India is a perennial underperformer in world affairs and global governance – forever punching far below our weight and unable to influence developments in other parts of the world, even as our own citizens find themselves stuck in civil wars and squalid labor camps and as our own government keeps calling for India to be a ‘jagad guru’.

So I began inquiring into this phenomenon – what ‘global influence’ actually means, what ‘global leadership’ actually means, and why India punches below its weight. These are fundamental questions about Indian foreign policy that our public discourse does not seem to address or ponder over. I found that India suffers from a lack of global influence, not because it is poor or weak, but because it lacks direction in its foreign policy. It isn’t clear what the objective of our foreign policy is – and what we want to achieve or stand for on the world stage. As a result, we are inconsistent in our foreign policy and therefore end up alienating potential allies, who could bolster our influence globally. I’m hoping that this book will push more people to think about these fundamental questions – beyond merely Delhi think tanks or the foreign ministry.

2. You have shared a lot about India's foreign policy in your latest book, including vouching for a better strategy for India. Would you like to share something with our readers as a sneak peek into the book?

Mr. Zeeshan: I analyze and make arguments (that some would call ‘provocative’) on several facets of Indian foreign policy – the ‘non-alignment’ / ‘strategic autonomy’ paradigm; the fence-sitting; the pursuit of a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and so on. But the basic premise of my book is that, in order to build global influence, India needs a coherent strategy for its foreign policy, which would fulfill India’s needs and interests as well as those of the outside world. This can only be achieved by defining India’s strengths and interests, what India is, what India can stand for, what the world needs, and what India can do for the rest of the world. Accordingly, I define India’s strengths and national interests, as I see it, and develop a potential ‘grand strategy’ for India on the world stage.

One of the things that I call for is the development of a ‘Delhi consensus’ that would act as a platform for strengthening governance and state institutions in developing countries. There has been a need for such an initiative for several years, but I think this has become particularly relevant in the context of COVID-19, which has exposed the gross inequalities between countries: some are rich and functional enough to save their citizens from a healthcare disaster, and others have simply struggled to rein in the virus, which has meant that the pandemic has lasted longer for everybody else too. For several reasons, which I explain in the book, I think India is in a very unique position to be able to organize this global effort to address these inequalities – and in doing so, India would meet its own needs as well as a very important global concern.

3. With the shift in the existing world order, what do you think India's diplomatic relations strategy should be, to solidify its place as a superpower in the east?

Mr. Zeeshan: I’m a bit more ambitious – I think that in the decades to come, for reasons I explain in the book, India is capable of becoming a global power, not just a regional power in the east. But to do this, India needs to be set the foundations right now. I think that the foreign ministry needs to sit down and figure out a basic definition of what they think India should represent on the world stage. There are many inconsistencies, as I said: in the Maldives, for instance, the deposed President Nasheed called for our help when he suffered a coup some years ago, but we sat and watched, even as we claimed to be a ‘democratic power’. So should we stand up for the democratic rights of people in other countries? Should we levy sanctions on Iran, even though we are opposed to the NPT? What should India do outside its immediate neighborhood? We conduct ad hoc initiatives, but nothing on an institutionalized scale, like China’s BRI for instance.

India is now going to be an elected member of the UN Security Council for the next couple of years. An extremely significant part of UNSC business is in Africa, where civil wars have raged for decades. But India has no clear policy on any of these conflicts, so how are we going to contribute or win allies who will be willing to rely on us and thereby support our interests? There are many unresolved questions surrounding the idea of ‘standing for something’ – we rarely take a clear policy stance on any politically sensitive issue anywhere in the world. And as a result, many countries are turning suspicious of India’s foreign policy intentions, even as they expect India to become more powerful in the years ahead.

4. With Biden in the White House, what changes can we expect in Indo-US relations?

Mr. Zeeshan: Look, I think that there is very clear bipartisan support in the US for a strong and robust strategic partnership with India – and there has been for many years now. In my book, I explain why the US wants to have a partnership with India – and why Washington is frustrated that New Delhi is dragging its feet by citing ‘strategic autonomy’. I don’t expect much to change on these fundamental issues, because basic national interests don’t change with a change in government, and the reasons why the US seeks a strategic partnership with India – particularly in global governance – remain the same, regardless of which party is in the White House or the US Congress.

That said, I think that Biden will face some pressure from within the progressive quarters of his party to speak up more than Trump about any human rights controversies in India. The past may be forgotten – I highly doubt there will be any statements on Kashmir or the CAA etc – but future events are likely to draw some reaction. Whether that reaction will also affect India’s ties with the US – say, on defense or technology transfer – I don’t know, but it would depend on how serious Washington thinks the controversy in question is at the time. So long as the US believes that India remains a strong multicultural, secular democracy, with a growing private-sector economy, it will believe that a strategic partnership with India is the top priority.

5. How will the decision of opting out of the RCEP roll out for India?

Mr. Zeeshan: I think India is rather isolated in the Asia-Pacific on the question of trade. We are very protectionist and nobody thinks the way we do – and I’m not even talking about RCEP in particular. As I’ve written in recent months in various international newspapers (and also in the book), in the past few years, India introduced the second-most trade restrictions of any G20 country – second only to the US, where Trump was proactively trying to overthrow globalization.

The RCEP was in many ways a reaction to Trump’s isolationism; countries in the Asia-Pacific were looking for more reliable trade partners with the US pulling out of the TPP etc. They hoped that India would stand with them so that they don’t become overly dependent on China. Unfortunately, India has chosen to weaken its own hand by backing out.

I think we will need to get our strategic thinking clear and straight on trade. On the one hand, we talk about globalization and economic reform, and even say that we want trade deals with various countries – and yet, on the other hand, we struggle to ink even very basic and highly unambitious trade deals, because there is a mismatch between our position on globalization abroad and at home: We want to tell the world that we are going to progressively open up, but we don’t seem to have built any consensus on this issue in our domestic discourse. I highly doubt that trade policy reform is going to happen without building consensus at home. The government should actively lead the debate and be clear about what it wants – whether it wants to be more integrated with the global economy, or whether it wants to be ‘atmanirbhar’ because it does not trust globalization anymore.

Interviewer- Sanaa Munjal

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