“As we meet together in India at the end of 1983, representing a quarter of the world’s people from every continent and many regions, we have shared both our concerns and our hopes for international security. Despite differences of approach which affect the way we analyse and judge events, it is our perception that relationships between the world’s major military alliances are in danger of becoming more confrontational.”
Extract from Goa Declaration
The famous ‘Goa Declaration’ of November 1983 marked the presence of India on the world stage as ‘Chair’ of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which witnessed participation of 44 Nations. In March of the same year, India hosted another international event, “the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) Summit,” with participation of over 120 nations,[ii] which also caught the headlines for the ‘bear hug’ between the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi and Cuban President Mr Fidel Castro[iii]. These ‘signature events’ in the same calendar year had put India on the world stage in the then ‘bipolar-cold-war-driven’ global order as India advocated ‘third worldism’ and putting a check on disarmament and nuclear arms race.
Almost 40 years later, in 2023, India, yet again, got the opportunity to be on the world stage, and this time, as ‘Chair’ of the G20, a platform with a much wider spectrum, international outreach, and plethora of challenges. It is a diverse platform, with both USA and Russia as members, unlike the Cold War period when either of the sides would prefer to stay confined to their side of the “iron curtain,” as well as incumbent China, the aspiring superpower in the superblock.
This year, India also happens to be the ‘Chair’ of the eight nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with China, with which it has strained relations due to a series of LAC incursions, more so, since post Galwan in June 2020. Further, India is also the President of BRICS and Chairman of the WTO Executive Board. Such leadership roles in a wide spectrum of international forums, despite ongoing challenges between a few member nations, have put India in good stead, paving the way for a much greater role on the international platform and taking it a step closer to more responsible assignments in a reformed “United Nations,” whenever it happens.
One year as the “Chair of G20” is an extremely short term to leave an impression at the world stage; thus, India needs to use this period to effectively showcase its diplomatic skills and carve out new bonds, stage new platforms, or refine the old ones by learning, unlearning, and relearning from its rich experience of the complex “balance of relations” with both the US and Russia, keeping an eye on China, and holding the hands of its friends and allies.
The article is being published in two parts; Part 1 essentially analyses the historical past of 1983 and how successive events led to India missing out on the golden opportunity to establish its image as a world leader. This part further covers various international forums which India formed part of ~ during the three decades succeeding 1983.
Part 2 of the article will cover various issues related to India’s G20 presidency, especially the challenges faced earlier while being part of such international forums; on how conflicts between the key focus areas of these forums and other global issues messed up their entire purpose. In the end, the article brings out lessons learnt from these international forums and alliances and how India needs to take these lessons to derive maximum results from its one-year stint as G20 president.
Part I : 1983 and 2023 – Strange Diplomatic Co-incidences
Lessons from the Challenges and Opportunities from the Past
“Indian PM – Upar se bharat kaisa dikhta hai?
Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma – Saare Jahan Se Acha”
(Famous conversation between the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sqn Ldr (later Wg Cdr) Rakesh Sharma, Retd from Space Station, Salyut – 7 of April 1984)
The core foreign policy goals of India put forward at the start of India’s G20 leadership are to have more robust multilateralism, prevent great power competition, and toxic nationalism with a view of larger global interests of peace, countering climate change, and managing future pandemics of the magnitude of COVID 19. These have a strange contrast with India’s foreign policy goals of the 1980s of ‘non-alignment’ and support for “third worldism”, more refined forms of present-era “multilateralism”. Secondly, the divided opinion on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war among G20 member nations too has a contrast with 1983 when CHOGM nations had a divided opinion on US’ invasion of Grenada.[iv] The highlight of these coincidences is India’s stance, which has remained independent and non-aligned, as it did in 1983, but this time it has received a ‘thumbs-up’ from participating nations from both sides. Thus, the motto of ‘one earth-one family-one future’ adopted for the present G20 is an apt reflection of the positive evolution of India’s core ideology, taken from the ancient Maha-Upanishad called “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam,” meaning “the ‘whole world is one family,” which literally translates into “G20 for all.”
The Takeaways of 1983 : Faded in Cold War & Coalition Politics
India’s Participation in International Forums : An Analysis
Since it became independent, India has joined several regional and global forums among which UN and NAM are two of the most important. The genesis and further success of these forums depend on the convergence of core ideologies, objectives, and national interests among the member states. It is a known fact that despite numerous international forums and groupings across the globe, including the UN, wars could not be stopped, insurgencies could not be resolved, and terror could not be leashed. Thus, it is imperative to analyse these international forums, especially with regard to India, for their output as well as the ways and means to use these to reach common goals for the overall good of mankind. In this regard, only those international forums in the region that have relevance in the present context are being analysed.
The Relevance of SAARC. As mentioned earlier, the first flash of the idea of SAARC sparked during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of seven nations at New Delhi, known as ‘SARC’ in 1983, which erstwhile used to be a foreign secretaries meet. Subsequently, it took almost two years to crystallise and translate into a seven-member regional alliance with the participation of the heads of state of these nations. The participation of India and Pakistan in the same forum despite their closeness to opposite superpowers in the existing world order was the highlight of this alliance and was seen with tremendous positivity. Strangely, this was also the time when Pakistan had started venturing into Siachen Glacier to gain a strategic advantage, which finally got foiled when India physically occupied it in 1984. Since then, SAARC has continued to be seen with suspicion by Pakistan, with a perception of India playing the role of a ‘big brother.’ Thus, in the last 40 years, the SAARC summit has been held only 18 times. The last formal SAARC summit was held in 2014 in Nepal. The next one, i.e., the 2016 summit planned for Islamabad (Pakistan), was boycotted by most member nations in the wake of the Uri Terror attacks. The idea of SAARC was innovative, focussed and looked for regional peace, stability and alleviation of poverty. However, in terms of outputs, the achievements of SAARC have been negligible. It could not play a larger role during Sri Lanka crisis, Kargil conflict or for that matter 26/11. The difference in ideologies, beliefs, and principles among participating nations will always have a bearing on the final outcome of any alliance. The idea of SAARC which germinated during Cold War era needs a revisit in terms of participation, theme and objectives to stay relevant to the present-day needs.
India’s Association with SCO. The SCO, initially formed as ‘Shanghai Five’ by the efforts of China and Russia, was a regional group consisting of the three breakaway nations from the erstwhile USSR, which shared the similar ideology as Russia and China. The aim was to boost regional cooperation, especially in terms of security, to avoid the intrusion of another nation/ alliance having a different ideology.[x],. Post 9/11, it was transformed and renamed as SCO with the addition of Uzbekistan and realigned its focus on terrorism, separatism, and extremism. India was initially added as an observer in 2005; however, it became a full member after 12 years in June 2017 along with Pakistan. SCO is a potential platform for India’s “Connect Central Asia” policy, however, apart from participation in a couple of joint counterterrorism exercises, SCO too has been unable to build a solid regional platform. The recent SCO summits have had multilateral agendas, including prevention of illegal drug trafficking, and cooperation in information technology, the environment, healthcare, and sports. China did propose to establish the SCO Bank as well as the Free Trade Agreement, but these have not found many takers considering the results of Chinese debt diplomacy. Russia, in fact, has separately formed the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which has already signed a trade and economic agreement with China. Thus, SCO is practically a platform to reach out to the CAR nations and establish independent ties with these nations. Recently, India has taken over the presidency of the SCO in September 2023 from Uzbekistan, which allows India to progress its ties with other Eurasian nations.[xi] It is therefore imperative for India to encash this opportunity to gain access to the energy rich Central Asian region.
Other Strategic Forums. In addition to the above, India is part of QUAD with the US, Japan, and Australia with the singular aim of countering China. Within the region, India is part of a few more organizations, namely, BIMSTEC and ‘ASEAN plus six’ wherein it looks forward to enhancing its Southeast Asian connectivity. At the intercontinental level, India has alliances with the African Union that are bilateral in nature; however, it has yet to take the next step and form a regional alliance. In addition, India is part of BRICS with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa(initially BRIC), having similarities with the SCO, however, this too has remained at a low key due to ongoing strains in India – China relations.
The Takeaways from International Forums/ Groups
International Forums can improve both – deterrence and detente by signalling the allies’ shared interests to other states (including each other) and shaping the allies’ interest in supporting one another through commitment. This, for India, becomes a diplomatic success due to its presence in common forums with the USA, Russia, and China. Secondly, and most importantly, most international forums are formed with a primary charter or focus area, which may be economics or security, climate and environment, science, and technology, etc.; however, as they grow, they tend to expand into multifarious domains, which at times forces them to lose focus. This loss of focus is either due to the inclusion of more nations or to a new, yet contentious agenda sponsored by one or more of the powerful members of the group. BRICS and the G20 were both primarily economic forums; SAARC is primarily a regional group of South Asian nations that was formed to focus on poverty and trade exchange in South Asia. However, the expanding domains of these regional, sub-regional, and global forums into other domains to suit a country specific agenda kills the momentum of diplomatic exchanges and leaves the solutions for yet another day.
Challenges Faced by International Forums/ Groups. In the recent past, India has played its diplomatic cards with caution, and ensured that its core strengths of non-alignment, peace, disarmament, and counter-terrorism are not compromised. While this stance has worked well with bilateral ties, it has limited options with various international forums. India’s repeated attempts to declare certain individuals and groups as terrorists have been vetoed by China, and its attempts to address climate change have met with immense resistance from developed nations. Hence, there is a need to analyse the challenges faced by various Forums and identify the ways to alleviate them. The same are discussed as under:-
To be continued……..
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2. Smriti Sawkar, “Champion of the Third World: Indira Gandhi and the Spectacle of the 1983 NAM Summit,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 60, no. 4 (October 2, 2022): 357–77, https://doi.org/10.1080/14662043.2022.2142400.
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5. “Annual Reports Prior to 1999 : Annual Report 1983-84,” accessed February 22, 2023, https://mealib.nic.in/?2512?000.
[vi] “From the Archive: The Birth of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-Operation,” Commonwealth, accessed March 2, 2023, https://thecommonwealth.org/news/archive-birth-commonwealth-fund-technical-co-operation.
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[viii] “India’s Foreign Policy: A Coalition Politics’ Puppet? – The Economic Times,” accessed February 22, 2023, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/indias-foreign-policy-a-coalition-politics-puppet/articleshow/19485127.cms?from=mdr.
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