Manmohan Singh's New Strategy for India

Until very recently, India seemed to pride itself on poking a finger in the eye of rich superpowers, particularly the United States. Beginning in the mid-1950s, India was the leader of the group of poor, postcolonial nations that banded together in what they called the nonaligned movement, but which routinely tilted to the Soviet Union and bashed American imperialism. To Washington's consternation, New Delhi voted against the U.S. at the United Nations time and again. Relations between the United States and India soured further when it refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then tested a nuclear device in 1974. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when India began to abandon Soviet-inspired economic planning, New Delhi retained a reputation for obstructing America at every opportunity. It opposed NATO intervention in Kosovo, and the establishment of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf war. As recently as last spring, the highest profile Indian voice on the world stage arguably belonged to Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who set himself up as a defender of all poor nations against the trade machinations of the conniving rich. Many in Washington saw Nath as the man who killed the Doha round of global trade talks. Western diplomats continued to describe India's negotiating style as a series of attempts to score debating points before "getting to no."

Now, as he prepares to make his first summit visit to see Barack Obama in Washington later this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is repositioning India as an emerging power that can say yes. In place of the resentful leader of poor, postcolonial nations, Singh is defining India as an emerging powerhouse that can sit at the table of rich nations, with fewer chips on its shoulder. This new stance has been evolving for some time, and led to the landmark 2005 deal in which America agreed to help India with civil nuclear technology—and at the same time essentially conferred legitimacy to India's nuclear-weapons program. Partly in return, India has in recent years twice voted at the International Atomic Energy Agency to condemn Iran's nuclear program, siding with Washington against a former Third World ally, and a major energy supplier. Now the transformation of Indian foreign policy is gaining pace. Nath was shunted off to the Ministry of Roads in May, a move that has helped revive hope for the Doha round. Then in August, according to sources who attended the session, Singh said in a closed-door address to foreign ambassadors and senior Indian diplomats that India would work to drop its image as an obstacle to progress, particularly in talks on trade and climate change, and instead "play a role in the international arena in a manner that makes a positive contribution to finding solutions to major global challenges."

Singh's speech signaled a growing realization in New Delhi that India can have greater influence as a player inside the G20—the group of large economies of which it is now a member—than merely as a leader of the outsiders. Though still controversial at home, the new tone acknowledges that if India wants to exercise the political clout that is its due as one of the world's fast-growing economies, it needs to accept certain responsibilities. "You can't [be] a global player and just obstruct all attempts at cooperation," says Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. It also revealed the increasing sense in New Delhi that India is being outmaneuvered by its regional rival China, which has been earning plaudits as a stabilizing force amid the global financial crisis as well as for offering concrete action to combat climate change. Singh's former spokesperson, Sanjaya Baru, says Singh aims to position India as a "consensus builder and a bridge" between rich and poor nations, rather than a spokesnation for the poor. At the recent G20 summit in Pittsburgh, for instance, India backed a U.S. call for "balanced growth" while also calling for reform of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to give greater representation to developing nations.

India's new personality is perhaps most obvious in its attitude on climate change. For years India had insisted that it was under no obligation to cut carbon emissions, because global warming was the result of the emissions rich nations produced as they industrialized. But two years ago, Singh began to shift in a way that was subtle, but, for an Indian politician, extraordinary. Dropping India's longstanding refusal to consider any cap on its emissions, he pledged instead that the country would never exceed the developed world in per capita emissions. Since India produces the equivalent of just 1.7 tons of carbon dioxide per capita, which is less than 7 percent of what the United States emits, critics said he was committing to doing nothing in the foreseeable future. Still, he had set a precedent for India to change.

This summer, Singh went further by removing India from the camp of global-warming denialists. India had long rejected the scientific evidence suggesting that an average global temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius would be catastrophic. At the Major Economies Forum meeting in Italy, Singh signed a joint declaration stating that the world should attempt to limit the average rise to 2 degrees above preindustrial levels—and that each nation would take on its own carbon-mitigation efforts. Then, at the September summit on climate change in New York, Jairam Ramesh, Singh's environment minister, dropped another pillar of Indian obstructionism: its insistence that developing countries would not take on significant efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions unless the industrialized world pays for them.

India, Ramesh declared, would voluntarily curtail its future emissions, even without a global pact or a pledge of financial support from the West. By 2011, he said, the country would introduce a fuel-efficiency cap on cars and trucks. A year later it would implement an energy-efficient building code, and it would mandate that 20 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020, the same target to which the EU has committed itself. What's more, he promised that when the world sat down to hammer out a new treaty to combat climate change in Copenhagen this December, India would "be a deal maker, not a deal breaker." Senior Western diplomats, accustomed to Indian recalcitrance, welcomed Ramesh's remarks as a potential turning point.

This new internationalism was less well received at home. The powerful old guard of Singh's Congress party remains wary of the West and uncomfortable with India abandoning its historic role as champion of the poor nations. They believe that the party's future electoral prospects hinge upon delivering on promises of development—especially to India's rural areas—and they are loath to do anything that could be painted as sacrificing that goal on the altar of a climate-change pact. They got their chance to fight back last month, when the press published a leaked version of a confidential letter from Ramesh to Singh in which he urged India to "listen more and speak less," to "be pragmatic and constructive, not argumentative and polemical." Ramesh said that in trade and climate talks India should abandon the G77 group of developing nations for the G20, in part because fighting greenhouse-gas limits "takes away from India's aspirations for permanent membership on the Security Council." Critics pounced, accusing Ramesh of caving to the West and betraying the developing world.

The toughest attacks came from inside Congress. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna reportedly thought Ramesh had overstepped his mandate. India's senior climate negotiators, Shyam Saran and Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, were furious at Ramesh's criticism of the tough, anti-Western stand they represent, and of their aggressive negotiating style. Ramesh was forced to beat a hasty and embarrassing public retreat, issuing a statement that he had not sought to shift India's negotiating stance. Singh, for his part, issued a statement downplaying Ramesh's letter as a "note for discussion," but it was clearly more than that. Singh had personally approved the new Indian efforts to reduce carbon emissions that Ramesh highlighted in New York. The vow that India would be a "deal maker, not a deal breaker" in Copenhagen was identical to one Singh made in his August talk in New Delhi. The only real difference between Ramesh's letter and Singh's strategy was the letter's bluntness, in rejecting old allies, and its crassness, in coveting the Security Council seat too plainly.

Singh's strategy, by contrast, seems to be to move India incrementally, all the while insisting nothing has changed, until eventually a difference of degree—of style—becomes a difference in kind. In this way, Singh has been nudging India to go beyond "no" on a host of other global issues. For instance, Western negotiators had blamed India for scuppering the Doha round of trade talks because of a dispute over agricultural tariffs. But this summer, India made a surprise offer to host informal discussions in New Delhi in September. While the outcome of those talks was modest, India has been unilaterally moving to lower trade barriers and drop previous demands. India's new commerce minister, Anand Sharma, who is responsible for trade negotiations, is (like Ramesh) drawn from the younger generation of progressive Congress leaders. Rajiv Kumar, the director of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi, says he does not see India walking away from a new global trade agreement again.

Singh will arrive at the White House on Nov. 24 with the political momentum to push India deeper into the American camp. Congress won a surprisingly strong mandate in May's parliamentary elections and returned to power unencumbered by the fragile coalition politics that hobbled it throughout its first term. And Singh, the first Indian prime minister to serve two consecutive terms since Jawaharlal Nehru, seems firm in his conviction that whether the issue is liberalizing world trade, building a more stable global financial architecture, reducing global warming, or reining in nuclear proliferation, Indian leadership is required. He and Obama are expected to agree to deeper cooperation on counterterrorism and defense issues. They will also discuss a bilateral agreement on combating global warming.

Perhaps the bigger test for India will come two weeks later at the climate talks in Copenhagen. The world can only hope that Singh succeeds in overcoming the resistance within his own party to a deal. India is too big a country, too large an economy to simply opt out of global discussions. If it continues the politics of "no," it risks being left behind as leaders of other nations—competitors, rivals, and allies alike—attempt to find their own solutions to the world's problems. While it has become a cliché to say that the fate of the world will hang in the balance at Copenhagen, for India, the stakes include its own standing in the world.