India, a Non-aligned member of the International System?

September 8, 2023

By John C Torpey

We start a new season of International Horizons discussing India's vision of a global order with Prof. Upendra Choudhury from Aligarh Muslim University

Upendra Choudhury in front of India in the World's map

In the first episode of the fall 2023 season of International Horizons, Professor Upendra Choudhury of Aligarh Muslim University discusses with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about India’s vision of a multipolar world order, which consists of acting as a balancing mediator between the traditional West and a rising China. In that sense, Choudhury claims that India cannot afford not to participate in different multilateral organizations such as the BRICS+, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and I2U2 because it carries an important role in stabilizing the world order. Choudhury also introduces the three lines of thought in India’s foreign policy, arguing that India can both focus on its domestic problems and increase its power capabilities. 

Moreover, Choudhury explains that India’s stance in the Russian war on Ukraine is not strategic ambiguity.  Instead, India is often in the spotlight when it does not align with the West, but its pacifist actions behind the scenes are never appreciated.  Finally, he argues that in order to become a global leader, India needs to unify its population around the country’s national project.


International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:01

India recently surpassed China to become the world's largest country in population terms. India has also made headlines by refraining from supporting the Western or American position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite being a member of the so-called QUAD (the quadrilateral security dialogue) that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to talk about security issues in the Pacific region. 

John Torpey  00:32

On Ukraine, India has consistently abstained from all seven resolutions at UN bodies. It has refused to condemn Russia for the invasion, it has declined to join the West's sanctions against Moscow, and it has stepped up buying Russian fuel and other commodities at discounted prices. Despite its ties to the QUAD, India also participates in other groupings such as the BRICS, which recently of course, had its own meeting and maintains a stance generally regarded as an alternative to Western hegemony. So what's going on in India? 

John Torpey  01:11

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Upendra Choudhury, who is professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science, at Aligarh Muslim University in the State of Uttar Pradesh, Professor Choudhury received his PhD in Political Science from New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2000, with a dissertation on India's ballistic missile program. He is author of the book Nuclear Risk Reduction: Measures in South Asia, Problems and Prospects, which was published by Manohar publications of New Delhi in 2006. He writes widely in the scholarly and popular press in India. And Professor Chouhudry has also served often as an adviser to the Indian government on educational and political issues. Thank you for joining us today Upendra Choudhury

Upendra Choudhury  02:33

Thank you, John. It's my pleasure to be here.

John Torpey  02:37

Thanks, for taking the time to do this. So I noted in my introduction, that India is playing a contradictory role in foreign affairs, as we might say, here in the United States, it seems to be playing both sides of the fence. I mean, in some sense, that's the major theme, I think that we want to get into this during this conversation, but what would you say is going on?

Upendra Choudhury  03:06

Yeah, yeah. John, thank you for the nice question. In India particularly, we don't use this word called "sitting in the fence," you know, "free rider." So, these are highly subjective very loaded terms impact in particularly, so far as India's foreign policy is concerned, we always think that there it's not to that there are only two sides of the conflict; there can be three sides also, and we don't particularly accept that there are a lot of these kinds of binaries are there, this side or that side. India always gives importance to the third view or third alternative, right? If two are fighting or two camps are fighting, that doesn't mean everybody should fall for this block A or block B. Rather, India always thinks that there is a need for a country or a block that can play the role of stabilizing role for maintaining international peace and security. 

Upendra Choudhury  04:07

If you look at the India's foreign policy for the last 70 years, you will find that India always believed that the Cold War logic that either you are with us or you are against us, right? And India proved that through its non-alignment, foreign policy. So, in my view, particularly India doesn't accept this, that either you are in this side or you are in that side, rather India thinks that it plays a very positive, stablizing kind of role so far as its foreign policy is concerned. If you look at the US foreign policy, I particularly personally think that it has become very difficult for the USA policymakers to understand India's non-aligned policy. So, you know, India doesn't accept this kind of view. Rather, it thinks that it plays a very positive kind of role: if there are conflicts between two sides, you need a third side to play a establishing and peaceful role.

John Torpey  05:15

Yes, I mean, I can certainly understand that. But I guess, part of the issue is that it increasingly seems as though we're facing a kind of, if you like, a new Cold War kind of situation in which, you're either on one side or the other: you're either on the American or the western side, or you're on the Chinese side primarily. And, it seems to me increasingly, the way the world situation is being viewed, but the two major players, you could say that India is increasingly a major player, but it's not really in the same league just yet, it seems to be as the United States and China. So, India, in a way seems like a kind of a swing state term, I heard John Ikenberry used in an interview the other day, which I had not heard before. That is to say we'll side with one side on certain issues and the other side-assuming there are such things as sides, as you say-India will, you know, will side with one side at certain times, the other side and other times, I mean is that basically what you're saying, that India is a kind of a swing state and can't be expected to necessarily have this you know, unidirectional sort of view of the world situation and has different interests in different contexts?

Upendra Choudhury  06:57

Yeah, you can say India is a swing state, but not in a very opportunist sense. I would give one instance study India is a member of Sinai Cooperation Organization, it's a member of BRICS countries, it's also a member of QUAD. But by becoming a member of these, it seems that they are quite contradictory groups are different rules with different objectives. But if you go to the deeper you will find that there are lots of interest, including the interest of international community.

Upendra Choudhury  07:35

India is a member of SCO, Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is there not to allow Russia to be very close to China. And secondly,  it is there in Shanghai Cooperation Organization, because it has a lot of interest in Central Asian countries. And India also believes that if it is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it can counter its adversaries like Pakistan and China. So, if India is a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in a very stabilizing kind of role, because you can counter China, because China has always tried to play an important role in SCO, and it also tries to manipulate the the kind of order that that we are planning to have in Asia. So, if India is there in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is in a way to counter China, and also not to allow the Central Asian countries or even have some kind of leverage for Russia not to be closely aligned with China.

Upendra Choudhury  08:42

If it is a member of BRICS, you will also find that India thinks that if India is not in the BRICS, then that BRICS will be manipulated by China, which is the very imperialistic kind of current world order (although China believes in a multipolar world, but it believes that that the multipolar world should be with Chinese characteristics). So in order to counter this kind of hegemonic Chinese interest, India is a member of SCO and BRICS, at the same time, India also believes that if it is there in SCO and BRICS to counter the totalitarian China, at the same time, it is also a member of QUAD and I2U2 where it is aligned with the democratic countries like Japan, like United States like Australia, and because they all serve the region to make the Asia Pacific (or Indo Pacific how it's called now), a stable kind of order where there is no domination by China and where there is a lot of freeness for trade for maritime security for humanitarian disaster related activities. 

Upendra Choudhury  09:53

So basically, India is in the SCO to counter China. In the BRICS not to allow the public forum to be manipulated by China. At the same time, India also sets a lot of interest to the democratic countries like United States, Australia and Japan. So, it seems from the surface that India's membership in these organizations are some are contradictory, but if you go to the deep, you will find that they are not actually contradictory. Rather, these are all forums, they are there, and India is a member of all these forums, not to allow these forums to be an anti Western group, as the Chinese are trying to do.

John Torpey  10:40

Right. So, all the discussion of China reminds me of, you know, something that we talked about before, and namely, India's particular interest in regard to the Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the matter of national sovereignty. And India and China share a certain stretch of the border. And there are border disputes between India and China, and India has traditionally been a strong supporter of the idea of national sovereignty, in part as a result of this background. So, are you surprised or puzzled that they haven't been more critical of the Chinese with regard to its support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Or is that just sort of one of the kinds of things that India takes in stride, given its kind of swing state position in these discussions?

Upendra Choudhury  11:49

Yeah, you know, India has been very consistent about its position in the United Nations so far concerning the Russia-Ukraine war. Although it has also abstained from any kind of resolution that condemned Russia. But at the same time, India also played an important role in pressing the United Nations to invite Zelensky, the president of Ukraine to address the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly via video link. And it also was one of the first countries to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. And at the same time, it also condemned Russia for for the Bucha killings. And you will also find it interesting that Indian Prime Minister who meets Putin annually through the Russia-India dialog, he even did not go to Russia to meet Putin because Russia was threatening to attack Ukraine through nuclear weapons. 

Upendra Choudhury  12:52

So, India is always trying to balance its position regarding Russia and Ukraine. If you look at the initial stages of the war, you'll find about 22,500 Indian students were in Ukraine, it needed the support of both Russia and Ukraine to evacuate those students. So a country which has lots of interest in, in Ukraine and the Russia, cannot immediately be critical of all these two countries, because the United States wanted to impose sanctions or take a position against Russia. And secondly, if you look at the sanctions, you will find that India was not consulted by the West or particularly the United States, while imposing sanctions. India always opposed to unilateral sanctions by any countries. if the sanctions are imposed by the United Nations, India would have been happy to follow it. But there is a feeling in India of "you cannot unilaterally impose the sanctions and expect other countries to fall in line," and if you don't do that, then you argue that you are a pet sitter or a free rider.

Upendra Choudhury  14:06

So, that is India's perception. But, behind the scene, India is also playing a very stabilizing kind of role vis-a-vis the Russia-Ukraine conflict concern. In September 23, 2022, in the Black Sea Grand Deal with the mediation of Turkey and United Nations, India was the country that played a behind the scene kind of role in persuading Russia to respect that Grand Deal. And even the Delhi G20. Summit, India is trying to, you know, play a major role in in coming up with a consensus document that takes into account the Western arguments vis-a-vis the Chinese and Russian arguments. So, you need a kind of mediator country, or you need a kind of stabilizing force, if everybody is parting with everybody, you need at least a country that can play a peaceful role, a kind of role that is really stabilizing for the world order. So that is basically India's position. 

Upendra Choudhury  15:11

The Indian Prime Minister talked to the Ukrainian president, he has talked with the American president on the Russia-Ukraine war, he talked to the Russian president, and when Russia was attacking the important nuclear plant in Ukraine, then it was India, that discouraged and that pressured Putin not to use nuclear weapons or even use the threat of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. So, the things are not known, and India doesn't like to advertise its peaceful kind of role, that it is playing within between Russia and Ukraine. So, India is a country, that is basically not advertising for each kind of role that we are doing, "look, we are doing this, we are doing that." So, whatever it's doing, it's doing a kind of role that is peaceful. And India is also supporting this argument that, for example, in Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory, India has not accepted that annexation of territory by Russia. Russia has taken Crimea and India has not recognized that. So, we have to accept this also, India condemned Russia for its Bucha killings. So, and India abstained when Russia tried to use a resolution for humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. So, the world must know these kinds of roles also: if India is abstained on American or Western-led UN resolution, that is, that is publicized. But if India abstains to condemning Russia... our Indian Prime Minister even talked to Putin that today's arise is not a kind of war, which you are using to alter the boundaries. So, India, in many ways, respected the territorial sovereignty and the sovereignty of Ukraine.

John Torpey  17:11

Right, so, I mean, maybe what might be helpful is for you to talk a little bit about India's kind of self-understanding in the current context, I mean, this moment, when India seems to have surpassed in population terms its neighbor, China, which, is powerful in other ways, besides demographic ways in economic terms and military terms in ways that arguably India hasn't entirely attained at this point. And so, one wonders as an outsider and a non-expert, what exactly is going on in India in terms of its self-understanding, and obviously, to talk about a country with 1.4 million people having any specific aspiration is perhaps a little absurd, but maybe you could talk about what you think the Indian population wants to see, as far as where the country is going to go in the future. I mean, in general, the kinds of developments that we're talking about, including, for example, BRICS, is a kind of sense that the American power is in relative decline, everybody was looking at China until pretty recently, when concerns about the economy and about the age structure of the population began to become more prominent and that sort of thing. So, how does India see its future in the coming decades.

Upendra Choudhury  19:02

Okay. You know, as far as India's future international role is concerned, there are three kinds of debate domestic debates in India. The first in our debate revolves around those who argue that strength, respect strength, and power, respect power. So, they argue that India's should act in a military capability, economy capability, scientific capabilities, space capability. India should act in all the dimensions of what we call comprehensive national power. So, that, it will be respected both by the United States, Europe, China, Russia, everybody. So, because everybody respect power. If you look at India's nuclear test before 1998 nuclear test, India was not taken very seriously by the United States. So, once it conducted the nuclear test, it was taken seriously by the by the United States. So, there is the argument that power respects power and strength respects strength. So, India should try to acquire more and more power. And for acquiring that power if it needs the frenzy panda [China] and the cooperation with the United States that is perfectly fine. So, this is one school of argument. 

Upendra Choudhury  20:12

The second school thinks that India should not aspire for power because we argue that in international politics that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, if you look at the history of rising powers, once you have power, you acquire power, you become more arrogant. You always engage in MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). You always accumulate more and more nuclear weapons, then you spend a lot of money to destroy those nuclear weapons. You become arrogant,  engage in arms race, you go for all kinds of alliances, so, that shows that if you become more powerful, you will be more arrogant. So, that is the second school and they conclude that if you want to really have a mark, you should be a good power, you should be a benevolent power. You should give others example, that is the power of your example. And instead of focusing on international relations or acquiring more and more power, rather you should focus on India's domestic challenges. So, no poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, these are there are so many problems. So, second school argues that instead of acquiring more and more power, rather you should focus on internal challenges, and you do play an international role, that is definitely, a establishing kind of role, but at the same time, you address the domestic challenges. 

Upendra Choudhury  21:47

There is also a third school that believes that the whole concept of India as a rising power is just a Western construct. They they want to take advantage of India's big market, they want to get India's cooperation in containing China. So, there is a third view. But, if you look at the current Indian government's policy position, you will find thatIndia is giving a lot of importance to acquiring national, comprehensive national power. And at the same time, India is not just a country, you can limit it to a swing straight. Rather India consider itself as a pillar of international procedural security, international peace. So, it as a unique sense of entitlement, because it's an ancient civilization because it rules as a visual guru. So, those who argue in this line, they argue that India should acquire power, but at the same time, India will also be concerned about the domestic challenges. And at the same time, India is in favor of multipolarity and if you look at the United States, China and India, there's a lot of difference on the small multipolarity.

Upendra Choudhury  23:05

If you look at America, they are in favor of a unipolar world and a multipolar Asia. And if you look at the Chinese, you will find that Chinese are in favor of a multipolar world but an unipolar Asia dominated by the Chinese. But India is a country that that looks and supports a multipolar world with multipolar Asia. So, India doesn't think that the world should be bipolar, the world should be be unipolar. Rather India consider itself as one of the important poles of this multipolar world, and India is also a supporter of the current liberal international order, because the only question is that India thinks that it is not getting the kind of justice, the kind of stature, the kind of importance in the current international order, because this was divided at a time when India was not even independent. And this western order is basically built on a position that gives undue importance to many of the countries who are even, not at par with the current India's GDP. You don't see a country like France, see a country like UK. So in economic terms, they are not standing, but they are all permanent members of the UN Security Council. So India has a lot of grievances against the current international order, but India is not in favor of overthrowing  this order. Rather, India wants to reform rather than to replace this international order.

John Torpey  24:38

Interesting. So, I guess one question that occurs to me in reaction to what you've been saying, and that is, and that I talked in framing the last question about India's size and the 1.4 billion people. But all those people don't share necessarily the same worldviews and particularly I have in mind the religious divide with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is, of course, problematically connected going back to his days as Chief of State in Gujarat. And, violence against Muslims that he seems to have allowed to happen or condone. I mean, there's obviously a debate about this, but I guess the question is... India is famously the world's largest Muslim country, even though it's you know, the...

Upendra Choudhury  25:42

Second largest after Indonesia. So, India is the second largest after the country of Indonesia.

John Torpey  25:48

I thought it was actually bigger even than Indonesia. But okay, I stand corrected. But in any case, when it has a very large Muslim population, which is been historically a source of division within the Indian state. So, how does that play out? How does that affect India's stance in regard to world affairs in the international order?

Upendra Choudhury  26:15

Yeah, thank you for your question. India is basically a very diverse country in terms of language, in terms of culture in terms of religion, and India has always been a federal country in terms of--I'm not talking of political federalism. If you look at different cultures, different languages, different regions, India always believed in what we call the Salad bowl approach, right. So, every culture should be there every religion should be there. And India is not just into a geographical kind of psychological thinking that in all cultures should flow this all languages. India is federal, and India's future lies with its prevalent kind of arrangement. It's not a question of Muslims, Hindus, Christians or or six. If India wants to play a larger international role, it should unite the diverse cultures and religions. If you just favor one, one culture one religion over the other, in that way, India is not going to play any important kind of role. 

Upendra Choudhury  27:31

So there are aberrations, there are certain problems, but if you look at India's history, if you look at India's culture, India has always been in a kind of federal arrangement for the prosperity, for the benefit of all cultures, all religions and India acted as a glue. If you look at the India-China war in 1962 or India-Pakistan war in 1960, and 1971, even the Kargil War of 1999, you will find that all Indians despite their religious differences, cultural differences, regional differences got united. And one interesting example I would cite, I think most of the people outside India may not be knowing that India is a country of about 1.4 billion people, and the 80% of the population are Hindus. But if you look at India's democracy, you will find that at time, India despite being a Hindu dominated country, you can say 80% of the population was Hindu one time, the the Prime Minister was a Sikh who was not a Hindu, the President was a Muslim, and the lady who was more powerful than the Prime Minister was a Christian. I'm talking of Sonia Gandhi and talking of Manmohan Singh. I'm talking of Abdul Kalam Raja, APJ, Abdul Kalam. So what I'm trying to say is that that only happened in India. Eighty percent of the people are Hindus, but at a time you find that one Christian lady was what's controlling the Prime Minister, the prime minister himself was from a Sikh community, a minority community in India, and the President was from the Muslim community. So India had that kind of example, but yes, I agree that in case India wants to play a larger international role it has to be a multicultural, multireligious country, you can't impose anything, or you have to take care of each community's legitimate needs legitimate grievances, and you should address those grievances within the framework of Indian constitution.

John Torpey  29:56

Well, there's no question that India is a complicated and fascinating place, and we're gonna have to keep an eye on it in the years to come to see where it goes in these various respects and really appreciate your insights. That's it for today's episode. I want to thank Upendra Choudhury for sharing his insights about Indian politics and foreign policy in the contemporary world. Look for us on the New Books Network. And remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song International Horizons as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying, thanks for joining us, and we look forward to having with us for the next episode of International Horizons.

Upendra Choudhury  30:52

Thank you, John. Thank you. It was really a pleasure.