For the last decade, few trends have captured the world’s attention as much as the so-called rise of the rest, the spectacular economic and political emergence of powers such as China and India. Particularly in the United States, India watchers point to the country’s large and rapidly expanding economy, its huge population, and its nuclear weapons as signs of its imminent greatness. Other observers fret about the pace of India’s rise, asking whether New Delhi is living up to its potential, whether the country’s shoddy infrastructure will hold it back, and whether it is strong enough to counter an increasingly ambitious China. All of this frenzied discussion, however, overlooks a simple fact: within India itself, the foreign policy elite shies away from any talk of the country’s rising status. As a senior official who has worked on India’s relations with Western countries recently told me, “There is a hysterical sense, encouraged by the West, about India’s rise.” A top-level official in India’s foreign ministry echoed the sentiment: “When do we Indians talk about it? We don’t.”
What explains this discrepancy? As I found through a series of interviews with senior officials in the Indian government, many of whom requested anonymity, it is a result of three important facts that have gone largely unnoticed in the West. First, New Delhi’s foreign policy decisions are often highly individualistic — the province of senior officials responsible for particular policy areas, not strategic planners at the top. As a result, India rarely engages in long-term thinking about its foreign policy goals, which prevents it from spelling out the role it aims to play in global affairs. Second, Indian foreign-policy makers are insulated from outside influences, such as think tanks, which in other countries reinforce a government’s sense of its place in the world. Third, the Indian elite fears that the notion of the country’s rise is a Western construct, which has unrealistically raised expectations for both Indian economic growth and the country’s international commitments. As one senior official with experience in the prime minister’s office said, the West’s labeling of India as a rising power is “a rope to hang ourselves.” By contrast, Chinese political leaders and intellectuals pay a great deal of attention to the international hype surrounding their country’s emergence, and Chinese think tanks and media outlets regularly try to shape and respond to this discourse.
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