New Delhi: A US challenge to India to take a more assertive role on the global stage runs counter to a decades-old foreign policy that has nearly always valued diplomatic caution over strategic ambition.
Since independence in 1947, India has sporadically flexed its diplomatic, economic and military muscles, but such instances have been largely restricted to its immediate neighbours.
During her visit here last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was time for India to wield its growing economic and political clout further outside its borders and help "shape the future" of the Asia region and beyond.
"This is not a time when any of us can afford to look inward at the expense of looking outward," Hillary said. "This is a time to lead."
While there is suspicion of what is widely seen as a US strategic imperative for India to become a counter-weight to China, many experts agree the time has come for the world's largest democracy to make its voice heard more forcefully.
This is especially true, they argue, if India wants to prove its credentials for securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
"The 1991 economic reforms and the 1998 nuclear tests transformed India's place in the world. We must acknowledge that and speak out more often," said Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary and Indian ambassador to the United States.
All too often, India's voice is muffled by the initiative-dampening nature of its complex coalition politics and a long non-interventionist tradition that is proving hard to shed.
Mansingh cited India's lukewarm response to the pro-democracy movements that have convulsed the Arab world as an example of its preference for risk-averse diplomacy.
"I think India should have been much more welcoming of the Arab Spring," he said.
"The fight against dictatorship is very much in line with our democratic traditions, but we prefer to wait and watch. It is the Indian way," he added.
In a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, C Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, argued that while India was keen to "increase its weight in global governance" it would only do so on its own terms and at its own pace.
"The United States wants to test whether India is a responsible stakeholder in negotiations on issues ranging from climate change to international trade," Mohan said.
"India is prepared to engage on these issues and participate more fully in global decision-making bodies on the basis of its own self-interest, but is not prepared to take tests from anyone," he added.
Senior Indian civil servants remain fiercely protective of India's long-held policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, insisting that it is a better guarantor of influence in the long term.
"A passive approach is not necessarily a weak approach," said one senior official.
But the "self-interest" cited by Mohan is inevitably pushing India towards a more proactive stance, driven by the need to source raw materials for its energy-hungry economy and tap new consumers for its manufactured goods.
In both areas, it increasingly finds itself in competition with regional heavyweight China -- already a permanent UN Security Council member and an intimidating military and economic power.
China is mineral-rich Africa's top trading partner, with bilateral trade totalling USD 126.9 billion last year, and has extended its influence into India's immediate neighbourhood, notably in Sri Lanka and Nepal.
"India has already ceded a lot of ground in Africa to China," said Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, vice dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, who stressed the need to invest more energy in building relationships, whether in Africa, Latin America, or Asia.
"India must realise that economic growth at home is not enough to win you influence. Furthermore, with a slowdown in Europe and the US, it needs to think about where its markets will come from in the future," he said.
As for Hillary's appeal, which was for a more general leadership on issues like human rights and the environment, Chaulia voiced frustration with India's traditional wait-and-watch mindset.
"India can and should be more willing to make its presence felt on issues that matter," he said.
"We need to contest the orthodoxy that says, 'do as little as possible'.”
First Published: Sunday, July 24, 2011, 10:51