Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank which opened a centre in New Delhi last week, tells Archis Mohan that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for India to become a leading power represents a change in how the country's top political leadership conceives of its role in international politics. But New Delhi will need to do more to increase its material capabilities if it wants to achieve the goal of becoming a "great power" by 2050, says Tellis.

You have argued in a recent paper that India is on the cusp of a third epoch in its foreign policy....

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
More >

I made the argument that Indian foreign policy has evolved through three phases. We are still in the second phase.

The first phase was non-alignment and the effort was to protect India from larger competition of the global system. It was fundamentally a defensive phase because the country was relatively weak soon after Independence. The objective of Indian foreign policy at that time was to prevent others from undermining its development goals; so, it was not focused on shaping the system but on avoiding being shaped by the system in unfavourable ways.

After the end of the Cold War post 1991, India moved into the second phase where it was fearful of alliances and more focused on building strategic partnerships that advanced its interests. India still did not want to join any alliance but it was open to the idea that some preferential relationship with key countries would advance its interests.

The point I am making about the third phase is that if India takes up the vision of becoming a leading power seriously that would become the third phase because that's where it would have the capabilities to mould the system to advance its interests. I don't think India is there yet but that is the goal it seems to be aspiring to.

You suggest that Modi is in a position favourable to achieve this....

Yes, two things have to come together. First, India has to want that role of a great power. Second, it has to have the material capabilities that allow it to play that great power role.

Now, as a result of the reforms that began in 1991, India is slowly moving along the path to acquire material capabilities. If Modi can accelerate the reform process, it will gather more steam. So, there is a potential confluence of two things: India slowly develops its material capabilities and for the first time, it is articulating a desire to play that great power role.

Do the first two years of Modi's tenure give you the confidence that he will walk the talk in the rest of his term?

He has certainly shown determination to make changes in foreign policy of the kind that were hard to anticipate during the (2014 election) campaign. None expected that he would focus so much on foreign policy.

Everything that the PM is doing in the realm of foreign policy is designed to advance his objectives of building India's material capabilities. The focus on the neighbourhood and the quick efforts he made to engage China and the US simultaneously showed that he was willing to play the game. So, I see a willingness to be far more forward-leaning and take on the responsibility of shaping the environment in a way that previous prime ministers might have been more diffident about.

You suggest that to achieve this "great power" status India needs to find greater synergy with the US.... 

Let me clarify. I am not arguing that India should synergise its policies with the American world view. The US has its own interests and it will pursue those interests. What I am arguing is that for the first time there is a great convergence between Indian and American interests, and to a degree that India perceives it should invest in deepening this relationship because of the pay-offs it promises for the country. It is not about becoming a camp follower of the US; it is about building a relationship productive for both sides.

Even with these more modest objectives there isn't any doubt that there will be many constituencies in India, which will be deeply uncomfortable. This is part of the consensus-building that Modi has to engage in because it is not in India's interests to make something that is otherwise productive for it to become a football in domestic politics. If that happens you go back to what happened under prime minister Manmohan Singh, where even sensible policies his government was pursuing were opposed simply for reasons of domestic politics and not their objective worth.

What would be the kind of reforms India would need to carry out on the road to achieving this "great power" status? 

The immediate challenge is for India to build three foundations.

First, India has to improve its savings rate. It is simply not saving enough, relative to the investments necessary for generation of income and employment. Second, India has to pay attention to improve the quality of its labour force. Third, productivity gains have to be sustained. Ease of doing business has to become more than just a slogan. Conscious decisions have to be made in public investments in infrastructure, long overdue rationalisation of agriculture.

You have written that Modi has shied away from bolder reforms....

He was a much more vocal champion of reforms when he was campaigning. I would like him to use the prime ministership as a bully pulpit to champion reforms precisely because these are the only devices available for India to stimulate growth. Second, big decisions have to be made with respect to how this economy can be liberalised further. He has adopted a measured pace. I would like to see a much faster reform programme. I think it will come. But so far he has been cautious.

In the context of India aspiring to become a "great power" you have described the Indian elite as being insecure....

After the achievements of the last two decades there is no question that India's confidence has grown. But it is still not confident enough to take on the world on its own terms. It is still in many ways a frightened country. It is afraid of change. It is afraid of threats from within and outside. Some of these threats are real. Those threats have to be managed and addressed but there are so many issues that make people nervous when they ought not to be. That is the cultural change that needs to come about in India's psychology. India has to acquire confidence commensurate with its capability. (National Security Advisor) Ajit Doval had a very good line once when he said that "what India needs to do is punch at its own weight". It shouldn't be aiming to punch above its weight and it shouldn't be aiming to punch below its weight.

You laud India's industrial and technological capabilities of the last few decades but say that its obsession with self-reliance is the reason for the relative decline of India's economic weight in Asia.... 

The Indian economy, to my mind, is far more closed than it ought to be compared to India's peers and its objectives of raising income growth quickly. If you look at India's trade deals - it is signing free trade agreements with any country that it can find - all these are extremely shallow deals. None of them compels India to make fundamental changes domestically. So, India looks at trade essentially as a way to increase its export market; it does not look at trade as a mechanism that forces it to increase domestic efficiency.

You have said that India spent the last 67 years strengthening its territorial integrity, liberal democratic politics and civic nationalism. Isn't its liberal democracy under threat from some of those who support the PM? 

Absolutely, and I think the PM is aware of it. I believe he is a democratic politician. He has a conviction that India's success is because of its democracy. But there are people in his own party who have a somewhat different belief - they want a democracy that is more confessional than civic. The challenge he has to deal with is to prevent these elements from disfiguring the Indian democracy and undermining the success of his own reform agenda, which hinges on India remaining both liberal and democratic.

This article originally appeared in the Business Standard.