Harmony, security and self-reliance are a seamless whole. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi drew these together during his Independence Day speech, a reminder that defence and foreign policy have unusual salience these days. The event, already muted by the pandemic, took place when much of the Northern Command has been mobilised, China has refused to restore the border status quo in Ladakh and the international system is in increasing disarray. It is no accident that PM spoke so much about the sacrifices of Indian soldiers, the defence measures the country is taking, and how much bigger the country’s international footprint has become.
While never specifically mentioned, the centrality of the Chinese threat suffused much of the speech. Terrorism, and, therefore Pakistan, received an obligatory mention. The undermining of India’s territorial integrity, the soldiers killed in Ladakh, and the historical aside of India’s opposition to imperialism and “expansionism” were all messages addressed to Beijing. There has been a feeling that the Middle Kingdom does not understand the significance of what has happened on the Ladakh border and how much it threatens to distort bilateral relations. After this speech, China’s leadership has no reason to claim that it had no sense of the deepening hostility they have engendered in India.
PM Modi made it a point to stress as to how much India’s standing has grown overseas. India was re-elected to the United Nations Security Council with a landslide vote. While the neighbourhood remains a concern, New Delhi has become a beneficiary of the changing geopolitics of West Asia with, for example, the recent bonding of two its regional friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. There was also a reminder of Southeast Asia’s importance. The idea of an “extended neighbourhood” that is connected by trust, land and sea sounds too broad to be meaningful. Yet, this is where India is going as it ratchets up new relationships across the world. PM Modi recognises that the question is how India reconciles all this with its current self-reliance framework. While it has laid out a reasonable indigenisation policy on defence, the task ahead will be an updated trade policy. India’s friends need to be reassured as to where New Delhi thinks economics fits into its extended neighbourhood.