RPI Author Deepa Ollapally: “India’s Evolving National Identity Contestation: What Reactions to the ‘Pivot’ Tell Us”

RPI Author Deepa Ollapally: “India’s Evolving National Identity Contestation: What Reactions to the ‘Pivot’ Tell Us”

SF_Deepa-624x410Deepa Ollapally, Research Professor of International Affairs and the Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, recently published an article in The ASAN Forum titled “India’s Evolving National Identity Contestation: What Reactions to the ‘Pivot’ Tell Us.”

Despite the massive transformations that have been underway in India’s economic and strategic realms since 1991, this article argues that the changes predicted by the realist theory of international relations have not occurred and are not likely anytime soon. India has posed a difficult case for realists since the country’s independence. Earlier, it bucked the trend of bipolar alliances that were so dominant in the Cold War era; now, it has not engaged in the classic balancing behavior we would have expected over the last decade given its adversary China’s rapid ascent and looming threat in India’s own backyard. I suggest that the missing explanatory variable for India’s puzzling behavior (from a realist perspective) is national identity, something that realist exponents dismiss as epiphenomenon or rationalization.

Although more pragmatic and power-centered contestations are increasingly heard in domestic discourse over foreign policy, what is striking is the persistence of identity- based arguments. Currently, we find challenges to the nationalists from what I term globalists and realists (My focus here is on the latter). However, nationalist identity serves as a constraint on those Indian leaders who want to make a clear break with the past and formulate new policy that reflects a more realist approach: steer the country toward a closer partnership with the United States and develop a more assertive, militarily robust posture vis-a-vis China.

The US pivot or rebalancing of 2011 is a good test case to see how recent Indian thinking is evolving because the new policy (implicitly at any rate) provides an excellent opportunity for India to put into place both of these realist preferences toward the United States and China. My proposition is that India will not seize this opportunity any time soon, not because it does not make strategic sense, but because of the enormous value nationalists place on factors that define Indian national identity: in particular, strategic autonomy and anti-colonial nationalism. Indeed, what this paper more narrowly finds is that the concept of identity gaps (to use Rozman’s term developed for East Asia) is useful to analyze Indian foreign policy toward the United States and China (although I do not focus on China in this paper). But the way the identity gap plays out here tends to go against conventional expectations: a form of identity gap between the United States and India leads to sub-optimal cooperation, and an identity convergence of sorts between China and India leads to higher than expected cooperation. This is not to overstate the relevance of identity gaps per se in these relationships (especially when compared to East Asia), but they are far from irrelevant.

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