India can 'shape the future', Clinton tells it, but as experts agree the time has come for the world's largest democracy to make its voice heard, New Delhi still prefers a risk-averse approach.
India urged by US to transform itself from a reluctant power into a global giant
NEW DELHI // A US challenge by the US to India to take a more assertive role on the global stage runs counter to a foreign policy that has usually 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.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during her visit here last week, had said it was time for India to wield its growing economic and political clout 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," Mrs Clinton 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.
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 has been muffled by the initiative-dampening nature of its complex coalition politics and a long non-interventionist tradition.
Mr Mansingh pointed to India's lukewarm response to the protest movements in 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. "But we prefer to wait and watch. It is the Indian way."
In a recent issue of the Foreign Policy magazine, C Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, argued that while India has been 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," Mr 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.
But the "self-interest" cited by Mr 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 China, already a permanent UN Security Council member and an intimidating military and economic power.
China has become the top trading partner for mineral-rich African states, with bilateral trade totalling US$126.9 billion (Dh466.1) last year, and has extended its influence into India's immediate neighbours, notably in Sri Lanka and Nepal.
"India has already ceded a lot of ground in Africa to China," said Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, the 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 Mrs Clinton's appeal, which was for a more general leadership on human rights and the environment, Mr 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'."