HomeWorld NewsModi has exhumed Nehru’s Global South. Which fails the test of geography, geopolitics and economics – ThePrint
Modi has exhumed Nehru’s Global South. Which fails the test of geography, geopolitics and economics – ThePrint
August 26, 2023
Let’s first look at the idea in some detail, and why we think it marks a continuity in thought from the Nehru era.
It is the idea that India, or its leader, could be the leader of the rest. What does the ‘rest’ mean? It mostly means the world beyond the US, its European partners and its allies elsewhere.
Google the Global South. You will find lots of entries. Generally, and geographically, it refers to the countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
But then you run into challenges. Where do you then put Japan and South Korea, Singapore and further, in the deepest south, Australia and New Zealand? Geography, therefore, fails us. It gives us a broad sense but it’s far from accurate.
History tells us that the line notionally dividing the Global North and South is based on the ideas of former German chancellor Wilhelm “Willy” Brandt. In 1980, a commission chaired by Brandt submitted a report titled North-South: A Programme for Survival. This was soon enough known only as the Brandt Report. It draws a sadly arbitrary line generally dividing the world around a latitude of 30 degrees north, cutting through the Americas between the US and Mexico, running above all of Africa, then generally straight through Europe, and then rising to take China in its grand sweep.
But then it has to do some convenient gymnastics to exclude Australia and New Zealand, and if you go into finer detail, to carve out what we might call the Brandt Exclusion Zones of Japan and South Korea. The idea of a division into a rich north and a poor, struggling, developing south does not pass the test of geography.
The term likely came up first in a 1969 special issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. And yes, you guessed it right given the year, this was a special issue on the Vietnam War. Writer Carl Oglesby complained about centuries of dominance by the North over “the Global South” to “produce an intolerable order”. This went through other iterations through the intervening five decades: Third World, Developing World. And now, Global South has been exhumed and resurrected. Narendra Modi has emerged as its most prominent and powerful global brand ambassador.
We’ve already seen how the definition fails the test of geography. Check it out on the touchstone of economics. On all calculations and from all credible sources, you find the number of nations featuring among the Global South to be 78. Out of these, the prominent ones are: China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria and Bangladesh. Together, these six account for a bulk of all population in the grouping. What’s common between them economically?
We know the Chinese still love to make the supremely hypocritical claim that they are a developing country. But at a per capita income upwards of $12,000, they are anything but a developing country. Or a member of the Global South in the way the grouping is defined. And if indeed they were, would they want India to be the grouping’s leader?
Once again, if income were your criterion, and the geographical dividing lines could be shifted according to your convenience — in this case only generally north — Russia would soon look a worthier candidate to be in the Global South.
Geography and economics having failed us, we come to strategic denominators. Many of the “evil” Global North’s key allies happen to be in the south: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and indeed, why not India as well?
“Natural strategic allies” is the expression three successive Indian prime ministers have used to describe our relationship with America. Two of the most important global allies of Captain America of the Global North, Japan and Australia, also happen to be our allies in the Quad. Now count also the countries in the Global South who might be our strategic allies. Do tell me if you find a couple.
The hard fact is, our allies, our economic interests, our diaspora, and through it our social, cultural and economic ties and interests, all lie in what we sneeringly dismiss as the Global North. And why do we do so? Because we see them as having gone ahead of us already. So we seek the leadership of the rest.
Nehru’s India inherited a universe broken by two successive World Wars and putting itself back together as colonial powers faded away. It was also a world being carved up by two blocs, led by the US and the Soviet Union respectively.
Nehru’s political metaphor, personal lifestyle and social linkages were Western. His ideological upbringing evolved in the company of the British socialists. This made him fundamentally averse to being seen to be aligned with the West.
In that era, the division was not so much North-South as East-West. That the West was arrogant, dominant, exploitative and cynical and the Soviet Bloc was somehow part of the East. However different and distant this might have been from the East we inhabited, the idea of “noble East, evil West’ took root.
It seeped deep into our popular culture of the period. Check out lyricist/poet Shailendra’s lines from Raj Kapoor’s (1960) Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai: “Kuchh log jo zyada jaante hain, insan ko kam pehchante hain/yeh poorab hai, poorab waale, har jaan ki keemat jaante hain. (Some people who claim to know more than the rest, but do not understand human values, should know that this is the East, and the people of the East know the value of each human’s life.)”
There was no surprise, then, that the Non-Aligned Movement that Nehru founded had a distinctly anti-Western (American) slant. If any pretence of NAM being truly non-aligned remained, Indira Gandhi finished it with not only a more pronounced pro-Soviet slant but also by signing the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow. Then, with India and Cuba as its leading lights, NAM was almost entirely a proxy for the Soviet Bloc.
So deep was this influence across generations of Indians that it took almost two decades after the end of the Cold War and the vaporisation of the Soviet Bloc for India to embrace the new reality. I said two decades because I see the signing and parliamentary approval for the Indo-US nuclear deal as that turning point.
Now, the rise of China is challenging that post-Cold War, unipolar order. Nobody likes unipolarity, and nobody should. In UPA-2, a fanciful idea called Non-Alignment 2.0 was floated in New Delhi, and it also didn’t go anywhere because the Congress lost power soon thereafter. Modi, with a majority, was seen as capable of making a more decisive break from the past, and he has been doing so. Pragmatically, transactionally and cynically, which is all very good for India.
The Chinese challenge to American unipolarity and the rapid decline of Russia, however, have caused confusion. That’s why new ideas of multilateralism and plurilateralism are coming in. Nothing should be dismissed without debate. But it is safe to presume today that anything new and multilateral outside American influence now will be dominated by China. The SCO and BRICS are only two examples.
In this situation, leadership of the Global South needs a reality check. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union was geographically distant and the leader of a well-defined bloc, and therefore influenced NAM only from the outside. Today, with China centrally seated and located, the Global South has an intriguing road ahead. Odds on it becoming the Chinese bloc in the emerging new bipolar world are higher than we’d wish them to be.