For three decades, India has craved a nuclear energy deal that would bring prestige and advanced technology. Yet when the coalition government declared this week that it would move ahead with one, it triggered a crisis and a no-confidence motion in Parliament, which it had to scramble to survive.
Watching this drama unfold, the international community may be forgiven for feeling a little baffled. After all, the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal is immensely advantageous for India. It allows India to buy nuclear technology from the US in exchange for abiding by International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It would give India's growing economy much-needed energy without endangering its strategic capabilities or influencing its sovereignty in foreign policy.
To understand the political anguish and hand-wringing in India over a nuclear deal with the US, one needs to understand a very simple fact. Unlike China, its rival rising power, India lacks a grand strategy or concept of its role in the world. India thinks it should be a great power but has no clear vision of its path. In contrast, China thinks it is a great power and expends a great deal of time and energy outlining its "peaceful rise" to itself and the world.
China's rise on the world stage is constantly discussed by Chinese academics, journalists, policy experts, political leaders, and the elite. This discourse emphasizes that despite China's growing power and the need for resources and markets, it will not pursue militarization and hegemony as Germany and Japan did before and during World War II.
Rather, it intends to rise peacefully and harmoniously. Simultaneously, this idea draws on the concept of tianxia ("all under heaven") which, simply put, promotes order over chaos and has been key to understanding governance in China for the past 2,000 years. With defined ideas of the world and their role in the world, China acts like a confident great power and pursues its international goals with single-minded zeal.
The last time India had a defined concept of its international role, Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister. Nehru made some notable foreign policy mistakes, particularly his disastrous Forward Policy that resulted in the 1962 war and bitter defeat at the hands of China.
But there is no doubt the man was a visionary. Designed by Nehru, the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) was a domestic and international triumph for India. It was poor, struggling to develop economically and militarily, but there was a sense of purpose and national pride that it had, at least, cornered the moral market in international relations and assumed the leadership of the developing nations.
Post Nehru and post cold war, India failed to adapt or abandon NAM, even when it had little significance. Nor, unlike China after Mao, did any Indian leader articulate an alternate ideology of the world and India's role in it.
It is, therefore, not surprising that such bitter ideological divisions now exist in India. What is the way forward for India as a would-be great power? Does signing a nuclear deal with the US make its old antagonist its new BFF? Does it mean that even paying lip service to the long-obsolete idea of NAM is no longer possible? Or does great power mean, as the communists suggest, proudly rejecting the nuclear deal and thereby showing the international community who's boss?
Even as the nuclear deal steams ahead, unless India articulates a vision for itself and gains the confidence of a great power, such splits will continue to plague its international relationships and negotiations.
• Manjari Chatterjee Miller is a post-doctoral fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and an affiliate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is working on a book about Indian and Chinese foreign policy.