Since its independence in 1947, India has proudly followed the democratic tradition. This was advanced at the declaration of the modern Indian Republic in 1950, vesting sovereignty not in any person or office, but in the collective citizenry of the Republic.
This popular sovereignty implied not only that sovereignty would never leave Indian shores with the people choosing their rulers, but also that the people were more than just mere governed subjects with franchise. Rather, the Indian citizenry is to be the Bhaagyavidhaata: The writers of India's destiny, whose beliefs, opinions, and interests are to be reflected in the State's policies.
In the contemporary era, characterised by a return to great power rivalry, weaponisation of private technology, cross-border surveillance, and foreign influence operations, leading to a change in the nature of warfare, the Indian statecraft faces a turbulent era. The youth of India, representing the largest demographic, will be experiencing this turbulence first-hand, therefore, understanding the collective opinion of the youth vis-à-vis India's position and options in the modern world is critical for the Republic's future, especially in the digital realm.
The Indian citizenry is to be the Bhaagyavidhaata: The writers of India's destiny, whose beliefs, opinions, and interests are to be reflected in the State's policies.
The ORF Foreign Policy Survey 2021 in this regard is a useful endeavour. The findings of the survey reveal insights which are crucial in devising solutions to the current challenges faced by Indian policymakers, especially in the technological and security realms. Further, this survey also exhibits a clear sense of direction for the future of India's place in the global order.
The strategic challenge posed by the People's Republic of China (PRC) seems to be recognised as evidenced by the distrust rate exhibited by the Indian youth, in addition to the lion’s share of the respondents expressing concern over the PRC’s rise as a major power. Concern over the PRC’s interference in India’s immediate neighbourhood, economic and military muscle, and the border clashes are testament to the youth’s recognition of this new global reality.
This understanding has also manifested in the youth's conception of sovereignty in cyberspace and technology. With an overwhelming majority supporting the ban of PRC's apps, contrary to narratives at the time professing the disapproval of Indian youth to the ban, the findings in conjunction with widespread concern over cyber security might indicate support for reducing foreign reflexivity. PRC apps operating under the aegis of PRC’s National Intelligence Law (NIL) (obligating all such apps to assist in intelligence work) were banned in this case in an effort to reduce foreign reflexivity. In light of incidents such as the Zhenua Data Leak where the PRC was caught surveilling upon and attitudinally profiling 10,000 Indians from data obtained from PRC apps, amongst other sources, these apprehensions shared by the youth in the survey seem justified.
Concern over the PRC’s interference in India’s immediate neighbourhood, economic and military muscle, and the border clashes are testament to the youth’s recognition of this new global reality.
As a regional power and in the midst of changing alignments and alliances in the emerging new world order, India's relationship with the global powers—the United States of America (US) and the PRC—is to define its future prospects as a superpower. In this regard, while the youth have signalled support for and accepted the eventuality of the US becoming India’s leading partner in the next 10 years, however, even in this circumstance most respondents do not trust the US completely, with about 15 percent either being neutral or distrusting of the new strategic partner.
Kautilya, India’s very international relations theorist, might have offered an explanation for this modern dilemma millennia ago. In the Kautilyan view, state interest is paramount and policies must respond to the prevailing geopolitical realities. In this Realpolitik doctrine, alliances or coalitions exist merely till they serve state interests by balancing the ‘Ari’: Opponent. This approach suggests that even while in alliance, the state in question should aim to increase its own strength with the goal of eventually becoming the prevailing ‘Chakravartin’: Superpower.
If India intends to become a superpower, it must develop indigenous alternatives to realise its potential
The question this survey answers is whether India sees itself as ‘Vijigisu’: A state which aspires to become chakravartin at some stage or not. India was amongst the most surveilled countries by the US under its PRISM programme. While India has, to a large extent, reduced PRC’s reflexivity through blocking it out of the country's 5G infrastructure and has even blocked PRC-made wireless devices, the same companies involved in the PRISM surveillance have now become dominant in India’s technology landscape.
If India sees itself as a potential superpower, in the short term, India needs to align with the US and rely on US technology to counter the PRC; in the long run, if India intends to become a superpower, it must develop indigenous alternatives to realise its potential. This is not to say that the US will, or has any intention to, use Indian user data in the kind of influence operations that the PRC conducts; however, it is more a question of what India’s ambitions are. The youth seem to resonate with this sentiment. While most believe in multilateral mechanisms, the alleged contradiction vis-à-vis support for the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ at the same time can be explained through this. The youth want India engaged with the world, but the global order in the long term should be India-led, and indigenisation is a way to ‘hide our strength and bide our time’.
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