On May 13, 1998, India became a full-fledged nuclear state joining the ranks of the United Nations P5 (US, UK, France, Russia and China). A European diplomat asked me why India required a nuclear weapon in an unstable part of the world. The patronizing framing of that question notwithstanding, I had one answer and a question for him. I told him we have a long border with China and asked him why both France and the UK have nuclear weapons. Warring football teams couldn’t be the reason.

I recall this conversation now for a reason. Politicians understand the importance and difference between historical and political timing. Visionary leaders keep their eyes peeled on the former to take advantage of it when the political timing is right. The 1998 decision was one – it came in the decade that saw the collapse of the Berlin wall that brought down with it the division of the world into Soviet and US blocs. India was in the former. The war in Bosnia, a nervously expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) unsure of what Russia would do, and a liberalising India having to negotiate the difficult transition from a loose set of global trading rules (GATT) to a single undertaking called the World Trade Organisation (WTO) were only some of the hoops on the road. The slicing up of former Yugoslavia had also shown the cracks in WWII thinking with NATO bearing the brunt.

As the western world reeled under its own contradictions (P5 was G8 then became G7 before metamorphosing into G20 searching for an agenda), Beijing’s international game rolling was afloat. It found immediate favour in the US looking for markets for its goods and services while underestimating China’s regional firepower in the seas. In return China began mind capturing top American universities and watering holes where foreign and defence policies are discussed. They were quiet and so effective that India was just a parenthesis for several US Presidents including Barrack Obama. Truth be told – India was humoured because we were arrogant, we found it below our dignity to align with anyone or ask for help. When we did, we got less than what we asked for. In return we had signed away a fair amount of economic independence in WTO including how and where we could grow.

A constitutional democracy that is India could have placed itself as a perfect buffer against China not just with its markets but also with its technical and intellectual capacity and civilizational wisdom. A glimpse of the first was seen with India’s IT power which didn’t translate into a seat at high global high tables where technology and commerce are discussed. Instead our foreign policy was and continues to remain largely Pakistan focussed with some of our tallest diplomats reduced to fending off routine resolutions against us on Kashmir brought by Pakistan and now openly backed by China. They and we deserve better.

I have written often that trade, defence, foreign and domestic (home) ministries must coordinate their key policies because they are inter-linked. Each is directly linked to national security. COVID has shown that public health must also be added to that conversation as health and food security will most likely fuel trade wars in the years ahead. For over a decade India was the only reliable partner for western democracies to lean on. The Arab Spring had brought great instability and turmoil and India could have been the balm the world needed. Instead, internal political bickering and party politics prevented us from taking advantage of our geographical and historical advantages with a long list of countries ranging from Turkey to Japan.

COVID has exposed China’s game and India is in a double bind. Unlike western democracies it shares a border with a ruthlessly expansionist Beijing and Chinese goods and services have a deep and diverse penetration in India. Defence, trade, home and foreign policy have to pull together to keep the dragon out.

No two moments in politics are the same, but India now finds itself in a good position to do what it failed to do in 1998. We can still emerge as a responsible market shaper and partner for democracies that believe in free and fair competition and where public opinion is a key factor.

History teaches us that public opinion is most often ahead of governments. India’s decision to ban Chinese apps is one. India should have independently pulled out of the IPL cricket series instead of waiting for China to do so clearly indicating that Beijing seizes the pulse of Indians. India is the only country standing up to the Chinese in the Himalayas, China’s friends on our borders Pakistan (CPEC), Sri Lanka (Hambantota port) and more recently Nepal encircle the country with daily real and bogus threats. It is far too early to rest if rest we can.

The WTO will soon have a new leader and it is in India’s interest to take a stand on issues instead of sitting on the fence as it has done throughout the history of the trading body. There is wisdom in India taking the lead to bring together a new group of like- minded countries and groups within countries including the European Union (EU), Australia, US, Japan, Brazil, South Africa and others to form a responsible group that believes in a multilateral system of trade and governance. Irrespective of who wins the elections in America, India’s trade disputes with the US will persist and the next head of the trade body will need strong backing from Washington to make it and move forward.

There are clear indications that New Delhi is writing the draft of a new rulebook. Our market and some of the world’s top negotiators, however limited, are our biggest assets. They will be our market shapers. Go, New Delhi – 1.3 billion people are behind you and we deserve the best.