India in the ‘Asian century’: Thinking like a hegemon?
Old Delhi, India (Credit: zeber/ (via:

The rise of two Asian powerhouses in world politics has prompted the 21st century to be dubbed the ‘Asian Century’. This piece explores the concept of hegemony in the emerging global order, focusing on the role of India in this new configuration. India as a postcolonial society still carries the legacies of its colonial encounter, and the history of its counter-hegemonic struggle to gain political freedom continues to shape India’s national identity construction and its relations with other states. To this end, we explore how the legacy of colonial rule and the histories of counter-hegemonic movements have impacted the conduct of India’s international relations. Robert Cox famously postulated that hegemony of global scale starts from national hegemony established by a social class (1993). However, contrary to Cox’s hypothesis, we believe that India’s tryst with hegemony is a paradox: internationally, the Indian state projects itself as a counter-hegemonic force, while it behaves as a hegemon in the domestic sphere.

Though the Indian independence movement espoused political independence as its principal objective, it aggregated several contradictory yet complimentary counter-hegemonic struggles within. Contrary to the expectations of these counter-hegemonic struggles, the postcolonial Indian state has reinforced certain types of colonial era hegemonies. We examine how contemporary India navigates through multiple forms of hegemonies and negotiates with counter-hegemonic struggles in its postcolonial statebuilding project.

The construction of identity and its role in the conduct of international relations is one of the most enduring enigmas of international relations (IR). The global order has witnessed rapid changes with the rise/re-emergence of China and India in Asia, which has opened up new possibilities in the conduct of international relations. The international order has long been identified as an anarchical and unequal system, a system that is acquiescent to hegemonic control. We investigate whether India would challenge the prevalent approach of the hegemonic ordering of the world, and more importantly, if India would offer an effective alternative to the prevalent hegemonic configuration in global politics.

Demystifying India

In International Relations, a hegemonic power can be seen as a powerful enough actor to establish international rule, ensure it is followed, and has a will to do so. The Gramscian approach classifies two types of political control: domination based on coercion and hegemony based on consent. Gramsci defines the State as the whole “complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules” (Carnoy, 1986). Thus, hegemony is how the ruling class presents its interests and modes of achieving them as ‘common sense’. To maintain this ‘common sense’, either consent or coercion or a mix of both is deployed. The prevalent hegemony can be challenged if a new ruling class reaches consent with other classes and overthrows the existing hegemon, thus bringing in a new hegemonic bloc.

In the case of postcolonial societies, the notion of the ‘self’, the idea of nationhood and independent statehood are all derived by claiming ‘otherness’ and difference from the colonial power and its practices. Anti-colonial nationalists tend to trace their national histories prior to the colonial interventions and envision their nationalist foundations beyond the largely territorial and material dimensions fabricated during the colonial era. Frantz Fanon (1963) identified the conceptual core of the anti-colonial struggle as ‘cultural nationalism’.

Indian nationalists, in the quest for political independence, realised the dominance of the British colonial power over material and military matters, in which India could not compete. Therefore, they (Indian nationalists) claimed sovereignty derived from a spiritual worldview, focussing on the cultural and civilisational identity of the country. Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj promulgated a manifesto for the colonised people to imagine themselves morally and culturally different from the colonisers. Indian elites associated with the anti-colonial movement mobilised various marginal groups of Indian society to amalgamate the individual counter-hegemonic aspirations into the broader political movement for national independence. Thus, the Indian independence movement embraced other counter-hegemonic struggles, based on gender, caste, and class within itself.

Counter-hegemonic struggles in postcolonial India have embraced political violence, as was practiced by the British Raj in India; this is also embodied by the postcolonial Indian state in its quest for dominance and sovereignty. There are more continuities than ruptures in the configuration of structural violence between the colonial rulers and their postcolonial successors. Hegemony is critical to the violent contestations in the postcolonial state where the dominance of powerful groups relies on both coercion and consent. Resistance by subaltern groups in postcolonial contexts involves a challenge to the statist status quo as well as an aspiration to belong to the inherently hegemonic architecture of the modern nation-state system, which perpetuates violence and exclusions from the global to national to individual levels.

Ranajit Guha, in Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India published (1998), built a case for ‘dominance without hegemony’ in colonial and postcolonial India. Guha argued that the South Asian colonial state was a historical paradox, a dominant autocracy managed by a leading democracy of the Western world (Britain), a dominance without hegemony. This dominance without hegemony had a nationalist aspect as well. This arose from a structural split between the elite and subaltern domains of politics, and the consequent failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to integrate vast areas of the life and consciousness of the people into an alternative hegemony.

The hegemonic contestations among various elite groups and counter-hegemonic resistance in India can be explained by being attentive to both the colonial legacies and the intricacies of postcolonial state formation. The elite groups will continue to wage the battle for cultural and political hegemony, and against this backdrop, subaltern groups will continue to reinvent their strategies for struggle and survival. The complex histories of its anti-colonial struggle for independence and its contemporary counter-hegemonic movements have had profound impact on how India imagines itself in the international community of nations.

Identifying India

In recent times, the concept of identity has emerged as one of the key organising principles in international relations. Post-positivists have challenged the hypothesis of the state as a rational actor and offered an alternative mode of constructing the ‘international’. Ted Hopf (1998) described identities as the most proximate causes of choices, preferences, and actions. Furthermore, post-structuralists claim that the foreign policies are not only discursive practices but are co-constitutive of the states’ identities and interests. As discursive practices, while absolute fixity of identity is a chimera, certain constructions of identity tend to be dominant for some time.

The Indian state has exalted its anti-colonial movement as a counter-hegemonic struggle against the British empire and has deployed its postcolonial statehood as a symbol against the hegemonic order and practices. Additionally, the self-perception of an ancient and rich civilisation oppressed by the colonial power, continue to be the building blocks of the identity construction of the Indian state.

David Campbell proposed that identity construction was achieved through the inscription of boundaries that serve to demarcate, a ‘self’ from an ‘other’. India had imagined itself ‘in counterpoise to a colonial and imperial west’. At one end, it was colonialism that symbolised domination, discrimination, and exploitation by a foreign hegemon; in contrast the Indian identity was fraught with challenges and internal contradictions, struggling to overthrow colonialism. The dichotomy of colonial powers versus the colonised subalterns, enables the colonised countries to construct themselves as victims while identifying colonising ‘others’ as the victimisers. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence and passive resistance in India’s anti-colonial movement shaped the Indian identity as a vision guided by higher moral principles than merely material gains and realpolitik.

Interestingly, before its independence in 1947, the idea of India as a nation-state was a contest between contradictory discourses. Hard-nosed imperialist and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asserted rather disparagingly that ‘India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator’ (Churchill cited in Tharoor, 1998). Indian nationalists and India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru in his Discovery of India (1946) claimed that “India is a geographical and economic entity, cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads”.

The tumultuous and violent partition of India by the departing colonial administration traumatised the independent Indian state. The idea of boundary building to achieve national identity construction is the manifestation of this ‘cartographic anxiety’, where cultural, ethnic and social affinities transgress the territorial boundaries. In this case, identity construction itself becomes a hegemonic process where the national identity subsumes or often obliterates other forms of identities.

The civilisational entitlement and history of colonial occupation continue to be the core constituents for national identity formation in India. Civilisational entitlement is a sense of considering oneself (state) as the natural and worthy inheritor of the ancient civilisational glories; it frames the policies to regain the power and status befitting of their geographical, cultural and historical assets. The idea of an ancient and peaceful civilisation has allowed India to project itself as a tolerant and pluralistic entity, which has never pursued aggressive or interventionist policies against other nations. Indeed, in the formative years of the new nation-state, the understanding of the Indian civilisational links with the outside world also shaped the framework of its international relations.

Despite gaining political independence, India continues to agonise over what Ranabir Samaddar defined as ‘postcolonial anxiety’, the torment of a society suspended forever in the space between the ‘former colony’ and ‘not-yet-nation’. It implies that the postcolonial societies are forever striving to catch up with their colonisers and be recognised as a worthy member state of the international community. To implement the ideas of nation-building, scientific growth, security, modernisation, and development, the Indian state often behaves like a hegemon using state violence against those who dissent from this developmental model.

It is an acute dilemma for the postcolonial states, should they fail to measure up to the hegemonic metrics of the modern developmental index; they are classified as fragile/failing/failed states. On the other hand, should a state behave like a domestic hegemon, the state violence may trigger wider unrest thus bringing it to be categorised as a fragile/failing/failed state.  It is a paradox that most postcolonial states continue to grapple with the dilemma of standing up to hegemonic forces in the international arena and yet behaving like a hegemon within their territory.

Typifying India

It is no wonder that given its history of counter-hegemonic struggles, India embraced an autonomous foreign policy rather than choosing sides in the then bipolar world. Indian advocacy of non-alignment was based on its belief that mere political independence of postcolonial societies was inconsequential unless these societies could be free of immanent hegemonies of Eurocentric approaches to international relations. The rise of Asian powers has offered historical opportunities to China and India to challenge the existing hegemonies in this global order. Can India, with its experiences in dealing with hegemony, utilise these opportunities to challenge the prevalent hegemony of the global order?

In March 1947, before its independence, India had organised the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi to revive old regional connections disrupted during colonial rule. The idea of the Non-Aligned Movement was to extrapolate India’s nonviolent and peaceful resistance to British colonial powers as a moral framework to conduct international relations. At Bandung Panchsheel[1]– alternatively, the five principles of peaceful coexistence were asserted as an alternative to Cold War bipolarity. Panchsheel was seen as the rejection of Western hegemony in the analytical framework for the conduct of international relations. The 1955 Bandung Conference led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961; it was an attempt to construct an ideological identity for postcolonial Asian and African states, distinct from those of the capitalist West and the communist East.

During the immediate fourteen years after independence (1947-1961), India had acquired a leadership role in the international arena. Notwithstanding its fragile material power, India was considered a leader of the developing world for its moral and courageous stand on world issues related to decolonisation, developmental disparities, and disarmament. However, while India had enough moral power to make an exclusive claim to the leadership of postcolonial and nonaligned nations, India shared the power with China, the other major Asian power. It underlines India’s approach to multilateralism in constructing an alternative world order, and it also reveals how India might not behave unilaterally once it achieves great power status in the international community.

It is arguable that the defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war terminated Indian ambitions to lead the developing world and forced it to adopt a more pragmatic strategic outlook. The 1971 Indian military intervention in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) is seen as India’s declaration to take on the hegemonic role in South Asia. However, such discourse largely ignores the humanitarian crisis triggered by Pakistan military aggression in the first place. Other Indian military interventions include peacekeeping missions in Sri Lanka in 1987 to resolve the civil war, and in 1988, to prevent an imminent coup in the Maldives. India’s road blockade of landlocked Nepal in 1989 and 2015 are also considered coercive. One could conclude that in the South Asian region, India is seen more as a hegemon than a benign leader.

In the 21st century, China and India have emerged as major strategic powers in the world. However, the transformation from a potential power to a practising power occurs once the emergent power is willing to assume additional responsibilities in the global system; it suggests that the state graduates from being mere ‘rule-taker’ to becoming a robust ‘rule-maker’. The power of assuming the role of ‘rule-maker’ in the global system is how the existing hegemony in the global order can be challenged.

This brings us to the critical question: with the decline of Eurocentric hegemony in the global order, how far India would go towards framing the agenda for global governance. It is safe to assume that in the foreseeable future neither India nor China can assume a hegemonic role in the global order on their own. Any alternative ‘historical bloc’ would mean a multilateral collective of some of the prominent states around the globe who share the goals of changing the existing rulebook of the global order. This multilateral arrangement can be imagined on the lines of BRICS[2], although we cannot assume that these very states will form the alternative group.

As a collective of states, this arrangement would not allow a singular leviathan to override other members of the group or even the rest of the global society. The leadership of such a group would not be in a dominant position to impose arbitrary ideas and subjective ideals from their domestic political culture, governance model or the personal preferences of individual leaders. However, one would encounter several theoretical, institutional, and logistical challenges to turn such a divergent group into a cohesive collective. While the exact composition, characteristics, and charter of such a group may be unknown at this stage, it is certain that an alternative arrangement within the global order will undoubtedly emerge.


One person’s leader is another’s hegemon; there is no denying the fact that hegemony, as a concept, has discursive power. Material capabilities in terms of a powerful and strategic military, economy, geography, and demography are considered as essential ingredients to achieve hegemony, but hegemony is only sustained through discourses, by assuming cultural leadership.

The emerging world order has definitely positioned India as one of the future global powers. However, the fascination with imagining India as an imminent global power somehow ignores the fact that India is indeed a postcolonial society, grappling with its share of discrimination, oppression and exploitation bequeathed by the colonial empires. The contemporary Indian nation-state is a product of the colonial cartographic adventurism.

Postcolonial India is an example of how multiple forms of hegemonies and challenges to those hegemonies are negotiated on a regular basis. As a postcolonial construct marred by territorial partitioning and communal violence, India was consumed by the desire to prove itself as equal to the colonial rulers; it adopted the vocabulary and strategies of state building of the colonial masters. There is an inherent paradox in the Indian states’ engagement with hegemony: while domestically it has resorted to certain hegemonic practices, it proclaims to represent a counter-hegemonic force at the international level. At the global scale, India would need to forge a multilateral collective with other states in order to bring in any meaningful change in the prevalent hegemonic global order.


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[1] Panchshel: As adopted in the 1954 Sino-Indian Treaty. The five principles include (1) Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty (2) Mutual non-aggression (3) Mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs (4) Equality and mutual benefit (5) Peaceful coexistence.

[2] BRICS: An organisation set up by leading developing countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. To challenge the monopoly of Western-dominated Breton Woods institutions on global governance.