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India: 470 Airplanes And The New Power Of Non-Alignment

After not buying any aircraft for 17 years, Air India has announced the largest order in the history of aviation. It's a symbol of India's new standing in the world, its ambitions and the role it has as a model for other non-aligned nations

Photo of Narendra Modi walking past flags

Modi has a plan

Massimo Di Vita/Mondadori Portfolio via ZUMA
Pierre Haski


PARIS — Air India, the national carrier of India, had not ordered a new plane for 17 years. Then on Tuesday, the airline announced what we can call the 'contract of the century': 470 planes at once, the largest order in the history of aviation. 250 Airbus, and 220 Boeings, for the Indian national company privatized last year that clearly has enormous ambitions.

For the occasion, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in video conference, first with French President Emmanuel Macron, then with Joe Biden.

This type of spectacular announcement was to be expected from China or the Gulf States a few years ago. India was the poor cousin of the emerging world, blessed with immense talents, but with major obstacles to actually breaking through on the world stage.

Has this idea now been consigned to the past?

India would like to believe so. It has one of the strongest rates of economic growth in the world, and is expected to become the third-largest economy by the end of the decade, behind the United States and China.

Balancing act

This Indian awakening is reflected in its geopolitical positioning, as the war in Ukraine has shown. A subtle balancing act, revealing a change on a global scale.

India refused to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and even increased its purchases of hydrocarbons from Moscow, taking advantage of the price cuts.

However, that does not make it an ally of Vladimir Putin, and even less of its Chinese neighbor, against whom it has a historic rivalry. Faced with China, on the contrary, India has moved closer to the United States.

This geopolitical positioning may seem complex and even dangerous: it is in fact a reflection of what many powers of the Global South have been doing in the great geopolitical disruption of recent times. They refuse to conform to any fixed policy or alliance, and simply follow where their own interests take them.

Photo of an Air India plane

Air India has an aging fleet — not for long.

Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press via ZUMA

A new multipolar world

While India may be the most successful of this new model of “non-alignment,” other examples include Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and now Lula’s Brazil. Western countries that expected to see Russian aggression unanimously condemned in the name of international law were surprised by this emancipation of countries too long taken for granted.

Multiple links that are being forged in this new world that ignores the old blocs

In a truly multipolar world, India aspires to be one of the main poles. It spreads its wings this year by presiding over two very distinct circles: the G20, which brings together the major world economies, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the "club" initially founded by Russia and China, and which looks like an anti-Western alliance.

Within this wide range, India is developing an extensive partnership with France — in the supply and manufacture of armaments for example, with President Macron slated to visit India in the spring.

Meanwhile, France, India and the United Arab Emirates recently announced a three-way partnership, a sign of the multiple links that are being forged in this new world that ignores the old blocs.

This approach smacks of realpolitik, which risks our overlooking the more questionable aspects of such partners. Modi's Hindu nationalism is one of them. But during this redefinition of a new world, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the question of human rights has been pushed off the agenda.

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