India and Germany, on their own, are important countries in their respective regions. Together, they have developed and diversified their partnership since the end of the Cold War. Yet, popular perceptions have historically failed to match what the governments are doing. This paper argues for better perception-building between the two countries, given its proven role in nurturing international relations, especially for countries like Germany where civil society plays a big role. The paper traces the roots of perception-building between India and Germany, and offers recommendations for creating perceptions according to the requirements of a growing strategic partnership in a multipolar world.
The battle of perceptions is an important dynamic in the conduct of international relations, as perceptions are often regarded as key determinants of policy. International relations are thus often structured on the basis of commonality of goals, a mutual assessment of the power of each player, and the status assigned by each actor to the other. These tend to foster a picture of the other actor which, if persistently emphasised, can generate lasting images among decision-makers, the public, analysts, and the private sector. Different segments within a State would react with nuanced differences to such persistent images and use them to generate reactions and take decisions relative to the State concerned.
Much of these perceptions emanate from the geostrategic location and affiliation of the States concerned. History and culture contribute to it and progress in economic and business areas has its own dynamic. A country’s political and economic openness and the opportunities it affords, contribute meaningfully to the development of perceptions. Developments in demographic dividends, new technologies, and sporting prowess also give it added appeal if the perception is otherwise positive.
India and Germany offer a useful case study of the role of perceptions in international relations. In early May 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Berlin for the sixth Indo-German Inter-Governmental Consultations (IGC). The visit was significant for its timing—coming as it was amidst the shock of the Ukraine crisis— and gave substantial results, too. After all, the bilateral relationship appeared to have plateaued towards the end of the term of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A new coalition, led by the Social Democrats and including the Greens and the Free Democrats, was formed in Germany in December 2021. The IGC, first scheduled in 2021, was quietly postponed until the new government was in place. Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis besieged Europe, and Germany in particular.
In the public’s eyes, Modi’s IGC visit was about adjusting to the Ukraine crisis and whether Germany would try to persuade India to follow its line. The two had business beyond Ukraine, however. The IGC was important strategically and economically. Germany was experiencing the economic fallout of the pandemic, and imposing sanctions on Russia would cause it further strain. As it seeks new markets for trade and investment, it looks to India, with its massive market size, as a relevant partner.
Yet, the congruence between the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and Modi, was often not matched by public perception. During the IGC, Western media’s focus was the Ukraine crisis: how India responded to it, and its affinity to Russia which limited its democratic credentials. The German media did not differ. Meanwhile, the Indian media waited to see German reactions in the current context, especially at the level of government.
The important perception today is the close engagement between India and Germany. The regularity with which summits have been held in the Merkel years is a manifestation of this perception. The closer interaction saw deeper contacts, meetings, and exchanges as India and Germany re-engaged in the 21st century. Both countries showed effective use of the strategic space available to connect and diversify their relationship, and overcome certain misperceptions of the past.
The paper can be accessed by clicking here
The article has been authored by Gurjit Singh.