Mohamed Zeeshan is a foreign affairs columnist, consultant and the editor-in-chief of Freedom Gazette. He has previously worked with the Indian delegation to the United Nations and with Kearney, the global consulting firm. As a consultant, Zeeshan helped draft a multilateral declaration at the 2020 G20 Summit in Riyadh and was also involved in strategizing India’s election to the International Court of Justice in 2017. As a columnist, Zeeshan has written for the Washington Post, the Economist, the Straits Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Diplomat, the National Interest and South China Morning Post among others.
What inspired you to author ‘Flying Blind – India’s Quest for Global Leadership’?
I have long been a globalist Indian, inspired by the universal ideals of India’s freedom struggle, and as someone who has spent extended periods of time outside India, I have also long been dismayed at the lack of influence enjoyed by India overseas and its absence from the world stage. Even in the Ukraine war, India has been unable to take a coherent policy stand, afraid of some country or the other. I think this is strange for a nuclear weapons state with one of the world’s largest economies. So I wanted to inquire into the performance of Indian foreign policy.
Are you working on any more books? What will your next book be about?
Well, the thing about writing a book is that, once you’ve written a book, you just get addicted to the process. So there aren’t a lot of authors out there who write just one book and stop there! There will definitely be more books and I’m certainly working on a couple of ideas. I won’t reveal too much about them though, because that will make me accountable way too early!
What are some major international issues you foresee for India in the upcoming decade?
In my book, I write about China, which sees a democratic India as an existential threat and therefore wants to contain India’s rise. South Asia is fractious and it enjoys what I call a “veto vote” on India’s rise. If India can’t win over its neighbors, it will never become a world power. But even more pressing is India’s domestic troubles. India’s secular identity is being challenged; majoritarianism is now the norm. This is going to have serious implications for India’s political stability and global soft power, because providing a liberal democratic alternative to the China model is a key part of India’s appeal as an emerging power.
How can India transform its foreign policy to gain more soft power in the global arena?
Soft power is gained when you consistently represent the interests of a certain target group abroad. So it’s important to stand up for the interests of people in other countries rather than sitting on the fence. For India, its soft power has traditionally stemmed from its appeal as a successful secular democracy in the developing world. People in places like Lebanon, Myanmar or Nigeria aspire for that, which is why you see an increase in popular protests more recently. This can be an opportunity for India if it can provide a viable model and stand up for the rights of these people.
While researching for ‘Flying Blind – India’s Quest for Global Leadership’, was there any particular piece of information you came across that personally surprised you?
Quite a few, to be honest. The one thing that really stood out was a Pew Survey conducted in 2018, which I have quoted in the preface. The survey asked respondents whether India was more important, as important or less important in the world as compared to ten years ago. Only in India did more than 50% say that India was more important. In the other 26 countries polled, more than a third said India was no more important in 2018 than in 2008. A further 22% said that India had in fact become less important in those ten years.
Russia recently announced that it does not mind India mediating between the Russia – Ukraine war. How could this be perceived by other countries, specifically the West?
I think India has taken an obviously pro-Russia stance. In late March, diplomats and foreign ministers came to Delhi from several countries, including China, Russia, Mexico and the UK. The royal treatment meted out to the Russian foreign minister was very telling; he was the only one granted a meeting with Prime Minister Modi. Yet, I doubt India will mediate. Typically, mediation is either facilitated by influential powers with clear policy objectives (such as the US in the Middle East) or smaller neutral powers like Israel or Turkey. I explain the logic of this dynamic in my book.
Please tell us about some books that have personally inspired you. Why have these books stood out from other books?
I’ll be honest — I’m a big fan of Fareed Zakaria’s writing style. He employs a beautiful lucid style to explain complicated academic ideas and I’ve often tried to learn from that myself. His book, The Post American World, has proven to be quite prescient when you look at the world today. I think I enjoy books that take a global overview of things, connecting events in one part of the world to events happening elsewhere, because we really do live in a very interconnected world, and people in different countries are more similar to each other than they realize.
What does the writing process look like for you? What are the stages of authoring a book?
For me, it’s important to plan out the flow and structure of the book and find the tone and voice in which I want to write. It depends on what sort of book you’re trying to write. Some books can simply be written as a series of essays, largely independent of each other (and in some ways, Flying Blind was like that). Each chapter needs to be planned further — to figure out the flow across its different sections. The planning and research took up over 90% of my time, but once I knew what I wanted to write, it only took a few weeks to finish the whole thing.