Psychology tends to focus on the individual - her capacity to perceive, think and feel; her needs and desires and so on. However, we also often ask questions about groups, like (as famously asked by A K Ramanujan): "Is there an Indian way of thinking?" Such questions arise because the popular perception is that different cultures have different ways of carving up the world: an acceptable norm in one culture is sometimes anathema in another.

The task of the political psychologist is to investigate how these psychological variations rooted in cultural differences translate into variations in institutional norms and attitudes. For example, the Indian constitution falls within the same conceptual framework as the British, French and American constitutions. Nevertheless, the actual practice of law and politics in India is different from the practice of law and politics in the west. To what extent is the variation in practice grounded in cultural difference? How does the formal network of national and international institutions interact with the informal networks of family, community and religion? In this article and in subsequent articles, I want to explore the relationship between the psychology of the nation and the psychology of the individual.

On the surface, the world of formal laws and institutions seems to be rather different from the world of everyday interactions, at least in India. The law says "stop when you come to a red light", but we all know what drivers in India do when they come to a red light. Formal norms are explicit and rigid: the whole purpose of the law is to state exactly what is allowed and what is not. Daily life is full of tacit beliefs that are never made explicit and are always subject to individual interpretation. When you want to know the law, you consult a book. When you want to know a culturally grounded belief, you observe your neighbours.

These two worlds seem destined to live out parallel lives, except that they interact every day and routinely influence, accommodate and clash with each other. For example, consider caste relations. In this, the law is arguably ahead of public sentiment by a few decades. Inter-caste associations, including personal bonds, are perfectly legal, but society is clearly slow to embrace this. When it comes to communal relations, on the other hand, things are the other way around - public sentiment tends to influence the law, as witnessed with the Gujjar riots in Rajasthan.

This interplay between legal and cultural worlds is particularly interesting to look at, in the area of foreign relations. Our prickly relationship with outsiders in our personal and communal lives seems to be reflected in the cactus-like nature of Indian foreign policy.

I am sure many of us have witnessed or even participated in an interaction with a non-Indian, especially a white person, that roughly goes as follows:

Non-Indian Why is it that India has so much X (name your issue - poverty, caste violence, nuclear weapon tests)?
Indian (Slightly perturbed). What do you mean?
NI I was reading an article about how X (insert favoured oppressed class) is having such a hard time in India.
I (Puffing up) But what do you expect? We were ruled by you guys for two centuries and you bled us dry. In any case who are you to tell us anything, having enslaved and bombed the world for centuries?
NI (Shocked and a bit angry that his well meaning curiosity has been misinterpreted) But look, we are no longer exploiting minorities or colonising other peoples. We have moved on.
I (Getting even angrier) What rubbish! Neo-imperialism still rules the world. All these institutions you have created ? the World Bank and IMF for example ? are just surrogates for imperialism.
NI (Equally angry now). I don't know why you guys still keep complaining about your lot. If you are so upset about the way things are run, do something about it. Have you ever tried 'not borrowing from the World Bank'?

By this time, both parties are too angry to talk; their cheeks are red, their eyes are aflame, and if they were acquaintances or friends before the conversation, their relationship is in some jeopardy.

You get my point. We are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to evaluation by outsiders. The thin skin is not restricted to bourgeois, right-wing yuppie classes, but also to the most progressive sub-cultures, people who spend a great deal of their time protesting the very evils that the foreigner is pointing out. There is something about criticism from the outside, especially the west, that raises our hackles. External criticism strikes us as preachy or condescending at best and racist at worst.

The flip side of our thin skin is the insane pride we feel when an Ambani or Tata buys up Dreamworks or Corus. These contradictory networks of alienation, pride and belonging ? making the Ambanis into villains in the national arena and heroes on the international stage - are central to our national psychology. The sources of our prickliness are diverse, though our experience of the indignities of colonial rule is central to our self-image.

However, this article is not about why we cannot take criticism from westerners; it is about what that individual response predicts about our foreign policy. What does the psychological tension between insider and outsider say about our relations with other nations.

Indian foreign policy seems eerily similar to the caricatured conversation between the Indian and the non-Indian. Take three examples where Indian diplomacy has to engage with foreign nations: India-Pakistan relations, Nuclear weapons and the NPT, and Global Climate Change. In each case, India wants respect for its position while denying the substance of its critics.

We begin with practical, common-sense, and even moral positions, and then develop arguments against these ourselves! It's natural, thereafter, if others disagree with our starting points too.

 •  Entente with the east

When it comes to India-Pakistan relations, we want the world to condemn Pakistan's role in fomenting cross-border terrorism, but we insist that Kashmir is a bilateral dispute where there should be no mention of U S intervention or pressure. As for the NPT, our declared position is that we favour nuclear disarmament, but will not dismantle or destroy our nuclear weapons until the entire world decides to get rid of them. Our position on climate change is similarly ambivalent: we agree that the world must pull back from burning fossil fuels at the current rate, but we would like to continue doing so ourselves - arguing that we have not been responsible for past pollution, and we cannot develop without burning more fossil fuels.

I believe this attitude to foreign policy is completely mistaken. We begin with practical, common-sense (and even moral) positions, and then develop arguments against these ourselves! It's natural, thereafter, if others disagree with our starting points too.

There is no doubt that foreign relations are the least regulated and least trustworthy of relations. Yes, Pakistan does foment trouble in India, there is a brazen power play in the possession and use of nuclear weapons, and India is a relative new-comer to the pollution game. But so what? Our attitude towards the west seems to be: whatever you have, we want as well. You developed nuclear bombs, decided other people's futures, and polluted the earth, so we should get those opportunities too. This point of view is morally wrong and politically behind the times. The unreasonable use of force in Kashmir and the North-East, the laying waste of our cities and countryside and the threat of nuclear war are all morally wrong, whether anyone else did the same thing to us or before us. Much of these are also plain stupid.

Someone might point out that foreign policy has no place for morals; it is a hard-headed calculation of interests and a crooks' paradise by definition. Even if that were the case, we should invent our own logic of power - one that is appropriate for the 21st century - and not ape the forms of power that come from the west and held sway in the 20th century.

Like any other aspect of the human sphere, international relations are not a static domain where nothing changes. Nuclear weapons might have brought power in the last century, but quite likely clean fuel will do so in this one. If colonialism and the white man's burden was the overt slogan at the beginning of the 20th century, 'human rights intervention' was the mantra at the end of that century. Even the invasion of Iraq had to be justified in terms of its benefits not only to the aggressor but also to the invaded, i.e., the people of Iraq terrorised by Saddam Hussein.

New forms of power and influence are emerging in the twenty-first century with opportunities no longer policed or controlled by the west. So why are we harking to outmoded forms of power; isn't that itself a sign of our lack of sophistication, a little bit like saying in a computer science class, "I built a better diode than you" when the smart kids have moved on to IC chips.

The mirroring of individual tensions in national policy is not a coincidence. After all, the highest levels of power and influence are occupied by people who have experienced these very tensions in their interactions with non-Indians. Tacit beliefs and informal modes of communication that lead to stereotyping in individual human relations are aggregated into policy positions at the national level. Individual mistrust is collectivised into communal and national mistrust. We see that reflected as much in Hindu-Muslim relations as in India-Pakistan relations.

The converse is also true; an individual of influence can lead to a visionary foreign policy. For all its faults - excessive idealism is supposed to be one of them - Nehru's foreign policy was a genuine alternative to cold war politics. I think the visionary character of that doctrine has something to do with Nehru as an individual: confident of his relationship with the west but a man with a style of his own. The political, business and intellectual elites who succeeded Nehru were and continue to be much more self-conscious about their individual standing vis-a-vis their counterparts in New York, London and Beijing. Until that self-consciousness disappears, we will always be playing second fiddle despite all claims to becoming a superpower.