Indian Foreign Policy: A mere jumble of words?

 S Jaishankars appointment as foreign minister reveals Narendra Modis mindset on trust, acumen and leadership

[PM Modi and Jaishankar]

Most countries that matter or think they matter have a fairly standard template for foreign policy, which is to advance the national interest by advantageously managing the existing tiered balance of power system within the region, the continent, and the world at-large. The single best encapsulation in recent times of, or label for, such policy in the Indian context is “strategic autonomy”.

Jawaharlal Nehru conceived of nonalignment, a movement of Third World states, as global balancer and adroitly managed the often conflicting expectations of the US/West and USSR and had the country benefit from the competing attentions of the super powers of the day using the means of moral suasion. It worked only because in the aftermath of the nuclear horrors inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Washington was on the moral defensive and the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, with no such inhibitions but motivated by hard-headed geopolitics, saw the gain from playing to India’s moral pretensions and showing empathy for Third World causes (anti-imperialism, anti-racism, etc).

Indira Gandhi, in trying to hold off potential US interference in India’s plan’s to enter the lists on the side of an independent Bangladesh in 1971, signed for tactical effect the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in August of that year. It checkmated Messrs Nixon & Kissinger and their attempts at militarily pressuring Delhi into laying off East Pakistan, but led the then Moscow supremo, Chairman Leonid Brezhnev, to believe he had succeeded in getting India to acquiesce in his scheme for Asian security that minimized America’s trans-Pacific role. The Brezhnev plan didn’t work out but the Soviet Union didn’t turn sour because an India trying to maintain its distance from both Washington and Moscow was Moscow’s next best option.

From the Seventies to the end of the Cold War in the mid-1990s India bobbled this power game the best it could until Narasimha Rao’s needlessly desperate move to gain traction with the US, the supposed victor in the 50-year super power face-off, resulted in a policy of bettering relations on Washington’s terms. In the event, he began sliding the policy towards the United States and in so doing ignored the basic axiom of international affairs, namely, that however a period of strife ends there’s always, for a country with India’s geostrategic heft, new regional and global power balances to negotiate and any imbalance to correct.

It is a natural policy direction that not only stayed ignored during the first BJP and the two terms of Congress rule, but was consolidated with Atal Bihari Vajpayee labeling India and the US “natural allies” and the forging of Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. Manmohan Singh followed up by signing the strategic and sovereignty-wise horrendous 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US formally reducing India to the status of America’s junior partner. It was a deal, one needs to be repeatedly reminded, cobbled together by the then Joint Secretary (Americas) S. Jaishankar, who was amply rewarded for his troubles with appointments as ambassador successively to China, the US, as Foreign Secretary and now Foreign Minister! All this was done, mind you, for the most part under the elastic rubric of making India “strategically autonomous”!

The surprising twist to this tawdry tale in which the Manmohan Singh government, for all intents and purposes, compromised the country’s sovereignty by surrendering its right to resume underground nuclear testing, thereby consigning India to the position of a second rate power and a US dependency because by so doing Delhi implicitly handed over the strategic security role against China to Washington, is that the so-called successor “nationalist” BJP dispensation of Narendra Modi sealed this country’s inferior standing. Modi has done so by weakening relations with Russia and Iran on Washington’s say so, seeking to buy American friendship with inane military hardware purchases and by transferring Indian brain power to the US with unending pleas for larger H1B visa quota. This, instead of transforming India’s economy by zeroing out the role of government in it, giving free rein to local ingenuity and entrepreneurship, investing fully in Indian talent and high-value technology programmes in the private sector, privatizing public sector units in all sectors, and easing labour laws and investment rules, announcing tax holidays, to induce foreign companies to set up export-oriented manufacturing units here and generate employment by the millions — something Modi should have accomplished in his first few months in office that he is yet to realize in his 6th year as PM. What we have in this respect are assurances from Modi that all’s well and exhortations to corporate leaders to do better, which looks suspiciously like a captain of a sinking ship, instead of plugging the hole, urging the passengers to ignore the rising waters.

Manmohan Singh, besides selling the nuclear deal to the Indian people on the patently fraudulent basis that it would somehow miraculously produce “20,000 megawatts of electricity by 2020”, also had his MEA explain this turn of policy to over-befriend the US as one that disdained the practices of the 19th Century balance of power system! In trying to clarify his foreign policy that sticks to Manmohan Singh’s policy path, Prime Minister Modi, speaking at a conclave in Delhi on 7th March, thoroughly muddied the rhetoric and explanation.

“There was an era [“when might was right”] where India was neutral but the parameter was being equidistant from all”, the PM asserted. “India today is also neutral but we are friends equally with all…We were neutral earlier and we are neutral today as well but that is not due to distance but due to the parameter of friendship.” “Some tried a nonalignment strategy too. Then an era came when relations were made on the basis of utility. But today’s era is of a world which is interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. Still the world is not able to come on one stage for a global agenda — removing poverty, fighting terrorism or addressing climate change. The whole world awaits this but this is not happening”, he added. He further opined that the 21st century while full of possibilities is lacking what he said was a “common global voice.” According to Modi, the main question facing the world is whether to survive by adjusting to the changed circumstances or to carve out our own path.

To ostensibly provide political cover for his universally beneficial foreign policy but not one that gains much for India in particular, he fell back on a quote by the Mahatma. “Mahatma Gandhi used to say he wants India’s progress so that the entire world can gain from the same”, he said. “In this one line lies India’s idea of globalisation and the mantra of collaboration ahead.” Whew!!

Deconstructing this articulation of India’s foreign policy is actually a simple task if one sees the words and phrases for what they are, a jumble conveying little other than the sheer confusion at the heart of it. For instance, being neutral or maintaining neutrality is apparently the central pillar of Modi’s thinking. The variable distinguishing the present policy of neutrality from past policies of neutrality is “friendship” with all, rather than “equidistance” from all.

Setting aside the legal implications of strict neutrality under international law — which, in any case, is definitely not what the PM intends to adhere to, equidistance in Modi’s mind precludes friendship with all when, in fact, friendship undergirds the ability of a country to maintain equidistance between contesting parties! And equally, evidencing equidistance in policies will motivate all powers to put out more for India. In the event, this distinction is at best spurious, and at worst makes no sense. Speaking agnostically, Modi’s policy is different from, say, Nehru’s nonalignment chiefly in the newly coined policy “parameter” of “friendship” that justifies closeness to America at the expense of friendship with other powers (Russia, Iran).

With the US deemed a “natural partner” — an upgrade from Vajpayee’s “natural ally”? — at the ‘Namaste Trump’ do in Motera, Ahmedabad, this formulation of friendship makes no bones about the policy tilt towards the US. This is so, per Modi, because “There is so much that we share: Shared Values & Ideals, Shared Spirit of Enterprise & Innovation, Shared Opportunities & Challenges, Shared Hopes & Aspirations”. Such a view presumes that these shared attributes and values at all matter in the harsh world of international relations and in a system of nation states where considerations of national interest alone prevail. To the extent that Modi believes that shared ideals dictate policies of countries is the degree to which he makes India vulnerable to targeted and cynical exploitation by big powers who are intent on furthering their narrow national interest.

Almost as soon as Trump departed these shores, the Modi government got a whiff of what the situation is and how it may actually pan out for India in the future. The anti-Citizenship Amendment Act riots in Delhi triggered considerable ire in Islamic countries and drew pointed criticism from the United Nations and from official agencies in the bastions of democracy — the US and Western Europe that Modi has sought to cultivate and curry favours from. However, entirely unmindful of the real factors impinging on policy making in most countries, the foreign minister S. Jaishankar, sounding like His Master’s Voice, reacted huffily. Rounding on the BJP regime’s favourite whipping boy — Pakistan, the UN Human Rights Commission, he thundered, “skirts around cross-border terrorism as if it has nothing to do with country next door.” Asked if India was losing friends, the minister-minion airily replied that “may be we are getting to know who our real friends are” which statement, if taken literally, would categorize the UN, US, UK, Iran and every other country and group that has expressed dismay at the treatment of Indian Muslims as not “real friends”. In which case, how will Modi, Jaishankar et al account for their policy of unconditional friendship with the US? And for their advocacy for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council seat for India? Worse, the foreign minister in a non-sequiter-ish fashion proceeded to conflate the concern of Indian Muslims and their lacking documents to prove their citizenship, which is at the heart of the opposition to the proposed National Register of Citizens that will follow in the wake of the CAA, with Parliament’s “right to set the terms of naturalization and citizenship”. It set up a straw man for him to publicly demolish!

All this is particularly problematic in the context of Modi’s jettisoning the “utility” value in deciding which country to get close to. In effect, it means he is pursuing a policy of pleasing Washington or Beijing even if it fetches no real, practical or substantive benefit to India, is at the cost of the national interest and security, and of the country losing its historic role as system balancer which role, were it to be retained by Delhi, will assure India maximum leverage. Given Modi’s patented stake in cultivating American presidents — Obama first and now Trump, rationalizing his policy of “friendship” seems strained when placed alongside Trump’s and Washington’s traditionally realpolitik-inspired attitude to America’s friends and the outside world in which exploiting Modi’s weakness — susceptibility to flattery and for grandstanding, for example, becomes the norm. As regards the other issue, in the face of unfolding de-globalisation — rising tariff barriers and restrictive trade practices, the PM’s outlook on an “interconnected, interrelated and interdependent” world seems quaint. But there will be consequences if such ideas are permitted to drive policies. More and more countries will dump cheap goods and old technologies in India which, in turn, will kill off indigenous effort and enterprise and any chances of the country being at the cutting edge in anything.

In striving, moreover, to fill the post of a “global voice”, which he claims is currently vacant, Modi is prepared to have India “adjust” to changing circumstances rather than, in his own words, have the country carve out its own particular path as rest of the states in the world are doing. Combined with the PM’s policy of fawning over America, China and the big powers generally, India is in for a rough ride. Especially troubling is the fact that with the captain of the ship seemingly bent on thus handing over the control of the steering wheel to extra-territorial entities, what will eventuate is an irreversible development.

And finally, there is unintended irony in Modi’s evoking Mahatma Gandhi. The world will indeed gain from India’s progress. But India will only progress if it hunkers down to take care of its own business by itself rather than trying to shoulder the problems of everyone else and by riding some great power’s coat tails. It is the sort of thing the Prime Minister may wish to ponder.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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8 Responses to Indian Foreign Policy: A mere jumble of words?

  1. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir….nowadays it has become fashionable to say that non alignment is ‘dead’. But I think India can still follow NAM, though with some diluted aspects as compared to cold war. I think India should go for strategic autonomous policy and take a lead role to counter balance China and USA. This Indian policy can be supported by nations like Japan, ASEAN etc. as they are looking for India as a balancer against global hegemons. So this autonomous policy can be turned into a security cooperation (also you have talked about Mod Quad and BRIS) in future with lead role played by India. Such a diluted non alignment movement can earn India good leverage but I know senseless Indian leadership will never follow it…

    What do you say sir??

  2. Raakbas says:

    Bharat Sir, it does not look like we have a plan to encourage entrepreneurship and rapid industrialization. No laws pertaining to land acquisition, labour, taxation, inspector raj has been changed. There seems to be no roadmap for disinvestment or changing the role of the Indian state. There seems to be no encouragement for excellence and innovation.

    Why do you think we seem to be going around in circles sir with no real progress? Things being what they are do you think we will ever become a great power?

  3. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Bharat sir do you think that the recent attack by Taliban after the peace deal has been supported by ISI (Taliban-ISI link is well known) because as long as Afghanistan remains on boil, Pakistan can play its strategic leverage against US???

    And sir one more thing….I have read your latest books (Staggering Forward and Why India is not a great power) and now I want to read your old book ‘Nuclear weapons and Indian Security’ because I want to read in detail about the realist approach of our Vedic culture. But I am not able to find this book anywhere, not even on amazon, flipkart etc…Sir so can u please tell me where can I find this book. I will be really gratefull to you as I am dying to read about realism in our Vedas…

    And sir I am sorry if I am irritating you with my frequent questions, but I have always admired your thoughts and consider you as my Guru as I want to become like you. That’s why I ask so many questions. I am also a student of I.R…

  4. vivek says:

    if you look at the past there is no way for a country to become a super power without breaking or demolishing current super powers (either by war or by separating current super power). Since India is nowhere in the race at-least for next 200 years (I assume) and Russia has already lost it to America, is China the next superpower?

  5. LowIQ says:

    Sighh…! One almost feels like not following what India is doing in the foreign policy sphere due to the same woolly-headed, clouded mindset, and the usual platitudes and buzzwords thrown about (now even more easy due to ubiquitous internet/social media).

    Forget Western Europe, Five Eyes nations and (in Asia) Japan, South Korea and Singapore (and to an extent China) — when one travels abroad, one finds that at the level of governance (govt offices, their friendliness and helpfulness towards citizens, setting up new businesses, general public administration viz. processing important or even simple documents like registering a plot of newly acquired/transferred land etc.), urban quality of life (noise and air pollution, commuting, walkability of cities, cleanliness etc.), infrastructure, strength of passport (simply put: how many countries can a citizen of nation X visit with just an eVisa, Visa on Arrival or merely by holding X’s passport), future readiness (AI, environmental issues, mass migration, sustainable/balanced development etc.), behaviour/politeness of people to each other etc. is way below even the tiny ASEAN nations. At this stage, we are worse off compared to even countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, (and lately, even Kigali–the capital of Rwanda, a country infamous for the 1994 genocide). A lot of hullabaloo over 2.5-3 trillion $ economy carefully hiding the shockingly low levels of per capita productivity, GDP and income. The numbers are eye opening (and are particularly agonising when seen in the light of the fact that we won independence 70+ years ago!). 20-25 years is an optimum time period to visibly turn around a country (plenty of examples for this: South Korea, Singapore, China, Vietnam and many others).

    Not an eternal optimist (unlike many others) I feel it is too late: the crucial period for us was the decade of 70s (and late 60s). If only a thorough, comprehensive, future-oriented, pro-India, pro-Indians policy was laid out in that period (it is my conviction that this should involve looking at different countries–especially Asian ones–instead of merely trying to failiingly and half heartedly copying the Anglo-American model), we could have moved on a new trajectory. Today we, a nation of 1.3 bn people, are kowtowing to: someone to make its visa policy more liberal(!); someone to help us set up nuclear power plants; someone to help us with FGFA and so on. Our universities and colleges do not make it to the top 100s; our cities are not in the top 20s (or even top 50s) of liveability/safety indices. Our ruling classes speak a language which most of the those ruled do not understand. And the biggest issue of them all–despite our huge potential, enviable and hoary history–an acute ability to *think* (Sri Aurobindo pointed this out more than a century ago, “I believe that the main cause of India’s weakness is not subjection, nor poverty, nor a lack of spirituality or Dharma, but a diminution of thought-power, the spread of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge. Everywhere I see an inability or unwillingness to think, incapacity of thought or thought-phobia. Our civilisation has become ossified, our Dharma a bigotry of externals, our spirituality a faint glimmer of light or a momentary wave of intoxication. So long as this state of things lasts, any permanent resurgence of India is impossible.”)!

    Samuel P. Huntington saw India taking its place not due to it rising through ranks, but because the powerful nations will indulge in a bloody war, which will leave only India as a relatively stable, rich and culturally vibrant power to shape the world in its weltanschauung. Tanham too wrote in 1992, a report which broadly comes to the same conclusion as Shri Karnad: India does not have a clear foreign policy (and provides n number of–some very amusing–reasons for it). See: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reports/2007/R4207.pdf. India’s future is clouded.

    My bad for writing such a long comment.

    PS: Oh wait! There is a secret, hidden 6th super power inside India, as one naval attache conveyed it to Shri Karnad: it is called the Indian bureacracy 😉

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