Beyond the hype


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THE foreign policy of our country has always reflected a visionary and statesmanlike political world view. Although commonly described as advancement of national self-interest, foreign policy in India more reflects a dominant mix of principle with some pragmatism. It might not be wrong to say that if there is a country in the world that can by and large adhere to enlightened self-interest, it is India. We may not have the same degree of freedom of choice as some smaller but relatively well off European states do, but as the children of Gandhi and Nehru, we have to be conscious of our place in the world.

Over the past two decades India has in a sense ‘arrived’ once again on the world scene. We were at the forefront of the Third World under Nehru. Together with Nasser and Tito, we planted the idea of a non-aligned world that grew into a powerful instrument of shaping a new world order not dictated by the outcome of World War II but by the aspirations of the vast majority of world citizens living in a relative state of want. The second arrival came with India joining the group of emerging economies with an increasingly influential diaspora and the role of providing a bridge at the high table negotiations on trade, climate and security, between the G-8 and the rest of the world. The founding fathers of independent India saw our independence incomplete without the emancipation of Africa; in our new avatar we must continue to engage with Africa to bring freedom from war, want, waste, and weather vicisitudes.

The sudden burst of energy seen in the recent visits of the PM to and from the neighbourhood and beyond – Japan, Australia, USA, Brazil for BRICS, G-20 – are cited as inclination and commitment to a new world order in which India will have a dominant place of honour. It is another matter that many of these were scheduled during the tenure of the previous government, though one must admit that we made the most of it. The question is what is most?

This might be an insignificant footnote in the larger context, but I nevertheless feel obliged to stand up for prematurely retired Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh, in part because she was appointed under my watch and that too after considerable discussion at the top. She was the topper of her batch, an extremely gifted, hard working, sober and solid diplomat. I saw her stand up for her service through the Devyani affair. That unhappy incident will perhaps be soon relegated to oblivion, but must remain a reminder of need to be analytically very alert for signals that tell the story that official communiques miss.


As we prepare for an enhanced engagement with the world and make our presence felt in the multilateral space, the long awaited rejig of the foreign service, including its expansion, becomes imperative. That India does not still have a diplomatic service the size of Singapore’s establishment in foreign affairs, should be an eye opener. At the same time the invitation to President Obama for the Republic Day parade was indeed a first of its kind, though we should look beyond the immediate optics and media hype. This was a culmination of several years of bipartisan political thinking about India in the US and not a mere goodwill beginning. Likely, it may provide a new chapter to our relationship.


The first two decades of the 21st century, the so called Asian Century, have shown a conspicuous positive tone for India in the international plane because of the ten years of diligent work by India in the leadership of Manmohan Singh. We must recall that the words, ‘When the Indian prime minister speaks the world listens with attention’, were spoken by the US President as an acknowledgement of the changing reality. The 123 Civil Nuclear Agreement with the US was already in our bag. More than a hundred countries were publicly supportive of India’s claim to be on the reformed UN Security Council. India’s major contribution to UN peace keeping was widely appreciated and rewarded. India’s voice was being heard in G-20 on global terrorism threats and addressing recession. We had taken our seat as an Observer at the Arctic Council. Afghanistan was repeatedly flagging the special relationship with India whilst Iran sought to work with India on Chabahar port to keep India connected with Afghanistan, and that despite the US/European sanctions. Russia was already negotiating Kudankulam III and IV and fortifying the strategic dimension of our foreign policy. That is a lot on the plate but, equally, expectations are growing exponentially. When one has a lot of friends not every one can be pleased and that is what diplomatic challenges are about.


The foreign policy springboard for the decades ahead is impressive. All that is needed is to take a stylish plunge. As a nation we must be clear that the vast ocean of opportunity should not be neglected because we look for little islands to dominate. The invitation to the SAARC members to attend the oath taking ceremony of the new government was undoubtedly far sighted, only to be ruined by haste to show success in dealing with Pakistan. First, though PM Nawaz Sharif played by the rules of the occasion by staying clear of politically sensitive meetings and utterances, the media was made to lap up the story about him being told off. Unsurprisingly, he went home to a hostile reception from his political opponents and the army. If that was not enough, the foreign secretary level talks were announced and then cancelled at the last moment. The reason could, of course, not be questioned but the fact that the new foreign secretary has travelled to Islamabad since has left the diplomatic bravado in shambles.

All that happened since the talks were called off is that many innocent citizens suffered loss of life, limb and property due to cease fire violations at the border and LoC, and several brave soldiers were martyred in terrorist attacks inside J&K, only to be followed by bon homie once again between our top officials. We must deal with SAARC as such and not as a series of bilaterals. Two things must however, be underscored: Our region is singularly unfortunate that a bilateral conflict or two have virtually stymied the growth of a desperately needed and endowed with huge potential regional organization. The other is the continuing conflict itself. We owe it to our succeeding generations to resolve the conflict and turn it into a win-win situation for all. Given the disparities in our size, population and economic strength, we must understand reciprocity not as charity but as a pragmatic requirement, essential for the success of the organization.


Lest one be accused of being myopic and not looking beyond the immediate neighbourhood in South Asia, checking out the state of our relations beyond would be useful. The Chinese President’s visit to Gujarat (sic) was but a precursor to the PM travelling to China. But is it really important to show China that we have friends who are not so friendly to them? Of course, in Japan we have investment options and a promising record as well, but then the Japanese do not allow problems with China to affect their investments in that country; in Australia we have a big friend in the region that China would like to see as an area of special influence; in the growing relationship with the US we may be seen as having an alternative plan for the economy and defence, and so on. It is unlikely that our statements in Japan or the Joint Statement with President Obama would have gone unnoticed in China. But then the Chinese have their own way of giving messages: the Chinese President came with some uninvited PLA guests at the LAC, leaving the Indian government mumbling the familiar ‘difference of perception’.

The US, Japan, Australia et al have a game plan vis-a-vis China and it is not cricket! We have tried to play with a straight bat all along, hoping and believing that this might be the best way to resolve our differences. It takes two to tango but we keep tapping China on the shoulder, not knowing whether we will get the dance. We might think that offering a cold shoulder now and then will be useful, but certainly India cannot become a part of someone else’s strategy. We must also not forget that the US has borrowed heavily from China and would have limits to any containment strategy possibly leaving us high and dry.

China has massive reserves for investment and would be more than willing to participate in developing infrastructure in India. But we should have no illusions that their companies would at the same time also be building roads in Pak-occupied Kashmir. Similarly, as a proud nation, how would we like to show Chinese watermarks on our show window projects? We raise an eyebrow when we see this in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives; would we unabashedly applaud them at home? All across Africa, as indeed in Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, we consider ourselves as competitors of China. Would our advocacy remain as vigorous if we allow the Chinese to flood the Indian landscape with their projects? Finally, will these be ‘here to stay’ projects or ‘build-transfer-leave’ arrangements?

Friendship with China, re-established by the historic visit of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is probably more difficult to handle than estrangement because the lines of the latter were clear. That is not to suggest that we should keep China at arms length. Closer and better relations with China are an imperative for the two of us as indeed for Asia and the world. But we need to learn to play the game the Chinese way. There are no quick fixes or PR bulldozing of China.


Before fixing our sights on the US, we should take stock of our relations with the Russian Federation. After all, over the decades in difficult moments it is the constant support of the USSR, and subsequently Russia, that has helped us through. When we did not have hard currency it was the rupee trade that kept us going, particularly for fuel and military hardware. Our peaceful nuclear programme has the Russian imprint, with Kudankulam being the latest example of our collaboration. US and Israel may well have gained an impressive share of our military supplies now but the core remains Russian, with much less fanfare and noise. This will not and perhaps ought not to change in the near future or even a more distant future.

But, of course, we are not dealing with the Russia we knew during the time of Indira Gandhi. It now has economic and political issues where India is helpless. Poland, Hungary and Afghanistan had posed a problem for our NAM perceptions, but Crimea and Ukraine are greater challenges for our foreign policy because of their unique context and implications. On the other hand, Russia needs friends today more than it did in the past. Amongst the many convergent points between India and Russia is the BRICS line-up, and as the US and Europe watch carefully we will enjoy a special advantage in the world if we can get this right.


The world comes to New York in September to the UN and, therefore, the new claimant to the world leadership naturally had to be there. Then there was the White House, again part of the routine exchange between heads of government. But the big ticket event was the Madison Square Garden gathering of a cheering crowd, the like of which has not been seen before. We do not know if US citizens heard it but certainly here at home we heard it as though America had found the answer to Obama! It is crucial to remember that we have always been careful in dealing with the diaspora because many societies, and more so in recent years, are uncomfortable about ethnic groups that seek to preserve separate identities in their newly acquired home. The attacks on temples in the US may well have something to do with heightened identity perceptions.

One must also not forget that most of the people of Indian origin are citizens of those countries, some born there. We can and should be proud of their success and rejoice in their continued sense of roots in India. But to flaunt that in an alien society is another matter; sadly it might even be one reason for hostility. Populism can at times prove to be expensive. The strength of soft diplomacy must not be underestimated. It has a resonance that goes far beyond the diaspora. We may have to look for innovative, collaborative models to overcome the cash crunch that cultural outreach programmes have suffered from in recent years.


India’s attempt at bonding through education has already acquired a substantial footprint in the shape of the South Asian and Nalanda universities. Becoming a true educational hub of excellence is a noble aspiration that India needs to pursue with greater confidence and enterprise. Our hesitation will give lead time to other destinations where outmoded policies and misplaced doubts are not hindering the pace of cooperation with the best educational institutions of the world. We need to open up to the world even as we encourage our own institutions to explore the world, perhaps in the footprints of Indian industry multinationals.

India’s work is cut out to explore the full potential of Central Asia, align more effectively with the South East Asian economies, enhance its presence in Africa where India’s assistance programmes are tremendously popular and Indian industry and business is making a conspicuous presence felt. But, most of all, we need to anticipate the changes that will accompany and follow the forces that are already sweeping the Arab world. The Arab Spring has already turned into a sultry summer and there may well be a chilly winter to follow. There is great uncertainty about US strategic engagement once its dependence on Middle East oil is obliterated because of adequate sourcing of shale gas on the American continent itself.


Meanwhile security in the region remains under a question mark with the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring, the continuing stalemate between Palestine and Israel, and the growing distance between Iran and Saudi Arabia along with the UAE etc. Sometimes the Middle East looks at India, and even factors in China as possible candidates to fill up the security vacuum left by a possible withdrawal of US presence, even though the latter continues to deny any such plans. India has over six million expatriates in the region who send substantial remittances home; in addition we get close to 80 per cent of our fuel from the region. Though India has a special relationship with the people and leadership of the region, it has unfortunately ceded space to other influences, thus losing a precious potential. Though the complexities of the region’s politics do not make it easy, our history as indeed economic logic, compels us to commit ourselves to the welfare of the region. India’s instinct that the Middle East can afford to address its security through self-reliance and cooperative assistance of friends like India must never be lost sight of.

Other than the media hype that has accompanied the shaping of a more visible India-US relations, so far there is very little to show, if the military purchases by India are discounted. There are little more than reassuring words on the Civil Nuclear Agreement, precious little movement on H1B1 visas, continuing divergence on climate change, and ambiguity on our attempt to align US-India positions on ISIS, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, South China Sea, Indian Ocean, even Bangladesh.

Foreign policy being a matter of promotion of self-interest, perhaps enlightened self-interest in the case of India, divergence of positions is understandable. However, the worrying aspect is that many of these issues are of critical relevance to India. This is not a situation which we can afford to be in while being categorized as natural allies of the US, as distinct from the strategic partnership that we had carefully defined in the past. Populism, ad hocism, and scoring brownie points to sell the story of steering India to a dominant position in the world might prove to be costly. India had established a significant presence in world fora over the past few decades through careful and sustained effort. But being at the high table does not just mean a hearty meal; it also means having to pay for it. India must address its home economy and political consensus to remain a role model for the world.


Finally, the ‘we love China, we do not love China’ might not serve to curtail China’s growing influence. Expectations and indeed the needs of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives among others, are substantial. Our economic conditions impose some constraints that China does not have. Merely offering more naval patrols and some military assistance in addition to the aid we give will hardly do. What we need is a fundamental rethink to accept a changing reality and for that we must accept that all that looks good may not necessarily be due to subjective conditions of irresistible charm and popularity of a particular leadership. Equally, all that is bad cannot simply be blamed on someone else’s lack of ability or intent. The world deals with a modern India that it has known over the decades, not merely with the government of the day. It was not for nothing that Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani chose not to displace the international legacy of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.