Diluting the fundamentals


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A tectonic shift is taking place in India’s foreign policy. This is the process that had begun over two decades ago, since the embracing of the neo-liberal economic reforms trajectory under the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, initiated by Manmohan Singh, then the finance minister. This is a shift away from the foreign policy direction that evolved during the course of India’s epic struggle for independence and subsequently concretized by Jawaharlal Nehru.

A foreign policy pursued by any country can never be static. It is inherently a dynamic process determined by changes taking place in global politics and the place the country seeks to occupy in the international comity of nations. At another level, foreign policy is essentially an extension of domestic policies and a reflection of the dominant classes that control the reins of state power.

The emerging independent Indian Republic pursued a path of independent capitalist development. This needed to be protected, amongst others, from being encroached upon by international capital, given a process of conflict as well as compromise with global powers. Global powers had then openly and aggressively pursued a policy of control over the economic resources and economic policy processes in newly independent countries. This was during and after the wave of decolonization that gathered pace after the defeat of fascism in the Second World War. With a large number of Indians having served the colonial British Army in various wars, including World War I and the series of Indo-Afghan wars, there was a strong feeling that our foreign policy should aim at ensuring global peace as one of its key elements, alongside furthering the objective of maintaining an autonomous and independent foreign policy.


This explained the resistance to imperialist encroachment on our market’s relatively cheap labour and the large potential of the new markets of the newly independent countries, who too pursued similar objectives. The consequent Indian slogan of ‘self-reliance’ and the establishment of a public sector to create the infrastructure for capitalist development was pursued along with strengthening the solidarity among the Afro-Asian independent countries against such imperialist pressures. It was the convergence of all these objectives that led to the evolution of what is commonly perceived as the ‘Nehruvian foreign policy’, leading to the concept of the Non-Aligned Movement. Non-alignment, therefore, emerged not merely as an instrument of bargaining between the rival global centres as the Cold War period set in, but had a deeper resonance with India’s objectives and context.

To set the record straight, such a policy emerged during the end of the 19th century. At a Congress session in 1897, C. Sankaran Nair, then Congress President stated: ‘Our true policy is a peaceful policy... with such capacity to internal development as our country possesses, to such crying need as reform process... we need a period of prolonged peace.’ This was subsequently crystallized by Jawaharlal Nehru. His travels to Europe and participation in the International Congress of Oppressed Nationalities (ICPN) held in Brussels in February 1927, which assembled on one platform the representatives of colonial peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin America, brought him in touch with left-oriented political workers, organizations and thinkers from all parts of the world and constituted a landmark in the formulation of his ideas. So says P.V. Narasimha Rao, in his paper published in the volume, Nehru: The Nation Remembers (1989). Advocating the pursuit of an independent foreign policy compatible with independent India’s self-interest, Nehru, as the first prime minister of independent India said in September 1947, ‘We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which has led in the past to world wars, which might again lead to disasters in even vaster scale.’

This led to subsequent developments like the Afro-Asian Conference, 1949, the Bandung Conference and the formulation of the Panchsheel. The five principles were mutual respect for each others’ territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and peaceful coexistence. On this, Nehru had said, ‘I have no doubt that these principles of international behaviour, if accepted and enacted upon by all countries of the world, will go a long way to put away fears and apprehensions that cast dark shadows over the world.’


The evolution of the policy of non-alignment was, however, not independent of India’s national interests, of developing an autonomous and independent trajectory of capitalist development. Recollect that Nehru had initially sought the assistance of the USA for the development of core industries like steel factories. Upon US refusal (who had instead argued that India could buy all such requirements from the international market promoting US domestic industry) Nehru approached other developed countries like Germany. Upon their refusal too on similar grounds and with the then Soviet Union offering unconditional assistance in helping India to develop its core industries and basic infrastructure, Nehru embraced such assistance, which built India’s public sector and developed the basic infrastructure. The policy of non-alignment thus had an element of bargaining between the two blocs of global influence during the Cold War. This was evidenced by the fact that post-Soviet assistance, some western powers like Germany also chipped in, partly to prevent a wholesale pro-Soviet tilt in India’s positions on international events.


Non-alignment mobilized solidarity among the developing countries for a more equitable global economic order. One of the slogans of that period was the call for a ‘new international economic order’. This symbolized the struggle of the developing ‘South’ against the domineering ‘North’. Further, non-alignment was unequivocal in its expression of solidarity with the remaining countries struggling for political independence: the struggle of the Palestinians for their long denied homeland (tragically it continues to be denied), the struggle of the South African people against the hated apartheid regime, the struggles of the peoples of Western Sahara, of Nicaragua, all against imperialist domination.

Non-alignment thus had a strong anti-imperialist element, a point underscored by Indira Gandhi when she assumed chairpersonship of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) from Fidel Castro, at the New Delhi NAM summit in the 1980s. Non-alignment represented a struggle of the developing countries against all such issues. This is still valid in the current post-Cold War phase, with the efforts for the imposition of a unipolar global hegemony by the USA. This understanding is unfortunately absent from the current foreign policy discourse in India (a point which I will return to later).


Foreign policy, essentially being a reflection and a continuation of domestic national interests, can also be influenced by an element of jingoism. In the current situation, with a distinct rightward shift in politics as represented by the Narendra Modi government, is finding expression in the efforts to change the secular, democratic, republican character of modern India into a rabidly intolerant, fascistic, ‘Hindu rashtra’ of the RSS kind. The BJP, after all, is the political arm of the RSS. To further this objective, the Hindu communal vote bank is sought to be consolidated by whipping up hatred against religious minorities, mainly Muslims and more recently, Christians. This is the worst expression of ‘vote bank politics’.

Jingoistic efforts to unite ‘the Hindus’ has often led to ‘anti-Pakistan’ positions. While on the issue of protecting our country’s sovereignty and combating to defeat Pak-sponsored cross-border terrorism, there can be no compromise, and therefore to whip up such feelings ably assists their efforts to achieve ‘Hindu consolidation’. This, in turn, feeds religious fundamentalism at the other extreme. Both in fact feed on each other and thrive at the expense of disrupting the very ‘idea of India’.

To substantiate the point, note that soon after the Vajpayee government lost its majority by a single vote, and on the eve of the 1999 general elections, the Information Secretary of Pakistan based Laskhar-e-Tayyeba said in an interview: ‘The BJP suits us. Within a year, they have made us into a nuclear and missile power. Laskhar-e-Tayyeba is getting a good response because of the BJP’s statements. It is much better than before. We pray to God that they come to power again. Then we will emerge even stronger’ (Hindustan Times, 19 July 1999). Instead of ‘national interests’, the interests of the Indian ruling party and its efforts to metamorphose the modern Indian republic can play an important role in understanding such shifts in foreign policy, however much they may not be in the larger national interests of the country.


This apart, the post-Cold War situation left the world with a single super power. Post-Cold War, it was widely expected that international relations would move towards a situation of multipolarity as opposed to bipolarity. Instead, the urge of the USA to consolidate its global hegemony is seeing this natural movement of multipolarity being manipulated into unipolarity under US tutelage. Global developments over the last two decades confirm such efforts. NATO, whose rationale for existence simply ceased with the end of the Cold War, was instead transformed into a near global autonomous military power under US leadership. It has armed itself with the unilateral declaration of the ‘right to pre-emptive strike’ against any independent sovereign nation which is perceived as a threat to such global domination. The balkanization of the former Yugoslavia, interventions in Afghanistan among others, only confirm such autonomous military striking qualities and designs of NATO. In addition, the United States has fortified itself with its own strategic document providing itself with the right to unilaterally intervene militarily against independent countries.

Post-Cold War, a US strategic document prepared by the Pentagon, titled ‘Defense Planning Guidance’, sets out the strategy for the permanent US dominance of the world. It said: ‘Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival… that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. We (must) endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.’ Thus the strategy of ‘containment of China’ is central.

Condoleeza Rice, during the 2000 presidential campaign, had articulated this policy in a much cited article in Foreign Affairs: ‘China is a great power with unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan… China also resents the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.’ For these reasons, she stated: ‘China is not a ‘status quo’ power but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favour. That alone makes it a strategic competitor, not the ‘strategic partner’ the Clinton administration once called it.’ It is essential, she argued, to adopt a strategy that would prevent China’s rise as regional power. In particular, ‘the United States must deepen its cooperation with Japan and South Korea and maintain its commitment to a robust military presence in the region.’ Washington should also ‘pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance’, and bring it into an anti-Chinese alliance system.


This policy direction got strengthened soon after the 9/11 terror attack in the US. The Cold War slogan of ‘War against Communism’ was now replaced by the global ‘War on Terror’. Adopting its strategic doctrine of preemptive strike, President Bush declared that: ‘We fight our enemies abroad instead of waiting for them to arrive in our country. We seek to shape the world not merely be shaped by it.’

In pursuance of this strategy, the USA today has 702 military installations across the world in 132 countries. It possesses nearly 10,000 active and operational nuclear warheads, 2,000 of these on hair trigger alert. During the Bush regime, it was the slogan, ‘America is at war’, that dominated US policy. This naturally sent its military expenses into a spiral. In 1989, the US military expenditure was $304.08 billion. This had reduced to $280.96 billion in 1999, but has now shot up to $1.14 trillion. By the end of the Cold War, US military expenditure as a proportion of total world military expenditure, stood at 36 per cent and that of the USSR at 23.1 per cent. By 2008, its share of world military expenditure had risen to 41.5 per cent.

Simultaneously, in the sphere of economics, the post-Cold War world provided hitherto unknown avenues for unscrupulous profit maximization by international finance capital. The realization of this desire by global capital began the process of globalization, whose ideological backbone was neo-liberal economic reforms. In a nutshell, these financial and economic reforms were aimed at prising open the material and human resources and markets of the countries of the developing world to generate super-profits. While vastly enlarging the gap between the wealthy and the rich, both between and amongst countries, this process has led to extreme ‘primitive accumulation’.


Under the onslaught of such globalization, the Indian capitalist class could no longer keep pace with the levels of profit generation being reaped by international finance capital. They thus sought for themselves an opportunity to share such ‘spoils of profit’ by embracing the trajectory of neo-liberal economic reforms, claiming their share of such global loot. While the economic consequences of this choice will be analyzed elsewhere, such a trajectory meant that the foreign policy of India should be correspondingly tweaked. This came with the ideological prop provided by Manmohan Singh, when he spoke in Parliament as prime minister, replacing the Nehruvian ‘national interest’, with ‘enlightened national interest’. This led to a series of shifts in foreign policy positions that virtually abandoned the time tested non-aligned paradigm and moved India closer to becoming a ‘subordinate’ US ally in foreign policy matters. This was seen as being essential to pursue the trajectory of neo-liberal economic reforms and appease international finance capital.


Indian missions abroad were soon directed to deal with economic matters as a priority, replacing matters of principle and the earlier concerns of solidarity among the developing countries regarding the North-South global divide. Pursuit of global collaborations led to a slew of domestic liberalization and financial reforms that are being carried forward by the Modi government today with greater zeal. The foreign policy implication of this is there for all to see with the slew of foreign visits of the prime minister. The logic of rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty at the G-20 ‘high table’ achieved by Manmohan Singh is being carried forward with greater vigour by PM Modi, with his new found friend ‘Barack’.

Slogans like ‘Make in India’ currently fashionable have serious implications in terms of our economic relations with other countries apart from foreign policy implications. The slew of Free Trade Agreements already in place have adversely affected the interests of India’s domestic industry. The Modi government is vigourously seeking to carry forward such free trade agreements with the European Union and other major powers in the world. Far from promoting domestic industrialization, this, while creating greater profit-maximization avenues for foreign goods and capital, will have disastrous consequences and may instead set in motion a domestic de-industrialization.


The Indo-US Nuclear Deal was a significant landmark in the evolution of our current policy direction. As anticipated, the deal went beyond civilian nuclear cooperation, pressurizing India to be a subordinate ally of US global strategic concerns and foreign policy. Significant changes in Indian foreign policy began soon after. This has clearly manifested in transforming our time tested and sturdy relations with West Asia and North Africa. Following unilateral US-imposed sanctions on Iran, India’s crude oil imports from Iran plunged from close to four lakh barrels per day in 2010-11 to 2.6 lakh barrels per day in 2012-13. This happened despite the fact that Iranian imports were much cheaper than in the international market and, importantly, India could pay in Indian rupees or any other currency, ‘appropriate to the situation’.

Confirming such a shift in India’s foreign policy orientation in February 2007 at a talk at India’s Institute of Defence Studies, former US Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation and Cooperation, Stephen G. Rademaker, said that the July 2005 nuclear agreement had helped in bringing about a big change in India’s attitude. ‘The best illustration of this is the two votes India cast against Iran at the IAEA,’ he said, adding: ‘I am the first person to admit that the votes were coerced.’

Such subservience to US interests was once again witnessed during the US secret service agencies illegal surveillance revealed by the Snowden exposure. In sharp contrast to the strong protest launched by even long-standing US allies like France and Germany, India’s protests were at best mute. The invasive US intelligence gathering and obnoxious violation of sovereignty of independent countries and of basic universal human liberties led to the French president, German chancellor and Brazil’s president expressing indignation and strong protest. The US eventually had to apologise to these countries. In contrast, a day after these exposures showed India was amongst the top in the US list of such surveillance, India’s external affairs minister said that such reprehensible transgression was ‘not snooping’. He brushed this serious issue away by saying; ‘This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only a computer study and a computer analysis of patterns of calls.’


Likewise vis-a-vis Syria, India virtually abandoned its traditional alliances and voted in favour of a US-sponsored resolution legitimizing the military invasion of Syria after having abstained on a similar vote earlier. On both these occasions, only the exercise of veto by Russia and China prevented yet another US military adventure in West Asia.

India gave expression to such a shift in foreign policy in a new document titled ‘Non-alignment 2.0: a Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century’, released on 28 February 2012. The document declared a threefold purpose: ‘To lay out the opportunities that India enjoys in the 21st century; to identify the challenges and threats it is likely to confront and to define a broad perspective that India needs to adopt as it works out its strategic autonomy.’ Our main concern now appears to be regarding the People’s Republic of China, which this document says, ‘is the one major power that impinges on India’s geo-political space. As its economic military capabilities expand, its power differential with India is likely to widen.’

The release of this document was legitimized by the presence of a panel of speakers consisting of the then National Security Advisor and his two predecessors including one who had served the Vajpayee-led BJP administration. The message was clear, irrespective of whether it is the Congress or the BJP that leads the government, the shift in India’s foreign policy has their nod.

In fact, the BJP’s lip service of opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal was more an expression of its pique that a Congress government was executing it instead of them. The pro-US tilt in foreign policy under the Vajpayee government was carried forward by the Manmohan Singh government, resulting in India becoming a subordinate ally of the USA in foreign policy matters. Vajpayee as prime minister wrote to President Bush on the very night of the 9/11 World Trade Centre strikes. The concluding sentence of this letter says: ‘We (India) stand ready to cooperate with you (US) in the investigation of this crime and to strengthen our partnership in leading international efforts to ensure that terrorism never succeeds again.’


There can be no dispute over the offering of cooperation in investigating terrorist crimes. This is unexceptionable. What clearly revealed the Indian interests in serving as subordinate US ally was the formulation to ‘strengthen our partnership in leading international efforts.’ The BJP’s fond hope and belief that it was in a ‘partnership’, albeit as a junior with the USA, was sadly belied for the Vajpayee government when the USA instead opted to ally with Pakistan in its efforts to crack down on the Taliban. Clearly, the US had its own military and strategic considerations in so deciding. The Vajpayee government was even prepared to offer logistical support for the US to stage military operations in pursuit of its military interventions in the region.

This shift is now being carried forward by the Modi government. The recent visit of President Obama has carried forward the joint military exercises, particularly naval exercises, after the US has deployed two-thirds of its global naval fleet in the Indian Ocean. Earlier too, joint naval exercises were conducted by India with the US along with Japan, Australia and Singapore. India has thus clearly signalled that it can play a role in assisting the US in ‘containing’ China.


The US-India defence agreement, which was the precursor for the Indo-US nuclear deal, has now been renewed for another ten years. Massive orders have been placed with US corporates to buy defence equipment. Simultaneously, Indo-Israel military ties are also being strengthened. Israel has been a steadfast US ally in West Asia. India is already the largest purchaser of Israeli weapons in the world. Despite forceful and repeated pleas in Parliament to stop or at least suspend such military purchases till Israeli attacks on the Palestinians in the Gaza strip cease, the Modi government has disregarded such criticism and continued to strengthen these military ties. In the bargain, India has become Israel’s biggest financier. The profits Israel makes through such sale of arms to India continue to finance its military operations against the Palestinians. The Modi government has thus patently violated India’s long standing commitment and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, lest the USA be displeased. Reportedly, one of its cabinet ministers has made statements suggesting that India’s earlier positions upholding the Palestinian cause are no longer relevant in today’s world. This is a betrayal of India’s long standing consensual foreign policy orientation.

In order to appease the US, the law passed by the Indian Parliament on the Indo-US civilian nuclear co-operation is being further tweaked by the Modi government to absolve US corporates supplying nuclear power reactors to India from any liability towards an unfortunate nuclear accident that can have gory consequences for our people. This will hold even if it is established that the US corporates supplied defective equipment. The Modi government is trying to put in place rules that will only make the Indian operator, i.e., the Government of India’s Department of Atomic Energy solely responsible for all compensation and rehabilitation of the victims. In other words, the Indian people would end up paying for damages caused by faulty US nuclear equipment.


Such a subservient attitude to US corporate needs and US global strategic constituencies aimed at consolidating its global hegemony can be noted in all other areas as well. Under the ongoing WTO Doha Round of negotiations on agriculture, India has provided the US and the European Union greater access to the Indian markets for the sale of their highly subsidized agriculture and dairy products. The Indian farmer, already a victim of an intense agrarian distress, forcing him/her to commit distress suicide, thus faces complete ruination. Regarding Intellectual Property Rights and Patent laws controlling the import of US drugs, major relaxations are being actively considered by the Modi government. This will make the cost of drugs and health treatment in India much more expensive.

Under the international climate change negotiations, the Modi government appears to be reneging from the earlier Indian commitments based on the universal principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, implying that the industrial West should bear a larger quantum of costs in proportion to the damage it has done to the global climate. Instead of insisting that the US and the developed countries adhere to the accepted norms of reduction in carbon emissions, the Modi government has unilaterally announced such reductions in India. This necessitates the move towards replacing many existing technologies with less carbon emitting ‘greener technologies’. Earlier, the US and the industrialized countries were expected to bear the cost of such technological transition by the developing countries, including India, by earmarking funds from their respective countries. This now appears to have been abandoned. India requires an exponentially higher level of energy production to tackle its widespread poverty and backwardness. By absolving the US and the developed countries of any responsibility in developing our energy requirements through cleaner technologies the Indian people will have to bear the entire burden.


Thus the pro-US shift in foreign policy negates India’s long standing adherence to values that nurtured and shaped our position in the international comity of nations. A subservience to advance US interests in the foreign policy sphere negatively impacts upon the livelihood conditions and health of our people in a big way.

As a justification, India has articulated the need for such a policy in order to contain China’s growing influence. China’s growing influence in Africa, amongst other developing countries or with our immediate neighbours, is essentially based on the strength of the Chinese economy. Its capacity to invest higher amounts in many developing countries cannot be challenged by mere articulation of foreign policy positions. China has maintained a growth rate of about ten per cent for over three decades.

Citing China’s growing economic influence among our neighbours as a prime reason for such a fundamental shift in our foreign policy, is not tenable simply because India’s economic development does not provide us with enough surpluses that can be of assistance to our neighbours in any substantial manner. Such absence of surplus resources at India’s command necessarily implies its relatively weaker position vis-à-vis China as far as our immediate neighbours are concerned. Given such subservient positions and directions, does India have an alternative in terms of foreign policy that can better serve the interests of our country and its people? Yes, of course we have. To begin with, India’s foreign policy should be based on the existing ground realities. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of rousing Indian jingoism, it is clear that relations with our neighbours can only improve on the basis of protracted talks across the table to resolve our long standing disputes. These cannot be resolved through war as we have bitterly learnt. With its jingoistic political considerations, the BJP has blown hot and cold as far as relations with Pakistan are concerned. With regard to the other neighbours, our relations with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Male or Bhutan can only be improved on the basis of Panchsheel.


Without in any way compromising our interests or the integrity of India’s territorial sovereignty, India’s relations with China can only improve through meaningful negotiations over our long-standing border dispute. In his breakthrough visit to China in the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had clearly said that while the negotiations of the border dispute continue, India and China should vastly improve their bilateral relations in other areas that are of mutual interest and benefit. The future of India crucially depends on how successfully the Modi government conducts itself in carrying forward these objectives. Improvement of relations with China will help India in various fields like the economy, tourism, etc., but this cannot be done by becoming a US appendage, in foreign policy terms, in the region.

The same applies to India’s much publicized ‘Look East’ policy. India’s subservience to US global strategic interests will only help in enlarging our trust deficit with these countries.

India’s ‘national interests’ that define our foreign policy objectives can only advance when we unequivocally stand for strengthening the solidarity among the developing countries to meet the US challenge. And the challenge is mounting in the USA’s hectic pursuit of its unipolar global hegemony.

This is not to argue that India’s foreign policy should return to the moorings of its original policy direction. That world, which designed the contours of foreign policy during the period of decolonization and the Cold War, no longer exists. In today’s world, where the US is desperate to impose a unipolarity against the natural post-Cold War development of multipolarity, must be resisted in Indian self-interest. India must unequivocally champion multipolarity in global relations. For this, while developing friendly relations with all countries of the world, India must actively strengthen the forums of solidarity amongst the developing countries like IBSA, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation, and achieve its legitimate aspiration as a permanent member of the Security Council. This, not by appeasing the US or acquiescing to US global strategic concerns, but by ‘genuinely enlightened national interest’ asserting and manifesting itself with a carefully articulated foreign policy that strengthens India’s independent standing in the world.