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India@75: A macho foreign policy that projects power

External affairs minister S Jaishankar makes no bones about admitting that his only consideration in making decisions is whether they will benefit India. This was never so definitive and fundamental before, not even during Rao’s reform phase

August 22, 2022 / 04:55 PM IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Image: AP)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Image: AP)

When India was only eight years young as an independent nation, its foreign policy erected its first milestone, which has been replicated many times since, until the country’s ongoing Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav.

India assembled an impressive coalition of newly-independent and emerging nations in Asia and Africa at the 1955 Bandung Conference, which paved the way for the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The assembly enabled India to punch way above its weight on the global stage although its people were poor, and its economic power insignificant. This coalition has remained India’s primary constituency in the community of nations ever since.

Indians today increasingly boast about their country’s new alliances, stronger relations with developed countries, and act as if a new India has arrived in the international arena as a great power.

Yet, India can ignore the `Bandung spirit’ even now only at its own peril. Most other countries in the world have rooted their foreign policy in regional alliances and depend on them to advance their core interests.

The Europeans have the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The south east Asian nations have the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Africans have the African Union, and the Latin Americans have several such groups, big and small.

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India is without a useful regional coalition. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a platform for using India as a whipping boy or to wrest benefits from New Delhi for its other members. The Group of 77 (G-77) and NAM still remain the only constituencies that New Delhi can turn to in times of diplomatic need. These organisations must be nurtured at all times.

The early direction of India’s foreign policy was foretold. Although the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is credited with having crafted it, Indian diplomacy, right from the start, was rooted in Mahatma Gandhi’s vision and convictions.

Within the freedom movement, there was a consensus, long before independence, on the essence of free India’s external affairs. It is evident in Gandhi’s correspondence with Leo Tolstoy. It was foretold in Vladimir Lenin’s scathing attack on the British for convicting Lokmanya Tilak for sedition, describing them as `jackals‘ for sentencing `Indian democrat Tilak’ to exile and imprisonment in Burma.

Those sentiments were pervasive: Tamil poet Subramania Bharati’s famous poem extolling Russia’s October revolution serves as a window as to why India and the Soviet Union forged their close relationship with mass approval until that country’s break-up — and since then, with its successor state, the Russian Federation.

Some of the costly diplomatic mistakes which India made early on – such as taking the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations – were also on account of the principled and idealistic character of its foreign policy.

After Nehru’s death, during his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership, there was an overreach within the framework of the same Nehruvian foreign policy. The way Sikkim became part of the Indian Union rankled many foreign capitals. The Indian Peacekeeping Force, which fought the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, raised questions abroad.

Some of Indira Gandhi’s actions, no doubt, were forced on her. The absence of international support for the just struggle of the people of East Pakistan prompted her to take actions to avoid her father’s mistakes on Jammu and Kashmir. Rajiv Gandhi’s pre-emptive military action in Siachen also falls in this category.

It was in the nature of Indira Gandhi’s personality and governing style that her diplomats should become fixated with what they thought she desired. This continued under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership. Unlike China, which was nimble and adaptive in its diplomacy, even as Beijing’s goals remained consistent, India’s external affairs became fossilized, more like that of the Soviet Union.

A typical example was Africa. Without taking into account that decolonisation had been achieved in most of the continent, India continued to spend billions there without enough thought being paid to adequate diplomatic returns.

Tweaking India’s West Asia policy by establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel was not undertaken on questionable grounds of ideology.

It is moot if this stagnation in foreign policy coincided with economic underperformance under Indira Gandhi, belying expectations in the Nehru years of India’s potential as a free nation. If this rationale is accepted, there is merit in the logic that India can only become a great power if its economy performs exceptionally well.

Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao put realpolitik at the front and centre of Indian foreign policy, aided by his long experience as minister for external affairs. The end of the Cold War helped in pushing through changes, which would otherwise have been resisted by his party and the opposition. Even so, quite often Rao had to resort to subterfuge within the Congress party, where his rivals had virtually no clue of foreign affairs.

The Narendra Modi years are too recent to be analysed within the framework of a broad 75-year review. Besides, contemporary developments are constantly in the spotlight. External affairs minister S Jaishankar makes no bones about admitting that his only consideration in making decisions is whether they will benefit India. This was never so definitive and fundamental before, not even during Rao’s reform phase. Whether it is dealing with Gulf countries after the pandemic or influencing the Quad, a grouping of countries which are oriented towards Western ideological positions, Jaishankar is constantly reviewing what there is for India before arriving at a decision.

A big success of Modi’s foreign policy so far is that it is unprecedentedly macho: no country, howsoever powerful, is allowed to even mildly taunt his government, let alone bully India. It is paying handsome dividends.

Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal.
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