The evolution of India’s foreign policy over the years, and the changes (for better or worse) in the Modi era.
Rima M | Rakesh Sharma
As we hurtle towards the last phase of the general elections, we have seen an ugly contest unfold – the heat is notched up, and the dust kicked up is a veritable storm. A lot of the conversations – at least in some circles – have veered towards India’s foreign policy evolution in these ‘Modi Years.’
On this edition of Digging Deeper, we try to decode how India represented itself in the last five years on the international stage. But on this first episode, we will address the evolution of India’s foreign policy. How we are, and what we have become since independence. When we return for the next part, we will examine the Modi Years. This is part one of our two part series: India and the World.
From protest to consolidation?
On March 26, 2019, Uzair Younus, director at Albright Stonebridge Group, wrote in The Diplomat about India's evolution from what was earlier a protest voice on the world stage.
The article calls the recent India-Pakistan crisis as a testimony to the fact that big guns like France, Germany, Australia, and the United States are willing to stand behind India in the international arena.
The fact though is that in the context of Pakistan, India has always wielded more power and enjoyed more credibility in the international arena while Pakistan – despite being a strategic ally of China and the US for geographical and tactical reasons – has always been known as a bit of a loose cannon internationally because of its inner instability, its soft stance on terrorism, and poor democratic credentials – all the things that India's sturdy democratic values have not been associated with. It is important to understand that a country's international credibility has a lot to do not just with how it deals with allies and adversaries but its own internal matters. US President Donald Trump, for instance, does not enjoy the respect internationally – despite his repeated claims of “We are respected again in the world” – that President Obama was accorded because of his inability to understand not just the fundamentals of foreign policy and international relations but also the tenets of a functioning democracy in a country that was once known as the leader of the free world, a “shining house upon a hill,” as Reagan would have it.
The Diplomat also delineates India's strategic outlook in the early decades post-independence as a foreign policy that was built on three key pillars: "nonalignment in the international arena; preservation of autonomy in domestic affairs; and solidarity among developing nations, particularly those that had recently gained independence from colonial powers. This policy continued throughout the Cold War, when India leaned toward the Soviet Union while deftly maintaining strategic autonomy and charting its own course in a bipolar international order.” This began to change a little after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was an economic crisis looming large at home.” Younus continues, “India slowly opened its economy through careful economic liberalization that signaled the end of the License Raj, and at the same time began to engage with the rest of a world on a different set of norms.”
The high rates of economic growth ushered through domestic reforms attracted international investors and India’s strategic thinkers quickly captured this opportunity. "Economic attractiveness gave the country space to engage the rest of the world on its own terms. This meant that India would not give in easily on strategic issues, but it would at the same time be flexible and engage with the rest of a world to achieve win-win outcomes.”
Now, says the writer, India seeks to position itself among the great powers by showcasing a willingness to take on more international responsibilities to achieve the holy grail in the international order: a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, something only five countries enjoy: US, UK, Russia, China, and France. (Not Germany, surprisingly enough.)
We ask though, just how much is the hyperbole connected with PM Modi's legacy as "global leader" to do with projection rather than facts. Is it just uncomfortable hugs and undiplomatic first name-calling, or is there something in the way he has changed India’s standing in the world after all? We try and unearth the answers today.
The Diplomat talks about three emerging shifts in the international order in recent times: Terrorism, climate change, and the rise of China.
But let’s take a look inward for a second: if we look at recent events, the Indian leadership's repeated failure to stem domestic terrorism and caste- and religion-based violence, the electoral strategy of using the bogeyman of the National Citizenship Register, giving an election ticket to a terror accused in Bhopal etc, belies its commitment to deal with terror impartially on the world stage especially when in recent times, it has shown no qualms about extending a warm welcome to the likes of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman whose record of human rights violations on domestic soil and role in terror funding has been critiqued internationally. This is not just in relation to the Jamal Khashoggi case, where it has been alleged that the Washington Post journalist was murdered on the behest of MBS. While the current dispensation may condemn terrorism on foreign soils on occasion (New Zealand, US), its record on internal terrorism is at best inconsistent and at worst unacceptable.
Next: climate change. India’s commitment to reducing emissions from oil-based engines has but remained a pipedream. Though not strictly related to climate change, let’s take the issue of air pollution. 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. That is not a statistic you see peddled on the WhatsApp forwards from your relatives. Diplomats on placement here in India get something called a ‘hazard pay,’ that is extra money for agreeing to work in a region that is hazardous – something you would expect in a war-torn country. Even a cursory Google search will tell us that air pollution alone ranks higher than smoking, high blood pressure, child and maternal malnutrition on the list of public health issues. India is the third largest, after China and the United States, in the generation of greenhouse emissions. The Paris Agreement is not a national achievement. Merely setting a goal of installing clean energy capacity that would equal 40 percent of the country’s total energy capacity by 2030 does not take away from our inability to protect ecologically sensitive zones or silence the alarm bells frequently rung by the likes of environment NGO Greenpeace which recently stated that Delhi topped the list of the most polluted cities in the world. The US-based Health Effects Institute report also revealed that around 1.2 million people were killed in India in 2017 due to air pollution. Not to forget the PM's own befuddling statement that it is not climate that is changing but our ability to endure it! Very much like the pronouncements of one Mr Trump.
Now for the third point. How has India benefitted from China being viewed as a strategic competitor by the United States and its allies? We will try and explore that question detail in the part two of the special, considering China's repeated provocations regarding Arunachal Pradesh and other issues are at stake here.
Let us go back a bit in time to see the distance we have travelled or not in the international context. An article was presented at the India Forum, organized by the Fundacion Marcelino Botin in Madrid in November 2007. Written by Xenia Dormandy, the piece explored India's role as an emerging global political force.
The story begins with a quote from the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had said in March 2005, and we quote, "international institutions are going to have to start to accommodate India in some way.” As the article puts it, from an Indian perspective she was years late. But it is an objective that the developed world is only now beginning to affirm, and towards which it is still only taking hesitant steps. And as the writer put it, "In recent years, India’s military, diplomatic and economic energies have expanded far beyond Nehru’s Non-Aligned position. But what does that mean for India, its region, and to the United States?" If we really had secured a firm footing in global eyes as a power to reckon with, why then do we still have encounter so much uncertainty when it comes to American visas for Indian skilled workers, why then is the list of countries that allow Indians without a visa for travel not expanding?
So what has driven India’s Foreign Policy in the recent decades?
The article states that India’s foreign policy is driven by five principal considerations, in which are woven its relationships with the United States and China. And as we said before, how we deal with the world is inextricably linked with how we deal with out own internal security and economy and other issues.
As the writer says, "As is necessary for any nation, India’s principal priority is ensuring conventional security for its country and its people. In recent years, India has built up a strong and capable Army, Navy and Air Force: the third, forth and seventh largest in the world respectively [at the time of writing in 2007; these forces have grown larger since]. India’s military is not only large, but effective, well trained and increasingly well equipped; their Air Force has been known to best that of the United States in combat air exercises."
And there is the question of Pakistan. We quote the writer again, "India’s main conventional threat is perceived to be Pakistan. These two nations had a military standoff in late 2001 and early 2002 following an attack on the Indian Parliament. While India’s military is vastly larger than Pakistan’s, this numerical supremacy is somewhat mitigated by the topographic limitations of their western border which restricts the number of troops that India could deploy against Pakistan at any one time." And as always there has been the looming shadow of China since the 1962 war.
How did India deal with that challenge?
The writer says, "While India has committed to expanding and modernizing its Air Force, and maintaining the stature and strength of its Army, three principal reasons have motivated their desire to expand their blue water navy and build a submarine force. First, to counter China’s expansion into the region. Second, to ensure the continued safe flow of goods and natural resources through the Bay of Bengal and beyond, particularly the area around the Malacca Straits which is still very susceptible to piracy and through which approximately one half of the world’s oil flows. Finally is India’s desire for a nuclear triad, the missing leg of which today is a submarine force. While not trying to create an offensive capability, in the words of Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the Chief of Indian Naval Staff, India is looking for, “mutual respectful partnerships that ensure the stability of the Indian Ocean.”
Since then, we have actually gone ahead on the nuclear submarine front. On November 4, 2018, Modi announced that the Arihant, the Indian Navy’s first domestically-built nuclear-powered submarine, completed her first deterrence patrol. As National Interest reported, “The Arihant, which means “Slayer of Enemies” in Sanskrit, uses a uranium-fueled pressurized light-water reactor to generate 83-megawatts of electricity, allowing the submarine to swim underwater for months at a time at speeds as high as twenty-four knots.” Of course, there was the bizarre episode in 2016 when a hatch left open in port caused the 6,500-ton submarine to flood with corrosive saltwater. The submarine was deployed on account of this, but it appears now Arihant is in business.
So, as is clear, India or its leadership or its thinktank never sought to politicise short-term gains but to build diplomatic conduits as well as internal capabilities to strengthen the nation state from within.
And how has its record been while dealing with terror?
Considering this piece was written in 2007, it is still easy to see the truth in many of the statements as when the writer says, "While India’s military is designed to protect its borders from outside influence or powers, it should be noted that they also have a strong domestic role in fighting internal militancy, particularly in its northeast region, in Jammu and Kashmir, and against the Naxalite groups in the east. Notwithstanding these three sets of players, what is perhaps most surprising is that despite having the third largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia and Pakistan), excepting the attempted suicide attacks in England over the past summer, there are no known Indian al Qaida or Taliban members. This fact could suggest that India might have something to teach concerning anti-terrorist activities." [A, this as written in the pre-ISIS days, and recent reports suggest that IS is actively trying to recruit members in India. B, since 2007, India is home to the second highest population of Muslims after Indonesia. According to Pew Research, by 2060, India will be home to 11.1% of the world’s Muslim population, the highest anywhere. The percentage of Muslims is expected to 19.4% of the total Indian population.]
The piece also acknowledges that South Asia is an insecure region, and India is surrounded on all sides, as the writer says, by unstable democracies, conflict-ridden countries, militant activity, authoritarian leaders or weak governments, and countries with which India has historically acrimonious relations. We quote further, "In order to ensure that such negative influences do not seep into India, despite the inherent cacophony described by its diverse ethnic and religious population and inequality, India has developed a strong democracy. This has enabled all parts of India’s society (to very differing degrees) to engage in the political process, a fact that helps maintain domestic stability. It is greatly in India’s interest to encourage others in the region to follow its example and in so doing improve the prospects of strong and continuous growth."
Exactly our point that without internal stability and strengthening of democratic norms, we cannot hope to command credibility internationally.
The hits and the misses
The piece also points out policy mistakes like the disastrous expedition to Sri Lanka in the late 1980’s in which India became dragged into the internal conflict, and which eventually led to the assassination in 1991 of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
But as the piece says, India has conventionally used its diplomatic and economic leverage and soft power to help mitigate the conflicts of its neighbors, particularly Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.
We quote, "India, the United States and the United Kingdom together played a powerful role in persuading Nepal’s King Gyanendra to stand down in February 2005. India continues to have influence in Sri Lanka and in Bangladesh and provide a demonstration effect for democracy to these countries."
In Afghanistan, recalls the piece, India had built on its long-standing relationship with the Northern Alliance and Prime Minister Hamid Karzai to support stability, including providing over $750 million in assistance and infrastructure support. We quote, "It should be noted that India’s interest in Afghanistan is not just historical: lying as it does on Pakistan’s western border, close relations with Afghanistan (as with Iran) constitutes a significant strategic asset to India." It is of course another matter that India’s rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan have been mocked by Trump, a man who knows his nowhere except at the very heart of narcissistic darkness.
India’s military has had a strong peace-building role, said the article and as of March 2007, India was the 3rd largest provider of peacekeeping forces to the United Nations (UN). It also commanded much global admiration as one of the founding four nations of the Asian Tsunami Core Group and alone provided more aid and assistance than any country except the United States.
The economic factors
And it is a given that any country that has a firm grip on its economy commands more attention internationally. And in this area, the writer traces India's journey from a GDP growth of approximately 3.5% per year till the 1980s to the times following the 1991 economic reforms led by the then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, when growth tripled, reaching 8% in 2004.
But the writer also said that historically, India’s growth has been internally driven and it must draw on this international engagement further if it is going to continue to lift up the 60% of its population in the rural sector and develop a modern infrastructure. The writer also said that the U.S.-India relationship has been focused on building economic engagement and investment between the two nations despite sensitive aspects like the outsourcing question.
The early 1990’s
The writer informs how the Indian Government launched a “Look East” policy intended to promote engagement between India and its South East Asian neighbors in the early nineties. We quote, "The raison d’être of this policy was economic. This policy never truly realized the hoped for benefits, in large part due to the 1997 financial crisis that interrupted economic development in the region. Nevertheless, today India is increasingly engaging with the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) including working on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and continues to engage bilaterally with the members and others with trade agreements completed or in process with countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Korea, Singapore and Japan."
Even then, India’s increasing engagement with China was stemming from the latter’s exceptional economic growth of over 10% since 2000. And both India and China then saw their concurrent economic expansion as mutually beneficial. The future however was less clear though, said the writer as India was increasingly focusing on the manufacturing sector, traditionally China’s area of expertise.
The questions about energy and environment
The piece said that in order to sustain economic growth at around 10%, India must ensure energy security, as its third major area of focus. By 2025, said the writer, it was projected that India will import 80% of its energy needs complicated by the fact that it has dirty coal and its use will have severe environmental implications. But even then, India was beginning to pay more attention to environmental concerns, joining the Asian Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate and recently creating a Council on Climate Change. This issue even then was increasingly becoming a political one and the writer mentioned a poll conducted in 2006 where 51% of Indians considered global warming a critical threat.
In July 2005, a civilian nuclear agreement was inked between India and the United States to designate a good supply of fissile material to India to power its civilian reactors.
The questions about nuclear capability
There are two nuclear weapons powers on India's borders – China and Pakistan and given its history with both, the writer mentions how sensitive the country is to intimation of control by any other power though it had till then steadfastly maintained a “no first use” policy and subsequently, a Composite Dialogue between India and Pakistan not only lowered the tensions but also resulted in significant agreements that went in some way to mitigating the chance of a mistaken nuclear attack.
A global power?
As the 2007 piece said, "The final priority of New Delhi’s government is for India to take its “rightful” place on the global stage. In so doing they recognize the importance of building their strategic stature and leadership. With 1.1 billion people, India has the second largest population in the world, and one of the youngest with over 50% under the age of 25. Their economy, by purchasing power parity, is 4th in the world after the U.S., China and Japan. Unlike America’s, India’s soft power has remained strong, and their military, economic and diplomatic reach is increasingly significant. India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy accommodating a Hindu majority with, as stated earlier, the third largest Muslim population in the world. They are very eager to take up the role on the global stage that these characteristics support. While already a leader of the developing world, India wants its status recognized in the developed world."
Historically, India's ambition to play a bigger international role was based on internal strengths provided by its strong commitment to democracy, peace initiatives, policy of open dialogue and economic development, principles it inherited from a Nehruvian worldview.
India is working not just in the bilateral sphere, but as we saw economically, it hedges its bets by engaging in regional and, as appropriate, ad hoc groups such as the December 2004 Asian Tsunami Core Response Group and more recently the “quadrilateral” (Japan, the U.S., Australia and India). India has an impressive array of memberships of regional organizations and continues to drive for more including a formal association with the Associated of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and joining the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.
While thus far the goal of a permanent seat at the UN has been unsuccessful, it has resulted in a number of indirect benefits both in terms of building a much closer bilateral relationship with Japan, and in raising its profile as a serious contender following UN reform. Meanwhile, India continues to lead the G77 and the Non-Aligned Movement and in this capacity negotiates on behalf of the developing nations in the UN General Assembly.
Finally, the complex equation with China and the US
As the piece informed, since the 1962 war, both nations have worked hard to ensure that their border conflicts do not spill over into their broader relationship, and that other bilateral interests are not held hostage to these disagreements. We quote, "Like the United States, China has worked hard in recent years to improve its relationship with India while continuing to sustain its long-term relationship with Pakistan. Despite these efforts, however, the inherent relationship between China and India is one of tension, whether in the economic, energy, nuclear, strategic or security realm. Without the continued careful attention by both parties to mitigate them, these pressures are likely to increase as both India and China take leadership roles in Asia. Pressure is also likely to rise as both nations expand economically, increasingly competing for foreign investment, and supremacy in the services and manufacturing industries. Given these inherent pressures and yet the importance to both countries of a stable and secure environment in which to grow, the two nations will continue to maintain a dual policy of “hedging and engaging” one another (similar to that of the U.S. with China) in order to walk the narrow path between remaining friendly but protecting against the eventuality that the other does not." So not much has changed in this respect, as is obvious by now.
With the US also, India has had a complicated relationship. We quote, " Notwithstanding its non-aligned status, from its independence until the end of the Cold War, India tilted towards the Soviet Union when the United States engaged more actively with Pakistan. But in the early 1990’s such divisions began to fade and India’s foreign policy became more self-determining. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton led a five-day path-breaking visit to India that transformed Indian views of the U.S. and launched our new relationship. Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill picked up the baton when he headed out to Delhi to be Ambassador to India for the Bush Administration in 2001.
What these moves illuminated were the possibilities between the two countries. As became apparent during Ambassador Blackwill’s tenure, there were huge opportunities that could be realized by a closer bilateral relationship although much work would be needed to make this possible.”
Both India and US have faced similar challenges like terrorism, extremism, proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), economic growth, energy, environment, narcotics, Afghanistan, and potentially China.
As the piece states, "In many cases, these are issues that cannot be resolved unilaterally but that are going to require long-term engagement and cooperation not just by the U.S. and India but many of our other allies. We will need to work together to address these mutual challenges. In countering terrorism, India has for far longer than America been subjected to a terrorist threat against its nation and, as stated earlier, has engaged its Muslim population in a manner that has not resulted in extremism or militancy despite the potential provocation on its borders. In the area of WMD and proliferation, given India’s location it is arguably much more susceptible to these threats than is the United States, whether from Pakistan, China, Iran or even North Korea.
Similarly, India and the United States are necessary partners in dealing with the dual challenges of energy security and environmental degradation. As India’s energy consumption increases, the two countries will need to work closely to ensure that environmental costs don’t similarly grow and that investment is made on the most advanced equipment.”
As the article acknowledged then, as great democracies, India and the United States have had similar world visions and interests in promoting this form of government, albeit through the auspices of the UN.
India provides a very effective demonstration effect for other nations in the region and beyond without many of the sensitivities that the United States brings to the table. But given India’s five principal strategic interests, the piece concluded that India could become a powerful force for transformation in times of peace and in strife by not just following examples but setting them.Those, in a nutshell to those of us unaccustomed to the intricacies of international relations, were the highlights of independent India’s foreign policy evolution. How have things changed in the Modi Years? That question answered in the second part of India and the World.
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