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Evolution of India's Foreign Policy

If India wants to emerge as a global power, it needs to stop treating the position of foreign minister as an afterthought and have clear foreign policy objectives

January 17


London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 17 Jan 2018 - Ghassan Matar

“Ultimately foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and till that time, when India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will rather be vague, rather inchoate, and will be groping.” – Jawaharlal Nehru, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in the December of 1947.

The period 1700 to 1900 saw the beginnings, and the development, of the British Empire in India. Empire was not planned, at least not in the early stages. In a sense, it just happened.

The first British in India came for trade, not territory; they were businessmen, not conquerors. It can be argued that they came from a culture that was inferior, and a political entity that was weaker, than that into which they ventured, and they came hat-in-hand.

They would not have been viewed as a threat by the Indians—who most certainly would not have thought of themselves as “Indian,” at least in any political sense. National identity was to be established much later, during the Independence Movement (which, indeed, was also known as the Nationalist Movement).

Identity was in terms of region and caste, which, to a considerable extent, it still is today. The British and the Indians would go on to affect each other in profound ways that still are important today.

The Date of the British take-over of Delhi, 1803, is symbolic: the British occupied the Mughul capital and were not to leave. The empire was neither uniform—different policies responding to different events in different parts of India—nor static. It was upon the British and the Indians almost before they realized it. Its effects were ambiguous and ambivalent.

Governor-Generals, popularly referred to as Viceroys (after 1858), came and went, but the direction remained clear: Imperial rule for the profit of Britain, not for the welfare of the people of India—this was shown even in the governmental response to famines, and India became represented as the Jewel in the Crown. With the formation of the Indian National Congress (or, simply, Congress), some half-hearted concessions to change and inclusion occurred, albeit always seeming to be too little too late.

This organization (curiously, initiated by a retired British official) might have seemed impotent at first, but it did demand that “the Government should be widened and that the people should have their proper and legitimate share in it.”

Perhaps most significantly, the initial meeting, held in Bombay in 1885, involved about seventy-two delegates, from various regions, and consisted mostly of upper class Hindus and Parsis (many of them lawyers) with only two Muslims in attendance.

It was through this organization, under the leadership of lawyers such as Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal (India's first prime minister), and M. K. Gandhi, that India achieved independence.

There is a widespread perception that India’s foreign policy began in 1947, however there is ample evidence that India’s foreign policy evolved in the colonial yoke much before 1947. But, there is no doubt that 1947 marked the watershed moment for India’s foreign policy too. Hitherto, the decisions on foreign and defence policies were taken in London and were designed to serve the interest of its past colonial master. India began to conduct its external relations with the rest of the world directly as sovereign state. The post independent foreign policy was formulated taking into consideration the various factors such as the Congress party resolutions, ideology of national leaders, power politics of the Super Powers, Cold War, colonial experience, imperialism, racial discrimination etc.

India’s foreign policy, ever since her independence advocated the principles of friendship and co-operation with all the countries of the world irrespective of their political systems. Especially the establishment of friendly relations with the neighbouring countries was the principal plank of India’s foreign policy.

In order to achieve its national interests/objectives and to promote international peace, India had maintained good and friendly relations with almost all countries of the world. While securing the interests, the conduct of the Indian foreign policy was governed by the principles such as preservation of sovereign independence, pursuance of independent foreign policy by avoiding alignment with power blocs, mutual understanding and cooperation, promoting international peace and prosperity etc.

The post-independence foreign policy of India followed the path of nonalignment and peaceful co-existence in order to achieve these objectives. The policy of non-alignment advocated by both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on the idea of non-involvement and non-entanglement became the comer stone of independent India’s foreign policy

Literature on India’s foreign relations of the 1950s tends to cast Pandit Nehru as the sole articulator, formulator and executor of Indian foreign policy, unchallenged and unmatched in his expertise and reading of international relations. Such inferences are not surprising, as immediately after independence, when state nationalism and feelings of anti-imperialism were at their peak, Nehru’s India projected a very strong sense of national identity.

Prior to independence, India would participate in international affairs which set the precedent that influenced her relations with countries post-independence. The reasons for such precedents were that the British Empire tacitly accepted India as a quasi-independent entity in the international polity.

This began after the 1920s when Indian troops were extensively used to serve the interests of the British Empire. Much of the objectives that were pursued pre-independence, were naturally retained by the Government of Independent India.

Moreover, the diplomatic apparatus was initially recruited from among the Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers, who were trained by the British. There was in many ways a kind of continuity in the structure and administration that influenced decision-making in foreign policy. Political leadership was the major determinant of policy, giving it a command control attribute, which is still prevalent today.

India’s Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) as a foreign policy theory was formulated by its first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who projected a very strong sense of nationalism which dominated India’s political scene until his death in 1964.

His political charisma and the aura he acquired led his political decisions to be the unquestionable, including those in the foreign policy realm. What was a bi-polar world, NAM led by Nehru attempted to create a Third World Bloc that would concentrate on economic and social reconstruction and not get entangled in complicated alliances of rival power systems.

Leaders of newly independent countries that emerged in the wake of the end of the 2nd World War joined the movement. Nehru regarded nonalignment as the political expression of India’s traditional philosophy of peace and good will, derived primarily from his and Gandhi’s leadership of the anti-colonial struggle.

During this phase, in 1955, India was offered a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat by the United States. However, to the surprise of many, Nehru declined the seat and suggested the seat be given to China instead.

Due to the efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1936 a separate Foreign Affairs Department was opened in the Indian National Congress under his leadership. This was used in developing outside contacts and organizing the anti-imperialistic movement of the dependent people across the world. The Foreign Affairs Department greatly helped Nehru in passing the resolutions on foreign affairs and formulation of India’s complete and clear foreign policy.

Jawaharlal Nehru had a long tenure as Prime Minister of India and had made substantial contributions to the field of international relations, which put India on the diplomatic map of the world. It was during his tenure as Prime Minister that India’s foreign policy came under heavy influence due to certain developments of far reaching consequences such as the beginning of Cold War and Sino-Indian war of 1962 fought over Tibet & the Dalai Lama’s presence in India. It was an ironic twist of fate especially since China owes its Security Council seat to Nehru’s generosity. These developments, no doubt greatly influenced the formulation of post-independence foreign policy on the lines of non-alignment, test ban, non-proliferation etc. Now it is significant to understand these events, which had a great bearing on India’s foreign policy during Nehru’s regime.

Nehru as an internationalist acted as a bridge of balancing factor between the Indian National Congress and the anti-colonialist forces of the world during the time of struggle for independence.

It is because of Nehru’s endeavour and articulated interest that the foreign policy of India has occupied a unique position in the international arena.

Modi government has redefined India's foreign policy through expanded, active engagement with various countries. It has further made its presence felt at many international forums. While adopting a previously unseen confrontational approach against China's expansionist ambitions through opposing the One-belt One-road Initiative, it also sprung into action at times with surgical strikes against Pakistan.

A great deal of India's foreign policy transformation can be attributed to PM Modi's personal pro-activeness. Our approach to external engagements is largely defined by Modi's global outlook, underscored by linking domestic change to foreign policy. It has broadly been termed "The Modi Doctrine".

Compared to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, he enjoys domestic support, which has enabled him to easily achieve diplomatic gains.

Modi's approach is fundamentally structured around bringing security and prosperity to all Indians under the "India First" Policy. Recognizing that India's prosperity is linked to South Asian stability, "Neighbourhood first", policy intends to realize an integrated, well-connected neighbourhood. It further focuses on strengthening cultural ties, and engagement with the Indian diaspora. It also looks to take on greater international responsibilities becoming a "global rule-maker".

While India never spoke against China's hegemonic ambitions before, it started doing so under the Modi government, through engaging with the Tibetan government in exile and even provoking China by hosting the Dalai Lama in Arunachal Pradesh . India also remained absent from China's OBOR summit citing sovereignty concerns. EU and Sri Lanka had echoed India's concern later, much to China's frustration.

Modi has used diplomatic, military and legal means to deal with a growing menace from Pakistan and found remarkable successes through victory in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case at the International Court of Justice. Surgical strikes were also conducted in Pakistan. Along with drawing international scorn upon Pakistan's home-grown terror, India also launched the SAARC satellite providing services to all South Asian countries except Pakistan.

Modi has used diplomatic, military and legal means to deal with a growing menace from Pakistan and found remarkable successes through victory in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case at the International Court of Justice. Surgical strikes were also conducted in Pakistan. Along with drawing international scorn upon Pakistan's home-grown terror, India also launched the SAARC satellite providing services to all South Asian countries except Pakistan.

Modi's foreign policy has given India an image boost in the international arena. India further seems to have built and strengthened links in areas including Africa and Oceania. However, despite expanded engagement, India's core considerations are shaped by Pakistan and China. Moreover, India is purported to derive benefits out of numerous economic and defence deals, although the outcomes are still awaited on these.

Here's the tragedy of India's minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj. She's one of the most likeable figures in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and yet her tenure as a minister has been largely forgettable. 

This holds a lesson. In an increasingly complex world, India needs to stop treating the foreign ministry as a parking lot for veteran politicians with no obvious aptitude for the job. What does it take to be a great foreign minister? For one, you need to have a deep interest in the world, and a firm sense of your country's place in it. Not long after India's 1998 nuclear tests, Jaswant Singh, in response to a question about economic sanctions, explained why he was not fazed.

"Charles de Gaulle used to say, 'there is France,'" said Singh. "In the same way, there is India." 

It was an elegant way to drive home the message that his government would not be bullied. Singh shared another quality essential to a successful foreign minister: the boss's trust. His peers around the world knew that Singh accurately reflected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's worldview. His word carried weight in the corridors of global power because it carried weight at home.

Then there's longevity, an asset in a job where both personal relationships and public profile matter. In Indonesia, Suharto's legendary foreign minister, Ali Alatas, served for 11 years. Russia's Sergei Lavrov has already been in place for 14 years. Admittedly, foreign ministers in democracies find it harder to carve out such extended tenures. Nonetheless, the principle remains valid.

Finally, a patina of polish can't hurt. The greatest South Asian foreign minister of the past 70 years, Pakistan's Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, combined a keen grasp of global affairs, the trust of his bosses (primarily Gen Zia ul-Haq) and longevity (he served through most of the 1980s and into the early 1990s). He also exuded a quiet erudition, aided by a reported fluency in at least seven languages, including Russian, French, German and Bengali.

On Khan's watch as foreign minister, Pakistan successfully acquired nuclear weapons while bending the United States-funded jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to its design. Arguably no other foreign minister in the region has played the hand he was dealt with as much finesse. (That Pakistan's support for jihad in the 1980s ended up backfiring on it is a separate matter.)

How many of these qualities could you honestly attribute to Sushma Swaraj? Even her fiercest partisans cannot claim that she is a foreign minister steeped in international affairs. Recall Swaraj's 2014 response to a question about the then impending Scottish referendum on independence. "A break up of the UK? God forbid, i don't think any such possibility exists at the moment," the evidently surprised minister blurted out. 

Or take Swaraj's Twitter exchange last month with Assamese politician Badruddin Ajmal following India's vote against Israel and the United States on a general assembly resolution condemning the US for recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital. After a thank you tweet from Ajmal, Swaraj urged him to reciprocate. "Now you vote for us," she tweeted, implying that India's UN vote against trusted ally Israel , even though it was the right call, was motivated by domestic vote-grubbing.

Indeed, Twitter perfectly captures the mismatch between Swaraj and her ministry. A year ago, an obscure doormat depicting the Indian flag sold by a third-party reseller in Canada sent the foreign minister into a patriotic tizzy. She demanded a public apology from Amazon and threatened to rescind Indian visas for Amazon employees.

Like much of what the foreign minister does on Twitter, this outburst suggested a shrewd grasp of public sentiment. But did an eruption over something so trivial really advance India's interests? You see a similar privileging of political optics in Swaraj's stream of Twitter diktats to Indian diplomats commanding them to immediately resolve trivial problems - a stolen laptop in the US, a burglary in Australia, a job lost in Saudi Arabia. 

A commitment to serving citizens is laudable, but is this really the best use of time for professional diplomats on whom Indian taxpayers spend a great deal of money? 

Or take Swaraj's frequent personal interventions on behalf of Pakistanis seeking medical visas. Instead of a clear policy, India boasts a medieval potentate doling out largesse in 140 characters. At a time when India is reaching for a place at the high table of global power, it comes off looking instead like a tin pot Republic.

To be sure, Swaraj boasts virtues too. She harks back to a gentler era, when senior BJP leaders were still expected to maintain a sense of public decorum. She can exude a certain old-school charm. Her Hindi oratory is a delight to listen to. It's no surprise that among professional politicians Swaraj's 11 million Twitter followers place her behind only Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

You might argue that, if politics sorted such things more efficiently, Swaraj may have received a ministry better suited to her skills. This lament does not change a simple fact: If India wants to emerge as a global power, it needs to stop treating the position of foreign minister as an afterthought and begin to identify its place in the emerging multi-polar world, a far cry from the unipolarity exerted by the United States and its allies over the last century.