The foreign policy of a large country does not change with the installation of a new government. But it does change in response to a significant redirection of domestic politics or a radical evolution of the external environment. New Delhi had that moment in 1991, when India had to cope with the collapse of the old economic order at home and the Soviet Union abroad.
The changed internal economic orientation and the external imperatives, arising from the end of the Cold War, compelled India to recast its foreign policy and national security strategy. After the tentative adaptation under P.V. Narasimha Rao and Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee boldly outlined a new foreign policy trajectory for India.
If objective factors define the substance of foreign policy, subjective factors are of considerable consequence in the conduct of a nation’s external engagement. Strong governments seize fleeting moments of opportunity that present themselves, while the weak squander them at great cost to the nation. The style and character of prime ministers and foreign ministers make a big difference to the credibility and reputation of governments and nations. As India prepares for regime change after the decade-long UPA rule, there will be both continuity and change in India’s foreign policy.
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Through his intensive campaign over the last many weeks, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, chose to stay away from the details of his foreign and security policies. And he had to clear some of the confusion generated by the few things that the BJP’s manifesto did say on these issues. In the end, Modi stuck to a simple affirmation that he will uphold the essence of Vajpayee’s strategic legacy.
The fact, however, is that Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy was not very different from that of Vajpayee. Whether it was India’s nuclear strategy or the Look East policy, the engagement with great powers or an emphasis on the economic integration of the subcontinent, Singh travelled on the path cut by Vajpayee. In the heat of an election campaign, no one was expecting Modi to acknowledge the foreign policy continuity between the UPA and NDA governments.
Modi, however, must be acutely aware of one big difference between Vajpayee and Singh. Vajpayee was a tall leader who had considerable freedom of action on the policy front. Despite relentless sniping from senior party colleagues in the BJP and the sectoral interests of various coalition partners, Vajpayee successfully insulated Indian diplomacy from domestic political pressures.
In the face of the extremely difficult regional and international circumstances that confronted him, Vajpayee successfully developed new options for India on the three most difficult diplomatic accounts — the United States, China and Pakistan.
With Vajpayee taking the difficult initial steps with these three countries, Singh had a much easier time engaging them. After a great start with the three countries during 2004-05, Singh struggled to finish what he had inherited from Vajpayee.
Part of the problem was that Singh did not have the full backing of the Congress party, which was reluctant to embrace the new possibilities for India on the global stage and was wary of making big moves towards the US, China and Pakistan. Sonia Gandhi’s apparent lack of strategic convictions was compounded by her eagerness to appease coalition partners.
Sonia Gandhi was ready to dump the civil nuclear initiative with the US in order keep an unreasonable CPM happy. The secular Congress was not willing to let Singh travel to Pakistan even once for the fear of offending Hindu sentiments.
The Congress leadership outsourced the Sri Lanka policy to Chennai and allowed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to wreck a historic effort by the government to transform relations with Bangladesh. Although Singh did stand up in defence of the nuclear deal, he did not seem to have the energy to defend the initiatives towards Pakistan and Bangladesh. Few question Singh’s commitment to consolidating the openings created by Vajpayee over the last decade, but he was operating under constraints few of his predecessors had ever faced.
Modi’s emphasis on Vajpayee’s foreign policy legacy is politically significant for a number of reasons. It has offered much-needed reassurance all around that India will not abandon its traditional nuclear restraint, continue to seek peace with neighbours and promote regional prosperity through the economic integration of the subcontinent.
In reclaiming the Vajpayee legacy, Modi is also distancing himself from the breathtaking political opportunism of the BJP when it sat on the opposition benches since 2004. Under the leadership of L.K. Advani, the BJP simply discarded Vajpayee’s foreign policy legacy.
Advani aligned the party with the CPM to undermine the nuclear deal with the US, the first steps of which were taken by Vajpayee after the 1998 nuclear tests. Advani’s BJP opposed Singh’s peace initiatives towards Pakistan, which were rooted in Vajpayee’s agreement with Pervez Musharraf in January 2004. The BJP has also opposed Singh’s attempts to resolve longstanding disputes with Bangladesh and decisively turn the geopolitics of the eastern subcontinent in India’s favour.
Modi’s decision to hark back to Vajpayee’s legacy, one hopes, is also about restoring the relative autonomy of the government in the making of India’s foreign policy and its diplomatic execution. If Singh could not protect that privilege from a vision-less Congress party, Modi, if he is prime minister, will surely have to fend off likely attempts from the NDA, the BJP, the RSS and Delhi’s permanently whining strategic community to limit his freedom of action.
The next government does not have the burden of defining India’s strategic objectives in the world. Those have already been articulated by Vajpayee and pursued by Singh. If the next prime minister ensures social harmony at home, revives economic growth, offers purposeful governance and seeks regional peace and prosperity, India’s foreign policy might well take care of itself.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for
‘The Indian Express’