An approach that takes risks as well as hedges, injects greater realism in policy, reads the global tea leaves right — and is willing to look beyond dogma and enter the real world of convergences. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar spelt out the government’s approach to foreign policy in his first major speech in New Delhi Thursday.
Delivering the fourth Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture, on the topic “Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian Foreign Policy in a Changing World”, Jaishankar provided an assessment of the last 70 years of India’s foreign policy choices and challenged past positions — from dealing with China on boundary issues and handling Pakistan to managing ties with the US.
“The purposeful pursuit of national interest in shifting global dynamics may not be easy; but it must be done. And the real obstacle to the rise of India is not anymore the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi,” he said.
“The balance sheet for India’s foreign policy after seven decades presents a mixed picture. National development is at the heart of any assessment, and it is difficult to quarrel with the view that there has been significant progress, but not enough. The comparison with what China achieved in the same period is sobering,” Jaishankar said.
“Reading the global tea leaves right and then leveraging the international situation could have gone better. Indeed the mantra of unchanging foreign policy axioms has discouraged an honest review of our performance and the introduction of timely correctives. Diligence and debate have not been as rigorous as they should for an aspiring player. When combined with the hesitations of history, it had led to unexplored avenues and unrealised outcomes,” he said.
India, though, is now at the “cusp of change”, the Foreign Minister said. “With more confidence, the pursuit of seemingly divergent goals and the straddling of contradictions are being attempted. Taking risks is inherent to the realisation of ambitions. A nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities. Above all, it cannot be dogmatic in approaching a visibly changing global order,” he said.
An experienced diplomat-turned-minister, Jaishankar spoke about lessons from the past, as he stressed on the “need for greater realism in policy”.
“The early misreading of Pakistan’s intentions can perhaps be explained away by lack of experience. But the reluctance to attach overriding priority to securing borders even a decade later is much more difficult to justify. It was not just that the challenges of 1962 were unanticipated,” he said.
Describing the 1962 war as a “dark” moment, Jaishankar said: “We rarely prepared for security situations with the sense of mission that many of our competitors displayed. Discomfort with hard power was reflected in lack of adequate consultation with the military, most notably during the 1962 conflict.”
In an oblique reference to China, he said, “There was also little awareness in the 1950s that we were dealing with a battle-hardened neighbour to the North.”
Pointing to other choices Delhi made, he said: “Or indeed of the strategic significance of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This approach to world affairs continued even thereafter. Thus, in 1972 at Shimla, India chose to bet on an optimistic outlook on Pakistan. At the end of the day, it resulted in both a revanchist Pakistan and a continuing problem in Jammu & Kashmir. That it has taken us so long to link talks with Pakistan to cessation of terrorism speaks for itself.” He also made a case for a “more grounded Indian approach” to international relations.
On hedging in a multi-polar world, he said, “Hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods, or multiple engagements of the future. But there is no getting away from it in a multi-polar world. This is a game best played on the front-foot, appreciating that progress on any one front strengthens one’s hand on all others. In that sense, it is having many balls up in the air at the same time and displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none.”
Explaining the pursuit of “apparently contradictory approaches and objectives” that “may seem baffling”, Jaishankar said: “How do you reconcile a Howdy Modi, a Mamallapuram and a Vladivostok? Or the RIC (Russia-India-China) with JAI (Japan-America-India)? Or the Quad with the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization)? An Iran with the Saudis or Israel with Palestine? The answer is in a willingness to look beyond dogma and enter the real world of convergences.”
Then, in a rare expression in public for a serving Foreign Minister, Jaishankar critiqued India’s decision to go to the UN on Jammu and Kashmir.
“In our own case, going to the United Nations on Jammu & Kashmir clearly misread the intent of the Anglo-American alliance then and of the seriousness of the Cold War. Years later, our early awareness about growing Sino-Soviet differences did not mature on our expected timelines. In the 1960s, 1980s and again after 2001, we grossly underestimated the relevance of Pakistan to American and Chinese global strategy,” he said.
Raising key questions about decisions and choices made, Jaishankar said: “Should India, for example, have brought the boundary issue to head in 1950 itself? Could the border conflict of 1962 have been avoided by a compromise in 1960 when Zhou Enlai came to India? With the United States, did our cultural antipathy in the initial years aggravate the sense of distance? On economic issues, perhaps there is probably more consensus that India should have followed the example of ASEAN and China and opened up a decade earlier than it did. On the strategic side, the delay in its self-declaration as a nuclear weapon power from 1974 to 1998 may well have been the worst of all worlds. Were we prisoners to paper, a trait that came close to wrecking the 2005 nuclear deal as well?”
“Our past handling of Pakistan, a society which we are supposed to know well, also raises many questions,” he said.
In that context, he said: “India’s record includes dark moments like the 1962 defeat against China. Or tense ones like the 1965 war with Pakistan where the outcome hung in balance till the very end. And the more triumphal ones such as the 1971 victory which created Bangladesh. There are enough dichotomies in our past to generate a spirited debate on successes and failures. A misreading of geopolitics and economics upto 1991 stands out in contrast to the reformist policies thereafter. Two decades of nuclear indecision ended dramatically with the tests of 1998. The lack of response to 26/11 is so different from the Uri and Balakot operations. Whether it is events or trends, they all bear scrutiny for the lessons they hold.”
Later, in conversation with C Raja Mohan, Contributing Editor, The Indian Express, and Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, Jaishankar responded to questions about Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and said, “I think a lot of it is ideological debate…There is liberal fundamentalism at work…. My reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York.”
Delivering his vote of thanks, Anant Goenka, Executive Director, Indian Express, said that Jaishankar’s lecture showcased his “incredible knowledge and expertise”. “The fact that we have a packed house this evening once again disproves the conventional wisdom that dumbing down content is the only way to get eyeballs… it reinforces our belief that no matter what changes in the news ecosystem, the only way Ramnath Goenka’s brand of journalism thrives at least another 87 years, is by constantly investing in quality content, and by being the natural choice thought provoking conversations like the one we had today,” Goenka said.
Earlier, welcoming the Foreign Minister, Raj Kamal Jha, Chief Editor, The Indian Express, said that Jaishankar was a “scholar-diplomat” who blended hard-nosed diplomacy with a soft touch. He said Jaishankar’s skills lie in navigating the “contemporary fog” and ascertaining how much of that fog is a blind spot.
The lecture was attended by Minister of State (External Affairs) V Muraleedharan, RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, former Foreign Secretary and PM’s special envoy Shyam Saran, and former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal apart from several ambassadors and diplomats from more than 30 countries, and serving and retired Indian officials.
The Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture was instituted in 2016 by The Express Group to mark 25 years of the passing of its founder. The first three RNG Memorial Lectures were delivered by Raghuram Rajan, then RBI Governor; Pranab Mukherjee, then President of India; and Justice Ranjan Gogoi, currently the Chief Justice of India, respectively.