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Monday, July 06, 2020

Dealing with the World

The ideas which have shaped India’s foreign policy over the decades

Written by Arundhati Ghose | Published: June 1, 2013 10:28:06 pm

Book: India’s Foreign Policy: A Reader

Edited: Kanti P. Bajpai and Harsh V.Pant

Critical Issues in Indian Politics Series

Publisher: OUP

Price: Rs 1095

Pages: 464

Adding to a growing list of publications on India’s foreign policy,this anthology of previously published essays seeks to examine ideas and imperatives which might explain foreign policy-making in India. Most of the articles were published at a momentous time,globally and nationally,in the last years of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century. The essays,by reputed academics and scholars,look for answers to challenges faced by India’s external relations through the lens of international relations theory and the eyes of academia. It is a brave,erstwhile member of the foreign policy establishment who undertakes to critique such a book!

Helpfully,the editors explain in the introduction the contours of the book,its organisation into four parts — addressing ideas which,according to them,have dominated India’s foreign policy-making,the power and capacity needed if India should wish to become a major or even a great power,bilateral and regional relations,mainly focussed on Pakistan,China,the US and India’s “extended neighbourhood”,and global diplomacy,a section which,in fact,contains two outstanding essays on India’s negotiating strategies on climate change and the WTO.

The editors also explain their decision to restrict the definition of foreign policy to exclude security policy (the series includes a companion volume on India’s national security),the time within which the articles were written to within 15 years (in fact,most were written in 2001-2009),and the geographical areas on which the book has focussed. One can take issue with all three restrictions,even while respecting the right to impose them and appreciating many of the reasons cited by the editors to determine the content of such a book. However,the “exclusion” of major areas of India’s policy interests because of their “secondary importance” seems to me a somewhat sweeping judgement; exclusion on grounds of space or the absence of scholarly writing on them would be valid enough. It is less understandable to relegate areas such as the UN and other multilateral groups through which India functions today,Africa and countries such as Germany and France,Japan and Brazil to a “secondary place”,given the importance assigned to these areas in India’s foreign policy.

The three essays in the section ‘Ideas’,written in 2001-2003,when Indian foreign policy was undergoing major changes,is perhaps the most interesting,though it is hard to see whether they would enlighten or confuse the target audiences of this work. One recalls the debates on non-alignment at the time,chiefly between those who saw it as an ideology and those who felt it was a strategy which needed to adapt to changed circumstances. All three essayists,C. Raja Mohan,Stephen Cohen and Kanti Bajpai,accept the centrality of non-alignment as the dominant idea in India’s foreign policy in the early years,though Cohen and Bajpai widen the process to encompass “the Nehruvian Tradition” or just plain “Nehruvianism”. All three note the shift in foreign policy to what Bajpai calls “Neo-liberalism”,though Cohen argues that during Indira Gandhi’s government,there was a period of ‘militant Nehruvianism’. Mohan sees a parallel shift from multilateralism as the dominant mode of foreign policy. Cohen’s perceptive essay also highlights the gradual emergence of regional perspectives as states in India developed the means to influence the previously Delhi-centric foreign policy,with the rise of powerful regional political parties. Both Cohen and Bajpai find the clearest articulation of the shift to a more “realist” and “militarist” stance in India’s nuclear weapons policy,India’s nuclear doctrine having been made public only in January 2003. Since the debate on several of these issues still continues,with an emphasis on “strategic autonomy” and the use of the NAM,not so much as a platform but as occasions for the crafting of issue-based groups on matters relating to economic,political and security issues,it would appear that strategy is today winning over ideology among policy makers,at least.

Two other essays by Sandeep Sengupta and Amrita Narlikar under ‘Global Diplomacy’ attract attention. These examine India’s use of “group support” for achieving her objectives in multilateral negotiations on climate change and the WTO. Unlike the West,India did not have alliances to use as negotiating tools in multilateral forums; initially,NAM or the G-77 provided such a support group,but as India changed,her approach to issues did too,particularly in newer areas of global governance such as climate change. It is a pity that Narlikar chose to compare negotiating strategies on trade issues with security issues,such as non-proliferation. Negotiations on security and defence are usually zero-sum games with limited room for compromise.

At a more personal level,I find myself sympathetic to Manjari Chatterjee Miller’s theory of “post-imperial ideology”,though her application of what is probably better understood as a deep and abiding post-colonial approach to external relations,to the 1962 war with China,is probably stretching it too far. Certainly,the Chinese use this approach to dismiss India’s claims on the border; India,on the other hand,sees herself as a successor state as far as the borders are concerned,having adopted from the British an entire legal system. A post-colonial outlook need not necessarily amount to a sense of “victimhood”; on the other hand,it does explain attitudes to sovereignty and territorial integrity,strategic autonomy,aversion to concepts such as the responsibility to protect and so on.

Still,at the personal level,Daniel Markey’s critique of India’s “foreign policy software” is perhaps deservedly included in the section on ‘Capability and Power’. His horrified findings of the size of the foreign service,the workload and pay,the vast differences in the IFS culture from that of the US,basically suggest that these impediments make India a not-so-desirable partner for the US. While one cannot disagree with facts,it is equally true,as seen in the following chapter,particularly in the essays on Indo-US relations,that this extraordinary service has been producing remarkable results.

Most of the essayists assume that India has “ambitions” to become or be seen as a “great power”; while that may dominate some parts of the media,according to more authoritative sources,the jury is still out.

Arundhati Ghose is a former diplomat

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