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More continuity, less change

Why the overall framework of foreign policy will be hard to alter.

Written by T P Sreenivasan |
May 12, 2014 12:00:43 am
A dream foreign policy that enhances India’s power and prestige will be part of the upcoming government in India. A dream foreign policy that enhances India’s power and prestige will be part of the upcoming government in India.

Aspirants to the post of national security advisor might be burning the midnight oil to fashion foreign policy and security strategies. They may have many ideas to revamp policy, reshape institutions and open new chapters in relations with other countries. But once the initial euphoria is over and the new government settles down to business, there is likely to be continuity rather than change.

No government makes foreign policy in solitary splendour. The broad strategy outlined by any government will not be different from the traditional foreign policy that has enjoyed general consensus. The insight, judgement and instinct of professional diplomats will prevail, as has been seen in times of change in the past.

The Morarji Desai government’s policy of “genuine” non-alignment and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s nuclear tests are cited as instances of fundamental change brought about by new governments in their initial stages. But neither of these was fundamental or unanticipated. “Genuine” non-alignment simply meant distancing India from the Soviet Union. But the government soon discovered the extent of our involvement with the USSR and quietly went about business as usual.

The 1998 nuclear tests were not spontaneous. Since Nehru’s days, successive governments had maintained the nuclear option and invested in explosive technology. The timing of the 1998 tests was determined more by the CTBT than by ideology. India chose to face sanctions for tests rather than for not signing the CTBT. The fact that subsequent governments endorsed the tests is enough proof of continuity in nuclear policy. Talk of a new government possibly reviewing the no first use doctrine provoked widespread reaction. But that proposal seems to have been dropped now.

Practical matters rather than ideology have determined our relations with neighbours, including Pakistan. Changes in policy have only been triggered by negative incidents. No government has advocated war as an option against Pakistan. The Kargil war came after a peace offensive by Vajpayee and, for all its tough talk, the Indian side refrained from crossing the Line of Control. A new government may criticise Manmohan Singh’s “extra mile” policy, but it will not abandon the principle of reciprocity, as war is not an option between two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Changes in the Sri Lanka policy will depend on where the DMK and AIADMK stand after the election. But even if the prime minister is from one of these parties, there will only be a war of words with Sri Lanka.

The case is similar with our other neighbours — the more concessions we give, the more will be asked for. The more we deny them, the more blackmail there will be. Any government in Delhi will face these pressures.

The Vajpayee cabinet had at least one member who characterised China as “enemy number one”. Vajpayee himself took Bill Clinton into confidence about the threat from China. But he also sought a strategic dialogue with China. Similarly, Manmohan Singh has dealt with China with restraint despite provocations, based on the logic that China is too big to threaten India. A new government may give defence preparedness more importance, but it will not be more assertive with China than its predecessor.

The relationship with the US will be a priority area for any incoming government. But the grievances that the US has against India, like the nuclear liability act, the fighter aircraft issue and the liberalisation of the economy to protect US interests, are not easy to deal with. Still, friendly gestures in the Asia Pacific region, such as joint exercises with the US, Japan and Australia, will be sufficient compensation for the US. A new government will have the advantage of being able to distance itself from the Devyani Khobragade fiasco and begin relations afresh.

Indications of institutional change, hinted at by some political parties, betray a lack of insight. Diplomats have been handling economic and trade issues for years. But merging the external affairs and trade portfolios will have adverse implications. Long-term policy planning and strategic thinking, which, according to some, India lacks, might be attempted. But soon, routine issues will start to dominate foreign relations again. No one disputes the importance of military leaders having a greater role in policy issues, but civilian control of defence is equally important. Regional satraps may become prominent if a multiparty coalition gets formed, but they will not be allowed to dabble in foreign policy beyond a point.

Change will be part of the agenda of any government that comes to power in India later this month. A dream foreign policy that enhances India’s power and prestige will be part of it. But, as Barack Obama found out in the US, the power to change is not limitless, especially in foreign policy. Moreover, the wish lists that the new government will have to accommodate will be enormous. After the initial declarations of innovative policies, the new government will reconcile itself to ground realities. It is likely to focus on the primary purpose of foreign policy — to ensure peaceful domestic development.

The writer, a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA, is executive vice chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council.

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