After two months of mind and body-wrenching electioneering in the biggest democracy in the world, the results are out. A new government will be in place. In a way, the entire world was watching India’s cacophonous, vibrant, yet, enervating election process, and was waiting for India to resume its international engagement. The new government will not have too much time to celebrate its victory as it has to right away plunge into action in world affairs.
Paradoxically, international issues and forces influencing a country’s internal affairs were not matters of debate in the parliamentary elections, except the surgical strike at Balakot and a narrative of nationalism built on it. In fact, the concept of nationalism emanating from a retaliatory strike against Pakistan was not successfully debated by the Opposition, which fell into BJP’s strategy and ended up copying their ‘frame’, claimed to have initiated the surgical strikes. The military actions, including surgical strikes, constitute security operations which do not define nationalism. Somehow, nationalism became the whole basis of India’s pride and policy in foreign affairs. A debate on nationalism is, however, beyond my brief here.
The first priority of the new government is to define the theoretical or conceptual foundation of India’s foreign policy. Of late, experts advise to invoke Kautiyla’s arthashastra as the basis of India’s foreign policy. Arthashastra deals with political statecraft, economic and social policies and military strategy. Indubitably, arthashastra is an original and authentic text that draws on Indian culture, practices and wisdom. Like, perhaps, the Chinese ace strategist Tsan Tsu’s ‘The art of war’, Kautilay’s arthashashtra is a unique treatise, although it is broader and more comprehensive than the former.
It is certainly advisable to refer to a classic like arthashastra, but to contextualise it, let us look at three frameworks New Delhi seems to be using. One, the Nehruvian approach, focusing on negotiation, aspiring for a multi-polar world, retaining geo-political autonomy etc.
Evidently, the BJP-government attempted to move away from Nehruvian approach, but for some inexplicable reason, it could not. It is perhaps the foreign policy mandarins schooled and trained in Nehruvinism which stalled the shift. It was seen in their dealing with China, a muddled up strategy weighed down by Nehruvian legacy of collaboration as well as confrontation.
Second is the neo-liberal perspective, i.e. making economy the measure of strength of the country, and the key determinant of foreign policy. Indian missions across the world were mandated to focus on building businesses for India, a clear shift from defence and security agenda to trade and commerce.
The third is the hyper-realist approach, which emphasises the military preparedness. This perspective privileges military strength over other determinants. That is how, for the last 10 years or so, as Indian economy grew, New Delhi went on a purchase-spree of defence equipments at a heavy cost to India’s development process.
There is a fourth approach, New Delhi is not adopting or is unaware of, is a progressive foreign policy, i.e. inclusive, and based on principles, mainly solidarity. The other principles enunciated by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, include pluralism, diversity, democracy and multiculturalism etc. These principles lend any country the power and scope for resilience not fragility. India leads the world in the concept of solidarity. The concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ meaning the ‘world is one family’ is uniquely Indian.
Further, way back in 1893, in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda addressed the gathering “sisters and brothers of America”, and surprised the world with such an intimate address and endeared himself to one and all. He cautioned, we should not mix security issues with a progressive approach. Security issues are temporary, emerging from time to time, die down once they are resolved, but progressivism is based on timeless values.
The second priority is to make foreign policy part of national planning and discourse. Although one can normatively delink foreign policy from domestic issues, a strong economy, stable politics, and sound society help a bolder foreign policy. As India is perceived to be emerging as a major power in the world, and it aspires to become a big power, Indian citizens will have to dare that dream and behave as a big power. While fighting the nefarious aggression of Pakistan, we need not behave like Pakistani leadership, duplicitous and double-crossing. The ‘urge to be great’ attitude will help build a better democracy at home.
The third priority is to take global responsibility, if India wishes to become a world power. India is fairly active in trans-national issues such as climate change, refugee crises, international terrorism, poverty alleviation etc. New Delhi has become the convener of international solar alliance, leading the charge against terrorism in international fora, dealing with its own heavy influx of refugees. But New Delhi does not take positions on violation of human rights, fights against authoritarian dictatorial regimes.
On the other hand, New Delhi has been on the wrong side, like in Myanmar, doing business with the military junta etc. New Delhi could justify it by invoking its national interest, which is the key driver for any country’s foreign policy. But when the values and national interests converge, that is the measure of a great power.
The fourth priority is to define its approach to China. Given the complicated, unending US-China trade war, and rivalry for supremacy, there is a great scope for India to sprint forward to replace China as a manufacturing hub of the world. Reportedly 150 CEOs of MNCs have expressed interest in moving their bases from China to India. Donald Trump is determined to isolate China economically, and build alternative sources to Chinese supply.
But sadly, New Delhi has been prevaricating on China. It is caught in conflicting dualism. Both Japan and India are wary of Beijing’s policy in Asia. Both countries’ economic stakes in China are high. But they have divergent approaches. Japan is economically withdrawing from China, expanding its links with ASEAN countries, and attempting to check China militarily with the help of Americans.
India is anxious about China’s territorial claims on India, its incursion into South Asia, but it wants to maintain stable relations with it. Such strategy is determined by two factors, India’s huge power asymmetry with China, and second, New Delhi’s misreading and miscalculation of Beijing’s designs.
The fifth priority will be to play to its real strength, i.e. the soft power, and alliance building. Joseph Nye, an international political theoretician suggests that culture-rich countries like India need to switch from hard power to soft power. Many countries in the world do not have military or economic power, but are influenced by soft power, health, education, social-capital and so on.
India is a bigger soft-power than China, and New Delhi must use it to counter China and build alliances in the world. New Delhi’s attitude to Israel and Islamic terrorism converge with America’s. There are many other areas of convergence with other big powers, which New Delhi should build on.
Finally, India should not try to overtake China in economic and military terms, at least in near future, although it should treat Beijing as number one adversary. It must build strategic and military alliances to counter China, which will reduce its own spending on military hardware, which can be used for deepening development.—INFA