India’s foreign policy

The Foreign Policy of any nation, its objectives, articulation and execution, reflects its history, its psyche, its strengths and weaknesses, its self image; what it wishes to project and helps shape how it is viewed. India is no exception.
The pre-independence history of India can be roughly divided into two parts. Kingdoms and empires with many achievements and with borders that lay by the claims of history along the Hindu Kush as Nehru, the de facto Prime Minister and last Foreign Minister of undivided British India wrote, so as to reject Afghanistan’s territorial claims. Then, came the rise of Muslim kingdoms followed by colonial rule under the British. A desire to reassert past glory and unfettered independence characterized the spirit of the new India from 1947.
The formulation of foreign policy, if not always its implementation, continues to have elements that give it strength, though aggressive pride is a flaw. There has never been a lack of vision with its historical background going back to Kautilya’s Arthasastra. K.N Panikar, a strategist  before Partition declared that India’s sphere of influence stretched from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca, and must dominate the Indian Ocean. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and one of its founding fathers in his Independence Day speech declared that India had a tryst with destiny. He laid the foundation of India’s foreign policy. Areas which were not clearly recognized elsewhere which would impact a country’s power potential, such as nuclear energy, were encouraged by him.
The importance he gave to the Ministry of External Affairs led to that institution becoming the pre-eminent institution in foreign policy and national security formulation. Of course, India’s territorial size, its population, its geographical position and contiguity to the other Asian giant, China, gives it regional and international importance, irrespective of how well  the foreign policy cards were played. 
Another quality has been to make allies out of countries that are adversaries. Though a leader in the non-aligned bloc, after the border war with China brought about by miscalculation, India turned to America, ready then as it is now to build up a counter to China. While maintaining links to America, deeper political and defence supply linkages were developed with the USSR and maintained with Russia.
By 2005, the strategic partnership with America, of which the nuclear deal was the jewel in the crown, displayed the realpolitik to adapt to an increasingly capitalist globalized world. But skill was employed to benefit from this relationship while frustrating American expectations of selling India nuclear reactors, high performance aircrafts and to open up more of India’s own markets.
Despite these strengths and achievements, playing all sides for one’s benefit has its own drawbacks. This became apparent to America at the reaction to the controversial and unfortunate treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York recently. 
Internal realities influence external perceptions. The internal situation presents vulnerabilities in economic growth, in the North East, Occupied Kashmir and the widespread Naxalite insurgency in eastern and central India.
The biggest weakness in India’s foreign policy has been its inability to develop good relations with its neighbours in sharp contrast to China. Relations with China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives continue to be troubled with the exception of Bangladesh whenever a sympathetic government is in power. Major territorial disputes remain unsolved despite the fact that some disputes with Pakistan, Sir Creek and Siachin, are capable of being resolved given political and military will on the Indian side. While India may blame its neighbours, at least with regard to the South Asian states, positive moves would reap major gains for it in the region and boost its international image towards the level it desires.
Looking to the future, there is the prospect of a BJP government led by Narendra Modi. Can some new direction be expected? With regard to America and the West, his pro-business approach may lead to more market access and trade. Indian selective policy to cooperate with China, especially on the booming trade front, while building up its border regions and nuclear capacity to project the ability to confront will both continue.
In the region it considers of contiguous importance and influence, its South Asian neighbours, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran, trade and development projects where possible, have been a major driver.
Under Modi and the BJP, the thrust on the Western flank, supported by America, will be to access Afghanistan and the lucrative markets of Central Asia and its energy resources, backed by prominent business leaders . Towards trying to secure transit access there may be a different nuance towards Pakistan.  Whether this will extend to a major breakthrough by resolving issues ripe for resolution is an open question. So far the policy has been to manage, not improve relations with Pakistan. Like his BJP predecessor, PM Atal Bihary Vajpee in 1999, and again in 2004, Modi may decide to visit Pakistan which no Indian leader has done since then.
A new factor is the ability of regional parties to influence foreign relations. Tamil Nadu ensured that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stayed away from the Colombo Commonwealth Summit. The BJP’s ally, the Akali Dal, has its cross border Punjab to Punjab policy. In Pakistan as well, parties in control of Provinces are becoming more active on this front.
Fostering peaceful relations with its neighbours, offering partnership rather than dominance, would unlock both the region and India’s potential. This would require a sea change in India’s powerful foreign policy and national security establishment. It remains to be seen if Modi and the BJP have the vision, the will and ability to seize such an opportunity.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat. Email:

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