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Foreign policy piled on the wreckage for India

by Harsh V. Pant

As one surveys the landscape of Indian foreign and security policy at the end of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s 10 years in office, it appears strewn with wreckage on all sides.

The Chinese have upped the ante on the border dispute, ties with Washington have plateaued, Russia is looking elsewhere, the European Union is disappointed, the morale of our defense forces is low, Maoists are gaining ground in large parts of the nation, and the peace process with Pakistan is going nowhere.

There is a whiff of fragility and an air of underconfidence as if, at any moment, the entire façade of India as a rising power might simply blink out like a bad idea. National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon thinks India “should not want to” emerge as a superpower.

He need not worry; his government has done enough over the last few years to make sure that India’s emergence as a gobble power of any reckoning is not going to happen anytime soon.

Policy paralysis within the government, the strategic diffidence of Congress Party’s leadership and the insistence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to destroy its own credibility as a national party all have ensured that Indian foreign policy continues adrift.

As India’s weight grew in the international system in recent years, a perception gained ground that India was on the cusp of achieving “great power” status. It was repeated ad nauseum in the Indian and global media, and India is already being asked to behave like one.

There was just one problem: Indian policymakers themselves were not clear as to what great power status entailed. At a time when the Indian foreign policy establishment should have been vigorously debating the nature and scope of India’s engagement with the world, it resorted to intellectual gimmickry by coming up with documents such as “Non-Alignment 2.0,” which neither has anything new to say nor was credible amid evolving global realities.

This intellectual vacuum allowed Indian foreign policy to drift without any sense of direction, and the result was that as the world was looking to India to help shape the emerging international order, India had little to offer except some platitudinous rhetoric that did great disservice to India’s rising global stature.

Bismarck famously remarked that political judgment was the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history. In India’s case, everyone except the Indian policymakers it seems is hearing the hoofbeats of history’s horse. Indian policymakers seem to have come to believe that, because their nation was experiencing robust economic growth, they didn’t need a serious foreign policy and that they could afford to get by with ad hoc responses or grand finger-wagging. Once economic growth faltered, there wasn’t much to anchor foreign policy.

India’s foreign policy elite remain mired in the exigencies of day-to-day pressures emanating from the immediate challenges at hand rather than evolving a grand strategy that integrates the nation’s multiple policy strands into a cohesive whole for preserving and enhancing Indian interests in a rapidly changing global environment.

The assertions, therefore, that India does not have a China policy or an Iran policy or a Pakistan policy are plain irrelevant. India does not have a foreign policy, period.

It is this lack of strategic orientation in Indian foreign policy that often results in a paradoxical situation where, on one hand, India is accused by various domestic constituencies of angering this or that country by its actions while, on the other hand, India’s relationship with almost all major powers is termed a “strategic partnership” by the Indian government.

India has been extremely fortunate that it has encountered an incredibly benign international environment for the last several years, making it possible for it to expand its bilateral ties with all of the major powers simultaneously.

This period of stable major power relations is rapidly coming to an end, and soon difficult choices will have to be made. Indian policymakers should have enough self-confidence to make those decisions even when they go against their long-held predilections. But a foreign policy that lacks intellectual and strategic coherence will ensure that India forever remains on the threshold of great power status but not quite able to cross it.

Let not history describe today’s Indian policymakers in the words British statesman Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored the changing strategic realities before World War II: “They go on in a strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

More than any other time in its history, India today needs a role in the world quite removed from the shibboleths of the past.An intellectual renaissance in the realm of foreign policy that allows India to shed its defensive attitude in framing its interests and grand strategy is the need of the hour.

Amid enormous challenges, India is widely recognized today as a rising power with enormous potential. The portents are hopeful — if only Indian policymakers had the imagination and courage to seize some of the opportunities.

At crucial moments in its history, a nation needs leadership who can inspire, infuse its people with confidence and remind them that greatness is theirs if only they pushed a bit harder. Sadly Manmohan Singh and his government failed to provide such leadership, and there is the danger that India’s moment may have come and gone without anyone noticing.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

  • piyu2cool

    India’s moment will not come till Indian system raises the per capita income and standards of living of the population to a respectable level. The world respects only money and quality of life. Whichever country provides a higher standard of living, can achieve soft power. India’s number one priority should be economic growth while maintaining peace on the border. No need to become an interventionist superpower like America.