Every Indian head of Government faces the problem of how to match performance with articulation. Narendra Modi came to power articulating a resounding ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy which he continued to articulate, once telling the Nepali Prime Minister that Nepal is at the very top of India’s neighbourhood first policy. Yet the number of his visits to neighbouring countries, as also the successes, declined over the years as it became evident that a minefield of foreign policy problems faced India there.
Every Indian foreign policy establishment faces a different problem, albeit related to the first: how to ensure that leaders do not get carried away during high level visits to or from foreign countries, by the seemingly adoring crowds, the unbounded hospitality, the euphoria of the moment, and do not, in fact, make unrealistic or impossible promises And every author of a book on Indian diplomacy faces another different, but again related problem: how to go beyond the rhetoric, to judge achievements in the complete absence of well defined markers, particularly after the end of the Cold War, since nowhere has a compact and coherent set of goals been set out. This is the central problem addressed by this volume.
As the author points out, there was once nonalignment, which stood India in good stead during the Cold War years. Thereafter nothing is available, no defining statement in Parliament, no White Paper setting out the goals of Indian foreign policy, no single document setting out objectives, linked to national security strategy and reflecting consensus across the political spectrum. There is ‘strategic autonomy’, often cited as the basis of foreign policy, but this is not an enunciation of goals; it is only an operating principle. There is a need to go beyond strategic autonomy and this volume makes the effort to describe just how far that has been done, by setting out the practice of India’s foreign policy in the context of the precepts or principles on which it is based.
Following up on this introduction, the chapters examine India’s diplomacy, starting with the neighbourhood. That is where the challenges are intractable, enmeshing the domestic and the international. India’s problems with Pakistan, of course, stand out. There have been four wars with Pakistan, countless terrorist attacks sponsored from there and the sheer intractability of disputes like that over Kashmir. The upshot here is that India has yet to develop viable hard power options to deter Pakistan.
With Afghanistan India’s diplomatic outreach was successful till 1979, and thereafter, with the Soviet occupation, their withdrawal and then the dominance of the Mujahidin and thereafter the Taliban, with Pakistan playing an ever more overt role, the challenges for Indian diplomacy have multiplied. As for Bangladesh, we have reached a historic juncture of diplomacy where an exponential expansion of bilateral cooperation could raise the economic strengths of their partnership, which in turn can transform the region and the world. With Nepal, according to the gloomy prognostication of the author, the bilateral relationship appears to be spiralling out of control; there is consequently an urgent need to build confidence, trust and mutually beneficial economic cooperation between the two countries. Then come short sections on relations with Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives, followed by a longer one on China. On the latter, Modi appears to have become more realistic, acknowledging that fundamental differences in strength and outlook exist, and the author goes on to quote the strategic expert Raja Mohan in support of this argument.
Then comes Myanmar and the conclusion here, without real justification, is that Myanmar fulfils the same role as Pakistan in China’s India strategy. Myanmar, given its long border with India, could in the alternative, become a bridge to go from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’, as the Modi government wishes to do; however, much will depend on the way India can provide viable ways for a democratizing Myanmar to combat Chinese influence.
The next chapter covers India’s extended neighbourhood, which includes Iran, Iraq, the smaller Gulf countries and the Indian Ocean region. India has had a historic relationship with these countries which has more recently flourished through political exchanges, trade and investment, tourism and pilgrimage, and the over seven million Indians that live and work in that region. There is also India’s heavy dependence on the energy sources of this region. Here India has been able to maintain equidistance on the ongoing tensions and conflicts, while even increasing its profile through initiatives like the Indian Ocean Rim Organisation as also a ‘Link West’ policy which is strongly forged and deeply anchored. Given India’s role as a crucial stakeholder in the security and prosperity of the region, it must expand its reach by intensifying naval exchanges.
The chapter on India’s relations with advanced countries sees these relations as a barometer of its own progress in achieving great power status in the world. India perceives the European Union primarily as a trade body, but the relationship has stagnated since 2009 because the proposed free trade agreement has not been signed. With the US a structure is being created that would increase India’s salience in the world, though India will have to bring political will to bear on this. In any case the tilt towards the US has become irreversible and is based on nuclear and defence issues. As for Russia the end of the Cold War and implosion of the Soviet Union led to uncertainty in India’s approach and a low level of relations; but Modi’s visit to Moscow in 2015 helped to rejuvenate it, led to a slew of agreements and the reiteration that India sees Russia as a steadfast ally. There are then short notes on relations with France, Germany, Japan and Brazil, in each case with a summary of the history of those relations, recent developments focusing on the Modi government, and possibilities for the future. In each case these possibilities are rated optimistically.
‘India and the World’, the next chapter, concentrates on the global role played by India: in the UN, including its abortive bid for permanent membership of the Security Council; in international bodies dealing with trade and finance such as the WTO, APEC, the Asia Pacific Cooperation, the IMF and the World Bank; the climate change agreement of Paris, 2016; and on terrorism, where India’s proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism remains under deliberation. The dilemma in diplomacy here is to maintain a Third World identity while at the same time acting as a responsible global power.
Further chapters outline India’s diplomacy with emerging countries and specific groupings such as BRICS, the group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which India joined in 2017; and OBOR, China’s one belt one road initiative which India has refused to join. Another chapter, ‘New Horizons’, covers Africa, Central Asia and ASEAN, Israel and the Indian diaspora. The last three chapters are on India’s diplomatic apparatus, setting the course for the future and an epilogue on foreign policy under Narendra Modi.
Abhyankar sums up by pointing out that as PM, Manmohan Singh took the first steps in going beyond strategic autonomy by clearly enunciating the connection between India’s development and security, placing great reliance on globalizing India’s path to economic growth and enhanced status, while Modi went further and gave primacy to the role of foreign policy in India’s transformation, to build India as a human resource power, and to create India’s own narratives on global issues. He has, in sum, successfully gone beyond strategic autonomy by spelling out the priorities and goals of its diplomacy.
Despite the fact that not everyone may agree with the fulsome praise bestowed by the author on the Modi government’s achievements in diplomacy this is a comprehensive survey of the subject from its origins in 1947, which can certainly be read with advantage by newcomers and practitioners alike.
IP Khosla is a former ambassador of India to Afghanistan.
Given India’s role as a crucial stakeholder in the security and prosperity of the region, it must expand its reach by intensifying naval exchanges.