Indian Foreign Policy: An Election Eve Review

A manifesto of any political party shall be treated as an important document because it is sort of public declaration of their vision and mission of governance quoting specific policies, programmes and objectives. Normally, manifestoes are issued just a few days or weeks before election targeting the electorate of the state or country. While going through the manifesto of the India’s oldest political party, the Congress, my attention was particularly drawn towards the party’s averments on India’s current foreign policy and their plan for future if voted in power during the current Parliamentary elections. While I am not averse to oral rhetoric of the political leaders which they so often resort to these days to influence target groups of people but my personal conviction is that in the manifesto, which is a serious written commitment, every endeavor should be made to evaluate the current programmes or policies, rather than person(s), in right perspective matched with the concerned political party’s futuristic vision and mission on the issues involved and milestones defined.

On the contrary, while citing the collective wisdom and farsightedness of leaders of the freedom movement (an obvious reference to former Prime Minister Nehru) in defining the nation’s foreign policy, the Congress party has alleged that the foreign policy under the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) has been reduced to the whims of one man and has become transactional marked with outrageous flip-flops. The party blames that the national interests have been a casualty under the BJP regime. According to the grand old party, the last five years have been disastrous for the people of India because Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) has only given grandiose promises, empty slogans, failed programmes, false statistics and overall climate of fear, intimidation and hatred. Citing it a situation of deep crisis, the party has promised to reverse these damaging developments by taking corrective actions at home and reposing faith in diplomatic corps to advise on, formulate and conduct foreign policy affirming its faith in the policy of friendship, co-existence and more importantly non-alignment.

Salient Points of Congress’ Promised Foreign Policy

The Congress manifesto promises the following measures under India’s foreign policy:

  • The party affirms its faith and to continue the policy of non-alignment, independence of thought and action, and increased bilateral engagements in relation with other countries of the world.
  • To establish a National Council on Foreign Policy consisting of the members of the Cabinet Committee on security, scholars, domain experts and diplomats to advise the government on foreign policy.
  • To work closely with all countries of the world and particularly members of the neighbouring countries and G-20 nations in various multilateral forums and institutions.
  • To make foreign trade an important element of the foreign policy and make all efforts to increase it.
  • It was the Congress government which opened India’s economy to other countries of the world and the party will strengthen its relation with other countries of the world through economic cooperation and two-way investment.
  • The party is opposed to terrorism and seek cooperation of other countries to compel Pakistan to verifiably end its support to terrorist groups.
  • The party will enact a new law on asylum and redouble efforts to seek membership of the United Nations Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group.
  • The party will work with SAARC and ASEAN countries to enhance trade, investment, tourism and cultural exchanges, strengthen Indian Council of Cultural Relations, and take effective steps to particularly maintain good relations with Pakistan and Sri Lanka resolving problems and conflicts, particularly those of fishermen.
  • Significantly Increase the size of Indian Foreign Service, induct domain experts and scholars and open more missions abroad for effective participation and acquiring the position of leadership in the world. 

Nehruvian Legacy of Foreign Policy

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also held all along the charge of the External Affairs till his death on 27 May 1964. Thus after independence, the country was without a regular foreign minister for almost seventeen years and, therefore, in a way Nehru is architect of India's foreign policy after independence which which was carried out unchanged for long by his successors. The concepts of non-alignment, panchsheel and pro-east tilt were his ideas that India religiously followed for over four decades.There is no doubt that historically Pandit Nehru was a great leader and many historians and critics treat him a great internationalist too. However, Pandit Nehru was so enamoured with his ideology, international image and the Chinese leadership that he even, perhaps unintentionally, sidelined the national interests on many occasions. Being a staunch believer of Panchsheel and non-alignment, Nehru possibly never gave a serious thought over the possibility of war with China and the need of defence preparedness despite constant hankering from the military leadership over the years. For these reasons, rather than helping the nation, his ideology and policies proved to be counterproductive and fatal on many occasions. Here a quick reference and analysis of the Nehruvian foreign policy becomes relevant because the Congress still talks about same vision stressing "non-alignment" through its manifesto. A few such illustrations are as follows:

The first crucial trial of Nehruvian foreign policy and national security came immediately after the independence when Pakistan in disguise of tribal militia launched an attack to forcibly capture Kashmir. Following the accession of the state to India on 26 October 1947, Indian troops were air-lifted to Srinagar, Kashmir. The Indian forces successfully reversed the forward movement of militia backed by Pakistani troops and were advancing to free the captured territory when Nehru ordered a ceasefire despite the reluctance and resentment among the Indian troops. Nehru took the case to the United Nations (UN) true to his idealistic internationalism expecting a favourable response from the UN because Pakistan was aggressor in this case. Internationalization of the Kashmir issue and subsequent incorporation of the Article 370 and 35A through a Presidential Act at his behest only further complicated the Kashmir cause which is bleeding the nation for the past seventy-one years.

Several experts have pointed out and it is a well-known history now how the entire episode of annexation of Tibet in 1950 was mishandled by Pandit Nehru and his team with an unsagacious and lackadaisical approach. When the Tibet was invaded by the Chinese troops, he was busy justifying the Chinese involvement in the Korean War and defending their position in the United Nations.. Tibet was traditionally an independent buffer state between India and hegemonistic China for centuries. India was the main stakeholder but the Tibetan issue was not even allowed to be raised in the United Nations lest it might hurt Chinese interests in the crucial the world body. Reportedly, when the Korean crisis escalated, Pandit Nehru called for a special session of Parliament to discuss the issue while Tibetan crisis was treated as a minor issue. Thus the seeds of 1962 War were sown with the inept handling of the Tibetan crisis itself by the Indian political leadership in 1950 itself.

In 1950s, Pandit Nehru coined the slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai and was instrumental in signing the Panchsheel Treaty with China in 1954. Traditionally, India had a long but not well-marked border with friendly Tibet for centuries with hardly any dispute which began only after the latter was annexed by China. Although several patches of disputed land along approximately 3,380 kilometres of Tibetan border were reported but the main disputes occurred on account of the Chinese claim of sovereignty over two large tracts of the Aksai Chin in the western and Arunachal Pradesh in the east Himalayan regions. Rest is history how despite constantly showing commitment for a peaceful settlement, the Chinese simultaneously invaded Ladakh in the north and across the McMahon Line in the eastern sector on 20 October 1962. Needless to mention, neither the Indian Army nor the political leadership under Pandit Nehru was geared up to counter this territorial violation and blatant aggression. Consequently, India had to face utter humiliation, dismemberment and heavy losses to precious human lives at the hands of the Chinese army in a short but swift war.

After the Communists assumed the power in China in 1948 foillowing a long and bloody civil war at the cost of millions of lives, India under Pandit Nehru was among the first few countries in 1949 to recognize the People's Republic of China. The powerful world democracies did not recognize the Communist China for long and there are credible reports and correspondence to corroborate that the United States as also then Russian leadership was keen to offer India a permanent seat of the United Nations Security Council in 1950s. However, Pandit Nehru refused to accept the offer on the premise that it would have been at the cost of the Communist China. We all know how the country is suffering till now in the Security Council and other world forums due to obstacles and opposition of the Chinese leadership. This was a major diplomatic blunder under Nehru which country is still paying for.

Pandit Nehru was fascinated with the concept of socialism and making a common cause of the 'Western Imperialism' he preferred to befriend China and USSR at the expense of the US and UK, which were the only powerful and worthy nations of the time. Simultaneously, he pioneered the policy of non-alignment along with few other third world nations which later proved to be the most ironical part of his foreign policy when the 1962 Sino-Indian War broke out. While the hostilities broke out and the Indians troops were facing a total rout in the absence of necessary arms, logistics and preparation, Pandit Nehru made a fervent appeal to the US and UK for an urgent arms aid to counter the Chinese aggression. Despite India’s East Policy and their engagement in the Cuban crisis, both the countries responded favourably with moral and material assistance and, reportedly, the first arms consignment from the US reached India even before signing a formal contract. On the other hand, the communist major power and ally, the USSR remained undecided under the dilemma of choosing a 'brother’ or 'friend'. Over the next few years, the non-aligned movement too completely lost its relevance and fizzled out.

These instances remind me former American President John F Kennedy who is known to have said that a mistake in domestic affairs could cost a few lives but a mistake in foreign affairs could destroy the entire nation. Reportedly Kennedy said this in the context of the nuclear weapons; however, the general inference of this statement is that erroneous decisions in foreign affairs might cause irreparable damage to the nation. This is so true in the context of Pandit Nehru’s iconic blunders in foreign policy. He remained an architect of India’s foreign policy for almost seventeen years and on many occasions his personal ideologies proved dearly to India’s foreign policy. It is not surprising that the Congress is today again talking of non-alignment. Seventeen years is not a small period and Nehru undoubtedly is the architect of India’s foreign policy but as it appears his failures have overshadowed achievements.

From Participant to Emerging Global Leader

Though the Congress manifesto squarely blames the leadership of Prime Minister Modi for stated whimsical attitude alleging that the last five years have been disastrous, national interests were a casualty leading to a deep crisis following a transactional and outrageous flip-flop in the external affairs; but a factual analysis provides altogether a different picture. During the last five years, the foreign policy has received new impetus and energy under the charismatic leadership of Modi. During the same period, the Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj too put forth a determined, resilient and empathetic leadership which is evident from a meticulous and successful operation of rescuing 4640 Indians and 960 foreign nationals from Yemen during the Yemeni crisis in 2015 that personally goes to her credit.

Over the years, the India’s foreign policy has experienced new shifts from the traditional non-alignment yet a pro-Russian tilt as the country now seeks close strategic relations with the US and Western bloc, expanding engagement with East Asia under the Look East Policy and simultaneously improving relations with the Arab countries and Israel. India has also developed renewed engagements with Africa and Central Asia. Notwithstanding the traditional rivalry and adversarial conduct of some neighbouring countries, the normalization of relations with China is consistently sought while relationship and cooperation with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal are more or less on right track. A new tri-lateral economic and defence cooperation in the form of US-India-Japan axis has been noticed in the recent years on one hand, while serious engagement with Russia and China too has continues despite many issues with the latter. The only exception remains Pakistan where there is no sign of improvement due to her constant willful support to terrorism in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Today, India is a major player among the G-20 nations and its engagement with the SAARC and ASEAN nations is valued by all concerned. However, it’s not that only the present government is responsible for all these positive developments and achievements. In fact, a beginning for many of such changes had already occurred in 1990s but the present NDA government under the leadership of PM Modi has been very proactive and worked hard in successfully changing the country’s international image from a participant to an emerging global leader. Undoubtedly, the foreign policy of India has become broad based, more pragmatic and focused on national interests during the recent times. The present leadership also cares and more focused on the Indian diaspora worldwide; besides, the economic interests of the country have emerged as the core element of the foreign diplomacy as in case of many other progressive countries.

In the recent years, two most significant changes in India’s foreign policy have been its newfound confidence and strength in dealing with China and obtaining strategic support of the US on several issues in international relations without compromising its age old friendship and cooperation with Russia in defence and other core sectors. Despite heavy pressure and even threat from China, India has been able to independently take its stand on the former’s the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and handle the Dokalam issue. If China has gained some ground in Nepal and Sri Lanka, India too has scored certain points with China’s neighbours like Japan and Vietnam in the recent years. On the other hand, both the US and Japan recognize India’s stance on the BRI as also its growing importance in the Indo-Pacific region. Whether it was Doklam standoff with China or the recent faceoff with Pakistan after Balakot air strikes, the US and Western Block were seen clearly tilted towards India’s position.

The strategic relationship with the US and Western Block has continuously improved since signing of the peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008 during the UPA regime. On the issue of the fight against terrorism, India has successfully exposed Pakistan of its double game before the US and its NATO allies as to how on one hand it has pretended to be a partner in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and on the other hand misusing equipment and money supplied by them for funding and equipping militants and mercenaries against India and Afghanistan. More recently, the Us has stopped almost all military and other aids to Pakistan, except some on humanitarian ground. Much to the Pakistan’s dismay, the US now recognizes the role of India in the peace process in Afghanistan. Besides, the US and other NATO countries are now increasingly recognizing and seeking role of India in the Indo-Pacific region. A few specific developments and achievements of the India’s foreign policy are briefly enumerated in the following paragraphs, the credit for which overwhelmingly goes in favour of the present Modi led government.

Uncompromised Doklam Standoff with China:

India and Bhutan had signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1949, renegotiated in 2007, where under Bhutan is guided by India in its foreign policy allowing a close consultation and cooperation in defence matters. Periodical trespassing by China, and consequent scuffle and strife between the Indian and Chinese troops is a recurring feature. The growing economic and military status, traditional territorial disputes with neighbours and the tendency of not accepting or honouring past agreements has earned notoriety to China for its rough dealings with neighbours, and India too is not an exception. The last such grave military standoff started when Chinese side unilaterally attempted to construct a metallic road in June 2017 on the Doklam plateau southwards near the Doka La pass on Bhutan’s territory. Bhutan had formally objected to China's road construction but their objections were brushed aside by China which constrained India to act on the behest of Bhutan on 18 June 2017 under the existing treaty obligations.

This dispute gained notoriety and serious security implications because the troops of India and China remained locked in an obstinate standoff for over two months. While the Chinese side resorted to loud political accusations and slandering through the Chinese official media and state machinery, India maintained a relative calm and composure avoiding rhetoric yet the Indian army and political establishment remained firm and resolute in not allowing the Chinese any concessions. During the stand-off, there was scuffle between the armed soldiers of the two countries for some time and thereafter both armies disengaged and camped with their personnel and equipment at the arm’s length of hardly about hundred meter. Finally ten days before the scheduled BRICS Summit in September 2017, a mutual agreement was reached to simultaneously disengage and the Chinese troops finally withdrew from the disputed Bhutanese territory.

By taking a principled and resolute stand, India not only compelled China to rescind its designs but also was able to convey message to its neighbours and world fraternity that it cannot be bullied by the belligerent China any long. Also by doing this, China’s motive of making a dent in India’s special relationship with Bhutan by spreading untruth and disinformation had also not succeeded. India's measured, reasonable and determinate response, free from diatribe and polemics, was widely acknowledged and appreciated by US, UK, some other countries of the Western bloc and international media. The Doklam standoff in 2017 turned out to be a major display of India’s military resolve and diplomatic success in the recent times.

Balakot Surgical Strikes and World Support

Recently on 14 February 2019, a suicide bomber of Pakistan sponsored dreaded terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) carried out a lone wolf attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Kashmir killing over fourty security personnel. The event created a major shock, grief and outrage all over the country compelling the political leadership to take action to avenge the dastardly attack. Consequently, the Indian Air Force carried out a well-planned and accurate air strike at Balakot terrorist camp and two other targets in Pakistan on 26 February 2019 in retaliation. Earlier, India had given a clear signal that it was no longer willing to act a sitting duck at the hands of perpetrators within or outside country. Well before the air strike, India also took severe punitive economic measures, and mounted political and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan apprising all major world countries with the details and evidence of the neighbour’s complicity and own right to act in self-defence.

While carrying out air operation against the terrorists on the Pakistani soil, the Indian Air Force had taken adequate precaution to make sure that any harm is not caused to any civilian or military personnel and infrastructure. Consequently, India received wide political and diplomatic support against the terrorist action in self defence from almost all major and powerful countries, when US, UK, France, Russia, Japan, Australia, neighbouring SAARC countries, and so on, condemned the JeM sponsored terror attack on Pulwama and endorsed subsequent Indian air strike on terrorist camps in Pakistan. The only exception was China, with its usual double standards and double speaks, which talked about restraints, attempted to glorify Pakistan’s role in fighting against terrorism and later stalled the process in the Security Council United Nation when France, US and UK moved a proposal to ban and declare the JeM Head Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. On this issue, India received moral and diplomatic support even from many Islamic nations.

Organization of the Islamic Cooperation Meet in February 2019:

Pakistan is among the founder members of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) comprising of 57 member countries. India has almost second largest population of Muslims in the world but due to constant opposition of Pakistan, it has neither been given membership nor ever allowed to participate in the deliberations of the OIC in the past. Over the past few decades, Pakistan frequently used this platform to target India on the Kashmir and other issues. Way back, on one occasion India was invited as “Observer” but due to intense opposition of Pakistan and its allies in the Arab world, the Indian delegates were finally not allowed to participate in the deliberations.

During the last few years, India has evolved as an economic and military giant that none can afford to ignore now. This position is vindicated with the recent developments when the OIC extended an invite to the India’s foreign minister to participate as the "Guest of Honour" in a summit held in the United Arab Emirates on 1st March despite vehement opposition by Pakistan. Significantly, this was first such invitation during the last five decades when the hosts refused to budge to Pakistan’s objection at a crucial time in February after Pulwama terrorist attack and consequent Indian air strike at Balakot, Pakistan to destroy a major terrorist training camp. Indian foreign minister not only attended as the guest of honour but also candidly spoke on the neighbor sponsored terrorism and its harmful implications without mincing words. Needless to mention, the event was a major diplomatic success from India’s perspective and a hard blow to Pakistan which boycotted the OIC meeting.

Simultaneous Engagement with Israel and Palestine:

Under the long Congress rule, India traditionally avoided relations with Israel for decades under apprehension it would alienate the Arab nations as also country’s own huge Muslim population. After over four decades of non-aligned and pro-Arab policy, India finally established diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992. It was during the Congress rule under Prime Minister Narsimha Rao who later incurred a lot of opposition and wrath of the grand old party for deviating from the pro-Arab foreign policy and Nehruvian economic model. Today, India and Israel share an extensive economic, military and strategic relationship so much so that the former is the largest buyer of the latter’s military equipment. Also Israel is the second-largest defence supplier to India after Russia.

This cooperation between the two countries has achieved newer heights during the NDA regime with Prime Minister Modi as the government head. He also became the first Indian prime minister during the first week of July 2017 who ever visited Israel since its creation. This was a historic visit when Mr Modi simultaneously met both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in the respective territories wherein the Israeli security forces even extended the courtesy of escorting him to Ramallah, the current Palestinian capital. This was followed by almost a weeklong visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India in February 2018. These visits further sealed the two countries’ strategic ties through several agreements of mutual interests. In the past, India championed the Palestinian cause but in the recent years, the country has shed its inhibition to foster relationship with Israel without compromising its relationship with Arab counties, particularly in the areas of high-tech military equipment and anti-terrorism cooperation.

Global Reach with Indian Diaspora:

Today, perhaps the Indian diaspora is the largest population spread over the countries all over the world. An estimated population of about 15 million migrants from India is living abroad, as per a study conducted by the UN Population Division. Of this, the highest number of about 3.3 million Indians is living in the United Arab Emirates while the US has the second biggest population of Indians with about 2.3 million in 2017. During the last five years, Prime Minister Modi had made it a point during his abroad visits to invariably meet and address the Indian immigrants wherever significant Indian diaspora exists. The present Indian government has also taken crucial decisions to make the NRIs’ life easier by simplifying and extending facilities for business opportunities and investment, VISA, citizenship etc. As per the latest World Bank report, India was the world’s top recipient of remittances in 2018 with its diaspora sending a whopping USD 80 billion back home, and China ranking only second with USD 67 billion.

End Note

While the Congress has severely criticized the current foreign policy in its manifesto quoting as transactional and outrageous flip-flop at the whims of Prime Minister Modi, facts are contrary to this position, that renders the opposition party in a poor limelight. The truth is that all past governments, including the Congress due to its long rule, have contributed towards the foreign policy and today the country stands at its all-time best in diplomatic relations in a multipolar world largely due to dynamic and selfless endeavors of Mr Modi and his team. For instance, if India has good relations with the US and Japan, it has not been at the cost of decades old friendly relations with Russia and India is also simultaneously engaged with China in bilateral and multilateral arrangements despite many territorial disputes and political differences. Similarly, India has established a strategic partnership with Israel but it is not at the cost of its stand on Palestine or relationship with the Arab world. The latest participation of India in the OIC meet on 1st March 2018 amply vindicates this position. As such in their manifesto, the BJP invokes the ancient Indian vision of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” as the basis for its global cooperation that includes almost all points cited by the Congress sans the non-alignment and National Council on Foreign Policy.

In the context of foreign policy, the Congress manifesto also claims that it was their government that opened India’s economy to the other countries of the world. They further promise to strengthen India’s relations with other countries through enhanced economic cooperation, two-way investment and closer relations between the businesspersons. This averment is true and the Congress government under Prime Minister Narsimha Rao was indeed responsible for ushering in several economic reforms in early 1990s that paved way for India’s economic progress in the ensuing years with successive governments, irrespective of their political ideologies, continued further liberalization towards open economy and trade. What the Congress party’s vision document did not reveal is the fact that then a major section of the party did not endorse Rao government’s deviation from Nehruvian socialistic economy. This opposition and dislike for Mr Rao in his own party became so strong in later years that following his death, even his mortal remains were not allowed cremation in Delhi.

Pandit Nehru retained foreign minister’s portfolio with him for almost seventeen years and even many apolitical and independent experts and analysts blame him to have compromised the nation’s interests on many occasions vis-a-vis his personal image and ideologies. He was a strong leader so often dictated by his own whims and to that extent his approach was more of the transactional and whimsical nature. On the other hand, PM Modi has a full time foreign minister who is equally competent, articulated and professional in approach exercising a reasonable level of independence in conducting foreign policy. Mr Modi is not known to have any personal interests or ideologies having any conflict with the national interests. Irrespective of what his political opponents and adversaries hold against him, he is self-less and devoted leader always working in furtherance of the national interests. The non-alignment movement is failed and fizzled out concept and an attempt of reiterating and reviving it through a manifesto only suggests shortage of political acumen, ideas and vision.


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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