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Home > India > News > Columnists > Harsh V Pant

Four years of UPA: Foreign policy adrift

May 12, 2008

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As the United Progressive Alliance government completes its four years in office, there is a whiff of fragility and under-confidence in the air, as if at any moment the entire fa´┐Żade of India as a rising power might simply blink out like a bad idea.

The absolute control of the Communists on all realms of policy-making, the single point agenda of the Congress party to stay in power as long as possible and the insistence of the Bharatiya Janata Party upon destroying its credibility as a national party -- all have ensured that Indian foreign policy continues to drift without any real sense of direction.

The seemingly never ending debate on the US-India nuclear deal has made it clear that today India stands divided on fundamental foreign policy choices facing the nation.

What Walter Lipmann wrote on US foreign policy in 1943 applies equally to the Indian landscape of today. He had warned that the divisive partisanship that prevents the finding of a settled and generally accepted foreign policy is a grave threat to the nation. "For when a people is divided within itself about the conduct of its foreign relations, it is unable to agree on the determination of its true interest. It is unable to prepare adequately for war or to safeguard successfully its peace."

In the absence of a coherent national grand strategy, India is in the danger of losing its ability to safeguard its long-term peace and prosperity.

As India's weight has grown in the international system in recent years, there's a perception that India is on the cusp of achieving 'great power' status. It is repeated ad nauseum in the Indian and often global media and India is already being asked to behave like one. There is just one problem: Indian policy-makers themselves are not clear as to what this status of a great power entails. At a time when the Indian foreign policy establishment should be vigorously debating the nature and scope of India's engagement with the world, it is disappointingly silent. This intellectual vacuum has allowed Indian foreign policy to drift without any sense of direction and the result is that as the world is looking to India to shape the emerging international order, India has little to offer except some platitudinous rhetoric that does great disservice to India's rising global stature.

There is clearly an appreciation in the Indian policy-making circles of India's rising capabilities. It is reflected in a gradual expansion of Indian foreign policy activity in recent years, in India's attempt to reshape its defence forces, in India's desire to seek greater global influence. But all this is happening in an intellectual vacuum with the result that micro issues dominate the foreign policy discourse in the absence of an overarching framework.

The recent debates on the US-India nuclear deal, on India's role in the Middle East, on India's engagements with Russia [Images] and China, on India's policy towards its immediate neighbours are all important but ultimately of little value as they fail to clarify the singular issue facing India today: What should be the trajectory of Indian foreign policy at a time when India is emerging from the structural confines of the international system as a rising power on way to a possible great power status?

Answering this question requires one big debate, a debate perhaps to end all minor ones that India has been having for the last few years. However much Indians like to be argumentative, a major power's foreign policy cannot be effective in the absence of a guiding framework of underlying principles that is a function of both the nation's geopolitical requirements and its values.

Otto Van 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 but the Indian policy-makers it seems is hearing the hoofbeats of history's horse. Indian policy-makers seem to have come to believe that just because their nation is growing at an 8 per cent rate of economic growth, they don't really need a serious foreign policy that they can afford to get by with ad hoc responses or grand finger-wagging.

Foreign policy requires a serious look at the causal chain of events as opposed to mere reaction and a strategic framework is necessary to bring some measure of order out of an increasingly chaotic world. India needs a coherent, holistic approach to its foreign policy that is rooted in the deepest tectonic plates of its geography and history. It is the underlying and immutable characteristics of a nation that shapes its interests as it struggles for power and survival in an anarchic international environment.

But India's foreign policy elite remains 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 to be able to preserve and enhance 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 the 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 as a 'strategic partnership' by the Indian government.

More recently, Indian government has been accused of betraying its 'time-tested friends' such as Iran and Russia as if the only purpose of foreign policy is to make friends. A nation's foreign policy cannot be geared towards trying to keep every other country in world in good humour. 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 the major powers simultaneously.

This has given rise to some rather fantastic suggestions such as India being well-placed to be a 'bridging power', enjoying harmonious relations with all major powers -- the US, Russia, China, and the European Union. Such a suggestion not only implies that the major global powers are willing to be 'bridged' but also that India has the capabilities and influence to be such a 'bridge'.

Moreover, the period of stable major power relations is rapidly coming to an end and soon difficult choices will have to be made and Indian policy-makers 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 will forever remain poised on the threshold of great power status but won't be quite able to cross it.

Let not history describe today's Indian policy-makers in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored the changing strategic realities before the Second World War: "They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent." India is being told that it is on the verge of becoming a great power. But no one is clear what India intends to do with the accretion of economic and military capabilities and with its purported great power status. India today, more than any other time in its history, needs a view of its 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.

Despite enormous challenges that it continues to face, India is widely recognised today as a rising power with enormous potential. The portents are hopeful if only the Indian policy-makers have the imagination and courage to seize some of the opportunities. Instead we have to bear witness to the sorry spectacle of the nation's prime minister reduced to asking his coalition partners to "listen to voices of reason" on the crucial issue of the nuclear pact with the United Sates.

At crucial moments in its history, a nation needs a leader who can inspire, infuse its people with confidence and remind them that greatness is theirs if only they would push a bit harder. India is in the danger of losing that moment and right or wrong, Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] will be blamed for it by history.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London [Images].

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