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Is India reluctant to take its place in the new world order?

April 30, 2014 14:49 IST

'Crafting a coherent, transparent and consistent policy vis-a-vis our neighbours, leave alone the rest of the world, is unlikely to be high on the priority list of the new Indian government,' says Ramananda Sengupta.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inspects a guard of honour with China's Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. Photograph: Jason Lee/ReutersA rather uncomfortable -- and if I may say so, embarrassed -- looking elephant in a suit, with his legs atop the two arms of a scale, trying hard to keep his balance.

That is the image accompanying a March 17 article (external link) in Global Times, a Chinese news Web site. 'India reluctant to take up responsibilities in creating new global order,' says the headline.

It would be easy to dismiss the article as just another piece of Chinese propaganda.

It would also be wrong.

Because despite the obvious and expected cracks -- about how 'frequent quarrels are initiated by the Indian side along the Sino-Indian border,' and how the '...the so-called China threat remains a constant excuse for India's military and nuclear arsenal build-up' -- the basic argument is bang on. India's foreign policy is conspicuous by its absence.

At a fundamental level, foreign policy is essentially a reflection of national interests. Sadly, in our country, personal and narrow political interests have always trumped national interests.

As the article points out, 'First, New Delhi rarely engages in long-term thinking about its foreign policy goals. This makes it difficult to spell out a coherent strategy in global affairs, and sometimes bureaucratic and internal struggles prevail over national interests.'

But then, it adds, 'Indian foreign policy makers are insulated from outside influences. India's rigid understanding of strategic autonomy is translated as stubbornness of holding its parochial national interests and neglecting broader interests.'

Our strange and ambiguous positions on Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as China and Pakistan, are obvious examples of domestic political pressures and internal struggles dictating our foreign policy.

Whether 'broader interests' should subsume national interests, parochial or otherwise, however, is another question.

The state of Tamil Nadu clearly dictates our policy towards Sri Lanka, national interests be damned.

Similarly, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee scuttled the Teesta water and land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, despite our prime minister having cleared them.

In Nepal, our 'policy' seems more fixated on countering Chinese influence in the Himalayan kingdom than on ensuring a safe and stable government in Kathmandu.

As far as China and Pakistan go, their aggression on the ground (terrorism from Pakistan and military incursions along the disputed border by China) while officially suing for peace and friendship, has led to much head-scratching among our leadership, but no credible and consistent responses.

In other words, we don't really have any friends in the neighbourhood.

But crafting a coherent, transparent and consistent policy vis-a-vis our neighbours, leave alone the rest of the world, is unlikely to be high on the priority list of the new Indian government.

This despite the fact that the rapidly evolving events in our troubled immediate neighbourhood, and in places like Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, Russia and the US impact us directly, economically and strategically.

Some arguments in the Global Times article have been taken from an article (external link) in the May-June 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, that much revered publication of the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Titled India's Feeble Foreign Policy: A Would-Be Great Power Resists Its Own Rise, the article contends that while 'few trends have captured the world's attention as much as the so-called rise of the rest, the spectacular economic and political emergence of powers such as China and India... within India itself, the foreign policy elite shies away from any talk of the country's rising status.'

To explain this paradox, it goes on to cite 'three important facts that have gone largely unnoticed in the West.'

'First, New Delhi's foreign policy decisions are often highly individualistic -- the province of senior officials responsible for particular policy areas, not strategic planners at the top. As a result, India rarely engages in long-term thinking about its foreign policy goals, which prevents it from spelling out the role it aims to play in global affairs.'

'Second, Indian foreign-policy makers are insulated from outside influences, such as think-tanks, which in other countries reinforce a government's sense of its place in the world.'

'Third, the Indian elite fears that the notion of the country's rise is a Western construct, which has unrealistically raised expectations for both Indian economic growth and the country's international commitments.'

My friend Captain Bharat Verma, the editor of Indian Defence Review, once told me that anyone can prepare a laundry list of problems, of issues plaguing the nation. What we really need, he said, are solutions.

But what foreign policy solutions can one offer the nation, or the new government, which will inherit an almost bankrupt nation, and a few million young citizens clamouring for jobs, opportunities, and radical change?

Foreign policy reflects national interests. So it critical to clearly define what these national interests are, and then map our international interests against those.

Obviously, the first national interest is territorial and economic sovereignty. The second priority is, or should be, to help the truly needy, deprived and poor get access to education, healthcare, housing, and opportunities. This has to be based purely on economic criteria, and not on caste and other factors.

The third on my list is inclusiveness. We cannot grow as a nation as long as our venal politicians continue to divide us on the basis of religion, caste and ethnicity. We cannot have a political culture which banks on poverty, illiteracy and ignorance for votes.

What are the implications for our foreign policy when seen through the prism of these three national interests?

To ensure territorial and economic sovereignty, one must have not just the military muscle and the political will to exercise that muscle when needed, but a clearly articulated, forward looking strategic doctrine to guide us in times of crisis.

This means that instead of whining and complaining to Uncle Sam each time there is a terrorist strike in India, we should be able and willing to do whatever it takes to neutralise the perpetrators and their handlers.

Economically, it is critical to convince and reassure our neighbours that we pose an opportunity, not a threat.

Right now, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan feel let down by New Delhi for different reasons. Our decision to abstain from the UN vote seeking an independent probe into rights violations in Sri Lanka is a small, belated step in the right direction. But a lot more needs to be done to bring our relationship back on track.

One great foreign policy initiative would be to start a major student exchange programme with these nations. This would give tomorrow's leaders an opportunity to not just understand each other's problems, but also have friends to turn to in moments of bilateral friction.

As far as Pakistan and China go, we need to draw a few red lines, and clearly tell the world that any violation of those lines will be treated as an act of war.

And since we are tom-tomming reciprocity in our foreign relations post the Devyani Khobragade affair with the US, why can't we staple visas for Chinese citizens from Xinjiang who want to visit India?

Many of our strategic analysts see the burgeoning China-Pakistan relationship as a two-pronged threat, and wonder whether we have the capability to take them both on at the same time.

But instead of hyphenating the two, why can't we constantly remind China that an unstable Pakistan -- whose clerics have been caught inciting religious and separatist riots in Xinjiang -- offers far less economic and strategic benefits than a friendly India?

As for the others, our recent reaching out to Japan should be based on economic criteria, and not on any one-upmanship vis-a-vis China.

As far as the United States goes, while it is important to have and build cordial and strategic relations with the world's sole superpower, we cannot expect it to play agony aunt each time terrorists trained in Pakistan attack us. Nor should the US or the West expect us to be a counterweight to China.

One of the primary foreign policy challenges the new Indian government will face within months of being sworn is the proposed US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What happens to all our investment-economic and political -- in that country if the Pakistan-backed Taliban returns to power in Kabul? How do we propose to protect our interests there?

In order to be a credible, powerful voice on the world stage, India must have a clearly defined, transparent foreign policy, which reflects our national interests. A few regional satraps cannot dictate our policy towards our neighbours or the world.

Until we have this, we will, as the Chinese Web site says, continue to be perceived as a reluctant player on the global stage, a would-be great power resisting its own rise.

Ramananda Sengupta is an astute observer of strategic affairs.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inspects a guard of honour with China's Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

Ramananda Sengupta