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The Future of Indian Foreign Policy

India has failed in its endeavours to gain global influence by mimicking the "Great Powers" and trying to develop its hard power capacities. The declining status of India as a country that once offered a unique and ethically informed view of the world has been partly mitigated by the activities of some sectors of Indian civil society. This offers India a chance to create a forward-looking foreign policy that better reflects its own origins and cultural ethos.


The Future of Indian Foreign Policy

India has failed in its endeavours to gain global influence by mimicking the “Great Powers” and trying to develop its hard power capacities. The declining status of India as a country that once offered a unique and ethically informed view of the world has been partly mitigated by the activities of some sectors of Indian civil society. This offers India a chance to create a forward-looking foreign policy that better reflects its own origins and

cultural ethos.


he political fault line exposed by the struggle over the India-US nuclear agreement, a division that crosses party lines and has split the Delhi foreign policy establishment, reflects a deeper and more fundamental struggle over the future of Indian foreign policy. At its heart, this struggle is about alignment – with anyone – or going it alone.

All parties feel that India deserves a seat at the high table of international politics. However, agreement on this principle does not foreclose important differences. Many are doubtful whether the objective of international recognition of India’s status is likely to be achieved by closer relations with a superpower that has reached the apex of its influence, and that now may be in decline. In addition, the left is clearly concerned about the anti-China tilt that comes with closer ties with the US; the right worries loudly about the possibility that India’s future nuclear weapons deve lopment will be held hostage by restrictions imposed by the US. The broad centre that is in favour of the agreement is defined by a pragmatic approach that sees the India-US agreement as returning tangible benefits in the short- and medium-term. The centre argues that this agreement does not imply a permanent loss of sovereignty and comes with real returns that will lead, eventually, to India achieving its desire of joining the inner circle of world power and influence.

Indian Uniqueness

This grand objective, global recognition of India’s importance, has been a continuous thread of India’s foreign policy since independence. Under Nehru, this objective was justified in terms of India’s historic civilisational achievements and the size of the country, and expressed in terms of moral power, including the insistence that newly independent countries have a say in world affairs. Later, between 1962 and 1971, Indian foreign policy was on the defensive. Then, following Bangladesh and the first nuclear test (1974), this objective returned with new force. It was now built upon a rationale that reiterated India’s size, regional importance, and new-found military clout, while sidelining the post-colonial considerations of earlier times. Even so, with India continuing to be the world’s largest recipient of subsidised aid, claims to global importance were necessarily muted. In more recent times, India’s pheno menal economic development, along with its open declaration of nuclear potency, has allowed a new confidence in claiming its “rightful place” on the world stage.

All through the first 50 years of its independent existence, even as its influence waxed and waned, India’s foreign policy held firm to a plank of strategic independence. The implications of possible loss of this independence are now under question.

Indian Foreign Policy Values

India once stood apart because it hewed to a different line in world politics. It was one of the few countries that spoke against colonialism and racial privilege, criticised the undemocratic and unequal distribution of international power, and argued that nuclear weapons and excessive military spending were the prime sources of global insecurities; it no longer represents those values publicly. India’s new-found rise to global prominence comes through the attributes of hard power – primarily, economic strength and military abilities. Has this new stance led to an increase in its ability to shape the external environment to its liking, and, second, does it continue to capture the imagination of the world through its unique qualities and distinctiveness? Or, has India’s increasingly successful ability to mimic the Great Powers come at the expense of holding onto what made India different in the first place?

Recent Foreign Policy

Consider the following foreign policy outcomes. Few would disagree that one of the primary goals of Indian foreign policy is to acquire a seat on the UN Security Council. The best chance for that possibility came recently and India, along with others in the running, including Japan, Germany and Brazil, came up short. There is no one reason why this happened, but it was alarming to note that India’s support among its once-reliable third world allies was not guaranteed.

India’s 1998 decision to declare openly its possession of nuclear weapons has effectively removed it from influence in the global disarmament community, once a central pillar of its international identity. India has struggled unsuccessfully to be included in powerful regional trading blocs like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, has made little progress in establishing its leadership in its neighbourhood multilateral forums, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the

Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007 Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and the once-influential non-aligned movement (NAM), which India helped found, has little common traction in global affairs these days. India’s influence in the World Trade Organisation is considerable, but its ability to block negative outcomes remains stronger than its ability to achieve its own goals. A novel grouping of emerging regional powers, India, Brazil and South Africa, shows great promise, but has yet to develop any viable alternative institutions, whether in relation to the current trading system or to global decisionmaking forums.

In these critical non-military realms of international affairs, India’s record is mixed. It has not lost substantial ground, but nor has it gained greatly. India’s once-distinctive diplomatic voice that reflected a vision of world order larger than itself through its articulation of inclusive and progressive global futures, now sounds parochial and mundane by comparison as it seeks little more than the furtherance of its own,narrowly defined, national interests.

If official Indian diplomatic practice appears to have lost its uniqueness as it increasingly behaves like the countries it once criticised, this is not true of the best of India’s non-governmental organisations, civil society groups, intellectuals, and cultural producers. India’s global reputation as a source of new ways of thinking about local and sustainable development and as a model and intellectual resource for the improvement of the living conditions of the poor, is as strong as ever. Even on issues such as the corporate patenting of seeds and biological heritage that the Indian government should have reacted strongly to, for reasons of selfinterest, we find that civil society groups led the way in recognising the problem and forced the government to follow suit. Indian feminists continue to lead the world in helping shape new visions for improving the place of women and Indian academics and intellectuals are at the forefront of new thinking in a variety of fields. What marks this kind of knowledge production apart is the integration of public ethics with intellectual discipline, operating on a micro or human scale. In the realm of cultural production, varieties of everyday practices deriving from India, including yoga, music, textiles, and food, have been adopted and localised by global audiences. And, of course, there is Indian cinema, whose cultural reach and recognition have gotten so widespread that an Indian tourist anywhere in the world can expect to encounter some positive reference to Bollywood and its stars.

Soft Power

These effects were not the outcome of conscious state planning and policy. They came about spontaneously, and have had the salutary effect of mitigating, to some extent, the loss of credibility in Indian difference and uniqueness that is a result of the turn to a foreign policy built around the projection of hard power. Even as Indian foreign policy appears less distinctive and more “realistic”, the net effect

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    Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

    of the micro-activities of civil society projected abroad shape global perspectives of India in ways that continue the legacy of early Indian foreign policy values. The ideas that shape global society emanating from the work of Indian civil society and non-governmental groups are called soft power, namely, the ability of a country to become an attractive model and imaginative resource for the world. The tremendous impact of soft power in shaping how we all live, especially as the world becomes even more globalised, carries the message and promise of India in ways that a traditional foreign policy built around force and finance can only dream of doing. What would a foreign policy seeking to maximise soft power look like?

    Future Success

    One of the truisms of both business and international development models is that once a successful model becomes well known enough to copy, it is too late to benefit from it. What South Korea did to industrialise or how General Electric became a global corporate powerhouse cannot be easily replicated because the world has changed in the meantime and in the process. The Indian desire for world recognition and status needs to heed this simple truth, namely, copying today’s success stories carries with it no guarantees for the future. What is more likely to succeed, and be sustainable, is to build on the strengths that India has developed autonomously, in response to its own conditions and needs, even if they appear to be out of line with contemporary meanings of success.

    Building on Unique Abilities

    Among the unique governmental activities that India performs extremely well include the everyday running of the railways, the management of huge crowds at events like the Kumbh Mela, the provision of short-term humanitarian relief and care of displaced persons, and the conduct of safe and fair elections. Among the most extraordinary activities of the government is the decennial census: with a population of over one billion, what more needs to be said? These and other activities are not the kind of actions that draw the attention of the world’s or India’s own media, until something goes wrong, but it is more important to consider how rarely such breakdowns actually happen. This success is the distilled product of generations of collective experience and tacit knowledge conducted across a great variety of physical conditions. It is worth recalling that these activities are conducted with limited resources, and, until recently, without much access to advanced informational technologies. The very ubiquity of these technologies makes them invisible, which is why they are paid no attention and there is little public acknowledgement of the immensity of the achievements they represent. It is only when we see how poorly elections, railways, crowd control, humanitarianism, and census activities are conducted elsewhere in the world, and at what cost, that it becomes clear how significant these activities are. Why is it not feasible to consider a foreign policy built around the provision of these services and management skills to the rest of the world?

    Foreign Aid

    Of late, India has started providing increasing amounts of foreign aid to the developing world beyond its immediate neighbourhood. This aid largely takes the form of financial credits, food aid, and some services. In the scheme of foreign policy, these activities are marginal beside traditional diplomatic efforts to establish Indian influence, counter the actions of states deemed hostile to India, and increasingly supporting the overseas activities of Indian multinationals. What India has not considered seriously enough is the importance and real value of the governmental activities identified above. Add to those the export of low energy input and “green” technologies including energy production from renewable resources, low-cost and rugged informational and communication technologies, and the skills it takes to conduct surveys of local plant materials, the first step in the protection of traditional knowledge practices. It would take a sea-change in bureaucratic attitudes, inter-ministry cooperation, and policy thinking to consider these activities important enough to take seriously, especially since they would be targeted at countries which fall low on the totem pole of international importance, but the outcomes they would generate would create a pool of goodwill and tangible benefits for India and its people that would be far greater than all the official networking and cocktail parties in New York and Geneva put together.

    Foreign Students

    The lakhs of foreign students that have been trained in India since independence potentially represent a tremendous resource that has never been tapped in a systematic way, or even explicitly appreciated as a resource for diplomacy. Indian training and experiences have shaped the lives of so many international students, some of whom now occupy high positions of influence in Africa, south-east Asia and west Asia. Not all foreign students had uniformly good experiences while in India: they may remember landlords who would not rent rooms to them or charged them well above market prices, they may remember other forms of social discrimination and exclusion, and they undoubtedly recall the bureaucratic difficulties of getting visas and renewing their status as foreign students. Nonetheless, this experience was transformative for most and as time goes on, its deeper impact will have a positive effect. This area of policy is, to my thinking, a crucial aspect of India’s external relations, yet is barely recognised as such. Why else would it be left to the most hidebound and authoritarian of Indian government agencies, the home ministry and the police, to manage the experiences of international students in India?

    Overseas Youth Corps

    And finally, an enormously underutilised resource for foreign policy is India’s millions of talented, skilled and socially conscious young people. It is long overdue to create an elite youth corps composed of individuals who would spend one or two years working overseas helping those less fortunate than themselves improve their lives: a “Peace Corps” for India. The skills of India’s young – in alternative technologies, literacy, development, mass communications, and more

    – could directly benefit the lives of millions of people around the world. But beyond the direct good that these young people would be able to offer, and the indirect spillover that would generate goodwill for India, they would return to India as different people. With the heady awareness of having made a difference in someone’s life and having grown by learning new languages and experiencing new cultures,

    Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007 these young people will understand and embody an entirely different kind of global citizenship. What they will do with that knowledge is anyone’s guess, but there can be little doubt that this modest investment will pay itself back many times over.


    The current debate over whether to align with the US or not is at its heart a struggle over the future of Indian foreign policy. For some time now, India has sought to mimic the behaviour of Great Powers and develop its hard power capacities as a way of gaining greater global influence. A critical examination of foreign policy outcomes following the turn to “realism” and away from a policy based on values is sobering. Little has been achieved in narrow material terms, and India looks as far as ever from achieving its long time goal of entering the innermost circles of global power. India appears to have given up a lot and gained very little. However, the declining status of India as a country that once offered a unique and ethically informed view of the world has been partly mitigated by the activities of some sectors of Indian civil society projected abroad. Drawing on this realisation offers India a chance to create a realistic and forward-looking foreign policy that better reflects its own origins and cultural ethos, a foreign policy that seeks to maximise India’s soft power resources. Three possible areas of soft power projection include: (a) the ability of particular state agencies to provide skills and services in arenas of considerable social importance; (b) the potential embodied by foreign students; and (c) the creation of an overseas youth corps.

    Scholars of international relations have long identified moments of “power transition” – when emerging powers seek recognition as great powers – as the most dangerous times for international order and stability. The rise of China and India in particular will lead to a considerable rearrangement of global power balances, the shape and outcomes of which cannot be known in advance.

    The apparent choice facing India today is couched in terms of greater or less autonomy from existing power structures. This choice appears strangely ahistorical, bearing neither a full appreciation of the true value of past foreign policy behaviour, nor a serious consideration of India’s desired futures. If India is not to adopt a with India’s unique historical experience. default foreign policy that foregrounds The option proposed here is take soft reaction to decisions and actions taken by power seriously. others, it requires charting a path that is novel in scope and practice, yet consistent Email:


    Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

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