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UPA's Foreign Policy: A Critique

On most foreign policy issues, the United Progressive Alliance government of 2004-09 stuck to the status quo ante. It was uneasy about implementing innovative options for Indian foreign policy, shy of spelling out a coherent set of priorities, and inept in helping to establish norms for the conduct of geopolitics in the regional subsystem.


UPA’s Foreign Policy: A Critique must be asked as to what circumstances allowed for this specific contemporary col
lapse. What went wrong post-26/11?
One of the important reasons why noth-
Happymon Jacob, Kimberley Layton ing was achieved during the five-year peace

On most foreign policy issues, the United Progressive Alliance government of 2004-09 stuck to the status quo ante. It was uneasy about implementing innovative options for Indian foreign policy, shy of spelling out a coherent set of priorities, and inept in helping to establish norms for the conduct of geopolitics in the regional subsystem.

Happymon Jacob ( is with the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Kimberley Layton (layton.kimberley@gmail. com) is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

he foreign policies of incumbent regimes repeatedly escape audit in Indian election debates, as was the case in the recently concluded elections to the 15th Lok Sabha. This time it was the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that capitalised on the traditional oversight, despite the fact that elections are logically the most appropriate moment for a critical analysis of a sitting government’s foreign policy. At present a critique of the UPA’s foreign policy is particularly important as there appears to be a dis turbing consensus among the “strategic elite” of New Delhi that the previous UPA-led coalition excelled itself with a successful foreign policy performance. The argument is seductive, but is it accurate? Recall that these same pundits, in demon stration of the evercompliant nature of our strategic elite, likewise expressed the same opinion at the conclusion of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. However, a brief scrutiny of the Congress(I)-led UPA’s initiatives (2004-09), experiments and engagements reveals that its foreign policy was not as adept as it is proclaimed to be.

It is possible to use a criterion made up of three interlinked questions to assess Indian foreign policy under the UPA: Should the UPA’s foreign policy be charac terised as status quoist, tactical or stra tegic? Did the Indian state behave as a rising inter national power? And, in acknow ledgement of the direct and indirect implications for the country, has India asserted a positive influence over developments in its neigh bourhood? Employing these questions as the conceptual framework, we will highlight five key foreign policy failings of the previous UPA government.

Failed Pakistan Policy

The UPA’s single most significant foreign policy failure was its losses vis-à-vis Pakistan. After a five-year “irreversible” peace process we arrived on the brink of war yet again and now have virtually no contact with one another. Though this is hardly the first instance of relations b etween Pakistan and India breaking down, the question

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process was India’s unwillingness to take timely decisions. When Pervez Musharraf held power there were ample opportunities to advance the peace process. Yet the UPA government failed to seize the initiative and negotiate opportune deals to resolve outstanding conflicts such as Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek; it failed to concertedly assist Pakistan in its efforts to eradicate terrorism; and it failed to make allies within Pakistan, and with them strategic inroads into the Pakistani state.

Indeed, the Indian tendency to “wait for Godot” for the resolution of its conflicts with Pakistan is nothing new. Instead of resolving issues through available mechanisms, operative structures and processes intrinsic to the international system, India often resorts to empty symbolism and d elayed action in its quest for the ideal conditions. The history of India-Pakistan relations is riddled with such instances, like Indira Gandhi’s failure to make use of I ndia’s post-1971 position of strength to finalise a deal on Kashmir. More recently, the d ialogue with former Pakistan president Musharraf on Kashmir, where by most a ccounts India and Pakistan came very close to inking a deal, but it amounted to nothing b ecause India was waiting for the right moment to arrive, trust to be built and messy Pakistani politics to improve.

The failure of India to take advantage of historic opportunities to resolve its many outstanding issues with Pakistan is now made additionally complicated due to the extraordinary challenges that the Pakistani state faces today. Indian policymakers, while now slowly waking up to the new realities in Pakistan, are not yet sure how to push for conflict resolution at a time when Pakistan is facing threats to its very existence. This obvious confusion in contemporary governmental thinking about Pakistan has resulted in fractious policies. Much of the UPA’s actions vis-à-vis Pakistan were apparently premised on a flawed understanding of the country as a r ational actor that understands its preferences and is capable of making consistent, coherent foreign and defence policy


d ecisions, and capable of lucid diplomacy. for the political turmoil in Kathmandu, but However, contemporary Pakistan is not a was seen ever since the Maoists came to


cohesive state and is seen acutely lacking in social and elite cohesion; and it is this detail on which the alternate analytical emphasis needs to be placed.

Moreover, an effective grand strategy d emands the examination of alternative futures. In recognition of this India should consider, and prepare itself to face, Pakistan’s various possible futures. This requires positively interacting with it on multiple levels and through multiple c hannels. However, a UPA-style status quoist approach risks leaving India a c lueless bystander.

Unwise Neighbourhood Policy

Embarrassingly, India was unprepared to engage the new Maoist regime in Kathmandu, we seem out of touch with events in Myanmar and have been sluggish in responding concertedly and coherently to the Sri Lankan crisis. The Sri Lankan forces have overpowered the LTTE, yet India has neglected to constructively argue for i nclusive power-sharing arrangements, or accommodation of Tamil aspirations in a post-LTTE Sri Lanka. This lacklustre, if “politically correct”, reaction to the Sri Lankan conflict might appear pragmatic in the short term, yet it marginalises India and dilutes its chances for concrete contributions in the long term. Ensuring India’s objective of establishing peace and stability would require pushing Colombo to clarify how Tamils and their genuine grievances will be addressed in the post-conflict phase. While it is true that today’s federal government in New Delhi cannot afford to ignore political opinions from the many politically significant and sensitive regions, powerful coalition partners and genuine demands from the periphery while making the country’s foreign policy, New Delhi’s foreign policies should not be a mere r eaction of convenience to those demands.

India’s recent policies towards Nepal were neither guided by national interest nor humanitarian aspirations: it was an undesirable combination of mediocre analysis and unwillingness to engage all actors in Nepal. This policy, as many commentators (Varadarajan 2009) have pointed out, was not only evident at the time of the recent resignation of Nepal’s Maoist prime minister accusing India of being r esponsible power in Nepal through democratic means. Binary approaches in the pursuit of foreign policy can be counterproductive: this is precisely what India did when it assumed that the Nepali Maoists are pro-Chinese and so India need not deal with them.

India is currently basking in the glow of its emergent great power status. It finds itself a key player in the global war on terror thanks to its geopolitical location in south Asia, its physical size and its status as the only stable democracy there. It is also well aware of the fact that problems in South Asia are no longer just headaches for regional players. India knows its opinion is respected and sought in Washington, it is regularly consulted over the “Af-Pak” imbroglio and its voice was heard when it demanded Kashmir and India be left off Richard Holbrooke’s regional mandate (Wax 2009). Curiously though, the UPA foreign policy establishment seems not to consider itself part of “messy” south Asia and this has resulted in oddly disconnected regional policies. A rising power such as India should be eminently more proactive in helping stabilise the region, rather than shying away from confronting neighbourhood turmoil.

Inability to Engage China

The current UPA government failed to take any noteworthy action to resolve India’s border dispute with its eastern neighbour. Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narashimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee all called for i mmediate resolution of the problem, yet Manmohan Singh has chosen a characteristically lackadaisical approach. Building on the familiar theme already established in the UPA’s Pakistan policy, Singh chose to continue trying to construct a relationship by focusing on alternate areas and i gnoring the border issue. Rather than b eing a mature, deliberate and measured response to the problem, as the UPA has presented it, this form of inaction is embarrassingly blithe. Additionally, besides the boundary question, our foreign policy establishment has not seriously considered the need to cooperate with China for a healthy Asian balance of power, the maintenance of regional stability, or to a ddress issues such as terrorism, and P akistan. The “China threat” notion has given way to “China blindness” on the part

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of the UPA which undermines the potential inherent in a positive Sino-Indian relationship. The UPA’s status-quoist approach means India is now lagging behind its r egional and international counterparts in its cooperation and communication with China.

The historic 2005 “Sino-Indian Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” may have been signed under the UPA, but the initiative and groundwork for it was laid by the NDA government; the UPA simply followed up. Today, many China experts in India, and India experts in China, believe that the Congress Party’s historical neurosis drain their political willingness to concertedly address the boundary issue. Minus the necessary courage, they are loath to take the required bold steps.

The US Trap

The UPA government appeared to be negotiating uncertain territory throughout its tenure, unsure as to whether to align I ndia more closely with the US or to remain more independent. In the end, the muchhyped Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal and strategic partnership with the US was p resented as the crown jewel in the UPA’s foreign policy diadem; the government clearly chose closer US-India alignment. Though it is yet to be seen if the deal is indeed as good as declared, the partnership has obvious short- and long-term strategic foreign policy implications for India which have not been adequately considered. Does the Indo-US strategic partnership serve India’s vital long-term strategic interests as a rising power? Perhaps not. Over the past decade, and especially in the last five years, we have seen the US becoming the pivot of India’s foreign policy imagination about the region, as well as the international system. There is an increasing tendency in our foreign policy establishment to view the geopolitics of southern Asia through the American strategic lens. While this is more apparent indirectly than directly, it has evidently contributed to India’s limited engagement with China, its increasing reliance on the US to deal with Af-Pak on its behalf, and it has also impacted upon India’s relations with Iran.

India courts numerous dangers by dancing to America’s foreign policy tune. The US

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has a historically demonstrated adeptness at quickly revising and recasting key imperatives of its foreign policy agenda. America’s extremely vibrant foreign policy community allows a flexibility and ingenuity that is absent from the Indian establishment. Unfortunately, this means that US allies (usually those in the developing world) frequently find themselves abandoned to their own devices, left in a quandary when the Americans inevitably move on. The history of Pakistan-US relations is a case in point (Kux 2001). Over-reliance on American goodwill may prove counter-productive. As a rising power, India should fiercely preserve the strategic autonomy to choose from a range of foreign policy options, rather than attempting to grow under the shadow of US benevolence. The Indo-US strategic partnership seems p remised more on tactics than strategy; hardly befitting of a country desiring m ajor power status.

Lack of Anti-terror Policy

Finally, while the international community considers terrorism one of the most serious contemporary threats, India, located directly adjacent to its global epicentre, has failed to devise any strategy to deal with it. The UPA’s lack of policy coherence and failure to assume appropriate responsibility for its failings frustrated their ability to respond appropriately to the terrorist threat. India’s reluctance to initiate and lead regional efforts against terrorism is even more puzzling because no other country has suffered from terrorism in the recent past as much as it has. Moreover, t oday India is considered to be the international community’s great hope in south Asia. It is therefore expected, indeed r equired, to spearhead the region’s struggle against terror. Yet under the UPA, it failed to do so.

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A more systematic approach to counterterrorism matters might have helped avoid the muddle that seems to have occurred due to the overlapping dynamics of d om estic, regional and international t errorism. This does not mean simply systematically reacting to attacks made on its anti-terrorism policies by the BJP, which also has a spectacularly incoherent and puzzlingly one-dimensional anti- terrorism strategy.

Ultimately, therefore, one could argue that the UPA’s experiment with foreign p olicy was an exercise devoid of the grand vision befitting a rising power. Robust f oreign policy must be located within the appropriate structural conditions, such as the wider strategic context, frameworks provided by international institutions and learned conflict resolution practices. It is these conditions that define the possibilities of the relevant agents and their objectives; they exist to make the job of governments easier and yet the UPA failed to capitalise on them, as though it did not realise that it could. It further failed to take a dvantage of the propitious circumstances that presented themselves during its term in office. Overall, the UPA government of 2004-09 was uneasy about implementing i nnovative options, shy of spelling out a c oherent set of foreign policy priorities, and inept in helping e stablish norms in the conduct of geopolitics in the regional subsystem. The current government has stuck to the status quo ante, regrettably t rapping India in the status quo.


Kux, Dennis (2001): The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press).

Varadarajan, Siddharth (2009): “India’s Nepal Policy in Disarray”, The Hindu, 7 May.

Wax, Emily (2009): “India’s Quiet Diplomatic Coup: Kashmir Eliminated from US Envoy’s Mandate”, The Washington Post, 30 January.

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