A foreign policy adrift

At the end of the Cold War, India’s policymakers had demonstrated much dexterity in shifting foreign policy priorities to adapt to a vastly changed global order. They had moved to improve relations with the United States, upgraded diplomatic ties with Israel, turned towards SouthEast Asia and abandoned the country’s hoary commitment to Third World solidarity. All of these changes required a fleetness of foot that was genuinely remarkable.

Sadly, the adroitness that had so characterised India’s policies for the first two decades of the post-Cold War era now appears to be drawing to a close. Relations with the United States, which appeared to be on a firm footing in the wake of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, now seem to lack steam. The Indo-Israeli relationship that had thrived after the Madrid agreement has the quality of being on autopilot. The much-vaunted “Look East” policy that had been set in motion under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao is mostly bereft of focus and substance.
The only arena where India’s policymakers continue to show some skill and imagination involves relations with India’s immediate neighbours. The obvious exception is the bilateral relationship with Pakistan. Despite consistent efforts at reconciliation with Pakistan progress has been virtually negligible. In all fairness, the lack of progress cannot be attributed to any lack of goodwill on India’s part, but must be attributed to the intransigence of the Pakistani military, which continues to exert a disproportionate and pernicious influence on the conduct of the Zardari regime’s foreign policy.
In a related vein, despite significant and appropriate investments in Afghanistan, little thought has been given to how the country hopes and expects to protect them in the wake of the imminent drawdown of American troops and the International Security Assistance Force. India has ample spare capacity to train and equip the Afghan National Army. Yet it has shied away from even proposing such an endeavour for fear of incurring Pakistan’s wrath and the possible objections of the United States. Given the sheer significance of Afghanistan to India’s national interests the lack of gumption and resolve to protect them appears downright disturbing.
Matters appear worse as the ambit of policy issues move away from the confines of the subcontinent. Few errors have been as glaring as the striking passivity of Indian policy towards the “Arab Spring”. It failed to offer comfort to the protesters in Egypt, and it stood on the sidelines as the uprising spread to Libya. Most significantly it chose to abstain from voting on the UN resolution that allowed the use of force against Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s scrofulous regime in Libya. Even as it is all but certain that Col. Gaddafi’s days are at an end South Block has held off from recognising the Libyan National Transitional Council. It continues to maintain a stony silence while another vicious dictator, Bashar Al Assad of Syria, continues to use indiscriminate force with impunity against segments of his hapless population.
The failure to demonstrate greater verve, decisiveness and forthrightness when confronted with difficult choices will have significant adverse consequences for the country’s long-term interests and standing in the global order. The inability to respond positively and firmly to the dramatic changes that swept through the Arab world this year has diminished India’s global status. For a state that aspires to shape the emergent global order, its diplomatic absence has raised disturbing questions about the viability of any such ambition. Furthermore, as the world’s largest democracy, its failure to throw in its lot with the plight of those standing up to the brutality of squalid authoritarian regimes shrank its moral stature. Worse still, proffering dubious explanations for its unwillingness to step up and offer political and diplomatic support, let alone military assistance to those challenging harsh authoritarian regimes, made its policymakers look weak, indecisive and risk averse. For a state that aspires to acquire a permanent seat in the UNSC, India’s vacillation provided handy ammunition to its critics that it was clearly not ready to assume such a role.
Apart from India’s seemingly inexplicable set of responses to the dramatic developments in the Arab world, it is also troubling to see that inadequate efforts are being expended to tend to other carefully nurtured and now vital relationships. For example, while continuing to harp on the need to find the next “big idea” in Indo-US relations, existing needs remain unmet. India squandered a critical opportunity to cement the strategic partnership when it failed to shortlist the two contending American aerospace companies for the eventual purchase of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Even if, as several key analysts have argued, that the decision was made on purely technical grounds, it has had an adverse effect on the bilateral relationship.
Can this drift be arrested before it does greater damage to the country’s national interests as well as its international status? The country’s policymakers had demonstrated admirable aplomb when dealing with the momentous changes at the Cold War’s end. Consequently, there is little reason to believe that they lack the necessary capability to again rise to the occasion to prevent further erosion of the country’s interests.
Nor should domestic politics prove to be an impediment to the adoption of more assertive policies. The BJP may make discordant noises in Parliament but is most unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the pursuit of a more muscular foreign policy. Of course, the Communists and other Left-wing parties will raise predictable objections but will not be able to form a bulwark of serious resistance. The UPA still has two years left in office. If it hopes to leave a meaningful legacy it can ill-afford to remain complacent and docile in the face of mounting challenges.

Sumit Ganguly is director of research at the Centre on American
and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington

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