Foreign policy issues do not attract votes, we are constantly reminded of. And so even as India prepares to welcome a new government later this month after a high-decibel election campaign, no real debate has emerged on foreign and security policy facing India at this moment of great flux in global and regional politics. Listening to the Indian electoral discourse, one would not know that Pakistan is imploding, that Afghanistan is bracing for a post-NATO security environment, that China is becoming more audacious in defining the terms of conduct for regional states, that the US lost its will to maintain its global leadership position, that the EU is facing an identity crisis, that India’s internal security is weakening by the day as groups challenging the legitimacy of the State are feeling more emboldened than ever.
Aside from the Modi versus Rahul Gandhi fracas, India needs to think carefully and creatively about securing itself and its interests in a world that has changed beyond recognition in the last five years. But we don’t hear any sensible plans from our political leaders. The manifestos are too perfunctory and the leaders too cautious in talking about foreign policy issues. Instead, all we get are retired foreign policy bureaucrats offering banalities—that India should now readjust its foreign policy, that India should now have a robust foreign policy, etc. Robustness and readjustment do not mean anything when we don’t really know what our prime ministerial aspirants think about the most pressing foreign and security policy issues of the day.
While there is an emerging consensus among Indian policy-makers and the larger strategic community that the old foreign policy framework, perhaps adequate for the times when it was developed, is no longer capable of meeting the challenges of the times, there is little consensus on a strategic framework around which India should structure its external relations in the present global context.
But the world is not waiting for India to put its own house in order and to come to terms with its rising profile. Already, demands are being made on India by the international community, expecting it to play a global role in consonance with its rising stature. India is now being invited to the G8 summits, is being called upon to shoulder global responsibilities from nuclear proliferation to global warming to Afghanistan, and is being viewed as much more than a mere “South Asian” power.
For long, India had the luxury of being on the periphery of global politics from where it was relatively easy to substitute “sloganeering” for any real foreign policy. India, with some skill, used issues like Third World solidarity and general and complete nuclear disarmament to make its presence germane on the world stage. But international politics is an arena where outcomes are largely determined by the behaviour of major powers. It is the actions and decisions of great powers that, more than anything else, determine the trajectory of international politics. And being a minor power without any real leverage in the international system, India could do little of import except criticise major powers for their “hegemonistic” attitudes. Today, as India has moved to the centre of global politics with an accretion in its economic and military capabilities, it is being asked to become a stakeholder in a system that it has long viewed with suspicion.
The Indian political class has often suggested that there is a consensus on major foreign and security policy issues facing the country. Aside from the fact that such a consensus has been more a result of intellectual laziness and apathy than any real attempt to forge a coherent grant strategy that cuts across ideological barriers, this is most certainly an exaggeration as because till the early 1990s, the Congress party’s dominance over the Indian political landscape was almost complete and there was no political organisation of an equal capacity that could bring to bear its influence on foreign and security policy issues in the same measure. It was the rise of the BJP that gave India a significantly different voice on foreign policy. But more important, it is the changes in the international environment since the early 1990s that have forced Indian policymakers to challenge some of the assumptions underlying their approach to the outside world. As a consequence, howsoever difficult it may seem, India will have to come to terms with this new reality. India is a rising power in an international system in a flux, and it will have to make certain choices that probably will define the contours of its foreign policy for years to come.
Ironically, however, examining the political landscape, one gets a sense that our entire political class is playing Frisbee on the edge of a precipice, that no one is serious enough, honest enough, that it’s all too revved up, too intense, and yet too shallow. Every crisis becomes a political tool to be exploited for gain or loss, not as a national issue that deserves a response of gravity and seriousness. None of the parties have leaders who seem to be capable of rising to the nation’s many crucial challenges with the sense of urgency and the creative vision that is called for. The death of policy in Indian elections has made governing much more difficult. Innovative policy in election campaigns is necessary because it eventually makes governing possible.
There is no foreign policy vision from either of the two main parties of where India should be heading in these crucial early years of the 21st century. Neither party has made an all-encompassing argument—so their proposals don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Without a ground-breaking argument about why their foreign policies are different, they have no frame to organise their responses and the myriad problems confronting India. Our parties, instead, have positions; a series of separate, discrete and seemingly unconnected stands do not coherence make.
The failure of the two main parties has opened up the space for the smaller regional parties that have no sense of the nation as a whole. More than at any another time in India’s history we need leaders today whose interests are not special but general, those who can understand and treat the country as a whole. For as much as anything it needs to be reaffirmed at this juncture that India is an organic entity; that no interest, no class, so section is either separate or supreme above the interests of all. And that will be the best foundation for India’s new foreign policy.
The author is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.