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  • Akhilesh Balaji


Ever since India gained independence almost 75 years ago, its stature in world politics has increased exponentially. Subsequently, its foreign policy has undergone significant evolution. From its policy pursuit of non-alignment and creating solidarity among developing nations of the post-colonial world order to the initiation of the vaccine Maitri initiative for ensuring healthcare of such nations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian Foreign Policy has seen it all. The changing dynamics of the world order, however, warrant greater attention to India’s engagements with the world. An assertive China, an uncertain South Asian neighbourhood, growing American footprint in Asia, considerations regarding the post COVID-19 international order and the re-emergence of geopolitical competition has forced India to re-consider its foreign policy posture. In his book Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership, Mohamed Zeeshan passionately makes the case for India to espouse a distinct identity for itself and adopt a more coherent strategy in its dealings with the outside world. Mohamed Zeeshan argues that India can stand to gain from its unique position in international politics and be a force for global good. The JSIA Bulletin speaks to Mohamed Zeeshan on the subject of his recently released book Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership, and on the themes of Indian Foreign Policy.

Interviewee’s Bio: Mohamed Zeeshan is a Foreign Affairs columnist and consultant, and the editor-in-chief of Freedom Gazette. He has previously worked with the Indian delegation to the United Nations in New York, and with Kearney, the global consulting firm. As a consultant, Zeeshan has advised governments across the Middle East on economic and political modernization and also helped draft a multilateral declaration on cybersecurity at the 2020 G20 Summit in Riyadh. He was involved in strategizing India’s historic election to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2017. Zeeshan is currently a staff writer for the Diplomat and hosts a monthly Sunday column, titled ‘The Z Factor’, in Deccan Herald. He has also written for the Washington Post, the Economist, Straits Times, Sydney Morning Herald and South China Morning Post, among other International dailies. Zeeshan holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, New York, where he edited the online edition of the Columbia Journal of International Affairs.

Q1. Could you describe what motivated you to embark on a project to write about Indian Foreign Policy? Who would you say has influenced your outlook on foreign policy and international relations the most?

Ans: I was actually born outside India. I was born in Jakarta to Indian parents. As a result of being born to Indian parents, I of course acquired an Indian passport. For the first 7-8 years of my life, however, I spent most of my time in countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Southeast Asia and came back to India only when I was 8 years of age. As a kid going to school in Jakarta, when people would ask me where I was from, I would obviously reply that I was from India even though I had never lived in India. So, being an Indian was a very big part of my identity growing up. After spending most of my years living abroad, a question I frequently found myself asking was: Why does an Indian citizen not have the same status, especially in the developing world, compared to Western citizens? We just had two Indian citizens killed, for instance, by Houthi rebels in Abu Dhabi. This took place in Libya as well. This news, however, does not create as big a ripple effect in international politics compared to when citizens from Western countries met with the same fate. This led me to ask several questions: Why is it that the Indian government does not enjoy the same sort of influence? Why does the Indian government not enjoy the kind of influence that even the Russian government enjoys, despite India being economically stronger than Russia? Then, of course, there’s the weakness of the Indian passport which I have written about in my book. The latest Henley Passport Index, which measures travel freedom and was released a few days ago, ranks India below countries like Mongolia. I wanted to try and answer these questions, while suggesting how the Indian government can make better use of its foreign policy to make things better for Indians both at home and abroad. This was the driving motivational factor behind why I wrote this book. Coming to the second part of your question, I think Fareed Zakaria, a commentator on international affairs has had a great impact on me. In fact, in the process of ideating on and conceiving this book, I met with him at his New York office and he was quite sold on the basic themes and messages of this book in the ensuing discussion that we had. I think Shashi Tharoor is another influence, especially on aspects such as writing and thinking.

Q2. One of the most interesting aspects of your past work is that you had the opportunity to work with the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in 2017 during your time at Columbia. Could you give us some insights into that experience and how it contributed to the book?

Ans: Yes, I had a great time working there indeed. When I was there, India was contesting for a seat at the ICJ under Amb. Syed Akbaruddin, with whom I had worked very closely. This was a very interesting time to be there, as election history was being made at the UN. My tenure there gave me a lot of insights into how the UN functions as an organization, how different member states think about different issues and how multilateral bodies such as the General Assembly and the Security Council function. More importantly, as far as the book is concerned, [I also learned] how the Indian Foreign Service works. It was also interesting because unlike other Indian diplomatic missions, the UN mission forces one to think multilaterally. As one diplomat put it to me at the UN, working at this vast body is a “cultural shock” as one is not used to engaging with countries multilaterally, as diplomats usually deal with countries in bilateral terms when posted elsewhere. This tends to bring up its own set of complexities for India’s practice of diplomacy at the UN. There is, of course, a lot of work to be done, in my opinion, as I learnt during my time there. There are gaps that need to be filled. We have unfortunately not done that so far.

Q3. In the book, you make a case for why India ought to pursue greater openness by pushing for more globalization. However, in the past year, we have seen the government take a number of steps that point toward a protectionist posture such as the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ policy, its abstention from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar making calls for “more domestic production over unchecked globalization”. How will such developments affect India’s quest for global leadership? Do you think this policy is there to stay in the long run?

Ans: Well, I certainly hope it’s not continued in the long run because it’s simply not useful to India and we have learned this from our past experiences. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, India had a closed-off, isolationist approach to global economics and it did not work. The opening up in the 1990s tremendously increased the influence that India enjoyed over the world stage because all of a sudden, there was this massive economy in Asia that was opening up. The percentage of GDP that was coming from trade increased several times and the GDP growth rate increased too. It had positive impacts, and not just on India’s domestic economy. India was now a more relatively integrated part of the global economy where the rest of the world saw that they had a stake in India’s welfare, so to speak. This was because India had a massive consumer market along with a young population. India, however, started to pursue protectionist policies even before the pandemic started. In fact, it was amongst the most protectionist economies in the G20. I have written in my book that starting from the year 2018, India was actually the country that was responsible for second most restrictions on international trade within the G20. The first on that list was, of course, the United States under President Trump who was constantly imposing trade tariffs. This a very, very unfortunate statistic indeed. The pandemic, furthermore, led to increased global suspicion towards China, including disputes between China and the US, Australia and Europe. Given this, I believe there was an opportunity for India to play a bigger role in the global supply chain and in some sense, to take advantage of the vacuum that China was leaving behind. And then, of course, came the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ policy and previously, the abstention from the RCEP. So, I do hope that this is not the case going forward. I strongly believe that if India wishes to be a global leader, it will need to play a bigger role in the global economy. And really, the only way to do that is to loosen up trade. Even in the domestic policy environment, in the absence of trade, there is very little incentive for the government to introduce reforms. That is why these things mutually reinforce each other.

Q4. Throughout much of the book, you make a fascinating case for Indian foreign policy to espouse an identity of championing democracy and human rights. This, you argue, would allow India to enjoy more goodwill and influence with democratic governments, and provide soft power advantages. India’s eroding democracy in recent years, however, is receiving negative international attention. Its poor rank on the democracy index (Freedom House and V-Dem), a well-documented surge in hate crimes against religious minorities, concerns relating to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and so on, have been well covered internationally. Given such a situation, do you think India’s adoption of this identity will receive credibility in the international sphere?

Ans: There is no doubt that India’s credibility is suffering today. I have no doubt about that, and as you pointed out, these are all evidences of it. In the book, I extensively cover the threats to Indian democracy and I do make a very blatant statement that I will continue to make every single day: In the absence of a credible multicultural democracy, India has very little to offer for global leadership. It is the end-all and be-all of India’s credibility in the world. Multicultural democracy is synonymous with India and constitutes one of the reasons why India is relevant to a lot of countries around the world. A lot of countries fighting for democracy around the world look to Indian democracy as a model that they seek to emulate. We have, firstly, got to recognize that this slide is happening and move to strengthen our state institutions. Further, we must ensure that minority and other rights are better safeguarded. I am glad to see that the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has started to reverse that slide in some way. This is a welcome move. I do hope that there is a more concerted effort, especially from academia, civil society and think tanks. I believe the erosion of democracy in India is the biggest threat to Indian foreign policy today. This, in many ways, to me, is the top priority. I also argue in my book why a lot of the problems we see in India today are mistakes made by other countries around the world. Declining freedom of speech, freedom of press, erosion of minority rights, rise of ethnic nationalism are all mistakes that countries like the Central African Republic, Kenya and Ethiopia made which we are now seeing in India. If we were more aware of world affairs, we would not be repeating these mistakes.

Q5. With India-China relations at arguably its lowest point since the 1962 war, characterized by border disputes, exchange of gunfire across the borders and an increasingly assertive China, how do you think India should approach China in the coming years given India’s significant economic relations with it?

Ans: I think there is a very fundamental long-term clash of interests between India and China and there are several reasons for this. To put it simply, having a successful, influential and prosperous democracy in its neighbourhood is an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Moreover, the CCP under Xi Jinping is more unpopular within China than at any time in the past. For the first time in the last 30-40 years, you would find that more Chinese people are dissatisfied with the CCP due to increased crackdowns and authoritarianism. Then of course, you think about places like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which are much more unstable today than they were at any time in the past, along with centralization of control within the CCP by Xi Jinping. So, India being a successful, influential, prosperous, multicultural democracy in the long run is very bad news to Xi and the CCP. The fundamental problem for India here is the massive power disparity between India and China on most fronts, particularly economic and military. Of course, compared to 1962, India’s military has grown stronger. In the Asia Power Index released by the Lowy Institute, for instance, you can see that India has gained on hard power metrics over the years due to several reforms that have taken place and cooperation with countries such as the US and Israel. But there is still a massive gap between the Indian military and the Chinese military. When it comes to economics, there is simply no comparison at all. China’s economic clout and influence is several times bigger than India’s economic clout. The only solution, to my mind, is to look at this situation from a realist balance-of-power perspective wherein India and other countries in the region balance against Chinese aggression. I am a big believer in collective security and balance of power in such situations. For this to work, India needs to build alliances and needs to become more influential. China today is truly a global country with global interests with its activities spanning Africa, Latin America and other places around the globe. India needs to be able to compete at that level. The only way to do that is to cultivate alliances.

Q6. You point out that one of the greatest dilemmas for Indian foreign policy is on whether to stand up for democracy and human rights in the region or play realpolitik. With greater involvement of the United States in the region and the formation of groupings such as QUAD and AUKUS, what should be India’s foreign policy posture in the future in the wake of a new cold war between the US and China?

Ans: I think India needs to understand that unlike the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, where India was able to champion a third way, it’s going to be very difficult for India to be non-aligned now. This is because India’s interests are very clearly aligned with one side of the debate, which is the American side. In the book, I argue why, for several strategic, political and economic reasons, India’s long-term interests clash with China’s long-term interests. India’s long-term interests, on the other hand, clearly align with America’s. In such a situation, there are several things that India needs to do. Firstly, it must become a more proactive power outside of the Asia-Pacific region and particularly outside South Asia. Much of the historical baggage that exists between India and other countries in South Asia does not exist in regions such as Latin America, Africa or other parts of the world. This gives it the opportunity to balance against Chinese interests in these regions as well. American presence in these places also gives India the opportunity to pursue greater cooperation with America. Of course, I am not arguing for India to do exactly what America has been doing over the past two decades. India needs to engage with these regions in a smarter way and make sure that it doesn’t repeat America’s mistakes.

Q7. What are the different steps or initiatives that India can take to build a cohesive relationship with countries in South Asia such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and so on? Do you think India’s rivalry with Pakistan forms an obstacle in India’s quest to pursue greater South Asian cooperation?

Ans: The major argument that I make at length in my book is that, first of all, India needs to recognize that it is not an equal partner to countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal or Maldives. India is a much, much bigger country and in some sense, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of philanthropy from India’s side to bridge the trust gap. The friendship treaties that India signed with Nepal and Bhutan, for instance, subject their respective domestic policies to India’s whims and fancies, which is naturally unacceptable to a smaller country. Nepal has already started to rebel against some clauses in these treaties. You can expect Bhutan to do the same in the near future as well. India needs to, firstly, amend its friendship treaties with these countries. We should also be more willing to give without expecting much in return. Over time, this is the only way to build trust and there are several ways of doing it, which I cover extensively in the book. For instance, I talk about a common tourist visa regime in South Asia for people coming from outside the region. There are several other policy measures that I suggest in the book, such as greater people-to-people exchanges and setting up of educational institutions, to name a few, which I believe are very practical. The second part of your question is very interesting. Frankly, no, Pakistan is not an obstacle. I have extensively spoken with policymakers and politicians in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who have told me that they are very annoyed that India is allowing Pakistan to hold everyone else hostage from pursuing greater cooperation. I don’t think any of these countries care about Pakistan. To his credit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made efforts to break out of this stalemate. Under PM Modi, for instance, India recently signed the Motor Vehicles Agreement with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Earlier, India was trying to do this in the SAARC but when Pakistan refused, it went ahead with the deal with the other three countries and made the partnership a success. These kinds of sub-regional agreements have been a success story in the last few years under the current government. But there is still a need to make these partnerships more pan-regional in the future. There is room to think more ambitiously and bring more players into such partnerships in the future.

Q8. In Afghanistan, the world saw the Taliban come to power and the chaos that followed. In the past two decades, India has had a tremendous stake in the Afghanistan project investing around $3 Billion in the country. How would you assess India’s Afghanistan policy? How does Afghanistan coming under Taliban control affect India’s overall neighbourhood policy?

Ans: It was very unfortunate indeed. I have frequently cited Afghanistan as one of the success stories of Indian foreign policy. Of course, a lot of it is being undone, but I would still say that Afghanistan is an example for how India should act – that is, standing up for democracy, making the kind of investments that you talked about. These are very, very good things. However, in many ways, America hoped that India would play a bigger security role in Afghanistan and India has been unwilling to do that throughout and I believe, in some sense, we are paying the price for that due to the security vacuum that has now been created. But Afghanistan is a difficult case. I would not really blame India for not having done what America wanted India to do due to several constraints. When Donald Trump signed the agreement with Taliban, pretty much everyone could see what was to come. In fact, I remember writing for The Diplomat in April 2020 that the Taliban’s return to power was inevitable. The Afghan government itself lacked legitimacy due to the infighting that was taking place, which made the Taliban’s return a very easy possibility. In many ways, the return of the Taliban to power renders India a massive loser in the region. Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists is the biggest problem that India will face in the future. In the past, when the Taliban was in power, LeT and other Mujahideen groups were based out of Afghanistan. And then, of course, you have Pakistan which has a bigger say in what happens in Afghanistan due to its links with the Taliban. China also becomes a bigger player in this respect and brings a whole new dynamic which becomes a threat to Indian interests in Afghanistan. So, there is a lot to lose here and very, very little to play on for India. I believe one of the biggest mistakes that India made after the Taliban takeover was giving up on what was cultivated and built for over 20 years. For instance, not taking refugees into India was a massive strategic blunder. It was a terrible thing to do from a realist perspective as well because you have essentially given up on your goodwill. The Afghan people wanted India to play a bigger role in their country than Pakistan and India did not live up to this expectation. Another strategic blunder was giving up very easily on the Afghan resistance. We did not make any effort to assist them either logistically or militarily. We did absolutely nothing with our air base in Tajikistan. I believe India will eventually come to the conclusion that it must engage with the Taliban. However, the question of how to engage with the Taliban will be another complication. Do you fully recognize them? Do you press them on human rights and democratic issues? How are you going to do that? All these dilemmas are going to come to the table and I expect India to take the easy way out, i.e. simply recognize the Taliban regime. The challenge will be to cooperate with them so that our basic interests are taken care of.

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About the author: Akhilesh Balaji Is a second year student pursuing his BA Honours in Political Science at the Jindal School of international affairs.

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