INDIAN FOREIGN POLICY: FROM RAJIV GANDHI TO NARENDRA MODI
India’s image and status have changed globally. Today it is no more a third-world country but a key player in world politics. JSIA Bulletin speaks to Commander Dr Shishir Upadhyaya, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, on the theme of Indian foreign policy. His naval experience includes positions of responsibility in various operational, training and staff appointments, and two command tenures at sea. As an intelligence officer, he specialised in Indo-Pacific security and defence diplomacy and worked on several important assignments earning a commendation medal from the Chief of the Naval Staff.
This interview aims to untangle critical concepts related to India foreign policy and shed light on the crucial misses of Indian foreign policy.
Q. If you had to explain foreign policy to a layperson, how would you do it?
To define simply foreign policy are a set of objectives that shape the relationship of one country to the other. The sources through which one can understand foreign policy are the processes of engagements between states including state visits, statements from the head of states, and the behaviour of the political leadership. For example, to understand India-United States foreign relations, one can look at the Howdy Modi and Namaste Trump events and their optics, proving how far the relationship has evolved between the two countries.
Another example of foreign policy analysis from the lens of behaviour was the recent Putin-Biden talks. President Biden called President Putin “one cold dude”—the usage of words here depicts minimal willingness and warmth towards Putin. If the statement was “one cool dude”,—the entire narrative here will be different.
Additionally, diplomacy is different from foreign policy. Diplomacy is the means of implementing or achieving foreign policy. Foreign policy is the engagement between one state or another, and multiple domestic and International factors impact it.
Q. How has the Indian foreign policy evolved in the last seven decades? Has the country moved away from the Non-Aligned Movement to an Indian realism?
Our foreign policy has evolved over the years. However, in the neighbourhood, our relationship with Pakistan continues to remain strained. With Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, there have been significant developments over the years as also with Nepal and the Maldives where our relationship is now much improved despite recent problems.
Post-independence, since India was following the Non-Aligned policy, the Indo-US ties developed slowly. Our first PM, Pandit Nehru, chose to keep India out of the US-led alliances such as the CENTO and SEATO. During the Cold War, India was non-aligned, and in that process, the US-Pakistan relationship expanded economically and militarily. India was thus compelled to engage with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The ties even saw military and diplomatic support extended by the USSR during the 1971 war. In the late 1980s, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Indo-US relations gained a slight push with technological and economic investments. Today, the relationship is at its all-time high with a global strategic partnership in various sectors which benefit India economically and in defence.
India has transformed and changed as a country since independence. Today it is no longer a third world country, but a major global power and economy with a multi-alignment approach to diplomacy and foreign policy.
Q. Why is there no European Union like structure in South Asia? Considering the fact that the region shares common ties as post-colonial societies of culture and history, yet, a unified alliance or relationship is not present?
I believe the failure of the South-Asian relationship stems from the India-Pakistan conundrum. For instance, since the formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 1985, little to no progress has been made due to the politicisation of the Indo-Pak dispute. Because of a lack of transparency and cooperation from the Pakistani side, a union is not possible. SAARC will not improve if Pakistan does not improve and enhance and implement its counter-terrorism strategies.
However, alliances like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation which was formed in 1997 is rekindling and discovering newer and fresher ways of partnership between Eastern South Asian and South-Eastern Asian countries. In many ways, BIMSTEC is SAARC minus Pakistan and far more effective. BIMSETC, under Prime Minister Modi, is revamping infrastructure and trade integration by especially putting the forsaken North-Eastern Indian states at the centre of the developmental plans. You never know a visa-free travel regime could develop, and maybe you could drive down from Delhi to Bangkok by road for a holiday.
Q. In the United States, business enterprises and domestic interest groups play a crucial role in foreign policy decisions. Is this true in the case of India—are domestic groups influential enough for changing foreign policy outcomes?
As the economy grew and the private enterprise expanded post liberalisation in 1991, the Indian industries now have a much wider stake and say in the foreign policy outcomes. For instance, the Middle East is a source of crude oil on a large scale and requires refineries to store the oil and process it for further use. Indian oil and gas industries, in partnership with the Indian government, have helped expand cooperation with the Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which now store their crude reserves in India; this mutually benefits Indian business and Middle Eastern oil companies. Likewise, the information and technology industry in India and its allied companies abroad plays a critical role in the discourse of visa policies and puts pressure on the government to negotiate a feasible outcome regarding skilled migration to countries like the United States and Singapore.
Q. Around 18 million Indians live outside their country (India) of birth—what is the role of the Indian diaspora in achieving foreign policy outcomes?
The Indian diaspora is strong and growing and plays a vital role as ambassadors of traditional Indian values and culture of honesty and hard work, and perseverance. The hard-working Indian workers in the Gulf and beyond have shown immense grit and built trust with the locals, and created a sense of camaraderie. Thus, Indians are not alien to the Middle East region and understand the culture and language. Whereas, the Chinese, even though they are expanding through the Belt and Road Initiative as part of their global infrastructure development plan, now face growing resentment and dissent from locals in Africa and the Gulf. The Chinese workers are clearly seen as outsiders while the Indians are not. Neither do the locals understand them, nor the Chinese understand the indigenous culture and traditions. Therefore, India should further tap into its diaspora to promote India’s foreign policy aims and objectives.
Also, in the case of the United States, it is the Indian diaspora comprising some very prosperous and influential people that have played a key role in elevating our partnership.
Q. How have the personalities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh impact their respective foreign policy decisions?
Both these leaders have a distinct personality style and this is clearly reflected in the foreign policy of India. Dr Manmohan Singh was an academic and civil servant with immense respect from foreign heads of states and reputed academics, and Modi, on the other hand, is a ‘son of the soil’ politician in a true sense and someone who has grown and been bred from the grassroots along with political career from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to Gujrat Chief Ministership and later the Prime Ministership of India. The respective leaders and their experiences have impacted and influenced foreign and domestic policy decisions. For instance, the Look East policy under Singh seemed to have plateaued and remained stagnant with growing Chinese economic and political influence.
Under Modi, the Look East policy-renamed as the Act East policy—developed into multiple sectors beyond the regular investments. It now carries a stronger diplomatic force and broader connectivity objectives. Modi is a strong and decisive leader and it can be observed through the increased importance to the case of maritime security—a much-neglected area in Indian geopolitics. The Prime Minister’s personality is also revealed in his interactions with the diaspora abroad.
Q. In 2021, during the second wave of COVID-19 in India, global media was highly critical of the government’s handling of the crisis and the crippling state of Indian health infrastructure. Moreover, India’s position on the World Press Freedom Index dropped to 142 out of 180 countries. How does this critique flare for India’s foreign policy and global image?
It definitely dents the country’s image. These media channels, publications and indexes have a wide audience and influence, especially in the West. However, media stories are short-lived, and media as a whole cannot be trusted as they are not transparent with their biases and political leanings. Our External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar even called the ranking by Freedom House based out of Washington DC, which dropped India from “free” to “partly.
Q. As a former Commander in the Indian Navy and an academic, how do you read the Indian foreign policy?
Our political leadership has suffered from Sea Blindness for a long time. Probably, since the national capital is located so far away from the sea. Even our bureaucrats and diplomats have displayed a lack of awareness of maritime power at times. For example during Gulf War I, the government of India deployed Air India, our national carrier to evacuate Indian workers from the Middle East region. This airlift was ranked alongside the Berlin airlift which has been the largest such effort in history. Why did they not just deploy a couple of large naval ships instead? That would have been a more efficient and safer method.
To some extent, we can blame the Navy for not educating our politicians and bureaucrats on how maritime power can be used. Today thanks to efforts by several naval evangelists and think tanks such as the National Maritime Foundation, the situation is different. And the navy has been deployed several times to evacuate Indian workers from the Middle East in crisis.
Also, in the past, we neglected the Indian Ocean region and that allowed China to quickly establish a foothold in the region below our nose. PM Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the island states in the Indian Ocean region in almost 30 years. We failed to leverage the security ties that were established with The Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Mauritius and have paid a price for it. Thankfully this period of neglect is over and we can see signs of progress in our foreign policy objectives, supported by the Navy.
About the interviewer: Naman Vakharia is a final year student pursuing bachelors in Global Affairs at OP Jindal Global University.
Cover image: Source