Indian Foreign Policy under Modi
Speech by Prakash Nanda at Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne, on May 6, 2013
First of all, I am grateful to the Australia -India Institute for inviting me and providing a great opportunity to exchange my thoughts with some of the leading minds of Australia and friends of India. As you know this is the election time in India, though it is in the last stages. On May 16, we will know who will form the next government of India. However, it is widely expected that Narendra Modi of the BJP will be the one who will form the new government. At least that is what all the opinion polls that have been conducted so far do suggest.
Modi envisaged a grand design for achieving “India’s century” through a balance between the high road of peace and a no-nonsense toughness towards threats to national security.
Modi has been the chief minister of Gujarat, one of the developed states by Indian standard, for over 12 years now. He has won three consecutive elections. And now as a prime ministerial candidate, he is supposedly the most popular leader of India. But then the fact remains that Modi is an “outsider” to Delhi politics. I rather will use the word establishment in lieu of politics in the sense that Modi has no experience in the governance in Delhi. He has never been a member of Indian Parliament. Consequently, he has never been a central minister. Therefore, in the event of becoming Prime Minister, Modi will be unique in the sense that he will be unlike his predecessors, all of whom had been either central ministers or members of parliament. In other words, Modi will directly catapult himself from a state or provincial level politics to occupy the most important political office of India, that of the Prime Minister.
Against this background, there are obvious limitations while talking about Modi’s foreign policy vision. Because, while much has been written about how Modi should manage his international relations were he to become Prime Minister, much less has been said by him on the subject. As it is, foreign policy seldom occupies an important position in political agenda during electoral campaigns, and this is true of many countries as well. 2014 in India is hardly any different. What I am going to do therefore is to construct a scenario based on what Modi has said or indicated on foreign policy in some of his election rallies and public addresses so far, including the most substantive speech he made in Chennai last October (18th) where he envisaged a grand design for achieving “India’s century” through a balance between the high road of peace and a no-nonsense toughness towards threats to national security. Of course, there is a section on foreign policy in the election manifesto of the BJP that was released last month. Though people do not attach much significance to the manifestoes, not only of the BJP but also of other political parties, I for one will like to take it seriously as I see a distinct impact of Modi in drafting it.
Before introducing Modi’s worldview, it should be noted that we in India, and I think that it is a part of our strategic culture, love to keep things and policies as ambiguous as possible, leaving them to many and different interpretations. Unlike the cases in many leading countries, our leaders hesitate to enunciate clear policies or doctrines having strategic implications. For instance, as a nuclear power, we do not have a nuclear doctrine in strict sense of the term; what we have indeed is a “draft nuclear doctrine” devised in 1999, some clarifications of which were “shared with the public” in 2003 by the then Cabinet Committee on Security. Similarly, we have had the so-called “Indira Doctrine” or “Gujral Doctrine”, which were actually named and popularized by late Professor Bhabani Sengupta. Of late, some admirers of our present Prime Minister have coined a term, “the Manmohan doctrine” to explain his emphasis on economic development as a driver for foreign policy and in shaping India’s strength, interests and relationships. But what is important to note here is that unlike in many leading democracies, Indian government does not come out with periodic strategic visions or white papers to emphasise clearly and coherently its blueprints of the manner, style and priorities as far as dealing with the outside world is concerned.
…foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and until India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will be rather vague, rather inchoate, and will be groping…
The point that I am trying to make is that there has been a systematic effort, it seems at least to me, to keep Indian foreign policy as ambiguous as possible. And it has resulted in such a situation that more often than not, the Indian foreign policy is reactive to global developments, not proactive enough to make or create an event. And I think this has been the situation since India became independent in 1947. Here I would like to quote India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech in the Constituent in December 1947. He said: “talking about foreign policies, the House must remember that these are not just empty struggles on a chessboard. Behind them lie all manner of things. Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and until India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will be rather vague, rather inchoate, and will be groping… A vague statement that we stand for peace and freedom by itself has no particular meaning, because every country is prepared to say the same thing, whether it means it or not. What then we do stand for? Well, you have to develop this argument in the economic field. As it happens today; in spite of the fact that we have been for some time in authority as a government, I regret that we have not produced any constructive economic scheme or economic policy so far… When we do so, that will govern our foreign policy more than all speeches in this House”.
Of course, there is no disputing the fact that the broad objective of our foreign policy is to further our economic objectives by working for a benign external environment that will ensure the protection and promotion of our territorial integrity, political and social systems of democracy and pluralism. Obviously, we do need a stable global order and a peaceful neighbourhood. We need an open and equitable international trading system; a secure financial system; reliable, affordable and secure energy supplies; and, food security. We need bilateral as well as international partnerships of technology and innovation to meet the extraordinary scale of our development challenges. And finally, we value our strategic autonomy, that is to take foreign policy decisions without being dictated by foreign powers.
All these foreign policy goals permanent ones and there has been a broad continuity in pursuing them by all the governments in Delhi, irrespective of their party-composition. And one can say with certainty that they will not undergo any fundamental changes under Modi either. What will happen in stead are some changes in the emphasis or prioritisation. But before elaborating them, I will draw your kind attention towards another vital aspect of Indian foreign policy which is likely see major changes under Modi if his recent speeches are any indication. That is the making of India’s foreign policy as such, involving the institutions, processes and practices.
Constitutionally speaking, foreign-policy is a subject that is the exclusive domain of the Central Government in India’s federal arrangement. The primary institutions for framing and implementing foreign policy are the external affairs minister, the bureaucracy attached to his ministry (Ministry of External Affairs) called the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and also the Prime Minister and his office. It is the Central Government that can declare war; conducts relations with foreign nations and international organisations; appoints and receives diplomatic and consular officials; concludes, ratifies, and implements treaties; and acquires or cedes territory.
…under the Manmohan Singh government, the base of Indian foreign policy-making has become the narrowest ever, with everything being controlled by the NSA and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Besides, it so happened that because of the complexities of the subject, only few individuals associated with the Central Government mostly dominated in interacting with the outside world. During the Nehru era (Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister), India’s foreign policy making process was entirely controlled by the Nehru’s charisma and personality, although at times, he was helped by some of his chosen officials. This trend of the Prime Minister and some of his or her trusted bureaucrats monopolising the making the foreign policy without any proper institutional frameworks was further legitimised by Nehru’s successors such as Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao.
More or less, the same has been the trend under the non-Congress governments. Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s first BJP Prime Minister, carried out the Congress legacy. Though the Vajpayee government established the so-called National Security Council and created a new post of National Security Adviser (NSA), there is hardly any evidence that it was working the way it was intended. In a way, under Vajpayee the foreign policy making base became narrower than what it was even during the Congress regimes. It was totally dominated by the then NSA, a former Foreign Service official, who also happened to be the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. Over the years, the NSA has become the czar of Indian foreign policy bureaucracy. My personal interactions with the senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and retired Foreign Secretaries suggest that under the Manmohan Singh government, the base of Indian foreign policy-making has become the narrowest ever, with everything being controlled by the NSA and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Secondly, with the rarest exception of the much talked about India-United States nuclear Agreement , the Indian Parliament has hardly witnessed lively debates on foreign policy and security issues. Parliament is usually informed of the government’s decisions on these issues. As has been pointed out by union minister Shashi Tharoor, otherwise a reputed scholar of international affairs, only about 5% of questions posed in “Question Time” in Parliament concern foreign policy issues. If the Consultative Committee of Parliament for the MEA met rarely under Nehru and his immediate successors, today’s Standing Committee on External Affairs, according to Tharoor, generally spends its time meeting and greeting foreign delegations!
It is not only the Parliament of the world’s largest democracy that does not play an active role in the foreign policy or strategic matters. Another vital institution – the military – also has not been able to play any role. In fact, the military has been scrupulously kept at a self distance as far as providing inputs are concerned. As Stephen Cohen, one of the most perceptive scholars on Indian Military, says, “probably no military of equivalent importance or size (of India) has less influence over the shaping of policy at the highest level”. The chiefs of the armed forces are not present at the highest councils of government and nor are they routinely consulted about major foreign or even security policy issues.
The chiefs of the armed forces are not present at the highest councils of government and nor are they routinely consulted about major foreign or even security policy issues.
However, this overcentralisation of foreign policy making has been coming under increasing challenges, of late. There are now growing demands for the “democratisation” of India’s foreign policy making base. For instance, the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stance on the proposed Teesta water-sharing agreement or a pact on the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh has weakened the central government and strained India’s ties with Bangladesh in the process. In 2013, because of the pressure from both the ruling and opposition parties in Tamil Nadu, Manmohan Singh dropped the idea of attending the Commonwealth summit in Colombo. In fact, the Tamil Nadu factor also forced the central government vote against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in 2013. This year, of course, there has been some course correction at the UNHRC meet; India abstained during a voting on a resolution that took the Sri Lankan government to task over its treatments of the Tamil minorities.
But the point to note here is the fact that the centralised foreign policy-making in India is being resisted by the federal elements. As a result, one is witnessing what is called “the federalisation of Indian foreign policy”. Of course, it will be wrong to say that in the earlier days, the state or provincial governments were totally neglected by the central government while formulating foreign policy. At the height of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1987, when the then Rajiv Gandhi government decided to airdrop food in Jaffna in 1987, it had reportedly ‘flown in’ the Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran, to Delhi for consultations. Similarly, while concluding the Farakka treaty with Bangladesh (sharing the Ganga water between India and Bangladesh), the then Deve Gowda government in Delhi accorded considerable weightage to the suggestions of the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu. However, all these were parts of the consultations; the central government took suggestions from the federating units but not necessarily was bound by them. In contrast, what is being witnessed today is that the States want to dictate what India’s foreign policy should be towards the countries which vitally affect them, particularly those that border them.
All told, the nature of Indian polity and governance is changing. Gone are the days of a single-party rule, a factor that facilitated the ruling party leader (the Prime Minister) to dictate foreign policy. This is an age of coalitions. And here, the regional parties are playing an important role. It so happens that most of the important regional parties that happen to govern the border states have important concerns with the neighboring countries that are different from the concerns seen from New Delhi. Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir may not look at Pakistan the same way that New Delhi does. West Bengal looks at Bangladesh differently from New Delhi. Tamil Nadu will like to have a policy towards Sri Lanka that is at odd with the view of New Delhi. Besides, there are development-oriented chief ministers like Narendra Modi who are interacting directly with the foreign countries and players on issues such as loans and investment. They now travel abroad regularly. Even otherwise, free trade agreements on agriculture and other industries that the central government negotiates with foreign governments can succeed only if the chief ministers of the states concerned agree. Naturally therefore the foreign policy of India is getting increasingly federalised. This development is getting further buttressed by the emergence of a series of new think-tanks, pressure groups and the educated middle class keen to shape public opinion on foreign policy issues.