For too long India's foreign and security policies have been based on its weakness, perceived or otherwise. The time has come for India to act from a position of strength. Contrary to first impression, I am not advocating a policy of using more muscle, but more brains and sensitivity for the weakness of others. The article appeared in The Hindustan Times March 22, 2006
For fifty years till the 2000s, India’s foreign policy, as with its other policies, was shaped by a perception — and the reality — of weakness. A natural consequence of this, perhaps, was the high-decibel and high-minded rhetoric with which we asserted our world-class status, and our endless whining against the unjust world. The change began with the acknowledgement
of India’s information technology prowess and the 1998 nuclear tests. Today, the country’s economic performance and prospects allows deeds rather than words to do the speaking. The situation is perhaps best symbolised by Manmohan Singh’s government. He is an allegedly weak prime minister of a weaker coalition government. But his firmly delineated policies bespeak the strength of the country he heads.
The most recent manifestation of this has been the signal of the move towards full convertibility of the rupee. But perhaps a more impressive demonstration are his government’s dealings with the US. It has effectively parlayed the US need to befriend India into a means of removing technology restraints placed on account of nuclear and missile proliferation. This in turn has gotten the EU and Japan to back the process and the Chinese to negotiate seriously on the border. Strength suffuses the Singh government’s dealings with Pakistan and the categorical insistence that there will be no change of borders in any settlement. All this has not happened because of some newly discovered diplomatic mantra, but the paradigm shift that the prime minister has wrought by insisting that India is negotiating from a position of strength, rather than alleged weakness.
Critics of the government in the Right and the Left continue to view Indian foreign policy as one of weakness. Predictably, their characterisations are replete with the vocabulary of the past — about imperialist conspiracies and sellouts and dark forces impinging on our sovereignty. The Left votaries of ‘independent’ foreign policy have had a history of subservience to the foreign policy of another country — the Soviet Union in the old days.
Unable to break the habit, they today advocate deference to Beijing and Iran. These contortions are the inevitable outcome of a political programme that must first bring about a collapse of India before it can be redeemed by a revolution.
Of the Right, the less said the better. Having set the agenda that its successor government has so ably followed, the BJP has not missed a single opportunity to criticise the UPA for selling out to the US. Perhaps it is an outcome of inexperience, but more likely it is the result of an addled and dangerous domestic political agenda.
Invariably when change takes place, contemporary observers often fail to recognise the import of events around them. But when you are an eminent economist, intimately involved in the affairs of the country for decades, and a person of ruthless intellectual and personal integrity, it is the data that speaks. And so it has been for Manmohan Singh. As a member of the Atomic Energy Commission in the Seventies, Singh was party to the ambitious plans to create a grid of nuclear reactors to power India’s economic growth. As finance minister in the Nineties, he was witness to the failure of that dream, occasioned by a relentlessly tightening US-led embargo and internal managerial failures of the Department of Atomic Energy. So, when geopolitical circumstances provided Prime Minister Singh with the opportunity to strike a deal with the US to have that embargo lifted, he grabbed it with both hands. He was focused not on geopolitics, but on his primary aim — that of delivering high numbers in economic growth across the country to eliminate poverty and want.
Till the mid-Eighties, conventional knowledge consigned poor and illiterate India to Malthusian doom. The growing population, persisting illiteracy, low rates of economic growth, food and foreign exchange shortages defied the policy prescriptions of our best and brightest. Our foreign policy was a bit like our national bird — with feathers of brilliant hues designed to impress rather than provide any functional utility.
In the first decade of Independence, India found some comfort clustered with other poor countries in the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam). But when push came to shove — the 1965 CIA-supported coup against Sukarno in Indonesia, China’s military defeat of India in 1962 or Israel’s rout of Egypt in 1967 — the Nam did precious little. Neither did its instrumentalities like the non-aligned newspool, or the endless commissions to extract a better economic deal for the underdeveloped ‘South’ from the developed ‘North’.
This foreign policy of weakness — articulated after Nehru by posturing demagogues — was characterised by an obsession about the ‘foreign hand’ and conspiracies to abridge our sovereignty. All these ran to an accompaniment of endless moaning and whining about the unequal world order and ‘imperialism’. In fact the reality, at least insofar as India was concerned, was more pathetic. The great powers — the US and the Soviet Union — were interested in having us in their camp, but neither had the kind of interests that would persuade them to invest sufficient effort, or money, to make India a camp follower, Mitrokhin notwithstanding.
India has a long way to go before it becomes a world power in the true sense — economically thriving, militarily strong, its baggage of illiteracy, poverty and regional difficulties left far behind. But there is no reason why it should not begin thinking from the perspective where its glass is half full, not half empty.
Unlike China, the prospect of ‘India rising’ does not seem to ring too many alarm bells. It is in India’s interests to ensure that this rise is seen as a win-win outcome, not just for the region, but the world. Given its size, India exercises a hegemony in its region based not on policy as our neighbours often claim, but a mix of geography, population size, economic strength and culture.
In India’s years of weakness, our neighbours, and indeed the world, treated our security concerns in a cavalier manner and poured scorn on our good intentions.
While both the Soviets and the Americans did help us, they also did some inadvertent harm. In our neighbourhood, countries like Pakistan openly and deliberately sought to harm us; others like China did it covertly, while Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh did so at various points in time, out of sheer pique. The first challenge we face is to win friends and influence people, especially in our own backyard.
So an Indian policy based on its rising economic and military strength must be one of calculated generosity, though not on any knee-jerk guilt about its size or scope of interests.
Pragmatic generosity should inform our efforts to settle our internal disputes, as well as those with our neighbours. It should also be the basis of a policy that will make India into a destination for students, tourists, the ill seeking treatment, and the politically dispossessed.
As in economic policy, India has to carefully forge the instruments of its foreign policy of strength. We need, first, a wise and decisive leadership to steer us through the shoals of the emerging world. Second, a more efficient governmental structure to effectively pursue India’s interests. Third, institutions — research centres and language schools — to properly understand the needs of the countries around us, and communicate our perspectives to them. Fourth, a more effective military and secret services to safeguard the country, and secure our interests abroad. And finally, a world order that is in harmony with our civilisational goal of promoting peace, economic well-being, secularism and democracy for all.