India can pursue independent foreign policy
by T. P. Sreenivasan
An assertion heard in the context of the foreign policy of the first Manmohan Singh Government was that it abandoned India’s independent foreign policy, or was in the process of abandoning it, had it not been for the pressures of its leftist partners. Now that Winston Churchill’s “little man walking into the little booth with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper” has rejected that assertion, at least in the sense that his little cross has led to the advent of a second Manmohan Singh Government, time has come to examine how independent or otherwise was the foreign policy of India in the last five years. The critics of that policy have not been vindicated, though they will say that foreign policy was not an issue at the elections.
Foreign policy, by its very definition, has to relate to the world realities and it has to be reshaped constantly on the basis of the response it gets from its “consumers”, who are the foreign countries, whose actions we aim to influence by our foreign policy moves. An independent foreign policy, in that sense, is a myth. It must have, as its basis, a solid sense of the world around us and must be adjusted to derive the most from it.
The other question is who should foreign policy be independent of? Once it is established that we should hear every one in the process of formulating and implementing foreign policy, the argument that policy should be independent of external influences does not hold. The only consideration has to be whether or not the foreign policy benefits India. The impression created during the first Manmohan Singh Government was that somehow the government could not be trusted to have a sound judgment about India’s interests. Or worse, there could be ulterior motives in pursuing a particular policy. The net result was the creation of a veil of suspicion and an atmosphere of pressure, making it difficult for the government to act decisively. The world watched in consternation when other countries had to deal not with one Government of India, but also with its different factions. The government, it looked, lacked independence to pursue a foreign policy. When the government was being criticised inside the country for lacking an independent foreign policy, it was being perceived abroad as being unable to be independent enough to keep its commitments.
The independence of Indian foreign policy has been questioned before both internally and externally. Freedom of thought and independence of action were at the heart of the nonaligned movement, but the movement itself was seen as a natural ally of one of the power blocs. While India took its decisions independently, on the basis of its own judgment, it was seen as tilting to the Soviet Union, more so after the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 and the Bangladesh war. History will testify that India did not succumb to pressure from the Soviet Union on issues such as Asian Collective Security and some of the other strategic moves of the Soviet Union. India proved that it was too big and too independent a country to be subservient to any other country.
The events of 2004 to 2009 did not make India any less independent, just as the events of 1970 to 1977 did not make it any more dependent on any foreign power. In 2004, the UPA Government inherited the shattered theory of “India Shining”, shattered not by the rest of the world, but by the Indian electorate itself. The rest of the world was dazzled by India’s growth, the nuclear tests and the way India coped with their aftermath. They had abandoned their attempts at isolating India and had come round to working with a nuclear India despite apprehensions about India’s nuclear posture. The most remarkable achievement of the UPA Government was the way it went about bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, an effort, which was seen as surrendering our independence. Suffice it to say here that the much criticised shift in policy took place in Washington than in New Delhi. The NDA Government left off the talks with the United States, accepting four of the five benchmarks the US set for normalising relations. The fifth, strategic restraint, a euphemism for restricting India’s nuclear arsenal, was as unacceptable to UPA as it was to NDA. It was the change of heart in Washington that it could work with the other bench marks that led to the nuclear deal. In achieving it, there was give and take, but those decisions were taken with India’s interests kept intact. Even if the elections were not fought on this issue, Dr Manmohan Singh, identified as he was with the deal, would not have become Prime Minister again without wide acceptance of his stand on this issue.
India’s Pakistan policy is another matter in which the charge of dependence was made. It was alleged that Washington had its hold on our responses to Pakistan. The truth is that India has been ferociously independent in conducting our relations with Pakistan. The most innovative ideas reported to have been put forward in the back channel negotiations on Kashmir were not conjured up outside India. The sketchy details that have emerged have been received well in the West, but no one outside could claim any credit for them. For the rest, India was basically watching the chaos in Pakistan and encouraging the advent of democracy. We did not need anyone’s advice to respond to President Zardari’s overtures. The Bush Administration, mercifully, took no interest in Kashmir at any time. The charge of external influence came up in the post 26/11 situation due to American activism. But today, there is recognition that the Indian response was prudent, logical and inevitable. The rest of the world may have wished that there would be no conflagration, but our decision not to take that route was dictated only by our judgment.
Our vote on Iran at the IAEA is another issue on which there were charges of external pressure. But long before the Iranian situation became a contentious issue, India had taken the position that Iran should abide by its commitments under the treaties that it had signed and that should remove the fears of the international community by answering the questions raised by the IAEA. We had a sense, right from the beginning, that Iran had something to hide and that it was important to have a full disclosure of their peaceful intentions.
On neighbourhood policy, the charges were not about independence, but about ineffectiveness of our policy to turn things around in our favour. Some have the perception that we have unlimited influence on our neighbours and if we do not have it, we should force our way there. Some feel that it is India’s duty to solve all the problems of our neighbours. The test of a good neighbourhood policy is whether it protects our political and economic interests in the neighbourhood. Goodwill from small nations towards their big neighbours is limited and any evidence of interference will be resented. Neither unilateral concessions nor strong arm tactics will help us to deal with our neighbours. In Sri Lanka, the eventual outcome has suited us, while in Nepal, we would have desired a different outcome. But our policies of restraint and helpful posturing have enabled us to retain our influence and to be able to play a role in the eventual dispensation.
Our links with China, Russia, Japan and the European Union have also won approbation of the public in India, though none of these was smooth sailing or without hazards. Our nonaligned links were preserved and nurtured and new partnerships with Brazil and South Africa have prospered. We are no nearer to becoming a permanent member of the Security Council and the chances are bleak not because we have not tried, but because the world is not ready for it yet. We should appear unattached on this issue as permanent membership without veto will be a liability rather than an asset. We should remain ready and willing, but we should not do any deals for it or make our bilateral relations hostage to the support we get on this issue.
No one will claim that the election results are a vindication of India’s foreign policy in the last five years. But the truth is that foreign policy was thoroughly examined in an unprecedented manner and it found favour with a majority of the people. We should not forget that it was on foreign policy issues that Dr. Manmohan Singh staked the very existence of his Government. He is now fully equipped to follow a foreign policy free of extraneous factors and his enhanced prestige around the world will be good for the nation.
The writer, a former Indian Ambassador, is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington.