Foreign Policy: More Continuity than Change
(The Indian Express)
Aspirants to the post of National Security Adviser, numbering as many as the Prime Ministerial candidates, may be burning the midnight oil to fashion foreign policy and security strategies for their masters. They may have many ideas to revamp policy, reshape institutions, including the Indian Foreign Service, and to open new chapters in relations with the neighbours and major powers. They will invent catchy phrases and innovative concepts to be flaunted at press conferences. But once the initial euphoria is over and the new Government settles down to business, it is likely to be continuity rather than change. it would be old wine, even if it is in a new bottle.
No Government makes foreign policy in solitary splendor. In fact, the concept of independent foreign policy itself is misleading, as it should suit not only the originator, but also its “consumers”, who are independent countries themselves, with their own strategic priorities. Constant changes will be needed in foreign policy to resonate with others. Totally unexpected events may overturn carefully crafted policies overnight. The broad policies and strategy, outlined by any Government will not be different from the traditional foreign policy, which has enjoyed general consensus. Here, the insights, judgments and instincts of professional diplomats will prevail, as has been seen at the time of changes in the past.
The announcement by the Morarji Government of “genuine nonalignment” and the Vajpayee Government of nuclear weapon status for the country are being pointed out as instances of fundamental changes brought about by new Governments in their initial stages. But neither of these was fundamental or unanticipated. “Genuine nonalignment” simply meant distancing the country from the Soviet Union, but the Government soon discovered the true extent of our involvement with the Soviet Union and quietly went about its business with the Soviet Union as usual. Morarji went to Moscow to dilute the relationship with Moscow, but came back even without disowning the 1971 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.
The nuclear tests of 1998 were not made in a day. Successive governments, right from the days of Pandit Nehru, had maintained the nuclear option and made heavy investments in explosive technology. The experiment in 1974 was nothing short of a step towards weaponisation. It is very well known that P.V.Narasimha Rao had scheduled tests and pulled back for fear of economic sanctions. The timing of the tests in 1998 was determined more by the international situation arising out of the provisions of the CTBT than by any ideology. India chose to face sanctions after testing rather than face them for not signing the CTBT. The main proponents of the test were Brajesh Mishra and K.Subrahmanyam, who were strategists, not politicians. The fact that the subsequent Governments endorsed the tests is enough proof of continuity in nuclear policy. Rumors about the possibility of a new Government reviewing India’s non-first use doctrine provoked widespread reaction from strategists. The proposal appears to have been dropped.
Practical matters, rather than ideology, have determined our relations with our neighbours, including Pakistan. Changes in policy were triggered by negative reaction from our neighbours. Every possibility has been explored in different shades of our policy ranging from the tough Indira doctrine to the soft Gujral doctrine. No Government has advocated war as an option against Pakistan. The Kargil war came after the biggest peace offensive by the Vajpayee Government and, with all its tough talk, the Indian side refrained from crossing the Line of Control. A new Government may criticize Manmohan Singh’s “extra mile” policy, but it will not go beyond reciprocity, as war is no option between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Changes in nuances in Sri Lanka policy will depend on where the two Kazhagams will stand in the new dispensation. But even if a Prime Minister emerges from those two parties, there will only be war of words, not intervention on behalf of the Tamils. India has tried every trick in the book from equipping the LTTE to fighting it. New initiatives are hard to find when the Sri Lankan Government believes that it has solved the Tamil issue. The case is not dissimilar with the other neighbours. The more concessions we give, the more will be asked for, the more we deny, the more blackmailing will be resorted to. We shall see more of the same pressures and pulls under any Government in Delhi.
The Vajpayee Cabinet had at least one member, who characterized China as “enemy number one”. Vajpayee himself took Bill Clinton into confidence about the threat from China. But the same Government sought a strategic dialogue with China. Manmohan Singh has dealt with China with restraint despite provocations on the logic that China is too big to threaten India. The dragon may well have become vegetarian to make its rise peaceful. No political party has an alternate formula for China. A new Government may give defence preparedness more stress, but it will not be more assertive with China than its predecessor.
The relations with the US will be high priority for any Government, even the present one, if it comes back to power. It will look urgently into the points of irritation, but it will find soon that the issues are intractable. The grievances that the US has against India, like the nuclear liability act, the fighter aircraft issue and liberalization of the economy to protect the US interests are not easy to deal with. But friendly gestures in Asia Pacific, such as joint exercises with the US, Japan and Australia will offer sufficient compensation for the US. A new Government will have the advantage of being able to distance itself from the Khobragade fiasco and begin relations afresh. But any Government, even with participation of the left, will work hard to improve relations with the only Super Power.
Indications of institutional changes, hinted by some political parties, betray lack of insight. Diplomats have been handling economic and trade issues for years, but merging the External Affairs Ministry with the Trade Ministry will have adverse implications for both. Long term policy planning and strategic thinking, which, according to some American scholars, are lacking in India, will be tried, but soon routine issues will once again dominate foreign relations. No one disputes assigning a greater role for military leaders in policy and doctrines, but equally important is the civilian control of defence. Regional satraps may become prominent if we get a multiparty coalition, but they will not be allowed to dabble in foreign policy beyond a point.
Change will be part of the agenda of any Government that comes to power in India later this month. A dream foreign policy that enhances India’s power and prestige will be part of it. But, as Barrack Obama found out in the US, the power to change is not limitless, especially in foreign policy. Moreover, the wish lists that they will have to deal with domestically will be enormous and pressing. After the initial declarations of innovative policies potential policy makers will be hatching now, the new Government will reconcile themselves to the realities. It is likely to focus on the primary purpose of foreign policy, which is to ensure peaceful domestic development. The devil in the detail may change colours, but the framework will be hard to change.