The new government faces many difficult foreign policy challenges. Restoring the lost dynamism in India’s vital strategic partnerships and regaining a firm handle on some of its traditionally fraught relationships must be at the top of the diplomatic agenda.
India’s impressive foreign policy run, which began with the nuclear tests of May 1998, petered out in the second term of Manmohan Singh. Thanks to purposeful and imaginative diplomacy on the part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, international condemnation of the tests quickly yielded to an improvement in India’s relations with all of the major powers, raising New Delhi’s profile in Asia and on the global stage. If Singh inherited an India that was running forward full tilt, he has left an India that is sputtering on all fronts.
In the first term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Singh had the luxury of basking in the glory of economic growth generated by earlier reforms. While he was unwilling to push for new reforms from 2004 to 2009, Singh seemed confident enough to take forward Vajpayee’s many foreign policy initiatives—including those towards the US, China, and Pakistan. Singh’s second term, however, turned out to be disappointing on both the economic and diplomatic fronts. His government’s missteps on economic policy were compounded by maladroit diplomacy and wishful strategic thinking. Together they undermined the narrative of India’s rise that had gained so much traction in the earlier decade. The new government, then, must return to the basics.
Above all, it must restore the authority of the prime minister and his leadership over the cabinet system of government so critical for the conduct of any national policy. On foreign policy, it must end the confusion that the UPA government brought to India’s external goals, revive domestic political consensus on an effective strategy, and address the multiple structural constraints and institutional weaknesses that have hampered India’s rise.
Veering off course
Singh began with a bold determination to press ahead with five fundamental policy innovations launched by the Vajpayee government. Taken together, these innovations helped transform India’s geopolitical condition and secure its ascent in Asia and the world.
The first was in the domain of nuclear diplomacy. In testing five nuclear weapons in May 1998 in defiance of global opinion, the Vajpayee government ended India’s prolonged nuclear ambiguity and the many long-term costs that came with it.
The second innovation involved neighbourhood policy. Vajpayee sought to limit India’s extended conflicts with Pakistan and China and build more cooperative relations with its smaller neighbours.
Next, Vajpayee broadened the nation’s foreign field of vision and defined India’s interests as extending from Aden to Malacca. The new approach provided the basis for intensifying India’s Look East policy and its engagement with the Middle East.
The transformation of relations with all the major powers, especially the US, was the fourth innovation. Discarding the old baggage of non-alignment, Vajpayee reached out to the US and declared to an initially sceptical American audience and a visibly nervous Indian one that New Delhi and Washington were natural allies.
Finally, Vajpayee began to discard the ideological inheritance in the multilateral arena, departing from the canon in the nuclear domain, supporting the US on missile defence, and starting to focus on India’s interests rather than on ideological posturing at the United Nations and other multilateral forums.
These five approaches broke the rigidity that had taken hold of India’s foreign policy and they energized Indian diplomacy in ways not seen since the 1950s under Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 2004, Singh thus inherited a robust foreign agenda and an improved regional and global standing. Despite a constricting coalition with the Communist parties and the deep aversion of his own Congress party to political risk, Singh was eager to press ahead with Vajpayee’s innovations. During the first two years of his government, New Delhi clinched defence and nuclear deals with the US, outlined the terms of a boundary settlement with China, initiated negotiations on the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, and articulated a new vision for regional integration within the subcontinent. But for the rest of his tenure, Singh struggled to sustain these initiatives amid an internal political backlash and the lack of support within his own party.
The re-election of the Congress in 2009 with an increased number of seats raised hopes that the government would be bolder on the economic and foreign fronts. But the party leadership imposed even stronger constraints on Singh’s room to manoeuvre politically. Delays, setbacks, and paralysis on virtually all foreign policy fronts were the result.
He raised extraordinary expectations in the beginning, but Singh is ending his two terms with a whimper.
In seeking to revive the momentum of India’s foreign policy, the new government will have to address several important structural challenges:
- Rescue foreign policy from old ideological demons: Instead of the obsession with the mythical principles of non-alignment, New Delhi must strengthen its comprehensive national power and help redefine the external environment. The quest for global strategic influence is an unavoidable imperative, given that nearly 50% of the national economy is tied to imports and exports. Thus, India’s ability to secure growing levels of prosperity for its people depends upon its capacity to shape its regional security environment; contribute to stable great-power relations; become an indispensable element of the Asian balance of power; and ensure favourable international regimes on trade, climate change, and other pressing multilateral matters.
- Bring clarity and dexterity to India’s engagement with great powers: New Delhi must come to terms with an important reality: India’s core objective of expanding its comprehensive national power is more likely to be achieved in collaboration with the US and the West than with China. Yet it has to further that end without provoking Beijing.
- Deepen New Delhi’s regional engagement: Economic integration within the subcontinent and with the abutting regions, regional stability, and defence cooperation must all be pursued with greater vigour.
- Strengthen government and policy institutions: To take full advantage of emerging opportunities abroad, New Delhi must accelerate the growth of its diplomatic corps, raise the quality of government personnel, and support the development of policy and research institutions.
- Restore the prime minister’s authority over the entire government: An unprecedented power sharing agreement with Congress leader Sonia Gandhi severely undermined Singh’s influence as well as that of the cabinet secretary. Restoring the prime minister’s authority and strengthening the cabinet secretary’s position are critically important.
- Reclaim the central government’s prerogative, vis-à-vis the states, to conduct foreign policy: In Singh’s second term, New Delhi seemed paralysed by state government protests with regard to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.
The new government must make the revival of economic growth its most important priority. An emphasis on economy first will have significant benefits for the conduct of foreign policy. Concluding India’s free trade negotiations with Europe, contributing to the construction of an Asian economic community through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and initiating negotiations on free trade with the US should be at the top of the foreign economic agenda.
The new government will also need to focus on a number of other areas:
The U.S.: Revitalizing the strategic partnership with the US must be the foundation on which New Delhi pursues its great-power relationships. While differences will remain, more intensive political cooperation with the U.S. is essential if India is to cope with turbulence in the Middle East, uncertainty in Afghanistan, and prospects of a non-peaceful Chinese rise in East Asia.
China: India must expand economic cooperation with China and press Beijing for better market access to India’s manufactured goods and services. Since China is a challenge as well as an opportunity, New Delhi must learn to walk on two legs, combining productive bilateral cooperation and effective competition.
Asia: In the East, New Delhi must respond more effectively to the demand for greater economic and military cooperation. In the West, it must end the neglect of the Middle East and build strong ties to all key nations in the region.
The subcontinent: India must lead the promotion of peace, prosperity, and stability in the subcontinent. It must open its markets to smaller neighbours, promote greater transborder connectivity, and modernize its infrastructure to facilitate trade.
Defence: India must find ways to quickly respond to the growing demands for defence cooperation in different parts of the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific littoral. The new government must make defence diplomacy a high priority with major powers as well as regional partners. Equally important is the need to create a strong domestic defence industrial base that facilitates the export of defence hardware and services. Terrorism: The new government must resolutely confront the challenges of extremism and terrorism that not only seek to destabilize India but also to undermine Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Soft power: Finally, India can no longer waste its natural strengths in the domain of soft power. Whether it is promotion of tourism or cultural diplomacy, expanding the global footprint of Indian media, or cultivating political constituencies around the world, New Delhi has performed far below its potential. Now it must forge a strong public-private partnership to promote India’s culture and perspectives abroad.
If the new government takes these priorities to heart and acts quickly and forcefully to implement them, New Delhi’s foreign policy will come to life again, reclaiming its dynamism and once more furthering India’s place in the world.
C. Raja Mohan is a contributing editor for The Indian Express and a nonresident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.
This is adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book Getting India Back on Track edited by Bibek Debroy, Ashley J. Tellis and Reece Trevor. It will be published in June by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Random House India.