The 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on November 14 was a much-needed master account of India’s foreign policy, told in phases, lucid, analytical and comprehensive. Mr. Jaishankar’s speech, which reflects a practitioner’s hands-on knowledge of India’s foreign policy, has, unfortunately, not yet received the critical treatment it deserves. In his speech, the Minister makes a strong pitch to practitioners and analysts to think beyond the “Delhi dogma” that has traditionally defined, and constrained, according to him, the pursuit of India’s foreign policy. Though thought-provoking, Mr. Jaishankar’s speech is riddled with several empirical and conceptual issues.
Of, and for the right
To begin with, the speech is a product of a certain messianic presentism of the Indian right that Mr. Jaishankar is a part of. The speech has a heavy self-congratulatory tone aimed at establishing a moral superiority over past governments, as if history began in 2014. To that extent, this is an ideological attempt masquerading as an objective stocktaking of India’s foreign policy.
The speech makes the cardinal mistake of critiquing history from the luxury of the present, removed from the temporal constraints that forced the decisions of the past: this is a methodological error. When you fuse a methodological mistake with an ideological attempt at moral superiority, you get a flawed analysis of the past. While the speech falls short of telling us what the new big ideas of the Narendra Modi government are, it is big on what today’s regime thinks went wrong in the past.
One direct result of presentism is the tendency to judge the merit of one’s past policies based on current capabilities. To state, for instance, that taking the Kashmir issue to the UN was a mistake assumes that India could have forcibly liberated the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) from the Pakistani invasion during 1947-48. At a point of time when the Indian (and Pakistani) Army was still commanded by British officers, it might not have been possible for India to forcibly get back the rest of J&K. The next best option at the time was indeed to go to the United Nations, which it did.
Need for non-alignment
In the early decades of its existence, India was a militarily weak, recently-decolonised state with an array of domestic political and security challenges, with limited resources, and as a result, attempts at carrying out major military campaigns would have been disastrous. And when faced with the whirlwind of the Cold War, it also, and rightly so, decided to be non-aligned. The policy of non-alignment was hardly woolly-headed; it was largely an exercise in realism. Not only that accommodation by a weak power is not weakness, India also benefitted from both the camps. Would becoming a camp follower have helped India against China in 1962? The answer might lie in the Pakistani experience in 1965 and 1971 despite being an alliance partner of the U.S.
Unwilling to appreciate this complex early journey of a weak power is being ahistorical.
Cut to the present. The Minister dwells at length on India’s new appetite for risk-taking, and global positioning. He states that “not all risks are necessarily dramatic; many just require the confident calculations and determined follow up of day-to-day management but their aggregate impact can result in a quantum jump in global positioning. To a certain degree, we see that happening today.” Does it mean that India’s pre-2014 foreign policy lent it no global standing? Does it also mean that India’s global standing, materially and reputationally, has dramatically increased post-2014 especially in the wake of the rather aggressive policies in Kashmir?
More so, what has been the track record of the much-fabled strong-willed foreign policy of the Modi regime in dealing with China, easily India’s biggest strategic challenge today? Mr. Jaishankar’s speech seems unsure on how to deal with it even as he offers a strong critique of the Nehru government’s handling of China over six decades ago. Does his government have a China policy “today”? Is avoiding the tactical pressure from China (which can have electoral implications) via informal summits and slow peddling the Quad helpful in addressing the long-term China challenge? If indeed our past failures in dealing with China have reached us where we are today, how can being fixated with past mistakes help us frame a better China policy?
The Minister’s speech often lacks clarity about what it seeks to advocate. He rightly states, in the context of India not joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that “economic autarky and import substitution” are old dogmas, then goes on to argue, that “embracing the new dogma of globalization without a cost-benefit analysis is equally dangerous”. This is just smart phrasing, and one is unsure why India was unable to get a deal from the other partners especially China (despite the Chennai connect) and where India stands on the RCEP now and what are the long-term implications for the Indian economy of not joining it.
Foreign policy of any regime, past or present, should be judged on the basis of concrete outcomes. Even as Mr. Jaishankar offers a spirited critique of the foreign policies of previous governments, his speech points towards very little concrete outcomes achieved by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments. He argues that “the balance sheet for India’s foreign policy after seven decades presents a mixed picture”. Notwithstanding the fact that the history of any country’s foreign policy performance “presents a mixed picture”, it would have been more useful if the incumbent External Affairs Minister were to clearly articulate the foreign and security policy successes of his government. ‘Howdy Modi’, ‘Chennai Connect’ and ‘JAI’ (Japan-America-India) are hardly spectacular outcomes.
I am in agreement when he argues that dogmas can be problematic because “dogma treats every new approach as an unjustified deviation”. However, are we to assume that broad themes and consistency in foreign and security policy are necessarily bad ideas? More so, how would the bold claims of a strong foreign and security policy sit well with strategic ambiguity, and tactical and reactive posturing?
Or is it that there is another foreign policy dogma in the making today — the so-called Modi doctrine? If so, is undoing past dogma seen as a first step towards promoting the new doctrine? Is that what Mr. Modi’s External Affairs Minister has in mind when he says, “The world that awaits us not only calls for fresh thinking, but eventually, a new consensus at home as well. Putting dogmas behind us is a starting point for that journey”?
Kashmir and Pakistan
The biggest disappointment yet is Mr. Jaishankar’s articulation of the Modi government’s policy towards Kashmir, and Pakistan. He argues that the concerns of critics’ about the internationalisation of Kashmir and hyphenation with Pakistan “is thinking from the past, reflecting neither the strength of India, the mood of the nation nor the determination of the Government”. Put differently, he seems to argue that the Government’s Kashmir policy is brilliant because India can militarily contain the situation in Kashmir, there is domestic widespread support for a militarised solution to Kashmir, and the government does not bother what the international community thinks about it. Not only does this assessment reek of foreign policy arrogance, it hardly sits well with a government that is acutely conscious of promoting the country’s glory the world over. Let alone the fact that its Kashmir policy is proving to be a disaster.
Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is the author of Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics