The fading appeal of soft power

Recent strategic decisions indicate a post-normative turn in India’s foreign policy

May 23, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

In India’s evolving foreign policy imagination, the pursuit of power and influence seems to eclipse the country’s traditions of normative behaviour and principled positions. The jury is still out on whether by shedding its normative shibboleths New Delhi is finally doing what states typically do, and whether or not its post-normative turn will negatively impact its national interests.

The rise of realpolitik

Around three months ago, the Central government frankly told the Supreme Court, “we don’t want India to become a refugee capital,” even as the Border Security Force (BSF) had been pushing back Rohingya refugees from the eastern borders.

India’s stand vis-à-vis Rohingya refugees is an indication of how new India proposes to deal with humanitarian issues in its neighbourhood. Its approach to the Rohingya crisis (i.e. its refusal to admit people fleeing for their lives into the country or to ask Myanmar to address the human rights violations against its Rohingya population) is informed by several realpolitik considerations. At the domestic political level, there is a religious rationale for pushing back Muslim Rohingya, and an electoral calculation vis-à-vis the Northeast and West Bengal. At a broader level, with the Chinese charm offensive in the region putting India on the defensive, it does not want to alienate Myanmar. And yet, in its enthusiasm to please Myanmar by not nudging it to resolve the refugee issue lest it warm up to China, India actually ended up ceding ground to China when Beijing began negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

India’s response to the Rohingya crisis, then, is in stark contrast to its long tradition of offering refuge to the region’s homeless. What makes this policy even more petty-minded is the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which empowers the government to offer citizenship to migrants hailing from minority communities in the neighbourhood, except Muslims. It is clear then that the government’s position on refugees is anything but principled.

Downplaying non-alignment

Consider another example. Through the much-publicised celebration of the India-Israel partnership, the government has made it clear that it seeks to pursue a foreign policy guided by realpolitik. From being ideological opponents to maintaining a relationship in the closet, India and Israel have come a long way. While an earlier BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had invited the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to visit India, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government deepened engagement, the current NDA government has taken the relationship to another level. New Delhi doesn’t any more pay heed to accusations of human rights violations against Tel Aviv, its blatant refusal to abide by various UN resolutions, or the manner in which it discards the political rights of the Palestinians.

This is not to discount the fact that there is an instrumental rationale underlying the India-Israel relationship, especially in terms of national security and strategic considerations. But isn’t there a troubling politico-ideological narrative underwriting this partnership which seems to go beyond the material requirements of the Indian state?

Non-alignment once used to be the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Delhi continued to pay lip service to it. In 2016, only for the second time ever, India’s Prime Minister was not present at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. NAM stood for several important global movements: decolonisation, disarmament, correcting the inherent ills of the global economic order, etc. For sure, some of the founding ideals of NAM may have lost their relevance today, but the grouping can help rising powers such as India to enhance their global standing and influence. But then, solidarity with other developing countries is no more a foreign policy priority for New Delhi, nor is it greatly invested in strategic autonomy.

With the U.S. designating India as a “Major Defence Partner”, it is one India’s closest strategic partners today. In 2016, India had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. which gives both sides access to designated military facilities for refuelling and replenishment. Clearly, this is far more useful to the U.S. than to India. Several such agreements are in the pipeline. In 2014, the U.S. replaced Russia as India’s largest defence supplier, and the Russians started negotiating arms sales with Pakistan that same year.

It is in this context that Mr. Modi’s ‘informal summit’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi is viewed as an attempt by both to reassure each other that the relationship has not lost its warmth. However, will India-Russia relations survive the several fundamental geopolitical and material transformations taking place in the Asian region and their sharp, and and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in dealing with them?

And whatever happened to good neighbourliness? The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) seems to be consigned to the dustbin of history as for some reason New Delhi sees no future for it. Is the ‘mistreatment’ of SAARC in our best interest? It is ironic that SAARC and NAM, both India-centric institutions, have been sidelined by our own conscious efforts.

Non-alignment is passé, ‘neighbourhood first’, despite the recent overtures, is falling apart, and multi-alignment is increasingly looking like a fantasy: India’s post-normative foreign policy is in a shambles.

How does all this add up?

Thinking beyond normative strictures has both positive and negative implications. When free from ideological constraints and legacy dilemmas, states can pursue their self-interest with a free hand. There will be lot more flexibility to determine the demands of national interest, for national interest is itself not static, only the idea of it is. India’s post-normative approach to external behaviour also is a recognition of the importance of the pursuit of power in the contemporary international system. In that sense then, the new foreign policy thinking in the country has some merits.

The post-normative turn also comes with its challenges and complications. For one, the soft power persuasiveness of a country is also the product of its political ideals, civilisational values and its cultural resonance. Choosing to exclusively focus on hard power for foreign policy outcomes sidelines our rich soft power attributes. Second, new India’s foreign policy choices also indicate the company it wishes to keep in the comity of nations and what it wants from the international system. It seeks hard power, great power status and the company of great powers — not an equitable international order and the company of developing nations. If so, we must also ask how steadfast are our current great power partnerships? Will they stand the test of time well beyond the attraction of India’s growing defence budgets and expanding consumer markets?

Post-normative India is also an aggressive India, and even the hollow invocations to Gandhian non-violence have become less than routine. Worryingly, the reliance on aggression as a foreign policy tool seems to have strong domestic political origins, premised on a mistaken belief that force can overcome resistance. Some Ministers openly threaten neighbours of military strikes, and military leaders display a growing fondness for making domestic political statements. Confrontation seems to have displaced quiet diplomacy as our favoured tool for conflict resolution. And, as a society, we seem to be emotionally invested in coercive solutions to political questions both within and outside the country. Yet, India is more insecure today than it was four years ago.

We would do ourselves good to remember that the pursuit of national interest is a complex affair, and norms, values and soft power should co-exist with the pursuit of hard power.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.