A shadow foreign policy for the first time

India does not have a tradition of shadow cabinets lurking behind the government in power with ready alternative approaches to policy matters. The opposition challenges government policies, but provides no alternatives to be adopted in the event of a change in government. It is only at the time of elections that a manifesto is put forward, but that does not become the policy of the government automatically. The opposition uses think tanks and NGOs to float ideas, which may become part of policy if they become publicly acceptable. Since there has been a consensus on foreign policy, a shadow foreign policy was out of the question. But for the first time, a document has emerged from the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in the nature of an alternative to the present foreign and defence policies named ‘India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a world adrift’. It is authored by eight well-known strategists and thinkers.

In 2012, many of the same authors had produced another document, ‘Non-alignment 2.0’, in the light of the global changes at that time, as a contribution to policymaking, without criticising the policies of the government. But the new government in 2014 had its own ideas and not much attention was given to the study. The present document, however, is in the nature of an alternative to the foreign and defence policies of the Modi government, as some of its tenets are not considered conducive to finding a path to power for India in the post-pandemic world. The eight conclusions are quite logical and reasonable, but the tenor and tone of the paper is one of criticism and need for course correction.

Change in foreign policy

The first term of the Modi government was remarkable for its innovative, bold and assertive foreign policy, which received general approbation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led from the front and took the credit for overcoming the hesitations of history. He laid out his priorities and pursued them with vigour. After his unconventional peace initiatives with Pakistan failed, he took a firm stand and gained popularity at home. His wish to have close relations with the other neighbours did not materialise, but his helpful attitude to them even in difficult situations averted any crisis. He brought a new symphony into India-U.S. relations and engaged China continuously to find a new equation with it. India’s relations with Israel and the Arab countries became productive. Mr. Modi’s enhanced majority in the second term was partly on account of his foreign policy successes.

It was when the second Modi government dealt with some of the unfinished sensitive matters, which were essentially of a domestic nature (Article 370, citizenship issues and farming regulations), that their external dimensions led to a challenge to its foreign policy. Questions were raised in the West about human rights and the state of democracy in India. The opposition in India began to question the foreign policy postures of the government. The pandemic, the economic meltdown and China’s incursion into Ladakh added to the woes of the government.

The cumulative effect of these developments is reflected in the CPR report. It says, “The foundational source of India’s influence in the world is the power of its example. This rests on four pillars, domestic economic growth, social inclusion, political democracy and a broadly liberal constitutional order. If these integral pillars remain strong, there is no stopping India... The most significant change in the last decade or so is that we cannot take for granted the success of India’s development model... But the fundamental sources of India’s development and international influence look increasingly precarious. We must confront this changed outlook... Nourishing the foundations of India’s success requires a conscious political effort, and it is a strategic imperative...”

Set the house in order

This assertion at the beginning of the report is the heart of the report and it is repeated in different forms. In other words, the finding is that domestic issues have impacted foreign policy and, therefore, India should set its house in order to stem the tide of international reaction. “It is important that we acknowledge the perverse impact of domestic political and ideological factors that are driving our foreign policy... Political polarisation and majoritarianism will lead to a diminished India — one that may struggle to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie... ahead,” asserts the report. It also says that the confused international order that followed the global crisis saw an “omnidirectional Indian foreign policy.” These harsh statements are likely to be challenged by the government, which will claim that India has stood true to its own foundational values and there is no “authoritarian model of development”.

Once the basic premise is set aside, the report has many positive elements, which will help policymakers to rethink policy. For instance, the report rightly points out that “it would be incorrect and counterproductive for India to turn its back on globalisation...” It also suggests that SAARC should be revived and that India should rejoin the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and continue its long-standing quest for membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

The report also stresses the importance of strategic autonomy in today’s world where change is the only certainty. As for the India-U.S.- China triangle, the report makes the unusual suggestion that India should have better relations individually with both the U.S. and China than they have with each other.

The report contains detailed analyses on different regions and key countries, but the general thrust is that all is not well with Indian foreign policy and a fundamental change is necessary to meet the present situation. The report concludes that since China will influence India’s external environment politically, economically and infrastructurally, there is no feasible alternative to a combination of engagement and competition with China. The approach of the present government is not very different. There is implicit criticism of the Pakistan policy when the report asserts, “as long as our objectives of policy towards Pakistan are modest, resumption of dialogue and a gradual revival of trade, transport and other links are worth pursuing.”

A considerable part of the report is devoted to issues relating to defence, the nuclear doctrine, space, cyberspace and the ecological crisis. On the looming environmental disaster, the report states that since India is still at an early stage of its modern development trajectory, it is not yet locked into an energy-intensive pattern of growth. Much of its infrastructure remains to be built. It suggests all is not well with the present strategy for environmental protection and economic development.

The eminent stature of the authors and the CPR will certainly compel detailed studies of the report in the run-up to the next elections and beyond as the time frame suggested for change is the next decade. But the significance of the report is that it reveals the end of the era of consensus foreign policy and presents a shadow foreign policy for the first time in India. It remains to be seen whether any of the opposition parties will adopt it and fight the next election on the platform provided by the report.

T.P. Sreenivasan is former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 3:27:05 AM |

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