Overcoming dogma

The new foreign policies of the Modi government grew out of the challenges of change

November 29, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 01:38 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar complement each other. One is a natural politician with his hand on the pulse of the people; the other an erudite diplomat with decades of experience around the globe. The elevation of Mr. Jaishankar as Minister of External Affairs was in recognition of not only his capabilities, but also his trustworthiness.

In a recent lecture, Mr. Jaishankar laid out the rationale and indispensability of the foreign policy that had emerged since 2014. His review of the past was objective. He saw failures more as consequences of rapid changes in the world rather than wrong judgments. Successes such as Bangladesh in 1971, the reformist policies of 1992, the 1998 nuclear tests, and the 2005 India-U.S. nuclear deal were remembered as instances of out-of-the-box thinking and courage, while failure to resolve issues with China in the 1950s, the 1962 defeat at the hands of China, the lack of response to 26/11, etc. were seen as missed chances.

Responding to change

The division of the period since Independence into six phases is both convenient and accurate. Each of these phases had its own characteristics depending on the leaders of the time, but continuity and constancy bordering on dogma may have been responsible for India remaining on the sidelines. Those phases led India into the present phase, beginning with 2014, which demanded more energetic diplomacy, particularly on account of dramatic changes in the world and the growth of India as an economic power and a relevant technology leader from which much was expected. In other words, the new policies and initiatives of the Modi government grew out of the challenges of change.

A good part of the lecture was dedicated to identifying changes in the world, hinting at the futility of India doing the same thing repeatedly yet expecting different results. Such changes have made non-alignment an anachronism and multi-alignments essential. India had to align itself with different countries for different agendas. India’s fight against terrorism went beyond mere protestations, and stern action was taken in the face of a nuclear threat from Pakistan.

For a new foreign policy

Mr. Jaishankar identified five baskets of issues, some necessitating a test of wills, some requiring the leveraging of the global environment for economic reasons, some demanding hedging, some requiring high-risk endeavours in diplomacy, and some others making it imperative for India to read the global tea leaves in the backdrop of global contradictions. One surprising element in the lecture was his emphasis that India’s problems in formulating and implementing a new foreign policy were not external factors, but the “dogmas of Delhi”. Is there a dogma that Mr. Modi has found hard to overcome? Was his disappointment over not being able to manage the neighbourhood or his failure to secure permanent membership of the Security Council or membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group on account of any dogma? Did any dogma come in the way of his handling #HowdyModi, Mamallapuram and Vladivostok? If anything, there was general support for his foreign policy beyond his support base.

A hint of things to come

Mr. Jaishankar did not outline an agenda except to say that we should expect the unexpected. But he gave a hint of what might come when he asserted that “a nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities”. But it is not up to India alone to create these conditions. China is in no hurry to settle the borders; for Pakistan, problems with India are an existential need; and regional integration is eluding India’s grasp. But the refreshing thoughts in the lecture might lead to constructive action in the future.

T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Ambassador of India, is Director General, Kerala International Centre

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