'Enlightened national interest' is at core of Modi’s foreign policy mantra

The one aspect of the new government’s foreign policy that has moved from the past is the tougher language of discourse with leaders.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:24 pm IST

Published - June 15, 2014 12:55 am IST

India’s foreign policy, with its civilisational roots and heritage, is based on the principles of developing peaceful and friendly relations with all countries. We will pursue our international engagement based on enlightened national interest, combining the strength of our values with pragmatism, leading to a doctrine of mutually beneficial relationships.

— President Pranab Mukherjee, Joint Session of Parliament, June 9

As he prepared to read the foreign policy section of his speech at the opening session of Parliament, President Mukherjee must have had a sense of déjà vu. For the phrase that he used to describe the new government’s international engagement, “enlightened national interest”, was something he had heard the then President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, use at a similar joint session of Parliament ahead of the Budget in 2006.

“The foreign policy of my government is, as has always been the case, guided by enlightened national interest,” Dr. Kalam told parliamentarians, including Mr. Mukherjee, the then Defence Minister. “It has been oriented to enlarge our policy choices.”

Months earlier, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had used the phrase for the first time in Parliament. At a press conference at Vigyan Bhavan in February 2006, where he faced tough questions over relations with the U.S. and the nuclear deal, he repeated the phrase, adding: “We will not buckle, and haven’t buckled, under any kind of external pressure.”

Interestingly, the phrase was missing from President Mukherjee’s Budget session speech last year. It surfaced again, not in the Congress manifesto but in the BJP’s in 2014, which lists the first guiding principle of its foreign policy to “reboot” after the United Progressive Alliance’s policies. “Equations will be mended through pragmatism,” the BJP manifesto reads, “and a doctrine of mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships, based on enlightened national interest.”

Not much has been written about what “enlightened national interest” actually means. The phrase is, of course, derived from Aristotle’s concept of “enlightened self-interest”, which means that the more you benefit others the more you are benefited yourself. And whether or not Team Modi actually did deep research on the term before using it, it is certainly not the only leaf the incoming government has taken from the outgoing one’s book.

Neighbourhood ties

The first foreign policy statement the government made may be the best example of this. Even as the election results were coming in, say Mr. Modi’s advisers, the decision to invite SAARC leaders was taken. The newly elected Prime Minister was inundated with telephone calls from leaders around the world, wanting to congratulate him and invite him to their countries. Sources say it was Mr. Modi who decided he would accept the invitations, but invite only the neighbours to his swearing-in.

Leaders of SAARC nations (and Mauritius for its close diasporic ties) were decided on after some wrangling over possible objections to some of them, and Mr. Modi conveyed the decision to President Mukherjee so that the invitations could be sent out right away. The focus on the neighbourhood, much like Dr. Singh’s, has remained strong in the weeks that have followed. Mr. Modi’s choice of Bhutan as his first international stop may have come as a surprise to some, while his personal touch to relations with Pakistan − sending a shawl for the Pakistan Prime Minister’s mother − has come much to the chagrin of even his closest supporters in Delhi’s hawkish strategic community. Yet Mr. Modi has persevered, perhaps more than Dr. Singh has, in pushing to engage the leadership in the neighbourhood.

The SAARC summit in Kathmandu this November will see all countries give another push to SAFTA, the free trade agreement, while they will discuss cooperation on everything from power distribution and roadways to the welfare of overseas workers. At a book launch in his house, Mr. Modi told journalists that “What happens in the countries around the neighbourhood impact India most greatly. Not what happens more than 2,000 km away.”

However, Mr. Modi might find that in the sphere of economics and “getting India back on track,” as the book he launched was called, it is precisely the big powers geographically further afield who will most affect his tenure as Prime Minister. Trade with SAARC countries at present represents a small fraction of India’s GDP, while the GDP of all SAARC nations combined is about 5-6 per cent of the world total.

His management of the economy will thus depend on investment from the world’s biggest economies. To this end, he will have use economic diplomacy much more effectively than Dr. Singh’s government did, making good on promises of reform that the UPA made but never kept. He is continuing the engagement with the BRICS countries, hoping that the multilateral grouping will help India at the World Trade Organisation, while the early announcements on foreign direct investment in defence and other sectors is clearly a pitch to the U.S. and other countries. Finally, as did his predecessor, Mr. Modi is walking the East Asian tightrope, balancing his familiarity with the Chinese leadership with his easy relationship with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attract investment in infrastructure.

Clearly, enlightened national interest will include ensuring peace with one, while not letting down the other. Much of this “economic national interest” will be tested when he stands with other members of the global economy at G-20 in November.

Talking tough

The one aspect of the new government’s foreign policy that has moved from the past is the tougher language of discourse with leaders. When speaking to Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Modi reportedly made it clear he would have to take “strong action” if there was a major attack traced back to Pakistan. In speaking with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Modi brought up the unfulfilled promise of devolution of all powers to Tamil-majority states. U.S. Under Secretary of State Nisha Biswal was given only basic courtesies when she visited last weekend to “engage with the new government”, and the fact that she did not meet either the National Security Adviser or the External Affairs Minister was seen as a message to Washington that relations are not back to the old bonhomie. And the External Affairs Ministry’s reported line to visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with whom Sushma Swaraj conversed in Hindi, not English, was to respect “One India” while expecting India to adhere to its “One China” policy.

It is still unclear whether the tough talking could reach the levels of rhetoric we saw pre-elections, when Mr. Modi criticised China’s “expansionist mindset” and railed at Pakistani leaders being “fed Biryani,” while Ms Swaraj, then as Leader of the Opposition, demanded “ten heads in return for the one” of a soldier at the LoC.

“Mr. Modi will conduct foreign policy with the full political mandate he had received in the elections,” says one close adviser when asked to explain “enlightened national interest” in the light of those statements. “It will be proactive and robust, and he will expect the Ministry of External Affairs to be equally so.”

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