: Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2014

India: Foreign Policy Challenges Ahead

By Shastri Ramachandaran* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) – In the politically charged climate ahead of the countrywide general election from April 7 to May 12, the Congress Party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has offered itself as a target for criticism by its policy paralysis, non-performance and failure to govern.

But there are areas – such as external affairs, national security, space and defence – where its record should be assessed without political prejudice; because, by and large, there is a bipartisan consensus on policies in regard to these. In foreign policy, as in national security policy, there is no great divergence of outlook or approach between the leading political parties.

And yet when the forthcoming elections bring about a decadal shift in politics, India would be facing a critical test on the foreign policy front. Although continuity would be assumed in many areas, political changes would of necessity result in new initiatives based on priorities and policy directions set by the new government.

The foreign policy priorities of the new government would, doubtless, be based on the achievements – and failures – of the UPA during its 10 years in office since 2004. The UPA’s record, in perspective, would be the background for setting out the priorities of the new government. Therefore, it would be useful to take a quick, summary view of the UPA’s record before listing a few priorities that the new government would need to attend without any loss of time.

Soon after assuming office, Prime Minister Singh took a decisive step to secure the “defining partnership (with the US) of the 21st century”. The India-US nuclear deal was the opening gambit – not the sum and substance – of a rising India’s ambition to join the global power elite; to move up from being a leader of the developing (non-aligned) nations to the status of preferred partner of the world’s only superpower.

In his first term (2004-2009), with the support of President George Bush, Singh set out to win India a place at every high table and in nuclear regimes. On the strength of an enviable growth rate, economic reforms, weathering the global financial downturn, an attractive investment climate and rising stature in the neighbourhood, the region and the world at large, it seemed that India was, at last, on the destined path to take its place in the comity of nations.

Singh was lauded for his reforms at home and accomplishments abroad. If the goal of foreign policy was to build India’s prosperity and strength, Singh was seen as taking the right steps.

Prospects of peace in the neigbourhood made New Delhi recognise that India should give more than it receives from its poorer and weaker neighbours. Peace in Nepal, brokered by the UPA government during its first five-year term in power (UPA I), brought the Maoists to the parliamentary mainstream; it initiated the composite dialogue with Pakistan; kept Sri Lanka and Maldives firmly on India’s side and took India-Bangladesh relations to a new high.

In the region, India’s Look East Policy, initiated by PV Narasimha Rao (who was Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996), went beyond ASEAN to Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Indo-Pacific. Singh’s rapport with the Chinese leadership boosted economic ties, opened new tracks of cooperation and positioned the two as partners who could drive the global economic recovery. UPA I saw India sign strategic partnership and comprehensive economic cooperation agreements with many countries including the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The descent

In his second term (beginning 2009), also known as UPA II, Singh succeeded in undoing his own achievements on the foreign front. All the achievements of UPA I came unstuck under UPA II, with 2013 witnessing the worst.

Economic growth took a hit. Recession, inflation and corruption further eroded the climate for investment and infrastructure development, and the world took a dim view of India. The year began with Pakistan’s beheading of an Indian soldier, which put an end to the composite dialogue process. In Nepal, China increased its influence thanks to New Delhi’s “mismanagement”. For the first time ever, Bhutan had a public issue with India, which did not redound to New Delhi’s credit. India-Bangladesh relations took a dive with New Delhi unable to sign the promised agreements on land boundary and sharing of Teesta waters. Anti-India forces in Bangladesh are gaining and India’s friends feel abandoned.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM) was a diplomatic disaster in the wake of earlier Indian actions against Sri Lanka in international forums. UPA II’s indecisive leadership was further exposed with Union ministers contradicting one another on India attending CHOGM. Events and developments in the Maldives – from losing the GMR airport contract to the conduct of elections – exposed UPA II to be effete. India-US relationship, the cornerstone of Singh’s foreign policy, touched its lowest point after 1998.

The descent from the peaks of achievement scaled in 2004-2009 has been so steep that the final year of the UPA II in office is viewed as, perhaps, the worst in 15 years.

These do not, however, add up to failure of foreign policy. It is more a case of failure to perform – failure of foreign policy management.

There are, doubtless, a few successes, too, that Manmohan Singh has notched up. Prominent among the successes cited is India-Japan relations, which received a boost with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in January 2014. India and Japan already have a comprehensive economic partnership agreement. Now, the partnership has acquired a sharper strategic dimension because of China-Japan tensions, and the rising stakes and stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific as the new arena of global power play.

While the upbeat tone of talks between Singh and Abe hold out promise of greater cooperation, the relationship would be tested by whether India clinches a civil nuclear agreement, which could pave the way for the Japanese collaborators of US nuclear reactor manufacturers to ensure that India gets the required equipment. Until tangible gains are visible, there is every chance of India-Japan partnership going awry as it happened with India-US relations.


The second major success of Singh is the opening of a new window in India-Pakistan relations in October 2013 during his last visit to the US, which would be remembered more for the outcome of his talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif than with President Barack Obama.

Singh and Sharif agreed to resume meetings between the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries. This is a new and overdue window in India-Pakistan relations. Although the armed forces of the two countries loom large in their relationship, there is little contact or interaction between the top brass across the border.

Among the important countries dealing with Pakistan, it is India alone that shuns the “luxury” of talking to the military brass, who call the shots from Rawalpindi. New Delhi’s interactions are limited to those in Islamabad, whereas others, especially Washington, Beijing, Kabul deal not only with the political leaders but also the generals. When US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Pakistan, he held talks with the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani; so did Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. This is reciprocated with the army chief accompanying the Pakistani Prime Minister on his visits abroad. Kayani was a part of Sharif’s delegation to Afghanistan where he had his own meetings.

The army is a power centre in Pakistan, and foreign policy, along with security, is its prerogative. There can be no policy formulation or engagement, especially when it pertains to India, the US, Afghanistan or China, without the army dictating the terms. Yet there is no Indian channel to the generals. Such access is critical to know the army’s thinking and for strategising approaches to peace in the region through “credible engagement” with the generals.

In this context, the DGMOs being asked to create a mechanism for maintaining the cease-fire along the Line of Control is a big advance given the long absence of military contact between the two countries except for weekly telephonic talks.

Third, Singh, in the latter half of 2013 met world leaders at the UN in New York and President Obama in Washington, attended the ASEAN summit in Brunei, and travelled to Moscow and Beijing. These successful missions underscored the rare respect that Singh commands as a statesman at these high tables where he is most at home.

No pushover

In considering the foreign policy priorities of a new government in 2014, it may be important, at times, to distinguish between Singh’s personal success and the pursuit of national interest. The best example of this is India-US relations, which has hit a nadir. Yet it is not necessarily bad for Washington to realise that India is no pushover to be taken for granted. The stresses and strains of the bilateral relationship may serve a purpose if the new government sticks to the line adopted by the UPA towards the end of its term.

Singh was so focused, to the exclusion of much else it would be said, in building a relationship with the US that Washington took too much for granted. As has been exposed now, norms were thrown to the winds in pampering US diplomats and their families with privileges to a point where they became Super VIPs in India. There was no reciprocity.

To be fair to Singh, this trend of lying down for the Americans to walk over us did not start during his term. During the centre-right National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition regime (1998-2004), too, barring Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee – who refused to kowtow to US strategic and military interests – leading lights of his government submitted themselves to a variety of humiliations at the hands of the US. Besides strip searches at airports and such, which have now been revealed as commonplace, there is the instance of an external affairs minister offering to be a back channel.

In serious trouble

The world’s two largest democracies may have much in common. But far from common interests prevailing over contentious issues, India-US relations are in serious trouble.

Whatever the next government’s political colour, it would do well to hasten to send out an unmistakable signal to the world that the broad national consensus in foreign policy, besides security and strategic affairs, would continue. While the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are seasoned players in this regard, others in the ring of power would have to articulate an approach to foreign policy that reflects the consensus at home and meets expectations abroad.

First and foremost, the new dispensation has to impress on Washington that much as New Delhi values the strategic partnership and defence cooperation, there can be no compromise on reciprocity; and, this need not stand in the way of the larger, defining objectives of the relationship.

Regardless of Washington’s about-turn in cosying up to Narendra Modi (one of the front-runners as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate), political changes in India cannot banish overnight the causes and conditions in the US responsible for the souring of bilateral relations across many tracks.

Dealing with the US – being firm, strictly reciprocal at all times in all matters and restrained without recourse to grandstanding or avoidable provocations – would be the No1 priority for the new government. It should be recognized that, in the aftermath of the crisis triggered by the Devyani Khobragade issue, the US, instead of picking up the pieces to mend relations, is now on the offensive on all tracks and is bent upon provoking crisis and conflict in other areas, such as trade and visas.

There looms large the spectre of sanctions as a prelude to the US unleashing a virtual trade war against India. This is nothing new. In 1991-92, then US Trade Representative (USTR) Carla Hills had threatened similar action without the fluff of intellectual property rights or legalese about investment climate. She declared that she would “use Section 301 as a crowbar to prise open the Indian market” for US business. The crowbar is at play again. India had refused to succumb to pressure then, and the US was forced to withdraw India from the 301 List.

Washington is always quick to punish countries when their conditions go against US business interests. The issue here is how such action impacts bilateral ties and why the US keeps picking new bones of contention at a juncture when the need is for positive inputs.

The USTR’s pressure tactics came when US Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) commissioner Margaret Hamburg was in New Delhi hearing India’s concern over attempts to cripple Indian pharma companies and drive their drugs out of the US market. (Recently, the FDA imposed harsh penalties on Ranbaxy and Wockhardt). Close on the heels of the FDA’s punitive strikes, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) downgraded India’s air safety ratings. Since relations are in “strictly-reciprocal” mode, the directorate general of civil aviation lost no time in announcing safety checks for foreign aircraft flying into India.

By their actions, the USTR, FDA and FAA are scuttling efforts to strengthen ties, such as the January visit of US energy secretary Ernesto Munoz, which had to be rescheduled after Khobragade’s ill-treatment. The way various arms of the US government are pursuing different agendas is of a piece with how the state department and other agencies worked themselves into a hole when targeting Khobragade.

These developments may be attributed to India not finding a place in President Obama’s scheme of things. The US political leadership is not interested and, therefore, not hands on in maintaining bilateral relations and taking it forward. India is clearly not on Obama’s map.

If India-US relations were politically important, then Obama, like president Bush, would be taking greater interest to ensure that avoidable irritants did not keep recurring. He would have made the various arms of his administration fall in line and work in tandem towards diluting negative sentiments and healing a wounded strategic partnership.

Immediate neighbours

The second priority is India’s policy towards its immediate neighbours. No country, least of all a rising power, can afford hostility in the neighbourhood. There is a case for greater clarity, elimination of recent strains, strengthening bonds and keeping out big-power politicking. In Nepal, today, China is more active than India, in influencing the political direction and policies. Bangladesh feels let down with India failing to deliver on the promises – including the Teesta river accord and the land boundary agreement – held out during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s high-profile visit in 2012. The US agenda in Bangladesh could destabilise that country and adversely affect India-Bangladesh relations.

In the aftermath of the Devyani Khobragade case, the US may play hardball with India; not only in Bangladesh, but also in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and wherever else it can. And, thus, the third priority: to reinforce bilateral ties in a way that countries vulnerable to US influence and blandishments remain mindful of India’s strategic concerns. To achieve this, New Delhi needs to go beyond platitudes and show what solid support it can offer to its friends and neighbours. For instance, Afghanistan, which will see the US drawdown, needs funds, weapons and much else beyond encouraging words.

Fourth, there is Pakistan, a permanent challenge, with which India has to pursue peace and, at the same time, fight terrorism. The importance and long-term advantage of the meeting of the DGMOs of India and Pakistan, initiated by UPA II, should be grasped for the opportunities it represents. Both sides have to create conditions for sustaining the process in their mutual interest. It is another window to get a better view of the ground before taking further steps to improve relations Pakistan.

Fifth, India-China relations are stagnant, having lost their upbeat note after last year’s Ladakh incursion. With new leadership in both countries, new vistas have to be explored; and, this can happen only with a new sense of bilateral purpose.

Sixth, India’s rather narrow Look East policy needs to expand and grow to a point where China and the US reckon with India as more than a “swing nation” in the contested Indo-Pacific. Then, India has to infuse new vigour in its ties with Iran, regain its relevance in strife-torn West Asia and revive its once-vibrant friendship with Russia.

The list can go on. These are but some of the challenges a new government would have to grapple with soon after taking office.

*Shastri Ramachandaran, an independent journalist based in New Delhi, is on editorial board of IDN. He was senior editor with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. A version of this article first appeared on March 25, 2014 on The Citizen, India’s first online daily under the headline Challenges of Foreign Policy for a New Government and is being published by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 31, 2014]

Image: Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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