Make merit-based strategic choices in foreign policy

  • Hardeep S Puri
  • Updated: May 16, 2016 22:10 IST
Foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (L) with Pakistan foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry (R) and Pakistan's high commissioner to India Abdul Basit coming out at ministry of foreign affairs, New Delhi, on April 26, 2016 (Ravi Choudhary/HT)

Two years in the life of a government, elected for five, provides an opportune juncture for an assessment on performance both in respect of domestic as well as foreign policy.

In the case of foreign policy, the assessment must necessarily factor in and accord due importance to our relations with the countries in our immediate neighbourhood, in particular Pakistan and China. An understanding of the underlying trends and overall sense of direction is important.

No prime minister has devoted the kind of personal attention and determination to the conduct of foreign policy as Narendra Modi. In the contemporary global setting, he stands out, in this respect, among leaders of countries similarly placed as India.

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There have been some notable successes, during the last two years, as for instance in relation to Bangladesh. There are, however, some worrying signs as well.

Since the time of India’s first prime minister, policy has been formulated in a restricted, paternalistic and hierarchical mould in which the prime minister, his/her office and a professional foreign service have contributed, in varying degrees. The only change now is that for the first time we have an additional constituency that seeks robust assertiveness and a pre-determined sense of direction, which often appears to be at variance with the other stated priorities of a government elected to office on the promise of delivering development, generating 10 million jobs annually and substantially reducing poverty. These domestic policy objectives require a calm and benign enabling environment. Many of those who advocate robust and assertive postures may be well meaning but do not display the requisite understanding even if they have had limited exposure and experience. Care needs to be taken not to raise any hype that makes the management of expectations just that much more difficult.

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Nothing illustrates this dilemma better than the following true story. An alert journalist noticed an incongruity in one of the photographs on the occasion of the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. He wrote a piece saying that there had been some lack of coordination between the ministry of external affairs and Rashtrapati Bhawan. The so-called Tibetan government in exile promptly removed the photograph from its website. An important but inexperienced person called the editor of the concerned newspaper to suggest that the photograph, in fact, was a pointer to the future direction of policy. Such sentiment probably explains some of the flip flops that have continued to characterise our engagements with China.

It is the prerogative of a government to recalibrate its major foreign policy priorities. The leitmotif of India’s foreign policy in the last seven decades , ‘strategic autonomy’ has not only provided the cover but an enabling framework that has not prevented us from significantly upgrading individual bilateral ties with considerable success. Such efforts have come in small incremental measures.

Should the government wish to seek enhanced strategic convergence with the United States or, with any other country, it would no doubt wish to consider doing so on its merits. Such strategic convergence cannot be based on the perception of difficulties in a relationship with another important country. The slow but sure emergence of China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with two additional neighbours of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka provides an illustrative example. We also need to ask ourselves to what extent some of these developments have been facilitated by our own actions.

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Should enhanced strategic convergence with the US be the objective, there should, at the very least, be a factoring in of the kind of leadership the US would be willing to provide after January 2017.

Enhanced strategic convergence is difficult to craft out of a transactional and mercantilist mindset apart from differences of interest in respect of developments in Afghanistan, West Asia, the South China Sea and elsewhere as well.

In so far as relations with Pakistan are concerned, anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with ground reality will advise that nuclear powers should not and cannot fight bush wars. There is no alternative to seeking engagement. This requires two to tango. Having drawn red lines, there has to be some reason for what appeared to be a willingness to kickstart a stalled dialogue. What has not changed and is unlikely to for a long time is that both sides must demonstrate a desire and capacity to sell the outcome of a negotiated package to their respective constituencies. It may be instructive to take a good look at the results of the back channel used by the previous government and conducted so ably by Ambassador SK Lambah from our side.

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The coming months might bring some focus on issues relating to caste, minority rights and religious freedoms. Some of this scrutiny will simply come because we allowed the eye to be taken off the ball. Little purpose will be served in entering a slugfest on any one of these. Christianity accounts for 31.5%, Islam 22.32% and Hinduism 13.95% of the world’s population. The not-so-well-informed will pick on the odd aberrations and suggest a pattern. Our response has to be that even one such case is one too many. That will earn us that respect that is rightfully ours.

Hardeep S Puri is a retired diplomat. The views expressed are personal

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