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Served by black swans

As Pokhran 2 and the nuclear deal show, an astute foreign policy for India must involve the promotion and encouragement of risk-taking, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2012 22:29 IST
Ashok Malik

A simple but obvious question arose while reading NonAlignment 2.0, the blueprint for India's foreign and strategic policy for the 21st century put together by analysts supported by the National Defence College and the Centre for Policy Research: "Who will implement this?"


NonAlignment 2.0 describes itself as a 'strategy document' outlining 'basic principles'. Yet its prescriptions are contingent upon a rational, reasonably robust leadership, with the political capital and intellectual foresight to take trenchant decisions. The purpose of this article is not to critique NonAlignment 2.0. It is to make an assessment of the 'next steps' as it were, and study how Indian foreign policy works in practice.

Take an example. Speaking of West Asia, the authors advocate a nuanced distinguishing of jihadist terror networks from Islamist political groups "that have entered the political mainstream in their countries and are competing by legitimate means to enter government". It warns that "the political landscape of the region has been dramatically transformed and there is no possibility of reverting to the erstwhile status quo".

That final point is telling. It was precisely a failure to quickly recognise that the status quo had gone forever that cost India a clear-headed, real-time assessment of the Arab Spring in 2011. This was a symptom of the principal affliction of the Indian foreign policy establishment: the reluctance to embrace or sometimes even acknowledge change. Unless this is rectified, is any genuine follow through on legitimate recommendations of, say, NonAlignment 2.0 possible?

Foreign offices everywhere are status quoist. India is not an exception. From Moscow to Beijing, the US State Department to Whitehall, every foreign policy headquarters has its share of conservatives and naysayers who cling to an outdated prism.

So how do these foreign policies advance? Broadly, there are three causative factors. First, human-resource capacity is far greater. There are simply more diplomats available. This builds sector and geographical expertise and makes it incumbent upon an individual officer to compete with peers and promote his 'client'. It makes the officer sensitive to and watchful of every micro-development in his mandated area.

India is dissimilar. It has a comparatively tiny foreign service. A joint secretary at the ministry of external affairs (MEA) could be handling maybe 20 countries. He does not have the time or intellectual bandwidth to watch all of these equally closely. He will inevitably miss subtle shifts. More than that, his instinct will be to stall and delay. This should not be construed as criticism of individuals but of institutional failing.

Second, foreign policy formation in other powers benefits from having diverse external stakeholders — business to the military, domestic political constituencies to human rights lobbies. While this expansion is taking place in India, it is in its infancy. As such the MEA's autonomy in foreign policy making is still substantial.

Third, in several democracies, heads of government (or their foreign policy sherpas) come to power with specific ideas of what they want to achieve with their diplomatic capital. In India, coalition politics and the engrossing nature of domestic challenges makes foreign policy the afterthought's afterthought.

This three-parameter framework is with us for at least the medium run. So how does one reconcile it with the ambitious realism of, for example, NonAlignment 2.0? For a start, a strategically thought-out, gradualist foreign policy doctrine, one that substantial sections of the political class will buy into, is not going to happen.

Those who hope for India's international positioning and influence being enhanced incrementally and by a grand design — as opposed to by accident or coincidence — are day-dreaming. New Delhi's politics will not allow South Block the luxury of a long view — such as in America between the Roosevelts, or China under Deng and after.

Like in the case of India's economic reforms, diplomatic accretion will be episodic, with lengthy lulls thrown in. Paradoxically, for a foreign office that swears by calibration, this increases the value of risk-taking. Take the two biggest foreign policy interventions in the past 15 years: Pokhran 2 and the nuclear deal. Both represented risks taken by outsiders to the MEA system. Left to the South Block bureaucracy, they would never have happened.

The Pokhran tests were an international risk. They brought New Delhi out of the nuclear closet and prompted the US to engage India seriously. Kargil, 9/11 and the legacy agenda of two successive presidents helped, and the risk paid off. The second gamble was the nuclear deal, a domestic risk Manmohan Singh staked much on. It is easy to disparage it now, when the government is on the ropes, but history will judge it well.

Consider a counter-factual. Atal Bihari Vajpayee conducted the Pokhran tests less than two months after becoming prime minister in 1998. What if he'd waited to consult the MEA and sought advice on an appropriate time? It would never have come. A million excuses would have been thought up: "Sir, we can't do it next week. The American vice-president will be in Vietnam on a goodwill visit. It will send a bad signal."

What is the lesson that emerges? If you seek an astute foreign policy for India, don't just write wise documents. Encourage, promote and incentivise risk-taking. Forget hawks and doves. Early-21st century Indian foreign policy will be served by black swans.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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