Delhi must make foreign policymaking transparent
India requires an “unsentimental audit” of its foreign policy, claimed external affairs minister S Jaishankar recently. He articulated the need to move away from the so-called Delhi dogmas, primarily a criticism of the intellectual traditions that have defined India’s international thought, practice and policy. The speech and the themes mentioned were emblematic of how India’s foreign policy has been studied over the years. It underlined the shared perception that India’s foreign policy has straddled the uncomfortable space between being either overly doctrinaire or utterly ambiguous. Ironically, it also seemed to be falling in the same trap of replacing one tradition with another.
This conventional wisdom continues to “black box” the actual process of how foreign policy is made in India. To be clear, it is not that ideas, ideologies, or personalities don’t matter in the formulation of India’s foreign policy. But giving them analytical precedence undermines the impact of many other factors and circumstances that shape the decision-making process. Aspects of how India’s complex domestic polity and bureaucratic apparatus influence its foreign policymaking are largely overlooked. Grand narratives hardly ever explain how and when certain factors become salient at a decision-making point.
An unsentimental audit, then, must go beyond an ideological critique of Nehruvian non-alignment and avoid similar pitfalls of policy grandstanding. It requires, as we argue in a recent special issue of the journal, India Review, to unpack the linkages between domestic and international politics, and an honest assessment of the policymaking process itself. While political leaders don’t like admitting it, bureaucratic politics, organisational processes, leadership traits, partisan preferences, legislative-executive checks and balances, as well as coalition politics are important to explain ultimate policy decisions.
Take an example. India’s decision to condemn Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012-13 cannot be understood without unpacking the coalition bargains between the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In the end, rather than a normative stand or advancing national interest by checking Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, India’s actions are best understood as the result of politicking and negotiations between its central and regional political leaderships. As the United Progressive Alliance II grew weaker at the Centre by losing allies, the Congress felt pressured to placate DMK concerns about the welfare of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka.
There are good reasons for why it is difficult to unpack India’s foreign decision-making process. First, there have been important methodological obstacles to the systematic study of foreign policy, notably the difficulty to access primary data. Restricted access to archived documents providing some insights on the decision-making process impedes any better understanding of how the leadership shapes foreign policy. If decision-making does become centralised and behind closed doors, record-making becomes limited. The consequence is that much of the scholarship then ignores or marginalises any effect of bureaucratic or partisan politics within India over foreign policy issues.
Second, however important, memoirs and autobiographies by retired officials, as well as journalistic accounts, do not give an accurate picture of the essence of a foreign policy decision. Written for different motives and audiences, these are post-facto rationalisations of past decisions rather than a sober assessment of the multi-level pressures and processes that lead to the decision-making moment.
Third, scholars interested in the study of Indian foreign policy have traditionally focused on actions since these are easier to observe and measure. As a result, the actual process of decision-making is overlooked or simplified. Leaders make decisions but the final policy action is not always implemented as they initially foresaw it. Some decisions never actually result in actions. It then becomes important to conceptually distill policy decisions and outcomes. These issues must be addressed in the face of the structural obstacles.
The effort to excavate decision-making processes is not a silver bullet but an attempt to get as close as possible to a detailed, informed and systematic retracing of why certain choices were made. From historical cases such as India’s 1967 signing of a boundary agreement with Burma, its management of the 1987 Sumdorong Chu crisis with China, to more contemporary cases such as Operation Parakram and the US-Indian Nuclear Deal, the analytical toolset offered by the discipline of Foreign Policy Analysis is required to examine the international, domestic, organisational, ideational and individual factors simultaneously at play.
These cases, hopefully, illustrate the value of India’s experience in further developing the theories and models of FPA that have concentrated on the American and west European cases. Given the premium that the Narendra Modi 2.0 government puts on foreign and security policy issues, we hope to receive greater support and access for such academic and institutional learning. For it would be of value not just for scholars interested in the study of India’s international relations, but also to practitioners across political and bureaucratic lines.