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In a new world order, let’s put India first

We have a window to replace a reactive foreign policy based on possibly misdirected philosophies, with one putting Indian interests at its centre.

analysis Updated: Oct 29, 2017 17:07 IST
India,Foreign Policy,NAM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In PM Modi we have a leader with real international credibility. We should rediscover strategic partnerships – building on the prime minister’s personal impact. (AFP)

At China’s OBOR inauguration in May 2017, India was a conspicuous absentee. Breaking from the past, instead of platitudinous appeals to global “principles”, India’s rationale was clearly spelt out in terms of its national interest.

Till the early 1990s, India displayed inexplicable embarrassment at putting its interests overtly front and centre of foreign policy. Our policy pillars — non-alignment and support for democracy — were often not reflected in actions, for example the 1956 Hungary invasion. Similarly, domestic portrayal of our international “leadership” was divergent from the more “ordinary” view of our international standing that the world had.

Distortions resulting from “faux” socialism in both foreign policy and economy were similar. In the economy, it resulted in the licence raj, concentration of economic power with a few families, and an inefficient public sector. It deprived most of our population of opportunities and created a dependence on the State that we find tough to move away from. In our “socialist” foreign policy, we committed to “non-alignment”, but our dependence only grew — on the USSR for arms and the US for economic aid. By the early 1970s, the NAM had become a motley collection of states that were soft satellites of one of the “blocs”, with an embarrassing galaxy of dictators as leading lights. The NAM provided a platform for India’s “vision” of global order but few other benefits. It was telling that during the 1971 war, a UN resolution inimical to India got 104 of 129 votes including most of NAM.

Nehruji, the great statesman, recognised the shortcomings – at great personal cost after having to seek US help, and Pakistani “sympathy” in 1962. Addressing the nation, he said “We were .. out of touch with reality … and … living in an artificial atmosphere of our creation”. Unfortunately, governments since didn’t heed this , and foreign policy remained long on slogans and short on effectiveness.

The 1990s forced us to deal with reality and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao began the process of unwinding the faux socialist economy and diplomacy. It is time to complete the process.

The world today is unipolar, with China as a challenger. The India-China relationship remains somewhat “competitive”. Rooted in history and strategic rivalry, it is now also about a Modi-led India offering an alternative narrative of democracy-rooted economic and national strength to China’s efficient totalitarianism. Pakistan remains a state with India-hating as its unifier. Free trade euphoria has been replaced by a “global” nationalism.

India has also evolved. The economy is one of the better performing ones globally. Despite the red-tape, entrepreneurship has begun to flourish. Militarily, India is the strongest it has ever been. Economic and military strength, combined with lack of hegemon ambitions has made India a key player for ensuring stability, especially in the region.

Thus, we have a window to replace a reactive foreign policy based on possibly misdirected philosophies, with one which puts Indian interests at its centre.

The policy should be one that defines where we want to be in the global order and then tenaciously stick to it through temporary volatility. This must co-opt views of key stakeholders – the MEA, the home-security establishment, defence and finance. Effective cooperation between the MEA and the NSA establishment merits emulation. Moreover, any foreign policy must be backed by economic and military strength – else we will regress to empty speeches.

We should replace self-depriving isolation with partnerships. Rediscover strategic partnerships – building on PM Modi’s personal impact. The expanded Malabar exercises, the BRICS initiatives and BIMSTEC are steps in the right direction. This cooperation can create a positive momentum overriding other differences.

The US is focused on preventing Chinese hegemony over the South China Sea. India can step in, project its naval strength and be a stability provider in the “near” Indian Ocean. In addition to helping regional maritime and trade security, India must give “face” to its immediate neighbours and make them partners – a contrast to China’s dollar denominated, neo-colonial terms of trade approach.

We need to shed the Cold War mindset and recognise that the US is a superpower, and likely “strategic ally” of choice on most issues. Beyond the economic relationship, it may be most natural to quickly upgrade our naval cooperation with the US.

The legacy of 1962 legacy and modern rivalry have placed India and China in an unnecessarily adversarial position. Our policy should focus on convincing China to restrict competition to the economic sphere, rather than military or territorial.

India is an important market for all key producing nations. This, along with our strength in skilled manpower and manufacturing can help us become an “embedded” part of the production and supply chains of major economies – like Germany, Japan and ASEAN. Then they will have more “skin in the game” and a stake in a robust Indian economy.

A strategic approach to diplomacy focused on India’s needs will go a long way towards creating a sustainable and successful foreign policy.

Saket Misra is Delhi-based fund manager

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 29, 2017 17:02 IST