Foreign policy: continuity, not change

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On the last day of polling in India’s 16th general elections—the final phase of which witnessed vicious, communal and extremely local campaigning in one corner of a single state—one could be forgiven for concluding that foreign policy has no role in India’s future direction. Nothing could be further from reality.

Any party or alliance that forms the next government will be confronted with a slew of international challenges, almost all of which will have a direct bearing on India’s domestic politics and development agenda. These challenges range from ensuring energy supplies, climate change, sustainable development, international trade, maritime, space and cyber-security, non-proliferation, and cross-border terrorism. In addition, apart from India’s immediate neighbourhood, relations with several regions, particularly the Middle East, Central Asia, Asia-Pacific and increasingly even Africa will have an impact on India’s well being. Finally a number of key bilateral relations, which had drifted or derailed, particularly with the US, China, and Pakistan, have to be put back on track.

Given these range of challenges, the first task for any new government would be to determine its top priorities rather than seek to address all of them. This is due to the acknowledged limited capacity of the foreign policy establishment, which ranks amongst the smallest in the Group of 20 (G-20) nations. While the foreign ministry’s efforts have been buttressed by the ministries of finance, climate, trade and commerce, given their expertise in these areas, it would be difficult for India to address all its priorities until its apparatus is overhauled.

Second, partly as a corollary of the limited capacity and partly on account of the centrality of development in the agenda of any new government there is likely to be more continuity than change in India’s role in the world. This is because adequate capacity is a crucial, though not sufficient, requirement to change foreign policy. Instead, change is likely to be confined to the articulation of policy rather than its effective implementation.

Consequently, on the Indo-US front, efforts will be made to revitalize the partnership from a merely transactional one to a strategic one, though the route to the latter relationship will likely be determined by the former. Its pace will be determined by the commitment of the leadership in both countries and the ability of the two systems to institutionalize the process. Here any new government is unlikely to jettison the Indo-US nuclear agreement and instead will seek to operationalize it.

Similarly, while any new dispensation will seek to improve efforts with China, these moves will be tempered by the growing trade deficit on one hand and the frequent border incidents on the other. The same also holds in the case of Pakistan, especially in the absence of effective mechanisms to address cross-border terrorism.

To jump-start relations with these key states and also prioritize India’s contribution to developing international regimes related to climate, cyber, energy, maritime, space and nuclear security the new prime minister could consider two short-term initiatives.

First, to appoint a number of special envoys on these issues who would have the appropriate gravitas, diplomatic skills and political respectability to not only develop a national consensus among various stakeholders within but also to better articulate India’s position in international fora. In the past such special envoys have made crucial contributions.

Second, the envoys—all of whom need not be from the foreign service—could also leverage the expertise of the specialized ministries thus bridging the capacity gap in the short-term. This would allow time for long-term capacity building. These twin initiatives would serve not only India but also the emerging global order well.


This column first appeared in Mint, on May 11, 2014.

Image Source: Paul Simpson