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Seventy years of Indian foreign policy strategy as a nation to build an India-centric world

By Mitrajit Biswas

India has a huge challenge as well as role to play in this century in world affairs. India completed its 70 years of foreign policy which is still shedding its colonial hangover including its career diplomats service exam. However, the onus of India is to play a leading role moving along with it the third world forces (read Third world both in terms of geo-political as well as economic policies). The challenges of India are both to improve the socio-economic situation of the nation. It must be remembered that although India aspires to play a greater role of international affairs. One cannot be “super poor” and “super power” at the same time. India has retained the practises of British colonial times and institution as mentioned earlier. However, the world of today demands India to shed its inhibitions as quickly as it can and make its vision clearer of how it wants to tackle the problems around itself and the world. India still has the problems of feudalism, patriarchy and basic survival apart from the economic footprint expansion, emerging consumer market as well as bigger inspiration to get its proper role at the table of world affairs. India has played an important role in war torn Afghanistan and provided not only diplomatic sources but also hard cash as well as infrastructural support. It suits India’s vision for welfare and enriching the neighbourhood which will be important for India in the long run. The same applies for India’s still learnt policy of engaging its immediate neighbourhood however there are certain flaws in that. India has to tread very carefully in the changing circumstances. India off late has been engaging with Bangladesh and also with Srilanka in developing infrastructure. The political engagement was also important for the economic relationship of south Asia integration for a prosperous neighbourhood. South Asia has been economically insignificant and suffers from poverty as much as central America and Caribbean apart from Sub Saharan Africa. The idea of India as it thinks itself of as the poster boy of third world progress would be to bring in the south Asian countries together first and carry on the policy of trade integration in Africa and Latin America as well. However, it is much easier said than done.

In the region of competitive cooperation there is also the thorn of Pakistan with India. India off late has been doing quite a lot to side-track Pakistan with Chabahar port connecting to Iran and Afghanistan opening itself up to extended South and Central Asia. These are significant steps nevertheless for India to open itself to the game of trade, economic cooperation and integration apart from the vision of India regaining its role as a responsible and respected power in international affairs. The dominant discourse of India international affairs has been centred around China and some international scholars or may be many have been terming as the emergence of India and China as cold war 2.0. I have utmost reservations about such a comparison for not only one but many reasons. First and foremost, I feel that it is not the emergence but rather the re-emergence of these two nations from the phoenix of ancient and significant civilization. Most importantly India and China cannot be compared and should not be compared. India has created its own form of democracy which is unique in its own way of carving a country (not a typical nation state) joining the princely kingdoms apart from the brutal partition of supposedly Muslim dominated areas resulting in Pakistan and then later Bangladesh. China on the other hand has made its own form of one party state rule and held on to the vast country (around 3.5 times the size of India). Most importantly when it comes to the role India and China wants to play in international affairs is quite different philosophically. China had opened up to global trade investment a decade earlier than India and also adopted to industrial manufacturing more aggressively. India on the other hand took the step to global trade as a last resort to save the floundering economy. India apart from the five-year plans had missed the industrial revolution and directly moved on to a service-based economy. India and China although had been courting Africa for resources however their engagement there have been very different. China is more into infrastructure building whereas India has been looking into more technical collaboration. The recent India-Africa summit which had been held for the fourth time saw participation of the African countries in huge numbers. This may be taken as a step of India towards engaging Africa in a new way after the colonial times shared by both these geographic regions. Though unfortunate circumstances of Indian’s treating African students violently in certain racially motivated crimes is disdainful yet the engagement of India has been welcomed in Africa mostly. China has been investing in train systems, electricity generation as mentioned earlier but India nevertheless realizing its more “valued soft power” approach has been focused on technical collaboration. Also, private corporations of India from Airtel telecom to Reliance industries have been looking into Africa to invest in agriculture leading to corporate diplomacy as well. India can definitely boast of a strong diplomatic outreach although its foreign service staff needs a serious expansion if it has to match its new expectations.

India has also a major step to take in international conflicts although it maintains a policy of respecting sovereignty and non-intervention. Still India has not been able to play the tole a responsible power one expected from it in the Iraq-Syria crisis. Although it had maintained official communications but significant steps for foreign aid and humanitarian relief was missing. The recent one to add to that has been in the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar where Indian government has suddenly taken a u turn in its adopted (unofficial policy) though of refusing to accept Rohingya’s and deporting the ones already here. India although has its own severe problems of poverty, unemployment and despite not being an official signatory to the refugee convention has accepted refuges from Tibet, Afghanistan, Srilanka etc. This sudden policy does not bode well for India who is seemingly seen by many Asia-Pacific countries as a responsible and reliable partner. India although had played an appreciable role in Doklam -La area bordering Bhutan and China in its role of undue interference of China on a small but friendly nation to India which is Bhutan. India has been looking to engage itself around the world with its various doctrines shifting from the Nehruvian socialist foreign policy. The major doctrines are “Look East -South East Asian countries”, Look West “West Asia” and then the newly formed “Connect Central Asia”. Though despite all these doctrines there is also the importance of India’s relations with significant powers such as USA, Russia, France, Germany, EU, Japan and also multilateral forums such as EU, BRICS, IBSA, RIC, G-20, MTCR etc. India has been looking to cultivate the region of central Asia with whom India has had a historical connection through Delhi sultanate and Mughal kingdom who were originally Turkic origin people coming in from Uzbekistan (Bukhara and Samarkand). Trade has also flourished with these regions from a long time. However, the significant relations with these regions are being looked at after the formation of these nations states from USSR and also India joining Shanghai Cooperation Organization connecting India with central Asia where notably Pakistan is also a member.

India has been penning down a lot of strategic relationships especially when it comes down to defence and trade engagement. India’s first strategic engagement with France has of course blossomed into a meaningful relationship. It would not be unfair to say that the nurturing of the relationship is no less significant with U.K. Germany have also been a very important partner for India in the deals related clean energy, scientific, educational as well as infrastructure, corporate and defence cooperation. Other significant countries from Europe include Italy with whom India has had a friendly relation excepting the irritant with the Italian Navy killing two fishermen in Kerala thawing the relations. However, the recent visit of the Italian prime minister and the next year marking the 70 years of the diplomatic relations is a significant step forward. Also, the recent visit of Indian leadership to Spain, Portugal apart from visits from Royal family of Belgium definitely is important step for India-Europe engagement. Also, involvement of Sweden significantly in Make in India program and Estonia welcoming Indian young entrepreneurs through the digital residence program makes for a nice reading of India’s growing footprint in Europe. Not to forget the brisk engagement of India with other rising powers of Europe such as Poland where the vice president has recently visited and both look forward to a engaging relationship. The soft power aspects of Hindi films, yoga and Spices apart from Indian cuisine in India restaurants have been documented endless in India’s significant tool for European engagement. The latest in the India’s relations with Europe has been to renegotiate on Free Trade Agreement which will break the deadlock of the “Strategic Partnership” of more than a decade. India-EU has made significant cooperation in education, culture, science but has missed the bus on security cooperation in Indian Ocean Region and Eurasia where Russia, China and USA play the role.

India when it comes to its engagement with Russia shares a deeply significant relationship since the cold war. The engagement with USSR being propounded by Nehru’s socialist leanings and the cultural exchange apart from economic and deep defence ties shaped the fate of a newly formed India. Russia which came out of USSR after the collapse of the huge socialist unit also interacts with India as a new strategic partner not only bilaterally but also under BRICS and RIC (Russia, India and China). India when it comes to the defence engagement off late although has moved away from depending on Russia to its new-found friend although yet to be tested significantly relationship with USA and closely following Israel. The changing leadership of India and USA has not been any hindrance in the continuous camaraderie between India and USA. Trump’s wavering policies although is something India must be wary of through defence secretary’s recent visit to India seems to be reassuring India as USA key player in its pivot to Asia plan also connecting Japan and Australia to finish the dots. However, moving now to the relationship of India with a close US ally in the form of Israel has taken a significant step forward with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Israel for the first official visit by an Indian head of state has taken the relationship to a new level. Here however India has been playing the diplomatic game carefully and much wiser under the “real-politik” maintain and building strategic partnership with GCC countries out of which most significantly with UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. India has also steered clear of the conflict between Qatar and Saudi-Arabia and off the later with Iran and Yemen as well despite being a steady aid giver to Yemen and investing in Iran as mentioned earlier.

India Prime Minister’s visit to Australia and reciprocated visit apart from former New Zealand Prime Minister’s visit apart from India hosting Small Islands developing countries conference also pushing in money for infrastructure development shows India’s growing willingness to involve in Asia-Pacific. However, the bigger power of Japan in Asia-Pacific has stepped up its culturally close and significant relationship with India in terms of economic investment and infrastructure development. India has also used “Look East” policy to connect to ASEAN countries and taking it forward by organizing a music festival involving the ASEAN country youth and inviting the ASEAN head of states next year for republic day celebration. The most number of head of states that will be ever present. India however needs to engage with Korean peninsula plausibly South Korea in its Asia -Pacific game. Vietnam already has been courting India for more significant role of India in South China sea conflict. The upcoming visit of Indian prime minister to Philippines would also be a significant step for India to engage with ASEAN and region beyond in Asia-Pacific.

Now while moving toward America’s it is important to mention that India’s relations with Turkey has been of a missed opportunity. Though the recent visit of Turkish president Erdogan seemed to ignite a few flames in the generally cold relationship between these two great nations. India has had that similar relationship with U.K. for the last decade and there seems to be laxity of anything significant in the relationship despite having a history of colonizer and colonized. Although 2017 has been celebrated as India-Britain year and MG motors looking to invest in India under Make in India program recently. While moving towards America’s another nation where a sizeable Indian community is there is Canada with which India has maintained relations based on trade, exchange of services and more on softer aspects of cooperation. The most significant missed part of India’s relationship with Americas would be mostly with Latin America including significant countries like Mexico, Cuba, Brazil etc. Although India’s prime ministerial visits to Mexico in 2015 and India’s stand against US impositions on Cuba recently apart from its active engagement with Brazil under BRICS and IBSA having South Africa as well have provided useful. India has also been trying to engage with the other significant countries in Latin America which includes Argentina, Chile, Peru etc. India has had meaningful engagements with Argentina in economic cooperation however the gap with the Caribbean islands and countries with Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela etc still remains. The distance of the two regions of the world has been tried to be fulfilled by India’s increasing engagement with MERCOSUR and Pacific Alliance. India has however maintained culturally strong admiration through its regular cultural troop sending from India under Indian Cultural Council. Still the relationship has lacked the forging quality which could be led to a meaningful relationship building the dynamics of the changing world.

In the changing world, India also needs to engage more of its diplomatic outreach especially public diplomacy. India has not been involved in the conflict against ISIS and neither issued any rhetoric on the recent violent attacks in Somalia. The challenges of India remain with China in creating a “coopeting relationship” based on cooperation and competition. India has still a long way to go and can be considered as a significant power and middle power at best by projection. The path ahead for India would be challenging overcoming the internal problems, struggles and fault lines out of which most significant is Kashmir. Not to forget that there is a huge challenge for India to improve the socio-economic situation of the millions living in desperation amidst the age-old problems of nepotism, corruption, illiteracy. There is no doubt a renewed sense of vigour in India is being looked at India from within and outside from majority aspect with media coverage and popular discourse on India. Still India has a long way to go and needs to figure out its foreign policy with the vision on India’s growing role in creating prosperity not only for itself but also for the nation that looks up to India in this changing world of 21stcentury. Let the aspiration of India’s role in global affairs fly high.

Mitrajit Biswas is a PhD candidate under TAPMI, MAHE. He holds a Master’s of Commerce (Marketing Management-ST. Xavier’s College, Calcutta University) and Master’s of Philosophy (Foreign Policy-Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, Calcutta University).

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