By Vijeth Kanahalli
India has been aiming higher and bolder since the arrival of the Narendra Modi government in 2014. One area where this is visible since the inception of this government is in the domain of foreign policy. The government has expanded the scope of its foreign policy to include national and economic security.
Indian diplomacy has been careful enough to understand its limitations and has not tried to punch above its weight. It is exercising its art of diplomacy by engaging with different foreign powers more vigorously than ever before but also not conceding its strategic autonomy. Instead it has decided to let go of some fruitless battles and is prioritizing what seems to be essential to its nations well-being. As India’s Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar has said, India is cultivating the United States, steadying Russia, managing China, enthusing Japan and attending to Europe.
It has shed its Cold War era thinking and its explicit Non-Alignment attitude. India now co-operates and also competes with its international partners at the time of its choosing. India respects the multilateral rule based global order but at the same time is bold enough to exercise its right to prioritize its national interests.
In the wake of the Pathankot attacks in early 2016, India was quick in its response through a carefully calibrated Surgical Strikes through which it entered Pakistan occupied Kashmir and neutralized terrorists nurtured and harbored by Pakistan. This was a sweet diplomatic victory for India as every major power responded with responses such as asking both India and Pakistan to ‘exercise restraint and increase communication’ and India faced no major frictions with the diplomatic community.
The Surgical Strikes as a response to the abovementioned attacks showed the evolution of how India was changing its outlook on foreign policy. This showed that the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs were all now in sync with one another and that there was more open and frequent exchange of ideas and priorities of the nation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has instilled a feeling of nationalism into India’s foreign policy. The foreign ministry no more works in silos. It takes India’s domestic concerns more seriously than ever before and has accepted that it has to function abroad and at home with the aim of fulfilling the national aspirations of Indians. This is also because Prime Minister Modi has made diplomacy very public wherein, he has increased the space of the common man to decide what our foreign policy priorities should be.
This was visible when India recently pulled out of the RCEP Free Trade Deal involving China, ASEAN and other countries. The Prime Minister took serious note of the concerns that the domestic farmers and industrialists raised against the deal and the foreign ministry readily accepted and backed out of the deal to ease the pains of the citizens.
Indian Diplomacy has also embraced social media and other technological advancements to better the lives of its citizens abroad. Started by the former foreign minister Late Sushma Swaraj, Indian diplomats actively scout through Twitter and Facebook to immediately respond to its citizens abroad who are in distress and this has won praises world over.
Another time where the Indian Diplomacy worked over-time and seamlessly with the Ministry of Home Affairs was after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India in August 2019 which had granted Temporary Special Status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This came at a time when the UN General Assembly was to commence soon in New York, and India’s actions could be interpreted and criticized in endless ways on the international stage. Despite Pakistan’s vociferous criticism, coupled with the backing by China and the wobbly position of the United Kingdom on the issue, it is an accepted fact today that India did not succumb to any international pressures.
It received full support from the US, Russia and France and was hence able to curtail China’s intent to publicly shame India through any UN resolutions. The first public victory came when the UN consultations on the issue were held in the form of a closed-door meeting wherein our partners in there stated Kashmir as a matter of internal reorganization within India. Since then, India has been selective in its response on the issue and has staved off any international media pressure. India surprised the world when it allowed an unofficial delegation of 27 EU Members of the Parliament in October 2019 to visit Kashmir who went and got a ground reality of how tough it is for India to tackle terrorism. They concluded and agreed with India’s long-standing position that Kashmir is an internal matter of India.
Not wanting to view this diplomatic victory as an isolation tactic against China, the diplomats were quick enough to arrange for a rapprochement between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi at Mahabalipuram in Chennai through informal talks between the leaders. The Indian diplomats have also expressed their regards to the Russians through signing up for renewed arms deals with Russia and an informal summit between President Putin and PM Modi at Vladivostok, Russia. And with the United States, we agreed with the demands by President Trump for the cancellation of the Generalized System of Preferences for India in the area of trade. Clearly everything has come at a price, but the Indian Diplomacy has been willing to pay the right price instead of remaining in inertia as in the past and letting the international community dictate terms for India.
The domestic demands of India are now the trend setters of India’s foreign policy and this was again visible with India’s amendment to its Citizenship Act of 1955, wherein the Government of India has amended the Act to grant citizenship to minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have come to India seeking refuge from religious persecution or the fear of it. This Act has caused visible disappointment with Bangladesh which has been manifested in the form of their Foreign Minister and Home Minister having cancelled their visits to India. While many have seen this as an exclusion of granting citizenship to Muslims from these countries through the Amendment, the Indian Government and the Foreign Ministry have been unshaken by in their stand. The Government has stated that this Amendment has been made to correct the historical injustices faced by the minorities of these countries during the bloodshed experiences of Partition of India during 1947 and the period ensuing that up to December 31, 2014.
India has always treated its neighborhood very generously. It has been philanthropic in the Free Trade Agreements that it has signed with them, voluntarily provided access to its achievements in science and space technology and has renewed engagement and hence importance to the region through groupings like ISA, BIMSTEC and IORA. Co-operations of this nature must convey to the neighbours that while India is more than willing to provide developmental assistance and co-operate in many other areas, today, it has reclaimed its space to prioritize its domestic agendas too. Our neighboring countries must not view India’s internal matters as a threat or lack of concern to regional integration. Just like the rest of the world, India is simply not willing to bear some burden which it believes as historical injustice or detrimental to its domestic agenda. India has never and will never involve in acts which resembles ‘beggar thy neighbor’ attitude.
Also, Indian Diplomats today walk around with a loaded gun in their holster fully aware of the happenings around the world. Whether it is of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis, Treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the misadventures of the Assad Regime in Syria, Treatment of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State of Myanmar or of the inhuman treatment meted out to the Kurds in North East Syria by Turkey— they see it all in real time and maintain a measured silence on all issues not from a place of weakness but a position of strength. India is not a global policeman and has neither intended to be one. Although the home to the largest democracy in the world, it does not preach to any nation about how one must govern themselves. It is pragmatic of the evolving morals of the world and changing political and national ambitions of major powers and is evolving with it.
Whether it is the EU, US or the likes of Turkey, India issues statements regularly when it finds any criticism inaccurate or unwarranted. The Ministry of External Affairs has expressed displeasure recently through a press release with regards to the statement made by the USCIRF on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019. Also, it took a bold call to criticize Turkey on its handling of the Kurds after the US vacated its troops and co-operation with the Kurds in Syria.
To sustain such a growing clout in the international multipolar world, India must concentrate more on the economic front and work harder towards a $ 5 trillion economy. Most countries today maintain their support for India because of its growing trade and economic activity with them. Hope this increases in the days to come in order to maintain the momentum that we have gained in the international space as a serious voice.
Vijeth Kanahalli is in Master of Arts (Diplomacy, Law and Business) program at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal School of International Affairs