By Sankalp Singh
India has been at the forefront when it comes to civilization and society. We have seen the land of Ashoka to the land of Guru Gobind Singh in different lenses through which India has grown and developed. Ashoka the great prophesised about what in modern political theory is called ‘soft power’, a coin termed by Joseph Nye and he mentions three essential factors like Culture, ideals, and Values as a way to extend a country’s foreign policy. Ashoka’s ‘Dharmashashtra’ constantly strived to propagate peace and tranquillity in other nations as a means to achieve greater goals. It was a mix of diplomacy and showcasing India’s culture abroad. Ashoka’s son Mahendra and his daughter Sanghamitra were sent as officials to countries like Ceylon (then Sri Lanka) as diplomats to promote national interests like Dharmashastra and Buddhist culture.
Arthashashtra was the first text that emphasized diplomacy as a tool for economic development and power projection as a strategy for the people in homeland. Other countries during the time of Kautilya focused on imperialism, while India focused on building its civilization and integrating its people and moreover protecting its people from any tyranny. The land of Aryabhatta gave to the world without which modern-day transactions would have been moot, while Varahamihira gave the concept of advanced architecture, planetary motions, and mathematics. For instance, the art of temple styles in both North (Nagara) and South (Dravida) India follow a set pattern, which has flown out to countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. These facts reveal how India’s diplomacy is not limited to just promoting geostrategic ties, but also geo-cultural ties. Further, India had not only cultural contacts with the west, but it also had significant commercial diplomacy. Kerala, God’s own country; traded in spices that Europeans had never heard of.
Bombay was given to Prince Charles as a gift by the Portuguese. Little did he realize that Bombay will be used as a diplomatic province that can shape India’s land as well as maritime stature. India is often touted as a country that ‘often’ has no stand. But seeing the history and its ancient roots going back as far as Harappa, India had maintained a robust diplomatic stand. In Harappan Civilization, There were regular commercial missions through which trade in gems, jewellery, and even artefacts were conducted. The people of Harappa knew the fact that maintaining contact with the outside world builds on civilization. Diplomacy was not something that was created in theory, but it was inducted into texts through practice in society, and India had a major role to play in it. The track I dialogues in the modern era is contemporary to then Harshavardhana’s Buddhist council meeting where the text of Mahayana Buddhism had developed. Kanishka from the Kushana period is famously known to conduct the fourth Buddhist council meeting in Kashmir. Nalanda was a cradle of geopolitical dialogues where regular debates and discussions on foreign affairs were held, as documented by a Chinese traveller Huan Tsang. Even Fa Hien had documented regular foreign meetings during the time of Chandragupta II, as he himself was a foreign envoy to India during 399 CE- 414 CE. India has also been called primarily a Hindu nation, but documents and scripts from medieval times during Akbar reveal something other than the narrated stories. ‘Ibadat Khana’ was organized by Akbar to discuss and debate worldly religious and socio-political ideas which did not have Indian roots but had international flavours. To say that India did not conduct foreign affairs and geopolitics before 1947 is an inadequate understanding of our centuries-old history. Akbar even invited the then outside emperors to come to India and engage, thus directly conducting Track I diplomacy.
The current Russian-Ukraine Crisis has brought the world to its turmoil as we see inflation skyrocketing and oil prices denting the pockets of the common folk so much so that they prefer working from home and avoiding the commute. India had abstained from UN Security Council resolutions when the crisis was discussed and resolutions were intended. However, India’s abstention does not indicate ‘ignorance’ of the issue that is plaguing Europe as a whole. India has categorically maintained its position on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, which says that it is in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and dialogue is the way through which such conflicts can be addressed. The notion of dialogue and diplomacy did not come out of thin air but had its cultural roots in India, some of which had been discussed earlier. Jawaharlal Nehru advocated a concept called ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ (NAM) together with leaders of Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Yugoslavia.
One of the core principles of NAM is active participation in international affairs and helping countries solve geopolitical issues. All of these things point to the fact that India has its way of charting diplomacy, which is different from what we see in practice in the west. In a similar vein, India’s version of secularism is different from its French counterpart. We can have BECA with the USA, while we can also have ECTA with Australia. We can engage with Bolivia for Lithium, while we also condemn the debt trap diplomacy of China. The Indian way is about taking care of the global south and conducting foreign policy keeping in mind our domestic competencies are well addressed. We do not intend to be a part of the RCEP as it tends to strip our people of industries due to unfair competition, while we play a significant part in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. India has maintained its ancient beliefs, as we see that through ‘One World, One Sun, and One Grid’ (OS OW OG), which in foreign affairs is called ‘International Solar Alliance’. India aims to harness the potential of the sun as a crucial energy reservoir to supply basics such as electricity and water.
India has extended the partnership of the International Solar Alliance to all tropical countries initially, but now all the members of the United Nations can be a part of this global initiative. Sun, or Surya is a divine force in Indian ethos through which we conduct various rituals, including a major national festival called Chhath Pooja. India knows its way towards achievements, as we can see that it is well on its advanced stages in reaching all its COP-21 targets from the Paris Climate Accord. India also uses the sea as a linkage to bridge the divide between countries. Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), for instance, is a foreign policy initiative to foster the development of countries in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
The diplomacy that is practised by India places people at the front of all its priorities. Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) is headquartered in New Delhi, which signifies the importance India has given to Small Island Developing States (SIDS), further building on the idea of Growth and Prosperity for all. According to Indian foreign policy, CDRI is not merely a focus on resilient infrastructure, but the very idea that south and underdeveloped countries can and should withstand disasters without asking for much help is an indication of being Atmanirbhar. India’s Atmanirbharta does not mean isolation, but self-development. When the first case of Covid-19 emerged in India, little did India know that it will be sending essential medicines to the world and become the World’s Pharmacy giant. In its recently conducted Raisina Dialogue, Hon’ble EAM recalled how India has its own modus operandi of conducting foreign policy, and it has no intention of copying others. The diplomatic manoeuvre of India cannot be neglected in Indian Ocean, but also it cannot be misused in South Asia.
 Ashoka was an emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty who ruled India from 268 to 232 CE. Known for promoting Buddhism across ancient Asia.
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Sankalp Singh is currently associated with Global Counter Terrorism Council as a Research Coordinator; Previously he worked with Ananta Aspen Centre, New Delhi as Program Executive. He has also worked with Niti Aayog, Government of India as a research and development intern. His areas of Interest lie in Asian Geopolitics and International Security.