Defining India's voice in a chaotic, dynamic region

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Prof. Amitabh Mattoo

Director, Australia India Institute.
Professor of International Relations, University of Melbourne

Foreign policy has rarely mattered in Indian elections, yet one of the biggest challenges the next government in New Delhi will face is an international system that has felt systematically let down by India over the last few years. 

The world is hoping – as are India’s impatient and angry young voters – for a quick recovery of India’s self-esteem and a more robust engagement with the wider world. 

The challenges are enormous, and overcoming them will require leadership from the very top. Only a thoughtful, forward-looking and determined Prime Minister – aided by an equally deft External Affairs Minister – can get this task right. New foreign policy architecture is required here – radical reform, not piecemeal incrementalism. Only with all those factors present can India aspire to play the global leadership role it should be playing, and to advance its interests in a turbulent world.

Unfortunately, in all the party manifestos released so far the weakest sections are on foreign policy. Most parties merely repeat the homilies and ideological positions of the past.  The Congress manifesto, for instance, says: “We will continue to support the goodwill nurtured for decades amongst socialist countries”––a sentence that might have been crafted in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980, but which makes no sense today.  

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto seeks to  blend, not very coherently, soft power: the task of  “reviving” Brand India ( on the strength of Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology)with the suggestion  of a  muscular foreign policy (“…where required we will not hesitate from taking strong stand and steps”).  

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI) will have “India join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member”, except that membership is not India’s by right, but subject to the decision of the existing members in the council of heads of states. 

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wants to recover “Sino-Indian civilizational exchange”––whatever that means. And the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) believes that the world is one family, but that national security is uppermost. 

Unlike political parties and shoddy manifestos, the new government of India will not have the luxury of engaging with a make-believe world. It will need to act with immediacy on at least three fronts.

First, craft a vision for India in Asia in what is undoubtedly an Asian Century.

Our continent is being defined and redefined over time. Regions are shaped, after all, as much by powerful nations seeking to advance their interests as by any objective reality.  But whatever nomenclature we adopt, and whatever definition we accept, we are faced with – as Evan Feigenbaum and Robert Manning put it – two Asias: “There is ‘Economic Asia’, the Dr Jekyll—a dynamic, integrated Asia with 53 per cent of its trade now being conducted within the region itself, and a US$19 trillion regional economy that has become an engine of global growth. And then there is ‘Security Asia’, the veritable Mr. Hyde—a dysfunctional region of mistrustful powers, prone to escalating their territorial disputes over tiny rocks and shoals, and arming for conflict.”

As the Asian Development Bank has articulated, by nearly doubling its share of global gross domestic product (GDP) to 52 percent by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held some 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution. 

And yet, as many have pointed out,  Asia  “is beset by inter-state rivalries that resemble 19th century Europe”, as well  the new challenges of the 21st century, including  environmental catastrophes and natural disasters, climate change, terrorism, cyber security and maritime issues. 

This is compounded by an increasingly assertive China with a leadership that has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy: Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; maintain a low profile; and never claim leadership.  The Chinese no longer want merely to observe, or to hide their capabilities, but may well use 2014 to announce their arrival as leaders by  teaching Abe’s Japan a lesson. 

Do we have a strategy for coping with such a hegemonic and potentially belligerent China? Do we have a clear alternative vision of Asian stability and the security architecture needed to support it? And do we have the instruments, together with like-minded Asian states and perhaps the United States, to ensure a balance in Asia?

Even middle powers like Australia have developed a comprehensive understanding of their place in today’s Asia.   Surely the first task of the new government must be to develop a vision for India in the Asian century. This will require deep consultation both within the government and outside it. 

Indeed, the most interesting alternative insights can often be found outside government. The most thoughtful recent commentary on Asia, for example, is Pankaj Mishra’s  brilliant From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Mishra describes how three 19th  century thinkers,  the Persian Jamal-al Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao from China and India’s Rabindranath Tagore,  navigated through Eastern tradition and the Western onslaught to think in new, creative ways about striking a balance and finding harmony. 

In many ways, these ideas remain relevant today: if Asia merely mimics the West in its quest for economic growth and conspicuous consumption, and the attendant conflict over economic resources and military prowess, the “revenge of the East” in the Asian century and “all its victories” will remain “ truly Pyrrhic.”

Second, develop a comprehensive strategy for integrating South Asia. 

Consider this conundrum. India’s military and economic prowess is greater than ever before, yet India’s ability to shape and influence the principal countries in South Asia is less than it was, say, 30 years ago. 

An unstable Nepal with widespread anti-India sentiment; a triumphalist Sri Lanka where Sinhalese chauvinism is showing no signs of accommodating the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils; a chaotic Pakistan, which is unwilling even to reassure New Delhi on future terrorist strikes; and potentially an anarchic Afghanistan are only symptomatic of a region that is being pulled in different directions.

Do we not need a long-term strategic vision for South Asia? Will India really be taken seriously as a global player if it is unable to settle its own neighborhood?  

The present government’s South Asia policy, based on five principles — bilateralism, non-reciprocity, non-interference, economic integration and irrelevance of borders – failed because it lacked effective political will,  instruments and expertise.  The new government must do better and devise a comprehensive 10-year action plan for the region.

Finally, empower the Foreign Secretary and restructure the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MEA&FT). 

Over the last few years the position of the Foreign Secretary has been emasculated even while the MEA, serviced primarily by the officers of the Indian Foreign Service, has become an increasingly anachronistic institution.  

The growing global emphasis on economics and trade must be reflected in the structure and nomenclature of the MEA. India is lucky that, in the present Foreign Secretary, we have  one of the wisest Indian diplomats, who will  be  able implement the change that is needed if there is clear political direction.  

The Indian Foreign Service was created on the eve of India’s independence; its first officers, drawn from the Indian Civil Service, were rich in experience and had served in various departments and in different parts of India. For instance,  Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai – the first Secretary General of the MEA – had been  Secretary of Education, Lands and Health when he was in his 30s.

The first Foreign Secretary, K. P. S. Menon, had been Dewan of Bharatpur.  The fifth Foreign Secretary Y. D. Gundevia’s masterly memoir, Outside the Archives, reveals the energy, dynamism and wisdom of  a remarkably collegial MEA in those heady years after independence – led, of course,  by the vision  (as well as the personal  and non-hierarchical  touch)  of  Jawaharlal Nehru,  who remained External Affairs Minister throughout his tenure as Prime Minister.  

Even today, the IFS has some of the most talented and hard-working diplomats of any country in the world, but they are over-stretched, too often lacking the expertise needed to negotiate effectively on complex contemporary issues and confined in protocol silos which are out of tune with contemporary realities. India’s foreign policy must be seen as a shared partnership across departments within the government of India, and academia and think tanks outside the traditional corridors of power.  

The Task Force on National Security, chaired by Naresh Chandra, is believed to have pointed out correctly that the IFS does not have enough diplomats to “anticipate, analyse and act on contemporary challenges”.  To increase its strength and improve its expertise the MEA must allow, to begin with, secondments from other All India and Central Services and the armed forces.  

A new political-military affairs division should be created within the MEA (not in the Ministry of Defence, as suggested by the Chandra task force) with officers from the services and intelligence agencies serving it.  The new emphasis on trade must mean that a dedicated trade expert should be attached to most Indian missions.

Let us face it, with an unsettled neighbourhood, an increasingly aggressive China and a politically weak and ambivalent Obama-led United States of America, India’s external environment is defined by uncertainty. 

Without a major transformation in the style and substance of our foreign policy, “the India story” – already fading in the global imagination – will be viewed as a fantasy.

A version of the article appeared in The Hindu, 8 April 2014