Changing Contours of India’s Foreign Policy in the world politics

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India is the 5th largest economy with a nominal GDP of $2.94 trillion overtaking France ($2.71 trillion) and the UK ($2.83 trillion). India’s economy might ranks third by purchasing power parity (PPP). India has been increasing its weight and punching proportionately. Thus, India’s economic and political capabilities have shaped the contours of Indian foreign policy since independence. Over period of time, the contour of Indian foreign policy might have been changing but some of the fundamental values have been constant. These constant values accumulate and form the basic structure of Indian foreign policy.

The basic structure of India’s foreign policy

Pundit Nehru started the tradition of neutrality in Indian foreign policy. It has still been continued irrespective of changing political environment in New Delhi. India prefers to avoid any kind of zero-sum game in foreign policy except for Pakistan. Thus, a sense of de-hyphenation is seen in Indian foreign policy. For example, when India engages with Israel, it starts increasing interaction with Palestine. India’s stand toward Israel-Palestine has still been intact – a ‘two-state solution.’ For India, both countries are important in different optics. Thus, New Delhi doesn’t engage with one at the cost of the other.

Apart from these, ‘Panchsheel’ has been the building block of Indian foreign policy. It includes mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity & sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence. It was reiterated in the 90s which is famously called as ‘Gujral doctrine’. India has also been vocal about environmental protection, acting against terrorism, protecting human values etc. For example, recently Afghanistan witnessed an earthquake. Within 24 hours, the Indian Air Force reached to Kabul for assisting in humanitarian aid.

Non-alignment to realism and discovery

Dr S Jaishankar in his speech at Ramnath Goenka classified the evolution of Indian foreign policy into six phases. The first phase from 1946-62 could be characterised as an era of optimistic non-alignment. This time period belongs to the cold war era when bipolar world order existed. One of the camps was led by the USA and the other was led by the USSR. India was a newly independent country and its focus was to alleviate the suffering of people and ensure them a dignified position that was eroded for centuries by foreign invaders and colonial masters. India had chosen a smart policy where India participated in world affairs without diverting its resources.

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India got an opportunity to lead the third front that promised peace and tranquillity along with freedom and sovereignty. Bandung spirit and third world solidarity saw energetic Indian diplomacy from Korea and Vietnam to the Suez and Hungary. Indo-China war 1962 ended the first phase of Indian foreign policy. Even pundit Nehru was convinced to call that there is no non-alignment with respect to China. Thus, the second phase from 1962-71 is a decade of realism and recovery. New Delhi made pragmatic choices on security and political challenges despite numerous resources. It looked beyond non-alignment in the interest of national security.

Regional assertion to Quest for strategic autonomy

According to him, ‘The third phase, from 1971 to 1991, was one of greater Indian regional assertion. It started with the decisive dismantlement of an India-Pakistan equivalence through the creation of Bangladesh. But it ended with the IPKF misadventure in Sri Lanka. A geopolitical effect of the cold war was witnessed in south Asia too. Sino-US rapprochement of 1971 and the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation 1971 were changing the strategic landscape. Tilting toward the Soviet Union and adopting more pro-Soviet positions was India’s response to this challenge.

However, the US-China-Pakistan trinity had seriously posed challenges before India. Subsequently, the collapse of the Soviet Union followed by the economic crisis in 1991 forced us to re-arrange our strategic priorities. Thus, it led to the fourth phase. The fourth phase was characterized by the dissolution of the USSR and the emergence of a “unipolar” world. It shifted focus to safeguard strategic autonomy and set new diplomatic priorities. India started need-based alignment, opened its economy, and started looking eastward. Adjustments of its position on Israel summarised the changed Indian approach to world affairs. Also, this is a period where India reached out to engage the US more intensively.

Consequently, within a decade India declared a nuclear weapon and perform exceptionally well in perception management in world affairs. The US pretended before the world to be tough against India on the nuclear question. But India was understanding this compulsion of the US. Also, India successfully tackled Pakistan’s military adventurism again in Kargil in 1999. It has generated enough economic growth that can be translated into India’s might in foreign affairs. It also managed the US successfully which has its eyes on the developments of South Asia as well consequences of Islamic fundamentalism.

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Balancing power to energetic diplomacy

The first decade of the 21st century made the US realize the political realities of world affairs. The US found it difficult to maintain the same degree of unipolarity. In the meanwhile, China also got a free ride to become a potential challenger to the US hegemony. Since then, India had also tested its nuclear capability at Pokharan. These developments provide an opportunity to shift to the fifth phase of Indian foreign policy. This fifth phase is one where India gradually acquired the attributes of balancing power. It is reflected in the India-US nuclear deal 2007 as well as a better understanding of the West at large. The US was in search of a new partner in South Asia through which the US can buck-pass its responsibilities as part of the containment policy.

The US assumed India as an eligible partner in south Asia. India took advantage of this opportunity and got a waiver through India-US nuclear deal. At the same time, India built a common plank with China with respect to global issues like terrorism, climate change, trade etc. New Delhi consolidated further ties with Russia while helping to fashion BRICS and RIC into a major forum. The change in political dynamics in New Delhi in 2014 started a new phase of Indian foreign policy. Situations have been changing due to uncertainty of the Washington – Global financial crisis 2008, Withdrawal from the Paris deal, an announcement for withdrawal from Afghanistan, instability in the EU etc.

India entered a world of convergences and issue-based arrangements. India started becoming one of the major economies of the world. Our ability to shoulder greater responsibilities during the time of pandemic through operation Sanjeevani with respect to HCQ tablet and operation Maitri with respect to vaccine delivery played an important role. India has been showing a willingness to shape key global negotiations, such as in Paris on climate change. Last but not least, the manner in which we have approached our own region and the extended neighbourhood has resonated beyond. For e.g. India didn’t react to immature comments of Nepal in proximity to China.

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Prospect of Indian foreign policy

India would peruse the objective that a multi-polar world should have a multi-polar Asia at its core. However, the US wants a unipolar world with multi-polar Asia in contrast to the Chinese eagerness to have a multi-polar world with unipolar Asia. Along with this big picture, India would continue to follow an approach of working with multiple partners on different agendas. For example, Israel is important for India with respect to defence and new innovations in the field of water scarcity and agriculture. At the same time, Palestine is important for India’s strategic interest in the middle east. Thus, India would engage with both without hurting each other’s interests.

It is likely to expect that India will continue to focus on internal balancing through military modernization, preparedness for mountain warfare, infrastructure developments near the border area, strict actions like banning Chinese apps, amending FDI norms etc. Apart from this, the prospect of Indian foreign policy lies in a good relationship with neighbours. To develop this, New Delhi should re-energize its Neighbourhood policy. However, Modi’s personal diplomacy will certainly play a significant role in managing relations with West Asia. However, India’s realist policy will be an important component of Indian foreign policy where it asserts multilateralism. For example, recently S Jaishankar hits back at the US on human rights – ‘We look at US human rights too’.

Thus, throughout the changing contour of Indian foreign policy, India didn’t become the dogma of the past. India was flexible in its approach. India didn’t hesitate in shifting its gear from ’tilting toward USSR’ to ‘aligning with the US’ what Robert Kux says – India-US ties have changed from “estranged democracies” to “engaged democracies”. But the basic structure of India’s foreign policy remained intact. In this process, the spirit of India’s “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas” is still very much relevant in India’s foreign policy. India’s constitutional commitment to promoting international peace and security by the prescription of open, just and honourable relations between nations.

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