Sunday, January 22, 2006

Indian Foreign Policy: Reflections

The continuity in the foreign policy styles of the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh administrations is unmistakable. Both governments endeavored to improve India's international profile by leveraging a strategic alliance with the United States, initiating significant forays into Central Asia and South East Asia, and retaining existing defence links with Russia. Both administrations fared better in back-room diplomacy despite the failure to implement a firm stand in the public arena vis-a-vis national security. The preferred method was covert and behind-the-scenes rather than activist and high-profile. While this might have had its benefits, it also revealed the soft state that India is today.

The common thread in foreign and defence policies is striking when it came to the investment in space technology, participation in the East Asia Forum (which convenes ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea), the importance placed on the Far Eastern Marine Command at Port Blair, the emphasis on road, shipping and defence links with Burma, not to mention strengthened links with Thailand and Indonesia. The look east policy is visible. The Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments similarly emphasized investment in the Sakhalin oil fields and the joint Russian-Kazakh Kurmangazy oil fields in the Caspian as part of a broader energy thrust. India also hopes to invest in rail and road links between the Central Asian republics and Iran as part of the 1999 Trilateral Agreement that envisioned an oil swap between India, Iran and Turkmenistan. The two administrations continued the key defence and allied space technology links with Russia, while developing ties with the United States in dual use nuclear, space and military technology. Russian efforts to establish with Indian support the Global Navigation Satellite System as a counter to the United States-based Global Positioning System is a case in point.

India's foreign policy is a quiet and largely covert one. The emphasis on the immediate neighborhood is a tacit one. Despite increased rapport with the United States, India discreetly vetoed United States efforts to enter into an Access and Cross Servicing Agreement with Sri Lanka, to construct an international airport at Kuda Oya in that country's deep south, to modernize airport facilities in Jaffna in the island's far north and extend the immediate post-tsunami US Marine presence beyond one month. It is entirely probable that India covertly facilitated international focus on the upsurge in Islamist fundamentalism in neighboring Bangladesh and media attention on Pakistan's restive Baluchistan province. India appears to excel in back room diplomacy.

Nonetheless, the broad scope and long term character of Indian foreign policy should not detract from its essential weakness since 1990. One can give two examples out of several i.e. (a) Islamist radicalism in the neighborhood; and (b) the fast unravelling scenario in Nepal. China is a third example and will be covered in a separate post. It sponsored Pakistan's development of nuclear technology in the early 1990s. The Narasimha Rao administration did nothing to contain that.

India failed to address the role of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence in fomenting unrest in Afghanistan and Kashmir in the 1990s. The Taleban captured Kabul in 1996. This helped transform Afghanistan into a haven for terrorism targeted at India. Fortunately, international events unrelated to Indian initiative helped neutralize the Taleban regime in 2001. However, Pakistan-sponsored Islamist radicalism continues to pose a threat to India. This has not been addressed despite terrorist attacks in Ayodhya, Bangalore, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Mumbai and New Delhi since 2001.

While the immediate arrests in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in India reveal fairly good intelligence mechanisms, the inability of the two administrations to neutralize the source of the threat is striking. India is unable to prosecute an overt foreign policy response to Islamist belligerence. It is better equipped to deal with issues behind the scenes. This is its weakness. Let us not forget that General Musharraf was the author of the incidents at Kargil and Kandahar. The unrest in Baluchistan has offered a window of opportunity to contain over zealous intelligence officials in Pakistan. While India had little to do with that insurrection, the least it can now do is to leverage that.

Nepal is another instance in point. The Nepalese monarchy might be on the verge of collapse given a recalcitrant, short-sighted and stupid ruler. A dysfunctional party system adds to the crisis with the shared incompetence of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal - Marxist Leninist. The belligerent Maoists have brought day to day administration to a halt in several parts of Nepal and have cooperated with their co-ideologues in destabilizing remote tracts in India as well. The solution to the imbroglio in Nepal is clearly within India's reach. Two of the three sets of actors are within its direct influence i.e. the monarch and the established political parties. It is in India's interests to arbitrate a solution between the two sides before enforcing one on the Maoists.

I favor a constitutional monarchy. The unified Nepal that we know of today came into existence with the Gorkha empire established in 1742 CE. Remove the current dynasty and one removes a key unifier in an otherwise heterogenous and varied land. This said, the current monarch should be compelled to restore democratic rule and forfeit his authoritarian prerogative. Maoist violence will need to be eliminated under a broader rubric of democracy and internationally-financed development. Dick Cheney's remarks are pertinent here i.e. "we do not negotiate with terrorists, we put them out of business".

Reference to the ancient Sanskrit classic on statecraft - the Artha-shastra - is in order here. Kautilya argued that "the welfare of a state depends on an active foreign policy". He enumerated six principles of foreign policy i.e.a ruler shall (i) augment the resources and power of the state; (ii) eliminate the enemy; (iii) adopt a prudent course; (iv) prefer peace to war, all things being equal; (v) be just in victory and defeat; and (vi) cultivate international allies.

The track record of the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh administrations is not too bleak in light of these precepts. Theirs was a quiet, tacit and behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But they failed to prosecute a pro-active foreign policy in the public domain. This lacunae will now need to be reversed.


Anonymous said...

There is another example of Indian foreign policy indecisiveness that you have omitted. Delhi lacks a clear cut position on the long simmering ethnic faultline in Sri Lanka. There is no serious debate within Indian circles on ways to help resolve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The LTTE is a fighting force equipped with a sea going arm, a fledgling air wing, anti aircraft missiles, anti tank missiles and mobile multi barrel rocket launchers. The Air Tigers are said to possess two ultra light aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. The LTTE has a commercial shipping fleet with ships registered either in Panama or Ecuador. It launched direct satellite transmissions to Asia and Europe early last year. India has no credible Sri Lanka policy.

cynical nerd said...

Another power-packed post from Jaffna!

I would like to add that an overall failure of policy exist as far as Bangadesh is concerned. A recent post from Rezwan mentioned most Bangladeshis actually don't think India played an important role in 1971 war is a case in point.

Atleast, Pakistan has now become the worlds problem. Bangladesh's activities are largely directed against India - immigration influx in North East and terror camps. We surely need to be doing better.

Anonymous said...

cool post. liked the reference to artha shastra. keep it coming.

Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd, Anonymous,

Thanks for the comments. I think the issue of illicit immigration from Bangladesh into Assam does pose a demographic challenge to India. The issue of militant fundamentalism in Bangladesh is also of concern. However, in both instances I am not sure whether there is any indigenous control and command facility directing events in Dhaka. I might be wrong here but the comparison with Pakistan might therefore not hold. The ISI in Pakistan directs events in India. There is no comparable entity in Bangladesh. Correct me if I am wrong.

India does have a Sri Lanka policy. I alluded to it, albeit in an indirect manner. The LTTE just does not figure in that. Right or wrong is another matter.

Best regards


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