Where is India’s foreign policy headed?
9 Dec 2019|

In a surprise move after the May election, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to former career diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to make him foreign minister. Jaishankar wasn’t a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party until then, and hadn’t even considered entering politics, but he was nominated to the parliament’s upper house from a vacancy in Gujarat.

Jaishankar comes with platinum credentials. His father was K. Subrahmanyam, the vishwaguru (teacher to the world) of India’s strategic studies community as noted in this tribute by Rory Medcalf. As always, luck and timing count also. Jaishankar had served as India’s ambassador to China (2009–2013) and the US (2013–2015), and as foreign secretary (2015–2018).

Modi visited China as chief minister of Gujarat during Jaishankar’s tenure there, and Modi’s first visit to the US as PM took place on Jaishankar’s watch in Washington. Jaishankar helped India navigate the 2017 Doklam standoff with China with an adroit mix of resolve, pragmatism and creative flexibility that won widespread praise. He earned a reputation as a talented diplomat, a policy wonk and an analytical thinker, a bit like Australia’s Peter Varghese.

All three traits were in evidence in a major speech Jaishankar delivered as the fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture in Delhi on 14 November. Against the backdrop of a profound structural transformation of the global order, he offered ‘an unsentimental audit’ of seven decades of India’s policy divided into six historical phases (1946–1962; 1962–1971; 1971–1991; 1991–1998; 1998–2014; 2014–;). He decried ‘the dogmas of Delhi’, challenged ‘past practices and frozen narratives’ and made a virtue of inconsistency that responds to events and issues on a case-by-case basis.

Noting several milestones in independent India’s journey since 1947, he highlighted the importance of disruptions for decisive shifts in India’s favour. And he pointed to the need to learn as much from missed chances and roads not taken as from successes, drawing attention in particular to two decades of ‘nuclear indecision’—between the first test in 1974 and the declaration of possessor status after five more tests in 1998—that gave India ‘the worst of all worlds’.

Jaishankar finished with a run-down of the current international context and India’s foreign policy traits, challenges and approaches. Today’s world is one of dispersed power, localised equations, convergence, and issue-based arrangements, he said.

India is responding with more energetic diplomacy based on ‘a growing sense of its own capabilities’, raised expectations by others of India ‘to shoulder greater responsibilities’ commensurate with its growing capabilities, and ‘a willingness to shape key global negotiations, such as … on climate change’. He extrapolated Modi’s 2019 campaign slogan from the domestic to the foreign policy realm: sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas (with everyone, prosperity for all, trust of all).

Yet in the end the speech fell short of Jaishankar’s own standard of ‘the need for greater realism in policy’. He noted the ‘interconnection between diplomacy, strategy and economic capabilities’ but defended the decision to walk away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The unsentimental judgement on Modi’s loss of nerve on the RCEP is that he has effectively mortgaged India’s economic future and its rise as a comprehensive national power because he took fright at the short-term economic pain and adjustment costs of integrating with the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing region. By opting out, India will find it much harder to achieve its ambitious target of doubling exports and GDP by 2025.

In reality, Modi paid the price of failing to implement major structural reforms in his first term (2014–2019). The gap with the rest of the Indo-Pacific countries will widen, making it tougher for India to integrate with the regional and global economy on favourable terms at a later date. The region is vital to India’s commercial and geopolitical interests; the net result of India’s rejected exceptionalism is that China will dominate it even more.

The RCEP rejection is symptomatic of bigger failures on the economic and foreign policy fronts. India’s economy has been decelerating: most key indicators are headed south and Moody’s is just one of several ratings agencies to have revised India’s GDP growth forecasts downwards.

Modi’s cabinet ministers seem to lack economic literacy. He is captured by quacks peddling voodoo economics that led to the demonetisation disaster, and reliant on statist bureaucrats whose instincts are hostile to business. He may have cowed his domestic critics and fooled the voters, but the markets are still speaking truth to power.

The new foreign minister’s address provided no vision of what sort of a world India is trying to shape. Because of the discrepancy in military might, global financial system dominance and diplomatic heft between the US and all others including China, Jaishankar’s depiction of a ‘multipolar’ world is fundamentally flawed. ‘Polycentric’ is a more accurate description.

Does India aspire someday to be one of the poles of a genuinely multipolar order, with China, Russia and the EU being perhaps the other poles? Alternatively, does India wish to be China’s equal in Asia while content to cede global primacy to the US? Or has India abandoned any hope of catching up with China as a major Asian power and accepted being a regional middle power in a US–China dominated global order for the next several decades? The answer will dictate the appropriate strategy to match the expansive, self-confident or limited ambition about India’s role in world affairs.

In this context, Jaishankar is mistaken in believing that the RCEP decision can be decoupled from India’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy. Staying outside the principal regional trading bloc will badly dent the credibility of India’s entire Indo-Pacific strategy. The illusion of a rising great power may have been punctured in its own government’s and the region’s perceptions.

Just as importantly, the goal of securing India against Pakistan-origin terrorism cannot be realised without addressing the threat to India’s social cohesion posed by the agenda of militant Hinduism pursued by the ruling party’s religious base.

That said, Jaishankar’s conclusion was on the mark: ‘A nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities.’