Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Changing dynamics of India's foreign policy

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Debnath Shaw
    Venue: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), BHU, Varanasi
    Date: August 23, 2019


Is change inevitable? Does India’s Foreign Policy keep changing?
Before we go on to answer such seemingly obvious questions, let us briefly pause to ascertain and ensure that all of us here are on the same wavelength. I am sure as very bright and knowledgeable students, you are conscious of the fact that foreign policy of any country, including India, is geared towards promoting and protecting the country’s national interests in the wider world, among the comity of nations. As students of engineering and science, you are all familiar with the word ‘dynamic’, which describes the capacity for constant change, activity or progress of a particular process or system.

Whenever I am invited by the Ministry of External Affairs to take part in its ‘Distinguished Lecture Series’ programme, like the one today hosted by you at the Indian Institute of Technology IIT (BHU) at Varanasi, a question that pops up in my mind is whether the issue of India’s foreign policy and practices and our external relations, are of any relevance to the audience, or is it something that is vague and obscure and momentarily attractive, but not useful in our day to day lives. We may not feel the effect of foreign policy directly, as in domestic policy changes, for example when the tax on a litre of petrol goes up and driving that motorbike becomes more expensive. However, an understanding reached between India and the EU, which makes it easier to apply and get the Schengen visa, may not strike you as a result of India’s foreign policy, but is certainly an outcome of something we have done right in our dealing with the Schengen countries. This brings me to answer the questions we posed earlier. Yes, change is something we encounter all the time and the dynamics of India’s foreign policy is something we all should be interested in, since it does affect us as citizens and residents of India in some form or the other.

Foreign policy of any country, unlike domestic policy, is usually considered to be staid and stable not subject to revolutionary change. Foreign policy is both static and dynamic. What do we understand as ‘statism’ in foreign policy? Basically, maintenance of the status quo, e,g., sending Indian troops for peace keeping operations in conflict zones, only under United Nations resolution and command. Static foreign policy elements reduce risks. What do we perceive of as the dynamics in foreign policy? Changing dynamics in foreign policy would mean the ability to change or mould policy according to changes in the country’s external environment or a revolutionary change in the country’s domestic political scenario. A concrete example of such dynamism would be the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration ceremony of President Ibrahim Mohammad Solih of Maldives in November 2018, in reversal of earlier policy of avoiding visits at level of President or PM to Maldives during the regime of former President Abdulla Yameen, who was known to be inimical to India’s interests. A dynamic foreign policy shows greater appetite for risk taking. Foreign policy of any country, including India, contains both static and dynamic features.

Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy

Next, let us examine briefly, what one could say are the three main phases of the global political and security order and India’s Foreign Policy response to the same.

In the first period from 1947 to 1991, the world was dominated by two rival super powers, the USA and the USSR. The League of Nations had withered away, and the United Nations was born, moulded by the victorius World War II allies namely, the US, USSR, UK and France. Global economic and financial power was usurped by the western developed countries primarily the US and its European allies who developed the Bretton-Woods arrangement with the World Bank and IMF duo controlling the global financial system and the GATT/WTO shaping global trade. India’s response was to adopt the policy of non-alignment. Being non-aligned meant not being identified with either super power, while aiming to get political, security and economic support from both camps so that the young nation could overcome its severe political, social and economic stress and degradation, after two centuries of colonial rule. This was the staid and stable phase of India’s foreign policy, perhaps best suited for the times.

In the second phase from 1991 to 2008, two major events in 1991 kick started the process of change. The former Soviet Union collapsed and splintered into many independent countries, Russia being the largest among them, and successor to the USSR in the UN. The second was the foreign currency crisis faced by India, the likes of which we had never experienced before. We witnessed a changing world order with only one country remaining as the major political, economic and military power, viz., the USA. Multiple other lesser poles of global power started sprouting from this period onwards in the EU, Russia, China, dynamic Asia including Japan and India and in south America, particularly Brazil. India responded to these catatonic changes by weaning itself away from non-alignment to a multipolar alignment, adjusted its previous, often adversarial relations, with the remaining major power, the USA, incorporated globalization and paid greater attention to its immediate neighbouhood.

The third period is from 2008 to the present times. In 2008, the US and the global banking and financial systems were severely jolted, starting with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. This led to a severe economic meltdown in the advanced economies of the world, and even among most of the then champion emerging economies likes South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. In this period, the United States economic and military superiority is being chipped away, with most of the slack taken up by China, which is also becoming a more attractive political model for some developing countries. The rise of multiple poles in the EU, ASEAN, Russia, Japan, India, BRICS, IBSA, SCO, etc, has been much faster than in the previous period. The fulcrum of global power is gradually, but surely shifting from the West to the East, particularly to Asia. Indian foreign policy has responded vigorously to these changes with non-alignment dropped altogether. Today, Indian diplomacy is primarily focused on the USA, China, other P-5 member countries, and our neighbourhood. Look East has been expanded to Act East. Africa has loomed into focus and Latin America does not look so distant anymore. Economic diplomacy has taken the pole position in India’s foreign policy above that of political and security issues.

Principal Static and Dynamic Factors across the Globe

In all three phases, globally the Westphalian concept of the sovereign nation state has remained steadfast, despite some dilution in national sovereignty issues voluntarily surrendered by member countries of the European Union. However, in majority cases, the interests of the nation state override that of any collective political grouping like the UN. Among other factors which have been statist in their influence in the last seventy years, are (a) the Bretton-Woods global financial arrangements, (b) the continuous rise in total global population figures, though some developed countries are showing signs of negative population growth, (c) the availability of natural resources like land, water, air, sunlight and minerals, which are finite, prompting man to search for such resources beyond the earth’s atmosphere, in other planets, and (d) global preference for the US Dollar despite efforts at various points of time, to promote other currencies like the Yen, the Euro and lately the Chinese Renminbi.

The most dynamic aspects of the international system in the last seven decades have been:

- the influence of technological changes on our day to day lives, the small internet connected hand-held mobile device of today, being an example of how much has changed in the last two decades;

- significant reduction in global poverty and distress levels, including in India;

- rise in the number of member states of the United Nations, including new sovereign states like South Sudan and Timor Leste

- Increasing anxiety about the negative the effect of climate change and environmental degradation on our lives; and

- The upward curve in military expenditure, though country wise, including in India, defence budgets as a percentage of GDP, are declining.

Stability and Dynamism in India’s foreign policy domain

Turning our focus to India, the factors which contribute to stability in India’s foreign policies are:

- relative political stability of the country, particularly as compared to India’s neighbours in South Asia;

- socio-religious balance infused by the constitutional choices made by India’s founding fathers in 1950;

- reduction and elimination of poverty as a continuous state-led endeavour;

- strategic independence sought in foreign policy and practices as highlighted by the fact that despite giving up non-alignment as policy tool, India has been careful not to be identified with any camp or alliances directed towards a third country or group of countries;

- the continuity provided by the India Foreign Service (IFS) which mans most of the posts in the Ministry of External Affairs and in all Indian Diplomatic Missions and Special Offices abroad.

What makes India’s Foreign Policy process dynamic and responsive? These factors are:

- India’s geopolitical potential. India is clearly the dominant power in South Asia and the principal player in the Indian Ocean region;

- India’s military might, which globally is the second largest in terms of manpower deployed and third largest in terms of our annual defence budget – a factor which contributes to flexibility in our diplomatic postures;

- The demographic dividend currently enjoyed by India is posited on the ambition and drive of India’s millennials who are generally anti status quo and dynamic;

- The catch up with China pressure on the foreign relations establishment in India ensures innovation at every stage;

- Rivalry among nation states, particularly for global resources and technological prowess, generates flexibility in handling policy issues and diplomatic practices;

- The unmitigated movement towards digitization is ushering change in the way diplomats communicate with each other and with the public; Public services offered like passports and visas, are now increasingly digitized;

- The Indian diaspora spread across the globe, estimated to be between 20 to 25 million in numbers, second only to the Chinese diaspora, adds to the dynamism injected in India overseas relationships and achievements;

- The size of the growing Indian market is not only good news for home-based entrepreneurs, but also a great talking point for practitioners of India diplomacy, allowing for quid pro quo when negotiating difficult issues, particularly with regard to trade and economic diplomacy.

Major Events that have shaped India’s Foreign Policy

Key years in India’s foreign and external security policies and the relevant events are:

1947 – Invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan

1962 - India – China War

1965 – India-Pakistan War

1971 – Liberation of Bangladesh

1991 – collapse of the USSR; severe depletion in India’s foreign currency reserves

1998 – India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran; retaliatory tests by Pakistan

1999 – Kargil Intrusion by Pakistan

2001 – 9/11 Terrorist attacks in the US, including bombing of Twin Towers in NY; terror attacks on the Indian Parliament

2008- Terror strikes in Mumbai by Pakistan ; Lehman Brothers collapse in the US and trigger for the US-led global recession

2014 – PM Modi's Government infuses new life into Indian F.P. – unabashed about India’s ‘great power’ ambition

Foreign Policy Goals and India’s Diplomatic Outreach

It is evident from the chronology of events that have directly or indirectly had an influence on the direction of India’s principal foreign policy goals, that Pakistan, China, the former USSR (now Russia) and the US are the countries which loom larger than the rest in shaping our policies. It is therefore no surprise that our diplomatic engagement is focused on these countries and some of our largest embassies and diplomatic representations are located in these very countries.

Of course, relations with our immediate neighbours in South Asia and the region, are ongoing, almost on a daily basis. For example, with Bangladesh it is very much on issues such as the rise or fall of the water level of the River Ganga as it flows into Bangladesh, the daily streaming in and out of about 10,000 Bangladeshi visitors to India, and regular skirmishes between smugglers and the Border Secuirty Force (BSF), because cattle and other items are illegally transported across the border. In addition to the four countries listed in the earlier paragraph, India’s foreign policy is very much geared towards our immediate neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Mauritius. The remaining P-5 countries, France and UK, and major powers like Japan, Germany, Brazil and South Africa also very much on our diplomatic engagement radar. Our second rungs of diplomatic missions are located in these very countries, and Indian Ambassadors and High Commissioners to these countries are of very senior rank of the level of Secretary and Additional Secretary to the GOI.

Such hierarchical ranking of India’s foreign relations with various countries is only for reference purposes and does not imply that India’s views its relationship with country ‘B’ or ‘C’ as inferior to that with country ‘A’. It only signifies the depth of the country’s bilateral ties. Since resources to pursue diplomacy, including diplomatic officers, is limited, any country including India, needs to allocate its available manpower and available budget, depending on the frequency of its dealings with different countries, leading to the phenomena of large, medium and small size of our embassies abroad. The number of such offices also depends on depth of the relationship and availability of human and financial resources. Today, India is physically present in 129 countries with resident diplomatic missions and is poised to open at least another 11 resident missions in African countries over 2019 and 2020. Thus, by 2020, India will be represented by a resident Ambassador or High Commissioner (as the Head of a diplomatic Mission is known in Commonwealth member countries) and its own offices in 140 of the 193 member countries of the United Nations. In the rest of the 50+ countries where currently we do not have resident embassies or consulates, the India Ambassador or High Commissioner in a neighbouring or close by country, represents India in that country and works through a prominent local resident who is known as the ‘Honorary Consul’ of India in that country. This worldwide presence of India in all countries with whom we have diplomatic ties, signifies the importance we attach to all our bilateral ties, irrespective of size, strength or distance.

This global diplomatic presence also serves the interests of the India diaspora - Indian nationals resident abroad (also called NRIs), temporary visitors from India such as businessmen, tourists, relatives, etc, and people of Indian origin holding OCI cards, who have an emotional, social and economic connect with the land of their birth or of their forefathers. Since the 20-25 million strong Indian daispora is scattered over many geographies, regions and countries, servicing their consular, business and other needs is well served through India’s extensive diplomatic network and reach. This network has also served India’s friendly neighbours in South Asia whose nationals have been extended with diplomatic access, rescue and evacuation during times of crisis like in Yemen a few years ago and Lebanon about a decade ago. India arranged for the evacuation of nationals of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh from these war torn zones along with the evacuation of Indians. Such gestures have had a warm, positive effect with the people and governments of our smaller neighbours.

Challenges to India’s International Relations and Foreign Policy Goals

Now that we have fairly good idea about the static and dynamic factors that shape India's foreign policy and how diplomacy is practiced through our representation abroad and whom it serves, let us look at the challenges posed in foreign policy making and practices.

Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization & Weapons Control are issues that usually don’t make news headlines, except when North Korea launches the odd nuclear capable missile. However, the danger posed by an increasingly weaponized world, including proliferation of nuclear weapons technology is a challenge which seems to have no immediate remedy. The US-Russia nuclear weapons roll back programme and the Iranian nuclear deal are in disarray. The effort to restrict such weapons and its technology from the hands of irresponsible states and non-state actors is also not going anywhere. In such a scenario, India has no option but to take steps to review its nuclear weapons programme and policy.

Energy security of India is something you must be all aware about, looking at the pump prices of petrol and diesel. Though there are alternate sources of energy available today, India's dependence on hydrocarbon sources such as coal and crude oil, continues to be very high. While our coal reserves are comfortable, the fact that it is not a very clean source of energy and that we lack adequate amounts of high calorific value coal needed in crucial industries like steel making, makes us lean towards other available sources like oil and gas. Unfortunately, India's dependence on imports of oil and gas, in the absence of large recoveries at home, has only grown over the years. Such a dependence on imports has exposed our economy to the oil price and availability shocks that take place from time to time. India has set ambitious targets for energy from cleaner sources like solar and wind power, and extraction of greater quantities of oil and gas from within, but reaching these goals are some years away. Meanwhile, foreign policy has to tread carefully so that our supplies of crude oil from the Middle East and Iran are not upset. The current unilateral US restrictions on sourcing of Iranian and Venezuelan oil has proved to be particularly tricky with India conscious of its strategic dependence on the US and need to keep its centuries old relations with Iran and its friendly relations with Venezuela on an even keel.

Water, it is said, will be the principal source of conflict in this century. Stressed water situation across the globe is increasing day by day, the problem being more acute in large emerging economies like India with its growing population and ever increasing demand for water. Foreign policy and diplomacy ensures that India’s legitimate claims are not surrendered when negotiating multilateral or global water sharing agreements. Earlier, I had given the example of how the fall or rise of the level of water in the River Ganga affects our relations with Bangladesh.

Food security is a term you are all familiar with. Many of you may have not been around or were too young to remember the ordeal of food shortages we faced till about the late 1970s, when queuing up weekly at the neighbourhood ration shop or the ‘Food Control Order’ limiting the consumption of certain items in public functions like marriages, was something that was etched in our minds. Thankfully, India has crossed that hump, but the steady rise in the global population, finite resources like land and water, and anticipated future decline in food productivity increases, means that we have to be alert to this problem and the global scramble for food that may occur in the future.

Terrorism hardly respects international boundaries. Despite the best effort nationally, without international cooperation, it is impossible to stamp out this global menace. Sharing of intelligence, choking the sources of weapons, technology and funding, bringing perpetrators to justice, are some of the measures that have to put in place through regional and international negotiations. It is something Indian foreign policy and diplomacy have been very active about for three or four decades now.

Climate change and environmental degradation is not in any one’s interest. However, the highly industrialized countries which have had centuries of head start in their growth and prosperity path, are the principal cause for today’s situation. India has just about come to the take off stage of its economic growth. Unfortunately, without deft diplomacy, the traditional polluters seek to curb the growth path of emerging and developing economies by imposing mitigation measures, which are unfair to those who started industrialization late. India is fully committed to resolving the negative aspects of climate change and environmental degradation, but cannot be forced to accept the same conditions as those imposed on the more developed countries.

Pandemics,drug trafficking and human trafficking are among the other major problems that the international community needs to work together to curb the fallout of these issues. India’s foreign policy has been revised to take into account our role in the global war against these problems and our diplomats have been very active on this front.

Unique Foreign Policy Features of the Governments under Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Now that you have got a fairly broad picture of the changing dynamics of India’s foreign policy particularly after 1991, we could close this lecture with a look at the main elements of foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi since May 2014.

In its 2014 Election Manifesto, the BJP had envisaged, and I Quote, "The vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient foreign policy goals, content and process, in a manner that locates India’s global strategic engagement in a new paradigm and on a wider canvass,…”, Unquote [The Modi Doctrine, Editors, Anirban Ganguly, Vijay Chauthaiwale, Uttam Kumar Sinha, Page 4]. Using political diplomacy, as also keeping India’s economic, scientific, cultural and security interests in mind, both regional and global, the aim such a foreign policy paradigm, based on the principles of equality and mutuality, is to make India economically strong and to make sure its voice is heard in the international arena.

The distinguishing elements under Prime Miniter Modi, which are different for previous regimes, are:

- Neighbourhood First Policy – all SAARC leaders at swearing in ceremony in 2014 and BIMSTEC leaders in 2019; SAARC Satellite; Act East Policy;

- Relentless push towards, trade, FDI and ‘Make in India’s contributing to India’s economic development and growth;

- A ‘leading role’ globally for India, rather than just as a ‘balancing force’ – India as a "pole” in its own right

- A greater role for military and defence diplomacy – willingness to participate in the global arms market as a supplier rather than as a major buyer only

- Connectivity, commercial ties and cultural bonds are the three ‘C’s of Modi’s Foreign Policy mantra – the huge public boost in bonding with the diaspora is unprecedented;

- According to Modi, the three ‘D’s which drive India’s ties with the countries of the world are, democracy, demography and demand;

- Enhanced role for personal friendship and bonding which has been highlighted by the ‘Modi hug’ we have witnessed time and again despite not very polite comments from some quarters; and

- An active role for States in the making and practice of foreign policy in India since 2014, when a separate ‘States Division’ was set up in the Ministry of External Affairs


We now have a broad canvas of the evolution of India’s foreign policy through the three historical phases. Policy has evolved and changed over the last seventy years, usually at a steady pace, but sometimes drastically to respond to fast changing global or regional scenario. Fortunately, foreign policy evokes greater consensus across the Indian political spectrum and therefore, has been easier to mould and change, than domestic policy on which governments of the day have faced vehement opposition.

Foreign policy can only go so far and diplomacy can be that effective, to the extent of a country’s political, social and economic health. India has been fortunate to enjoy good growth and prosperity for the last three decades. This has provided greater leverage to India’s foreign policy, and allowed far greater resources to be allocated for the conduct of diplomacy, including consolidating and strengthening our diplomatic presence all across the globe.

Under the present regime, India has clearly demonstrated its will to play a leading role in the global arena and be counted as ‘pole’ in its own right. Continued stability and prosperity at home and political consensus on broad foreign policy parameters, will help India reach this goal.

Thank you for your patience. The views expressed in this lecture are not necessarily those of the Ministry of External Affairs or the Government of India.