How Muscular Is India’s Foreign Policy
Does India have a foreign policy at all? What does it seek to achieve? How has it changed over the decades.
Does India have a Foreign Policy
As India stabilized from a rickety, post-colonial economy to an emerging power in the last 60 years, Indian Foreign Policy has seen little analysis from context and utility standpoint.
Most critics of Indian Foreign Policy have used a flavor-of-the-season approach – and failed to present the evolution of the policy over the last 60 odd years.
And the challenges.
The last 30 years
The last thirty years has been a difficult period for Indian polity – and development of Indian foreign policy doctrine.
Of the first 40 years (1950-1990), two Prime Ministers (JL Nehru and Indira Gandhi) ruled for 31 of the 40 years. The next 20 years saw just three prime ministers (PVN, ABV, MMS) last for more than 4 years in power – from seven Prime Ministers in all. No Indian political party has been able to win an absolute majority on merit, now for 30 years after Indira Gandhi’s win in 1980. Rajiv Gandhi’s electoral victory after 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi was ‘tainted’ with a sympathy vote for Congress.
Thirty years without a positive mandate for any political party is a tough commentary on Indian polity – and its inability to connect to the Indian Voter.
War on three fronts
Sun Tzu or Clausewitz.
Every military strategist has warned against opening war on two fronts. But, two fronts were assured against Pakistan itself – on the eastern front in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and against mainland Pakistan (then West Pakistan) on the west.
To that was a real risk of China joining in with a third front. During the 1965 and the 1971 Bangladesh War, India had to factor a third front that could be opened by China against India. Thundering in the parliament, Pakistan’s foreign minister at that time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto assured the Pakistani nation of China’s support.
In the event of war, Pakistan would not be alone. Pakistan would be helped by the most powerful nation in Asia. War between India and Pakistan involves the territorial integrity and security of the largest State in Asia. (Z.A. Bhutto, Foreign Minister, Pakistan, in the National Assembly; July 17, 1963).
At least the US tried very hard to ensure that China supported Pakistan with more than lip service. In the 1965 India-Pakistan War, Indian diplomacy had ensured Chinese neutrality – and China did not move an inch.
On the diplomatic front, China had been checkmated to paralysis – a position that China adopted in 1971 Bangladesh War also.
Without guns, food and money
After India’s independence, colonialism was not dead. USA was trying to take over Western colonies by installing proxy rulers in colonies.
Britain and France attempted to re-establish control over strategic positions in the world. The Suez Crisis was the high point of trying to roll back history.
Indonesia kept its freedom (1949), when Indian Govt. threatened to shoot down Dutch aircraft. Kenya (independence-12 December 1963) and Malaysia (independence-31 August 1957) paid a heavy price during their fight to throw off colonial rulers. US armies were killing millions across Asia – in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Korea. India’s own independence hung by a thread. Harold Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ was yet only words – and no action.
In such a situation Nehru’s foreign policy put an economically and militarily strong West on the defensive – against a militarily weak India.
Nehruvian foreign policy
Nehruvian foreign policy, India FP-One, based on anti-colonial agenda, pro-democracy, global agenda, relevant during the 1950-1970 period, saw Europe lose its colonies. Remarkably insensitive to India’s self-interest, Nehruvian foreign policy instead projected India onto global stage, as an anti-imperialism crusader.
Under FP-One, India could be pro-US also. Nehru unleashed anti-Soviet rhetoric along with the Eisenhower administration during the Hungarian Uprising – and anti-Europe during the Suez crisis. The Non Aligned Movement while making noise, posed no military threat. All the Super-powers paid attention to NAM positions and criticism.
Having made its mark on the world stage, FP-One succeeded entirely on powers of suasion and reason. Post-colonial India, without any military rank or an economic power, could yet make world powers listen to FP-One. Nehru’s own charisma had much to do with success of FP-One.
Nehru’s era saw a marked deterioration in relationships with major neighbouring countries – Pakistan and China. Nehru’s unpreparedness resulted in a disastrous confrontation with China – and the loss of Tibet. Stalin had little time for India during India FP-One.
Except for one agreement, which saw large Soviet imports of Indian cinematic content that made Indian actors household names in Soviet Union.
After Nehru? Who, What, How …
For most of the world, The India Question was – After Nehru, what?
Division is the essence of Indian polity. The fierce noise of linguistic riots in Bombay and elsewhere is heard from afar. Mr.Nehru should not equate the authority of his person with any fundamental cohesion in his country. In the absence of his cementing figure, these divisions are bound to enlarge. (Pakistan Times, Lahore, November 25, 1955).
No coincidence that Pakistani planned its 1965 assault soon after Nehru’s death. Pakistan tested Indian resolve in 1965, after the 1962 border conflict with China, which by most accounts went against India. India’s official rendition of the 1962 encounter with China remains classified.
LB Shastri, India’s combative Prime Minister after Nehru, with none of Nehru’s oratorical skills, was able to surprisingly unite and galvanize morale with his Jai Jawan and Jai Kisan strategy – aligning the ‘trinity’ of government, army and people (in terms of Clausewitz Theory).
India, battling food shortages, after the colonial destruction of Indian agricultural system, was still in a feeble recovery stage.
Indian army working with WWII vintage arms and ammunition was ill-prepared to confront Pakistan, an American–armed-and-aided CENTO alliance partner. After the 1962 debacle against China, India made creditable, though slender, territorial gains. India had retaken territory in Kashmir, with Indian armies in sniffing distance of Lahore.
Chinese inaction during the 1965 War is a less analyzed factor of the 1965 War. India’s relationship with the Soviets had not yet reached the levels of the 1970s. What and who stopped China from joining Pakistan in its assault on India?
Was China’s support for Pakistan in the 1965 War limited to lip sympathy?
In such a precarious situation, India fended off Pakistan – with the Soviet Union and the USA pushing for a quick ceasefire. The Soviet Union followed up with peace talks offer at Tashkent – the template that the US followed during the many Camp David talks.
Indian contingent landed up in Tashkent with Shastri in the lead – and Pakistan contingent with General Mohammed Ayub Khan. Shastri returned home to India – in a coffin, after a cardiac arrest. For the next two decades, Shastri’s death was fodder for conspiracy theories, hinting at plot by Indira Gandhi-Soviet Union, as the main players.
A New Alliance is Sealed
The development of FP2 started soon after India-Pakistan War of 1965 during LB Shastri’s regime, even as FP-One was no longer effective without Nehru.
After Tashkent, India decided to reject all outside interventions and involvement in bilateral matters. All UN resolutions on India-Pakistan conflicts started getting treated as ‘history’. Super-power offers for mediation are no longer welcome or entertained by India.
The other major outcome after the 1965 War was India-Soviet Union alliance, under Brezhnev. Built on the pillars of
- Russian oil for India, priced, paid, and designated in Indian rupees. Big win for both countries, as both had forex problems.
- Soviet armaments for India, again in Indian rupees, to balance Indian exports of Indian tobacco, tea, engineering goods, consumer products, all in the era of shortages of consumer goods in USSR
- Russian veto in UN in exchange for a Non Aligned commitment to give unbiased hearing to Soviet positions
it was a win-win agreement.
Soviet Union won respectability in global forums – and India was no longer dependent on the West for crucial imports like oil and heavy industry technology (nuclear, tyres, oil exploration, etc.). This foreign policy direction was a marked evolution from Nehruvian foreign policy (India FP-One).
India’s decade of muscular diplomacy
Looking back, FP2 survived an ordeal by fire with the first decade itself. Three events prove that it was a remarkable decade which shaped Indian foreign policy (FP2) for the next thirty years.
1971 – BanglaDesh War
In the 1965 India-Pakistan War, Indian diplomacy had ensured Chinese neutrality – and China did not move an inch. On the diplomatic front, China had been checkmated to paralysis – a position that China adopted in 1971 Bangladesh War also.
What made the Chinese so careful in 1971?
Before the 1971 Bangladesh War, the punishment that the Chinese received in the Zhenbao-Damanskii Island border (1969) conflict at the hands of the Soviets made the Chinese very careful. The Russians were even considering a nuclear attack on China. Aware of Soviet support to India, in the India-Bangladesh War – the Chinese adopted a complete hands-off attitude.
Staring down the West
The India-Soviet alliance also enabled India to counter the Chinese atomic bomb threat with its own Pokhran explosion in 1974.
A reiteration of Nehru’s 1958 statement, what probably held back India from 1958-1974, was military and economic unpreparedness, to withstand sanctions by the West, that would follow an atomic test. The Indo-Soviet alliance also gave India the comfort of a Soviet veto in UN Security Council.
The first nuclear test by a non-P5 (USA, Soviet Union, China, UK, France) nation, India was in a precarious position. Assured of a Soviet veto on the Indian side, with Indian agriculture making a stunning comeback in the 70’s, buffered by Soviet Oil supplies and Bombay High, India was able to stare down Western disapproval of Pokhran atomic explosion for the next 25 years.
Compared to a ‘soft State’ like India, more ‘hard-line’ countries like apartheid South Africa and Israel, that counted Western nations as close allies, could not take the final step of an open, atomic bomb explosion.
MNCs – Go Home
The third major foreign policy initiative was an economic policy that severely impacted Western multinationals. In a decade when CIA /MNCs made and unmade Governments across the world, like in Iran, Latin America, Africa, this was a case where principle won over prudence. The Janata Party Government that come to power for the first time in 1977, pushed for dilution of foreign ownership in Indian subsidiaries of MNCs.
This evoked a storm of protest – and some companies like IBM and Coke, US icons in the 70s, walked out of India.
Soviet Union collapses
FP-One outlived its utility after decolonization of Africa and South East Asia.
The end of FP2 started with the meltdown of oil and gold prices during the 1990-2000 period.
This meltdown saw the Soviet Union bankrupted. Saddled with subsidies and aid to allies in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America saw Soviet Union slither into an economic morass.
Rapid and ineffectual leadership changes after Brezhnev’s death (Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and finally Gorbachev) saw a directionless and geriatric Communist Party, at the head of the Soviet Empire.
Foreign Policy On The Brink
By the year 2000, India FP2 was in crisis. Yanked out of its comfort zone of India-Soviet axis, after the USSR’s collapse, India FP2 was buffeted by the din of a ‘uni-polar’ world. India’s increasing imports of Western technology and products, that started with a trickle during Indira Gandhi regime of 1980-1984, soon gained pace. Deregulation of Indian auto sector saw increasing oil imports – with stagnant India’s oil production.
During the last 10 years, one can see signs of India FP-III taking shape. What are the features of India FP-III?
FP-III Takes Shape
One major fallout from the crash of FP2 was armament imports. Under FP2, India imported major armament systems from Soviet Union. India’s import of Jaguar, Mirage jet fighters and Bofors howitzers happened in the dying stages of FP2. With Soviet armament production systems in disarray and bankrupted, India needed alternatives – and fast. Dependence on the US-armaments was seen as an unreliable alternative.
Israel come in
In such a situation, India went for Israeli imports.
Designating Israel as an armaments vendor, freed FP-III from influence of external policy guide-lines. This gave India access of armaments from a vendor, which was also a significant user of the same armaments. Israeli armaments were also designed for low-intensity conflict – similar to Indian usage profile.
In parallel, India went ahead and signed armament co-development deals with the Russia. Brahmos missile is the first success from FP-III. The 5th Generation fighter aircraft being jointly developed is the next major step. The new aircraft carrier is the other major initiative.
The Indo-US Nuclear Deal may not deliver all that has been promised in the future. Yet, in the immediate now, it has delivered a resounding approval of FP-III. The 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) approved a differential status for India – equivalent to a Nuclear Power.
Without signing the CTBT or the NPT, FP-III’s ability to achieve global consensus on the nuclear issue, is an important milestone.
In the neighbourhood
India’s ability to get a foot inside Afghanistan, in spite of much opposition from Pakistan, may see India reap significant dividends with Central Asian oil and raw material resources. The turnaround in Bangladesh, after the new dispensation has come to power, breaks fresh ground in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has taken some significant actions against anti-India forces in Bangladesh – a sign of comfort for FP-III. Myanmar’s flirtation with China, according to some, maybe cooling off.
FP-III has also seen a change in handling Pakistan. From a rhetorical, tit-for-tat approach, Indian response to Pakistan has seen a change. The recent trade push with Pakistan may see an important Pakistani constituency root for a better India-Pakistan relationship. While Pakistan is being pushed to deliver on the anti-terrorism front, there is sense in seeing the changing Pakistani calculus.
Sizing Up China in South China Sea
An interesting development in FP-III was confronting China in South China Sea. Instead of precipitating a conflict situation in Indian border areas, is to take the battle to China in South China Sea. On the eve of delivery of Admiral Gorshkov, Indian Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, Indian Navy has better symmetry with Chinese Navy – that is struggling with scaling up.
Any confrontation in the South China Sea, between China on one side, against an India-Vietnam opposition, will see China friendless, in international diplomacy. With an appreciating yuan, and slowdown in Chinese economy imminent, the Chinese are likely to be circumspect – and the Indian hand will only get stronger.
How has India FP-III shaped up in the last 10 years.
Many of FP-III initiatives may take a few decades to pay off – and will take persistence from India’s foreign policy apparatus. However, if the contours of a FP-III can take shape in this period of flux in Indian polity, an optimistic outlook can be deemed as realistic.
Much like the various mantras of American foreign policy are evoked, in the modern Indian context, homage is paid to the idea of NAM. But clearly, it is seen as an idea whose time has gone. Its effectiveness can be gauged from the strong reactions that it elicited from Nixon.
The table below presents a matrix to map outcomes, objectives, alliances and policies that Indian foreign policy has used in the last 60 years. As can be seen, Indian FP-One, FP2 and FP-III were rooted in the global realities of that time – and based on Indian needs and requirements of that time.
- Turnaround In Tashkent (2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Oct. 31, 1984 | Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Assassinated (learning.blogs.nytimes.com)
- 1971 Bangla Desh War – Why was China quiet? (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- At India-Bangladesh Border, Living in Both, and Neither (nytimes.com)
- Kissinger on India-China War of 1962 (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- India’s Partition – Unknown Aspects (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- You: Yahya hinted at attacking India 10 days earlier (nation.com.pk)
- Commentary on Indian Foreign Policy (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- 1971: When drunk Yahya said he would attack India (ibnlive.in.com)
- Voter & Polity – The Indian Disconnect (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- Dealing With Pakistan (quicktake.wordpress.com)
foreign minister at that time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto