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The perceived weakness about India’s foreign policy

New Delhi’s strategy is, unfortunately, not dictated by national interests alone, but increasingly by coalition party interests

Salman Khurshid
Image Credit: Gulf News Archives
Salman Khurshid
Gulf News

Foreign policy experts are struck by India’s lacklustre foreign policy which, they say, is characterised by passiveness and inaction bordering on utter neglect.

The most confused civil servant today is the Indian diplomat who receives mixed signals from his political bosses, thus limiting his ability to take initiatives in foreign affairs.

Salman Khurshid’s elevation to the rank of foreign minister last year surprised many, despite allegations of financial irregularities levelled against him at the Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust Fund, which Khurshid and his wife were overseeing. Many Indian and foreign journalists remember Khurshid’s unmistakable threat against the news magazine India Today, threatening to convert it into “India Yesterday”. “When you have a cloud of suspicion hanging over you, you look weak both at home and abroad and cannot represent the country’s interests in the best possible way.” This view is often heard in the Indian diaspora in North America and elsewhere about the foreign minister, who is otherwise a seasoned politician enjoying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s support.

India’s foreign policy is, unfortunately, not dictated by national interests alone, but increasingly by coalition party interests. Coalition governments, now a regular feature in India’s political landscape, are usually formed after tough horse-trading and accommodate the regional coalition partners’ political agenda that can be at variance with the broader national interest.

Unsurprisingly, both Pakistan and China have been testing the limits to which India can go while reacting to their transgressions of India’s borders.

While Pakistan’s recently elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s overtures to revive the composite dialogue with India must be welcomed, there are serious security issues which India cannot ignore when dealing with that country. Terrorism is the scourge of our times and must be eradicated. It affects India as much as it affects Pakistan and the entire world. Pakistan can demonstrate its sincerity to develop good neighbourly relations with India by showing zero tolerance against terrorism. Bilateral cooperation can also help resuscitate Pakistan’s ailing economy because it will lead to greater trade, technology transfer and investments.

China has been lately behaving in what some would call an “erratic manner” towards India, with Chinese soldiers violating India’s northeastern borders.

Foreign policy wonks, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of Chinese provocations, say that Indian politicians ignore a basic truth: They are perceived as weak and indecisive personalities who cannot prevent Chinese encroachments. This bitter truth was ignored once before by India’s post-independence politicians, including the brilliant but credulous prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt betrayed by China’s invasion of Indian territory in 1962.

Present-day Indian politicians resort to appeasement, which is interpreted as a sign of weakness and helplessness by China’s Stalinist indoctrinated senior army officers. Peace between nations is a wonderful thing, but it becomes a futile quest for the Holy Grail when one side follows it and the other shows scant respect for it.

China respects strength. Notice China’s simmering tone towards Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which have resolutely defied its aggressive posturing and asserted their claims to the oil and gas-rich islands in the East and South China Sea. India should intensify cooperation with these countries and strengthen patrolling along its northeastern borders with China.

India, which holds a number of cards, should drive home the point to China that this is not 1962. Like China, India has also acquired economic biceps and should demonstrate resoluteness, without the incoherent platitudes that Indian politicians often utter, against China’s border violations.

With its economy weakening, China can hardly afford an armed conflict with any nation, including India with which it has built up a lucrative trade and economic relationship. Globalisation has intensified interdependence amongst nations. Consequently, a country trying to hurt another can do so only at the peril of hurting itself. China has become dependent on Indian raw material-supply; its steel industry, for example, could face problems if India stopped iron ore shipments to China. India could also restrict the import of Chinese low-end, labour-intensive consumer goods that pour into India’s market.

Even with the US, which touts India as a “strategic partner”, India’s relationship is asymmetrical. Washington resolutely follows its own interests, be it strategic, security-related or economic, not sparing friends or foes. The surveillance of the Indian Embassy in Washington proves the point.

Manmohan Singh, who will visit Washington in October, will hog the US glare, a “bright spot” for a man facing the dark ignominy of going down in history as India’s weakest prime minister who headed a government with the worst corruption record.

The mood in Washington has also dramatically changed. Singh will face many pointed “what-have-you-to-offer” questions, particularly about defence contracts for American companies, IPR protection, market reforms etc. Whether Singh, notorious for his stony silence and lackadaisical approach, can forcefully raise concerns such as visas for Indian workers, the Indian embassy’s surveillance, Afghanistan, Pakistan-related terrorism etc and assert India’s interests, is another thing.

Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.