Need for a new foreign policy vision

Pragmatism as a worldview is characterised by believing in the practical efficacy of whatever works. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s worldview matches well with the realist-pragmatist perspective on international affairs. Critics are accusing him of dismantling Nehruvian legacy of non-alignment as he has been engaging confidently with all major global powers since becoming the PM.

The reason for Modi’s more confident approach to external engagement is partly due to realist-pragmatist worldview of the BJP as well as to the growing eagerness of the major powers to accommodate India’s global rise. Although Modi has not publicly repudiated non-alignment, the manner in which he has been attempting to pursue India’s relations with all the major powers by making it an integral part of the global power politics practically signals India’s moving far away from the policy of anti-Americanism couched in the language of ‘non-alignment’.

Before conceptualising India’s new foreign policy paradigm under a PM who claims to be unapologetically inclined towards the ideological Right, it is essential to get rid of the troublesome taxonomy of Indian foreign policy into pro and anti-Nehruvian stances. If there is any categorisation, then it should be Nehruvian and post-Nehruvian era.

The purpose here is not to discuss whether the non-alignment should be represented as a counter-hegemonic challenge to the world order dominated by the Western powers or a naïve lack of realism or a fence-sitting strategy designed to take advantage of the competing power blocs in the absence of hard power capabilities. Fast forward to the present globalised world, where any notion of solidarity with the developing countries on the basis of common agenda would be deemed a policy prescription out of sync with reality. Cooperation in the modern globalised world is eventually dictated by domestic economic imperatives and convergence of strategic interests, notwithstanding camaraderie or other ideological motivations. Thus, India is persuaded to completely abandon the rhetoric of non-alignment in its foreign policy thinking.

A vision that is not reviewed and updated, evolves into rigid dogma. In fact, India had already begun, albeit gradually, to shed its ‘moralising’ rhetoric in favour of a realist paradigm after the humiliating defeat in 1962. Critics still do not believe that India has already crossed the rubicon from Nehruvian idealism to the realism of great powers in the aftermath of the Cold War and the changed global strategic environment.

This shows an inexplicable stubbornness to come to terms with reality. For example, Indian political establishment under the UPA regime continued to speak publicly in favour of Non-Aligned Movement while one of the major priorities of Indian foreign policy during this period had been to acquire the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. This ambivalence and the lack of clarity regarding the post-Nehruvian strategic vision has made reactivism, rather than proactivism, the defining feature of India’s foreign policy paradigm which is not capable of responding to a fluid international environment, constantly subject to an ever-shifting balance of power. 

Strategic flexibility
In the present complex and multi-polar world, with ever-changing power dynamics, strategic flexibility is more important than permanence of a foreign policy strategy. In international relations, all nations choose “alliances” or “strategic partnerships” and discard them when they outlive their usefulness. India too cannot remain exception to this as its interests will indeed shift fast in the present century.

Therein lies the dilemma. There is not doubt that Modi’s proactivism has been able to infuse a new dynamism in Indian foreign policy, but he faces the moral and strategic challenge of alignment or choosing an alliance partner. As per realist outlook, India can not take on the Chinese challenge without abandoning the rhetoric of nonalignment. And any explicit US-India alignment has the potential to alter the Asian strategic balance, with an inevitable negative impact on India’s relations with China as well as Russia. The only way to avoid being seen taking sides is to reach out to both the US and China to maximise the economic benefits. On the other hand, building substantive ties with Japan and Vietnam will help India increase its strategic space vis-à-vis China.

Alliances and partnerships in the 21st century should not be envisioned on the assumptions of morality and loyalty, but on compatibility of issues and overlapping interests. India has to find a common synergy among competing global powers on issues of economic growth and stability. It can be seen that Modi government’s international behaviour does not sustain the stereotype that non-alignment and defensive posture will continue to define India’s strategic cultural orientation.

It is naive to label Modi’s evolving foreign policy vision as either selfish or immoral pragmatism or anti-Nehruvian but fair to recognise it as a post-Nehruvian one to ensure India’s strategic manoeuvrability. Modi’s invitation to US President Barak Obama to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade should be seen as a step in this direction.

(The writer is with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur)

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