Challenging shibboleths

The Dogmas of Delhi

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar

It’s very rare for an Indian foreign minister to deliver a speech which is intellectually stimulating and forces us to think beyond clichés. We have had some good orators as our External Affairs Ministers in the past but most of their foreign policy speeches have been rather pedantic. Given that foreign policy has traditionally been the domain of our prime ministers, our best speeches on foreign policy have been delivered by them. But it’s difficult to think of any speech by our prime ministers that is conceptually as granular and politically as candid as the one delivered by the present External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar as the fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture in New Delhi recently on the theme “Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian foreign policy in a changing world.”

Declaring that “the real obstacle to the rise of India is not anymore the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi,” his speech provided “an unsentimental audit of Indian foreign policy.” In his speech, Jaishankar noted that India was at present standing at the “cusp” of change with “more confidence.” He argued that “a nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities. Above all, it cannot be dogmatic in approaching a visibly changing world order.”

In more ways than one, Jaishankar’s speech has now become the central document through which Indian foreign policy will be assessed in the coming years. His conceptualisation of the various phases of Indian foreign policy and his critique of Indian policymaking will reverberate through the corridors of Indian polity. For a strategic community which continues to tell the world about the consistency in Indian foreign policy and how effective that has been in the pursuit of Indian interests, Jaishankar’s speech stands as a profound corrective. When he says that “the balance sheet for India’s foreign policy after seven decades presents a mixed picture,” he is underlining the fact that consistency can be overrated in foreign policy.

It’s not that such a critique has not been made of Indian foreign policy in the past, but the fact that it is being made by an insider, as someone who has been a part of the foreign policy establishment for the past several decades and now stands at the acme of decision-making, should inevitably lead to greater debate.

Jaishankar’s assessment of the changing global environment is apt and its impact on Indian foreign policy is already very visible. But while the External Affairs Minister dissects the challenges for Indian diplomacy in a remarkably candid and sophisticated manner, there still seems an inherent reluctance to fully follow through the logic of his own arguments. In some ways, it is understandable. For a good politician, it is imperative to recognize the political challenges and constraints in shaping a policy response.

Therefore, perhaps Jaishankar’s assessment of India’s discomfort with hard power and the need for greater realism in policy is followed up by a call to engaging multiple players so as to maximize options and expand space. And this leads him to conclude that while “hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods, or multiple engagements of the future,” it remains an imperative for Indian foreign policy in a multi-polar world.

He acknowledges the inherent contradictions in India’s engagements in multiple groupings or with multiple actors, but he doesn’t underline fully the costs of this approach which is, in his own words, “a challenge for practitioners and analysts alike.” It is true that in this era of extreme global fluidity, all nations are engaged in diplomatic promiscuity. Even a supposedly normative power like the European Union is keen to emerge as a geopolitical actor and is willing to enter into issue-based coalitions. This is very similar to the Indian foreign policy template of “issue-based alignments.”

But as Jaishankar says, it is absolutely critical to read the global tea leaves right because “even if we are to get our immediate situation right, a misreading of the larger landscape can prove costly.” India’s regional balance of power is evolving dramatically and largely in a direction which doesn’t support Indian interests.

A rising China is challenging India in ways that is unlikely to be managed by merely hedging, especially as the balance of power between the two Asian giants is not likely to be in India’s favour for the next decade and more. The question for New Delhi really is, what’s the most efficacious way of bringing its ends and means into balance to manage China’s rise.

Despite this caution, Jaishankar has managed to convey a seriousness of purpose in his speech which has been lacking in official Indian pronouncements. He could do this as well as question key policy decisions of the past primarily because of the political shift in the country with the ascendance of the centre-right. Indian foreign policy is changing and will continue to evolve not only because the global environment is changing more rapidly than ever but also because India is changing. It is this changing India that made it possible for Jaishankar to deliver the kind of speech he delivered, and it is this changing India which will force our policymakers to shed “the dogmas of Delhi.”

While traditionalists in the Indian foreign policy establishment will find much to critique in this outlook outlined by Jaishankar, a healthy and honest debate on Indian foreign policy priorities and its past successes and failures is long overdue. Better late than never!

(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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