Seventy Five Years of Indian Foreign Policy: Key Successes, and the Gaps That Still Remain

Indian diplomacy has been bold and innovative but today's challenges require another reworking of statecraft in pursuit of the country's 'unvarying concerns' – safeguarding its sovereignty and overcoming poverty.

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As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?

The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition? 

Follow us for the next few days to get a rounded view of India@75.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Writing on “India and the World” in Foreign Affairs for the 25th anniversary of independence in 1972, Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, drew attention to India’s two “unvarying concerns” — “to safeguard our independence and to overcome the blight of poverty.” Indian society was to be modernised without loss of the Indian personality.

Mrs Gandhi was writing in the afterglow of the remaking of the subcontinent’s geopolitics in 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh. Much of her essay was therefore devoted to South Asia. In her moment of victory, she assured the world that India did not intend to recapture Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by force. She also said that India wanted better relations with China, despite China’s attitude during the Bangladesh crisis and war.

Notice also what she did not say: there is no mention of worries about internal stability and its links to external security, of the opportunities that polarisation opens for outside actors to play a role in India’s internal security, and of how it limits India’s room for external manoeuvre. Other than Naxalbari at that time, there was perhaps little about internal stability that she would list as a permanent concern.

We have come a long way since then. The world and India have changed. Yet, our preoccupations with Pakistan and China and the subcontinent have not changed. And the two unvarying concerns remain. Judged against these metrics, how has Indian foreign policy performed?

Chinese incursions challenge territorial integrity

By the first criterion of safeguarding our independence, India has been successful despite drastic changes in the situation around us—the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation, the rise of a powerful China, and the diminishing role of multilateral norms and institutions. At the broadest level, India has not only safeguarded her independence but has also increased her options and role in the international system. By following a policy of non-alignment during the Cold War, and of strategic autonomy thereafter, India has leveraged her growing capabilities to relatively good effect internationally.

The world is again at another turning point and the effectiveness of previous policies and habits seems to be diminishing. Unlike the recent past, multiple Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the western sector in 2020 are being consolidated and show no signs of being vacated in response to India’s diplomatic and military counter-measures. So, while India’s independence is not in doubt, her territorial integrity is still challenged, with even Nepal raising new territorial claims recently.

Rate of economic transformation has slowed

By the second criterion of overcoming the blight of poverty, Indian foreign policy plays a facilitating and enabling role, helping domestic policy to achieve its goals. Here the record is more mixed. While some may rue missed opportunities, for several decades since the ‘70s Indian foreign policy has provided the necessary security and peace to enable India to concentrate effort on domestic transformation. The results were spectacular during the high growth years, with India pulling 140 million people out of poverty in the first decade of this century. By most metrics of power, in the last 40 years India improved her position vis-à-vis every other significant country, with the exception of China, which did even better. Here again, however, since 2012, the rate of transformation has slowed. Despite past successes, we still have a long way to go before we can say that we have eliminated the blight of poverty and built an inclusive and plural society that serves every citizen’s needs.

Today, the international environment is no longer as conducive to India’s economic interests, even though the integration of India into the world economy means that the external sector is much more important to India today than it was before. For various reasons, including resource endowment, India needs the world’s energy and commodity supplies, technology and capital, access to markets, and an open international trading system if we are to succeed in eliminating the blight of poverty in India and creating a modern, self-confident society where every Indian has the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Other gaps which still remain

If India’s concerns are unvarying, and we have – at the broadest level – had some success in dealing with them so far, a more granular look at the foreign policy record suggests some evident lacunae.

Whatever the causes, we are yet to find even a mutually acceptable modus vivendi with Pakistan, let alone a settlement of disputes and differences or the sort of relationship that Jinnah envisaged when he spoke of Pakistan being to India as Canada is to the United States.

In the broader subcontinent, on the other hand, we have shown an ability to evolve and adapt. As South Asia gets drawn into great power rivalry between the US and China, we must expect outside interests and influences to complicate the politics of the subcontinent and will have to work harder to ensure the tranquil periphery that India’s continued transformation requires in our immediate neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region.

Over 75 years we have had successes and failures in our relationship with China. This patchy record runs from war in the Himalayas to periods of relative stability. Today, we are witness to a continuing buildup of Chinese infrastructure and troops – some of it on the Indian side of the LAC – with little prospect of an early resolution. The future of our relationship with China is more uncertain than it has been for many years.

In each of these cases, it takes two hands to clap, and not all the responsibility for less than satisfactory outcomes can be laid at the door of Indian foreign policy.

Let us learn from our successes too

Besides, even if there have been some less than glorious moments, the Indian foreign policy apparatus has displayed an ability to adjust and respond, to learn from experience and mistakes, and to reform itself. Whether it is military reform after 1962, or the separation of external intelligence after 1965, or the creation of new instruments of economic diplomacy after 1991, or the emphasis on national technical means after Kargil, the Indian state has shown a greater ability to adapt to external challenges than it has to internal challenges. It appears likely that we will need much more of this as the world and the balance of power around us continues to change rapidly.

While we have learnt from setbacks, sometimes learning from success seems harder. It is probably time to study and learn from the successes in building India’s relations with Bangladesh in the last decade and a half, from those times when the China relationship was managed productively, from the remarkable transformation – across governments and administrations – of India-US relations, and from India’s long-haul nuclear diplomacy, to name just a few instances.

At the level of grand strategy or statecraft, Indian diplomacy has been bold, innovative and successful. By this I mean the choice of non-alignment as a policy at the inception of the bipolar Cold War, and the multi-directional strategic autonomy in the post-Cold War globalising world.

Today’s world, adrift between orders, requires another reworking of statecraft in pursuit of the two unvarying concerns that Mrs Indira Gandhi wrote about in 1972. The challenge continues.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from 2010 to May 2014.