Ambition, intellectual stamina, footwork, mental agility and a capacity to read and enable trends are foreign policy basics. If India can ride them, converting everything into self-interest, we’re in business. At peak performance, it’s called “strategic leverage" in diplomatic parlance, something that is best used sparingly, ideally unseen.
If India does not seize the opportunity now opening up, the myopia will hurt. Both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance must agree on the course ahead and it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s responsibility to consult, construct and lead. An ordinary Indian like most of us, he must cut through 70 years of Congress misrule. Rise. We voted for you.
For too long, India’s foreign policy has been Pakistan-centric, right down to beating them at organizing better birthday parties. Facetious? No, real. Entire generations of diplomats and journalists have made careers out of Pakistan-bashing in international forums like adolescents scoring debating points. “India slammed Pakistan" and “India thrashed Islamabad" are some examples of this silliness. New Delhi said it never wanted to make Kashmir an international issue but by repeating that ad nauseam, it did just that. It’s high time that changes. Pakistan has now boxed itself into a corner. Nations recognize it as a necessary evil with terror being its sole ATM. Secure your interests, India, but move on.
There’s moving on to do. There are many reasons for this, the most important one being economic. Post-war multilateral systems are failing and questions are being raised about whose interests the Bretton Woods organizations serve if not that of the richest. Why do some countries remain permanently frozen in a spiral of under- development and poverty for decades? Does the United Nations (UN) serve the world?
This century is Asia’s and India is poised to make a push. Poise must not be mistaken for posturing. I refer to power and the capacity to go out and secure what’s best for India at every opportunity. That’s what intelligent foreign policy is—direction and deftness that follow clarity of purpose, a clear understanding of whom New Delhi can trust when push comes to shove and the wisdom to keep enemies closer than friends. As trade and commerce clash with the rights and responsibilities of nations, developing a deeper relationship with the US government should be a priority, not dependence. The world’s strongest free market needs the world’s largest free market in a relationship of mutual respect.
In tandem, New Delhi must decide where its key poles of focus for growth and prosperity are. Oil is a case in point. India has been under US pressure to stop buying Iranian oil in a demand that is as ridiculous as it is petulant. For now, India is holding its own. The next few months will speak to that resolve. The world is watching.
Largely unreported in the Anglo-Saxon media, Eurasia is on the move. Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a long and deep game, as is his habit, as is China’s Xi Jinping, and both giants are linking each other’s territories where convenient by land and sea, road and rail. It’s a fascinating weave and I suggest our mandarins get an inside track on that. India has to be part of every process in and around it. The time to sulk is over. Beijing is now dictating European policy via Greece, and most recently, Italy broke ranks with the G-7 to hold hands with China in a move that had dollars written all over it. “Money talks, wealth whispers" is not a string of smart words. It’s foreign policy.
India competing with China is futile. Beijing is on another plane economically, politically and militarily, as is Russia, and both are not democracies. However, there’s one area India can occupy in Eurasia—that of global mindspace to push for a world order that better reflects today’s world, a coming together of a comity of nations where self-interest and related regional interests intertwine. It is possible to be enlightened even if that means making a virtue out of a necessity.
Modi said India’s trade and foreign policy moves would be seen and felt. Good. May I suggest, sir, that we start with a Europe eager to partner with India? Why not strengthen India’s relationship with the European Union (EU)? The EU is one of India’s largest trade partners, accounting for some 12.9% of total Indian trade. For the EU, India is one of its top ten traders. This is behind China and the US, but all gains in diplomacy are not monetary. Confidence building and leadership count as much. Trade between India and the EU has increased by 72% in the last decade. More is possible. Ten EU countries have a trade surplus, while 18 have deficits, and among these, the largest deficits are of the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. In the service sector, India is the fourth largest exporter to the EU, while for Brussels, India is its sixth largest destination. The EU’s investments in India are growing and balancing out a belligerent US and dense China could be among the reasons.
Critical issues of global governance, including sustainable development, technology and innovation, international peace and security as well as strategic alliances in Eurasia are cards India must garner and use. India’s strongest card is its democracy. Europeans understand that as much as they do the price of peace and economic stability, their strongest unifier. An Indo-European leadership could be a winning combination.
India’s two self-inflicted problems must go. The absence of genuine ambition and its corollary in lack of confidence. We don’t know how to sell ourselves with dignity and quiet pride and swirl in fishbowls of brashness and bravado. Foreign policy is hard work, most of it underground, with flashes visible only when strategically necessary. Please learn.
New Delhi’s path is clear. Don’t give Pakistan more importance than it deserves. Induct talent in the foreign office that is young and free. Finally, be steadily ambitious. Without that, foreign policy will be files and resolutions and self-defeating Pakistan-bashing at the UN.
Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning journalist and author