Evaluation of India's foreign policy

Bipin Adhikari
November 11, 2011
Source: Spotlight Newsmagazine

Foreign policy is all about how a country acts politically, socially, economically, and militarily with respect to other countries on issues that are important to it. How such a country behaves towards non-state actors in furtherance of its interests also falls under the domain of foreign policy. As such, foreign policy may be defined as strategies chosen by a state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve its goals in international relations.

David M. Malone's new book – Does the Elephant Dance?: Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010) is a thorough and perceptive analysis of how a previously inward-oriented India is now handling its foreign policy and reaching out to the world. It explains the sources and conduct of India's contemporary international relations, and challenges that lie ahead.

Introducing the book, Malone points out that the international profile of India is on the rise because of its increasing economic significance. This significance has generated interests around the world over its foreign policy, regional concerns, and geo-strategic views. However, as of 2008, the author emphasizes, India's international relations have become noteworthy. "In that year India escaped from the partial international purdah into which its 1974 nuclear test and to a lesser extent its 1998 tests had consigned it, thanks to multilateral acceptance of its nuclear cooperation agreement with the USA. Thus, in the view of the author, "the timing of this volume … … might make it somewhat more than normally useful."

The book starts with the history of India's international relations. It addresses a number of problematic yet common myths regarding key features of Indian civilization. The centrality of India in the South Asian sub-continent has been noted with care. There is an in-depth analysis of what has been described as India's contemporary security challenges, both internal and external. The status of Indo-Pakistan relations, the China threat, the US partnership, and other challenges which have been explored are in the opinion of the author likely to remain largely beyond India's exclusive control. The challenges that are within reach of India, such as the economic exclusion of certain regions or ethnic groups, have been defined as serious for the future.

The author describes India's emerging economy as having game-changing capabilities. The country, in Malone's analysis is now half-way towards being in a position to seize the opportunity. Much will depend on the determination of leadership in Delhi. There is perceptive analysis of India's relation with South Asian neighbours in the book. Here the author makes a point that "India faces the challenges any regional hegemon does in engaging neighbours." There is an intelligent discussion on the Sino-Indian relationship – where he maintains that active engagement with China can help India to anticipate and defuse potential sources of conflict. Malone emphasizes: "A lot depends internationally on the ability of "these two tigers [India and China] to share the same mountain."

The book also delves into recent development in India USA relations. The history of this relationship, notes Malone, is as complex as it is varied, and is distinguished by a largely unsuccessful search for common ground. The new Indian drives on India's West Asia and South East Asia Policy have also been analysed giving due regards to recent change in perceptions and developments. There is some effort to map India's relationship with Europe and Russia. An important note of the author in this regard is that these relationships are in gentle decline compared to some others. Finally, there is an in-depth review of the evolution of Indian multilateralism – "from high ground to high table."

Malone has spent 28 pages to describe the relations between India and its South Asian neighbours. These countries are interconnected with close historical, religious, economic, ethnic and linguistic relationships. Yet, none of them has good relations with India. It is not because of its size, population, and sub-regional weight alone. The author notes that "several of India's neighbours are consequential states in their own right and reluctant to bow to Indian predominance or pressure." Thus, in his opinion, the challenge of managing asymmetry in India's neighbourhood relationship, within its notional 'sphere of influence' is both a real and serious one. This challenge has not been met with impressively. As Malone notes, India in the past occasionally displayed "brusque manners and rough tactics, with indifferent and sometimes counterproductive results."

The author has discussed Nepal, presumably as one of the smaller countries in the 'sphere of influence' of India. He has ignored the fact that the open border between India and Nepal, national treatment granted to the nationals of the other, and the 1950 treaty are all hegemonic exercises to which the Nepalese were forced to succumb to under pressure, rather than being consensual undertaking between two independent countries. The author's remark that this country was the ultimate guarantor of law and order for Nepal's government "through close links between the armed forces of the two countries", is simply the Indian position. This is not in the perception of any government of Nepal, or of its people.

Similarly, the author has chosen not to take stock of recent upheavals in Nepal, by which India has further re-enforced its hegemonic strategies by the use of violent and extremist forces. He refers to Indian politicians and bureaucrats expressing moral support to Madhesi campaign for autonomy, but overlooks the restructuring operations in Nepal to suit long term Indian interests. His remarks that Nepal's worries over "excessive Indian interference" suggest in turn that there are no worries over "moderate Indian interference." Apparently, the author is only restating Indian position again.

In the end, the conclusion of the author is as follows: "Time and history are on India's side as it struggles to recover from several centuries of foreign domination and its consequences. Its re-emergence, particularly if it manages its significant domestic challenges with success, will be one of the major shifts of the twenty-first century." There are immense possibilities, but there is a long way to go before the Indian elephant is really dancing.

The book is a well researched, lucid analysis of Indian foreign policy, and is as accessible to the ordinary reader as to the specialist. I recommend it to all interested South Asians.

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