October 5, 2008
The Vajpayee-Manmohan Doctrine
The following essay originally appeared in the October 2008 edition of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review.
The Moorings of Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has it that India lacks a foreign policy strategy or doctrine; that is,some sort of overarching framework within which a set of prioritised foreign policy objectives, widely accepted as being in the national interest, can be accomplished. Several analysts have pointed to parliamentary bickering on issues such as the India-US nuclear agreement, competing visions of the national interest articulated by various political parties, and conflicting statements by senior leaders as evidence of a fractured, disorganised and inchoate foreign policy.
However, many of these perceived shortcomings can be attributed to other factors—India's notorious bureaucratic blocks, widespread political opportunism, and frequently contradictory and ambiguous government rhetoric —rather than actual foreign policy schizophrenia. Moreover, this argument is predicated upon a scarcity of information and derives from taking public statements at face value, rather than a careful analysis of India's foreign policy track record.
Extrapolating from the Indian government's behaviour, rather than its statements, reveals a starkly different picture. Indian actions over the past decade are demonstrative of a new foreign policy strategy, one that is remarkably resilient, refreshingly free of ideological divisions, and reflective of a clear understanding both of India's national interests and the country's still-limited potential.
It took a 1992 study by American George Tanham, "Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay", to expose India's anaemic strategic culture. The "lacunae in strategy and planning" in India, according to Tanham, resulted largely from India's history of disunity and from uniquely Hindu concepts of time and life. At that time of the study's publication, much of Tanham's analysis rang painfully true, and several leading Indian strategic thinkers, including General K Sundarji and K Subrahmanyam, more or less agreed with him. But in the decade following the publication of his study, India also began to experience a radical reorientation of its foreign policy, a result of seven formative experiences between 1990 and 2002.
First, the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka in 1990 scarred India’s security establishment, making it reluctant to intervene directly in the internal affairs of other states, including its smaller neighbours. The intervention in Sri Lanka found little support within India and many questioned its necessity. The effect proved so traumatic that over a decade later, when Nepal—perhaps the country most socially and economically integrated with India—was afflicted by revolution and violence targeting Indian nationals, there was very little, if any, public debate in favour of military intervention.
Second, the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 reinforced in India a distrust of alliances, even informal ones. Today India frames its relationships in terms of "strategic partnerships", an empty term connoting serious engagement rather than any form of alliance. According to the Ministry of External Affairs' recent annual reports, India has strategic partnerships with countries as diverse as Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nigeria and Brazil. Yet those same reports make no mention of a strategic partnership with Israel, arguably now India's closest defence collaborator, due primarily to perceived domestic constraints.
Third, economic reforms beginning in 1991 led to India reaping the benefits of a strong economy, and added growth as a vital factor in India's foreign policy. Within a decade, economic development evolved into a significant motivating factor in India's engagement with both Pakistan and China, despite continuing disputes over territory. Economic imperatives were also largely responsible for India’s Look East policy and its development of relations with the United States, Japan and the European Union.
Fourth, India’s overt nuclearisation following the Pokhran-II tests of 1998 minimised the possibility of India being forced to give up territory by military means. With security vis-à-vis other states largely guaranteed by the development of a strategic deterrent, national prosperity was also gradually pushed to the forefront as a foreign policy objective.
Fifth, Pakistani aggression at Kargil in 1999, and the overwhelming support the Indian government received domestically and externally, reinforced the political importance of maintaining Indian sovereignty. In addition, US backing led Indian policy-makers to believe that the American-led world order, previously something to be feared, could potentially be amenable to Indian interests and objectives.
Sixth, the rising spectre of religious extremism and separatism, represented by large-scale terrorist attacks and independence movements during the 1990s, caused India to include the defence of secularism and pluralism as a foreign policy consideration. India has since taken steps to counter the spread of Islamic extremism, often in conjunction with like-minded powers, in countries such as Afghanistan. It has also been consistently wary of supporting ethnic-fuelled independence movements, such as those in East Timor, Kosovo and South Ossetia. From India’s perspective, these movements represent potentially dangerous precedents.
Finally, Operation Parakram—the border mobilisation against Pakistan in 2002—demonstrated the limited utility of military force in attaining national objectives, especially after the introduction of nuclear weapons into the region. The peace overtures that succeeded Operation Parakram and the apparent unwillingness by the Indian security establishment to operationalise the army's Cold Start doctrine are demonstrative of India's willing subordination of military means to diplomatic endeavours.
It was not until the Pokhran-II tests, six years after Tanham's study, that India witnessed a serious and wide-ranging debate on a comprehensive national strategy for the country. By the time the Communist-backed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came into power and attempted to continue where the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) left off in its dealings with other states, India’s foreign policy had taken on firm direction, and an awkward period of transition had come to an end.
The experiences of the last two decades have distilled a set of foreign policy means and objectives which can be gleaned from almost all Indian foreign policy actions, although not always from its rhetoric. These include a prioritisation of the country's economic development, an emphasis on diplomacy, a strict maintenance of Indian sovereignty, a distrust of alliances, a consideration of balances of power, an abstention from direct interference in the internal affairs of other states, and a willingness to bilaterally engage all states, including those with competing interests.
The result is in essence a realist foreign policy, although adapted for the realities of the 21st century and India's particular geopolitical environment. India's policy of minimum credible deterrence, for example, flows directly out of these tenets, as does its military development and its omnidirectional commercial and diplomatic engagement. Undertakings such as the India-US nuclear agreement, the defence relationship with Israel and the composite dialogue with Pakistan are all key aspects of this foreign policy. Several scholars have attempted to describe and label it, using terms such as pragmatism, realism, modernism and neo-liberalism. The dominant framework for India's global interactions since at least 2002 (and arguably since 1998), it can be thought of as the Vajpayee-Manmohan Doctrine.
This formulation of India’s foreign policy will likely prove contentious. Some will argue that the UPA leadership deserves all the credit for accelerating India’s movement forward despite significant political constraints. Others will contend that the UPA government simply built upon changes effected by the NDA leadership. In fact, several senior officials of both governments—such as Brajesh Mishra, JN Dixit and Shyam Saran—provided significant contributions to the development of this foreign policy doctrine. While there were indeed occasional differences between the two governments in enacting various foreign policies, these were essentially questions of degree.
Both the NDA and the UPA coalitions embraced nuclear minimalism, closer co-operation with the United States, engagement with Pakistan, defence collaboration with Israel and Russia, the Look East policy and South-South co-operation. India's track record compares favourably with most other large democracies in the past decade, including the United States, Germany, France, Australia and Japan, where differences over definitions of the national interest have been significantly deeper in terms of substance as well as rhetoric.
The circumstances in India have always been favourable to the development of a foreign policy doctrine. Most of India's foreign policy is crafted by a few small, overlapping agencies, led by the Prime Minister's Office, the Cabinet Committee on Security and the Ministry of External Affairs. Consisting of career bureaucrats, with politicians forming only the topmost layer, India's foreign policy structure is also relatively devoid of partisanship and prone to continuity. Of course, as can be expected in a healthy democracy such as India's, there are competing visions of India's priorities and objectives.
On the one hand, you have hawkish nationalistic realists who place an emphasis on India's military development and are dismissive of diplomatic and commercial engagement with other states. They frequently ignore economic considerations, the effects of globalisation and the changing nature of power in the international system. At the other end of the spectrum are idealists who prioritise multilateral policies, favour economic autarky, and are desirous of altering the world order rather than working within it. They overlook the benefits of economic development, downplay the difficulties of working against the prevailing world order, and view the world in Manichean blacks and whites.
By neglecting increasingly important economic imperatives, setting unrealistic objectives and regarding the world as essentially hostile, both world-views are ill-equipped for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Moreover, both fringes have little to boast of in terms of political bases, and have even less cachet with the largely self-selecting upper reaches of the bureaucratic hierarchy. While their voices may continue to resonate loudly, and may continue to be used for domestic political purposes, they are unlikely to significantly influence key policy decisions by governments in power.
Dismantling the Black Box
The development of a foreign policy doctrine is both an ambitious and an accidental process, a slave as much to circumstance as to strategic acumen. The United States, for example, developed the doctrine of containment at the dawn of the Cold War, when its global objectives were clearly defined. After 1991, the United States found itself lacking a single global threat and the Clinton administration's ‘enlargement and engagement’ and George Bush's ‘global war on terror’ both failed to adequately replace containment as a doctrine. Today, American strategists are still struggling to craft a workable paradigm for the 21st century.
Conservatives have been attempting unsuccessfully to merge aspects of realism with liberal-democratic idealism. American liberals, meanwhile, are desperately attempting to breathe new life into failing international institutions, often too rigid and ill-equipped to deal with many global problems. Both attempt to cling to old alliance structures which are unable to function as they did during the Cold War.
India's first foreign policy strategy was Nehru's non-alignment, which proved suitable for a large but poor country in the context of the early Cold War. Non-alignment gradually gave way after the 1962 war with China to the Indira Doctrine, which emphasised Indian primacy in South Asia through more aggressive bilateral dealings with regional states. The current Vajpayee-Manmohan Doctrine draws upon contributions made by predecessors including PV Narasimha Rao and IK Gujral, but has altered priorities, broadened some tenets, and adapted others for changing circumstances.
The Vajpayee-Manmohan Doctrine is likely to serve India well in the coming decades, enabling a fluidity that is not always compatible with formal alliance structures, such as those favoured by the United States. It is unilateral, premised upon the realities of the rapidly-evolving international system, and calculated to yield long-term benefits. It can be easily defended as beneficial both to India's citizenry and to the world at large. Finally, it provides India with a little-appreciated ability to rise “under the radar”. Other than perhaps Pakistan and China, India’s neighbours cannot be said to be hedging against its rise. Contrast this to China, which has states hedging against it all along its periphery. Moreover, several regional actors—particularly in South-East Asia—appear eager to accommodate India and foster its advancement.
Despite these advantages, South Block's approach to articulating and defending its foreign policy remains sadly antiquated. A black box of bureaucrats topped by cagey politicians, India's foreign policy apparatus is a throwback to a time when the bureaucracy and political classes corresponded with India's intellectual elite. It was a time when India could have afforded to craft its foreign policy in a black box, with little outside interest, analysis or criticism.
Today, India is home to a range of extragovernmental actors—journalists, academics, NGOs, advocates and consultants—who have yet to be comfortably incorporated into its policymaking structure. The National Security Advisory Board represents one half-hearted attempt, which while imbued with much capability is also deliberately granted no formal decision-making power. The lack of quality in the Indian academic system is also partly responsible, with scholars rarely able to shape foreign policy in a manner comparable to their Western counterparts.
While there are certainly benefits to not revealing one’s intentions, the genesis of the Internet and 24-hour television news channels have exponentially increased the need for the government to articulate and explain policy both to domestic constituents and to the international community. The inarticulateness of official government spokesmen on foreign policy issues, the absence of white papers and the opacity of the government enable a gross misreading of India's intentions and desires. For external actors and analysts, deciphering Indian foreign policy remains a difficult task. Forced conjectures, often deeply misleading, are extracted from bland government statements, annual reports and speeches by senior officials, often meant to assuage critical domestic audiences. India's foreign and security policy structure, despite its successes, has mostly itself to blame for being an easy target for criticism.