While it would be easy to get lost in theorising about the basic tenets of foreign policy or mired in endless debates about hard vs. soft power, it might be more advantageous to move away from these purely theoretical discussions and constructs, and look at foreign policy from the perspective of a practitioner. A few things become self-evident. Unlike in the past when one could distinguish between domestic policy and foreign policy, they can no longer be seen as separate, water-tight compartments, and can often be seen to be inextricably intertwined: this is true not merely of relations with neighbouring countries where such interface would perhaps be stronger than in other cases.
The truism that the foreign policy of any country is determined by its geography, history and the culture and traditions of its people remains true in the case of India too. The pursuit of national interest would seem to demand that India aim at increasing its influence, power and standing, and project it on the global platform [others respect only strengths] while recognising that the mirror image can be only as good as the original. Foreign policy should contribute to creating an environment which would help India achieve 7 to 9 per cent annual rate of growth so as to overcome the worst forms of mass poverty and deprivation, disease and ignorance; ensure a peaceful periphery; and expand options, opportunities and choices, both for the nation and for its citizens.
Without doubt, India has a vested interest in the peace and prosperity of its neighbourhood; and in developing and strengthening relations with major powers. In sum, India’s foreign policy aims at preserving and enhancing the strategic autonomy of the nation, which enables us to pursue our national interests by ensuring and expanding a range of options and provides it with the necessary policy space to deal with the challenges posed by the external environment and to pursue inclusive growth and ensuring dignity and security for all its citizens.
India exerts efforts in creating a benign, facilitating and conducive external environment for its continued economic growth and socio-economic development so as to derive maximum possible benefits from the existing international system; reform of the system, if any, should serve India’s long-term interests. India wishes to utilise trade and access to financial resources and intellectual property and technology for achieving the requisite growth and sharp increases in savings and investment rates, and for building up and modernising infrastructure in its broadest sense, from road networks to broadband connections. For this purpose, access to concessional finance, wherever possible, financial markets and credit institutions, and access to natural, technological, and other resources are essential. Facilitating such access is one of the paramount objectives of Indian diplomacy. Another important requisite for development is knowledge and skill development. Food security and energy security are two other imperatives which take us to hydrocarbons – coal, oil and natural gas, in addition to hydroelectric and nuclear. Finally, foreign policy is integral to national security in its broadest sense and defence policy.
In the distant past, some countries used to practise isolationism as a matter of deliberate policy choice. In today’s inter-connected world, insularity is not an option; the reality and imperative of inter-dependence is over-whelming. In other words, we have no choice but to expand friendly relations with all countries to the maximum extent possible – political/strategic; economic/commercial; cultural; and defence. This would apply to almost all cases except one or two isolated ones where the relations have been historically adversarial and where too this may apply, albeit only partially. We need to strive constantly to expand areas of agreement and minimise areas of disagreement with other countries. We have to learn to deal with differences respectfully. We should adapt to situations where competition and co-operation go hand in hand, without the former adversely affecting the latter to a considerable degree.
Permanent interests would dictate continuity in foreign policy; for this we need to have a clear understanding of national interest, broadly defined. We would need to stress our strengths: robust democracy; diversity, pluralism and tolerance, fundamental rights and basic human freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and made justiceable; independent, vigilant and vibrant media; active civil society; independent judiciary and the independence of Constitutional authorities like the Comptroller and Auditor-General [CAG], the Central Vigilance Commission [CVC] and the Chief Election Commissioner [CEC] and the Election Commission. Rights-based institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Child Rights Commission have done us proud. We would need to underplay our structural and other weaknesses, and develop somewhat convincing explanations for them in instances such as regionalism and the rise of regional leaders [empowerment]; caste-based discrimination [challenges of implementation]; and other forms of serious human rights violations and persisting forms of discrimination.
The security and welfare of members of the Indian community in different countries abroad is a responsibility of those in charge of India’s foreign policy. This manifests itself through different ways, the most important of which are passport and consular services, consular access and assistance for stranded Indians and those apprehended and detained by local authorities for alleged violation of local laws and regulations, and at times, Indians on short visits to the countries concerned who lose their travel documents and so on. The responsibility for maintaining and nurturing close relations with the Indian-origin community in different countries also primarily falls on the shoulders of the Ministry of External Affairs and its Missions and Posts abroad.
The tools and instrumentalities required for dealing with bilateral and multilateral relations are somewhat different, and these require different orientations and training. The multilateral tracks often appear painfully slow and diffuse; however, as long as the interests to defend and promote are clearly identified, it becomes an easy task. Multilateral diplomacy is critical as it plays the most important role in global norm-setting and rule-making where developing countries have been struggling over the past several decades to have their voices heard.