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During the eventful campaign for the legislative elections, the candidates hardly mentioned India’s external affairs and defence, areas which are so crucial at a time when India aspires to become of superpower.
Take the recent spat between India and Vietnam.
Last week, after China attempted to install an oil rig near a disputed island, claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi in South China Sea, the spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi stated: ‘We have been following with concern recent developments in the South China Sea. We believe that maintenance of peace, stability, growth and prosperity in the region is of vital interest to the international community”.
His Chinese counterpart, Hua Chunying answered a few days later saying the Indian people need ‘not worry too much’ about the issue.
Fine, but India is facing similar expansionism issues in Ladakh; should the new Government not worry for its own territory too?
It was how Nehru’s government handled the situation in the 1950’s. Not only did the ‘not-to-worry’ attitude not solve the issue, but it made it far worse.
The BJP manifesto affirmed that the new government plans to “reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals, content and process …We will build a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India, regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations.”
That is not an easy thing!
In an interesting analysis in The Times of India, Indrani Bagchi quotes some of Modi’s advisors who suggest that ‘export promotion’ and ‘defence’ should be added to the script of the MEA: “While the US is rightly accused of over-militarising its foreign policy, India leans too far in the opposite direction. Think Colin Powell,” Bagchi writes.
It is not sure if the Indian MEA can think ‘Powell’, but one can hope that at least the MoD will think ‘military’. A small sentence in the BJP manifesto could indeed make a difference for India’s preparedness: “Ensure greater participation of Armed Forces in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence”.
After years of hibernation, it may not be easy for the new government to find individuals who have the capacity to breathe a new life into the dusty offices of South Block; old habits will not disappear in a day. Hopefully the next Prime Minister will find some ‘rare birds’ who will be able to rejuvenate the MEA and the MoD.
Another issue will be to find long-term and reliable partners.
In order to rebalance India’s foreign policy, India should deepen its relations with old friends such as Japan, Vietnam or France, who are aware of the consequences of ‘expansionism’.
The way Delhi will deal with China may show her true status in the world. When Nehru abdicated India’s responsibility in Tibet, he lost the consideration and respect from most African and Asian countries.
India has today the means to assume her new status; hopefully the new political leadership should have the will too.
The diplomatic field is particularly crucial and worth looking at. The question is, can the present Foreign Service be an effective tool for the ‘major power in-becoming’?
At the outset, it is important to define what a ‘major power’ is.
Is it a moral power (like Nehru wanted India to be in the 1950’s); a scientific/innovator power (like Finland and the Noika experience); a soft cultural power (like Buddhist India during Ashoka’s times); a military power (like the US today, and to a lesser extent, the People’s Republic of China) or an economic power (like several emerging nations)? In today’s world, it is all these attributes together.
It is true that in the past India has been a soft-power; she has exported her philosophy and civilization far away upto Central Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia and elsewhere.
Not only does the Indian civilisational input seem to have been forgotten by most of the Asian nations, but in today’s world, it is not really enough to be ‘soft’ alone.
We are living today in the age of globalization and ‘economy’ is the main factor taken in consideration to determine if a nation is a ‘big’ or an insignificant power.
In the 1990s, India emerged as a power to reckon with. It was mainly due to the economic ‘liberalization’ introduced by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao; suddenly out of the straitjacket of Soviet-type planned economy, India started blooming.
The main turning point was Pokharan II.
On May 11, 1998, Operation Shakti was carried out. ‘Shakti’ was the codename of a thermonuclear device which was exploded in the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan. Though this resulted in several sanctions against India by a number of major states, on that day, India entered the club of those who ‘have it’.
Interestingly, western nations then began to dissociate India and Pakistan; earlier, the equation had been purposefully kept by some ‘powerful’ nations, particularly the United States, and create a ‘balance’ in the subcontinent.
An interesting research was published a few years ago by Daniel Markey, a Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. Markey pointed out some of the issues which prevent India’s diplomacy to grow:
- expand, reform, pay, and train the Indian Foreign Service to attract and retain high-caliber officers.
- encourage the growth of world-class social science research and teaching schools in India through partnerships with private organizations.
- invest in Indian think-tanks and exchange programs that build capacity for foreign policy research.
- bring non-career officers into the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and other parts of the foreign policy establishment as term-limited fellows to improve outside understanding of the policy process.
- support the efforts of Indian researchers to maximize public access to material related to the history of India’s foreign policy.
The next government will have to deal with this.
Is it possible to make the Indian Foreign Service more responsive?
This is a serious issue which has to be tackled if India is to bloom and become a ‘major’ power. The mindset has to change; it is the only way for India to become a truly ‘major’ power. And this new approach should not prevail in the Foreign Service, it should spread to the government in general and the Indian society at large.
India’s China policy will be an indicator to show if India is really able to become a nation that matters.