External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar has brilliantly summarised the six phases of Indian foreign policy from 1947 to 2014 and put what needs to be done in the changed international order into five baskets in his recent Ramnath Goenka Lecture. The analysis of the past was objective and precise with instances of success when imaginative and bold steps were taken and failures when dogma determined policy or a single formula was applied again and again, expecting different results. The clear message was that innovative out of the box solutions should be sought to meet new challenges, ranging from terrorism to climate change. Coming as it did from an experienced practitioner of diplomacy, the argument easily carried conviction.
In a well chiseled lecture, Jaishankar laid out the rationale and indispensability of the foreign policy that emerged after 2014. Successes like Bangladesh in 1971, reformist policies of 1992, the 1998 nuclear tests and the 2005 India-US nuclear deal were remembered as instances of out of the box thinking and courage, while failure to resolve issues with China in the 1950s, 1962 defeat at the hands of China, the lack of response to 26/11, etc. were seen as missed chances on account of lack of introspection and imagination. In a subtle way, he hinted that the present Government would have dealt with these situations with greater dexterity.
The division of the period since independence into six phases is both convenient and accurate. Each of these phases has its own characteristics depending on the leaders of the time, but continuity and constancy, bordering on dogma may have been responsible for India remaining on the sidelines when it would have been better to wade into the water. Those phases led India into the present phase, beginning with 2014, which demanded more energetic diplomacy, particularly on account of dramatic changes in the world and the growth of India as an economic power and a relevant technology leader from whom much was expected. In other words, new policies and initiatives of the Modi Government grew out of the challenges of change.
A good part of the lecture was dedicated to identify the changes in the world, which made it insane for India to do something over and over again, expecting different results. Apart from the total unpredictability of the US, the rise of China, Brexit shenanigans, decline of multilateralism, increased connectivity, the beginnings of a multipolar world, Jaishankar spoke of return of empires like Russia, Turkey and Iran. All these changes made non-alignment an anachronism and multi-alignments essential. India had to align itself with different countries for different agendas. India’s fight against terrorism went beyond mere protestations, but stern action even in the face of a nuclear threat from Pakistan and the anxiety over the possibility of a nuclear war would entail around the world.
Jaishankar identified five baskets of issues, some necessitating a test of wills, some requiring the leveraging of global environment for economic reasons, some demanding hedging, some requiring high risk endeavours in diplomacy and some others making it imperative for us to read the global tea leaves right in the backdrop of global contradictions.
A new grit and enthusiasm pervaded the present policy as a sum total of experiences, involving successes and failures of the past. He said that the new phase of foreign policy under PM Modi could not be neatly classified except as a period of multi-alignment. It was too early to assess outcomes as we were in the initial phase of transition even after five years. “With more confidence, the pursuit of seemingly divergent goals and straddling contradictions are being anticipated,” he said.
One surprising element in the lecture was his emphasis that our problems in formulating and implementing a new foreign policy were not external factors, but the “dogmas of Delhi.” Is there a particular dogma that PM Modi had found hard to overcome? Was his disappointment over not being able to manage the neighbourhood or his failure to secure permanent membership of the Security Council or membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group on account of any dogma? Did any dogma come in the way of his handling Howdy Modi, Mamallapuram and Vladivostok? If anything, there was general support for his foreign policy beyond his support base.
The lecture was not in chronological order, making it a mix of events moving back and forth. The ideological content, if any, in it was hidden away in the narration across timelines. It did not have any pretension to a doctrine. It also did not outline an agenda except to expect the unexpected in the volatile world of diplomacy. But he gave a hint of what might come when he asserted that “a nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities.” But these are tall orders for a country living in, to borrow Kissinger’s words, a “tough neighbourhood.” The lecture, however, will remain an excellent source of ideas that we shall see in action in the near future.
Jaishankar did not mention the Prime Minister and did not quote from him, but the lecture was obviously an agenda for the next five years. The path ahead would demand improvisation and flexibility and the message was that the Government would be ready to move ahead with the necessary human and other resources. Hopefully the immense intellectual capital at the disposal of the Indian Foreign Service would be fully deployed without diluting it by lateral entry from outside.