Essay: Indian Foreign Policy: Its Basic Framework and Its Role in a Changing World Scenario


Essay: Indian Foreign Policy: Its Basic Framework and Its Role in a Changing World Scenario


Every country must have a foreign policy for a fuller and systematic involvement in the international relations. A state without foreign policy is like a ship without a rudder and will drift aimlessly without any direction buffeted by every storm and sweep of events.


A foreign policy creates a sense of purpose as well as the confidence to achieve that purpose.

Development of Thought:

India’s foreign policy has some distinctive character of its own. It is unique in the sense that after achieving independence in 1947, it chose to follow an independent foreign policy and to maintain its separate identity in a world surcharged with cold war alignments.

Non-alignment has become the conceptual frame work of India’s foreign policy. Indeed. India was the first nation to guide the Third World countries on the path of non-alignment.


Nehru, the chief architect of India’s foreign policy has succeeded in evolving a policy which has gave India diplomatic space in which it was able to retain autonomy of decision. Once again the country faces a new world with its own risks and opportunities, and we must resolve the situation afresh.

The changed context is at four levels: international (US, CIS, Germany and Japan): extra-regional (West-Asia/Gulf) regional (South Asia), and internal (Indian Politics).

Although successive Indian governments since 1983-84 have gradually increased their tilt towards the capitalist west and built on the Materialism, moralism and conservatism of America and India.

The differences between the cold war and the post cold war worlds and the Congressite and post-Congressite Indian political worlds are sharp and they merit a complete reassessment of Indian diplomatic interests and diplomatic strategy in the “mediate and Foreseeable future.


The Indian debate on foreign affairs needs sharpened, the contentious issues must be addressed, failing which Indian foreign affairs are likely to drift and remain personalized and ideologies.

If this pattern remains unchanged India’s emphasis on socialism, secularism and non-alignment may imprison it in a cold war framework and lead to its marginalization in world affairs along with NAM.


We can say with North edge, a “foreign policy is likely to achieve its aims if it is based as far as possible on accurate assessment of the facts if it is timely, in the long run and short-run senses of that word.


If it is as self consistent as the nature of foreign policy allows it to be; if understood and backed by relevant social forces at home, if supplemented by appropriate resources, and if smiled on by fortune”.

Economically and militarily India is far from being a major power, and it faces serious political and social problems which threaten its national unity and its cultural cohesiveness; but at the same time it has great present influence and even greater potential power.

It is the most populous of the non-communist nations of the world. It is the largest and probably the most important of the underdeveloped countries in an age when “the revolution of rising expectation” in underdeveloped areas is one of the most potent forces in an international politics.

India is the leading nation in the “uncommitted world”, a position which gives it a far greater influence than it would have if it is closely associated with either of the great “power blocs”.


Thus the importance of India in world affairs is enhanced by the nature of the existing world struggle and by India’s unique and somewhat detached position with respect to that struggle.

Having experienced three wars with Pakistan, and one with China, witnessing the erosion of “Afro-Asian solidarity” and seeing the world influence it commanded during the cold war weakened, India is less idealistic, moralistic, and doctrinaire than in the year in which Nehru dominated Indian foreign policy.

But the fundamental character of that policy-non-alignment has not changed.

Indian foreign policy is rooted in two traditions. One is that of British India, with a concern for the territorial integrity and security of South Asia, especially on the Himalayan frontiers.

The other is that of the Indian National Congress, evolved from the 1920s almost wholly under the direction of Nehru and focusing on the problems of world peace, anti-colonialism and anti-racism.

The foreign policy of Nehru has had enduring elements for both India and the world. India under his successors has adhered to the main premises stipulate by him, while the Non-Aligned Movement-a crystallization of which he might not have approved-has spread across the world, so broadly as even to lose its compact shape.

It can be argued that in a world without a cold war and with the heads c»f government of the United States and the former Soviet Union talking to each other directly, there is no need for the activities of non-aligned countries. But non-alignment is more than a technique of diplomacy.

It is a psychological state of mind, an assertion of the self-respect of peoples, a refusal to be directed by others as to what they should do. In that sense, non-alignment has become a part of the climate of global thought. It is to be found not only in the continents of the developing world but also today in all parts of Europe.

This is in a way the most striking long term achievement of Nehru’s ideas and aspirations in foreign policy.

Independent India began to lay stress on certain basic goals and principles in its foreign policy and foreign relations. These are: (1) promotion of international peace and security; (2) peaceful co-existence; (3) anti-colonialism; (4) anti – racialism; (5) peaceful settlement of disputes; (6) economic development, and (7) non-alignment.

The primary and over-riding goal of India’s foreign policy is maintenance of international peace and security. “Peace to us is not just a fervent hope; it is an emergent necessity,” said Nehru.

Peace was a necessity to India because without it India’s many sided development would have been hampered. In the atomic age, any nuclear war would destroy a large part of humanity. In the Indira view, peace was not merely absence of war. “It is a way of life and way off thinking and action,” said Nehru. “It can ‘only be established if we establish the climate of peace.”

Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of Indian foreign policy was tolerance of different views and attitudes, and moderation. In India’s view these qualities were not merely desirable but also essential in this atomic age. For the alternative to peaceful co-existence was “co-destruction”, as Nehru put it.

It was during the Nehru period that the principle of~ “Panchsheel” or peaceful co-existence was first enunciated in specific form in ‘he Sino-Indian Treaty on Tibet in April, 1954, and were stated in the joint declaration issued by Nehru and Choue En-Lai at the end of the visit if the Chinese Premier to India in June of the same year.

Since then they have been referred to in many subsequent joint statements and pronouncements by Indian spokesmen, and they have come to be symbolic of India’s views and approaches in world affairs.

As stated in the Sino-Indian Treaty and the Nehru-Choue En Lai declaration of 1954, the five principles were: Mutual respects for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; Non-aggression; Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit; and Peaceful co-existence.

There was, of course, nothing very novel about these principles which become current international coinage as Panchsheel. The novelty of India’s contribution lies in that it sought to make these principles the basis of practical state policy and conduct in international relations.

This meant essentially a willingness to live and work together with other nations and the desire and the attempt to effect a peaceful change with a friendly approach, with no fear, hatred or aggressive intent. It is essentially a democratic approach and outlook towards international affairs.

India had firmly adhered to the principles of peaceful co-existence and even its war with China in 1962 did not deter it from following these principles. For the practice of the policy of peaceful co-existence, it was believed, would herald a stable peace in the world by removing all suspicions.

Promotion of self-determination for all colonial peoples was another major goal of India’s foreign policy. This was necessary because all peoples, irrespective of race, religion and state of economic development or even civilization, were entitled to freedom as a matter of fundamental human right.

Furthermore, suppression of freedom was a threat to international peace. However, unlike some other nations. India did not demand an instantaneous solution to all colonial problems nor was it indifferent to the methods by which freedom was achieved its choice of means, determined by its own experience during the nationalist struggle, was in favour of peaceful methods.

Opposition to racialism and all its manifestation has been the third important principle of India’s foreign policy. The justification for this is the same as for opposition to the continuance of colonialism. As in the case of opposition to colonialism. India did not urge immediate solutions or non-peaceful methods.

Peaceful settlement of disputes is another major principle of India’s foreign policy, the emphasis being more on ‘peaceful’ than on ‘settlement’. This is not to suggest, or to put a premium on, intransigence, or refusal to show accommodation, as some uninformed or unsympathetic critics of the policy have said.

India had realized that in the atomic age and in a cold war situation, negotiations were better than a deadlock and that a deadlock was better than a solution which did not satisfy both the parties in a dispute; for any disturbance of the delicate atomic stalemate might escalate into a holocaust.

India’s conception of an ideal solution to a dispute was that it should be satisfactory to all parties concerned and that no party should gain completely or loses utterly. An ideal solution was one in which no party was the sole victor.

Another important characteristic of Indian foreign policy is to secure for the newly independent Afro-Asian countries the voice and influence to which they were entitled in the councils of the world.

India also sought international assistance for the economic development of these underdeveloped or developing countries-” an assistance to which India felt they were entitled.

This posture of India did not mean what is generally implied in the slogan ‘Asia for the Asians’ or ‘Africa to’ the Africans’. All that India urged was international co-operation based on equality and dignity, which had for long been denied to a large part of the -world’s population.

Lastly, to achieve the above goals, and in the broader and long-term interests of international society, India became a staunch supporter of international organizations, especially of the United Nations.

It believes that the United Nations had an important role to play in all vital aspects of international affairs and was, therefore, opposed to ignoring or side-tracking the world organization in the solution of problems relating to war and peace.

It is through the UNO that India embarked on a policy of fighting against the three evils; colonialism, racialism and colour prejudice. The struggle- of the Afro-Asian nations against these evil forces obtained the fullest support from India. It is primarily responsible for condemnation of the apartheid policy of South Africa.

During the Congo flare up in the late 50s and the early 60s, it fell to the Indian troops, kept at the disposal of the United Nations, to establish peace in that troubled area.

India had unequivocally condemned the interference of the Belgian mercenaries in the internal affairs of the Congo. The Anglo- French invasion of Egypt was also severely condemned in 1956 due to the stern opposition of Afro-Asian powers led by India.

India made good uses of this international forum to check the armament race. In fact, India played a creditable role in the disarmament talks both in and outside the United Nations; India was able to get South Africa expelled from the Commonwealth and the French to withdraw from Indo-China (Vietnam).

Later, when power in this region was passed into the hands of the U.S.A., India persistently insisted on the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam.

Indian foreign policy is commonly characterized as a policy of non-alignment. Undoubtedly, non-alignment is a major plank and pivotal principle of India’s foreign policy.

India was the first to make non-alignment a foreign policy principle, and the first to become a non-aligned country. From the outset it began to apply this Principle on a wide scale in international relations, most prominently in the United Nations.

During the cold war in the late 1940s and 1950s India’s non alignment was a positive factor playing a major role in the balance of world forces.

It foiled the plans of the imperialist powers which expected India, after it Squired independence, to follow in the wake of their anti-Soviet policy.

The sudden collapse of the world that the Cold War had spawned came as a great surprise. No one, not even the most knowledgeable think tanks anywhere. Predicted that ‘perestroika’ would turn into a ‘catastroika’ for the Soviet Union would have such a tremendous impact on the entire range of international Nations.

No country seemed able to respond to these drastic changes in a “timely and self-assured manner. India was particularly unprepared to do so as it was only preoccupied with domestic political turmoil at that time.

The ruling Congress Party, which had scored an overwhelming electoral victory in 1985 under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, suddenly came under a cloud of uncertainty in 1987. His government was defeated in the general elections of November 1989 exactly when revolutionary changes were sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Between November 1989 and June 1991, a period in which the configuration of power in the world changed drastically and was dramatized by the Gulf War, India had two successive minority governments functioning practically on a day-to-day basis.

It was a desperate time of the Indian political parties jockeying for power-a time when they were particularly vulnerable to pressure groups and lobbies.

Considerations of the long-term health of the economy and formulation of well-considered responses to external challenges had no place on their agenda. The resulting incoherence in India’s foreign policy was made even worse by the futile posturing means for the consumption of domestic lobbies.

The new government of P.V. Narasimha Rao which took office in June 1991 was immediately faced with an unprecedented financial crisis. The economy, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, dominated the attention of the government.

Despite its initial lack of absolute majority in Parliament, the government managed to introduce a series of policies aimed at financial stabilization along with more basic economic reforms.

Even though government is giving first priority to domestic concerns about the renovation of the economy, it cannot keep in abeyance the task of reshaping external relations.

The successful implementation of economic reforms itself would have demanded a review of foreign policy (which has over the years lacked an economic dimension) even if the dramatic events of the last three years had not taken place.

The need for foreign capital, technology and market access for exports requires the creation of new economic relationships.

Indeed, some changes have already taken place. For instance, Japan has become number one among aid-giving countries. Germany is next in the matter of aid and India’s most important trading partner in the European Community.

Consequently, there has been a significant increase in political exchange between India and these two countries, Again, there has been marked improvement in relations with the United States, despite irritations and tensions from time to time.

The memorandum of understanding signed by the two countries has opened possibilities of the transfer of sophisticated US technology and co-operation in the field of defense.

Important as these changes are, they are not the result of an overall review in which the economic, political and security interests of the country were considered in their inter-relatedness.

The dominance of past perceptions and the concepts and policies they gave rise to, have been an inhibiting factor for such an undertaking. Ad hoc adjustments are, therefore, accepted as an easier alternative

The feeling that the recent developments abroad are a setback to our interests had also a disorienting effect on policy. To be sure, the disintegration of the Soviet Union has sharply reduced Indian exports to that part of the world. One fifth of India’s exports used to go there.

Furthermore, the rupee-trade agreements lessened its foreign exchange constraint. Soviet military supplies and diplomatic support enhanced our sense of security.

This situation has suddenly all but disappeared; particularly serious has been the shrinking of export markets in the Soviet Union and the East European countries. And it has happened at a critical time in the economic reforms programme when India desperately needs to increase its exports fast.

This has left the Indian foreign policy establishment in a shocked state from which it is gradually emerging. A discussion on external relations is now a part of the public debate.

The argument presented here is a contribution to this end and maintains that India’s vital national interests need to be defined more precisely in the emerging post cold war world situation and that our policies need to be adjusted accordingly.

Objectively considered, the present international environment is favorable to Indian long-term interests and it will be a costly error of judgment to act as if it were hostile to them.

The country needs to free itself of the psychological legacy of the World War era which made many Indians view the world with excessive mistrust and suspicion. That attitude of mind will never allow” for a positive response to the new opportunities.

The country may have more to fear from the apathy and indifference of the developed world than from its rapacity. If India does not assess the contemporary situation realistically, and does mot act accordingly, it will simply be further marginalized.

The fundamental shifts in the international political economy and the strategic power balances have vastly changed the circumstances in which India Bias to function. The challenges that the Indian policy makers’ face today is similar to what Jawaharlal Nehru faced in 1947 when the dawn of independence coincided with the beginnings of the Cold War.

He was confronted with a new situation Seated by the bifurcation of the war time allies into two hostile camps. Nehru was quick to grasp the implications of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech of 1946 and the “Containment Policy” as formulated by George Kennan in the summer of 1947, on the one side, and Stalin’s famous Moscow election speech in 1946.

Which resuscitated the old antagonism against the capitalist West that had refrained, muted during the war, on the other. Nehru succeeded in evolving a policy which gave India diplomatic space in which it was able to retain autonomy of decision so as to pursue its national interests.

Once again India today faces a new world with its own risks and opportunities.

Challenge is how to minimize the risks and make the best use of the opportunities for this to happen, the first step is to assess the emerging situation in a realistic manner.

Given the nature and extent of its poverty and the resultant vulnerabilities. India’s over-riding national interest is to accelerate its economic growth, eliminate want and promote greater social cohesion.

If its domestic and foreign policies have to serve these national goals, it must avoid distracting pursuits. To recall what Nehru told Jayaprakash Narayan, “We are apt to be too sure of our stability, internal and external. Taking that for granted we proceed to Endeavour to remodel the world.”

The economic policies India followed in the past yielded a rate of growth which was too low to enable India to achieve its objectives. By the mid-80s the low growth syndrome which lasted three decades was becoming politically unacceptable.

The rising expectations of the emerging middle class and the politicized poor could be met only if the economy could be put on a higher growth path. When an effort was made to accelerate growth, it was found that it was not possible to do so without drastic revision of the old policies.

There is therefore, substantial political support of the economic reforms that have been launched. But, unfortunately, this programme has got projected more as a response to the immediate balance of payments crisis rather than as a radical new beginning to solve India’s old and persistent problems of poverty.

The successful implementation of reform should see India catapulted into the ranks of the fast-growing economies. Notwithstanding its previous lackluster performance, Indian economy has several assets. First, it has high savings rate even though its per capita income is low.

The current level of domestic savings at 22 per cent of GDP is expected to rise to 24 to 25 per cent simply because the government’s dis savings are expected to come down in the wake of financial stabilization policies. Second, past investments in higher education, technical training, engineering institutions and scientific research laboratories have generated a vast pool of skilled manpower.

Owing to the slow growth of the economy and even slower technological progress, this asset has not been fully utilized. Third, the existing investments in heavy and capital goods industries need only technological up gradation and modernization of management, an effort which needs much less investment and time than would be required for green field projects.

With better allocation of domestic resources augmented by foreign capital and improved technology, India can have at least a 7 percent rate of growth for a sufficiently long period of time. This is not an unduly optimistic estimate.

Even with half-hearted and desultory reforms, India did manage a growth rate of more than 5 per cent in the Eighties which brought down the percentage of people below the poverty line from some 48 per cent in 1977-78 to less than 30 per cent in 1987-88. It also rapidly increased the size of the middle class, variously estimated between 150 and 250 million. A 7 per cent rate of growth means a doubting of national income in a decade and as per cent increase in per capita income per year means a vast expansion of the domestic market.

An economy of the size of India, growing at such a rate, will obviously strengthen the world economy and. coupled with a secular democracy; have a stabilizing effect in the region. In this scenario, there is no basic conflict with the dominant coalition of major powers. Indeed they should welcome the se prospects.

The compatibility of basic values and interests between the dominant liberal democracies and India does n6t mean the absence of issues which sometimes create acute differences between them.

To be sure, there are several such issues: intellectual property rights, allegation of human rights violation and India’s refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to name the most prominent ones. All these issues are, however, of a secondary nature and none of them is non-negotiable.

The area of difference on intellectual property rights has narrowed down “to pharmaceuticals. In the broader context of the international trading system, opinion is gaining ground that India as a minor trading partner cannot choose the bilateral option-its economy is too weak and vulnerable for that.

Indian interest is better served by being a part of the multi-lateral system even though it is not equitable or fair at present. But while working towards the long-term reform. India should not go alone.

Allegations of violations of human rights in India are based mostly on Indian sources. There are many instances where sections of the press and human rights activists have accepted without verification stories put out by terrorists and militants themselves.

Indeed, some avowedly pro-militant individuals and groups have successfully managed to pass themselves off as human rights activists.

The Indian press, like the free press anywhere else in the world, sometimes tends to exaggerate and sensationalize facts in a situation like this, it is the business of the government to step in and speedily restore credibility by owning up to the violations that have taken place and announce remedial measurers.

That leaves the major question of nuclear non-proliferation. India has some basic difficulties and security concerns in this matter. Those who push it to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty have been indifferent to its security concerns in the past. But India itself is to be blamed for this, at least partly.

For example, it has been mute about the Chinese nuclear threat. Its silence on the subject was not broken even when China extended its cooperation to Pakistan to enable it to become a nuclear power. This may be explained in terms of India’s anxiety to improve relations with China but it does not inform the world about its security concerns.

Instead of articulating them in a forthright manner, it has taken recourse to abstract principles like the discriminatory nature of the NPT.

This is interpreted by others as Indian cover to hide great power ambitions. In recent months, there has been a change in the approach and the possibility of genuine negotiations seems to be emerging.

With other neighbors, India’s problems are much more manageable. Most of these problems are of the types which usually exist among neighbors. But there are some unusual facts about the subcontinent of which the world at large has not taken sufficient note.

In size and resources, India is much larger than all the other countries of the subcontinent put together. It is also the only country which is the nearest neighbor of them all. It has contiguous borders not only with Pakistan but also with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are both only a few sea lanes away.

It has communities within its borders who have sympathies with trans-border populations with whom the) share their ethnicity. Thus there are large numbers of Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils; Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus in both Bangladesh and India and Nepali Indians and Indian Nepalis.

In these circumstances, the fears of the smaller neighbors are legitimate. Their search for a counter force to India is understandable.

With the end of the Cold War, the external meddling in the affairs of the subcontinent is likely to decline and this provides an opportunity for the countries of the region to think afresh on interrelationships.

It will be appropriate for India to take a lead in this matter and convince its smaller neighbors that seeking any external intervention, which has been the bane of the subcontinent, is uncalled for. And the only forum available for this purpose is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

In matters of regional cooperation, given Pakistan’s disposition towards India, the former may not cooperate in areas where the latter is called upon to provide leadership or initiative of any sort. Pakistan has several identities besides the South Asian one.

It may choose to keep away from an India-supported scheme because of its attraction for West Asian and Central Asian identities, or because of its hang-up about “parity” with India. But this should not be allowed to prevent co-operation between rests of the SAARC countries.

There has to be a thaw in South Asia if regional cooperation is to be practical. The rise of China as a mighty economic power, extending regional cooperation to both South-East Asia and Central Asia.

While not overlooking the importance of relations with Russia, the US and Japan are issues to be studied True, the Indian leadership is preoccupied with internal troubles. Yet, it does need new ideas and a fresh conceptual framework to give foreign policy a new thrust.

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