If the conduct of Indian foreign policy in the past seven decades shows us anything, it is that it has seldom relied on creative thinking from outside the four walls of the government

by Jabin T Jacob

Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar’s Ramnath Goenka lecture earlier this month has been hailed widely as something of a master class in the directions and principles of India’s foreign policy in the Narendra Modi era. It could well be that; but it is equally a masterful papering over the shortcomings of Indian foreign policy making that neither the country’s political class nor its bureaucracy has managed to fix so far.

It is noteworthy that of the “five baskets of issues” which Jaishankar referred to as offering lessons about India’s past performance, there is no reference to the problems of lack of capacity within the government. It is something of a paradox that for the second-most populous country in the world, India has one of the smallest civil services anywhere and that it prefers to keep it that way alongside a general lack of interest in taking on ideas from outside the four walls of the government.

Jaishankar appears to accuse others outside of government when saying that ‘[d]iligence and debate have not been as rigorous as they should be for an aspiring player’. It was during his tenure as foreign secretary that he cut funding to the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), the country’s oldest and most important research institute devoted to China and East Asia. It was bad enough that the funding had been limited to a paltry Rs 1 crore annually for several years despite the ICS’ growing work and profile, but it was also evident that the MEA did not like the institute’s less than complete backing for the government’s absolute opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or its publicly-articulated views of the government’s China policy and that it did not see the value of work on China that went beyond the narrow confines of foreign and security policy studies to cover labour, public health or history.

Meanwhile, the pragmatic realism of the kind that the minister appeared to promote at the lecture actually falls short where China is concerned. He held up the fact that New Delhi managed a Howdy Modi show and a second informal summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the space of a few weeks as a sign of beating dogma and entering “the real world of convergences”. There is something to be said certainly for the willingness to talk and as Jaishankar also put it to have “many balls up in the air at the same time and displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none”.

However, such glibness should not also blind us to the fact that from the Chinese perspective, this Indian willingness to play all sides is viewed rather dimly. As someone who was India’s longest-serving ambassador in Beijing, Jaishankar should know enough of the strongly ideological underpinnings of Chinese foreign policy and global outlook. While it is the Americans who are most associated with the ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ line of thinking, this has always been the Chinese position.

Beijing is interested in neither “win-win” nor a multi-polar world where China is merely one of the poles. Xi and his cohort seek the eventual undermining of the democracies everywhere and to have China replace the United States at the top of the heap. Thus, Indian engagement with the US, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and India’s seeming reluctance to commit to 5G technology from Huawei are seen not just as Indian hedging as Jaishankar thinks it is but as signs of outright Indian hostility towards China and its rise.

For all the pomp and show of the Mamallapuram informal summit or any future iteration, there is very little China will actually do in practice despite whatever Xi might offer at these informal summits.

While Jaishankar constantly referred to the problems of dogmatic thinking, he did not quite identify the locus of such thinking except to say that it was “of Delhi”. If the conduct of Indian foreign policy in the past seven decades shows us anything, it is that it has seldom relied on creative thinking from outside the four walls of the government. The dogma that the foreign minister speaks of then belongs to the government and its functionaries, even if these might change over time.

What Jaishankar’s speech did was provide very sophisticated scaffolding for the Modi government’s own dogmas vis-à-vis Pakistan. He painted a picture of an India no longer willing to tolerate Pakistan’s enmity towards India. This he argued was necessary and justified given India’s substantially greater political and economic weight in the global system vis-à-vis its western neighbour. However, this is really only putting a diplomatic and a realist gloss over the anti-Muslim antecedents of the BJP’s Pakistan policy. Thus, Jaishankar does not dwell on Modi’s initial opening to Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif, probably because this was not as much a contradiction as a feint to make it look that India had tried but found Pakistan wanting.

Pakistan has certainly been found wanting, but if it is realism and anti-dogma that the government is espousing, then the question is if a zero-sum approach to its smaller neighbour helps India resolve its larger, more significant security and political problems with China.

To quote Jaishankar himself, the current approach suggests that though India appears to get its “immediate situation right”, there is “a misreading of the larger landscape [which] can prove costly”.