Lost moorings

Twenty-five years of neoliberal economic policies have led to the undermining of India’s strategic autonomy and made India, once the flag-bearer of movements like NAM, a junior partner of the United States.

Published : Jul 20, 2016 16:00 IST

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee receiving Ariel Sharon at Rashtrapati Bhavan on September 9, 2003. Sharon was the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee receiving Ariel Sharon at Rashtrapati Bhavan on September 9, 2003. Sharon was the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India.

The Indian elite has always had a soft corner for the West. After Independence, many leading political personalities of the time were unhappy with the road the first Prime Minister chose to take. Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy, with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as its lynchpin, was described as “immoral” by one of the architects of the Cold War, John Foster Dulles. Many right-wing parties such as the Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were also in favour of India aligning with the West and joining American-sponsored military blocks such as the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) in Asia. Generally, Indian foreign policy until 1991 was a principled one. India stood shoulder to shoulder with Africa during the tumultuous decolonisation struggle that started in earnest in the 1960s. India’s small but significant diplomatic role in the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa has not been forgotten on the African continent. Following the lead of the majority of African countries, the Rajiv Gandhi government recognised the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a full-fledged member of the African Union. The people of Western Sahara remain the last colonised people in Africa.

The country’s foreign policy started changing perceptibly after the Narasimha Rao government embarked on its ambitious economic reforms programme. The opening up of the economy to foreign players naturally had an impact on foreign policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were also important factors that led to a course reversal and the abandonment of some of the country’s traditional foreign policy principles. India, it seemed, no longer was keen to be the leader of the “Third World” but instead preferred to aspire to a seat at the high table along with the other so-called “great powers”. “High growth rates” was the panacea the Indian political establishment aspired to, not the application of principled norms in international politics. There was more and more emphasis in the corridors of power in Delhi on the need for “the two biggest democracies in the world”, India and the United States, to come closer and form a strategic partnership.

The Palestinian cause

The Palestinian cause was the first to be adversely impacted. The Congress government of Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. Relations between the two countries have since gone from strength to strength, with Israel emerging as a leading defence, security and strategic partner of India. South Africa was boycotted by countries like India because the apartheid regime was riding roughshod over the black majority, denying them basic rights. Israel has been replicating practices similar to apartheid in the occupied territories since 1987, denying Palestinians their fundamental rights. An international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been gaining momentum in Europe and the U.S. India has not chosen even to criticise the heinous racist policies of the Israeli government. Instead, high-level visits are taking place. Ariel Sharon, condemned worldwide for presiding over atrocities during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, was an honoured guest in Delhi during the tenure of the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Sharon was Israel’s Prime Minister at the time.

The first NDA government was also quick to withdraw recognition to the SADR. That decision alienated a large number of African nations. After the return of the NDA to power, high-level interactions with Israel resumed with renewed vigour. The President of India was in Israel last year when Palestinians were being victimised on the streets of occupied Jerusalem and Ramallah. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Israel, and a reciprocal visit from his Israeli counterpart has been announced. India’s pro-Israeli tilt is becoming more blatant by the day. India abstained from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to condemn Israel for its war crimes in Gaza last year. The close ties that have evolved with the U.S. also have a bearing on India’s changing attitude towards Palestine in particular and West Asia in general. Brajesh Mishra, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Security Adviser (NSA), called for a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis. J.N. Dixit, who was the first NSA to Manmohan Singh, told this correspondent just after taking over office that the NDA was only implementing policies that the Narasimha Rao government had initiated.

Downgrading NAM’s relevance

As far as NAM is concerned, all the governments that have been in power since 1991 have progressively tried to downgrade its relevance. India’s policymakers now claim that there is no longer any scope for idealism in foreign policy. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of U.N. member states are NAM members and still continue to adhere to its core principles, including that of establishing a multipolar and nuclear-free world. NAM members remain opposed to unilateralism and hegemonism. If India seriously aspires to get a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, the support of NAM members is crucial. It cannot piggyback into elite groupings on the support of the West. India’s failure to gatecrash into the Nuclear Suppliers Group is a recent illustration. Many NAM members are convinced that India no longer adheres to a truly independent foreign policy.

Barring the brief interregnum of rule by the United Front government in the 1990s, led first by H.D. Deve Gowda and then by I.S. Gujral, there has been continuity in Indian foreign policy since 1991. It was during the time of the United Front that the first serious peace moves towards Pakistan were started and the “Look East” policy initiated. It was the first time that the Indian government started factoring in South-East Asia in a serious way into the country’s foreign policy.

The BJP can only be accused of being slightly more pro-West and pro-Zionist than the Congress-led governments that have been in power since 1991. A brief rupture took place with the West after the first NDA government decided to test nuclear weapons in 1998. Pakistan followed with nuclear tests of its own and thus gained nuclear parity with India, making irrelevant the conventional military advantage that India had enjoyed. Conventional wars cannot be imagined now that the two countries have gone nuclear. Western sanctions followed but were quickly lifted as New Delhi signalled that it was willing to further strengthen its alliance with the West.

Ties with the U.S.

The 9/11 terror attack in the U.S. was a factor in cementing ties with that country. Terrorism became the defining issue for Washington. The Indian side was successful in convincing the George W. Bush administration that terrorism was the key factor behind the violence and turmoil in Kashmir. Kashmir no longer figured prominently in international forums. The bonhomie between Washington and New Delhi reached such heights that the NDA government even made plans to dispatch Indian troops to Iraq after the invasion of the country by the U.S. Better sense prevailed, with Prime Minister Vajpayee nixing the plans at the eleventh hour.

Seven years after the Pokhran nuclear tests, India emerged as one of the closest strategic and military partners of the U.S. India first signed a 10-year Defence Framework Agreement with the U.S. in 2005. This was followed by the “historic” nuclear deal with the U.S. in 2008. India formally jumped off the disarmament bandwagon. There were no longer demands from the Indian government for a “world without nuclear weapons”, a common refrain during the Nehruvian era.

Thanks mainly to the U.S., India has become a de facto member of the elite nuclear club of nations, despite not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. The West, however, stands to profit as billions of dollars will be made setting up nuclear power stations in India. The Barack Obama administration has recognised India as “a Major Defence Partner” this year. A joint statement released after Prime Minister Modi’s latest visit to Washington outlined plans to increase U.S.-India military cooperation across the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific region and in “all domains—land, maritime, air, space and cyberspace”.

The Prime Minister has been describing the U.S. as an “indispensable partner” and has agreed to sign a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) with it. During the trip to Washington in June this year, Modi lauded the U.S. military’s sacrifices “in the service of mankind”. Russia has now been replaced by the U.S. as India’s top defence equipment supplier. India today has become one of the largest buyers of armaments in the world.

Twenty-five years of economic reforms have not had a noticeable impact on the indigenous defence industry. India and countries such as Saudi Arabia are the biggest patrons of the global arms bazaar. The Indian defence budget for this year is estimated at around $40 billion. The Modi government announced recently that it was allowing 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the defence sector. As former Defence Minister A.K. Antony noted, India’s defence industry “will be thrown mainly into the hands of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] and American defence manufacturers”.

The massive defence spending is being justified despite three quarters of India’s population subsisting on less than $2 a day. Successive Indian Army chiefs in the last decade have been saying that India should remain prepared for any eventuality, including a two-front war with Pakistan and China. The NDA government has identified these two countries as the ones posing the most serious threats to India’s security. The contours of a new military alliance between the U.S., Japan and India are also emerging. The annual “Malabar” military exercises now involve the armed forces of the three countries. Washington and Tokyo have identified Beijing as the main military threat in the region.

Relations with China

As the U.S. and India get increasingly closer, the carefully nurtured ties with China seem to be going downhill. China though continues to be India’s biggest trading partner. The U.S.’ great interest in drawing India into its web of military alliances is mainly to confront a resurgent China. The territorial disputes that China has been embroiled in with its neighbours are being exploited by the U.S. to raise tensions in the region. India has virtually sided with the U.S. in its military pivot to the East, parroting the U.S. demands for freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea.

India has been quick to support the July judgment of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China. The U.N. court had ruled against China. In his address to the U.S. Congress in June this year, Modi described the U.S. as a defender of peace and democratic rights standing against countries that “do not accept international rules”, a not–so-veiled criticism of China on foreign soil. Many countries in the region and outside want the countries in the region to peacefully resolve their disputes through talks, but the U.S. is hell-bent on internationalising the issue.

Despite the obvious economic benefits, India has refused so far to join China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. India and Japan are the only two major Asian countries that have not joined OBOR. Washington views OBOR as inimical to its global strategic and economic interests. The protracted Sino-Indian border talks also seem to be going nowhere. Now with relations going downhill, the impasse along the Line of Actual Control is likely to continue indefinitely.

Relations with other immediate neighbours, especially Pakistan, have been deteriorating. There were hopes that the Kashmir issue would be relegated to the back burner when General Pervez Musharraf was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan. He offered New Delhi tangible concessions but was rebuffed. The Indian political establishment miscalculated that a weakened Pakistan estranged from the U.S. would have to eventually offer even more concessions. With parts of Pakistan becoming ungovernable and the scourge of terrorism spreading in the Indian subcontinent, unresolved issues like Kashmir became recruitment tools for new jehadi outfits. The Pakistani security establishment always had a love-hate relationship with terror outfits, some of them spawned with active American connivance in the 1970s. The attack on the Parliament House building in 2001 and the terror attack on Mumbai in 2008 have played a big role in derailing negotiations between the two countries.

Another trend in Indian foreign policy that has become visible in recent years is the growing cooperation with the U.S. in sorting out issues in South Asia. The U.S. and India have cooperated in resolving political crises in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Last year’s regime change in Sri Lanka has been attributed by many observers of South Asian politics to machinations by Washington and New Delhi. Both Sri Lanka and Nepal were perceived in the two capitals to be moving closer to China.

The government in Maldives, which was viewed as being close to China, was arm-twisted into issuing a statement saying that it would pursue “an India First” foreign policy. For the last two decades and a half, with Indian foreign policy focussing on interaction with the West, New Delhi’s influence in the region has palpably diminished. India’s isolation was evident during the last summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) held in Kathmandu.

In Africa, too, Indian diplomacy seems to be working in coordination with the Americans, as it strikes hydrocarbon deals and invests in the agricultural sector. “Democracy promotion”, a pet project of the Americans, is being given a helping hand by Indian diplomacy. It may not be a coincidence that the African countries that India is most friendly with are also staunch political and military allies of the U.S. Both the U.S. and India are wary of the growing economic and political clout of China in Africa. Modi on his recent trip to Washington had said that a strong U.S.-India partnership can “anchor” American interests from “Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific”. Twenty-five years of neoliberal economic policies have undermined India’s strategic autonomy and made India, once the flag-bearer of movements like NAM, a junior partner of the U.S.

There have been some half-hearted attempts to break out of the U.S. stranglehold and establish a grouping that could have the potential of challenging the dominance of the West. After the signing of the U.S.-Iran nuclear accord, India has finally gone ahead and signed the deal to develop sections of the Chabahar port complex in Iran. The trilateral deal involves Iran, India and Afghanistan. India will now be able to gain access to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The future of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping may be clouded in uncertainty. Although the leaders of the member countries meet annually and a BRICS Bank has been set up, recent developments do not augur well for its future. With India tilting towards the West, and Brazil turning rightwards, the cohesion needed to take the grouping to a higher level of cooperation seems to be missing.

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