PM Narendra Modi. (Mint)
PM Narendra Modi. (Mint)

Opinion | A quiet but decisive shift in India’s foreign policy

India is seemingly ready to take on a larger global role by being more nimble than ever

With general elections approaching, there will be a lot of debate on how things have or haven’t changed under the last five years of the Narendra Modi government. In particular, on the foreign policy front, we have already been hearing how there is hardly any substantive change. However, there has been change and a fundamental one.

In a significant shift, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale asserted during the 2019 Raisina Dialogue organized by the Observer Research Foundation earlier this month in Delhi that “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state—but based on issues." Underscoring that it’s time India becomes part of the rule-making process, Gokhale argued: “In the rules-based order, India would have a stronger position in multilateral institutions." The foreign secretary was categorical that India’s future would be largely shaped by the kind of role New Delhi manages to play in the G-20 and the Indo-Pacific, signalling clearly the changing priorities of the Indian foreign policy establishment.

The reason Gokhale’s assertions did not raise many eyebrows is that for the last five years, the government has gradually but decisively shifted the discourse on Indian foreign policy without many in the Indian strategic community even recognizing it. Critics of the government have continued to be sceptical about anything substantive changing even as the Modi government has continued to redefine Indian foreign policy priorities, both in substance and style.

While delivering the Fullerton lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on India, the United States and China in 2015, Gokhale’s predecessor and then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar had suggested that today’s India “aspire[s] to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power" and as a consequence, it was willing “to shoulder greater global responsibilities". He, of course, was taking his cue from Modi himself who, soon after taking office, had challenged his senior diplomats “to help India position itself in a leading role, rather than [as] just a balancing force, globally".

In the last five years, Modi has sought to transform India from being merely an important player in the global order into one that is able and willing to define the priorities of the international system. He has been unabashed in shedding any diffidence about India’s great power aspirations and in so doing he has been underscoring the confidence of an aspirational society that is willing to reassert its civilizational soft power.

This has resulted in a hyper-energetic diplomacy that not only seeks an ever-greater global footprint but also places an emphasis on the nation’s soft power attributes from yoga and spiritualism to the diaspora. This transition is not merely an expression of this nation’s greater self-assurance but also driven by an ambition to be a rule-maker, not merely a rule-taker. It has imbued Indian foreign policy with a certain amount of risk-taking, unlike the risk aversion of the past. India, from perpetually being a cautious power, is seemingly ready to take on a larger global role by being more nimble than ever in playing the great power game.

In a revealing statement, Jaishankar’s candid take on American presence in the region was a testament to greater realism in Indian foreign policy. He had suggested that “from an Indian perspective today, for us the fact that the US is both a source of supply and a military partner helps to create enough uncertainties that could actually strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific region". As the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific undergoes a dramatic shift, New Delhi’s assessment of this balance will be key in preserving its equities in this flux.

The Modi government is redefining strategic autonomy as an objective that is attainable through strengthened partnerships rather than the avoidance of partnerships. By doing so, it seems to be underlining that in today’s complicated global scene, strategic autonomy and non-alignment are not necessarily a package deal. When India engages in the so-called “Quad", it enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China. When it sits together with Russia and China for a trilateral, it enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis a Trump administration intent on challenging the fundamentals of the global economic order.

The sheer audacity with which Modi has challenged the foreign policy shibboleths of the past is striking. The non-alignment ideologues in India stand confounded. For years, the nation has been told that the only way the foreign policy establishment can secure Indian interests is by working within the rubric of non-alignment. Under the Modi government, India is charting new territory in its foreign policy, predicated on the belief that rather than proclaiming non-alignment as an end in itself, India needs deeper engagement with its friends and partners if it is to develop leverage in its dealings with its adversaries and competitors. India is today well positioned to define its bilateral relationships on its own terms and would do well to continue engaging more closely with those countries that can facilitate its rise to regional and global prominence.

As India conceives of a new role for itself in global politics, the critical issue remains one of state capacity which subsequent governments will continue to grapple with. But there should be no doubt that Indian foreign policy has shifted the goal posts in the last five years—both in style and substance.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

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