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India’s Foreign Policy: Evolved?
Amidst talks of “National Interest” and “Pragmatism”, India’s foreign policy, over the last few decades has only become a little less independent
Issue Date - 16/02/2012
30-years is a rather long time-span to talk about any nation’s foreign policy. Especially when those three decades have been rather eventful to say the least. These three decades of Indian foreign policy have seen quite a few tectonic shifts, some of which continues to affect our policy to this day. And quite a few of the decisions are expect to influence us in the coming decades as well. These three decades can be broadly divided in three segments – each of which represents an era, a period where a particular brand of foreign policy initiative was pushed forward.

The period between 1982 to 1991 has been basically the continuation and consolidation of the foreign policy initiative India has been pursuing since the Neruvian era. The Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), of which India was a major player, was still pretty active and continued to have a substantial say in the affairs of the world. India continued to take pedestal position in these initiatives, especially its support to the anti-apartheid initiatives taken in the-then South Africa. India took a leadership role in isolating the apartheid regime by boycotting amongst others, even the sports initiatives. The apartheid regime lingered on for quite some time, but by the end of the 80s, it became pretty evident to the elites there that it will be singularly impossible for them to continue the repression. The phase mercifully ended in the early 90s and India was considered a significant force in the entire process.

“Those were the days when we used to take pride in our leadership roles. NAM was a vehicle that might not have been very effective in generating strategic capital, but it surely was pretty effective when it came to collective pressure. It was because of our leadership role in NAM that India still enjoys a fair amount of goodwill in the African and Latin American continent even though we haven’t had an African or Latin American policy worth mentioning in last two decades,” says Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy, foreign policy expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The same decade saw some of the major military interventions that spilled over even into the first half of the next decade. The Iraq-Iran War, the first Gulf-War and the Civil War in Yugoslavia tasted India’s willingness to play a positive role in conflict resolution. India continued to advocate, both from NAM platform as well as independently, a policy of constructive engagement to resolve the issue. Especially in the case of Iraq-Iran war where both the parties had a close and civil relationship with India.

But then, something happened for which our leadership was not prepared. A series of indigenous movements in Eastern Europe, especially the Warsaw Pact Nations, saw the crumbling of the decade-old Socialist regimes. It had a cascading effect on East Germany as well. And when the iconic Berlin Wall was pulled down, it was petty evident that the disintegration of USSR was but a matter of “When” and not “If”. When the Soviet Socialist Republic started unravelling due to the combination of factors both domestic and outside, the effect it had on India was massive to say the least. “There was a deathly silence in the MEA. Nobody knew for a brief period what to do next. The economic situation was pretty bad to start with. It did not help either that there was sort of political instability in the country. None of us were prepared for this scenario. It was easy to get distracted from there onwards. And that is what we succumbed to,” explains Ambassador M. Bhadrakumara, who has served in the Western and Central Asia regions, among others. Basically, the era between 1991 till 1996 was a period of flux. The ministry scrambled its act to bring the foreign policy in line. And it started pretty badly when partly deceived by Israel smooth-talking and partly because of the right-wing Hindutva tilt in the initiative, India recognised Israel as a nation and started a low-key engagement with it. The initiative was relentlessly pushed forward by one of India’s Jewish generals who had lobbied hard since many years for this outcome. In the years that followed, India kept strengthening its relationship with Israel, while giving symbolic pep-talks and piffling monetary helps to the Palestinians. It has reached to a level where it has acquired the shape of strategic engagement. Till date, India has managed to strike a balance between its support for Palestinians and its relationship with Israel, but now the murmurs against this duality in the policy initiative is getting louder. And that might trouble another of India’s grandiose dream, to get a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, as and when it is reorganised. Says Palestinian foreign policy and legal expert Raja Shehadeh, “India is Israel’s biggest arms-trade partner. India’s trade with Israel gives it economic means to sustain its occupation of the Occupied Territories. This sense of comfortable economic sustenance makes Israelis believe that they can continue with their status quo.”

Somewhere in the mid-90s, some of the bureaucrats and diplomats realised that “US was a natural ally of India”. An initiative was launched by the NDA government to align the policies of the two nations. It started with hiccups, but got a sudden push when the Manmohan Singh government was sworn-in. This phase saw India’s abandoning NAM policy targets, as more and more people in the power corridor started advocating putting “national interest” and “pragmatism” over ideals.

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