Is India ‘Allowing’ Others to ‘Control’ Its Geopolitical Fate?

“Could we not take an assertive role in our own Indian Ocean backwaters,” asks Dr Shashi Tharoor.

Published05 Dec 2019, 03:42 PM IST
Opinion
5 min read

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s recent Goenka Lecture was superb: a confident and imaginative restatement of India’s place in the world, coming from a man best placed, by both training and office, to articulate it.

Some gems stand out for their boldness and pertinency: “The real obstacle to the rise of India is not any more the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi.” Also: “Form and process are often deemed more important than outcomes.”

“India needs to follow an approach of working with multiple partners on different agendas,” Jaishankar declared unambiguously. This is exactly what I wrote in Pax Indica and in my many speeches floating the notion of ‘multi-alignment’.

India & the Notion of ‘Multi-Alignment’

I must confess to a bit of self-interest here. Such phrases are music to the ears to the author of Pax Indica (2012), and the prime mover behind the Parliamentary Standing Committee report on reorienting the Foreign Service. I have been arguing for years, in the Committee (which I no longer chair) and in my writings, that we need to shake the foreign policy tree root and branch.

In his Goenka Lecture, which sought to provide “an unsentimental audit of Indian foreign policy,” our estimable Foreign Minister concurs.

There were a number of frank admissions: “A nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities.” Reversing that reality is a formidable task for the Ministry of External Affairs, and requires the willingness to depart from conventional wisdom that he so boldly signaled.

“India needs to follow an approach of working with multiple partners on different agendas,” Jaishankar declared unambiguously. This is exactly what I wrote in Pax Indica and in my many speeches floating the notion of ‘multi-alignment’. (When I first coined the term as MoS in MEA in 2009, it landed with a thud. I am delighted to see him using it ten years later!)

There is undoubtedly a reduced post-Cold War demand for India’s involvement in crises far away from our shores, but surely when we signal a willingness ‘to shoulder greater responsibilities’ we should demonstrate our capacity in our own backyard first?

As the first Opposition politician to welcome Jaishankar’s appointment, I very much welcome this bold statement of rethinking policy by our first truly technocratic Foreign Minister. It provides a basis and a template for any future analysis of Indian foreign policy in the Modi years. But how seriously is he to be taken when he says, “our ability to shoulder greater responsibilities at a time when the world is more reticent is also evident” ? Is this merely aspirational language, something we have grown used to from the Modi government over the last six years, or can he adduce proof of such change? I see very little evidence to substantiate it.

Why Not Take an Assertive Role in Our Own Indian Ocean Backwaters?

If anything, we are even bereft of the responsibilities that ought naturally to be ours. The world and his brother seems to be handling the mess in Afghanistan (made messier by the impatient American desire to leave), but India is completely absent from the table – even though we have a direct and proximate geopolitical interest in Afghanistan. We have, or used to have, excellent relations with both Washington and Tehran, but when a comprehensive agreement was negotiated on the former’s differences with the latter, it involved the EU countries, Russia and China, but not us. This is a far cry from the days when we were the mediator of choice on Laos or Suez, and even had a dedicated envoy involved in the Middle East Peace Process! How can we, in these reduced circumstances, truly speak of ‘greater responsibilities’?

Yes, our foreign policy making is still unfinished business, and Jaishankar — outstanding Foreign Secretary, experienced diplomatic practitioner and cerebral thinker — could well be the visionary Foreign Minister who sets the country on course in a bold new direction.

These two instances of us being absent from the table are, unlike those situations, both in our own immediate region. There is undoubtedly a reduced post-Cold War demand for India’s involvement in crises far away from our shores, but surely when we signal a willingness ‘to shoulder greater responsibilities’ we should demonstrate our capacity in our own backyard first? I had moved a Cabinet Note on an Indian Ocean Strategy when I was defenestrated from the MEA in April 2010. Could we not take an assertive role in our own Indian Ocean backwaters, using the far-too-neglected IORA as a platform? The old saw has it that in international relations, you are either at the table or on the menu. Are we now going back to the days when others decided our geopolitical fate for us?

Substantive Policy Choices: Risk-Aversion Rules the Roost

Jaishankar rightly says: “It is the nations who have an optimal mix of capabilities, relationships and positioning who can aspire to occupy the multiple poles of the emerging international order.” But are we in fact leveraging our capabilities? Are we content to continue being a rule-taker and not a rule-maker in the international system? Why are we not taking the lead at the United Nations in pushing efforts to reshape the international order? Could we not start to manifest greater assertiveness, in fields ranging from outer space to cyberspace, where we have demonstrated capability?

Our Foreign Minister candidly admits that “it is evident that a low-risk foreign policy is only likely to produce limited rewards.” But where are we taking any risks today? The decision not to sign RCEP speaks of risk-aversion rather than “reading the global tea leaves”, to use his phrase. Risk-aversion rules the roost when it comes to substantive policy choices.

Yes, our foreign policy making is still unfinished business, and Jaishankar — outstanding Foreign Secretary, experienced diplomatic practitioner and cerebral thinker — could well be the visionary Foreign Minister who sets the country on course in a bold new direction. But we must start seeing evidence of it, and not just in words. Fine speeches are all to the good, and this Goenka Lecture was one of the finest. But it is time for South Block to walk the talk.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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