Will election results affect New Delhi’s foreign policy?

The last decade and a half has witnessed some interesting changes in the context of Indian foreign policy. These changes have been influenced by a number of factors; the changing world order,
economic reforms of 1991 and the strengthening of Indian federalism.

The first change is that while New Delhi may be neutral on certain issues such as Iran and the South China Sea Dispute, the concept of non-alignment is considered redundant by influential sections of the establishment, though they may not publically state this in order to ensure that the sensitivities of the first family are not offended.

Second, New Delhi has tried to be more accommodative towards India’s neighbourhood, and not harped on mutual reciprocity. It has also tried to deal unilaterally with New Delhi not depending upon the regional bloc SAARC This policy also dubbed the Gujral Doctrine, was first begun by the Late I K Gujral, and subsequently followed by his successors including current incumbent Manmohan Singh.
Third, India has built closer linkages with South East Asia, much to the chagrin of China. The policy of reaching out to countries in ASEAN known as India’s Look East Policy was crafted by the Late
P V Narasimha Rao, and has been given priority by all his successors. India’s role in the region is likely to increase as a consequence of the South China Sea Dispute. The US has been urging India to build closer ties with countries such as Vietnam and Phillipines which are vary of Chinese hegemony in the region. New Delhi has refrained from getting embroiled in the conflict, but is cementing ties with important countries in South East Asia.

Fourth, states have become pivotal actors in foreign policy as a consequence not just of coalition politics, where regional parties have begun to play an important role, but also due to the fact that many states have been engaging pro-actively with the outside world in the economic realm. While initially, this was more with countries outside the immediate neighbourhood such as the US, Japan and countries of Europe. In recent years, some states have been pitching for closer ties with countries in the immediate neighbourhood. Off late, Modi has also spoken in favor of greater economic cooperation between Gujarat and Sindh.  The most aggressive protagonist of economic diplomacy, amongst current Indian Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi has focused more on countries such as the US, Japan and Canada though he also visited China in 2011. Other border states which have been pro-active include Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan which share borders with Pakistan and Meghalaya and Tripura which share borders with Bangladesh. Interestingly, many of these border-states – such as Punjab and Tripura are ruled by Non-Congress governments.
Finally, the imprint of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on Indian foreign policy is beginning to reduce with other leaders, not belonging to the dynasty, having made greater contributions. This is evident in New Delhi’s changing approach towards Washington DC which is in sharp contrast to the Pro USSR tilt advocated by Nehru and Indira Gandhi. While some would argue, that it was Rajiv Gandhi who laid the foundations for engagement with the US, few would deny that the decisive push was given by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh. Similarly, the neighborhood policy was centred around the goodwill which the Gandhis shared with other families in the neighbourhood such as the Bhuttos in Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his daughter Hasina in Bangladesh and the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka. The innovative policy of former PM’s  Gujral, Vajpayee and current incumbent Dr Manmohan Singh which focuses on unilateral concessions by New Delhi has proved to be far more successful, and has delivered some results in institutionalizing relationships rather than merely focusing on individuals.

What clearly emerges from the above points is that the changes in India’s domestic politics and economy have influenced on its policies vis-a-vis  the neighbourhood and outside, though over the last three years New Delhi has been plagued by policy paralysis. It remains to be seen whether the verdict in the 2014 elections will affect the above developments in anyway. The likelihood of there being dramatic changes is minimal, because both the mainstream parties -- the Congress and BJP – share a consensus over important foreign policy issues, though they may not confess this in public. It would also be interesting to see how foreign policy would change, were Narendra Modi current Gujarat CM to become PM. Not only have Modi’s dealings with the outside world been driven by commercial ties, but he has also pitched for giving a greater role to states in the realm of economic diplomacy.

In the scenario of a disparate coalition led by a regional satrap emerging,  it is tough to predict the impact on foreign policy.

The author is a New Delhi-based columnist and Policy Analyst

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