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A foreign policy short of ideas

Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala
9 April 2009

India's immediate neighborhood comprises of countries that are becoming increasingly politically unstable. While the problems of Pakistan and Afghanistan make it to the headlines of newspapers worldwide, these two countries are not the only ones witnessing serious internal turmoil.

The Sri Lankan state is in the midst of a massive military operation against the banned Tamil guerrila outfit, the LTTE - an operation that has carried on far longer than imagined and taken the lives of many civilians. Bangladesh recently witnessed an attempted mutiny by its border security guards. Meanwhile, domestic instability and political uncertainty continue to simmer in Nepal and Myanmar.

With countries at its periphery becoming more and more unstable, a clear and definite foreign policy agenda is needed from New Delhi. Commentators in the Indian media have been urging for innovation and direction from the Foreign Ministry, especially with regard to policy within South Asia. (While it aspires to be a global player, India has never fashioned a sufficiently directed and determined foreign policy within its region.)

At the start of the G-20 summit in London last week, C. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express that India must try and play an active role in helping solve the global financial crisis. He sees the crisis and India's role in mitigating it as an opportunity to secure good relations with the new Obama administration. Close ties with the United States are seen as essential for India, with growing instability to its north-west. If it wishes to see a stable Pakistan, India must reiterate to the US its commitment to ensuring peace in the region.

A similar view of going along with the US's policy direction in Afghanistan and Pakistan to dispel its own fears, is shared by Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu. With the release of the Obama administration's new Af-Pak policy, India has gone back to the days of not just being referred to in hyphenation with Pakistan, but is falling victim to a "dual-hyphenation" theory that links the military instability on the Durand Line with the jittery relationship between New Delhi and Islamambad. Hence, the best option for India is to stick with the American plan, reinforcing New Delhi's commitment to peace and ensuring that Pakistan disallow any terrorist groups from using its territory. (Richard Holbroke, President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan underlined the need for India's involvement in solving issues like Afghanistan as the neighbors face a common threat from extremist militant forces, at a press conference in New Delhi on April 08, 2009) 

Differing in opinion is Harsh Pant in the foreign affairs magazine, Pragati. According to Pant, Indian foreign policy continues to drift without any sense of direction as domestic politics does not concern itself with India's roles and ties abroad. In the absence of a coherent national grand strategy, India is in danger of losing its ability to safeguard its long-term peace and prosperity. Hence, a more pro-active and less defensive stand in foreign affairs, especially in the context of its immediate neighborhood is required. An intellectual renaissance in the foreign ministry to come up with a grand strategy for the long run is the need of the hour according to Pant.

Sanjaya Baru also calls for a new foreign policy strategy, especially one keeping competition with China in mind. Baru recommends India start engaging with smaller and larger nations in order to build long term ties with them, similar to the manner in which China has tied its economy to those of many other nations, making the downfall of one a threat to the stability of the other. While good relations with the US are a must, Baru recommends India maintain warm ties with Washington, but not at the cost of its ties with other major powers like Russia, Europe and Japan.  

P. D. Samanta of The Indian Express is skeptical of India's dependence on the United States to clean up the mess in its immediate neighborhood. He observes that too much reliance on the US is making India compromise on the issues that are really central to its own stability. The foremost issue is the threat from terrorists operating out of Pakistan. To gain any traction on disbanding these outfits, India first needs to emphasise that the threat it faces from terrorists is not of the same kind faced by Pakistan. Hence, it cannot simply co-ordinate with the efforts made by Pakistan in this realm. India needs to have its own separate policy to combat the threat posed by terrorism.   

In a recent interview published in The Hindu, India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee also emphasized the need to deal with terrorism as a separate issue, aside from improving bilateral ties with Pakistan. He pointed out that people-to-people exchanges between India and Pakistan can continue alongside the effort to bring the latter to commit seriously on curbing militant activity from its soil that is directed at India. While the foreign minister's claim seems noble, India is finding it increasingly difficult to pursue its agenda with Pakistan independently. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, realizing so, said in The Financial Times, "The world has a responsibility in ensuring Pakistan lives up to its promises."

In the mean time, it remains to be seen how India's Foreign Ministry and diplomats come up with an agenda for their country to play a more active and constructive role in its neighborhood and beyond.

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