Musings from afar

How S Jaishankar set the record straight

The external affairs minister's assessment of the changing global environment is apt and its impact on Indian foreign policy is already very visible.

 |  Musings from afar  |  5-minute read |   03-12-2019
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It's very rare for an Indian minister of external affairs to deliver a speech which is intellectually stimulating and forces us to think beyond clichés. We have had some good orators as our ministers for external affairs in the past, but most of their foreign policy speeches have been rather pedantic.

Delhi dogma

Given that foreign policy has traditionally been the domain of our prime ministers, our best speeches on foreign policy have been delivered by them. However, it's difficult to think of any speech by our PMs that is conceptually as granular and politically as candid as the one delivered by the incumbent MEA, S Jaishankar, in New Delhi, on the theme of "Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian foreign policy in a changing world". Declaring that "the real obstacle to the rise of India is not anymore the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi," his speech provided "an unsentimental audit of Indian foreign policy". Jaishankar noted that India was at present standing at the "cusp" of change with "more confidence".


He argued, "A nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under exploited opportunities. Above all, it cannot be dogmatic in approaching a visibly changing world order."

In more ways than one, Jaishankar's speech has now become the central document through which Indian foreign policy will be assessed in the coming years.

His conceptualisation of various phases of Indian foreign policy and his critique of Indian policymaking will reverberate through the corridors of Indian polity. For a strategic community which continues to tell the world about the consistency in Indian foreign policy and how effective that has been in the pursuit of Indian interests, Jaishankar's speech stands as a profound corrective. When he says that "the balance sheet for India's foreign policy after seven decades presents a mixed picture," he is underlining the fact that consistency can be overrated in foreign policy. It's not that such a critique has not been made of Indian foreign policy in the past, but the fact that it is being made by an insider should inevitably lead to greater debate.

Jaishankar's assessment of the changing global environment is apt and its impact on Indian foreign policy is already very visible. While the minister dissects the challenges for Indian diplomacy in a remarkably candid and sophisticated manner, there still seems an inherent reluctance to fully follow through the logic of his own arguments. For a good politician, it is imperative to recognise the political challenges and constraints in shaping a policy response. Perhaps this is why Jaishankar's assessment of India's discomfort with hard power and the need for greater realism in policy is followed up by a call to engage multiple players to maximise options and expand space. This leads him to conclude that while "hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods, or multiple engagements of the future," it remains an imperative for Indian foreign policy in a multi-polar world.

Hedging interests

He acknowledges the inherent contradictions in India's engagements in multiple groupings or with multiple actors, but he doesn't underline fully the costs of this approach which in his own words "is a challenge for practitioners and analysts alike." It is true that in this era of extremely global fluidity, all nations are engaged in diplomatic promiscuity. Even a supposedly normative power like the European Union is keen to emerge as a geopolitical actor and is willing to enter into issue-based coalitions. This is very similar to the Indian foreign policy template of "issuebased alignments."

China challenge

As Jaishankar says, it is absolutely critical to read the global tea leaves right because "even if we are to get our immediate situation right, a misreading of the larger landscape can prove costly." India's regional balance of power is evolving dramatically and largely in a direction which doesn't support its interests. A rising China is challenging India in ways that are unlikely to be managed by merely hedging, especially as the balance of power between the two Asian giants is not likely to be in India's favour for the next decade or more. The question for New Delhi really is: What's the most efficacious way of bringing its ends and means into balance to manage China's rise? Despite this caution, Jaishankar has managed to convey a seriousness of purpose in his speech which has been lacking in official Indian pronouncements. He could do this as well as question key policy decisions of the past primarily because of the political shift in the country with the ascendance of the Centre-Right.

Indian foreign policy is changing and will continue to evolve, not only because the global environment is changing more rapidly than ever but also because India is changing. It is this changing India that made it possible for Jaishankar to deliver the kind of speech he delivered. It is this changing India which will force our policymakers to shed "the dogmas of Delhi." While traditionalists in the Indian foreign policy establishment will find much to critique in this outlook, a healthy and honest debate on Indian foreign policy is long overdue. Better late than never!

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Will Maha Vikas Aghadi ride the tiger full five years in Maharashtra?


Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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