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Understanding Foreign Policy Drivers in Rising India
06 January 2010

Drivers of Indian foreign policy, in the backdrop of its rising economic and global profile, were discussed at the ORF on January 5, 2010.

The discussion on “Understanding Foreign Policy Drivers in Rising India” was held in collaboration with the Sigur Centre at the George Washington University. The roundtable highlighted key factors that determine foreign policy formulation in India.

Papers were presented by Dr. Deepa Ollapally, Associate Director, George Washington University, Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor and Chair, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Dr. Nikola Mirilovic, Research Associate, Sigur Center for Asian Studies.
Dr. Ollapally’s paper, ‘New Discourse on India as an Economic Power’, presented the different narratives of foreign policy debate in India. She categorised the strategic community into four distinct camps – the Traditionalists, the Nationalists, the Regionalists, and the more recent New Globalists. 

According to her, the Traditionalists seek India’s strength in its rich civilisation and heritage. They firmly believe in ideals of non-intervention and restrict India’s sphere of influence to the extent of India’s ideational reach. The economic implication of this strand of thought is that it places retaining the ‘Indian way of life’ above growth. 

The Nationalists, on the other hand, see India’s present through the prism of its past colonial exploitation. They explain India’s shortcomings as fallout of the handicaps imposed by a bipolar system and a skewed hierarchal global economic order, both factors, which according to the Nationalists, have hampered India’s upward trajectory. The implication of this school of thought is low levels of integration and a tendency to avoid alliance entanglement.

The Regionalists, in the mould of Indira Gandhi, confine major foreign policy thrusts to the immediate neighbourhood and choose to focus on internal issues. Alliance formation in South-East and East Asia is cited as one of the compulsions that drives the Regionalists. This school of thought leads to economics being driven by politics and not the other way around.

The New Globalists, on the other hand, are driven largely by the economic boom in post liberalization India and post Cold War power realignment.
Dr. Ollapally developed two narratives that describe India and its future trajectory – India as a Global Power and India as a Developing Country.

India as a global power is driven by high economic growth and firmly believes that it can be a net beneficiary of globalization. It seeks a peaceful periphery, a state of enhanced internal security and is not averse to interdependencies in the international system. India as a global power puts great stress on aid diplomacy, as witnessed in Afghanistan in recent years.

India as a Developing Country, however, realises that 26 percent of the population continues to live under the poverty line and seeks a balance between growth and equity. It placed domestic interests over global issues. Further, it expects strict reciprocity in bilateral relations, especially with regard to its immediate neighbours.

Dr. Ollapally noted that the Manmohan Singh administration shows signs of seeing itself both as a Global Power and a Developing Nation.

The second paper titled ‘Strategic and Military Thinking on India’s Global Rise’, was presented by Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan and focused on the hard power aspects of foreign policy. Dr. Rajagopalan noted that much of the debate on foreign policy issues outside of the government, including the government appointed National Security Advisory Board is not being given due importance by the establishment. He cited three reasons that prevent a flow of ideas between public opinion makers and government functionaries. First, the insular nature of the bureaucracy tends to steer clear of outside expertise. Second, the state of coalition politics in the past two decades makes the system risk averse. Third, India’s international relations have been on an upward curve and thus require little course correction. Because of this tendency to play safe, many opportunities are lost in the process. On the other hand, however, it also offers remarkable continuity in foreign policy in spite of changes in governments.

The paper offered three nuanced perspectives on India’s Grand Strategy- the Hyper Power Perspective, the National Power Perspective and the Liberal Perspective.

The Hyper Power Perspective supports the idea of a Fortress India and places no limitation on military growth. Advocating the use of power, it remains strongly opposed to the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, the No First Use Policy and notions of Minimum Deterrence. The National Power perspective supports status-quo and echoes the views of the establishment. The Liberal Perspective, expectedly, places greater importance on trade and diplomacy. Its worth noting that there is near unanimity in resisting a significant increase in military power since India already dominates South Asia and that the capabilities required to project power throughout Asia is currently beyond India’s means.

In conclusion, the strategic community views India as a Soft State, a label that is justified on account of India being a fairly secure state that is not threatened by any huge societal disturbances. Furthermore, the nature of the asymmetric threats facing India requires unconventional capabilities like better law enforcement agencies rather than hard power tools like tanks and battleships.

The third paper by Dr. Nikola Mirilovic, titled ‘Comparing Domestic Sources of U.S. Foreign Policy Approaches to India and China’ studied the effect of the nature of state– authoritarian or democratic – on American foreign policy vis-à-vis China and India.. The author argued that besides the type of regime, other factors that determine state behaviour are business organizations, ethnic affinities, partisanship and congressional caucuses.

Congressional caucuses matter since they set the agenda for foreign policy. The size and influence of the caucuses that support democratic states are greater than the corresponding caucuses supporting dictatorships.

The ‘branding effect’ of business associations and Partisan groups also serve as an input for determining a state’s foreign policy slants. While the quantum of US-China trade far exceeds US-India trade, the paper brought out the important fact that the number of US-India business councils (318) is greater than their Chinese counterparts, implying the tendency of business organizations to associate themselves more with open societies.

Lastly, Diaspora groups play an increasingly important role in foreign policy matters. Higher level of education and affluence provides India with greater lobbying power. India’s democratic credentials imply that the Indian-American community is considered a positive contributor to American society, and makes the commercial linkages less vulnerable to political interference.

The event was chaired by Mr. Brajesh Mishra, former National Security Advisor and member of the ORF Board of trustees. Former Foreign Secretary, Mr. MK Rasgotra, President, Center for International Relations (CIR) at ORF initiated the discussions. The discussants included Mr. Manish Tewari, Member of Parliament and Honorary Advisor to ORF; Dr. Arjun Sengupta Member of Parliament and Honorary Advisor to ORF; Dr. Manpreet Sethi, Senior Fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Mr. Mukul Sanwal, former Special Advisor to the UNFCCC; Dr. Charan Wadhwa, Professor Emeritus at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi; Mr. Sunjoy Joshi, President, Centre for Resources Management at ORF; Mr. Vikram Sood, Vice- President, CIR at ORF; Amb. Dilip Lahiri, Distinguished Fellow, CIR at ORF; and Mr. Saeed Naqvi, Distinguished Fellow, CIR at ORF. 

The report is prepared by Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti, Research Assistant, ORF