Originally Published 2005-10-05 05:35:38 Published on Oct 05, 2005
The defining moment in India's international relations did not occur when Delhi voted with the US and its allies on Iran on the IAEA board. The real watershed in India's foreign policy occurred in May 1998,
India's Foreign Policy: Favouring the US?

The defining moment in India's international relations did not occur when Delhi voted with the US and its allies on Iran on the IAEA board. The real watershed in India's foreign policy occurred in May 1998, when––defying traditional assumptions, analytical predictions and international opinion––India conducted a series of nuclear tests. This was the beginning of a new phase of realism in India's foreign policy. The direction of India's foreign policy, including the current position on Iran, is rooted in that historic decision. 

What are the basic goals of India's foreign policy? Simply put, it is the search for security, space and strength. India's primary quest seems to be to acquire the strength and strategic autonomy that will allow it to stabilise an “unfriendly neighbourhood”, and give it the capability to make independent, even unpopular, choices, in the international system, and be able to influence the future course of international relations. These objectives have defined India’s foreign policy since Independence and were the basis for non-alignment. (NAM, however, was a child of cold war politics and had not been able to redefine itself adequately to justify its existence in the post-cold war era). It is the aggressive pursuit of these goals––clinically, amorally and non-ideologically––which is remarkable and unprecedented. 

The present debate on Iran is really a debate about the US and the manner in which India's strategic elite has a paradoxical view of that country. On the one hand, the elite (not just the Left) continues to be suspicious of American policies towards South Asia. Some of this tension, of course, is a legacy of the cold war, but this sentiment is kept alive by the US relationship with Pakistan and by Washington's perceived behaviour in international politics. Resentment at the manner in which Pakistan seems to continue to be rewarded by the US despite its support for terrorism within India is palpable, as is the widespread perception that the US has double standards in dealing with terrorism. Washington's decision to declare Pakistan a major non-NATO ally in March 2004, within weeks of the confirmation of reports that Pakistan's scientists had leaked nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, brought home to Indians the more cynical aspects of US short-term interests. 

Similarly, there is a widespread feeling that Washington is not sufficiently sensitive to Indian security concerns or its aspirations of being a great power. The Indian elite is clearly uncomfortable with the US's hyper-power, a term popularised by the French and which has gained intellectual currency within India. Similarly, the sparring between Indian and US negotiators, in various multilateral trade-related forums, over the pace of liberalisation in agriculture and services, continues to demonstrate the current limits of the relationship with Washington, and the fact that American self-interest will in no way be compromised in the process of building a relationship with the world's largest democracy. 

On the other hand, despite such apprehensions about the US, there are few that want a confrontation with the US. Instead, there is strong support for engaging the only superpower in a meaningful relationship and for building a strong, pragmatic partnership with it. The terms “natural allies” and “strategic partners” of ten used for India and the US have a deep resonance with India's strategic elite. The belief that there is long-term strategic convergence between the two countries is widespread. Economnic and technological ties educational and societal links, shared concern over China's future, and the common battle against terrorism are key factors that bind the US and India. A shared commitment to pluralism, democracy and the free-market, as well as the successful Indian diaspora in the US, provide strong foundations for the growth of the relationship. 

A modus vivendi with the US is not just desirable, but a necessity if India has to translate its aspirations into reality. In contrast, India may have important stakes in Iran, but there are no vital national interests that could be effected. Moreover, does any Indian want another nuclear weapon power in its extended neighbourhood? Foreign policy, alas, cannot be run on the basis of moral or ideological crusades: the only commitment should be to the national interest and national security. The earlier the Left realisies this, the better it will be for the country. 

The author is Vice Chancellor, Jammu University and a former Member of the National Security Advisory Board. He is also Honorary Academic Advisor, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Economic Times, New Delhi, October 4, 2005..

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.