Event Reports

India’s Foreign Policy: Past, Present and the Future

The foreign policy of the Modi government is the continuation of the foreign policies introduced by the Manmohan Singh government, whose hallmark was the concrete decision to link India's economic transformation and growth of India with its foreign policy approach and objectives, says Dr. Shashi Tharoor.


Dr. Shashi Tharoor, former Minister of State (Foreign Affairs), has emphasised on the importance of maintaining good relations with India’s neighbourhood in order to ensure that the troubles on the border do not detract from the focus on development and growth.

Participating in a book discussion on Prof. Sumit Ganguly’s new book “India’s Foreign Policy: Past, Present and the Future” at Observer Research Foundation on July 24, 2015, Dr. Tharoor, Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, traced Modi Government’s all these policies to the UPA-1 regime.

Deliberating on the evolution of the Indian foreign policy since 1947, Dr. Tharoor stated that the hallmark of Mr. Manmohan Singh’s government was the concrete decision of Indian foreign policy establishment to link India’s economic transformation and growth of India with its foreign policy approach and objectives. In that respect, the present government is in fact continuing the policies which were introduced by the UPA government, Dr. Tharoor said, pointing out the importance of maintaining good relations with the countries that are sources of energy security and foreign investments.

Prof. Ganguly’s book “Indian Foreign Policy” is part of the Oxford University Press (OUP) Short Introduction series. The book sets out to explain complex issues in India’s foreign policy and the way in which Indian policymakers interact with the rest of the world.

Prof Ganguly introduced the book. Besides Dr Tharoor, other panellists comprised Ms. Suhasini Haider, Deputy Resident Editor & Diplomatic Affairs Editor, The Hindu, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, and Mr. Ashok Malik, Senior Fellow, ORF. Dr C. Raja Mohan, Head of ORF Strategic Affairs Studies, moderated the discussion.

Prof Ganguly at the outset divided India’s foreign policy into four distinct phases. The first is the Nehruvian era (1947-1964), which he considers the initial benchmark for India’s Foreign Policy approach. This period was one of high idealism. The key characteristic of this period was Nehru’s emphasis on ’Nuclear Disarmament’ in order to transform the Global Order. This was followed by Nehru’s binding interest in ’Multilateral Institutions’ in promoting Global Peace and delegitimising colonial enterprise through his policy of Non-Alignment. Nehru played a critical role in ideationally challenging the notion of colonialism and the very norm of imperialism. Nehru’s emphasis on low military expenditure during this period was partly because of Bonapartism at home and partly because of his interest in promoting economic development. This, according to Prof Ganguly, did not work well for Nehru.

The second phase overlaps with the tenures of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. He referred to this period as a strategic dependence on the Soviet Union, particularly after 1971. He argued that this period was a favourable time in Indian Foreign Policy. It was following the end of the Cold War that structural shifts could be observed in India’s Foreign Policy approach. These were characterised by the attempts to improve relations with the United States and much of the advanced industrial world. He argued that 1990’s onwards, there was a steady acceptance of the role ’material power’ in international affairs and India finally embraced the significance of the same.

Prof Ganguly characterises the current phase as ’a new phase in Indian foreign policy’, ’a period of pragmatism’ and an increased assertiveness towards India’s most fractious neighbours particularly China and Pakistan. He welcomed the attempts by India to steadily improve relations its smaller neighbours.

Suhasini Haider made some key observations and raised some interesting questions on India’s foreign policy approach. She highlighted some key features of the world today, also captured by the book such as the tensions between the East and the West, global disarmament and the reduction in growing inequalities. She also argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy approach was essentially a continuation of the same policies that have been followed in the past as well and his tenure so far may not necessarily account for a shift in India’s policies. She said India is a country that has been able to punch way above its weight in the world because it had adopted a non-pragmatic posture. She concluded by saying that India needs to redefine its foreign policies since a lot of changes had occurred in the last ten years.

Ashok Malik also touched upon the Nehruvian phase of India’s foreign policy and his expansive role in the early years. He talked about the contemporary challenges to Indian foreign policy emanating from China. He underlined the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region which is emerging as an area of both competition and cooperation for India and China. He argued that the Indian foreign policy under PM Modi may not have changed compared to UPA-1, but it has certainly changed compared to UPA-II. The postulates put forward by Manmohan Singh government in UPA-I were not carried through UPA-II. He made reference to the BBIN initiative in this regard, which was earlier thought of by the Manmohan Singh government, but has been taken forward by the Modi government with much greater enthusiasm.

Concluding the panel discussion, Dr. Raja Mohan highlighted few important points. He said that we need to challenge the notion that there is a ’consensus’. He argued that this whole notion of a unified understanding of the world is actually a myth. He said that the problem in the discourse on foreign policy is that the various myths on such issues are not scrutinised properly. He stated that we need to look at India’s foreign policy in a more nuanced and textured manner without separating it from its historical evolution over the years. Finally, he pointed out that the objective and pursuit of strategic autonomy was not unique to India; the question really is how much strategic influence India can exercise.

(The report is prepared by V Vidya Lakshmi, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation)