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Expanding the Horizons of Indian Foreign Policy

Mehmet Ozkan is Visiting International Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 19, 2010

    Indians tend to think categorically. Like in mathematics, they think and act with calculations and it is rather unusual to think in an unconventional way among Indian academics and politicians. Two reasons may account for this. First is the existence of the historical and religious setting of the society which has an embedded caste system and mentality. Second is the widespread acceptance of the military-oriented and disciplined thinking that require a lot of calculations and fewer risks.

    A general overview of Indian foreign policy shows these points. During the Nehru years, besides being a newly established state in international affairs, the foreign policy belief and approach did represent very much of a conventional and categorical thinking. His foreign policy strategy of non-alignment was not more than a withdrawal from global politics, although Nehru himself claimed that it was the best way to be more active in global politics.

    From a global political perspective, non-alignment was a declaration of restraint and sobriety in contrast to the posturing and scheming of the two ideological camps of East and West. It was disengagement from total war and even maybe from total global politics. Non-alignment as shaped by Nehru was a refusal to enter into alliances which implied this global military and political commitment. Though initially non-alignment strategy may seem a correct one given the establishment and re-settling of the new-born Indian state, it became an obsession over the next few decades. The world has changed deeply and vastly, but it is still difficult to see a radical change on the idea of non-alignment in Indian foreign policy thinking. What has changed perhaps is the current formulation of the idea itself, but in essence it has not changed much. One asks why it is so. What makes the idea of non-alignment so embedded in political and even social culture? If it is a foreign policy strategy, wouldn’t that change as the parameters of global politics change?

    My answer to this question is that it originated from the deep-seated cultural/religious and historical legacy. Non-alignment in the Indian psyche has always been more than a foreign policy strategy. It has been a form of thinking, looking at issues and interpreting them. That helped India to be a natural leader and father of non-alignment, but also made it difficult to change, adjust or get rid of it when it became outdated.

    The current continuation of this trend may be seen through the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA). Since its inception in 2002, Indian foreign policy thinking has focused too much on IBSA. Yes, IBSA is a pioneering organizational example connecting three continents by establishing a tri-lateral organization. It has also contributed to economic interaction between member countries. However, presenting the IBSA as a solution to the world and as an alternative is deeply flawed. In India, both academics and politicians deeply believe that the time has come for such an organization that arises and leads the world from the south. Nobody is asking whether such a grouping can do more than merely contribute to develop economic relations among its three members. Nobody is asking whether they, individually and as a grouping, have credibility outside of the economic realm in global politics not only in the eyes of other countries but also in the eyes of international organizations. What exists in India today is, for better or worse, an obsession with the IBSA. This obsession seems to be similar to the history of NAM, which was the central plank of Indian thinking on foreign affairs. Thinking of the IBSA as the first organization to take up or find a solution to every problem is not that bad, though one should be very careful not to consider the IBSA as the only alternative. Having obsession with someone or something usually makes it difficult if not impossible for people to see issues from different angles, and defer from other viable options.

    In short, IBSA has opened an alternative way of thinking in global politics like the NAM did in the 1960s. The danger here is that the IBSA should not occupy the centre of our thinking on global issues and Indian foreign policy by glorifying it as if it is the best and the only option. Like NAM, neither the IBSA nor any other forum will be permanent or best, though they are just one step in hopefully a direction to find a better and just global political order.