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Manmohan Doctrine and India's External Relations

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 16, 2005

    The next four weeks will be very eventful for advancing India's relations with the major powers as Delhi prepares to receive US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (March 16), Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (end-March) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (early April).

    While there are distinctive issues that are specific to each of these bilateral relationships, the over-arching template as to how India will engage with the major powers and its overall external relations was provided in a landmark speech by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in end-February at the India Today Conclave in New Delhi.

    The major theme was the assertion of a renewed confidence about India and the manner in which it will recover its "lost space in the global economy and our economic status in the comity of nations".

    Linking India's current economic potential and abiding aspirations with the Nehruvian vision of free India's foreign policy as articulated in December 1947 wherein Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had cautioned that "ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy", Dr Singh provided the much-needed clarity regarding the determinants that ought to normatively underpin a nation's foreign policy.

    Noting that the global environment has never been "more conducive for India's economic development than it is today", the Prime Minister drew the axiomatic linkage with security and added that "the response of other countries to our national security concerns is being shaped by perceptions of business and economic opportunities."

    In their own way, the USA, China and Japan have emerged as major nodes of India's trade, technology and investment opportunities and, notwithstanding certain areas of divergence, with all these nations on specific security and strategic issues, the shared economic domain is too compelling to be ignored in how the bilateral ties evolve in the near future.

    And the inescapable reality is that India's bilateral relations with each of these states will have a non-linear impact on the relationship with the other two. In other words, the manner in which the Rice visit advances the India-US strand will have its own impact on India's ties with both China and Japan and vice versa.

    However it would be misleading to infer from the above that the Prime Minister's template is only about economics -- an area where his expertise is globally acknowledged -- both as the Finance Minister who steered India's hesitant liberalisation era and as the Governor of the Reserve Bank before that.

    A careful content-analysis of the speech would indicate that Dr Singh has made certain old and radical political and strategic assertions about India's orientation and relevance in the international comity.

    In keeping with his own persona, the assertions are confident and firm, albeit conveyed in a persuasive manner. Reiterating the resilience of India's multiple diversities and the manner in which the 'idea of India' has prevailed over the centuries, Dr Singh identifies openness, both in economic policies and in the social fabric as the cardinal values that need to be nurtured.

    Asserting that "the test of the vibrancy and resilience of a democracy is not just the ability to conduct elections and convene legislatures. It lies in a society's ability to communicate with itself and with the outside world through civilised modes of interaction. We are, like any real democracy, an argumentative society. The right to disagree and the freedom to debate is a hallmark of such societies."

    Dr Singh added an important caution for the domestic polity when he noted with concern the emergence of communalism and majoritarianism in the Indian body politic. The Achilles heel nature of these two trends and the extent to which they distort the societal ozone layer will be the litmus test for India, as Gujarat demonstrated in 2002.

    In what may be termed as a bold departure, the Prime Minister rejected any form of authoritarianism and welcomed the movement towards democracy in states like Afghanistan and their "long awaited tryst with peace."

    Referring to economies in transition and the manner in which the international community provides support for such transition, he introduced a new phrase into the political lexicon which may well become part of the Manmohan doctrine -- 'Societies in Transition.'

    Dr Singh suggested that developed democracies should assist such societies in their transition to becoming more open constituencies and the relevance for the southern Asian region with its many non-democratic regimes is self-evident.

    The inference that follows is not that India will export democracy to China -- that is a transition that the Chinese people and their leaders will have to steer -- but a signal that India can and will play a part in the transitions that are underway in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

    The convergence with the current Bush agenda that seeks to democratise the Greater Middle East is discernible but it is also evident that India will proceed in this endeavour in its own manner and not as part of any band-wagon.

    However, democratisation is not restricted to states but to the management of the global system as well and Dr Singh refers to seeking "the reform and democratisation of multilateral institutions" -- read the UN and its Security Council -- where the correspondence with Japan is clear.

    Yet another reiteration that is valuable is the commitment to universal nuclear disarmament that should dispel any perception that India has diluted its stand on this long term goal. India's profile as a responsible nuclear power has been high-lighted and these are areas that are relevant to all major powers against the backdrop of emerging nuclear challenges that were not envisaged by earlier regimes and agreements.

    The post-Cold War years resulted in a period of considerable turbulence and uncertainty as well-defined referents and paradigms were swept away and most nations, including India, groped for the appropriate framework or template to underpin their orientation and values by which they would deal with the external world.

    Dr Singh's February articulation will provide the core of what may later be defined as the Manmohan doctrine -- and the challenge will be in the next few weeks when these principles will be put into practice.

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