March 26, 2012

India's foreign policy requires re-jigging

Author: Shashi Shekhar

There is need to articulate a Centre-Right blueprint for the country's foreign policy to pursue strategic interests

Away from the low intelligence quotient world of television studio debates and away from the miasma of asinine clich├ęs that pass for news opinion, an interesting debate is taking shape. A group of independent thinkers, analysts and policy makers recently came together to produce a document recently, titled, ‘Non-Alignment 2.0 — A foreign and strategic policy for India in the 21st century’. It was facilitated by the National Defence College and the Centre for Policy Research. The document is about 70 pages long. It was the topic of discussion at a seminar in New Delhi recently and of frequent exchanges on Twitter between policy wonks.
Three names stand out in the group to tell you the spectrum of political thought that was mapped in this exercise.

Far to the Left is Siddharth Varadarajan, Chief Editor of The Hindu, well-known for his sympathies to Left-liberal activism and associated causes. Slightly to the left of Centre is Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys and presently chairman of the UIDAI, enjoying a Cabinet Minister’s rank in the UPA Government. Slightly to the right of Centre is Pratap Bhanu Mehta, foremost among policy thinkers in the present times and also a vocal critic of the UPA and the Congress, though he continues to mark his distance from the BJP. It is unclear if the others in the group have known political affiliations, but there is none that stands out in any significant way.
The document broadly draws the following conclusions: India’s foremost policy challenge is poverty alleviation. Policies must facilitate more and more citizens to participate in high economic growth, which it sees as possible. Policies must be driven by secular, liberal constitutional values. The document then makes a leap to what it calls ‘Alternative Universality’ by invoking Gandhi to Ambedkar. It then goes on to argue that legitimacy of India’s policies will be derived from standing for what it terms are ‘universal values’. It sees these ‘universal values’ giving moral legitimacy to India’s pursuit of its interests relative to its neighbours. In conclusion, the document basically puts the pursuit of so-called ‘alternate universe values’ above the exercise of power in pursuit of India’s interests.

From the choice of nomenclature, the sub-spectrum of political ideologies spanned by the drafting team and the broad conclusions drawn by the document, it is safe to say this is a left of Centre blueprint for how India must frame its foreign policies and pursue its strategic interests. Little wonder that some of the most passionate defence of this formulation comes from the Left liberal editors and reporters of The Hindu. It is curious that the Left loves to preach what it seldom practices on putting values above interests for we routinely find Left liberal activists putting interests above values to make common political cause with even the Americans when it comes to settling domestic political scores against the Indian Right in specific or Centre-Right policies in general.

This is but one of many problems with this formulation of ‘Alternate Universalism’, for both the organised Left and the institutional Left liberals routinely apply it in the reverse to justify foreign interventions in domestic politics where it suits them.

Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an interesting critique of Non-Alignment 2.0 that appeared on blog. Mr Dhume’s critique largely centres on three arguments. First, non-alignment is an outdated and stale idea as he points to contrarian Indian thinkers like former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and professor Kanti Bajpai. Second, India must see a confluence of interests with America in an international order underpinned by US power. And third, India’s foreign policy must be rooted in reality and not in abstraction. Mr Dhume goes on to cite a number of instances where India chose posturing over pragmatism, sowing doubts in the US on its reliability as an ally and on why economic achievement and not fictitious bonds ultimately matter.
It is unfortunate that the Indian political Right has no informed foreign policy stance, barring one reflected in an odd speech last year by Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley. It is also unfortunate that the BJP did not bother to invest in an institutional Centre-Right all these years. But, for an emerging next generation Centre-Right within the social media, Non-Alignment 2.0 fills the void in the debate on India’s foreign and strategic interests by default.

Nevertheless, it must be said that American realists and Indian Left liberals are strange bed-fellows when it comes to Non-Alignment 2.0 applied in reverse. For, what the Indian Left preaches as ‘Alternate Universalism’ is practiced by the Americans when it comes to diminishing an emergent Centre-Right in India. When voices from the American Right across policy think-tanks and media outlets that ostensibly stand for economic freedom, make common cause with the Indian Left to ostracise the only Indian politician in Government who has unambiguously stood for economic freedom, one is left bewildered, wondering who is more rooted in reality and who is in abstraction.

There is an acute need to articulate a Centre-Right blueprint on how India must conduct its foreign policy and pursue its strategic interests.

Such a blueprint will not come till the Indian political Right gets it act together in Delhi and proactively invests in an institutional Centre-Right. Such a blueprint will also not come to assuage American anxieties on India’s reliability as an ally as long as the Americans fail to tell friend from foe, thus continuing to be unwitting agents of the Indian Left’s ‘Alternate Universalism’ applied in reverse to Indian politics.
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Shashi Shekhar

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