As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt life in India and world over, it appears too early to talk about a post Covid-19 world order. The turmoil at the global, regional and national level goes on even as countries, big and small, struggle to reorient.
So far, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has handled the domestic situation without major hitches and backlash. With no major election round the corner except a few assembly polls, there is time for the government to consider hitting the reset button on India’s foreign policy. The pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges on the foreign policy front. The national health emergency, apart from the border stand-off with China and upcoming US presidential election, will have far-reaching consequences on our policy formulations. Considering the downward trajectory of the Indian economy, the next round of diplomatic outreach will veer around trade deals and institutions, both at the regional and global level.
New tools to achieve foreign policy objectives
So, what is it that India can do to fight these new global challenges? Besides following the established and time-tested standard operating procedures of the Ministry of External Affairs, it will be prudent on part of the decision makers to also make use of some ‘not-so-conventional’ methods of engagement with foreign powers, leaders, parties and institutions in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Securing our national interest, domestic peace and progress, and maintaining strategic autonomy while dealing with issues arising out of geo-political changes is a test that the Indian establishment has faced many times in the past.
It is not unusual for developing countries and emerging economies to rely on non-career diplomats to deal with neighbouring countries in the region. One reason is the dearth of career diplomats and lack of institutional mechanism. India and many other commonwealth countries have inherited the ‘steel frame’ of administration in domestic as well as foreign affairs. Yet, there are instances when countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and even some of the Caribbean countries have relied on academics, popular politicians and eminent personalities to represent them in important capitals of the world and international institutions.
After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, the US took strong reciprocal action and saw to it that the Taliban government in Afghanistan was dismissed. After nearly 20 years of an unending military action, the Taliban is at the apex of peace negotiations and has virtually made a comeback. Such a role reversal would not have been possible without the effective use of ‘friends of Taliban’ to pull the strings at the right place and at the right time. It is nobody’s argument that the Taliban has undergone a change of heart. Even now, it is adamant on not sharing power with the elected government in Kabul. There is also no dilution on its Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, what interests us here is that even an outfit like Taliban could achieve its objective by thinking out of the box.
Realising the India Inc potential
PM Modi started his foreign policy outreach with the Neighbourhood First policy. It is an important foreign policy measure to gain the confidence of leaders of countries in the region. This outreach should have resulted in improving our trade relations with these countries, which were far too aligned with Beijing through China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More than the Line of Credit projects that fall under government’s patronage, it were the private conglomerates from India that made gains in business and trade, both in terms of volume and value, through exports. Yet, in comparison to BRI, New Delhi’s economic clout is far less in the region.
Our missions will have to learn to treat the India Inc as ambassadors of the country and facilitate their inroads more proactively. However, this change in working pattern of our embassies will happen only if there is sufficient coaxing from the South Block.
Yet another talent pool is the huge number of academicians, research scholars and think tanks that are keeping a tab on almost every happening all over the globe. While there are hardly half-a-dozen think tanks at the national level, many of the smaller ones are starved of funds, which affect their output. With the expansion in our international reach and increased stakes in global affairs, there has to be a proportionate increase in the number of think tanks and research scholars who would give inputs to the administrative network.
While the decision-making power and the responsibility to implement those rests solely on the shoulders of the government and the well-oiled Indian Foreign Service machinery, the information input channels will have to be increased. The existing autonomous institutions like the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, for example, despite being fully funded by the government are doing very little to fill the gap between global opportunities and use them to our strategic advantage.
There is an urgent need to frame policies so as to involve new partners and devise proper mechanisms to utilise their knowledge and influence to the best advantage of India’s diplomacy.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.