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The Existential Crisis in Indian Foreign Policy

Indian foreign policy must now pursue global influence, but chest-thumping goes the wrong way. A self-centred and muscular foreign policy which seeks to establish India at the centre of the universe is counter-productive in the pursuit for global influence. ‘Influence’, by its very nature, requires alliances and common purpose, rather than one-upmanship and self-centred policymaking.

In Indian election rhetoric, foreign policy is the forgotten son. Let’s face it, foreign policy doesn’t win you votes. Given the complexities of India’s vast and diverse domestic landscape, few Indians spend much time worrying about problems in other parts of the world. No Indian prime minister has ever won office solely because of his or her foreign policy acumen, and most political frontrunners in India have had little or no experience with diplomacy or international affairs.

For a nation that is one of the most globalized in the world, this insularity is extremely odd. The extraordinary story of India’s economic growth is nothing if not the story of modern-day globalization.

The big boom of the Indian economy in the early 1990s was fueled by an embrace of the external world. In 1960, India’s exports and imports together amounted to less than a tenth of the GDP. By 2014, they weighed up more than four-tenths. In 2016, there were 360,000 Indian students in universities overseas, and the year before, almost 16 million Indians were resident abroad – the most for any country that year, according to UN data. There are few countries in the world today that aren’t in some way influenced by Indian or Indian-origin society: In some parts of the Pacific and the Caribbean, presidents and prime ministers descend from Indian ancestors.

Yet, the almost mythic influence of India’s vast diaspora sits uneasily with the paradox of India’s weak foreign policy influence. Take the Indian passport, for instance: For a country whose citizens crowd every corner of the planet, India’s passport is extraordinarily weak on travel freedom. Last month, the consulting firm Henley & Partners released its Passport Index, which ranks countries according to the number of places to which its citizens may travel without a visa. India came in 80th out of 104 places – behind Zimbabwe, Ghana and even Sierra Leone.

There are several reasons for why a passport would enjoy limited access in foreign countries: apart from internal security threats, a country may suffer from hostile neighbours, geopolitical complexities, or even adverse economic calculations. A country’s rank on the passport index is no direct reflection of its foreign policy influence.

Yet, a weak passport has many significant consequences: it means that Indians must pay, wait and struggle more in order to gain entry into various countries, and many of those who do manage to emigrate will try to change passports – and add straight into the ‘brain drain’.

India’s woes with global influence extend far beyond just its passport: Despite its size and significance, India still struggles to rally support for many of its causes. The idea of isolating Pakistan after repeated cross-border terror attacks was a lost cause even before it began. Fugitives of Indian law have managed to hide away overseas for years before the wheels of law begin turning.

India’s problem is less about resources and more about policy and strategy. India now has an economy worth over a trillion dollars more than Russia’s and sizable military resources. Yet, on all practical measures of global influence, Moscow is far more significant than New Delhi (and one would never imagine a fugitive of Russian law being sheltered in a Caribbean island).

Why does Russia play such an outsized role on the global stage? The reason Moscow is powerful is because Russia has deployed its resources in different parts of the world and has a coherent strategic vision with well-defined foreign policy objectives. It knows what it wants and it has allies who are willing to pursue those interests – not unlike the United States.

Indian strategic analysis rarely ever touches on a similar framework to expand New Delhi’s political influence around the world. Most Indian foreign policy analysis is still dominated by outdated concepts surrounding ‘survival’ and ‘independence’: terms borrowed from an era of famine and vulnerability, when India had nascent state institutions and was dependent on foreign food aid.

The new generation of globalized Indians has higher aspirations and needs a fresher approach to strategic thinking. India now has not just the desire for global influence, but also the need for it. If New Delhi is to provide opportunities for millions of its citizens around the world, it needs to build the ability to mobilise states to act in a certain manner, in pursuit of a common purpose and in fulfilling Indian national interests.

The challenge with instituting public discussion over foreign policy influence is the misunderstanding of what “influence” actually means. In the aftermath of surgical strikes, many Indians mistook foreign policy influence for self-centered action or aggression. Hawks cheer military force or muscularity, believing these to be the development of foreign policy power, and any talk over national power and global influence hence quickly degenerates into chest-thumping or the assertion of cultural supremacy.

The result is a snobbish, narcissistic foreign policy approach that, at its best, projects a selfish Indian government to the world (think of the “India first” slogan) and, at its worst, demeans other states in order to prove India’s own power. In 2015, after the Indian army conducted a covert operation in Myanmar against anti-Indian militants, a Union Minister came out to publicly celebrate the event, drawing rebuke from the Myanmar regime for what it saw as an infringement on its territorial sovereignty.

A self-centred and muscular foreign policy which seeks to establish India at the centre of the universe is counter-productive in the pursuit for global influence. ‘Influence’, by its very nature, requires alliances and common purpose, rather than one-upmanship and self-centred policymaking. ‘Influential powers’ are influential because other countries consider them important to their own well-being and security. To be of consequence, therefore, India must represent and serve other countries by finding common purpose with them.

The purpose of Indian foreign policy must be re-oriented towards the development of such a strategic framework – one that makes India useful and valuable to the aspirations of other states. That begins by recognizing the need for a global identity for India on the world stage – one that defines what India needs and what India can do for the rest of the world. This is an existential debate in Indian foreign policy that is long overdue.

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Mohamed Zeeshan is a Founding Partner and the Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette. He is the author of Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership (Penguin 2021). He is currently a foreign affairs columnist for The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Haaretz, and writes 'The Z Factor' - a monthly Sunday column in the Deccan Herald. He has previously worked at the United Nations in New York and with the global consulting firm Kearney in Dubai. He is a graduate of International Affairs from Columbia University.