News wrap: Foreign Policy after the Elections

With the release of the BJP election manifesto on April 7, much attention has been given in the past week to parsing the differences between the BJP and Congress stance on key issues. However, in the area of foreign policy, commentators have been quick to note that neither party has put forth a particularly strong strategic vision.

In The Hindu, Amitabh Mattoo writes in defense of the dire need for a strong foreign policy. He laments both parties’ failure to emphasize foreign policy, and then goes on to lay out his view on the elements of a first-year agenda for the new government.

“With an unsettled neighborhood, an increasingly aggressive China and a politically weak and ambivalent U.S., India’s external environment is defined by uncertainty. Yet, unfortunately, in all the party manifestoes released so far, the weakest sections are on foreign policy.”

“Most parties merely repeat the homilies and ideological positions of the past. The Congress manifesto, for instance, says: ‘We will continue to support the goodwill nurtured for decades amongst socialist countries’––a sentence that might have been crafted in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980, but which makes no sense today. The BJP seeks to blend, not very coherently, soft power: the task of ‘reviving’ Brand India (on the strength of Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology) with the suggestion of a muscular foreign policy (‘…where required we will not hesitate from taking strong stand and steps’).”

Mattoo then outlines three areas where the new government will need to act immediately:

  • “Craft a vision for India in Asia in what is undoubtedly an Asian century”
  • “Develop a comprehensive strategy for integrating South Asia”
  • “Empower the Foreign Secretary and restructure the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MEA&FT)”

C Raja Mohan takes a similar tack in the Indian Express, calling the sections on foreign policy in the BJP and Congress manifestos an “after thought.” Like Mattoo, he notes that both manifestos seem out of touch with current events.

“Yet, the assumptions guiding the Congress and the BJP are rooted in a different era. The challenge for India is no longer about preventing the world from impinging on its choices, but to using its growing economic and political weight to shape the external environment to its benefit.”

“The foreign policy section of the Congress manifesto is bizarre in its talk about solidarity with ‘socialist’ countries and reveals the make-believe world of the party’s leadership. The BJP manifesto is not up to speed either. Although some of the new ideas outlined by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, over the last few months did find their way in, the manifesto is quite clearly a triumph for the old guard that is so out of touch with the world.”

However, he does note two innovations in the BJP manifesto.

First, “Modi wants to make the state chief ministers allies in boosting Indian diplomacy. The proposition holds much promise, but needs to be fleshed out in greater detail.”

The second innovation is in the BJP’s stance on alliances, and specifically, “the idea of crafting a ‘web of alliances’ to boost India’s weight on the global stage,” which “stands in contrast to Congress’s obsession with the traditional conception of non-alignment.”

An opinion piece in Mint takes a different approach to analyzing the foreign policy sections of each manifesto, beginning by noting the failures of the current UPA government in this arena. It then lays out a detailed plan for how the new government night go about rectifying its predecessor’s mistakes, particularly with India’s neighbors.

“After a decade of mismanaged foreign policy, a new government will have its hands full with steering India’s choices in South Asia, one of the most difficult diplomatic spots in the world. So what should the new government do? The starting point of fixing any problem is to recognize it. For India under the UPA, it was a case of poor options in the wrong places.”

“From the Indian perspective, South Asia can be divided into three categories. One, those countries that matter and with which relations have gone sour. These are Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Then come those nations that are important and where Indian diplomacy and political leadership can improve ties quickly. Bangladesh falls in this class. Finally come those countries where it is desirable to have good relations but where the effort needed to fix things is out of line with the benefits that may accrue. Nepal and Myanmar fall in this class.”

“UPA’s failures need to be understood in the context of the first set of countries. The next government’s efforts need to be focused on them.”

Finally, in the Business Standard, Nitin Pai makes the case for a foreign strategy under the new government that is firmly rooted in economic interests, which he argues should take precedence over other international issues.

“Getting back onto the path of high growth is the single biggest policy agenda before the new government. Students at Pune's Symbiosis International University were taken aback last year, when I argued, in a lecture on geopolitics that ‘our China policy is 8 per cent growth, our America policy is 8 per cent growth and our Pakistan policy is 8 per cent growth’. Now more than ever, it is important for India's foreign policy establishment to acquire a deep understanding of the economic bases of national power. It would be fruitless, almost absurd to talk about the new government's foreign policy agenda without rooting it firmly in the economic agenda. Now, more than ever.”

The author goes on to argues that defense and international policy will be of limited utility until India’s has set its economic house in order.

“The external environment will certainly affect India's internal quest to get back onto the path of high economic growth -- but much of the slack is in domestic policy. If we manage our home and economic affairs well enough over the next few years, foreign and defense policies will again become important. The intervening period is an opportunity to clear the decks in the South Block of the Central Secretariat in New Delhi.”