Foreign policy debates have historically been foreign to Indian election campaigns.
But photo-ops with international leaders are always welcome because they help burnish the credentials of politicians with the domestic audience.
Images of India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru rubbing shoulders with Presidents Sukarno and Nasser of Indonesia and Egypt, respectively, at the Asia-Africa Bandung Conference in 1955 certainly did his image as a world statesman no harm.
The television broadcast of his daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, being enveloped in a surprise bear hug by ‘elder brother’ Fidel Castro at the 1983 Non-Aligned Movement Conference in New Delhi, was widely thought to have humanised the otherwise aloof Mrs G for millions in India.
In more recent times, Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to Beijing, the first time an Indian Prime Minister journeyed to China in over three decades, and the warm welcome extended to him by Deng Xiaoping, provided a considerable boost to the then Indian PM’s image at home.
Ditto, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meetings with former US President George W Bush between 2007-09 when the two leaders signed the Indo-US nuclear deal which effectively ended India’s international isolation on the nuclear issue.
And, of course, there’s the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, praised and reviled in equal measure for the robust hugs he dispenses to world leaders. Modi has unquestionably built a personal rapport with key world leaders from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yet, it is important to note that as India’s weeks-long polling process draws to a close, foreign policy issues have found little or no space in the campaigns of the two major parties, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the principal Opposition Congress Party.
At best, it could be said, the issues emanating from India’s relations with countries around the globe including in Asia have impacted the election discourse only tangentially.
The situation is entirely counter-intuitive given India’s aggregate GDP is now close to $3 trillion and is ranked fifth in the world.
India’s total annual trade, in goods and services, too is now little over $1 trillion. Plus, there is the country’s increasing military footprint and soft power outreach which compliments its growing economic heft
For example, there is no mention on the stump of the ‘Look East’ policy, which was a seminal Indian pivot towards East and South-east Asia, first enunciated by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of the Congress (1991-96) and then carried forward by the administration of his successor AB Vajpayee of the BJP (1998-2004).
Neither has there been any discussion on the progression of Look East to ‘Act East’, initiated by the Manmohan Singh-led administration of the Congress over two consecutive terms (2004-14).
Both these campaigns have ostensibly been pushed by the Modi administration but there is no mention of them on the campaign trail.
But while there’s a telling silence in terms of external engagement impacting trade, commerce, energy security, tourism, cultural exchanges, people-to-people contacts and geostrategy, they all translate into everyday issues that do find mention in the campaigns of both major parties and their respective allies.
So, the issue of cheap Chinese-manufactured goods flooding the Indian market is a major point of ire among India’s small traders and mom-and-pop stores, traditionally the BJP’s strongest supporters.
Similarly, the rising price of fuel – India imports more than 80% of its crude oil requirements — for a price-sensitive middle class of as many as 600 million people as well as for the transport and agriculture sectors is a huge campaign issue for the Opposition in elections 2019.
Terrorism and national security, issues directly linked to India’s foreign policy priorities, form the main campaign plank of the Modi-led BJP as it seeks re-election.
The insatiable Indian desire for quality education and employment abroad, whether in the traditional destinations of UK/US/Canada or now increasingly in Singapore/Australia, are also subject to the relationship New Delhi has with these nations.
In sum, foreign policy is not an issue qua issue in the election but some of the major talking points in the 2019 poll are a result of India’s constantly evolving relationships within Asia and in the world.
That India’s multitude of smaller, regional parties are either broadly aligned with the Congress or line up with the BJP when it comes to foreign policy – provides an insight into their respective notions of what constitutes the national interest.
The third party’s whose manifesto on foreign affairs is very different is the main party of India’s parliamentary left, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).
A recent article in The Diplomat points out the party has outlined seven primary foreign policy priorities for India, which the manifesto notes is “emerging as a power and connecting stakeholders in a multi-polar world.”
- To “safeguard global commons” and “strengthen India’s role as a first responder for disaster relief/humanitarian assistance and develop partnerships for disaster resilient infrastructure.”
- To facilitate knowledge exchange and technology transfer internationally, including the creation of an International Space Technology Alliance.
- To emphasise the importance for India to interact with Indians and people of Indian-origin abroad.
- To initiate “concrete steps” at international fora to take action against “countries and organizations supporting terrorism.” (Though Pakistan is not directly named in the document, the manifesto states that India will continue to “isolate such countries.”)
- To underscore India’s interest in “ensuring an open, inclusive, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific.”
- To leverage India’s role in international institutions, including the United Nations, G20, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth in the fight against “global evils” including corruption.
- To continue to press India’s claim for a permanent seat in a (reformed) United Nations Security Council.
But when it comes to substantive details the BJP resorts to suitably vague if high-sounding principles such as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) as the basis for India’s interaction with the world in various spheres.
The Congress, as the challenger, seems to have put more thought into the foreign policy aspect of its manifesto as it realises it has to do the running.
The Citizen goes as far as to make the claim that the foreign policy determinants for the Congress “are like a rescue mission for Indian diplomacy… which over the past five years prioritised the extrapolation of Modi’s own political persona on the country’s foreign policy.”
That may or may not be hyperbole from a simpatico source but the Congress in its manifesto promises to:
- Establish a National Council on Foreign Policy with statutory status — comprising of members of the Cabinet, national security experts and domain specialists – to advise the government.
- Resuscitate the moribund National Security Advisory Board to make it a “permanent, professional body advising the government” on foreign, security and strategic affairs. Also, the National Security Council as well as the post of National Security Adviser would be given statutory status.
- Pass a Law on asylum in keeping with universal treaties as India has no extant law under which asylum-seekers’ applications can be processed and is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.
- Make efforts to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The manifesto is, however, silent on how it proposes to deal with Pakistan’s presence in the regional body.
- Differentiate India’s relentless fight against terrorism from the practical need to engage Pakistan on pressing bilateral concerns while highlighting India’s special relations with SAARC countries
- Address the problem of terrorism by “persuading other countries to compel Pakistan to verifiably end its support to terror groups that it shelters” and work towards engaging with the UN to constantly review its terror financing and sanctions lists.
- Coordinate with neighbouring countries including Sri Lanka and Pakistan to avoid conflagrations when fishermen from either side stray into the territorial waters of the other.
The communists’ manifesto, as it were, highlights traditional hard-left positions premised on a somewhat static worldview in its foreign policy section:
- India should distance itself from the US, revise the India-US nuclear agreement and defence cooperation arrangements.
- New Delhi ought to take the lead in promoting global nuclear disarmament
- India must actively work towards establishing global multipolarity.
- A foreign policy priority for India should be to reactivate SAARC.