Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

India’s foreign policy as “crooked timber”

Published on 01 September 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

Looking at India’s dearth of foreign policy statements, India’s Senior Ambassador Kishan S. Rana has observed: “India has seldom published foreign policy white papers. All ministries present annual reports in Parliament, at the start of the Budget Session each February. MEA’s Annual Reports are fine documents for reference on the minutiae of external relations, but one would look in vain there for a clear over-arching master narrative of policy objectives.” His is a long-range view: “The country ought to articulate its foreign policy and convey this to citizens and to the world community.” And asks a rhetorical question: “Is it not time to set out in clear terms the principal objectives of Indian foreign policy?”[1]

Ambassador Rana’s proposal would represent a departure from India’s policy of “strategic autonomy,” which has been the hallmark of the country since its independence. He does not dwell on the reasons for India’s past stance. His view, however, is that today India is autonomous in setting its foreign policy objectives. It would be in the interests of international relations to provide previsibility.

This view bears closer scrutiny. I shall explore some of India’s past foreign policy highlights to show that it was and had to be, “crooked timber.” Echoing Kant, I would conjecture that “no straight thing can be ever made.” India’s adaptive stance makes sense to me.

India’s geo-political ambiguity

Taking the very long view, India – like Greece or Italy – is a peninsula both attached to a continental landmass and looking out to an open sea.

Ancient Greece became part of the Eastern Mediterranean trading system. Rome, having developed the skill to unite the many autochthonous peoples of its peninsula, went on to become the center of the full-fledged Mediterranean trading system. In the end, however, Rome succumbed to land-based power centers beyond its borders. In this new alignment, the Italian peninsula became both the periphery of the European “world of silver” as well as border to the Levant’s “world of gold” (reflecting the metal of the currency). In terms of wealth creation and culture, Italy’s straddling of the fence brought success. Enduring political weakness was the price. Even today, Italy’s often ambiguous foreign policy reflects its uncertainty between being part of Europe or part of the Mediterranean.

India looked out, from the outset, on the Indian Ocean trading system stretching from as far south as Mozambique to South East Asia (and beyond).[2] Given its landmass, the benefits from the trade were probably insufficient to drive a movement toward India’s unification. India remained multicultural and splintered. The Afghan corridor outflanking the Himalayas allowed entry to continental cultures and armies (the Aryans, Alexander, the Kushans, and then the many Turkic tribes that invaded India after that). During the British Raj, on the other hand, India for the first time became part of an ocean-based empire.

Emergent India’s fundamental ambiguity was whether to be part of a continental and land-based empire or to be a maritime power looking out on open water.[3] Even before independence, India was asked the fatal question: “Are you with us or against us?” Looking forward to the British and American containment of Soviet Russia, the colonial authorities in Delhi asked India’s Congress politicians to take sides. Nehru signaled non-alignment; Pakistan’s Jinnah sided with the West (eventually joining CENTO and SEATO). Partition ensued.[4] India paid dearly for declaring autonomous foreign policy objectives.

Then as now, India needs to find an ever-changing accommodation with the main land-based powers closest to it: China, Russia, and Persia (now Iran). This situation is akin to the “multi-body problem” we know from astronomy. Stable solutions are rare and predictions are mostly based on approximations. Breaking out by setting “goals” would be equivalent to leaving the star-planet system. In addition, India has to define its “open water” role and define its links to the ocean-based Anglo-Saxon countries. It does not help that the collapse of the Soviet Union has created a political void in which religions sentiment is rushing, just at the time as the new Silk Roads are opening up. Unsurprisingly, India has and is pursuing a complex balancing act in order to maintain strategic flexibility – though it did at times lapse into inflexible populist ideology and paid for it (e.g. in its conflict with China in 1962).[5]

India as a multi-cultural state

Empires are conglomerates kept together by a central will or political inertia. Over time, they tend to break up (Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman world). Under the British Raj, India was a hodge-podge of states and principalities, held together by a British administration.

India eventually became independent and succeeded in forging a nation out of what was once a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural entity. It is one of the stunning achievements that the country successfully balanced the contradictory political principles of “no secession” and “consent of the governed.”[6] The success has not been easy. It was a mix of cautious accommodation and repression (one-third of the country today is under some or another form of emergency rule[7]).

India could not resolve the first and deepest contradiction and suffered a most disastrous partition at the outset. Partition has created “unfinished business.” Under what narrative should it be viewed, however? For Pakistan, it is “foreign;” for India it is “domestic” policy. The ambiguity is highlighted by India’s appeal to the UN in 1948 it the matter of Kashmir.

Pakistan suffered a partition of its own in 1971, as Bangla Desh (then East Pakistan) sought independence from West Pakistan. India became suddenly involved in the struggle, if nothing else because it had to deal with up to 10 million refugees.[8] At the regional level, such lingering conflicts are best managed adaptively, on a vague and long course trajectory of an eventual compromise.

By location, but also the chance of history, India is part of the “Mediant” – that part of Eurasia spanning the space between Europe and the Sinic civilizations as well as South East Asia. Here, the outcomes of WWI and WWII are still being sorted out. The region is seeking a sense of sovereignty, legitimacy, and dignity in the light of continued Great Power meddling. This need is articulated in religious terms foremost, given the limited statual experience of the countries involved. Islam has also cast a shadow on parts of India. Muslims objected to Britain’s war against the Ottomans, whose Sultan they considered the spiritual head of Sunni faithful. Gandhi and his independence movement rode to prominence in India supporting this resentment.[9]

A socialist and secular worldview sustained India’s drive to independence. The ideology assisted in national integration. The current government is departing from this stance and proposing “saffronization” of the country’s ideology along meta-religious lines (of more than dubious origins). Any attempt to project this religiously-culturally tinted message beyond the country’s borders is bound to be controversial in what is already an argumentative country.[10]

More than in other countries, therefore, foreign and domestic policies are intertwined in India. Any foreign policy statement is interpreted in domestic terms.

The discreet wisdom of an adaptive foreign policy

Ecology and history have shaped India in unique ways. Like many of India’s great rivers, the flow of the country’s foreign policay has meandered dreamingly, or gone suddenly through rapid accelerations and unexpected twists in direction. Using another analogy in the introduction, I have conjectured that India’s foreign policy has been “crooked timber.”

Of course one can set “foreign policy goals” for India. Hegemons have done so in the past, with mixed results at best.[11] India is not a hegemon, nor is it likely to be one in the near future. “Strategic autonomy” is a more modest though possibly realistic attempt to make the best from the circumstances (and profit from them). When life is a bazaar, however, one would be less than clever in unveiling one’s ambitions and being other than “interested in a disinterested way.”


[1] https://bit.ly/1UoHQ4s

[2] Kenneth McPHERSON (1998): The Indian ocean. A history of people and the sea. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

[3] I am inspired here, but not limited by: Tadeo UMESAO (2003): An ecoiloigcal view of history. Japanese civilization in the world context. Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne. I freely acknowledge also the influence of Fernand BRAUDEL.

[4] Narendra SINGH SARILA (2005): The untold history of India’s partition. The shadow of the Great Game. Harpers Collins, New Delhi.

[5] See Ramachandra GUHA (2012): Patriots and partisans. Allen Lane, New Delhi.

[6] See : Ramachandra GUHA (2012) : India after Gandhi.

[7] Perr ANDERSON (2013): The Indian ideology. Vintage, New York.

[8] Some of the complexity of this dilomatic discontinuity is sketched in post 332.

[9] See e.g. Stanley WOLPERT (1999): Jinnah of Pakistan. Oxford University Press, Karachi.

[10] See: Amartia SEN (2005): The argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian history, culture and identity. Allen Lane, London

[11] This will be the subject of one of my next posts.

Link of original post

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog