Challenges to Indian Foreign Policy

Commentary | April 01, 2013

EWI Board Member Kanwal Sibal, former national security advisor of India, assesses India's recent difficulties abroad.

Some caveats are necessary before pronouncing on the UPA government’s foreign policy, especially the apparent mishandling of relations with Sri Lanka and the case of the Italian marines, as well as the setback in the Maldives. First, no country can have a foreign policy that is seen as being without fault by the public. This is particularly true of democracies where all kinds of opinions get expressed, political partisanship is normal as Opposition parties will always find some reason to contest government decisions, and the civil society has its own views on how policies should be framed on humanitarian and peacebuilding issues in particular.

Second, even countries more powerful than India, better governed, with wider internal debates and inputs from specialists, with greater sense of purpose and more aggressive in safeguarding national interest appear to make serious foreign policy mistakes or manifestly fail to achieve their objectives.

Third, it should not be assumed that big countries can have their way with small countries. The international system presents an obstacle as principles of sovereignty are involved and the reaction of competing powerful countries, in the region or outside, have to be factored into decision-making, especially if the smaller countries have a sensitive geopolitical location.

A further point needs to be made specifically with regard to India. Our foreign policy problems are numerous and complex. Pakistan has been a perennial problem ever since we became independent, confronting us with military challenges, religious extremism and terrorism. Our other neighbours, barring Bhutan, have played external powers against us as a balancing factor. China and Pakistan have boosted the capacity and the confidence of our neighbours to oppose us, and, until the major improvement of our relations with the U.S., the American card has come in handy too. It is not absent even today in the triangular India-U.S.-Pakistan diplomatic equation, with the situation in Afghanistan adding to its complexity.

The issues relating to the presence and treatment of Indian ethnic groups in neighbouring countries makes the management of relations with the latter more difficult. These issues spill over into domestic politics and cannot be treated solely as a foreign policy agenda. Our response to Islamic terrorism from Pakistan, which is essentially a foreign policy challenge, gets embroiled with the secular-communal debate in India as well as electoral considerations because a robust physical and legal response to local linkages of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is seen as targeting our own Muslim population unfairly.

With all these caveats, our handling of the Sri Lanka issue at the recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at Geneva deserves to be seen as a particularly low point in our diplomacy. Sri Lanka has not been an easy partner to deal with; its discriminatory policies towards the Tamil population have been the source of tensions with India for long. If Sri Lanka had been wiser, it would have avoided creating a festering domestic ethnic situation that objectively impinged on India and was bound to provoke Indian interference and be a source of mistrust between the two countries. Sri Lanka has not, as a result, been sufficiently cognisant of our security concerns. It has exploited its geopolitical position and our adversarial relationship with China and Pakistan to carve out space for itself to frustrate us in many ways. It has played its cards ably by also cooperating with us in some areas and giving us enough stakes to blunt our responses to its provocations.

Sri Lanka’s failure to resolve ethnic issues after crushing the LTTE, the lack of progress on reconciliation and accountability issues, the reneging on implementing the 13th Amendment, the agitation of the issue of human rights violations of the civilian Tamil population in the final stages of military operations against the LTTE by the Sri Lankan diaspora, amplified by reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, all led to the stigmatisation of Sri Lanka on human rights issues in a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the UNHRC last year. India departed from its principled position not to back country-specific resolutions at Geneva by voting in favour of the resolution after working to dilute those parts of it that were too intrusive and disrespectful of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

Our positive vote then and this year was a mistake. India has itself been targeted for human rights violations in Jammu & Kashmir by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International without any allowance for its democracy, the independence of its judiciary, an alert press and the fact these organisations largely relied on exposures of abuses by Indian sources. The U.S. too has played its part to embarrass India in the past on human rights violations in Jammu & Kashmir in a bid to be even-handed towards Pakistan accused of abetting terrorist attacks against us. We have had to fight attempts by Pakistan to castigate us at the human rights forum at Geneva.

This time too, India worked initially to moderate the resolution on these counts. Having departed from its principled position last year, India could not vote against the resolution or abstain this year without a show of tangible progress by Sri Lanka on pending issues, including on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. What made our diplomacy almost farcical at Geneva was the bizarre attempt by India to work at the last minute to strengthen the very resolution that it had worked to soften earlier, not because any objective external policy factor had changed or the Sri Lankan government had committed a new breach of human rights or that India had not done its diplomatic homework earlier thoroughly enough and new factors had emerged to warrant a review of its earlier position. It was simply a case of internal threats to the UPA government form the DMK, the latter’s demagoguery on “genocide” in Sri Lanka four years after military operations in the island nation have ended that led to this last-minute scramble to appease an internal regional lobby at Geneva.

Worse for us, we got rebuffed by the US as it feared toughening the resolution may reduce the number of countries supporting it. We ended by looking bloody-minded and the US looking moderate. Such conduct erodes the credibility of our diplomacy abroad, besides raising fears at home that the government in New Delhi is losing grip over foreign policy under regional pressures. This has other longer-term implications — unless the primacy of New Delhi in foreign policy is restored — in that foreign countries and missions will start interacting at the regional level in terms of understanding the dynamics of Indian foreign policymaking and influencing it outside New Delhi.

The case of the Italian marines has lost its dramatic edge after their return to India. The Italians were escalating the issue by defying the Supreme Court and treating India with political disdain. The Supreme Court, in return, was escalating a bilateral issue with Italy into a multilateral one with the larger international community by interpreting the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) on diplomatic immunity in a way that would uphold its dignity. The government was caught in a vice as it could not give precedence to its international obligations over the views of the highest court of the land. When the Italians protested against the court’s order restraining the Italian Ambassador from leaving the country, it took the plea that while it was aware of the provisions of the VCDR, it was bound by the court’s decision.

The problem might have been avoided in the first place if the government was not so accommodative towards the marines by opposing back-to-back furloughs to them in Italy on unconvincing grounds. The government also did not guide the Supreme Court properly on the issue of diplomatic immunity of the Ambassador and the unenforceable nature of his undertaking, which was political rather than legal in character. Of course, by disowning its word, Italy was guilty of a serious breach of faith. The government can take credit that its firmness compelled Italy to review its decision on the marines, and the Supreme Court even more so by its willingness to reinterpret the VCDR to suit the particular circumstances of the case.

The Italian government has shown political courage in reversing its decision despite potential backlash at home and deserves to be commended for acting sensibly and honourably at the end. It would be wise for India not to claim a diplomatic victory as escalation would have hurt the interests of both countries.

The defiance with which the Maldives have treated Indian interests in the commercial dispute with GMR over the airport contract and later the way the understanding reached with Indian emissaries over the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed was violated has provoked a debate on the conduct of the country’s foreign policy reflected in its inability to exercise sufficient weight in its periphery.

Since India looms large in our smaller neighbours and our representatives there get will-nilly involved in their domestic politics, we need to pay greater political attention to even the smallest of them and assign diplomats there with appropriate political skills. Beyond this, of course, we have to keep in mind that even powerful countries cannot easily bully neighbours — the U.S. has tasted the defiance of Venezuela and Cuba. We have also to contend with the China factor in our neighbourhood.

What is important, however, is the assessment countries make of India’s likely responses if its vital interests are undermined. If their experience tells them that India’s tolerance levels are very high and that they can get away with defiance, they will be prone to do so. But if the perception of India changes and it is seen as acting boldly to protect its interests, the inclination to defy India would be less. Our softness towards both China and Pakistan, despite provocations, gives an image of accommodation, prudence, undue caution, a disinclination to be provoked and a reluctance to make hard choices. There is a range of conduct between being aggressive and being pusillanimous. Our foreign policy has to show greater firmness, which has not been the hallmark of the UPA government or those before it.

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