C. Raja Mohan*
In the current terribly polarised political environment it might be entirely unreasonable to expect that the Opposition agrees with the government on anything. It is quite a surprise, therefore, to see the Congress party broadly endorse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of India as a “leading power” and embrace the geopolitical conception of the “Indo-Pacific” that has gained traction in recent years.
To be sure, the Congress has many caveats to tender and multiple criticisms to offer. But the foreign policy line of the Congress confirms an important trend of the last three decades. Successive governments in Delhi since the end of the Cold War have managed to construct and nurture a measure of foreign policy consensus and nudge India along a pragmatic international trajectory.
At its 84th plenary, earlier this month, the party’s foreign policy resolution argued that “given its size and resources,” India’s “ambition to become a leading power, rather than a mere balancing power, is legitimate”. There was a rider though: “The present power configuration and government’s handling of ties with major capitals of the world, does not create the necessary space to assert its leadership position globally.” “There is an urgent need to re-calibrate equations with the US, arrest the slide in relations with Russia and improve communication and trust with China,” the resolution said.
Although it does not go into too many specifics, the Congress party’s foreign policy resolution certainly frames legitimate questions on India’s prospects on the global stage. It is the kind of constructive political approach that we badly needed on all policy issues but has been so elusive.
But the resolution does not hold back on criticism. It accuses the PM of pursuing a personalised diplomacy, making India’s external engagements too “transactional,” berating the international achievements of his predecessors, abusing the diaspora platforms for political propaganda and making Pakistan policy a divisive domestic issue.
The party insists that India’s standing has diminished in the neighbourhood: “This will have significant implications for any meaningful role that India aspires to play in the Asian region and the world. We have created spaces in our neighbouring countries through episodic engagement, which has allowed other powers, in particular, China, to entrench themselves.”
Any one who takes a long-term view of the problem would point to the fact that the relative diminution of India’s role in the region has occurred over an extended period of time and not just in the last four years. There is plenty of blame to go around Delhi. Even more important is the fact that this criticism ignores that China’s weight in the world and the region has dramatically increased. There was, and is, little that India can do to stop that rise. Delhi’s failure lies in underestimating the pace, scope and consequences of Beijing’s emergence as a great power and failing to fashion a credible response in time.
The Congress party, however, correctly sums up the difficult situation that Delhi faces vis-a-vis China. “India and China share a complex and demanding relationship, China being a large neighbour and a major trading partner. The rapid rise of China and its emergence as a major power is and will continue to be a significant factor for India. Our approach to China must not only be marked with pragmatism, but also realism.”
While the Congress continues to emphasise the shared international objectives with China, it points to Beijing’s strategic penetration of India’s neighbourhood, warns against its growing strategic nexus with Pakistan, demands that Delhi must thwart attempts by China to establish military bases in the Indian Ocean. The Modi government is unlikely to differ very much with this proposition.
While endorsing the idea of a leading power, the Congress cautions against the potential pitfalls. In an important reminder to the ruling party, the Congress argues that it was the reform era launched by the party at the turn of the 1990s that laid the foundations for India’s emergence as a leading power. The Congress worries that the government’s backsliding on reforms “would undermine the very drivers of India emerging as a leading power”. It insists that “reforms” must remain an integral component of India’s economic diplomacy”.
The Congress also hits at what it sees as “a serious gap between the government’s rhetoric and action on Indo-Pacific, and its co-relation with ASEAN”. The party’s ire is at India’s current foot-dragging in the negotiations for free trade in the region. The party argues that “India must remain integral to the process of Asian economic integration”.
The party recalls that the “UPA Government’s decision to join the countries of East Asia, for the launch of negotiations for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), was of strategic import”. It warns that “the BJP Government has raised doubts over the sincerity of India’s commitment to the successful conclusion of RCEP. This will damage our interest”.The party’s warning comes at a time when the global trading order is unravelling and India’s isolation on global economic issues is increasing.
The party does make a sentimental bow to the Non-Aligned Movement and other themes from the past. But it makes no promise to return India to a foreign policy centred on non-alignment. Instead, it invokes Jawaharlal Nehru to emphasise its commitment to the pursuit of India’s “enlightened self-interest”. This augurs well for a sensible national debate on foreign policy during an election year and improves the prospects for continuing consensus on external relations.
*The writer is Director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’