India’s foreign policy is going through some testing times with the Nijjar and Pannu issues creating a rugged terrain to manoeuvre across. However, such challenges are bound to impede progress when a nation grows in stature to reach the top rungs of military and economic power. It will be equally crucial for India to retain its socio-political cohesion as the nation navigates through changing global power equations and violent wars.
The recent attribution of responsibility to an Indian government agent for the botched-up attempt on American citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannu (a declared terrorist on the grounds of sedition and secessionism in India), close on the heels of Canadian assertion of ‘credible allegation’ of an Indian agency’s involvement in the killing of Nijjar (another terrorist affiliated with Khalistan Tiger Force), has tested the resilience of Indian diplomacy. The Canadian allegation was refuted as absurd and motivated and was followed up with the Canadians having to withdraw 41 diplomats. Contrarily, the American allegation has extracted an investigation. Questions are being asked with respect to the dichotomy in the two cases.
The Government of India has clarified that while the American allegation pertained to a nexus between organised criminals, gun runners and terrorists that constituted national security concerns, the Canadian allegation is bereft of actionable evidence. Besides, the Canadian ruling dispensation has displayed permissiveness in separatist activities against India.
Match this with India’s stand in the Israel – Hamas war. While initially unequivocally supporting Israel in its war against terror and abstaining in a UN resolution in October calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, there has been a reset. India supported the General Assembly’s resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire on 12 December. As the race to reach a 5 trillion economy and as leader of the Global South continues amid a dynamic global security landscape, there will be growing and intense scrutiny of India’s diplomatic perspective and stance.
India’s Policy Compulsions
Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India has displayed steadfast and robust foreign policy articulation despite sustained Western pressure. From abstention in the UN against condemnation of the Russian aggression of Ukraine and import of discounted Russian oil ignoring international sanctions to countering US pushback on human rights and freedom of speech, India has maintained its autonomy in foreign policy enunciation, drawing praise even from arch-rival Pakistan.
Russian President Putin went on to say that he could not imagine Modi could be frightened, intimidated, or forced to make decisions that would be at variance with India’s national interests. From the successful conduct of the G20 summit in the backdrop of a widely polarised position on the Russia – Ukraine conflict, leading the Global South against an unequal representation at the UN agencies, the COP 28 meeting in UAE, the economic upswing backed up by foreign investments, digital public infrastructure and landing of the moon on the hitherto fore unexplored South Pole, have sought to accelerate India’s global standing and ambitions. However, none of these could be without its share of contestations.
The situation along the LAC, declining Russian economic and military prowess besides its seeming irreversible enmeshing into a Chinese strategic embrace, Chinese expansionist agenda in the South China Sea and declining US influence most discerningly in the Middle East have all necessitated a fundamental review of India’s foreign policy appraisal.
Despite years of hesitancy and disagreements around technology denial regimes, human rights abuses, unilateral sanctions and religious freedom, the current trajectory in Indo-US strategic convergence in multiple domains of critical technologies, defence cooperation, and information sharing has strategic advantages for both against a common threat. The recent Pannu and Nijjar episodes may be a temporary setback and are unlikely to affect long-term policy frameworks. Subsequent events like the 2+2 dialogue and US financing of the west container port terminal in Colombo being developed by Adani investments stand testimony to it (notwithstanding the Hindenburg report). To draw parallels with diplomatic aberrations with Canada would be unrealistic.
The deepening symbiotic relationships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia based on trust, mutual respect and growth on the one hand and Israel-based technology and military cooperation on the other have also been on the upswing. E.g., I2U2 and India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor. It would be a setback to these developments should India fail to appreciate the sentiments of the Arab world amidst the relentless bombing of Gaza by Israel and the resultant excessive civilian casualties, including children.
The turnaround in India’s stand at the UN on 12 December must be seen in this light. India’s policy in the current crisis in the Middle East has to draw a balance between reinvigorated terrorism (some have apprehensions of a Hamas-type attack in India) and a two-state solution to the Palestine – Israel problem, currently an anathema to Israel.
How India will be able to balance and calibrate its nuanced foreign policy in the widely differing and often contesting diplomatic engagement in a polarised geo-strategic environment is a matter of intense debate. With the rapidly changing security situation in the immediate and extended neighbourhood, including border issues and Indo-Pacific, as well as dependence on the US for technology, trade and military hardware, India cannot afford to antagonise the West (read US and EU), even as it has to maintain steady relations with the Middle East, and at the same time prevent Russia from falling irreversibly into the Chinese orbit. It’s a different matter that the West cannot afford to abandon India given the Russia – China axis in multiple international fora. The discernible decline of the US and the rest of the West, both in military and economic heft, makes this proposition even more complex.
How must India address this perceived conflicting but transactional and contextual foreign policy architecture aligned to its national interest while managing its relationships around the world?
Aggressive diplomacy has invariably to be complimented by matching military and economic power. India is still a long way from achieving this complementing power matrix. While the transformation of the military power and economic growth is a work in progress, especially with the thrust on make in India, in the interim, India will have to depend on suave diplomacy, dialogue and multi-domain alignments with countries having similar strategic interests, and without compromising its core national interests.
Domestic political differences should not mar Indian foreign policy. Take the example of Israel, where the war against Hamas triggered the formulation of a war cabinet to combat a common enemy. As a nation, India must rally together against external challenges through consensus while keeping its long-term national interests in focus.
Internal challenges of inequality, economic disparity, and diverse socio-cultural and caste alignments must be addressed by statesmanship rather than siding with inimical elements of the state. Internal fault lines should not be allowed to be exploited by inimical foreign powers. Short-term political gains must not compromise national interests.
It’s imperative for India to stand united, resolute and steadfast to confront multi-domain challenges in a rapidly evolving world order with severely polarised multilateral institutions. As they say, there are no permanent friends or enemies but permanent national values and interests.
Maj Gen SC Mohanty (Retd)