The next President of India was elected on July 19. The final count is to be made public by Sunday, July 22. Obviously the public attention paid to the event testifies to the growing role of the presidency in the country’s political life. The way the newly elected President will influence the foreign policy is a frequently asked question. The interest is not occasional against the background of economic woes India is going through. The matter is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is exclusively focused on restoration of economic growth that directly affects the political sentiment of Indian society. It has been this way all the time, or, to be more precise, since the Indian National Congress returned to power in 2004, so there is another, no less intriguing question popping up. Which Indian political institution is finally responsible for foreign policy? Isn’t there some “non-constitutional center of power” hidden from public view in the bowels of “the world’s largest democracy” that has been gradually but irreversibly revising the foreign policy strategy of the “Nehru course”? Naturally it is being done under the guise of “updating” or “making it more relevant to the realities of the XXI century”.
The questions do really rise, in particular because the evolution of the Indian foreign policy has been influencing the Russia-India relations during the last dozen years. Let’s point out the major historic phases shaping the Soviet Union/Russia- India bilateral relationship to better understand the dynamics of the process:
1) strategic alliance (the second half of the 1950s – the first half of the 1980s of the XX century); 2) gradual geopolitical separation (the second half of the 1980s – the end of the 1990s); 3) strategic partnership (the beginning of the 2000s – till now).
The actual “withdrawal” of Russia from India after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union shaped a steady stereotype of negative attitude towards the former strategic ally in the Indian polity. Russia practically disappeared from the Indian information space and political discourse.
At the beginning of the XXI century Moscow goes back to the idea of “coming back” to India (and Asia in general). Retaining sound skepticism concerning the doubts of how thoroughly the new dimension of Russia foreign policy is elaborated, India (represented by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee) intensively tackled the issue of developing “new” relations with the old ally. I emphasize A. B. Vajpayee, who was critical towards the personality and policy of the first Prime Minister of India, practically left the foreign policy element of “Nehru course” intact because he shared his main idea – the perception of India as an independent center of world politics.
A retrospective look at the evolution of India’s foreign policy shows: the revision of fundamental views on the country’s global position started after the general elections of 2004 that brought the Congress Party back to power. The gradual revision of the foreign policy part of the “Nehru course” has been taking place under the influence of two global trends as they are perceived by Indian foreign policy establishment. First, the USA continues to be (no matter its might is waning) an economic and military-technical world leader. The transition of humanity to polycentric – “post-American” – world is very precisely defined by the US political thinking. For instance, George Friedman, an eminent American expert and head of Startfor think tank, calls America “ the only global power” following the tradition started by Walt Rostow, who considered the USA not as much as a “superpower” but rather a “ power of critical margin” shaping global development.
Second, at the beginning of the third millennium the dynamic rise of China (based on more that 30 years of accelerated economic growth) has made the Celestial Empire a new global power, a new “power of critical margin”. The forces striving to revise the foreign policy of ”Nehru course” take advantage of the pages of India’s history – the hard memories of the border conflict between India and China in the autumn of 1962. Besides the revision of the “Nehru course” is the goal of Indian community in the USA (over 3 million people), the top leaders of India’s corporate sector and part of the middle class oriented culturally towards the United States. The political “symbiosis” that has already taken shape is already influencing the foreign policy decision making: the general focus of India’s foreign policy on the USA (something presented to public opinion as the “integration into the world economy”); the conclusion of India-US “nuclear deal” (according to the critique coming from the Right and the Left it undermines political sovereignty of the state and fails to bring about the expected results); the transition to military-technical cooperation with the USA aimed at “deterring expansion” of China (the United States chief creditor) in the Asia-Pacific region while shaping an “alliance of four democracies”: the USA, Japan, Australia and India. (Let me note on the way: to great extent the economic prospects for Japan and Australia depend on cooperation with China).
At the same time foreign policy issues have not really become part of Indian internal political discourse. Let’s not forget that politics remains a game of large numbers and with large numbers as this phenomenon is addressed in India. It’s easy to guess: “large numbers” are social-political forces, first of all, the “lower classes” of traditional/hierarchical society that is permanently changing. They start to get involved in organized political activities. Besides, the Left and Right politicians insist India should preserve a “privilege” of taking independent foreign policy decisions based on national consensus instead of promoting interests of separate social groups and influential individuals.
Along with that the international position of India itself needs to be strengthened. In particular, the country has unsettled problems with the South Asia neighbors, the ones China is vigorously developing relations with. Moreover, China strives to neutralize the potentially hostile forces among Indian regional elites. In particular, it plans to heavily invest into the economies of a number of Indian states. At last, China is ready to aid India in modernizing its infrastructure. According to experts it’s something the dynamic economic growth in India is hardly achievable without. So which foreign policy doctrine the “Nehru course” is going to be replaced with? I respond right away: the Indian “higher ups” don’t have an integral substitution option for the course; it’s only that a part of foreign policy establishment tries to give a status of an alternative concept to some separate foreign policy perceptions that have been already put into India’s public discourse.
First: the USA and India really apprehend the growing Chinese activity, especially taking into consideration the fact that China is the US principal creditor and, as some affirm, is ready to convert its geoeconomic influence into geopolitical expansion. According to the estimates of a part of Indian elite, it justifies “geopolitical convergence” (a geopolitical alliance? – A. Volodin) with the USA.
Second, the political perception of the USA among some influential groups of Indian society (though as mentioned above the groups in question don’t constitute a majority in Indian polity) is changing – something to bring the two countries closer on the basis of common “democratic values”, economic interests and assessments of global situation.
Third, the relations with the weakening USA are expected to allow India to raise its status in the world affairs to the level of an influential center of global politics. Some analysts maintain it can be achieved without damage to the sovereignty of Indian state. For instance, Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary and then India's Ambassador to Russia, presumes: “The eventual India-US model of partnership will neither be that of US-Britain, US-Japan or US-France. India is neither a historical ally like the UK nor is it a fractious one like France, and it is not security dependent as Japan. India will seek to maintain its independence in (foreign policy- A.V.) decision-making as much as possible but also seek convergence (of interests- A.V.) with the US. It will be a unique model (of bilateral relations- A.V.) as India is sui generis and US believes in its own exceptionalism”.
Let me add a little comment to what the formidable political thinker and a person of genuine respect in Russia has stated. First, it’s not the first time such a “unique model” of the relationship with the USA is tried. In his time General Charles de Gaulle attempted to introduce identical principles into the France-USA relationship. As is well known the attempts were futile and ended up in French withdrawal from the NATO military structure. Today the specific feature of the relationship is significant weakening of France’s geoeconomic and geopolitical potential. It has encouraged some French analysts to define the Fifth Republic as a “strategic irrelevance” in the context of XXI century. So should one be surprised by the condescending attitude displayed by Americans towards some “eccentric” statements made by former French President N. Sarkozy? How real is the “strategic dialogue” between the USA and Russia (that is supposed to be equal partnership by definition)? That is something demonstrated by regrettable destiny of the “reset” policy used by the US to extract one sided advantages out of bilateral relationship. More to it the USA has to maintain a realistic “strategic dialogue” with China, the country that sticks to the simple and intelligible principle as argued by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, “he made us all respect him /and nothing better could invent”. At last Russia appears to have chosen exactly this way. It’s also appropriate to recollect the experience of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was not only an agile politician but also a great thinker of the XX century. He perfectly appreciated the merits of banking on country’s internal resources(“self-reliance”) and the indigenous intellectual potential of the nation while navigating an effective foreign policy course.
Second, let me make a general remark concerning India’s foreign policy as a whole. The “Syria crisis” has materialized India’s dependence on favorable disposition of Persian Gulf “oil monarchies”, led by Saudi Arabia (around 6 million Indians work in the region sending home no less than $20 billion as remittances yearly). On the one side, the pragmatic policy meets the current economic interests. On the other side – the policy is aimed at the near future, while the strategic goals of foreign policy are “unnoticeably” fading away against the backdrop of numerous momentary decisions and actions based on compromise at the expense of long-term geopolitical perspective. Under the conditions reviewed it’s hardly realistic to talk about the availability of a strategic “programme” coming to replace the “Nehru course”.
Third, Russia is attentively watching the evolution of India’s foreign policy. The appearance of the term “wrinkles” related to the bilateral relations has become an interim result of deliberations concerning the issue. A more articulate positioning of China and India on the Russia’s foreign policy priorities list would continue the trend. Thus, if the Russia-India relationship is still defined as “strategic partnership”, the Russia – Celestial Empire rapport is one step higher – it starts to encompass the notion of “mutual trust”. Moscow appears to make a little pause to give its diplomacy an opportunity to assess the shifts in the India’s foreign policy and to study its direction, substance and quality.
India has always been an important foreign policy partner for Russia. I think the “wrinkles” in the bilateral relations is a temporary phenomenon. My conviction is based on positive and powerful inertia of continuity in bilateral relationship and strong democratic traditions enshrined in the Indian society.