Pragati Manifesto

Foreign Policy: Time to Be a Major Player

This section of the Pragati Manifesto is about how India can enhance its stature in the world. Read the other pieces here.

Any manifesto outlines a short-term strategy to carry out a vision. India’s foreign policy vision should be to create and defend an international environment for yogakshema (well-being) of all Indians. This vision implies that India should seek to become a major player in the world’s political, economic, and technological orders. Here is a foreign policy manifesto for the next government that would be instrumental in realising such a vision.

One: Think Multiple Neighbourhoods

The next Indian government should invert its foreign policy priorities. This means a reduction in its preoccupation with countries in the Indian subcontinent and a corresponding increase in engagement with other ‘neighbours’. In this imagination, geography is just one dimension along which neighbourliness should be measured. Economically, ideologically, and technologically, we are neighbours to a different set of countries across the world on each of these counts. This multiple neighbourhoods perspective should become a guide for future foreign policy initiatives. For example, the next government should consider the Indo-Pacific as one such neighbourhood and focus on the East Asia Summit and the ADMM plus (ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting) regional architecture.

Two: Beat the Trade War Through More Trade

My colleague Anupam Manur has written earlier that in an atmosphere of increasing trade barriers, India — a consumption-driven economy — can gain by traversing in the opposite direction. India should unilaterally lower entry barriers and create a level playing field for all investors. Apart from Indian consumers, this move will also help Indian manufacturers who rely on imported components to make goods in India. In practice, the path to ‘Make in India’ lies through buying from and selling to the world. India also needs to plan for the next phase of technology-led growth, and foreign policy can help here. The next government should make a Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy that encourages world-class foreign universities to make investments in cutting-edge higher education sectors such as Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and Genetics.

Three: Deepen the Relationship With the US While Also Being Open to Investments From China

It serves India’s vision best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other. The US finds India an attractive global ally, especially in the Indo-Pacific, where it is locked in a competition with China. There is also greater convergence in interests with regard to Pakistan. There is also tremendous synergy in the technology, trade and investment domains. India must capitalise on this moment and strengthen the relationship. At the same time, India must take a strategic approach to Chinese economic growth allowing Chinese capital to finance roads, bridges, and cheap mobile phones. However, we should actively block Chinese investment in soft national infrastructure with long lock-in periods such as 5G networking.

Four: Re-Engineer India’s Subcontinent Priorities

Start with a Pakistan defocus. Every Indian PM seeks to make a grand gesture that will “solve” the Pakistan problem, only to be stalled by the next terrorist attack orchestrated by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. So, the engagement with Pakistan should be demoted from the Prime Ministerial level to the Foreign Secretary & National Security Advisor levels. Next, make a doctrinal change in neighbourhood policy: back pro-India leaders in the region, until all political formations find that taking anti-India positions is a loss-making proposition. Instead of competing with China on funding developmental projects in the subcontinent alone, focus on areas where India has a comparative advantage: more education visas for students from the subcontinent (including Afghanistan), lowering the barriers for working in India, and stepping-up security partnerships in the region.

Five: Formalise Indian States’ Role in Economic Diplomacy

States have already become primary movers on the economic diplomacy front through direct engagements with national and sub-national governments across the world. Global Investment Summits by various state governments are now commonplace. The next Indian government should allow states to invest in their own permanent trade representations at foreign destinations of their choice. Devolving such economic diplomacy functions to the state governments will also partially address New Delhi’s diplomatic capacity constraints. For the immediate neighbourhood, GoI can set up a Neighbourhood Relations Council, comprising of the Chief Ministers of states that have a land border or sea frontier with another country.

Six: India Must Project Itself as a “Solution Provider” for Major International Issues

This is an opportune moment where great, middle, and small powers are looking towards India to help stabilise a global balance of power. The next Indian government should take the lead in proposing new solutions for global challenges. For example, India should champion the cause of a Global No-First Use (GNFU) nuclear regime to make the world a safer place. Such a policy is in line with India’s doctrinal commitment to No-First Use and can fill the void that ineffective non-proliferation regimes have created. India should also take the lead in setting a new agenda for international climate change discussions. For example, India can propose a Global Climate Change Relocation Insurance Framework (GCCRI) to tackle the adverse impacts of climate change catastrophes.

Seven: Focus on Capacity Building in Diplomacy, External Intelligence, and Maritime Power Projection

Executing all the six ideas above requires a step increase in diplomatic capacity. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) should invest in its officers acquiring deep expertise in specialised domains. GoI could create a short-service-commission-like scheme for other civil servants and military officers to serve in the MEA for fixed durations.

Similarly, the core strength of external intelligence is its human capital. The current approach of getting deputationists from the Indian Police Service to handle external intelligence is turning out to be counterproductive. GoI must resuscitate recruitment through the internal cadre and make investment in superior human capital a key goal of any intelligence reform. Finally, India must map and build capacity requirements for quick and effective diaspora evacuations.

A foreign policy manifesto on the above lines will go a long way in providing momentum to the vision of yogakshema for all Indians.

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Read the rest of the Pragati Manifesto here.

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About the author

Pranay Kotasthane

Pranay Kotasthane heads the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests focus on geostrategy, geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, public policy, economic reasoning and urban issues.