The Changing Nature of India’s Foreign Policy

02 February, 2023

Research Reports


Since the Narendra Modi government took office in May 2014, Indian foreign policy has undergone a tremendous transition, which is reflected in the recent intellectual and political debates. In a short amount of time, the Modi administration has succeeded in creating a distinctive legacy that makes its goal of raising India to a major global actor.


Phases of Development of Indian Foreign Policy

The Hon. Minister of External Affairs, Dr. S. Jaishankar in his speech at the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture, 2019 broadly classified Indian foreign policy into six phases[1]-


First Phase (1946-62): An Era of Optimistic Non-Alignment

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and Independence, as India rebuilt its economy and solidified its integrity, it sought to avoid having its options limited and its sovereignty diminished. Its secondary objective, as the first of the decolonized countries, was to guide Asia and Africa in their search for a more just international system. This was the height of Third World unity, and additionally, it saw active Indian diplomacy from Korea and Vietnam to Hungary and the Suez. India's standing on the international scene appeared secure and stable for a while. But the confrontation with China in 1962 put an end to this time frame, and  it also negatively impacted India's standing.


Second Phase (1962-71): Decade of Realism and Recovery

Despite having few resources, India responded to security and political concerns in a practical manner. In the interest of national security, it went beyond non-alignment and signed a defence pact with the United States in 1964 that is now largely forgotten. During this vulnerable time, external pressures on Kashmir increased. Although the global environment remained divided, there was some sporadic US-USSR cooperation. Due to the geographical convergence of South Asia, India's diplomacy had to engage the superpowers concurrently, as it did at Tashkent in 1965. Additionally, it was a time when domestic problems, such as political unrest and economic hardship, were extremely acute.


Third Phase(1971-91): Period of Greater Indian Regional Assertion

This phase began with Bangladesh's formation, which effectively destroyed an India-Pakistan equivalence, but ended with the IPKF's misadventure in Sri Lanka. With the Sino-US rapprochement of 1971 upending the geopolitical landscape, the greater environment had by this point undergone a significant change. India's answer to this challenge was the Indo-Soviet Treaty and the adoption of increasingly pro-Soviet stances on global issues. It was a particularly complicated time since the US-China-Pakistan axis that was forming at the time posed a severe threat to India's future. The change in India's stance was more caused by other factors, although this axis had several long-term effects. India was forced to re-examine the fundamentals of both its internal and foreign policies following the collapse of the USSR, a close ally, and the related economic crisis in 1991.


Fourth Phase (1991-99): Quest for Strategic Autonomy

The fourth phase was marked by the fall of the USSR and the establishment of a "unipolar" world. In India, it sparked a dramatic reconsideration of a variety of topics. It then turned its attention to preserving strategic autonomy. India's increased economic opening to the world was reflected in new diplomatic goals and strategies. The revised Indian approach to international affairs, which included changes to its posture toward Israel, was summed up in the Look East policy. During this time, India attempted to engage the US more closely while still defending its interests in key areas. Although it was also evident in economic discussions, this pursuit of strategic autonomy was mainly centred on maintaining its nuclear weapon option. Enough had occurred at the turn of the century for India to now shift gears and go to a higher level. After 1998, it acquired nuclear weapons, successfully repelled Pakistan's military adventurism in Kargil in 1999, produced enough economic growth to be of interest to everyone, and effectively handled the United States which was more concerned with events in Asia and the effects of Islamic fundamentalism.


Fifth Phase (2000-13): India as a Balancing Power

India experienced new doors of opportunity as a result of the competitive environment that followed liberalisation, particularly as the US struggled to maintain the same level of unipolarity. India as a result learned the advantages of collaborating with various powers on various challenges. India increasingly developed the qualities of a balancing power during this fifth phase. The nuclear agreement between the US and India and improved relations with the rest of the West are examples of this. In addition, India strengthened its connections with Russia and found a common ground with China on trade and climate change, all the while helping to shape the BRICS into a significant forum. India adopted new positions because it viewed this time as one of opportunity.


Sixth Phase (2014- Present): Phase of Energetic Diplomacy

By 2014, a series of events came together to alter calculations and start the sixth phase. China started to gain speed and gradually grew more rigid in its conditions of contact with the rest of the world. Since balancing functions best during times of change, it was unavoidably lessened when new realities took hold. The American trumpet, on the other hand, sounded progressively unsure. After the Iraq war, risk aversion made the United States' resource shortage worse. Announcing a retreat from Afghanistan and exhibiting rising apathy in the Asia-Pacific communicated messages that went well beyond the current problems. Europe, on the other hand, also became more and more inward-looking, failing to recognise the costs associated with political agnosticism. Japan's attempts to have a bigger voice have been progressing slowly. Numerous factors contributed to the full effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global economic rebalancing. Multi-polarity was upon us as the world witnessed a larger distribution of power and more localised equations. This required a far different strategy than engaging in politics with a smaller group of prominent actors. India decided to engage in more active diplomacy in response to all of these events and after evaluating the status of international regimes and coalitions. Knowing that we were about to enter a world of convergences and issue-based agreements, it did so. Along with this understanding came developing confidence in its talents. One factor, albeit the most crucial, is that we have become one of the world's main economies. Another stride that is expected is to become more important over time is how our expertise relates to emerging technologies. It is also clear that we may take on bigger obligations while everyone else is becoming more cautious. A desire to influence crucial international negotiations, like the climate change talks in Paris, is equally important. It was also noteworthy to see more money putting towards developing partnerships with South American nations. Not to mention, our approach to our local area and the larger neighbourhood has had an impact elsewhere. India's diplomatic objectives have expanded significantly, as have those of its collaborators. The idea that a multi-polar world should be centred on a multi-polar Asia is one that we share with the rest of the globe. India must adopt a strategy of working with numerous partners on various agendas to accomplish that. The states that can aspire to occupy the various poles of the new international order are those that have the best combination of capabilities, relationships, and positioning. And it is the assurance that we can move forward in this more flexible architecture that can motivate us to become a major force in the future.


Role of Domestic Political Leadership in Changing Contours of Foreign Policy


Former Secretary, of MEA, M. Ganapathy once explained that any nation's foreign policy is inextricably linked to its internal politics and governance since both have an impact on one another. The foreign policy of independent India was greatly impacted by the Freedom Movement and the principles of its founding fathers. India saw its foreign policy anchored in the ideas of non-alignment as well as in supporting movements against colonialism, racism, and apartheid. India's foreign policy was shaped by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi's Ahimsa and Satyagraha as well as the reverberations of the struggle against colonialism. India rose to prominence as a proponent of non-discriminatory non-proliferation. It decided to forge its independent path and put itself outside of any post-War alliances. It was impossible to anticipate that civilised India would be a camp follower[2].


C. Raja Mohan in his paper, ‘The Making of Indian Foreign Policy: The Role of Scholarship and Public Opinion’ has argued that on the domestic front, many of India's diplomatic actions and concepts from the post-independence era that were later regarded as embodying the core of India's foreign policy did not originate from a pre-existing national consensus. They were the by-products of having a strong leader like Nehru and his extremely clear-cut worldview. Deep national divisions on foreign policy resulted from Nehru's decisions to bring the Kashmir issue before the UN Security Council, join the British Commonwealth, refrain from supporting the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and prioritise nuclear arms control over decolonization at the first nonaligned movement summit, among many other issues. During this phase, Nehru's opinions on India's two main territorial disputes with Pakistan and China, the Kashmir dispute and the boundary dispute, were fiercely contested on a national level. Later, other Indian leaders also faced opposition to their foreign policies such as Ashok Mehta, a cabinet minister, who resigned as a result of Indira Gandhi's unwillingness to condemn Moscow for putting an end to the Prague Spring in 1968. Many centrist academics in India criticised her choice to negotiate a security agreement with the Soviet Union in 1971 as a departure from a "strict" view of non-alignment. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's outreach to Israel in 1977, his trip to China in 1978, Mrs Gandhi's decision to test a nuclear device in 1974, Inder Kumar Gujral's good neighbour policy (1996–98), Prime Minister Vajpayee's nuclear tests in 1998, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's civil nuclear initiative with the United States in 2005 are all examples of foreign policy decisions that have deeply divided the political classes in India.[3]


K. Subramanyam argued in 2007 that Foreign policy in India was always a leadership job, and it rarely commanded a consensus. The development of close ties with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, nuclear tests, the strategic weapons programme, economic liberalisation and globalisation, the strategy of the balance of power, and non-alignment as a strategy were all initiatives of leaders - Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee, and Dr Singh. When such initiatives turn out to be effective, they become firmly established national policies.[4]


Indian Foreign Policy Post-2014


With a change in leadership in 2014, it also spurred a shift in foreign policy that was in line with India's impact on the world order. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party's supporters frequently credit India's rising reputation to a more forceful foreign policy that rejects the deference and dithering that, they claim, characterised the strategy of past governments. That transformation is supposed to be embodied by Mr Modi, a charismatic Hindu nationalist who declares his desire to be the ‘Vishwaguru’. According to EAM Dr. Jaishankar- In India’s case, nationalism has led to greater internationalism. The present foreign policy of India is based on Enlightened National Interest, which is effective "National Interest Plus." It is loosely based on Aristotle's idea of Enlightened Self Interest and influenced by Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which states that individuals who act in ways that enhance the interests of others (or the interests of the organisation or groups to which they belong) do so at the expense of their interests in the long run. Enlightened national interest prioritises a shared future vision for everyone over narrow national interest. The new policy modified the Gujral Doctrine of the 1990s with a focus on neighbourhood first and soft power and the cautious approach employed during Non-Alignment has been replaced with a bold "multi-alignment" with important countries while yet preserving our strategic autonomy. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and "Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Prayas" are the guiding principles on which Indian foreign policy is built and being led. The cornerstones of Indian foreign policy are "Panchamrit" and the "Panchsheel" concepts. Although the policy has changed, India's fundamental values and civilizational ethos have not been compromised in the face of the country's most recent crises.


Every country, including India, aspires to be powerful on all fronts: politically, economically, militarily, and culturally. India's foreign policy is shaped by the need to meet its economic, social, political, and ecological requirements while achieving security on all fronts. The strategy of modern India does not just focus on economic variables but also on structural ones. India wants to become a great power and share responsibilities with other nations in a variety of areas, including energy, the environment, trade, human rights, good governance, and international security.


Harsh V. Pant has examined the rapidly evolving Indian diplomatic style as well as substantive shifts under Modi's premiership and how it is likely to have significant implications for the conduct of Indian diplomacy and the broader role of India in global politics in the coming years. “India is now perceived as a credible balancer in its neighbourhood in the Indo-Pacific as China's maritime assertiveness has grown, creating space for Indian diplomacy. Modi has been able to give not only a new style to the conduct of Indian diplomacy but also a new sense of purpose to Indian foreign policy.”[5]


With 75 years of independence, the nation is more confident and upbeat about putting "India First" on the international stage. India makes its own decisions, and its autonomous foreign policy cannot be threatened. India, which has one-fifth of the global population, is entitled to take a stand and consider its interests. National interests should always come first in international interactions, and India has surely upheld this principle when it comes to its foreign and national security policies, just like other countries. Today's self-assured India, based on its home realities and civilizational ethos and steadfast in the pursuit of its fundamental interests, has a fresh voice in the global firmament. From being the only superpower to oppose China's Belt and Road Initiative in 2014 to retaliate forcefully against Chinese military aggression. On the other hand, by cooperating with the US without concluding a formal alliance and involving the West to strengthen domestic capabilities India has become increasingly aware of markets for its goods, raw material suppliers, and possible beneficiaries of its growing foreign aid as its economic dependency on the rest of the globe grows. India opposes interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations.[6]


The diplomatic interactions between India and the rest of the globe reflect all these factors. India's foreign policy, which has changed to reflect the shift from a bipolar to a multipolar international order, has many diplomatic repercussions such as India's relations with its near neighbours as well as its extended neighbourhood, which includes the Gulf States, Central Asian Countries, and ASEAN, have seen new alignments based on the 3C (Connectivity, Commerce, and Culture) and 3D (Demography, Demography, and Demand) approaches. India received 184 of the 192 valid votes and was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the two years of 2021–2022. Germany welcomed India to the G7 summit even though it is not a G7 member. India's evolving foreign policy has created opportunities for it to rise higher in the global power structure and become a global leader rather than just a middle power and this has thus led to a changed foreign policy approach. India can use its expanding diplomatic influence to take a leading role in addressing "issues without passports," such as terrorism, climate change, political instability, etc. For instance, India successfully carried out "Operation Ganga" to remove Indians from the conflict zone in Russia and Ukraine. India has become more outspoken about its demands, such as the reform of the UN Security Council, opposition to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, refraining from voting on matters that might jeopardise Indian interests, and choosing not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, among others. Also being a part of three of the major export control organizations—the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, and the Missile Technology Control regime—allows India to obtain key technologies that would strengthen its defence and space industries.


The United States places India "extremely high" on its list of allies who "can assist bring forward a global agenda," according to Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser. India’s Presidency of the G20 poses a great opportunity for India in its path of becoming a ‘Vishwaguru.’