What are the distinct “schools” of Indian foreign policy thought?
Rahul Sagar, a professor at Princeton and a rising academic star, has a bold piece in the most recent issue of International Affairs on Indian foreign policy. While a subscription is required to access the full text, a shorter version of his article also appeared in January on the CASI web site. In essence, Sagar argues that there are four broad visions of India’s foreign policy, of how Indian power and influence should be used. He labels their adherents “moralists,” who uphold the traditional Nehruvian vision, “Hindu nationalists,” “strategists,” and “liberals.”
I have a few reservations about Sagar’s breakdown. First, the Hindu nationalist view has not had a significant impact on policy, nor has it yet provided genuine foreign policy alternatives, not even during the six years of BJP-led rule (1998-2004). Furthermore, the BJP’s fortunes, India’s heterogeneity and the structural constraints of both Indian domestic and international politics make it increasingly unlikely that it will do so in the medium-term future. Secondly, those he cites as “strategists” are in fact a rather diverse group, whose philosophies and policy recommendations often conflict with one another. And third, the “strategists” and “liberals” are not really mutually exclusive groups. Indian defence experts have demonstrated a growing appreciation of the economic dimensions of India’s strategic policy, while security is widely seen as a necessary element of the economic development upon which liberals place emphasis.
I’m consequently more partial to Kanti Bajpai’s decade-old trifurcation of the Indian strategic community. To my knowledge, Bajpai first articulated these divisions in a widely-cited (but, unfortunately, no longer web-available) article in The Hindu in November 1999, entitled “The Great Indian Nuclear Debate.” Three months later, in a lecture, Bajpai elaborated upon these schools of thought on nuclear strategy, expanding them into three broad policy “choices” on nuclear policy, grand strategy and political values (full text available here). He termed the three brands of grand strategy Nehruvianism, modernism and hyper-realism/hyper-nationalism. I’m uncomfortable with the terms he uses, but not with the essence and broad contours of each “choice.”
Last year, in an article in Pragati, I elaborated somewhat on the “modernist” foreign policy vision (although I did not use that term). Its primary characteristics, I felt, included “a prioritisation of the country’s economic development, an emphasis on diplomacy, a strict maintenance of Indian sovereignty, a distrust of alliances, a consideration of balances of power, an abstention from direct interference in the internal affairs of other states, and a willingness to bilaterally engage all states, including those with competing interests.” I argued that this vision had been consistently pursued by both NDA and UPA governments since at least 1998.
The visions articulated by the other two camps, in contrast, were unlikely to gain traction with Indian governments of the medium-term future, barring hugely dramatic and unforeseen changes to either India’s political structures or its international context.
On the one hand, you have hawkish nationalistic realists who place an emphasis on India’s military development and are dismissive of diplomatic and commercial engagement with other states. They frequently ignore economic considerations, the effects of globalisation and the changing nature of power in the international system. At the other end of the spectrum are idealists who prioritise multilateral policies, favour economic autarky, and are desirous of altering the world order rather than working within it. They overlook the benefits of economic development, downplay the difficulties of working against the prevailing world order, and view the world in Manichean blacks and whites.
By neglecting increasingly important economic imperatives, setting unrealistic objectives and regarding the world as essentially hostile, both world-views are ill-equipped for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Moreover, both fringes have little to boast of in terms of political bases, and have even less cachet with the largely self-selecting upper reaches of the bureaucratic hierarchy. While their voices may continue to resonate loudly, and may continue to be used for domestic political purposes, they are unlikely to significantly influence key policy decisions by governments in power.