Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India's Foreign Policy

By Sikri, Rajiv | Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, January-March 2014 | Go to article overview

Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India's Foreign Policy


Sikri, Rajiv, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal


For some time now, there has been a buzz about India's growing role in the world and a widespread feeling that India must play a much larger global role. Today, this feeling has become far more acute.

It is important, then, that there should be greater, and more widespread, awareness of foreign policy challenges faced by India, as well as a deeper understanding of the stakes and options for India's foreign policy. The public needs to be more knowledgeable about foreign affairs, which cannot be the concern only of those who exercise power in New Delhi. It is something in which every citizen should be involved. It is also essential that there should be a vibrant and constructive debate, especially involving the young, on where we are headed and why, because unless there is public support our foreign policy will not be successful. Some recent incidents pertaining to our relations with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively forced the hand of the Central Government illustrate this point. I am glad that the BJP manifesto talks about having a "Team India" that brings together the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of States.

My conversation with you today is a small effort to create this awareness, perhaps stimulate your imagination and set you thinking. This is particularly important because I believe that the world has been in a state of flux for about 25 years. The French Revolution of 1789 was a remarkable event that signalled the end of feudalism, and marked the beginning of the modern era. 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' were the slogans of the French Revolution. The French Revolution planted the seeds of hope among the masses, but it was followed by a quarter century of disorder and chaos in Europe. Napoleon rose to power, but was then defeated and exiled. It was only in 1815 that the Congress of Vienna established a 'Concert of Europe' that brought some peace and stability to Europe. Exactly 200 years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism collapsed. Like the French Revolution, this too was a very important turning point in world history. If one were to choose one defining idea of the 20th century, it is Communism. The whole concept of socialism, the rise of the trade union movement, and the emergence of the welfare state - all have their origins in the rise of Communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end, politically not chronologically, of the 20th century.

This epochal event too, has been followed by a period of uncertainty and disorder. For a while it seemed that the world had become unipolar, but then it turned out to be not quite so. This has been followed by the remarkable, seemingly inexorable, rise of China but that is not such a straightforward story. Just when we thought that we might have left behind Cold War-style wars and confrontation, Crimea happens and sanctions are imposed on Russia. We haven't really managed to leave behind the 20th century. So the question arises: where are we headed? I believe it is like playing with a kaleidoscope whose pattern is constantly changing with every little twirl. When will the pattern settle down? I don't know, but I do believe that the present situation provides an opening for India.

The 21st century world will be a very different world from the 20th century world and, much more so, the 19th century world. It is a globalized, interdependent, technology-driven world. Yet the institutions that we are living with and the mindset that we have belong to the 20th century. Nationalism was the idea of the 19th century. That is when the concept of nation-states was born. Today, pure nation-states do not exist. They have given way to multi-ethnic states. Earlier, we thought that a state in order to survive has to be viable. But today little statelets smaller than a district in India are recognized as independent states and are members of the United Nations.

Other things have changed as well. …

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