The Pulse

The Democratization of India’s Foreign Policy

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The Pulse

The Democratization of India’s Foreign Policy

India’s vote for Sri Lanka to have a war crimes investigation reveals the public’s sway over foreign affairs.

On March 21, India voted in favor of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling for Sri Lanka to conduct an independent and credible investigation into alleged war crimes. The UN believes that as many as 40,000 people may have been killed in the final stages of a bloody, 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers). 

A report released by the UN in 2011 issued a damning indictment of the Sri Lankan government’s actions during the conflict and called on Colombo to “issue a public, formal acknowledgment of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the war.”

India’s vote against Sri Lanka comes days after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party withdrew from a coalition led by the ruling United Progressive Alliance government. Although it is historically rare for foreign policy issues to dominate the domestic political discourse in India, this convention has increasingly been challenged in recent years. Though foreign policy was long the preserve of the prime minister’s office and to a lesser degree the External Affairs Ministry, it is becoming decentralized, as seen in India’s vote against Sri Lanka.

There is a public perception that foreign policy is elitist, which stems from the belief that issues pertaining to foreign powers are too remote to matter in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. For much of India’s history, that may well have been the case.

The policies of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and one of the main proponents of the principle of non-alignment – a doctrine that defined Indian foreign policy during much of the Cold War – went unquestioned for decades. However, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union forced India to question many of the ideals underpinning Nehru’s non-alignment philosophy, as New Delhi was forced to confront a multi-polar world.

Yet, despite the contours of a globalizing world, Indian foreign policy making remained largely confined to New Delhi. The executive’s authority on foreign matters remained a constant during the 1990s and well into the new millennium. This might explain the astonishing level of consensus seen in Indian foreign policy throughout that time, irrespective of the stance of the ruling party or coalition at a given time, particularly since 1991.

India’s relationship with Israel is a case in point. Every Indian government since 1992, irrespective of its political creed, has engaged with both Washington and Tel Aviv. Foreign policy has consistently been one of the few areas where strong political consensus has cut across party lines.

However, the era when governments could make crucial foreign policy decisions without public debate may well be over. For one, along with the rise of India’s international profile is the growing influence of an increasingly educated and influential middle class with a global perspective. Then there is the ever-growing Indian diaspora – most notably in the U.S., UK, Canada and the Persian Gulf – which sends billions of dollars in foreign remittances to India. Electoral vote-banks or not, these two groups are becoming constituencies that no Indian government can ignore.

India’s fragmented politics and the era of coalition governments has also ensured the decentralization of foreign policy making. Politicians must increasingly sell foreign policy to the masses. The Congress Party, heading the UPA government, had to cloak a landmark civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed between India and the U.S. in 2008 as a roti, kapda, makan (bread, clothes and housing) issue – which would help provide electricity to powerless Indian villages. For his part, Omar Abdullah, now the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, delivered a stirring speech in 2008 to the Indian parliament, seeking to dispel the notion that the India-U.S. nuclear deal was directed against Muslims.

“I see no reason why I, as a Muslim, have to fear a deal between India and the United States of America,” Abdullah said. “This is a deal between two countries. It is a deal between, we hope, two countries that in the future will be two equals.”

There was more to come. Addressing the speaker of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament during a no-confidence motion against the UPA government, Abdullah added, “Sir, the enemies of Indian Muslims are not the Americans, and the enemies of the Indian Muslims are not ‘deals’ like this. The enemies of Indian Muslims are the same enemies that all the poor people of India face – poverty and hunger, unemployment, lack of development and the absence of a voice.”

For the poor, those enemies are unlikely to be vanquished any time soon. But a more open policymaking process seems at least a step in the right direction.