The link between public perceptions and foreign policy in India has increasingly come under scrutiny in recent years. Long the preserve of the prime minister’s office and the External Affairs Ministry, foreign policy under the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has to a large degree been decentralized, due in part to the pressures of coalition politics.
One prominent example came in March, when India’s UPA government voted against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. The UPA took this stance in a bid to allay the concerns of its then ally from Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, over Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
But do Indians consider foreign policy a key determinant of their voting choices? The assumption has been that foreign policy is the domain of elites. This perception stems from the belief that issues pertaining to foreign powers are too remote to matter in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.
A recent report called India Poll 2013 produced jointly by the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the Australia India Institute offers rich insights into what Indians think about the world. The “nationally representative” opinion poll surveys 1233 Indian adults on their attitudes towards subjects from democracy to the economy and perceptions on potential security threats.
A recent article in The Diplomat by the poll’s author, Rory Medcalf, has already presented some of the results, but it is worth making a few additional points. First, an overwhelming 70 percent of Indians believe in democracy, while only 21 percent view it as an impediment to progress. Looking deeper, an astounding 95 percent support the right to a fair trial, the right to vote and the right to free expression, while 87 percent support a free press. All of this suggests that Indians hold tightly to their democratic traditions.
Further, despite a sharp deceleration of the Indian economy in fiscal 2012 (ended March 31) from the previous year’s 6.2 percent to 5 percent, 74 percent of Indians are optimistic about the country’s future economic prospects. Indeed, despite a flagging economy, 56 percent of people said they were better off economically than five years ago, while only 18 percent said they were worse off.
In terms of security threats, chronic shortage of food and water, as well as climate change were viewed as the biggest dangers to the country by 80 to 85 percent of those surveyed. Other prominent security threats rated include potential war with Pakistan (77 percent), homegrown terrorism and foreign jihadist attacks (74 percent), possible war with China (73 percent) and Maoist insurgency (71 percent).
Shifting its gaze abroad, the report reveals that, despite a strong culture of strategic autonomy in Indian foreign policy, almost 72 percent of Indians prefer having strong countries – particularly Pakistan and the United States – as partners. The U.S. tops the most favored list of countries, followed by Singapore, Japan and Australia.
Further, as Rory pointed out, 83 percent of respondents consider China a security threat, while only 31 percent see China’s rise as a positive force for India. However, on China’s rise itself respondents showed a preference for a mixed approach, with 65 percent opting for a concert of nations to check China’s rise and 64 percent also sharing the belief that China and India could collude and play a leading role in the world.
Meanwhile, Pakistan was given least favored nation status, an unsurprising result considering the turbulent shared history of the nations. History aside, 76 percent of respondents believe that New Delhi should take the initiative to forge better ties with Islamabad, with almost 87 percent believing that such a step would require courageous leadership on both sides.
Now, consider this hypothetical situation. If the UPA’s re-election centered on the 1,233 respondents of this poll with foreign policy as the main electoral issue, what would the government’s report card look like? To put it simply, the scores are mixed.
In the 2009 general elections, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assertive stance on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal boosted his image as a decisive leader and was seen as being a key to his re-election. While U.S. President Barack Obama made a landmark visit to India in November 2010, during which he pledged U.S. support for an expanded UN Security Council in the future “with India as a permanent member”, India-U.S. ties have plateaued since.
The government’s failure to initiate wide-ranging economic reforms, combined with its reticence to be seen as a close U.S. ally, has caused relations with Washington to drift. India has also been ambivalent towards America’s “pivot to Asia” despite being described as a “lynchpin” in the new U.S. strategy.
On China, Premier Li Keqiang’s choice to visit India last week as his first port of call since taking office in March did little to remove strains in ties following a flare-up on the contested border in April. When Chinese troops camped out for weeks recently on territory claimed by India, the Indian government’s pusillanimous response infuriated opposition politicians and sections of the public, who sought something more muscular.
Meanwhile, a fledgling peace process with Pakistan has received grudging support from the Indian public. Another terror attack along the lines of the one that hit Mumbai in 2008 would once again force the Indian government to pull out of the peace process.
While Pakistan’s Prime Minister-designate Nawaz Sharif has reached out to India, New Delhi is unlikely to mount any concerted peace overtures for now, relegating any peace talks with Pakistan to after the 2014 general elections.