India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spent much of his first two years in office on policy reform, but there’s one segment of his government still stuck in a time warp – foreign affairs. Foreign affairs is widely touted as one of Modi’s personal successes and that isn’t far from the truth. Modi has infused Indian diplomacy with much needed activity and energy, often personally taking the initiative – from his vision of a SAARC satellite to serve the purposes of the region, to his timely initiative toward bolstering India’s ties with island nations in the Indian Ocean, and his much-needed outreach to Indian communities living overseas.
All of these are significant policy measures. They signal Modi’s personal commitment towards carving out a niche for India on the global stage, even as its economy grows from strength to strength. Yet, much like those of his predecessors, Modi’s tenure too has suffered from some rather avoidable lapses and flip-flops.
India’s handling of its relations with Pakistan has come in for specific criticism, with New Delhi scheduling talks one day and cancelling them the next. Modi’s stated policy was to suspend bilateral dialogue until Islamabad took action against terror groups. Yet, dialogue did happen – at the level of the prime minister himself, no less – despite a lack of concrete action on the ground from Pakistan.
India has also suffered from inconsistency in its policy toward China. Most recently, New Delhi went back on its decision to issue visas to a group of Chinese dissidents, for no ostensible reason. In Nepal, New Delhi made an explicit show of its disapproval of that country’s newly drafted constitution, after initially pledging not to interfere. Miffed, Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli soon concluded a historic deal with China, explicitly aimed at reducing Nepal’s dependence on India for trade routes and fuel supply.
Even on trade and economic cooperation – the underlying theme of Modi’s foreign policy – there have been glitches. India has voiced its interest in being a part of trade blocs such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Yet many of New Delhi’s bilateral free trade agreements – most notably the ones with Europe and Australia – are caught in limbo, largely because of concerns over domestic political backlash.
But let’s be clear: inconsistencies in foreign policy aren’t peculiar to the Modi administration; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had his moments too. Despite early protests against the ousting of the democratically elected Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed in 2011, India was startlingly quick to recognize the new government formed at the end of that coup. New Delhi’s silence on the Maldivian political crisis, despite Nasheed’s calls for help, badly dented its soft power in the region. And matters turned worse when the new government terminated a high-profile airport contract with the Indian company GMR in the days that followed, before handing that project to a Chinese corporation.
India’s U-turns in Myanmar from previous years also followed similar lines: New Delhi went quickly from proclaiming its support for the democratic movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi to establishing ties with the military junta. And with Sri Lanka, the former government often contradicted itself on how it voted in United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions on alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan military.
All of this incoherence has hurt India’s foreign policy and soft power greatly over the years. While India has often tried to portray itself as a champion of democracy, its inability to levy so much as economic sanctions on countries like the Maldives has undermined that policy. Despite New Delhi’s profession of economic liberalization in recent years, its inability to conclude free trade deals, even bilaterally, has allowed diplomats around the world cast India as “an obstacle” in the negotiation of multilateral deals. And New Delhi’s unpredictable policy choices have often alienated India’s neighbors.
An aspiring superpower must stick to its word if it has to be taken seriously. But New Delhi’s repeated slip-ups have raised questions time and again. Why does India find it so difficult to put together a coherent foreign policy?
In an insightful article for The Hindu last week, Suhasini Haidar wrote about the tradition of “personalized” decision-making in Indian foreign policy, dating back to Prime Minister Nehru. “When Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri set about trying to institutionalize the MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] in 1965 by appointing the Pillai committee, it was seen as a counterpoint to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘personalized decisional style’,” Haidar wrote, “Others followed the Nehru, not Shastri model: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reportedly decided on foreign policy postings herself, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously sacked his foreign secretary during a press conference for statements that diverged from his thinking.”
Key decisions on foreign policy, Haidar said, have often been driven by prime ministers themselves, often without consulting the foreign ministry. The result has been off-the-cuff promises and policy remarks, which cause incoherence and inconsistency. “When [Modi] decided to put off a visit to Japan in July 2014,” she wrote, “the message reached the Japanese Prime Minister directly, minutes ahead of even the Indian Ambassador in Tokyo.”
The personalized decision-making of successive prime ministers betrays a lack of trust in the Foreign Service – and it isn’t without reason. Applicants to the Indian Foreign Service are not tested for their specific aptitude for diplomacy, nor are they trained in international affairs by recognized universities. Instead, they are selected by the Union Public Service Commission based on a generalist examination open to graduates of all educational backgrounds (even the United Nations requires most job applicants to have a degree in political science or international affairs). Selected candidates are then trained by the government machinery, leaving them status-quoist in nature and short of the ability to adapt to the dynamic nature of international politics.
The generalist nature of the examination by which India selects its diplomats often means that candidates who apply to enter the Foreign Service don’t particularly do so because of their interest or aptitude for foreign policy. Worse, candidates with academic knowledge in international affairs are often turned away by the need to write an examination which tests them on everything but foreign policy expertise.
That is why India has to reform its foreign policy establishment. India is probably the only major power in the world which doesn’t involve subject experts in the formulation and planning of its foreign policy. And unlike in most other countries, it is highly unusual to find academics in the Indian foreign policy establishment, who would bring with them insights from the academia and fresh and contemporary ideas.
India’s MEA has to draw from the lessons of the economic policy establishment, which has now rectified this flaw to great effect. The current chief economic adviser and the governor of the Reserve Bank of India both come from academia and not the bureaucracy – and both have consequently enjoyed great legitimacy in the eyes of foreign investors and the public at large. It’s time for the foreign ministry to follow suit.
Mohamed Zeeshan is a student of international affairs at Columbia University and a foreign affairs columnist for Swarajya and HuffPost India.