New Challenges for India’s Foreign Policy Mandarins

By Tridivesh Singh Maini

South Block

North & South Block, New Delhi. Can India’s foreign policy makers balance domestic pressures with national interests? Source: Saad Akhtar’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Over the past few years, India’s foreign policy officials have faced numerous challenges as they grapple with an increasingly complex geopolitical situation in India’s immediate neighborhood and beyond. This responsibility is further complicated by two factors: the rise of regional political parties and the increasing influence of the electronic media in the context of India’s foreign policy.

In India, regional parties influence has grown as a consequence of coalition politics and their indispensability in running coalition governments. Reconciling the interests of state governments as well as national interests has become a real problem for those who frame foreign policy.

One clear case of India’s domestic politics affecting foreign policy was the last minute decision to back out of the Teesta River agreement which was to be signed in September 2011, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh. New Delhi had to drop the agreement, due to the unequivocal objections to the conditions by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, also leader of the Trinamool Congress, which at the time was a coalition partner of the central government. Ms. Banerjee threatened to pull out if New Delhi went ahead with the treaty.

In another case, India had to vote in favor of resolutions against Sri Lanka at the United Nations in 2012 and 2013, as a consequence of pressure from key political parties in Tamil Nadu, mainly DMK and AIADMK, much to the chagrin of Colombo.

On the other hand, certain states have attempted to play a more constructive role in New Delhi’s overtures in the immediate neighborhood. Punjab has supported the central government’s policy of engagement with Pakistan and Tripura has bought in to Delhi’s policy of engagement towards Bangladesh.

The second factor is the increasingly aggressive tone adopted by India’s electronic media, both Hindi and English, on issues pertaining to relations with Pakistan and China. This is counterproductive and has an adverse impact on the overall discourse. Since the main viewership of these channels is the increasingly assertive Indian public – especially urban middle class – it would be naïve to assume that some outlets aggressive stance towards China and Pakistan has no role in shaping the public discourse.

On India-China relations, rarely is the increasing engagement between the two sides in the economic realm mentioned. The sane voices emerging from Beijing which are keen to have a constructive relationship are given scarce space. Instead, coverage of territorial disputes between China and India dominates the news cycle.

On Pakistan, the influence of electronic media is even greater, particularly in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks where certain television channels benefited from the shrillness they exhibited.

Here too, seldom does the media ever highlight that over the past two years: trade between both countries has gone up, that there is an increasing constituency in Pakistan for better ties, and that while some sections of the Pakistani establishment and some hardliners outside it may not be ready for peace, none of the mainstream parties made India or Kashmir an issue during the recent electoral campaign. This is a major issue, which was not highlighted on Indian domestic television.

The opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also use the electronic media to push a nationalistic line and jingoistic discourse which it may not totally subscribe to, but chooses to do it out of political expediency. Similarly, hawks from within the strategic community, which include retired diplomats and army officers get more airtime on television than those who argue for a more nuanced policy towards China and Pakistan.

One of the major handicaps which strengthens these voices is the minimal level of people to people interactions between India and its neighbors – specifically Pakistan. Increasing people to people ties will definitely play a positive role in easing tensions and removing numerous misconceptions which persist on both sides.

It is nobody’s case that the media should skirt contentious issues between New Delhi and Beijing, or New Delhi and Islamabad, but it would only be fair to give space to positives in the relationship, and also to individuals who do not look at foreign policy issues purely from a security prism or the baggage of the past.

While there is no doubt that both these changes are the outcome of a vibrant democracy and federal structure, commercial benefits or narrow political gains should not dictate the foreign policy of a diverse country like India. Relations with the outside world have to be a sum total of numerous factors, and cannot be decided in television studios, nor can they be held hostage to the compulsions of regional parties.

Mr. Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Fellow with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat, India. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *