Marking a decisive break from the slowly eroding traditional underpinnings of Indian foreign policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his United Nations speech set out a new framework marked by two elements: replacing the polemics of a bipolar era with a policy centred on dialogue and engagement and the vestiges of anti-colonialism with a focus on democratisation.
In the Nehruvian era India’s foreign policy was forged in the crucible of anti-colonial struggles in a world emerging from the trauma of a global war into a new confrontation between two ideologies. Jawaharlal Nehru sought to build a third way through the nonaligned movement and the solidarity of the developing countries and people fighting colonialism.
The legacy of colonialism generally infused it with a streak of antipathy towards the West, which often lined itself against some of the anti-colonial movements. The heady dreams of independence and people power for a majority of the nonaligned nations newly independent turned into nightmares of authoritarianism or dictatorship.
Although, the world has changed since the heyday of the nonaligned movement and the collapse of a bipolar world with the breakup of the Soviet Union 23 years ago, India drifted along as it tried to find a place for itself in the new universe with an evolving foreign policy.
Modi’s speech marks an inflection point, an end to that order and it lays out the parameters for a new one more suited to the emerging world order.
If the polemics of Nehru in the post-Independence era carried an underlying message of confrontation with the West, Modi finally laid it to rest: “On the one side we say that our destinies are interlinked, on the other hand we still think in terms of zero sum game. If the other benefits, I stand to lose. … Let bring ourselves in tune with the call of the times.”
Saying, “We need a genuine dialogue and engagement between countries,” he went on to underline the difference between a philosophy based on the idea of dichotomy that is drawn from the religious traditions of the West and Middle East and his own: “I say this from the conviction of the philosophical tradition that I come from,” citing the old Sanskrit saying “Vasudeva kutumbakam”, or the world is one family, to illustrate his point.
The other sign on the break from the past is the popular quest for democracy now that anti-colonialism has lost its relevance: Modi noted that in 1945 at UN’s founding 51 flags flew at is building, but now there 193 flags marking the end of colonialism. If its vestiges linger on, it’s an issue in the sphere of the nations that gained independence from the European powers. “There is a surge of democracy across the world,” he said articulating the change.
He noted the spread of democracy around the world, making Afghanistan’s aspirations its touchstone against all odds: “In Afghanistan, we are at a moment of historic transformation and affirmation of unity. Afghans are showing that their desire for a peaceful and democratic future will prevail over violence.” In other words, if Afghanistan’s yearnings for democracy can be achieved after decades of brutality and oppression, then it is possible any where. After all, many in the west have despaired of Afghanistan even as anti-democratic forces elsewhere seek to exploit it.
Another point of departure that illuminates Modi’s new framework is a message of positivism and hope in the 21st century in contrast to the pessimism that prevailed in the 1950s. The world may not be perfect, but he pointed out: “We have achieved much in past six decades in our mission of ending wars, preventing conflict, maintaining pece, feeding the hungry, sriving to save our planet and creating opportunities for our children.”
He added, “There is a new stirring for stability, peace and progress in Africa. There is an unprecedented spread of prosperity in Asia and beyond … Latin America, a continent of enormous potential, is coming together in shared pursuit of stability and prosperity, which could make it an important anchor of the world.”
However, the transition – “time of great flux and change” – is not easy and even a degree of polarization is inevitable. Modi couldn’t ignore the other side of what is happening: “The world is witnessing tensions and turmoil on a scale rarely seen in recent history. There are no major wars, but tensions and conflicts abound; and, there is absence of real peace and uncertainty about the future. An integrating Asia Pacific region is still concerned about maritime security … Europe faces risk of new division. In West Asia, extremism and fault lines are growing. Our own region continues to face the destabilizing threat of terrorism. Africa faces the twin threat of rising terrorism and a health crisis. Terrorism is taking new shape and new name. No country, big or small, in the north or the south, east or west, is free from its threat.”
The key test for Modi’s framework is how India can navigate through those of these problems that impinge on it. It means harnessing realism to the philosophy. Nehruvian starry-eyed idealism took a toll on India. But Modi has a steely firmness at his core – he was quick to react to Pakistan’s perceived hostility and lay down the rules of engagement.
What he can achieve through the first of the element he has articulated – dialogue and engagement – is the ability to be flexible enough to deal with various nations and groups of nations without having to assume rigid postures or fall into a camp. A ready example of this is the way he is manoeuvring relationships with Japan, China and the United States. Another is how he is tackling Pakistan in a measured way, setting the boundaries, but not shutting it off entirely.
The second element he has articulated is one of idealism – but it does not bind him to a grouping or to polemics that could be self-defeating. All this may be the start of the evolution of a Modi Doctrine.