RPI Author Rajesh Rajagopalan Outlines Challenges for New Indian External Affairs Minister

RPI Author Rajesh Rajagopalan Outlines Challenges for New Indian External Affairs Minister

Rajesh Rajagopalan, a participant in RPI’s Nuclear Debates in Asia and Worldviews of Aspiring Powers projects and professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote an op-ed for The Economic Times where he discussed challenges that will be waiting in the inbox of Sushma Swaraj, the recently named External Affairs Minister for India’s new government. After the overwhelming election of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Rajagopalan suggests two key priorities for the new foreign policy team: 1) restoring good relations with the United States, East Asian powers, and India’s immediate neighbors; and 2) improving Indian foreign service infrastructure.

He expects Swaraj will be able to take advantage of the BJP’s commanding mandate to “undertake both important policy and institutional changes” since “such opportunities come but rarely and it would be a shame if this one is wasted.”

The new external affairs minister (EAM) has a long list of foreign policy challenges and very little time to lose. Over the past several years, Indian diplomacy has been hamstrung by ideological blinkers of another age, domestic political interference in foreign policy, and glaring institutional weaknesses. The new EAM needs to move with some alacrity in addressing these problems before they inflict more damage to Indian foreign policy.

Pragmatic Partner

First, EAM has to get right some key global partnerships. On top of that list is improving India’s relationship with Washington that has suffered because of a number of irritants, the most recent of which was the unfortunate Devyani Khobragade incident. It is important that the EAM cut loose the Third Worldist ideological tendencies that have been binding Indian foreign policy and examine India’s interests dispassionately.

The world may one day become multipolar but it is not there yet. India and the US need to cooperate on a number of issues, including on the future of Afghanistan and on ensuring that China’s new assertiveness does not destabilize the region.

The other critical partnerships are in East Asia. The UPA government established closer ties with Japan, and the new minister needs to build on this strategic partnership, while also boosting security relationships with countries such as Vietnam, Singapore and Australia. India also needs to develop a sensible policy vis-a-vis China, building on mutual economic interests but not letting the tail wag the dog by allowing economic interests to blind us to Chinese diplomatic and military transgressions.

Within the region, India’s ties with some of the smaller countries have suffered because of domestic political compulsions. India’s relationships with two valued and friendly neighbors, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, need to be revived and the new dispensation in New Delhi is perfectly positioned to do it. Inviting the heads of SAARC countries was a dramatic gesture but it needs to be followed up with substantive action because India’s smaller neighbors require reassurance about India’s intentions. They should not be driven by fear of India into the hands of extra-regional powers inimical to India.

The critical Pakistan relationship is likely to remain in the hands of the PMO but the EAM should be playing an important supporting role in pushing those aspects of the relationship that can be pushed forward, including on people-to-people links. The external affairs minister also needs to right-size Indian foreign policy by dispensing with some of the recent diversions into the 1970s, such as the renewed focus on nuclear disarmament and on new versions of Third World bloc politics such as BRICS and BASIC.

The large agenda that Indian foreign policy already has on its plate does not need these distractions. A longer-term but vital issue that the new EAM needs to focus on is the institutional infrastructure of Indian foreign policy. India’s foreign service is by far the smallest among the major powers, with its total strength around the same as that of much smaller countries like Malaysia and New Zealand.

Considering the new responsibilities — from new multilateral fora to economic diplomacy — this tiny service needs to be expanded. While a start has been made, the traditional route of increasing the cadre strength is likely to be insufficient and could take too long. The bureaucracy might resist, but the EAM should explore other avenues for expanding the service, including through lateral intake.

Even this partial list represents a huge agenda for the EAM. But the kind of mandate that her government has received presents a unique opportunity to undertake both important policy and institutional changes. Such opportunities come but rarely and it would be a shame if this one is wasted.

The writer is professor of international politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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