A keynote address to a new venture on futurology premised on the centenary of our Independence and relating to foreign policy can fairly be dubbed a bold exercise undertaken in full knowledge that a few throw away sentences would be heard and forgotten as a ritual the way most such rituals are.

I was nevertheless persuaded by Dr. Happymon Jacob to succumb to the suggestion. The name of Gen. Hooda added to it as did the galaxy of names, mentioned in the brochure.

Allow me to recall what Jawaharlal Nehru said in the Constituent Assembly on December 4, 1947: ‘whatever policy we may lay down, the art of conducting the foreign affairs of a country lies in finding out what is most advantageous to the country.’ This, in the terminology of our times, came to be named National Interest, which translates itself into a hierarchy of interests, to be secured by a policy that is the sum total of the principles, interests and objectives formulated by a state in conducting its relations with other states in the global community. Its contents were thus both general and specific.

This grand strategy therefore has to be a judicious mix of principles, interests, and objectives. While the challenges are evident, ideas in embryonic shape exist and need to be developed. They must at all times be sufficiently flexible to accommodate changing external and domestic requirements and capabilities, yet principled enough to look tenable to the audience be it domestic opinion or affected targets. It must above all be credible in terms of intentions and capabilities. Strategic atrophy has to be avoided. The acme of skill, says the ancient formula, is ‘to subdue the enemy without fighting.’

The distinguished panel of speakers will share with you the ingredients that go into foreign policy-making and its execution. I on my part want to confine myself to some domestic factors that to me would unavoidably have an impact on it.

The international environment of the post-World War II period was characterized by the Cold War and power blocs. This was not perceived to be in our interest. India, instead, articulated a temper of peace and friendship with all countries. Non-Alignment was the logical outcome and, having fought against colonial domination, we empathized with others seeking the same outcome. Decolonization was thus accorded high priority in our global agenda and we went on to play a major role in the process that followed.

To begin with, what are the principal interests in any state to be promoted and protected? They of necessity begin with Independence and Territorial Integrity. The first requires sovereignty that, in theory at least, implies giving orders to all and receiving orders from none. Its claimant must feel secure, defined by Walter Lippman in terms that bear repetition: ‘A nation is secure to the extent to which it is not in danger of having to sacrifice core values, if it wishes to avoid war, and is able, if challenged to maintain them by such victory in such a war.’ This security has military and non-military dimensions.

India is a democratic republic with pluralism and secularism being its essential concomitants. The first three essential interests on which challenges have to be met and countered are thus Independence, Territorial Integrity and Core Values and while there cannot be a dispute on the first two, contemporary debate in our country on the third tends to question even dilute what is supposedly settled. It is enshrined in the principles enunciated in the Preamble of the Constitution of India and specifically on equality, justice, and fraternity. A mere formal acceptance of these however is insufficient and must be accompanied by a commitment to them in actual practice. This has to be to the exclusion of other principles sought to be included on grounds of faith or culture.

Alongside are the targets to achieve in political, economic, developmental, technological and cultural spheres. These too have national and global dimensions. They are essentially state-centric exercises and are spelt out in President of India’s Address to Parliament, in Niti Ayog and other development plans, and premised to some extent on the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. A sociological perspective would however necessitate a more comprehensive category-specific social inclusion development targets. They necessitate Rule of Law and functioning instrumentalities of governance.

To me therefore the first big challenge has to be political cohesion and social harmony since without them life of citizens would be nasty, brutish and short and devoid of peace and development. The first necessitates the sustenance of what Article I of the Constitution describes as the Union of States. Given the historical context, the focus of the framers was on national unity and integrity resulting in a highly centralized federation.

The functioning of the polity over seven decades has however resulted in ‘a counter productive over-centralisation’ and given rise to the view that there is need for restructuring to make it more viable and resilient to promote effective centre-state relations and federal practices across the country whose democratic decision-making will bring forth different political combinations in federal units..

The expression ‘cooperative federalism’ has found its way in the vocabulary of political leaders but without overcoming the imperatives of majoritarian politics that pulls it in an opposite direction. Another implication of this, in external relations, has been pointed out in an op-ed a few days back.

Alongside, there is visible erosion in the functioning of institutions and the enforcement of Rule of Law. Both sets of correctives are imperative.

No less relevant to the proper functioning of the democratic system is social harmony which is often under stress and whose principal victims are the minority and under-privileged segments of the public. This may, and does, serve a party-political purpose but is invariably detrimental to social cohesion. The antithesis of social cohesion is anarchy whose twin consequences were foreseen as early as the Mahabharata where it is said that ‘a kingdom in which anarchy prevails becomes weak and is soon afflicted by robbers’ and cannot have righteousness.

Recent years have witnessed periodic unrest in segments of our public emanating from socio-economic distress. The ongoing farmer’s agitation is a hard example.

The Shaheen Bagh protest last year was another. There is evidence of similar expressions of distress arising from grievances in tribal communities within the country and on borders.

Once (a) political cohesion and (b) social harmony are secured, the state apparatus has to focus on development for public good. (c) Social inclusion, (d) Public health, and (e) environment are the obvious priorities. Recent experience highlights the deficiencies on each of these counts. The size of our polity and its cultural heterogeneity makes a compelling case for federalization in practice.

Thus political cohesion, social inclusion, harmony, public health and environment would together result in a healthier Republic of India on the eve of its centenary in 2047. India’s destiny is in its own hands and through sustained 9-10 percent annual growth it can make the transition from poverty to affluence in one generation.

It would also have, hopefully, attained the ‘norms of righteousness’ set out in its foundational document and through it delivered to its people a fair degree of material prosperity.

These then are the ‘domestic roots’ for our foreign policy whose primary objective is to secure them in the best manner possible. In terms of formal jurisdiction and practice, this and related subjects (items 10-20 in the Union List) are covered in the Seventh Schedule of Article 246 of the Constitution.

A word about the craft of conducting foreign relations is relevant. Masters ancient and modern have spoken about the need to seek credible mechanisms for dialogue and to seek in them minimum areas of agreement resulting in what has been called ‘patient accumulation of partial successes.’ Our own experience of over seven decades would sustain this. It becomes more relevant in our times and in the context of a developing view that the 21st century will mature in a world mired in perpetual chaos, into durable disorder which will contain rather than solve problems.

A practical and philosophical question about national security needs to be answered. What is or should be its purpose – to secure India and develop India as it exists towards its ideals or to divert its energies to dominate its neighbours? The first requires cooperation and the second domination. The approach for both would not be identical. An option for cooperation would nevertheless necessitate an adequate capacity to address transgressions.

India has a population of 1.3 billion. Its demographic mix itself is daunting – over 4,635 communities, 78 percent of which are not only linguistic and cultural but social categories. Its religious minorities constitute 19.4 percent of the population of whom Muslims account for 14.2 percent. The human diversities are both hierarchical and special. The de jure WE are in reality a fragmented ‘we’ divided by yawning gaps that remain to be bridged; hence the need for social cohesion and inclusion.

There is talk at times of Greater India and of the glory of a distant, imagined, past. Will this, in terms of territory or population or both, assist or hamper this process?

According to the Annual Report of the Ministry of Home Affairs, India has 15,106.7 km of land and 7,500 lm of sea borders. A feature of our land borders is that major or minor points of contention have persisted with regard to borders with Bangladesh, China and Pakistan and attempts to resolve them continue with many limitations and varying degrees of success. This, consequently, has remained a significant challenge in the conduct of foreign relations with neighbours and has at times resulted in armed conflicts with varying results. The alternative, of a meaningful framework for effective cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, is yet to crystallize.

Either way, national security within existing borders becomes the first objective of foreign policy. The wherewithal for it is the national security apparatus to counter formal and non-conventional threats. This cannot be so in isolation since India is part of the global community and contributes to its ideals and objectives. Hence the importance attached since its inception to diplomacy and the structure and activities of the United Nations and other multilateral agencies.

Any set of policies have two ingredients: principles and practices. The principles of Indian foreign policy were spelt out in early years and were focused on non-alignment with power blocs and autonomy in decision-making. Problems with neighbours of necessity assumed primacy but not at the expense of wider issues of global concern – war and peace, regional conflicts, de-colonization in Africa – and in each of these India played a role of significance. The Korean War and the role played by Nehru to end the war is an early example. President Truman’s comment on it is noteworthy: ‘Nehru has sold us down the Hudson. His attitude has been responsible for us losing the war in Korea.’ In a sense, India defined itself in opposition to the Cold War and focused its international energies on the Non-Alignment Movement.

Today the global scene stands transformed. Two decades of the 21st century have witnessed changes in power structures. As with earlier bipolarity, unipolarity too has collapsed. The United States, despite the size of its economy and technological superiority, is a retreating power. Europe has discovered its strength in a non-homogenous European Union. The Soviet Union has been replaced by Russia and a number of its erstwhile units are seeking their own place in the sun, unsure of their affinity to the former arrangement. The Arab world, linguistic affinity apart, hardly agrees on any core unifying agenda. Israel has succeeded in securing its place in the sub-region.

For us, the priority has to be immediate proximity. China is a neighbour with whom we have a long border with disputed segments as also environmental issues of a complex nature. It is militarily and economically stronger. There have been periods of military confrontation followed by commitments to maintain the status quo. There exists a vibrant trading relationship, adverse yet beneficial to segments of our economy.

China’s economic progress is dazzling; its political structure and social cohesion impressive. Its plans to expand influence on land and sea are at times unnerving. Yet, the outside world is barely aware of its diversities and its domestic tensions.

It is nowadays felt that in view of new challenges particularly on maritime security, India’s active participation in QUAD would accrue strategic benefits. Here, two questions arise. What is the nature of threats faced by us and the extent to which it will be addressed by Quad? Secondly, would it enhance or lessen our freedom for strategic options?

Another obvious example is Pakistan. Here the subjective is as relevant as the objective. The legacy of 1947 and perceptions emanating from it remain relevant in varying degrees with actors and spectators and has caused occasional glee and more frequent sorrow. Despite political and economic disparities, it is a nuclear power and uses this status to its benefit.

Other areas of tensions relate to water and boundary disputes with Bangladesh and the complex question of Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka. None of these have been resolved and all remain subject of patient negotiations within frameworks of commitment to cooperation for mutual benefit. A complex set of considerations influence relations with Nepal.

In a wider sense, the global order has changed and thrown up new challenges. The expectation that the UN system will become more democratic and egalitarian has not materialized but new platforms for focused cooperation on a range of matters relating to human survival have come forth and nations are being compelled to participate in them seriously.

While priorities in foreign policy of any country cannot be done sequentially, precedence or ordering is unavoidable more so because problem-areas are seldom single issue ones. The same holds for problems that transcend national borders and are regional in nature. Thus with neighbours matters of war and peace and human survival cannot be deferred or put on the back burner. In each of these and in actual practice, a nation’s own ideals on bilateral or global problems inevitably play a role.

Policy making begins with specific, immediate and medium term objectives. A developing country like India seeks external assistance, technology and technology transfer, and expertise in different ways and at different times. These have to be identified along with resources. Thereafter, they gets molded in a policy framework and pursued through professional and political initiatives. Room is made for setbacks and the challenge at all times is to accommodate setbacks in a wider framework of continuing cooperation.

India is a status quo power and does not seek territories of others. It is also committed to working for a peaceful world and a peaceful South Asia. Doubts about these commitments are sought to be raised by some relating to the happenings of 1947, to our being the successor state to the British Indian Empire, to our “map or no map” statement, and to the stages through which a boundary problem became a boundary dispute with unfortunate consequences.

Recent happenings world wide have shown that problems beyond human and governmental control have arisen on account of pandemics, water resources and environmental degradation and climate change. None of these can be addressed nationally, each requires united global responses, each needs to transcend traditional patterns of voluntary commitments, and instead be based on maximum capacity commitment. New technologies must not be monopolized.

The Five big ideas for foreign policy therefore should be (i) National Security with Regional Boundary and Water Disputes, (ii) Regional Cooperation, (iii) Pandemics, (iv)Environmental Degradation, (v) Climate Change.

The foregoing should not be seen as the rant of a pessimist but a realistic reading of the present and foreseeable future.       JAI HIND